Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Odyssey and the Iliad-- Riding the Orient Express

When I was growing up I used to love to read both Marvel Comics and Mad Magazine. They were a source of no little enjoyment and fun. I remember a particular edition of Mad Magazine where they parodied the Odyssey and the Iliad. Alfred E. Newman went through a journey called 'The Oddity and the Idiot'. You can imagine that Greek literary purists were not best pleased.

Well I am about to embark on something of an odyssey, and you may well think I am an idiot to do it--- so naturally I am soliciting your prayers here and now. It may be true that "fools rush in where angels fear to tred", but when you are a called person in the Wesleyan tradition, you do tend to see things from the perspective of John Wesley, who famously said "the world is my parish".
On May 7th I leave for the land of OZ also known as Down Under, and Australia. I don't arrive until May 9th, since I am crossing the international date line, and I must go thru Atlanta, Honolulu, Auckland NZ, and finally Sydney. I will be there until May 16th teaching and preaching at Morling College and at Macquarrie University. On May 16th I leave for Indonesia, where I will do a conference for ministers and laity on the canonical and extra canonical Gospels, and various recent claims about the Jesus tomb, the James ossuary, the Da Vinci Code, the Gospel of Judas etc. Unfortunately a prominent press in Indonesian has translated various of these sensationalistic books into Indonesian and it has caused no little stir. Being the fire chief's grandson, I am called upon to go in and put out the fire. This part of the journey requires some extra prayers as you will no doubt be familiar with the tensions between Moslems and Christians there, leading to persecution and the occasional martyrdom.

On May 20th I move on to Singapore to preach and teach at the Aldersgate Methodist Annual Conference and I am there until May 25th. The good news is, they have a Starbucks near my hotel :) From Singapore I go to Izmir in Turkey, via Istanbul. I will be lecturing at the Ephesos meeting once again (see the picture above taken by Mark Fairchild at the last Ephesos meeting in May 2007). I will have a little down time, and plan to go with Mark to visit Iznik, Turkey. Iznik is in fact the Turkish name for the city of Nicea, home of the famous council which produced the equally famous Nicean Creed. Iznik however is also the home of something else famous-- namely Iznik tiles. If you know anything about artful and decorative tiles, you probably have heard of Blue Delft tiles. Well they in fact are the European equivalent (and imitation of) Iznik blue and white tiles.
On June 1, I move on to Moscow to be with my former student and friends the Tsutserovs, where I will be teaching NT Christology at Moscow Evangelical Seminary until June 9th. This will be followed by a flight to NY and then Raleigh N.C. where I will be picked up and taken to my own annual conference meeting in Greenville N.C. (home of real barbecue--- WOO HOO!) where I will be teaching and preaching until June 13th, when finally I get to come home.
There are many combinations and permutations of travel and events involved in all this travel through the Orient and back West again and I would be very grateful if you all would pray for 1) safety and traveling mercies; 2) my health so I can accomplish what the Lord would have of me, I need to be able to sleep well in these various places; 3) most importantly that the Holy Spirit will use me to accomplish what is needed and what the Lord desires. I will certainly be blogging about this and bringing home pictures as well. But in the meantime--- the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you. BW3

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Rise of the Young Reformed Enthusiasts

Tom McCall, a TEDS graduate has recently given an interesting talk about the resurgence of Calvinism amongst the young, including young scholars.What is especially interesting about it, is he gives it from an Arminian or Methodist perspective, and it is an appreciation of a good deal that is a part of this phenomenon. Here is the link----

Monday, April 28, 2008

On Choosing a Translation

Please find here a link to a lecture I have given at Asbury on how to choose a proper Bible translation for you. You will find similar guidance in a chapter in my book The Living Word of God. This also gives you a glimpse of why you ought to come and study with us here at Asbury Seminary :)



Saturday, April 26, 2008

Decisions on Earth Ratified in Heaven- the Opposite of Predestination

One of the more interesting sayings of Jesus with equally interesting theological implications is found in Mt. 18.18--" I tell you whatever you (i.e. Peter and the gang) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." The Greek here is straight forward, and the contrast between the present and future tenses have clear enough implications. One can point out of course the use of ean plus the subjunctive form of verbs, which with the future of the verb 'to be' in this case refers to a 'future more probable' condition, but the point remains the same. If the Evangelist, and/or Jesus before him had wanted to say "whatever is bound on earth, was already bound and determined in heaven" he could certainly have done so, first in Aramaic and then in a Greek rendering of the same. The fact is that Jesus here says the opposite. This saying, which is actually quite typical of early Jewish ways of thinking about such matters, and may reflect an inter-textual echo as well, is of momentous import for understanding Jesus' view of things.

Firstly, Jesus believes that decisions taken on earth, have eternal consequences. We of course can understand this in a discussion about soteriology-- see for example Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where earthly behavior by humans determines afterlife outcome. Heaven is not seen as the place where all things have been pre-determined, rather there is an inter-active relationship between events on earth and things in heaven. The influence can go in either direction.

Secondly, human decisions matter tremendously, and in this particular text Jesus is telling his close disciples that their leadership decisions are of such incredible importance and moment, that they had best be very careful what they 'bind and loose'. Now we could debate endlessly about what this refers to. In my view it has to do with decisions about community matters such as are described in vss. 16-17. The point is that there is a heavenly ratification of such a spiritual decision on earth.

Thirdly, we may compare the immediately following say in Mt. 18.19-- which tells us that if believers on earth come together and 2-3 agree on something (which assumes that Christ is there with them, and they are thinking within the parameters of God's revealed will) then "it will be done for you by my Father in heaven". God is said to respond to the human decision making process.

Of course there are numerous Biblical texts where God takes the initiative and humans respond. I am not for a minute disputing that. But a view of God's sovereignty that does not take into account viable human choice, and the fact that those choices can have heavenly and indeed eternal consequences, has not reckoned with the full scope of what the Bible says about the relationship between God's power and will, and the human response to the same.

Whilst, God could have done otherwise, he has chosen to allow us to be viable partners with God in ministry and the working out of his will and Kingdom on earth, beings capable of making un-predetermined choices that have incredible consequences. The issue is not the sovereignty of God-- the issue is how God has chosen to exercise his power and will. And what the Bible says about this is that he has not pre-determined all things from before the foundations of the world.

Human history is not merely a preordained play, played out perfectly to a pre-ordained script. On the contrary while there is a blue-print, or a general script, God has allowed, indeed invited us to make the drama like a night at the Improv, improvising our roles as we go, and making viable choices of moment and consequence along the way. Are we supposed to follow the general instructions in the script? Well yes, as they provide the boundaries beyond which we ought not to go and show us what character and kind of roles we should play. But of course we may fail to play our parts well, or indeed at all.

God's desires and will are not the same thing as what always or inevitably happens. But lest we think it is only about us just acting out are parts well or poorly, this is forgetting that God, the script writer has written himself into the play over and over again, and God comes again and again to correct, guide, goad, redeem, restore and so on, as the drama goes on. And since God is the lead actor and the star of the play, we are tasked with taking our lead from, and following the example of the lead actor and star, falling in line behind Him-- and that is the very nature of discipleship. Walking in the paths trod by Christ, for his namesake.

