Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wealth, Prosperity, Justice, and Social Justice

In the Bible there are several competing views of wealth a prosperity.  These views are sometimes seen side by side, but are most often pitted against one another. 

The first is the view of the Deuteronomistic history (Joshua - II Kings).  In the DH, the primary theology states that if you do good God will bless you and if you do bad God will curse you (see Deuteronomy 30:15-18).  A corollary to this view is that if you a wealthy and/or prosperous God has blessed you because you are righteous, and if you are poor and afflicted, God has done this due to some disobedience on your part. 

A second view, one that directly challenges that of the DH is that view of the prophets and their call for justice and a privileging of the poor and outcasts of society.  Amos rails against unjust business practices and the exploitation of the poor.  Micah calls for a person to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).  Jeremiah calls for justice and righteousness and a privileging of the alien, orphan, and widow (Jeremiah 22:3).  The Lukan Jesus proclaims that his purpose is to "bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18-19). These outcasts of society, according to the DH, would be in their position precisely because of some sin, yet in the prophetic view, they are in their position because of some injustice, and they become those whom God favors. 

The book of Job is also a profound challenge to the theology of the DH as the main character is afflicted because of no fault of his own, and his "friends," who are portrayed as perfect DH apologists, are actually in the wrong.

At the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the industrial revolution, this prophetic view of wealth and society was reclaimed by those who would be the champions of the poor, of the victims of the industrialization of the West.  Thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch and General William Booth of the Salvation Army latched on to this prophetic view and sought to relieve the ills of the underprivileged in society. 

Also influenced by this prophetic view, and in many ways taking up the mantle of the social gospelers, were the leaders of the Civil Rights movement.  Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, made this call for justice: "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Coming out of the civil rights movement came another term, that of "social justice." 

So, what is social justice and how is it related to the prophetic view of wealth and prosperity found in the Bible?  There are several definitions.  For example:
"The mission of the [Catholic] Office for Social Justice is to serve those most in need by calling for Justice."  
Thus, the primary goal of that office is "justice."  Or there is this quote from the National Association of Social workers:
Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.
Justice and opportunity also seems to be at the heart of this definition.  Then there is this motto from the Centre for Social Justice:
Narrowing the Gap in income, wealth and power.
This last one does not have justice at its core, but rather an agenda to "narrow the gap" in the economic and political realms.

As Christians, we are called to do Justice, to protect those who can't protect themselves, to serve those in need.  How does the teaching of the Bible and the history of both the social gospel and social justice movements impact our lives and actions.  What say you?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Event vs. Lost

In the last couple of years a few shows have tried to cash in on the phenomenal popularity and success  of "Lost."  These new shows have all poached several things from Lost, the mysteries, the flashbacks and flash forwards, some have even poached actors (Elizabeth Mitchell, "V"; Sonya Walger and Dominic Monaghan "Flash Forward").  The latest effort to recreate a "Lost" type show is this year's "The Event."

"Flash Forward" and "V" were relative failures last season, the former getting canceled, the latter being picked up for a second season after a lackluster first season with a paltry 12 episodes.

So, how will the event fair? << Spoiler Alerts: Spoilers for Lost and the Event are possible below >> I must say, after two episodes I am not optimistic. The show is interesting enough (barely) at this point and has earned a commitment to a third episode from me and my wife, but the show is lacking.  One should not fault the producers of these shows for trying to latch on to Lost's success, the problem is not their attempts to use Lost as a template, their problem in my view is that they misunderstood what Lost was about. Lost was not about the mysteries, not about time gimmicks, it was about telling a story of lovable and compelling characters.  The finale of Lost alone demonstrates that this was a story about people and their life journeys, not about some mysteries of an Island.  Sure, the mysteries mattered, but they were background to the characters.  In the Event, it appears that only the mystery matters and I could not care less about the characters.  There is not one character through 2 episodes that I even remotely care about. 

Moreover, the time shifts, back and forward in Lost were not gimmicks, they were an aid to telling the story of the characters.  The time shifts in Lost were deliberately not given time stamps.  The audience was never told when a certain flashback or flashforward or flash sideways was.  It didn't matter, the story was not some complex time line that the audience had to figure out.  It was fun to try and figure out when things occurred, but it was not the point.  The point was to tell the story of the characters.  The time shifts in The Event are given time stamps and it is already making my head hurt.  1944, 10 years ago, 13 months ago, 7 days ago, 4 days ago.  I have this disjointed time line in my head and it seems to serve little purpose.  In fact, both my wife and I agreed that the Pilot of the Event would have been more compelling if told in chronological order, starting with a week ago and then following out the events to the Plane incident with perhaps one flashback to 13 months ago.  The time shifts in the Event seem to be more pointless and merely a gimmick: "Hey, it worked for Lost, right?"

