Monday, July 30, 2012

who really wrote the Bible?

Recently a friend asked me a good question.

She had been reading a book by an Old Testament scholar and was surprised when he suggested that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That's how the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) has traditionally been understood--since before the time of Jesus. Yet today scholars demur. In the last two hundred years, 'historical-critical' studies of scripture have revolutionized our understanding of who wrote different parts of the Bible and when. Now scholars almost universally agree that the Pentateuch was compiled from a number of sources which preserved different traditional stories, about creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land, and so on, and these different sources were all eventually edited together into the books that we find in the Bible today. The process is supposed to have taken centuries to complete and was the product of numerous authors.
For some people, such a move from the traditional understanding of biblical authorship is pretty unsettling. After all, Jesus talks about these books as if Moses wrote them (e.g. Luke 5:14). At very least, it seems that this kind of claim--'Moses didn't write these books'--raises some serious questions about how you want to understand the Bible.

Now there's a lot that could be said about how reliable different scholarly arguments are or are not, about how much of Moses might be in those books even if they were edited together by someone else later on. But some of the most interesting comments on all of this that I've ever heard are a little different, and they come from, of all places, U2 frontman Bono. Several years ago Bono wrote an introduction to a pocket edition of the book of Psalms. Because many Old Testament scholars maintain that David himself did not write the 'psalms of David', he decided to address the subject in this introduction.
But to get back to David, it is not clear how many, if any, of these psalms David or his son Solomon really wrote. Some scholars suggest the royals never dampened their nibs and that there was a host of Holy Ghost writers ... Who cares? I didn't buy Leiber and Stoller ... they were just his songwriters ... I bought Elvis.

I don't know that I'd say 'who cares?', but I do wonder if the issue is as earth-shaking as some people suggest. If the Psalms were indeed edited together by some person or persons with material from a variety of sources only later attributed to David, I think the traditional attribution would still be absolutely essential. After all, the only Bible we have is this final, edited version. If we want to read this book, we need to take seriously and explore the connections the people responsible for it were trying to forge. Can you really say you've heard "Hound Dog" if you haven't heard Elvis sing it? Regardless of who wrote it, there's something of Elvis inextricably tied to the song, and you have to go through him to get to it. And if you want to get to Psalm 51 or Psalm 3, you have to go through David. The attribution, 'a psalm of David', whatever else it might mean in these cases, is a crucial lens through which you can really behold these texts and encounter them fully.
Whomever wrote them, you're buying David.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: **SPOILERS** AHEAD.
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"The Legend Ends."
For months the marketing for The Dark Knight Rises has prepared fans for the fact that this film definitively concludes Christopher Nolan's Batman-trilogy. After the immense success of the second film, The Dark Knight, expectations have been high and the pressure has mounted to offer the world a conclusion fit for the series.

The Dark Knight Rises is not The Dark Knight, but it's an incredible comic-book film and, to my mind, it offers a fitting end to this superb series.

So many things in the film are done well. Perhaps its two greatest successes came with the new characters of Bane (Tom Hardy) and Selina Kyle, more popularly known as Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Movie-goers already knew what to expect from Christian Bale, Michael Caine, & co., while Heath Ledger's role in the second film was critically acclaimed long before its release, so with Bane and Catwoman fans faced an unprecedented and critical X factor. Hardy and Hathaway (and casting director John Papsidera) do not disappoint.

Without a doubt, Bane lacks anything of the presence and dynamism of Ledger's Joker--but this comes as no surprise, given the difference between the two characters and the fact that Hardy spends the film encased in a nearly-full facial mask. There's only so much an actor can do with his eyes and cheekbones. His voice was also heavily modulated, which I'd imagine limited Hardy even more. (And those of you who saw Conan O'Brien's parody of Bane a few months back can relax; the filmmakers clearly took notice.) All of that aside, Hardy made an excellent Bane. He was massive and, correcting one of many, many errors in Batman and Robin (1997), clearly intelligent. There was also a ferocity to him which came out most clearly in his final confrontation with Batman, in a brief moment when all of his strength and speed were unleashed with a snarl and fury, and you realized just how terrifying this villain was.
The initial decision to cast Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle left many fans skeptical, but I'd be surprised if most of the doubters haven't been converted now. Her relationship with Wayne/Batman was playful, yet kept sight of the hard realities of their world. She was simultaneously credible as a cat burglar, as a maximum-security inmate, and as a subtle and crafty schemer, a nomad getting by with her wits. The filmmakers also managed to make her combat sequences believable, and they captured the spirit of traditional Catwoman garb in the dark, sleek, and functional style of these films--as they've done so successfully with so many characters throughout. There was so much room for error here, and the film delivers at every point.

