Dr. Howell's eSeries

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The Da Vinci Code - Fact or Fiction?

Dr. James C. Howell
December 6, 2003

At least once a day, someone asks me, "What do you think about The Da Vinci Code?" I read this fast-paced page-turner on vacation last summer, pretty much as mindless entertainment, expecting the book to be in the dustjacket's advertised category: fiction. Fun reading, not literature on a par with George Eliot, Barbara Kingsolver, or Anne Tyler, but interesting enough. But people don't often ask the preacher for literary assessments; to my surprise, people have been reading The DaVinci Code as history. I guess I was aware people increasingly pick up what smidgeon of history they get from movies, fiction, and talk radio, but I hadn't read it that way, so I had to go back and wade through a second time.

Now, I love digging up little known facts, and pulling back the curtain on obscurities and hypocrisy in religion as much or more than the next person. I enjoy probing the humanity of Jesus. I am disturbed by the subdued role women have been allowed to play in Christianity. I understand the public's cynicism about Church talk; we are all still reeling from atrocities the Church has attempted to cover up.

Facts and Faith

Yet the "informed" characters in The DaVinci Code, as they "uncover hidden truths," state things that are simply preposterous. When I say this, I am not speaking as a believer. I am simply talking about the facts. I do realize that in modern times, religion has been reduced to a matter of feeling. Faith is something I feel inside, and it's all spiritual, invisible. Truth, the facts? In the realm of religion one truth seems just as valid as the next truth, and there can't really be facts, can there?

But genuine Christianity has never given up on the facts. My faith is rooted not just in my spiritual experience, but in real historical facts. Not all ideas are equally valid. There are facts about Jesus and Christianity. The alleged truths laced throughout The DaVinci Code simply are not true. That's not a faith statement. That's a fact statement, with which every reputable scholar in this country would agree.

What are the facts? and why does Dan Brown get them so wrong? His "research" hangs on a single book that came out twenty years ago: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, a book that sold extremely well but was met with a sound thrashing from all scholars who are knowledgeable. Baigent, parenthetically, also wrote a book (also the subject of scholarly denunciation) declaring the Vatican was suppressing damaging truths hidden in the Dead Sea Scrolls; but this is absurd, as the Dead Sea Scrolls have been widely published and available for many years, full of fascinating information about Judaism in the time of Jesus, but not one word about Jesus, or any viewpoint, positive or negative, about Christianity.

Now if this sounds like a cover-up, I can only say that scholars have absolutely no motivation to cover up obscure facts. Scholars are not in the hip pocket of Church officials. In fact, scholars have every good reason to divulge previously hidden truths, for the greater the novelty in your writing, the more likely you are to get published and sell lots of books.

How the Gospels were Chosen

The central "authority" in The DaVinci Code, Sir Leigh Teabing, states there were "more than eighty Gospels considered for the New Testament," and that only four were chosen "by the emperor Constantine" because they suited his political purposes. Really? Constantine was powerful, but he would have had to turn the clock back by two centuries to find himself at the moment when the four Gospels, the only ones with the slightest claim to being early or authentic, were recognized all over the world as the four, long before many of Teabing's eighty fantasies about Jesus were even written. Sir Teabing claims the secretive Dead Sea Scrolls contained hidden Gospels the Vatican tried to suppress; but no gospel of any type has ever been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. With dramatic flair, Dan Brown pictures Teabing opening a mysterious volume of the scrolls, but I have personally seen the scrolls in paperback in Walmart.

I don't think we who teach in the Church have educated people very well about the formation of the Bible. I think many folks harbor a false picture of how the books of the Bible were chosen, assuming some big meeting was held and a vote taken. Imagine this by analogy: how many biographies of Thomas Jefferson have been written? Maybe a hundred? We could get a committee together, an "America is good and we must suppress negative thinking about America" committee, to decide officially what Jefferson was like. So, biographies that tell of his fathering children by the slave, Sally Hemings, are to be burned. Biographies that show how Jefferson hated the clergy and rewrote the New Testament, expunging all miracles and anything divine about Jesus, are to be burned. We pick just four biographies that extol his virtues and support our ideology.

But this is not how the New Testament came into being. At first, stories of Jesus were passed along word of mouth, and pretty soon, Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and soon thereafter John, were committed to writing, because the first Christians wanted to be certain they had accurate, written testimony for future generations. They weren't covering anything up; on the contrary, they were doing everything possible to get the word out. But what about the "other gospels," the "hidden books"? Other gospels were written after many decades, but none were written nearly as early as the four we know well, and none could claim authenticity. No one ever met and voted to use these four and exclude the others. Within two generations, a consensus emerged in various cities around the Mediterranean that there just were four Gospels being circulated, preached, copied, read, discussed, treasured. As others emerged, they were not suppressed so much as they simply were not recognized as having validity. Clearly and by remarkably consistent understanding, the Church had four good stories about Jesus.

One account, the Gospel of Thomas, was written pretty early, not as early as the four we know so well, but early, and most scholars are inclined to think the Gospel of Thomas (also widely available in paperback) contains material that goes back to Jesus, but not contained in the four Gospels we know. For instance, when Jesus tells the about the sower flinging seed about, in Thomas he adds, "I have come to sow fire upon the earth." Jesus may well have said that; the other four don't record it, but they did not record everything he ever said.

I am always intrigued by two facts about this process. One is that there was a trend in early Christianity to get rid of three Gospels, as many leaders thought the Church could be more effective if they went out with just a single, authorized version of the story. But Christians had four Gospels of such authority, four that were so beloved, that this trend was in fact squashed. The Church was not in the business of suppressing truth, but wanted to hang on to all four reliable versions - even though in some points they did not seem to be absolutely in sync with one another.

The Humanity of Jesus

Secondly, the later gospels that were written indeed are fascinating, but not because they portray a more human Jesus. Sir Teabing implies that the stories revealing a human, earthly Jesus were suppressed. But the truth is the opposite. The "hidden" gospels (later by 100 to 200 years, almost as long as there has been a United States!) do not portray a more human Jesus, but a less human Jesus, a more divine Jesus. For instance, one gospel tells of Jesus in the crib playing with clay, fashioning little birds which he then miraculously causes to fly away. Or his father is in the carpentry shop, and one board is too short, so the toddler Jesus magically lengthens it. One day little Jesus turns his playmates into goats. A more human Jesus we can identify with? Why is no one crying "Cover up! Why hasn't the church told us about this before?" These stories are clearly legendary, written by people who were not at all comfortable with a human Jesus and wanted him to appear to be as divine as possible.

The DaVinci Code implies Jesus was thought to be merely human until the Council of Nicaea, which fabricated Jesus' divinity 300 years after Jesus' death. But just open your Bible, and you can see clearly that 250 years before the Council of Nicaea, the first Christians believed (right or wrong!) that Jesus was divine. The Council at Nicaea did debate Jesus' humanity and divinity, but it wasn't an either-or. Rather, they were trying to discern the exact nature of the relationship between what was human and what was divine about Jesus - something we still wrestle with today.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

So what about Mary Magdalene, and Jesus being married? One gospel, written more than 150 years after Jesus, speaks of Jesus' "kisses" with Mary, who was his "companion" (which Dan Brown - has he studied ancient languages too? - declares really means "wife," although this again is not at all conclusive). But we have to get inside the ancient mindset to understand what a "kiss" meant. About a decade ago, a writer argued that medieval priests were openly gay, and were positively welcomed as such - because he found writings saying "Priest William loved priest John, and kissed him." To Americans in 2003, this can mean only one thing.

But in the Middle Ages, this language didn't mean what it means to us. Even in the world today, there are cultures in which men kiss each other without there being the slightest sexual connotation, and even in the Bible, David and Jonathan are two of many men who openly expressed emotional love for each other, although this does not mean they were gay. Paul told the early Christians, "Greet one another with a kiss." So was Jesus so close to Mary that he even kissed her? The writing in question has no claim to authenticity, but even if it did, their relationship squares nicely with what we see in the Bible itself. Mary was clearly, passionately devoted to Jesus, and he to her.

People ask me, "What's a good book about Mary Magdalene?" or "Can I read this Gospel of Mary"? and I can only answer that there aren't great biographies of Mary Magdalene, because the sum total of what we know about her can be stated in about a page and a half. The books (which sell well) are all speculation. Indeed, some thinkers in Church history declared her to be a prostitute, when the Bible only says she was a "sinner."

The Gospel of Mary exists only in fragments, and it was written more than 150 years after Jesus by a bizarre sect of the Gnostics, who believed (among many other odd things) that you could have sex with anyone you wished, since what you do with your body is of no interest to God, since there is no such thing as sin, or right and wrong. A friend said to me "Wouldn't it be a relief if there were no such thing as sin?" But I would disagree. If there is no such thing as right and wrong, if what Osama bin Laden did is morally equivalent to what Mother Teresa did, if a child cheating on a test is the same as a child who studied and was honest, then we might as well all jump out of windows right now.

I suppose I struggle with understanding why people feel we need to turn to low-authenticity accounts of Jesus' life to discover his humanity. Not only do those writings lean toward his divinity instead of his humanity; but the Gospels we have portray a very human Jesus, who gets hungry, who walks, who bleeds, who weeps, who loves, who gets furiously angry, who dies. Personally, I find this Jesus to be very human, and his humanity helps me immensely in my life.

Women in the Church

And why do we need to turn to low-authenticity accounts of Jesus' life to unearth the fact that women were not allowed into the upper echelon of early Church life? We have always known this, and the Church was embarrassingly normal in its day by leaving women out of the leadership equation. Many of us feel the Gospels are surprisingly inclusive, at least for the times in which they were written. Jesus praises Mary for sitting at his feet while teaching, at Martha's expense (who makes the standard claim that a woman's place is in the kitchen). A surprising number of women are right in the thick of Jesus' entourage. On January 7, I will teach a class called, "Did Jesus have Women Disciples?" Luke 8:1-3 and other texts indicate that women played far more prominent roles than we might have imagined, with Joanna ranked as a powerful disciple in the Jesus movement.

The December 8 issue of Newsweek describes recent scholarship lifting up the historic role women played in Bible times; frankly, none of this is new, and the powerful parts played by Deborah, Miriam, Joanna and many others have been plain as day as long as there's been a Bible. But if The DaVinci Code gets people digging back in their Bibles, I'll be delighted, for this act in itself will not suppress, but will free women to follow God's calling. I for one believe we should put women in charge of the world immediately, as the men have had their chance, and have bungled things miserably.

Could Jesus have been married? Friends have told me, "If Jesus were married and fathered a child, my faith would not be changed." I have tried to think if marriage and parenthood would pose some impediment to Jesus being Jesus, and cannot think of anything especially catastrophic about it. But let the buyer beware: there is exactly as much evidence for Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene as there is for Jesus being married to Martha, Lazarus's sister (or to Mary, his other sister, who did sit at Jesus' feet a lot), or for Jesus being gay and in a relationship with Peter (or John, who was dubbed the "beloved" disciple). There is no evidence for any of these. And John Dominic Crossan, quoted in Newsweek, is exactly right: "Mary was not important because she was Mrs. Jesus"; for us to argue Mary was Jesus' wife oddly perpetuates the old prejudice that women are valued only for their sexual roles. The early evidence we do have points to Jesus being single. Although they are silent on the subject, the four Gospels never rule out Jesus being married.

Yet I would add this. Sir Teabing would have us believe Mary Magdalene and Jesus became the ancestors of the Merovingian kings of France. But how would a dark-skinned Semitic couple manage the genetic magic of parenting Indo-European white royalty? The implausibility of this seems excessive.

In the wake of pedophilia scandals, a Church cover-up seems more believable than ever, and more detestable. But the facts simply are not on the side of Sir Leigh Teabing or Dan Brown. The four Gospels we have are by the far clearest pictures we have of who Jesus really was. Jesus did not marry Mary Magdalene. He saved her, and is still in every position to be of the same sort of help to us, and to help the Church to regain its integrity and become again a place where all people, are loved, welcomed, and transformed, not secretly, but out in the open.

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On Gratitude

This is Chapter 18 of my book, The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray.

18. Gratitude

O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good (Psalm 106:1).

From our first theme in prayer, praise, we move toward a related mood: giving thanks. Praise is awestruck and glorifies God for who God is. Thanks is dumbfounded and grateful for what God has done for us.

The ancient Israelites enjoyed a huge advantage over us in terms of feeling grateful. Lacking technology and financial security, they knew they were utterly dependent upon God for their bread (if they had any bread), for shelter (if they had any shelter), for taking that next breath, for the sunshine and rain. We modern people are so smart, so self-sufficient – and especially in America, where we prize “independence” above all else.

We think of gratitude as a feeling that you either have spontaneously, or you just don’t – and generally we don’t. We nurture grievances and file complaints. Advertisers incessantly lull us into a sense of dissatisfaction, so we will buy their products. Even the season of Thanksgiving becomes one more day of vacation, when the malls have sales and we gorge ourselves with a bit too much turkey and dressing.

Perhaps our hardest lesson in prayer is to develop this counter-intuitive sense of dependence. I am not the master of my fate. It’s not all up to me. I don’t “earn” what is genuinely good in life. It is all gift, all grace.

Henri Nouwen understood how gratitude takes practice: “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift to be celebrated with joy. Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful, even if my heart is bitter. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye looks for something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of resentment and grimaces of hate… The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Acts of gratitude make one grateful.”

The Psalms, once again, are a mighty chorus of thanks to God. In fact, many of the Psalms (such as 30, 34, 66, 126) were little worship services in which you would gather with family, neighbors, and friends, and tell the story of “what God has done for me.” As a tangible expression of your gratitude, you would offer up an offering – your best sheep, the first wheat that ripened – as thanks to God. To grow in gratitude, we will probably need to be sure our “thanks” are tangible, involving our stuff, offered to God, shared with the poor. And we will need to learn how to tell our story – to someone unsure about God, to someone who may be losing hope, to someone who’s burdened by “earning” and toting the weight of the world on his or her shoulders.

So let us pray together, using Psalm 118: “O Lord, I thank You that You have answered me and become my salvation. You are my God, and I will give thanks to You. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

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Lost Tomb of Jesus and a Review of James Tabor's

The Discovery Channel premiered James Cameron's highly advertised TV special in which he claims that the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (and their son) has been discovered. People have asked me for a response - and I begin by saying I love archaeology and science, and I want to learn all I can and don't feel fearful of any new discoveries.

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus" was certainly well-made, interesting, a little slow and with more ads than I care to sit through. We would expect this, since Cameron is a movie producer. It was interesting to me he used Frank Moore Cross of Harvard as one of his experts: but Professor Cross does not agree with Cameron's conclusions about the tomb! Our friend Jim Tabor at UNCC was featured prominently.

There are ways to argue against their sensational conclusions, and one fact not mentioned much by other critics is that Jesus and his family were not residents of Jerusalem. They had come there, with about 2 million pilgrims, for the Passover - but their home was far to the north in Nazareth. The film claimed "Christian tradition has believed Mary died in Jerusalem," but if you go to Ephesus in Turkey you can visit the traditional home of Mary where the tour guides say she lived out her final years.

But these are quibbles, and there are many more. You have to wonder about something mixed up with such huge profits, linkages to The DaVinci Code hype, and the way the American public snaps up any and everything that trashes Christianity.

I want to reflect on all this some more, but it does seem to me that if somehow it really were proven that Jesus married and had a son, nothing in our theology or beliefs would change. Mind you, there is no solid evidence Jesus was married or had a son, but if he did Jesus would still be the great teacher, healer and savior he's always been.

You might want to read the blog on the whole issue by Ben Witherington, the New Testament scholar who was with us recently; and for a different perspective you can read the blog by James Tabor.

A Review of James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty By Dr. Howell

With the hype of a TV special, a clever web site, and much publicity, Jim Tabor will surely succeed at his stated intention with his scintillating new book, The Jesus Dynasty: to spark controversy. The book’s subtitle, The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, suggests he is delving more deeply into the conspiracy theories and rumors of romance spawned by the outrageously popular The Da Vinci Code. Tabor’s book lacks the romantic element of The Da Vinci Code. And then, Tabor is writing nonfiction, not fiction.

