Monday, August 29, 2005

And You Thought Duke Was Liberal

Duke has the reputation in my Wesleyan circles of being liberal. I am more and more convinced that much of this is a confusion of the university religion department with the Divinity School. It is the Divinity School that trains ministers.

But as you look at the faculty in the Divinity School, you won't find liberals--at least not liberals by any sane reckoning (remembering that people from various conservative groups might consider IWU liberal, despite the fact that it doesn't allow dancing and has James Dobson coming to speak at the opening convocation). In fact, Duke and Asbury have increasing exchanges--Gregory Jones from Duke is speaking at Asbury about Wesley in the near future, and Paul Chilcote from Asbury is a visiting scholar this year at Duke.

But if you really have doubts, here are nine theses from the recent Scripture Project, housed primarily at Princeton, but heavily participated in by the likes of Richard Hays and Ellen Davis, star players for the Duke Divinity School faculty:

(1) "Scripture truthfully tells the story of God's action of creating, judging, and saving the world."

(2) "Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church's rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative."

(3) "Faithful interpretation . . . requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New."

(4) "Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama."

(5) "The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus."

(6) "Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God's redemptive action-the church."

(7) "The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture."

(8) "Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church."

(9) "We live in the tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet' of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings ... in light of the Holy Spirit's ongoing work" (pp. 1-5).

Now that doesn't seem very liberal to me...

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Ken when drafting an article

I hadn't posted in a few, so thought I'd check in.

Sometimes writing comes really easy for me. The little "Short Guide" stuff I've done is stuff I've been mulling over and teaching for years. It flows all too easily.

Not so when I'm trying to write a scholarly article. I'm trying to squeeze one in before the semester begins. To start with, I have all these little thoughts from going through the biblical text in so many different contexts. But what I'm bad at is reading. I'm a horrible reader.

So I get my idea, "Hey, I ought to try to write an article on that sometime." Then I begin to write. As I write, I begin to make my way into the commentaries or any other relevant books I might have in my library, the IWU library, or David Smith's library. This process is usually both encouraging and depressing.

It is usually encouraging because I realize that inevitably, a lot of the possibilities I've thought of are the thoughts of more reputable scholars as well. I it usually discouraging because a) I find out someone who published in 1928 had my idea and b) there are a 1000 other ways to look at the subject that I didn't think of. Finally, I then reach the limits of IWU's library and must either drive to Notre Dame or begin doing interlibrary loans.

These obstacles are often enough to stop the project right there. It takes great will power to follow through with a publication, especially with a library like IWU's. You can't write doctoral level work on the basis of IWU's library. Our library just isn't designed to support that level of research--who would use the German and French books necessary, not to mention the obscure journal articles from, yes, 1928?

Then there are the rewrites. Some of the things on my web page basically came out with very little need for substantial changes.

Not so with any article I've written (or dissertation or slightly more scholarly book). I inevitably get caught up learning all the things I didn't know when I started the article. About 6 pages later I realize that I'm off task and that I need to go back and only allude in the barest way to what I've been writing.

So Angie comes up to me just now and asks how it's going and why I'm blogging instead of grading Asbury or working on the article. The reason? Because I've just moved those 6 pages to a miscellaneous scrap document of all the things that I've cut out of the article, realizing I have to go back and rewrite the section I'd been working on. And beside all that, I'm wondering whether my opening thesis is really all that great anyway.

Hats off to all the James Dunns and Richard Hayses of the biblical studies world. I can't imagine it's this much work for them to crank it out! They write articles like I think of novel titles. :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Reflections on the Marion School System

My son now has three days of Kindergarten in Marion under his belt, and I for one am proud of him. Has he struggled to keep his hands to himself, be quiet, and refrain from entering into collective backpack war? Of course he has. But he's really trying, and he's in a fine arithmetic progression of Skittles at the end of the day (he received the full 2 today).

And I'm of course trying to be patient with him. The first two days after school we went for a walk and chatted about how if you mess up, you go to bed, get up, and it's a brand new day. You start all over again. Of course that'll preach.

But we've been a little worried about the state of kindergarten in Marion. For one, it's all day. For Tom, that's an immediate liability. It's always afternoon that he's lost any Skittles. But he's coping and adjusting to it.

Then there's the fact that there are twenty kids--way more than should be in a kindergarten class. That leads us to speculate about next year after they close Center because we at IWU are growing so well. Where are these already crowded classes going to go?

Finally, there's curriculum. No longer is kindergarten just a place to play and grow in your social skills. Now there are things that must be learned. If you don't, you don't get into first grade.

First, I think I understand what Andrew Nixon, our school superintendent is doing. Given the "inner city" dimension of Marion, I think he's pushing for longer time in school, all year round school, because it keeps kids at risk in a better environment for longer--and away from their drug-filled, unhealthy home environment.

But what about the rest of us who like the traditional summer with the fam?

As far as Center closing, I think it only benefits the city for IWU to succeed, so I'm not going to villify the university. However, if the city is going to enter in on this deal, it better make sure it has a plan to keep the class sizes from going up even higher.

As far as the curriculum, I'm not against learning in kindergarten. The key is that we don't push our kids into hating it from the beginning. So far Tom loves it.

But I hear Francis Slocum is in trouble if their kindergarten doesn't pass this year. No Child Left Behind will close them down. Now, what exactly does that mean? That they'll be forced to go to the other already overcrowded kindergartens in the city? Are we giving the poverty level parents a chance to send their kids to the private schools in town? (insert laughter) So we're penalizing the teachers and administration because they have the most depressed constituency in the town?

Standards are good. And I'm seeing some really creative textbooks on the middle school level. I can tell that given the demands being made of them, they are showing a good deal of creativity in meeting those goals. I do resent a situation where Bush puts a gun to their overworked, underpaid and overloaded heads and says "fix it or else." They didn't cause the problem. It's a typically immature view of parenting (and I've been guilty of it) of only looking at the behavior without addressing why the behavior is happening.

