Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cultural Contexts of Ministry

The first post in this series was The Pastor in the Church in the World, and related to the first course of the MDIV curriculum.  Today, I wanted to share my vision for the second one week intensive course in our curriculum:

1. Meaning is a function of context.  Humans share meaning in common only to the extent that humans share a common context. This is an incredibly significant insight and you cannot operate with a precise understanding of the world or understand the Bible or operate with a deep understanding of ethics, politics, or any aspect of life without this insight.

There is a tendency among many thinkers of all stripes to distribute meaning "down" in a Platonic fashion.  If this is x, then everything else is y.  If you are a Christian, then you are x, y, z.  All humans are x, therefore, you are a, b, c. Rather, general truths are built up from the ground by collecting similar things one by one.  It's hard work.  For you philosophers, this is not even Aristotle.  This is Ockam.

2. There are universal truths and ethics in relation to culture, but these result from commonalities in the contexts shared by all humanity.  We all have a similar biology.  There are commonalities to our world.  There are universals because we can collect every human individual under certain commonalities to the human context.  These are not as extensive as the default expectation, in which someone assumes that the way his or her culture does things is the right way.

3. Within this framework, we can see how individual contexts change the meaning of actions and words, as well as the application of Scripture.  Indeed, the meaning of Scripture itself becomes a function of its multiple ancient contexts and we begin to understand why there are so many different interpretations of it, as each individual interpreter mistakes his or her context for the appropriate context against which to read Scripture's words.

This course considers ministry contexts such as the following:

1. Local demographic research--what is the cultural environment in which my church is located?  My personal philosophy--your church would ideally be engaging the community immediately surrounding it.  There's something peculiar about a drive in congregation that has no relationship with its immediate environment.
2. My church's story--what is the "storied" context of my church, which gives my church some sense of its identity.
3. My "denominational" context--where does my church stand within the history of North American Christianity.  A major insight is to realize that so called non-denominational and independent churches are just as much a part of a cultural tradition of Christianity as any denominational one.  A few questions about the way the church does certain things and you have located it.  The "we just do what the Bible says" sentiment is self-deception and illusion.
4. The American evangelical context - by the way, I am thinking of a North American Anglo cohort of students in this post, it would be "localized" with a Hispanic group or an Aussie group, etc.  American evangelicals, even evangelical scholars, often do not realize their ideological location.  British evangelicals, for example, can often spot idiosyncrasies to the Evangelical Theological Society that are peculiarly U.S. American.
5. Socio-economic contexts.  How does urban-rural, black-white-Hispanic, middle class-poverty change the dynamics of ministry
6. The shift of the center of Christian culture to the two-thirds world.  What will the world look like when Africa and South America are guiding Christianity?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Pastor in the Church in the World

I had a thought for a series.  I've had a lot to do with curriculum creation at Wesley Seminary at IWU.  I probably know more about what we're teaching in all the courses than anyone.  I also have dreams for what would be taught in each class.  Of course I did not write all this curriculum and with each new faculty person, the less and less input I have.

But I was thinking it would be fun to create a kind of "last will and testament" for the curriculum of Wesley.  If I could control what was taught in each class, what would my "whatever you teach, be sure and teach this" list be?

The first class in the MDIV curriculum is called Pastor, Church, and World.  (P.S. despite the similarity in name, it is nothing like Asbury's Kingdom, Church, and World).  This is a course that (beyond orienting our students to the seminary and its curriculum) is about the person of a pastor as s/he serves the church as part of  God's mission to the world.

I have perhaps had less to do with the design of this course than any.  It is a one week intensive course (two start next week on campus, one in English and one in Spanish).  The kind of professor we want is someone with significant pastoral experience who has been there, who knows the pressures on the pastor as a person and has demonstrated skill at handling them.

My list will be short.
1. I would want the students in this course to be able to distinguish clearly between pastoring as a job and one's commitment to God.  God comes first, yes, but the church is not God.  Your family will normally come before your job as pastor of the church.

I say normally because there are times when God calls a person to special sacrifice and mission that involve his or her family as well.  I say normally because there will be times when pastoring takes precedence over a son or daughter's ball game.

However, this should more be the exception rather than the rule.  A lot of pastors are type A personalities (then again, some are lazy bums too).  It would be easy for such a person to use "the mission" as an excuse to be a miserable husband and father/wife and mother.  I'm not buying it.  Most of the time, you're in the wrong. God first, family second, job third--and most of the time the church is the job.

2. Accordingly, ministers need to set boundaries and if s/he can't, the church should do it for him or her.  If s/he is in a parsonage, the church needs to respect that this house is a home the vast majority of the time.  The minister needs to take a day off each week and be pretty rigid about it, not in a selfish or in your face way, but as an important personal discipline.

3. Finally there is the matter of vocation.  A minister should have a sense of his/her place within God's mission.  Each individual is both infinitely significant and insignificant.  Ministers are infinitely significant because you are ambassadors of God and his Christ.  Ministers are infinitely insignificant because "what are mortals that you are mindful of them?"  No amount of superficial success should mislead you into significance.  No amount of superficial failure should mislead you into insignificance.

Worship of Angels in Colossians 2

Trying to pick back up writing the devotional I'm writing on Ephesians and Colossians.
____________
Mention of the “worship of angels” (2:18) has led many interpreters of Colossians to assume that the religious movement in question involved worshipping angels. If so, it would be a “syncretistic” or mixed form of Judaism, since Jews did not believe in worshipping anything but God. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls have suggested another possibility, namely, that this Jewish movement thought their worship participated in the worship that angels did in heaven. It would thus be a form of mystical Judaism that aimed at religious experiences such as the one Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. Some have even wondered if the physical disciplines of 2:23 hint of food restrictions meant to induce such experiences, although perhaps Old Testament food laws are in mind.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nice Piece on Paul in CT

Here's the link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/july/paulwethink.html

Again, I want to point out that my views on Paul in general (although not always on specifics) are very much those of Pauline experts in general.  If at times I seem to be controversial on some things, this is usually more because of the gap between scholar and pew than because of any real radicalness to my thoughts.  In the words of Jack Handy, "Sometimes I think the experts really are experts."

This leads to some interesting rabbit trails in my mind.  I affirm in general the political structure of my denomination, where at district and general conference, half the vote is lay and half the vote is ministerial.  But of course a lay person is not likely to be knowledgeable about theology or the original meaning of the Bible and in my denomination, ministers are generally only a little further along.

I can justify this structure in two ways, where doctrine and ethics are set by those who are not studied in these things.  First, doctrine and ethics are lived out in community, and these individuals represent the community.  Secondly, the Spirit is not limited by knowledge.  It is more important that a church have the heart of God than full comprehension.

Still, a denomination would be wise to bring in its scholars on important matters of doctrine or ethics.  True, scholars can disagree with each other.  They can in fact be skewed in their expertise and myopic, since a certain personality often goes on to be a scholar.  Yet if you ask who is more likely to have it right, surely the collective voice of a denomination's scholars are far more likely to sense the current lay of the land.

Passing of John Stott

The blogosphere was full of tributes yesterday to John Stott, who passed away at 90.  I post this here in case some of you haven't heard.  My epitaph--"He gave evangelicals a good name."  He was missional before the word was invented.  He was a thinker who was informed and committed to truth however it came.  He was a preacher of excellence.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

OT Genres and Scripture

Here are some of the final vidcasts from the Hebrew for Ministry class, if you're interested:

OT Genres and Scripture
Isaiah 61:1

Top Ten Things I Like about the Wesleyan Church

I know I said I'd probably post these sorts of things on Facebook, but because I'm busy vacationing (and working on vacation ;-) this quick post came to mind.  I will not be posting a follow-up on the top ten things that frustrate me ;-)  These are not in any particular order.

