Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Film that Cried 'Beowulf'

Robert Zemeckis is a fine director of films, but even he must have thought he had bitten off more than he could chew by attempting to do a 3-D film which is mostly CG and part real actors blended together, using a dark Scandanavian legend as its script.

'Beowulf' is an olde Englishe heroic poem that dates probably around the 8th or 9th century dealing with 6th century events, legends, myths, though the oldest manuscript dates to about 1010. Many of those of us who were college English majors had to read this thing in the ancient script. Here is the first page of the oldest copy of the poem to the left here. Good luck, as it looks like the runes from a Tolkien manuscript. Which brings up an important point. A good deal of Tolkien's ideas for his enormous brooding myth came from Norse and Swedish mythology. Both Tolkien and Lewis were profoundly interested in that material, and discussed it at Inkling's meetings in the Bird and Babe pub in Oxford. After having an impressive version of Tolkien's masterpiece, could Beowulf also be translated effectively to the big screen?
Well the answer is both yes---- and no, as we shall see in a moment.

But for those of you who didn't have the pleasure of deciphering olde Englishe, here is a brief plot summary. Beowulf is a hero of a tribe called the Geats (Scandanavians who migrated to eastern England), and he shows up in Denmark to slay the monsters plaguing a group of lusty Danes who have been terrorized by a monster named Grendel (not to be confused with Gretel). Grendel it seems attacks a Danish meade hall named Heorot, killing a few people and otherwise putting a damper on celebrating in the meade hall (not a good thing during those long gray winter months in Dane land). Along comes Beowulf, slays Grendel, but the problem doesn't stop because there is Grendel's mother, and she is right royally ticked off. (Did I mention she's a seductive water demon played by Angelina Jolie). He has to deal with her, and then finally with a dragon in which battle he is mortally wounded.

No happy ending here, but then remember 'Hamlet' was also a play about brooding and troublesome Danes, some of whom have death wishes. It does appear that some of the characters in this story were real historical Scandanavian persons (for instance the Danish king, played by Anthony Hopkins, whom Beowulf comes to help), but one must remember this is a drinking song poem, and is surely mostly fiction.

But what about the movie itself. Surprisingly, since there is considerable violence in this film, it still gets a PG 13 rating. And though the movie aspires to be like an epic telling of a tale, it clocks in at a mere 1 hour and and 54 minutes-- think Beowulf Lite, less filling, tastes great. Let me say firstly that the 3D effect is indeed eye-popping. One finds one's self ducking swords and other flying objects from time to time that keep leaping off the screen at you. And in the acting department, Hopkins is still Hopkins, but this is not Oscar material here. Ray Winstone plays Beowulf, though only from the neck up. And the rest of the cast can only be called less than great Danes. This movie tends to show why the Dark Ages were labeled that-- the sky is dark, people and monsters can be brutal, and what could be worse than running out of meade and not being able to party? The meade hall scenes seem like something straight out of a frat movie, and the singing is just as bad. If Zemeckis is trying to convince us of the barbaric character of the age, he succeeded.

But what is interesting in this film is the distinction made between a hero, like Beowulf and 'the God Jesus Christ'. At one juncture in the film the Danish king is ask, after a raid by Grendel, if they should pray to and invoke 'the new Roman god Christ'. No, says the king, we don't need a savior god, we need a hero. There is one other slam at Christianity in this film. Looking back wistfully at the deeds of Beowulf as now past, one character bemoans that all the heroes are dead, and we are left only with the weeping martyrs of Christendom, which are seen as no substitute for heroes.

Now what is interesting about these observations, is while it is indeed based in some things going on in the original poem, they play very well today in western culture, a culture which exults heroes in the form of National Guard ads before the movie about service at home and abroad, has TV shows about 'Heroes', makes Marvel comic movies about heroes, and so on. Heroes with strength and courage, but also feet of clay are much preferred to a sinless savior who dies so that we might live differently than we do. We don't want to live differently. We want to party down, and then have a hero rescue us when we go too far.

But as Zemeckis so aptly portrays things-- Beowulf, hero though he may be, becomes an ongoing part of the problem, when he is seduced by Grendel's mom, and produces yet another monster which plagues the land. Heroes, as it turns out, cannot escape their fallen desires and lusts, and so while they can stop the bleeding for a while, they cannot save us from our darker natures and worst selves and are no final solution to the things that bewitch, bother, and bewilder us. This portrayal of Beowulf makes Oedipus Rex look appealing, almost.

As you will have gathered, I don't think this is a great film, but it is in small ways thought provoking, and certainly it makes for remarkable viewing with the 3 D effect. I certainly wouldn't take my children to this movie. It is too dark, and violent, and disturbing in various ways. But Zemeckis is to be applauded for the attempt to make a film in which hero worship is both portrayed, and unmasked in various ways. This is a film with which Freud and Jung would have had a field day.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Red Sox Nation Celebrates a Championship

There are gravestones in New England which have as their epitaphs-- 'he didn't live long enough to see the Red Sox win the World Series'. Until 2004, there were few who could even vaguely recall the last World Series championship-- that one won in 1918 with the help of some pitcher named Babe Ruth. It has been said of late that now that the Red Sox have won twice in a four year span, that the basic fatalism (some would call it Calvinism) of the region has taken a serious hit. New Englanders hardly know what to do with themselves in view of the Red Sox, the Patriots, and the resurgent Celtics, not to mention Boston College. It is indeed interesting how the psyche of a region becomes so linked to the fortunes of a favorite team, and that is especially so when one is thinking about the long on again, off again courtship between the Red Sox and New England, which more recently has become a consummated marriage that involves delirious bliss just now.

Some of you have wanted to know what some of my other passions in life are (other than my faith and Biblical studies) and certainly the Red Sox are one of them, ever since I went to Boston to go to seminary in the early 70s, and married a New England gal. Though I am from N.C., my favorite big city is Boston (second choices, Charlotte or Chapel Hill). This summer I got to go back and had a great seat in dear Fenway to see 'the olde towne team'. You will notice the pictures posted here. I even took the tour of the Park and stood on top of the Green Monster watching Manny Ramirez shag some fly balls off the wall. 1975 was when I plighted my troth to this team. That season was incredible, and the World Series was even better-- if Luis Tiant could just have pitched one more game. The 1986 World Series was more difficult to swallow. Watching a young Roger Clemens sitting praying in the dugout in Game 6 for three final outs in Shea Stadium which never came (due in part to a certain ball going through Bill Buckner's legs-- but he made far more good plays than bad that season). Nothing however could ever compare to the last four games the Red Sox played in 2004 vs. the Yankees to take the pennant, when they came back from the dead and won the pennant at Yankee Stadium--- sweet! Curt Shilling and his bloody sock will always be embedded in my brain, as will his giving all the glory to the Lord thereafter. No wonder several million showed up for the parade after the 2004 Series.