Three of my favorite shows over the past several years are Lost, Alias, and Battlestar Galactica.  One thing all of these shows had in common was the connection that they created between me -- the audience -- and the characters.  Both good and bad characters were all compelling.  Who makes a better hero than Starbuck?  Who a more compelling villain than Sloan?  Who a more creepy and ambiguous villain/hero than Baltar?  Who a better "good guy" than Hurley?  The characters created an emotional response in me whenever a beloved or hated character would arrive on screen.  Characters like Starbuck and Adama, Baltar and Roslin, Locke and Ben, Jack and Sawyer, Kate and Hurley, Sydney and Sloan and Will.  Even now, when I see one of these actors in another role, my heart jumps or I get goosebumps.  It happened just the other day when Terry O'Quinn had a guest role on an episode of the West Wing that I was watching.  And all of these shows were able to create this type of character connection by the end of the 1 or 2 hour pilot.  So far with The Event, it is only the vague mystery that is barely holding me to the show.  Will it be enough? We'll see next week.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Changing of the Light

Several years ago, a good friend of mine, Peter Pope, mentioned something in the early Fall during our undergraduate days at Baylor.  He said, "Oh, I love this time of year, the light is changing." I thought he was nutso, the light changing?  He tried to explain it to me, tried to point out how the light was softer, less harsh, more colorful.  I didn't get it.  It was the same sun, the same landscape, what was he talking about?

Then, a couple of years ago, my wife said the exact same thing, at the same time of year.  What was she talking about.  I still resisted, thinking there must be something in the water here in Texas that had infected their brains.  It wasn't until I read it in a photography book that my mind was opened to the possibility of the light changing. I started to notice the subtle change in the light.

While I no longer think that there is something in the water here in Texas that makes people's minds go fuzzy, I do think that it is the incredibly hot and bright Summers that make the change in light more noticeable than it was in my home state of Colorado.  This last Summer especially I noticed the nature of the light in Texas.  It is that harsh Summer sun that leaches all of the color out of the landscape.  The sun that batters down on the dry ground and leaves nothing but a bleached horizon, painful to the eyes.

Hurrah, the light is once again changing in central Texas bringing with it the glories of Fall.  Football is in full swing, temperatures are no longer flirting with triple digits (although mid 90s are still a real possibility), pumpkins have arrived at the supermarket, and school is rumbling along.  I love this time of year, a time to finally take respite from the long hard Summer and finally enjoy the outdoors.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Rhetoric and Story of Politics

This will be a rare political post on this site, but I think that the information is pertinent.

I have talked recently on this blog about the connection between rhetoric and story.  Rhetoric, as it is recognized is usually found in the micro, in bits and pieces of language, while story creates the overarching narrative.

It is no different in politics. Rhetoric is usually noticed in politics in sound bites. A clever turn of phrase, or a repetition in the message.  Unfortunately, I think that the overarching story is often missed, if it is there at all.

I would argue that there are essentially two competing stories in American political culture: the story of the Left, and the story of the Right. When these stories are told in a compelling manner, the corresponding party will usually win.

Here are the stories:

First, the Left: This story has a problem, a villain, a hero, and a solution.  The problem, according to the Left's story, is that there is inequality in society, there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, a big gap in freedoms between minority groups and WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestant Males).  The villain in this story is Big Business. Big Business, comprised almost entirely of WASPs, keeps the rest of the people in society down through their greed.  They have a stranglehold on almost all of the wealth in society and are in no mood to give it up.  The hero in this story is the crusading compassionate politician who will help to level the playing field. The solution to the problem is for this crusading polititian, through taxation and strong regulation, to take on the forces of Big Business, make sure that the redistribute some of their wealth to the poor and underprivileged, and make sure that the barons of Big Business are cut down to size.

Second, the Right:  This story also has a problem, a villain, a hero, and a solution.  The problem, according to the Right's story, is that people are not free to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without unreasonable restrictions from the Government.  The villain in this story is Big Government. Big Government taxes and regulates all people too much which restricts their freedoms.  The hero in this story is the Big Business man or woman.  Not the villain from the Left's story, but someone who has pulled themselves up from the lower classes, and through hard work and ingenuity has become successful and wealthy. Far from being a greedy and nasty member of the elite, the hero in this story is compassionate and a philanthropist.  Not only does this hero provide jobs to masses of people, but he or she also donates heavily to charities, passing on their wealth to benefit society.  The solution in this story is to lower taxes and reduce business regulations to allow all people to become upwardly mobile, to contribute to society, and to grow the economy.

With the recent economic meltdown in America, both sides have been trying to tell their respective stories.  For the Left, they told their story best in 2008 and elected Barack Obama.  He was the perfect hero, one who would bring hope and change, one who would take on the greedy corporations and wall street fat cats who had, through their greed, caused this calamity.  He promised to take care of the poor, providing health care for all, end our energy crisis, bring racial reconciliation. The story worked and he won big.

The Right has not backed off of their story either during this economic crisis.  For the Right, the economic crisis was not caused by greedy corporations, but by government regulations. The Government's push to get the underprivileged into houses and to require lenders to grant loans to those who could not pay them back caused the collapse of the housing market, and in turn, the rest of the economy.  Now, in their story, the Left is doing things exactly backwards.  Instead of spending money that the Government does not have to get out of the crisis, the Government should reduce spending, cut taxes, and allow the ingenuity of the American people to create businesses (with their lower taxes), put more people to work, and to grow the economy.

