Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are Christians Called to Cultural War?

by Laura Ziesel
Monday, August 22, 2011

'P1100971' photo (c) 2010, Charlotte Cooper - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Two years ago I wrote a few posts in which I engaged with Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. I never addressed one of the undercurrents of the book, but today I'm going to do so because it popped up again in a recent blog post about male and female roles, Taking Dominion. Taking Dominion is on the blog of Justin Taylor, but it is a guest post by Robert Sagers and is an interview of Mark Chanski.
What's the undercurrent Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Taking Dominion have in common? Christians are to be counter cultural.

In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Duncan and Stinson say, "The church has been called to counter and bless the culture" (xi). In Taking Dominion, Chanski said, "[The church should be] unapologetically countercultural in our teaching of the Scriptures." Both of these quotes are justifying a heated opposition to feminism, something that I find bewildering. Sure, feminists are wrong about some things. But feminists are also right about a lot of things. So why do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Because we are gridlocked in a stubborn culture war.

Above and beyond the feminism debate, I want to address the issue of being "called" to be counter cultural. Opposing “the culture of the day” is often something I have heard we should do as Christians. So, let’s examine what that means.

First, a few things that don't sit well with me:

1) Both of the above quotes seem to indicate a lack of understanding regarding the fact that we live among dozens of cultures as Americans. Shall we simultaneously be counter cultural to each separate culture? That’s quite difficult since they are often opposed to one another.

2) It is implied that Christians should be counter cultural regardless of what values are upheld by the culture. But acting in that way only encourages pride, stunts the growth of the Church, and ignores the Spirit of God at work among all peoples. 

In fact, the Church can learn a lot from nonChristians, and if nonChristians agree en masse about something, that's called culture. And sometimes nonChristian culture is right. Many cultures without the influence of the Church, for instance, are right about the importance of respect for their elders. Other cultures are right about personal liberty in the face of oppression. So to be blindly counter cultural ignores the image of God emblazoned on each and every culture. Somewhere in each culture, He's there. We must learn to recognize those aspects, learn from them, and use them as inroads for the Gospel.

3) Perhaps more embedded in the counter cultural stance of the Church is the message that you nonChristians, not us Christians, are full of worldly culture. A false dichotomy is established: You need redeeming while we are agents of redemption. The implication is that either a) the Church is cultureless or b) the Church has its own holy culture, and c) the Church is susceptible to the disease of contemporary culture and must always fight it.

And that is a major problem.

3A) It is not true that the Church is cultureless. Culture is everywhere, even in God’s established Church. When tutoring some middle school students years ago, they asked me to define the word culture. The best thing I could come up with on the spot was the explanation that culture are those things in your life that seem normal to your family or friends but abnormal to other people. That definitely isn’t the most sophisticated definition of culture, but I think it is helpful. The Church is full of behaviors and values that are abnormal to people outside (and often inside) our community. To say that any group of human beings can be cultureless is to be ignorant of what culture is.

3B) In addition, it is impossible for the Church to be culturally holy. My argument for this is not theological as much as it is practical. The global Church is multicultural, and many of the cultures among our own brothers and sisters are contradictory to one another. Cultures within the American church alone oppose one another. On a global scale, the differences among cultures of the Church are overwhelming. So which one is right? American middle-class Southern Baptist culture? New England upper-class Presbyterian (PCA) culture? Kenyan poverty-escaping Pentecostal culture? Chinese house-church culture? They certainly don’t all agree.

3C) I wholeheartedly agree that the Church is susceptible to the influence of worldly culture. But I disagree just as wholeheartedly that worldly culture is “out there” and is advancing into the Church unless we fight it. Because neither A nor B is true, it holds that the Church is culturally imperfect just as the world is.

So the problem with our view of the disease of culture is not that it exists, but where it exists. The Church should be made up of people who point to themselves and say, "Me. It's me. I am the problem with the world." When Christians, as His representatives on Earth, fail to recognize the sin in our own hearts, even the cultural sin, we mar His image and bring ill repute to His name. Yes, there is sin in the world that we should fight. But we must always look to find the sin in ourselves first. When pastors, authors, and teachers encourage us to counter contemporary culture without regard for the broken cultures within the Church, we look like a bunch of finger-pointing hypocrites.

I agree completely that the Church should be outside of culture, and even counter to it at times. But being counter cultural should not be the aim of Christians and Christian teaching. We should be advancing God’s redemption first into our own hearts and then into the heart of each and every culture on the globe. But God’s redemption certainly doesn’t look like the exact opposite of whatever culture you are in. To be blindly counter cultural regardless of the context is to make an idol of culture by shaping the Gospel around it instead of shaping our cultures around the Gospel.

Instead of simply being countercultural, let’s counter the fallen and broken aspects of all cultures, even Church cultures. But while we do so, let’s honor and build upon the redemptive glimpses of God that we find [within the cultures we have among us!].

Vocational Educational Reform in America, Part 2

In January or February of 2011 U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed the very ideas I have been discussing with my school district over the last several years regarding the replacement of our academic college prep programs with occupational/vocational curricula degree programs that would vary from 2-3-4 years in length while allowing for early graduation and/or cross-over studies. These programs would be found in the major areas listed below, among others:

  • Sciences (Medical, Environmental, etc)
  • Engineering and Technology (including Architecture, etc)
  • Arts and Literature
  • Music and Drama
  • Social Sciences
  • Business

With the creation of these degree programs we would do so in cooperation with area businesses, industries and social agencies seeking to train their local human resources. As such, these occupational courses should be open-ended to allow a young person to rejoin his educational interests should he or she need to graduate early and work. They should also create a strong linkage to the local community college's educational core curricula supported within that district's area of operation.

