Tuesday, December 01, 2009

sex, membership, individual

Being a Christian is not an alternative way--ethical, spiritual, religious, whatever--of being an individual. If you aren't going to read any further, I wanted you to read that.

Now, before I go on, let's talk about sex.

I've just begun reading real sex: the naked truth about chastity, by one of my professors, Lauren F. Winner. Dr. Winner wrote this book because the messages churches are offering about sex trouble her--they're "not that compelling"; "they seem theologically vacuous." That's not to say the message of the Church about sex is not compelling or is theologically lacking. Rather, the messages spoken today have been essentially reduced to finger wagging ("No you may not.") or catchy aphorisms... 'True Love Waits', anyone?

Statistics seem to indicate that she's right, and people really are not moved by the churches' teachings. If anything, "people are abstaining from sex not principally because they find the Christian story compelling, but because they find a popular tale about romance compelling--wait till you've really fallen in love." To me this is both sad and unsurprising.
It's sad, not just because I want to dog the world's message about 'true love'--though, that can be a deceptive and dangerous idea when not reflected on critically--but because the Christian message really is beautiful and captivating. All of this is, however, another topic for another post or (more likely) another author.

What I want to talk about is the meaning of 'membership' in the Body of Christ.
In her chapter 'Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night', Winner tries to argue that sex is 'communal, not private; personal, not public.' If that sounds odd to you, you're not alone. You can understand her best when you see what ideas she's trying to argue against:

  • "Sex is communal, not private" means that one's sex life is not just one's 'private concern'.
  • "Sex is personal, not public" means that the way sex is publicized in our society is inappropriate.
Dr. Winner asserts that sex involves you in communities: the community of husband and wife, the community of your household. Sexual behavior forms people, and formative powers--like entertainment or education--are the concern of the whole society (hence our concerns for educational standards and regulations on entertainment, like film ratings). Yet, there are right and wrong ways to bring up the 'communal' topic of sex. Half-naked women on billboards and couples making out in the park are not the right way to go about the communal discourse on sex.

Some of her arguments are more convincing than others. The one that is thoroughly convincing to me is what she has to say about sex for Christians--the relationship between sex and the Church.

As good Americans, we tend to think quite a bit about individual liberty. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", right?
Many people think that's the issue behind the abortion debates--'it's my body!' Christians take heat over condemning homosexual intercourse because 'they have a right to do whatever they want.' This is also one of the reasons accountability can be so awkward: 'I can't believe he tried to tell me to do that.'
But, Winner counters, "in the Christian universe, the individual is not the vital unit of ethical meaning." Christian ethics make reference not to the individual but to the Body, the community: "the People of God is a collective --not merely an aggregate of individual persons, each doing his or her own thing, but a body."

This is thoroughly convincing to me simply because it is thoroughly Biblical.
Recall Paul's famous discussion of the Body in 1 Corinthians 12:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (12:12-13, 27)

If you're not familiar with that passage, go read it all. It's a really striking picture of the Church, and this Body image is one of Paul's favorites for describing us.

We get so used to talking about 'members of a club', 'band members', or whatever else, that we forget the weight of 'membership' in the Church.
Our word "member" comes from the Latin word membrum--it means "limb." Our word 'dismembered' still carries the right tones: somebody is being chopped up.

To be a member of the Church is to be a limb, a body part, of the Body of Christ. That's Paul's whole point here. Though we see each other as individuals--I'm Nance, there's Daniel, there's Lauren--if we are Christians, we are not primarily individuals anymore. Our identity is fundamentally rooted in our being a member, a limb on the Body of Christ, the Church. "God has so composed the body... that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:24-26). We are called to live like that because that reflects what we are. Of course we're going to suffer together with others--we're members of the same Body! Of course we're going to rejoice together--a member of our Body has been honored.

Of course sex is communal.
That's why Paul can say, in 1 Cor. 6:15, when calling believers to flee from sexual immorality: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!"
When a Christian commits sexual sin, they are involving the Body of Christ in sexual sin. He defiles his brothers and sisters; he defaces Jesus' Body. Paul doesn't call out believers for sexual sin just because he's a prude. Paul calls them out--and encourages others to do likewise--because he understands how the Body works. In sinning, the Christian involves the Body of Christ, the community, in sin. So... it's everyone's business.

This all goes against our sensibilities. Western culture rests firmly on individualistic philosophy. When you are baptized into the Body of Christ, you have to turn in the 'me' card. "Consider others more important than yourself"? "Bear one another's burdens"? Well... yes. Why? Because you are not your own (1 Cor. 6:19). It's disturbing, but simple.
Who knew what you were signing up for when you decided you wanted to be a member of a church?

No doubt, in many ways, Jesus calls to us as individuals. As Charles Williams once put it, "it is not merely a personal salvation, though naturally this great and universal thing can only be known through personal salvation".
We are called as individuals, but we are then transformed into members; we are incorporated into the Body.

And that last word--incorporation (related to the Latin word corpus, body!) is the last word. We read in the gospels that we are called to deny ourselves, and we get a sense of what Jesus means by it. In the Church we have the reality that Jesus was anticipating. The Church in Acts didn't share all of their possessions amongst each other because Socialism is the way to go. They did it because that is the nature of the Body. They did that because that is the reality of being a member of the Body.

This not only speaks to our financial ethics, but also, as we began with, our sexual ethics. The Church's teachings on sex aren't primarily supposed to be negative. 'Don't do this; don't cross that line; this is not allowed.' Instead, the Church's message about sex is meant to be a positive one: we are the Body of Christ and this is what the Body of Christ looks like. It's the place where sex is the wonderful thing that happens in marriage. It's the place where we sell our possessions to care for the needs of all. It's the place where we suffer and rejoice together, bear one another's burdens, consider others more important than ourselves.

This is the New Testament's beautiful affirmation. This is the reality of Christ's Church. It's also the story about our identities that we have to keep telling each other until we get it, we remember it, and we strive to live into it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

on reading scripture

I've learned so much in the last year or two about reading scripture--about how the Church has done it for two thousand years, about how we do it today. I could say so many things about this, but there's one aspect of it all that has been on my mind a lot lately. I have concluded that one of the most important tasks for the Church when approaching the Bible is to be stubbornly realistic about what this book is and what it's saying.

Scot McKnight's book Blue Parakeet has been
a great conversation partner as I've been thinking about these issues. McKnight wants you to 'rethink how you read the Bible', and he excels at pointing out the cracks in popular methods of reading and interpreting scripture.
As I was reading this afternoon, he began to highlight some of the dangerous 'shortcuts' that he feels are often taken with the Bible. The shortcut that really caught my attention he calls "puzzling together the pieces to map God's mind". People taking this shortcut view the scripture as a puzzle: we're given all the pieces, and we have to put it together to match the picture on the puzzle box. The problem is "we don't really know what the picture looks like. We have to imagine what the original picture was" (p. 50). Basically, we decide before we come to the text what the message of the Bible is, and we force the scripture, as we read it, to fit that message.