Which story is more compelling?  You decide.  But, whichever side tells their story and makes it more compelling is in for a big win this November.  It will be interesting to see how the politicians handle their respective stories this Fall.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mihaila Book Review

My book review of Corin Mihaila's book The Paul-Apollos Relationship and Paul’s Stance toward Greco-Roman Rhetoric: An Exegetical and Socio-historical Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4, has now been published in the Review of Biblical Literature.  Link here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Watch your grammar, or else!

I got several comments on my post Student Essay Fail.  One student sent me a link to a hilarious spoof of the movie Inglourious Basterds that deals with grammar, and I thought it was hilarious.  YouTube wouldn't let me embed the video, so here is the link.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

David and Goliath in Legos

Rhetoric and Story

I posted yesterday about the importance of story.  Today I want to follow that up with my interest in rhetoric.  My interest in rhetoric parallels the the story I told yesterday.  I began studying rhetoric, specifically rhetoric in the New Testament in my second year of Ph.D. studies.  Since then my interest in the subject has grown, culminating in my recent dissertation Figuring Jesus: The Power of Rhetorical Figures of Speech in the Gospel of Luke.

Rhetoric usually gets a bad name.  It is often used pejoratively in the news, and usually refers to someone covering up lies of half truths with flowery language.  While that is one use of rhetoric, I believe that rhetoric is much more akin to storytelling, and all good storytelling uses good rhetoric. Both story and rhetoric are tools used to convey a message, to convey truth.  Both attempt to persuade their audience of their position. When stories are told well, the elements of the story are unobtrusive and not heavy handed.  I believe the same can be said about good rhetoric.  When someone uses a well crafted rhetorical device or strategy, it should not stand out as rhetoric, it is just effective communication. 

In my teaching I want to make use of both good storytelling and good rhetoric. For what is a teacher doing but conveying a message?  Shouldn't they strive to convey that message well?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Importance of Story

I don't know quite when it happened, but somehow in the past few years I have become more keenly aware of the importance of story in my life, in the life of my communities, and in general, as a means of carrying and communicating Truth. 

The modern world, that is the world influenced by the enlightenment, pushed story to the fringes of society.  Stories became unimportant and were considered merely entertainment at best, or as utterly frivolous at worst.  What mattered during the reign of the enlightenment were facts.  Facts became truth, and the pursuit of facts was all that mattered (See my previous post Truth, Fact, Story, Myth). 

Nevertheless, story has made a roaring comeback, at least in my life, and in the lives of many others.  Some have said that we are entering a new age in human history, the post-modern age.  I do not know quite enough at this time to comment on that, but I have always had a couple of problems with the term.  The first is the need to label the current age at all.  The urge to label things was an enlightenment concept in the first place.  Second, post-modern is a purely negative term, denoting only that we are NOT in the modern world.  The term offers nothing positive. 

Yet, even though I am ambivalent about the term, I think some things are changing.  The one change that I have noticed the most is that story is once again creeping back into society and not remaining at its margins.  Stories are becoming a preferred means of telling the truth. 

So, how has this happened in my life?  Several separate streams seem to have come together to form a raging river of story in my life.  The first was my personal study of the New Testament, specifically my study of the gospels.  In my first NT class at Seminary, Dr. C. Clifton Black had us merely read through the Gospel of Mark and then we would discuss it in class as a story.  In my comparative study of the gospels, I found that the differences and apparent inconsistencies between the gospels were motivated by story.  The evangelists were all telling the same story, but they were emphasizing different aspects of that story, each one masterfully highlighting a different part of the life of Jesus.

A second major stream has been the influence that certain stories, both in book and video form have had on my life in the last couple of years.  I have found both movies and novels highly formative in my life.  From books like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, The Harry Potter series, and Steven Pressfield novels, to movies like Shawshank Redemption, Usual Suspects, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix Trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Lady in the Water, to Television programs like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Alias, 24, and others, I have found that profound truths are carried by these stories much more powerfully than any other medium. 

Jesus understood this concept that stories are wonderful vehicles for truth.  A great deal of Jesus' teaching came in the form of stories (parables).  Jesus' stories are often some of the most memorable and most touching parts of the gospels.

A third stream was my teaching of the two introductory religion courses at Baylor.  In the Fall most students take a course in Bible, and in Spring a course in church history.  We are encouraged to teach the Christian scriptures as a story, a biblical drama in six acts: Creation, Corruption, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation.  Yet, the story of the Bible is only part of the Christian story.  Christians live in the time of the church, and that is where second semester Church history comes in and I also teach that as a story, as a continuation of the story that was begun in the Bible.  I have found that the Bible and Church history is much more amenable to being viewed as a story than as a mere collection of facts.  My students are always pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible and in church history.  A story can handle contradictions, facts cannot.  A story can handle good and evil, ups and downs, and perhaps most importantly, paradox.  I have found that life is full of paradox, and only in the context of story can I make sense of paradox.