Why provide early educational graduations? To alleviate schools from the burden of housing students who either can't be in school or don’t want to be in school thus saving already restricted tax monies now being re-allocated elsewhere; to give kids a way to become economically independent and responsible; to create a younger employment force that could add to a district's already strained tax base; thus creating more monies for school districts from a larger tax base; and finally, to reduce youth crime through early employment responsibility.

Too, major state universities have economically hurt America by restricting middle-class scholarships and forcing higher tuition rates (probably since the 1980s). These rates have become unsustainable by middle income families and have caused middle class youths to migrate to regional or community colleges seeking lower tuition costs while leaving the very wealthy to attend America's landmark universities. As a result America's middle class is quickly disappearing and we are finding a more pronounced class stratification more than ever as the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. America's backbone has been broken and we see this with the loss of jobs, entrepreneurships, and successful ventures across middle America.

Further, state universities have expanded degree program requirements rather than concentrating them as they necessarily push remedial education onto every entering freshman who have come unprepared for college study. Undergraduates are now graduating between 22-26 years of age because of the several factors involving poor educational preparation, the increased costs of college and the lack of economically viable jobs for lesser trained individuals.

And so, instead of having our nation's youth effectively (or efficiently) competing on global levels in the world-at-large by the ages of 16-19, we as a nation have created a half-life for our nation’s kids now entering into the workforce after a third of their life has passed cradled within our nation's school systems. The sheer talent of energy and brainpower has been lost between those intervening 10 years of educational study and purposeful postponement of talented laborers confined by our educational systems. America must reform its educational regiments and it must be holistic, rigorous and complete for as it stands now we've boxed ourselves in by too many degrees, longer core studies and fewer workplace opportunities.

When China and India are graduating 300 engineers to every 1 of ours it doesn’t take many smarts to realize that we’re on the losing end of a global competition. And while we both under-train and over-qualify our kids we are losing out. And by pushing our future tax bases into their late-20's we’re restricting the flow of necessary funds that would come sooner with a younger, more productive youth force.

About the only good that can be said about America's current educational system is that their community college programs have stepped up to the consumer plate and are offering shorter-term degrees and apprenticeship solutions for early entry highschoolers, needy urban youths, and economically-minded families and youths unwilling to go further into debt for a nebulous university degree with no concrete job prospects and outrageous school loan repayment plans.

In summary, middle schools should be teaching first and second year high school basics; high schools should be implementing occupational degree programs; and universities should stop teaching high school courses and get on with a variety of shorter-term, highly concentrated degree programs that integrate with business and industrial apprenticeship programs resulting in more certain job placements after college graduation. As such, American business and industry would not need to add yet another year or three of specialized training to the entering college student’s agendas thus pushing our aging youth further from their productive years of contribution and resource building.

And this is how I would describe national educational deficiencies and degrading economic metrics for our nation's educational systems. In hindsight, it's amazing we’ve gotten this far by our outmoded 20th-century style of mass-producing literate students known as "public education!" It is time for radical change - one that makes sense for our kids and for our communities so that America can globally compete with a rising world seeking to integrate its literate societies with other viable, literate societies in a stealthy web of cooperation and competition.

RE Slater
March 2011

Vocational Educational Reform in America, Part 1

Vocational national educational reform in America must occur in our local school districts to allow for more equal competition on the global stage of performance beginning with the replacement of our traditional system of mass learning and then orientating schools towards occupational curriculas, local internships, self-paced programs, and earlier graduation programs beginning in the 2nd to the 4th year of high school study. It must give the desperate assistance required to the poorest and least empowered of our nation while at the same time recover our languishing middle classes slipping into the waysides of our society and becoming a mere labor force rather than an entrepreneurial workforce that is aggressive and business-minded.

It must be flexible enough to allow for the greatest expansion and the greatest opportunity for that youthful segment of our society that is most desirous of innovation and success, most impacted by our decisions, and most willing to hope great hopes of aspiration. Anything less than this is to watch our schools slide into oblivion, and our societies with it, as our educational system drains its peoples and its students of national effectiveness and God-given rights to become a trained, literate, impassioned, responsive work force and a highly functioning, interconnected, inter-dependent society of the 21st Century.

I believe we need a new type of national school system. One that will reduce the current high school and college educational programs from 4 to 3 to 2 years, and that is orientated around an occupational curricula that allows for core expansion and crossover studies. One that would allow for shortened learning cycles so that those students requiring immediate employment may find those opportunities within a school's job/career training center which may meet their more immediate personal and family needs. That schools would make available to young people a variety of occupational apprenticeships so that they may become sufficiently qualified to compete for jobs with the confidence that comes from effective training and study. It is critical that the public school system orientate itself towards an occupational curricula and remove the general academic curricula now in place. To intentionally present an earlier level of skill sets that a young person both desires and needs. To abandon its current standards of No Child Left Behind and MEAP Testing with the more practical standards of training and apprenticeship that could sit alongside that of the more academic traditional form of study.

And with the successful placement of a young person into the work force a community will soon discover improving returns both fiscally and relationally. Not only is the job market satisfied but so too will be a district's need for finances and resources. A larger tax base is being nurtured and with that comes monies to operate our schools. As it is now, the costs of educational training well into the college years and beyond is placing the nation's student population further and further from effective employment. Public education has become too expensive and the vast majority of students within our public schools and colleges are overwhelming our resources with higher tuition fees, newer taxes, and dwindling employment returns.

Statedly, America’s costs of education have become too high and its process of education has become too lengthy for the value that our nation needs at this critical time to compete against the larger, more skilled work forces being produced in countries like India and China. By restructuring academic degree programs (as well as related costs) America can produce a more efficiently trained workforce for lesser jobs not requiring the traditional path of high school and college training currently underway. Too, it will free up educational resources to concentrate upon more intensive training required by other skill sets that an individual may wish to pursue requiring longer graduation times. Not everyone requires competent knowledge in algebra 3 or organic chemistry, but this is not to say that this education should not be offered. Yet in the world of pragmatic metrics and Internet resources the job market is requiring more and more specific skill sets and less and less broad-based general educational knowledge that our traditional schools have been in the business of providing.

