Thursday, December 29, 2005

Men Behaving Badly-- The Sad but True Story of Lust

The statistics alone are staggering and depressing, but they tell only a small portion of the story. The recent Lilly funded study shows that men are 4 times more frequently visiting 'adult' web sites than women. This of course comports with the fact that men are enormously more likely to view pornography, including child pornography than women. Every study done of this of which I have ever been privy to, shows how overwhelmingly male- dominated this behavior is.

Then of course there is the fact that over 90% of all rapes are perpetrated by men. The statistics are about the same when it comes to other forms of sexual abuse including abuse of spouses or children. The most recent survey I saw indicated that one out of every three women in church had been abused by father, brother, husband, boyfriend, somewhere along the line. This is of course one of the main reasons why so many women, including Christian women, have a hard time dealing with men touching them. It is not because they are mostly 'frigid' as the stereotype often suggests. What all these depressing studies lead to is one conclusion-- male lust is at the root of many, many of our social problems, both inside and outside the church.

Of course, our culture is prone to see lust as something 'natural', and it has a difficult time distinguishing lust from love, but then our culture lacks a concept of the difference between human nature as God created and intended it, and fallen human nature as we now experience it. Fallenness affects all our relationships. Grace is something we not only need in the depths of our souls as individuals, its something we need in the working out of all our relationships as well. Lust can be overcome and transformed by love, self-centered and objectifying behavior can be transformed by grace into other-centered truly personal behavior. But it does not happen automatically just because a person is a Christian. It requires prayer,group reinforcement, and accountability to mention but two factors.

Just so I am being clear, lust is by definition a strong desire for sexual contact with another person which objectifies the other person and treats them like an object, (an object of desire), rather than as a person. Whenever a 'thou' is treated like an 'it' objectification has happened, and it is a terrible sin, a trivialization of another person created in God's image. Again, to be clear, I am not saying that sexual attraction isn't a God given thing. It is. But attraction is not the same thing as lust which entails the desire to use another person to satisfy a personal craving. Lust is essentially self-centered, but the love the Bible talks about, even when it involves sexual attraction is essentially other-centered, and is self-sacrificial.

Of course one could reduce this discussion to the level of chemistry, and talk about testosterone and what it does to a man, just as we could talk about estrogen and women. At the chemical level, it is perfectly clear that there are some basic differences between men and women. What is interesting about the Bible is that it does not allow either men or women off the hook because of chemistry. Indeed it holds both to the very same high standard of moral rectitude.

And it is not like we don't have plenty of warnings, both general and specific in the Bible about male lust and the havoc it causes in human relationships.
Let consider just a couple of texts, one general, one more male specific.

We could talk at some length about what James 1 says about a and perhaps the primary source of temptation, namely our own inner desire or lusts, but I want to concentrate on James. 4.1-4. The Greek concept of 'epithumia' is an interesting one. It refers to strong, sometimes even over-powering desire. Here in James 4, the author says that it is this inner desire which is the source of all sorts of strife, mayhem, wars etc. This is quite similar to what Jesus says in Mk. 7 about the human heart being the source of war, adultery and other sinful passions. Notice how both James and Jesus expect the audience to be able to control these passions. James in fact connects such control with the taming of the tongue as well, which can incite such passions. Of course our culture just pours gasoline on such flames with all the glorification of lust, sexual infidelity and related sins not only on soap operas but in prime time dramas, movies, and sadly even children's cartoons.

Such Scriptures indicate that the source of the problem is primarily laid at the door of the individual human heart, not at the door of the Devil, or one's upbringing, or a host of other possible sources.

A more specific form of this sort of critique can be found in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus deals directly with male lust, and here a proper translation is crucial. Mt. 5.28 is the text I want to focus on. Throughout this discussion Jesus has been focusing primarily on male behavior since only males could usually initiate a marriage in Jesus' world, or divorce someone, or initiate an act of sexual infidelity, including adultery. It was a very male dominated culture, and so Jesus hold's men even more responsible for their sexual behavior. He does not like the 'old double standard' when it comes to such behavior. (see my Women in the Ministry of Jesus on these texts).

There is debate about the proper translation of Mt. 5.28 but what is not under debate is that the man is the one being discussed at the outset with reference to lust-- the text can be translated two ways "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already commited adultery with her in his heart" or it could be translated "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already led her astray into adultery in his heart". Jesus here clearly lays the source of this problem at the door of male lust, not as was usual in that culture (and ours) at the the door of women being temptresses.

Male lust is not viewed as 'natural' it is viewed as 'sinful'. Usually commentators remark on how sin here is seen as existing not only in acts, but also even in thoughts or desires. This is correct. But there is much more to this text. Of course if this teaching goes back to Jesus it was likely first offered in Aramaic, and in that language the second translation offered above is more likely to be closer to the original.

Here the issue is with the male's responsibility not to lead women astray into adultery. This presumably includes young men as well, as various of Jesus' disciples were young. It takes seriously the fact that men are more likely to be guilty of lust, and more likely to initiate immoral sexual activities on the basis of it. Even the most recent surveys of sexual activity amongst teens show that men are much more likely to pressure their girl friends for sex, than the other way around. Apparently the problem of 'men behaving badly' in regard to matters sexual begins earlier in life than we might like to think.

So how do we deal with this enormous and too seldom discussed (in the church) problem of male lust? I would suggest, several first steps.

Firstly, we have already seen a movement of the Spirit through the Promise Keepers movement to hold men more accountable for their responsibilities to be faithful in their relationships, particularly in marriage, but not solely in that sphere. This is a good thing, and it could be pressed towards a second step-- local churches could extend this sort of accountability structure by setting up ongoing small groups to deal with this issue of lust control.

Secondly, ministers need to teach on this issue, and it would be good to have honest testimonies in church about how lust was overcome in one way or another. Recently I was in a church in Dallas where they had a very effective drama on pornography and how the desire at the root of this problem could be doused and damped down on a regular basis. This was followed by an honest testimony of a couple about how they dealt with the issue. This same sort of thing could be done in Sunday Schools and Worship services more widely to give this sin a public name and public face and unmask it. This in itself would raise consciousness and awareness.

Thirdly, I think it is mandatory, as we go into yet another new year in a culture saturated with sexual sin and its temptations, that we think hard about a public call to self-examination, confession, and repentance in these matters. Lent would be a perfect season for having more than one penitial service, times when people could come to the altar and confess.

Fourthly, the church needs to embrace sinners in their struggles and hold out a hand of support, not point fingers. It needs to be clear that that all are welcome to come to the church 'as they are' but that no one will be allowed to 'stay as they are', and this of course includes males and perhaps especially male leaders in the church when it comes to lust. There is an inherent problem too seldom recognized that in the church we blur the lines between professional and personal relationships which makes it difficult to deal with these sorts of issues. We need to be aware that sexual harassment is only one form that lust takes.

Finally, if we truly believe that God's grace is greater than the scope of our sin, we need to get real about sin in the church, not just in the world and trust that God's transforming grace can do 'exceedingly abundantly more than we could hope or ask'.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The CBS Special--- "The Mystery of Christmas"

Quite a few of you have asked me to post something about the show. First I should say that one of you has already found the transcript of the show out there somewhere, so apparently it is available, and the DVD, I have been informed, will be out at the end of January. My reactions to the show are as follows:

1) In the wake of the Peter Jennings Christmas show two and a half years ago, major networks realized that Evangelicals would like to be fairly represented among the interviewees on shows dealing with things Christian or Biblical. Jennings was the first to make a concerted effort to do this, after heavy criticism of his first Jesus special in 2001. The three hour Easter Monday show (put up against the NCAA men's championship basketball game) did very well in the ratings, getting the second highest rating of the night. Producers and network execs noticed this, hence the more open door to doing such shows, and including Evangelicals. Their statistics say there is 40 million of us Evangelicals out there. If a significant portion of us watched a show, it would make a difference in programing, and is doing so.

2) In regard to this specific show, CBS put a lot of money into filming this show. We filmed in Israel Jordan and Egypt for about two weeks, with a fabulously talented crew. The producer Miguel Sancho had come and talked with me in August about doing the show and I was happy to oblige. Later on, he decided to ask me if I would go to Israel with them for filming. Fortunately I was on sabbatical and so this was possible. They had done the interviews with White, Pagels, Crossan, and myself State side (they caught up with me in Abilene where I was doing a lectureship and preaching at Hardin Simmons College). The concept of the show was to present the more skeptical points of view first in the first half of the show, being fair to their views, and then we would go to the Holy Land and see if there might be hard evidence from archaeological etc. that these stories could be true-- which was the part of the show they would feature me in. I personally feel they were extremely fair to me, and my views. In fact, I would really encourage all of you to write CBS and especially Miguel Sancho ( and thank him for taking a risk and doing this. We need more shows like this where the real issues actually surface, and scholars are interviewed, not just lay persons or pastors and Evangelicals are treated fairly.

3) I found the crew a treat, and the interviewer Maureen Maher was a blessing as well. She is a practicing Catholic. She was asked to come hard after all the interviewees to make us really articulate what we think. I thought she did that very well. If you are going to do this sort of thing, you have to be prepared to answer difficult questions and "give a reason for the hope that is within you".

4) I thought the show was beautifully filmed, and was in no way hokey. Even the interviews with the children struck home at points. I really have no criticisms of the show. It was fair and balanced in showing views of the Christmas story. You can pray for me however, as I have several more such shows in the works.