One of the greatest pitfalls of this method--though there are many--is that "this approach nearly always ignores the parts of the puzzle that don't fit" (51).

Let's say that again: this method ignores the pieces that don't fit your idea of 'the Bible'.

In the 5th Century, Saint Augustine was involved in a debate with a monk named Pelagius. If you had to generalize, you could say that Augustine was arguing for a very strict idea of 'salvation by grace alone through faith alone', while Pelagius thought some sort of meaningful effort on our part was necessary.
C. S. Lewis commented on this controversy in his Letters to Malcolm, and I think his observation is profound:
You will notice that Scripture just sails over the problem. "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling"--pure Pelagianism. But why? "For it is God who worketh in you"--pure Augustinianism.

Certainly Augustine and Pelagius had serious, doctrinal disagreements. But, on one level you could also say that both of them are simply appealing to different pieces of the puzzle--and ignoring different pieces.
Lewis concluded that "it is presumably only our presuppositions that make this appear nonsensical." There are a lot of frictions in scripture--this argument just highlights a popular one--and our tendency when faced with these frictions is to try and iron them out. We can't leave these apparently 'nonsensical' creases in the Bible! Scripture, however, doesn't iron these things out--it 'just sails over the problem'. For some reason, we do it anyways, and we have to decide for ourselves which verses and chapters (and whole books?) 'can't possibly mean' what they seem to say.
The 5-point Calvinist has to find away around the fact that "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). The Baptist looking to support their view of baptism has to creatively reinterpret 1 Peter, where 'baptism now saves you' (see 3:18-22). I have to find something to do with Romans 9.

We simply can't read the Bible through our prefabricated theological frameworks and read it faithfully. We have to be stubbornly realistic about what the Bible is and what it's saying.

Some Protestants tend to think that they're above this. By jettisoning the Tradition, we have somehow freed the text from any external influences. That's laughable. The only time the words "faith alone" appear in scripture, they are explicitly rejected--James 2:24. What do we do with that? What's the use in claiming 'sola scriptura' if you won't let the scripture speak for itself?

No, this is a dangerous shortcut that no one's above taking.
However uncomfortable this may be at times, we have to allow the Bible to be what it is.
As McKnight, again, points out:
After all, had he wanted to, God could have revealed a systematic theology chapter by chapter. But God didn't choose this way of revealing his truth. Maybe--this "maybe" is a little facetious--that way of telling the truth can't tell it the way God wants his truth told.

Most of the Bible is narrative--it's a story. To our minds, a story is not the most efficient way to outline a theological system. Maybe that's true; in that case, God obviously wasn't trying to outline a theological system, and maybe we shouldn't worry so much about it either.
Of course there are things that are true and things that are false; I'm not saying we can't pull that from scripture. I'm saying that it seems most of our efforts to systematize what we believe, to describe God without simply telling what God has done are problematic. The Bible is simply not systematic enough to allow for that.

We've been given a story about God, and we've been invited to participate in God's story through Christ. Instead of contorting this story into the shape of some kind of abstract philosophy, we ought to rejoice in it for what it is, and we ought to tell it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Baptists and the Creeds

A hymn I grew up singing said that “My faith has found a resting place, not in device or creed.” A frequent accusation made against Baptist conservatives during the conservative resurgence was that they were “imposing creedalism” on the Southern Baptist Convention.

A rule of thumb for denominational conflict: before making an accusation, make sure that the matter under discussion is actually a bad thing.

iMonk posted on Baptist churches and the Creeds about a month back. Go check it out it you have not; it's a great post.

One of my great hopes for a life in ministry is to see the re-appropriation of the creeds in the life of a Baptist church. Most people in the congregations simply aren't going to have an awareness of the formative history of Christianity and the key (and unthreatening) roles that these creeds played then and have held, universally, since then. I want them to know.

Check out the post!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

another post on Evolution

It's not me this time.

I recently discovered the blog of Rachel Held Evans (not to be confused with my wonderful younger sister Rachel Joy Evans), an author and speaker from the 'buckle of the Bible Belt', Dayton, Tennessee. I've really enjoyed Rachel's posts so far, and I'm looking forward to keeping up with the blog.

I thought I'd pass along a post she's recently written on Evolution, that favorite topic of mine that doesn't ever seem to leave the wardrobe front page for too long. Eight Reasons to Give Evolution a Second Chance. If you aren't tired of the topic, check it out. The picture accompanying her post is worth the visit by itself.

I, of course, don't get tired of the topic (for whatever reason). In fact, if anyone's feeling generous today, feel free to hop on Amazon and order me a copy of Richard Dawkins's latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. If you're looking for a sort of popular introduction to the topic yourself, you might want to take a look as well. It's a very nice, user-friendly book, from what I've seen so far.

But, again, I'm not really here to publicize Dawkins. Go check out Rachel Held Evans's blog.

Also, I'd like to leave everyone with Numbers 23:19. This comes from the middle of the story of Balaam, the unlikely oracle of God, that takes up Numbers 22-24. If you're a little fuzzy on the details of this account, go read it. If you like tales of war, comedy, and talking donkeys, this is the one for you. It's wonderful.

Numbers 23:19:
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

What does this verse mean to you? What does it say about Evolution, if anything? What does it say about scripture, if anything? How would a compelling demonstration of a long, evolutionary development of life on Earth affect the way you understand this verse? Should it?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

for students

A recent conversation made me look back at one of the novels of Charles Williams. The Place of the Lion is one of his earlier works, and it's actually the novel that introduced C. S. Lewis to Williams and sparked the strong friendship the two would share. It is, not surprisingly, a very strange tale, and I'll spare you most of it. But, the scene that I was revisiting this week came alive to me with the second reading in a way that it could never have before.

One of the main characters in the novel is a girl named Damaris, a young scholar who is primarily studying the works of Peter Abelard, a Christian philosopher from the 12th Century. Damaris is driven and ambitious, and she knows her stuff. However, while she knows Abelard's writings, the reader quickly learns that Damaris has no sense of the truths behind his work. For her, Abelard is just a figure, his writings, a corpus--they're ideas that lack any point of reference in reality.

Then Damaris meets Peter Abelard.
It was--it was Peter Abelard himself, Abelard, mature, but still filled with youth because of the high intensity of his philosophical passion, and he was singing as he came: singing the words that he had himself composed, and which a voice of her own past had spoken to her but lately:

O quanta qualia
sunt illa Sabbata

Against that angry sky he came on, in that empty land his voice rang out in joy, and she tried to move; she ran a few steps forward and made an effort to speak. Her voice failed; she heard herself making grotesque noises in her throat, and suddenly over him there fell the ominous shadow... Only for a few seconds, then it passed on, and he emerged from it, and his face was towards her, but now it had changed. Now it was like a vile corpse, and yet still it was uttering things: it croaked at her in answer to her own croakings, strange and meaningless words. Individualiter, essentialiter, categoricorum, differentia, substantialis--croak, croak, croak.