  1. Joanne Lyon - here's a leader that understands the mission of the church and is a good lateral thinker (as opposed to letting procedure and structure trump objectives and purpose)
  2. Empowerment of the laity (in our decisions, an equal number of lay and ministerial represent the church; we have a small top -- a nice mid-point between a powerful hierarchy and completely local power)
  3. Balance in worship (you can do it late 1900s, you can do it 21st century, you can do it liturgical)
  4. Not ideologically rigid (on the things that are outside the creeds - a lot of freedom when it comes to things like baptism and communion)
  5. Women in ministry, Empowerment of minorities (we are reclaiming our heritage as one of the first churches to ordain women, we have an incredibly strong Hispanic church network and are expanding in these areas--we're doing it with the right heart rather than with bullying)
  6. Arminian - the only coherent version of Christianity ;-)
  7. Innovative - we have a host of pastors and educators that make me smile all the time with their creativity
  8. Lets its scholars be scholars - As long as your heart is in the right place, the WC pretty much lets its experts do their thing without the Salem Witch Trials of other churches
  9. Crazy Church Planters - the fever to start new churches is going gang-busters right now
  10. Headed in the right direction - Let's face it, a lot of the last century we were in the Dark Ages as a denomination, full of legalism, a vastly uneducated denomination with almost no competent biblical experts, theologians, worship experts, etc (in the 80s when I was at seminary, it seemed like half the Wesleyans there were thinking of jumping ship), we sat on our hands during civil rights and then pursued some of the more shallow versions of the church growth movement in the decades that followed.  Now we are missional, have started a seminary, and are finding lots and lots of ministers from other denominations come our way because our spirit is attractive.  No promise for the future, but right now it's looking good.

Did you know? (Hebrews 1:3 and Wisdom 7:26)

I want to move on from the debt conversation, despite Obama and Boehner tonight.  Where it stops, nobody knows.

Did you know that when Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ is a "reflection of his glory, an impression of his substance," it likely alludes to Wisdom 7:26, which says that wisdom is a "reflection of eternal light... an image of his goodness"?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Family Reunions

I've gone from my Dad's family reunion yesterday to Angie's Dad's family reunion today and this week.  I decided to share a little this morning about witnesses to those who come behind us, drawing focally on Hebrews 11 (surprise).  Have you ever looked at the families of the Bible?  Some very interesting stories!  We go from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Jacob's 12 sons and 1 daughter (that we hear about).  We wonder about Deborah and Huldah's husband and marvel at the fighting between David's sons.

If you look at the genealogy of Matthew 1 or the ancestral examples of Hebrews, there are good and bad examples but the goal is clear--to leave a good heritage to those who come after us.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Angry Democrats

This link is just as angering to me as any Tea Party article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43851666/ns/politics-capitol_hill/

You can bang your head against a wall until you knock yourself out but the wall doesn't care (this is true of any time, when any side on any position wants to try to force their position on others who have the power to resist).  It all comes down to the immeasurable wisdom of Captain Jack Sparrow: "There are two things in life: what a man can do and what a man can't do."

There you have it.  The Tea Party Republicans cannot pass a balanced budget amendment.  They will not pass the Ryan plan.  The Democrats do not have the House and can say "should, should, should" till they lose their voices.  It is what it is.  It doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong.  It's what you can actually do and what you can't do.  This is why I like Obama--he gets what he can and then compromises on what he can't.  This is the sign of a wise leader--not the imbecilic Mr. Smith goes to Washington--a case study in stalemate, failure, and leadership stupidity.

When it gets to this point, "principled" people are some of the stupidest people in the world.  Next step, they start blowing themselves up in marketplaces.

Jesus Tradition 4: The Gospel of John

This is the last in a series I've done explaining the basic issues and majority positions of biblical experts on how traditions about Jesus more or less seem to have come together into the canonical texts.  The previous posts were:

1. Jesus Tradition in Paul
2. Mark Came First
3. Common Sayings in Matthew and Luke

Now the final one.

It will probably come as a surprise to just about everyone reading this post that I actually think that the foundational layer of John is the only one of the four gospels likely to go back to someone who actually knew Jesus.  Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses, and while I have a pet hypothesis that a core of the translated sayings behind Matthew goes back to Matthew, the strong majority of experts on Matthew think that the editor who put it into its current form was a Greek speaking Jew rather than the disciple himself.

By contrast, John 21:24 says that the "beloved disciple" is "the one witnessing concerning these things and the one who wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true."  Now the Gospel of John never actually tells us who this beloved disciple was.  Tradition says it was John the son of Zebedee, but Dionysius of Alexandria in the 3rd century (and others) indicated there were two Johns at this time.  Interestingly, one was called John "the elder."  "The elder" is the way the author of 2 and 3 John self-identifies, and they clearly have much in common with 1 John and the Gospel of John stylistically and theologically.

Dionysius says that we basically should choose between the two Johns as authors of the Gospel of John and Revelation respectively.  He thus anticipated 1700 years ago the current consensus today among the experts, namely, that the author of John and the author of Revelation are not likely to have been the same person.  Dionysius says we have John the son of Zebedee and John the elder.  One wrote John.  One wrote Revelation.  You pick.

It thus seems to me that it is quite possible that the "beloved disciple" was not one of the Twelve but the one we call John the elder.  Martin Hengel wondered if he was a follower of Jesus not so much in Galilee as in the area of Jerusalem.  If so, it might explain the Gospel of John's preoccupation with Jesus' trips to Judea as well as its curiously different flavor with regard to Jesus' ministry in Galilee.

And let's be very up front about how different the style and presentation of John is.  Mark 4:34 indicates that Jesus' teaching was permeated with parables.  John doesn't have even one.  One of the key features of Jesus' ministry was exorcism.  John doesn't have even one.  The cornerstone of Jesus' preaching was the kingdom of God and Jesus was very vague, even secretive about his role in it.  Jesus' role in "eternal life" and the nature of his identity permeates John.

Of course as Christians we believe in John's characterizations of Jesus and John's understanding of Jesus' role in eternal life.  But it is hard not to conclude that we are getting much more of an interpreted and paraphrased Jesus--The Message version, if you would--than what we would see on a video.  The Gospel of John moves some things around and coordinates events with pithy "I am" statements to bring out who Jesus is.

One of the most famous "move arounds" is bringing the money changer event into the first year of Jesus' ministry rather than the final week.  Sure, it could have happened twice, but you really won't hear many experts suggest something like that.  After painstaking examination of how the gospels have edited material, this sort of thing seems pretty typical.  Also, there's really no reason to worry about it.  Somehow the people arguing 100 years ago got fixated on historicity rather than on whether the message was true (that includes both sides--modernists and fundamentalists).

So I personally have not found any good reason not to think that the foundational source/layer behind John is an eyewitness/follower of Jesus called the "beloved disciple."  However, notice how John 21:24 put things--"he is the one... his witness is true."  This sounds like someone writing about what the beloved disciple wrote and taught rather than the beloved disciple himself.

There is thus good reason to think that the Gospel of John has layers.  Hard of course to determine exactly what those layers are, but there are hints of them.  For example, if you look at John 2:11, turning water into wine is the first sign Jesus does.  Then in John 4:54 Jesus heals a man's son, the second sign.  What is interesting, though, is that John 2:23 implies that Jesus did a lot of signs in between.

Now there are no doubt many ways to explain this seeming curiosity, that Jesus does signs in between his first and second sign.  But the person interested in truth is not oriented around explaining things away but with finding the most likely explanation.  At least at first glance, it seems that we have a hint here of layers in John, a shadow of earlier and later material.  So perhaps one source had 7 signs Jesus did.  The other might have mentioned in the normal course of things that Jesus did many signs.

Again, John is not my area of expertise so I offer these sorts of things as illustrations of the kinds of issues that exist with regard to the Jesus tradition in John, not as final answers. Like the other gospels, those who were involved in John's creation wrote the story in such a way as to put things in their environment into perspective. For example, John may give hints of conflicts between followers of Jesus and followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus (cf. Acts 19).  The Gospel of John, while it clearly respects John the Baptist, consistently downplays his role in things.