Merry Christmas to one and all,



Thursday, December 22, 2005

On Speaking Privately in Public-- on Blogs

Doubtless most of us have been there. You are stuck in an airport waiting for a flight, and at least four or five private conversations are going on around you. Now its one thing when the other person is there and you are talking to them. That's all fine. But suppose you are in a quiet space, like some airports have set up for laptop users and the like--- and someone breaks out the cellphone and begins talking at the top of his or her voice? This is having a private conversation in public, in a manner that is rude and obnoxious, ignoring and being oblivious to the fact that there are others around who might not want to hear what is being said. Though we have all endured this in one form or another, we now have a new form of public rudeness of this sort-- on blogs.

Weblogs can be a wonderful form of having a dialogue or discussion on something that matters, though too often they are used just to vent. But what is really amazing is how many people are prepared to ask personal questions and make private remarks on a blog, when they could have sent an email to the person in question. Sometimes we even have people airing their dirty laundry for all to see on the internet. This unfortunately is another example of the narcissism of our culture, where people do not care or are oblivious to the effect of what they are doing on others who use the same public space. There need to be some suggested rules for bloggers. Here is a rudimentary set as a starter:

1) Nothing strictly private should be posted on a blog. One should confine such comments to an email message or a private phone call or better yet a conversation in person. If you want to have a one on one private discussion with either the blogger or someone else who is commenting then do it appropriately.

2) Blogs should not be used for pure exhibitionism. The rule should be-- if this is something you would be embarrassed to say in front of a loved one, say for example your mother, you have no business saying it in public. Just because the internet gives a person the freedom to hide behind a computer and be braver than you would be in person, doesn't mean you should exercise that liberty without discretion.

3) Before posting anything, consider that blogs, like emails are a 'cold medium'. By this I mean, you can seldom tell the tenor of a comment on the internet, its emotional freight. It is hard to discern the difference between irony, sarcasm, or withering criticism on the internet. Therefore, it is better not to try to be too clever or subtle in such a sphere. Gestures, tone of voice etc. is all part of communication that is largely missing on blogs. Take this into account before you type something that is likely to be misunderstood.

4) If you are unwilling to be bold in person, don't be bold in print-- otherwise you are a coward not prepared to back up in person your convictions. Let your in-print speech patterns be of the same ilk as your in person ones. That's just a matter of personal integrity so that it is always the case that you say what you mean and you mean what you say.

5) Be as respectful of other people's opinions on the blog, as hopefully you would be in person. This is just a matter of Christian ethics. There is nothing wrong with a vigorous debate or discussion on a blog, but pure polemics and ad hominem arguments should be avoided. There is no place for name calling on a Christian blog.

6) Blog about something that is meaningful or important or interesting to you. Don't blog just for the sake of talking. Read James 3 on the taming of the tongue (or in this case the fingers) before blogging.

7) Re-read what you are going to post, before posting it. If you are really angry, and since shots fired in anger often go awry, it would be better to let what you have typed just sit for a while, and you should reflect--- Do I really want to say this? before posting it.

8) If you make a mistake in a comment on a blog, or even sin against someone, then apologize personally (not on the blog but at least in a private email). Accept the consequences of your own actions on the blog.

9) Do not use blogs as a surrogate for developing real, personal relationships-- in person. In short, get a life, and stop spending so much time on blogs.

10) Realize that just because you have some freedom to speak in various ways on a blog, this does not give you license to violate copyright privileges, misquote others and the like. Know the rules about quoting other people's materials before doing it, and ask permission!

I could list more, but this will do for now. We need more civility out there in blog land. Shock jocks on the radio or TV are no models of Christian discourse. Find other people to emulate.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Mother Load


From the very beginning
The burden was clear
Sometimes bearable
Sometimes severe

Ate from the apple
Shared it with him
Disobeyed the order
Indulged the whim.

What was the outcome?
The fruit of the act?
Did she ‘know’ good and evil?
Did she experience it in fact?

Did the earth creature join her?
Did he crumble into dust?
Did he die in an instant?
Or just tumble into lust?

To love and to cherish
Becomes ‘desire and dominate’
Objectify the ‘other’
So you can subjugate.

Suddenly self conscious
Instantly aware
There are no coverings
Only nakedness there.

Hiding in the garden,
The creature in shame
Running from her Maker
Like some kind of game.

Passing the blame on
From God to the wife,
From the wife to the snake
‘The’ creator of strife.

Banished from the garden,
But clothed by their God
Not allowed to live forever
Find a living from the sod

Pain in her labor
Shortness of breath
The mother of all living
Gives birth near to death

And would she be able
To raise Cain at all?
Or will her next offspring
Be first to fall?

And how to redeem this?
Set the process in reverse
Put a stop to the death toll
Undoing the curse?


From the very beginning
The burden was clear
“Be it unto me as you said,
The Lord’s servant is here.”

A virginal conception
Had a child without a man
Which no one expected
And few would understand.

She received a word of warning
A sword would pierce her soul
But the death of her first born
Would make the race whole.

There beneath a crooked tree
Stood that woman and a man
Neither disobeyed the orders
Each accepting the plan.

Then He rose in the garden
Reopened its gate
To the tree for the living
To the Adam without mate.

And there in the Scriptures
Was a promise true and sure
“She’ll be saved through the childbearing”
That Mary did endure.

The story revisited
The human tale revised
Motherlode now delivered
Curse reversed before our eyes.

Dec. 20th 2005
For Brian, Lawson, Sandy, Bill, and David

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Alcove

A niche,
A hideaway
A retreat
A sanctuary

For prayer

Like the horns on the altar
Like the hem of his robe
Like the songs in the psalter
Like his hand on the globe

Like a vault for safekeeping
Like a treasury found
Like a library of answers
Like a truth that’s profound

One God
One sinner
One entreaty
One answer

For peace
For wisdom

A secret space
A closet
A meeting place
An alcove.

“But when you pray, go into your closet, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Do not keep babbling on like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father….’

Dec. 19th, 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005

Syriana-- Innocent until Investigated

George Clooney's new movie (which is also a new movie starring Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon, William Hurt,and many others)is a political thriller and a brain teaser of major proportions. Clooney stars as a life time CIA operative who is a stand up guy, honest and loyal. His beat has been the Middle East and he knows Iran as well as Lebanon and Saudia Arabia. He even speaks Farsi. Matt Damon plays and energy analyst whose understanding of how things works eventually gets him hired by an Emir or two.

This movie probes the whole issue of corruption surrounding the obtaining of oil, and the political machinations involved-- some minor, some major. We also see the story from the point of view of Middle Eastern persons, including Moslems who live near or on the Persian Gulf. The story centers on the merger of two U.S. oil companies one major, one minor, caused by the fact that the minor company miraculously got the drilling rights to Kahzikstan. The beginning of the corruption starts with the oil companies and their jockeying for the last major oil fields, spreads to U.S. politicians, involves foreign politicians hoping for better relationships with the U.S. and even royal princes and emirs. Lurking in the background are the Free Iran advocates in the U.S. who want the violent overthrow of the current Iranian regime.

There is a telling speech, given by a politician on Capital Hill who informs a lawyer who is investigating some of this oil company corruption and influence peddling. The speech in essence says that corruption is what makes the system work, what makes America safe and on top, what keeps America free,, and is the grease which keeps the wheels of big business turning It is a remarkably candid moment in the movie, almost as candid as the moment when the Emir is told by the character Matt Damon plays that the goal of the West is drain all the oil from the Middle East while keeping those countries at the poverty level, except of course for the uber-wealthy emirs and princes who are America's new best friends. This theme we have seen before in a different guise in Farenheit 9/11.

But the corruption doesn't end with politics and economics. It also affects the whole judicial process. Another telling line in the movie is a person is "innocent until investigated" (and so publicly smeared or shamed whether guilty of not). This raises the ugly spectre of the idea that justice is also a pawn in a corrupt system, where accusations are assumed to be true, until one is proven innocent. But then when everything is seemingly corroded with corruption this is how one will naturally think. It leads to a guilty until proven innocent approach. At some point we must talk about the issue of victimization in our culture, and why it is that so many see themselves as victims, and so few want to take responsibility for their actions. But this is only a sublimated theme of the movie Syriana.

Suffice it to say that Syriana is serious business, as it seeks to peel back the curtain and show us how the world really works. All I can say is, if this is how big business in America really works, then heaven help us. Whether we agree with all or much of this movie is beside the point. It is after all a work of fiction. As a story that makes us think about what makes a fallen world tick it is very thought provoking.

Towards the end of the movie there is another one of this movie's zingers. Some one remarks that when a nation has only 5 percent of the world's population but 50 percent of the worlds weapons and arms, this shows that that nation is on the decline because it has ceased to win its economic and political battles by the oil of persuasion and diplomacy, and instead must increasingly use violence to accomplish its ends. This too deserves careful thought. We must thank George Clooney for giving us soemthing other than Christmas candy to chew on this holiday season.

Church Closings-- Damage Control by Mishandling the Bible

It is unfortunate that the Bible sometimes gets used to shore up an inappropriate decision by a church, but sadly we now have this in the case of the mega-church which has now handed out a 'Biblical' rationale for closing on Christmas to its parishioners. I would normally just let this go as another example of the misuse of the Bible, but this is such an egregious example that it needs to be addressed.