Tabor is a superb scholar, not a novelist, a real archaeologist, widely respected among scholars of the ancient world. I do not believe he is being provocative just because he wants to tap into the Da Vinci Code sensation (or profits!). As a historian, he is reconstructing a storyline that is his best explanation of the Bible, archaeological findings, and ancient history.

But the reader should beware: Tabor has much hard evidence, but then he builds on facts with a hypothesis, then a guess, a few more facts, then another two hypotheses, an artifact that admits of multiple interpretations, another fact, then a guess, connecting all these dots in one of literally dozens of possible ways. But the feel in this marvelously well-written volume is that he is building a structure of facts toward his conclusion, and the reader may easily forget that a hypothesis is merely a hypothesis, and a string of them become guesswork. To ask if it would be lovely if the DNA of the excavated remains of someone named Mary happen to match the DNA of the remains of someone named James is a far cry from saying “We have the DNA of Jesus’ family” – but I had to re-read that page to be sure about what Tabor was really saying.

Tabor’s conclusions will trouble many: Mary had sex with not zero men, or one man, but three men. Jesus’ father wasn’t God or even Joseph, but a Roman soldier named Panthera (whose grave Tabor found in Germany). Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and learned all his good material from John. The “beloved” disciple isn’t John (as traditionally thought), or Mary Magdalene (as The Da Vinci Code suggests), but James, Jesus’ brother. In fact, Jesus’ brothers are among the twelve disciples – but they weren’t really disciples, but the regional managers, the “cabinet,” of a provisional government Jesus was fashioning. Tabor’s thesis? “Rather than a church, or a new religion, Jesus established a royal dynasty.” He and John the Baptist were co-Messiahs until they died; then James, Jesus’ brother, took over and “ruled” for more than thirty years (“rule” being an extravagant word for what anyone could do with a few dozen impoverished, persecuted Christians). Jesus’ tomb indeed was empty on Easter morning – but his own followers had reburied him, either in the family tomb Tabor studied outside Jerusalem, or in Galilee, in another grave Tabor has visited.

Much of this is familiar, long regarded by even harsh critics of the Bible as mere conjecture. Tabor veers into sensationalism when he feeds into theories of ecclesiastical skullduggery, arguing that Jesus’ status as political royalty, and his brothers’ role, has been “blotted” from Christian memory. Most of the blame for this masking over of truth, in Tabor’s view, lands on Paul, who ruined the good teaching of Jesus by layering over his wisdom a heavenly, salvation dimension to the story. As a historian, Tabor is determined to offer a factual explanation of Jesus, ruling out any notion of the divine or the miraculous – which the texts he is reading very much assume and expect readers to include. His reading of the Bible is selective: at one moment he takes a text quite literally as revealing fact, but the next moment he debunks what is in the Bible as trumped up by later generations. How do we pick and choose?

But whether you are Christian or not, whether you are inclined to defend the Bible at every turn or ask intriguing questions about what’s beneath the story, if you care about Jesus and what people think about him nowadays, The Jesus Dynasty is engaging reading that will merit intense discussion.

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Mr. Rogers - A Tribute

Do you know how much Mr. Rogers weighed? Thirty three years ago, Fred Rogers stepped on a scale, and he weighed 143, and he still weighed 143 when he died last year, a number he thought of as a gift, a destiny fulfilled. He said, "The number 143 means 'I love you.' It takes one letter to say 'I' and four to say 'love' and three to say 'you.' 143 means 'I love you.' Isn't that wonderful?"

I can't say I was a huge fan of Mr. Rogers (my kids preferred Sesame Street, or Ghostwriter) until I read a wonderful article by Tom Junod, who followed Mr. Rogers around for a while and told about his remarkable mission to spread "grace" around the world. Fred Rogers went to seminary, but then TV was invented, and he watched people throwing pies into each others' faces on the TV, and it made him sad. It made him want to take TV on and do some good, to spread some grace. So about a thousand times he took off his jacket and shoes and put on a sweater and sneakers and turned out "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." How big was his show?

One boy, who was born with an acute case of cerebral palsy, was treated terribly as a young child, and then went to another home, where his mother noticed how he watched the Neighborhood. She believed Mr. Rogers was keeping her son alive. Some big foundation worked it out for Mr. Rogers to visit this boy, and when he did, Mr. Rogers asked, "Would you pray for me?" The boy was thunderstruck, because nobody had ever asked him for anything. He was the object of prayer, not the one to pray for Mr. Rogers. But now he prays for Mr. Rogers and doesn't want to die any more. Tom Junod witnessed this, and congratulated Mr. Rogers for being so smart, but Mr. Rogers didn't know what he meant. He really wanted the boy's prayers, saying "I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be close to God."

Another boy suffered from autism, and in fact the boy never spoke, ever, until one day he said "X the Owl," which is the name of one of Mr. Rogers's puppets. The boy had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father said, "Let's go to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," and they went all the way from Boise, Idaho, and Mr. Rogers played with the boy, who now is speaking and reading.

Mr. Rogers got a Lifetime Emmy award, and here are Tom Junod's exact words to describe the scene: "There, in front of the stars, in front of all the jutting jaws and saltwater bosoms, he made a small bow and said, 'All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.' Then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and sad softly, 'I'll watch the time,' and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy hiccup of laughter as people realized he wasn't kidding, that Mr. Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked.and so they did. One second, two seconds, three.and now the jaws clenched, the bosoms heaved, the mascara ran, the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mr. Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, 'May God be with you' to all his vanquished children."

Another boy without such obvious problems ran up to Mr. Rogers yelling and waving a big plastic sword. Mr. Rogers bent over, and whispered in the boy's ear, and the boy put the sword away, smiled, and hugged Mr. Rogers. Tom Junod asked what he said, and Mr. Rogers said, "Oh, I told him he didn't really need that sword to be strong on the outside, because he is strong on the inside, too."

A big group of professional ophthalmologists came to Mr. Rogers hoping he'd produce something for children, so they wouldn't be so afraid to go to the eye doctor. What he did was this: on a big piece of paper, he wrote "Remember you were a child once, too," and handed it to them.

Ever since I read all this, and much more, about Mr. Rogers, I am really missing him, and I keep thinking about life, and peace, and people, and it seems to me that it's really all very simple. You were a child once, too. We exist for one very simple purpose: to spread grace around. Play with somebody. Encourage somebody. Ask somebody to pray for you. Remember who helped you. Listen to your body's messages. Be gentle, smile, and "make the most of this beautiful day." It's such a good feeling to know we're friends. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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Historical-Theological Review of Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ

When I first heard that Mel Gibson was making a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus, and that it was rigidly accurate historically (including dialogue in Aramaic and Latin), I naively thought the film would appear in some obscure theater, and I would be among a small handful who would actually love the film. Clearly I underestimated Gibson's Hollywood savvy, as the film is now unrivalled as the leading subject of conversation, talk shows, the news, and Church life.

People ask, "What do you think?" I love movies about Jesus, and have taught classes on them, and my passion in life is to draw people toward the Gospel, to lure them toward understanding the great act of God in Christ, the love and reconciliation in the story that transform human life. I felt like I had seen the movie before I actually saw it, and for two reasons: so much hype, so much analysis, so many trailers. plus the story is awfully familiar. Jesus is arrested, tried, flogged, and then crucified. I have known and reflected on that story virtually every day of my life. I expected no surprises.

But I was stunned by the actual movie, very much surprised. The hype suggested that this movie would be slavishly accurate, historical, just the straight Gospel story. But I would estimate that from one-third to one-half of what I saw in the movie quite simply isn't in any of the four Gospel stories we have of Jesus' crucifixion. Mind you, this is what Hollywood does; good movies do this! But the advertising just isn't accurate. Satan appears constantly in the story, with worms crawling out of his (her?) nose, a snake slithering under her (his?) skirt; Satan gets inside little children's bodies and terrorizes grownups. Pilate's wife, who appears for one verse in Matthew, plays an extensive role in the movie, actually consoling Jesus' mother and shedding tears over Jesus. In Gibson's mind, the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (who died in 1824) are "historical."

I suspect that, to some Christians, even raising questions about the movie implies you don't love Jesus. I love Jesus. I am someone who is very devoted to the sufferings of Jesus. The art in my office depicts a wounded, bleeding, agonizing Jesus, and I have always been moved to tears by other movies when they unfold the pain and suffering of Christ. The medieval spirituality that finds comfort and solace and healing in the wounds of Jesus is at the heart of my own prayer life. I went expecting intense blood and violence - but still, I was shocked by how relentlessly brutal and grisly this movie is. Call me naïve: after all, Gibson said he was trying to go "over the top" on the ferocity of the blood and torture - and he has made his living being mauled and dismembered in movies. A physician said that even a fit Olympic athlete could not endure one-third of this violence and survive. The film (to me) goes way, way beyond the point of showing graphically the horrific suffering that crucifixion was - but then it keeps going, and going. Just gratuitous violence, blood spraying, dripping in slow-motion, flesh ripped, ripped again, more skin flayed. I am not prudish, but R is too kind a rating. No child, and probably no teenager, should be exposed to two hours of ruthless gore, even if it is attached to Jesus. I had bad dreams the last two nights.

Is the film spiritual? Does it deepen faith? I have no doubt that it has, and will, for very many people. I expected this would happen for me when I went. The interplay between Jesus and his mother: there are moving scenes that brought a tear to my eye. I have always pondered deeply the excruciating agony in Mary's heart as she watched her own flesh and blood suffer. In the movie, I found it hard to stay with such emotions, for the violence and brutality interrupt every inclination toward spirituality. I struggled to discern the holiness, the love, the hope that as a theologian I know are at the heart of the crucifixion. I think they are there - but I kept losing them, as I shuddered over yet more ripping, more sadism. I saw moments of goodness and holiness, but I also wondered if the net effect might be that evil is being glorified. The devil, the gore, gratuitous violence - all the evils I feel are the poison of American culture are writ large upon the screen in this movie and attached to the one story that is our hope to be better, to be different. This causes me pain.

Is the movie anti-Semitic? Obviously Jews were involved in the death of Jesus, historically speaking, and that need not add up to anti-Semitism in 2004. But I was absolutely shocked by the un-historical portrayal of the Jewish leaders in this movie. Gibson puts incriminating words on their lips the Gospels don't; and he puts words on Pilate's lips that imply (beyond where even the Gospels tread) that the Jews are to blame for this. Caiaphas, the high priest, even walks up the hill to the crucifixion itself, where he is the one who taunts Jesus, hollering "If you are the Son of God, come down!" I have no doubt that people will from now on believe Caiaphas really did that, for we Americans increasingly get our history from movies and novels. but it struck me that Gibson went out of his way to put Jews in anti-Christ positions that were hardly necessary.

Gibson's effort has moved dear friends of mine in ways for which they are grateful. I would not try to impugn Gibson's motives, although plenty have: is he selflessly giving up $25 million of his own money to glorify Christ? Or is he the shrewdest manipulator of Hollywood ever, standing to make a cool $100 million profit? Might he have simply invested $25 million and given the movie away? Or donated the $100 million to charity? Or is he really who he says he is? I cannot know. I do know that Jesus is who Jesus says he is, but that's an old, old story we've had at the center of weekly worship, daily prayer, and Bible reading for 2000 years, and it's a story of redemptive suffering, love embodied, hope undefeated.

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A Review of the Left Behind Series

One Sunday after church a level-headed, stable man pulls me aside with a passion and says, "There's this book you've got to read." On into the week, another man drops by the office and announces, "I just finished this book that changed my life." The next day a college student emailed me: "There's this book I can't put down, and it's really making me rethink everything." The following Sunday, a third man presses a copy of the book into my hands, with a request: "Please read this and tell me what you think."

I wish I could say it was my book that created these shockwaves. But the book in question is called "Left Behind," actually just the first in a series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins - a series that now has sold more than 20 million copies! The plot is simple: the "rapture" has just transpired, and in its aftermath, people are "left behind," and have to figure out what to do next. The idea of a "rapture" hinges on Jesus' apocalyptic sermon in Matthew chapter 24: believers will suddenly, without warning, be caught up into heaven, with unbelievers "left behind." Jesus spoke of two women grinding in a mill; one is taken, the other is left behind. In ancient Palestine, the expectation was that nobody would really get hurt; those left behind would sure be befuddled. But in LaHaye and Jenkins's novel, plenty of people get hurt. Cars and airplanes, suddenly bereft of drivers and pilots, crash and hosts are killed.

The timing of the release of "Left Behind" guaranteed hefty profits for Tyndale House, the publisher. Anxieties about the Y2K problem get entwined with visions that we are living in the last days before the rapture. I would imagine plenty of people are looking at the maelstrom in the Balkans and reckon that the warfare may be the harbinger of the final apocalypse.

So, what do I think about "Left Behind"? I'll be honest: at first I didn't want to open it, and then there was plenty about it I didn't care for. But begrudgingly I will now admit that I give it a thumbs up. "Left Behind" is a page-turner, one of those novels you can gobble up quickly and with considerable satisfaction. I found the central character compelling: Rayford Steele is a pilot, not a wicked guy at all, a pretty good person who flirts heavily with a flight attendant but never follows through, a decent citizen who doesn't hate God. He just doesn't think about God a lot. But then his wife, a serious church-goer, and his son vanish into thin air - and he knows enough about their expectation of the "rapture" that he recognizes their destiny, and his own. He goes to the church and views a videotape "left behind" by the pastor. These events change his life.

I guess this is the half of the book I love. It's a dual story, told in stereo almost. Parallelling the events of Rayford's life is another plot line involving a reporter who is tracking events at the U.N. and in eastern Europe. In this portion of "Left Behind," LaHaye and Jenkins have fallen into the age-old trap of trying to unravel the mysteries of books like Revelation and discern their linkage to current political events. How many groups have foolishly chased after this or that political scenario as what the Bible is "really" predicting? As the year 1000 approached, Christians were certain that events in Europe pointed clearly to the end. William Miller led thousands who sold everything, so convinced were they that the rapture would occur on October 22, 1843. In the 70's, Hal Lindsey produced a multi-million seller, "The Late Great Planet Earth," linking biblical prophecy to events behind the Iron Curtain, assuring folks that the end was imminent. Now he has revised his thinking, and the end is drawing near once more. Human beings will never get this stuff right.

Historians have much to teach us about the symbolism of Revelation, which in reality referred to the Parthian hordes from the east or the rumor that Nero had come back to life, symbols as well-understood by persons in biblical times as are donkeys, elephants, and the Nike swoosh today. And the Bible isn't a crystal ball predicting the future, but expresses the truth about God and how to live in any age.

But when churchgoers tell me a book changes their life, I say "Amen." What Rayford Steele wrestles with is his life, his priorities, his ethics, his beliefs, his foolish forever putting off getting straight with God. For this fictional character, it took the disappearance of his wife and the crashing of planes. What will it take for you and me? Don't get "left behind." Your life is passing, and quickly. Ultimately history will bankrupt itself, and time will be no more. My end, your end, "the" end, may be in five minutes, or in five millennia. Either way, today is the greatest day, it is "the" day. Don't get left behind.

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The Purpose Driven Life

Three years ago, I discovered huge numbers of people were reading The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. The book has sold fantastically. Much wisdom is printed in its pages, although to me it’s pretty standard stuff we’ve been pitching from pulpits and in classrooms for years, decades, even centuries.

But can I recommend the book without reservation? Hardly. Right at the beginning of this fine book, Warren declares, “You are not an accident. God prescribed every single detail of your body… Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live…. Your race and nationality are no accident… Traumas happen in life to shape your heart.” People ask me if this is sound theologically, but the way we ask the question typically pits God’s plan versus my free will. Is God determining everything? or am I really free?

When I reflect back over my life, I wonder: Am I the net result of my choices? or has it all been orchestrated? Somehow I got myself here, and yet I harbor a keen sense of what the philosopher Heidegger called “thrown-ness”: I have been tossed into a place, into a life, I have landed, and I would change a few things if I had the power.

How free am I? The most important facts about me I did not choose. We do not choose our gender, our parents, our skin color, our nationality, our proclivity to disease. We make countless choices, to be sure, but how free am I even in my choosing? Does the alcoholic choose bourbon? Does a woman choose to wear the latest fashion? Does a man choose to be materialistic? Yes, but no. A relationship with God: do you choose God? or were you chosen? Is God in control? or are we on our own down here?

