Eye of a needle
“Who Needs Theology?” question Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson in their book by the same title. It’s a rhetorical question. They want you to answer, “We all do!” And it’s true, we do. The book, an IVP Academic publication, seems written for the mass market with Peanuts cartoon illustrations beginning almost every chapter. It was slightly off-putting – for a book that aspired to encourage contextual contemporary theology today, the Peanuts illustrations locked the book into a 20th century mentality that caused me considerable effort to move beyond.
It was around chapter seven that things began to get interesting. When one considers the task of contextualizing theology within a specific culture, time, and place, the imagination begins to soar. When the authors claim that “There is no such thing as a culturally disembodied theology”, they root the task of theologizing into a specific cultural milieu that calls for and seeks response to a variety of questions unique to that space.
Jesus came into our world at a specific moment in time, space and culture, and through a life of self-sacrifice, surrender, and love, demonstrated the way to God. We have the biblical record to account for His life among us within a specific historical context that faced significant limitations we don’t tend to understand now. Today, He again draws near. But He does so in a markedly distinct time that biblical writers could never have anticipated. How would Jesus respond to ethics around biogenetic engineering, the possibility of space exploration, trading in the stock market, or the ubiquity and relentlessness of social media?
As contextual theologian Chris Budden states, “The issue in any contextual theology, then, becomes an issue of where Jesus is to be found and identified and related to, and where the church needs to be if it is to meet and follow this Christ.”
In Latin America, in the seventies and eighties, theologians began grappling with how to follow Christ within the oppressive systems that left few options for the poor. In response, up sprouted liberation theology. In like manner, just as Latin American liberation theology was formed in the barrios of miserable poverty, we need the development of sound contextual theological reflection in an opposite context. Within the West today, there is a vast accumulation of wealth by families. This leads to considerable inequity, and is a challenge to those, in particular, who follow Jesus. When Jesus exclaims, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, many wealthy Christians should be troubled and do some intensive soul-searching. Is it possible to enter the kingdom of God while possessing substantial material goods?
Philanthropy – surrendering wealth and channeling it towards the mission of the Church – is one way for wealthy Christians to respond to Christ at work among us, and developing a robust theology of philanthropy is necessary. However, Christian philanthropy must exhibit unique qualities that distinguish it from philanthropy as is practiced by those who do not follow Christ.
Developing a theology of philanthropy begins with responding to the question, “How much is enough?” Rather than blindly following along on the treadmill to accumulation, hoarding, and excess, the Christian draws a line and says, “It stops here.” Different contexts require different decisions, and no judging is allowed. The lines will be drawn in distinct places for each person.
The first (and only) time I’ve ever flown on a luxurious private jet was, surprisingly, in Zambia. One of Zambia’s richest citizens is a devout Christian, but he utilized his considerable wealth and all the fine accoutrements to benefit the needy of his country. He wanted my group, who were in country on a site visit in a remote region, to participate at a gala dinner in the capital to benefit incarcerated individuals, and within a few hours, it happened. This gentleman lived out Jesus’ command to visit those in prison, and he utilized his resources towards that end.
After we draw the line, we also must consider how the wealth is derived. Wealthy Christians recognize that ingenuity and opportunity only get one so far. Here’s a big secret: the generation of wealth is often a fluke. The way the markets moved, the ability of money to make more money, the ability to invest in opportunities not shared in the public square because of one’s network are all dependent on many factors beyond a person’s control. One’s financial gains are usually dependent more on a serendipitous event than from one’s smarts in investing well. Wealthy Christians need to acknowledge this truth with humility.
When theologizing on wealth and philanthropy, one must acknowledge that we are not owners of wealth, but merely stewards. Stewards will be accountable for how wealth is handled, and the Christian distinctive is that we recognize we don’t own the funds, nor do they own us. Instead, we prayerfully and strategically deploy resources for the benefit of God’s kingdom. We let go. We trust others. We trust God. And we will one day give an account for the decisions we’ve made.
Grenz and Olson declare that “Our interpretive framework develops from the manifold influences that come our way and encounters with life we have had, are having, and will yet have.” This perspective urges us to develop theologies for whatever situation we find ourselves, including for those who find themselves with significant wealth and the resulting ministry of philanthropy.
 Stanley J. Grenz, and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 108.
 Chris Budden, “The Necessity of a Second Peoples’ Theology in Australia” in Bevans, Stephen B., and Katalina Tahaafe-Williams. Contextual Theology for the Twenty-First Century. (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co, 2012), 57.
 Mark 10:25, NRSV.
 Grenz and Olson, 124.
15 responses to “Eye of a needle”
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Yes! I love that you have developed a theology of philanthropy, as this is what will surely differentiate Christian giving. I am developing a theology of mission, and in so doing, I am finding that we (missionaries) have sometimes lost our way because we stopped thinking theologically. Are there some ways Christian philanthropy has lost it was, and how will your theology of philanthropy offer a needed course correction?
Yes. I think that it’s similar to anything. We stop being intentional and prayerful, and lose our way. It’s so easy to get sucked into doing business as usual. Easy to make philanthropy just a transaction, when I think God would have us structure it as a transformational opportunity, one where we learn and grow together. It’s easier to build walls around ourselves than risk and dive into relationship. There’s more, but that’s a beginning for you!!
My favorite review of this book also mentioned the weakness of using the Peanuts cartoons with such prevalence. I also felt like it took away from the academics of the book. Like we were still in High School or something.