Think on these things.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tyler Hansbrough to Return to the Hill for his Senior Year!

I have to confess something. Tyler Hansbrough may be the pride of Poplar Bluff Mo. but he is quickly becoming my all-time favorite Tar Heel. And today he announced he is coming back for his senior season. Christmas just came early!

Lawson and Ellington have declared for and may go to the NBA, though thankfully they did not get agents, so they can come back if they don't like how the draft turned out. Hansbrough has a chance to be the greatest ACC four year player ever, in a class with Tim Duncan of Wake Forest, and Phil Ford of UNC, and David Thompson of NC State and Ralph Sampson of UVA (you must remember that Jordan and others were not four year players at UNC).

Here is a link to the AP article---

Here below by link is a connection to his own website.

Ehrman vs. Wright on the Problem of Suffering. Whose Right?

My friend and fellow blogger Mark Roberts has just posted the following, which I am copying to you. Check it out. BW3

Excellent Discussion on the Problem of Suffering

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, April 24, 2008 is hosting a fine "blogalogue" between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright on the problem of suffering. Ehrman, as you may know, has published the most recent installment in his series that might be called: "A Popular Scholar's Attempt to Get People to Stop Being Christians." This book is: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. I have not read this book yet, but, given what I've read of what Ehrman has said about it, it certainly doesn't break any new ground. But Ehrman has the attention of the secular media (like NPR), and he's an engaging writer (for a scholar). So God's Problem will surely sell plenty of copies. (Photo: Bart Ehrman)

N.T. Wright Laity LodgeI can't think of anyone I'd rather have "blogaloguing" with Erhman than N. T. Wright. In this conversation, Ehrman is way out of his league, theologicially. More importantly, however, Wright's approach to suffering takes seriously the biblical narrative of salvation.

Here's what we have so far in the "blogalogue":

Ehrman: How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith

Wright: God's Plan to Rescue Us

Ehrman: What About the Actual Suffering?

Wright: What It Looks Like When God Runs the World


This is frankly the UTube Christian video of the year thus far for me. Props to all those rappin' Nazarenes out there in the heartland. Get on up with your Good Self, Kanye and Eminem ain't got nothin' on you.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Quote of the Day-- $3 dollars worth of God

It has been said that too many Americans have been innoculated with a slight case of Christianity that is preventing them from getting the real thing. Perhaps this has something to do with how much of God people really want. Here is a quote from Wilbur Rees to make you think:

"I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please - not enough to
explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of
warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of him to make
me love a foreigner or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy,
not transformation; I want the warmth of a womb, not a new birth. I want
a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I'd like to buy $3 worth of God,

I especially like the line 'I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth'. This, I am afraid, is exactly what people want out of their worship and church experiences. Not something that demands them to pick up a cross, make major sacrifices and follow Jesus. Rather, they want something that makes them comfortable with who they already are and how they already are. They want acceptance as they are, not repentance so they can be who they ought to be. Think on these things.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

NT Rhetoric-- a Handbook

Some of you are politely relentless (if that isn't an oxymoron). One of the things various of you folks in the blogosphere have been bugging me about is explaining the whole business about rhetoric, and using rhetoric to analyze the NT. Well, I have finally capitulated and written a handbook for Wipf and Stock (under their Cascade imprint I believe) that will be out in the fall. But for you eager beavers out there in the cyber theology-sphere, I offer here a small sample chapter.


A. Rhetoric Redux—Its History

Rhetoric, from the Greek word, rhētorikē, had a long and interesting history before any of the authors of the NT were ever born. Plato and Aristotle both discussed the matter, and took part in the debate about how to define what it was. Rhetoric was to play a crucial role in the birth of democracy in the Golden Age of Greece. This was so of course because in a democracy people had choices, and had to be persuaded to pursue a particular course of action, or adopt a particular policy in the Greek assembly (the ekklesia). Aristotle for example insisted that rhetoric was so important that it was not fully separable from philosophy, and both Plato and Aristotle agreed that there were ethical issues involved in using rhetoric. The purpose of the various types of rhetoric should be furthering the good, the expedient, the noble, or the just (see e.g. Aristotle, Rhetorica 2.19.26). Rhetoric was considered an art which required the honing of rhetorical skills, and the careful practice of the craft.

Aristotle, who wrote the first great treatise on rhetoric that is still extant, traces the beginnings of rhetoric to two Sicilians, Corax and Tisias, who are credited with developing the earliest rhetorical theory (see Cicero, Brutus, 46). Aristotle weighed in on the discussion of definitions by insisting that rhetoric was “the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatsoever” (Rhetorica 1.2.1). By the time we get to Quintilian, the great summarizer and epitomizer of all things rhetorical both in the Greek and Roman traditions, he states that rhetoric, while it has many definitions is at bottom “the art of speaking well” (ars bene dicendi—Inst. Or. 2.17.37). But Quintilian was well aware that various definitions were in play (in Inst. Or. 2.15-1-38 he reviews them), and his simply worked well in the Empire, since democracies no longer existed. What is clear from studying the history of the terminological debate is that rhetoric was not just about informing people, it was about persuading and motivating them in various ways. Rhetorica ad Herrennium was to stress that the task of the rhetor was to address an audience in such a manner that as far as possible he secures the audiences agreement about something (1.2).

Though it is not completely clear at what point the division happened, there came to be two different approaches to rhetoric, one called Sophistic rhetoric, and the other a more serious and substantive approach. Sophistic rhetoric was to rise in popularity during the period of the Roman Empire, not least because more and more orators were afraid of expressing contrary or controversial opinions, and instead focused on being eloquent. The focus turned more to the form rather than the substance of the discourse. This is why Quintilian somewhat tamely defines rhetoric as the art of speaking well. This was closer to the Sophistic point of view than to the Aristotlean one which insisted that rhetoric had to do with philosophy and even the search for truth about something. Just how strongly many felt about Sophistic rhetoric can be shown by the strong, even vehement and sarcastic comments made about it. Philo for example called it mere ‘shadow-boxing’ (Det. 4), not a real contending for the truth, or some substantive matter.

But this matter was not just of concern to the well-educated elite, like Philo. Rhetoric was a popular spectator sport in the first century A.D. Most persons were either producers or consumers of some kind of rhetoric, and rhetoric had long been a staple of education, at all levels beginning with elementary education.

In elementary education, children would learn how to do rhetorical comparisons (called synkrisis) for the sake of the formation of their values—so they would know the difference between being a virtuous person and being a wicked one. They would also learn how to compose chreia short pithy stories which usually would have a memorable saying at or near the end of it—like for instance the story of Jesus’ discussion with the wealthy young man which culminates with the famous: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mk. 10.25). Rhetorical education would continue as the child got older and it was even made a staple item of higher education in Roman times. In fact, the rhetor came to be the person who dictated what was taught in higher education during the period of the Empire.[1] Rhetoricians were found in all the great cities of the Roman Empire, many of which also had schools of rhetoric, or at least schools which made rhetoric one of the dominant subjects studied.