But does it have to be one or the other? Perhaps the reality of life is neither, or both, mysteriously interwoven in the flux of life, defying explanation. If you pause to think, you experience your self this way. You choose a thousand times a day, but you feel hemmed in, little voices from the past wooing you, resting in some security you didn’t weave for yourself, driven to choose by forces you cannot see in the dark, and still you choose to take the next step.

All relationships are like this as well. You have a friend, a lover, a family member. You choose within that relationship, but yet it just happens to you, in ways you cannot control or even understand. You do, but you are the recipient of doings. In every relationship, you choose, you inherit, you discover, you respond, you step back in wonder, you move forward, you know you were drawn there. My life? I made so many choices to get here, and yet I was thrown into this life, by God, by other people making choices, and they too were thrown into their lives, by God, by other people making choices… and so forth. How awful? No: how marvelous!

Is God in control? Eternally, when we stretch our minds outward to the ultimate fate of the universe, then yes, God is certainly in control. But day to day, moment to moment? God most certainly is not in control (or chooses not to be!). God’s will quite frequently is not done. If everything that happens equals God’s will, then we need not hunt down Osama bin Laden, that is, unless we want to give him a medal for doing God’s will. If God decides how long you will live, then we imply God uses Osama, John Allen Muhammad, and Timothy McVeigh to bring lives to their divinely-timed end. If I am healthy I can say “God made me just the way I am!” But if you are a young parent and you have a lethal brain tumor? God does not sow cancer cells in people’s bodies. God does not hurl automobiles into wrecks. There are accidents.

Maybe we Americans are a little too cocky about our “freedom,” as if we pompously bear within ourselves some regal power to dispose of our lives, to do as we wish. We are free, but I wouldn’t brag about it. We use our freedom so stupidly, selfishly, hurting others, self-destructing as much as we use our freedom wisely and compassionately. According to the Bible, you aren’t free at all. Freedom is something God gives you, and this freedom God gives is freedom from sin, freedom from hollowness, freedom from a pointless, curved-in existence. This freedom God gives is a freedom that is exercised in commitment, lived out in obedience. God sets me free, not so I can do as I wish, but so I can totally give myself and my desires up to God.

What all this gravitates toward is love. God is all powerful, and in fact, God is so powerful that God does not manipulate everything – because God is far more interested in love than in control. What you control, you do not love. You cannot control love. To love and be loved, you must be vulnerable. You get hurt. You must wait. You choose to love, but you also must be chosen. You love, but then love happens to you. Every stab you and I take at choosing freely is really – isn’t it? – a yearning to belong, not to be just me and mine, to do as I wish, but to love, to be swept off my feet, off our feet.

So it is with our life with God. Why must there be a zero-sum contest between my will and God’s will? I choose, and thank God for what God has done. I choose, and I realize I didn’t choose, but my choice was influenced by a God who loves me more than I can imagine loving myself. I do good, but I never get boastful about it for a second, for the good I do I could never do on my own down here. Self-made, independent people never know gratitude, do they? …and to be grateful is the warmest delight granted us mortals. Meaning isn’t in me, and meaning isn’t up to me. Meaning and purpose come from outside me, but I’m in the thick of it. Accidents happen, but no accident can finally ruin God’s ultimate dream for me. Whatever I may suffer, and much of that surely isn’t God’s will at all, God will more than make up for it, God will redeem it, God will right all wrongs, not this afternoon or next week, but in eternity.

But we will continue to think on these things together…

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Twelve Books That Changed My Life

Confession: in the program on reading I did on Wednesday evening, I was forced to cheat a bit. Instead of just listing a dozen books that changed my life (which is different from "my favorite books," or "books you should read"), I rambled and talked about many books, what they have meant to me - and I read some select passages. A few that appeared on my handout really wouldn't qualify for anybody's top dozen - but they fit the discussion so they appear on the page. After folks who weren't there asked for my list, I went back and tried to annotate with just a thought or two about the books - but we can't pretend to have captured the full discussion.


The shelf was filled with books that were hard to read, that could devastate and remake one's soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule (Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale).

Childhood reading:
Jack London, Call of the Wild ... the first book that literally blew my day, read cover to cover without moving a muscle, transported from a hot summer in SC to the Yukon and sledding races.
Jesse Stuart, The Thread that Runs so True ... compelling tale of backwoods Kentucky schoolteacher, and when I put it down I went to my father and declared 'I am going to be a teacher.'

College life, and a maturing understanding of the faith:
Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith ... taught me that faith isn't believing unbelievable things, but that faith is my ultimate concern, what captures my heart -
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity? Screwtape Letters? The Weight of Glory? ...handed to me as a young Christian in college, learning the art and intellectual respectability of Christianity
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ... no book ever clarifies God's total claim on every corner of my life as this one

Books that altered my basic view of what the Bible is about:
J. Louis Martyn, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel ... 1st to show me the Bible isn't 2-dimensional, but that it came from somewhere, in the real life of people, and spoke not just to me but to them.
Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium ... when Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth was more popular than Left Behind, showed me how countless groups throughout history have read the Bible and claimed that theirs was the final hour of history.
Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God . helped me understand the intimate linkage between God and suffering, and Christianity in light of the Holocaust

History, and How Much it Matters:
Elie Wiesel, Night ... this insider's story of the Holocaust shook me mightily.

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ...the first major work of history I chose to read, and since have read avidly, believing history is the key to understanding our world and life today.
William Manchester, The Last Lion ... the first biography I devoured, as great biographer meets great individual, funny, instructive, moving
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters ... riveting narrative of the Civil Rights movement, showing how it was not politics and rights but a revival movement exploding out of the Christian churches - and what this continues to mean for society today.

Understanding Life in the Light of God:
The Little Flowers of St. Francis ... on a pilgrimage to Assisi I read about Francis and was changed.
Gerard Thomas Straub, The Sun and Moon over Assisi ... a new book by a soap opera producer whose life was entirely transformed by visiting Assisi and thinking about Francis.

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany ... funny, emotionally devastating, uplifting, raising questions for us like Why are we here? What is my purpose?
George Eliot, Adam Bede? Silas Marner? - beautiful, compelling books, especially the story of Marner, the miser, who loses his gold and finds a daughter...

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair - profound, despite the trashy recent film.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow ... brilliant, deep, terribly sad, wonderfully cheering
Mark Helprin, Soldier of the Great War? Winter's Tale, William Styron, Sophie's Choice

Pat Conroy, Great Santini? Prince of Tides? Lords of Discipline? ... helped me, as an adult, to understand my family, childhood, craziness

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son ... a reflection on Rembrandt's painting of the son returning home, and how we understand God's compassion and forgiveness.
Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain ... a profound autobiography of a great spiritual thinker that led me to understand my own autobiography more deeply
Maggie Ross, Fountain and the Furnace

Getting a Handle on Suffering:
Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin' ...Pulitzer prize winning reporter tells of heart-wrenching stories he covered, dovetailing his work with a reconciled relationship with his own mother. Unforgettable.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son ... Yale philosopher reflects over the sudden death of his 23 year old son - the wisest exploration of death I've seen
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Understanding and Noticing the World:
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ... this book alone taught me to pay attention to the world around me, to notice what God has strewn about us
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker ... a belligerent atheist's defense of evolution, wonderfully written, and I learned so much from this delightful page-turner

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible ... story of missionary to the Congo and his family, the linkages of religion, other cultures, family dynamics - endlessly quotable

Books that Connect with my Family:
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit ... reading again as an adult with my children, giving us a store of noble wisdom to share
Sharon Kay Penman, Here Be Dragons ... thrilling historical novel from medieval Wales

Walter Wangerin, As for Me and my House ... best book by far I've read on marriage and how it works
Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia; Robert Bly, Iron John

A Current Book Club Favorite:
Tracy Kidder, Mountains beyond Mountains ... my most recent life-changer, the story of Paul Farmer, who has transformed life in Haiti, showing what one person really is capable of accomplishing

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Did Jesus Have Women Disciples?

Thoughts on Richard Bauckham's Gospel Women:
Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels
James C. Howell
If anyone else wrote a book focused on Joanna the Apostle, skeptics would yawn, and the press might fawn. But Richard Bauckham, even among the world's elite scholars, has the keenest intellect, and the most impressive record of publication. No one knows more about the New Testament and early Christianity, Judaism, and the Greco-Roman world than Bauckham, who teaches Scripture at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Traditional thinking has concluded that Jesus' apostles were, of course, men, and that women were relegated to a dreadful status in society, unable to own property or exercise any kind of authority. Over the past three decades, newer scholars have provided a harsh critique of the paternalistic society mirrored in the Bible, concluding even that the Bible lends a heavy hand to oppressive, sexist ideologies in our time.

Bauckham is not the kind of person to write out of some predetermined agenda. He sifts the evidence and deftly leads us through the material, an articulate guide in this case telling us about the women who are named in the Gospels. Avoiding the feminist's "excessive and dogmatic use of a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion" (the determination of feminist scholars to debunk male-centered readings of the Bible), Bauckham still unearths plain facts Jesus' first followers that are revolutionary in implication.

At the beginning of Gospel Women, Bauckham reports on the work of Carol Meyers (of Duke!) who understands that there was a far more functional balance of power between male and female in Bible times than we have been told. The Bible tells of women like Naomi and Ruth who were independent initiative-takers, and frankly many women in Hebrew times were just like them. Bauckham studied in considerable detail the women in Matthew's geneology, along with Anna, Mary, Elizabeth, Mary of Clopas and the two Salomes. But the centerpiece of Gospel Women is the hundred-page long fifth chapter, "Joanna the Apostle."

We begin with Luke 8:1-3, which reads:

Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

The Greek syntax places the women more prominently, not just an afterthought ("as well as some women"), but giving them equally solid standing. Just like the twelve usual disciples we think about, these women were "with" Jesus in his travels. They had been radically changed by his ministry, and now they went about and provided economically for Jesus and the other disciples. In other words, these women weren't there to wash and mend clothes or cook the meals. These women owned property, and decided how it would be spent. Some women who followed probably were not as affluent (Mary Magdalene, perhaps), but others were women of means and power.

Interestingly, Luke names Joanna's husband, Chuza, and is at pains to tell us he was highly connected in king Herod's court. This Chuza was Herod's "steward," which probably means he was in charge of Herod's property and revenues, which would have been immense. Chuza and Joanna would have been among the social elite in Herod's capital, Tiberias. The only plausible theory to explain her place beside Jesus and not with her husband, Chuza, would be that Joanna heard of Jesus' healings around the region of Galilee. To become a Christian, she crossed an unimaginably wide social gulf. Bauckham reminds us about the "feelings of anger and resentment by the ordinary people of Galilee against the city of Tiberias." Herod and his retinue had built heathen buildings on the shore of Galilee. The city Tiberias itself was constructed by Herod on top of an old Jewish cemetery. Herod and certainly Chuza himself taxed the Galileans heavily and immorally. Imagine the day Joanna showed up in a gathering of people listening to Jesus. The wife of Herod's moneychanger Chuza! But somehow she came, stayed, and was healed. They would have despised and been suspicious of her, just as much as one so well-heeled would hardly deign to mix with the rabble of Galilee.

But Jesus healed her, and she did not just go back home. Listen to Bauckham's story:

Joanna may well have been motivated initially mainly by the healing she had experienced, but it was a radical step right outside the Herodian establishment to which she had belonged. The kind of people she would now come to know (probably as never before) were accustomed to resenting the luxury of her former lifestyle, the burden of taxation that financed it, and the pagan domination of their land. In a certain sense, her following of Jesus wa also a conversion to the poor. She may have seen her financial contribution to Jesus' ministry as putting to rights some of the economic wrongs in which she had been involved as Chuza's wife.

Once among Jesus' followers, Joanna would have discovered a new kind of community, one that, as Bauckham writes,

abolishes distinction of status between slaves, women, and free men, such that service is what any do for any others. The role of patron or benefactor is subverted within a community where the usual forms of social status and honor are reversed. In contributing her wealth to the group around Jesus, Joanna crosses the vast social gulf between the aristocratic lady and the serving women, as do the others who accept her solidarity and welcome her among them.

Bauckham is not done with this analysis of Luke 8. He darts forward then to Romans 16:7, where Paul is writing about various leaders of the early Church. Verse 7 speaks of

Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

But the newest translations, instead of "Junias" we read "Junia," a female, not male name. Which is correct? Interestingly, the earliest Christian writers, whose native tongue was Greek, believed the person in question was a woman (Origen, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Theodoret, and many more). But over time, Church leaders believed only men could have been apostles, much less "of note among the apostles." The Greek of Romans 16:7 has the name, Junia/s, in the accusative, and only an accent distinguishes the masculine from feminine forms. Most importantly, the name Junias is nowhere to be found among the literally thousands of inscriptions, contracts, and writings that have come down to us from antiquity. The name Junia, on the other hand, is quite common. We could imagine a woman named "Jamesia," but as we have never heard of a woman named "Jamesia," the odds will heavily favor anybody with a name like "James" being male.

But is Junia the same as Joanna? Roman citizens frequently used Latinized forms of their original Greek names. Hannah became Anna, Judah became Julius, Joseph became Justus, Reuben became Rufus, Silas became Silvanus. Junia would be the normal Latin formation of the name Joanna. Most probably, Joanna became a disciple of Jesus, and then traveled west as a missionary, where she needed a Latinized name. And so as Junia she became known to Christians in Paul's world. He writes admiring her, for she was an apostle of distinction, even landing in prison for her determination to spread the Gospel throughout a resisting world.

Bauckham winds up his analysis using what he calls "historically informed imagination" to tell Joanna's story (and this lovely biographical sketch will conclude our review):

Joanna was born into one of the prominent and wealthy Jewish families of Galilee and grew up in one of the small castles that dotted the Galilean hills. Her parents arranged her marriage for her at an early age, and like most Jewish girls, she was married when she reached puberty. The marriage was made for political advantage, to promote her family's alliance with Herod's rule. Her husband was the Nabatean nobleman Chuza, who had recently come to Herod's court in the entourage of a young Nabatean princess who became Herod's wife. Herod soon promoted him to finance minister of his realm.

As Chuza's wife, Joanna lived in a magnificent house in the new city of Tiberias, with estates elsewhere in Galilee. She became part of the would-be romanized culture of the Tiberian aristocracy and court officials, who aped the life and manners of the Roman aristocracy known to Herod and his close companions from his time in Rome. Wealth was conspicuous, and the political maneuvering of the court was inescapable. This aristocratic environment probably allowed Joanna more independence of mind and activity than were available to most Jewish women. This was all the more true in that she had wealth of her own, given her by her father by deed of gift at the time of her marriage, and available for her use quite independently of her husband.

In these mixed circles, with all their aspirations, the practice of Jewish religion was not taken very seriously, except as a politically necessary appearance. This was a difference from Joanna's upbringing. She may have been part of a circle of devout Jewish women who practiced their religion more strictly and took an interest in the movements of religious renewal of their time, while acutely aware from the case of John the Baptist that such movements were politically dangerous in Herod's eyes. Joanna must also have been aware of the hatred and resentment with which the ordinary people of Galilee viewed Tiberias and all it represented.

It was as a healer and exorcist that Jesus of Nazareth first became known among the courtiers and officials of Tiberias. His activities in the area immediately north of Tiberias could not be ignored. He was a popular sensation, with crowds pouring in expectation of healing. Extraordinary tales of heavling were circulating. Members of Herod's court went out to Jesus , including Joanna, not just out of curiosity but in urgent need of healing. Whatever her illness was, her healing encounter with Jesus changed the whole direction of her life.

Joanna knew Jesus was no mere healer, but that he had a vision of the coming kingdom of God. Her healing brought her into participation in this vision, including an uncompromising call to repentance, an enactment of God's forgiveness, and the inclusion of all kind of excluded people. Jesus drew together a community of disciples among whom the kingdom was taking form in the renunciation of all status and wealth. This was a particular challenge for Joanna, who could have remained, as others did, a sympathizer with Jesus' movement without leaving her home and social status. But Joanna took the step of discipleship, for her a step across the whole of the social gulf that separated the Tiberian elite from ordinary people, not to mention beggars, prostitutes and other outcasts with whom Jesus habitually associated. But she herself was an outcast of sort, one of the oppressors, in her identification with Herod a traitor to the Jewish cause. Throwing in her lot with Jesus was a radical conversion to the poor, but it must have been the acceptance with which the community of Jesus welcomed all who joined them, even tax collectors, that gave her the confidence to risk her reputation among her peers, burning her bridges behind her, in order to identify herself as fully as possible with Jesus. Among these people, her status brought her no honor; not even her substantial donations gave her a place above others. But instead she found a place in Jesus' new family practicing the will of God.

