Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Help Offered When Ready; Jeremiah the Suffering Servant?

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read William Schniedewind’s “The Way of the Word: Textualization in Isaiah 55:6-11.” What stood out to me was Isaiah 55:6-11:

YHWH is with you when you are with him, and if you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he shall forsake you.

God will forsake those who forsake him? I guess I haven’t forsaken God yet, for I continue to pray and read my Bible and other devotional literature. “Forsaking” God, to me, means having nothing to do with him.

But I wonder if God is the type of person who forsakes anyone. Even in the case of Israel in exile, God had not forsaken her. She was God’s people, period. If she were to reject God’s plan for her, then God would subject her to further discipline and purification, not ditch her completely.

But is it possible for us to feel as if God isn’t really relating to us, because we aren’t on the same page that he is? One lady told me recently that, back when she was drinking and using, she believed in God, but God didn’t answer her prayers, probably because she wasn’t on the same page that he was. I used to read my Bible and pray to God, but I still felt afraid. My prayers and my Bible reading weren’t empowering me. Nowadays, I believe that I feel God’s presence. But I don’t just rely on prayer and Bible reading. Devotionals and other people offer me tips as to how I can live my life. Before, I may have been religious, but I was reluctant, even afraid, to listen to advice. But God can guide me through other people—which is not to say that I should accept all advice as God-given. I don’t have to accept any advice, for that matter! But I should at least consider it, in my opinion.

Why didn’t God help me when I relied solely on prayer and Bible reading? In my view, it’s because he wanted to use people and circumstances. Those are what put me into relationships, and build in me empathy and compassion. And he wanted to help me when I was ready to receive help.

2. In A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66, on page 66, Benjamin Sommer discusses how the Servant Songs draw on the Book of Jeremiah, for “the servant’s career is modeled on that of Jeremiah”; and yet, “the servant accepts his fate more readily than Jeremiah”.

At the first (and so far, only) Society of Biblical Literature meeting that I attended, a lady presented a paper claiming that the Suffering Servant was Jeremiah, and that Isaiah 53 was Israel apologizing for persecuting and not listening to Jeremiah. She based her argument on the parallels between the Servant Songs and the Book of Jeremiah. My professor then asked her if she considered that the Book of Jeremiah may have drawn from the Servant Songs! That highlights a problem Sommer mentions: that we don’t always know what drew from what!

But, in my opinion, there are still scenarios that can make sense. That lady could construct a plausible scenario in which Isaiah 53 was based on Jeremiah. Would there be a plausible scenario in which Jeremiah would draw from Isaiah 53? I don’t know. I’m not going to rule it out. Maybe the character of Jeremiah identifies with the Suffering Servant, and yet he can’t endure his mission with the patience that the Servant displayed.

Sommer is like that one lady I heard at the SBL conference, and yet his conclusion is different. For Sommer, the Suffering Servant does not equal Jeremiah, but his career is modeled on that of Jeremiah, and yet the Servant does right what Jeremiah did wrong: the Servant accepts his mission.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Messiness and Chaos; Judah Halevi

1. In my assigned reading of L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson's Scribes and Scholars today, I read the authors' discussion of textual criticism. They referred to the stemmatic method, which aims to arrive at the "correct" reading of a text, the text as it was originally written down. The stemmatic method compares texts in order to determine which is correct (e.g., what's the majority reading?). The assumption is that there's an original text, which later scribes copied and mis-copied. The stemmatic method's model is rather vertical, in that it usually assumes that a scribe is copying one text.

But things aren't quite so simple, the authors contend, for there's horizontal work going on. Scribes in ancient and medieval times did not always copy one text, for they compared different copies, and they put what they considered "good readings" and "interesting variants" into their manuscripts. You know the eclectic texts that some scholars love to criticize---the modern editions of an ancient text that draw from this manuscript and that manuscript, as the compiler sees fit? Well, there are some old manuscripts that do this, as well! Textual copying and transmission could be quite messy. How can we even arrive at an original text, with that kind of messiness in the equation?

Of course, I may be leaving some with the impression that we can't know anything and that all is chaos. I doubt it's that bleak. Ancient texts agree, and there are many cases when their disagreements are minor, concentrated in such areas as grammar and spelling. But then there are times when texts disagree on what they are saying. Reynolds and Wilson refer to manuscripts of Herodotus that edit out the dirty stuff! Can we say these are wrong because they're minority manuscripts, or stray manuscripts? But even a conservative friend of mine said that the number of copies of a particular manuscript doesn't mean it's accurate, for a group can make a bunch of copies of a bad manuscript.

I'm back to chaos again! I can't write myself out of it. Fortunately, there are plenty of scholars who don't think everything is bleak (right?).

2. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Raymond Scheindlin's essay, "The Song of the Silent Dove: The Pilgrimage of Judah Halevi." Judah Halevi was a Jewish thinker who lived in the eleventh-twelfth centuries. Two things stood out to me. First, Halevi regretted not learning more when he was younger, for, when he was older, he was busy being a doctor. Second, Halevi wrote beautiful poetry, but he didn't believe that it adequately communicated what he wanted to say. In his mind, he was clumsy with words.

I identify with some of this (well, not the beautiful poet part).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Andrygone; Humble

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Anne Lapidus Lerner’s essay, “Rib Redux: The Essentialist Eve.” Lerner refers to the rabbinic view that God created the first human being as an andrygone, and split it apart into male and female. According to this view, God didn’t remove the first human being’s rib, but rather his/her side. There are feminists who like this view because the woman isn’t taken from the man, who was made first. But Genesis 2:23 says that woman was taken from man, using the gender-specific ish. How did the rabbis who believed in the andrygone address that?

Lerner says on page 143 that the rabbis didn’t consider their “andrygone” interpretation to be revolutionary. They most likely weren’t aiming to be feminists! They were just offering a rabbinic interpretation, which existed among other rabbinic interpretations! And they were influenced by their culture, for the andrygone appears in Greco-Roman culture.

2. At Latin mass this morning, the bulletin talked about prominent people who don’t put on airs. They don’t act more important than others in their presence.

I’ll leave that to set in me and any of my readers who are interested.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Other; Triumph of the Trophies

1. In my reading today of In the Beginning, Henri Blocher talks about God making male and female. Blocher believes that men and women are equal, yet he thinks that women shouldn’t be preachers. I guess that would make him a complementarian, right?

I found his discussion of homosexuality to be interesting, and odd. It’s on pages 102-103:

We have seen that the being-with of the man and his neighbour reflects (and should serve) the being-with man and God. If the fundamental being-with is face-to-face partnership with the other sex in diversity, then our proposition is confirmed and sharpened. The face-to-face relationship with the LORD signifies for mankind respect for otherness in supreme and transcendent form and for the primary distinction—that between Creator and creature. Immediately we can understand why the apostle Paul makes a close association between idolatry and homosexuality (Rom. 1:22-27). This sexual perversion as a rejection of the other corresponds to idolatry in its relationship to God, the rejection of the Other; it is the divinization of the same, the creature.

Blocher’s argument is that our relationship with each other mirrors our relationship with God. When we’re dealing with God, we’re relating to someone who is other, that is, different from us. God wants our romantic relationships to be the same way: relating to the other, the sex that is different from our own. But, in homosexuality, a person relates to someone who is like him or her, from the same sex. That’s like worshipping the creature rather than the creator.

Okay…

This actually isn’t the first time today that I encountered the concept of God as other. A blogger quoted R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God:

To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled…. [It is] personal disintegration…. [Isaiah] was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of the holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath a gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to maintain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.

There is a special kind of phobia from which we all suffer. It is called xenophobia. Xenophobia is a fear (and sometimes hatred) of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia.He is the ultimate stranger. He is the ultimate foreigner. He is holy, and we are not.

I’m not sure how to relate to God as other. I mean, there has to be some bridge between us, right, for me to interact with God. Me being in God’s image could be that bridge. For a lot of Christians, the bridge is the fact that God became a man in Jesus Christ.

As far as relationships are concerned, I think it’s good to know different kinds of people and to get out of my own little universe. My problem is that I have a hard time interacting with people who are completely different from me. But maybe that’s where I need to ask that person about her interests, and why they mean so much to her.

I’m not sure how homosexual relationships work. I think that Blocher is assuming that men are a certain way, and women are a certain way. But that may not always be the case. That’s why there are men who feel they are in the wrong gender, and vice versa.

Also, if it’s so important for us to be romantically involved with someone who’s different from us, why do Christians oppose Christians dating non-Christians—being unequally yoked?

2. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Kathryn Kravitz’s essay, “Biblical Remedial Narratives: The Triumph of the Trophies”. Her argument was that there are stories in the Bible in which the people of God are humiliated trophies of a conquering power, and yet God has the last laugh. Or the stories speak to a setting in which the Jews are subjugated to a foreign oppressor, and they offer them hope.

For example, Kravitz speculates that the story of Samson being blinded by the Philistines and killing them all in the end speaks to the Babylonian exile, in which the Babylonians blinded the sons of King Zedekiah.

The story of Naaman taking Israelite soil to Syria, for Kravitz, may reflect the time of Assyrian dominance, when Assyrians set their mark in the land of Israel. In the Naaman story, a Syrian is setting an Israelite mark in the land of a power that is oppressing Israel: Syria!

That reminds me of something Marc Brettler says in The Creation of History in Ancient Israel: a story in the book of Judges was designed to offer Israel comic relief when she was suffering at the hands of a foreign oppressor!

Stories can create a world that encourages, comforts, or amuses us. I’m reminded of something Merlin Oleson said about Michael Landon’s TV series: they were like the old Frank Kapra movies, in which you watched them and felt better at the end, energized to face life.

I’d like to think, though, that the biblical stories were based on some historical reality, that the Israelites were being offered a concrete basis for hope: that God had subverted Israel’s oppressors before, and will do so again.

II Kings 20

For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 20.