Finally, a fourth stream came together for me and that was meeting my wife.  Very early on we realized each others' love of story, and we started to make our own story together.  And, as one of our mutual friends once said, "life is a fairytale."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Student Essay Fail

Well, it is that time of year again when I read a ton of freshman essays. Some are quite good, most have some issues, but none have ever been able to top the following essay. I have not edited this essay in any way, it appears exactly as I received it except for my removal of the name. My reactions are in brackets and red type.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton born in 1815 played a huge role in the development and acknowledgement of women’s rights. Although, her involvement with women’s rights sometimes over had owed [this was supposed to be "overshadowed] by her friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony, she was the one who wrote speeches and organized the movements (women rights movements [ahh, yes, the WOMEN rights movement]) important techniques [?] and documents. Stanton worked closely with different women during the women’s rights [?] lucretia Mott helped Stanton led the Seneca Falls Convention, 1848. This convention was encouraged after Lucretius [Obviously the brother of Lucretia Mott] Mott was denied a seat at the anti slavery meeting in London. Many abolitionists anti slavery leaders worked with Stanton on women’s rights [punctuation?] Frederick Douglas attended the Seneca Falls convention.

Over the years Elizabeth Cady Stanton along [?] Susan B. Anthony, led the national women’s suffrage Association. On [I find many of my students have problems with choosing the correct preposition] the many speeches and organized meetings on of Stanton’s most famous speeches was the 1845 address on women rights. The address holds true to the idea the women are not inferior to men. Stanton clearly states that women are cable of do accomplishing [I love that line] anything that a man can do. Many women of the past have done a lot things that have man like qualities for example, Catharine of Russia, Elizabeth of England distinguished for their states manlike [Messed up quote, should read "statesman like"] things. There as [?] been many more women that have done many acts to stand up for there rights because you have a lot people that believe that a woman can’t do a man’s job.

Stanton was woman that stood up for her rights she did not believe in taking a back set [I hate taking a back SET] for anyone, she had her own way of how she wanted things to go and she was not going to let a man determine her outcome on anything that she believe that was right. “Let us now consider man’s claims to physical superiority. Methinks I hear some say, surely you will not contend for equality here. Yes, we must not give an inch lest you claim an ell, we accord to man even this much [Quote, should read "Cannot accord to man"] and he has no right to claim it until the fact be fully demonstrated.” Stanton was a woman of knowledge and she learn look [?] to at the whole picture before acting on anything her beliefs was to show mankind that she was a woman that was able of doing just about anything that a man can do and she was not going to let any “man” stop her from what she wanted to do [Preach, Preach!].

I believe in what Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood for because I feel that there is nothing wrong with standing for what you believe in, it takes courage and a lot of will power stand and to take on challenges that people have to offer you so in many words she was woman that had her mind made up, she was going to fight the good fight faith [Ahh, yet, the good fight faith] and that takes a special woman or human being to do something like that [tears are forming in my eyes].

Stanton apes [It took a little while for me to figure this one out, but I figured on Microsoft word, if you type "aoes" if automatically corrects it to "apes." The student obviously meant to type "goes."] on to say that men have the advantages to educate themselves, travel and observe, but yet they act like a bunch of barbarians. “Who have the advantage of observing their race in different countries, climes, and under different phases, but barbarians they be entertaining such an opinion.”

In all Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a women [Wow, she was such a woman that she deserves the plural] that would not take no as her final answer [She was actually the first host of Who wants to be a millionaire] but she was a woman of heat [?] and she stood up for rights that is why is a [?] woman that would always be remembered because of her actions that she took on behave [?] of all the women in the world, cause [why not just say CUZ] of Stanton [?] actions women today have a freedom [insert preposition here] speech to do what any man can do [?] that’s why Elizabeth Cady Stanton she is on the great leaders of the past [Is she sitting on them? Standing on them, can't decide].

What grade should I have given this student?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rhetoric for Sundays

In my recent Rhetoric for Sundays posts, I have pointed out the unintentional ways in which the church communicates messages to the community.  Some of these are more serious than others, and today I bring you another humorous example from a church marquee.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Who hardened Pharaoh's heart? (Continued)

In my previous post I brought up the hard word of God's hardening Pharaoh's heart. The question I wanted to ask students is what they thought of the aspect of the story in which God is said to harden Pharaoh's heart and inflict devastation on the Egyptians for the express purpose of creating a reputation for himself among the nations as one to be feared.  I asked my students to comment on the post, and those who have have been rewarded. 

I just wanted to follow up on some of the comments.  Most of the comments had to do with God's justice.  Whenever Christians read a hard text, especially about God, the knee jerk reaction I think is to try and justify God, make it OK.  That is all great, and many of my students did this.  They spoke about how God was inflicting devastation upon the Egyptians as a means of carrying out justice upon them for their enslavement of Israel. 

While there is certainly a degree to which one can read this into the text, I think it is just that, reading it into the text.  The express purpose of God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart is so that God can "multiply signs and wonders in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 7:3).

