Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fact, Fiction, and Spin: Recent Bush Rhetoric

I don't have time to pursue specifics, but here is my evaluation of some recent "Bush Rhetoric," coming from Bush himself, Cheney the Snake, and Rumsfield the Blunt.

Cheney: Still playing the "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here" card.

Spin and Fiction. The people we're fighting in Iraq would not have come here anyway, and the plots to come here are just as in process as they would have been otherwise. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" was independent of Al-Qaeda to begin with and asked if they could join. Most of the fighting right now isn't even insurgent fighting. It's Shiites fighting Sunnis and visa versa.

Bush, Rumsfeld: It would be perilous to withdraw from Iraq without leaving the country stable.

Fact. It would be very undesirable to leave Iraq in its current state. It would almost certainly degenerate into civil war and what would emerge is a Shiite power aligned fully with Iran, with perhaps a Kurdish nation to the north. Of course I get irritated with slogans like "cut and run," because they play on most people's inability to grasp complex situations with multiple variables. So we assign simple labels to things and then pretend like it's an all inclusive answer.

Bush: History will see that we've done a good thing here.

Fiction. History will consider Bush a farce and the primary cause of one of the most perilous world situations in the first half of the twenty-first century. Sure, 9-11 was the spark, but the current situation is mostly the result of Bush's response to the war. For those who want proof, it is easily at hand:

After 9-11, Before Iraq War
Al-Qaeda a marginal group that most Arab states reject

After the Iraq War
Al-Qaeda becomes a unifying force among "Islamo-fascist" groups, disempowered groups gain power over moderate groups, a whole next generation of youths come of age under extreme anti-American rhetoric.

Before Iraq
US sympathetic regime in control of Spain

After Iraq
US sympathetic regime voted out

Before Iraq
Moderate government in control in Iran

After Iraq
Extremist government elected in Iran, one with which we may soon find ourselves at war, yet we don't have the resources to deal handily with it because we are bogged down in Iraq

Before Iraq
Turkey, a vibrant allay

After Iraq
Turkey a tenuous ally having to deal with increased "Islamo-fascism" in its own borders

Before Iraq
At least American conversant Fatah in leadership of Palestinian authority

After Iraq
Hamas elected to leadership of Palestinian authority

Before Iraq
American in many places thought "fun," "Hollywood," "John Wayne," not really taken seriously but liked

After Iraq
America considered scary, a threat, an imbecile with a really big gun. Bush rhetoric of axis of evil leads N. Korea and Iran to even more aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons

Before Iraq
France, Germany vote with US like Britain

After Iraq
Increasing resistance to US proposals, increased talk of a need for the EU, China-Russia-Chavez to be counterbalance to a dangerous USA

In the light of recent Lebanon crisis
Before: Lebanon run by a US sympathetic government

After: Hezbollah with increased clout in part by association of Israel's tactics, America's tactics in Iraq, America's carte blanche support for Israel.

So I'm going with "fiction" on the idea that history will smile at all on George Bush. Sorry Charlie, your historical goose is cooked.

Bush, Cheney: The Democrats are weak on defense. Elect Republicans.

True, but spin. Again, this plays on simple minded Americans who can't handle complexity--this is the "fallacy of composition"--generalizing something that is true of a part and applying it lock, stock, and barrel to the whole. I guess most Americans aren't smart enough to handle this very difficult concept: whether an individual is weak on defense or not depends on whether that individual--Republican or Democrat--is weak on defense.

Having said that, I do think in general that Republicans tend to be stronger on defense than Democrats. But I don't vote for a party. I vote for individuals.

Bush: If you don't support the Iraq war, you don't understand the war on terror or you are weak on terrorism. If you don't support my way, the Islamo-fascists will blow up your house.

False, spin, sometimes true. First there's the fallacy of identifying the war on terror with the war in Iraq. You could be entirely for the "war" on terrorism and be against Bush's way of prosecuting the war and the war on Iraq. That's why I'd vote for John McCain today.

