How might a person on mission learn to read the book of Acts?
As might others, I’m swept up into near uncontrollable emotion when I recall the little nativity set erected with sacred precision every Christmas in my childhood living room. That pristine manger transcended my suburb existence; it had a blissful quality akin to magic.
The scene still sits perfectly in my memory—a little herd of happy, well-fed farm animals, are nestling among little piles of fluffy hay watching on as three glowing wise-men bear little wrapped boxes whilst two chubby cherubim perched on the roof above look down in happiness. And, of course, there are Mary and Joseph; cocked heads, subtle smiles as though they know an inside joke, chagrin with glowing admiration as they stand above their smiling baby God/child laying serenely in the center of it all wearing a toga and crossing his legs. Manger life, I always assumed, must’ve been unimaginably peaceful or paradise-like.
Those little magic mangers were quite marketable, it turns out.
Of course, those little mangers from our childhood are a sham. But why should we worry all that much about such details as actual history? For if we’re willing to detach ourselves from one minor detail, the text of the New Testament, we can keep on enjoying this image of the blissful, first manger year after year.
But if we are troubled by that and actually go through the work of reading the New Testament, we will soon discover that most modern mangers are a complete farse. One might even say propaganda. Daring to undertake a reading of the New Testament birth narratives of Jesus Christ will reveal an original nativity scene that was anything but this picturesque, sentimentalized version that I was led to believe was biblical history in my childhood. The original manger—more like a barn or outhouse—most certainly was that place where Jesus Christ was born.
That little bed of hay was originally a troph where the animals would eat their slop everyday, the magicians were really pagan Iraqis who journeyed most likely years after Jesus’ birth, no mention is given as to three Magi (just a group of them), and Joseph and Mary were most likely scared to death. No smirks on their faces. They would be a family on the run—the emperor had called for infanticide. Sadly there is no mention of chubby, happy cherubim sitting calmly above watching.
It’s hard to market a manger out of that scene, isn’t it?
We mangerize history. All the time. Preachers, for example, are masters at this. With the passing of time, our stories begin to sound a lot like a manger scene—added details, little glosses, a few more fireworks, then we are really there, essentially divorcing our historical imaginations from what actually happened. Touches are added to make the story a bit flashier than it really is.
We mangerize our preaching to fit our purposes. History is bent that a powerful point might be made. But this becomes a bit more dangerous when it is done to biblical history. Sure, such mangerizing has more to do with our human nature than anything else—the old days are always good, today is always dark and hard. Humans worship the past, bemoan the present, and turn a blind eye to the future. But, more often than not, mangerized history serves a darker purpose; it offers a version of manipulated reality that perfectly serves our pressing ideological commitments.
In the end, a neatly packaged, sentimentalized view of the ancient biblical stories, does not only great violence to the Bible, but, also, the one about whom the Bible proclaims—God. By selectively ironing out the Bible’s story into a sentimental story about a sentimental God who extends a sentimental love (a kind of love we secretly wish for), we do violence to the truth. A mangerized Bible is a managed Bible. And a mangerized God is a managed God.
Sentimentalism is not a path to God
And any managed god can’t be the real thing. David Tracy has wisely points out that,
There can be little doubt that a careful reading of the principal witness to the revelation of God, the Bible…displays a portrait of God that cannot be easily manipulated, much less sentimentalized into all-to-complacent portraits of simply a living, tender God. In the Bible, God is both intimate to us and radically Other.
Tracy’s insightful wisdom should penetrate our reading of all of sacred Scripture and all of our thinking about God: God will eternally seek to destroy our sentimentalized stories about Him or his revealed Word. Jesus, the one called “the way, the truth, and the life,” will always desire to be worshipped in “Spirit and in truth.”
Sentimentalism is not a path to God—only the reality of Jesus Christ is. That is why the Bible puts such paradoxical, seeming not harmonious, images together. God, in the Bible, is both close and distant, loving but firm, open to all but affirming of none—as Tracy says, He is “intimate to us and radically Other.” Perhaps this is precisely why the author of Hosea paradoxically speaks in the same exact book of a God who is like a moth and a lion. God is soft yet tender all the while being angry and violent.