1 John also indicates that John's community was wrestling with incipient Gnosticism at the end of the first century, Docetism in particular.  Docetism was the belief that Jesus only appeared to become human.  So it is no surprise that John 1:14 emphasizes the word becoming flesh and that John 6:54 emphasizes eating Jesus' flesh.  1 John 2:19 tells of a split in John's community, where the Docetists separated.  Yet John 10:16 may also hint that John's community stood somewhat apart from other, more mainstream Christians as well (e.g., Pauline Christians or Jamesian Christians).

Much of the above is educated guessing.  I didn't come up with it and who knows how much of it is right.  What does seem to be the case is that the Gospel of John is far more symbolic in its presentation of Jesus than the other gospels.  It's teaching seems to have as much to say about the issues its community was wrestling with as about Jesus from the past.  As Christians, we believe it's conclusions on those issues were correct! But you can see it can be tricky in John to distinguish the translation of Jesus from Jesus as he would have been on videotape.

Nevertheless, while many completely discarded John as a window on history in the late 1800s, the mid-1900s saw individuals like C. H. Dodd re-arguing that John cannot be discarded historically.  For example, several features of its passion story may provide significant historical insight into Jesus' final hours (e.g., his somewhat private meeting with Annas).

The key, I believe, is to realize that it is wrong to assume that the primary focus of an eyewitness like the beloved disciple would be on historical precision.  This, I do not believe, is how ancient interpreters and story tellers were wired.  They were wired to tell the stories of things in such a way as to make a point--for example, to share who they were or to embody values.  That does not mean that they did not maintain oral kernels intact.  It just means that they felt much more freedom than many of us would to vary the details and to make allegories out of things.

Here endeth the series.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Recommendation to the House ;-)

Time to cut bait.  Everybody has all their talking points for the next election.  Everyone knows what will fly and what won't.  So here's the deal.

1. Take the proposal of the "gang of six" in the Senate, as bi-partisan as it's going to get.
2. Take out the revenue parts that won't pass the House.
3. Pass it and raise the debt ceiling.

Next...

Mourning the Space Shuttle

If we have not made some concrete plan for moving forward in space by the end of his term, I will be very annoyed with President Obama.  There, for those of you who have wanted me to say something negative about his presidency, I've said it.  He has a year and a half.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Jesus Tradition 3: Common Sayings in Matthew and Luke

If Mark is a primary source behind Matthew and Luke, then we still have to explain where the material common to Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark comes from.  For some, it is just easier to go with Matthew as the first gospel.  Then Mark and Luke can simply be an abbreviation and rearrangement of Matthew respectively.  But if the last post about Markan priority holds true, then we will need an alternative explanation.

The "common oral tradition" explanation does not seem, at least to me in my limited exploration, to be able to account for the amount of this common material (remembering that Jesus did a lot more than what is recorded) and the extent of its verbal similarity (although my sense is that this material is less close verbally than the Markan material).  In any case, by far the majority position is that some written source explains this material.

There are two main alternatives.  The one sees Luke drawing directly on Matthew and Mark.  The other sees both Matthew and Luke drawing on some common source or sources, primarily a collection of Jesus' sayings. Gospel experts are less united on this one.  Probably a majority still go with a common source, a collection of Jesus' sayings.  It's usually called "Q," which is short for Quelle, "source."

Renewed studies of oral tradition do complicate these hypotheses.  Despite any written sources that may have been in play, Matthew or Luke's memory of sayings and events was probably also a factor in how things ended up like they did. Also, even if Luke had a written source of Jesus' sayings in front of him, he might also have a copy of Matthew in front of him or have heard Matthew at some time.  If we knew the complete story, I imagine it would be pretty complicated.

So here is my current sense of things as someone who has done some study but who is not an authority on them per se.  Yes, there are some places where Matthew and Luke agree in wording against Mark, sometimes used to argue that Luke knew Matthew even though he primarily followed Mark.  In the opinion of most, these instances are not significant enough to dislodge Markan priority.  However, some believe they are significant enough to make it unnecessary to hypothesize some sayings source (e.g., Mark Goodacre).  Rather, they suggest that Luke had Matthew in addition to Mark and that Luke's sayings material comes from Matthew rather than some Q.

On the one hand, I am very open to the possibility that Luke knew Matthew.  However, in the end, I am still siding with the majority that the evidence ultimately suggests Luke also had a sayings source that Matthew also used.   I offer a few reasons why I think this majority position--again, a position that has stuck around for well over 100 years--seems more likely.

First, if we look at Matthew and Luke's common material, sometimes Matthew's version seems more original and sometimes Luke's version seems more original.  This speaks to a common source rather than to one of them using the other.  On the one hand, I don't know any voice of any significance that argues that Matthew used Luke.  It can be argued, of course, but look at the way that Luke arguably edits this saying that is also in Matthew:

Matthew 10:28
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul, but rather be afraid of the one able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

Luke 12:4-5
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after these things are not having something further to do.  I will show you whom you should fear.  Be afraid of the one who, after killing, has the authority to cast into Gehenna.

Here, it seems to me, Matthew preserves the more original wording and Luke has expanded on the saying.  The real question is thus whether Luke at some point has a more original version of a saying and Matthew seems more to paraphrase it.  Consider the following possibility:

Matthew 5:3
Blessed [are] the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Luke 6:20
Blessed [are] the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God.

It is hard to argue for which might be original.  The poor are a major theme of Luke, so one might argue that it  might despiritualize Matthew's version.  On the other hand "kingdom of heaven" is a clear redactional tendency of Matthew, something he might modify from Mark.  In the end, I think it slightly more likely that Matthew would spiritualize the saying than that Luke would despiritualize it.

But the strongest reason why I think Luke does not get his common sayings material from Matthew is the fact that I can't think of any reason he would scatter Matthew's teaching.  Take Luke 16:14-18.  This material appears in three different places in Matthew.  Matthew's presentation of it is magisterial and great pedagogically, appearing in coherent sermon contexts.  In Luke, though, even the NIV puts as the heading for these verses, "Additional Teachings."  They just seem to come out of nowhere and to be grouped somewhat randomly.

In short, it makes sense to me that Matthew might take a sayings source and organize some of its material together.  It makes no sense to me that Luke would look at Matthew and partition its sayings material.  For this reason, a majority still leans toward the over a century old suggestion that both Matthew and Luke drew on a common source, consisting mostly of Jesus' sayings, for this common material, called "Q" for short.  Luke's order for this material is often taken to be closer to how it might have actually appeared in this source than Matthew's order.

Now if you follow this line of thinking, it leads to some thoughts that might feel a little uncomfortable.  I am not going to die for any of them but you can see that they are not simply some whacko liberal clap trap.  They are the result of experts doing detailed analyses and following the evidence to what seems to be its most logical conclusions.  These are not beyond question for certain, but they're also certainly not some attempt to undermine the Bible.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount would turn out to be in part a collection of Jesus material, with Luke's Sermon on the Plain as its core.  Matthew as we now have it would probably not turn out to be in the same form as the gospel the second century Papias mentions--a collection of Jesus' sayings in Aramaic.  Although it is not a popular suggestion these days, I myself like to think that what we call "Q" was actually an expanded Greek version of an Aramaic collection of Jesus' sayings that the disciple Matthew made.  I can't prove it, of course.

The Gospel of Matthew would thus be named after one of its primary sources.  We do have examples of these sorts of sayings collections.  The Gospel of Thomas is one, as are 4QTestimonia and 4QFlorilegium from Qumran (although they're a little different from what we are picturing here).

In any case, this is some of the stuff that gospel experts assume and some of the stuff they debate...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hebrew for Ministry

If you're having trouble sleeping, here are three relatively short vidcasts on how to use tools to understand what's going on in the Hebrew text without really knowing Hebrew.

Deuteronomy 10:14: http://connect8.indwes.edu/p80574607/

Deuteronomy 10:15-16: http://connect8.indwes.edu/p23197869/

Deuteronomy 10:17-19: http://connect8.indwes.edu/p79844534/

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jesus Tradition 2: Mark came first

Yesterday I started a brief series to fill in some of the common understanding of gospel experts that may or may not have trickled down to pulpit and pew.  If we are to do an archaeological dig on Jesus Tradition, the earliest material at our disposal is found in Paul.  That does not, of course, mean that later material might not give as good or even a better window on Jesus.  But earlier is prima facie more likely to give us that window.

