Sunday, August 27, 2006

How to Succeed in Ministry-- Pauline Clues

John Chrysostom, in reflecting on Paul’s approach to ministry says this:

"For Paul’s work found its source in power, mighty power, power that surpassed mere human diligence. For Paul brought three qualifications to the
preaching of the word: a fervent and adventurous zeal, a soul ready to undergo any possible hardship and the combination of knowledge and wisdom. Even with Paul’s love of the difficult task, his blameless life would
have accomplished little had he not also received the power of the Spirit.
Examine the matter from Paul’s own words: “That our ministry not be
blamed” And again “For our exhortation is not founded on deceit, nor uncleanness, nor guile nor hidden under a cloak of covetousness.” Thus you
have seen his blamelessness. And again “For we aim at what is honorable,
not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of human beings.”
Without this Paul’s work would have been impossible. People were not converted by Paul’s miracles; no it was not the miracles that produced faith,
nor did Paul base his high calling upon the miraculous but upon other
grounds: a man must be irreproachable in conduct, prudent and discreet in
his dealings with others, regardless of the dangers involved, and apt to
teach. These were the qualifications that enabled Paul to reach his goal."
(Homilies on Ephesians 6).

Chrysostom’s reflections on Paul’s ministry and the reasons for its success
place the emphasis, of course, on the divine factor — God’s divine power enabled Paul to accomplish these things. Yet at the same time Chrysostom emphasizes that it was not the miracles that Paul did that produced faith, but rather
his good character and apt teaching. If these are the most essential characteristics of successful ministry, then there is hope for those of us who are not St.
Paul and cannot conjure up miracles. But to good character and apt teaching
Chrysostom adds zeal, a willingness to suffer or endure hardship, and both
knowledge and wisdom. In other words, Chrysostom thinks that it takes more
than an average person to accomplish such things as Paul did. Indeed, it requires a very exceptional person.

Some teachers and preachers have knowledge but are unable to turn that alloy into
something more precious, namely wisdom. Still other teachers and preachers have zeal, but not a zeal that is “unto knowledge.” This is especially dangerous in our age of biblical illiteracy, when earnestness is mistaken for truth over and over again. Still others are willing to endure much for their task and their charges
but have few rhetorical gifts and have not been properly trained. Still others
have all the requisites mentioned but are of dubious character. Such folks become quite compelling false teachers and preachers. Yet there is something more that
Chrysostom fails to mention here.

Throughout 1 Thessalonians 1-3 one is struck time and again
by Paul’s pastor’s heart and by how much he loves his converts. He does indeed
really relate to them as a parent to his beloved children. He worries about their
safety, their perseverance in the faith, their health, and all the usual things a
good parent worries about. In addition, he stresses that he treated them like the
gentlest of nannies when he was with them, nursing them along slowly in the
faith, not getting impatient with them. It is clear that he is elated when Timothy
comes with the good report as to how the church in Thessalonike is doing. It
takes a rare combination of gifts and graces, timing and opportunities, persistence and perseverance, and of course the power of God to produce a Paul. We
would be fooling ourselves if we saw him as just another ordinary Christian
who had an extraordinary experience of God. This is saying too little about this
remarkable man.

But the early Christian movement did not require a legion of Pauls for it
to grow, develop, and advance through time. It seems to have required only a
few, who could then direct and empower willing coworkers and local converts
in the right direction. There is no getting away from the hierarchical character
of early church leadership structures, with apostles at the top, then coworkers
just below that level, local church leaders below that, and finally everyone else.
But this hierarchy was not based on gender, ethnicity, or social status. The criterion was proximity to Jesus, knowledge of his life and teachings, having seen the risen Lord or been converted and trained by those who did, and willingness to
serve even under exigent circumstances, to mention but a few factors. The early
Christian movement was not a democracy, nor did the local congregation have
the final say over its own existence — the itinerant founding apostles and coworkers could intervene at any time and rearrange things.

Yet it is notable and truly remarkable just how much Paul tries to make
room for the freedom of his converts. He prefers to persuade rather than command. He uses rhetoric rather than manipulation and strong-arm tactics to accomplish his ends, unless the congregation is really in extremis. He wants them
to take up the tasks of Christian life and work freely, and he always speaks the
truth to them in love, being gentle, though seldom subtle. When churches today
look for leaders, do they pay attention to the qualities Chrysostom lists and
Paul exhibited? Not so much, I am afraid.

And here is another thought. With Paul's rap sheet and prison record, he could not get hired today by the vast majority of churches, including Protestant ones. Imagine passing on St. Paul because he was controversial and his message had political implications. Imagine missing out on one of the great pastors and missionaries and intellectual giants in any age because he refused to allow the world to squeeze him into its mold (see Rom. 12.1-2).

Most churches today whether democratic or hierarchial in polity reward loyalty and mediocrity, so long as the budget is made and the church is growing a bit. They do not generally reward cutting edge preaching, counter-cultural exhortations, expensive mission trips and work, or prophetic witnessing to the powers that be in our culture. They much prefer pastors who will mostly leave them alone except for the occasional request for attendance and funds. They truly like pastors who tell them they are on the right track, are not confrontational, and do not suggest they need to drastically change their lifestyle to please God and serve Christ. 'God bless our standard of living' is a message that preaches well in the land of the health and wealth Gospel.

But then of course, should we be puzzled by why the church looks so remarkably like the world? Why is it that the divorce rate in the church is as high as in the culture at large? Why is it that Christians give no more to their churches and other charities than other people in our culture who don't attend church? Why is it that only a Christian like Bono is leading the charge on debt-reduction by forgiveness for the two-thirds world, and the ever malignant AIDS crisis in Africa? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind. If only that wind in our church culture would blow in a more Pauline direction, then we might get the ministers we need--- not the ones we deserve.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

'Little Miss Sunshine'

'Little Miss Sunshine' is not your ordinary everyday movie. To be sure it is a road flick about a family's journey to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. And what a family it is as well! You have Alan Arkin playing the foul-mouthed grandfather, Greg Kinnear as the Zig Ziglar-like success guru wannabe with a nine step program, and a cast of likeable misfits. Toni Collette who plays the wife plays one who is barely able to cope with all the madness in her family, but somehow manages. You have a son Dwayne who has taken a vow of silence after reading Thus Spake Zarathustra as he hates his dysfunctional family (he also wears a 'Jesus was Wrong' T-shirt), the wife's brother who is a Marcel Proust scholar who has recently tried to committee suicide after being rejected by a male graduate student lover, and there is the real star of the show--- Olive, the daughter who is in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

The narrative is taut, with very little filler, and we get the bad language out of the way near the beginning of the movie. The journey is undertaken in a VW van that is in bad shape, and requires starting in third gear and a lot of pushing. The father preaches winning of course, though he discovers along the way that his book deal for his own success book has fallen through. Also along the way, the coke snorting grandfather dies, and has to be put in the back of the van so they can make the pageant itself for the sake of the one really likeable character in the movie--- Olive. And as for Olive, well she is short, has big glasses, is a bit chubby, but is sweet and has a nice smile. She is anything but the stereotypical contestant in such a contest. She, at least is real, and those other contestants are so phony and over wrought its hard to watch.

When one gets to the pageant, with all the spray-on tanned daughters and the over-weening Mom's vicariously wanting to win the pageant in the person of the daughter, you see much of what is sick about our image-driven-beauty-is all-about-appearance culture. It is a devastating critique of what counts as beautiful or for that matter what counts as talented. It is also a major swipe at what counts as normal these days.

Is there anything redeeming in this movie? Well actually yes. The love of the grandfather, indeed of everyone for Olive and the desire to support her. The son Dwayne's transformation when he learns he will not be able to go to flight school because he is color-blind, accidentally discovered of course on the trip to California. He apologizes to his family after he gets through screaming about his color-blind condition, and thereafter acts like a good supportive and protective big brother. And perhaps even the father gains some wisdom about the folly of his 'winning and success are everything' attitude. His family has actually become more nearly what it ought to have been in the first place. In a sense, this movie is a celebration of family and the importance of supporting each other and sticking together, even with the warts, wrinkles and foibles in the family. As such it is a lesson in grace and forgiveness that all of us could use--- since of course none of us live in perfect families.