King Hezekiah of Judah is sick, and Isaiah the prophet tells him that he’s about to die. Hezekiah then prays to live, appealing to the perfection of his own heart as he speaks to God. Isaiah puts figs on Hezekiah’s boil, and Hezekiah recovers. Isaiah promises in the name of the LORD that Hezekiah will go to the house of God on the third day, and will live for fifteen more years. Hezekiah asks for a sign that this will happen, and God responds by reversing the course of the sun.

(Here, we may see different sources about Hezekiah’s recovery. After all, why would Hezekiah request a sign that he’d be healed, after Isaiah has already healed him with figs? On the other hand, maybe his recovery took a couple of days, and Hezekiah sought a sign during his convalescence that the fig-treatment would work.)

Having heard that Hezekiah was sick, King Merodach-Baladan of Babylon sent a gift to Hezekiah via messengers, and Hezekiah showed them all the treasures of his kingdom. When Isaiah hears about this, he prophesies that the treasures and the sons of Hezekiah will be carried away into Babylon. Hezekiah is happy, however, that the destruction and exile won’t occur while he is alive!

Here are some issues that I encountered in my study:

1. Chronology. Merodach-baladan ruled Babylon in two time periods: in 722-710 B.C.E., and in 704-703 B.C.E., times when Babylon could be independent from Assyria. King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. What’s the problem? In II Kings 20:6, God promises to deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the King of Assyria, and this prophecy is made when Hezekiah is sick. If this prophecy is made in 701 B.C.E., which is when Sennacherib is invading Jerusalem, then how can King Merodach-baladan send messengers to Hezekiah after Hezekiah is sick? Merodach-baladan’s rule ended a few years before 701 B.C.E.!

The Book of Chronicles compounds the problem, for, in II Chronicles 32, we see (if I’m reading the chapter correctly) the following order of events: God delivers Jerusalem from Sennacherib, people bring gifts to Jerusalem, Hezekiah gets sick and recovers, and Merodach-baladan sends messengers to Hezekiah. Again, we have the problem of King Merodach-Baladan of Babylon sending messengers to Hezekiah a few years after the end of his reign!

I wonder, though, how scholars arrive at these dates, and if the Bible should be an item of evidence as to when certain events occurred—not the only item of evidence, mind you, but one piece of evidence among others. If the Bible’s dating is contradicted by so many sources, then maybe the biblical account is getting its facts mixed up. But I still wonder how scholars arrive at the dates that they do.

Or perhaps the Assyrian threat loomed large over Judah and Jerusalem before 701 B.C.E. That wouldn’t solve II Chronicles 32′s chronological problems, but it would iron out the difficulty in II Kings 20: when Hezekiah was sick, God promised that Jerusalem wouldn’t have to worry about the Assyrians anymore. Sure, in this scenario, the Assyrians hadn’t yet invaded during Hezekiah’s illness, but they were still a looming threat.

2. Was Hezekiah about to die childless? E.W. Bullinger says “yes”, affirming that all the talk about the blessing of children in Psalms 127-128 and 132 was Hezekiah hoping he could live so he could produce offspring. II Kings 20:8 refers to sons who will go out from Hezekiah, which may imply that Hezekiah hasn’t had kids yet. And II Kings 21:1 says that Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, began to reign at age twelve. That means that Manasseh was born three years after Hezekiah’s illness, for God gave Hezekiah fifteen more years of life after Hezekiah was sick.

What’s odd is this: God promised David in II Samuel 7 that a Davidid would always rule over Israel. Was God about to bring the Davidic line to an end by allowing Hezekiah to die—since Isaiah told Hezekiah in God’s name that he would die, and not live, before Hezekiah prayed and received a lease on life? Maybe God wanted Hezekiah to pray to God and to appeal to God’s promise to David in order to live.

3. Hezekiah appears to be proud when he asks God in II Kings 20:8 to heal him on account of his (Hezekiah’s) perfection of heart. But Hezekiah still acknowledges that he is a sinner, for, in Isaiah 38:17, Hezekiah says that God has cast his (Hezekiah’s) sins behind God’s back. Perfection in the Old Testament may not have meant sinlessness, but rather seeking to obey God.

4. After hearing about the future exile and devastation of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon, Hezekiah rejoices that at least he won’t experience all that! Many preachers and commentators castigate Hezekiah for being selfish, and they may be right. But John Gray offers an alternative view, comparing Hezekiah to Arabs who praise the name of Allah even when they hear bad news, and who try to end things on an auspicious note. Was Hezekiah selfish, or was he trying to look on the bright side?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Uncomfortable Psalms

My Mom recommended an article to me a week or so ago: Amy Hollywood’s Spiritual but Not Religious: The vital interplay between submission and freedom. Amy Hollywood teaches at Harvard Divinity School, and her article is about how many people nowadays desire a “spirituality” that is spontaneous and without structure, and yet the structure of the Benedictine monks gave them a framework for interaction with the divine. She states:

Central to the ritual life of the Benedictine are communal prayer, private reading and devotion, and physical labor. I want to focus here on the first pole of the monastic life, as it is the one that might seem most antithetical to contemporary conceptions of vital and living religious or spiritual experience. Benedict, following John Cassian (ca. 360–430) and other writers on early monasticism, argues that the monk seeks to attain a state of unceasing prayer. Benedict cites Psalm 119: “Seven times a day have I praised you” (verse 164) and “At midnight I arose to give you praise” (verse 62). He therefore calls on his monks to come together eight times a day for the communal recitation of the Psalms and other prayers and readings. Each of the Psalms was recited once a week, with many repeated once or more a day. Benedict provides a detailed schedule for his monks, one in which the biblical injunction always to have a prayer on one’s lips is enacted through the division of the day into the canonical hours.

To many modern ears the repetition of the Psalms—ancient Israelite prayers handed down by the Christian tradition in the context of particular, often Christological, interpretations—will likely sound rote and deadening. What of the immediacy of the monk’s relationship to God? What of his feelings in the face of the divine? What spontaneity can exist in the monk’s engagement with God within the context of such a regimented and uniform prayer life? If the monk is reciting another’s words rather than his own, how can the feelings engendered by these words be his own and so be sincere?

Yet, for Benedict, as for Cassian on whose work he liberally drew, the intensity and authenticity of one’s feeling for God is enabled through communal, ritualized prayer, as well as through private reading and devotion (itself carefully regulated). Proper performance of “God’s work” in the liturgy requires that the monk not simply recite the Psalms. Instead, the monk was called on to feel what the psalmist felt, to learn to fear, desire, and love God in and through the words of the Psalms themselves. For Cassian, we know God, love God, and experience God when our experience and that of the Psalmist come together…When the monk can anticipate what words will follow in a Psalm, not because he has memorized them, but because his heart is so at one with the Psalmist that these words spontaneously come to his mind, then he knows and experiences God.

Personally, I’ve often struggled with the Book of Psalms, and I wonder how so many people of faith can find comfort in it. I have a hard time relating to the Psalms. They talk about oppressors seeking the Psalmist’s life, and how the Psalmist hopes that God will punish them. There are plenty of people whom I don’t like, but I don’t think they deserve for God to strike them dead! They’re not exactly threatening my life right now.

The Psalmist talks about God ruling the earth and bringing about justice, punishing those who oppress the poor. But, self-centered person that I am, I wonder what that has to do with me! So many people read the Psalms and find comfort—as if God is expressing his love for them on a personal level. When I read the Psalms, I see talk about the oppression of the poor, which doesn’t directly affect me, a privileged white American.

The Psalmist says that God loves those who obey him. But I prefer for the Psalms to say that God loves everyone—those who obey him, and those who do not. I’d like for the Psalmist to be like Martin Luther, affirming that God justifies those who trust in his love, even if their deeds are far from perfect. But, while the Psalmist talks about divine forgiveness and affirms that God’s anger does not last forever, I get the impression that the God of the Psalms offers a conditional kind of love—God loves those who are righteous, while punishing those who are not.

I think it’s important for me to realize that not everything is about me. God has an agenda of righteousness for the whole world. There are people on the face of the earth who are in vulnerable states, and God cares about them. There are oppressive people and power-structures, and God desires to put oppression to an end. And, while I believe personally that God’s love is strong, God also opposes those who deliberately hurt others for their own personal gain.

And yet, I’d like for God to offer a word of love to me personally, as he does for so many Christians.

Sometimes, the emphases of the Psalms can transform a Christian’s life. In Loving God, Chuck Colson tells about a Christian who starts to read the Psalms, and notices how they talk about God’s love for the poor, and God’s hatred of oppression. That sets this man on an uncomfortable path of speaking out for the dignity of prisoners. God can offer comforting, touchy-feely messages, but he also gives us stuff that makes us feel uncomfortable!

Hollywood’s comments also remind me of a Rich Mullins’ song, “Creed”: “I didn’t make it, but it is making me.”

BTW, check out Looney Fundamentalist’s August 25, 27 posts about Walter Bruegemann’s The Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Jonah: Double Type, Tired Old Man; Simplistic Diversification

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Robert Harris’ essay, “Contextual Reading: Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency’s Commentary on Jonah”. Dr. Harris teaches at Jewish Theological Seminary, and, even though I saw him at weekly Bible lunches, I never took a class with him, probably because I wasn’t comfortable with my level of Hebrew knowledge at the time.

There were two points in Harris’ essay that stood out to me. First, Harris referred to Christian tendencies to interpret Jonah as a type of both Jesus and also the Jews who rejected Jesus. For Christians, Jonah’s experience in the sea-monster foreshadowed Jesus’ burial in the tomb prior to his resurrection. But Jonah’s flight from God’s instructions resembled the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. So the “positive” stuff is related to Jesus, while the negative stuff is applied to the Jews.

Christian typology. Is it an exact science? I wouldn’t say that there’s nothing to it, for there are similarities among things. But, if you can make Jonah a type of Jesus and the Jews who rejected Jesus, then one can legitimately argue (in my opinion) that typology is rather arbitrary. It’s like applying God’s blessings of Israel to the church, and God’s curses of Israel to the Jewish people, as some Christians have done.