It is not too honest to say that the public education system, primarily the middle school and high school systems, have become outmoded and impractical. And while our community colleges have offered the highest response to occupational training I would fault major universities with creating unnecessary and time-consuming core curriculum's for their 4-year degree programs. Especially in the area of post-high school remedial education in the freshman and sophomore years as they re-teach basic reading, writing, maths and sciences earlier received in a student's teen years. For some perhaps this is necessary but for many it delays graduation and ages our nation's dwindling workforce.

Not only does this system withhold America’s youth from acquiring an earlier apprenticeship but it presents a degree-competency turn-around that is imprudent. Beyond the industrial revolution’s requirements for “reading, writing and arithmetic” has now come the outcry for a more specific knowledge and skill subsets that is not readily available for job outsourcing. Today’s current four year high school programs and “college prep” curriculas are not producing the needs that our global societies are requesting. Jobs are being lost to global manufacturing and whole cities are displacing their brain trust and work forces in employment relocation efforts across America. As a nation we have lost our entrepreneurial edge in industry and it is being reflected all too well within our non-entrepreneurial educational systems.

The question as to how we as a nation efficiently train young people for the necessary tasks at hand is an old question. Is it enough to sufficiently train a culture, a community, a society to effectively maintain itself, or is it more necessary to over-train a society to meet the challenges of new frontiers, new technologies, new resources? Quick, efficient educational paths can adapt to the former pursuit but how does a society still retain its ability to broadly educate and meet all the future demands it may place on itself necessarily? That is an ancient question city-states have struggled with. Because our schools do not allow occupational apprenticeships within its curricula it retards the former question at the expense of the latter's need to broadly train competent, motivated, talented individuals. It is bankrupting our educational system on many levels from support to personnel to facility/asset resources. But by acquiescing, and providing trained apprenticeships more directly into the workforce it will create a more effective community of workers who can support their school system through infrastructural supports like expanded resources (both fiscal and human), experientially and pragmatically. This would then prevent a community's network-of-neighborhoods from urban blight and regional job displacement as high schools meet the demand for specific job training and placement that capital consumerism necessarily demands.

Thus, it is important to streamline our educational system to better reflect its regional needs while balancing its global needs to compete and succeed in less understood and under-commercialized projects. To train for the frontiers of knowledge import while not neglecting to support the current markets being effectively applied. Not everyone can or should be involved in the frontiers of market creation, but it is important to keep a community fiscally solvent enough so that it can determine its own destiny through work placement and market support.

To this I would begin an educational list that would summarize these initiatives:

1 Create high school (and college) degree programs of 2, 3, and 4 years, as pertaining to the subject area of expertise required while removing any graduation requirement barriers thusly.

1b Allow for a mixture of curricular degree programs of choice (cross-over majors) as well as a mixture of curricular and academic programs should future college training be sought.

2 Remove all state core requirements and infuse "elective majors" beginning in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades with concentrations in:
  • Engineering and Technology
  • Medical Sciences and Services
  • Business and Finance
  • Specific Trades School (Design, Construction, Aircraft Maintenance, etc)
  • The Arts and Humanities (Music, Theatre, Dance)

3 Provide earlier apprenticeship programs in middle school and high school and remove unnecessary core competency requirements.

3b Expect to place youth into the workforce more rapidly while recognizing that not all students have the same interests, talents or abilities. And that some may require more training than others regarding their elective choices and talents.

4 Elevate middle school requirements to incorporate the basic academic curricula of the early high school years (place 9th/10th grade basics into the 6th through 8th grades).

5 Reduce college term lengths from 4 to 3 to 2 years by removing unnecessary/repetitive class and remedial educational requirements that major universities currently undertake in the freshman and sophomore years.

6 Provide for more pervasive online instruction but not so as to displace the traditional teacher role with simply “teacher-mentors”. Personal instruction is still invaluable to the overall success of any student's mentoring process.

7 Do not neglect to give early instruction and appreciation for differing cultures and faiths that successful global communications will require in business and networking.

8 Privatize public schools for better community management and development (as versus the slower, less effective, less nimble, state and federal educational systems now in place).

9 Virtualize school boundaries with a pay-in system for non-district students through Internet resourcing.

Concluding Observations

The public education of the 1930's that offered assembly-line models of mass learning is effectively broken and must re-engage its consumer base. A nationalized education system retards effective entrepreneurial market development, is slower to respond, and more costly to retain than a regionally-driven educational model.

America must be able to compete in the 21st Century and cannot with its outmoded, ineffective and obsolete public school educational system. Teens need viable job choices by 16 and 17 years of age and it is in the best economic interests of the US to graduate their kids within occupational program studies.

By not capitalizing on differentiating a study program's majors until a kid's sophomore or junior college term we are creating enormous costs on our school systems and on our society at-large. Nor can we compete against India and China’s educational mills with their larger population resources. We must train earlier and more efficiently than ever before and cannot be satisfied in placing our students into the workforce at 22-25 years of age. We have to lower that age group beginning with 16-17 years of age and more effectively train those who decide to remain within it.

In the most sublime sense, it is time and money that we compete most against. Not against other nations or their economies. For it is time that equates to opportunity and money that equates to the seizure of those opportunities. To demand that the national student population be equally competent with one another is to drive down all our students to the most basic, minimal level of education. And to restrict early graduation is to prevent the help and assistance that a younger apprenticeship work force could lend to their supporting community.

One could go on and on with this type of reasoning but it is enough to say that our public schools must radically reform and essentially disappear as ineffective and outmoded operations. The time is now for clear, decisive, chaotic reform to begin.