51% of all Persons in Seminary are Women

There is an interesting article in the NY Times this morning on women clergy in both largely white and largely black denominations. One of the more interesting parts of the survey is that it points out that 51% of all seminarians are women. The article is mainly about the 'stained-glass' ceiling, the difficulties of women advancing beyond their initial church assignment. Another interesting facet of this whole discussion is how some denominations who did have ordained women moved away from the practice in the late 20th century--- examples would be the Southern Baptists, though those issues were settled on a church by church basis for the most part, and the PCA which churches were formerly part of the PC USA, but now are not. I personally can attest that there are numerous first rate women pulpiteers in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, and many of them are very committed Evangelicals.

Here is the link---

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Origins of the English Bible

Without question, after the Latin Vulgate, no vernacular translation of the Bible has had more impact on Christian life and culture in general than the King James Version. What is seldom noted with the King James Version is busy being praised to the skies for its various qualities, is that it was a translation that owed an enormous amount of its diction and memorable phrasing to its English predecessor versions, especially the partial OT and the entire NT that William Tyndale finished, and at the other end of the discussion the KJV went through various revised editions. But the story must begin with Wycliffe.

It was of course one of the key principles of the Reformation that the Bible should be placed in the hands of ordinary persons, not kept in the scholar’s study or chained to a pulpit in some church. This revolution was of course made possible by the rise of the printing press which reduced enormously the laborious process of hand copying the Bible which had gone on since the first century A.D., and in fact well before then counting the various books of the OT.

Yet our discussion in this section must start with John Wycliffe (1330-84) who argued at length and in both Latin and English no less, for an English translation of the Bible. Of course there was great fear by the church hierarchy that if the Bible was placed into the hands of the laity, it might cause the breakdown of authority or even have a social leveling effect on society. It might break the cleric monopoly over the church as well. It is not surprising then when Wycliffe did his translation from the Latin Vulgate, or at least aided and abetted those who made the translation for him, he was roundly criticized. A certain Henry Knighton put it this way: “Wycliffe translated it from Latin into the English—not the angelic!—language. As a result, what was previously known only by learned clerics and those of good understanding has become common, and available to the laity—in fact, even to women who can read. As a result, the pearls of the Gospel have been scattered before swine.” The efforts of Wycliffe opened the proverbial Pandora’s box, and it is no surprise that the response was not only swift in his day but consistent there after. The Archbishop of Canterbury in 1407, Thomas Arundel, banned anyone from translating the Bible on their own initiative and authority into English! He also took the second step to ban the reading in private or public of any such English translation. Clearly enough he was worried that things were getting out hand. The issue was sensitive well into the 16th century for John Colet, then Dean of St.Paul’s cathedral was suspended in 1513 from his post for translating the Lord’s Prayer into English. Just when the clerics thought they were getting things under control, along came Martin Luther who published his German translation in 1522, and he had English admirers, notably William Tyndale (1496-1536).

Tyndale was no ordinary lay person. Indeed he studied at Magdalen College at Oxford. Tyndale was later to complain that the Oxford dons would not allow him to study the Scriptures until after he had had many years of studying the Greek and Latin pagan classics. But in fact there was a rise in both Oxford and Cambridge of interest in and scholars competent in both Greek and Hebrew during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, a good thing too since they would be needed on the translation committee for the King James Version in the early 17th century.
This rise in the interest in Biblical languages happened in spite of the scholarly prejudice that only Latin was really worth knowing as the language of academia. Just how much and how long this Latin influence continued to be true can be seen from the fact that even in the first half of the 18th century we have the story from John Wesley that when he wanted to have conversations with the Moravian Peter Bohler, since Bohler’s spoken English was poor, and the same could be said for Wesley’s German, they spoke to each other in the other language they were both fluent in—Latin, even though the subject matter was Protestant theology! If we need further testimony to the enduring impact of Latin and the Vulgate we need only mention the fact that Catholic services were still being down mostly in Latin when I was born. Vatican’s I and II changed all that.

Tyndale was smart enough to realize that England was too volatile a place for him to translate the Bible into English, and so we must picture the poor moving to Cologne in Germany and translating the NT during the period 1524-25. After some difficulties the first edition finally came out in book form in 1526 in Worms.
The high degree of Luther’s influence on Tyndale can be seen from the Table of Contents of his NT, for, as Luther had done with his translation, he listed Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as being of dubious authenticity, and they were placed at the end of the book and were not even numbered like the other books. It was the 1526 edition of Tyndale’s translation which was smuggled into England. It was this event which produced irreversible pressure for there to be an English Bible produced and controlled in England. Despite the fact that Tyndale’s name never appeared on a copy of his translation, he was to pay a heavy price for his efforts—he was hung, and then burned at the stake on Oct. 6th 1536, having been betrayed by those who opposed his efforts. This in turn earned him a place in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Bishop Tunstall of London had gone on something of a personal crusade against Tyndale and his translation (both sad and ironic since Tyndale first came to Tunstall to ask if he would patronize the translation effort). One of the most amazing parts of this story is that Tunstall went all the way to Antwerp to stop the printing of the Tyndale Translation in 1529, through a merchant named Augustine Packington he was offered an opportunity to buy as many copies as he liked of the translation for a price. The bishop agreed. Unbeknownst to the Bishop, Packington went straight to Tyndale and told him about the deal. Tyndale was thrilled because suddenly he would have a lot more money to produce more copies, even if Tunstall took all the one’s he bought and burned them. And so it was that the deal was struck, and unwittingly the Bishop funded the continuing publication of Tyndale’s translation.

Tyndale in fact had a very great and rare gift of being able not only to translate the Bible but to translate it into beautiful and memorable English prose. It is to him we owe phrases like ‘my brother’s keeper’ (Gen. 4), ‘the salt of the earth’ (Mt. 5), ‘a law unto themselves’ (Rom. 2), ‘the powers that be’ (Rom. 13). It was Tyndale who came up with the hybrid term Jehovah which combines two different Hebrew names for God. He invented the English word Passover for the Hebrew pesah. It is also to Tyndale that we owe the use of terms like scapegoat and atonement to translate Hebrew terms that had no good direct English equivalents.
Tyndale unfortunately had not finished his translation of the OT. Only the Pentateuch had been really completed, and so it was left to a far less skilled translator Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), who almost entirely took over Tyndale’s work and incorporated it into his own, adding a fresh translation of the rest of the OT depending most on Luther’s German translation it would appear. It first went to print in 1535, shortly before Tyndale was executed in England. One could in fact call Coverdale really a compilation of earlier translations, mostly Tyndale’s.
With the help of Oliver Cromwell, an entrepreneur named Richard Grafton got printed another English Bible shortly there after called Matthew’s Bible. The text was in fact edited by John Rogers who had been a close associate of Tyndale. It not only followed the Tyndale translation very closely, but it had the additional benefit of being printed in Antwerp where additional pages of Tyndale’s OT translation had turned up which had never made it into Tyndale’s own book.

In 1539 the Great Bible came out, and really became the first authorized English translation a good sixty plus years before the KJV. It actually was simply a revision of the Matthew’s Bible done by none other than Miles Coverdale himself, but with a table of contents that did not reflect Luther’s biases against various books including Hebrews and James. The reason it was called the Great Bible was due to its size, because in addition to the OT and NT it included the apocryphal intertestmental books as well. This translation is mostly a retred of Tyndale, with some Coverdale blended in, especially where there was no Tyndale text to follow.
The next translation of note and influence was the famous Geneva Bible which was largely the work of William Whittingham (1524-79). His NT version was printed first in 1557, and once more it was heavily indebted to Tyndale the real progenitor of all these later English versions. Whittingham’s one real innovation is that he changed the nomenclature of those books Luther was largely unhappy with from the Catholic Epistle to the General Epistle, which made Protestants of course feel much better. The Geneva Bible was widely read and accepted in the latter part of the 16th century, but when James of Scotland came to the throne of England upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, there still had not been a decision taken on what Bible might become the official Bible of the English realm. As it turned out, James had a passionate dislike of the Geneva Bible because its marginal notes did not support the notion that the Bible upholds the divine right of kings, a doctrine James was passionate about..

In 1604 there was a conference held at Hampton Court Palace convened by James in which he proposed to listen to the laments and complaints of both Puritans and Anglicans about church life in that period. Some of the complaints had to do with the Prayer Book, which the Puritans wanted abolished, something James was not prepared to do. Could he make a concession on another matter, which he saw as less crucial, that would placate the Puritans? The answer turned out to be yes and it led to the KJV.