Today I want to speak of another majority opinion of gospel experts--one that is now going on 150 years old.  If you step back and think about it, it is rather impressive for a group of experts to agree solidly on something like this for such a long period of time.  I am referring here to "Markan priority," the conclusion first reached in the late 1800s that the Gospel of Mark is most likely the earliest of the gospels and that Matthew and Luke almost certainly used it (or some edition of it) as a primary source.

The reason for this conclusion goes something like this:
1. All about about 31 verses of Mark can be found in almost identical form in Matthew and Luke.  This begins to suggest that Mark was either a source for the other two or that he summarized by drawing from both of them.  Very rarely do Matthew and Luke have the same wording in disagreement with Mark.  Far more often, either Matthew and Mark agree in wording and Luke is different or Mark and Luke agree and Matthew is different.

2. Important to recognize is that the wording is too similar to be a matter of oral tradition.  The overwhelming majority of experts consider it definitive that these three gospels stand in some literary relationship to each other.

Consider the following:

Mark
And after six days takes Jesus the Peter and the James and the John and brings them up into a hill high privately alone (9:2)...

And a cloud came overshadowing them and a voice came from the cloud, "This is my Son, my beloved [Son], hear him" (9:7)

Matthew
And after six days takes Jesus the Peter and James and John the brother of him and brings them up into a hill high privately (17:1)...

... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold a voice from the cloud speaking, "This is my Son, my beloved [Son], in whom I am pleased, hear him" (17:5).

Luke
About eight days taking Peter and John and James he went up into the mountain to pray... (9:28)

A cloud came and was overshadowing them... and a voice came from the cloud saying, "This is my Son, who has been chosen, him hear" (9:34-35).

As is often the case, the verbal similarity between Matthew and Mark is very close, with only some minor variations.  Notice, however, that in the case of the second verse, Mark and Luke are closer at some points.  The virtually unanimous sense of those who have gone through all three gospels with a fine tooth comb of comparison is thus that these three gospels stand in some literary relationship to each other.

As a side note, God could have dictated such strong similarities in the midst of minor differences, but why would he?  The minor variations are meaningless--they would serve no purpose for God to dictate in such a way. And these gospels never claim to be dictated word for word from God and in fact Luke tells us he used sources.  It is overwhelmingly likely that inspiration worked through a normal process of using sources and writing in a way that worked together and through the minds and categories of the authors.

A second realization is that Mark was almost certainly not an eyewitness to anything but perhaps some of the final events in Jerusalem.  The earliest witness to him points this out (Papias).  He was not a disciple.  People often get this confused.  Neither Mark nor Luke were eyewitnesses, and Luke may not even have been a Jew.

3. The order of the gospels is also quite interesting.  Matthew and Mark are very close.  Luke often is the same but also is different in order at some points.  This is quite remarkable when we consider that Jesus did many things that aren't in the gospels.  That Matthew-Mark-and Luke would narrate the same basic events in the same basic order also points to a literary relationship.

4. Among these three, Mark's grammar is the least polished (the most Semitic, in my opinion) and least theologically developed.  This points to Mark being the first rather than the last.  For example, in Mark Jesus is simply baptized by John.  By contrast, Matthew deems it important to clarify that Jesus does not need to be baptized by John--he is doing it because it is part of the plan.  Mark has Aramaic words like "Talitha cumi," "Ephatha," and "Abba" that Matthew and Luke do not have.  Mark 1 starts numerous verses with "and," "and," "and," "and," a fact that most translations have altered because it is bad English style.  That same material is somewhat spread out and smoothed out in Matthew.

Here's just a small example of the kind of dynamics we find repeatedly:

Mark
"And whenever you see the abomination of desolation standing where it is not supposed to (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the hills" (13:14).

Matthew
"Therefore, whenever you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken through Daniel the prophet, having stood in the Holy Place (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the hill" (24:15-16).

This is an even better illustration of how close the Synoptic gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke) can be at times.  Notice that they even have a parenthetical comment in common ("let the reader understand").  If we ask which is more likely to be original, we see that one of Matthew's characteristic themes--the fulfillment of Scripture.  In general, things tend to expand rather than condense, although this is not an absolute.  Mark's style is a little rougher, though not much.

Let's then look at Luke:

"And whenever you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then let those in Judea flee to the hills.

I have put the verbal similarities in bold.  You can once again see a word-for-word layer in Luke, but it has also tweaked the prophecy to make it correspond more closely to the way the prophesy actually played out.  Rather that the temple being desecrated by some object placed in it (as in Daniel), the temple was destroyed by the Roman armies.  This modification Luke has made makes it virtually certain that Luke-Acts were both written after the temple's destruction in AD70.  Notice also that Luke follows Mark's "and" rather than Matthew's "therefore."


Conclusion
What we find is that the assumption that Mark was first and that Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a primary source has incredible explanatory power.  Time after time, this assumption yields a plausible explanation for the various similarities and modifications we find between the Synoptics.

Two closing examples:

1. In Matthew we are a little puzzled by the way Jesus curses a fig tree that immediately withers (21:18-22).  Matthew uses the event as an illustration of what a person with faith can do.

Mark has the story different.  In Mark, Jesus does not curse the fig tree after he has overturned the tables in the temple but right before.  Then the next day they find that the tree has withered.  This is a "sandwich."  Mark sandwiches Jesus' action in the temple with the incident with the fig tree.

If we assume Markan priority, we can see what happened.  In the original version of Mark, the fig tree story was very relevant to the passion story.  Matthew's modifications, by contrast, have left us with a story that seems oddly placed.  Luke then doesn't copy the story at all.

2. In Luke 23:25, Pilate has been talking to the chief priests, the rulers, and the people (23:13).  In 23:25-26, it seems like Pilate delivers Jesus over to these people.  When we look at Matthew 27:27-31 and Mark 15:16-20, we realize that Luke has abbreviated the account.  He has omitted material in which soldiers take Jesus away and beat him.

So, like any hypothesis, the repeated and detailed comparison of the Synoptics has resulted in a very strong consensus among gospel experts that Mark was very likely the first of the gospels and that Matthew and Luke used it as the starting point for their own gospels.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jesus Tradition 1: Paul's Writings

Since I've been looking at the gospels recently, I thought I would do a brief series showing some dynamics of the gospels that are common knowledge, yet often unknown.  I'm calling this brief series, "Jesus Tradition."

For example, there is often an assumption that the gospels are earlier writings than the rest of the New Testament, because they are about Jesus, and he was before Paul.  This reflects a fascinating dynamic where the content of a story is confused with when it was written, or the main character of a story is confused with its author.  In actuality, all or almost all the gospels were written after Paul's lifetime.  There are some who date Mark to the early 60s (not me), which in that case would leave a small overlap there.  Even then, however, it would be after most of Paul's writings were written.

Paul thus gives us the earliest witness to Jesus.  Paul does not give us much Jesus tradition, but he arguably does give us some (I'm using "Jesus tradition" in a very broad sense here, including storied material).  One such example is what he says about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.  From the standpoint of an objective historian, this is incredibly important because it makes it very hard, in my opinion, to argue that Jesus did not have a final meal with his disciples in which he likened the wine of the meal with the blood he was about to shed.

What is revealing, then, is to compare Paul's version of this last supper with the gospels:

Paul (1 Cor. 10:23-26)    
bread
cup after supper that inaugurates the new covenant

Mark (14:22-24)
bread
cup, blood of the covenant


Matthew (26:26-28)
bread
cup, blood of the covenant


Luke (22:17-20)
cup
bread
cup after supper that inaugurates the new covenant

The second part of Luke's version is very similar to Paul's and perhaps reflects the influence of Paul on the way it tells the story.  Nevertheless, Mark is very similar as well, and Matthew follows Mark very closely as it usually does.