The text they are using to justify their behavior is Col. 2.16-17-- "Therefore do not let anyone judge you in regard to what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival-- new moon festival or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things that are to come; the reality however is found in Christ."

Having just written a commentary on Colossians, I suppose the use of this text to justify closing on Christmas was likely to rile me up. Paul is talking about Christians not going to synagogues in Colossae or Hierapolis and being part of Jewish celebrations. He is not talking about Christian worship services or festivals at all!

Furthermore, what he is concerned about is Christians in Colossae who would suggest that other Christians, even Gentile Christians, were required to go and take part in such syagogue celebrations. I can't imagine a church today requiring their parishioners to go and celebrate Hannukah during Christmastide, although they might encourage them to go if their Jewish neighbors invited them.

But in any case Col. 2.16-17 cannot provide any rationale at all for closing church on a given Sunday, much less Christmas Sunday. That would be to take this text completely out of context. I can only assume that no one checked the commentaries before making this pronouncment.

But notice in the very verses cited that Paul says that these festivals are shadows of things to come, the reality of which is in Christ. Paul does not mean that Christ himself is the substitute for all previous rituals, as if having a relationship with Jesus was all that is required. The phrase 'in Christ' here refers not only to what goes on in Christ himself, but is likely (as elsewhere in Paul see 1 Cor. 12) to refer to the celebrations that go on in the body of Christ.

If one reads the book of Hebrews closely enough one will find this very sort of hermeneutic applied as well. Christian celebrations are seen as the fulfillment of the OT ones which are seen as foreshadowings, and so the Christian celebrations are the replacement of those Jewish celebrations for Christians.

In Hebrews, written by someone in the Pauline circle, it is clear that the author uses this same logic to urge the audience to attend Christian worship services rather than going back to Jewish ones. Notice for example Heb. 10.25 which reads "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as we see the Day approaching." The author is talking about failing to attend Christian worship and fellowship meetings in Rome, perhaps especially the failing to do so because of cultural pressure and persecution. There is something here worth pondering.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Animal Tales Part II: King Kong

While not exactly a Christmas movie (more of a summer thriller type), Peter Jackson's epic remake of the classic Faye Ray movie King Kong is an amazing piece of work. Running three hours (and it feels like it too-- you feel like you were on Skull Island forever running from dinosaurs and not so wee beasties in this movie) the director is swimming in the heady waters of "I can do what I want since I made so much money with Lord of the Rings". One part an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness which is alluded to more than once in the movie, one part a retelling of the original Kong movie (making it look like child's play or amateur hour), one part Jurassic Park revisited, and one part Beauty and the Beast, the story suffers from its bloated combination of elements. The CG of the gorilla is spectacular-- he looks absolutely real, as do numerous of the other creatures, but the film is frankly too long and too gory and frightening to take children to.

Judging it as an adult film then, not a Saturday morning Flash Gordon episode for children, what then should we think? The main characters Naomi Watts as the lovely Ann, Adrien Brody as the brooding writer Driscoll, and Jack Black as the sometimes inspired sometimes possessed film director Carl are all interesting choices and do their bits to keep the movie on track. The problem is it takes far too long to build to a climax, and the action on the island is so elongated it seems that the director just got carried away having fun with the CG effects.

Of course the original story line is about the paradox of how the beast is more human and humane, more capable of love (at least towards Ann) than most of the humans in the movie, including the director who is willing to risk one life after another to make his film and thereby gain fame and fortune. While the romance between Brody and Watts is a good theme, it is sublimated to the larger Kong story, and the relationship between Ann and the gorilla of course really steals the emotional spotlight. Her maternal instincts want to protect the gorilla, the gorillas male instincts want to protect her, and most everyone else except Driscoll seem to want to exploit the poor animal. Animal rights activists could have a field day with this movie, and certainly as well the portrayal of all the savages on the island as black or dark skinned will rile more than a few who are concerned about skin color stereotypes.

But are there some good things that can be said about this over budget and over indulgent film? Well yes. The scene with the gorilla and the girl sliding on the ice at Central Park is magic. There are a variety of other scenes which are humerous particularly some of the interaction between Ann, trying to entertain Kong and Kong's response. One must hope though, that Jackson in the future will do a better job of editing, and I do not say this because modern audiences have a short attention span, though that is sadly true. I say this because the film suffers without the best editing. The film ends with the line, "It is beauty that kills the beast". In this case it seems that Jackson's love for the story is what prevents him from presenting it in a more compelling way.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Animal Tales Part I: Aslan and the Narnia Chronicles

The much anticipated and much advertised Chronicles of Narnia (Part One) of C.S. Lewis have finally hit the movie theaters, and judging by the initial weekend this movie will be a box office success. Christians of course have been apprehensive about Disney being the ones who filmed this wonderful tale, as this is not a fairy tale or a cartoon nor even a fantasy really and sometimes Disney has managed to offer up some pretty unseemly fare of late. Apprehension then is understandable when its the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that Disney is filming. It is a Christian allegory, with Aslan the lion playing the part of Christ. I am happy to report that all is well. While the Christian theme is not played up any more than it is in Lewis's book, it is also not sublimated either--- thanks be to God.

My own reservations about this movie from the start were whether the CG Aslan would really do the ole boy justice. I am happy to report that the movie does not come off hokie, but in fact is beautifully filmed and is true to the story. You will remember that when the film gets into high gear, once the children discover Narnia through the Wardrobe, Narnia is not in good shape. As it is well announced "here it is always winter and never Christmas" a sad state of affairs, which those who close churches on Christmas ought to think about.

Once again, as in the Lord of the Rings, good is good and evil is evil, even when it can be tempting and alluring (with the help of some Turkish delight). There are no moral ambiguities really explored in this tale, but rather the story is about the deep magic, the miracle really that changes human nature and the course of human history-- namely the freely given sacrifice of love and of the Beloved-- Aslan.

The movie really does not come across as a CG type movie, not least because the characters like Mr. Tumnus are of course part human, as are most of the characters except Aslan, and also because unlike the battle at Mordor, or the Dark Tower, here the great battle takes place in Julie Andrews territory ala The Sound of Music--- in dazzling sunlight in a beautiful Alpine glen (it would be nice to know where this was shot). Lewis, like Tolkien his fellow Inkling, loved the mythological creatures like fawns and centaurs, and we have them in abundance in this film along with more quaint creatures like talking beavers :) The children are entertained and the parents will be amused.

The Pevensie children are played admirably by actors and actresses most will not know, but especially winsome and wonderful is the young girl who plays Lucy the true believer with wide eyed wonder. You get the feeling this is what Jesus had in mind when he said "unless you turn and become as a child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God". Edmund is also well played as the black sheep of the family who must be rescued from his lying and selfishness and turns heroic in the end. One of the more telling moments in the movie is when Peter the eldest child says that Edmund went wrong in part due to his own fault, his not always being a help or an encouragement to a younger brother. In an age of "it wasn't me" pleas in our country, this is refreshing and reminds us that we are indeed our brother's and sister's keepers.

But there are much more profound theological lessons in this tales two of which must be mentioned here. The first is Lewis' profound conviction that "we are all in this together" by which I mean he stresses that the whole of creation is feeling the effects of the fall and all of it, including nature must be redeemed. Romans 8 has a good deal to say about this if we would but listen-- "for the creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice... but in hope, that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (vss. 20-21). Lewis also stresses that humans are the crown of creation, meant to rule over it. Though he loved an animated creation and creatures, he did not worship Mother Nature nor think that humans are merely a part of nature.

The second major theme, is that indeed there is a deep moral logic undergirding and overseeing the world, and that when the times are out of joint, they must be set right. But that which sets things right is a free act of sacrificial love, which while not setting things back like they were before the fall, instead carries creatures and creation to a whole new act of creation. For Lewis it was crucial that the act of Christ be totally a free and self-giving one. In others, for Lewis for it truly to be a loving act, it needed to not be a predestined or predetermind act. Lewis believed that predetermination and love were incommensurate concepts at least when it comes to human beings and their destiny and opportunity for loving relationship with God and with each other. Especially telling in this version of the Christian story is that Aslan dies in particular for Edmund-- Edmind the liar and betrayer. Jesus himself reminds us in the 4th Gospel that while a person might die for their friends or for a good person, but who would die for a betrayer or liar or enemy? The answer is Jesus would, showing that his love is pure grace--- unmerited favor freely bestowed, undeserved benefit freely given.

There are lots of Christian touches in the movie that the astute reader will pick out, like the fact that Aslan revives God's frozen people by breathing on them (see Jn. 20) or like the moment at the end of the battle where Aslan kills the witch and says "It is finished" (see Jn. 19). It becomes clear that this Christ figure owes most to the Gospel of John. Let us hope that the Christian themes of the movie are not so unobtrusive that audiences will largely be oblivious to them. Let us hope they at least fall in love with true goodness and beauty and thereby with truth. Let us hope enough go to see this movie, that the next episode in the Chronicles of Narnia will be a lovingly and well filmed.