John Reynolds, the leader of the Puritan delegation proposed a new Bible translation. James saw this as the concession that would ease the religious tensions and so the decree was made that “a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches in England in time of divine service.” It is not clear whether after the translation was finished there was an official authorization by the King of it as the records of the period 1600-1613 were lost in a fire. The translation was to be done by scholars from both Oxford and Cambridge (the only two English universities at the time) and the team of fifty four scholars was to be led by Lancelot Andrewes, Regius Professor of Greek and Hebrew of Oxford, however it is perfectly clear that James’ close ally Bishop Richard Bancroft is the person who laid down the translation rules for this English Bible.

Rule One read: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.” Now the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 was simply a smaller version of the Great Bible , meant to compete with the Geneva Bible, though it never eclipsed the latter. Notice that this rule makes clear that the scholars on the translation team were to do there best to follow an earlier English translation, and they are further instructed to stick with the most commonly used renderings in this and other earlier English versions. There process was to compare these earlier translations to the Hebrew and Greek text, and do there best to follow the lead of the earlier English versions. Rule 14 adds that they should consult Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s Geneva’s translations and follow them where they agree better with the original language text. The King James translators did not attempt, nor did they see it as their duty to, produce an entirely fresh translation based just on the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. As McGrath makes abundantly clear, they saw themselves as standing on the shoulders of giants like Tyndale. They were not trying to be innovators, but nor were they mere copiers of earlier versions, particularly in spots where there had been advances in original language study. And they were only as good as the original language manuscripts they had would allow them to be.
Erasmus’ Greek NT was based on five or six Greek manuscripts, none of which were any earlier than the tenth century A.D. Nevertheless, this allowed Erasmus to make some corrections of errors found in the Vulgate. The next edition of the Greek NT, the so called Bezan text (compiled by Theodore Beza in Geneva), has the same liabilities of not having any really early Greek manuscripts to follow. The Bezan text of the Greek NT came to be called the Textus Receptus, but this was not because it was any church ever officially pronounced it to be the best Greek NT text. It was simple the best available to scholars at that time, and the KJV team used it in their translation work. One other more technical point needs to be made. The textus receptus is not simply identical with the so-called Byzantine text that became so important in the eastern part of the Roman Empire from the 4th century onward. It is however close to it at many points. The vast majority of scholars today do not think that Greek text reflects our earliest and best text of the Greek NT.

Not surprisingly, considering where the universities were in England, and taking into account Tyndale’s own Oxford pedigree, the English that we find in the King James is basically the English of southeastern England, not the English of the northern part of the country (much less the King’s English, as he was a Scot!). it took from 1604 to 1610 for the six different teams of scholars to finish their work. From the start strong consideration was given to the aural dimension to the text, as it was primarily a translation to be used in public services. The teams undoubtedly read their translations aloud and tried them out on each other, something we could use more of with modern translations. In the original Preface to the KJV the Translators state plainly “Truly (Good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,… but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one…that hath been our endeavor”

It is interesting at this remove to also hear what Miles Smith, one of the translators of the KJV says about the authority and inspiration of the Bible. “The original thereof being from God, not man; the inditer, the holy spirit, not the wit of Apostles or Prophets; the Penmen such as were sanctified from the womb, and endued with a principle portion of God’s spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s word, God’s testimony, God’s oracle, the word of truth, the word of salvation”. Notice that he is not referring to his and his colleague’s translation work, he is referring to ‘the original thereof’.
There is no evidence that the KJV translators ever saw themselves as uniquely inspired to do what they did. Instead, they saw themselves as those who followed in the human footsteps of their predecessors wherever possible, making changes cautiously. They were under no delusions that they had created a perfect translation but they thought it to be the best yet available in English, and so it was. They also freely admitted that there were many words, especially in the Hebrew text, for instances names of birds, that they were very unsure how to render into English. The Preface is commendably modest about the difficulties and imperfections of all translations including this one. The translators realized of course that there is great difficulty in managing a balance between faithfulness and elegance.
Smith was both passionate and eloquent about how important it was for the translators to do their best to render the Bible into good common English, and he adds in that first preface “Translation it is that openeth the window to let the light it; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we might look into the Most Holy place, that removeth the cover of the well, that we might come by the water…Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep)..without a bucket or something to draw with. ”

Unfortunately, there were many printer’s errors in the first edition of 1611, which led to a second edition only shortly thereafter in 1613 where most of the errors were corrected. It was the decision of Bishop Bancroft that the original editions of the KJV would include the translation of the Apocrypha to the chagrin of some, and not surprisingly, in due course the Puritans lobbied to have it removed in later editions. Not surprisingly as well, various Puritans when they moved to America, did not bring a KJV with them. Their Bible of choice was the Geneva Bible.
We have in a short span here gone on a long odyssey taking us from the process that led up to the canonization of the NT, to the historical process that led to its translations into many languages, most importantly of all into English. There are many twists and turns to this story but at every step of the way two things are clear. Those involved in these many labors believed the written down Bible was itself one expression of the Word of God. They also believed that foreign language translations that were careful and faithful also could reasonably approximate the original language texts and so deserve to be called the Word of God in a secondary or derivative sense. But as Miles Smith pointed out—only the original thereof deserves that title in the full and complete sense.

Sunday School Teacher of 54 Years Dumped 'Beacause She is a Woman"

The story can and should be read here--- Watch the videos attached as well.

This story is disturbing on many levels and it reflects clearly enough the growing fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Church in general. Here we have a woman who had nurtured and served her church faithfully, using her gifts of teaching for fifty-four years at the same church, when the young recently appointed Pastor Lebouf, also on the city council of his town, has this faithful servant sacked.

In the letter of explanation thereafter the pastor cites 1 Tim. 2.8-15, which of course says nothing whatsoever about Sunday school since such a church activity did not exist in the first century A.D.

Remarkably, in the TV interview he granted, he said "women can pursue excellence in any other field they like, outside the church". But of course this is self-contradictory because the pastor's real problem seems clearly enough to be women having any kind of teaching authority over Christian men. So would it be alright for her to teaching male children who are Christians in a public school? If the man was consistent the answer would be no.

The pastor seems to think that the church is a world unto itself, and what one does in the church has no implications for life in general for a Christian person! This sort of schizophrenia is disturbing on many levels. And what is even more disturbing is that it appears that Mary Lambert was sacked actually because she disagreed with the pastor on several issues over a period of time, doubtless one of them being about women teaching men! If this is the case, then it is not an argument about principle at all, its just politics, with 1 Tim. 2.8-15 being used as a blunt instrument to sort out personal differences on issues that genuine Christians should be able to discuss and agree to disagree on. And I will say once more-- the problem in Evangelical churches is not strong women. Its weak men who are so insecure that they feel threatened by strong women and can't handle them doing various things the Bible allows them to do.

I must tell you that this sort of reactionary approach eventually will backfire. The Bible says nothing about anyone teaching Sunday school. It does certainly refer to Priscilla and her husband teaching Aquila in Acts 18. It does certainly refer to women praying and prophecying, a form of preaching, in the Corinthian worship service in 1 Cor. 11.

And of course most Southern Baptists have never interpreted 1 Tim. 2.8-15 as a ban of women from teaching in all church venues. For a very long time in the twentieth century and before the Southern Baptist Mission Board had women preaching and teaching all over the mission field. They also taught at home in their churches as well just not from the pulpit (another form of inconsistency).

And yes there were even some Southern Baptist churches in America where women were preachers (and p.s. there still are some, bucking the tide). In other words, this action in Watertown N.Y. not only breaks with what the Bible says, it breaks with Southern Baptist tradition and actual historocal practice.

Even more fundamentally it is a clear violation of historic Southern Baptist Church polity for some of the Southern Baptist Convention's leaders to try to bully local churches into compliance on this 'women' issue. Why? Because the essence of Baptist polity is the autonomy of each local Southern Baptist Church! Each local church is supposed to discern and pursue what they see as God's will for that body of believers.

My grandfather was a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church in Wilmington N.C. and he is certainly rolling over in his grave about now. The Baptist's have become in many quarters something they could never have imagined being in times past--- an authoritarian, top down, hierarchial, androcentric, non-democratic denomination! This change has not only led to the fundamentalist take over of some historic Southern Baptist seminaries, its tearing up local churches as well. And all over atrocious and anchronistic misinterpretations of what the Bible says about women teaching!

Sometimes, even though I am not a southern Baptist, I am ashamed to be an Evangelical when this sort of nonsense happens. Father forgive us for we sure enough don't know what we are doing!