RE Slater
February 17, 2011

Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?


The country's achievements in education have other nations doing their homework

By LynNell Hancock
Photographs by Stuart Conway
Smithsonian magazine, September 2011

Kirkkojarvi School "This is what we do every day," says Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School principal
Kari Louhivuori, "we prepare kids for life."

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators—including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist—convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”

Kari Louhivuori

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

PISA tests graphThe transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Stardard tests There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

High School graduate rate
Still, there is a distinct absence of chest-thumping among the famously reticent Finns. They are eager to celebrate their recent world hockey championship, but PISA scores, not so much. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

Maija Rintola stood before her chattering class of twenty-three 7- and 8-year-olds one late April day in Kirkkojarven Koulu. A tangle of multicolored threads topped her copper hair like a painted wig. The 20-year teacher was trying out her look for Vappu, the day teachers and children come to school in riotous costumes to celebrate May Day. The morning sun poured through the slate and lemon linen shades onto containers of Easter grass growing on the wooden sills. Rintola smiled and held up her open hand at a slant—her time-tested “silent giraffe,” which signaled the kids to be quiet. Little hats, coats, shoes stowed in their cubbies, the children wiggled next to their desks in their stocking feet, waiting for a turn to tell their tale from the playground. They had just returned from their regular 15 minutes of playtime outdoors between lessons. “Play is important at this age,” Rintola would later say. “We value play.”

With their wiggles unwound, the students took from their desks little bags of buttons, beans and laminated cards numbered 1 through 20. A teacher’s aide passed around yellow strips representing units of ten. At a smart board at the front of the room, Rintola ushered the class through the principles of base ten. One girl wore cat ears on her head, for no apparent reason. Another kept a stuffed mouse on her desk to remind her of home. Rintola roamed the room helping each child grasp the concepts. Those who finished early played an advanced “nut puzzle” game. After 40 minutes it was time for a hot lunch in the cathedral-like cafeteria.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

Maija Rintola

Even so, Rintola said her children arrived last August miles apart in reading and language levels. By April, nearly every child in the class was reading, and most were writing. Boys had been coaxed into literature with books like Kapteeni Kalsarin (“Captain Underpants”). The school’s special education teacher teamed up with Rintola to teach five children with a variety of behavioral and learning problems. The national goal for the past five years has been to mainstream all children. The only time Rintola’s children are pulled out is for Finnish as a Second Language classes, taught by a teacher with 30 years’ experience and graduate school training.

There are exceptions, though, however rare. One first-grade girl was not in Rintola’s class. The wispy 7-year-old had recently arrived from Thailand speaking not a word of Finnish. She was studying math down the hall in a special “preparing class” taught by an expert in multicultural learning. It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in “positive discrimination” funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes.

Rintola will teach the same children next year and possibly the next five years, depending on the needs of the school. “It’s a good system. I can make strong connections with the children,” said Rintola, who was handpicked by Louhivuori 20 years ago. “I understand who they are.” Besides Finnish, math and science, the first graders take music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. English begins in third grade, Swedish in fourth. By fifth grade the children have added biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry.

Not until sixth grade will kids have the option to sit for a district-wide exam, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate. Most do, out of curiosity. Results are not publicized. Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”
I had come to Kirkkojarvi to see how the Finnish approach works with students who are not stereotypically blond, blue-eyed and Lutheran. But I wondered if Kirkkojarvi’s success against the odds might be a fluke. Some of the more vocal conservative reformers in America have grown weary of the “We-Love-Finland crowd” or so-called Finnish Envy. They argue that the United States has little to learn from a country of only 5.4 million people—4 percent of them foreign born. Yet the Finns seem to be onto something. Neighboring Norway, a country of similar size, embraces education policies similar to those in the United States. It employs standardized exams and teachers without master’s degrees. And like America, Norway’s PISA scores have been stalled in the middle ranges for the better part of a decade.

To get a second sampling, I headed east from Espoo to Helsinki and a rough neighborhood called Siilitie, Finnish for “Hedgehog Road” and known for having the oldest low-income housing project in Finland. The 50-year-old boxy school building sat in a wooded area, around the corner from a subway stop flanked by gas stations and convenience stores. Half of its 200 first- through ninth-grade students have learning disabilities. All but the most severely impaired are mixed with the general education children, in keeping with Finnish policies.

A class of first graders scampered among nearby pine and birch trees, each holding a stack of the teacher’s homemade laminated “outdoor math” cards. “Find a stick as big as your foot,” one read. “Gather 50 rocks and acorns and lay them out in groups of ten,” read another. Working in teams, the 7- and 8-year-olds raced to see how quickly they could carry out their tasks. Aleksi Gustafsson, whose master’s degree is from Helsinki University, developed the exercise after attending one of the many workshops available free to teachers. “I did research on how useful this is for kids,” he said. “It’s fun for the children to work outside. They really learn with it.”

Gustafsson’s sister, Nana Germeroth, teaches a class of mostly learning-impaired children; Gustafsson’s students have no learning or behavioral issues. The two combined most of their classes this year to mix their ideas and abilities along with the children’s varying levels. “We know each other really well,” said Germeroth, who is ten years older. “I know what Aleksi is thinking.”

Outdoor math class

The school receives 47,000 euros a year in positive discrimination money to hire aides and special education teachers, who are paid slightly higher salaries than classroom teachers because of their required sixth year of university training and the demands of their jobs. There is one teacher (or assistant) in Siilitie for every seven students.