Luke for some reason has moved the "I will not drink the fruit of the vine again" to an additional cup drinking during the dinner (in fact, some early manuscripts have deleted the second cup drinking after supper to simplify the story).  It is not likely that Jesus said this both during and after dinner but rather that we have here varying traditions, one of which has him say it before dinner and the other after.  This is not important, except that it is one of thousands of illustrations that the gospels are not precise historical accounts at every point.

John does not record these words at all.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gospel in the Synoptics

I've been delighted to be given some small writing assignments on the word gospel these last two years.  I finished a second one yesterday.  It's been fun to do a little official work on the gospels since I'm a "Hebrews" person as a scholar and have been a "Paul" person as a teacher.  My most recent assignment was on the gospel as good news in the NT Gospels, a delightful opportunity.

In a nutshell, here is the gist of my conclusions:

  • A couple of uses of the word gospel in Greco-Roman culture are significant.  There is of course the announcement of a victory in battle, a "gospel" from the war front, usually at the hands of a messenger.  Even more significant is the Priene inscription, which speaks of the "gospels" relating to the birth of Augustus, the birth of a god and "gospels" concerning the good he would bring.
  • The Septuagint uses the word gospels also in relation to relating victory in battle (2 Sam.), but the most significant uses are in the later part of Isaiah (e.g., 52:7; 61:1).
  • Mark makes Jesus' good news proclamation of the kingdom the centerpiece of his message (1:14-15).  Mark implies that this message significantly involves Jesus himself (e.g., 1:1), but we get the impression that Jesus himself focused much more on the kingdom as God's reign.
  • Matthew does not add much to Mark, but includes proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of heaven as the centerpiece of Jesus' message.
  • Luke highlights Isaiah 61:1 in its presentation of the inauguration of Jesus' ministry, making the good news about the reincorporation of the poor and displaced of Israel the centerpiece of the earthly good news.
  • John does not use the word gospel, one of many instances of it following its own path.  John is like the Message translation of Jesus--the most directly communicative about who Jesus is, but probably the least literal in its presentation of Jesus. 
  • If we then try to look behind the specific emphases of the gospels to what Jesus and John the Baptist might look like on video, I personally think that the language of gospel does indeed go back to Jesus' use of Isaiah 52:7 in his ministry.  I believe with N. T. Wright that the context of John the Baptist is the restoration of Israel and its metaphorical return from exile.  Paul and other Greek-speakers may have started using the noun "gospel," but I suspect their use derived from Jesus' use of the Aramaic of Isaiah 52:7.
I'm interested to see what the editors think of my entry...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter Childhood

My step-daughters were 5 and 6 years old in 1998 when Harry Potter first came out, the year I got married.  They are now 18 and 19.  In other words, the Harry Potter phenomenon coincided exactly with their childhood, from the point when they started reading to the point when they started college.

They truly grew-up with Harry Potter--I mean, the character.  Their progress through school paralleled Harry's progress through Hogwarts.  They read all the books--multiple times.  We can quote all the movies.  Everyone but me has a wand ;-)

Needless to say, we were at the midnight showing of the final installment of the series.  And when it was over, there was this strange sense they had, that childhood was now over.  They were now adults.

What is there, now, to look forward to?  Life as we knew it is now over... ;-)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Quote of the Morning (Jim Cramer)

Question: Michele Bachmann has said that we won't default on our debt if we do not raise the debt ceiling.

Cramer, in guarded tones: I work with the stock market and used to sell bonds.  The Chinese aren't listening to Michele Bachmann.  They're listening to their bankers, who will tell them to sell off...

Moody's once again reinforced yesterday that you will not get a good rate on your next car, house loan if both sides do not resolve this issue in time.  Yes, the person in America who has been most responsible in living within their means will suffer credit-wise if the US's rating drops.  Moody is not saying this because of the size of our debt, although that certainly is bad.  It is the prospect that the debt ceiling might not be raised.

I don't know who you're listening to, but if they question the above, they are economically incompetent on the highest level and should not be voted for or listened to.  They are dangerous!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I like the gospels...

I've been working on the nuances of the word "gospel" in Matthew, Mark, and Luke recently, and I was just thinking today how much I like the gospels.  I've taught Acts through Jude in my teaching life and only presented sparingly on the Gospels.  I hope maybe Wesleyan Publishing House will let me follow up my three popular level Paul books with a couple books on Jesus and the gospels.

There is so much depth (of course, it could be in scholars' heads rather than real ;-) when you dig down and begin comparing gospels.  It also can get very sensitive since most simply take the gospels as video recordings.  But I find it fascinating to see how each gospel writer seems to have tweaked sayings and the presentation of events and their order to bring out particular themes.  And I find it invigorating to see as it were layers of the early church from Jesus to John, somewhat like an archaeological dig.

Again, speculation on reconstructions require great caution, since it is so easy to let one's imagination go wild.  But I think a popular Christian audience (not to mention pastors) would find a journey through some of this territory fascinating, indeed that it would make Jesus and the gospels come alive in 3 dimensions.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Ceiling not about new debt...

It's frustrating to me that, apparently, 70% of Americans don't understand what the debt ceiling is about.  It is emphatically NOT about allowing ourselves to go into further debt.  It is not about spending more.  It is about allowing us to spend the money we have already "spent."  In other words, it's a question of whether or not we are going to pay what we already owe.  Those who oppose raising the debt ceiling are saying they want us not to send out the social security checks in August or pay our soldiers in August or pay the banks we've borrowed from in August.

The amount of debt America owes will not change one way or another either way.  Republicans and Democrats are trying to leverage this issue because everyone knows it has to happen.

Was Jesus Apocalyptic? What do "most" scholars think?

I'm still trying to finish an article for a dictionary.  I recently found myself writing this statement, "The Gospel of Mark places this language[kingdom of God] in an apocalyptic context, which most again would argue likely goes back to the historical Jesus."

Do "most" really think that?  Who do we count?  Certainly most who consult this particular dictionary do.  I think any good, fair minded historical Jesus scholar does.  I find Crossan and Borg bad historical Jesus scholars on this score.  But "most"?  Certainly more books have come out for this position in the last few years than for the other side.  What do you think?  Do I need to reword?

P.S. Does this post qualify me as a biblioblogger? ;-)

Celebrating the King James Version

Part 1
It's 2011, and some time this year I should post something to celebrate the fact that in 1611, the King James Version was published.  I love the magnificent KJV the way I like Shakespeare, and accordingly, believe it is generally an obstacle to the church's mission in the world.  It points toward a congregation that is more inwardly than outwardly focused.  It should thus be used sparingly at best within public worship today, especially when there are likely to be visitors among you (it's kind of like tongues in that regard--an obstacle to unbelievers in your midst).  I'm sure there are exceptions, but it's hard to think of them.

Small groups that aim at discipleship can certainly use it.  No problem there because the focus is more on personal growth rather than mission.  But even if most of the people in your church use it, the ideal would be to wean them off it in public worship in a gentle and slow manner, because churches are meant to impact their surrounding context, and the KJV is a major linguistic obstacle in our current day and age.  Move them to the NKJV (although don't cause a split over it--it's not worth that).

I know I must sound from time to time like I'm flippant about things that are very sensitive to others, but to have perspective on the ease with which I say such things you have to know that most of these things did not come easy to me at first.  I felt the horror with which some might read some of my comments the same as you might--it's just that I did it 25 years ago.  I preached and read from the KJV in college.  I reacted with the same protest as others when a revivalist once scolded a camp meeting for putting an obstacle to faith in front of their children with the KJV.  It's time that allows me to make such bald statements.

Most people don't understand how language works (I'm sure I don't either).  Words change meanings over time.  Old meanings fall out of the dictionary.  New meanings enter.  The KJV was never treated as a linguistic fossil to be maintained until the last century or so.  It was regularly updated until the late 1700s (the version you buy in the bookstore is not the 1611 version but a version that has already been updated about 5 times).  Those who think they understand the language of the KJV just fine probably don't--they don't know that the word that looks familiar actually does not mean the same thing that it did two hundred years ago when the KJV tradition fossilized (e.g., intercourse, conversation).

The KJV is thus a magnificent piece of art today.  It is not, however, a magnificent piece of communication to anyone but those who have been schooled in it like learning a different language.  It is thus a very bad tool to use with a view to the church's mission in the world.