A long time ago a newspaper man was fired from the Asheville N.C. newspaper for doodling-- drawning little pictures of mice and ducks and dogs. This man was Walt Disney. Walt Disney was a man with a remarkable imagination, like C.S. Lewis, and he put it to good use. There was something redemptive about even his most frivolous cartoons. Let us hope the post-Walt Disney will learn something from the response to this film and make more like it, stories that do have "some redeeming value". If so, it will be a return to form and Walt would be thrilled. In this post-modern age the rebirth of imagination is what we should expect and what the most Creative One of all would want.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Church Closings on Christmas--- Final Report

Now that the fur has flown and the dust has settled a bit, we do need to ask what we have learned from this flap about the church closing on Christmas. A few things are important in terms of ground rules:

1) There is absolutely nothing wrong with Christians dialoguing or debating with one another about issues important to the faith as long as it is a matter of speaking the truth in love, and is not mean spirited. This in no way falls into the category of the "judge not" provision of Jesus which had nothing to do with such critiques--- witness his own critiques of the Pharisees. The "judge not" statement of Jesus should not be used as some sort of security blanket to make one immune from any sort of constructive critique. This is just being defensive and not really entertaining that one may have done something inappropriate.

2) The Body of Christ exists locally, and should be held accountable locally by fellow Christians. When Paul speaks of the various limbs or members of the body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12 he is talking about all of the house churches in Corinth making up one full expression or microcosm of the body of Christ in that locale. "The Hand can not say to the foot, I have no need of you." Congregations, whether mega or otherwise, are accountable not only to the Lord but to their fellow Christians and should be held accountable where they live. Each congregation is but a part of the larger body of Christians. Churches should check with one another locally and ask probing questions if there is an important issue, like church closing on a Sunday, that might affect the larger witness of the Christian Church in that locale. It is not enough to check with other similar sized churches in other parts of the country as there are definitely regional differences in the situation and the clientele.

3) No one should suggest that the critique of mega- churches closing on Christmas Sunday is due to 'envy'. For one thing much of the critique has come from other large churches and large denominations. For another thing, one should not assume that simply because one's church is large this is a sign of infallibility or that all one's decisions have been pre-blessed by God. One should not even assume that it is necessarily the case that the size of one's church is a clear sign of blessing from God. This is not necessarily so. Sometimes its just a sign that your church mirrors the larger values of the culture, and so many people naturally feel comfortable there because they don't have to change much to be a part of such a fellowship. This may say more about the cultural captivity of the church than about its being blessed by God.

4) Attributing the critique of church closings on Christmas to 'Satan', besides being enormously defensive, makes no theological sense at all. It is Satan who wants churches closed, and especially on days when you might have more visitors than any other time of the year!

5) Perhaps, just perhaps, after Christmas when the dust has really settled, maybe we could all have a major talk about being more conscious of the fact that the world is indeed watching, especially on our holidays, and so we bear extra responsibility for what kind of witness we are presenting to the world on such occasions. Perhaps we could all do with a time of looking in the mirror and asking ourselves, what is wrong with this picture? In what way would God be displeased with our behavior? In what way are we behaving in self-centered ways that are a bad witness to a lost world? We should all think on these things.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

End of the Innocence

"It was twenty-five years today
Sgt. Peppers told the band-- 'Don't play'
Lennon's been shot and killed
By a fanatic seeking a thrill
So let me introduce to you
The thing you've dreaded all these years
Your one and only greatest fear---
The End of the Innocence"

Dec. 8th 1980 was a gray day anyway. It was a Monday, and it was cold in Central Park West. But the external atmosphere could not hold a candle to the chill sent through millions of American souls when Howard Cosell announced on Monday Night Football (of all places) that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his N.Y. apartment building. For many of us baby boomers who had cut our musical teeth on seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in the early 60s, the sound of this announcement was the sound of taps. It was the end of our innocence.

Someone who had really made us believe that love and peacemaking would indeed make a difference, perhaps even overcome great odds had been taken down by the very force he had worked so hard to put an end to-- ruthless, cowardly violence. Yes cowardly-- it is easy to shoot and run, easy to be brave behind a gun when all you are facing is an unarmed person. John Lennon knew this well when he sang when total sarcasm "happiness is a warm gun".

Of course the Beatles had disbanded ten years before, but Lennon was to go on and release several seminal solo albums thereafter promoting love and peace, including of course "Imagine". He had become a family man dedicated to raising his children, and spending most of his time at home. He had come to shun the limelight. He loved N.Y. Those who find it remarkable that Bono lives in NY today have forgotten that one of Bono's models was John Lennon.

Of course it is true that John Lennon was not a saint in any strict sense of the word. But he was a brave proponent of peace, understanding, and love, something many of us clung to through the dark days of the Vietnam war, the Watergate disasters, and a President leaving office in shame. When Lennon was killed, the idealism which had been sparked by John Kennedy and fueled by the Beatles died a cold hard death.

By the time this happened in 1980 I had long since been a committed Christian, but there was a small part of hope within me for my country that died on that day. Not of course the eschatological hope grounded in Jesus. No I am talking about the hope for civility, understanding, love between neighbors in America. The hope that we could work out our differences regardless of our religious commitments. The hope that we could always bear in mind this is a nation of resident aliens-- all of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants except the native Americans.

Between the deaths of John Kennedy and John Lennon we had seen the death of so many things we had attached our dreams to--- the Peace Corps, VISTA, freedom of speech and religion. Slowly but surely the goodness of the culture was being drained away.

As most Christians are beginning to realize now, we do not really have freedom of speech when it comes to religion in this country any more. There used to be a time when we could discuss these things peaceably even in public schools. There was a time when we could pray openly at public events. Little by little these free expressions of hope and faith have been whittled away by the forces of darkness in our culture.

What we have failed to realize however is that one of the reasons why the light of the Gospel was allowed to shine rather widely in our culture in the 60s and 70s was because we had strong advocates for such free speech, including people like John Lennon. Today, instead, we have 'correct speak', we have the Patriot Act which labels as sedition something that may merely be a genuine and respectful difference of opinion about our government's current policy on one issue or another.

Dec. 8th 1980 was in a real sense the end of innocence about our freedoms, or at least the beginning of the end. Now we must live with the closing of the American mind, the failure to take time to dialogue with other points of view, the repudiation of anything we do not instinctly like or agree with. Discourse degenerates into name calling, polemics replace respectful discussions, ad hominem arguments by shock jocks and obnoxious political pundits replace seeking understanding.

Then too, the recent movie "Good Night and Good Luck" reminds us of what fear based decision making at the public policy level does to a culture founded on such basic freedoms. It strips the culture of those freedoms, and pretends to offer in exchange 'security'.

And where are we now twenty five years later? Is our society really more nearly Christian than it was in 1980? Do we really have more freedom now than then? Have we learned the lessons of no-win foreign wars which drain the lifeblood from our youth, drain the resources from our economy, drain the good will from our allies, drain the hope from our hearts that America might actually become a more Christian country and a moral example to the world? I don't think so. And oddly enough the church is doing very little to stop this cultural drift into darkness and madness.

Perhaps it would be better to say that 1980 represents the end of the old naivete about human nature unredeemed by God's grace. Perhaps we should see it as a reminder that "our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness". Perhaps it is time to remember who our real liberator is, who has really set us free. Its not politicians or musicians, its Jesus. At Christmas, it is good to do some mental housekeeping and put things in perspective. And if we do that we will honor the sacrifices of the peacemakers whom Jesus called blessed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Billy Graham at Christmas

My parents still live in Charlotte, home of Billy Graham, as well as my family, and they sent me this wonderful story which so epitomizes this wonderful soldier of Christ. I thought I would share it.

Billy Graham is 86 years old with Parkinson's disease.

In January 2000, leaders in Charlotte, North Carolina, invited their favorite son,
Billy Graham, to a luncheon in his honor.

Billy initially hesitated to accept the invitation because he struggles with
Parkinson's disease. But the Charlotte leaders said, "We don't
expect a major address. Just come and let us honor you."

So he agreed.

After wonderful things were said about him, Dr. Graham stepped to
the rostrum, looked at the crowd, and said, "I'm reminded today of
Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honored
by Time magazine as the Man of the Century.
Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train
when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets
of every passenger. When he came to Einstein,
Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn't find his
ticket, so he reached in his other pocket. It wasn't there, so he
looked in his briefcase but couldn't find it. Then he looked in the
seat by him. He couldn't find it.

The conductor said, "Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know
who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it."

Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the
aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he
turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and
knees looking under his seat for his ticket.

The conductor rushed back and said, "Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein,
don't worry, I know who you are. No problem. You don't need a
ticket. I'm sure you bought one."

Einstein looked at him and said,
"Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don't know is where I'm going.'"

Having said that Billy Graham continued, "See the suit I'm wearing?

It's a brand new suit. My wife, my children, and my grandchildren
are telling me I've gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used
to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit
for this luncheon and one more occasion.

You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I'll be
buried. But when you hear I'm dead, I don't want you to immediately
remember the suit I'm wearing.. I want you to remember this:

I not only know who I am, ... I also know where I'm going."

Amen to that

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Buying a Bible at Christmas?

Bible sales in America, this year and every year, are huge. The Bible actually is consistently the best-selling book of all in any given year, and it never makes the bestseller lists. You can tell this is a lucrative business with so many secular companies involved in the battle for Bible sales, even major University Presses like Oxford and Cambridge. Yes, its the most owned book of all time, and in far to many cases the least read or studied. If salvation was based on just owning a Bible, America would be a truly Christian country for sure. Alas, it's not so simple as that.