But they're doing a great job. Our teachers are finding ways to meet Bush's goals without any guidance or money from him.

Now, I'm waiting to see if Nixon has some of that same creativity. Whether he can figure out how to address the societal problems of one segment without making the rest of us hate living here.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Just Get Over It, Bush

The following are excerpts from Bush's radio address today:

"Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy."

"They know that if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets, and they know that the safety and security of every American is at stake in this war, and they know we will prevail."

Oh, come on, get over it. You've made one of the biggest blunders in recent American history. Move on.

I can't believe that Bush is still pushing this empty rhetoric on us. We went to Afghanistan to track down the perpetrators of 9-11. That was a good thing and bringing down the Taliban was icing on the cake.

But prior to Iraq invasion, the Hussein government was not connected in any substantial causal way with radical Islamic forces like Al-Qaeda. Iran or Pakistan would have been far more likely targets for a reason like this.

Hey I have cousins. Take my cousin Steve Schenck whom I've met maybe once and lives in California. We probably even look a little alike. So if I ever do anything to you, why don't you invade his house to get at me. We kinda look the same and we both live in America.

Or, hey, better yet. Let's just pick a weak country at random in the Middle East that we can easily defeat. The Islamic militants will no doubt come there to us to fight us instead of coming here. Hey, I bet we could easily beat Denmark. Let's invade Denmark and maybe they'll come fight us there instead of New York City.

But of course the vast majority of the people fighting us in Iraq would never have been able to get visas to come here. The vast majority of them are people we recruited by invading Iraq in the first place--we made them angry enough to push them into terrorism. Sure, some are in it for the long haul. But I bet that we helped most of those right now in Iraq finally find their calling from Allah.

And of course we will probably get more terrorist attacks here. What will Bush say then about how we've kept them away by giving them somewhere to fight us over there?

Congratulations, your idealistic plan to spread democracy in the Middle East has given birth to a bouncing baby Islamic theocracy where women have fewer rights than under Hussein and the radical Islam that Hussein suppressed is now in full force.

You're so clever I'm just beside myself in shock and awe.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Kindergarten, Insomnia, and Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

It's midnight. My wife has blissfully gone to sleep with some cheerleading movie on USA. Tomorrow morning is my concentration-challenged son's first day in Kindergarten. He is asleep right now. But I'm not. I'm praying he somehow can hold himself together until 2:30, when I'll be very understanding if he collapses into a tornado of insanity.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to recover from online teaching burnout and a general sense that I should get around to doing the study I should have done in graduate schools of all kinds.

My most recent book attack is Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's Paul: A Critical Life. I find it quite splendid, although depressing as usual.

For example, I knew the usual idea that Claudius expelled Christian Jews from Rome in 49 over problems in the synagogues relating to "Chrestus," as the Roman historian Suetonius puts it. The fact that I know this, while generally uninteresting and irrelevant to most, is nevertheless a tidbit of knowledge that some might find a sign of my competence.

Now enter M-O. I knew Suetonius. He knows Orosius, a fifth century Christian who is the ultimate basis for dating Suetonius' reference to 49. Never heard of him.

Then M-O brings in Dio Cassius. Him I've heard of. But as usual, haven't read yet.

In the end, I'm really not that different from my concentration-challenged son. I just hope I can hold myself together enough to keep a job and then I can collapse into a tornado of meaningless blog insanity when I get home.

Gaza Pull Out

It makes me sad whenever the news turns to the Gaza pullout. I know I would feel terrible to be forced to leave my home. I was a sentimental soul as a child. I can imagine the torture of knowing they were going to bulldoze the house of my childhood.

Is it the right move on Israel's part. It's really hard for me to say because I can't tell you the future. It's possible that it will only whet the appetite of something that's insatiable. Will it feed a lust for Palestinian land that will not accept anything but everything? Will it provide a launching and planning point for attacks on Israel? I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

But I'm hoping it won't. I'm hoping it is the best thing to happen in Israeli-Palestinan relationships in a long time. In fact, why not make it the Palestinian state? Well, I know why... because the West Bank is primarily Palestinian as well. It's just such an awkward situation, with the two pockets of Palestinian territory being disconnected from each other. Not at all what you'd want in a country--easily isolated from each other in a war because... they're isolated already.

Whatever the uncertainties of the future, it seems the right thing to do from my comfortable living room. From a practical standpoint, there are so many more Palestinians in Gaza than Israelis that they are an extreme minority anyway and only going to become a smaller and smaller percentage as time goes by. From the standpoint of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, it seems a logical part of the give and take necessary to reach peace.

The level-headed on both sides have long believed that a two-state solution was the only real solution to the problem. This step is a necessary part of reaching that goal, unless the settlers want to become Palestinian citizens some day.

What I don't buy is the manifest destiny argument: "this land is biblically promised to Israel, therefore Israel must have it." Religious arguments of this sort have been used throughout the centuries to justify all kinds of insane things. History pushes me to make a hard conclusion--that religion shouldn't be a motivating factor in secular law and politics. In that world it should be the cold hard logic of utilitarianism with a core of individual rights thrown in.

This is a hard conclusion to come to, because it may mean that my theology is inconsistent. But there have far too many harmful and oppressive, theologically motivated laws associated with one religion or another for us to allow it. Law and politics should be the realm of concrete consequences, because too often we look back at the way our forebears processed religion--or the way some other religion like Islam is affecting government--and conclude that the religious element in an equation was the most harmful part.

And after all, who is to say what God's will for Israel is right now? God has taken away Israel's land before in punishment, so you can't say it's God's will for Israel to have all its land at every moment in history. Don't get me wrong, I wish there was one big state with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side. But I don't see that happening anytime soon.