Still, on the whole, I felt that the movie suffered from over-ambitious writing. Clocking in at 2 hours and 44 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises was filled to the brim and, at times, spilling over. Several issues in the film, such as what purpose Bane's mask serves or why the villains even implement this plan in Gotham at all, are explained briefly and by characters with odd voices, leaving many things less than clear as the movie goes on. Much of it is well done--I was entirely surprised by the sudden reveal of Talia al Ghul, for instance--yet too much of it is done at all, too many plot lines, too many characters, and the film is consequently much less coherent than its predecessors. That's not to say that it is incoherent, but simply that it's difficult for an audience to make all of the connections in one viewing.
I'm also left wondering at the film's ending, namely the last two or three minutes. I had just acclimated myself to the idea that Bruce Wayne was killed in the final battle when Alfred sits at that table and spies Bruce across the crowd. It wasn't until much later that I realized why this scene didn't sit well with me: Bruce Wayne would not run off to Florence to enjoy life as long as Gotham City exists. He hadn't given Gotham everything yet--he'd only staged what appeared to be the final, greatest sacrifice. I think the vision of an aged Wayne, still obsessing over the safety of his city, fighting crime vicariously through a young protege, that we saw in the cartoon series Batman Beyond actually captured this character much better. Perhaps that glimpse of Bruce and Selina at the restaurant was just Alfred's wishful thinking; with this series wrapped up, we'll never know.

Despite its faults, I have to say, again, that The Dark Knight Rises is as fine an ending to the Batman-trilogy as I could have hoped for. It brings resolution to both of the previous films--some resolution that I didn't even realize I was waiting on. In some ways it played the same role as Return of the Jedi in the Star Wars-trilogy: it followed immediately on the developments of the second installment, settling the accounts, while also reviving and finally resolving the dangers of the first film (and all of this without musical sequences or Ewoks!). In both cases I was left satisfied. The merciless judgment of Ra's al Ghul and the murderous chaos of the Joker are visited on Gotham once again, like a tidal wave sweeping across the city, and the Dark Knight, presses on relentlessly against all the fury and destruction, broken yet unbending, and utterly captivating, as these films have taught us to expect.

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The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. There is certainly violence throughout the film, but it is not gruesome like the knives, pencils, and burn victims of the previous installment--this is more akin to the hand-to-hand combat featured prominently in the recent Bourne films.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

mug shots of my neighbor

CNN recently reported on a man who is haunted by his past in the form of old mug shots that he discovered posted on the internet. Mug shots are public record, and so it's perfectly legal to publish them online or in a periodical--and you can find newspapers dedicated to publishing individuals' criminal charges in gas stations throughout the South (I can't speak for northern or western states), often displayed prominently nearly the cash register.
The fellow in the report, Andy McMahon, has escaped a life of drug abuse and now has a good job and a family. Nevertheless his past mistakes are easily uncovered online. Many of these websites will receive payment to remove the images, a practice that naturally leaves people like Andy feeling as if their pasts are being exploited from profit. The periodicals are also sold for a small profit. 

Now, I believe it when these papers claim that they are primarily concerned with public safety. I have no doubt most of these people have the best intentions--at the papers, at least. The websites seem to be little more than money-making tools. But we all know good intentions can have less-than good results. And I have to wonder about this.

Consider these snippets from the CNN piece:

Broderick [media liaison for a "crime-fighting publication," Caught Up] recalled a man who was a sex offender and had finished serving his sentence. The man was trying to rejoin the community but felt he couldn't with his mug shot in the paper and online. Broderick said she and her team discussed the issue, but ultimately felt their need to inform was more important than helping the man overcome his past. 
"When you're talking about the safety of the community and the safety of children and seeing as how these are already public records, we just made the determination that it was in the best interest of the public to have this information available," Broderick said. "The lack of knowledge was not a chance that we were ready to take."

Their decision was very sensible. Safety is so, so important.

But was it a Christian decision?

Is informing people of someone's record, a safety precaution, really more important than helping a man overcome his past? Should safety—or the flip-side of safety, fear—be the deciding factor in how we relate to others? Or does love demand a different response from us, a different attitude towards the past offenders in our communities?
And are there other options here? Perhaps our calling is not to condemn publicizing mug shots, but to seek out those whose mug shots we have seen, to be their friends, and to walk alongside them as they try to rejoin the community. Perhaps it's our mission to make sure that someone's past, in your face, full-color, every time you buy an ICEE, does not have to define them. Maybe someone might recognize this guy, not from his mug shot, but as someone you know and care about, someone whose company you enjoy, whose opinions you value.

I don't want to speak a final word on this issue, some pronouncement from on high. But I do hope you'll give it some thought, and ask some serious questions of that little newspaper the next time you're standing in line at Exxon and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with someone else's mistakes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

a Kingdom state of mind

Sunday in worship at Grace UMC, we heard about how Jesus proclaimed a "Kingdom of God" that confounded all of his hearers' expectations. The coming Kingdom was not about political autonomy and powerful armies but about humble service to others and turning the other cheek; its king would not reign from a throne but from a cross. Jesus's preaching called his hearers to a conversion of their imaginations--they had to imagine a new kind of Kingdom with a new kind of king demanding an entirely new kind of life from its citizens, a life consistent with its own peculiar character. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the invitation to undergo this conversion, to become a citizen of this Kingdom.