Education was of course by and large the privilege of the more elite members of society, and it tells us something about the leaders of early Christianity that they could read and write, and various of them had rhetorical skills as well. Generally speaking rhetoric was part of the training of wealthy males seeking to enter the ‘cursus honorum’ climbing up the ladder of public office and pursuing a career in public life in one way or another, whether as a lawyer, a senator, an ambassador, a government employee or the like. While there were a few examples of rhetorically trained and skilled women in antiquity, such as Hortensia, the daughter of the famous rhetorician Q. Hortensius Hortalus, who delivered a public oration to the triumvirs in 42 B.C. arguing her own legal case, she was surely an exception to the rule, and probably gained her training in the home. Women were not in general either encouraged, or in some cases, allowed to pursue ‘higher’ education which means that even wealthy women tended to lack rhetorical training beyond the intermediate or even progymnasmata level (see Inst. Or. 1.1.6).[2]

But the progymnasmata exercises were actually extensive. One learned how to deal with the following literary forms and verbally form them in interesting and persuasive manners—













Thesis or Theme

Defend / Attack a Law

Some of these exercises were quite complicated and corresponded to specific elements in a speech of any of the three species of rhetoric. In addition, even early on there was training in declamation. One would be set a topic, sometimes trivial (‘in praise of a flea’ or ‘the shame of male baldness’) sometimes serious (‘proposition—that the emperor deserves to be worshipped’) and one would produce a speech to an imaginary audience about the matter. As I have said, most ancient peoples used rhetoric, and were avid consumers and critics of its more skilled practitioners. The more Sophistic styles were in vogue, the more one was likely to hear epideictic rhetoric in the market place and elsewhere. It could be the most frivolous form of rhetoric, but also the most eloquent and aesthetically pleasing. Epideictic rhetoric was to be especially associated with the rise of the so-called second Sophistic in the second century A.D., but those tendencies were already in evidence in the first century.

In an oral culture, orators might well make a considerable living, and some, like Herodes Atticus, who helped build the theater in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens, became very wealthy indeed because of their gift or eloquence. Consider for example a papyrus fragment dating to about 110 A.D. which reads in part: “Pay to Licinius…the rhetor the amount due to him for the speeches [in] which Aur[elius…] was honored.. in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver”.[3] This was more than a Roman soldier’s annual wages, according to the Roman historian Tacitus (Ann. 1.17)! The broad acceptance and indeed great popularity of rhetorical oratory is attested by important literary works which lionize orators, such as Athenaeus’ Deiphnosophists, or Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists. Not only did the popular orators have many fans, they were widely imitated. Notice it was the Sophists who were famous for their verbal pyrotechnics that made ‘news’. This proved to be problematic for those who wanted to persuade audiences on some serious subject, and who were unwilling to entertain or thrill the crowd with their verbal artistry. The alternative however was not to eschew rhetoric altogether, but rather to use it in a more substance and sober manner, all the while castigating those ‘Sophists’ who were not philosophically (or theologically) serious about what they were doing.

B. Rhetoric Redux—Its Form and Praxis

The art of persuasion had a multitude of rules and forms involved in its praxis, and it will be well if we lay them out in some detail here. There were three different species of ancient rhetoric--- forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. Each originally was used to address a particular social setting, and had distinctive purposes. Forensic rhetoric, as the name suggests was the rhetoric of the law court, the rhetoric of attack and defense and it focused on things done in the past. This was the type of rhetoric most frequently practiced in the NT era, and we hear samplings of it in the trials of Paul in Acts. Deliberative rhetoric was the rhetoric of the ‘assembly’, originally of the democratic assemblies in Greece, and was the rhetoric of advice and consent, trying to get one course of action or another, one policy or another voted on in an affirmative manner. The temporal focus of this rhetoric was the future, as change was sought in some policy or action in the near future. Finally there was epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of display. Its social venues included the agora (for entertainment) or the funeral for encomiums or eulogies, or at celebrations, say the proconsul’s birthday. This was the rhetoric of praise and blame, more praise than blame especially at funerals, and its temporal focus was the present. It did not seek to change beliefs or behavior or opinions or attitudes but rather reinforce the existing ones. It was possible to mix things up in a rhetorical discourse, say have an epideictic digression in the midst of an otherwise forensic discourse, but there was a certain way of doing this, where one made clear one was digressing. We see this practice in 1 Corinthians where 1 Cor. 13 is an epideictic show piece in praise of love in the midst of an otherwise deliberative discourse.[4]

During the period of the empire, epideictic rhetoric came to the fore, as flattery could get you advancement, or patrons, or at least noticed in a positive way. In a society which had a set, even rigid authority structure involving patrons and clients, with the Emperor being the biggest patron of all, the art of sucking up was the order of the day, not speaking truth to power. In such a setting it is no surprise that the rhetorical handbooks of the first century A.D. such as Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria which wanted rhetoric to be taken seriously focused on forensic rhetoric, since it was the form of substantive rhetoric most frequently practiced in that era. What is especially interesting about the NT, is that it more frequently exhibits deliberative rhetoric, as it seeks to persuade people to change their beliefs and behaviors. It should be added that deliberative rhetoric was however still in play in the Roman Empire, not in democratic assemblies, but in ambassadorial missions when one group or country was negotiating with others to conclude some kind of pact or treaty.

What is revealing about the predilection for deliberative rhetoric in the NT is that it suggests that the orator believes the audience is free to respond positively or not, and therefore needs to be persuaded. In other words, good evangelism, and good preaching involved persuasion, not manipulation and strong arm tactics. It may well be very revealing that Paul repeatedly called the house meetings of Christians meetings of the ekklesia—formerly the term for the democratic assembly, now the term for the assembling of Christians. Was this because Paul believed that the church was now the place where dialogue, discussion, debate could still be carried on, and should lead to important conclusions about belief and behavior? I think so.

In the NT era style often prevailed over substance when it came to rhetoric, and much emphasis was placed on stylistic devices, figures of speech, colorful metaphors, exclamation, apostrophes, wordplay, epigrams. These sorts of rhetorical devices are not lacking in the NT, but they are used to serve serious purposes about matters theological and ethical.

In regard to style, there were two major styles of rhetoric—the more reserved and formal Atticzing style, and the more florid and luxurious Asiatic style. We will have occasion to say a good deal about the latter since it turns up in abundance in the Pauline letters written to places in the province of Asia not surprisingly (i.e. Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon). In general Asiatic style tended to be more emotional, involving more colorful, longer sentences, lots of hyperbole and metaphors and the like. Attic style, was seen as more appropriate in some quarters, but even Cicero preferred the Asiatic style for his Roman trials as it did a better job of stirring the emotions.