And I am not saying that God is punishing Israel right now--not at all. I nervously write right now afraid that someone will draw a wrong conclusion on any number of fronts. For example, I don't think God is punishing Israel right now for not accepting Christ... when I say that Israel has not accepted Christ. But the last comment means that there scarcely seems a Christian argument for some current manifest destiny.

In point of fact, I am not making an argument on the basis of theology at all here. I am arguing for concrete politics in the light of certain core values shared by all civilized humanity. And while I hate to see it, I suspect that means a Gaza withdrawal.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

John Drury's Blog: Thursday Posts

For anyone who doesn't know, John Drury has a blog. It's It's awesome to watch genius at work, so I'd check it out if I were you.

I wanted to pass on to anyone that he's going to be posting mostly on Thursdays (except when the muse hits him).

Alas, my own muse is rather unpredictable. I've tried to get a new one, but they're far too expensive. I'm sure it arrives in some obscure algorithmic progression (yes, my wife won't let me buy a female muse, so it's an it).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Who Am I?

They say that perception is reality. If that is really true, then I really need the people who perceive me to tell me who I am.

But here are some thoughts I had recently. You know, it was in one of those imaginary conversations I have in the car with someone I think hates me.

Here's what I told one of those imaginary people today in my drive home from work:

1. To me as an individual, it's really all about what is true. If I'm wrong, then I want you to show me. Really, please, devastate my position. My ego will be glad to take the bruises.

But as an individual, I am not easily convinced on some things. It's not enough to show me that the consequences of a belief are serious. You need to show me that a belief itself is likely to be true or untrue.

2. To those outside of me, it's all about faith. I am far less interested in you dotting your i's and crossing your t's than for you to have faith.

3. I think these are God's priorities too. On the one hand, I don't think God is a trickster. I think most of the time x probably marks the spot. Usually the evidence points to the right verdict (filtered of course, through our paradigms and worldviews).

Of course I also realize that sometimes the evidence in one sphere pushes us to think something true that involves other spheres where the evidence is far less conclusive.

But I also think that faith rather than truth is God's number one priority. He is more interested in saving your soul than fixing your mind.

Beyond this, I don't like labels. Am I conservative or liberal, this or that? I'm sure it depends on who you are comparing me with. I have a conservative spirit in the sense that I like the past and I like tradition--I'm not quick to disagree with it. But I will in my heart of heart, if it doesn't seem to be true.

But to me I'm just Ken. I'm just trying to make my way through this world and to understand what is true about it. Feel free to disagree.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

What do you make of this?

I discovered this on a Focus on the Family website. I don't know what your reaction is to it, but it doesn't "feel" right to me. It even feels a little psycho to me, maybe even dangerous. What do you think or feel about it?

Is My Child Becoming Homosexual?
Before puberty, children aren’t normally heterosexual or homosexual. They’re definitely gender conscious. But young children are not sexual beings yet — unless something sexual in nature has interrupted their developmental phases.

Still, it’s not uncommon for children to experience gender confusion during the elementary school years. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi reports, “In one study of 60 effeminate boys ages 4 to 11, 98 percent of them engaged in cross-dressing, and 83 percent said they wished they had been born a girl.”

Evidences of gender confusion or doubt in boys ages 5 to 11 may include:

1. A strong feeling that they are “different” from other boys.
2. A tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy.
3. A persistent preference to play female roles in make-believe play.
4. A strong preference to spend time in
the company of girls and participate in their games and other pastimes.
5. A susceptibility to be bullied by other boys, who may tease them unmercifully and call them “queer,” “fag” and “gay.”
6. A tendency to walk, talk, dress and even “think” effeminately.
7. A repeatedly stated desire to be — or insistence that he is — a girl.

If your child is experiencing several signs of gender confusion,
professional help is available. It’s best to seek that help before your child reaches puberty.

“By the time the adolescent hormones kick in during early adolescence, a full-blown gender identity crisis threatens to overwhelm the teenager,” warns psychologist Dr. James Dobson. To compound the problem, many of these teens experience “great waves of guilt accompanied by secret fears of divine retribution.”

If your child has already reached puberty, change is difficult, but
it’s not too late.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Book Review: Reinventing Paul (John Gager)

I will be reading and/or skimming various books on Paul for the next few months, and I’ll probably share some of my reviews of them here. One I’ve just finished is Reinventing Paul by John Gager of Princeton University. It’s a short book of about 152 pages.

To give a little background, one of the phrases you hear in Paul circles is the “new perspective on Paul.” It rumbles up in some minority pieces of the mid-twentieth century, makes a powerful surface in an article by Krister Stendahl in the early sixties, and then emerges without repentance in the 1977 work of E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. As usual, Dunn gives it a name ("new perspective"), locates it in relation to what has come before, and we're off (he's a genius).

The main up-shoot of the new perspective is two fold. First, Judaism did not see itself as earning salvation and was not a religion that saw "works" as the path to getting right with God. Jews saw their relationship with God as a matter of a covenant the gracious God had made with them, and salvation was about “staying in” rather than “getting in.” No one could earn right standing before God, but faithfulness to the covenant was certainly required to stay in good standing with Him (sounds rather Wesleyan, actually).

The second aspect of the new perspective relates to Paul and Judaism. Paul did not see himself in some way leaving Israel or the Jewish Scriptures when he accepted Jesus as Messiah--he did not think he was changing religions. He saw himself as following that which was none other than the fulfillment of God's entire relationship with Israel. Paul is not his Christian name, in contrast to Saul as a pre-Christian name. Acts calls Paul Saul for over ten years after he became a Christian. Paul probably had both names his whole life.