In another classroom, two special education teachers had come up with a different kind of team teaching. Last year, Kaisa Summa, a teacher with five years’ experience, was having trouble keeping a gaggle of first-grade boys under control. She had looked longingly into Paivi Kangasvieri’s quiet second-grade room next door, wondering what secrets the 25-year-veteran colleague could share. Each had students of wide-ranging abilities and special needs. Summa asked Kangasvieri if they might combine gymnastics classes in hopes good behavior might be contagious. It worked. This year, the two decided to merge for 16 hours a week. “We complement each other,” said Kangasvieri, who describes herself as a calm and firm “father” to Summa’s warm mothering. “It is cooperative teaching at its best,” she says.

Every so often, principal Arjariita Heikkinen told me, the Helsinki district tries to close the school because the surrounding area has fewer and fewer children, only to have people in the community rise up to save it. After all, nearly 100 percent of the school’s ninth graders go on to high schools. Even many of the most severely disabled will find a place in Finland’s expanded system of vocational high schools, which are attended by 43 percent of Finnish high-school students, who prepare to work in restaurants, hospitals, construction sites and offices. “We help situate them in the right high school,” said then deputy principal Anne Roselius. “We are interested in what will become of them in life.”

Finland’s schools were not always a wonder. Until the late 1960s, Finns were still emerging from the cocoon of Soviet influence. Most children left public school after six years. (The rest went to private schools, academic grammar schools or folk schools, which tended to be less rigorous.) Only the privileged or lucky got a quality education.

The landscape changed when Finland began trying to remold its bloody, fractured past into a unified future. For hundreds of years, these fiercely independent people had been wedged between two rival powers—the Swedish monarchy to the west and the Russian czar to the east. Neither Scandinavian nor Baltic, Finns were proud of their Nordic roots and a unique language only they could love (or pronounce). In 1809, Finland was ceded to Russia by the Swedes, who had ruled its people some 600 years. The czar created the Grand Duchy of Finland, a quasi-state with constitutional ties to the empire. He moved the capital from Turku, near Stockholm, to Helsinki, closer to St. Petersburg. After the czar fell to the Bolsheviks in 1917, Finland declared its independence, pitching the country into civil war. Three more wars between 1939 and 1945—two with the Soviets, one with Germany—left the country scarred by bitter divisions and a punishing debt owed to the Russians. “Still we managed to keep our freedom,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a director general in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Kallahti School

Practically speaking—and Finns are nothing if not practical—the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12).

The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg.

By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”
Pasi Sahlberg
To be sure, it was only in the past decade that Finland’s international science scores rose. In fact, the country’s earliest efforts could be called somewhat Stalinistic. The first national curriculum, developed in the early ’70s, weighed in at 700 stultifying pages. Timo Heikkinen, who began teaching in Finland’s public schools in 1980 and is now principal of Kallahti Comprehensive School in eastern Helsinki, remembers when most of his high-school teachers sat at their desks dictating to the open notebooks of compliant children.

And there are still challenges. Finland’s crippling financial collapse in the early ’90s brought fresh economic challenges to this “confident and assertive Eurostate,” as David Kirby calls it in A Concise History of Finland. At the same time, immigrants poured into the country, clustering in low-income housing projects and placing added strain on schools. A recent report by the Academy of Finland warned that some schools in the country’s large cities were becoming more skewed by race and class as affluent, white Finns choose schools with fewer poor, immigrant populations.

A few years ago, Kallahti principal Timo Heikkinen began noticing that, increasingly, affluent Finnish parents, perhaps worried about the rising number of Somali children at Kallahti, began sending their children to one of two other schools nearby. In response, Heikkinen and his teachers designed new environmental science courses that take advantage of the school’s proximity to the forest. And a new biology lab with 3-D technology allows older students to observe blood flowing inside the human body.

It has yet to catch on, Heikkinen admits. Then he added: “But we are always looking for ways to improve.”

In other words, whatever it takes.

Lynnell Hancock writes about education and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Photographer Stuart Conway lives in East Sussex, near the south coast of England.

To Read More -

Related Books

The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future
by Linda Darling-Hammond
by Pasi Sahlberg
Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2011

A Concise History of Finland
by David Kirby
Cambridge University Press, 2006

More from Smithsonian.com

Talk in Belfast: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming; Its Already Happened


by Peter Rollins
posted August 23, 2011

The Apocalypse Ins't Coming; It's Already Happened


I have just arranged to give a seminar in my home city of Belfast. The venue is quite small so please come a little early if you want to guarantee getting a spot. If you plan to attend let me know via the comment box, or on facebook, so that I have an idea of how many people to expect! Also, there will be a request for donations. Thanks.

Here is a brief description of what I will be exploring:

Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature and nowhere near violent enough to warrant the name “apocalypse”. For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged. In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires rather than simply positing a future world where they will be fulfilled.

This talk will outline an alternative theological vision that transcends the usual distinctions between theist and atheist, sacred and secular, belief and doubt. A vision that turns away from the actually existing church and outlines a faith that is not concerned with the question of life after death but rather with the possibility of life before death.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Biblical Interpretation - History v. Theology

I thought that Andrew has done another fine job in recognizing current trends in evangelicalism that have gone astray from the task of staying to the texts of Scripture. Here, he points out that evangelicalism has separated its dogma from the historicity latent in the biblical texts by elevating systematic theology over biblical theology. Systematics has grounded itself into a-historical, philosophic (or theo-sophic) arguments about God and pet dogmas. Examples: a gospel of personal salvation; a gospel of the kingdom of God pertaining to the gospel of salvation; a gospel for high Christology... none of which are untrue, however, its how these dogmas have been seated outside of the scope of biblical history and into pet dogmatic pronouncements by popular evangelic preaches, schools, and churches.

However, if it is understood and agreed upon that all systematic theology should first be preceded by, and founded upon, what use to be known as biblical theology, which incorporates biblical history into its historical-critical studies, than we have a more proper sense and scope for the work of theologizing Scripture. One that is planted inside of the Bible's historical record and can lead to a fuller, less lop-sided understanding of doctrines such as salvation, kingdom-eschatology, sin, heaven, hell and Christology.