I try and teach my students to pay close attention to a text, to a story, to see what it is telling them about God, Israel, the church etc.  Try to read the story as it stands, listen to what it wants to tell you, not what you want it to tell you.  It is usually in the hard and difficult words of the Bible, the ones that go against the grain of our own preconceptions, that some profound truth lies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who hardened Pharaoh's heart?

In the biblical narrative of the Exodus, there are some hard words, perhaps none harder than the following from Exodus 7:3:
But I [the LORD] will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
As the narrative proceeds, Pharaoh and Egypt are afflicted by 10 awful plagues that ravage the land and its people. Each time, Pharaoh hardens his heart (or sometimes it says his heart was hardened) and refuses to let the people of Israel go.  The plagues culminate with the death of the firstborn son of all of the people of Egypt, finally causing  Pharaoh to relent and let Israel go.

What are we to make of this story? From a literary standpoint, the ten plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart serves to build up the reputation of YHWH as a God of power.  This reputation goes before the Israelites and prepares the way for them on their trek to the promised land. God deliberately inflicts great tribulation on the Egyptians and deliberately hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he can display his power.

From a theological standpoint this narrative becomes a wee bit troubling, at least for me. There is the issue of choice.  Did Pharaoh not have a choice.  In the story he appears to be a pawn of God's plan to increase his reputation.  Then there is the greater issue of a God who will inflict pain and suffering upon a people, and will make sure that he does it to such an extent that his reputation among the nations becomes one of fear. It certainly seems like this is a different God than the one spoken of by Jesus.  Jesus did not bring wrath down on Rome and create a reputation for being one to be feared.  No, Jesus demonstrated the power of God not through triumph, but through weakness and a cross. So, what should Christians make of the Exodus narrative?

I am not a theologian (as one of my seminary professors once pointed out, much to my consternation at the time), but I suspect the answer to finding a satisfying solution to this dilemma lies in the greater biblical narrative.  Only by setting this story in the entire canonical context can I begin to make sense of this story. What say you?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rhetoric for Sundays

I have done a few posts recently (on my rhetoric blog) on church architecture and church signage and what these various things communicate about the church. Well, this last week scotteriology posted the following picture and I could not pass up re-posting it. If you understand textspeak you will get it, if not, sorry because it is classic.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Religion vs. Science

So, it is that time of year again when I have my students write an essay on creation and evolution. The students are given four views of academics (Steven Pinker (atheistic evolution), Albert Mohler (Creationism), Michael Behe (Intelligent Design), and Francis Collins (theistic evolution)). The students are to pick the one with whom they most agree and the one with whom they most disagree and then engage in the scholars arguments. I find that some students are better at this than others. The one argument I tell the students not to use is "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.". I am amazed at how many students still cling to that argument and that argument alone.

Here are my two cents. History has taught us that Christians only come off looking like idiots when they take a combative stance toward science and reason. When Galileo claimed that the earth revolved around the sun, he was labeled a heretic and forced to recant by the church. The church isn't looking so good on that one. Who now believes that the sun revolves around the earth?

Oh, wait! This just in, there is a conference coming up that will defend the church against Galileo and claim that the sun really does revolve around the earth! Presenting the Galileo was wrong conference (thanks to James McGrath for pointing this out on his blog Exploring our Matrix)

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Scoundrel Patriarchs

I am always amazed when I read through Genesis (as I usually do every Fall Semester when I teach Introduction to the Christian scriptures) at the number of scoundrels that are numbered among the Patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian Faiths.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Judah.  All of these guys engage in multiple scoundrel-like behaviors.  The following is a list of some of these behaviors:

Abraham deceive the Egyptians about his wife being his sister (Gen 12:10-13:1)
Abraham deceives Abimelech about his wife being his sister (Gen 20:1-18)
Isaac deceives Abimelech about his wife being his sister (Gen 26:1-11) Am I seeing a pattern here?
Jacob cons Esau out of his birth right (Gen 25:29-34)
Jacob cons Isaac into giving him Esau's blessing (Gen 27:1-29)
Jacob, using questionable science, manipulates Laban's flocks into giving birth to colored goats and lambs by having them look at striped branches while they are mating, thus increasing the size of his own flocks (Gen 30:31-43)
Joseph plays mind games with his brothers by sending them back and forth between Egypt and Canaan and making them think they are thieves (Gen 42-44)

These guys were a riot.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Faith or Works?

Today in my Christian Scriptures class we will be talking about Abraham.  Abraham is a fascinating fellow.  He stands at the head of three of today's major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

According to the biblical narrative, Abraham is both exemplary and deeply flawed.  He is a the father of a great nation, one who left his home in pursuit of a promise from God, but he was also a consummate liar.

I want to look briefly at how New Testament writers, specifically Paul and James, viewed Abraham. 