She sold some of her property and gave the proceeds to the needy. She retained ownership of the rest, but put all of the income from it into the common fund on which Jesus and his disciples drew for the necessities of life. Most of the male disciples left dependent relatives at home and had nothing to spare, so women provided the bulk of the economic support. There followed two years or so in which Joanna was in the constant company of Jesus and his disciples. Joanna and other women belonged to the inner circle in constant attendance. It was an extraordinary learning experience, witnessing Jesus' miraculous deeds, turning around the lives of those who encountered him. Jesus would send his disciples out. Joanna and the other women did not scandalize the people by preaching in public places, but she would talk to the women where they gathered at the well or the market stalls, visit in their homes, relating some of Jesus' parables and sayings. She would be available for the people to bring the sick to her. But there was also bitter experience of rejection in villages that wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he publicly acted out his messianic vocation by riding into Jerusalem amid the acclamation of his followers. The danger was palpable, and Joanna knew the political world well enough to sense it more than most. A few days later she was one of the first to hear the news that Jesus had been sentenced to death. She still had contacts in high places, and so was able to find out what had become of Jesus after his arrest. With some other women she made her way to the place of crucifixion and watched Jesus' agonizing death. It took some courage to be associated with Jesus at that time, and many of the male disciples had gone into hiding. But the women were concerned that his body be properly treated, so after waiting for the Sabbath to pass, they went with spices and ointments to the tomb. The discovery and the revelation that followed formed a story she would tell a thousand times the rest of her life.

Joanna's husband was impressed by his wife's healing, but he stopped short of approving her behavior thereafter, and his high position in Herod's government made association with Jesus problematic. But he was in Jerusalem with Herod for the Passover when Jesus was crucified. He was deeply disturbed by what happened and easily drawn by his wife into the company of the disciples. Both he and Joanna were among the quite large number of disciples who were gathered when the risen Jesus appeared to them and commissioned them as witnesses.

This commission determined their lives. They became one of the husband-wife teams of traveling missionaries when the gospel was being spread through Palestine. But it was not long before they were called further afield. The Christian message reached Rome when pilgrims visiting Jerusalem heard it preached near the temple. But apostles from Jerusalem were needed, and Joanna and Chuza were an obvious choice. They had contacts with Rome, were used to Roman ways and spoke a little Latin. Joanna even had a Latin equivalent to her name: Junia. Chuza adopted the name Andronicus, popular among the Jews, more familiar to the Romans than his Nabatean name.

It was because of their apostolic labors in Rome for more than a decade, while Paul was founding churches in Asia Minor and Greece, that Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome, was able to call Junia and her husband ?outstanding among the apostles.' Christians in Rome were often suspected of being politically subversive, and from time to time their leaders were arrested. When Paul wrote his letter, Junia and Andronicus were imprisoned. We know no more of them, but perhaps, some years later, the evangelist Luke spent many hours with Junia, hearing from her the versions of the Gospel traditions as she had long been telling them.

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Review of The Depth of the Riches, A Trinitarian Theology of Religious ends by S. Mark Heim

At the suggestion of a friend who teaches at Wesley seminary, I got this book by Mark Heim that wrestles with the relationship between Christianity and other religions. He’s unhappy with conservative Christians, for whom “difference primarily means error,” but also with liberal Christians for whom “religious truth claims can conflict only on matters of secondary significance”; so “exclusivists” say “if your religion differs from mine you must be wrong,” and “inclusivists” recognize difference but sever it from religious validity.

Heim is interest in “religious ends.” Do Buddhists and Christians even share the same goal? He thinks not; so we compare means to the end, without realizing there are different ends. We assume there could be no more than one “religious end,” but this is hardly the case. Personal salvation for Christians is quite different from an impersonal immersion in the cosmos for an Eastern faith. For Heim, “one set of paths may be valid for a given goal, and thus final for that end, while different ways are valid for other ends.” Therefore, “the fruitful and viable path for interfaith relations lies in each tradition developing, from its own particularistic grounds, frameworks for the fullest legitimate recognition of the distinctive qualities (those that finally resist assimilation) of the positive religious aims of other faiths.” The virtue to this approach is it “directs us unavoidably toward the religious traditions themselves… as they actually exist… not a generic construct imposed on them.”

As Christians, “we may see that another religion is a true and valid path to the religious fulfillment it seeks.” Interestingly, he asks questions, like “is a religious end divisible? Can it be partial, or vary in degree?” “My relationship to the turnpike toll-taker may be everything that it can be.” But other relationships, with friends, lovers, parents, are different – “This deeper relation at any given moment may strike us as dramatically partial and limited in comparison with the fullness of possibility open to us.” Critics counter, “You have faith or you do not”; but aren’t there levels, gradations, partial realizations and simultaneous frustrations in all significant relationships?

Also, relationships are unique. One friendship is quite different from another. So, even if salvation is the religious end we pursue, the context of other religions helps us to realize that “salvation is not the same state for all who participate in it. In fact, it is not identical for any.” Christians are fond of conformity, but each relationship with God is utterly unique; and this is due not so much to our uniqueness, but to God’s generous, expansive heart. In creation, God obviously didn’t stamp out an assembly line of identical folk; God must want the “widest possible range of communion.” God seems to have determined the world to be undetermined; this diversity, this broadness in God is rooted in our understanding of the Trinity, which is Heim’s warrant for the largeness, the inclusiveness of God. Notice he isn’t saying all religions are the same, or that Christ isn’t the way; he would say the Trinity is the way, not merely Christ… Our convictions about the trinity rule out the view “that among all the possible claimed manifestations of God, one narrow strand along is authentic. It is God’s reality as Trinity that generates the multiplicity of dimensions that allow for that variety of relations – and even makes possible religious ends other than salvation.” It is precisely the Trinitarian communion that is the pattern of their integration. He calls this principle “plenitude.” “Salvation and the consummation bear the marks of difference given in God’s creative act and, in a subsidiary way, produced as the product of human freedom; the perfection that God seeks fulfills but does not erase both types of variety… God aims at the multiplication of kinds of good; creation is collectively a staggering example of this aim.”

These diverse relationships toward diverse ends have a limit: our freedom, which Heim does not restrict. All religions can fail, all religious persons can (and do) shun what is available to them. And yet, short of annihilation (which a few religions propose as their “end”), “creation can never be out of relation with God; the universal saving will of God extends to all creatures; God’s saving will does not reach a limit or point at which it changes to condemnation.” Finally, “God values the very different kind of plentitude that results when creation’s freedom is worked out in the realization of a variety of religious ends… the possibility that persons will realize their freedom in something other than salvation is real and accepted by God as a dimension of creation.”

Fascinating read, complex, left me a tad unsatisfied, but this strikes me as new and productive ground for interreligious dialogue.

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A summary of James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University, 2010).

A summary of James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University, 2010).
by James C. Howell

Hunter, known for his much discussed Culture Wars, and professor at U.Va., has written a new book about how we try to effect change in the world. He is right: “The passion to engage the world, to shape it and finally change it for the better, would seem to be an enduring mark of Christians” (p. 4). For most of the Christian groups that have numbers or get attention, “politics is the tactic of choice… as they think about changing the world” (p. 45).

We are treated to a robust analysis of how cultures really change – or don’t – and how various Christian tactics have not only failed to bring about change, but have ruined Christianity and cast us in a negative light. Cultures are doggedly resistant to change, and there is no evidence that change happens individual by individual, heart by heart – the “ground up” approach so many Christian leaders have believed in. Change is institutional, or not at all.

Page 95

Speaking as a Christian myself, contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective…. and our mandate is certainly not about ‘saving Western civilization,’ ‘saving America,’ ‘winning the culture war,’ or anything else like it. For now, I will only say that the antidote to ‘seizing power’ in a new way is a better understanding of faithful presence” (p. 100).

Why is seizing power so problematical? Wouldn’t it be good if good Christians could actually be the ones in power? The grasp for power is wrong “because Christians operate with an understanding of power that is derived from the larger and dominant culture of the late modern world” (p. 111). Hunter is especially mortified by the conservative grabs for power – and we are all very familiar with the problems, hysteria and banality of conservative religious politics. But Hunter quite insightfully demonstrates how the liberal faithful, whose influence has in fact been on the rise, engage in precisely the same tactics, simply with a different slant on what they wish to do with power. Liberals, like Jim Wallis, despise conservative leaders for “civil religion,” but their purpose is to install progressive religion as a “civil religion of the left” (p. 147). When Wallis “accuses Falwell or Robertson of being ‘theocrats who desire their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state,’ he has established the criteria by which he and other politically progressive Christians are judged the same. In its commitment to social change through politics and politically oriented social movements, in its conflation of the public with the political, in its own selective use of scripture to justify political interests, and in its confusion of theology with national interests and identity, the Christian Left (not least the Evangelical Left) imitates the Christian Right.”

Both right and left fail to realize some important facts: “Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and the other prophets were living in a Jewish theocratic setting. The only way that Wallis and others can make these strong statements is to confuse America with Israel” (p. 147). What also unfolds is that by fuming over the way things are in America, and trying to influence change, we feed into the culture of ressentiment and similar moods – “manifested by a narrative of injury and, in turn, a discourse of negation toward all those they perceive to be to blame” (p. 168). We feed people’s narcissism, and culture of whining and complaint, and blame – arousing only anger, with little faithful response. Christians then appear to the unconverted public to be merely negative, with no positive agenda for hope.

Hunter is skeptical about the achievement of power period. “Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power – not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost…. The other ideals and values that are discussed in public have been largely reduced to instruments for one side or another in the quest for power. Decency, morality, hope, marriage, family, and children are important values but they have become political slogans. The irony, of course, is that no group in American society has done more to politicize values over the last half century, and therefore undermine their renewal, than Christians.” Sadly, Christian faith has now been reduced to “political ideology, and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.” The final irony is that “politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institution other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care” (p. 172).

According to Hunter, “Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.

….there is an accommodation to the spirit of the age…. Christianity’s embrace of certain key characteristics participates in a culture that privileges injury and grievance…..and legitimates the will to power. An identity rooted in resentment and hostility is an inherently weak identity…. For example, both established political parties, as David Brooks observed, depend on the culture ware for their internal cohesion” (p. 173). “The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians……unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry” (p. 175).

Hunter raises an important issue: “The question for the church, then, is not about choosing between power and powerlessness but rather, to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have… The first task is to disentangle the life and identity of the church from the life and identity of American society” (p. 184).

Having established the groundwork, Hunter doubles back to clarify what conservatives and liberals are about: “Among most theological conservatives, the main challenge presented by the modern world has been secularity. Their solution, therefore, is a ‘resacralization’ of society – bringing God back into all spheres of social activity. Among most theological and political progressives, the primary challenge has long been one of inequality…..disparities of wealth and power…..the solution is a redistribution of wealth and power with a preference for the poor and needy. Where they are both mistaken is in assuming, explicitly or implicitly, that the challenge they see is the defining one. There is not one single challenge…there are many, of dizzying complexity….” (p. 198).

After rehearsing Peter Berger’s approach to social change, Hunter clarifies why belief is so difficult in the modern milieu – and this is crucial: “The credibility of one’s beliefs depends on certain social conditions that reinforce those beliefs. convictions. And when social conditions are unstable or when the cohesion of social life is fragmented, then the consistency and intelligibility of belief is undermined” (p. 202). “Belief is certainly possible… but easily gives way to belief plagued by ambivalence and uncertainty. Given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice – one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural. God is no longer an inevitability” – and so “to be a faithful Christian believer requires an act of will much greater than in the past” (p. 203).

Hunter then engages in conversation with George Steiner (Real Presences) on the way language has been rendered meaningless in our era. “If words can mean anything… there are no longer any fixed points of reference….no authority that can be appealed to … so we fill the void with any meaning we choose. We now have the capacity to question everything but little ability to affirm anything beyond our own personal whims and possessive interests” (p. 204). In such a world, our desire to be “relevant to” the world “has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be ‘defensive against’ the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but becomes aggressive and confrontational….culturally trivial and inconsequential” (p. 223).

Hunter’s solution is less compelling, I’m sad to admit: “Christians are called to relate to the world within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis. This must be the starting point because the story of life begins with God’s creative initiative and the affirmation…” (p. 233). This kind of approach “is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.” “Institutions can only be effectively challenged by alternatives that are also institutionalized… The church itself must model its alternative both symbolically (e.g. through the Eucharist) and in actuality, that is, in the conduct of body life… and be present in the world in ways that work toward the constructive subversion of all frameworks of social life that are incompatible with shalom….” (p. 236). “Incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it…..it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference” (p. 241).

He concludes with a brief essay on leadership – and sees Christian leadership extending “into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor-skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce…..Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms… When the church does not send people out to these realms and when it does not provide the theologies that make sense of work and engagement in these realms, the church fails to fulfill the charge to ‘go into all the world” (p. 256). Such leadership is “sacrificial in character… putting at risk one’s time, wealth, reputation…practice of leadership is selfless in character. It is also the antithesis of celebrity…based on an inflated brilliance, accomplishment or spirituality generated and perpetuated by publicity. It is artifice…a type of fraud” (p. 260).

Hunter’s banner is “the practice of faithful presence,” which generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness – not just for the Christians but for everyone” (p. 263). “The old models of engagement no longer work, if they ever did. In opposition to the ‘defensive against,’ ‘relevance to,’ and ‘purity from’ we require a model of engagement called ‘faithful presence within’” (p. 276).

The epilogue is a reflection on Jeremiah 29:4-7. Hunter avers that “Jeremiah counseled his community not to be nostalgic for the past, for the past could not be recovered. Nor did he advise them to plan for insurrection….the exile was the place where God was at work. It would have been justifiable for the Jews to be hostile to their captors. It also would have been natural enough for them to withdraw from engaging the world around them. It would have been easy for them to simply assimilate…But God was calling them to something different – not to be defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed by the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within that culture” (p. 277). Politically, it would be wise for Christians “to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through laws, and political mobilization” (p. 281).

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The Good & Evil Serpent How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized by James H. Charlesworth

James Charlesworth, who was one of my teachers at Duke many years ago before moving to his now long career at Princeton, has written a fascinating study of snakes – and specifically the nature of symbolism in the ancient world. Here are some select thoughts of his so you can follow his train of thought through the 500+ pages of The Good & Evil Serpent How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized.

“In our Western culture the snake has become only a pejorative symbol (as portrayed in the movies about Indiana Jones)…the snake that deceived Eve and Adam… or the snake/dragon that comes to the cosmic woman and futilely attempts to devour her child (Rev 12:1-6).”

Charlesworth’s interest is John 3:14. He summarizes what he thinks is going on with Jesus as the serpent lifted up in the wilderness:…

1. The serpent is sometimes a good symbol in world cultures.
2. The serpent was admired in Old Testament times and within Early Judaism.
3. The serpent was appreciated in the Greek and Roman periods.
4. The serpent was a positive symbol in the Judaism of the Fourth Evangelist.
5. John 3:14 means more than a parallel between the lifting up of the serpent and of Jesus.
6. John 3:14 is a poetic statement in parallel thought so that “the serpent” is synonymous with “the Son of Man.”
7. We can find an exegesis of Numbers 21 by a Jew contemporaneous with the Evangelist, and that the Jewish expositor stresses the positive symbolism of the copper (or bronze) serpent.
8. The Fourth Evangelist does not cavalierly treat the symbolism of the serpent he inherits from Numbers 21, but appreciates it and develops it in significantly positive ways.