At least this is how I had been taught before evangelicalism as a dogmatic practice succeeded evangelicalism as a movement. To place this within evangelical parlance - the teaching of the Bible is far more important than the teaching of man - and that includes evangelic dogmatic preachers and professors and their students. If biblical theology is the foundation from which systematic theology arises than we have a proper structure. But if it has been turned around (as it seems that it has again) than that structure is building upon sand and soon to stray from the revelation of the Word of God into pet, personal doctrines.

And I believe I stand in good company when reading that current theologic bloggers like NT Wright, JR Daniel Kirk, and Andrew Perriman, all testify to the same necessity to this theologic requisite - that biblical hermeneutics demands a historical-critical method from which must proceed a proper reading of a theology about God, about man, and about ourselves. We need not fear to do less - for God's very Word will lead us. What we do need to fear - is speaking more (or less) than what God would speak through his Word, and thus place the words of men above the sacred words of our Redeemer, Creator, and Lover of men's souls.



History and theology: never the twain shall meet

by Andrew Perriman
Friday 19 August 2011

Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics is “an enquiry into how theology and history may be thought together”. This is an overriding concern of contemporary hermeneutics, and the book is an excellent contribution to the debate. But how you think the problem is to be resolved depends very much on where you start from.

At the end of a detailed account of how the conflict between history and theology has been handled by modern scholarship, Rae comes to N.T. Wright’s insistence that the New Testament must be read both historically and theologically, with both a postmodern self-consciousness regarding the reading process and a recognition that “the rootedness of Christianity in history is not negotiable”. But while it should be possible in principle to balance the seesaw, scholars inevitably have to sit at one end or the other. So whereas “Wright establishes base camp in the fields of historical enquiry”, Rae proposes to “set out from certain theological convictions about the self-revelation of God” (45).

The question is whether there is really any prospect of history and theology reaching an agreement.

If you start with history and move towards theology, you end up, as I see it, roughly speaking, with the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father and the concrete outworking of that belief for both Judaism and the pagan world.

If you start with theology and move towards history, you will end up at some abstracted principle, which then becomes the lens through which the New Testament is interpreted. For evangelicals that abstracted principle is likely to be either a gospel of personal salvation or—for the more socially minded—the kingdom of God.

The problem is that neither theological concept—neither gospel nor kingdom—really fits the New Testament narrative as it is interpreted historically.

For Rae—and for many traditionally minded theologians—the abstracted principle is incarnation. He argues that the heart of the Christian concern with history is “the story told in the Gospels of God’s redemptive participation in history by which history itself, turned away from God through human sin, is reoriented to its proper goal in the kingdom of God” (58).
This is the point of the incarnational narrative. In the incarnate life of Jesus Christ, the Word of God and second person of the Trinity graces our history with his own presence, thus confirming its goodness, and showing it to be the medium through which God’s loving purpose is worked out. In Jesus Christ, God’s relation to the world takes the form of his becoming a subject within it. The one through whom and for whom all things were created and hold together (Col. 1.17) renews through his presence that which human sinfulness had subjected to disorder and decay and ‘reconstitutes it in its relation to God’. (59)
The direction of thought here is quite apparent. The Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, becomes incarnate, which becomes the defining centre of God’s relation to the world. Conceptually the argument reaches back only as far as a text like Colossians 1:17 because theology—or at least modern theology—needs to work with the largest possible abstractions. The incarnation is framed cosmically; it is for the sake of the salvation of the whole of humanity. The concrete existence of the historical people of God is barely relevant. We would struggle, I think, to give a good answer to the question, “What has incarnation to do with Israel?”

The historical reading of the New Testament begins with the concrete reality of Israel under Roman occupation, with its particular self-understanding; it interprets Jesus primarily in relation to that concrete circumstance; it locates salvation within the story about Israel; and while it may strain tentatively towards certain high level notions of the relationship of Jesus to the Father, it arrives basically at a thoroughly apocalyptic account of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Lordthat is, a theological interpretation of history rather than a historical embodiment of theology.


Scripture as the (historical) theological interpretation of history

by Andrew Perriman
Thursday 11 November 2010

This is a fundamental dilemma facing biblical hermeneutics: how do we get from scripture as ancient religious text, which is at one level at least unquestionably what it is, to scripture as Word of God for the church today, which at one level at least is unquestionably what it needs to be? Arguably it is the most serious dilemma currently facing biblical interpretation.

The dilemma consists in the fact that there are two broad trajectories that interpretation can take, given the starting point of scripture as an ancient text. The first is the route of theological interpretation, which is the route that has mostly been trodden throughout the history of the church. The second is the route of historical interpretation, which was discovered only quite recently through the application of the historical-critical methods.

Theological interpretation has largely been of the opinion that consistent historical readings will not generate a viable, evangelical Word of God for the church—and it has to be said that the evidence for the most part has supported that opinion. Therefore, history must first be assimilated into theological interpretation, which usually means theological tradition, and in effect de-historicized, before it is may be permitted to address the church.

I would argue, however, that historical readings are in and of themselves theologically significant and capable of addressing the church today with the force of the Word of God. What makes this possible is the fact that scripture is already the theologicaland more particularly propheticinterpretation of history.

This argument would probably lead us to modify Campbell’s base-superstructure model. The base is not merely text waiting to be interpreted theologically. It is already a theological engagement both with prior texts and—retrospectively and prospectively—with history. It speaks as Word of God now because the church is an extension of that engagement. This does not mean that we have no further need for theological constructs that transcend or disregard the contingencies of history, just that we do not need to be protected from history in the interests of theology. Indeed, I would suggest that by grasping the evangelical force of the historical narrative we potentially unleash theological creativity because we do away with the need for dogmatic restraints.