Paul portrays Abraham as the father of faith, the template for how Christian believers ought to behave toward God in their faith.  Romans chapter four is Paul's reading of the Abraham story.  He continually reitterates that Abraham was not justified by works, in his case by "circumcision," but rather, that he was justified by faith.  He quotes Genesis 15:6 which reads

Gen. 15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
 Therefore, Paul sees Abraham's faith as producing his righteousness or justification.  Paul writes:
Rom. 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
 Paul sees the Bible in Genesis proclaiming Abraham as justified because of faith before he had received the promise from Genesis 12:1-3, and before he had done any works (i.e., circumcision).

James on the other hand reads the story of Abraham quite differently.  He looks not to Genesis 15 for the justification of Abraham, but rather to Genesis 22 where Abraham almost carries out the sacrifice of his son Isaac.  In response to Abraham's actions the LORD says,
Gen. 22:16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
This statement is essentially a restatement of the promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.  James reads this statement and says that the promise of God to Abraham is fulfilled not merely on the basis of faith (as Paul said), but rather on the basis of works, namely the faithfulness of Abraham to carry out the sacrifice of his son which God had commanded.

So, Paul can say,
Gal. 2:16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
And James can say,
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
 So, which is it? Are Christians justified by faith alone, as Martin Luther thought (sola fides)?  Or, are Christians justified by works, as in the case of James?  One can see why Luther, with his emphasis on sola fides, called James an "epistle of straw" and moved it to the back of his Bible.  This faith and works question is a question worth pondering.  Both views have a place in the Christian Bible and in the Christian story. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rhetoric for Sundays

(This is a weekly feature from my other blog that I have decided to start posting on this blog as well)

This week I will continue on my recent theme of church architecture and what it represents.

Take a look at the first two images, they are similar with some subtle differences (Disclaimer: these images come from a google image search for "church sanctuary", I have no personal knowledge of or axe to grind about any of these churches).

In this first image on the left, one can see several things.  First, the central and dominating image is the stained glass window of the cross.  Below that, in a central location is a table with a Bible and the sacramental elements.  There are various Christian symbols throughout the sanctuary.  This church has both a lectern (on the left) and a pulpit (on the right).  The lectern used for scripture reading and the pulpit used for sermon delivery are pushed to the left and right, to the periphery of the sanctuary.  This church wants to place the focus on the cross, the Bible, and the Lord's supper.

In the second image on the left, there are similarities and subtle differences.  The Cross is still prominent, placed high and in the center.  Also in the center is a table bearing a Bible.  Instead of Christian symbols spread throughout, this church has electronic equipment.  Finally, in the biggest but very subtle shift, the pulpit has been moved to the center.  This church is communicating something entirely different to the congregation.  The pulpit, and thus the preaching and the preacher are now central to worship.  The presence of the electronic equipment is more of a sign that this church is in the process of trying to update their worship style,  yet the architecture remains just as telling.

Alright, one final picture.  This image bears almost no similarity to the previous two.  There is not one cross that I can see.  There are no Christian symbols.  The pulpit is still in the center, but in this church it is clear what the central focus is.  The preacher/motivational speaker/slash rock star.  Notice how the preacher is not only the central focus on stage, he also has his face on the big screen.  The colors and bright lights are reminiscent of a rock concert.  This church elevates the pastor to the center of worship.  Interesting.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Bible, What is It? Part III

My very insightful wife commented on Part II of this post asking for more details about how one determines what the text of the Bible means for us "now" and how modern Christians are to interact with it. 

We are working with the concept I laid out last time, that the texts of the Bible are the culturally conditioned word of God.  That means that these texts belong to a specific time in history and to a specific cultural context.  Therefore, one cannot just pick up the Bible and read a text and automatically apply it to one's life.  Instead, one must first determine what a text meant in its original context (what scholars call exegesis) and then translate that meaning into meaning for the present. 

It must be noted that this translation process (what scholars call hermeneutics) is one of the most contentious areas of biblical scholarship.  There are all sorts of theories of hermeneutics, and one must admit that hermeneutics is an art and not a science.  There is no ultimately objective Bible critic.

Let us move to the example I talked about last time, Genesis chapter 1.  A typical example of just picking up Genesis 1 today and reading it and taking meaning from it goes something like this.  You pick up the text and read it.  It appears as if the author is merely presenting information.  The language is propositional, God did this, God did that.  It sounds like a modern newspaper article.  Therefore, one reads it like a newspaper article and since it is in the Bible it has authority and one concludes that the world was created in 6 days.  This is what happens when one skips the step of exegesis. 

Exegesis on the other hand reveals several interesting aspects to the text.  One, reading it in the original language, one notices poetic language.  The earth was formless and empty (tohu va vohu).  One also notices the extremely structured nature of the creation.  It is not just a random 6 days of creation, but days one through three address the formlessness (tohu) of the earth.  Days four through 6 address the emptyness (vohu) as God fills what he has formed on days one through three.  Moreover, day one corresponds with day four, day two with day five, and day four with day six.  This is starting to look less like a newspaper article.