And that's the way I see it, Thursday, August 31, 2006.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Interesting Discussion of Women in Ministry

Scot McKnight has an interesting discussion going on today on his blog re: women in ministry in decline among churches that have traditionally affirmed it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Difficult Verse: Romans 6:7

Most, if not all translations render Romans 6:7 something like "he who has died is freed from sin" (e.g., the RSV). But the Greek is actually quite startling. Its meaning is at least potentially quite different:

"The one who has died has been justified (and stands justified) from sin"!

This has been a tantalizing verse to me for some years, for it is quite possible that some Jews believed that death had atoning significance. In 4 Maccabees, a righteous man named Eleazar is said to be perfected by death (7:15). Dare we even ponder the possibility that Paul thought that most individuals find rest in the afterlife because their sins are atoned for by death?

In this connection, it is noticeable that Paul only speaks of the resurrection of the dead in Christ. He never mentions the resurrection of any other dead--including OT saints and the heinously wicked. Paul nowhere uses the word Gehenna or even Hades. He does mention those under the earth in Philippians 2, arguably a reference to the dead. As far as I can tell, there is only one exception: 2 Timothy 4:1, which is either the last of Paul's writings or, if you go with most non-evangelical scholars, pseudonymous. It mentions the judgment of the living and the dead in a manner we do not find anywhere else in the Pauline corpus. Elsewhere Paul mentions only the judgment of the living and the resurrection of the dead in Christ.

So whether it is correct or not, I think it would be very difficult to disprove that Paul believed that only the dead who were baptized in Christ's name would rise from the dead and that everyone else found rest because death justified for their sins. Of course you cannot prove this position either, since we are basically dealing with a matter of silence on Paul's part.

Whatever the original meanings of these verses, the Christian understandings of these matters are clear enough. We believe in a general resurrection of all, and we do not believe that death justifies the ungodly.

But you can see how easy it would be to argue that something "heretical" was Paul's original meaning. On the other hand, these are the places where conservative scholars like Tom Wright and Ben Witherington work their magic, arguing for original meanings that cohere with orthodox faith. My faith stands fine regardless. The church has made it clear what we are to believe. And it is certainly possible to argue that an orthodox meaning was original, even if you can't prove it is really the original or prove that the other reading is wrong historically.

But I think at some point in the next thirty years evangelicalism will grow up and finally acknowledge that we need more than just the biblical text in its original meaning to have a sound Christian faith. If we do not allow for the consensus of the church, the Bible is susceptible to all sorts of heretical interpretations, and some of them might just have been the original meanings!

My thoughts tonight...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Religious Conservatism on the Upswing

Scot McKnight and friends had an interesting discussion yesterday about the rise of neo-fundamentalism:

Russ Gunsalus showed me the most recent front cover of Christianity Today, which is about the resurgence of the more virulent forms of Calvinism.

The trend is more than just the usual fight against the "dying of the light," the age old sense that religious institutions are always going liberal. I have thoughts on this subject too (surprise).

"Tangent" on the Dying of the Light
On the one hand, it is apparently well documented that religious institutions of higher learning have a tendency to become less and less affiliated with their parent denominations and eventually to become secular. It can go the other way, at least for a time, as the witch trial at Louisville Southern Baptist in the 90s did.

So you regularly hear rhetoric of "carrying the torch" and "don't let the fire go out" and "we need a revival." You also often hear an anti-education or anti-intellectual edge in the pew, a "town-gown" divide, as it were. It's been especially prominent on News shows with witch hunts of liberals at colleges and universities around the nation. Scarborough Country on MSNBC had a number of programs last year about removing extreme liberals from tax paid funded American universities. One of the main speakers at the Truth Conference of the Wesleyan Church this summer had this witch hunt flavor.

To be sure, there are a lot of whackos out there at educational institutions. I am amazed at a good deal of it. Don't take anything I say here as support for some of the sloppy thinking that passes in the name of education out there.