Monday, August 14, 2006

"The Faiths of the Founding Father's"--- David L. Holmes' new book

It is a matter of no little contention whenever the subject of the principles on which our nation was founded comes up. Equally contentious is the issue of what faith or faiths our founding fathers (and mothers) actually embraced. Into this briar's nest comes a very readable compact guide to the latter subject in particular, which is well worth reading and comes highly recommended by Philip Jenkins and others. The title 'The Faiths (plural) of our Founding Fathers' (Oxford: 2006) hints already at the direction the author will pursue.

David Holmes is professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, which not incidentally or accidentally was also the college attended by many of the founding fathers, particularly the Virginians such as Jefferson (also Madison and Monroe). Holmes knows well the history of his college, including its reputation for being a center of Deism at the formative period in the 18th century when the Revolution was brewing. It was here that people like Jefferson became exposed not only to the thinking of English Deists such as Lord Herbert (sadly the brother of the olrthodox Anglican minister and poet George Herbert), Joseph Priestley and others, but also to the radical critique of Christianity by Voltaire, and the empiricism of John Locke and others.

What emerges from Holmes careful research is that George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all strongly influenced by Deistic thought (Jefferson and Adams in particular objecting to the idea of the Trinity, and in general the concept of divine revelation, preferring instead the idea that nature and reason revealed the character of God). In addition there was the syncretistic influence of Free Masonry with its pan-religious approach (involving a bit of Judaism, a bit of Christianity, a bit of Egyptian religion and more) which seems to have had a marked impact especially on Washington.

Holmes carefully documents how these founding fathers avoided getting confirmed in the 'state' church of Virginia (which was the Episcopal Church, unlike in most of New England where Congregationalism was the state church), and did not take the Lord's Supper in these churches by design. In this way they showed their objection to 'priestcraft' and what they took to be the corruption of the originally pure faith of Jesus which was not Trinitarian and did not involve the worship of Jesus. This did not make these men either secular humanists or 'free thinkers' in the broad sense. Our country was certainly not founded by secular humanists. Not even Thomas Paine deserves that anachronistic label. It was however founded by people whose religious beliefs ranged from non-Christian Deism to more Christian Deism, to, in the case of people like Samuel Adams, John Jay and Patrick Henry, orthodox Christianity.

More tellingly, none of the first five presidents would appear to have been orthodox Christians in any modern sense of the term. Indeed most modern Evangelicals would think of them as like either contemporary nominal or very liberal episcopalians (cf. Bishop Spong), if not actual heretics (e.g. in the case of Jefferson who rejected the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of the Bible as revealed religion and so on).

As Holmes points out however, better things can be said of some of the wives of the first Presidents who were much more orthodox and church attending than there husbands (e.g. Martha Washington for example). Holmes convincingly explains the reason for this difference between the Presidents and some of their First Ladies: 1) the women were not allowed to go to college, and so were not subject to the skepticism of Deistic professors; 2) the women could not join organizations like the Masons which encouraged a more pan-religious and Deistic approach to things; 3) the women were charged with educating their children with the tools at hand, the primary tool of course being the Bible. There are other reasons but these make good sense, as the spiritual nurture of the children had been left in their hands. It was the women who arranged the baptisms, weddings and the rest. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Perhaps the most interesting though not necessarily orthodox of the first ladies was Dolly Madison, who grew up Dolly Payne in the Quaker community at Guilford College in Greensboro N.C., but left her plain ways behind when she became the hostesss with the mostess as the First Lady. Holmes has a good way of summarizing a myriad of relevant data, and sifting through the evidence for the relevant material. As he says, it is sometimes difficult to know the religious stand of some of founding fathers and mothers because they were not demonstrative on the subject, because especially in high church Episcopal circles the reaction to wearing your religious heart on your sleeve and being evangelistic was about the same as the reaction of the Anglican Church in England to warm hearted Methodist piety during the same period. It was in 'bad taste' and 'too individualistic and enthusiastic' as the common complaints went.

An especially interesting feature of this boook is that Holmes does discuss, in one of the latter chapters, orthodox Christians like Samuel Adams (yes the one whose daddy started the Boston Ale company which has a modern successor of the same name), John Jay and others. This is insightful because we are able to notice how they interacted with Washington, Adams and Jefferson and how different in their piety they were from these Presidents. This sort of comparative analysis is very helpful and makes the orthodox Christians stick out like a sore thumb.

The upshot of all this is of course that America's leadership at its inception was religiously pluralistic (in a Judeo-Christian kind of way; not like modern world religions kind of pluralism). In short there is no encouragement here either for the secular humanist theory of America's origins or for that matter for the 'our first leaders were mostly orthodox Christians' theory either. Sorry Timothy La Haye, and other Evangelical revisionist historians, but you need fact check as bad as Dan Brown did.

There is also in this book a very fine review as an Epilogue of the faith of the Presidents from Ford through W. It also is illuminating. What is most illuminating is that by any normal measuring stick, the one's most obviously pietistic and church attending were the Democrats, not the Republicans, make of that what you will. What is equally telling is that they were all Protestants of one sort or another, with George Bush senior being the most high church (Episcopalian).

One will find out some unsettling things about Washington, Adams, and Jefferson especially in this book. For example, Washington's own pastor and the chaplain of the Continental Congress, Bishop White states plainly in 1832: "I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation" (pp. 162-63). He ought to have known the truth about this, and Bishop White was countering here early attempts at putting a halo over the head of St. George by writing hagiographic bibliographies in the early 19th century.

Holmes' summary is helpful: "Deists and orthodox Christians alike composed the revolutionary generation. Whatever their private beliefs, most maintained formal affiliations with Christian denominations. In the spirit of the times, some questioned doctrines that they believed could not be reconciled with human reason (e.g. especially Adams and Jefferson, and of course Thomas Paine). As a result they rejected such Christian teachings as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus. Yet orthodox Christians participated at every stage of building the nation, and many of the founder's wives and daughters displayed an orthodox Christian commitment." (p. 163).

Here are some questions for thought as a result of reading this book: 1) Is there anything in the Bible that suggests that democracy rather than rule by a king or a emperor, or perhaps a theocracy, is most favored by God? I don't think there is. There is of course plenty in the NT about freedom from sin and freedom to serve God, but that can transpire under various sorts of polities. There is also plenty in the Bible in general about justice, and respect of persons, loving neighbor and the like. But again all these practices can exist under varied forms of governments; 2) Is there anything in the Bible that supports modern notions about nation states, particularly about God blessing or especially favoring not ethnic groups (e.g. Jews) or religious groups (those in Christ), but certain nation states? I must admit I can't find it in there. As Paul says, Christians have and are part of a politeuma, a constituting government that is from above. This stands in contradistiction in Paul's mind to things like countries or humanly constructed empires (see Philippians). 3) Is there anything in the Bible that warrants an open rebellion against a legitimate governing authority simply because there was taxation without representation? This is just the opposite of what Romans 13 would seem to suggest. Paul tells Christians in Rome to pay taxes to the tyrant Nero! By comparison to Nero, King George of Hanover looked like good King George. And of course 'representation' in the colonial sense was very different from the plebs and the patricians in Rome during the Empire. 4) If you ask where the founding notions about freedom, democracy, pure reason, common sense, congresses, no taxation without representation, the electing of leaders come from in America, they seem to have as much or more to do with the spirit of the Enlightenment which was the Zeitgeist of that age (read John Locke who so impressed Wesley on certain points), than it has to do with the spirit or tenor or teachings of the Bible. This is of course a hard truth for patriotic, flag waving, freedom loving Americans to swallow, and I am one of them. But it does raise this question. Is it our Biblical absolutes or our cultural principles, however good, which have most shaped and continue to shape our nation and shaped its governing documents in the first place (e.g Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the Bill of Rights)? I am not sure personally how to answer that question in a full way. Think on these things.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Justification by Doubt

Scholars are a funny lot. I ought to know--- I’m one of them. Some are eccentric, some are eclectic, some are extraordinary. But when you participate in the rarified air of Biblical scholarship, a particular sort of historical scholarship, it seems that this discipline especially brings the peculiar out of the woodwork. Biblical scholarship becomes a ripe field where the odd try to get even. I guess this is to be expected since the Bible is Western culture’s number one all time bestseller, its number one artifact and icon.