At Christmas time, the Christian buyer is presented with a bewildering array of Bibles to choose from and so I thought it might be useful to give some guidance for Bible buying. Now of course when I say Bible, I am in the first instance referring to the Biblia Hebraica and the Greek New Testament-- that's actually the Bible in its original languages. But for most folks in America the Bible is simply synonymous with their favorite translation. This is in many ways a dangerous equation since every translation is already an interpretation of the original language text, and no translation is perfect (no, not even the King James by a long shot). Bearing in mind then that we are dealing with English Translations which are more or less faithful, more or less interpretive of the original language text of the Bible, how should we pick our Bibles?

Well the first thing to say is--- one size (and type) does not fit all. Different translations are done for different purposes and different audiences. So a better first question than "Which Bible should I buy?" is "Who am I buying this for, and what do they already know when it comes to the Bible, the Christian faith etc.?" You will also want to ask the question-- "What age range was this translation written for?" Different Bibles target different audiences. You need to be aware of this before you walk into Billy Bob's Christian bookstore and plunk your money down on the counter. In other words, you need to come as an informed consumer-- informed about the different Bibles, and informed about who you are buying it for.

Bibles range in scope from very paraphrastic (e.g. The Message or the Living Bible), to idiomatic translations (e.g. NRSV, TNIV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible, NKJV, TEV-- in fact most translations fall into this camp) to nearly literal translations (NASB and a few others). Here is not the place to debate the literal vs. non-literal issue of translation, but you should be aware that there is no such thing as an absolutely literal translations because: 1)English is a very different, and non-genderized language than the Biblical languages (i.e. we don't have masculine or feminine nouns and adjectives etc. unlike Hebrew and Greek); 2) the structure of English sentences are often different than these Biblical languages; 3) there are words in these languages which have no one word English equivalent; 4) sometimes the language in the source is used figuratively sometimes literally. We could keep giving many more reasons why there is no absolutely literal translation-- and frankly you wouldn't want one because you would have to keep unscrambling the word order, the syntax, and other difficulties. The bottom line is, you want a translation that conveys accurately the original meaning of the Biblical text.

Let us suppose you are shopping for a children's Bible. The question then becomes what age of child? If you are dealing with really young children you could go for the Living Bible which was originally done as a paraphrase for children by Ken Taylor, or the Today's English Version (originally Good News for Modern Man) which is written with no words over an eight grade vocabulary. It contains none of what my Granny used to call $25 dollar words. If on the other hand you are getting a young adult a Bible for graduation or confirmation, you need to take into account what sort of reader they are. If the goal is to get them to read the Bible stories at all the Message is not a bad choice, but it is a major league paraphrase which tends to be more interpretive rather than less, compared to an idiomatic translation. I would suggest going with the TNIV.

What do I mean by an idiomatic translation? This approach to translating, while following a word for word approach if it makes sense in English, tends to go for a meaning for meaning, concept for concept approach, being sensitive to idioms in both the Biblical language and in our own.

For example, the word "foot" was an idiom in Hebrew for the genitals, in particular the male genitals. Thus when we read that Saul covered or uncovered his foot, we are talking about him relieving himself. How should the translator translate this, given that a literal translation will not convey the meaning? Here a rendering of the meaning rather than just what the text says might be preferable, given that not everyone is going to use an anotated Bible with notes.

Meaning after all occurs in contexts. Words do not really have meaning in isolation from their use and contexts. Take for example the English word 'row'. It could be a verb telling a person in a boat what to do. It could be a noun referring to a line of seats, it could refer to a fight and should be pronounced differently. Words only have meaning in contexts, and this is as true of words in the original Biblical languages as ours. Moral to the story--- Go for a Bible that best conveys the meaning of the original inspired text to the particular target audience you have in mind.

When we are dealing with the idiomatic translations, which for the most part are the most widely used and most popular, there are a variety of factors to keep in mind. Principle One: All other things being equal, a team translation will be much better than an individual translation. Why? Because no one person is an expert in the meaning of every verse of the Bible. Thus Eugene Peterson's or Ken Taylor's paraphrase or J.B. Phillips translation done all by himself, is less likely to be accurate at all points than a team translation.

Principle Two: But of course not all teams are created equal. For example, the team which, with Lancelot Andrewes translated the KJV in 1611 were only as good as their skills in the Biblical languages and in the English of Shakespeare's era, and more to the point could only be as good as the original language manuscripts that lay before them. The truth is, we have far better and earlier manuscripts of both the Hebrews and the Greek texts of the Bible today than they did back then, and so can produce a translation much closer to the original wording than they could have done.
You might want to read Alistair McGrath's fine book on the history of the KJV.

While we are dealing with the KJV it is well to point out that we don't speak olde englishe, yea verily, anymore. There is an issue of archaic English if you are a KJV only person, and you discover that you have to end up retranslating the English of the Bible since English is a living language. I once had a young lady in Sunday School in Durham England ask me why the Psalm says "God is an aweful God...." I tried to explain that the word aweful in 1611 meant full of awe and wonder, whereas today it means bbbbbbbbad to the bone.

There is a good reason to give persons an up to date translation not an archaic one. The Bible is hard enough to understand without having to deal with archaic English. What about the NKJV? Well it overcomes the archaic language issue for the most part, but alas, it doesn't do a better job with the text criticism. There are consequences to knowing the Vulgate and the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus do not represent the earliest and best text of numerous Biblical verses. If you do a translation that pays too much hommage to any of these later texts, then you are ignoring the evidence from 2nd and 3rd and 4th century papyri and codexes that indicate that the original text did not have this word or that phrase, and so one.

The question you must ask is--- do I want what the original inspired writer wrote PLUS NOTHING, or do I want to sing "if it was good enough for grandma, its good enough for me"? In my view those who know something about the history of the English translation of the Bible (for instance knowing how much of the KJV was cribbed from William Tyndale's translation), know that English translations are a work in progress. There is no way you can start acting as if a particular translation was dropped from the sky by God without error. There are no inspired translations, only inspired original language texts, which we are still in the process of recovering.

I personally would recommend for pulpit and pew use, and for Bible study for young adults or adults one of the following Bibles--- TNIV (first choice, done by an excellent team of Evangelical scholars), Jerusalem Bible ( particularly if you want a Catholic Bible that has the OT Apocrypha), NRSV (less preferrable but still good, and done by a theologically broad group of translators, and too tied down to the RSV as well, which was of course a revision of the KJV), the New Living Translation (not to be confused with the Living Bible. Its a bit too paraphrastic for my taste), TEV (especially for congregations mainly composed of those without college degrees).

Translations to avoid: 1) The New World Translation (this is the Jehovah's Witness translation, and it makes a mess of the Greek in various places; 2) the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV. Go with the NKJV if this is your orientation, its much better; 3) Amplified Bible-- not bad as a tool for Bible study, but too confusing to be read in church or used as a Pew Bible-- its too paraphrastic frankly.

If you are into using multiple decent translations of the Bible The Evangelical Parallel New Testament published by Oxford is a very useful tool, and a comparison of the translations shows where there are difficult verses, and why any Bible study leader needs commentaries to make sense of the text especially with difficult verses.

Happy Christmas Bible Shopping. Find something that fits you or your audience!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Churches Closed on Christmas?

Well I suppose it had to happen. The mega-church in Lexington (Southland Christian) consulted with other mega-churches like Willow Creek and decided that they would close on Dec. 25th, even though its a Sunday and even though its Christmas Day! The rationale given in our local newspaper The Lexington-Herald Leader was--- people are so busy and Christmas is supposed to be a family day, so this decision was made as a family friendly gesture. But wait a minute--- whose birthday is it anyway? And which family is supposed to be serving which--- the family of faith or the physical family? Talking about putting the EM-Phasis on the wrong syl-LABLE.

Our culture does not need any encouragement to be more self-centered and narcissistic or to stay at home on Sunday. It is already that way. Christmas above all else should be a day when we come together as the body of Christ to worship and adore the Lord Jesus. Christmas should be the day above all days where we don't stay home and open all those things we bought for ourselves INSTEAD of going to church. Christmas should be the day when we forget about ourselves for a few hours and go and honor the birthday of the great King, our Savior.

What we are dealing with here are churches whose priorities are so askew that they somehow think it is more important for the church to serve the wants of the physical family than the other way around. This is a far cry from the pattern of the original disciples of Jesus who were seen leaving homes, relatives, jobs to come and follow Jesus. What kind of message does it send to our culture when churches close on one of its highest holy days? That it is o.k. to stay home and do one's own thing even on Jesus' birthday?

It is past time that these sorts of churches be called to account. It is time for them to realize that they have simply capitulated to the larger culture's agenda on issue after issue, in this case in supporting the worship of the idol called family in place of the worship of Jesus. The church does not exist to serve the world, but rather to save the world. The church does not exist to serve the physical family but rather to redeem it and make clear that if it is a Christian family it has a larger and more primary obligation to the family of faith and to its Lord. Christmas is one of two days in the year when we should especially make that clear to our culture and our country.

Shame on you mega-churches--- repent and believe the Gospel, starting with the birth stories of Jesus.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Problem with Evangelical Theology

There were two principles that provided guidance for the Protestant Reformation--- semper Reformanda (always reforming) and sola Scriptura (the Bible as the final authority on all matters of faith and practice). These two principles of course have not always been equally or fully adhered to in Evangelical circles, but they have been recognized as the basic blueprint of the movement which began Protestantism.