A normal rhetorical discourse had three basic emotional phases, dealing first with the issue of ethos, then logos, and finally attending to pathos. There was an appeal to the simpler and more surface emotions, such as a feeling of being hospitable or friendly, or the capacity for laughter in the opening of the discourse as the rhetorician sought to establish rapport and his authority with his audience. Ethos was all about establishing the speaker’s character and making clear he was trustworthy and believable. Lots of things could affect one’s ethos. When the toupee of the rhetorician blew off in the agora in the middle of an otherwise compelling discourse he was having a bad ethos day, and his speech lost credibility. Logos refers to the real meat of the discourse, its emotion-charged arguments. In Greek arguments were called pistoi, interestingly enough. At the end of the discourse the rhetorician needed to appeal to the deep emotions—love or hate, grief or joy, anger or pity and so create pathos in the audience, so they will embrace the arguments not merely intellectually but affectively as well. When that happened, the act of persuasion had achieved its aim of winning the whole person or group over, body and soul.

There was a normal structure to a rhetorical discourse, though certain elements could be rearranged or omitted in some cases. The taxonomy is as follows:

The exordium is the beginning of the discourse, attempting to make the audience open and well disposed to what follows.

The narratio then explains the nature of the disputed matter, or the facts that are relevant to the discussion. This element could be omitted on occasion.

The propositio or thesis statement was crucial, and normally followed the narratio though sometimes it came before ‘the narration’. In a forensic discourse the essential proposition of the prosecutor and the defendant might both be laid out by way of contrast.

The probatio then enumerates the arguments for the proposition, supporting the speaker’s case. This might be, but would not necessarily be, followed by the refutatio the refutation of the opponent’s arguments. It is interesting that Paul tends to follow this taxonomy with some rigor. Thus in Galatians the real bone of content is delayed until the allegory is presented in Gal. 4 to create animus against the Judaizers, and in Romans Paul saves the refutation until Rom. 9-11 where he refutes the suggestion that God has abandoned his first chosen people.

Finally the peroratio sums up or amplifies some major argument and/or makes a final appeal to the deeper emotions to make sure the argument persuaded.

C. Beyond the Basics—Cultural Scripts and Ancient Persuasion

The psychological dynamics of any given culture are not only unique and particular, they are often difficult to assess. For example, what is considered humorous in one culture may well seem offensive in another, and likewise what is considered persuasive in one culture may seem unconvincing in another. It’s not just a matter of trotting out ironclad rules of universal logic. The issue is culture specific. I say this now because a fair bit of the rhetoric of the NT, will seem manipulative to us in our post-modern situation. It will look like emotive arm twisting, as we shall see when we examine in some detail Paul’s tour de force argument in Philemon. To some degree this reveals to us something important about ancient cultures. They were very different, and in various ways more emotive, than our cultures. Here saying a few things about the social world of the NT will not go amiss.

Ancient cultures were, to a far great degree than most any modern culture, collectivist cultures. By this I mean they did not promote individualism. Of course there were individuals, and indeed widely recognized high status one’s like an Alexander or a Julius Caesar, but identity in the ancient world was largely established by what group one was a part of, and by factors like geography, gender, and generation. These were all patriarchal cultures where the question, ‘who was your father’ was crucial. This is precisely why the Gospel writers had to go to such lengths to explain Jesus’ origins. Have you noticed that people seem to have no last names in the Bible? The very marker that most distinguishes one person from another in our modern world hardly existed in Biblical antiquity. Rather people were identified by their geographical point of origin (Saul of Tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary of Migdal [‘Magdalene’]), or by who their father was (Simon bar Jonah, John son of Zebedee), or occasionally by their religious affiliation or role (Simon the Pharisee, Simon the Zealot).

Even in regard to the issue of salvation, which we tend to see as a very individual matter, it is interesting to listen to how Paul talks about it. He says for example in 1 Cor. 12 that it is a matter of the Holy Spirit baptizing a person ‘into the one body’. You don’t merely become a new person. You are joined spiritually to a new group. Or in Phil. 2.12-13 he literally says “work out ya’lls salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in the midst of ya’ll (you plural) to will and to do.” I remember vividly the day it was brought home to me that the ‘you’s’ here were plural in the Greek. Salvation suddenly went from being an individual project, to being a group exercise, and indeed salvation was something that God was working in and into the group, its collective identity especially as it met together as an assembly (ekklesia). How does this affect the rhetoric of the NT? It was much easier to appeal to the notion of group loyalty, group identity, the need for concord and unity within the group, because the cultural scripts of that culture had already undergirded such a value.

Another factor which certainly affected the rhetoric was the fact that ancient cultures had totally different economic systems than ours, and on top of that were not democracies. There was no free market economy in antiquity. People ‘got ahead’ in life on the basis of patronage and clientage. It was a reciprocity culture, you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours. This presented enormous problems for Paul in Corinth, because when he decided to work with his hands, having refused patronage, this angered some of the more elite Christians in Corinth, and led to trouble. Even more difficult was serving up the rhetoric of grace in a culture where it was believed that there was no ‘free lunch’ that you did not get ‘something for nothing’. Rather it was all a matter of exchange. The idea that a human being, much less a deity would do an act of undeserved favor or give an unmerited benefit to someone, without either demanding or asking anything in return, made little sense in a reciprocity culture. Yet this is how Paul depicted the nature of salvation and the God of grace. It surely must have been a hard sell in many quarters, requiring considerable rhetoric to persuade. All other deities were ‘payback’ gods in antiquity. Why should the Biblical God or Jesus be any different?

Thirdly, all ancient cultures were honor and shame cultures. At the top of the value hierarchy in an ancient culture was not the dyadic pair of truth or falsity, or life and death (which certainly seems to be the top of the American value hierarchy), but rather honor and shame. The chief end in life was to obtain honor and avoid shame. If one needed to lie to achieve that end, so be it. If some needed to die to achieve that end, so be it. Establishing honor and avoiding shame was more important than truth, more important than life or death. How was one to change the cultural script so that truth was seen as the top value in the value hierarchy? This would take powerful rhetoric indeed. This did not mean that honor and shame, or life and death, did not continue to be very important to early Christians (cf. e.g. Paul’s remarks in Phil. 1.20 about avoiding shame), but they were not as important as telling the truth about Jesus. The rhetoric of the NT calls for a trans-valuation of extant cultural values in various ways.[5] A good rhetorician knew that he had to start with a person or a group where they were culturally, in order to lead them in a different direction. An appeal for group unity in Corinth was an easier sell in Paul’s time than it is today, precisely because of the collectivist nature of ancient cultures. It also accented just how badly the Corinthians had been behaving, following the rivalry conventions of the day and applying them to church life. In short, rhetoric in the ancient cultures of the NT era worked differently than rhetoric today, in various regards. The hermeneutical questions become difficult when one tries to transfer praxis from the early church to the church today, especially the church in the West, which unlike the Oriental church, does not have a collectivist and honor and shame foundation to build on.