But there is a particular trait of some Biblical scholars, indeed many of them, which I would like to comment on, on this blog, because it drives too much of what passes for critical Biblical scholarship. It is the tendency I call justification by doubt. A scholar tries to demonstrate his or her scholarly acumen by showing not merely great learning, but how much he can explain away, dismiss, discredit, or otherwise pour cold water on. This activity in itself is sometimes mistakenly called ‘critical scholarship’ apparently in contradistinction to uncritical or pre-critical scholarship. And having once trotted out this label it is then assumed that any real scholar worth her or his salt will want to be a skeptic so they can then be revered as a ‘critical scholar’. Otherwise they are not really being scholarly.

Here is where I call the bluff of those who think this way. I was recently reading a very fine manuscript by a friend and fellow NT scholar, Craig Evans. He says in this manuscript that sometimes skepticism is mistaken for critical thinking. Some scholars think the more skeptical they are the more scholarly they are being. He adds that adopting an unwarranted and unreasonably skeptical posture is no more justified when it comes to the Bible than adopting a gullible one that accepts anything and everything that comes down the pike masquerading as real scholarship. He is so right about this. Let it be said that the Bible has survived the critical scrutiny of many of the greatest minds that ever existed over the last several millennia. We shouldn’t think that it is now in danger of being explained away or set aside or shown to be irrelevant. As Jerome once put it “Defend the Bible? It needs about as much defense as a lion!”

My main point is this. Skepticism is itself a faith posture, a presupposition that affects and infects how one reads Biblical texts, just as ardent faith is also a faith posture. It is of course necessary for any historical scholar to recognize and take into account what his or her faith posture or inclinations or predispositions are as one approaches the Biblical text.

But here’s the rub. Some scholars, mistaking skepticism for critical thinking, assume that they are being ‘objective’, approaching the text in a value free way with no axes to grind, while person’s of ‘faith’ are approaching the text in a ‘subjective’ manner that is tendentious and necessarily predetermines the outcome of the interpretation of the Biblical text. This is not necessarily true at all on either side of the equation.

There is of course no purely objective value free scholarship out there. It is just that some do a better job of admitting this, and owning up to their presuppositions and inclinations than others do, and some do a better job of being objective than others. And I would say that it is those who are aware of their own commitments and take them into account and even correct for them that are the persons who really ought to be called critical scholars whether they are persons of no apparent faith, agnostic, or persons of one or another sort of ardent faith. A critical scholar is one who is capable of being self-critical and self-corrective, as well as being able to cast a discerning eye on this or that Biblical text.

It also needs to be said that it is not good scholarship to have as a beginning point a posture of distrust towards the subject of one’s historical study. One ought to begin with a posture of trust when approaching a certain historical subject, not with a hermeneutic of suspicion for the very good reason that proving, or even just showing a reasonably strong case for a positive after you have assumed a strong negative is virtually impossible to do. It is like trying to prove you didn’t do something. We all know how hard that is to do. Ancient texts deserve the same respect and benefit of the doubt and willingness to trust and listen at least initially that Biblical scholars want their colleagues to exhibit when evaluating their own modern works.

So in the end, justification by doubt is not a good starting point for critical scholarship. You haven’t necessarily explained something just because you think you have explained it away, any more than you have proved something just because you have demonstrated that the Bible claims this or that. Historical enquiry requires data to be analyzed, not lightly dismissed or simply received. Skepticism is no more scholarly than gullibility. But they both have one thing in common—they are both faith postures, not critical stances.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

John Updike's New Novel-- "Terrorist"

Today the news came across the wires that a major terrorist threat had been foiled by Scotland Yard, a threat to blow up one or more flights from the U.K. to the U.S. The alert status for the first time ever for flights from the U.K. to the U.S. was changed to red. With news like this cropping up on an almost daily basis, it is not a surprise that some writer would try to explain to Americans why some people hate us so much, why some people are prepared to blow themselves up in order to destroy some of us and our ever more fragile sense of freedom and security and well-being.

Of course there are the heart-rending stories that also give us hope. Tonight on the news was the story of a Jewish man in the northern Israeli town of Naharia whose two brothers were killed in a Hezbollah rocket strike, who asked that their organs be donated to others. One of the first recipients of one of these body parts, a cornea, was recently given to an Arab man who was blind in one eye and going blind in the other. A tearful meeting was held yesterday between the Jewish man and the Arab man. There were tears and hugs, and the Jewish man said ‘now we are brothers. We need each other.’ We need more of these sorts of acts of compassion and reconciliation in that part of the world.
Thank goodness that the person to tell the story of a Islamic terrorist is someone who actually has the capacity not only to write seamless prose (he has won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Howells Medal and other awards too numerous to count), but one who has an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his characters, in this case getting inside the very skin of a terrorist, an Islamic fundamentalist, a very bright and spiritual 18 year old boy from New Prospect New Jersey named Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy. But perhaps Updike’s greatest gift, taxed to the maximum here, is his ability to try and understand and view with sympathy a person like Ahmad.

Updike’s greatest writing gift is his ability to describe things accurately, tellingly, and movingly in detail. He has an uncanny ability to give us the exact feel for example, of what a decaying inner city neighborhood is like, what the struggle to survive in such an environment is like, what the hopes and fears are of ordinary people in such settings. There is some irony in this particular novel because Updike, as a Christian, has risen to the challenge of making his two major protagonists in this novel a devout Moslem and an atheistic Jewish high school counselor named Jack Levy. There is in addition the lapsed Irish Catholic mother of Ahmad, Teresa Mulloy, and Joryleen Grant an African American at the fringes of the African American Baptist community, but meanwhile turning tricks for her boyfriend nicknamed Tylenol. None of these characters would we naturally expect to become our ‘new best friends’. Yet through Updike’s magic we begin to see the world through the eyes of these people, and perhaps more tellingly see these people, even Ahmad through the eyes of Christ who loves them. And finally there is also Updike’s ability to absolutely take the pulse of our culture and accurately describe who and where we are at this point in time.

On this last point consider for a moment this passage where Jack the guidance counselor is having a conversation with Teresa about her son Ahmad. Jack says “Kids today have more to worry about that we did. At least than I did…. It’s not just AIDS and the rest; there is a certain hunger for, I don’t know, the absolute, when everything is so relative, and all the economic forces are pushing instant gratification and credit card debt at them. It’s not just the Christian right—Ashcroft and his morning revival meeting down in D.C. You see it in Ahmad. And the Black Muslims. People want to go back to simple—black and white, right and wrong, when things aren’t simple…. All I am saying is that kids like Ahmad need to have something they don’t get from society any more. Society doesn’t let them be innocent any more. The crazy Arabs are right—hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen the lyrics of these rock and rap stars…” (p. 205).

How right this observation is. The great desire for certainty and simplicity and purity in uncertain and unclean times pushes people, perhaps especially devoutly religious people to extremes of belief and behavior. It pushes them out of a trust posture and into a bunker mentality, an us vs. them mentality. It pushes them out of civic virtue and into private schools, private gated communities, private lives. It tears up the very fabric of community life which requires actually knowing and respecting your neighbor, never mind obeying the commandment to love them. Updike knows exactly what he is talking about, and this quest for the certain and the pure and the simple absolute answers in a dirty , fuzzy, pluralistic and relativistic world is precisely what is driving Ahmad, and indeed driving him mad.

I do not wish to destroy the story, with its tensions and suspense, and I would remind Christian readers in advance that Updike is famous or infamous for having a passage or two in his novels involving illicit sex, and this novel is no different. But there is much of redeeming value in this novel, including the fact that Updike helps us to understand the tensions in the Qur’an itself and the reasons Moslem’s disagree about what there religious duty is in relationship to perceived evil in the world.

On the one hand jihad can be interpreted to refer to a holy war on all perceived unrighteousness and wickedness. On the other hand the relevant passages in the Qur’an can be interpreted to refer to the inner ‘struggle’ (‘struggle’ is what the Arabic word itself means) of an individual believer to be pure, his struggle to live in a way that pleases God. On the one hand the Moslem holy book portrays God as a great Creator God who is merciful and all compassionate towards his creatures. On the other hand there are suras in the Qur’an that lead Ahmad to suggest at one point “Who says unbelief is innocent? Unbelievers say that. God says, in the Qur’an ‘Be ruthless to unbelievers’ Burn them, crush them, because they have forgotten God. They think themselves to be sufficient. They love this present life more than the next.” (p. 294). Of course at this juncture Ahmad is speaking out of a devout young man’s sense of moral outrage at the world’s wickedness and sin and temptations. There is another and very different side to Ahmad as well, one less bewitched and bewildered by devils and anger, whether righteous or not.