In my recent book The Problem with Evangelical Theology I have tried to point out that we have come a long way since Luther, Calvin, and Wesley (to mention but three) and not necessarily in a good direction. Biblical illiteracy is pretty rampant even in Evangelical circles and things like experience, tradition, or even reason often seem to be allowed to trump the authority of Scripture or become the de facto final authority in deciding one issue or another.

What has concerned me as an exegete and NT scholar is that all of the major Evangelical theologies now on offer (Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Dispensationalism, Pentecostalism and sometimes several of these combined) have their exegetical weaknesses-- some more glaring than others. What is most interesting to me is the fact that these weaknesses consistently show up when one or another of these theologies try to say something distinctive or different-- something that distinguishes them from other Evangelical theologies. For example, the rapture theology of Dispensationalism, the predestinarian/eternal security theology of Calvinism, the charismatic gifts requirement tagged to some experience subsequent to conversion of Pentecostalism, or some forms of the perfection argument in Weslyanism. All of these 'distinctives' in fact are ideas that are very weakly grounded in Scripture. Indeed often one or another of these ideas seems to be supported in spite of what Scripture says over and over again.

Having spent 25 years of my life gradually working through the NT inch by inch, and coming to the point of finishing writing commentaries on all this material in the next few years, the weaknesses, sometimes glaring weaknesses in all these system's distinctives has increasing become apparent to me. What then do we Evangelicals, who pride ourselves on being "Biblical", do about this? Well for one thing it will not be sufficient to say-- "back to the Bible" not least because the Bible is miles ahead of us, and we are struggling to catch up in understanding, never mind in living a Biblical lifestyle.

In my new book, which is not just a critique book I have suggested some new avenues of approach, but first of course one has to own up to the weaknesses of one's own theological orientation, if one is brave and mature enough to do so. After that one has to realize that treating theology as a history of closely linked ideas is in fact a modern notion, a post- Enlightenment notion, which the Biblical writers would not have advocated or recognized as valid.

I am talking of course about the strip mining of Biblical texts--denuding them of their contexts and storied world in which they operate, and then transferring them into one's 'system', for example with the ordo salutis-- the so-called order of salvation (justification is followed by sanctification which eventually leads to glorification).

What's wrong with this picture? Go back and read the Gospels, for example and try and find this sort of linking of ideas denuded of parables or social context or rhetorical moment. You won't find it. And low and behold when you turn to Paul, Paul thinks of such ideas not in the abstract but in the context of stories-- for example when he thinks of the Law he thinks of the story of Moses and Israel, when he thinks of faith he thinks of the story of Abraham, when he thinks of salvation obviously he thinks of the Christian event. It might be better to ask what story is this idea a part of than to ask-- what idea can I chain link this concept to?

It is my hope that this book which I have written will stir up a lot of discussion, not defensiveness or furor. I think in the 21rst century we need to learn to do our theology in a more Biblical way, not just use the Bible as a justification or proof text for the theology we want to do anyway. If we manage to do this then perhaps those two reformation principles will come alive again-- in reforming ourselves, we may become more Biblical persons, thinkers theologians, ethicists. And this would be an exceedingly good thing. The time for posturing, pretending, and polemics should be over.

We need to recognize that it is what unites us, for example what we confess in the Apostle's Creed is the most Biblical thing we ever say, not what divides us. It is time for the world to stop wondering why Protestantism is a many splintered thing, which speaks with forked tongue. Why should anyone pay attention to us when we can't get our own act together? Why should anyone pay attention to us if we embrace relativism and say-- "well its all equally valid or true if it works for you--- right?" Truth, particularly truth in Christ frankly is not a matter of subjective feelings or opinions. It is something that makes a claim on us in God's Word.

May we see this truth soon. May it be so in our life time and in our children's life time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Creatures of Habit

Creatures of habit,
Day after day
Go about life,
The same old way.

Nothing disturbs
Their orderly routine
All must be neat,
And all must be clean.

They’re making their lists
And checking them twice,
Trying to make sure
Their work will suffice.

Impatient by nature
They don’t suffer fools
Gladly or otherwise
Because of the rules.

A place for everything
For all there’s a place
Don’t touch the guest towels
But please wash your face.

They insist on living
Orderly lives,
And of course only marry
Orderly wives.

Their homes antiseptic
Their cars always clean,
Their food always healthy
Their meat always lean.

Like ants in an ant hill,
Repeating their tasks
Rest in repetition
Ignore the mask.

Chaos is forbidden
Experiment absurd
Don’t ask for creative
Don’t mention the word.
Creatures of habit,
By whose design?
Is this just human,
Or is it divine?

What if we found
That ordering our sphere,
Is just a misnomer
For controlling our fear?

Fear of the truth,
Fear of falling
Fear of the unknown,
Fear of our calling

Fearing to let go,
Fearing to try,
Fearing to live,
And fearing to die.

An unknown poet said it
Muse in the machine
It suggests new direction
By which we come clean.

“It’s the heart afraid of breaking.
That never learns to dance,
It’s the dream afraid of waking
That never takes a chance.

“It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give,
And the soul afraid of dying,
That never learns to live.”

Perhaps if we surrender
Control of our lives,
And offer ourselves
To all seeing eyes

We’ll find a new freedom
Though not out of bounds
For when he controls us
The order’s profound.

Let go of the death grip,
You have on your life
Inhibit your habits
Without artifice.

Accept serendipity,
Free by design
Eat the new manna
Drink the new wine.

Come to the manger
Kneel at the throne
Realize your ruler
Won’t leave you alone.

Celebrate Christmas
Deliverance declare
You’re freed to inhabit
A creature’s full share.

Dec. 1 2005

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" though first published in 1813 was in fact written in 1796-97 and originally entitled "First Impressions". It has consistently been Jane Austen's most popular novel and portrays life in the genteel but rural English society of the late 18th and early 19th century. It tells in a memorable way the story of the initial misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The title "Pride and Prejudice" refers particularly to the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other, but it applies equally to the way a class-oriented society works and gets in the way of people of different socio-economic strata really getting to know each other.

Jane Austen's gave her own opinion of the work, in a letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after its publication stressing: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style".

This story is indeed bright, and mostly cheerful, in a way that the recently released "Oliver Twist" is not. Though there are some cads in Jane Austen's masterpiece, there is no real wickedness to be confronted, unlike in "Oliver Twist". It is no easy thing to successfully film a classic novel, but I am happy to say that this film nearly lives up to the level of the novel itself, and is well worth repeated viewings. It is beautifully shot in the English countryside, and all the major actors are superb including Kira Knightley who plays Lizzy Bennet, and Donald Sutherland who plays her father in a truly fetching way. Judy Dentsch is also her usual formidable self, playing a part very akin to the approach she took to playing the Queen in one of her last period pieces-- that is, as "la femme tres formidable."

The movie is just over two hours in length and gives the viewer plenty of time to evaluate what it must have been like to be a woman without money in a highly patriarchal and class conscious society. Barring some miracle it meant being a woman "without prospects". Though Austen was no feminist in the modern sense, she does an excellent job of portraying the plight of women caught in such a world, and bargained for between the suitor and the father of the family. Fortunately for Lizzy, she had a kind and goodly father who wanted the best for his five girls.

It is easy to become beguiled by the lavish and beautiful settings, manor houses, countryside, gorgeous apparel and the like, not to mention the beautiful way this movie is filmed. It should surely win an award for cinematography especially for the ball room dancing scenes. But this is a story with substance, not just style, and one must not get too distracted by the beauty of the package. This is a story about how love overcomes pride and prejudices, and even mistaken or false first impressions. Indeed, it is a story about how love conquers all.

There is as a well a Christian message hidden in this story, besides the obvious message about the transformative power of love, because there is a Reverend Collins in this movie, who while not an upper class twit, is nonetheless a twit totally in the thrall of his patroness who has granted him his "living" a nice parsonage and a lovely parish church. He is indeed a kept man, and it reminds us of how Christian ministers can become captives to the social systems of their day, and find themselves running to the beck and call of the wealthy persons who make their "living" possible. It is not a flattery image that emerges of clergy completely co-opted by the larger social culture, but then this was not just a vice of 18th and 19th century clergy--- we see it a plenty today, especially in the larger and mega-churches in North America. When sermons are seen as a means to ethically civilize and pacify the clientele so that society may remain as inequitable as it always was, then we see the extent to which the Gospel can become captive to the larger agendas of the culture, indeed can become the chief purveyors of those often anti-Christian values. As Pogo once said "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."

But lest I get too carried away with moralizing about bad and unethical homiletical moralizing, I must say that this is a movie all Christians can and should see to understand better the power of love, and also the way the Gospel can be neutralized in "such a civilized manner". It is appropriate for all audiences of any age as it completely eschews any violence, bad language, or gratuitous sex. In fact the climax of the movie is a simple and beautiful kiss, which reminds us that less is often so much more in a well-told tale. These sorts of movies are rare these days, and deserve to be supported. We may hope that Hollywood will have the "sense and sensibility" to film another of Austen's classics soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Walking a Fine Line

In what could be called the Caucasian equivalent of the movie "Ray" we now have the bi-op of the recently deceased Johnny Cash on film. The star role is played effectively and accurately by Joaquin Phoenix, and equally effectively co-stars Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. The movie runs over two hours, allowing the story to percolate along at its own pace, and like the movie "Ray" we leave the central figure at or near the apex of his career, in this case at the juncture where June finally relents and agrees to marry Johnny after being propositioned on stage in 1968. The landmark "Live at Folson Prison" album was already a major hit, and by this time Cash, with the help of Carter had licked his addiction to prescription drugs. The similarities to the story of Ray Charles are striking, and remarkable.