Second, Harris referred to the Jewish interpretation that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew God would spare it, and Jonah (as an old man) didn’t feel like making all that effort for nothing. That reminds me of an experience I had at a Presbyterian church where I worked. An intern was about to put on a skit about the Jonah story, and he asked me why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. I told him that the Assyrians were an enemy to Israel, and Jonah didn’t want God to spare them. But my explanation apparently didn’t sink in, for the intern made Jonah look like he was upset that he had to travel all the way to Nineveh for nothing.

Well, it turns out that my friend’s interpretation has some medieval company!

If Jonah were concerned about effort, why did he travel all the way to Tarshish? Didn’t that take effort, as well? Maybe, but I can still identify with Jonah, on a certain level. When I’m afraid of a certain group of people, I will make a great effort to accomplish my tasks in a way that doesn’t involve me being around them. In a sense, I’m giving myself more work, but I have the relief of not having to be around that group of people. Maybe Jonah was doing the same thing: he feared God’s mission. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh, especially if it was to be for nothing. (But what is “nothing”? Helping to bring about a national repentance is quite an accomplishment!) He took great pains to protect himself from God’s commission.

2. As I read Benjamin Sommer’s A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66, I was impressed that Sommer didn’t buy into the claim that Second Isaiah contradicts Jeremiah. I’m not saying that I’m a fundamentalist who thinks that all of the writings of the Bible have to agree, or say the exact same thing, in the exact same way (not that all fundamentalists even believe this). I just think that some scholars tend to toss out nuance when they characterize the ideologies of biblical writings or set them against one another.

I’m not going to mention any specific names. It’s just that, in my exposure to biblical scholarship, I’ve heard scholars set Jeremiah against Isaiah of Jerusalem. Isaiah of Jerusalem believes in the inviolability of Zion, whereas Jeremiah does not. The false prophets of Jeremiah’s day were echoing Isaiah, in their insistence that God would protect Jerusalem, notwithstanding her sins. So the spiel runs! But I doubt that Isaiah of Jerusalem would agree with the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, for Isaiah often preached against sin and warned of divine punishment. He was not a cheap-gracer, by any stretch of the imagination!

Second Isaiah presents God as loving and gracious, as God undoes the punishment that Jeremiah talks about. But does Second Isaiah contradict Jeremiah? Is Second Isaiah’s God one of grace, while Jeremiah’s God is one of wrath? I don’t think so. Second Isaiah says repeatedly that there is no peace for the wicked. Plus, God may act in different ways at different times. There are situations in which discipline is appropriate, and situations in which grace is more fitting. We see this even in the Book of Jeremiah: there is exile, but also restoration.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Donkey in the Temple; I Wasn’t Crazy!; Andrew Marin’s Apology

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Benjamin Ravid’s “Biblical Exegesis a la Mercantilism and Raison d’etat in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Discorso of Simone Luzzatto”.

Simone Luzzatto in the seventeenth century responded to Tacitus’ anti-Jewish comments, for they were used in Christian anti-Jewish writings of his day, plus Luzzatto preferred to take on Tacitus, a dead historian from the first-second centuries C.E., rather than “directly countering Christian authors of his time”. Luzzatto didn’t want to “run afoul of the Venetian censorship”.

What interested me was Ravid’s discussion of the anti-Jewish legend that there was the head of an ass in the Jewish temple. According to Tacitus, when the Jews were wandering around thirsty in the wilderness, they encountered a group of wild asses, and so Moses concluded that water was nearby. Moses then followed the asses and found a spring. To commemorate this event, “Moses consecrated the skull of an ass, which was preserved for a long time in the innermost chamber of the temple”.

Many church fathers, including Tertullian, thought this was a lie. But Luzzatto believed that Tacitus’ lie had some basis in truth. Luzzatto says that the ass in the temple was the jawbone of an ass that Samson used to kill Philistines, and that Samson in Judges 19 prayed that God might bring water from that jawbone.

2. I’m reading Benjamin Sommer’s A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66. On page 9, Sommer states:

“But an intertextual critic would not need to ask whether the author of, say, Isaiah 49 borrowed from Isaiah 11, or vice versa.”

Sommer is talking about influence and intertextuality. Influence is when a writing influences an author, who alludes to it. Intertextuality is, well, different. It holds (among other things) that readers can juxtapose texts together and see what they get out of that juxtaposition. Influence focuses on the author, whereas intertextuality concentrates on the reader. I could say more, but this really isn’t my favorite topic.

The problem with an “influence” model is that we don’t always know what is influencing what. As Sommer states, we don’t really know if Isaiah 49 borrowed from Isaiah 11, or vice versa. Just because Isaiah 11 is in First Isaiah, and Isaiah 49 is in Second Isaiah, and First Isaiah was supposedly written earlier than Second Isaiah, that doesn’t really matter. First Isaiah could contain later material, from the hands of later authors. Old texts can be updated, and so Isaiah 11 could be based on Isaiah 49.

I was interested in the relationship between Isaiah 11 and Isaiah 49 because, in my Harvard Divinity School thesis, I posited that a Servant Song of Second Isaiah (I forget which one) relied on Isaiah 11. My argument was that the Servant of Second Isaiah was a Messianic figure, meaning that Second Isaiah talks about a Messiah who would die and rise from the dead, which is consistent with Christianity. My thesis aimed to convince non-Christian Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, by demonstrating that the Hebrew Bible itself has Messianic expectations that are consistent with what Christians say about the Messiah and Jesus. God planned to send a Messiah like Jesus, so why not believe that Jesus was that Messiah?

In Isaiah 11, we see a Davidic king ruling over a time of peace and justice. If Isaiah 49 connects the Servant with the figure of Isaiah 11, is it suggesting that the Suffering Servant was a Davidic king who would rule over a time of peace? Does the Book of Isaiah indeed present a Messiah who would come twice: the first time, to die for people’s sins, and the second time, to rule? Does Christianity have it right when it comes to the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of the Messiah?

I guess my view now is that there are many ways to see the data. Even if the Servant Songs draw on royal themes, does that mean they are saying that the Servant would be a king? Maybe they’re suggesting that the Servant would liberate Israel (a kingly act) in a non-kingly way.

But I’m still glad to learn that others see the text as I did. I wasn’t crazy!

3. Alise has a good post, Faith like an atheist (and a child). Alise shares two items, both of which are good. We see the atheist Hemant Mehta exhorting a student secular group to listen to the stories of Christian conservatives and regard them as people. Then we hear from Andrew Marin, who is apologizing to the gay community for how Christians have treated them. He makes some profound points.

What sticks in my head, though, is a caller who resents Marin apologizing on behalf of the Christian community. She wonders who appointed Andrew Marin the spokesperson for Christianity. Plus, she makes clear that Andrew Marin does not speak for her.

I thought that she made a valid point. But, at the same time, I’m hesitant to toss out of the window my sympathy for what Andrew is doing. No, Andrew doesn’t speak for all of Christianity. But he is a Christian, and that may make him feel responsible for how Christians have treated homosexuals.

Can Andrew apologize for himself, and himself alone? Or is there a sense in which he can legitimately apologize for something broader than himself, a movement of which he is a part, even if he can’t speak for everybody in that movement?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Qoheleth the Accountant; Teaching Kids the Not-So-Neat

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Stephen Garfinkel’s essay, “Qoheleth: The Philosopher Means Business”. Dr. Garfinkel taught a class on Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) when I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, but (for reasons I don’t remember) I didn’t take it.

Essentially, Garfinkel argues that the message of Qoheleth is economic rather than philosophical: people should enjoy what they materially have while they’re still alive. Garfinkel states that the audience of the book consisted of affluent people. Garfinkel also presents Qoheleth as a sort of accountant in his argumentation, showing that certain things amount to zero (vanity).

2. Randy Olds has a good post today, Theology for Our Children…And Theirs. I’ve often wondered what theology I should teach my children, if I ever marry and have any. Should I teach them that the Bible is absolutely inerrant, when I myself struggle on this issue? And, if I don’t teach them that, what model of biblical inspiration will I present to them?

In my opinion, fundamentalist conceptions of Scripture fall apart, but at least they are easy to explain: the Bible says it, so it’s true, period. And if one part of the Bible is mistaken, how can you trust any of it? Sounds pretty neat and clean, even if it can fall apart once a person learns about evolution and isn’t convinced by creationism, or encounters biblical contradictions and doesn’t buy into attempts to “harmonize” them, or reads about (say) God commanding genocide or collective punishment and isn’t satisfied with the “cancer” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” explanations.

But other conceptions of Scripture strike me as convoluted or complicated. I don’t even understand them myself, so how would I expect a child to comprehend them! It’s not that I don’t grasp the idea that the Bible is a collection of ideologically-diverse documents, which reflect their own cultures and historical contexts (for better or for worse, in my opinion). I have to understand that idea for my Bible comp! It’s when non-fundamentalist Christians try to explain how the Bible can be that and still function as authoritative Scripture that I get confused.

There’s so much more that can be said about this topic, but I’ll stop here, for now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rosenbaum on the Suffering Servant; Soloveitchik on Medicine

1. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Michael Rosenbaum’s “‘You Are My Servant’: Ambiguity and Deutero-Isaiah.” Before I discuss his article, I have a question. Wasn’t the guy who played Lex Luthor on Smallville named “Michael Rosenbaum”?

This article brought to my mind my thesis at Harvard Divinity School. Dogmatic evangelical that I was, I was trying to show that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was a Messianic figure, whom I considered to be Jesus. My reasoning went as follows: I saw royal characteristics of the Servant, such as his role in bringing about justice and restoring Israel. So the Suffering Servant must be a Davidic monarch—a Messiah, if you will, right? And Jesus was that, right? Therefore, Jesus was the Suffering Servant and fulfilled an Old Testament Messianic prophecy, meaning that Jews should believe in him, right? Or, at the very least, we can see from Isaiah 53 that God’s plan was for the Messiah to suffer and die for people’s sins and come back from the dead, which is consistent with what Christianity says about God’s plans concerning the Messiah. So why shouldn’t Jews believe that God did things as Christianity claims?

I thought the issue was so crystal-clear at the time!