So, enjoy the pictures, and here's another litttle bit of who I am. If you are wondering why I also pull for the Braves, you must remember: 1) I'm so old that the Braves were still in Boston when I was born; 2) the Braves were the only team in the south when I was growing up, and I sure did love Major League Baseball-- still do :) It's the most American of all games, the national past time, and certainly a game that has consumed a lot of my past time as well.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mission: Hong Kong

This will be mostly a photo essay of my time in Hong Kong. I went to give lectures on my Revelation commentary at the end of August on the occasion of its translation into Mandarin, and expected a few hundred people to show up. 8,000 tickets disappeared in no time flat. Christianity is flourishing in both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. I have one former Asbury student Jessie Ng who with her husband has founded 14 churches in Manchuria, and another who has founded a rescue colony on one of the small islands of Hong Kong (there are some 200 islands there) to rehabiliate children 13-23 after rescuing them from the drug and sex trades. It is a remarkable ministry and remarkably successful, as it involves teaching them the Bible, teaching them basic education, teaching them to work, to cook, to play together, and basically everything. I am very proud of my students. Many of these teens, rescued out of the sex trade have AIDS including the beautiful girl in red.

You will also see some aerial and land shots of various places in Hong Kong, some of the wonderful Chinese food, and my hosts for the lectures.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Qumran Exhibit at the SBL in San Diego

The week before Thanksgiving every year, the Society of Biblical Literature holds its annual meeting. This year the meeting was in beautiful San Diego (normal daily temps raise from 53 to 68 or so F.)

One of the special features of this meeting was that we were able to go to the Natural History Museum and see the exhibit of several of the manuscript fragments from Qumran, including the oldest copy we have the Ten Commandments in Hebrew (the text from Deuteronomy), the oldest copy we have of any of the psalms, and piece d' resistance the Copper Scroll from Jordan. The Copper Scroll is in fact a treasure list, referring to various sites in and around Jerusalem where gold or something else was supposedly buried.

The Copper Scroll (known as 3Q15 because it was found in cave 3 at the Dead Sea in 1952) is without question one of the most debated of all the scrolls. Does it refer to a real or imaginary treasure list? Whose list was this? In 1960 dollars, it was estimated that this list refers to over 1 million dollars worth of treasure. Who could have had that much loot, and were there really any Essenes or Qumranites who had that kind of resources? Probably not. The Copper Scroll is a rarity because it is actually provenanced, by which I mean it was actually found in situ by an archaeologist, so we know exactly where it came from. What we do not know is what it's purpose or significance was. Perhaps the most plausible suggestion is that it refers to treasure actually in the Temple, and where it was to be hidden should there be an attack on the Temple, or less probably, where it actually was hidden when the seige of Jerusalem took place in the late 60s A.D.

I have posted here a picture of the Copper Scroll (upper right hand corner of this blog post) along side a nice aerial shot of the Dead Sea region which there was a picture of at the San Diego museum. The two satellite shots included here to give some perspective were also displayed at the exhibit.

One of the questions I get asked more than any other as a scholar of the NT period is-- What do the Qumran scrolls have to do with the NT, or how do they help us understand the NT? A few main points can be made.

Firstly, there are no NT documents of any kind found at Qumran, nor any evidence whatsoever that Jesus or his followers had any direct connection with this community. While this is a negative result of the consensus of careful scholarship, it is an important one.

Secondly, this community seems to have been a base camp for a group of Jewish sectarians known as the Essenes, an eschatological and sometimes ascetical group of early Jews. The community seems to have been founded by the Teacher of Righteousness in the second century B.C. as a split off from overly-Hellenized Judaism during the Hasmonean period. The Essenes seem to have felt that the priesthood during the Hasmonean (and Maccabean) eras was hopelessly corrupt, that the priesthoood and Temple under construction by Herod and his successors was also corrupt, and that God was going to intervene to cleanse the land and set things right, perhaps soon. In other words, this group was eschatological in character, and in this respect they were like the Jesus movement, and also like John the Baptist's movement.

Thirdly, it has often been speculated, and I am inclined to think it is right, that John the Baptizer may have at one time been a part of the Essene community at Qumran. Why do many NT scholars think so? For one thing, John is all about a water ritual, which we call baptism, and one thing we know both from the texts at Qumran, from the archaeology, and from Josephus is that these folks had all sorts of water purification rituals. At the exhibit in San Diego there was a virtual tour of Qumran and a lengthy presentation of the water channels, mikvehs or ritual baths, and other related matters. Clearly, water was a precious, much preserved, channeled, and much used commodity at Qumran. For another thing, look at the initial location of John the Baptizer. He was a 'voice crying: in the wilderness make straight a highway for our God'. Now what is interesting about John's being introduced in our earliest Gospel using this verse from Isaiah (see Mk. 1) is that this was one of the theme verses for the Qumran community at the Dead Sea, indeed it may have been the verse they used to describe why they were there and what there role was-- to be a prophetic voice calling lost Israel away from its corruption, both in the Temple and elsewhere. Thirdly, there is of course the asceticism of John, which is much like what we know of the regimen at Qumran. Fourthly, there was John's critique of the Herods, which eventually cost him his head.

Thus, while the Qumran materials do not tell us anything directly about Jesus and his followers in all likelihood, they may well help us understand John the Baptizer better. Of course textually speaking the real value of the Qumran scrolls is that they give us the earliest copies of many Biblical manuscripts, and have helped us with getting much closer to the Biblical originals of many OT documents. For example, the Isaiah scroll from Qumran, one of the largest and most complete scrolls from there, provides us with a text of that prophetic book which is literally hundreds of years earlier than the Hebrew text of the Masoretes from the early Middle Ages. It is interesting, and some would say inexplicable, why Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, has not done a more thorough revision of its text of Isaiah on the basis of this much earlier manuscript. But that is a story for another day.

In the end, I tell my students that the fascinating materials at Qumran remind us that eschatology was in the air in Jesus' day, and there were great expectations on the part of many that something big was going to happen-- maybe even a cosmic apocalyptic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. In such an ethos, Jesus' coming and saying the Kingdom of God was at hand was like throwing a stick of dynamite into an already burning building. It is no wonder there were such intension and passionate responses, both positive and negative to the ministry of Jesus with that sort of message.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"For God so loved Himself?" Is God a Narcissist?

I was recently reading through the proofs of a new book on New Testament Theology, and it was stated that the most basic theme or thesis of NT theology is --'God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit'.

There were various nuances and amplifications to the discussion, but the more one read, the more it appeared clear that God was being presented as a self-centered, self-referential being, whose basic motivation for what he does, including his motivation for saving people, is so that he might receive more glory. Even the sending of the Son and the work of the Spirit is said to be but a means to an end of God's self-adulation and praise.