Three ways to fit the story of salvation into history

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 17 August 2011

I argued in “The story of how Jesus died for everyone (longer version)” that the account of Jesus’ death in [the book of] Hebrews highlights both the constraints of the Jewish narrative and the importance of the martyrdom motif for soteriology. I suggested that the “saving significance of Jesus’ death is mediated to the world precisely through the story of the suffering of the early martyr church”. Having reflected on a brief exchange with Peter Wilkinson that ensued, I have sketched here, very roughly, what seem to me the three main ways in which we can locate the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection in history.

The a-historical paradigm

The popular or traditional understanding of Christianity has Jesus arriving more-or-less out of the blue in the centre of world history to save mankind from its sins. The Old Testament is useful because it contains prophecies of this singular event, but [it makes] the history of Israel is largely irrelevant. The church is the institutionalized—sometimes highly institutionalized—outcome of the universal salvation that is found in Christ. Its mission is mainly to convert, assimilate, and expand until Jesus returns.

The half-historical paradigm

This view fully embraces the historical narrative leading up to Jesus, but once we have arrived at the climax of the covenant, the climax of God’s redemptive purposes through Israel, history as theologically significant narrative comes to an abrupt halt. Then we revert to the a-historical paradigm. After Pentecost the next event of theological significance is the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world. The half-historical people sometimes acknowledge the importance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as the dreadful terminus of the Old Testament story. The main gain from taking the Old Testament narrative more seriously [than in the a-historical paradigm] is [taht it gies] a broader sense of the corporate nature of the church as an extension of the concrete existence of Israel.

The consistent historical paradigm

My preferred consistent narrative-historical paradigm inserts the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection firmly into the continuing existence of a people that finds its identity and purpose in the calling of Abraham to be the father of a new creation. The people of God is radically changed by this event: it becomes a supra-ethnic community of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus that will, in some sense, inherit the world. But the basic template remains the same: it is new creation in microcosm in the midst of the nations, for the sake of the creator God.

Under this paradigm theologically significant history does not stop with Jesus. Subsequent events are just as important, whether predicted by the New Testament (the destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication of the suffering churches, the defeat of pagan Rome), or not (the collapse of Christendom, the triumph of secular rationalism, and so on, indefinitely).


History and theologies: schematization number 6

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 29 June 2011

Actually, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to schematize the relationship between history and theology. But I think it is central to the current theological task, so another attempt won’t go amiss. Modern evangelical theology is largely an abstraction. It is a very basic abstraction, very communicable, in many ways very appealing, and it can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. But a price has been paid for this accommodation to the narrow, privatized domain of modern religiosity.

First, it has made it very difficult for us to read scripture well, because the whole chaotic, glorious thing has somehow to be chopped up, pared down, allegorized, and in various ways misinterpreted in order to fit into a very small conceptual box.

Secondly, we have a very weak grasp of what is in fact the central narrative element in the Bible—the concrete historical existence of a people called in Abraham, in reaction against socially constructed blasphemy, to be a corporate, visible and credible witness to the full reality of new creation. In my view, this goes a long way towards explaining why we find it so hard to integrate social and environmental values into our theology and witness.

So what I want to do here is simply to show the difference between a standard evangelical theology of personal salvation (2) and an emerging or new perspective reading of the New Testament (3) as regards their relation to history (1). Whereas modern evangelical theology is largely an escape from history, New Testament theology is very much an engagement with history—that is, with the corporate existence of a people over time.

1. As a culture we have reference to a more or less empirical narrative told by journalists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, geologists, and astrophysicists. It starts, in theory, with the big bang, it encompasses what is likely to be the relatively brief span of human history, and it concludes, again in theory, with some sort of unimaginable cosmic curtain call. We are concerned here with a strand in the narrative that begins with the emergence of Israel as a nation, runs through exile and restoration, Roman occupation, the emergence of a breakaway sect that mutates over time into a thoroughly Gentile church, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the conversion of the empire to a modified Jewish monotheism, the rise and demise of an expansionist Western Christendom, and the ensuing struggle to redefine Christianity for the post-Christendom era, in which we are all, in our different ways engaged. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

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2. Traditional evangelical theology barely makes contact with this historical narrative. Israel exists only as the negative backdrop to the abrupt appearance of grace in Jesus. Acts establishes the paradigm of a church that primarily exists to preach a gospel of personal salvation to the nations. Then nothing much happens of theological significance, with the exception perhaps of the Reformation, until the end of the world, which could happen at any time. At best the corporate narrative of scripture is translated into an allegory of personal salvation: I am a sinner because of Adam (or because of Eve); I cannot save myself by works of religion; Jesus died for my sins; I have new life in him; I must also preach the good news of personal salvation; and I will go to heaven when I die.

Click to Enlarge

3. The presumption behind an emerging or new perspective account of New Testament theology is that it is at every point an interpretive response to or anticipation of historical events. Genesis 2-3 is as much an account of Israel’s exile as it is of the universal beginnings of sin; Abraham represents the foundational self-understanding of a people chosen to be “new creation”; Israel’s troubled encounter with empire is a key thread in the developing story; Jesus preaches to and dies for Israel; the early prophetic community of his followers interpreted his resurrection as a certain sign of God’s intention to judge both Israel and the nations; the churches share directly in the death and resurrection of Jesus as they face the same hostility for the sake of the future of the people of God; they are vindicated, first by the destruction of Jerusalem, secondly by the eventual conversion of the Greek-Roman empire and the public confession of Jesus as Lord; the family of Abraham in this way inherits the world and embodies new creation on a grander scale.