Paul Hanson, who’s written extensively on Deutero-Isaiah, hit me with things that I had not considered. He said that there’s a person called the Messiah in Second Isaiah, all right—but that person was the Persian king Cyrus, not the Servant. Professor Hanson also didn’t think that Second Isaiah believed in the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. For one, Second Isaiah doesn’t really mention it. And, secondly, Second Isaiah applies the Davidic promises to the entire nation of Israel in Isaiah 55:3, in effect democratizing the Davidic covenant.

It’s interesting to see Rosenbaum’s take on some of these issues. He pretty much acknowledges that Cyrus fulfills a Messianic function in Second Isaiah. He notes that Second Isaiah’s audience was expecting a Davidic king to bring justice and “proclaim liberty to Israel’s exiles” (Isaiah 9:6; 11:1-5; 16:5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9, 21; 33:15-16), but that Second Isaiah presents Cyrus doing this stuff (Isaiah 41:2-3; 45:1-3, 13). Rosenbaum even applies the Servant Song in Isaiah 42:1-7 to Cyrus.

And yet, Rosenbaum holds that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was a Davidic king. He sees royal imagery in the Servant Songs—a king who will lead Israel to a restored land and divide the spoil after his sufferings (see Isaiah 49:9-12; 52:13, 15; 53:2, 12). But the Servant disappoints Israel, perhaps because he dies, or is rendered powerless in some fashion. Second Isaiah then challenges Israel to return to God so that she might be restored. For Rosenbaum, God in Second Isaiah is still behind the Davidic dynasty. God in Isaiah 55:3 is not transferring the Davidic covenant to Israel, but is making with Israel a covenant that is like God’s covenant with David: unconditional, everlasting. But God’s covenant with the Davidic dynasty must still be binding for that to make any sense.

I’m not sure who specifically Rosenbaum thinks the Suffering Servant was. Could he have been Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, who was believed to have Messianic promise (Haggai 2:23), and yet mysteriously disappears from history after a certain point?

2. I’ll be returning Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith back to the Hebrew Union College library tomorrow, and so I want to write about a part of the book that stood out to me. On pages 84-85, Soloveitchik justifies medicine from a Jewish perspective. He affirms that, according to the Halakhah, “God wants man to fight evil bravely and to mobilize all his intellectual and technological ingenuity in order to defeat it.” Soloveitchik sees in Exodus 21:18 a biblical justification for medicine: “Only he shall pay for the loss of his time and cause him to be thoroughly healed.” In this verse, humans play a role in the healing of the sick.

Soloveitchik refers to Nachmanides’ comments on Leviticus 26:11, and I presume he’s talking about God’s promise to Israel of health if she follows God’s commandments. If God is Israel’s healer, does that nullify any need for medicine? According to Soloveitchik, that’s talking about “an ideal state of the covenantal community enjoying unlimited divine grace and has no application, therefore, to the imperfect state of affairs of the ordinary world.”

What about II Chronicles 16:12′s condemnation of a sick king for seeking physicians rather than the LORD? For Soloveitchik, that’s talking about “priest-doctors who employed pagan rites and magic in order to ‘heal’ the sick”, not legitimate physicians.

I pray that God might bring people healing through any means—miracle, or science.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Scribes and Scholars 1; How Many Plagues?

1. At the Hebrew Union College library today, I read the first 86 pages of L.D. Reynolds’ Scribes and Scholars.

Reynolds talks about the Alexandrian method of text criticism, which marked with an obelos the parts of a text that it deemed spurious. Why would a critic deem part of the text to be spurious? Parts of the text that displayed undignified language or conduct were considered spurious, for example, the goddess Aphrodite in the Illiad (3:423-6) carrying a seat for the human Helen. Then there were parts of the text that didn’t flow well with the rest of the story, and they were marked as spurious. The latter criterion overlaps with the text criticism of today.

I encountered interesting people in today’s reading. There was Crates of Mallon, from the second century B.C.E., who broke his leg in a sewer and used his time of forced convalescence to give lectures on poetry. There was Probus, a first century C.E. character, who was disappointed because he didn’t get a military promotion, and so he turned his attention to the old authors he studied in school, who by that point were “out of fashion in Rome”. He became a prominent text critic. When God closes a door, he opens a window! Or, as Tom Hanks says in Castaway, you don’t know what the shore will bring!

Reynolds talked about the ambivalence of Christians towards the classics. Some Christians said that only learned Christians should study the classics, meaning that the Christian masses should avoid them. And yet, Jerome and Augustine said that Christians should freely use the insights of the classics, as long as they utilize them within a Christian framework. Origen said that he was open to the study of the classics, as long as they didn’t deny the existence of a god or divine providence.

Under Julian, an anti-Christian emperor in the fourth century C.E., Christians were banned from teaching the classics. (There may be more nuance to that, but so I have heard.) A Christian named Apollinarius then devised a Christian curriculum, which used Homeric-style poetry to narrate the history of the Jews, and transformed the Gospels and the Epistles into Socratic-like dialogues. But Apollinarius’ curriculum did not last, for, before you knew it, a Christian emperor took Julian’s place, and Christians could teach the classics again.

Reynolds doesn’t buy into the notion that Christians burned pagan texts. He believes there’s no evidence for that, and he points out that even some of Julian’s writings were still around when Christians held power. The texts may have vanished on account of their not being used.

2. In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Marc Brettler’s “The Poet as Historian: The Plague Tradition in Psalm 105.” Brettler’s argument (if I’m reading him correctly) is that Psalm 105 draws from the priestly and the Yahwistic narratives about the plagues. But Psalm 105 holds that there were seven plagues, not ten. Brettler speculates that the Passover Haggadah emphasize that there were ten plagues to counter another popular tradition: that there were seven.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Abusch on Biblical Pre-History; Daisy and the Imam; James Kilpatrick

1. I’m reading Bringing the Hidden to Light: Studies in Honor of Stephen A. Geller. Stephen Geller teaches at Jewish Theological Seminary, which is one of my alma maters. I heard some of these studies when I was there. Others, I wanted to hear but didn’t get a chance to do so. (Lucky for me I found this book!) And others I’m encountering for the very first time.

The essay I read today was Tzvi Abusch’s “Biblical Account of Prehistory: Their Meaning and Formation.” Tzvi Abusch teaches at Brandeis University. I heard him deliver this lecture at JTS.

Abusch’s thesis is that the Yahwist source (J) and the priestly source (P) in the Book of Genesis’ pre-history present different depictions of God as a parent.

According to Abusch, J’s God doesn’t want humans to grow up. He tries to keep them subservient in the Garden of Eden, but they eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which blows that plan. God prefers Abel’s shepherding to Cain’s attempt to exert power over the land through farming, for God doesn’t like for humans to exercise power, as that threatens God’s own power. When humans do wickedly, God destroys them through the flood, except for Noah and his family, of course. God then learns that he needs humans for their sacrifices, and humans learn to serve God and keep him happy. God also resolves his insecurity issues, for his ability to send the flood convinces him that he has nothing to fear from humans. God therefore resolves to tolerate human wickedness, and not to destroy humanity ever again in a flood. And yet, are God’s insecurity issues fully resolved? God seems pretty afraid of humans’ power when they unite to build the city of Babel!

In P, by contrast, God creates humans as mature and powerful—in God’s own image. But humans get out of hand. They have lots of sex and reproduce rapidly, living at long lifespans. God gave them dominion, but they exercise that dominion wrongfully, doing violence to one another. God was an absentee parent, but he becomes convinced that he needs to set limits on human beings. He does so by limiting their lifespans, and also by setting limits on what they can kill after the flood: they cannot eat blood, nor can they kill human beings.

In the Mesopotamian legend of Atrahasis, we see a similar sort of issue, as gods and human beings walk a tight rope. The gods need human beings for their sacrifices, which are the gods’ food. Human beings also take certain gods’ place as laborers. And yet, people become numerous and loud, disturbing the gods’ sleep. The god Enlil responds by sending a flood to destroy humanity. The god Enki preserves Atrahasis and others. In the end, a balance needs to be reached: humans can live, but limits must be set upon them. Death, sterility, and infant mortality were made to restrict human overpopulation.

All three of these stories (in their own way) are about a search for balance. For Abusch, the lessons we can learn concern the tension in humanity between our power and our vulnerability. Yet, in all of this, there’s a loving God who is our parent. At the same time, Abusch refers to an “existential dilemma” in which we are “alone and not yet fully integrated into our world.”

At JTS, I didn’t ask questions at lectures, for I was too timid. I probably overcompensated for this at Hebrew Union College, to the distress of my colleagues! The question I remember going through my mind during Abusch’s lecture was: “So what kind of God are we left with? A trial-and-error deity? What can we do with that?” I also had the impression that Abusch was being humanistic: applying the story to real-life in a way that left God out of the picture. I wasn’t totally right on this, for Abusch does mention a loving God, who is our parent. But I can see how I walked away from the lecture with the impression that I had, for it ended on an existential note, using the term “alone”.

2. I just watched ABC’s This Week, which I had taped this morning. It featured an interview with two organizers of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” One is the wife of the controversial Imam who is behind the project, and her name is Daisy. The other is a Jewish lady, who is connected with a Jewish Community Center in New York City. She is advising Muslims on how they can build a Muslim community center, which is what the “Ground Zero mosque” will be.

They appeared to be reasonable people. Daisy said that she is meeting with the families of 9/11 victims, and yet she expressed dismay at American Islamophobia. She said that she will continue with the project because too much is at stake.

She also explained her husband’s comments in a 60 Minutes interview that American foreign policy was partly to blame for 9/11. She said he was referring in that interview to the CIA’s support for Osama Bin-Laden in the 1980′s.

I too am dismayed at Islamophobia, but I do wonder something: why did the Imam and his wife choose to put the center two blocks away from Ground Zero? Is that a coincidence, as there are many buildings close to Ground Zero? Or is it making a deliberate point about 9/11? Opponents of the “mosque” have definite ideas about this, for they believe that the Imam is showing deliberate insensitivity to the families of 9/11 victims, as if he’s trying to flaunt Muslim superiority. But what is the answer of those who are behind the project?