But a very sobering question lurks in the "dying of the light" scenario. Underlying this "myth" is the presumption that the more a person studies, the more likely he or she is to go liberal. Is this true? If it is, then something like one of the following must surely be true 1) there's a Satanic conspiracy, 2) there's a human conspiracy, 3) education tempts people to a particular kind of temptation that tends to lead to temptation, or 4) the truth tends to the liberal.

If there's a human conspiracy, I don't know about it (and you'd think I would by now). Clearly the conservative ideological machine is alive and well and just if not more popular right now than any liberal machine. So at best we have #3, a human temptation associated with education. I think if there is a Satanic conspiracy, it also must boil down to #3.

On the other hand, individuals like Ben Witherington and Tom Wright are immensely popular--ravenously devoured by conservatives. So I don't buy that there is some universal temptation that pushes the educated go liberal. I personally believe I could really have gone places these last ten years if my sermons and teaching played more to reinforcing traditional values and ideas. I think I could easily be on a speaking circuit by now doing a bunch of revivals and writing popular books.

[By the way, I'm not suggesting that Witherington or Wright are faking it. I wholeheartedly believe they are sincere.]

To me the answer to this question that has always been the most likely answer, that has always been staring us in the face generation after generation is that in some way, the truth tends to work against the traditional. Notice how I worded it this time. I did not say that the truth is liberal. There are a thousand different "liberals," just as there are a thousand different "conservatives." The trend is what is common, not the specific content that is deconstructing.

Note, for example, Daniel Wallace's defense of his view of inerrancy. This man is no liberal to be sure, but he is being attacked by his particular set of traditionalists, simply because he has come to see that matters are more complicated than he might at first have thought:

And there's the real answer. Ideological systems tend to be human contructs that denconstruct on closer examination. Reality is too complex for any human system of positive understanding to capture or grasp it. Institutions of higher learning tend toward their respective "liberal" simply because the more you investigate a subject, the more previous human constructs of that subject deconstruct.

The secret is thus not in constructing a new liberal system which itself will only deconstruct. But what we need to expend our energies toward is operating with a sense of mystery as we investigate, to learn to view human truth as a collection of true metaphors and true "myths." We believe God knows everything, but accept that we are only getting little snippets of what God knows in a skewed form.

Return to "Main" Subject
I suspect that 9-11 is the key factor behind the most recent resurgence of fundamentalism. For most Americans, religion is part of a cultural package that cannot distinguish America and apple pie from church. The Iraq War has only furthered the polarization of world religions. Iran will do the same. Right now I'm predicting that a Republican will win in 2008 because of the impending crisis with Iran.

So liberal colleges and seminaries are in trouble. Conservative ones face a marketing boon. So Liberty Baptist will rock this decade!


51% of Current Seminarians, Women

Ben Witherington's blog today ( set me on to an New York Times article this morning of interest:

The article indicates that 51% of current individuals in divinity school are women. It also indicates that in their second decade of ministry, most women pastors do not move on to larger congregations. It also mentions the decline in women ministers among many groups like the Wesleyans that historically ordained them last century.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Poor Pluto

Pluto has just been downgraded to a dwarf planet and is no longer one of nine. Poof, there are only eight planets in our solar system now. Poor Pluto.

Actually, I'm pretty happy with the decision over and against its alternative, which was to count Charon, Zena, and a whole bunch of other icy things orbiting the Sun. Pluto wasn't big enough to clear everything out of its orbit (it crosses Neptune's) and was just too small.

The funny thing is of course that yesterday it was a planet. In other words, the category of planet is a human construct in this instance. The difference between our planets and the many suns out there is not a human construct, nor are certain key differences between Pluto and Neptune that have constituted the different classifications.

But the name planet is a human sign whose definition might just as easily have come out something different. We humans created the planets today.