Interestingly, the KJV was a compromise translation.  The Puritans used the Geneva Bible at the time, with its Calvinist study notes.  King James didn't like it because some of those notes were perceived to be anti-monarchy.  Meanwhile the Puritans eschewed the Bishop's Bible, believing that it did not have a strong enough reverence for the authority of the text.  The KJV was thus a compromise--a fairly "literal" translation using what was already slightly archaic language with no study notes.

It took about a century to catch on and I have heard some argue that that the Puritans who first came to America came as much with the Geneva Bible still as the KJV.

Part 2
There are other things I like about the KJV--things that are both strengths and weaknesses.  For example, it is a formal equivalence translation.  I personally like those sorts of translations (NASB, RSV, NKJV, ESV) because they come closest to giving you a window into the original wording and sentence structure.

It's important to recognize, however, that while this fact is nice for people who want to study the text in detail, such an orientation actually works against them being good translations as such.  A good translation renders the thought of the original sentence in fluid English.  If you have ever learned another language--especially one that is a little further removed from English than Spanish--then you know that different languages don't put words in the same order or in the same way.  The American Standard Version of the late 1800s was very "wooden" in trying to follow the original Greek and Hebrew--and it is one of the worst translations of all time.

Another strength of the KJV is that it follows the catholic text of the church of the ages.  No, I'm not being mischievous and pointing out that the original KJV included the Apocrypha (although it did ;-).  I mean that the text of the KJV basically reflects the words of the New Testament as Christians had read it for 1200 years.

Again, it is only because I have some 25 years of study behind me that I say with relative ease that this precise wording of the original texts (not talking about the way they are translated now but in what the precise words were in the original that you are translating in the first place), while completely appropriate for Christians to use in worship if they wish, is not at all likely to reflect the precise wording of the original text of the Bible at a few points.  This may require a little more explanation.  We do not have the original copy of any book of the Bible, only copies of copies of copies.  There are variations between what these copies say at various points, and one branch of biblical studies is dedicated to working through the variations to try to decide what the very first copy of, say, Mark actually said in Greek.

We are not talking about a lot of passages, only a few.  No one should get worried.  In fact, if you're that focused around the details of the biblical text, your faith is probably out of focus.  No one can lay any foundation but that which is laid: Jesus Christ... not the Bible!

But you should know as a preacher that it is very unlikely, for example, that Mark 16:8-20 was part of the original copy of Mark.  There's nothing incorrect in those verses.  I actually don't mind a person preaching from these verses because the church has preached from them for 1600 years.  But you should know that the overwhelming majority of those who know the issues involved do not believe they are original.

When you are first encountering these issues, they can seem significant, but no doctrine is lost with this small handful of variations.  And, if you know my theology, a lot of our theology has come as much from Christians reflecting on the text as on the original text itself anyway, and there's nothing wrong with that.  We have often been too focused on "getting back" rather than on how God brought us forward.

An educated pastor should know the key verses of this discussion.  The story of the woman caught in adultery could be historical, but it was not likely in the earliest versions of John.  1 John 5:7 almost certainly did not exist in its KJV form until the Latin translations of the 400s.  Acts 8:37 is not there because the verse divisions come from the 1550 Greek New Testament of Stephanus.  It's a great verse... just not at all likely original.  They wisely did not change the versification when printing modern versions so the verse now does not appear at all in modern translations.  There are others but these are the best known.

Can a case be made for the originality of these sorts of verses?  Sure. But know thyself.  Those who argue against such things are almost certainly oriented around whether it is possible to maintain what I grew up believing rather than around what is the most probable truth.  There is no question, however, that those who are willing to come to either conclusion have overwhelmingly come down on the side of almost all modern translations (as far as I know, the Holman Standard is the only exception outside the KJV tradition).

This may seem like a strange celebration of the KJV.  But we cannot celebrate it properly until we understand it.  It was a magnificent work of art and millions have heard and experienced God through it.  There's no other translation I'd rather hear the Christmas story from.  For many, it is still the best version for them to have their devotions in or for their small group to study from.  Long live the King James!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Re-orienting my blogging

I've developed a pattern of trying to post something here at least once a day.  Topics vary from whatever is on my mind--Bible, church, politics (I have a political blog but I haven't used it lately).  Often I have used the blog to help with writing projects.

I think I'm going to try to shift how I function.  I suspect I am friends with most of my church family on Facebook, so I think I will move in the direction of posting some of my more "local" Wesleyan thoughts to Facebook.  So I posted several thoughts there on District Conference last week.

I also want to shift the locus of my writing to Microsoft Word ;-)  So I would more report here on things I'm writing there than use the blog as the locus of my writing.  This seems especially appropriate since in the Fall I will be writing more scholarly material.  I may or may not post every day.

Basically, I used to blog because I was bored intellectually.  At least for the moment, I have so many things to write pouring out my ears I'm going crazy, since the seminary is pouring out my ears, eyes, mouth, and nose as well. ;-)

We'll see what happens.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Passage of Time

I never cease to marvel at the passage of time.  It feels like I am located at a point in time, but is time really anything but the collective change of things?  It seems to me there is no such thing as time.

I don't know the physics.  I know that if I speed up near the speed of light, I slow down in relation to everything else.  But this is just a change in the manner of my changing relative everything else. There is no jumping from one time to another because time is not a place.  If one could move backward in time, it would mean you changing forward as normal relative to everything else "unchanging" itself. You could only "get to the past" by "passing through" each previous moment of change for everything else.

And if you weren't in the vacuum of space, you would alter the "future" of the rest of the world as your molecules moved through space previously occupied by other molecules.  Your moving forward into previously occupied space would displace those molecules, creating an alternative path of change for them going forward.  "Time travel" thus, unless it took place in space never occupied, would inevitably change the "future" irreparably. It would alter the path of changing for any molecules into which one came into contact.

I imagine what I just wrote is gross ignorance.  I just marvel to think of my former self and to know something about my future self.  I will grow old and die--or die early.  I see people I knew in a different form decades ago, and now they are different people.  I am in this room but soon I will be home.  How I got here and how I will get there "in time" I do not know. Each moment, a new me appears and an old me disappears.  Where they all come from and where they all go, I do not know.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Scholarship on the Road...

As usual, I'm on the road trying to finish something due at some point in the past.  Sometimes I feel like the surgeon in the old Michael Keaton Batman movie who tries to put Joker's face back together in some dirty abandoned building: "You see what I have to work with."

So here I am in a hotel in Florida at a conference in between things, trying to do a word study on "to preach the good news" (euangelizomai) in the Septuagint.  I made a PDF of the entry in Hatch and Redpath before leaving (still don't know where to find a good Septuagint concordance on the web).  Now I'm bouncing back and forth between blueletterbible and biblegateway.  I used to have Logos on my laptop but every time you switch computers with IT, you have to reload everything and I haven't got around to it.

Earlier today, I pieced together a Hebrew for ministry assignment using the snippet snapshot tool in Windows to take a picture of an amazon.com preview page of a commentary... I'm not at a library to make a PDF.

So I rejoice in the internet and technology... and remember the good old days when you had a chalkboard and a library?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Casey Anthony, etc...

Rather ticked at the Anthony not-guilty verdict.  Ticked at the prosecutor because it looks like he shot too high.  Involuntary manslaughter seems a whole lot more likely to me than first degree murder.  A selfish, narcissistic, ignorant young girl, sick of being stuck with a child, gets sick and tired of crying, yappity-yap-yap, etc.  So she duck tapes her daughter and accidentally suffocates her--oops.

Ticked at the jury for not going with a lesser verdict.  Good grief.  Let's say she drowned.  Where did the duct tape come from, DNA or no DNA?  Some passer by?  Down grade your verdict for God's sake people.

Then I have this typical cycle of stream of consciousness frustration.  My first thought: man, you should have to graduate from high school or college to be able to be on a jury or vote.  But then again, the educated are no more virtuous than the uneducated--they would inevitably oppress those who couldn't vote.  And who would educate them?  Those with college degrees already have diametrically opposed views on many crucial things.