Ahmad has been tutored at length and for years in the Qur’an by a Moslem holy man from Yemen. When one sees the devotion and detailed study involved it makes what most of us do to train our children in the Bible both insufficient and pathetically half-hearted. And no doubt the devout Moslem would point out to the Christian that he sees such tensions in the Bible itself, between the call to Holy war in Joshua, for example, and the Sermon on the Mount on the other. The same reason equally devout Moslems differ on the approach to dealing with evil (namely they can’t agree on exactly what their Holy Book requires of them in a given situation) is the very reason equally devout Christians disagree for example on the war in Iraq. Updike has the ability to raise the right questions, even the deeply religious ones, and one could say that this novel represents the man at his most probing and telling.

I would hope that many of you would read this novel, if for no other reason than we need to see ourselves from time to time as others see us, even as our enemies see us. And how they see us is of course distorted in many ways, but in other ways it is often accurate and telling. I have Moslem friends in various countries in the world. One of the things they regularly ask me is—“Isn’t American supposed to be a Christian nation which follows the teaching of Jesus? If so why then is it the number one purveyor of pornography, raunchy movies, arms and yes drugs to all sorts of immoral people throughout the world?” I have no good answers to such probing questions. I usually just apologize. But it helps me understand why some in a moment of anger might call this nation ‘the Great Satan’. We have so much more power than most other nations, and we seem to often use it in ways that certainly do not match up with the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. God save America from its own worst instincts and worst self. God save us all.


Shimmering, glimmering
Enticing to a fault
Always in the distance
Beckoning to be caught.

The illusion, projection
Of what we hope and dream
Always better imagined
Not being what it seems.

Leading the thirsty one
Down a dusty track
Through a blistering desert
Never turning back.

Oasis, respite
Mirror or mirage
Foretaste of glory
Or desert camouflaged?

Fantasies, fairy tales
Broken or borrowed schemes
Dead end ideas
Ephemeral as moonbeams.

Prosperity, wealth
Beyond one’s wildest dreams
Pleasure though fleeting
Glistens and it gleams.

Longing, lusting
For things beyond our reach
Driving our behavior
Not practicing what we preach.

Consumer, consumed
By the inner fire
Not the Holy Spirit’s,
Insatiable desire.

Transitory, temporary
Shelter from the storm
Something to nurse a life along
Someone to keep you warm.

Like David, wizened
And his Shunammite
A beautiful young virgin
To get him through the night.

Settling’s unsettling
To the heart and soul
Made for everlasting love
Not fleeting human dole.

Look now in the mirror
Remember what you saw
The person you’ve just glimpsed
Is you in the raw.

Stop praying for mirages
To suddenly be real
Stop measuring yourself
By how it makes you feel.

Stop measuring your worth,
By how much you’ve achieved
How much you have bought or won
Or suffered or have grieved.

God loves you as you are
Though the image has been broken
Grasp the everlasting life
Not its ghost or fleeting token.

Aug. 9th 2006

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I’ve got a genuine replica brain,
It’s a collectible rendition,
I grant it’s not the latest model,
But it’s in good condition.

It still processes data pretty well
Though there are some memory lapses
It knows the difference between good and evil,
And even between knaves and apses.

There’s minimal start up time with the help of good coffee
And it can occasionally multi-task
But if you want infallible or perfect
You’d best not ask.

This brain is not for sale,
Nor is it on permanent loan
But what with our new technology
I understand it can be cloned.

If you’re looking for help with the Bible,
Or music and books,
I’ve got a lot of things stuffed in the cortex
That deserves a second look.

If you find someone to clone it,
Please do make it known,
I would like a backup copy
Of my very own.

I’ve got a genuine replica brain,
Though sometimes the synapses aren’t properly firing
This accounts for the forgetfulness,
Just blame it on the wiring.

I was thinking of advertising this on eBay
But then I remembered I had a blog,
If you would like a data dump download
Then reply to this data log.

BW3 Aug. 8th, 2006

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Very Inconvenient Truth

There are a lot of truths that are inconvenient. Some of them begin by nagging you at the very fringe of your consciousness. You can ignore them for whole days at a time, but they just will not go completely away. At the most unexpected time they will suddenly jump on the front burner of your brain and fog up your thinking. Such a truth is global warning. My wife is a biologist and a botanist at a quite conservative Christian college--- Asbury College. The faculty there could not in any way be described as a hot bed of liberalism or ‘blue state’ thinking. It is interesting that even in this bastion of conservatism both religious and political, the truth about global warning has finally become undenial to even many nay sayers at such a place. Partly some of them came to this conclusion after becoming hands on in dealing with the aftermath of Katrina in places like Biloxi and New Orleans. All those Christian workers came back with a new understanding of how nature abused and ignored has an enormous capacity to respond with an overwhelming fury. The changing of the minds of many conservative Christians is perhaps a clear ensign that we are nearly to the point of recognizing we are dealing with an undeniable truth. Christians are sadly often the last to get religion about worldly things that have been obvious to others for many years. I say this to our shame.

Scientists of course pride themselves on trying to stick to the hard empirical data. They don’t tend to make grand pronouncements of any sort without a stuffed stat sheet to back it up. Well the stat sheet is now stuffed with evidence. The ten hottest years on record in our human history have all occurred in the last fourteen years. The most hurricanes ever in one season occurred last year. For the first time ever a huge shelf of Antarctica broke off and disintegrated into the cold waters that surround that continent. The perma-frost split in Greenland last year, for the first time ever, and the sound of huge underground rivers of melted ice can be heard in that land. And there is much more. Of the 946 articles written in peer-reviewed scientific journals over the last decade or so on global warming, they all had at least one point in common--- global warming is real and accelerating at an alarming rate as the green house gases increase exponentially in our atmosphere. Of course there are some popular articles out there that dispute this. None of those articles have been written by any of the scientists whose articles have been accepted in the major scholarly scientific journals. They did not pass the empirical data rigor test--- not even one. Global warming is no longer considered a theory. It is considered a proven fact—yes even in the heartland, yes even by scientists at very conservative Christian colleges. But perhaps you will offer the cynical response of ‘So what?’

If you have children or grandchildren, or are planning to have children, you can’t afford the luxury of that kind of response. Of course it is true that you can try to run away and hide from this truth, for instance by using escapist rapture theology. Who cares if the world is going to Hades in a handbasket, if you will soon be beamed up? But wait, what if the ‘rapture’ is merely a theory more dicey than Darwin’s, and as it turns out a theory without sound Biblical evidence?
What if there will be no escape from the problems of this world for the foreseeable future because Jesus told us to first evangelize all the language groups before the second coming? What if God expects us to properly tend and care for his good and beautiful garden-like creation until his Son comes back? What if when he returns instead he finds us sticking our heads in the sand, and ignoring the many ways we have bruised and abused the earth he created for our eco-system? What if our otherworldly redemption theology involves a gross distortion of the Biblical creation theology?

What if it is creation that God is setting out to redeem--- all of it? What if Paul was right when he says that all of creation is growing longing for the day when humans, and the creation itself will be liberated from disease, decay, death, pollution, poison, and putrefaction? What if there really are crises in this world as big or bigger than terrorism that affect every day lives of persons on all continents? Think for instance of the alarming rise in rates of various kinds of skin cancers, and of infectious diseases spread because the winters are not cold enough to kill off the bugs that carry these diseases in the breeding grounds in Africa and elsewhere? What if it is true that there has been a huge campaign of disinformation about global warming spread throughout the country, and especially throughout its religiously conservative sectors by big oil companies hungry for more profits?

My wife and I went to see ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ today. And I have to tell you, that whether or not you like Al Gore or agree with him on other issues is irrelevant. If even 10% of the data shared in this movie about global warming is correct, we have a moral responsibility as Christians if we love life, if we love our children, if we seek to emulate a God who loves the world he made, to do something about this now. Even if you don’t care about how this affects you personally at least you should care about how it will affect our offspring. And the interesting thing is we can do something about it. We can reduce our individual carbon footprints. We can stop buying gas guzzling vehicles. We can buy light bulbs that last ten times what the normal bulbs last. We can buy solar panels like you see all over the Middle East and harness the suns’ raise to heat our water. We could finally get our nation to be the last nation to sign the Kiyoto accords so we could all work together on this problem. Did you know that America has the lowest standards of any of the developed nations, including China, when it comes to demanding cars that are energy efficient? I could go on.