The "ominous shadow" and the thing that cast it are way too confusing to go into here, but the image is striking, nevertheless. The Abelard of Truth, after the shadow falls, is replaced by the only Abelard that this academic has ever acknowledged. He is merely a dead man, though still capable of spewing out technical, Latin, philosophical prattle.

So, this is my word to those of you (us) who find yourself reading through some of the greats in school--Saint Augustine, Sir Philip Sidney, Wesley, or whoever it is (we're actually studying Abelard next week in Church History). Don't let studies drain these people of their reality, of Truth. They are more than their dates and their 'key concepts', and they certainly wanted to communicate more. Listen; engage. Let their voices 'ring out in joy.'
The threat is no where more dangerous than in Biblical studies. The Bible is, of course, the most important piece of literature in Western Civilization, and there's still much to be learned about it. But, that has little bearing on the reading of scripture as the Body of Christ. As Augustine himself once put it: "Whoever thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

Study is good; an education in Liberal Arts or in theology is good. As you pour over these great minds and holy Scriptures from over the millennia, just don't forget to let them speak.

Monday, October 12, 2009

wardrobe turns 4! and C. S. Lewis on formulaic worship

Well, today marks the 4th anniversary of through the wardrobe. --confetti-- We've come a long way in four years... I'd standardized the color of the font, and my name is no longer at the end of each post. There have, hopefully, been other changes as well.

One thing that has not changed over the years has been Lewis's influence on me (and by extension, the blog... just look at the name) and his frequent presence here--check out the 'Lewis' tag at the bottom of this post if you want to see more of him. So I thought it would be appropriate to bring in year four with a word from C. S. Lewis.

First, a prefatory word.
Southern Baptists are not the most uniform bunch.
In fact, that's one of the hallmarks of the denomination: there's no centralized Southern Baptist authority on... well, almost anything. Even those statements
which are intended to cross congregational lines, such as the Baptist Faith and Message, are not imposed on any body. Indeed, sadly, with many Baptists, doing things the way you feel they ought to be done is *much* more important than any uniformity... or unity.
This is one gripe, however, that I have heard from many a Baptist over the years--perhaps something that can be tentatively said to be 'agreed upon.' The gripe goes like this: those denominations with formulaic worship have got it all wrong; how can you honestly praise God if you're just reading words out of a book, or just repeating things without ever thinking about them? You get the gist.

Lately I've been reading Lewis's Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and this is a topic that Lewis broaches almost immediately in the letters.
Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best--if you like, it "works" best--when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
... every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping.

Most of those who engage in the afore-mentioned griping have probably not ever asked someone who truly enters into liturgical worship what they think the good of it is, or why they prefer it to something more spontaneous and amorphous. There are many answers that might be offered, but this would at least be a part of Lewis's. As is often the case, a perspective from the other side may force some serious reconsideration of the question on almost every level. After all, you don't want to seem to support a 'church service where our attention would not have been on God.'

Any responses? Agreement, staunch opposition, further questions?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

James Dunn in Lafayette, LA

James Dunn, author and theologian, is giving a talk at the Church of the Ascension in downtown Lafayette, Louisiana, on Thursday November 19th.

If you're in the Baton Rouge-Laffy area, you should seriously consider going to this. Dunn is, along with N. T. Wright and E. P. Sanders, one of the real pillars of the New Perspective on Paul movement in New Testament scholarship, and actually the fellow who coined the phrase 'new perspective.' He is easily one of the most important NT scholars in the English-speaking world today. I've not had time to read much of Dunn's work, but, in the little exposure that I've had, he has fundamentally changed the way I read Romans.

Again, I highly recommend this event to anyone and everyone who can make it (I wish I could). It's going to be in the evening--I'm not positive of the time--but more details should be forthcoming on Ascension Church's website.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Myth and Reality in the Old Testament pt. 1

For the last few weeks we've been reading Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation for my Old Testament class at DDS. I actually have really enjoyed Enns, and I think his work can be a great help to many people, but I'm not planning on spending much time on that here.
Instead, I thought I might blog through my reading of a book Enns recommends: Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, by Brevard S. Childs. Childs passed away in recent years, but he was in the 20th century an imminent Old Testament scholar. This little book is old (1960!), but Enns feels that it "may still be the best little book on the subject." The subject? Well, "myth and the Old Testament," as you might guess.

I decided to drag everyone reading wardrobe (so, so many of you...) along with me on this journey after I finished the short opening chapter of the book, which I found totally fascinating.
I also decided to drag the readership along because this is an important issue to think about. This is a time when it is not at all uncommon to hear much of our Old (and New) Testament described as 'myth'--and not just by skeptics or more harsh critics. Within the Church there are many people very comfortable with this terminology (myself included, to an extent). We need to be able to at least understand what they're saying, and how what they're saying may be useful and good, as well as how it misses the mark.
SO, if you can, unplug your ears, and let's listen to Brevard Childs a bit and see what he wants to tell us. We can obviously disagree, but let's give him a hearing.

Chapter 1 is about "The Problem of a Definition of Myth."
Childs lays out here what he feels the two most popular definitions of 'myth' on the market are, and why he feels neither will work when approaching the Old Testament texts.

First, is the "broad definition." Here, 'myth' is any kind of statement that concerns "miraculous or supernatural occurrences" and comes from a "pre-scientific and uncritical, naive" worldview. This extends to scripture or any other piece of writing with the right content.
This is, he argues, a philosophical definition. "It stems directly from the philosophical distinction between the supernatural and the natural", and this distinction "becomes the criterion for classifying all material."
This, Childs goes on, is precisely the problem with the definition.
"False categories, unsuitable to the subject, are forced upon it. It means approaching the myth through the eyes of the critical Western mind and restricting from the beginning the kind of reality which the myth can contain."
I added the italics... I love that part.

I think the problem he's describing is not unlike giving people numbers. This kind of designation might work well for the man running the concentration camp, but it is not at all adequate for really describing a person. A number doesn't begin to express anything about what people are or, even more, who the individual person bearing it is.
When modern, Western ideas about 'natural versus supernatural' are used to categorize Ancient texts that were written before these sorts of distinctions were ever made, we may be able to divide things up alright, but we do so at the expense of recognizing the meaning that the text had in its original environment. The meaning the authors intended, the meaning immediately recognized by the people who first received the text.
We can't really recognize and appreciate that meaning if the most important descriptions of the text in our mind are descriptions totally divorced from that meaning.

Second is the "narrow definition." This one originally came from, of all people, the Brothers Grimm. This basically calls 'myth' a "literary form concerning stories about gods", as opposed to other forms, like a fairy tale or a legend.
This isn't a philosophical definition, but, he suggests, just a practical one. It arose from the need to define different types of literature more precisely.
The problem with this definition, according to Childs, is that it is primarily "defining limits on the literary plane." Once we step outside the realm of literary studies, its usefulness is almost non-existent.
Again, even though it's a definition, it doesn't help us get to what a myth really is: "It is not helpful in understanding the function of the myth within the total thinking of a culture." This definition doesn't try to "penetrate to the essence of the myth." How myths operate, what they try to tell us.
He also complains that this second definition doesn't help us get at the big issue of 'myth and the Old Testament': "The problem of the basic understanding of reality contained in the myth and its relation to Biblical faith has not been adequately touched upon in this definition." Well said.
I'm hoping (and assuming) that this 'understanding of reality' and this 'relation' are exactly what Childs intends to touch on as the book gets rolling.