I mention the above as background. The above conclusions are by now the dominant paradigm and very well established in the guild. You are at a significant disadvantage with regard to publishing or hiring if you espouse the earlier "Lutheran" paradigm.

Gager then represents what I might call the “hyper-new perspective” on Paul. These are individuals who see more continuity between Paul and Judaism than even Sanders, Dunn, or many of the original "new perspective" players. The key members of this “hyper-new” perspective are people like Stanley Stowers, Lloyd Gaston, and Neil Elliot.

In many respects, they are the children of Krister Stendahl, but, in my opinion, the children of his most questionable position. Stendahl suggests that Romans 2 gives us the key to Paul in the sense that he thought a Gentile might actually keep the law adequately enough to be accepted in God's eyes. Similarly, when Paul says "all have sinned," he does not mean all individuals but all groups in the sense of both Jew and Gentile (I agree with the emphasis, but not with where Stendahl takes it). In short, Stendahl rescues Paul from an odd position for a Jew--setting up a standard of expectation on God's part that no Jewish writing outside of Paul ever espouses.

The move of the hyper-new group is ingenious, although, in my opinion, finally unconvincing. They suppose not only that Paul’s audiences are mostly Gentile; they suppose they are entirely Gentile and that Paul’s rhetoric in Romans and Galatians is not addressing Jews at all. When Paul says all have sinned and lack the glory of God, he is speaking only about Gentiles. When Paul says no one will be justified by works of law, he means no Gentile will be justified by works of law.

Jews on the other hand, are a different story. They are required to circumcise and keep the law to stay right with God. They are justified by their faithfulness to the covenant.

After that summary, here is my critique of Gager.

First of all, this is a pretty well written book and very helpful at understanding the perspective of this group of scholars. Indeed, Gager quotes Stowers and Gaston so much that it is not always easy to see exactly what his contribution is to the basic position. He also builds a little off the “faith of Jesus Christ” wing of Pauline scholarship as well, Sir Richard Hays in particular.

However, I find that the strongest impetus for his position seems to be 1) to keep Paul from misrepresenting Judaism and 2) to find Paul’s own thought coherent. Here is his operating principle: “when Paul appears to say something (e.g., about the law and Jews) that is unthinkable from a Jewish perspective, it is probably true that he is not talking about Jews at all. Instead we may assume that the apostle to the Gentiles is talking about the law and Gentiles” (58).

The problem with this principle is that, in theory, it would not let Paul be Paul if in fact Paul did think “the unthinkable.” Gager is not even motivated by faith in his perspective (17, 157 n.3), but he is very much like the conservative harmonists who insist on shoving texts together rather than letting them say what they say. I have problems with a method that does not allow an author to be inconsistent or self-contradictory. I don’t mean that I want to find inconsistency or contradiction. What I want to find is what an author actually means, and I refuse to encumber that process by artificial boundaries.

[By the way, I do allow my faith commitments to steer in certain directions for the final conclusion--but I personally insist this be the next step after I have concluded what the most likely conclusion is given the evidence.]

It seems to me that Paul simply does change the playing field in terms of his Jewish background. He does not intentionally misrepresent it or misunderstand it, as some have suggested. He just differs from it. Sure, Judaism held that all had sin. But God was merciful, had set up a system of atonement, and He highly valued and recognized repentance.

Paul's modification is to see Christ's death and resurrection as the ultimate mechanisms by which God chose to process forgiveness. Would this have made sense to most Jews of Paul's day? Probably not, except in the sense that a person might die to assuage God's wrath. It seems to me that a Jew might easily accept that the corporate sin of Israel might be atoned for by the death of a righteous individual. The problem for me to work out is that it is not immediately obvious that Paul primarily thought of Christ in this way.

With regard to the phrase "works of law," I suspect Dunn is most correct to see the phrase as a reference to inter-Jewish debates over the specifics of law-keeping. In that sense the phrase may refer to the more debated aspects of Jewish law-keeping (although it is hard to see how circumcision would fit into this category).

Nevertheless, I agree with Gager and Gaston that Romans and Galatians overwhelmingly address Gentile audiences and that their primary concern is the inclusion of the Gentiles. I agree mostly with them that Paul did not advocate that Jews stop observing the law. I would only take exception with them when law-keeping resulted in the violation of the higher principle of Christian unity. I think I need to stew a little more on the significance of the likelihood that Paul might mostly be writing "God-fearers" who were associated with synagogues prior to accepting Christ.

But on the whole I remain most convinced by Sanders on these subjects. When Paul came to Christ, he was forced to conclude that the approach to "righteousness" he had followed was simply not the right approach. He had been blameless by its standards, so why wasn't he okay? Realizing that he had the answer, he was forced to contemplate the theory behind it. While he may not have recognized it himself--indeed may have vigorously denied it--his theory ultimately signified a massive break at least with Palestinian Judaism.

Whether or not I can revive and justify some now "outdated" precedents in Hellenistic Judaism for this basic position (via Philo), will have to wait another day. I don't feel that I have arrived on all these things, although I make my home in the now old, new perspective.

Holiness Discussion on Bible Blog

Brian Russell has started a discussion of why holiness died, particularly as something preached from the Bible, on the Bible Forum blog:

Anyone is welcome to participate. If you just want to comment, anyone can do that. If you want to be a member to make primary posts, tell me and I will invite you to join.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Conclusion: Biblical Hermeneutics

6. The Table of Discernment and Inspiration

Although they would probably disagree with me on a few points, evangelical scholars by and large accept the hermeneutical situation as I have set it out. As they might lay it out, a healthy hermeneutical process is one that moves carefully from "that time" (the time of the original meaning) to "this time." We determine the original meaning. We identify timeless principles that we then reapply to today in our context.

