Friday, August 13, 2010

The Idolatry of Concepts - Rikki Watts

I am using Rikki Watts' book Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark along with a few other commentaries (see them all in the sidebar) as I study and preach through the Gospel of Mark.  I've found a tremendous amount of help from Watts and highly recommend this work to you next time you dig into the Gospel of Mark.

Yesterday, I saw the following article highlighted by Jon Rising on his blog, Word & Spirit, which recounts the highlights of a recent lecture Watts gave at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore (flyer here).  This article was timely for me and I don't want to miss noting it here. (I checked for audio of this lecture, but found none.)

Emond Chua, "Theologian:  Bible About God's Character, Not Concepts".

I agree with Jon. This article "is well worth reading."  Three thoughts stood out to me as I read this article.

Aggression by supposed Christians is really due to an "idolatry" of concepts...

“If you think it’s all about concepts, don’t be surprised if we treat people bad over concepts,” said Watts... “People in the name of truth will treat people badly.”
This is a hard saying, indeed.  Thinking of my own experiences and context, I must admit that maintaining a balance between standing for truth and upholding mercy towards real people is an enormous challenge.  Over the past couple of years, the Lord has placed me in positions where I've been helped to grow in this area more than ever before.  I'm very thankful for the reminder and challenge given by Watts at this point.

Watts gave the example of a chess game. Scientific observation of a chess game may lead to some understanding of the way the game is played. But it cannot differentiate between the friendly game played by a couple and the competitive one played by opponents. Just like that, theology has become an “elite exercise that doesn’t change lives,” he pointed out. (emphasis mine)
This statement coincides with the theme of Part II: Theological Existence in Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1986 [1963]) which I have been reading this week.  Please don't start firing darts at me because I'm reading Barth (re-read my First point above).  I'm reading Barth for academic reasons, but this second section aims at the heart of the theologian.  In his chapter on "Concern," Barth writes, "When a man becomes involved in theological science, its object does not allow him to set himself apart from it or to claim independence and autarchic self-sufficiency" (p. 75).  In other words, theology has ceased to be theology when it becomes an "elite exercise," to use Watts' phrase.  Barth goes on to say "There may be great lawyers, doctors, natural scientists, historians, and philosophers.  But there are none other than little theologians, a fact that, incidentally, is fundamental to the 'existentials' of theology" (p. 77).  I appreciated this humility coming from one who is lauded, certainly to his own chagrin, as a "Great" theologian.

Later on in this same chapter Barth tells a story of Professor Tholuck of Halle who sought to challenge the hearts of his students.
The story is told that the once famous Professor Tholuck of Halle used to visit the rooms of his students and press them with the question, "Brother, how are things in your heart?" How do things stand with you yourself?—not with your ears, not with your head, not with your forensic ability, not with your industriousness (although all that is also appropriate to being a theologian). In biblical terms the question is precisely, "How are things with your heart?" It is a question very properly addressed to every young and old theologian! (p. 83, emphasis mine)
Third, and finally, Mr. Chua notes that Watts landed his discussion of the "idolatry" of concepts with a contrast between concepts and character.  One concept that is paramount to Christians is that of holiness.  Can it be that the pursuit of holiness can lead to a form of idolatry?  This is what Watts proposes.
Holiness is not about being good, the professor pointed out. An excessive emphasis on goodness can actually bring death to people. It can make demons of its proponents. “I think holiness has to do with whether my life brings the life of God to other people,” he said. That was how the early church won over the ancient Roman world, the scholar added.
All of these statements, I believe, come from Watts' first lecture  in his two-part series, God's Faithful Character: Understanding the NT Use of the OT with Special Focus on Mark.
Lecture 1 is, God's Faithful PromiseIsaiah's Saving Light to the Nations and Malachi's Warning to Israel.

Lecture 2 is God's Faithful Presence—Jesus as Messiah, Servant, Son of Man...and the Lord Himself.
Watts also lectured on the Gospel of Mark.  Here is the series:
Making a Difference — Being Disciples of a DIFFERENT Kind of God: Studies from the Gospel of Mark
  1.  A Call to Discipleship: Making Sense of the First Gospel
  2. Who is This? Mark's Astonishing Picture of the Jesus We Follow
  3. The Heart of Discipleship: A New Humanity for a New Creation
If anyone finds a link to these lectures in audio format, please let me know.  I'd love to listen to them!  I should also add, that Rikk Watts is slated to write a new commentary on the Gospel of Mark for the NICNT series which will replace that of William Lane.