Salvation is a great gift from God. Its climax comes when by resurrection we receive new bodies and are fully conformed to the image of Christ. But can you imagine new bodies on an old worn out earth? How incredibly frustrating would that condition be? Have you really reflected on what 1 Cor. 15 means when it tells us that when Jesus comes back he will have some work to do. It will take some time. He will have to put some enemies under his feet before he turns the kingdom back over to the Father. And the very last enemy he must overcome affects all living things. It is not a particular nation. It is not a particular person, say the Anti-Christ. It is not a particular religion. It is death itself. Why is death the last and most stubborn enemy to be overcome by Jesus when he returns? Could it be that the renewal of the earth was just as important to him as the resurrection of believers, because the latter would have to live in the eco-sphere--- hopefully in a new or renewed earth? Blessed are those whom the Savior finds going on about the business he set for us when he returns—saving the world, not just the people in the world, but also the place where believers will finally live for all eternity if Rev. 21-22 is any clue. Think on these things.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Moslem observes Christian worship

John Updike's riveting new novel entitled "Terrorist', which I will be reviewing once I finish it, reveals a Christian writer trying to think into the mindset of Moslems angry with the West and its culture which is perceived to be decadent, decaying, and in various ways indecent and unclean.

The central figure of the novel is a bright teenager named Ahmad who is a practicing Moslem, son of a lapsed Irish Catholic mother and an Egyptian father, who was not a practicing Moslem. At one juncture in the novel, Ahmad is invited by a girl in his high school to come to an African American worship service where she will be singing a solo. Here are a few of his observations which are interesting and telling, since it is good to know how we look to outsiders.

"The mosque was a domain of men; here women in their spring shimmer...dominate....The black man hands Ahmad a folded sheet of tinted paper and leads him forward, up the center aisle to the front pews. The church is nearly full, and none but the front pews, apparently the less desirable, are empty. Accustomed to worshippers squatting and kneeling on a floor [for prayer], emphasizing God's height above them, Ahmad feels, even seated, dizzily, blasphemously tall. The Christian attitude of lazily sitting erect as at an entertainment suggests that God is an entertainer who, when He ceases to entertain, can be removed from the stage, and another act brought on." (p. 50).

What is striking about this passage is how accurately it depicts the casual demeanor of much of Christian worship, as if one were cozing up to an old pal, and also the consumer, or entertainment character of that worship which has come to dominate a great deal of what passes for large church worship.

I am reminded of Paul's call for orderliness in worship and a sense of reverence before God when he scolds his Corinthians who are all too eager to put their spiritual gifts on display in egotistic fashion. He reminds them, showing his sensitivity to how worship appears to the outsider "If therefore the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and outsiders or unbelievers (the former word is actually 'idiotai'-- meaning an uninitiated person) enter, will they not say you are out of your mind?" (1 Cor. 14.23). Worship as it turns out is not just for insiders, it is also meant to have a prophetic or positive evangelistic impact on outsiders as well.

This in turn raises the question--- what sorts or forms of worship are both faithful to God and inspire people, both believing and non-believing, to worship God, to be convicted of their sins etc.? What sort of worship is truly soul-stirring, seeker friendly, and also inculcates the sort of reverence for God that is of the essence of true worship (see. e.g. Isaiah 6). It is always a good thing to see ourselves through the eyes of those who are watching us, both with contempt but also with open minds. Therein we learn ways we can better glorify God and edify all those who come into his presence.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Supercessionism, Dispensationalism, and the Present Middle East Crisis-- A Christian Stand

In my current work on a commentary on Hebrews, I have been struck by how forcefully the book of Hebrews completely undercuts a Dispensational approach to the reading of Scripture, and while we are at it, to a blind and unconditional support of the present secular nation-state of Israel regardless of its military practices and policies. This is not to say that we do not need to be equally critical of the inhuman practices of Hamas and Hezebollah, as well. We do. But here are some of my reflections.

Let us broach the question once more of whether and in what sense Hebrews should be seen as a supercessionist document. On the one hand, it is apt to point out that there were a variety of forms of early Judaism, and various of them were highly sectarian. By this I mean that, for example, the Qumran community did not think that the form of Jewish religion practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem was just as legitimate as its own practices and beliefs. Indeed, it thought that Herod’s temple was hopelessly corrupt and would be destroyed, just as Jesus himself appears to have thought. It is not then, just the Christian form of early Judaism that could and did make a case for the obsolescence of the existing cultus in Jerusalem. However, the Qumran community, though a highly eschatological group, did not take the more radical step of suggesting that the Mosaic covenant and its practices in general were outmoded. This more revolutionary notion is found only in the Christian form of early Judaism, and in particular it is found in both Hebrews and in Paul’s letters, and in some respects seems to go back to Jesus himself.

In short, I do not think it is possible to avoid the scandal of particularity when it comes to the Christian form of Judaism. There was an inevitability to the parting of the ways between Christian and non-Christian Jews however long it took in different places, and the parting was only accelerated by the Pauline Gentile mission and its success.

Andrew Lincoln sums up well what is going on in Hebrews—“its writer holds that, while the Scripture is still the authoritative vehicle of God’s self-disclosure, the sacrificial system, the law and the Sinaitic covenant, of which Scripture speaks, have been surpassed by God’s new and decisive word in Christ, and so in terms of present Christian experience are no longer appropriate. The law, its symbols and institutions remain crucial for interpreting the fulfillment of God’s purposes in Christ but do not determine Christian practice. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice does away with the need for the sacrificial system (cf. 10.4-18) and indeed the covenant with Moses can be described as obsolete (8.13). It is in this sense that Hebrews can be appropriately called a ‘supercessionist’ document.”(Hebrews. A Guide, p. 114).

To this I would add the caution that the author no doubt would have argued that he was talking about the completion of the Jewish heritage in Jesus. He would have stressed, had he lived until today, that it is totally anachronistic to talk about the replacement of Judaism as a religion with Christianity as a religion. Our author is not talking about Christianity as some separate religion from Judaism. He is talking about what he sees as the true completion of all the Jewish religion was meant to point to and prepare for and be the basis of. Of course what he says in Hebrews would inevitably be viewed as supercessionist by those Jews who had not and did not see Jesus as the completion of God’s plans for them or the fulfillment of earlier covenants.

Sometimes, in order to escape the notion of supercessionist both conservative and liberal Christians have tried to cut the Gordian knot of this problem by suggesting there are two covenants in operation at once—- one for Jews and one for Gentiles, or one for Jews and one for Christians. Surprisingly enough we find this approach both in ultra conservative Dispensationalism and also in more liberal approaches to Paul and Hebrews. There is a problem, a very serious problem with both of these two tract models. They involve the renouncing of the claims of the NT authors about Jesus as the savior of the world, and also about the true people of God being ‘Jew and Gentile united in Christ’. It also involves applying a very different hermeneutic to the OT than we see being applied in Hebrews.

Here again Lincoln helps us: “Without the conviction that Christ was the surpassing fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant, there would have been no reason in the first place for Jews to have become Christians or to remain Christians under pressure (the issue for Hebrews) or for Gentiles to have become Christians rather than proselytes or God-fearers. Without the conviction that Jesus Christ is the decisive revelation of God for all human beings, however the implications of that conviction are spelled out, Christianity is no longer recognizably in continuity with its Scriptural foundation. The suggestion, sometimes made today, that Christians should think in terms of two covenants, one for Jews, based on Moses, and one for Gentiles, based on Jesus, does not allow Jesus to be the decisive revelation for the people to whom this revelation was given in the first place.” (Hebrews. A Guide, p. 118).

Just so. We must resist the temptation to whittle off the hard edges of this and other NT texts just to make life easier for ourselves. The scandal of particularity cannot be escaped by exegetical gymnastics or hermeneutical legerdemain.

Let me say however what this does not mean. In the first place it does not mean that Jews today are guilty of practicing a false religion, a false faith. This is not how either the author of Hebrews or Paul would have viewed the matter. Even when he painfully discusses the fact that many Jews have rejected Jesus (Rom. 11) and so he says that they have been temporarily broken off from the tree that makes up the people of God, he still envisions a time when they can and in some cases will be grafted back into that people. This is a completionist not a replacement theology, and Christians today must be always reminded that the NT is a Jewish book almost entirely written by Jews, and in the case of Hebrews for Jews. We must be very mindful and wary of how this book has been misused by later Gentile believers to justify all sorts of anti-Semitic acts.