What's wrong with this picture? How about the basic understanding of God's essential and moral character?

For instance, suppose this thesis stated above is true-- would we not expect John 3.16 to read "for God so loved himself that he gave his only begotten Son..."?

Or again if this thesis is true, would we not expect Phil. 2.5-11 to read differently when it speaks about Christ emptying himself? If the Son is the very image and has the same character as the Father, wouldn't we expect this text to say--'who being in very nature God, devised a plan to glorify himself through his incarnation' if God really is so self-referential? In other words I am arguing Christ, the perfect image of God's character, reveals that God's character is essentially other directed self-sacrificial love. God loves people, not merely as means to his own ends, but as ends in themselves.

Or take Heb. 12.2-- we are told that Jesus died for our sins, not 'for the glory set before him', and in view of how this would improve his honor rating but rather 'for the joy set before him'. That is, he despised the shame of dying on the cross, which death was the least self-glorifying thing he could do, because he knew of how it would benefit his people thereafter, and he took joy in that fact.

Or re-read Hosea 11 where God explains that his love for his people is not at all like the fickle, self-seeking love of mere human beings. But rather God keeps loving his children, whether they praise or love or worship him or not.

Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself.

If we go back to the Garden of Eden story, one immediately notices that it is the Fall and sin which turned Adam and Eve into self-aware, self-centered, self-protecting beings. This is not how God had created them. Rather, he had created them in the divine image, and that divine image involves other directed, other centered love and relating. It follows from this that not the fallen narcissistic tendencies we manifest reflect what God is really like, but rather other directed, self-giving loving tendency.

I like the remark of Victor Furnish that God's love is not like a heat-seeking missile attracted to something inherently attractive in this or that person. Rather God's other-directed love bestows worth, honor, even glory. Notice exactly what Psalm 8.5 says--God has made us but a little less than God (or another reading would be, 'than the angels') and crowned human beings with glory and honor. Apparently this does not subtract from God's glory (see vs. 1) but simply adds to it. God it would appear is not merely a glory grabber, but rather a glory giver.

I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I am off to the National SBL meeting (Society of Biblical Literature), and whilst I am away I thought I would leave this for you to bat around. I shall return to the blogosphere next week.

A lot of heat, and very little light is about to be shed in the next twelve months when it comes to political races, and we have already seen some truly surprising things happen-- like Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Guliani! Surely the eschaton is at hand.

I have no idea how the national races will turn out, but we have just had our gubernatorial (that’s an election where you vote for Goober :) contest among others in Kentucky, and the Republicans were thoroughly beaten in most of the races. At least from this vantage point, this outcome gives us an opportunity to reassess the whole issue of Christian aligning themselves with a particular political party, rather than evaluating candidates on an issue by issue, or candidate by candidate basis. We ought to be evaluating each candidate on their own merits, not on the basis of their current party affiliation. This of course requires more thought, instead of just pushing the straight party ticket button in the polling booth. Christians should be good citizens and be more thoughtful about who they vote for. They shouldn’t just listen to this or that Evangelical leader’s endorsements, even if it is someone like James Dobson or Pat Robertson who have considerable political clout.

In this particular post I want to suggest a series of steps Evangelicals should take in approaching next November’s elections. Some have to do with basic Christian obligation as a citizen of this country who appreciates the freedom and democracy we have, and then some of them have to do with critical thinking about issues and candidates.

1) DO YOUR HOMEWORK—There is really no excuse for laziness when it comes to being an informed voter, especially when we now have such a wealth of information online, and through other viable sources of news about candidates. Do not use the ‘cop out’ of ‘they’re all just the same’, or ‘no politicians are trustworthy’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’. If you have time to enjoy the freedoms you have in this country, then you certainly have time to become an informed voter. Period.

2) PLAN ON VOTING, EVEN IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED—The percentage of Christians who could vote but don’t is high, much too high, and the end result of such bad behavior is that we often get exactly what we’ve voted for--- Nothing! Or at least, nothing good. Do not let the fact that at this juncture there may seem to be no obvious candidate for a conservative Christian to vote for, for this office or that, deter you. There is better and there is worse, and you’d better figure out which is which, or what we will get is worse. This is particularly an urgent matter since in the last eight years things have certainly gotten worse economically and it terms of our relationships both with our allies and enemies. The politics of fear is trumping the politics of faith and sound reasoning repeatedly, and this leads to disastrous results in the long run for our country.

3) DO NOT BE A ONE ISSUE VOTER-- However passionate you may be about a particular issue, lets say abortion, you should never, never vote for someone simply on the basis of a single ethical issue. Never. Did, I mention not ever. Why not? Because there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence, and if you privilege only one such issue, you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating candidates. It is fine to allow a stance on one issue to be the tipping point such that you favor candidate A over candidate B, when otherwise it’s pretty much of a wash, but there should be no shibboleth. One illustration will have to do. In a crucial election during the time of the cold war, and with heightened tensions with Cuba. Kennedy ran vs. Nixon. Many people did not vote for Kennedy, simply because he was a Catholic, and we had not had a Catholic President previously. There were even stupid and ill-considered inflammatory remarks made about how if Kennedy got elected, the country would be subject to the influence of the Pope in some objectionable ways. Thank goodness such benighted ideas did not determine the outcome of the election. Kennedy was the right man at the time, and he helped diffuse the Cuban missile crisis. We need to learn some lessons from the political past lest we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

From here on, in this post, I will be talking about matters that pertain to critical thinking on the issues.


Life is complex, and so are ethical issues. One of the things you need to decide is whether it is more important to you what kind of person you vote for, in terms of character, or what the stances are of the person you are voting for. Sometimes we have elected well-meaning good Christian folks who couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. Sometimes we have elected very effective politicians, who nevertheless raised some issues for us because of their stances on particular issues. In a perfect world we could wish for candidates who are both skilled as public servants and have impeccable character. Unfortunately, this all too often not the case, especially because of the way our political process now works with PAC money and lobbyists and numerous other unhealthy factors determining who actually can be viable candidates for a major office. In the situation we are in, how much should the candidate’s agreement with me on my list of hot button issues weigh in my decision? How much should their apparent character weigh? What do you do if it’s hard to tell? These are important questions. Personally I would rather have a politician skilled in the art of compromise (which is of the essence of modern democracy and policy making) who is of generally good character, but with whom I may disagree with on this issue or another, than a devout but unexperienced and unskilled Christian person. Let me use an analogy. Would you rather have a surgeon operating on you in a life threatening situation who is a devout Christian, but not all that skillful and experienced in getting the job done right, or would you rather have a surgeon who has an impeccable record in regard to doing his job well, a stellar record of good outcomes when he applied his skills but whom you had some ethical disagreements? I personally would want surgeon B, if there had to be a choice.