We need think no further than Asclepius, and symbols we continue to see in modern medicine, to realize ancients had a healthy (literally) view of serpents. Consider also:

• The Pharaohs and the other Egyptians with their depictions of Isis and other gods as serpents
• The Python group at Delphi
• The devotees of Asclepios with his serpent staff, Hermes with the caduceus, and Athena with her serpents in ancient Greece
• The Gnostics who revered the serpent
• The Aztecs and their feathered serpent, or Quetzalcoatl

“As we shall soon see, New Testament commentators receive rather low marks in interpreting the rich symbolism of John 3:14-15, but Old Testament commentators earn praise for their exegesis of Numbers 21:8-9…because Old Testament experts, in contrast to their New Testament colleagues, are forced to include archaeology and to study the myths and symbols that have shaped the biblical narratives” (p. 16).

He then sorts through a large number of archaeological finds, with serpents on staffs, bowls, and even the famous find in the Sinai (Timnah) from the late Bronze age. “The ancients were more in tune with the environment than we are today. They knew themselves as a part of nature. Most important, unlike most of us, they lived within nature...While we often are far removed from nature…the ancients heard the sounds of animals…We see snakes only in zoos; they saw them in gardens and even in houses.” Charlesworth then details peculiar features about snakes: rhythm to movement, no ears, voiceless, they live in a world of silence; they do not blink, they represent the phallus and hence fertility, the split tongue… cold-blooded, sheds skin as a powerful symbol of rebirth; they disappear into the earth, can be beautiful, can kill… In many Greek homes, snakes were pets. This fact constitutes a category outside of ancient serpent iconography…snakes served to protect the house from vermin, rats and other undesirable small animals…”

So, in ancient, times, “Since many of the snake objects or images were discovered in or near temples or cult settings, it is certain that the serpent denoted a god, a divinity; it also denoted other human aspirations, needs , and appreciations, including, but not limited to, beauty, power, fertility, rejuvenation, royalty, the cosmos, and life. Since the serpent is often carved on the top of vessels that would have contained water, milk or wine, it symbolized the divine protector. I have not found what will become so obvious when we study ophidian symbolism in the Asclepian cult; that is, I have not found clear evidence from controlled excavations that the serpent denoted, or connoted, rejuvenation and immortality. Perhaps rejuvenation and new life are reflected on the snake stands and altars found in the Canaanite sites, especially at Beth Shan.”

The Asclepian cult was active and known during New Testament times! Below we will see how important this is, and how John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus in contradistinction to Asclepius! … but early on Charlesworth notices, “In antiquity no god was more revered and had more devout followers than Asclepius…devotees in his cult elevated the positive meaning of the serpent…Is there any link between the use of ‘Savior’ in the Fourth Gospel and the celebration of Asclepius as “Savior” (Σωτ?ρ)?...symbol of ever renewing and indestructible life…”

Charlesworth favors us with a survey of biblical texts with snake symbolism – beginning of course with Genesis 3. Without any difficulty he debunks traditional views that identify the serpent with the devil. Actually, the serpent seems clever; he does not lie! Numbers 21:4-9 is key for John 3:14 – “Some scholars conjecture that Moses most likely did make a serpent and placed it on a pole. They point out that, after all, as previously discussed, a copper serpent – with cultic significance – has been found at Timnah, which was a copper-mining region in the Arabah just north of the Red Sea, and it is roughly contemporaneous with the action attributed to Moses…the copper snake found at Timnah supplies iconographical and archaeological evidence that lends credence to the story in Numbers 21…dates approximately from the same time and place that Moses fashioned a similar snake…the itinerary precisely when Israel was in the vicinity of the Timnah copper mines.” Then he ventures an interesting explanation, linking this to the presence of the serpent in the temple (2 Kings 18:1-4): “In the seventh century BCE, the author of Numbers 21:4-9 inherited and developed a story that had evolved to explain the origin and power of serpent symbolism and the worship of the serpent in the Temple during the time of Hezekiah. As long ago as the beginning of the 20th century, scholars saw major difficulties with Numbers 21:4-9… Numbers 21 is a cult legend to add legitimacy to the Nechushtan in the Temple. To tie Numbers 21 to the serpent pole in the temple (2 Kings 18:4… “He smashed the bronze serpent that Moses had made. For until those very days the Israelites were offering sacrifices to it. It was called Nechushtan” [2 Kings 18:1-4]) – and then to John 3:14 is promising! “The author of Numbers 21:4-9 seems to have acknowledged that serpents are important for healing, but he wanted to attribute this power to God, who told Moses to make a metal serpent as a means of healing those stricken…At the center of the story is not the serpent, and not even Moses; in central focus is Yahweh…God is the source…”

“Clearly, worshippers of God and God Yahweh knew about the serpent cults and, before Hezekiah’s reform, allowed them to flourish within ancient Palestine, and also within the Yahweh cult. Perhaps pre-Hezekiah devotees of Yahwism either saw no threat from such worshippers, or sought to bring them into line with the monotheism (or henotheism) of Yahwism. Hezekiah’s reform is documented by controlled archaeological research; not metal serpents or serpent images that postdate the seventh century and antedate the Roman Period have been found in ancient Palestine. The many metal serpent images found in ancient Palestine all date from the Early Bronze Age (c. 2250 BCE)at Ein Samiya near Ramallah to Iron Age II (c. 586 BCE) at Ekron.”

Turning to the NT, Jesus seems to harbor warm feelings toward serpents, suggesting that the disciples be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16…the symbolic association of serpents with doves antedates Jesus by at least fifteen hundred years…his injunction to be like serpents may mirror the serpent symbolizing the guardian…predominantly Jewish symbolic meaning of the serpent: It represents wisdom.

Charlesworth’s important thoughts regard the cult of Asclepius: “During the period when the Fourth Gospel was taking shape and for the next three centuries, the Asclepian cult and its bewitching serpent symbolism were a threat to Christian theologians and church leaders…Asclepius was thus killed by Zeus’ thunderbolt…. Devotees claimed to experience him alive again… and this challenged the kerygma (proclamation) in the Christian movement…very popular, especially for all who were sick or injured… Both figures, Asclepius and Christ, were proclaimed to be the Savior… Asclepius’ life was virtually a mirror of the story of Jesus. Asclepius was originally perceived as a human…He dies, and appears again in dreams, and, according to some of his devotees, he is alive again. He becomes a god equal to Zeus, an elevation that seems to have taken place during the time when the Fourth Gospel was being composed and edited… The Fourth Evangelist and those in his circle, community, or school, were reminded almost daily that the serpent symbolized immortality…imperative to explore the possibility of a remnant of ophidian Christology in the Fourth Gospel” (p. 374-5).

Therefore, Jesus’ followers were eager to portray him as a wise prophet, and they used serpent symbolism to indicate wisdom, healing, and eternal life. Charlesworth even hypothesizes: “It is conceivable that the Fourth Evangelist had been influenced by a synagogal sermon he had heard – or even delivered – based on an exegesis of Numbers 21:8-9… He may have known the Jewish traditions that shaped the Christological interpretations of Numbers 21 by the author of Barnabas and Justin Martyr. These authors inherited traditions that are clearly Jewish…conclusion that the Fourth Evangelist was influenced by a synagogal sermon when he composed 3:14.” And tantalizingly, he wonders if “it is symbolically significant that John’s risen Jesus, as the life-giving serpent, appears in a garden…the natural habitat of the serpent….John 20:11-18 is so reminiscent of the Eden Story…and is told by her ‘Do not touch me’ (John 20:17)… just as Eve had told the serpent, ‘And you must not touch it.’”

Charlesworth’s engaging work, studded with many photographs and charts, makes for interesting reading, and perhaps a long overdue reassessment of what serpents really are about in Scripture.

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Leviticus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) by Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner’s contribution to the intriguing Brazos commentary series is rather striking, provocative, thick and challenging. While exhibiting plenty of knowledge of ancient times and social/liturgical practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages, Radner offers a thoroughly Christian reading of Leviticus. I’ve thought a lot about such things, but still found myself surprised on virtually every page.

He opens by recognizing the distance Christians feel from the book – quoting Origen, of all people! “Provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety… Instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices!...It is the church’s responsibility to show the people that the dull details are filled with promise – in every ‘jot or tittle.’”

But since we have been persuaded of how Jewish Jesus and nascent Christianity were, we should take this most pivotal of the Torah books seriously, and sort through our dislike: “That Leviticus hovers, unavoidably, over the whole discussion of the cross of Christ, the sacrifice of our Lord, and the ritual of our Eucharistic remembrances, not to mention over the forms of our common life and relations, means also that these central elements of our faith are themselves tinged with the very tension and confusion that we feel about Leviticus itself.”

We miss this, because virtually all discussions of Leviticus, even by Christians, are pretty much historical reconstructions of Israelite and Near Eastern cultic practices. “Squeezed out completely in this history has been the divinely created and desired breadth of the world itself that the text was designed to comprehend and lay out to view within the context of redemption.”

Indeed, Radner’s entire volume is about this: “Jesus is rightly interpreted by Leviticus… The actual meaning of what he does, what he teaches, and who he is informed even by the details for, for example, the laws on bodily fluids, sexual relations, genealogy, and planning… Jesus is a ‘thinner’ figure in contemporary understanding than is the dense personal reality he represented for Origen, in part because a book like Leviticus in particular no longer traces the outlines of his being.” Poetically Radner declares, “Happy are the eyes (Luke 10:23) that see the Spirit hidden within Leviticus,” for it “encloses the whole history of God’s work with the world, the movement of the Logos in creation, judgment, and redemption, and the movement of the human soul within this larger current of divine work… That Leviticus contained the world was a Jewish conviction and, retrospectively rightly ordered in Christ, was a Christian assumption derived from Origen’s incarnational reading of the text.”

If we are tempted to balk at this line of thought, consider the witness of the New Testament’s book of Hebrews. Unashamedly, Radner’s approach in his commentary is that of “a Christian reading, bound to the life of the church and its reality as the body of Christ, but deeply informed by the Jewish discipline or treating the Scriptures as a still-inhabited universe… It is a difficult reading, attempting to outline the obscurities, not the simplicities…”

Radner notices that the Hebrew title of the book isn’t about the work of the Levites at all; “Leviticus” emerged with the Septuagint! The Hebrew title is Vayikra, meaning “and he called.” “On a theological basis the Hebrew title Vayikra is a far more accurate way of naming the purpose of the book, for it is God’s call to God’s people. It is the same call as from the burning bush (Exod. 3:4) and from Mt. Sinai (24:16)… it is the way God speaks to Adam (Gen 3:9)… words of God’s calling into human life itself… If the words here are the words of God who reveals his very self, then we are called through the words themselves into an encounter with God… This is a distinctly vocational exhortation… It is a calling into a purpose that underlies the shape of time, and reaches to the length of God’s will.”

Radner becomes expansive on this: “Leviticus is the book of God’s call… It is the calling of Jesus: ‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink!’ (John 7:37); it is the calling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Gal. 4:6)… Jesus said, ‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me’ (John 5:46; cf. Luke 24:27, 44).”

Radner also pays attention to the narrative of Leviticus! A month passes, and there are a few inserted narrative episodes – something I’d not really thought about before! For Radner, the very fact that time passes during Leviticus is important, as we see “in God’s providence times that form all times and expose the meaning of all time. Leviticus is thus a kind of universal history. Its placement in the midst of the more dramatically oriented books of Exodus and Numbers forms the theological core of these books and offers, not so much a legal insert into their histories, disrupting and confusing their details, but rather an explanation of how the histories of Exodus and Numbers move and what they mean…Leviticus was often the first book of the Torah taught to children.”

Into the commentary itself, Radner probes the meaning of blood sacrifice. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls… We must not allow the blood to be a single theoretical key to the sacrificial system, but must rather insist that it be a reflective element within its larger display of the character of all creation as particularly distinct and, in these distinctions, as variously related to God through the reality of self-offering.” Wow. Instead of isolating blood sacrifice and puzzling over this, we see blood as a piece of the entirety of creation and God’s action within.

Radner readily confesses what we generally don’t acknowledge, that “Jesus’s death on the cross fits awkwardly into the Levitical framework taken strictly… The form (crucifixion) and place (outside the temple) of Jesus’s death do not conform exactly to the requirements set out in Lev. 17.” So some deeper wisdom must be discerned: “The blood speaks of God as creator somehow… But even Clement realized that in the end, the reality of the blood within the creature acted as a kind of John the Baptist, pointing away from itself to its maker… The word somehow moves, in time, through the reality of the blood, and the blood thereby becomes a literal actor in the relationship of the human creature to God. Instead of functioning as an instrumental factor within a calculus of substitution…the blood here becomes a living and dramatic character in human orientation.”

“Love covers sin, because the giving of blood is first God’s gift…whose reality overflows into the self-giving of those who have come near or offered themselves to God (1 John 4:8-12)… The blood is creation’s cost to God… We cannot logically say that the love by which God creates is different in kind that the love by which God forgives; nor, for that matter that the love by which the creature worships God is different in kind that the love by which the creature repents. God’s love is one, and the love we give in return is called into that oneness.”

You can see that Radner’s prose is eloquent, downright poetic, but theologically probing, requiring labor from the reader, and yet the effort is certainly worthwhile.

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Summary of the Best Thoughts in Markus Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study.

Bockmuehl’s much praised book on how we study the NT has much to commend it, particularly the way he thinks through the way scholarship’s approach to NT texts is entirely at odds with the nature of and intent of the texts themselves – so there is always bound to be a kind of fundamental misconstrual of things. His reflections on the “implied reader” of the NT are especially insightful.

He praises what we’ve done in research: “Historical research at its best contributes vital and helpful clarification of the literal sense of the text. One of its great strengths, which should keep it a core element of any responsible biblical syllabus, is its potential (alongside other approaches) to contribute to a common conversation about the New Testament across faith boundaries rather than merely within particular ecclesial communities.”

But then what have we been missing? “A coherently critical approach would need to render a credible account of the texts in relation not only to the stated or implied phenomenology of Christian origins, but also to the explosively ‘totalizing’ theological assertions that writers like Paul and the evangelists state or imply in practically every sentence. Precisely that recognition, however, is astonishingly rare among historical critics. Without facing the inalienably transformative and self involving demands that these ecclesial writings place on a serious reader, it is impossible to make a significant sense of them… Whatever one may decide to conclude historically, it remains a fact that the New Testament neither envisages nor validates any reliable access to the identity of Jesus Christ except through the apostolic witness and the life of the apostolic churches.”

Bockmuehl’s most discerning section is his analysis of the “implied reader” of the texts – that is, when the writers wrote, what were they thinking about the person who would read? This is quite different from the assumed critic or sleuth or objectively distant reader we consider nowadays. Here are his 5 assumptions about the “implied reader.”

1. “Judged by any broad-based esthetic standard, the New Testament documents never invite, and rarely reward, interpretation from a primarily literary point of view. They represent second-rate literature in often third-rate linguistic forms…”

2. “Second and more important, the texts in any case do not present themselves as concerned with either literature or rhetoric. To view them primarily (rather than en passant) in this fashion is rather like using a stethoscope to examine a lightbulb: it can be done and does produce unfamiliar results, but it offers an analysis that does justice neither to the object nor to the instrument.”

3. “The implied reader of the New Testament has a personal stake in the truthful reference of what it asserts. Although inevitably affected by a variety of significant social and political factors, he or she is in fact interested in the New Testament primarily for its apostolic witness to God’s work in Jesus Christ. More specifically, the implied reader has undergone a religious , moral, and intellectual conversion to the gospel of which the documents speak… To the extent that this is even broadly correct, it also necessarily follows that the implied reader already takes a view of the New Testament texts as authoritative… Beyond that, however, the stance of the texts themselves already presupposes a kind of canonical momentum, as Thomas Söding, among others, argues.”

4. “Almost invariably, the implied readers are ecclesially situated… They are assumed to be related to the (or a) body of Christian believers, either as full members or at least as sympathizers and hangers-on. The chronological priority of the church over the New Testament has in effect surrounded the text with a cloud of presupposed ecclesial witnesses.”

5. “Finally, the implied reader is evidently assumed to be ‘inspired,’ in the sense of Spirit filled. The documents appear to take for granted that their envisaged reader will in the act of reading be empowered to receive the saying divine reality of which the text speaks…In these three cases and many others, the implied reader is drawn into an act of reading that involves an active part on stage rather than the discreet view from the upper balcony.”