The movie begins much like "Ray" did with a brief recounting of Cash's upbringing in Dyess Arkansas, part of a sharecropping family with a stern father and a devout hymn-singing mother. It becomes clear early on in the movie how much damage parental favoritism can do to a child, for the father has no tolerance for his younger son's love for music, and clearly favors the more practical older brother Jack, as the star of the family. When there is a horrible accident at the sawmill in which the older son is killed, the father at least partially blames Johnny for being off fishing rather than being present with his brother at that tragic moment. It was a childhood episode that was to haunt Cash throughout his life.

One of the fasacinating aspects of this movie is the faithful recreation of the early days in Memphis at Sun Records in the mid and later 50s when Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins, and June Carter, and the youngest of them all Johnny Cash were all making hit recording and touring together on the Sun Records tours. It reminds us that long before there was Beatle mania there was already rock-a billy mania focused on various of these rising American stars. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon do a fine job of actually singing in this movie and not merely lip-syncing and this makes the movie all the more believable and compelling.

One of the aspects of the story which unfortunately does not get enough play is the Christian faith of both Johnny Cash and June Carter throughout the various vicissitudes of their lives. This is unfortunate as it was one of the main things that sustained them through many hard times. But of course since the story stops in 1968, we miss most of the real Christian period of Cash's and Carter's lives. The movie tries to walk a fine line between not hiding the Christian factor and not overplaying it either.

There can be little doubt, that in a year when excellent dramas are thin on the ground that this movie is bound to get some Oscar nods. It shows in great and painful detail how hard it is to live life on the road and be true to one's Christian commitments. And this is a lesson worth remembering whether one is a traveling business person, a musician, or a politician.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Money

Now that we are well and truly into the Harry Potter saga (and to judge from the sales for this one over its first week, lots more people are paying money in order to pay attention), it will be well if we take stock of the story and its relative merits. But in order to do so, I must set up a dual frame of reference.

I was riding through Philadelphia this past week and noticed two things-- a house in which Edgar Allan Poe once lived in, with a giant statue of a raven just outside of it, and the ubiquitous billboards advertising the coming Narnia movie. Both of these things are of relevance in analyzing Harry Potter. Having read Poe's stories when I was much younger, I must say that the Harry Potter stories are mostly tame by comparison when it comes to darkness and the dance macabre. When you compare the two bodies of work you wonder why there was so much angst in the Christian community when the Harry Potter novels first came out, and then the movies began to appear. We have been reading dark stories for a long time indeed, even dark children's stories, and there are some merits to doing so--- namely it helps us recognize evil when we see it. In neither the Harry Potter stories nor in Poe's stories (even in the "Pit and the Pendulum") is evil ever portrayed as good, or as finally triumphing over the good.

But as for the comparison with "the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" of course we must reserve judgment until it comes out, but one can say for sure that it will take some doing for it to top this episode in the Harry Potter saga. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has all the elements of a classic story. It has darkness and light, it has humor and suspense, the story is allowed to develop at its own pace, and the characters are stretched by various events to be their best selves. It has a wonderful supporting cast, surprising turns of events, especially at the end, and in the midst of all this we see the three central characters beginning to come of age and grow up. Yet the shortcomings of even Harry Potter are occasionally in evidence as well (he almost fails to rescue a fellow competitor from Hogwart's who is a good lad). It is not a fairy story, it is a mystery.

This particular story is more about plot development than about potion development, and the focus is not really on school life at Hogwarts. Rather the focus is on a three school competition to demonstrate who is the greatest wizard of all. But it is the dark forces lurking around the edges of the competition that provide the compelling subplot and bring Harry face to face with evil incarnate. There is however comic relief in the person of Rita Skeeter, the gossip columnist for the Daily Prophet who's interviews with Harry and others are nothing short of hilarious.

The visuals for this movie are consistently darker than the previous episodes, but with good reason, and there is a nice meshing of CG effects with live action of the cast. One never feels that one is slipping back and forth between a real drama and a cartoon, which is always the danger if the CG is over done or poorly done. Best of all, this movies leaves you wanting to see more and looking forward to the next episode. It does not seek to tie up all the loose ends, yet there is a strong sense of resolution of the plot as the movie winds down to its last few scenes.

At well over two hours this is the longest of the Potter movies, but none of this movie could be called filler or superfluous. It is no small task to do cinematic justice to an interesting and challenging novel that is full of magic and mystery, but this effort of director Newell can be said to have succeeded admirably. Indeed, this movie will bear repeated viewings with profit, but it is a much more adult tale than the previous episodes and a few scenes may be a bit too intense for smaller children. On the whole this is a movie that helps us see the line between good and evil rather clearly, and helps us make the right sort of choices along the way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Anne Rice's Christ the Lord

Christ the Lord--- Out of Egypt, Anne Rice (N.Y.: Knopf, 2005)

Anne Rice has, by now become something of a household name through the enormous sales of her novels since her first one appeared in 1974, and so it comes as no surprise that this year saw another Anne Rice novel appear on the market. What is a surprise, bordering on shock, considering that Rice has been the Queen of Vampire novels, is that this novel is and loving and reverent story about Jesus as a child. More specifically it is largely the tale of one year of Jesus’ life, from the ages of 7-8, a period not covered by any of the canonical Gospels. Where then does she get her material? A small amount of the novel is based on some later apocryphal stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and certain assumptions (about Mary and Joseph) derived from the Proto-Evangelium of James, but most of the tale derives from Rice’ own fertile imagination as applied to the copious amount of reading she has done about the history and social circumstances and Jewish religious life of the period.
The novel is a tale of average length (301 pages), to which is appended an author’s note in which Rice gets to critique liberal Jesus scholars, amongst others. Rice also tells us the story of her conversion and return to Roman Catholicism, which also entailed a return to investigate questions which had haunted her all her life—how did Christianity actually come about and why did the Roman Empire fall? In 2002, we are told, she says “I put aside everything else and decided to focus entirely on answering the questions that had dogged me all my life. The decision came in July of that year. I had been reading the Bible constantly…and decided that I would give myself utterly to the task of trying to understand Jesus himself and how Christianity emerged. I wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ. I had known that years ago. But now I was ready. Ready to do violence to my career. I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ. I consecrated myself and my work to Christ.” ( p. 309).
Rice informs us that her inspiration came in part from reading Paula Fredricksen’s much praised Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews and she resolved that she wanted to present the real Jewish Jesus, the Jesus enmeshed in the life of pious early Jews who debated things like ritual purity issues, and whose life cycle moved between family and providing for family and pilgrimages up to Jerusalem to strengthen their faith. Yet in some respects Rice’s Jesus is one that Fredricksen would not recognize, as Rice is perfectly clear in her portrayal of Jesus as both divine and human, and most definitely as the only begotten Son of God born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is a very unique and peculiar sort of early Jew as it turns out. The problem is-- as a child he doesn’t really much know it, or understand it. The novel is in essence about the mental journey Jesus makes over the course of a traumatic year which also involved much actual traveling (leaving Egypt, coming to Nazareth, visiting Jerusalem both before and after arriving in Nazareth) as he comes to realize who he is as he pieces together that the “Christmas story” is in fact all about him! One of the key texts, interestingly enough, which helped determine for Anne Rice how she would depict Jesus was the famous ‘kenosis’ text in Phil. 2.5-11—the text about the pre-existent one who stripped or emptied himself of his divine pre-rogatives in order to live fully as a human being. To Rice this in turn meant that Jesus as a child did not naturally think of himself as divine, though he learned early on that he had some specially powers of healing or harming. Jesus throughout this novel must learn his true identity from consulting his family, including his ‘brother’ James, and even an ancient rabbi in the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to piece together the story. Only once he has gotten most of the story in mind does his mother finally sit him down and help him fill in the gaps. Until then Mary and Joseph had told him not to think about or discuss such things. To my surprise, this sort of presentation of the divine incognito in so far as it affected Jesus’ own self-consciousness, turns out to be quite effective. Jesus is presented as precocious of course, and a deeply spiritual and emotional child as well. But Rice deliberately underplays the supernatural element in her attempt to show how the child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and humankind” as Luke put’s it in Lk. 2.52.
There are some historical curiosities to Rice’s presentation even though it is clear that she has read a lot of scholarly work in preparation for writing this novel, and equally clear that she relied in equal parts on conservative Catholic and Protestant scholars. The detailed reading she has done has not however altered her own Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and this belief strongly colors her presentation of Mary throughout. To her credit however, Mary does not take center stage in this novel, in fact, she gets a bit less space than Joseph. It is a portrayal that most Protestants could embrace for the most part. The historical curiosities include the starting assumptions. The novel begins with Jesus still, at age seven, living in Alexandria with his parents, and once Herod dies they resolve to return at once to the Holy Land, going to Nazareth by way of Jerusalem. There are several problems here. Firstly, Herod died only a couple of years after Jesus’ birth, not seven years. Both Jesus’ birth, and Herod’s demise transpired before the turn of the common era. Secondly, the revolt described as part of what the Holy family experienced when they arrived in the Holy Land, was a revolt led by Judas the Galilean and others that actually transpired near the end of Herod Archelaeus’ reign in A.D. 6, not at the turn of the era when the Holy family would have come home. For example the sacking of Sepphoris surely took place well after the time the Holy family went to Nazareth. Mt. 2.21-23 is quite emphatic that they returned during the reign of Archaelaeus were afraid to go to Judea, and so instead went to Galilee. The text as it stands suggests that the Holy family never went to Judea during the reign of Archelaeus, but rather studiously avoided it. This being the case, neither the social tension and revolutionary potential in the novel nor the several trips up to Judea while Herod’s son reigns matches up with the Matthean account and the probable historical chronology of things. It is however interesting to see her portrayal of Jews living under occupation. At one juncture Joseph is speaking with his brother as they are living in Nazareth and says “In this house we are in the land of Israel” and after everyone laughed his brother says “Yes… and outside the door, it’s the Empire.” (p. 233). It is an effective way of revealing how Jews must have felt about the ambivalent situation .
Another of the historical curiosities is the attention Rice gives to the mixed-language milieu theory. In her view the Holy family spoke Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, Greek especially because of their extended stay in Egypt. But alas, nothing in the historical record suggests they did have such an extended stay in Egypt--- probably no more than a couple of years at the most. I do not doubt that Jesus and his family knew some Greek, they would have had to know some to do business in or near Sepphoris for work purposes. But it is doubtful that Jesus of Joseph studied TANAK in Greek, and of course the notion of Jesus studying with Philo in Alexandria as a 6-7 year old boy is a pleasant, but improbable conceit. We do not even know for sure if Alexandria is the specific locale that the Holy family stayed in while there, though it is quite possible.
Of course Protestants will find very odd the huge extended family image Rice conjures up in order to account for all the children under Mary and Joseph’s roof. James, on the one hand is said to be the son of Joseph by prior marriage (ala the Proto-Evangelium of James) and so Jesus older ‘brother’. But this of course means he has no blood-kinship with Jesus at all, which makes it especially odd that he should be called Jesus’ brother not only in this novel, but in the NT. The other children are said to be cousins, and Joseph’s family is depicted as involving Joseph’s and Mary’s brothers and their families, all living under one roof in Nazareth—something no text of the NT even remotely suggests. Rice decides to develop the “Joseph” motif as a way of explaining the dynamic between James and Jesus. By this I mean James is depicted as envious of Jesus and his messianic status, and knowing more about it than Jesus until the end of the story. He is also depicted as repenting and offering sacrifice for this sin of envy at the end of the story. How we get from this depiction to Jn. 7.4-5 is hard to imagine. Also interesting is the depiction of little Salome, Jesus’ favorite younger cousin with whom he resonants throughout the novel in a chaste and spiritual way. One thing is for sure--- modern day Gnostics will not be pleased with the earthiness, Jewishness, and ritual focus of this Jesus and this Holy family any more than ancient Gnostics were. Jesus is depicted as quite specifically the Jewish messiah, the fulfiller of the prophecies, not the dispenser of esoteric knowledge to the elite and elect everywhere.
There are many things to commend about this novel. It is not an easy thing to write from a child’s point of view, and on a lesser scale reading this is rather like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury . Secondly, from that worldview, Jesus turns out to be a rather fearful and very emotional child—loving, but also needing love and support as children do. One wonders if the ‘fear factor’ is overplayed a bit, or perhaps that too is part of the divine incognito. Jesus in any case is clearly not all that comfortable with his divine powers, and it wears him out when he uses them. Jesus is also depicted as a visionary, who even encounters the Devil in his dreams, though this is not a major theme, and interestingly it is not mainly how Jesus comes to find out who he is.