D. Beyond the Basics—Good Rhetoric Hunting

One of the more interesting facts that is unveiled when one does a detailed analysis of the rhetoric in the NT is that various of the authors of the NT, especially Paul and the authors of Hebrews and 1 Peter, and Luke were capable of considerable sophistication (without becoming Sophists in the negative sense) in their use of rhetoric. We will have occasion to look at this in some detail in subsequent chapters. For now, it is enough to say that we find both elementary and more advanced rhetoric in the NT. But how should we approach this matter since on the surface what we have in the NT is Gospels, a history called Acts, letters, and an Apocalypse? On a superficial glance at the genre of NT documents, where do we find any rhetorical discourses?

The first and perhaps most obvious place would be to examine the various speeches we find in the Gospels and Acts. Do they reflect rhetorical conventions or not? Right off the bat, there must be a caveat. From what we can tell, the speeches in the Gospels and Acts, are mostly speech summaries, not full speeches. Indeed, various of the ones in Acts break off prior to conclusion as they are interrupted. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that a wide variety of such speeches, especially the ones in Acts, do indeed reflect rhetorical conventions and structures of various sorts. The NT writers obviously wanted their material to persuade people in a rhetoric saturated culture, and they shaped their materials accordingly.

Secondly, there was a dilemma for an orator who could not be present to deliver his oracle or discourse to the audience for whom it was intended. What was he to do? The answer was that he had to write down or have written his discourse, and send it off. Most often this was done using an epistolary framework, but sometimes even this was eschewed. 1 John, for instance, is very powerful epideictic rhetoric about Christian values, and it has no epistolary features at all. Not at the beginning or end of the document or anywhere else in 1 John do we see epistolary conventions reflected. Or consider what happens in Hebrews. Ancient documents were read aloud and from front to back. No one, hearing the opening of Hebrews in Hebrews 1 would ever guess this was a letter. They would assume it was a script for a speech of some sort. The fact that there are epistolary features at the end of the document simply confirms it was sent from a distance. It doesn’t make it mainly a letter. Indeed, 95% of the document conforms to rhetorical and not epistolary conventions.

But what about Paul’s ‘letters’? Here, clearly enough at the beginning and the end of the documents we have epistolary features. This is true enough, and some have argued that there are some epistolary features in between. But the vast majority of the material in any of Paul’s letters cannot be explained on the basis of epistolary analysis. What we have in the Pauline documents are letter discourses, meant to be proclaimed orally when the messenger arrives with the document in hand, rolls it out and dramatically delivers it. Letter discourses have both epistolary features and rhetorical features, and there is even some overlap at the beginning of the document.

The epistolary prescripts and/or the ‘thanksgiving prayer’ sections serve as the exordium for the discourse that follows, doing double duty. In fact, these sections, which establish the authority and ethos of the speaker, and establish rapport with the audience function in more of a rhetorical manner than in an epistolary manner. For example, there was no epistolary convention to offer a long thanksgiving prayer at the opening of a letter. A brief health wish perhaps, but not a longer prayer. And more to the point, there was especially no convention to provide a preview of coming topics in the discourse in an opening prayer in a letter. But a rhetorical exordium regularly gave a preview of coming attractions. And once one gets beyond the opening few verses of Paul’s letters, it is almost entirely rhetorical conventions that come into play and shape the various arguments which follow.

It needs to be stressed that all NT documents almost without exception, but perhaps especially the so-called letters are ad hoc documents, written for specific audiences, at specific times, and addressing specific issues. One could argue that some are encyclicals such as Ephesians or 2 Peter, or that they had a broader audience in mind (say one of the Gospels), but in each case all these documents are addressing the tiny minority group in the Empire called Christians, whether that involves one or more than one house church group. The rhetoric of these documents is specifically Christian in character and knows it is preaching to the choir. We have no NT documents written purely for outsiders, although we get a sense of what that would look like from some of the material in Acts, and from the Fourth Gospel which was written for Christians to use with outsiders “so that you might begin to believe Jesus is the Son of God”.

Before we begin to examine in detail the rhetoric we find in the NT, one final point should be made. One of the keys to understanding any rhetorical discourse, whether it is a full discourse like say Romans or 1 John, or it is a speech summary, like we find in Acts is that one needs to not only determine the species of rhetoric in play (is it forensic, deliberative, epideictic), but one needs to find the proposition and peroration of the discourse to find out what it is about, and where the argument is going. One of the real benefits of rhetorical analysis of the so-called epistolary literature of the NT is that if one can find the proposition and peroration of a discourse, understanding the many and sometimes convoluted arguments that follow the proposition becomes much easier as we know the point and purpose of the discourse. Of course it is true that an epideictic discourse seldom has a proposition statement, since it is not trying to argue a particular case but rather praise an already approved and embraced matter or subject. Nevertheless, as we shall see finding the opening thesis statement and closing summary is crucial when a document has such features, becoming a key to interpreting the document. Bearing these caveats, conditions, and suggestions in mind, we are ready to do more detailed rhetorical analysis of the NT itself.


If you were asked to define ancient rhetoric, what would you say?

Reflect on the differing species of rhetoric and their time frames. How does knowing these things help you understand the content of a discourse?

What are some of the cultural differences between the NT world and ours that might affect how rhetoric works and what sort of rhetoric might persuade?

How does a commitment to truth change the way rhetoric might or could be used?

[1] See my discussion in Conflict and Community in Corinth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 39-43 and all the reference there. See especially D.L. Clark, Rhetoric in Greco-Roman Education, (N.Y.: Columbia, 1957).

[2] E. Cantarella, Pandara’s Daughters, (Baltimore: John Hopkins U. Press, 1987), pp. 141, 214.

[3] R.K. Sherk, The Roman Empire, (Cambridge: C.U. Press, 1988), p. 195.

[4] On mixed rhetoric see Dionysius of Halicarnassus Vol. 6, Opuscula II, the treatise peri eschēmatismenon, and one can compare Demosthenes famous De Corona speech.

[5] For a brief helpful summary of the social world of the NT see B. Malina, The New Testament World, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2001).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


You know how your past comes back to haunt you. Well, ZonePerfect took my picture while I was in Jacksonville, and then posterized me on three make believe album covers. Here they are. Flattering is not the word I would use for these pictures, but they say humility is good for the soul (but what about humiliation!).

Me personally I would rather be posterized on an album cover like Dark Side of the Moon, or Hotel California, or Sgt. Peppers. But it is what it is..... all because I was once a rock and roller, and now I'm a Holy Roller :) The one closest to the truth is the bottom one, as I did indeed use to have long hair and played folk rock, and rock and roll for fun. As my fellow Tar Heel James Taylor once said "Hey Mister that's me up on the Jukebox."