3. I learned from ABC This Week that James Kilpatrick has passed away. Kilpatrick was a conservative commentator and syndicated columnist. But my liberal eighth grade English teacher enjoyed his essays about the art of writing.

Veiled Rabbinic Attacks on Christian Doctrines

This is my final post on Burton Visotzky’s Golden Bells and Pomegranates.

On pages 165-167, Visotzky (if I’m reading him correctly) interprets Leviticus Rabbah 14:5 as a veiled attack on the Christian doctrines of original sin, the virgin birth, the immaculate conception, and Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Here’s Leviticus Rabbah 14:5, from whatever translation my Judaic Classics Library is using:

Another exposition: IF A WOMAN PRODUCE OFFSPRING. etc. This is alluded to in what is written, Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity (Ps. LI, 7). (Awon (iniquity) is spelt plene). R. Aha said: Even if one be the most pious of the pious, it is impossible that he have no streak of iniquity in him. David said before the Holy One, blessed be He: O Lord of the Universe! Did my father Jesse have the intention of bringing me into the world? Why, his intention was his own enjoyment; the proof for this is that after they had accomplished their desire, he turned his face in one direction and she turned her face in the opposite direction, and it was Thou that didst cause every single drop [of semen] to enter, and this is what David meant when he said, For though my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord did gather me in (Ps. XXVII, 10). And in het did my mother concave me (ib. LI, 7). R. Hiyya b. Abba said: A woman absorbs [semen] only after her menstrual period, indeed shortly after, particularly if it is to be a male child. This is indicated by what is written, IF A WOMAN FERTILISE THE SEED, SHE WILL BEAR A MALE.

According to Visotzky, David in this passage represents Jesus. God was involved in the conception of David, but God brought this about by transporting Jesse’s sperm into the womb of David’s mother. Moreover, the sex that Jesse and David’s mother had was contraceptive, the type that wasn’t supposed to bear children, meaning it was solely for pleasure. But God still produced David from this sexual act.

And so Leviticus Rabbah is scoffing at the notion that sex is dirty because it transmits original sin. In this passage, Jesus is produced from sex that was intended to be for pleasure. So much for the virginity of Mary!

According to Visotzky, the passage also uses Psalm 51:7—the passage that Christians cited to support original sin—against the Christians. Rabbi Aha’s point is that even the most pious has a streak of iniquity, and this would include Mary and Jesus. So much for the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth, which sought to exclude Mary and Jesus from the stain of original sin!

Visotzky states that rabbinic Judaism had problems with the doctrine of original sin because it “emphasized individual human responsibility and did not share the notion of contagion.” But maybe his argument is that Rabbi Aha was assuming the “original sin” interpretation of Psalm 51:7 to undermine Christian doctrines.

Why would the rabbis use symbolism in their attack on Christianity? Probably so they wouldn’t get in trouble with the Christian authorities!

Ghosts and Deception

I finished Burton Visotzky’s Golden Bells and Pomegranates just now.

On pages 141-142, Visotzky talks about a story in Leviticus Rabbah 24:3, which concerns a local spirit who lived in a well. This spirit didn’t bother the people in the town, but he “was engaged in a turf battle with an evil spirit who might also harm the townsfolk.”

Rabbinic Judaism believed in good angels and evil demons, and that a human soul went to a certain location immediately after death. And yet, for some rabbis, this paradigm didn’t account for everything in the spirit world, for there could be a spirit who didn’t fall into any of these categories. This local spirit wasn’t a good angel, or an evil demon, or a ghost of someone who died. It was just a spirit who lived in a well and didn’t bother anybody.

In 2001, I saw The Others, a movie starring Nicole Kidman (which also had Eloise Hawking from LOST). Kidman played a staunch conservative Catholic with children who couldn’t tolerate the sunlight. She had very definite ideas about where human souls went after death, in accordance with her Vatican I Catholicism.

The problem was this: she and her children were ghosts, and they weren’t where Catholic tradition said they should be! Rather, they were in their house. The role of the Eloise Hawking character was to try to adapt Nicole Kidman to the realization that she and her children had died and were haunting their home, along with its new residents. But Eloise Hawking hit a brick wall: Nicole Kidman’s Catholic views, which said that the dead go a particular realm, no ifs, ands, or buts. Eloise Hawking encouraged Nicole Kidman to keep an open mind about what happens to the dead.

At the end of the movie, Kidman realizes that she’s a ghost haunting her house, and she remembers killing her children and then herself. When her kids ask her about the Catholic realm of the dead, she replies that she’s not sure if there is such a place, but she knows that she loves her kids.

I’ve heard stories about ghosts from people I know. One relative of mine talked about a ghost who lived in her big purple house. The ghost, like the well-sprite of Leviticus Rabbah, wasn’t harmful. He just took stuff, then put it back.

At a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist church that I attended, a professor talked about ghosts in Latin America, and how people could actually see them take out the garbage!

Then there are shows that I watch. When I had cable, I watched Celebrity Ghost Stories, in which celebrities (including the late Rue McLanahan) discussed experiences of the supernatural—most often, ghosts who had unresolved issues.

And there’s the show Ghost Whisperer, in which Melinda Gordon (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) helps ghosts resolve issues so they can go into the light, a realm of peace and tranquility. That was supposedly based on real-life.

Armstrongism and other forms of Christianity would say that these “ghosts” are demons. Perhaps. But, if they are evil demons, why aren’t they all hurting people?

Some Christians may contend that ”ghosts” are part of a grand deception. For Armstrongites and Seventh-Day Adventists, the dead are unconscious, meaning there’s no such thing as ghosts. In their eyes, the “ghosts” we see are actually demons. Their role is to hide the truth that humans are unconscious after death, and also to deceive human beings to follow Satan’s will. In The Great Controversy, for example, Ellen White says that, in the last days, mediums will tell people that ghosts from the spirit world want them to observe Sunday, the mark of the Beast!

Granted, things may not be as they appear. Paul in II Corinthians 11:14 says that Satan can transform himself into an angel of light.

But I wonder something: if we can’t trust our senses or our judgments, then how exactly can we tell what is of God, and what is of Satan? For examples, many Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but Christians claim that God proved Jesus was the Christ by raising him from the dead. But couldn’t a Jew respond that Jesus’ resurrection was actually a deception of Satan (or of God), designed to trick people into worshipping a man as God (idolatry), or to test the Jews to determine if they will be faithful to the Torah, notwithstanding miracles? I once heard a rabbi cite Deuteronomy 13:1-4, which talks about a prophet whose sign or wonder comes to pass, and yet he encourages the Israelites to worship other gods. The rabbi said that Jesus was such a prophet: he did miracles, but he encouraged idolatry (the worship of himself), and so Jews should reject him, notwithstanding his miracles!

Christians may respond to this by saying that only God can raise a person from the dead (but what about the Beast whose deadly wound was healed in Revelation 13?), or that we can see that Christianity is of God from its good fruit (since Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:15-20 that fruit is an indicator as to whether a prophet is true or false), or that God wants us to know the truth and wouldn’t make it entirely inaccessible to our minds, by tolerating a world in which deception utterly conceals the right path (and yet, there are New Testament passages about the deception of the world—II Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9). Christians may argue that we can avoid deception by following the Bible, God’s word. But non-Christian Jews don’t think that the New Testament is God’s word, plus they believe that they’re following God’s word (the Torah) by rejecting Jesus.

My point is that, somewhere, we need to trust our senses and our judgments. If we look at ghosts who don’t seem to be harming anyone, why should we assume that they’re demons? Maybe there are souls of the departed that remain earth-bound because they have unresolved issues! Perhaps, in an overall sense, Christianity provides an accurate picture of the afterlife, and yet there may be exceptions. God may want souls to resolve certain issues before they go to heaven, hell, purgatory, the waiting room, or whatever you want to call it.

Does that mean that we should look to ghosts for authoritative doctrine? Bob Jones, Jr. once told a story about the ghost of his mother telling him that Christ wasn’t the only way to heaven, and he concluded that it was a demon, for his mom was a devout Christian, plus the spirit was going against the Bible. In my opinion (for what it’s worth), a ghost isn’t necessarily authoritative on doctrinal matters. Even on Ghost Whisperer, Melinda Gordon said that oiji boards were a bad idea, since a ghost may be playing games with people, or trying to get attention. Ghosts may be clueless about parts of the supernatural world. That could be why, even though the Torah doesn’t explicitly deny that the dead live on and may roam the earth or attempt to communicate with the living, it prohibits necromancy.

"You Are a Writer!"

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, Julie and Julia, is when Julie gets a phone call asking her to write a cookbook. “I’m going to be a writer!”, she tells her husband. “You are a writer”, her husband replies.

Her husband’s point was that Julie was a writer even when no one recognized her work. Before she became famous as a blogger, she wrote a book that no one wanted to publish, and a blog that few people read. Even when she wasn’t famous or published, she was writing, and so she was a writer. There was no “going to be” about it, for a writer was what she was.

By that standard, I am a writer, for I write a blog. I’m not a professional writer or a published author, in the same class as people who write books and articles for publication. But, as obscure as I may be, I am a writer, for the simple reason that I write.

A few years ago, I wrote a post, Stephen King on Biography. (Incidentally, I watched that episode of Biography right after seeing the last couple of minutes of a Biography about Anne Rice. It talked about her conversion to Christianity, and how she had stopped writing vampire novels. And that was the end, since she hadn’t yet repudiated organized religion.) In the documentary, somebody remarked that, when Stephen King was in school, most of the aspiring writers only talked about writing. What set Stephen King apart was that he actually did it.

I can identify both with those who merely talked about writing, and with Stephen King, who did it. When it comes to writing for publication, I’m at the stage where I only talk about it. I hope to write articles or books, but, at this time in my life, there are no articles or books inside of me, waiting to come out. At the same time, I do write, for I write this blog. So I am a writer.

Articles on Beth Moore

I want to post a few links right now, so I can revisit them for a future post, or two, or three:

Christianity Today’s article on Beth Moore.

Response to CT article by Beth Moore’s daughter, Melissa.

Both of these articles make me think about such issues as authenticity, whether or not we can know God’s will, and the academy.