Most evangelical scholars would also at least acknowledge development in thinking from the Old Testament to the New, particularly in terms of the impact of Christ's coming. However, they might feel uncomfortable with any suggestion of development beyond the New Testament, unless such development is in continuity with the New Testament and probably even in a seminal form in the New Testament.

Most evangelical scholars are modernist in philosophy, which means they feel a strong aversion to non-literal or out of context appropriations of Scripture. Their loyalty is to the original meaning and to the original text. Thus the Greek text behind the King James Version is not used because it is not as original, despite the fact that it was largely the text used by the church for 1600 years.

We wonder if this is not a good time in history to re-examine some of these biases. On the one hand, the way in which Scripture itself uses Scripture raises serious questions about evangelical priorities with regard to the original meaning. The New Testament authors by and large read the Old Testament text in terms of their own contemporary situations and values, not in terms of the original meaning. And even today, evangelical scholars sometimes smuggle in their contemporary situations and values into the meaning of the text. These are recognitions we feel more comfortable making in a period when the limitations of modernism are out in the open.

This also seems a good point in the history of the church to acknowledge that the Protestant Reformation probably went too far in its denial of the extent to which genuine, inspired Christian tradition plays a role in our appropriation of Scripture. For example, Western Christians "know" that it is wrong to be a polygamist or a slave owner today, even though the Bible never says anything of the sort. We "know" it is wrong to see Jesus as any less divine than God the Father, even though the New Testament actually subordinates him to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28).

How do we know these things? We know them because we are Christians in continuity with the church of the ages. The most unhealthy and bizarre forms of Christianity are those where groups have read the "text alone" in isolation from the continuity of the church of the ages. The text alone is susceptible to as many different meanings as there are contexts against which it is read.

So I would like to suggest what I consider a healthier process of appropriating Scripture, one that allows for the standard evangelical process but that is less myopic in its value system. I suggest that we think of finding God's will in terms of a dialog between several key players. This model is similar to what is sometimes called "Wesley's Quadrilateral." In Wesley's Quadrilateral, we give first place to Scripture and then process it in dialog with tradition, experience, and reason.

But reason and experience are always involved in our reflection on the world. Indeed, they are unavoidable elements in our apprehension of the Bible's meaning. And Scripture is actually a part of Christian tradition when we read the individual books in context as moments in the formation of the early church.

Let me suggest that discerning God's will bids us come to a table of discernment and inspiration. The original meaning of each book should be there with us at the table, as should the most venerated voices of the saints through the ages. These spiritual individuals have already wrestled before us with the proper appropriation of Scripture.

We should also bring with us the wisdom of spiritual individuals in the church today. If the Spirit of God lives in the body of Christ, which is the church everywhere in all times and all places, then surely we are most in contact with the Spirit when we are most in communion with the saints of the ages. Appropriating the Bible is something best done together, in communion, rather than as a lone individual.

Appropriating the Bible for today is a spiritual task. It is not something we can do by formula; it is a spiritual art. The way Jesus and Paul appropriated Scripture was not always literalist or always allegorical. It varied. Further, sometimes it was absolutist but more often than not it was contextual. It was spiritual and, to some extent, unpredictable. Its common denominator was the love ethic.

We discern two crucial principles in the appropriation of Scripture for today:

1. Any appropriation of Scripture that is driven by the hatred of others is unchristian and unworthy of Christ.

2. Any appropriation of Scripture that is out of continuity with the communion of saints through the ages is most unlikely to be of God.

Are there prophetic movements in the church, instances where God might lead in new directions out of continuity with prior Christian practice? If so, I would suggest such movements will not be out of continuity with the Spirit of the communion of the saints of the ages. But the burden of proof will always lie with the new. It is hardly possible to reject wholesale some two thousand years of Christian history without rejecting to some significant degree the God that they and the authors of the Bible worshipped.

The Bible as Scripture is thus much bigger than the original meaning. But it is also vastly bigger than the way the words might strike me on a given day. It is the Bible as read by the saints of all the ages, the canonical interpretation of the Bible, that is the most authoritative over us. It is the ongoing task of the universal church to determine what this meaning is and ever to apply and reapply it to the world today.

Corrections on Israel

Continued embarrasment as I try to finish my "graduate studies" in front of the world.

I've been trying to nail down some question marks I had about the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem. I've finally been able to check up on some things I had heard before I went to Israel but that had bounced off my teflon head in the absence of any frame of reference. This is my perennial problem--if I knew half the things I have tried to shove in my head... Most just bounce off on the floor.

First, Wilbur had mentioned the possibility that Jesus would have been tried in Herod's old palace rather than in the Fortress Antionia. However, I had no sense of how to make this call.

Now I do. Josephus mentions that the Roman governors took over Herod's palace after the death of Herod the Great. The Fortress was thus more of a barracks and would not likely have been a place where Pilate stayed. The current consensus thus seems to be that they would have tried Jesus at Herod's palace to the west. Unfortunately, that implies that the Via Dolorosa isn't the way of suffering after all. Jesus would have come from the other direction.

Second, there are many archaeological digs that have been conducted under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I had thought I had heard something about a tomb found around the Armenian quarter, but it wasn't a tomb. They have just found a lot of evidence that the area was a stone quarry at the time of Christ. This is true in the Armenian quarter.

Some of us went down to the lowest chapel in the Armenian quarter, which is where tradition says the Empress Helena found part of the cross. I hadn't noticed really, but there is stone quarry rock under the Armenian section. There is also a second century carving or such that some scholars think is an indication of pre-Constantine pilgrimage in that area. Others think it is a Roman picture.

Third, the story is that the Empress Helena dismantled a Temple of Aphrodite on the spot at the word of local Christians who said the spot was underneath. They did find tombs there, and the tombs we saw reputed of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are two. Who knows, one of these could have been the real one. They are in the Syrian section (I didn't realize it at the time).