Monday, April 21, 2008

The United Methodist General Conference-- April 23-May 2

Once every four years, representative clergy and laity of every United Methodist Annual Conference meet to discuss and enact important legislation that thereafter represents the official stance of the United Methodist Church on issues as varied as theology, ethics, church polity, ordination, and a host of other topics. Unlike many other hierarchial denominations, neither ministers nor bishops can speak officially for the UMC. The General Conference is the official voice of the church, and it only speaks once every four years. Thereafter it is up to the Judicial Council to exegete and apply the official positions and disciplines of our church. We have what can only be called a frenzy of democracy for two weeks as we debate and settle legislative matters, and thereafter it is a matter of implementation until the next General Conference four years hence.

This year's meeting will be in Fort Worth Texas, and it promises to be no less interesting or controversial than many of these meetings. My good friend Ken Carter who is one of the leading pastors in the Western NC Conference going to that Conference has now posted a call to civil discourse at this forthcoming meeting, a call with which I heartily agree. Here is the link to his post, on his blog:

There are many issues worthy of careful discussion, but in my judgment perhaps the one of greatest importance in terms of long term impact on our church is the question of whether Central Conferences should continue to be included as required attendees providing voting members at the General Conference meetings. Central Conferences are, for the most part, overseas Methodist Conferences which were founded by U.M. missionaries or other representatives of our church.

In my judgment it would be a huge mistake to disenfranchise these conferences and not allow them to come and vote on the important issues in our denomination. For one thing, they provide us with a whole variety of important cross-cultural perspectives on the global church, and our mission, helping us to continue to claim, as John Wesley did, "the world is our parish".

For another thing, they provide something of a theological and ethical balance to the American church which is too subject to the major cultural shifts in North America, often at the expense of the Gospel and the Bible's teachings. We not only need the two-thirds worlds voices at General Conference, we need their wisdom and votes as well. In an age when our church, and indeed most major denominations, are becoming more culturally inclusive and global in character, it sends the wrong signal entirely to not allow the Central Conferences to continue to participate fully and vote quadrennially with the rest of our church.

The cost of their attending should not be a major issue. If need be the American Church should provide all necessary subsidies. As I continue to travel around the world (leaving May 7th for Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, where I will preach and teach at the Methodist Annual Conference Meeting, and then on to Turkey, Russia, and finally my own Annual Conference meeting where I will be preaching and teaching June 10-13 in Greenville N.C.), I find that Methodism is alive and well in non-North American contexts, and it would be well if what Philip Jenkins and others have suggested would begin to come to pass-- that we would get more, not less leadership, of our whole church from the two-thirds world Methodist Churches, including our Central Conferences from Africa and elsewhere. Only so can we continue to claim "the world is our parish", and continue to fulfill the mandate John Wesley and Francis Asbury left for us beginning at that first Conference meeting in 1784 in Baltimore.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

No Payne, No Gain-- Pinehurst No. 2

Pinehurst No. 2, one of the greatest of all golf courses in the world, is also clearly, at least in terms of its greens, one of the most difficult courses in the world, and it sure humbled me on April 29th. It was a cold and windy Saturday, and it was hard to even feel my hands. The course was beautiful, but you can see the leaden skies. Honestly, I was just feeling blessed to get to play the course where two of my favorite golfers, Payne Stewart, and Davis Love, won major championships. You will find below a picture of me with the statue of Payne, who gave his life to Christ not long before he was tragically killed in a plane crash. The statue recreates the moment he sank the winning putt here on this course, and shows his instinctive reaction to doing so.

Robert Trent Jones sure knew how to create devilish greens. These are mostly crowned greens so the ball rolls off in all directions, and they require pin point accuracy in putting. Both Carnoustie and the Old course at St. Andrews have much easier greens than these!


For the world's one billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI is very important indeed. In fact, one could say he is the most important Christian in the world of any sort, by one sort of evaluation. Certainly if one evaluates such things on the basis of pure influence, then Benedict would have to be placed on the top of the list. I sat and watched the full worship service of the Mass celebrated in Washington for 46,000 attendees the other day, and was pleased with the basically Christ-centered message offered, as well as the apology offered to the victims of priestly sexual abuse. I was especially glad to see the Pope meet personally and in private not only with some of those very victims and apologize to them personally, but I was equally encouraged by his visit to a Manhattan synagogue as well. There is a lot of fence-mending needed at this juncture, as these are difficult times for the Catholic Church. It is furthermore encouraging that Pope Benedict may well be the most theologically well-trained and adept Pope in living memory. While I certainly do not agree with his theology of either ministry or celibacy as a requirement for ministry, I have been impressed with his pastoral approach to various serious problems the church faces. Last year we were privileged at Asbury to have the Pope's own preacher visit and share with us for a couple of days and preach in our chapel. It was a great honor, and one senses that in the 21rst century the best sort of ecumenism will gain new life and legs, as it ought to do. We have enough adversaries in the world who hate Christianity as it is, without helping their cause by Christians attacking other Christians. I have just returned from doing some lectures at the consortium of Christian colleges in Minneapolis. One of my hosts had to leave early, an Assemblies of God professor. He was in a hurry to get to N.Y. as he had been invited with numerous others to meet the Pope. He was truly excited. I must say I had to smile about this. Clearly we are in a better place when low church Protestants stop anathematizing the Pope, and treat him as a fellow brother in Christ who should be warmly welcomed to America.

Below you will find the full address the Pope gave in his first day in America at the White House. Let me know what you think.


Following is the official text of Pope Benedict's address on Wednesday at the White House, where he was received by President George W. Bush on the first full day of his six-day visit to the United States.

The German-born pontiff addressed a crowd of 9,000 in the Rose Garden in English.

"Mr. President, thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the elevation of the country's first Diocese — Baltimore — to a metropolitan Archdiocese, and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville. Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America's Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.

"From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation's founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the "self-evident truth" that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature's God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

"In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America's Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.

"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honouring those who sacrificed their lives in defence of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that "in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation," and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent "indispensable supports" of political prosperity.

"The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman. Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling, and the hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

"For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honour of addressing the United Nations Organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts under way to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's peoples. On this, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity -- as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God's bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish — a world where the God-given dignity and rights of every man, woman and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.

"Mr. President, dear friends: as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America!"

Monday, April 14, 2008

'Yes sir that's my Baby'

In response to the request to know more about my family, here are a couple of pictures of my baby girl (she ain't no baby, no mo') who was born Aug. 14, 1979. She is engaged to be married to someone she has known since grade school, John Lyon. You will find them both hiding in the apple blossoms in the second picture below.

They currently both live in Silver Spring Md. but Christy is moving to Raleigh N.C. as her company PPD is transferring her to a better job. She was born in Durham England whilst I was doing my doctoral work there, and among other accomplishments she has an honor's degree in psychology from Purdue.

Say a prayer for her as she prepares for a new job and marriage as well. Of course she is moving to near the Southern part of Heaven (aka Chapel Hill N.C.), so that should help.