Martha Beck and her husband John were Harvard students... in fact that was probably their most defining characteristics. They had degrees from the Ivy League institution already and were both working on PhD's when Martha became pregnant with their second child, Adam. Pregnancy in general could be a problem for Harvard students--Martha knew other women who had aborted their fetuses when it became clear that the due date fell near an important exam. In this academic world dominated by competitiveness and achievement, "personal matters," like pregnancy, were of little import.
Yet Martha's pregnancy carried a further difficulty: Adam, it became clear, had Down Syndrome. The world of Harvard had clear, simple expectations for children. They were to be prodigies: Mozarts, Picassos, Bobby Fischers. The goal was "to turn a human infant into a genius in the shortest time possible." Adam would never be the child this world demanded.

Despite the pressures and confusion they met in so many, Martha and John decided to let Adam live, to have this child. Even they had been prepared to abort a child who was "defective," but this pregnancy was changing the way they looked at the world, and the boy with Down Syndrome.
In her book Expecting Adam, Martha chronicles the journey they made through this pregnancy into life with their new son. Looking back on it all, she concludes:
This has been the second phase of my education, the one that followed all those years of school. In it, I have had to unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught me about what is precious and what is garbage. I have discovered that many of the things I thought were priceless are as cheap as costume jewelry, and much of what I labeled worthless was, all the time, filled with the kind of beauty that directly nourishes my soul. (p. 331)

This is a picture of life in the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom issues a constant call to repent--repent of our conceptions and prejudices, our confused judgments about the world around us, what is precious in it and what is garbage. That's conversion. The apostle Paul called it being "transformed through the renewing of your minds" (Rom 12:2). Christianity is not about getting your beliefs about God straight: it's about being the people of God. The Christian life, the life of the people of God, is the life that allows the vision of the Kingdom--the place where Jesus rules and all are one in Christ, where you are not your own and we ought to bear one another's burdens--allows this vision to shape you and form you as a citizen. This is the call of the gospel, the way of life filled with the kind of beauty that nourishes your soul.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Thomas Jefferson’s “Christianity”



If you visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C. these days, you might notice a special exhibit on the famous “Jefferson Bible,” Thomas Jefferson’s thoroughly revised edition of the gospels entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jefferson Bible is as impressive as it is questionable. The founding father painstakingly pieced together clippings from Greek, Latin, French, and English editions of the gospels to provide four parallel texts, yet in the process there were some intentional and glaring omissions. Jefferson cut anything that he did not feel could be supported by rational argumentation: this ‘gospel’ has no birth narratives, no miracles, no mention of Old Testament prophecy, and (not surprisingly by this point) no resurrection. His Jesus is a wise moral teacher, offering guidance for our lives, setting an example of goodness and ‘religion’.

The exhibit at the Smithsonian displays the original ‘Bible’ itself, among other things, and it even lets you browse the entire text digitally on some handy touch-screen displays. What most interested me, though, was the information, mostly in quotations on placards around the room, on Thomas Jefferson’s personal views of Christianity. Not surprisingly, given the omissions in The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson's faith was rather unorthodox—but many of the steps he took away from traditional, orthodox belief were less glaring than, say, leaving Christ's resurrection on the cutting room floor. In fact, to modern Americans, his intellectual heirs in so many ways, some of his most dangerous claims will sound perfectly natural.

One example is the quotation in the picture above: “The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.” 
This sounds pretty simple and uncontroversial, doesn't it? Thomas Jefferson was disgusted by the idea of an established, state church, and he fought for individuals' freedom to arrive at their own religions conclusions and convictions. No authority should be able to impose faith on you: it's my decision, a personal, internal matter. It's private; it doesn't affect you, and so it's none of your business.

The problem with this Thomas Jefferson religion that so many of us have heard about our entire lives, this internal religion of the mind, is that it's not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is about a kingdom that encompasses all of creation and a Lord who is Lord of all.
Christians are people called to live in this world, amongst our neighbors, lives that are subject to the lordship of Jesus. We may not always talk about Christ, that may be inappropriate, unnecessary, or disallowed in some circumstances, but we always act as though Jesus is King and treat others lovingly, making every decision out of prayerful, considerate obedience. Our faith is never going to be confined to a personal conviction, limited to an internal, heart disposition. On the contrary, it will overflow into every action, every relationship, and every purpose that make up our lives. If I'm faithful to Jesus, I'm going to "impose" my beliefs on every person I ever encounter, simply because I will embody the God's Kingdom and the values and convictions of that Kingdom in their presence. It can't be kept private because it's not about "internal persuasion"; it's about being a peculiar people who are driven by the hopes and values of a peculiar Kingdom. And you do that in public. This private 'Christianity' that can box itself in, that can spare those around you having to encounter your beliefs which perhaps they reject (after all, no one should have to encounter ideas they disagree with!), this just isn't the Jesus-is-Lord faith of the Church.

Yes, the imposition of a confession of faith on someone—‘you will believe this, or we'll burn you at the stake!’—is a vile practice, as far from Jesus' humble submission unto death as you can get. Christians must never look to mandate (or legislate!) the dictates of faith. I absolutely agree. But the religion that Thomas Jefferson and so many others of his time promoted, a personal religion relegated to the mind and heart, removed an appropriate distance from your neighbors, is simply not the communal and active, Kingdom faith to which Jesus calls us.