They evidently removed the surrounding rock that had been around the tomb that was venerated as the tomb of Jesus in order to facilitate the building of a basilica church in 335. Some marauders apparently destroyed everything there in the 1000's, so there is apparently scarcely anything of the original.

Fourth, Golgotha as it currently exists would not have been wide enough for three crosses and would have been a difficult to "haul" people up on (it's like a jutting finger). However, it could have been wider at the time--after all, it was a quarry.

But a few scholars suggest Golgotha is the name for the general area rather than a specific rock, and think people would have been crucified along a gate that came out at that time. That way people could see them as they left the city. I forget the name (Haditha?). This would place the crucifixion about a hundred meters south somewhere around the current David Street.

Finally, it seems the unanimous conclusion of archaeologists that Gordon's Tomb is a first temple bench tomb. That means it pre-dates Jesus by over six hundred years and can't be the place where Jesus was lain. Oh well.

Updates from Israel--no wait, Marion, Indiana (a holy site in its own right)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

My New Motto

I've finally decided what should go on my family crest.


Semper Cogitans, Numquam Faciens

"always thinking, never doing"

P.S. I never said it was something to emulate. It just seems to fit me.

Head Turner of the Day

I hate it when I come across things like this. I love them, but they make me feel so stupid. Maybe one day I'll deserve my doctorate in New Testament.

Here is a quote from Epictetus written about AD 100. I've highlighted the part that affects our understanding of Romans 2:

"Philosopher... why do you treat the weightiest matters as if you were playing a game of dice? For it is one thing to lay up bread and wine as in a storehouse, and another thing to eat. That which has been eaten, is digested, distributed, and is become sinews, flesh, bones, blood, healthy colour, healthy breath. Whatever is stored up, when you choose you can readily take and show it; but you have no other advantage from it except so far as to appear to possess it.

"For what is the difference between explaining these doctrines and those of men who have different opinions? Sit down now and explain according to the rules of art the opinions of Epicurus, and perhaps you will explain his opinions in a more useful manner than Epicurus himself.

"Why then do you call yourself a Stoic? Why do you deceive the many? Why do you deceive the many? Why do you act the part of a Jew, when you are a Greek? Do you not see how each is called a Jew, or a Syrian or an Egyptian? and when we see a man inclining to two sides, we are accustomed to say, "This man is not a Jew, but he acts as one." But when he has assumed the affects of one who has been imbued with Jewish doctrine and has adopted that sect, then he is in fact and he is named a Jew. Thus we too being falsely imbued, are in name Jews, but in fact we are something else. Our affects are inconsistent with our words; we are far from practicing what we say, and that of which we are proud, as if we knew it. Thus being, unable to fulfill even what the character of a man promises, we even add to it the profession of a philosopher, which is as heavy a burden, as if a man who is unable to bear ten pounds should attempt to raise the stone which Ajax lifted."

So is Paul addressing Jews when he says, "So you call yourself a Jew" in Romans 2:17? The customary saying mentioned above implies not. Apparently, Paul is addressing Gentiles who are conservative in their Law-keeping.

Chalk another example up to the fact that you can't just read the words and have any certainty that you know what they meant originally. It just wasn't written to us originally.

Snippet of the Day 8-6

The men rushed together to Aristarchus and began to push him around.

“You don’t think Artemis is real? Well, she’s about to kill you.”

“I believe in things that are real, Demetrius, not gods someone like you can make in a shop,” Aristarchus said, moving right into Demetrius’ face. Meanwhile, Gaius emerged from inside, hearing the commotion.

“You hear him, he doesn’t even think Artemis exists!” Demetrius roared. “You, Christ-slave.”

“I’d rather be a king’s slave than serve a piece of metal like you do, Demetrius. You had better wise up before God rains down fire and destroys this temple of yours.”

With that a man rushed on Aristarchus and starting beating him. It wasn’t long before the others had grabbed Gaius. The group was mostly metalworkers, so they were strong and could easily have killed the two. But the crowd around them thickened quickly and things got very confusing.

With hardly any room to move and fear of Roman intervention, Demetrius shouted, “To the Theater!” and a couple of his compatriots picked them up and began making their way down the street.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Novel Snippet 3

I enjoyed writing this paragraph:

"By the time Demetrius was finished talking to the guild, you could hear their voices getting increasingly louder outside their shops. The metalworkers of Ephesus were located in a series of shops just inside the northern portico of the Arcadian Way. This street ran east-west from the theater in the east (just under Mt. Pion) down to the harbor in the west. Ironically, the leather working shops were just a little further down this street toward the harbor, off the opposite, southern portico. It was there that Aquila and Paul both had leatherworking shops."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Book Review: Born of a Woman (Spong)

I thought I might review John Spong's Born of a Woman.

In the book, Spong argues against the traditional understanding of the virgin birth (more accurately deemed the virginal conception). He considers it mythological and thinks it contributes to an unhealthy perspective on women (identified in terms of their sexuality rather than individuality). I know that this book has disturbed the faith of a lot of people, so I thought I might review it.

First of all, let me say that Spong isn't completely whacko. Of course there are a few places where he might as well be writing a novel as commenting on history. But I would say that after finishing the book, the difference between him and me is mostly one of "cup half empty" versus "cup half full." I would not dispute a good deal of the "data" he discusses in this book. What I dispute is his dismissal of faith in the virgin birth as ignorant, irrational, or impossible given the evidence. By the way, I'll continue to use the phrase "virgin birth" in reference to the conception of Jesus apart from human sex, just because that's how we all use the term.

What is at stake in the virgin birth?
It seems to me that two things are at stake. One appears to be a view of the biblical texts as straightforwardly historical or as mostly historical. The other is that we would be rejecting something the church has believed for nearly two thousand years, a unanimous element in Christian belief that is a part of the Apostle's Creed. It seems to me that is pretty significant.