We may be thankful that Rice does not depict the early life of Jesus as a bucolic and untroubled revery. And like any good writer, she leaves many questions unanswered making this an enjoyable odyssey of the mind of child Jesus, though provocative at points. Perhaps we may expect and look forward to further novels on this subject. If so, there is even less historical fodder for the period of Jesus’ life between the time he was 12 and in the temple and the time he was 30 and began his ministry. But considering the fact there is really nothing written about Jesus as seven prior to this novel, I doubt the paucity of historical data will slow Rice down, so fertile is her imagination.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Making Child's Play of the Movies

Two recent films which either involve or directly target children have been much ballyhooed, but in the case of one of them, Chicken Little, it is hard to see why. Chicken Little is yet another animated version of a classic story, only this time, for good measure the story of Chicken Little has been taken a further step--- by combining it with a plot line from ET, War of the Worlds, and even an old Star Trek episode ( "The Trouble with Tribbles"). There are the usual elements in this movie: 1) our hero is small, and not taken seriously after his "sky is falling" gaff. Even his father seems ashamed of him; 2) when the plot lacks punch bring in old rock and roll songs and pump up the volume; 3) let the underdog (and under-achieving) hero finally win something, and then 4) he is emboldened to save the world in the process. Oh yes, did I mention a budding romance between the ugly duckling and Chicken Little? Now this film, at least in its initial p.r. was advertized as classic Disney, and very funny. But in fact it lacks the sort of humour of films like Alladin and The Emperor's New Groove, not least because it lacks Robin Williams. This is hardly a new classic, and in fact the War of the World's scenes are probably too intense for small children. Disney has done much better than this in the past. There is finally, also some odd inconsistency to the appearance of the movie. Whereas as the main characters and much of the look seems three -D, parts of the background scenes however appear to be quite flat and non-descript. It is unfortunate.

Of a whole different order is "The Dreamer" a story set here in Lexington and Versailles Kentucky, and based to some degree on a true story, of a horse who broke and leg, and yet healed and came back to win a major race. Lest we write this sort of rags to riches script off as trite or too familiar (a female version of Seabiscuit?), this movie is carried by some very strong performances by Dakota Fanning (of 'Because of Winn Dixie' fame), Kurt Russell as her Dad the horse trainer, Kris Kristofferson as Kurt's father, and there are also nice lesser parts played by Elizabeth Shue and David Morse. This movie has the real pathos of a family struggling to survive financially and yet wanting to nurture their only child's dreams. It is beautifully filmed , and is certainly a movie any and all families should take their children to see. The inter-personal dynamics in the family seem real and are well developed, and the story line, while rather predictable is in the feel good category. There may not be a better film out there for families in the last several months of this year--- unless it is "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe".

Monday, November 14, 2005

Etan's Story

He met me there at the airport holding his yellow CBS bag. His English was faltering, and my modern Israeli Hebrew even less good, yet we immediately we made human contact. There was something poignant about him. He was young, almost a baby face, and yet there was a hardness to him despite his sweet smile. Though he enjoyed flirting with the CBS correspondent who was doing our interviews for the Christmas show, this seemed like bravado covering what was brooding beneath the surface. But what could it be? For a week Etan drove us around Israel, and we had fun together--- ate together, laughed together, worked hard together. And we enjoyed watching his vociferous arguments with his fellow Israeli Zohar, which were often much ado about nothing-- just for the heck of it.

But as the week wore on and we got to know Etan a bit a little bit of what was beneath the surface bubbled to the top. I should have recognized the signs before. Etan had pointed out where the tank museum was on the way into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but only later I figured out after getting beyond the jet lag that Etan had already served considerable time in the Israeli army--- and it had left a big mark, indeed I would say a scar on this young man. He was not bitter, but there was a sadness about him, and he had had to grow up much too fast.

You see Etan had seen the worst of the worst at Jenin. If you do not know your modern history of Israel you should look up the story of what happened there. Etan had fought at Jenin. Quietly, and with no vainglory at all, he told of the day that he was attacking a particular Palestinian house thought to harbor Hamas radicals. He had pulled out a grenade, and had pulled the pin almost entirely out when he remembered he had a duty to yell that there was an incoming explosive, in case there were innocents within who deserved a chance to get out of the way. He told me "but we had been fighting hard, and yet something made me put that pin back in the grenade and look inside the house first." Inside the house he found nothing but women and children who had been locked into the house by their own people so that they could claim the Israeli's had commited a horrible atrocity at Jenin. It made him physically sick, and yet he was so thankful that something had stopped him from throwing that grenade. I had no doubt that "something" was God. Then he asked--- what kind of people would do this to their own families in order to shame us before the world? It was a very good question and shows that the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complex with evil and good on both sides.

Later when Etan had gathered himself, he said to me-- "I love my country and this is why I fight, but honestly, if someone would tell me there was a place for us Jews in the middle of a desert where everyone would leave us alone and no one else would claim the territory and we wouldn't have to hurt anyone by mistake, I would move there today. It is not about living on this piece of dirt for me. It is about shalom."

I was deeply moved by his testimony. He had grown up fast and hard as a teen in the Israeli army, and he had seen the worst that humanity can do, and yet there was still a little hopefulness left in him. The human spirit, created in God's image is resilient, and I am thankful that Etan listened to that still small voice on that crucial day in Jenin. He said "If I had not stopped and looked on that day, I would never have slept again." It's a hard thing to be a soldier with an actual conscience because all war is hell, and yet this story shows what a difference it can make in a case by case basis.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and pray for my new friend Etan.