And since as a son of Adam I can make names too, I will continue to refer to Pluto as a planet. I'll be selling Schenck dictionaries on Amazon so you can know what I really mean. But of course someone will have to learn your language and mine in order to write it in yours.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wayne Grudem

Some might have been surprised that I didn't post something on the woman removed from her Sunday School class in Watertown, New York. I figure I've blogged quite a bit already on my views. It's more surprising that it's an American Baptist church, since they don't usually have a problem with women in ministry. As many have said, this probably had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman--that was likely just a superficial side excuse or comment of a pastor with other motives.

What has me angry is Wayne Grudem's site in conjunction with the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: Now I really suspect that he's a nice and good person. He is fair in his views and presentation. More dangerously, his site is really "good" and no doubt would bombard anyone sympathetic to women in ministry from the sheer "shock and awe" of it. It's convinced me to start my own site or get IWU or the Wesleyans to do it.

Believe it or not, I have a tendency to pull my punches a little on these issues. In my mind, hitting them with full force would be a little like Israel's bombing tactics in Lebanon--a lot of innocence might get hurt in the process.

But now I'm ticked. Maybe it would be good for evangelicalism to work through some things it generally ignores.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Good Preaching

A few professors at IWU read through parts of Augustine's writings this past spring, including his classic piece on preaching. There he made an interesting comment that some people are born preachers, yet that it is difficult to become a good preacher if you are not born with such gifts.

I resonated with that. It's the idea that a person can improve their speaking skills, but that ultimately either you are born to speak or you're going to have to work hard each week to do an adequate job. Now I don't imagine that this will be a very popular idea, especially in a democratic society that boasts that you can do anything you put your mind to. And don't get me wrong, the preaching courses we take in college and seminary are helpful and useful. Almost anyone can do an adequate job of preaching with some training.

I also recognize that this whole line of thought seems to forget the Holy Spirit and being anointed in preaching. We have to believe that the Holy Spirit is there in the mix, like the wind that blows where it wills. But I think it is naive to have some magical view of pulpit inspiration. I simply do not believe that the most delightful speakers to the ear are somehow more spiritual or inspired than those we may find it torturous to hear. And some have gifts in other areas just as striking as those who are pulpit wise. Some are gifted counsellors and listeners where the gifted preacher might be a dullard.

So what does it take to be a good preacher--or for that matter a good conveyor of the Bible or theology? I am convinced that it takes wisdom. The Bible will not yield more on the lips of a preacher than the wisdom of the preacher. God may speak directly from the words of Scripture or through the mind of the individual in the pew. But the preacher's wisdom is the preacher's wisdom. The same goes for a "Bible conveyor." It is naive to think that the Bible equally shares wisdom with all. It usually takes wisdom to get wisdom from the Bible. The wisdom a teacher "of the Bible" finds and brings from the Bible is proportionate to the wisdom that teacher brings to the Bible.

So what if you are not wise? Get wisdom my son, get wisdom. If you are not wise--and I would put myself naturally in that category--then read and borrow from those God has gifted with wisdom.

It is more difficult to become entertaining if you are not a naturally enjoyable speaker. You can work to model yourself on those who tickle the ears. You can pursue illustrations that hold attention. You can work at these things and should. But there are limits to what you have here and you shouldn't try to be something you aren't.

Again, I think it is naive to think that this generation will delight as much in dryly presented wisdom as a less wise sermon with the tiniest drop of truth in a spoonful of sugar. This says nothing about the spirituality or wisdom of the speaker, only to one area of giftedness. But there are easily learned ways to adjust. A pastor who knows he or she is not enjoyable to hear can use objects or movie clips or can preach in 5 minute segments with some other interruption that holds attention by a quick shift of attention to some skit or action that illustrates yet mixes things up.

And we have to believe that the Holy Spirit is there in this mix. But where exactly is always a mysterious matter. Life is a tapestry and we can sometimes see in hindsight where the golden thread of the Spirit is interwoven. But just as often we will not know until we reach the kingdom.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Climbing the Mountain of Knowledge

This is a slightly different kind of post. These are some of my reflections for those in PhD programs in biblical studies or who are younger professors of Bible who are post-doc and wanting to keep up to date or to publish.