The wisdom of this seems unassailable to me. Bockmuehl continues his shrewd analysis of what usually goes on: “In some professional societies and departments of religious studies, it still remains de rigueur to assert, as twentieth-century scholars often did, that Christian confessional and theological convictions have no place in serious study of the Bible. (This is a position, indeed, that such departments frequently affirm with far greater zeal vis-à-vis Christianity than for the teachings of any other religion.) Until not so very long ago, academic gatherings of biblical scholars witnessed regular recitations of the mantra that biblical exegetes must ‘set aside their presuppositions’ and read the Bible ‘like any other ancient book.’… It merely seems worth considering from the outset that an interpretations of Scripture determined to operate wholly without reference to the historic Christian ecclesial context is particularly prone to misapprehend the nature and purpose of its very object of study… The unprepared reader may be perplexed to discover the Bible’s lack of explicit interest in critical reason and inquiry… For Scripture, reason is indeed an innate and valuable creational gift; but it is fragile and profoundly corruptible; Scripture has a good deal more to say about wisdom than about reason.”

In later chapters he assesses the role of memory in the apostolic tradition, and the nature of Jesus – all fine material and worth reading.

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C. Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age

I try to avoid hyperbole, but Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down might be the best book on the New Testament I have read in five years. Eloquent, brilliantly conceived and well-argued, World Upside Down challenges the dominant trend in NT interpretation of Acts – the view that sees Acts arguing “for the political possibility of harmonious existence between Rome and the early Christian movement.”

On the contrary, as Rowe (who teaches at Duke!) puts it, “In its attempt to form communities that witness to God’s apocalypse, Luke’s second volume is a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life – a comprehensive pattern of being – one that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world.” For Rowe, Acts portrays a Gospel mission to the world that is downright perilous for culture and even politics:

“To speak of the threat of Christianity as the radical possibility of cultural collapse is not an exercise in rhetorical exaggeration, a heightened or even shrill way of pointing toward the effect of Christianity over the long haul: it is, rather, what happens when a whole range of practices constitutive of pagan culture – sacrifice to the gods, manipulating reality by magic, soothsaying, temple-based economic practice, and so forth – is rendered unintelligible or obsolete by a fundamentally different moral or metaphysical order… To see the potential of the Christian mission for cultural demise is to read it rightly… It is, rather, what happens when a whole range of practices constitutive of pagan culture – sacrifice to the gods, manipulating reality by magic, soothsaying, temple-based economic practice, and so forth – is rendered unintelligible or obsolete by a fundamentally different moral or metaphysical order…To see the potential of the Christian mission for cultural demise is to read it rightly.”

We underestimate the power of the claim that Jesus is “Lord” – or at best we think the Christians lifted up Christ as a rival to Caesar. But no: “Because of the nature of his claims, it is Caesar who is the rival; and what he rivals is the Lordship of God in the person of Jesus Christ… Yet, we would be mistaken were we to think that this rivalry takes place on a level playing field – an ontological basis, say , that is deeper than both Jesus and Caesar – as if there were two competitors playing for the same prize, the title ??ριο? πá?τω? is who Jesus is: Jesus is completely inseparable from his identity as the universal Lord. Caesar’s rivalry thus takes the form of wrongful (self-) exaltation to the sphere whose existence is exactly concomitant with the identity of God in Jesus Christ. Politics, that is, inevitably involves the questions of idolatry… As Seneca would have the young Nero to say: ‘I am the arbiter of life and death for the nations; it rests in my power what each man’s lot and state shall be; by my lips Fortune proclaims what gift she would bestow on each human being; from my utterance peoples and cities gather reasons for rejoicing.’”

And yet, “the Christian mission as narrated by Luke is not a counter-state. It does not, that is, seek to replace Rome, or to ‘take back’ Palestine, Asia or Achaia. To the contrary, such a construal of Christian politics is resolutely and repeatedly rejected… To follow Luke’s narrative is to read Christianity not as a call for insurrection but as a testimony to the reality of the resurrection. Yet, as any number of contemporary examples might remind us – Martin Luther King Jr., to take only the most obvious – the rejection of insurrection does not simultaneously entail an endorsement of the present world order, as if the fact that Jesus was δí?αιο? necessitates Luke’s approval of the crucifixion. In fact, according to Acts, the refusal of statecraft could well go hand in hand with the deconstruction of mantic-based economics or with the burning of magical books (Philippi and Ephesus). Equally well would withstanding the temptation to messianic military might include, rather than preclude, the naming of traditional pagan deities as “vain things” (Lystra)… Thus if the scene before Gallio articulates normatively the conviction that the state is not equipped to discern theological truth – or, to put it in more directly political terns, is not ultimately sovereign – Paul’s testimony before Festus clarifies theologically why this is so. The gentiles attempt to see with closed eyes, in darkness, without light.”

“Realizing that this Christological construal of universal lordship makes sense only in a reading of the world that from the outside appears upside down should help to facilitate a still further step in the reversal of our typical way of thinking…it does so on the basis of a more startling claim: Jesus, the bringer of peace, simply is the Lord of all, and the mode of being that is Caesar’s represents a violent refusal of this universal Lordship. Differently said, Caesar is the challenger, not of course because Jesus wants to rule the empire, but in the sense that the self-exaltation necessary to sustain Caesar’s political project is inevitably idolatrous.”

Hopefully this sampling of Rowe will make you want to read the whole thing!

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Review of : GOD'S PROBLEM: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer By Bart D. Ehrman.


God continues to be the topic of best-selling books, and Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, is an increasingly strident voice in opposition to God, or rather to belief in God, since he thinks there is no God.

And why? "I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. Life is a cesspool of misery and suffering."

Ehrman seems to assume nobody ever thought of this before. He noticed the Holocaust, hungry children, Katrina - and he concluded something titanically brilliant: God has a problem, which is God's failure to deal with suffering, so all that is left to us is to conclude God just plain isn't.

Over several chapters, Ehrman lifts up various Bible passages that speak of God's relationship to suffering. The historical portions of the Bible attach God to wars and famine; the prophets threaten people with God's wrath. He finds the biblical explanations of why bad things happen to be simplistic and crude, and the only intellectually responsible reply to the Bible's alleged failure to explain suffering is atheism.
I was shocked by this book, but not because Ehrman rejects God. Ehrman is a very fine scholar, and a task incumbent upon a scholar is to engage the best scholarship written on a subject. Christians have known for 2,000 years that suffering happens, and theologians have grappled with many wise, meaningful approaches to how we believe in a good God in a world where bad things happen. Ehrman seems not to have made himself aware of any of them, or he ridiculously misrepresents various ways we understand the intersection of God and suffering. None of the great theologians who have deftly explored these matters is ever mentioned.

In reply to Christians who rightly say quite a few bad things happen because people have free will, he fires back, "What about tornadoes?" But no one ever thought tornadoes are caused by free will; only crackpot preachers think God hurls storms at people. Ehrman complains that the good don't always prosper and the wicked do rather well. But the Bible acknowledges this, and portrays a God who doesn't get caged in by our sense of fairness. Ehrman rather superficially lifts Bible verses out of context that suggest God always answers prayers, that God shelters us from all harm, that God manipulates history. But I know he is a better Bible reader than that.

Is this sheer sensationalism? It sells. But is there more? In "God's Problem," Ehrman narrates how he was reared in a narrow-minded church with a simplistic, harsh theology, and he's glad to be out. His venom reminds me of the ugly fruit of bad churches: the rousing of strident denunciation among people who can't (and shouldn't) believe in the false God such churches foisted upon them.

Ehrman says God cannot exist because of the last time he attended church - on Christmas Eve. During the service, 700 children in our world died of hunger. So there is no God? The carolers with whom I spent Christmas Eve this year raised about a quarter of a million dollars during the holidays to feed hungry children.

But Ehrman's point is well-taken. Maybe the critics of faith can help people of faith to be more true to themselves and give the public less cause to toss out the whole idea of God.

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Holy Scripture, A Dogmatic Sketch by John Webster

John Webster, who teaches at Aberdeen and has produced several fine books, has reflected wisely and succinctly on the theological nature of Scripture. He notices two conflicting views of the Bible, the naturalist and the supernaturalist, and observes that they are “mirror images of each other; and both are fatally flawed by the lack of a thoroughly theological ontology of the biblical texts.” Instead of settling for a merely human view of the Bible as being like all other books, or a supernatural understand of God somehow producing this volume, he looks to the notion of Scripture as ‘sanctified,’ which addresses a cluster of problems, offering a “dogmatic ontology of the biblical texts which elides neither their creatureliness nor their relation to the free self-communication of God. At its most basic, the notion states that the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence.”

This works well: “no divine nature of properties are to be predicated of Scripture; its substance is that of a creaturely reality (even if it is a creaturely reality annexed to the self-presentation of God); and its relation to God is instrumental.” He presses on and endorses a concept related to that of sanctification, namely the “servant-form” of Scripture.

“Sanctification is thus not the extraction of creaturely reality from its creatureliness, but the annexing and ordering of its course so that it may fittingly assist in that work which is proper to God…if creaturely realities become holy, it is by virtue of election, that is, by a sovereign act of segregation or separation by the Spirit as Lord.” Using Latin terms some readers might not understand, he claims that the sanctity of sacred Scripture is an alien sanctity; the sanctity is “infused.”

Thus, Webster can extend the idea of sanctification to the entire process of the production of the text – “not simply authorship (as, so often, in older theories of inspiration) but also the complex histories of pre-literary and literary tradition, redaction and compilation. It will, likewise, be extended to the post-history of the text, most particularly to canonization…and to interpretation…” He never denies the utterly human elements in all these moments in the process, but sees them as sanctified, “annexed” by God so they might serve God’s purposes. “Although the prophets were moved, or driven, by the Holy Spirit, they themselves also spoke…their own activity was not suppressed by the moving of the Spirit…the Spirit’s suggestio and human authorship are directly, not inversely, proportional.”

Quite intriguingly, and Webster doesn’t run with this as far as I would like, he even speak of not merely the speaking, writing, preservation, editing and eventual canonization of the Biblical material, but even “the ordering and formation of culture, tradition, occasion and author. Properly understood, ‘verbal’ inspiration does not extract words from their field of production or reception, does not make the text a less than historical entity.” Authors and the people of God lived in a world that shaped their thought, expression and preunderstandings – and it is even that larger cultural nexus that God sanctifies toward the end of providing us with the gift of Scripture.

That the message is ultimate from God is clear: “Properly understood, however, apostolicity is a matter of being accosted by a mandate from outside…Holy Scripture is one of the points at which the assembly is laid open to the sheer otherness of the divine Word…Accordingly, ‘tradition’ is best conceived of as a hearing of the Word rather than a fresh act of speaking. That authority is properly a matter for acknowledgement is especially important in discussing the nature of Scripture’s authority in the church. Very simply, the church is not competent to confer authority on Holy Scripture…” Quite shrewdly, Webster reverses much that causes people to question the canon. The Church’s role was to “accept” not to “decide” what came from God. “The Church obediently embraces whatever is of God. The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and will not listen to the voice of strangers…” Canonization is not primarily an act of approval, but is receptive. The Church’s judgment is really a “Spirit-guided assent.”

Unusually, Webster then suggests the notion that we are to be readers, not interpreters of Scripture. We are to be “teachable.” “The act of reading Scripture involves and requires above all divestment and dislocation. A negative relation arises between the reader’s world and self and the saving knowledge of God available only in and by reading Scripture, because the saving knowledge of God is not added to otherwise acquired knowledge of God, but rather, other knowledge of God needs to be reconstituted in the light of knowledge granted in and through centripetal reading…The act of reading centripetally is inseparable from a willingness to let go of everything else, including the self.” Our ruin is “inventiveness” and “mastery.” “Faithful reading of Holy Scriptures in the economy of grace is not the work of masters but of pupils in the school of Christ. One of the chief fruits of the Spirit’s conversion of the reader is teachableness…To read Scripture as one caught up by the reconciling work of God is to abandon mastery of the text, and instead, to be schooled into docility.”

We can see that Webster, in a mere 100 pages, takes us full circle: from the origin of the text, to its canonization, to our reading of it, in a theologically robust, thought-provoking, faithful manner.

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American Saint, Francis Asbury & the Methodists by John Wigger

I am not as curious as I ought to be about Wesleyana, and what leanings I have favor the origins of British Methodism over the birth and spread in early America. After several friends enthusiastically recommended Wigger’s new biography of Asbury, I took the plunge – and enjoyed this book far more than I had imagined possible.

Well-written, engaging, and with theological awareness, Wigger narrates and analyzes Asbury’s life and mission with aplomb. Some excerpts: “He wasn’t a persuasive public speaker. Yet in close conversation and small groups he had the ability to draw others to him… Here was someone worth following, someone whose integrity and piety were above reproach, someone whose vision seemed truly inspired by God… He never married, and led a wanderer’s life of voluntary poverty… He traveled at least 130,000 miles by horse, preached more than ten thousand sermons and probably ordained from two thousand to three thousand preachers. He was more widely recognized face to face than any person of his generation, including such national figures as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington” (a stunning observation – but it makes sense, in the pre-TV era…) “and parents named more than a thousand children after him… He insisted on riding inexpensive horses…ate sparingly and usually got up at 4 or 5am to pray for an hour in the stillness before dawn.”

“Asbury wasn’t a distant autocrat. He remained closely connected to the people he led. His legacy is not in books and sermons, but in the thousands of preachers whose careers he shaped one conversation at a time, and in the tens of thousands of ordinary believers who saw him up close and took him (in however limited a way) as their guide. He was the people’s saint.”

“Asbury communicated his vision for Methodism in four enduring ways that came to define much of evangelical culture in America. (1) The first was through his legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classically evangelical conversion experience… He essentially lived as a houseguest in thousands of other people’s homes across the land. This manner of life exposed him, continually, to public or private observation and inspection…He lived one of the most transparent lives imaginable… The closer people got to him, the more they tended to respect the integrity of his faith. Asbury’s spiritual purity produced a confidence in the uprightness of his intentions and wisdom of his plans… Perseverance counted for much among evangelicals, and on this score Asbury had few equals… He suffered from progressively worsening congestive heart failure…rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valves…from edema in his feet… He sometimes had to be carried from his horse to his preaching appointments because he couldn’t stand the pain of walking, which must have been an inspiring, if bizarre, sight.”

(2) “The second way that Asbury communicated his vision was through his ability to connect with ordinary people…demonstrating a gift for building relationships face to face or in small groups. It is remarkable how many of those he met became permanent friends, even after a single conversation… In private circles he would unbend, and relate amusing incidents and laugh most heartily.… His conversational powers were great. He was full of interesting anecdotes and could entertain people for hours.… He was the quintessential backroom negotiator… He was cheerful, almost to gaiety…”

(3) “The third conduit of Asbury’s vision was the way that he understood and used popular culture…Wesley and Asbury came from significantly different backgrounds but they shared a realization that the dominant religious institutions of their day were failing to reach most people…how to make the gospel relevant in their time and place… This mediating impulse, transmitted from Wesley through Asbury, became a trademark of American Methodism.”

(4) “The fourth way that Asbury communicated his message was through his organization of the Methodist church. He was a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations… Under his leadership, American Methodists anticipated the development of modern managerial styles…nationwide network…all churning out detailed statistical reports… The typical itinerant rode a predominantly rural circuit 200 to 500 miles in circumference, typically with twenty-five to thirty preaching appointments per round…standard being a 4 week circuit of 400 miles…”
“The necessity of a culture of discipline was evident. Asbury insisted on upholding the requirements that all members attend class meetings…delegated authority to others… Yet this culture of discipline changed over time, much to Asbury’s chagrin, as the church itself became more respectable and less countercultural…rising from a few hundred members in 1771, the year he came to America, to more than two hundred thousand in 1816, the year of his death…influencing nearly all other mass religious movements…”

Underlining the moral importance of the class meeting: “Methodists realized that only by replacing one community with another could they bring about lasting change. They couldn’t simply demand that believers give up popular recreations and pastimes. Bands and class meetings replaced the alehouse (like the one Asbury grew up next to) while public preaching and eventually (in America) camp meetings took the place of fairs and dances…often mixed with more brutal sports…To make matters worse, much of this was done on the Sabbath…but since Methodists themselves were primarily working people their involvement must have been particularly galling…”

Wigger exhibits wry humor now and then: “In general Methodists admired Asbury’s financial restraint, but there were differences in the way that most viewed the problem of wealth. A life of voluntary poverty may have seemed ideal to Asbury and preachers like William Watters, but most Methodists hoped to do better. In their minds the root problem wasn’t wealth, only how it was used. The gentry led immoral lives because they were corrupt at heart, with or without their money. Prosperity held its own dangers to be sure, but most Methodists dearly hoped that they would have the chance to prove that wealth and piety could be successfully combine. For now, they could only speculate on what it might be like to try.”