The Debate Dawkins would rather Forget

Rabbi Smuley Boteach (yes, Virginia that's his real name-- how appropriate for a teacher) is one of my favorite rabbis. He is engaged and engaging on a whole host of issues, one of which is the issue of atheism. He sends me his newsletter and postings several times a week. Here below is a sample of one. I'd encourage you to go to his website and listen. A good time will be had by all

The debate Richard Dawkins Claims Never Happened. Click here to watch it at

Rabbi Shmuley was surprised to learn from a number of fans that his friend, Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, posted a statement on his website attacking Rabbi Shmuley, and denying ever debating him. The statement on reads: “Boteach organized debates, with himself as chairman, and I sometimes took part in debates with the outside visitors that he imported, for example Robert Winston. Boteach was a surprisingly impartial chairman, but he was always just a chairman, never a debater in any of the debates that I attended.”

This is, unfortunately, a particularly bold untruth. The debate, which took place at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, on October 23, 1996, attracted hundreds of students and featured, on the atheist side, Professor Dawkins and Chemistry Professor Peter Atkins, and on the religion side, Rabbi Shmuley and Professor Keith Ward, the Oxford University Regius Professor of Divinity. The Oxford L’Chaim Society (the student organization Rabbi Shmuley founded and chaired) student president, Josh Wine, was in the moderator’s chair.

Ironically, in a vote at the end of the debate to determine how many students had changed their minds upon hearing the arguments, the religious side prevailed and defeated Dawkin’s side, which might account for his selective memory.

The full two-hour video of debate from 1996 at Oxford University, along with a written-response from Rabbi Shmuley is now available at

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dialogue at Duke-- Paul and Women

Dr. A.J. Levine and I last night, April 7th, at Duke Divinity School had a cordial and enjoyable dialogue on the much belabored subject of Paul and Women. The audio, and perhaps also the video will soon be posted on the website of the Duke Socratic Club. Here is the link to their blogspot.

The event was very well attended and the dialogue was moderated by Dr. Douglas Campbell a very fine NT scholar in his own right, with a good Kiwi accent (i.e he's from New Zealand). Listen to the dialogue, which went on for about an hour and half, and see what you think.

The parable of the sower window in Duke chapel (pictured above), beside the poster for the event.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

'Leatherheads'--A Barrel of Fun

In Kentucky, George Clooney is big. Born in Maysville and related to that other famous Kentuckian of the same name Rosemary Clooney, George can hardly do any wrong in this state. Shoot, his movie even premiered in little ole Maysville, even though it was shot in Columbia and Greenville S.C. and the surrounding area. This PG-13 film clocks in at 1 hour 53 minutes, and frankly, its a lot of fun. Its part Keystone cops, part 20s period piece like that other Kentucky movie (Seabiscuit), part romantic comedy, and altogether enjoyable. Apart from the odd swear word and drunken fist fight (well, after all, its about football players--- 'big strapping men' as Rene Zellweger's character calls them), there is hardly anything to find fault with in this movie. Directed by and starring Clooney, and scene stealer Zellweger it has all the makings of a sure fire winner.

But alas, while it certainly has its moments of fun, intrigue, and some dialogue full of zingers, the actual heart of the story, about the rise of professional football, leaves something to be desired. There are some slow segments in this movie, and surprisingly enough they are mostly during the football scenes themselves. The climactic game at the end of the film mostly falls flat in the mud quite literally, and the conceit that Clooney could switch from one team to the other without anyone noticing is well, .... unconvincing. Don't go to this movie hoping for true football drama, and don't go mistakenly thinking its about leathernecks, rather than leatherheads.

But there are plenty of reasons to see this movie. On the plus side, both Clooney's character 'Dodge Connelly an aging footballer playing for the fictional Duluth Bulldogs, and Zellweger's character Lexie Littleton the newspaper writer both sparkle. Here is Universal's own synopsis of the movie:

"Oscar® winners George Clooney and Renée Zellweger match wits in Leatherheads, a quick-witted romantic comedy set against the backdrop of America's nascent pro-football league in 1925. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, a charming, brash football hero who is determined to guide his team from bar brawls to packed stadiums. But after the players lose their sponsor and the entire league faces certain collapse, Dodge convinces a college football star to join his ragtag ranks. The captain hopes his latest move will help the struggling sport finally capture the country's attention. Welcome to the team Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), America's favorite son. A golden-boy war hero who single-handedly forced multiple German soldiers to surrender in WWI, Carter has dashing good looks and unparalleled speed on the field. This new champ is almost too good to be true, and Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) aims to prove that's the case. A cub journalist playing in the big leagues, Lexie is a spitfire newswoman who suspects there are holes in Carter's war story. But while she digs, the two teammates start to become serious off-field rivals for her fickle affections. As the new game of pro-football becomes less like the freewheeling sport he knew and loved, Dodge must both fight to keep his guys together and to get the girl of his dreams. Finding that love and football have a surprisingly similar playbook, however, he has one maneuver he will save just for the fourth quarter..." --© Universal Pictures

This is a pretty apt description of the film, and it shows that this film really is about a romantic triangle between Connolly, Littleton and Rutherford, and I will leave to your imagination who actually gets the girl.

This I can say. This film is alright for families with older children, but probably too slow, and too much dependent on repartee for younger ones. John Krasinki who plays the 'Bullet' Rutherford is indeed a heart throb, and so there is enough tension in the plot to make it interesting.

It was of course a stretch for Zellweger to play someone who was 31. Born April 25th, 1969 she is in fact close to 40, but this is no more of a stretch than Clooney who was born May 6th 1961 right here in Lexington Ky. (his father Nick, was a newscaster) playing a professional football player when he is pushing 50. Nevertheless, if we suspend our disbelief a bit, and let the film unfold, its fun and funny in various ways.

One side benefit is that Randy Newman wrote the original songs for the show and even plays the piano man in the saloon in one of the movie's scenes, and these songs bring a little zing, and 20s flavor to the film that make it more light hearted and bring a smile.

In a time of dark and dismal films this one is light and charming, though its not quite got the punch of Lexie about whom Dodge opines--- "I know your kind. You're like a drink that comes on all fizzy, but ends like a kick in the head". This one ends more like a kick in the mud.... but then I like Kentucky mudpie, which is actually called Kentucky Derby Pie :) Bon appetit.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

'The Year of Living Biblically'-- An Ode to Biblical Literalism

I have to tell you that my favorite book of the year thus far is one I picked up in one of the many airports I traverse through-- 'The Year of Living Biblically', A.J. Jacob's hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking tale of trying to live in a strict Biblical manner as a one year experiment. 'The Year of Living Biblically' ought to be required reading for all Evangelical Christians, or really any Christian who takes seriously the ethical demands of the Bible, even if it is written by a secular Jew. Here is Amazon's brief summary of what is going on in this book---

"Jacobs, a New York Jewish agnostic (he says he is Jewish in the same sense that the Olive Garden restaurant is Italian, which is to say, not much), decides to follow the laws and rules of the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament, for one year. (He actually adds some bonus days and makes it a 381-day year.) He starts by growing a beard and we are with him through every itchy moment. Jacobs is borderline OCD, at least as he describes himself; obsessing over possible dangers to his son, germs, literal interpretation of Bible verses, etc. He enlists the aid of counselors along the way; Jewish rabbis, Christians of every stripe, friends and neighbors.