There is nothing sentimental in that.
The Bible is refreshingly non-sentimental about its characters. It refuses to gloss over reality and offer a mangerized version of God and God’s people. The Bible witnesses to the reality of a broken humanity seeking a perfect God. Particularly, I might add, is this the case of the Bible’s portrayal of the early church. The story of the Holy Spirit working in the early church in the book of Acts is anything but sentimental with errant sexuality, deception, and murder. And this is very good news. As Rodney Clapp once suggested, “a Christianity reducible to therapy or activism is, in the end, sentimentality.” That is, true gospel undermines sentimentalism because it is a gospel that deals with truth as it is.
Sentimental history is the textbook of managed truth.
We will tell two kinds of history which do two different things. First, sentimental history, the kind we’ve described, largely exists to validate and affirm everything we’re been doing up to this point. This kind of history is used to perpetuate everything we’ve been doing. A second kind of history, what I call subversive history, is a kind that bears prophetic questions to what we’ve been doing all along so that we might move further into the light. One pats us on the back, one says the hard word.
The Subversiveness of Acts
The book of Acts, I believe, is a subversive history. It not only tells us answers about what actually happened, but asks us questions about what is actually happening among us today. The book of Acts questions us. Biblical memory, unlike other kinds of history, is a subversive memory questioning and prodding at our current ways of thinking. Memory always has a way of doing that, challenging the assumptions of our day.
As a subversive history, Acts undermines our deeply held convictions about the ways and means Christian mission is to be lived based on how it used to be.
Acts, it’s been said, is the missional text of the Bible. And for good reason—Luke’s account of the early church serves both as a primary historical account of the Holy Spirit in the formative stages of the Christian community, and, the key text in forging for today’s church a missional memory that it will feed off of from generation to generation. Luke, as such, consistently captures stories about the missoin of God that explode amidst our field of false assumptions. In Luke’s carefully chronicled narrative, we watch the powerful movements, workings, and outflowing of Jesus’ Spirit in the life of the church—movements, workings, and outlowing which are not always friendly to the institional forms Christianity is cast. And, we see the life of the Spirit draw the world to the person and message of Jesus Christ.
The vision is nothing short of breathtaking. While, certainly, we draw our missional vision from a broader biblical narrative than merely Acts; Acts plays a special part in shaping our missional perspective.
How can we read Acts in a way that challenges our current way of doing mission?
Question restorationist readings of Acts—the point of Acts isn’t to get us “back into” the early church. Rather, Acts teaches us about the Spirit that propels boldly us into the future.
How did the Spirit bring judgment on the early church in Acts?—In the same way, how does the Spirit bring judgment to the church today? What are the spirits of Ananias and Sapphira in our time?
How is the Spirit continuing to be a troublemaker—As did the Spirit with the story of Cornelius (a Gentile) entering into the boundaries of the church, how can we see the same kind of Spirit pushing our boundaries today?
Oddly enough, we began our chapter about Pentecost in the sentimentalized manger of my childhood. As I’ve tried to convey, the histories that we tell ourselves will either sentimentally pat us on the back or subversively question our current ways of doing things. The book of Acts, in my reading, serves perfectly as an ongoing prophetic reminder to the church of Jesus Christ of the role of God’s Spirit in the mission of God. Acts, as such, is a subversive history—questioning, pushing, critiquing and prodding at us. Acts is uncomfortable. And this type of reading is quite different from our cute, sentimental, restorationist readings that tell us we should “go back to the early church” of Acts.
Acts, I would like to suggest, is not inviting us to return to the past but to enter the future with the same Spirit that empowered the church. Acts does not invite us to revert to the past, rather, Acts invites us to move into the future with God’s missional Spirit.
The same troublemaking Spirit who was alive and brooding over the early church is alive among us today. I wish to suggest three key ways in which the book of Acts questions, subverts, and challenges our current assertions and beliefs about what the church’s role in the world is.
There is, as I like to say, a cost to Pentecost.
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