His next step, though, is to seek a third way of defining myth, one that is appropriate for using in Biblical studies.

Stop and consider what's already been said. Childs may have already rejected the definition of myth that you've always used. Do you think his criticisms are accurate? Important?
How are you going to proceed if they do seem consequential, and he just sunk your ship?
Another thing to notice and begin to think about: Childs obviously thinks that myths can speak about reality. For a lot of people on both sides of the question of myth in the Bible, that's going to be a red flag. It's interesting to see where 'conservatives' and 'liberals' line up. One side will say 'myth can't be true', and so 'the Bible is not true.' The other, 'myth can't be true' and so 'the Bible doesn't contain myth.' Here, again, Childs is taking a third way, already distinct because it begins with a totally different premise: myth can be true. I can't help pointing out that C. S. Lewis is in perfect agreement with Childs here (see his essay "Myth Became Fact").
These are issues you'll need to address as we go on, because they are already proving to be fundamental in what Childs wants to suggest.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The C. S. Lewis Bible

UPDATE: Dr. Edwards chimed in briefly in the comments; the publication date for this Bible is set for November of 2010.

The C.S. Lewis Bible will offer C.S. Lewis as a companion to a reader’s daily meditation of scripture. As people read the Bible, they will also gain insight from his writings and spiritual journey as they invite Lewis into their spiritual discipline. This Bible will honor his material by showcasing his life-giving writings and classic works that define and explain key issues in the life of faith. This Bible will be more meditational than devotional, and would stay pure to his editorial voice to honor the material of this beloved writer and thinker.

Now... as a rule of thumb, I hate 'gimmick Bibles.' The Sailor's Bible, The Hunter's Bible, The Complete Personalized Promise Bible for Women, The Apologetics Study Bible, etc.

That being said: I... must... have... this Bible.

The Lewis Bible is going to be the NRSV. It first came to my attention when mentioned by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards (who is serving on the editorial team of Lewis scholars collaborating on the Bible ) on his blog.

It hasn't shown up on Amazon (or even Harper Collins's website, at this point), but I'll try to have more details as they've available.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New York Times article on nursing homes

I thought this was a fascinating article, and I'm certain that the questions about human dignity and social/familial issues that surround nursing home residence are questions that Christians need to give more attention and thought to.

Check it out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Baptists and the Lord's Supper

In case you missed this over there, imonk recently published a response from Baptist scholar Dr. Timothy George to the question "How can Baptists respond to Catholic and Orthodox Christians who challenge our view of the Lord's Supper as having no deeper historical/Biblical roots than Zwingli?"
(Zwingli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, d. 1531.)

This is a pretty brief read, but definitely educational. Check it out.

My understanding is that Dr. George's answer to the question is basically: 'Baptists need to change their view... then they can worry about what others are saying.' He and I are absolutely on the same page here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

tanning beds in the news again

I don't like tanning beds.
A lot of people know this, and some girls I've known for a long time know it very well.

So I'm always pleased (for lack of a better term) when tanning makes the news--because it's generally bad news--like it has recently.

I don't know much about the particular show--I've only seen about two reports from this dr.NANCY character. But I did do a little research on the doctor being interviewed, Dr. Jeanine Downie, and she seems to be legitimate.
The story unravels at the end of the video, as they descend into random tanning tips, but the facts discussed at the beginning are striking.

My question is this: in light of the apparent dangers of tanning beds, what sorts of restrictions ought to be placed on their use?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

This weekend saw the release of the latest addition to Quentin Tarantino's corpus: Inglourious Basterds.

Much can be foregone in the review if you're familiar with Tarantino's work: Reservoir Dogs, the Kill Bill films, or perhaps his best known film, Pulp Fiction. (The latter is actually on the AFI's '100 Years... 100 Movies' list--it's low, but it's on there.) Probably the first association made when speaking of a Quentin Tarantino film will be "violence". I don't mean violence a la The Godfather... or even violence like that in Saving Private Ryan. Tarantino's violence is hard to describe. "Gratuitous" doesn't quite capture it. The violence in his films is very purposefully extravagent. You should expect going in to be immersed in this really mortifying world.
Inglourious Basterds is certainly no exception to this--in fact I have to say no that if you have any qualms about watching film violence, never see this movie. The violence enters is abruptly and unexpectedly with a man being scalped, and it is not really subdued in what follows.

The violence is so striking, in fact, that it has been able to shape all of my reflections coming out of the theater.
Why? What message is he trying to send? When you use violence the way that Tarantino does, you must be prepared to answer these questions.

The Basterds are a small group of Jewish-American soldiers who have been unleashed on the German forces in France, where they are striking terror in the Nazi military with their brutality and sadism. Early in the film Brad Pitt's character happily tells a Nazi prisoner (soon to be executed): "Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies."
Tarantino certainly understands the depravity of much of modern cinema. One of the glories of Pulp Fiction is its portrayal of the senselessness of this... but I believe the message of Inglorious Basterds is more layered, and more particular than a simply critique of our current gore-drenched movie culture.

The movie's finale revolves around a film premiere in German-occupied France, where the latest piece of Nazi propaganda is being screened. This Nazi film showcases the exploits of a brave Nazi sniper who is single-handedly able to kill nearly 300 Allied troops in three days. This film is extremely violent itself, for the 1940s, and it is received with disturbing glee by the audience (especially by Hitler himself).
Minutes later we, the viewers, find ourselves presented with a similar spectacle, as Allied soldiers fire mercilessly into a crowd of Nazis from a sniper's 'bird's nest' of their own.
The question you are meant to ask yourself: how does your reception of this horror compare to the Nazis' reception of their own film? To Hitler's reception of it?

Once you begin to ask these question, you are only faced with more.
How do we think about the Nazis in our culture? Is that itself really humane? Is watching--and enjoying--a film about killing Nazis any less detestable than those atrocities we accuse them of?

These questions probe deeper than a critique of our film industry. They go to the heart of our existence as social creatures. Tarantino accuses the gleeful observer of, with Brad Pitt and the Basterds, carving a swastika into the foreheads our the Germans in our memories, refusing to let them remove that uniform, and then reveling in the punishment that they deserve... surely they deserve?

This movie is about more than the film industry, it is about revenge.
What are we doing when we take revenge--as the Basterds on the ground or as the viewers vicariously--to ourselves as humans or to our enemies as humans? When we wish to 'settle the score' with Nazis, with terrorists, with whomever, what, in that moment, do we have in common with Tarantino's sadistic Adolf Hitler?