Obviously, this list of vital issues is a moving target which will change in some cases, as our country’s situation changes. I wouldn’t think anyone would be weighing where the current crop of candidates stand on the Spanish-American war many moons ago! I would strongly urge Evangelicals not to limit their list to just personal ethical issues, such as matters of sexual ethics, abortion, and the like. These are very important, but as thinking Evangelicals you also need to weigh where candidates stand on various aspects of foreign policy—the trade deficit, the war in Iraq, or economic relationships with China and other third world countries, the position of the candidate on Darfur, the issue of nuclear regulation (in North Korea, Iran etc.), our relationship with crucial Moslem countries where we have a stake but are not embroiled in military action currently—Turkey, Pakistan, etc. In other words, we need to be global Christians, and think globally, especially if our first commitment is, as it should be, to the worldwide body of Christ and the worldwide spread of the Gospel.


Obfuscation and fuzziness has of course become a political art form, and sometimes this is because the potential emperor has no clothes, or hasn’t thought through the issues themselves. The last thing we need o our current situation is politicians who make it up as they go along, or show signs of constantly shifting their views, depending on which way the political wind blows. A good example of the latter would be stances taken on the gay marriage issue. Thus far, the only Democratic candidate for President that I have personally heard repeatedly say he is opposed to changing the current legal definition of marriage is John Edwards. Others have flip-flopped back and forth, depending on the audience. This may be a telltale sign of a lack of conviction on the matter, a very important criteria for evaluating candidates. Are they consistent in their views, unless they receive new information which legitimately leads to saying ‘I was wrong, and have changed my mind on that issue’?


I wish I could tell you that the above outlined process of discernment was easy, but it is not. And there will be ambiguities, and you will have to make some judgment calls. You have to accept that you may well make some mistakes, and all the more is this likely to be the case when there is no clear front-runner that an Evangelical Christian of any stripe might think was someone one ought obviously to vote for.

Over the course of the coming twelve months, pay attention to the ads, watch a few of the debates, read up on the candidates web sites, watch the primaries, and be prepared. It would be a great tragedy if only a minority of Christians voted in the next election who are eligible, and the country continued its downward slide as a result. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ could be changed to ‘you get what you do or don’t vote for’. Remember the old adage—all it takes for something bad to happen, or continue happening, is for good people to stand idly by and let that transpire.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


That winsome melancholy

Always became you,

Or you became it

Three shades of blue

‘Don’t interrupt the sorrow’

You once admonished

But when joy peaked through clouds

You were astonished.

Why must we major

In such minor keys,

As if it were the blues

That liberates and frees?

However genuine sadness

It isn’t the last word,

Life is not all suffering,

Nor is it all absurd.

No pit is so deep,

That love’s not deeper still

Emptiness fills no cavities

Pain never will.

Melancholy makes you heavy

It tends to weigh you down,

It has specific gravity

But is it so profound?

Or is it feeling’s counterpart

To the human fall,

‘Omnia anima triste’,

Happens to us all.

In the end a choice is made,

By each and every life,

To savor life’s inherent scent

Or focus on the strife.

The sorrow is interrupted

By resurrection fact

And God imparts to human hearts

The impact of that act.

God's yes to life

Is louder than death's knell

He's enacted triumph

Tracing tragedy's limits well.

Nov. 12, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Roman Catholic Women to be Ordained as Priests--- in St. Louis Synagogue!

O.K., I didn't see this one coming. I knew about the Womenpriests movement, a small number of Catholic women who have either ordained themselves or gotten themselves ordained (about 100 of them now worldwide, 37 in the U.S.), and I knew that the Pope had banned the first seven of these ordinands from the Catholic Church several years ago, but none sense (by which I do not mean 'nun sense' :). These women are tired of waiting for the Catholic Church to recognize the call of God on their lives and their gifts and graces. The article in the NY Times this morning tells us of two more '60 something' Catholic women pursuing ordination in a city that is a Catholic stronghold-- St. Louis. Here is the link----


What is unique and remarkable about this story is that these women sought out a female Jewish rabbi in a Reform synagogue for permission to have their ordination service in their sacred building, and the rabbi said yes. She knew the cost, and the cost is the severing of the good ecumenical relations she had had with the local Catholic Church heretofore. Yet in some ways this was a very appropriate place for such an ordination to transpire, since these womens' vision of ministry is right out of the Hebrew Bible-- they want to be priests, offering the sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of the mass. Not surprisingly when Rabbi Susan Talve informed the Catholic office of ecumenical relations of this, she was told that it was unacceptable and violated Catholic theology and praxis.

What do I think about this? Well, several things. Firstly, I think it would have been better and wiser for these women to seek ordination through an appropriate channel such as one of the many Protestant denominations that ordain women. But I suspect they did not see this as an option since they are Catholic through and through.

The problem in this case, in my view, is actually generated by the Catholic theology of Christian ministry, which I find inconsistent with what the NT says about ministers. If one has an overwhelmingly OT vision of ministry, informed largely by Leviticus, then it is understandable that one would argue-- 'ministry involves priesthood, in the OT only men could be priests, ergo, no women can be ordained to such a post'. I understand this logic perfectly well, my problem is that it is a logic grounded in the old covenant, and not in the new covenant where we have a very different vision and praxis of ministry.

For one thing, in the NT ministers are not priests offering sacrifices, and they are not called priests. The only priesthood in the NT is the high priesthood of Christ in heaven (see Hebrews) which is said to eclipse and make obsolescent all OT priesthoods, including the Levitical one. It is hard to escape that this is the core message of the discourse found in Heb. 3-10. The only other priesthood mentioned in the NT is the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Peter), and I do mean all believers. What Peter is talking about there is that all Christians have an obligation to intercede for others and to offer true worship to God, and as Paul was to say, to present themselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12). What Peter is not talking about is a class of clergy between Christ the high priest and us, the laity. In fact the whole clergy--laity distinction is not found in the NT. The LAOS is the whole people of God, whether they are ministers or not. There is a sense then in which we are all laity, and we are all priests. What the NT does not authorize is a new class of priests, much less an all male priesthood to lead the Christian flocks.

In the NT, what determines who can minister is whether one is called, gifted and graced to do some ministerial task, and whether the church has recognized those gifts in the person or not, and so laid hands on them. Mainly the NT talks about elders and deacons, and it certainly talks about female deacons, for example Phoebe in Rom. 16. It also talks about women prophetesses, and women apostles, but that is a story for another day. So, part of the problem here in my view is a failure of the Catholic Church to have an adequately New Testamental theology of ministry.