Click to Enlarge

The corporate narrative is clearly much more complex than the personal narrative. It does not preach well, particularly in a society that has lost all sense of historical existence and is concerned only with the immediate consumption of material and cultural goods. But the corporate narrative has priority biblically, and I think it has to be recovered—not merely by academics but by the church as a whole—if we are to construct a viable long-term future for ourselves following the disintegration of the western Christendom paradigm.


Theology and history and Jesus as the culmination of Israel's story

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 11 May 2011

For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a [systematic] doctrinal course with a distinctly Reformed hue. If the church is convinced that it needs such a thing as a “doctrine course”, Reformed or otherwise, then this is by no means a bad one. But for me it has highlighted again the fact that so much theological activity [decoupled from biblical history] puts the cart before the horse.

Let me give an example. The section on the Trinity lists a number of biblical texts as “evidence” for the belief that Jesus is God. The assumption is that the doctrine or belief is a given fact and basically beyond dispute; biblical proof texts may be adduced as evidence for it, but this is merely a formality and certainly does not require anything as troublesome as EXEGESIS.

That is very different to reading Matthew 9:4, say, and considering how Jesus’ insight into the thoughts of the scribes is to be explained, from which it is unlikely that we would draw the conclusion that he is omniscient and therefore God. It is very different to reading Matthew 9:1-8 and asking about the significance of the fact that authority has been given to men to forgive sins—the passage virtually rules out the conclusion that Jesus was God.

I should stress that I am not making an argument here against a high Christology; I am making an argument for a high view of scripture. The problem is that a “[systematics] doctrine course” is bound to end up subordinating the organic, contextual argumentation of scripture to the rigid requirements of a theological system that has forgotten how to read historical texts.

So I am very much in agreement with Daniel Kirk when he says in a recent post on theological interpretation:
…I am convinced that there are better ways to conceive of the theological task than traditional systematic, confessional, and dogmatic theology. There is a theology that trades in the diachronic and polyvalent nature of scripture itself, and that continues to embrace such inevitable change and diversity as the church itself continues to speak over time.
Daniel has been writing some very thoughtful and stimulating stuff recently about theology and history and about how the believing church and the (unbelieving?) academy respectively understand Jesus. It ties in well with my history of biblical interpretation. The argument in Daniel’s series of posts zig-zags backwards and forwards rather, and it is difficult to know quite where the dialectic is going to land on any particular issue—which is another way of saying that I may be missing the point in what follows. But this section in a piece on The Church’s Jesus and Israel’s God raised a couple of questions in my mind, and if nothing else, they provide an excuse for some off-the-cuff reflections on the relation of Jesus to Israel’s story:
But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon. The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.

Why can’t church and academy tell the same historical story?

The first question has to do with the idea that the church’s Jesus is “not merely a historical religious phenomenon”. Why not? If the church’s Jesus is “the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people”, why is that not simply a “religious historical phenomenon”? Why is “religious historical phenomenon” a reductive category?

To put the question differently, was the Jesus of the New Testament communities anything more than a “religious historical phenomenon”? Israel’s existence was historical; the promises to Israel were embedded in historical texts; Jesus was a historical figure; his death and resurrection were historical events in one way or another; and the subsequent unpacking of the implications of his death and resurrection in the life of the community was a historical process.

Why cannot the academy, therefore, take seriously the historical self-understanding of the early church that it existed as a result of a major eschatological transformation of the status of the people of God? After all, it was the academy, roughly speaking, that encouraged us to explore this new contextualized perspective on the New Testament in the first place. By the same token, why cannot the church even today find its identity in the story of the historical-eschatological transformation of the people of God?

So Daniel’s question—”Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?”—seems to me to admit an unnecessary dissociation of the two spheres. The academy may draw the line at confessing the active involvement of God in the historical process; but as far as interpretation goes, it seems to me that in principle there is nothing to keep the church and the academy from telling the same story. That Jesus was a “man attested by God” is part of the story. Whether the academy chooses to believe it is another matter.

What is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination?

W come to the second question. What exactly is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination? Reformed and evangelical theologies will insist that this is a story of salvation, but again I think that this is letting the tail of a particular theological tradition wag the dog of scripture.

Jesus is clearly a saviour figure. He “saves” the story from premature termination. But that does not mean that the story is all about salvation. The historically limited meta-narrative of scripture, bookended by creation and new creation, is the story of how an insignificant people, chosen to represent the one good creator God, chosen to be new creation, finally got the better of pagan imperialism and inherited the world (cf. Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15). From Babel to Babylon to “Babylon”. This is why Philippians 2:6-11 concludes with the confession that Jesus is Lord rather than that Jesus is Saviour. The church stands in need of further correction here.

So if the academy has helped the church to return Jesus to his narrative context, it may also help us to take what seems to me to be the next critical step in understanding the narrative. The church has learned from the general New Perspective approach to see Jesus as one who marks the culmination of Israel’s story. But the evangelical assumption is that the story effectively stops there—that there is nothing more to be said that isn’t somehow encapsulated in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and perhaps Pentecost as a direct consequence of the resurrection, and perhaps, at a stretch, the destruction of Jerusalem, though we’re not entirely sure why that should matter.

But I think it is a mistake to suppose that Jesus is, in effect, the end of history. The priority of national Israel in the story—centred on Jerusalem and the temple, governed by the Law—came to an abrupt and brutal end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. But the story itself continued. If Jesus sums up what went before, he also anticipates what is to come.

This future of the narrative is partly foreseen in the New Testament—judgment on Israel, the vindication of the persecuted churches, the radical transformation of the ancient world. The biblical narrative is always concretely prophetic, forward-looking—arguably more forward-looking than backward-looking. But if we are to be true to our narrative-historical convictions, we also have to learn how to narrate what falls beyond the victory of Israel’s God over the forces of European paganism—and now, ironically, beyond the collapse of the Christendom worldview. Jesus is the end of one story but the beginning of others.