And this brings me to the most important point. Both Paul and our author see salvation as a work in progress that will not be completed until Christ returns and the dead are raised. Only then will there be full conformity of anyone to the image of Christ, and only then will we finally and fully know who is saved and who is not. Between now and then the lost can be saved, and the saved can commit apostasy, and even when Jesus returns there will still be some saving yet to be done it would appear.

This means that Christians must live with the eschatological tension of already and not yet, live with the fact that they are in the midst of salvation history not at its end, and live with the tension that they themselves are not eternally secure until they are securely in eternity. This being the case, humility and not triumphalism is in order. As Jesus warned, many will come from the east and west and replace many of those we expect to sit at the messianic banqueting table. This in turn means that ‘the church’ has not replaced ‘the synagogue’. God is not finished with any of us yet, and God certainly finds reprehensible anti-Semitism in any form, much less in the form it took in Nazi Germany during WW II. If indeed Jesus died for the sins of the world, then he died not just for the sins of his present followers, but even for those who rejected and do reject him, at least in his role as world Savior.

My suggestion would then be that we follow the author of Hebrews’ word in Heb. 12.14 where we are called to pursue peace with everyone and also the holiness without which none of us will see the Lord. We should view every human being as someone whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. We should do our best to love everyone and be more concerned about our own Christ-likeness than other’s perceived lack thereof. We should get our own house in order.

This does not mean that we should neglect a prophetic critique of ungodly behavior whether by Christians or anyone else. For example, Christians have no business blindly supporting Zionistic Israeli policies that lead to the killing of hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, any more than we should support the hate-filled practices of Hamas or Hezbollah or Iraqi Sunni and Shiite bombers. Such support violates the very heart or essence of what Jesus himself called his followers to believe and to be. We need to repeatedly ask what would Jesus do? What did he do when confronted by violence? What did he urge his followers to do in Mt. 5-7? Think on these things.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Humor for Tired Parents and their Offspring

"Mary" said the teacher, "I'd like you to come up to the map and point out the Falklands." Mary dutifully came forward and did so. Then the teacher said "Very good, now Alexander, can you tell us who discovered the Falklands?"
Alexander quickly responded: "Mary did sir!"

A father lamented the fact that all three of his children were attending college. He kept complaining he was getting poorer by degrees!

Father to Son: "Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing at your age?"
Son to Father: No, I dont, but I know he was President at your age."

And in the kids say the darnedest things department I offer the following actual quotes:

"No person really decides before they grow up who they're going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you are stuck with."
Kirsten-- aged 10

How can a stranger tell if two people are married?
Demick age 8 says "You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids."

What are Dates for?
Lynette aged 8 says "Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough."

And lastly the Homer Simpson quote for today--- "Don't keep blaming yourself. Just do it once and then move on!"

Thursday, August 03, 2006


When idol becomes icon
The image turns grave
With darkest deception
Convex turns concave.

Windows on heaven
The icon’s true aim
If means becomes end
It’s not quite the same.

But breaking the making
Iconoclasm’s wrath
Is equally misguided
A mischosen path.

See through the icon
The larger design
Wineskins best function
To convey wine.

Sacred cows gilded
Become golden calves
We worship the image
Of things that we have.

Beauty without truth
The glass becomes stained
Verity strained.

Like art that is tainted
Like thoughts quite insane
Showers of blessings
Become Noah’s rain

July 31 2006

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Friday Night In Jerusalem---Fear and Faith, Devils and Dust

It was a warm June evening, and shabbat had just begun. I was leading some of my tour group through the Damascus Gate, down the Cardo Maximus, and to the Wailing Wall so they could see what was happening. The Cardo was packed with both Jews and Moslems and tourists milling around. The Orthodox and Hasidic Jews were mostly coming to and from the wall with their families. The Palestinians were out for a night of celebration now that their holy day had come and gone.

The Cardo gets increasingly narrower as you get further into the city and closer to the entrance to the plaza where the Wailing Wall was. It is lined with shops of all sorts, coffee shops, fruit stands, lingerie shops, you name it. At one juncture we could hear ahead of us rhythmic chanting and suddenly we were pressed up against the shop walls as a parade of young Palestinians went buy with their soccer jerseys on and their soccer balls in hand. They were simply having fun, but the young orthodox Jewish teenager squashed up against the wall next to me was afraid-- very afraid of the loud jubilant Palestinians, even though they were not bothering or antagonizing anyone. Taking off his wide-brimmed hat the young man with his long curls and all black attire put his hat over his face to hide his Jewishness, and then finally turned and faced the wall. I could almost smell the fear coming off of him.

Fear of course is a primal instinct or emotion. The fear can be rational and warranted or irrational and inexplicable. Whatever its source, it often leads to irrational behavior. Fear based practices are precisely what get major wars started. Our current Vice President is famous for enunciating the 1% doctrine. It goes like this. If there is even a 1% chance that someone could drop a major bomb on us, then we are warranted in engaging in pre-emptive strikes and taking them out. These of course are not the rules of engagement of the Geneva Convention, much less a rational policy. It represents a fear-based practice based in the 'get them before they get you' mentality. We see these sort of practices constantly played out in Israel by both the Israelis and the more radical Moslems. And it never solves anything. It just leads to more carnage, more acts of retaliation, and certainly does not fulfill any Biblical prophecies whatsoever, except the adage that we will reap whatsoever we sow.

I understand why that young man was afraid. He probably didn't know any Arabic and couldn't tell what the Palestinian lads were chanting. He probably had never had a Moslem friend in his life. Both sides are too busy anathematizing each other and protecting their children, in the form of preventing them from ever knowing children of other faiths, to make such personal knowledge or experience possible. Ignorance leads to prejudice which leads to fear which leads to violence--- over and over again. If your only images of the 'other' is casual contact or what you see on TV, you never do learn what makes them tick, what is important to them, or even why Jesus died for them as well as for us. And it is becoming harder for cross-- religious friendships to happen in Israel, especially now that the huge wall has been erected around Bethelehem.

The other day Roger Waters of Pink Floyd who was in Israel to do a concert in Tel Aviv (it was later moved to a town where both Jews and Moslems and Christians could all attend), was at the wall. You may or may not remember it was Roger who wrote the classic Pink Floyd song 'Another Brick in the Wall'. Well he signed the Bethlehem Wall with an epithet from that song. It is ironic that a secular rock musician is the only person I know of who this summer managed to bring young people of all faiths together for a concert and a fun evening. It is precisely these sorts of events where one gets to meet, and even gets to know 'the Other'. Notice it is not the religious leaders of any of these three monotheistic faiths who are sponsoring events which might lead to dialogue, understanding, and even friendship. Religion in this case is used to further polarize the situation by stigmatizing one another as 'infidels'. Whatever else one can say, this is not the use of religion Jesus intended when he commanded his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. There is no exegesis of those commands that could warrant the cynical conclusion that Jesus meant we should 'love them to death at the point of a gun'.

Instead of the 1% doctrine, I would like to propose the 100% doctrine. It goes like this. If anyone would come after, follow the example of, or even be a follower of Jesus, he or she must take up their crosses and follow him to Golgotha and beyond. This if course requires many steps of faith. But it also requires a renouncing of fear based practices as well. The only sacrifice Jesus calls us to is not the sacrifice of our intellects, but of our fears and ultimately of ourselves. You will notice he does not call us to offer our enemies as a sacrifice to God. Quite the contrary.

I wanted to take a moment and speak with that young Jewish boy, but there was not time enough for he fled before I could do so, and in any case my modern Israeli Hebrew is not that good. For all I know he might have been just as afraid of me as of the Palestinians. Religion in the hands of people who are chiefly motivated by fear, is indeed a fearsome thing, and is rightly to be feared. But there is a greater thing in this world than fear. Remember the words "Greater is he who is in us, than any of these forces in the world"?

The real issue is not whether we will live or die. Unless Jesus comes soon, we will all die. The real issue for Christians is--- will Jesus find us emulating him, will he find us faithful or fearful when he returns? Maybe Jesus was right to ask at the end of his famous parable of the persistent widow--"but when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?" I wonder. Most of the faith I see in action is either overwhelmed or overruled by fears, cultural prejudices, and sheer ignorance.

I recently was listening to Bruce Springsteen's fine album 'Devils and Dust' Here is one of the verses and chorus from the title cut.

"I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust.
We're a long long way from home Bobbie
Home's a long long way from us
I feel a dirty wind blowing
Devils and dust.

I got God on my side
And I'm just trying to survive
What if what I do to survive
Kills the things You love?
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God-filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust."

AMEN to that.