“Once, when Asbury and Jesse Lee were traveling together, they stopped to preach near Philadelphia. Feeling unwell, Asbury asked Lee to preach in his place, without informing the congregation of the switch. After Lee’s sermon, Asbury gave a short exhortation. When it was all over, some said they like very well what the bishop preached, but they did not like what that old man said after him, according to one observer.”

For me the book gave 200 pages more detail than I personally cared for, but I am glad to have read, and now shared, Wigger’s fine discourse on the life of Francis Asbury.

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A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman

With the avalanche of books, blogs, and webinars on leadership, why read one more offering by a rabbi/family therapist who’s been dead for 14 years? Because even in its cobbled together state (the author died before finishing it!), Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix is wise and peculiar, hopeful and iconoclastic, and you can learn not only about leading but also about your personal life as an unanticipated benefit. If thinking about your psychic place in your family of origin and the impact of this on how you lead, and if contemplating your own inner balance versus the demands of the moment is appealing to you, read on.

Friedman, the author of the much- and rightly-beloved Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, was a genius at applying family systems theory to the life of institutions. Late in life he decided to write about leadership “in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.” We are an anxious people in a stressed culture that demands quick fixes. But leaders miss their opportunities and true calling by “trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results.” Indeed, “there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety-storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society – a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes. It is my perception that this leadership-toxic climate runs the danger of squandering a natural resource far more vital to the continued evolution of our civilization than any part of the environment.”

What might this natural resource be? It is the leader herself, or himself: “The way out requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being.” Friedman can talk about the “maturity” or personal wisdom of the leader as a person, not as a leader: “Children rarely succeed in rising above the maturity level of their parents and this principle applies to all mentoring, healing, or administrative relationships.” The leader is the one who must recognize the emotional forces at play, not only in a given company, but in society at large: “Sabotage comes with the territory of leading, whether in a family or an organization.” The leader’s “capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is – that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals – is the key to the kingdom. Contemporary leadership dilemmas have less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues.”

The issues that make or break us are not technical or even corporate, but inner, and emotional. Like addictive families, we tend to be driven by problems and the dysfunctional. We are all familiar with the way “the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas… thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.” What we fail to attend to is the process of “individuation,” personal growth, especially in leaders, who typically “rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive.” Not surprisingly, we have an “obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data-junkies and their information into data junkyards,” and so we misconstrue the “relational nature of processes.”

Friedman seeks the “well-differentiated leader,” one who can “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others. By well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat…although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others.”

Staying above this emotional swirl sounds a bit lonely, and it is: “A leader needs the capacity not only to accept the solitariness that comes with the territory, but also to come to love it.” But it isn’t real loneliness; in fact it is all about where you are connected emotionally, and how. Friedman, as a family therapist, understands that “to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) which they lead.” I cannot recall reading anything in any leadership book or blog about self-differentiation in one’s family of origin! Indeed, Friedman noted that “it certainly has not been my experience in working with imaginatively stuck marriages, families, corporations, or other institutions that an increase in information will necessarily enable a system to get unstuck. And the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data…Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”

Leaders do not wish to be “imaginatively stuck”! Breaking out into new life isn’t about more information or better technique. Rather, hope is all about better questions, uncertainty – and long, hard labor. “The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information. Perseverance can also perpetuate a fix. In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. When families get fixed on their symptoms – abuse, alcoholism, delinquency, marital conflict, or chronic physical illness – rather than on the emotional processes that keep those symptoms chronic, they will recycle their problems perpetually. The same is the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety. For there is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful phase.”

Indeed, for leaders who are “led hither and yon from crisis to crisis” but wish to lead differently, “there is no quick fix for avoiding a quick fix.” To begin, the leader must forget about the prized virtue of “empathy.” “It has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those others to be more self-aware, that being more understanding of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being. Ultimately, societies, families, and organizations are able to evolve out of a state of regression not because their leaders ‘feel’ for or ‘understand’ their followers, but because their leaders are able, by their well-defined presence, to regulate the systemic anxiety in the relationship system they are leading.”

Friedman devotes space to the well-known problem of emotional triangles – and surprisingly, they are not all bad for the leader: “Emotional triangles thus have both negative and positive effects on leaders. Their negative aspect is that they perpetuate treadmills, reduce clarity, distort perceptions, inhibit decisiveness, and transmit stress. But their positive aspect is that when a leader can begin to think in terms of emotional triangles and map out in his or her mind (or even better, on paper) diagrams of the family or organization, such analysis can help explain alliances and the difficulties being encountered in motivation or learning. This in turn can help the leader get unstuck by changing emotional processes and becoming more objective about what is happening. Identifying triangles is also useful in evaluating the maturity of family members or coworkers.”

All such changes are hard, and require the calm, differentiated self of the leader: “As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.”

The shift Friedman envisions is away from “old world superstitions” (such as ‘The key to successful leadership is understanding the needs of their followers,’ ‘Communication depends on one’s choice of words and how one articulates them,’ ‘Consensus is best achieved by striving for consensus,’ ‘Hierarchy is about power’) to a “new world orientation,” in which a leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or her presence (emotional being) affects the emotional processes in the relationship system; a leader’s major job is to understand his or her self; communication depends on emotional variable such as direction, distance, and anxiety; stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others; hierarchy is a natural systems phenomenon rooted in the nature of protoplasm.”
So Friedman is all about a new kind of self in the leader, an inner strength that is hardly dependent on technique, information, or even the particular challenges of the company being led. Interestingly, in a Democracy, and certainly in religious institutions, there is a wariness of the strong personality. Jim Collins (Good to Great) suggests that corporate vitality does not hinge on the charisma and personal greatness of the leader; in fact, he and others suspect that the strong personality might prove to be counter-productive. Friedman could not disagree more. He certainly would eschew a sick personality that only appears to be ‘big’ on the outside. But the healthiest, strongest personality possible is the leader’s best gift to the organization. “The expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of a community possible.” Institutional problems “are not the result of an overly strong self in the leader, but of a weak or no self. Democratic institutions have far more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license this gives to factionalism (which is not the same as dissent) than from too much strength in the executive power.”

This is my summary of Friedman’s very wise, if disjointed, book – disjointed because others had to weave together notes and unedited pages into the final whole. But the unusual approach, and deep wisdom, of A Failure of Nerve is hopeful, I believe.

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The Trinitarian Faith by T. F. Torrance

I’m a reader of (and occasional contributor to) Christian Century – and in their recent books issue, George Hunsinger, whom I don’t know but have admired as a purveyor of things Barthian, suggested T.F. Torrance’s The Trinitiarian Faith among his must-reads from the past 25 years.  I found it online:  $60!  Ugh… but ordered it, having found in the past Torrance to be engaging, and eloquent.  The Trinitarian Faith is no exception, and deserves endless superlatives.

     Sporting an astonishing, encyclopedic knowledge of the Fathers, especially Athanasius, Torrance offers an explication of the doctrine of the Trinity, focusing on the Nicene Creed, that is wise, learned, and flat out compelling.  He understands and can explain to the rest of us why the decisions of the bishops at Nicaea are essential to salvation, the healing of the soul, and all that we require to be the Body of Christ, even centuries after the often-trashed Councils of Christendom.

    Torrance has now taught me much about the Trinity – but not as a dry, cold, historic doctrine, but as the living reality of God which matters to me and the person who would absolutely shrink back from the very first pages of such an intellectually daunting yet stimulating volume as The Trinitarian Faith.  Here are some samples of Torrance’s readings of our forbears in theology:  “It became indubitably clear to the Church in the fourth century that it is only when the Gospel is understood in this fully Trinitarian way that we can really appreciate the New Testament teaching about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and appreciate the essential nature of salvation, prayer and worship…  The Creed framed by the Fathers at Nicaea secured the apostolic and catholic faith against disrupting distortions of the Gospel in a decisive form that eventually commanded and unified the mind of the whole Church… What had taken place at Nicaea was afterwards regarded with awe as a work of the Holy Spirit…  As Athanasius himself regarded the Council of Nicaea, however, the fathers of Nicaea did nothing new…”

     The point of the Creed is precisely the antithesis of the crass misconstrual of The DaVinci Code and other hyped, hip misrepresentations of what those few hundred bishops were about:  the creed can be “treated both as an evangelical proclamation leading to faith in Christ and as an instructive formulation of the capital truths of the Gospel which could serve as an authoritative guide in reading and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures…and was thereby rendering an account to God of its stewardship in the mysteries of God…”  I like that:  the Fathers were charged with “stewardship in the mysteries of God,” and the creed is the fruit of that stewardship?

   When they declared “We believe… they made it clear that the creed was concerned to confess the fundamental truths of the Gospel calling for the commitment of faith, rather than laying down decrees requiring compliance either like apostolic decisions or like imperial edicts.”  

     Early Christian faith “represents the radical shift in people’s understanding in the Church as they were grasped by the enlightening reality of the living God and were freed from imprisonment in the darkness of their own prejudices, baseless conjectures and fantasies, that is a shift away from a centre of thinking in the in-turned human reason…”

     Far from being closed-minded and narrow, the earliest Christian theologians allowed flexibility of thought and a rather stunning openness to various perspectives on the grandeur of God.  “This explains why in the very act of apprehending something of God, faith is bound to confess that it is incapable of comprehending him…Thus the open range of faith gave rise to a perilous state of affairs in which the door appeared to be open to all manner of irrational and irreverent theorizing…With fear and trembling and in prayer to God, they must seek to express, as far as the slender resources of human language allow, the truth of God to which they are directed by Holy Scripture, if only to counter the damaging effect of an arbitrary and irreligious intrusion of creaturely modes of thought.”

     I love Torrance’s grasp of why the early Church had to resort to such complex and theoretical ways of speaking of the divine mystery:  “Hilary had that critical even in mind in the following complaint.  ‘We are compelled by the error of heretics and blasphemers to do what is unlawful, to scale heights, to express things that are unutterable…”  And yet they trusted and even “rejoiced” in the Holy Spirit, as they stretched “the feeble capacity of our language.”

     Indeed, “In its struggle with the prevailing dualist assumptions that distorted understanding of its message, the Church found it had to transform the very foundations of Graeco-Roman thought, and in so doing it laid the basis for a very different approach to the created universe and eventually for an empirical scientific account of its inherent rational order.”  Torrance focuses, as he believes the early Church did, on the “primacy and centrality of the Father/Son relation…  The incarnate Son is the very same being as God the Father…  The whole being of the Son is proper to the being of the Father… The Son is everything that the Father is, except ‘Father.’”

     I like the opening, methodological, historical sections of Torrance’s book more than the latter sections on Church and the Holy Spirit.  What a wise, thoughtful, if old-fashioned kind of theological treatise!


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Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Post Modern Age by Brad J. Kallenberg

Concise, thought-provoking, summarizing lots of recent thinking about the nature of evangelism, Live to Tell is Brad Kallenberg’s effort to help us think toward the most meaningful way to reach out to people with the Gospel in postmodern times. After a quick summary of the heart of what postmodernism is about (individualism, language as representationalism, beliefs as nothing but assertions), and how it quite genuinely is the very fabric of life and thought in our day, Kallenberg counters that what we need, and what actually is life on earth, is a more holistic approach – the view that groups do behave like real entities and truly do constitute each member’s identity and have top-down causal influences on them; “we are socially constituted critters.” Language is more constitute of reality that we realize: “language is the means by which we think and act in the world.” And beliefs are not mere assertions of individuals, mere “opinion,” but beliefs “form an interlocking set that we share with the rest of our community.”

He explores the nature of “story,” and how we find ourselves in some story. “I cannot judge or confess that a story that involves me is true unless the story shapes my life. To call a story true is to trust it to be a reliable guide for interpreting my past and navigating my future. What Augustine discovered was the gospel’s power to knit together the disjointed phases of his life in such a way that he could perceive them as episodes in a story, much older than his own…” This matters for evangelism. Instead of thinking of evangelism as offering a set of propositions that the listener either accepts or doesn’t, we can “more richly understand the human side of conversion, namely, as the acquisition of a new identity… by understanding one’s place in the story line of the gospel.”

In the same way, conversion “involves the acquisition of a new conceptual language.” To become Christian is to learn words, and their meanings – but also the grammar, and then to be shaped constantly by that language and grammar. Community, as we can imagine, is indispensable for this acquisition of language: “Fluency is gained by participation in the linguistic community’s form of life – that weave of activity, relationships, and speech that gives the community its unique personality… We only truly understand how to use the word chair in a sentence by virtue of our contact with chairs. Chairs are things we sit in, fetch, count, reupholster, stand on, trip over, stub our toes on… For a child, ‘god’ is neither ‘the ground of our Being’ nor ‘the first cause,’ but ‘the one we pray to..and thank before we eat…and sing songs about…and tell our friends about…and confess our sins to.’ Only by virtue of these activities does the word God come to mean anything at all.”

But is the evangelistic message mere propaganda? Kallenberg is wise in pointing to (of all people) John Howard Yoder: it is precisely “the rejectability of the gospel that ironically is what prevents it from becoming mere propaganda.” The Gospel is offered in noncoercive ways, nonmanipulative ways, leaving space for decision for or against.

We cannot speak the full truth about God ourselves, much less explain it to others – but this is not a problem. “In the absence of an ability to articulate such mysteries, theological orthodoxy has historically contented itself with maintaining the correct ways to say things… Thus, to become fluent in the conceptual language that Christians speak is to participate in activities such as forgiving one’s neighbor, giving thanks to God, and worshiping with other believers. On the other hand, orthodoxy is never less than words.” We need to speak, but the speech is about a way of life: conversion is learning the speech, and engaging in forgiveness, gratitude, and worship. These are not successive upon conversion, but are part of the process of conversion – which, as we have learned in recent years, requires time. How long did it take for Augustine?

How do people come to faith? Not merely by the brilliance of the faith’s ideas. Relationships matter. “Desperation drives some to shop around. Sometimes people get a hunch that their community’s way of living and thinking has or will soon hit a dead end.” This very “curiosity” is a good thing, and to be celebrated; curiosity we must trust will lead people toward God. But the key may be other people: “A friendship formed with an insider of a community may be the handrail that assists one’s ascent into the new community.” If I am this friend, patience and much love are essential: “I cannot expect my friend to surrender beliefs one at a time until conversion is complete. Rather, it is likely that I will see virtually no progress in the conversation apart from a growing tension – even irritability – on the part of my friend.”

Involvement in doing Christian things leads to conversion – even social action/mission types of things. “It is easy to imagine that repeated trips to a soup kitchen might cure money grubbers of their materialism and implant compassion in the hardest of hearts. So too, participation in Jesus-like social action is persuasive at a very deep level…” Kallenberg tells us the story of Allen, who got involved in a soup kitchen, and this led to his conversion: “Allen’s exercise wasn’t the first time that role-playing poverty led to spiritual conversion. In the 13th century, young Francis, an aristocrat from Assisi, paused in front of the opulent St. Peter’s church barely long enough to exchange garments with a beggar… Allen found himself taking his place among those who are being the hands and feet of Jesus through their service to the local poor.”

The friend or colaborer plays a peculiar role for the one seeking God: “More often than not, such a guide bears a greater resemblance to an art appreciation teacher than to a reference librarian.” After all, consider our task in postmodern times: “How are we to convey the universal truth claims of Jesus to an audience that instinctively rejects universal claims?” We are simply friends, we speak, we live out what we believe, humbly, compassionately. We try various angles: Kallenberg reads the New Testament and claims “I do find Paul arguing, but never in the same way twice.”