What is not at stake?
1. The divinity of Christ is not at stake. This is very important to note. Orthodox Christian faith believes that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. We don't believe that Jesus was a demi-god: half man, half God. Whatever the divine part is, it is not a matter of human sex. It is something different from his humanity. As far as I can tell, Jesus could have been just as divine if he had come by way of human sex as he was via the miraculous way God chose. The only difference is where the Y chromosome comes from. By human sex it would have come from Joseph. As it was, God made it ex nihilo, out of nothing.

2. The sinlessness of Jesus is not at stake. Surely no one who knows genetics today seriously thinks that sin is based in any simple way on a Y chromosome or interaction with a Y chromosome. Paul certainly did not process sin in this way. To him, sin was a power with a foothold in my flesh. However we might translate this concept into our worldview (with cerebral cortexes and such), the Y chromosome is certainly not to blame. Otherwise, all women would be without sin.

Spong may be correct that the early church saw a woman as an "incubator" and the man as the exclusive provider of seed. Certainly they did not process the virgin birth the way we do, and they did not understand genetics and "the flesh" the way we do. (By the way, I don't think that we necessarily consider the thought processes of the authors that did not make their way into the text to be inspired anyway. This statement raises a lot of fascinating issues about whether the original meaning of the text is the inspired meaning, but I'll let it go.)

Does that mean the virgin birth didn't happen? No, it just means the stakes were higher for them than they are for us. While I disagree with Wolfhart Pannenberg, I think he'll be in heaven. Pannenberg believes that Jesus rose from the dead and was God in the flesh. But he does not believe in the virgin birth.

Spong is probably correct when he implies that the virgin birth plays no significant theological role in the original meaning of the New Testament as a whole. It is never mentioned outside a few verses in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. In other words, the virgin birth does not affect any of the theological claims of Paul, Mark, John, and not really any of those even in Matthew or Luke (the significance of the birth narratives is borne out theologically by other parts of these gospels).

While I consider the virgin birth a core belief of Christianity, I do so because of the gospels and the long standing belief of the church. But Christianity does not rise or fall on this belief. It seems to me that historic Christianity rises or falls on the incarnation and the resurrection.

Spong's Half Empty Cup
As I moved through Spong's book, I found a lot of data that seems fairly clear from the New Testament (for example, that the focal point of calling Jesus Lord was the exaltation of Jesus to God's right hand). In these cases, the difference between Spong and me is the significance and implications of the data to each of us more than what the data actually is. He consistently takes the "half empty" conclusion. I take the "half full" one.

For example, it is very difficult to fit the two birth stories together. If all we had was Matthew, we would think Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem and only went to Nazareth because of political circumstances. If all we had was Luke, we would think that they were from Nazareth and only went to Bethlehem because of a census.

Can we fit the two narratives together? There have of course been ingenious suggestions of how to do it. Can we fit the two together without violating one of the texts or the other, twisting it to say something it probably does not? That's a more difficult question.

But Spong himself mentions a significant overlap between the two accounts (page 47-48). Here's a point of choice. Spong sees the cup as half empty--because they disagree he assumes all of it is "myth." But you could also see the cup as half full: given the tensions between the two accounts, it seems all the more likely that their common points are historical.

What are these common points? The most important ones are that Jesus was born in Bethlehem before Joseph and Mary had marital relations and that Jesus then grew up in Nazareth. Note that this common data is adequate to support the virgin birth. Such a belief from our perspective requires faith in miracles and supernatural intervention, but the data allows for it. I conclude that belief in the virgin birth is rational, even if it requires faith.

Indeed, it is surely noteworthy that Spong himself acknowledges the historical possibility that Jesus' birth was scandalous in some way (e.g., 21, 181). Take the following comment: "Perhaps there was an early memory that supported the tradition that Jesus was born too soon after Mary and Joseph came together to live as husband and wife" (73). Without intending to do so, Spong here inescapably implies that the virgin birth is possible given the evidence.

Therefore, if he were fair, he would say that he finds the virgin birth unlikely, although theoretically possible given the evidence. This is the case even if one adopts his hyper-pessimistic reading of the data.

Spong's Tone
Spong is incredibly dismissive in this book. He has a kind of "everyone who disagrees with me is stupid" air about him. Take the following quote: "Is there any possibility that the narratives of our Lord's birth are historical? Of course not. Even to raise that question is to betray an ignorance about birth narratives" (59). Wow! What a statement! He so much as says, you'd have to be an uneducated ignoramus to believe in the virgin birth. I know Tom Wright cried for months after he read this quote and discovered how stupid he was.

On the one hand, I agree that "origin tales" were primarily "commentaries on adult meaning" (59). What this means is that ancient biographers told the stories about a great person's birth and childhood in such a way as to evoke who they were as adults.

However, if I might adopt Spong's tone, you'd have to be completely ignorant of how oral tradition is passed on in an oral culture to think traditions like these didn't usually have a core of historical basis to them. Spong's generation of thinkers, since they view these things through the eyes of a literary culture, assume that stories get completely messed up when things aren't written down for a few years.

Let me note the important differences between Jesus' virgin birth and the other virgin births Spong mentions on p. 56. First, most of these names are about gods who no one ever claimed to be humans (Krishna, Horus, Mithra...). Secondly, I have a strong feeling that the legends of these individuals' births arose centuries after they were supposed to have lived. I personally think that Spong is one to two decades too late in his dating of Matthew and Luke. For Matthew in particular, I think we're less than 10 years after Mark and less than fifty years of the resurrection. In an oral culture--and a document probably produced in or around Antioch--this is not much time.

A Point of Strong Disagreement
One point where I want to take strong exception to Spong is in his explanation of resurrection faith. He argues that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus being exalted to heaven, not resurrected in a way that would involve an empty tomb. Let me say that it is at this point that I find Spong's perspective highly problematic, even if many scholars continue to express this point of view.