Nope, it's best that every adult get to vote to make sure that their interests are protected.  And we'll never be able to change the jury system--too hard and there's not enough will.  The only solution is to work to make the individuals of our country more virtuous.  A democracy degenerates into mob rule if those voting are not virtuous.  This is where I believe we are headed--an increasingly narcissistic, self-absorbed populace who only looks out for #1 and calls it justice.

Off to District Conference

One of the things I like about the Wesleyan Church is that educators can remain located in districts others than where they work.  To me, this makes me a kind of representative of the Florida district to Indiana Wesleyan University and now Wesley Seminary there.  I know arguments can be made against it, that my membership should be in the district where I attend church.  Actually, it is even possible to have local church membership where I attend and district membership back in Florida.

In any case, I have never made the transition and remain a member of the Florida district.  So it is with great delight that I head off to District Conference to represent the seminary there this year... and of course see family ;-)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Famous Moral Doubters

This is for a textbox.

___________

Each of the following in one way or another questioned the moral values of his day:

Diogenes the Cynic (4th century BC)
While Diogenes had his own clear sense of right and wrong, his values stood in stark contrast with those of Greek society around him.  He made it a point to scorn social values he considered obstacles to happiness.  According to legend, he once urinated on another person and defecated in the theater. These sorts of antics won him the title, "the dog" (kynē).  The "Cynics" thus trace their origins largely to him, a group that advocated a simple life without possessions and considered most of society's rules unnatural.

Pyrrho the Skeptic (ca. 360-270BC)
Pyrrho is the putative originator of the Skeptics in ancient philosophy.  The fundamental principle of his philosophy was that we cannot know anything for certain.  Equal arguments, he said, can always be made for opposing sides in an argument.  This sort of "non-cognitivism," when applied to ethics, leads to moral skepticism--we cannot know whether moral claims are true or false.

Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Machiavelli probably held more moral values than one might think from most famous work The Prince, dedicated to a Medici prince.  This book is known for the way in which it advocates a political realism that went in the face of the political idealism that preceded him.  In The Prince, Machiavelli suggests that a new prince may have to act immorally, using his power and deception to secure his position.  In other words, "might makes right" and "history is written by the winners," two sayings that do not come from Machiavelli, but aptly summarize some of his advice.

David Hume (1711-76)
Hume largely believed that our passions and emotions were what stood behind our moral statements.  He did not believe that reason had anything to do with our morality, that "facts" and "values" were completely different kinds of things.  As such, he is a significant precursor to what would become "emotivism," the idea that moral statements are really statements of emotion.  "You should not kill me" really means "I don't want you to kill me" or "I fear you killing me."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche was a moral nihilist.  He did not believe that evil truly existed.  It was rather an idea that slaves came up with to keep their masters from exerting over them the power that in reality was truly theirs.  The masses may need some sense of morality, but the "Übermensch," the "super-person," would always create their own right and wrong.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
Although Foucault was notoriously resistant to any label, his sense of morality is largely one that changes over time.  For him, power and knowledge were intimately connected.  The power structures of a particular time and place create what is true for that time and place.  He thus largely played out Nietzsche's perspective in the examination of the history of things like madness, crime/punishment, and sexuality.  One must always remember that his examinations of these shifts itself is in his view an exercise of power rather than a search for what was historically true.

J. L. Mackie (1917-1981)
Mackie is perhaps the most notorious moral skeptic/nihilist of recent times.  He famously stated that "there are no objective values" and thus that ethics is something we invent rather than discover.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Jefferson's Preamble to the D of I

I was reading a little today in Hugh Brogan's The Penguin History of the USA.  I remembered that there was something about July 2 rather than July 4.  The acts of independence were signed on the 2nd.  It was the Declaration of Independence, mostly written by Jefferson, that was adopted on July 4th, with some edits (for example, they took out Jefferson's condemnation of slave trade to appease South Carolina and Georgia).  I guess it always irked John Adams that July 4th ended up the holiday ;-)

I was thinking about the famous preamble: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."  Brogan argues that it is the preamble that made the Declaration stand out and endure as a document of interest.  "Had the Declaration been no more than an opportune and eloquent political manifesto its blemishes, and its occasional character, would have ensured that it was long ago forgotten: it would have diminished beside the enormous fact which it asserted, the independence of America" (175).  Brogan argues that it was the preamble that made it inspire and endure as a document of interest.

It is indeed a great preamble.  We can of course examine it.  But the inspiration for this post was not to critique the preamble.  It was to point out why we could critique it--or any great thinker from the past.

Someone might say, "Who are you to question Thomas Jefferson?" (here meaning anyone, not me in particular).  Someone might say, "Do you think you're as smart as Thomas Jefferson?"  The answer does not have to be yes for us to critique them.

Even if I am an average thinker, there have been many minds as brilliant as Jefferson since (or since any great thinker).  I doubt I come anywhere close to being as smart as Immanuel Kant or Thomas Aquinas or Augustine.  But there have been countless "thoughts" by intelligent men and women that rival theirs.

It is because we today stand on the shoulders of all the thinkers that have gone before us that it becomes possible for us to critique them.  If I critique the brilliant of the past well at any point, I do so because the history of thought did not stop with them...

Judges 1 with my children...

I was an idealist in high school.  Read the book before you watch the movie.  Start the book at the beginning and read through to the end.  Anything worth doing is worth doing right.  Read it in the original language.  Don't use the Cliff Notes.  Pray an hour a day.  Read through the Bible every year (equals about 3-4 chapters a day).

The problem is that I had a very short attention span (it has steadily gotten better as I've gotten older and my metabolism has slowed down).  I wish I could go back in time and share with my younger self the coping strategies I've developed:  Some is better than none.  Even if you only read a page of something a day you'll end up reading a lot over time.  If you fail today, forget it and continue tomorrow.  You don't have to pray or read the Bible for any particular amount of time, and it's not the end of the earth if you don't get it done every day.  Reading it in English--or in the Cliff Notes--is better than not reading anything at all.  You might be able to follow and get into the book better if you've seen the movie.  If you can't motivate yourself to read the uninteresting bits, skip to a part that does interest you.  You can even read the chapters of a book backward.  You don't have to finish a book--the first and last chapter often give you 80% of the pay off.

So I use the "little by little" principle with my youngest two.  In a perfect world, I would say 5 minutes worth of something about something every day.  Today we started Judges 1.  Why?

First, it's arguably some of the most interesting reading in the Bible.  Not the most edifying, of course, but interesting.  Second, it is about the same time as the beginnings of "Western" history (which, admittedly, is a construct rather than a reality--it's real because it's the way Europeans tell their story).  The Trojan War is about the same time in the late Bronze Age.

Judges 1 alludes to the pains of "Bronze Age" Israel struggling with "Iron Age" Philistines, so there's a little science in there.  Judges is quite straightforward about the fact that the tribes of Israel lived among the Canaanites at this time.  It gives a good picture of the culture of the day.  It's definitely Rated R, and it raises all sorts of great ethical and political questions.

Anyway, I thought it turned out to be a really neat convergence.

Celebrate!

I consider myself truly blessed to have been born in the U.S.A.  I know those from many other countries rightly feel the same about their countries as well.  On the other hand, many, many from oppressed parts of the world would love to live here with us.

So what should I write today?  How happy I am that our system of government was formed at just the right time,  by men with Enlightenment philosophies still riding the fumes of Judeo-Christian values?  Or is this a moment to be prophetic, to remember that "we have here no lasting city" and that many churches confuse patriotism and nationalism with Christianity?

Nah, I'll just wish any of those from the US reading a happy 4th of July.  And for those reading from free lands somewhere else, three cheers for your heritage.  And if anyone is reading from somewhere else... history's a comin'.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

God and the Good

Here is a textbox for one of my endlessly undone projects.
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Surely the author of a book is allowed to give his or her thoughts on something, even if s/he is in the minority.  I personally am unable to see any intrinsic connection between actions/events and their meaning.  There are connections and they are easily explained.  They are just not intrinsic connections. For example, we define painful or pleasurable events as bad or good.  The problem is that the same event can have the opposite significance to different individuals.  And even the briefest study of culture leaves us with an extremely small common human sense of right and wrong.