Another thing exegesis would turn up is that the scientific view of the ancient Hebrews, and really all in the ancient world was far different than our worldview.  In the ancient worldview, the world was flat.  When one looked up, one saw what looked like a giant dome above one's head.  Beyond the dome was the sun, moon and stars.  Below the earth was the underworld, the place of the dead, sheol, hades, etc.  This was the scientific view of the time based upon observation.  The ancients are not to be faulted that their view of the world is less advanced than ours any more than we as moderns ought to accept the ancient view of the world.

So, I still have not answered the question on how to translate this ancient meaning into meaning for today?  Well, one has to look at the ancient context.  In our present context some parts about the ancient context need to be removed and others highlighted.  The scientific view of the the ancients needs to be removed.  Genesis one was clearly not a scientific treatise, but it did presuppose the ancient worldview and thus aspects of that worldview do not hold meaning for us today.  Also, the reading of the text as a scientific treatise with outdated science will not hold meaning for today either.  One thing that does need to be highlighted from the ancient context is the poetical and metaphorical nature of this creation account.  This account was meant for didactic purposes.  The Hebrews were teaching us about some very important things and they did this in a memorable and poetic manner.  One last thing, in the ancient context, this creation narrative was polemical, that is, it was in competition with other creation narratives.  Looking at this narrative in comparison with other creation narratives one notices some big differences.  It is these areas of difference that point to areas of importance.  One of the differences is that this is a monotheistic account of creation, one God created the earth.  Another difference is that humans are created with dignity (in the image of God), not as servants to the gods (as in the Enuma Elish).  So, looking at the ancient context (exegesis) lets us see where to highlight meaning for our day and age. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Creation, Science, and Story

In the 2006 blockbuster V for Vendetta, there is a fascinating conversation between the protagonist V and the witty inspector Finch. 
Finch: "you have information for us?"
V: "No you already have the information, all the names and dates are inside your head. What you want, what you really need is a story."
Finch: "A story can be true or false."
V: I leave such judgments to you Inspector."
What is interesting about this quote is that it relates to the creation vs. evolution debate.  Science gives people facts, "information," etc.  Unfortunately, what science does not do very well, or at all, is tell stories.  Scientists sometimes tell stories, but all that science, as science can give us, are facts.  For an example of a scientist trying to tell a story, see Stephen Hawking's new book "The Grand Design" and this article about it.  The article states,
God did not create the universe and the "Big Bang" was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, the eminent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking argues in a new book. In "The Grand Design," co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts on Thursday.  "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," Hawking writes.
 Scientists often extrapolate their facts and create stories, but at that point, they have ceased to do "science," and have engaged in the human process of telling stories.  The only question at that point, is how compelling are their stories?  As Jim West responds to this article in his recent post, he writes,
It’s sad when scientists pretend to know things they don’t, and can’t. Hawking should concentrate his efforts on things he actually knows about instead of dabbling in the field of theology where he is an inept and immobile dilettante. Personally, I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy much less a theory of beginnings.
 Now perhaps West is a little harsh in his criticism of Hawking.  It is inevitable that scientists, as they are human (at least most of them I presume), that they will engage in storytelling.  Yet, I would agree with the sentiment of West that the theology (or lack thereof) of scientists is lacking.  More importantly, I think it is important to understand when a scientist crosses the line between doing science (finding facts) and connecting those facts with a story.  

The Bible: What is it? Part II

In my previous post I detailed my first three lectures I give in my freshman level "Introduction to the Christian Scriptures" course.  My main goal in those lectures is to give the historical context for the compilation of the Bible that we as 21st century Christians take for granted.  Yet, as my wife pointed out, my lectures, and several other biblioblogs are more concerned with saying what the Bible is not, rather than explaining what the Bible is.  That is, our posts seem more negative than positive. 

So, what is the Bible? First, let me point you to Larry Hurtado's blog where he refers to the texts of the Bible as "historically conditioned scriptures."  He writes,
There is nothing in principle that requires divine revelation to be unconditioned by history, and nothing that disqualifies historically-conditioned texts from serving as Scriptures.  Indeed, one would think that Christians would readily affirm that any true divine revelation must be historically conditioned.  The biblical witness is that the biblical deity has acted within history, not apart from it.  So, how could there be a divine word/revelation/action that was not conditioned by the historical circumstances in which it came?
Following on this sentiment, I would refer to the texts of the Bible as the "culturally conditioned word of God."  That is, the scriptures record the human understanding and witness to God's actions in history.  As a human understanding and witness, the scriptures are culturally and historically conditioned.  Therefore, any scientific view set forth in the scriptures will be conditioned by the state of science at the time.  That means that when biblical writers refer to the world, they are thinking of a flat earth with heaven (or the heavens) above and hell (Sheol, underworld, Hades) below, what Bultmann referred to as the three story universe.

Therefore, what does this mean for us?  How are we to use the scriptures?  Are they merely historical relics?  I don't think so, they are still the word of God, but in order to understand them, one must first understand their culturally conditioned nature. 