Since this review is about the virgin birth rather than the resurrection, let me just make two points:

1. First, I find ludicrous Spong's suggestion that "Easter broke, I believe, not so much with a supernatural external miracle but with the dawning internal realization that this life of Jesus reflected a new image of God, an image that defied the conventional wisdom, an image that called into question the exalted king as the primary analogy by which God could be understood" (39). With due respect to this beautifully worded thought (not original to Spong), I find this "cause" entirely insufficient to account for the "effect" we find in the early church.

Let me explain further by recourse to the second point:

2. One cannot easily dismiss Paul's claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that Peter saw the risen Lord along with many others, nor Paul's insistence that Jesus was the first of the general resurrection. We cannot dismiss them because the Corinthians seem to know of Peter and his movements, not to mention Barnabas (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:5-6). Since Paul had opposition at Corinth and indeed since some of them didn't even believe in a resurrection, a lie about something like this would have made him a sitting duck. He would have been stupid on the highest level to make up something like a resurrection appearance to Peter.

And of course Dunn has recently debunked the whole "gap theory" that Spong, the Jesus Seminar and all of these "sixties seminarians" have long used to propose a complete difference between Jesus and Paul (it's actually a much older suggestion). The little book A New Perspective on Jesus is very helpful in this regard.

I personally believe that the best an atheist can really claim with integrity is that Peter only thought he saw the risen Christ. Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, Peter certainly thought that he had seen the risen Jesus, and he was willing to die for that convinction.

And so, for Spong's explanation of resurrection to work in reality, over time Peter would have had to mistake a "dawning internal realization" he had for having had an actual vision of the risen Jesus. Wow, I don't think I could do that.

Spong and Speculation
As someone who likes to play at novel-writing, there are points where Spong's book gets really "fun." So Spong wonders whether the story of the woman caught in adultery was placed where it was because people thought of Jesus' mother as an adulterer (170). Spong suggests that the accusations of Jewish leaders might imply Mary was raped (171). He wonders if Jesus' words about tying up a strong man were reminiscences of something that happened in his childhood (162). Of course I can't prove that the Jewish leaders didn't think such things, but we lack far from enough evidence even to argue for these kinds of things. It is Spong gone speculative.

One funny thing about all this speculation is that Spong pretty much assumes that John gives us straightforward historical portrayals of events and the things people said and did in Jesus' life. Remember, he called anyone ignorant who would do this with the birth narratives. He took great pains in previous chapters to argue that the gospels are not historical but "midrashic" (which he basically defines as imaginative retellings of stories in the light of the Old Testament). So why does he take John so historically--if he is consistent with his own method? Indeed, John is more often considered by scholars the least straightforwardly historical of the gospels!

For example, Spong says at one point that John "was written, as most scholars believe, by a disciple of John Zebedee" (192). Ha! Fine with me and many conservative scholars! Nice of Spong to side with us conservatives. It seems deeply ironic to me that Spong is uncritically literal with what "most scholars" take to be the most symbolic of all the gospels!

One feature of John that is very important when reading these texts is irony. Sometimes John tells of people saying something where the audience is meant to smile because they know something the people in the story don't.

So when Caiaphas says it is better for one man to die than for all the people to (John 11:50), the audience should smile--we know that the one man Jesus did die so that the whole world wouldn't. Similarly, when the crowds suggest that Jesus can't be the Christ because he isn't from Bethlehem (7:42), it is very likely that John means the audience to smile as well--we know that Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem.

By far the most entertaining part of the book to me are Spong's speculations about whether Mary Magdalene might have been Jesus' wife. This is a really popular idea today with the Da Vinci Code and what not. Spong suggests that the wedding at Cana was Jesus' own wedding because "I have never attended a wedding with my mother except when it was the wedding of a relative" (192). I'm having fun with Spong, but this is really the stuff of a novel.

On the one hand, I'm not sure it would affect any doctrine of the church or the inerrancy of the Bible if Jesus had been married. The Bible doesn't say he wasn't! And we only find out that the disciples were married because of a completely unnecessary side comment Paul makes (1 Cor. 9:5). If anything, we get the impression that the wives of these men were so irrelevant to the biblical writers that no one bothered to mention them. There is no conspiracy of suppression--only the possibility that these men undervalued their wives.

At the same time, I don't see why Luke wouldn't go ahead and say Mary was Jesus' wife if she was (I don't buy Spong's conspiracy theory of suppression here). And the scandal of an illegitimate birth would have played right into Luke's emphasis on Jesus' ministry to the poor and the oppressed. So why doesn't Luke go ahead and portray Jesus this way? Why does Luke present the virgin birth and refrain to tell us of a marital association with Mary Magdalene?

Could it be because Jesus was born of a virgin and wasn't married to Mary?

Closing Remarks
In closing, I didn't quite see the connection between the portrayal of Mary in the gospels and the ongoing oppression of women today. I will readily admit that the New Testament is often patriarchal in its assumptions. I am willing to admit that church history has often filtered the words of the Bible through a sexual lens that is inappropriate to the gospel. But I don't see how the virgin birth is to blame for all this. Just because someone abuses something doesn't mean that it isn't legitimate. "Abuse is no excuse.

In the end, Spong's argument is all too familiar. We have seen it in the eighteenth century Hume, the nineteenth century Renan, the twentieth century Bultmann. These individuals have come to the data with an antisupernaturalist presupposition. Clearly the data can be interpreted coherently in terms of such a presumption. But since none of these individuals have disproved that God exists and sometimes acts in history, the data can also be interpreted coherently with a supernaturalist presupposition as well.

It is the same data, but the interpretation is different in accordance with two different faiths.