I may write about one or all of these issues at some point, so stay tuned!

Insecurity and Self-Acceptance

Latin mass was interesting this morning, for the tone of the bulletin seemed to contradict the tone of the homily.

The bulletin had passages like these:

Don’t be so sure that you know who is and who isn’t, who will and won’t be joining you in the kingdom of God. Don’t be smug in your assumption that you’re going to be on the inside; you might be mistaken.

We must keep striving through the narrow way that leads to heaven. We cannot merely assume that because we have the Lord in our midst on a regular basis we can be lazy, thinking that our earthly lives are merely a “waiting room” until we enter the reign of God.

How are others transformed when they see how you have accepted and grown from your sufferings?

When I read these passages—which are based on Luke 13:23-30—I feel insecure. Entering the kingdom of God looks like an arduous task, as if I need to give up things that I enjoy and consciously do good deeds in order to get in. I feel as if I’m not all right, and I wonder if I am or ever shall be good enough. I may have given to the poor months ago, but I haven’t lately, since I can’t afford it. Have I disqualified myself from the kingdom of God? I may have reached out to others lately because I feel personally and inter-personally integrated and am in a fairly good mood, but what will happen when I feel isolated, alienated, bitter, and timid about reaching out to others? Will I then be outside of God’s graces?

I have enough difficulty being responsible for myself, but then this bulletin tells me that I’m also responsible for the transformation of others! The bulletin asks if others are transformed when they see how I’ve accepted and grown from my sufferings. Look, there are times when I have accepted my sufferings, and there are times when I have not. It depends on my mood. There are areas in which I’ve grown, and there are areas in which I’ve not grown. How do I know that I’ve not grown? Because I still complain about the same stuff that I’ve complained about for many years!

There are people who remark that I appear to be calm and collected during times of crisis. And I guess that, good Christian boy scout that I am, I should attribute that to the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, right before asking them to accept Jesus into their hearts so that they, too, can experience inner peace. Then I’d be a good witness and get brownie points from God and the Christian community! But it would be a false advertisement, for, while I may appear to be calm on the outside (due perhaps to my Asperger’s, which makes me appear emotionless), inside, I may be full of nervous fear!

Then there are times, when, on the inside, I may feel at peace, but, on the outside, I appear to be angry (since there are people with Asperger’s who look angrier than they really are, or so I’ve read). In that case, I may have arrived at a state of peace—through prayer, or watching a good show, or reading, or attending a meeting, or whatever. But I’m not transforming others because they may be getting a different impression of me, an impression that isn’t entirely accurate. That’s why I hate the idea that I must be a walking advertisement for Jesus Christ, someone who brings transformation into the lives of others. Others can so easily misread or misunderstand me.

I think that the bulletin is trying to promote in readers an attitude of humility: we shouldn’t smugly look down on others, while assuming that we have everything together in our own lives. Paul in Romans 11 exhorts the Gentiles not to get cocky just because they are now part of God’s people, whereas many Jews have been broken off due to unbelief. Paul warns that the Gentiles, too, can be broken off, if they do not continue in God’s kindness. But why must we be insecure about our standing before God to feel humble? Can’t we feel humbled by the idea that God loves all of us, whatever our flaws? Couldn’t that improve how we view and treat other people?

The homily was more about God’s grace, and how we should be thankful for it. I appreciated the reading of Galatians 3:17, which states that the law cannot make the promises of none effect. I’m not a Galatians scholar, but what that text says to me is that our poor performance of the law cannot nullify God’s grace. I’m far from perfect. I do good things and I do bad things. But God’s love for me does not depend on my performance, for God’s love just is.

I wonder if self-acceptance is somehow linked with one’s relationship with God. I’ve been reading Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Greenberg is an orthodox Jew and a homosexual, and his book is an attempt to justify homosexuality halakhically (or so is my impression thus far). Greenberg states that homosexuals feel more comfortable with God once they accept their homosexuality as the way God hard-wired them. When they reject themselves, they have a hard time praying. But when they accept themselves, they can open themselves up to God.

Many evangelicals have said that the opposite is the case: that sin makes us feel guilty, as if we can’t look God in the eye. If my memory is correct, one of the authors of Every Man’s Battle said that: that when he was promiscuous, he did not feel comfortable with God. A Bible study leader once told me of homosexuals he met who found prayer to be difficult. “Why should prayer be difficult? It’s talking to God!”, he said. His answer was that the homosexuals’ sin (homosexuality) is hindering their relationship with God—creating a situation in which they can’t look God in the eye.

But do I believe that our sins shouldn’t matter? I have a hard time accepting that sort of idea. People can swap wives in churches without even blinking, and then comfort themselves with the notion that God loves them unconditionally? I have a problem with that.

Then there’s something that Russell Miller said in his post, The Fall and Salvation:

And if we are living in the moment, in the now, there is no way that we should feel any guilt or shame for how we are. Because we are as we are, no more, and no less. And it is only by surrendering to that, that we can go forward. It is the ultimate paradox that only by fully accepting our “carnal” nature that we can move out of it.

For Russell, self-acceptance does not imply “anything goes” in the area of morality. Rather, it’s a path for us to become moral people.

I’m not sure what exactly I’m reaching for in this post. Do I want God to love me as me, not in spite of me? Partly. Do I want to have a relationship with God while maintaining a healthy self-esteem? Yes, and yet I realize that I have great flaws, something even pro-self-esteem people (i.e., therapists) could point out to me.

My Blog Is 3!

Today is my blog’s third birthday.

Throughout the week, I’ve been looking forward to writing this post, thinking about things to write. (Yes, I’m that narcissistic! Or, at least, I’m that obsessed with my blog!) Now that it’s my blog’s birthday and I’m actually in front of my computer writing this post, I’m like “duh”.

This past year, I blogged a lot about my academics, as I read books for my comps, picked out something in them that interested me, and wrote about it. Many of my posts were composite, in that they covered more than one topic, sometimes seven at a time!

I also blogged about books I was reading for fun, such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Power of the Positive Woman, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and others. Blogging really does help me in my reading. Believe it or not, I’m not a good reader. My mind wanders. I get bored with what I’m reading. I’m not overly good at discussing books with friends over a cup of coffee—unless it’s my mom. But blogging is a way for me to be an active reader, to look for something that interests me, and to put my two-cents worth out there. Whether people like what I say or not, or read what I say or not, my blog is me—my tastes, my reactions, my thoughts.

Speaking of which, Joel Watts linked to an excellent post by Ben Myers, On theology and friendship. Here are some gems:

Thomas Mann once said that a writer is simply someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

I wonder if this insight could also be extended into theology. Theologians are people for whom the Christian faith is especially difficult, incomprehensible, infuriating. As a rule they are not especially talented or spiritually adept individuals. They are people whose minds have been hurt by God, and they are restlessly searching for – what? Healing perhaps, or catharsis? To expect so much from the study of theology would be futile or even dangerous. At any rate there is no lack of opportunities for theological catharsis: often our worship services seem calculated to remove the difficulty of believing, to make God easy and accessible, more a cure than a wasting sickness.

Perhaps then we should define theologians like this: They are people for whom even the Christian worship service does not provide adequate catharsis of the hurtfulness of God.

I think that sums up why I blog: it’s from a sense of brokenness. There are times when I can be so agitated about Christians and Christianity, but I feel much better after writing an “Oh Brother” post. But I also like the idea of blogging because I don’t have everything together. I call my blogs “James’ Thoughts and Musings” and “James Ramblings: A Meandering Journey” because that’s what I do: I muse. I ramble. I meander. I explore this thought or that thought from different angles, often in a disorganized fashion. Then my mind wanders to another thought. I explore what I want at my own pace. It’s nice to impress people, but I don’t have to do so. Hopefully these scattered thoughts will some day come together into something coherent. And if they do, I’ll blog from a perspective of wholeness, and not brokenness. That’s something else my blog is: a picture of where I am right now. It’s like Anne Rice’s novels. Some reflect her state when she was searching for meaning. Others reflect her state after she found meaning. Now, she’s someplace else.

I appreciate the new friends that I made this year: Randy Olds, John Valade, Josiah Henderson, and others. And I also appreciate those who continue to read me year in and year out, to see value in what I say, and to comment, whether they agree with me or not: Izgad, Russell Miller, Yvette, BryanL, Doug Ward, Looney Fundamentalist, Terri of Wheat and Tares, Retriever, Joel Watts, Byker Bob, Felix, Stan, Mom, Anon 15:5, and others. I’d also like to note something: last blog birthday, only seven people followed me on blogger. Today, 23 people do. And yet, the number of views on my WordPress blog has declined over the last year. Oh well! You win some, and you lose some! :D

I’m not going to set goals for this coming year, as I did last year. I’ll just blog about what I blog about, when I blog about it! My blog will be different in certain ways from what it was this past year, for I will be different, my schedule will be different, and, sometime in December, my surroundings will be different! But I’ll still be the same, in many ways.

On to Year 4!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let Us; Neshamah

I’m continuing my way through Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning. Here are two items that caught my eye:

1. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us create man in our image”. Why does God refer to himself in the first person plural? For Trinitarians, this indicates that God is a plural sort of being—which is consistent with the Trinity. But some think that God is talking to himself, the same way that we commune with ourselves. Blocher cites passages in which (according to him) such occurs. In II Samuel 24:24, David says, “Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands” (NRSV). In Song of Songs 1:11, the lover tells the woman ”We will make” ornaments of gold.

I think the second passage is a convincing example of what Blocher is talking about: a person using “we” to mean “I”. As for the first passage—maybe it does this, and maybe not. An “us” passage is juxtaposed with a “me” passage, and both passages convey the same sort of thought (parallelism). That’s an argument in favor of “we” being used for “I”. At the same time, the punishment would affect more people than David, so “us” could mean “us”, not “me”.

2. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes into man the neshamah of life, something that God does not do for the animals (or, at least, the text does not say that God did so). For Blocher, this affirms that man in ancient Hebrew thought has a dual nature of body and soul, contradicting the scholarly trend from 1930-1960 to affirm that man for the ancient Hebrews did not have a body, but was a body.