Read the story, and see what you think. I must admit that my heart is mostly on the side of these women, though I wish they had pursued ordination through more legitimate channels.


In a related story, authorization has been given from the Vatican for priests to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass once more, something that caused various French Catholics priests to lose their orders after Vatican II because they refused to stop using this ritual. This of course demonstrates that the Vatican is perfectly capable of changing its praxis, and the way the Mass is celebrated, if it wants to do so. The link for the story is below. What is of interest to me is that in a post-modern situation, the Catholic authorities have recognized the interest in and love for more 'mystery' in worship especially among the young, and presumably this is one reason why this practice has again been authorized.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Things to Ponder

My sister Laura gets full credit for sending me these things to ponder..... If none of them produces a smile, then you need to go eat a few prunes.

I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes.

Garden Rule: When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.

The easiest way to find something lost around the house is to buy a replacement.

Why exactly is it that we drive on the parkway, and park on the drive way?

Have you noticed since everyone has a camcorder these days no one talks about seeing UFOs like they used to?

In the 60's, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal.

How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?

Who was the first person to look at a cow and say, "I think I'll squeeze these dangly things here and drink whatever comes out?"

Who was the first person to say, "See that chicken there? I'm gonna eat the next thing that comes outta its rear end."

If Jimmy cracks corn and no one cares, why is there a song about him?

Why does your OB-GYN leave the room when you get undressed if he's going to look up there anyway?

Do illiterate people get the full effect of Alphabet Soup?

Why does it say 'concentrate' on the side of the orange juice can, if they really don't want you to know what they've put in there?

Why isn't 'jumbo shrimp' widely recognized as an oxymoron?

Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?

Friday, November 09, 2007

'Across the Universe' and 'Into the Wild'

Sean Penn has now directed four movies, and this two hour and 27 minute film is surely the best of the bunch. The movie is based rather closely on the true story of a honors graduate from Emory University, whose family trauma leads to his going 'walk about' all over the American west, and finally 'into the wild' of Alaska.

I have to say that I was quite unprepared for how profoundly theological this movie was, and it went right to the top five of my list of best 2007 films for a whole host of reasons.

This lovingly prepared and produced film is not just another nature flick or save the whales film. To the contrary, it is about the human journey, the spiritual journeys all humans go on., and the lessons of life one learns along the way. Emile Hirsch (something of a De Caprio look alike) gives the performance of a life time in this poignant film. Hal Holbrook should also get a nomination for best supporting actor as well.

It is truly too bad this film is only in limited release, as it deserves to be seen as widely as possibly, if for no other reason that it serves as a cautionary tale about the dangerous effect of bad marriages and bad parenting on one's children.

Chris McCandless was a remarkable, and fiercely independent soul. He had bought the myth of rugged individualism as found in Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' and in Tolstoy as well. He had bought the lie about how one does not need other human beings to be happy or fulfilled in life. He was also profoundly influenced by Transcendentalists like Thoreau. It is one of the most gripping moments in the movie when McCandless writes in his copy of Pasternak 'Happiness is not real if not shared'. But alas, he learned this truth too late.

There are other profoundly theological moments in the movie as well. In the desert south west Chris (who called himself 'Alexander Supertramp' whilst on the road) meets a man who has painted a whole hill with Bible verses and indications that God and Christ love us. Chris agrees that it is indeed all about love and God, but even later when the Hal Holbrook character tries to tell him that when you forgive, you love, and God shines upon you when you do so, he still does not apply the lesson. There were numerous chances along his great western road trip when he could have learned this lesson, called home, at least talked to his one and only sister who had never done him anything but good, but he stubbornly pushed on-- 'into the wild'.

Of course we can admire his strong sense of adventure. We can admire his courage and kindness and hard work and ingenuity as well. But there was a hubris as well involved, which was eventually to cost him his life. I will not spoil the film by revealing its end but it is both tragic and telling. He leaves a note behind saying that his life as been a blessing and he thanks God for the gift of life. But 23-24 is frankly too old to die, especially when one is in such robust good health.

Like so many road movies, this one two has its share of characters and cons, gypsies, tramps, thieves, and hippies that one meets along the road, which keeps the story moving and interesting. One sees along the way how Chris is an honest person, a very giving person (he gave away all $24,000 in his savings account to Oxfam before taking the trip), a non-materialistic person, and a person who refuses to take advantage of a young girl who throws herself at him. He has many virtues.

But alas, Chris has inhaled the heady oxygen of extreme freedom that comes with being entirely dependent on oneself (or so it would seem), and being alone in a remote place. But how free is a person really, who simply defines freedom as having no encumbrances, alliances, obligations, or limitations except those that are self-imposed? Freedom, real freedom is so much more than the absence of such things in one's life. It is rather the presence of peace, love, joy, God's best gifts and presence in one's life. As the NT says 'if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed', and one does not need to go to a remote place in the world to experience such freedom. Too late Chris gets a glimpse this truth. I would recommend this movie to anyone and everyone, but take your tissues with you. This movie will touch you in its painful honesty and truth, and its familiarity to anyone who has endured difficult family relationships.

Of a very different sort is 'Across the Universe', a musical featuring a selection of the wonderful tunes of the Beatles, lovingly rendered in new arrangements to good effect. If for no other reason than the music, which is excellently done this movie is worth seeing. But there are other merits as well. The cinematography is grand, especially the psychedelic bits and pieces. And there are interesting cameo appearances by Bono and Joe Cocker, to good effect. Furthermore, the male lead 'Jude' (as in 'hey Jude don't make it bad'), played by Jim Sturgess is very natural and convincing in his role. The weakness of this movie however is the weakness of so many musicals, its plot, or in this case the lack thereof. Julie Taymor the director deserves all the credit in the world for weaving into the plot lines from the songs as well as the songs themselves, not to mention the characters names' (and to some extent personalities) come from Beatle songs as well such that sometimes song lines drive the plot developments, which is interesting, but this cannot overcome the plot weaknesses. The attempt to set the story in the turbulent Vietnam War period, without actually having much connection with the war does not work very well, for this is mainly a love story about two people not really involved in the war. Still I am glad to have seen this film. But on a limited film budget, by all means go see and discuss 'Into the Wild'. You will be enriched and not come back with ticks or chiggers clinging to you either. You may come back humming Neil Young and Stephen Still's old classic-- "Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground, mother earth will swallow you....."

The Word as Sacrament

Traditionally, Protestants have recognized only two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There has been some debate about this amongst the more high church Protestants, but basically the position has been the same throughout recent church history. What is interesting about this view is that it overlooks the Protestant theology of and about the Word of God. While ‘de jure’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the Protestant sacraments, ‘de facto’ there has always been another one, and in fact one that has been seen and believed to have a far more regular and enduring effect—namely the Word of God.