Some of the performances in Basterds are really exceptional. Christoph Waltz is excellent as the Nazi "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa--really stealing the show from the opening scene. I thought, contra some other reviewers whom I've seen, that Brad Pitt did an excellent job as well. He's over-the-top American, and that's precisely what you need for that role. He also offers the funniest performance--unfortunately B. J. Novak isn't given much space to stretch his legs, otherwise perhaps Pitt would have had competition there.

On the whole, though, it's hard to call the film enjoyable. It's certainly disturbing. It's also though-provoking... but while I enjoy having my mind provoked, I appreciate it when the provocation is dealt by a lighter hand. And I'm being pretty liberal here: most people will not enjoy the film at all (I'd like to think, at any rate). I can't overstate the sheer gruesomeness of it. If you are already a fan of Tarantino, you will probably enjoy it thoroughly without a hitch. Most people, however, ought to sit this one out. If you'd like to think deeply about how we characterize Nazis, perhaps you'd be better off watching Tom Cruise's recent Valkyrie, the only other film in the last few years which I'm aware of that give a human face to the Nazi uniform, and this in a much more direct (and by means of a much less graphic) way.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jesus in the work of Josephus

When it comes to the history of 1st Century Judaism, one of the most important sources available to researchers is Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the second half of that century. The writings of Josephus notoriously contain a passage referring to Jesus--a passage which sounds a bit fishy and is commonly said to be 'corrupt', that is, it has been tampered with, edited, by Christian scribes of later centuries. This is an important topic because the mention in Josephus represents one of the earliest extra-Biblical references to the life of Jesus anywhere. For people interested in the historical life of Christ--proponents or nay-sayers--Josephus has to be taken into consideration.

All that to say: here's a good, short video on the topic. This should be a painless introduction for those of you who are interested, but totally unfamiliar with the issue. Check it out!

Friday, August 14, 2009

what "works of the law"? pt. 2

What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."

That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."
(from part 1)

This interpretation has some interesting and, I think, helpful, implications.
What I'm suggesting means that, as one theologian put it, "Paul was not against the law as such - far less against 'good works'! What he aimed his arguments against was the law understood and practiced in such a way as to limit the grace of God, to prevent Gentiles as Gentiles enjoying it in full measure."

This implication shines a lot of light on the book of Acts.
In Acts, Paul does many things that are hard to swallow held next to a traditional Protestant/Lutheran reading of Romans--one which (and I welcome any correction from within those traditions on this point; this has just been my understanding of the popular views) sees Paul as attacking the observance of the law in favor of 'salvation by grace through faith.'

As James remarks to Paul in Acts 21:24, "you yourself also live in observance of the law." This comes in the middle of James's sending Paul to purify himself in the Temple, in hopes of refuting claims in Jerusalem that Paul "teaches all the the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." (21:21) This is a scandalous accusation that James and apparently Paul both want to discredit.

More striking, I think, is the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This chapter is crucial for understanding the Biblical teachings on Jewish-Gentile relations in Christ.
The council is called to address the situation of Gentiles converting to "the Way". Some, Pharisees in particular, believe that these Gentiles ought to be circumcised (:5)--receive the sign of covenant membership. The apostles conclude that the Gentiles need not be circumcised, but, in their Apostolic Decree, they write that Gentiles ought to follow four commands: "abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." (:20)
These commands might seem kind of random at first, but they are actually pulled from the book of Leviticus. These are commands given to foreigners 'sojourning in the midst' of Israel. They aren't required to become Jews, as Gentile converts traditionally were, but they remained Gentiles and adhered to these precepts.
The men carrying this letter then traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch.

A Paul who was totally opposed to Old Testament law, whom many like to suppose wrote Romans, simply doesn't mesh with this Paul in Acts.
However, a Paul arguing against, not law observance, but an attitude of exclusivism--'God is for the Jews!'--does fit here.
In fact, the Council of Jerusalem decides precisely in favor of what Paul is arguing for in Romans: salvation is available to the Gentiles as Gentiles. There's no need for them to convert to 'outward' Judaism: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter." (2:28-29)

In Romans 4, Paul goes on to draw out how it is that the promise to Abraham may apply to the uncircumcised. (Again, Paul is here arguing against an 'ethnocentric exclusivism': 'Abraham and the promise are not merely for the Jews!')
If we want to understand 'works of the law' in the sort of 'standard' way, where it refers merely to 'works that are supposed to earn salvation', this passage seems to be merely an interesting aside.
But if the 'works of the law' that Paul is attacking is instead 'that which distinguishes one as a Jew', his exposition of Genesis 15 makes perfect sense--indeed, it's critical--right where it is.
'You may have thought that justification comes through Jewishness,' he begins, 'but I'm telling you that justification comes through the promise, and the promise is realized through faith.' Abraham's faith, not his circumcision, is what marks him out as the forefather of the people of God, Jewish or otherwise.

This sort of reading of Romans can have some serious ramifications for our reading of the rest of the New Testament (not least of James). It's also got me convinced that "the fundamental problem with which Paul is wrestling in Romans is not how a person may find acceptance with God; the problem is to work out an understanding of the relationship in Christ between Jews and Gentiles." This is what much of the post-gospels New Testament is about, once we start understanding it in context.

This sort of reading of Romans is also exactly the sort of responsible, informed reading that I think Christians have to be doing of our scriptures. Paul wasn't writing in a vacuum--we need to get to know his context. Jesus wasn't a 21st century westerner--we need to know what environment he was in and speaking to, what his terminology meant to his audiences.

There are a lot of great resources out there to help us along the way. Heck, I can think of five theologians off the top of my head who have lead me by the hand in my (this) understanding of Paul. As much as you can, dig into these studies.

More than anything else, though, and before anything else all of us have here to face our call to read and know the scriptures, and to pray for God the Spirit's leadership and guidance. Study the word, and do it as often as you can. Allow God's Spirit--and whatever tools he has placed at your disposal--to direct you in your interpretation and understanding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

what "works of the law"? pt. 1

Last summer I had a pretty intense (and, I thought, fun!) debate with a fellow whom I had heard preach on James chapter 2--the 'faith without works is dead' passage. I thought that his message totally misrepresented James's own, essentially contradicting the apostle's words.
The message came out this way, of course, because in the Protestant tradition we tend to hold up Paul and James as these two sort of opposing voices on the matter of justification. 'Paul says we're justified by faith, not works; James says we're justified by works, not faith.' This is a gross distortion of both views, but it's also a good summary of the popular take on it all. With this on the table, we're left no choice but to do some 'creative interpretations' of the view that we think is off, and that's usually James. 'He can't mean what he said; you have to read this in light of Paul...'

Romans is usually what they mean by 'Paul'. I had Romans 3:28 quoted at me more than once last summer: "For we know that a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law."
This response always left me unsatisfied. Not because I'm not willing to let scripture lead me--I hope that's not what this is all about. It's because I knew that "works of the law" in Romans and "works" in James are not the same thing. This is indisputable. Read the contexts for the two. Paul is talking about something specifically Jewish with a very particular meaning. James is talking about good works in general, like visiting orphans and widows in their distress or taming the tongue.