Blocher cites Proverbs 20:27, which says that the neshamah of man is “the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part” (NRSV). For Blocher, this passage indicates that the ancient Hebrews saw the neshamah as something that had the ability to discern—to think, if you will. It was what we call a “soul”.

My problem with Blocher’s argument is that Genesis 7:22 says that all in whose nostrils was the breath (neshamah) of life died in the flood, immediately after the text mentions the death of animals and man. In Deuteronomy 20:16, the word occurs in reference to the conquest. In the areas around Canaan, the Israelites could take the spoil of women, children, and animals. In Canaan, however, they had to destroy all with a neshamah.

I suppose that, technically-speaking, the neshamah in these texts could be referring only to the humans, not the animals. But the animals appear to be juxtaposed with the humans, so I wonder if the texts could be saying that animals too have a breath of life: a neshamah.

And maybe the word itself could have more than one meaning. It’s the breath that animates us, but it’s also a part of us that discerns.

II Kings 19

For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 19. King Sennacherib of Assyria is seeking to conquer Jerusalem, and Hezekiah prays to the LORD. In answer to Hezekiah’s prayer, God (through an angel) kills off the Assyrian army. Later, Sennacherib is assassinated by two of his sons, who flee to Ararat. Esarhaddon then succeeds Sennacherib as king of Assyria.

There are many historical issues in this chapter. V 9 is challenging, for it states that Tirhakah, the king of Cush, has attacked Sennacherib, leading the Assyrian king away from Jerusalem. (Sennacherib leaves many troops in the proximity of Jerusalem, however). The problem is that Tirkahah wasn’t king until 690 B.C.E., which is after the events of II Kings 19. Virtually all modern commentators, conservative and liberal, acknowledge this as a problem. Liberals tend to view v 9 as an example of anachronism. Conservatives have contended that v 9 calls Tirhakah a king because that’s what he later became, and the audience of II Kings 19 knew him as such.

Sennacherib’s account does not mention that Sennacherib actually took Jerusalem, which may be evidence that he did not do so, as the Bible says. Then there’s the interesting story in the History of Herodotus (Book II, 141), the fifth century B.C.E. Greek historian, who narrates that, when Sennacherib was trying to attack Egypt, mice came and ate up the military equipment of his army. According to Herodotus, that’s why there’s a statue of a king in the Temple of Hephaistos, holding up a mouse and urging people to fear the gods! In Greek legends, mice carried pestilence. Is Herodotus confirming the story of the Bible? Mordecai Cogan thinks not. For Cogan, Herodotus is botching things up by attributing to Sennacherib’s time an incident that occurred under his successor, Esarhaddon, as well as drawing from a mixed-up version of the biblical story.

Who killed Sennacherib? Cogan refers to evidence that the assassination was committed by Sennacherib’s son, Arad-ninlil. Could the names of the assassins in the biblical account be botched up? Moreover, according to Assyrian sources, there were brothers of Esarhaddon who challenged his accession, and Esarhaddon tries to get his hands on Assyrian refugees who fled to Ararat. Does this confirm the biblical story that two brothers of Esarhaddon attempted to take the throne and fled to Ararat?

Those are some of the historical issues. But what got my attention was how preachers said that II Kings 19 teaches us to look to God, not to therapists. Chuck Smith, for example, says that he feels helpless when people tell him about their problems, for he can’t do anything about them. God, however, can. There are many times when such is the case. But therapists can give us insights as to how to cope or deal with our problems. And yet, we may need divine intervention! As a person with bills, I identified with a sermon I heard, in which a preacher talked about spreading our bills out before God, as Hezekiah spread before God the taunting letter of Assyria. Personally, I need encouragement and advice so I can see productive ways that I can handle situations; but I also need God to help me out. Where my role ends, and God’s begins, can be pretty murky. But I feel that I have a role, and so does God.

Chuck Smith made another interesting point. In Isaiah 33:14, the sinners of Zion wonder how they can dwell in the midst of everlasting flames. According to Smith, they are saying this after God’s angel has slaughtered the Assyrian army. His reason for this interpretation may be that Isaiah 33 refers to God’s defeat of nations and salvation of Zion, which fits the story of God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the hands of Sennacherib. Seeing God’s wrath on others scares the sinners of Zion. But the prophet tells them that they can survive the everlasting flames if they do righteousness and hate oppression, bribery, and bloodshed. I’m not big on fear religion, but I can see its place, especially since there are people in the world who like to hurt others.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Oh Brother...

I’m tired right now, so I’m not going to write about Leviticus Rabbah at the moment. Rather, I’m going to create an “Oh Brother” post!

In an online forum, I’ve been discussing the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”. Here are some gems from the Christian opponents of Islam, along with my reaction:

1. Unfortunately, I can’t find the first quote that got me riled up. Basically, I was discussing Islam with a group of Christians, and I remarked that some Christian critics of Islam are displaying the very attributes that they ascribe to Muslims: intolerance, an “us vs. them” mentality, etc. Even before I even made that statement, some people in the forum were referring to “militant Christianity”.

A woman then responded that the fact that the topic of conversation changed to “militant Christianity” only shows how uncomfortable we are discussing the true agenda of Islam.

First of all, I have problems with “we” statements. People use them to be diplomatic, since saying that “we” have a problem is less accusatory than saying that “you” have a problem. But I don’t appreciate this woman claiming to speak for me.

Second, “militant Christianity” is relevant to the issue of Islam and Islamophobia. How can one claim that it’s not? There are Christians who aren’t loving Muslims, and this is occurring under the banner of Christ. They are showing intolerance and suspicion of the other. I consider that a problem.

Third, I’m not uncomfortable discussing the “true agenda of Islam”—as if such a thing even exists, with Islam being the diverse religion that it is. This lady seems to assume that we all agree with her on the “true agenda of Islam”, when that was precisely what we were debating. Or, actually, she’s being like many evangelicals: she thinks that even those who disagree with her agree with her deep down in their hearts, but they’re suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

2. Another gem: “People are so uninformed about the goal of Islam! Pray like never before!”

Look, I don’t mind if this lady has views about Islam (as if she needs my permission). But for her to act like God agrees with her on this? That’s pretty presumptuous! Why should I assume that God is supporting an intolerant mob that is stereotyping Muslims and treating them in a less-than-loving fashion?

It’s one thing to pray for people to encounter the love of God through Jesus Christ. That may strike many non-Christians as exclusivist and condescending, but I can see love in that. But to pray against Muslims, or President Obama? That assumes that God holds to a particular political agenda, and I’m not convinced that he does (or, at least, I’m not convinced that God is right-wing). These are reasons that I have difficulty calling Christians “my people”. I should remember, however, that Christianity, like Islam, is a diverse religion, and that it does have tolerant voices.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beggars

I’m continuing my way through Burton Visotzky’s Golden Bells and Pomegranates. The topic that I encountered today was Leviticus Rabbah’s view on poverty. Apparently, even people in the fifth century C.E. told poor beggars to “Get a job”, an attitude that Leviticus Rabbah criticizes. And yet, Leviticus Rabbah acknowledges the existence of “con-men among the poor”. It’s because of them that we don’t merit death anytime we turn away a beggar! Rabbi Abbahu said that we actually owe the con-men thanks for that!

What’s interesting is that one tradition in Leviticus Rabbah views a bad person falling into poverty to be among the “unworthy poor”. For example, Rabbi Yosi’s abusive ex-wife fell into poverty, and Rabbi Yosi helped her even though he wasn’t obligated to do so under Jewish law. He was commended for going above and beyond the Torah.

I dislike having a judgmental attitude about the poor. I’m not likely to tell a homeless person to “get a job” because (1.) it’s hard in our current economy, and (2.) it’s difficult for a person to get a job when he’s slept in the same clothes for a week and hasn’t had a bath.

But there are plenty of hustlers out there who make a living off of, well, hustling people.

I don’t give to beggars much now because I don’t have much money. Plus, I don’t like to be bothered. When I have money, I’d rather give my money to a charity rather than to someone on the streets.

I have given beggars food before. Some appreciate it. Some don’t, which shows what they’re really after.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Semiramis, Clark Pinnock, Death

1. In Golden Bells and Pomegranates, Burton Visotzky refers to Semiramis, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar in Jewish rabbinic literature.

I thought she was the wife of Nimrod a millennium earlier! Wasn’t she the one who started paganism? Well, there are different traditions about who Semiramis was and when she lived—from Jewish, Christian, and other sources. See the following documented wikipedia articles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiramis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninus

2. Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock has passed away. I’m not sure when I first heard of him, but it was probably when I was shelving books at the Harvard Divinity School library. Pinnock was an annihilationist, an inclusivist, and an open theist. Cool guy! To read my write-ups on Pinnock’s essay regarding inclusivism, see:

More on Religious Pluralism: Clark Pinnock

Some Loose Ends on Religious Pluralism

3. It’s not often that somebody I know dies. (I’m not talking about Pinnock, here.) You see a person every now and then, and you’re used to his presence, whether you’re close to him or not. Then, he unexpectedly dies, and you won’t see him again (at least not on this side of death).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scholarly Debates on Leviticus Rabbah

Yesterday, I started Burton Visotzky's Golden Bells and Pomegranates. I'm writing this post at school right now, since I'll probably be too tired to write it once I get home. It concerns scholarly debates concerning Leviticus Rabbah, which Visotzky dates to fifth century Palestine.

The first debate concerns what Leviticus Rabbah is. Is it an edited literary document, or a homily? One of my rabbinics professors calls it a "literary homily". I guess that's the best of both worlds. Essentially, Visotzsky argues that it's a mish-mash of different (often contradictory) rabbinic traditions---a compendium, if you will. I enjoyed Visotzky's discussion of the sacrificial system in Leviticus Rabbah, which includes traditions saying that the sacrifices will one day be re-instituted, that the temple system as we know it will be abolished, that the priests are authoritative, that they are screw-ups, etc. That's diversity!