This situation leads me to the conclusion that good is good because God says so, that "the good" is not entirely obvious from events themselves.  The Christian definition of good relates directly to the twin values of loving God and loving neighbor. Good is that which is beneficial to ourselves, but even more so that which is beneficial to others, and ultimately that which is beneficial to humanity and God's creation as a whole.

Although the creation does not demand this understanding of the good, it makes sense.  It makes sense because pleasure and pain are built in to us.  It makes sense because human society prospers when we work for our mutual benefit.  Humanity flourishes more the more individuals orient their life around this good.

Could God create a world where the good was defined in some other way?  I personally do not see that we have any point of reference from which to answer this question.  Our descriptions of the "nature" of God relate directly to how God has revealed himself in this cosmos.  But the essence of God pre-dates this cosmos and thus is not limited by the rules of this cosmos.  In my opinion, therefore, to think we have God's nature figured out, other than to speak of it in relation to this cosmos, is insanity.

Good is good because God says so in this particular cosmos.  To say otherwise is anthropomorphism.

Friday, July 01, 2011

What do you do with thirty minutes?

It's settled.  In 30 minutes we're going to watch Unknown.  So what to do with thirty minutes?  Not a thing on TV I'm interested in.  How about start my 31st novel (I don't actually know how many I've started... I know I haven't finished a one...)
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I must have nodded off, but the majestic voice at the front of the room jarred me from my nap.  Where was I?  It was obviously a university class room, like the ones I had in college.

The room was packed--I venture to say not a single seat was empty.  The crowd was full of people from all sorts of places.  I swear half of them looked familiar, like I had seen them somewhere before.  I would have looked more but the voice from the front was so captivating my attention immediately fastened on it.

"Everything is quite out of sorts," he said.  "I could fix it of course but this is my day off.  You all think you're rather smart.  At least that's what you've all been telling people.  Let's see how well you do with it."

I couldn't quite see the figure speaking.  I for one didn't remember ever telling anyone I was quite that smart.  Well, maybe I told my younger sister that once to trick her into getting in trouble.

"There's plenty of stuff lying around the building to get everything up and running again.  So, good luck.  I'll check back tomorrow to see how you've done with it."

And with that I assume he'd gone.  At least it wasn't as bright at the front of the room as before.  I looked around to see what the crowd would do.  Most were looking around a little bewildered like I was.

But soon a bald headed man in a skirt--or was it a toga--jumped up on the stage.  "Now look," he started in.  "Before we can get going on this thing we're going to have to plan it all out in our heads.  Only then can we begin to put the visible cosmos back together.  I'm going to go contemplate it out.  Just wait here until I have everything ready in my head."

Then he disappeared off the stage to the left, and the room resumed chattering as if he hadn't said anything.  But hardly a second passed before another man, also in a toga, jumped on stage.  "Right, just ignore him.  I for one am going to take a look around the building and see what I have to work with."

There were a number of nods, a cadre of assenting tones, and a little more than half the room got out of their seats.  The others seemed rather deep in thought.  I still was quite uncertain exactly where I was or what was going on, but I followed the people near me out a side door and into a hallway.

Countless other hallways seemed to branch off from the hallway I was in, and they in turn seemed to branch off into countless other hallways.  I tried to remember how I'd come to where I was, so I might get back.  But to be honest, I'm not sure where I had been in the first place.

I chanced upon several arguing over something or another in one of the hallways.  "There must be a switch somewhere," she said.  "We cannot even begin to do anything unless there is something instead of nothing."

"But there already is something," someone responded.  "He told us there were lots of things already here in these halls.  We're not completely starting over.  It's just all discombobulated and needs put back together."

"So we have something from nothing," she said, as if moving down a checklist.  "And I suspect that zero was the first thing he created."

"Yes, yes," another impatiently said.

"Then he probably made 1."

"Very important."

"And from that you have all the integers," she continued.

It was a very interesting discussion, but I continued on my way.  I came upon another group very busily putting together a series of lines going in three different directions...
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Ok... movie time...

I must be exhausted...

It's 8:45pm.  I have tons to do.  Behind on almost everything as usual.  I want to write but have nothing to say.  Most of family is out or preoccupied.  Brain is empty (probably always is).  Body not quite ready to sleep (had a nap earlier).  Don't feel like walking or running.  Don't feel like sitting outside.  I don't even feel like making coffee.

I guess it's channel surfing for the indefinite future...

Ever feel that way?

The State of Virtue

Recent times have seen a shift in many circles back toward a more virtue based approach to ethics. Alistair MacIntyre, in a landmark book called After Virtue, argued that the Western world has lost its ethical way. [1] “We have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” [2] For MacIntyre, modern morality is a collection of incoherent, fragmented survivals from the virtue oriented tradition of Aristotle. [3] Whether you agree with MacIntyre or not, he highlights a key question: Are good and evil real? Are virtues something real and “intrinsic” to life, built-in to reality, if you would? Or are they simply a matter of human feeling or cultural perception?

Earlier in the chapter, we mentioned David Hume’s sense that an uncrossable gulf existed between “facts” and “values.” How do we get from “you killed someone” to “you should not have killed someone.” MacIntyre points out that a lot of ethical theory in the early twentieth century amounted to “You shouldn’t kill people because we don’t feel good about such things,” a theory of ethics called “emotivism.”

Immanuel Kant had tried to address Hume’s fact-value problem by suggesting that morality was one of the innate, “built-in” categories of our minds. He thought it was a matter of logical reasoning. All we need to do is think through what course of action would make sense at any time and place, and we have the Golden Rule. However, Kant’s ethic has been far from convincing to very many people.

We might also mention another question philosophers have tossed around since the ancient Greeks. Plato put it this way, “Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” [4] You could also put the dilemma in this way, “Is good good because God says so, or does God say it’s good because it’s good.” It is a “which came first” question. Has God created good, as it were, by his command, to where he could make murder the right thing to do if he wanted or perhaps he could create an alternative universe where murder was good? Or is good a standard that God himself must follow, to where if God were to have someone like Abraham to murder his son Isaac, he would be guilty of a crime?

The one approach is called “divine command theory” (DCT). It sees good as a question of what God commands. There is no intrinsic good or evil to the creation. Rather, good is whatever God wants it to be. Most Christian thinkers have opted for something closer to the second option, perhaps suggesting that God’s “nature” is good, and therefore that he has built within himself an absolute definition of good.

Those who take different positions on the question of "intrinsic morality" can make their "base camp" in differing Scriptures.  Those who favor DCT point out that God often seems to command things in the Old Testament that would be immoral if any of us did them.  The instance of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is usually mentioned (Genesis 22).  And, for that matter, there is the instance of God commanding the Israelites to slaughter everyone down to the children and animals of the Canaanites (e.g., Josh. 6:17-21).

On the other hand, James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted with evil.  Hebrews 6:18 says that it is impossible for God to lie.  And we have various indications in Scripture that the understanding of divine agency gained in precision as we move from the older parts of the Old Testament to the later ones and then into the New Testament.  For example, the earlier 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God did something that the later 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan did!

Then again, the apostle Paul makes the morality of eating meat that might have been offered to an idol a matter of personal conscience (Rom. 14:5-8).  Food for him is neither clean nor unclean (a development in understanding from Leviticus) but its status depends on whether the person eating thinks it is clean or unclean. One might use this line of thought to argue for a form of DCT in which what is good and evil is a question of how God thinks about it.

However, most Christian thinkers see a much more substantial connection between the nature of God and what is good or evil in this world.  Historic Christianity has emphasized that "goodness" is one of God's attributes and thus that goodness is thus something intrinsic to his creation, even if it is currently marred by sin.  This connection would thus give a fixed point by which to judge what is good and evil in the world.
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[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985).

[2]After Virtue, 2.

[3] After Virtue, 257.

[4] Euthyphro, 10a.

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