Lately I've found myself returning to this issue. Not by studying James this time, but by studying Romans. I wanted to read this wonderful letter one more time, slowly and thoroughly, before heading to seminary. Along with it I've been reading a lot of secondary literature: studies on the letter's context, suggestions of alternative translations at points, etc.
All of this has brought to my attention once again this really crucial phrase in the letter: 'works of the law.'
How are we to understand this phrase?

The traditional Protestant view (coming from Luther) of 'works of the law' can be best explained with an illustration: "works of the law" are akin to the things Roman Catholics do--going to mass, receiving the sacraments--to try and ensure their salvation. They are works meant to impart the saving grace of God to an individual. The Jews were doing works that they felt earned, merited salvation for them. These were works prescribed in the law.

This is the traditional Protestant/Lutheran view. For *many* reasons, I do not share it.

Before anything else, a misunderstanding of ancient Judaism has to be exposed here.
Ancient Jews did not understand themselves as doing works, say following the laws in the Pentateuch, to merit salvation from God. Instead, they hoped for salvation simply on the basis of their being Jews. They were the covenant people of God, and God would be faithful to them. Salvation didn't follow any particular actions, but it followed a state of being: being Jewish. This is why proselytes, converts to ancient Judaism, had to receive the mark of circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of your membership in God's covenant community, your place as a child of Abraham, a Jew.
This is also the reason behind the activities of different Jewish factions in the 1st century. Pharisees didn't meticulously follow the law to try and earn salvation. They meticulously followed the law to set themselves apart, to prove themselves to really be God's chosen nation, up and against all of those who didn't meet the standards.
The same is true of the Zealots and the Essenes, waging war with the pagans and living in isolation from a corrupt world (respectively) to set themselves apart as clearly as they could. The distinctions between themselves and the Gentiles--or between themselves and other Israelites not living up to their part of the covenant with God--proved that they were really the people of YHWH.

The difference is sometimes hard to keep clear, but it's important: salvation did not rest in the works of the people, following the law, but it rested instead in God's faithfulness to his covenant with Israel ... so make sure that you are Israel!

This attitude, that we're talking about Israel's God, the God of the Jews, is what Paul is setting out to attack in Romans.

"Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? But a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith." (Romans 3:27-30)

Right here Paul is drawing some connections and one grand dichotomy.
The opposition, however, is not between what you might expect. Paul's not putting 'works, Jews, and circumcision' against 'faith, Gentiles, and uncircumcision.'
Instead, Paul places 'justification by works of the law' and "the Jews only" up against 'justification by faith', "the Gentiles also", and "the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith."
He is countering claims of exclusivism from the Jews with the vision of God justifying all peoples, Jewish or not, by faith.

What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."

That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Review: G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra

G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra hits theaters today. No doubt it will bring in a lot of money. Unfortunately, it's probably not as good a film as the 1987 animated JOE movie... the one starring Don Johnson and Sgt. Slaughter.
Yes, G.I.JOE is pretty bad.

Maybe that's a bit harsh. "Silly" is a much better word.
The action is over-the-top and silly. The dialogue is stock and silly. Many of the characters turn out to be silly as well. Yes, that's a good word for it. Any enjoyment of the film is going to require quite a bit of 'suspension of belief'--which is fine. This is a G.I.JOE movie that we're talking about. The difficulty arises when you understand precisely how much suspension is asked of you: the action and technology in this movie are more outlandish than anything from the JOE cartoon series... and that was a cartoon. For whatever reasons, this translation was handled much better by the filmmakers behind Transformers.

The plot is hardly immune to the silliness. If you ask too many questions about characters' motives or their various histories (with each other), your head might explode. Avoid this; just don't ask questions. Sit back and let the action and the silliness take you for a ride.

A quick note on the characters.
I'm not yet sure why exactly this movie features the particular Joes that it does. This is especially true of Heavy Duty and Ripcord. Anyone with a background in ARAH will know what I mean. (If it's simply a matter of having proper diversity in the team, then, please, give us Roadblock and Stalker.)
I actually did like Channing Tatum's Duke, which is much more than I expected going in. Snake Eyes was well done, as was Stormshadow, I felt. Unfortunately, the Scarlett/Snake Eyes relation was totally removed from the story. Scarlett was too busy being noticed for apparently the first time by a male on the team. This is a great loss, though I have to admit that the Scarlett/Ripcord tension is great fun.
Baroness looked great... beyond that we have some troubles. Dennis Quaid was perfect.
I can only hope that, if and when a (totally unnecessary and creatively unwarranted) sequel is produced, we will see some of the great characters absent in this first outing: Flint and Lady Jaye, Stalker, Xamot and Tomax, Mercer. Time will tell.

I think that, in some respects, Rise of Cobra is a bit like the first Fantastic Four movie. You can have fun with it if you want to. And I wanted to.
What I don't want is to ever see this movie again... or at least probably not for a long time.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

BW3 weighing in on sexuality issues in the church

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III has made some remarks about the 'sexuality crisis' in the U.S. Episcopal Church--with reference to N. T. Wright's own thoughts on the situation--as well as on the issues in general. I tend to agree with everything Witherington's said here; check it out for yourself.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I'm not even kidding...

I was cleaning up my apartment some this week in anticipation of a quickly-approaching move out, and I found myself going through some old books, long boxed-up. In one such box I discovered what was, if memory serves me, one of the first non-fiction books on Christianity that I ever purchased (almost a decade ago! Wow...): The Gospel According to the Simpsons, by Mark I. Pinsky.
I sat a moment remembering days long-gone and started to place the book aside in a pile (the pile that my books are hoping not to end up in, actually), when on a whim I decided to check out the blurbs on the back.

My eye was first drawn to the name "Will Willimon", which unexpectedly sat at the end of one such blurb. "What a fun book--with serious purpose... I didn't know that Bart Simpson had so much to teach us. Far out!" 

Oh my.

Curious, my eyes proceeded to scan further, only to discover the crown jewel:
"The Simpsons is one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue. Mark Pinsky manages to decipher the code without deadening the humor, which is quite an achievement." 
- The Most Revered Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

I then decided to keep the book.

I'm not even kidding.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

are miracles good news?

Last week I had the opportunity to worship at a black United Methodist Church on Sunday morning. This was quite the switch for me, but I'm so glad to have been there. The Peace took about ten minutes, as everyone in the congregation--25-30 people--greeted everyone else individually. Quite the switch.

One of the most remarkable moments of the morning came with the gospel reading. A lovely young lady in a wheelchair read the text, from Mark 5, where Jesus heals the woman "who had a discharge of blood" and Jairus's daughter. Seeing her before the congregation and hearing those accounts, you could not help but think about miracles. Where have they gone? How is this good news to the girl in front of me? What are the miracles of Christ and the apostles but some carrot dangling before us, a tease of some 'better world' to come?

Thinking about these things, my mind turned to another miracle story in the gospels.
In John 9 Jesus heals a man who was born blind. The disciples look to base a good theological discussion on the man: "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Christ won't have this: No... "it was that the works of God might be displayed in him." The man was blind so that the works of God might be shown in his healing.
But the question remains: why is it 'good news', that the works of God are manifested through Jesus and this man?