"In an open-minded way he also visits with atheists, Evangelicals Concerned (a gay group), Jerry Falwell, snake handlers, Red Letter Christians--those who adhere to the red letters in the Bible, those words spoken by Jesus Himself, and even takes a trip to Israel and meets Samaritans. Through it all, he keeps a healthy skepticism, but continues to pray and is open to the flowering of real faith.

"Jacobs is a knowledge junky, to be sure. He enjoys the lore he picks up along the way as much as any other aspect of his experiment. One of the ongoing schticks is his meeting with the shatnez tester, Mr. Berkowitz. He is the one who determines whether or not your clothes are made of mixed fibers, in keeping with the Biblical injunction not to wear wool and linen together. The two become friends and prayer partners, in only one of the unexpected results of this year.

"In the end, he says, "I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred." Not a bad outcome." --Valerie Ryan

He also came to believe that the Bible is a valuable holy text that deserves respect and hard scrutiny.

There are a variety of interesting insights for us all along the way in this book. In the first place, since Judaism as we know it today is all about orthopraxy more than orthodoxy ( a way of living faithfully according to the Torah), it is no surprise that Jacobs approaches things from the point of view of changed behavior first. Indeed, he notes how changed behavior seems to change beliefs along the way. This is indeed a profound truth that too few Christians understand. The habits of the body affect the habits of the heart and mind. Thus, whilst Evangelicals might well think that Jacobs starts things the wrong way around (i.e. he should have begun to change his beliefs first, leaving behind his secular attitudes and assumptions), in Jacobs case changed behavior opened the door to a reconsideration of beliefs. Hmmm. Maybe its not such a bad thing to get people to go to church regularly before they believe in Jesus.

A second profound insight from this book is that no one, and I do mean no one, actually follows the Bible literally in all its demands and aspects. This includes the most diligent orthodox Jews, and the most fundamentalist Protestants. All are selective in various ways, and in some cases the selectivity has a good rationale (e.g. the Temple isn't around any more, therefore Jews shouldn't offer sacrifices), and sometimes it does not.

A.J. Jacobs is a funny guy, and he writes very well, but lest you think his Bible Quest was done in jest, I would urge you to read through the book and see how hard he struggled to keep God's Word even in particulars, as he strove to understand it all. He assumes throughout that there must be a reason for all these peculiar rules and 613 plus commandments in the OT, never mind the NT. And to be balanced, he spends the final one third of his quest trying to follow the commandments and teachings of the NT. Fair is fair.

What is interesting is that a genuine spiritual quest happened along the way of this little experiment and it is important to notice its effects. For one thing, Jacobs became a less critical and profoundly more grateful person for God's good gifts of life and health and the like. A few excerpts will give you the flavor of the book.

"Before I started living biblically, I had feared that I'd be forced into a year of sobriety. After all, I knew some Puritans banned booze. And certain fundamentalist Christians think of alcohol as up there with adultery, idol worship and South Park. A few even argue that the 'wine' drunk in the Bible is not wine at all but actually grape juice. This was the thinking of a temperance advocate named Thomas Welch, who tried to sell 'unfermented wine' in the late 19th century for communion services. He failed. At least until his family changed the name to grape juice and marketed it to the secular.

" The truth is, biblical wine is wine. But is it a good thing or a bad thing? In some passages wine seems like a gift from God. In other passages , it is portrayed as a wicked toxin: '[Wine] bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like who who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on top of a mast." (Proverbs 23.32-34)

"To clear things up, I found the expert of all experts, a conservative Christian oenophile named Daniel Whitfield. Whitfield has made an astoundingly exhaustive study of every alcohol reference in Scripture-- all 247 of them. I quote here his findings:
On the negative side, there are 17 warnings against abusing alcohol, 19 examples of people
abusing alcohol, 3 references to selecting leaders, and one verse advocating abstinence if
drinking will cause a brother to stumble. Total negative references 40, or 16%.
On the positive side, there are 59 references to the commonly accepted practice of drinking
wine (and strong drink) with meals, 27 references to the abundance of wine as an example
of God's blessing, 20 references to the loss of wine and strong drink as an example of God's
curse, 25 references to the use of wine in offerings and sacrifices, 9 references to wine
being used as a gift, and 5 metaphorical references to wine as a basis for a favorable com-
parison. Total positive references: 145, or 59%.
"Neutral references make up the other 25%. If I could add only one observation to Whitfield's study: There is also one reference to medicinal alcohol: 'No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of yopur stomach and your frequent ailments (1 Timothy 5.23).

"It comes down to a battle between the Bible's gusto for life, and the Bible's wariness of excess. Between its Epicureanism and Puritanism. You can find both themes in Scripture....The key seems to be to enjoy wine as one of the many great things God has provided us. But don't enjoy it too much. Use what Anheuser-Busch public service announcements call 'responsible drinking'. Otherwise, bad things happen." (pp. 231-33).

One of the things that is interesting about this and other surveys and studies that Jacobs does in this book is the sort of flat hermeneutic applied to the Biblical text, assuming that it all applies to all God's people at all times, rather than a more covenantal approach which says that there are different regulations for differing times in the history of God's people as the covenant and its rules are changed by God. In other words, Jacobs the secular Jew reads the Bible like the ultimate literalist or fundamentalist. Interesting.

Jacobs takes trips to visit all kinds of persons-- orthodox Jews both inside and outside the Holy Land, the Amish, a snake handling preacher outside Knoxville, various red-letter Christians, and he even visits Jerry Falwell's Church and finds them remarkably friendly and welcoming, to his surprise. He also critiques the sermon Falwell gave on the 50th anniversary of the founding to Thomas Road Baptist Church. He uses the Biblical passages on Jubilee in the Bible, and encourages the audience to be soul winners. Here is Jacobs comment:

"It's not a particularly offensive sermon, but I will say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jubilee the Bible talks about. The Bible's Jubilee year is about forgiving debts and returning all property to the original owner, about social justice, about evening the balance between rich and poor. Falwell's was about expanding his church." (p. 262).

And now we have hit on something truly insightful. Biblical literalists often, oxymoronically, spirtualize passages of the Bible so they can use them for their own purposes, and not for the purposes originally intended in the text. Or as Jacobs puts it in his final summary "The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just the moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate." (p. 328). Wow. Busted. Along the way Jacobs also learned that fundamentalists are in most ways absolutely normal and often very likable persons. They're just religiously conservative.

A long time ago, I learned that it is a good thing to take a step back and listen to outsiders, so that you can see yourself as others see you. This helps to learn, at a minimum, the impression you leave on people who are outsiders, which is not an unimportant factor if you are trying to win the world for Christ. In that vein, this book is a very important book for Christians to read. It will make you smile, it will make you cry, and above all it is achingly genuine and honest, and occasionally profound. If you read it, let me know what you think.