The term sacramentum in the Latin has had various definitions over the ages of church history but perhaps the most familiar one is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ or more simply, a means of grace. If a sacrament is a means of grace, by which is meant a means of divine influence and change in a person’s life, then surely the Word of God and its proclamation, reading, hearing learning, memorizing is a sacrament. We just don’t tend to call it that. Consider however what is said about the Word of God in the NT at various junctures. The Word of God is seen as something living which dwells richly in the believer once received, probing and changing the person inwardly.

For example, Paul referring to his preaching of the Good News in Thessalonike in one of his earliest letters says this—“And we constantly thank God because when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as it actually is—the Word of God which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thess. 2.13). Paul is not talking about consuming communion wafers or getting wet, but he is talking about a means of grace that is at work in a person’s life.

Or consider the famous passage in Heb. 4.12—“for the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing life breath and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” What is especially interesting about this passage is once again we are referring to oral proclamation of the Word and its reception into the inner life of the person, and notice that what is said about the Word here could just as easily be said about the role of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (cf. e.g. what is said about the spirit in Jn. 14-17 or 1 Cor. 1-4 and elsewhere).

So much is the Word of God seen as a living and active thing in the NT, that Luke can actually speak about the ‘Word of God’ growing or increasing (Acts 6.7; 12.24) by which was meant it affected and infected many people and the church grew. Christians are exhorted in Col. 3.16 to ‘let the Word of God dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another’. In 1 Tim. 4.5 speaks of the consecration or sanctification of all things including food by means of the Word of God and prayer.

Much more could be said along these lines, but this is sufficient to establish that the Word of God is not only seen as a living thing, its proclamation is seen as something that changes things, including people, indwells them and saves, sanctifies, and illumines them. This surely makes the Word of God and its proclamation and reception a sacrament on any normal understanding of the term.

This in turn brings me to a crucial point. At least in the Protestant Church we partake of the sacrament of the Word at greater length and far more often, than we do the other sacraments. It is far more influential and provides a far more lasting effect on the congregation simply because of the frequency of encounter with the Word, and its inward appropriation. If we are thinking pastorally about our flocks one of the things that we need to ask is—What is doing them the most good, including sacramentally, on an ongoing basis, as a means of grace? Here again the answer must be that de facto it is the Word of God.

I do not say this because I think we should neglect the other sacraments. I say this because we actually need a more sanctified view of the Word of God. The Word of God, when faithfully preached and openly received is far more than just preaching, or a good life lesson, or an edifying discourse. It is the unleashing of God’s transformative power in the human life. In short—the Word does things to the recipient that the recipient might well be unaware of at the time, much like taking a medicine the effects of which take time to be noticeable. There is of course a corollary to this-- the less one consumes the Word, the less grace, the less spiritual health, one is likely to have. In an age of Biblical illiteracy even within the church, it is no wonder that the church is sickly and open to all sorts of false teaching and its bad spiritual effects.

And there is more good news. Ever since Tyndale, the Word of God has been available to all and sundry English speaking persons. The Gutenberg revolution prevented it from simply remaining something chained to a pulpit. The Word of God can be self-administered as a sacrament, or it can be received from others. It is not something that can or should be controlled by clergy, dispensing it out as they deem appropriate. No, the Word of God has been unleashed from clerical control, and there is no turning back now.

This brings me to a crucial point. Every Christian needs a more sacramental, and sanctified life than they currently have, even if you are in a church that downplays the traditional sacraments. There is one thing you can do about that every day—add more Word to your diet! I promise it will be beneficial in many ways. Unlike Special K, Special W (the Word), really is special.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

AKEDAH-- The Bind

Did he ponder Isaac

Whilst hanging on the cross

A last second substitute

Before all was lost?

Is this why he cried out

'My God, My God' so loud

Showing disappointment

Before a hostile crowd?

Would God not intervene,

Offer another lamb

Or would he be passed over

A dangling great I AM?

Abandoned but begotten

Left to face his fate?

Would help arrive in ‘nick of time’

Or would it come too late?

Where’s the lamb, asked Isaac

And told ‘God will provide’

But Jesus died in plain sight

No place for grace to hide.

Jesus, like old Isaac

An only begotten son,

Isaac was no substitute

But Jesus was the one.

We like sheep have gone astray

Unblemished lambs we’re not

God led the One to slaughter

The Passover he’d begot.

Offering isn’t ‘finished’

Until the sacrifice

For any true atonement

Blood shed must suffice.

Behold the Lamb of God

Who takes away our sin

God accepts no substitutes

For Jesus, in the end.

Nov. 8, 2007


American Gangster-- The Godfather Revisited

Frank Lucas was a native son of Greensboro North Carolina, only fifteen minutes from where I grew up. It amazes me that I may well have crossed his path half a century ago, and of course not known it. He was the eldest of many brothers, and the one his younger brothers all looked up to. He moved to Harlem, and the story certainly goes downhill from there, eventually landing him in jail for fifteen years, not life only because he informed on dirty cops and numerous crime bosses in the NY and NJ area. The story is yet one more sad but true tale of how crime eventually does not pay. It is also a cautionary tale about the huge drug culture that we have had, and continue to have in this country. What was it that Jesus said about the things that most defile us coming out of the human heart, not in through the human orifices?

This Ridley Scott film (2 hours and 37 minutes), I have to say, is one of the best gangster films I have ever seen, in the same league with the first Godfather film or the French Connection, or Scarface or Serpico. If you see the film from Frank Lucas' vantage point, then it's more like the Godfather, if you see it from Richie Roberts the cop's viewpoint, you can still hear Popeye Doyle played by Gene Hackman in the background from French Connection fame. Like the Godfather this film has more than one world class actor in it-- in this case Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and Cuba Gooding plays an effective minor role as well.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Who would make up a story about a cop that passes the bar, and first gets a criminal like Lucas jailed, then defends him on appeal and gets his sentence reduced to 15 years?? It is an amazing and true story, though I gather that neither Roberts nor Lucas much want to talk about those old days from about 1967-75 any more. Lucas was released from jail in 1991, and Roberts is still around as well.

The story centers entirely in Harlem, and Frank Lucas becomes perhaps the most notorious of all African American kingpins ever, beginning in the turbulent late 60s. He is not only slick, and quick, and brutal when he needs to be. He is also very clever and thinks big-- importing heroin from Vietnam and Thailand directly--- in U.S. military planes carrying coffins! This took some engineering, not to mention some unbelievable gall.