I think we misunderstand miracles.

The good news of a miracle is not in the healing. That "I was blind, now I see" is not the good news. It seems like the good news. After all, we pray for healing that someone might be healed. The good news of a miracle is that Jesus of Nazareth can display the works of God.
The miracle stories are not teaching us to expect God to heal. He can, and sometimes He does. I heard a story just this week of God's healing a woman in Indonesia, where Christians are entering some dark areas for the very first and where some were asked to pray over a persisting ailment. But this is not the heart of the story in John 9--or in Mark 5.

At the heart of the story is the question Who is Jesus?

After Christ heals the man in John 9 there is a fuss. How did He do this? Why doesn't He keep the Sabbath? Who is this man? The (formerly) blind man says it best at the end of the chapter: "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." (:33)

The good news of Jesus' miracles is that 'this man is from God.'

This is just what Christ said to John's followers when they came to Him while the Baptist was in prison. 'Are you the one who is to come?' (Matthew 11, Luke 7) Jesus doesn't offer an answer in words--the answer is given in His works, His ministry. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to the." (Matt. 11:4-5) If John would know who Jesus is, he needs only to observe what Jesus is doing.

We could ask again: why is it good news that Jesus is from God? The answer to this is the heart of the gospel. "Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures. He was buried, that we was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures." This, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, is the gospel. Not just that Jesus died and Jesus lives, but that Christ, the anointed one of Israel, the king, died and lives.
The miracles of Jesus tell us that this man is from God--that His ministry, His teachings are from God. The Resurrection--among other things!--offers one final, grand 'in Whom I am well pleased' to the life of Jesus. This Jesus who claimed to be the Christ, who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, who offers life to His listeners, this Jesus is from God. This message is from God.

The good news of Jesus' miracles is that the Kingdom of God is at hand, established by the work of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit--and all of this 'in accordance with the scriptures', in accordance with God's plans and promises from Abraham to Moses, from David to the prophets.

Jesus is not going to heal every paraplegic. But He has and will continue to, through every miracle and through every new life that He gives, proclaim and manifest the Kingdom of God.

Yes, miracles are good news. By his miracles we know that Jesus Christ is from God, that he is the one 'to come'; He is the one who died, was buried, and has raised, who is now offering that life, that victory over sin and death, to all the world. This is very good news.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

texting while driving

This is not the most scientific study that I've ever seen. BUT, I don't think many people will dispute the results. There's no doubt that texting while driving hinders one's driving ability... that usually comes with not looking at the road.
The other studies referenced in the video give a few staggering numbers, like 66% of 18-24 texting or emailing while driving.

I text while driving.
Yesterday on a drive across Baton Rouge I had a text conversation with a friend whom I was following. We didn't hit anyone--though we did take a wrong turn at one point. I've never hit anyone or anything because I was texting. I generally don't even look at the phone while texting, just when I feel like there's been a typo. Yet, I know other 'good drivers' and 'good texters' who have hit cars because of phone use. It comes with not looking at the road.

Why am I saying all of this? There's a woman interviewed in the video whose 17 year old daughter died in a wreck apparently caused by texting. "I wouldn't want to see another person have to go through such a senseless death." Senseless is right.
It seems to make sense at the time. I need to communicate. If I don't text and drive I'd have to wait and communicate later. This is (seems to me) pressing. I'll do it now.
Maybe some people recognize the risks and decide that the convenience is worth it. They're convinced that things will turn out OK.
However that is obviously not always the case.

Christians have been taught by our Lord to "love your neighbor as yourself." Again in Paul, James, John: love your neighbor. Or as Paul says it again: "count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4) We do this because of the servanthood of Jesus.
If we follow this command we will not willfully endanger others for our own sake. We will not.

I exhort you, brothers and sisters, not to text and drive.

Our society treasures communication and speed. They are driving forces in American culture. Well, this is the sort of counter-culture Christians ought to model. Instead of buying our children Bible action figures in place of G.I.JOEs, we need to teach our children--and ourselves--to be followers of Jesus. That is real Christian counter-culture. And it means following His command to love--even and especially when that command forces us to re-prioritize and to place those things that we're taught to care about below the path of denying self and taking up the cross.

Texting and driving is already illegal in several states. Christians therein have absolutely no excuse for breaking those laws. But I'm calling on all of us. When the currents of society carry us toward evils, the Church must swim against the current. When we don't we are not the Church.

So I'm committing to not texting while driving.
That probably just sounds silly. 'Big commitment there, Nance...' No doubt it will seem less silly tomorrow when I'm on the road and I want to tell... someone... something. I bet it will actually be quite a temptation when the time comes. But Christ's call for us to love is more important than my convenience, or even my friend's, on the other side of the message.
We must love, against the culture, against the tug to there 'go and do likewise.'

Friday, June 26, 2009

answering their questions pt 1

I've been reflecting lately on the opportunities that I've had at LSU to discuss Jesus and faith and scripture with non-Christians. The really good, thorough, long discussions. The voices of unbelief in college were, looking back, much more vocal than I expected. They're also (some of them at least) very intelligent voices. Some of them have struggled long and hard with the issues. 
But I think a lot of these questions have good answers all the same. This is especially true of questions about history, science, and philosophy. 

The questions that come up along life's way--when tragedies strike or prayers go unanswered or however it happens--these, more often than not, shouldn't be answered, at least not with words. The best we can do to answer the voices of pain, loss, and confusion is to show them God through our love and to show them God by pointing to Jesus. 

Still, other questions I think can be answered well. So I've decided to echo and reflect here on a few of the questions and objections that I've heard over the years. Maybe you'll see something here that's always given you pause. Or maybe I can frighten someone with a question here, before somebody with very different intentions does out in the trenches. Hopefully we can come to some conclusions and see Truth incarnate Himself in the midst of these puzzles and doubts.

1. Did Jesus even really exist? 
Every now and then I'll stumble onto something about this online: 'yet more evidence that there was no historical person Jesus of Nazareth'; 'we see here another clear sign that the Jesus in the gospels is really just a character based on Odysseus' (no joke); or whatever else they're saying. 
This skepticism has trickled down--as you might expect--to the masses, particularly to those who already have doubts and frustrations. This is an easy out, after all: some 'scholar' said Jesus didn't exist, so I can now deride you and your beliefs as much as I like.

Honestly, this blows my mind. 
I'm more familiar with so-called 'conservative' Jesus-scholars (conservative here basically meaning "their Jesus actually looks a good bit like the Jesus in the gospels"), like N. T. Wright and Ben Witherington III, than I am with the 'liberal' scholars, like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Nevertheless, I'll proceed from here only with reference to Crossan and Borg, just to 'avoid a bias'... by speaking through a different bias that the skeptics are OK with.