In biblical studies it is common to separate two meanings of the text: What did the text mean then, and what does it mean now?  The first task in understanding a scripture, is to understand what the text meant then, in its original context.  This requires a fair amount of historical investigation, investigation of other contemporaneous texts, archeological evidence, sociological theory, etc.  This is what scholars do (and what I am engaging in on my other blog on rhetoric in the New Testament).  Once one has a grasp on what a text meant then, one must engage in a translation process to determine what the text means now.  This process of translation is given the fancy name hermeneutics. 

Since I am lecturing on Genesis 1-3 today, let us look briefly at the Genesis 1 creation narrative.  What did it mean then?  First, most OT scholars believe that the Genesis 1 creation narrative came from the exhilic or post exhilic period (that is during or after the Jewish exile in Babylon).  While in Babylon, the Jews were confronted by other creation stories, like the one narrated in the Enuma Elish.  In an attempt to reiterate their own theology of creation and to make sure their children continued to remember their God, the Jews formulated the creation narrative of Genesis 1.  Therefore, the first thing to notice about the text in its historical situation is that to an extent, this story was polemical, or it was warring against other texts with creation narratives.  The second thing to notice about the text is that it is more poetic and literary than it is prosaic.  There is a definite structure to the 6 days of creation, each day corresponding to the opening lines of Genesis that the world was "formless and empty" (tohu and vohu).  Days one through three narrate God "forming" the world and undoing the formlessness, while days 4-6 narrate God "filling" that which was empty.  This text was not written as a scientific treatise, but it was written during a pre-scientific age.

Therefore, how does one translate what the text meant then, to what it means now?  Well that includes dropping from the text the necessity that this is a scientific treatise on "how" the world was created.  That is not what the text meant then, and that is not what it means now. No, this text was a story that communicated some very important truths about God and humanity.  The text affirms that there is one God, and that this one God created the world, and more importantly, that the world was good.  It also affirms the importance of humanity as the capstone of creation, the epitome of the created order.  Finally, it lays the foundation for the Sabbath rest.  All of these things are still important today, but do not require one to engage in polemics against modern science.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Bible: What is it?

I find it interesting that evangelicalism (of which I am a part) has placed the bible at the center of the Christian faith.  I am not only talking about the inerrancy debate which is circling the biblioblogging world right now, but merely that being a Christian is largely identified with personal Bible reading.  21st century evangelicalism is so myopic in their understanding of how the Bible came about and this causes them to elevate the Bible to nearly the fourth person of the trinity.

My first three lectures in my introduction to the Christian scriptures class are dedicated to informing the students exactly how we got the bible we have and what it means to us.  The first lecture is on the story of scripture, namely that the Bible is not an instruction manual for life, but a story of God's people and their journey on earth. 

In my second lecture I talk about text criticism and how from thousands of manuscripts of the New and Old Testaments (none of which are original), scholars have labored to compare these to come up with the most original text which is then presented to translators who create a complete Bible in the vernacular language, and finally, these translated versions are printed and distributed to the public.  But this was not always the case.  For nearly 1500 years, mass printing was impossible.  Books were hand copied and expensive. Most people could not read.  The bible was not copied in the vernacular.  So, before the invention of the printing press and the translations of the Bible that took place during the reformation, your average Christian had no means of reading the Bible for themselves.

In my third lecture I talk about the process of canonization.  It is shocking that in addition to all I have mentioned above, there was not even a Bible, in any complete sense until the 4th century.  There were only individual manuscripts distributed throughout the Roman Empire and in various use by the churches.  Not until Constantine made Christianity legal could Christians even get together to discuss what books of the NT were in fact scripture.  And then, they did not always agree.  367 AD, 330 years after the death of Jesus is the first time anyone listed the 27 books that make up our New Testament canon.  Even after that date there was further debate about certain books.  The book of Revelation was very late in its acceptance into the canon, and other works, unknown to most Christians (Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabus) were considered scripture by some. 

Therefore, knowing a little history can shed a lot of light on how central the Bible is to Christianity.  If one claims that it is the most central aspect of faith, then what were Christians for the first 15 centuries of Christianity to do? 

Now, I am not in any way denigrating the Bible.  I have dedicated my life to its study.  I think it was a great achievement that Martin Luther and other reformers fought so hard to bring the Bible to the common man and woman.  Yet, before we elevate Luther as the prime advocate of placing the Bible at the center of the Christian life and lifting it almost to a place of worship, take a look at what he said about the Bible (Thanks to Steve at Undeception for compiling these quotes from his post "Mr. Sola Scriptura weighs in on Inerrancy").

"Take the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther, for instance.  Most would argue that Luther — who argued for “scripture alone” — had a high regard for the Bible.  Yet, he was quite critical of some of it.
For instance, Luther argued …"
(1) God’s prophets in the Old Testament were sometimes in error,
(2) the book of Kings is more reliable than the book of Chronicles,
(3) the book of Esther should have probably been left out of the Bible,
(4) not all the Gospels are of equal value,
(5) the writer of Hebrews erred when he said that there is no possibility of a second repentance,
(6) the author of James “mangles scripture” and the whole book should be burned like worthless straw,
(7) the book of Revelation reveals nothing.