I probably do not need to say this, but Washington puts in another sterling performance that is Oscar worthy, and Crowe is not far behind, though I was afraid that he would try too hard to imitate the Jersey accent, and mangle it. To his credit, he really doesn't. Richie Roberts might seem like a truly rare person-- a truly honest cop who will not compromise his integrity. He also is married to his work, and this costs him his marriage, and more time with his son. Neither Lucas as portrayed by Washington nor Roberts as played by Crowe are one dimensional characters-- the former is apparently not all bad (he at least loves his family and provides for them) and the latter is not a perfect saint either, at least in terms of his family and sexual life.

The seamy and steamy underworld of the drug trade in NY is very well depicted in all its darkness and wickedness, as one person after another is quite literally 'dying to get high'. The waste of human life in all directions is appalling, and the lack of conscience about it on the part of Lucas is equally appalling. In some ways this movie will remind many of the thriller from last year where the San Francisco reporter persists until he finds the serial killer. Like that movie, Roberts is like a bird dog following a scent who will not quit until he corners his prey.

The movie is nicely set up in terms of the two sides of the story, and only at the climax of the film do we actually have Roberts and Lucas meeting and talking, and what is interesting about their negotiations is that it is the hardened criminal who ends up having less steely resolve than Roberts. This was in some ways unexpected in view of the trajectory of the story.

The movie unlike some gangster films does not focus on the bad language or the violence or even the sexuality of the situation, but rather on the relentless rise to power of Lucas, at all costs, and the equally relentless pursuit of the identity and then the capture and prosecution of the criminal.

This is in some ways a morality play about the bigger you are, the harder you fall, or how eventually you will reap what you sow, but it has many other lessons to teach us as well. Here are some of them--- 1) what price success? In particular what ethical price success? Is success achievable without cheating, or bending the rules, or even crime? 2) Will cheating and crime be overlooked if only you are successful? What happens to a country's ethics that worships at the altar of success or winning at all costs? This film is certainly a cautionary tale on that subject.; 3) Is it a redeeming feature, or does it make the person more hideous that he genuinely loved his family and provided for them, all the while accomplishing this through the drug trade? I would say no, it is not a redeeming feature, indeed it makes the dark deeds all that more monstrous and hideous because the evil provided the basis for the 'good', so to speak. It is not unlike the recent revelations from Auschwitz as we now have film of the death camp guards leading a normal life and having fun in their off hours between torturing and torching Jews. This just makes the normal behavior all that more chilling. It requires a special schitzophrenia and pathology to accomplish this sort of dichotomy and still sleep well at night.

There is much more that could be said about this film, but I will end with a few final comments. It is the mark of a very good film that there is no wasted space, no filler, no gratuitous violence, even if it is a gangster film. It is also the mark of a good film (which is more than I can say for the Sopranos) that it does not try to gild the lily when we are talking about criminal behavior. The drug trade is shown for the hideous thing it is in this film. Greed is shown for the hideous sin it is, as well. Human falleness is not depicted as being truly human or as likable in this film, however much we may enjoy watching Denzel Washington play the role of Frank Lucas. Racism is shown for what it is as well.

Kudos to one and all who made this throwback film. It reminds us that in a fallen world, rust and rot never sleep, and honesty and truth are fragile things that must be doggedly pursued if they are to see the light of day.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Prosperity Preachers to be Audited by a Republican Senator!

In the 'it's about time department' a series of mostly Prosperity TV Evangelists are going to have to face financial accountability at the hands of a Republican Senator! Truly, the eschaton is at hand.

Here is the link to Laurie Goodstein's article in the NY Times this morning---


Charles Grassley is the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the issue here is whether money given for charitable purposes to this or that TV Evangelist's ministry has been used to feather the nest, build the house, buy the yacht, purchase the bling bling, etc. of the Evangelist.

To date, the six ministries that will fall under this probe are those of: 1) Creflo A. Dollar (you can't hide when you are a prosperity preacher with that name); 2) Paula and Randy White (see the upcoming article in Time Magazine by David Van Bema for which I was consulted); 3) Benny Hinn; 4) Joyce Meyer (who says these were all blessings from God showered on her personally... including a $23,000 marble commode! I hope that blessing didn't fall directly from the sky.); 5) Kenneth and Gloria Copland; 6) Bishop Eddie Long of Lithonia Georgia.

M.I.A. are Joel Osteen and Rev. Hagee of San Antonio, but perhaps they will be on a subsequent list.

The issues here are severalfold. Firstly, from a legal point of view, 'churches' do not have to file the IRS forms that tax exempt non-profits do have to file. With normal non-profits a 990 form is filed with the IRS as a useful form of accountability. But, if you can somehow construe yourself as a church ( applying for and get tax exempt status), even if you don't pastor a church, and then call yourself a tax exempt ministry (which falls into the category of church by certain current definitions), well then you can claim the money which comes into that ministry is tax exempt.

However if funds are diverted from this tax exempt 'ministry' for personal use, that appears rather clearly to be a violation of the tax code... a sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or in this case, a robbing of Jesus to pay Joyce, and others. As Senator Grassley has rightly stressed, tax exempt revenues have to be used for the tax exempt purposes of the organization. This might mean buying a new bus to ride to one's preaching appointments might be o.k. Buying a new marble commode--- not so much.

There are several helpful organizations which try and prevent such abuses of donations to tax exempt ministries. There is for example www.ministrywatch.com or the Trinity Foundation in Dallas. There is in addition the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability which many Evangelical Organizations are accountable to (for example the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). I am pleased to say that many many Evangelical Churches and organizations do indeed report and accept the guidelines and strictures of the ECFA and its auditing procedures. Sadly, many do not.

One of the reasons there is such a need for this in Evangelical circles is of course because so many Evangelical ministries are accountable to no one and nothing but themselves and their own self-appointed Boards or supervisors. They are not accountable to a larger denomination, or a federation of churches, or a bishop or the like, being so low church in polity, that the temptations and possibilities for financial abuse are huge.

There is the further problem with the prosperity teachers that they have long since provided what they see as Biblical justification for living a prosperous, indeed rich and opulent life style. In fact, it would be contradictory to their preaching not to do so, because otherwise they would appear to not be practicing what they preach, or put another way, it would suggest God wasn't blessing their ministry! It is indeed a vicious circle.

Sen. Grassley says that when he gets answers back from these six ministries they may look at others. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The sad part is that none of this would have to happen if either: 1) these preachers had a better theology of stewardship when it came to God's resources; 2) they had local persons who were not just their cheerleaders whom they held themselves accountable to within the ministry or church; and 3) they had a decent enough ecclesiology to realize they are accountable to the whole body of Christ as well, and many of us are watching--- and are appalled! To whom more is given, more is required and be sure your sins will find you out, are two phrases that immediately come to mind.