I wonder if Leviticus Rabbah tries to make a point from the diverse traditions that it uses. One professor disliked my calling the one who put Leviticus Rabbah together a "compiler", for he viewed him as an artist shaping his traditions to communicate a message, not merely compiling them.

The second debate concerns what drew from what. Visotzky holds that Leviticus Rabbah drew from Genesis Rabbah, the Jerusalem Talmud, and Pesikta de-Rab Kahana. Because LR and PdRK share certain traditions, there is a view that one drew from the other, or that both drew from a common tradition. The debate is what drew from what.

Scholars also discuss the use of Aramaic in Leviticus Rabbah. Jews spoke Aramaic at this time, and yet rabbinic documents use plenty of Hebrew. Was Aramaic used to produce intimacy between the teller of the folk tale in LR and the hearer, who was more comfortable with Aramaic? That is one proposal.

There's also the issue of Hellenistic influence on Leviticus Rabbah. Visotzky, for example, attributes LR's division between the body and the soul to Hellenistic influence.

That's that for now! Tonight, I'll be watching Father Murphy while I read more of Visotzky.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Feast of the Bodily Assumption

At Latin mass yesterday, we had political priest, but he didn't speak about politics. Rather, he talked about the assumption of the virgin Mary into heaven.

Latin mass has been meeting in the church auditorium over the past few weeks, because the sanctuary is being refurbished. That means that we have chairs instead of pews (which means that I feel rather uncomfortable kneeling, since there's not that cushion for my knees that I pull out from under the pew in front of me). I sat down in my usual spot in the back row, and a nice old lady told me that those seats were reserved for the choir, since it was a high mass that Sunday. The fact that she informed me that it was a high mass may indicate that she knows I'm not a Catholic! I hope the people at this church don't try to convert me!

In the church bulletin, there was a blurb about how Mary is our nurturing mother. It was ironic that I read that, for, the day before, I listened to a sermon by Jon Courson that likened the Nehushtan that Hezekiah destroyed to Mariology!

The homily, as I said, concerned the assumption of Mary into heaven---body and soul. The priest said that this was one of the few times that the pope spoke ex cathedra, which (for Catholics) is when the pope is infallible. The other time was to declare that Mary was immaculately conceived.

The priest highlighted the importance of saying that Mary ascended in both her body and her soul. When the pope made his declaration, lots of bloodshed had just occurred. There was World War II, and also the Holocaust. The pope wanted to highlight the sanctity of human life---the importance of, not only the soul, but also the body.

There's a strong element of Christianity that believes in the redemption and restoration of the physical. Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Paul in Romans 8 talks about the universe groaning for the redemption of the sons of God, as if their redemption is its redemption.

But can the universe exist without death and chaos? In one forum, Russell Miller was saying that entropy entered the universe soon after it came into existence. He has talked as if entropy is an integral part of the universe, something I've also heard scientists claim. I read one physicist who maintained that the order in our small part of the universe depends in some sense on the disorder that exists elsewhere. In my opinion, that's why Russell doesn't talk about the redemption of the physical, but asserts that we reach immortality by transcending the physical. Death is an integral part of the physical, but not the spiritual (which includes our souls).

(I welcome Russell's correction and clarification on this.)

Similarly, the Gnostics believed (albeit for other reasons) that the material was corrupt, and so they said the goal of human beings should be to recognize that the material world is not their true home, in preparation for their soul going to a spiritual realm.

But back to the priest's homily. The priest talked about the virtues of Mary, and how she was like a new Eve. Eve was selfish and desired to be like God. But Mary was humble and obedient. And the humble are the ones who will be exalted, according to Jesus.

At times, in my Armstrongite background, a preacher or two said that the Armstrongite church has allowed its anti-Catholicism to lead it to ignore Mary. But the preachers went on to say that the Armstrongite church was wrong to do so, for Mary was a special person. She was obedient to God, even though she knew that the risks would be high if she became pregnant before marriage (since that was a capital offense). Plus, she must have been special, for God chose her to raise Jesus.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Homogenization

The new Internet Monk had a post about a month ago, None dare Call It Marketing: Lifeway, Beth Moore and the conspiracy to take over your church. You can read the post yourself to see what his arguments are, but what I got out of it was this: the promotion of evangelical Christian celebrities—such as Beth Moore, Kay Arthur, John Piper, Rick Warren, etc.—undermines the local Christian church.

For the Internet Monk, some of the problem seems to be that Christians may choose to stay at home and read or watch Beth Moore rather than become involved in a local church, where the pastor may not be as glamorous or as good of a speaker. At a local church, which the Internet Monk thinks should be small, discipleship can occur, under the auspices of a pastor: the Internet Monk considers that to be the New Testament model. At a megachurch or a Beth Moore conference, however, such is not the case.

There’s also the issue that churches are using curricula by Rick Warren, Beth Moore, and Kay Arthur, which creates a homogenization and inhibits the creative use of spiritual gifts. A few weeks ago, under my post, Should Anne Rice Go to Church?, Looney Fundamentalist said the following about the use of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life curricula in local churches:

James, I don’t see anything controversial in the content of PDL, but leadership style is a different matter. It really begins with a remark that Warren made in one of the videos: Someone was regularly suggesting to him an alternate style and Warren eventually became frustrated and suggested that he should find a another church that matched that style. This has been picked up on by authoritarian sorts and abused to the extreme – even to justify continuing sin by elders. Most established churches have subgroups with different ministry styles, while the PDL demands everyone drop everything and commit exclusively to the PDL style. The result can be like a wrecking ball coming through the House of the Lord.

The other aspect of PDL is just the Saddleback style: It is oriented towards industrialized, bulk Christianity where all teaching and preaching are done by one or two people. Even small groups emphasize videos selected by the elites, so there is no need for people to learn theology, develop teaching skills, or go to the library to research a topic.

The inevitable result is that once PDL is introduced, a lot of gifted people are sidelined and many will seek out somewhere else that they can serve, while those whose spiritual needs aren’t according to the PDL agenda are going to go hungry, and most others will go unchallenged.

Thus, my church had fewer young people but more going into Christian ministry before PDL, whereas afterwards there was an enthusiastic and larger crowd, but less long term passion and commitment. It isn’t heresy, but it isn’t wise either.

As with everything, my reaction to the Internet Monk’s post is mixed. Where do I agree with the Internet Monk? I don’t have any experience with Beth Moore, although there are people in my family who love her. But I do have some experience with Kay Arthur, for I was involved in a Bible study group on the Book of Colossians that used her material. I thought that the group had good discussions, for—believe it or not—we really delved into the Greek. I consulted my Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, others brought in Thayer’s, still others used Strong’s, etc.

But I felt as if the curriculum was pushing us to believe in a certain way. I may be confusing Kay Arthur with the leader of the group, but we were encouraged to believe in “Once Saved Always Saved”, although there are plenty of passages in Colossians that encourage believers to stay on the right path, or that warn them of consequences from not doing so. I was not convinced by Kay Arthur’s Trinitarian explanation of Colossians 1:15, which calls Jesus the “firstborn of all creation.” I also did not buy into her interpretation of Matthew 16:18—where Jesus tells Peter that he will build a church on a rock—in light of I Peter 2:5-6, which calls Jesus the cornerstone. Matthew 16:18 focuses a lot on Peter and his authority, so I think there’s a good chance that he’s the rock in that passage. I didn’t think that I Peter 2:5-6 was all that relevant to the topic of Matthew 16.

So I guess my problem is this: When I study the Bible, I don’t try to force it into an evangelical mold. I seek to appreciate it on its own terms (in my mind), in all its diversity and unpredictability. That, to me, is what makes the Bible interesting. So I have problems with Christian curricula that tell me what to think.

Also, Kay Arthur calling her listeners and readers “precious one” gets on my nerves. I find that condescending.

Overall, I’m not big on Christian celebrities telling me what to do. Recently, a friend of mine posted a video of John Piper addressing the question of whether or not Christians should study other religions. Excuse me? I’ll study other religions if I want to do so. I don’t need John Piper’s permission! (Isn’t he supposed to be on some sabbatical right now, anyway?)

Moreover, I agree with the Internet Monk that we can learn from people who are not-so-glamorous, such as our local pastor.

Here’s where I disagree with the Internet Monk. As I said in my post, Yay Raa, Consumerism, but…, I like Christian consumerism (up to a point), for consumerism is consistent with freedom and our right to make choices. If someone is encouraged to become a better person by reading Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, I think that’s a good thing! Not everyone is satisfactorily fed by a local pastor. Even the first century churches got to hear the big-guns every once in a while—such as Paul, or Peter!

I remember reading Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort’s site, which said the following (see here): Don’t become a “spiritual butterfly.” Send your roots down. If you are moving from church to church, how will your pastor know what type of food you are digesting? The Bible says that your shepherd will have to give an account to Him that has entrusted you to him (Hebrews 13:17), so make yourself known to your pastor. Pray for him regularly. Pray also for his wife, his family, and the elders. Being a pastor is no easy task. Most people don’t realize how many hours it takes to gather a fresh sermon each week. They don’t appreciate the time spent in prayer and in the study of the Word. If the pastor makes the same joke twice, or shares something he has shared before, remember, he’s human. So give him a great deal of grace, and double honor. Never murmur about him. If you don’t like something he has said, pray about it, then leave the issue with God. If that doesn’t satisfy you, leave the church, rather than divide it through murmuring and complaining.

I appreciate the parts about supporting our pastors even when they’re not glamorous, and of leaving a church when we’re discontent. That last part is consistent with freedom! But I have problems with the idea of a local pastor monitoring the type of spiritual (or otherwise) food that I am digesting. That sounds controlling to me, as if I’d be pushed in a local church to think, feel, or behave in a certain way. I don’t like that.

I don’t like it when people try to control me, whether they be Christian celebrities, or a local church. But I do believe in being patient with the less-than-glamorous (I fall into that category!), as I realize that even they have something to teach me. And I see nothing wrong with getting my spiritual food from a variety of sources, in addition to my local church. Both the curricula of Christian celebrities and the local church may push for homogenization, even as they teach me valuable things. I, meanwhile, will be my own unique self.

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