His conclusion is lovely, though daunting: in rejecting old revival meeting or pamphlet/witnessing approaches, he declares “A technological model of evangelism mistakenly seeks universal procedures that can guarantee authentic conversions. But evangelism, like medicine, is organic. No iron-clad universalizable principles can be formulated that circumvent the hard work of developing skilled judgment in the messy business of sojourning with the dying toward the land of the living.”

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Allah a Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf

How wonderful of Miroslav Volf, a native of Croatia, distinguished author and professor of theology at Yale, and friend of Christian and Muslim thinkers around the world, to write such a thoughtful, helpful book: Allah: A Christian Response. Understanding from personal experience and astute observation all that is at stake in the conversation between Islam and Christianity, and grasping why it breaks down most of the time, Volf declares that his book “is about the extraordinary promise contained in the proper Christian response to the God of Muslims for easing animosities and overcoming conflicts.”

Acknowledging what many in the public may not realize – that “most conflicts between Muslims and Christians are not of a strictly religious nature,” that much of the violence is about oil, politics, rage, economics, and race – Volf notes that religion does play an important role in what’s tense in our world. Holy sites pose problems, as do evangelistic efforts by both parties, and legal and moral issues in places where Muslims and Christians live side by side.

Volf’s primary question is: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” His firm, and brilliantly fathomed answer, is Yes. And he isn’t a simplistic pundit blandly declaring that all paths to God are valid, or that all religions are really the same. He writes as one of Christianity’s wisest, most faithful theologians, who embraces classical, orthodox expressions of the faith. He also doesn’t allow that extremist versions of Islam or of Christianity speak for the faiths as a whole. Let me restate some of his argument with some block quotations:

“Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God… What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today… Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, describe God as loving and just… The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship – the one and only God – commands that we love our neighbors… Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together… Christians should see Muslims, who give ultimate allegiance to God as the supreme good, as allies in resisting the tendency in contemporary culture to see mere pleasure, rather than justice and love, as the hallmark of the good life… What matters is whether you love God with all your heart.”

Some common distinctions observers make between Islam and Christianity turn out to be off the mark. The idea of Christianity as “reasonable” and Islam are “pure will” is faulty. Islam’s God, Allah, has many names, none of which permit a capricious, sheer violence; Allah’s names include the Merciful, the Just, the Seeing, the Hearing, the Knowing, the Loving, and the Gentle. We see in Islam “the self-binding of God to mercy, justice, truth, and reason.”

Volf muses on the two greatest commandments as Jesus Christ formulated them in the Gospels. Muslims need some convincing that Christians believe in just one God; Christians need some convincing that Islam is about love of God and neighbor. He strives to explain the true unity in the often-misunderstood doctrine of the Trinity, and in the divinity of Jesus. Regarding Islamic love, Volf reminds his readers the “only a minuscule fraction of 1.6 billion Muslims are suicide terrorists and only a small minority of Muslims approve of their acts… Normative Islam condemns suicide as well as the killing of innocent.” Citing the Qur’an and many Islamic theologians, Volf concludes: “Like Christianity, Islam is a religion of love. Indeed, many Muslims might even argue that in practice Islam is much more a religion of love than Christianity because, over the course of its history, they believe, it has been less violent than Christianity… When some Christians, for instance, insist that Muslims worship a violent deity bent on war whereas they worship the God of love, this may be true with regard to a specific group of Muslims (say, the takfiris and the jihadists). But this is not true with regard to the God of the Qur’an as interpreted by the great Muslim teachers throughout history.”

As a footnote to his lengthy case that Islam is a religion of love, Volf does allow a slight distinction: “Christians affirm unequivocally that God commands people to love even their enemies. As God loves the ungodly, we should love our enemies. Though Muslims insist that we should be kind to all, including those who do us harm, most reject the idea that the love of neighbor includes the love of enemy.”

So do we believe in the same God? Obviously what we believe about God has similarities, and yet differences. Volf points out that “we don’t need to subscribe to identical descriptions of God to be referring to the same object.” Quite obviously, “Muslim and Christian descriptions of God are clearly not “completely identical.” But Volf, probing whether we focus on differences or similarities, asks where our hearts are: “Those who take the ‘differences’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in wrongdoing. Those who take the ‘commonalities’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth.”

What do we have in common? Many things, as it turns out. “The oneness of God (tawhid) is the principle at the very heart of Islam – and Christianity, once we grasp the essence of the Trinity. God is good in God’s own being and beneficent toward creatures. As it turns out, Christians and Muslims agree on this. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). In the Hadith (authentic sayings of Muhammad): “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”

We begin to notice “quite a few things on which we agree: 1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being, 2. God created everything that is not God, 3. God is radically different from everything that is not god, 4. God is good, 5. God commands that we love God with our whole being, 6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.”

What about language? “Should Christians reject ‘Allah’ as a term for God?...They should not. ‘Allah’ is simply Arabic for ‘God’… Thus all Arabic Christian Bible translations of John 3:16 say, ‘For Allah so loved the world…”

Volf tries to answer common Muslim objections to Christianity – such as the idea that God might “beget” a son. “The issue here is the meaning of the word ‘begotten,’ not the substance of our understanding of God. Christians do not think of ‘begetting’ when applied to God as a physical act…. The divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity)? Moreover, ‘begetting’ in God does not result in an offspring spatially distinct or in any way independent from God, a godlike being or another god. ‘Begetting’ is a metaphor used to express the idea that the Word, which was from eternity with God, is neither a creature nor some sort of lesser divinity...”

“Christians reject worshipping Christ or anyone else in place of God… The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews… The beliefs of some Christians can be contrary to what Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers advocate… In statements that address the doctrine of the Trinity, the Qur’an may well be targeting the beliefs of such Christians, for what the Qur’an rejects in this regard, Christians ought to reject as well.”
Volf urges Muslims, and Christians, to remember “how different God is from any creature, how profoundly mysterious God is…but also beyond numbers. ‘One’ and ‘three’ do not apply to God the way they apply to human beings or to any other thing in the world… God’s oneness is not such that God is one more in any numerable series whatever. God is not one thing among many other things in the universe…”

In all these matters, Volf makes a careful distinction between the God in which we believe and the way we understand, describe, or worship that God. We do not often reflect on Christianity and Judaism when thinking of Christianity and Islam – but Volf correctly reminds us that “the New Testament writers, mostly Jews, assumed consistently that the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God of their fellow Jews was the very same God they worshipped… The debate with Jews was about how to describe God properly…and how to worship God truly… The debate with Jews was never whether Jews and Christians worshipped the same God.”

Within Christianity, there has been and is intense disagreement about how to speak of God. Volf roams through the annals of history, assessing Sabellius’s God, Arius’s God, Athanasius’s God, Luther’s God… all of whom differ even in crucial respects, yet we never have thought they were describing different Gods, or even an idol or a false God. “The debates were not about which god was the true God, but which description of the one true God was correct. I suggest that we understand the debates between Muslims and Christians about the nature of God in a similar way. They are about how to describe truthfully the one God in whom both believe.”

Volf’s largest interest is in us learning to coexist peacefully on this planet. He calmly suggests that “if Christians and Muslims (along with other religions) are to live under the same roof, it is important for them to affirm political pluralism and not just democracy… The world God created is one as well, the defenders of monotheism rightly insist… A single unifying truth binds all human beings, and the same demands of justice apply equally to all.”

Volf believes we can be passionate about our own faith, even downright evangelical about it, and still coexist peacefully with those of another faith who also are passionate and evangelical. “Some Muslims and Christians are committed religious pluralists. Most of them, however, are religious exclusivists… Can religions exclusivists be political pluralists, however?... I mean the view that all religions, though not considered to be equally true by those who embrace them, are equally welcome in a given nation or state. A state like Britain, for instance, where Christianity is an established religion, may prefer one religion to all others for historical or practical reasons and yet give full freedom to others and seek to be impartial toward them within these constraints. From my perspective, such a state would count as politically pluralistic… It is an uncontested fact that many Christian and Muslim religious exclusivists endorse the impartiality of the state toward all religions and the right of each to engage in public debates… Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim socioreligious organization (with over 40 million members)… avowedly pro-democracy and pro-pluralism.”

There is a message Christians need to hear: “The church is not the church of any nation or people. For both Christians and Muslims, God is not a tribal deity; since God is one, God is never ‘our’ God as opposed to ‘their’ God. If possessive pronouns are appropriate at all, ‘our’ God is as much ‘theirs’ as ‘ours.’ Both Muslims and Christians agree that their common God is just and merciful and requires human beings to be just and merciful in all their dealings.

Volf even speculates about the way to discourage extremism – in Islam or Christianity. “Extremism thrives where reasoned debate about important issues of public concern is absent… Religious truth claims, like any other truth claims, invite counterclaims and encourage public debate. Respectful debate about the truth claims of religious groups is one of the best antidotes against religiously motivated or legitimized violence. Acknowledgment of a common God: For Muslims and Christians each to worship a different God would mean that one group is made up of idolaters while the other worships the true God… Adherence to the command to love neighbors… a stand against prejudice: Prejudice and demonization are forms of falsehood… We don’t need to agree with the views of Muslims; we just need to be civil rather than mean-spirited as we disagree.”

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Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown

Peter Brown, the great biographer of Augustine, and probably my favorite writer on the ancient church, has published a fascinating new study: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. A thick tome of 750 pages, with a smaller than average font, The Eye of a Needle reads wonderfully, and for all I’ve read of the Patristic and Constantinian eras, I learned a lot. Here are some excerpts, interspersed with a few guiding thoughts I’d share.

“Wealth was a theme that lay heavy on everybody’s mind… The New Testament had passed on to the Christian communities of the later empire the challenge of Jesus to the Rich Young Man… I am tempted to call this period the Age of the Camel. Christians of ascetic temperament watched expectantly to see which – if any – of the very large camels of their age were prepared to pass through the eye of the needle through renouncing their wealth… Worldly-wise bishops offered the average rich Christian a series of compromises – almsgiving, church building, testamentary bequests – as so many consolation prizes for having failed the primal test of passing through the eye of a needle.”

“It is remarkable how many sober scholars in our own days write about the growing wealth of the church as if it were no more than a regrettable result of the failure of late Roman Christians to live up to the ideals of their faith… The imagined course of wealth from earth to heaven through humdrum acts of pious giving was just as important to Christian believers as was the occasional act of renunciation among the few.”

Reflecting on Constantine’s conversion, Brown calls this “an act of supreme willfulness… He deliberately chose a God as big and as new as himself. He chose an all-powerful and transcendent deity who owed nothing to the past… In return for this protection, Constantine rewarded the Christian clergy with appropriate privileges… Furthermore, in order to enjoy the continued protection of his new God, Constantine was prepared to devote great pains to keeping the worship of that God immune from error and division… And yet, as we know, the Roman West remained a predominantly pagan world. The eastern provinces of the empire, reorganized around Constantine’s personal foundation – the city of Constantinople – were the laboratory in which he and his successors were encouraged by Christian enthusiasts to carry out the grandiose experiment of a fully Christian empire.”

Reminding us that the authors we know from the ancient world were not the poor, but the affluent, Brown says of the place of weath before the advent of Christianity, “We are looking at the rich with the eyes of the rich. The issue was never whether or not the rich should be rich; it was how the rich should relate to each other… They gave little thought to the manner in which threatening accumulations of wealth affected the distant, faceless poor… It was a set of stereotypes, vicious as an album of caricatures, of the wrong sort of rich person. Thought on wealth tended to settle down to denunciation of the luxury, pretentiousness, and avarice of the evil rich… The evil rich were usually the new rich…”

“For centuries, the most vivid and esteemed form of giving was held to have occurred on the occasion when a rich person gave unstintingly – and in the full blaze of public acclaim – to his or her city by providing new buildings, by repairing old ones, and by laying on splendid games for its citizens. What we now call “civic euergetism” was the tradition of performing euergesiai – “good deeds” – to one’s city. Such euergetism was seized upon as a gesture of generosity that summed up an entire urban civilization. Individual benevolence, even when practiced on a wide scale, was like a soft fine rain. Civic euergetism, by contrast, was a mighty flash of lightning that lit up the principal features of the traditional social landscape, leaving lesser forms of giving (many of which may well have been motivated by compassion) in the darkness… Last but not least, it riveted the attention of Christian bishops throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. Their vocal disapproval of this practice was explained because it contained no element of compassion for the poor.”

“For a civic benefactor to look past the populous by showing generosity to the many thousands of beggars and immigrants who lingered on the margins of the city was not an act of charity. It was a snub to the citizen body… In retrospect, Christian preaching in favor of extensive outreach to the poor might seem to represent a novel surge of humane feeling. But it had its shadow side. It blurred traditional boundaries. To present poverty as the sole requirement for generosity from the rich devalued the status of thousands of persons who thought of themselves as citizens first and only then as poor. It treated them as part of the same miasma of misery as the beggars, the homeless, and the immigrants who crowded into every city.”

Augustine was a critic of lavish spending on games. “Many of his criticisms of the games would have struck his hearers as thoroughly conventional… But only Augustine and his Christian contemporaries saw the games in terms of a conflict of giving. This was new. This is because certain aspects of Christian giving represented a novelty not only in the professed aim of this giving – to give to the poor – but in the motivations ascribed to the giver. What differed most of all was the emphasis on the supernatural efficacy of the Christian gift.”

“Ambrose’s insistence that giving to the poor should be based upon a strong sense of human solidarity… He did not wish the poor to be seen only as a charged outsiders, sent by God to haunt the conscience of the rich… Rather they were encouraged to see it as the gracious repayment to their fellow humans of an ancient debt… It is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor; rather, you are giving back something of theirs… The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”

Brown spends a good bit of time on Paulinus, “a very large camel who had indeed been able to pass through the eye of a needle by abandoning his fortune.” In the late fourth century, the flowering of wealth in the church was due to lay aristocrats, not the bishop or the clergy. Eventually the wealth entered the episcopacy. “A generational change had taken place. In major cities, bishops came to be drawn from the same class as the civic givers.”

“In the mid-440s Leo instituted a special collection – a collecta ¬- for the poor. It occurred in the summer months, which, for the average inhabitant of Rome, were hard months. They were months of heat, fever, and scarce food before the arrival of the harvest. But the church collections were also timed to coincide with the Ludi Apollinares in the circus Maximus, which took place in early July… The month of July showed a great sack full of gold coins that symbolized the huge sums spent on the games at this season. The collection was a feast of unity… With this collection, he intended to draw all Christian Rome together around a single holy venture. More than that, it was a feast of solidarity. The gifts were offered by an undivided people of God. The poor were urged to think of their contributions as being just as important as those of the rich. Charity was not a matter of ostentatious giving, by which the rich distinguished themselves from everybody else. Leo was careful to leave room for the mediocre, even for the poor… But Leo and his successors went further than their predecessors in taking control of the care of the destitute. They ensured that almsgiving sacralized and centralized by being linked to the cult of saints.”

“The bishop’s standing in the community depended on his ability to draw on a form of wealth that was carefully constructed as being quite as distinctive as was his own unique power as a pastor… so the wealth of the church took the equally strange form of wealth without wealth. It was nominally ‘the wealth of the poor.’ It was wealth held in trust for non-persons… In the first place, the notion that the wealth of the church was the wealth of the poor was mobilized to ensure that the administration of church lands was kept clean. To disperse, embezzle, or misuse these properties was to rob the innumerable, helpless persons for whom this wealth was said to be held in trust.”

“In the fourth century, to give to the poor had been presented as a supremely counterfactual gesture. Christians who gave to the poor – rather than lavish comforts on the narrow core of their fellow citizens – were thought to have reached out to claim the furthest edges of society for the church… In the fluid world of the post-imperial kingdoms, the honeycomb of carefully graded social statuses that had protected free Romans – as senators, as town councilors, as honestiores – had collapsed. What had survived best was the brutal binary model in which the rich faced the poor with no intermediary classes in between.”

“The notion that Christ was present in the poor in general (upheld by so many preachers of the fourth and fifth centuries)had become focused on the idea that, among the anonymous crowd of normal beggars, one might light on at least one beggar who was Christ in disguise. The notion of a hidden savior living among the poor was a theme of folklore common to Jews… For both groups depended on the bishop’s generosity: the poor for their sustenance and the clergy for their salaries. The result of this situation was that clergy and poor tended to become amalgamated.”

Fascinating stuff.

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