Jenn sure had some good comments about the Theology of Philanthropy. In my opinion, you are really shining with your methodology for your dissertation. Your blog writing and discussion comments are reflecting this. Would you agree?
I have a lot of pent up thoughts that are finally finding expression here! Grateful to be able to develop them with our cohort and in this program.
Outstanding use of the eye of the needle image in your post. I agree that Christian philanthropy is a theology and am glad you are developing your philanthropic voice for this ministry calling. Thanks for sharing your “lived theology” experience in Zambia. I served in Zambia with a missionary aviation group located just west of Lusaka with their own base and small grass airfield.
When the police or a priest walk into a room full of people, they all get nervous. I imagine you have the same effect on your clients or future clients. Several years ago, I heard a Charles Stanley sermon on tithing and the principle of you “reap what you sow.” I finally let the Holy Spirit “get thru to me” and after that I began using direct deposit from my bank. Since then, God has blessed us immensely in personal and business activities. With direct deposit tithing there is no stress, no worry, no forgetting, no having to make up a missed Sunday offering. It is private, and removes the opportunity for Satan to “insert” guilt, questions, or competition types of thoughts while at church. I wonder if the wealthy use practical approaches to tithing?
Yes! That is precisely what I’m trying to introduce in my work/ministry is to help my clients acquire and live out generosity, especially for those who desire to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. I provide them with concrete tools to get there. I am grateful to have a growing cohort of people I’m working with in this new work.
Mark, I found your post fascinating since I’m quite interested in the topic of the wealthy Christian. I appreciated your voice in this writing! Your comments regarding the other “hot topics” such as “biogenetic engineering, the possibility of space exploration, trading in the stock market, or the ubiquity and relentlessness of social media” are fascinating as well. So…here’s the big question, if wealth may be a “fluke” how does one know God’s desires/intentions/purpose of this wealth?
Several years ago in Bible study I was really taken with the story of Moses releasing his staff and seeing it change into a serpent – to be a sign for the Egyptians and the children of Israel. The passage (Exodus 4) starts with God questioning Moses what is in his hand. It is when we take what is in our hand and release it that God is able to work wonders.
Whether by a fluke or by ingenuity there is wealth in one’s hand, I believe God leans in and whispers, “What is in your hand?” It is in releasing it that we can see God move.
Mark, great job of demonstrating your passion toward philanthropy in regards to this reading. I believe a number of ministers (tele-evangelists excluded) perhaps hate talking about tithing, giving, and wealth from the pulpit unless they have to; however, I believe it is an area that deserves attention in theological study; from the wealthy to the woman that gave her last mite, we are meant to learn something.
However, I did have one struggle with your post, so I was hoping you could give me some clarity: as the Peanuts comics did for you, your initial comment became a speed bump for me. You made an assertion regarding the ability of the early biblical writers to write in a manner to anticipate these times. My question is this: at what point do you allow for divine intervention on behalf of the early biblical writers? Does the Holy Spirit get consideration in this area, and would His ability be able to circumvent those things where the disciples may have lacked ability? I ask because I am curious how much modern accommodation you believe Scripture needs to maintain value in this ever changing society?
Thanks for your comments and your good question.
If I understand your question correctly, I think that this is exactly the reason we need the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work now to help us in contextualizing Scripture. The writers of Scripture could not have envisioned the complex realities we face today. While the writers could not have predicted our reality, the Holy Spirit can help us in the contextualization. He breathes life and the Word of God becomes living and active and powerful to discern, critique, challenge, and affirm us in our world now.
That said, I think we need to take care when we appeal to God-breathed Scripture, because our interpretations are often clouded by our own culture, language limitations, and experience. That’s why the work of Biblical scholars is so important. There is always ongoing work in bringing clarity to dead languages (Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek) – since no one speaks those anymore, we must rely on scholars to elucidate and help us understand the original intention. That’s how I came to an openness and embrace of women in ministry and egalitarianism, for example. The translations of the Bible I read when I was younger don’t seem to allow for this, but scholarship has demonstrated there is room to understand these problematic passages in other ways while holding a high view of Scripture.
Private jet in Zambia! Woah!
Your epmhasis on cultural theology is important. We are naive to think we can ever presented a unbiased theology. Everything we present will be flavored from our own theology. The theology of philanthropy will be greatly impacted by many ideas about wealth, one of which being the prosperity gospel.
An enthusiastic yes to the need for culturally adept theologies!
Regarding the prosperity gospel, I find it deeply offensive. Those hucksters interpret blessing as coming to believers in mainly materialistic terms. (I hope I didn’t seem to support that with the private jet story because I don’t.)
Great job on moving the theological discussion to your research problem. I agree Christians need to be aware of just how blessed we truly are. I have a friend who is a millionaire, but you would never know it by how he treats others. He is the most generous man I have ever known and a great example of a wonderful steward. Keep fighting the good fight!
Thanks Jason. I think there are great examples of wealthy Christians such as your friend, and we often don’t even know they are in our midst. Generosity and stewardship are key traits of these fine folks.
Hey Mark- Thank you for your thoughtful and very interesting post! I’m grateful for your contribution of the liberation theology that surrounded your work in Colombia. As I prepare to go to Colombia next month, we have read some Gutierrez and I brought along with me Henri Nouwen’s “Gracias!” If there would be one book or resource that you think would help me most in deepening my understanding of the Colombian experience, what would it be? The Chris Budden book sounds interesting also, assuming it goes beyond the Australian imagination. Well done friend!