But sadly, if past performances are any guideline (e.g. the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker PTL Ministry scandal), one or more of these folks will be anathematizing the good senator from Iowa, getting their flock to pray against his probe, and otherwise demonizing the accountabilty folks. I hope that unseemly spectacle does not transpire this time. But we shall see. If it does it will be yet one more example of Evangelical Christians behaving badly.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

'The Golden Compass'-- Does Not Point toTrue North

I am not a person that is much in favor of banning things. For one thing it usually backfires (although the banning of the 'Da Vinci Code' movie after a brief release in China, seems to have accomplished some of the government's aims to avoid religious upheaval). Plus I do indeed believe in those amendments, including free speech.

However I continue to get red alerts from persons on both sides of the Atlantic pond that Phillip Pullman is not an author you want young Christian children to read or spend time with.
Www.snopes.com/ reports that Pullman, in an interview with the Aussie paper The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003 said that his books are about "killing God".

Peter Hitchens, a British commentator, (no relation to the atheist of the same name) calls Pullman the most dangerous author in Britain. Whether dangerous or not, he is certainly popular, and his novels have won various awards. The first in the trilogy we are concerned with, called 'Northern Lights' has now been made into a movie entitled 'Golden Compass' and released just in time for the Christmas rush season. Hollywood can of course do what it wants, but Christians have no obligation to support films with an atheistic, or better said strongly anti-theist point of view. Below you will find what the Catholic League says about the matter:

"Watch a video of the Catholic League's Bill Donohue discussing this issue here.

A film called "The Golden Compass" opens December 7. It is based on the first book of a trilogy titled His Dark Materials. The author of this children's fantasy is Philip Pullman, a noted English atheist. It is his objective to bash Christianity and promote atheism. To kids. "The Golden Compass" is a film version of the book by that name, and it is being toned down so that Catholics, as well as Protestants, are not enraged.

The second book of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, is more overt in its hatred of Christianity than the first book, and the third entry, The Amber Spyglass, is even more blatant. Because "The Golden Compass" is based on the least offensive of the three books, and because it is being further watered down for the big screen, some might wonder why parents should be wary of the film.

The Catholic League wants Christians to stay away from this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present. And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books.

"The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked" is the Catholic League's response. It provides information about the film, "The Golden Compass," and details what book reviewers have said about Pullman's books; a synopsis of his trilogy is also included.

If you would like to order copies, you can do so by sending $5 (includes shipping and handling) to:

Catholic League
Publications Dept.
450 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10123

Here is the link to the Catholic League discussion

If you want more check out the Snopes link----


In short, avoid this movie like the plague this Christmas. It appears to be a Trojan horse for its sequels, and you will remember what happened to Troy when that horse was allowed entrance into the city and lives of the Trojans. Forewarned is forearmed.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Parchman Lectures Now Online

Three of my Parchman lectures given at Baylor last month are now available online.... Here's the links----

Witherington #1 http://www.baylortv.com/video.php?id=001319
Witherington #2 http://www.baylortv.com/video.php?id=001320
Witherington #3 http://www.baylortv.com/video.php?id=001321

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James-- Bad Boys, Bad Boys Whatcha Gonna Do?

Jesse James was an outlaw. Indeed he was a ruthless killer and thief. He was also the son of a Baptist minister, and a family man. He led two lives-- one as Thomas Howard, and one as the bad hombre outlaw. He knew the Bible through and through, often quoted it as well. And a movie has finally been made that does some justice to the scope and complexity of both the man and his persona. It also does a masterful job of telling the story of how he came to be killed by another interesting character-- Robert Ford.

Jesse is played by Brad Pitt (who likely had a dog in this fight since he grew up in Missouri, which was the home region of James as well), and Ford by Casey Affleck, who, as with the movie 'Gone Baby Gone' has produced another powerful performance. One of these performance should get Affleck an Oscar nomination. Pitt may be in line for one as well.

The story actually begins at the end of James' train robbing career. More specifically it begins with the robbery of the last train job done by the James Gang, namely at Blue Cut Missouri. And actually it wasn't much worth it, as things turned out. Most of the earlier James Gang was incarcerated or dead by the time, and the riffraff that James had picked up for this job were by no means entirely loyal, and the end result was James became an outlaw on the run, who would soon enough run out of time.

The cinematography of this film is spectacular and mystical in some respect-- time slows down at crucial junctures and we see through a glass darkly. This makes the film seem even longer than its 2 hours and 40 minutes, but it is worth watching. It is not actually a film all about killing and robbing. Indeed, it could hardly be called much of an action film at all. It is more of a character study of two interesting, and immoral men, both with a lust for fame and fortune. Ford is the hero worshipper of James, and considerably his junior (James is in his 30s, Ford only 19 when their paths first cross in Missouri). Alas, the James of the nickel novels and story books is not actually the full or real deal, as Ford was to discover. At a crucial juncture in the film James asks Ford-- "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" It often seems that the answer is the latter, and that in turn requires that eventually James be taken off the scene once and for all.

In some ways this film is Hitchcockian in character, as it plays up and plays on the psychological dynamics of two unbalanced or imbalanced men, and we see both the desire and dread in their eyes over and over again. James is world weary by the time we catch up with him in this film, but Ford is a young man on the make. It is revealing that after he killed James, Ford actually appeared in the NY Theater as himself, with his own brother playing James-- re-enacting over 800 times the way he gunned Jesse James down! But a strange thing happened on the way to fame and fortune for Mr. Ford-- instead of becoming adored, applauded, or even thanked by the widows of James' victims, he became despised, and portrayed as a Judas figure-- one who betrayed the American Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Never mind that Jesse James was not a noble figure. Americans did not like betrayers then (Ford gunned down James in his own home, with the wife and children at home, while he was cleaning a picture and did not have his gun on. He also shot him from behind), any better than they do now. As fate would have it, Ford met his own demise in his own saloon in Colorado various years later, and his killer was pardoned by the state governor, as the action was widely applauded as just vengeance on a Judas.

It is interesting that we have had two excellent westerns in this fall's crop of films (see the review of the 3:10 to Yuma film previously on this blog), and they are very different films indeed, with the James film being far more cerebral and thought provoking.

This film reminds us of something, we were also reminded of in the other recent Affleck film-- that murder is murder, who ever is doing the shooting, and whoever is the victim. And as such, it is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right, and one sin does not clean up the damage of another, nor does it bring back the dead or undo the previous damage. The Jesse James film intends to remind us of the very grave cost of taking a life, all the while reminding us of that Biblical message-- 'be sure your sins will (in due course) find you out', or as Jesse puts it in the film, 'when one's iniquity has reached its fullness'.

This is an adult film well worth seeing and pondering, especially since it raises the whole question about America's darker side, it's gangster and outlaw heritage and culture, and why exactly our nation has always been fascinated by outlaws, and has even frequently lionized them.