Crossan and Borg have both written at length on the historical Jesus, and they are two of the most important authorities on this in the English-speaking world. They're associated with the 'Jesus Seminar' (Crossan helped found the group), a group a Jesus-scholars who boldly denounce the Resurrection and the empty tomb, the virgin birth, etc. 

And neither of these scholars would say that there was no such person as Jesus. 

In fact, they both go so far as to affirm at least some of the gospel accounts of Jesus' healing people.
Borg will not go so far as to say how or why they occurred: "I do not need to know the explanatory mechanism in order to affirm that paranormal healings happen. And Jesus seems to have been uncommonly good at them." 
Crossan's take on the miracles of healing has been described as "some... Crossan takes to be definitely historical." Others--most, perhaps--he might call 'definitely unhistorical'. The point remains. Not only is Crossan (with Borg) affirming a historical person, but a historical 'wonder-worker', among other things.

Wright, Witherington, E. P. Sanders, and others also affirm Jesus, miracle-accounts, and much more. The fact is, their are very few serious Jesus scholars who doubt his having really lived and walked around 1st Century Palestine. Such individuals are to be found on the fringes of Jesus 'studies' and carry minimal authority on such issues. Theses guys may make the news, but that says very little. What is important to recognize is that they absolutely do not represent any kind of consensus in the world of historical Jesus studies.

One is always welcome to side with whatever explanation they like--and they'll do that. But the fact that the explanation is rejected by the vast majority of experts, themselves representing all points on the spectrum, and that it is rejected because it cannot withstand the briefest critical examination... this should make you think twice before following.

This answer may sound too short, too cut and dry. I can understand that. It sounds that way because there's not much room for debate on this issue. Even if some want to entirely discount the gospels as historical evidence--and few do--they still have to deal with Paul, pre-Pauline Christian traditions (for example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-7), Josephus*, and other early sources. It's pretty easy to see that there is good evidence for a historical Jesus of some kind. It's what we say from here--what anyone says from here--that will be the 'less certain' part.

* Josephus is a first century Jewish historian, who makes a brief reference to Jesus. I realize it's common to point to later Christian editorial work in Josephus; Borg, however, following John Meier, sees (at least some of) this as authentic. 

The image up top was user submitted on My[confined]space. And awesome.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the future of the SBC

imonk has posted some reflections on the SBC national meeting that's been going on in Kentucky. If you're interested in the future of this denomination and what that's starting to look like right now, go check it out. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Screwtape on 'the historical Jesus'

Recently imonk posted some 'guidelines for interpreting the gospels'. One tip that I appreciated, though I doubt his audience is really the group that needs to hear it, was "The study of the historical Jesus is important." Nice. 
Chris Tilling said something similar a few weeks back: "Start to learn the habit of enjoying NT related books that are more informed about matters of exegesis, historical background, hermeneutical subtlety etc." I agree. I think these are important things, and for many they are totally unfamiliar. 
Obviously not every layperson is going to be able to force themselves into this kind of reading, for one reason or another, but for those who can I think they should. I'm in the middle of Wright's Christian Origins series right now myself, and I'm teaching a class for my church on the Jewish roots and context of 1st Century Christianity. 
This is important stuff.

And then Screwtape opens his mouth.

Lewis doesn't seem to have been wholly opposed to historical Jesus scholarship... just mostly. And it's understandable. Lewis was a good catholic Christian, faithful to the Tradition, and historical studies have often been conducted in a calculated opposition to that Tradition. He was also living in a time when various fads ruled Jesus-studies (maybe that's not over just yet), and when Bultmann was in the vanguard of the scholarship, arguing for a misguided separation of history and theology. Lewis knew better than that. 

As always, Screwtape is incisive. In letter 23, he makes four claims about 'historical Jesus' studies:
  • The conclusions are unhistorical and have their way with the texts. "The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new 'historical Jesus' therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life..." 
  • They distract from who Jesus is (i.e. the Word) and what He did by focusing on "some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated." 
  • They destroy the devotional life of prayer and the sacraments by substituting for the Christ worthy of all honor and praise an object that "cannot in fact be worshipped", "a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian." 
  • The reconstructions of a 'historical Jesus' replace the knowledge of a risen Jesus who has redeemed His people--the truly saving 'facts', if you will, about Christ.  
I certainly won't deny that any of these happen, and at times have happened frequently. 
So how should the student of the New Testament, the junior-historian in the congregation, the follower of Jesus respond to these observations? 

Of course, Christians have to be devoted to good scholarship. That's true in the study of the New Testament, in the biological sciences, and everywhere in between. After all, we're to put away all falsehoods, and this is just a part of that calling. And this means that we have to approach the experts with a critical eye, especially mindful of omissions and exaggerations, and evaluating their logic. Crossan and Borg have some great information, but what about their conclusions? What assumptions are they making at the start that need to be acknowledged?
These aren't always easy questions to answer, but it's critical that they're asked.

Unless you've decided to reject the Christ of the Creeds for another Jesus of historical reconstruction, then you must always cling to "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father... he was crucified under Pontius Pilate." Even if this is in the back of your mind for a time, as you try to understand this or that facet of 1st Century Messianic beliefs being enacted by this man from Nazareth, it must be held in mind. These studies are meant to inform our reading of the texts and our understanding of Jesus' activities; let them do that much, but be aware of when they try to do more, separating things which the Creeds holds together.

This is all closely related to worship, the devotional life. Historical claims can be the death knells of worship for some. For others they might place an idol on the throne: any Christ other than He whom the Church has always proclaimed, dead, risen, and coming again. We must remember that Jesus has taught us to pray, and that Jesus--the Word who made all things--has called the bread and wine His body and blood. Perhaps one movement here ought to be the assimilation of historical study into the worshipping life of the Church. I'm not talking about holding seminars on 'St. Paul and the First Century Cynic Revival' in place of worship; I'm talking about recognized the role of historical study in our reading of the texts. I'm talking about understanding all that we do as worship, including critical thinking and engaging with Biblical scholarship. While this scholarship can be a treacherous road for the Church to walk, it may be best travelled under the stewardship of that Body transmitting the Creeds, administering the sacraments, whose Head is Christ. 

Finally, do not let these studies become your text. The Bible is not scripture because it met various historical and literary criteria. The Bible is our scripture because the Spirit led the Church to the use of these texts and ultimately their canonization; because they were inspired in their compositions, and they can tell us about the Risen Jesus whose life, death, resurrection, and continuing life in the Church can reveal God to us. Again, let these studies inform your reading of scripture, not replace it. 

These responses may sound simplistic, but they may be no less true. 
And frankly, the 'dangers of scholarship', while they need to be acknowledged, also need to be gotten over. Especially in my tradition, what is needed is not more skepticism of the scholars; we have more than enough of that. What we need is critical reading and critical thinking. We need to learn about the texts, to understand the reading of the texts, and ask hard questions (without offering stock, worthless answers). Blissful ignorance is not a good way to survive the attacks of critics. Instead, we must be able to meet the questions and confusions out there in such a way that the unbelieving world is edified. Regardless of your biases, critical, historical, Biblical scholarship is a big part of this task.