At times I come across books that are focused in a particular area, but as I read them I am struck by their possibilities for conversations in multi-faith engagement. That’s the case with two books that can help provide refreshing alternatives in our discussions with Pagans and Mormons.
The first is by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and it is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009). The interesting thing about this book for me is that it looks at the literary and cultural context of the ancient Near East and what the Genesis creation narratives would have said to the Hebrews as it reflected their cultural context. This cultural and literary perspective provides the foundation for Walton's argument that the Genesis creation stories are functional rather than material in nature, and that this results in a portrait that is painted of the cosmos as a divine temple.
This volume includes a number of ideas that some evangelicals will find provocative, but are nevertheless worthy of reflection. Consider this intriguing excerpt from Chapter 1, "Genesis is Ancient Cosmology":
Deity pervaded the ancient world. Nothing happened independently of deity. The gods did not "intervene" because that would assume that there was a world of events outside of them that they could step into and out of. The Israelites, along with everyone else in the ancient world, believed instead that every event was the act of deity -- that every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain and every climatic disaster was an act of God. No "natural" law governed the cosmos; deity ran the cosmos or was inherent in it. There were no "miracles" (in the sense of events deviating from the "natural"), there were only signs of the deity's activities (sometimes favorable, sometimes not). The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable. As suggested by Richard Bube, if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist. There is nothing "natural" about the world in biblical theology, nor should there be in ours.
A few observations come to mind after reading this. Although Walton and most evangelical readers will consider this thesis in light of the creation/evolution debate, and I think this makes an important contribution in this arena, I would like to see evangelicals make application in two other areas. First, the idea of the creation narratives as a discussion of God's cosmic temple is a reminder of our neglect of a creation theology, including God's temple indwelling of his cosmos and our responsibilities as stewards of the creation. Second, I believe Walton's thesis presents a point of contact for Christian-Pagan dialogue. How might fresh reflection on the Genesis creation stories in light of the Hebrew concepts of the cosmos as divine temple, and human beings as representatives of God as stewards to the creation provide for our discussions with Pagan neighbors?
The second book is by Nicholas Perrin, Jesus the Temple (Baker Academic, 2010). Perrin argues that there were a number of counter-temple movement's in Palestine in the time of Jesus, including John the Baptist's, Qumran, and the Jesus movement itself. As this applies to Christian community, Perrin writes:
If both John the Baptizer’s following and the early Church were counter-temple movements…, then this grants basic plausibility to the hypothesis that Jesus, who straddled both groups, also saw his own mission and destiny in similar terms. In other words, … Jesus found the temple of his day to be corrupt, [and] inferred from this … the onset of messianic tribulation, and then finally saw his own calling as a response to this divinely ordained crisis.
He goes on to argue that "the idea of Jesus as temple dates back to Christ himself and that he saw his following as the new temple movement, the social and confessional boundaries of which were marked off by allegiance to him." This makes for an interesting consideration in light of the theology of the book of Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament where Jesus is not only presented as temple, but also as High Priest and offering as well.
If Perrin's thesis is correct, and represents an accurate representation of Jesus' self-understanding and New Testament theology, then it has application to evangelical conversations with Mormons. For Mormons their temples serve as deeply important places where important rituals are performed. But in light of Perrin’s analysis of the early Christian community and its relationship to the Jewish temple, this is seemingly at odds with the theology and ritual associated with Mormon temples. This would make for a fascinating topic for discussion between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints.
In a future post I'll discuss a new book on Jesus' humanity that holds promise for application in Christian conversations with Jews and Muslims. Until then, as you read books by Christian authors on various topics, be mindful of how these might also be applied to conversations with those in other religions in your neighborhood.