When I finished my PhD and had defended my dissertation, I told one of my examiners that I felt like all the scholarly knowledge I was supposed to know as a biblical scholar was like a mountain that I hadn't even begun to climb. This December is the tenth anniversary of my defense, and I have a few reflections on climbing the mountain. Here are some thoughts

1. If it is your calling (or perverse hobby) to be an "original meaning" resource for the kingdom of God, first study with those near the top of the mountain. They'll give you the fast track past many dead ends and lead you straight to their own :-) Get as close as you can to those who seem to know the most. Get where you have access to the best libraries and a steady stream of visiting scholars on the cutting age of your field.

2. Skim through the Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and New Testament Studies as each new issue comes out (every three months). Read more thoroughly those that represent gaps in your knowledge or areas of research interest.

3. Scan the Review of Biblical Literature that SBL puts out each week. Skim through the book reviews, especially again those that represent gaps or areas for research.

4. Find a way to scan the catalogs of the main publishers each quarter (Eerdmans, Fortress, Baker, IVP, Westminster JK, etc...). See what's being published. I think you will get these automatically if you are a member of SBL.

5. Join the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Go to the yearly meetings. Pick an area and join the group. Get on the program. At least send one proposal each year. Better yet, propose a new group. Start a blog in your area and network with the young whipper snappers who are all over this stuff (see my links to Euangelion and Scot McKnight... follow their links... you'll be amazed at how many young scholars are blogging their stuff out there).

6. Write something, at least one thing a year. Follow a trail of scholarship. Even if it doesn't get published, you'll get really helpful reviews from someone established in the guild. You'll have grown in the process of writing. Try a smaller journal if you don't get in to a big one. I now try to pick one of the courses I'm teaching each semester and brainstorm on something I might publish relative to that course (once a year is success to be sure).

7. Pick an area or a specific scholar you like and read everything in that area or everything by that scholar. He or she will almost certainly introduce you to a circle of scholars that are in dialog with each other about something. Join the dialog. It's important to find a subcircle in the guild. One way is to be the expert on some tiny slice of the pie. Then you will be referenced and invited to give that slice on whatever the broader topic. I wouldn't advise you to do this intentionally, but being intelligently quirky--having an infamous position--can work this angle too as long as it's not just plain whacko.

8. Try to go to some of the conferences that pop up here and there. Give a short paper. Try to get in the conference volume.

I don't suppose this blog entry is relevant to too many of those who might be reading this, but these are some of my thoughts today on the subject...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Latin is the Bomb

I wanted to interrupt my regularly scheduled nonsense for a serious moment.


They, who shall remain unmentioned, don't want IWU students to know that Latin is being offered this Fall! Knowing that the best way to defeat the forces of evil is a good knowledge of Latin, they have clouded the minds of students into thinking IWU doesn't even offer Latin.

This is an actual conversation:

"Dr. Schenck, it's really sad that IWU doesn't offer Latin," said the summer student.

"But it does; I'm actually teaching it this Fall," said Ken Schenck.

"Is there even anyone here who could teach Latin?"

"Dude, didn't you hear me? I'm teaching Latin," shouted Schenck.

"Too bad. Because Latin is, like, the bomb," said the student, walking away.

Well actually, only the first two sentences really happened, but it sounds more interesting if there's a conspiracy.

There are only two and a potential third student signed up for Latin! Surely this is my failure to advertise the class. The class will happen regardless.

Spread the word! It is not too late to switch your schedule to Latin! Then you'll be able to understand what they're saying with all those spells in Harry Potter (and of course read what Augustine really said in his Confessions).

We now resume our regularly non-scheduled blogging.

LuLu Publishing

As usual, there are untold benefits to having your office next to Keith Drury. He put a bug in my ear the other day about LuLu Publishing, the future of publishing and the nemesis of the traditional publishing guild. Some of you may know that I have an old manuscript lying around that has never been published, Who Decides What the Bible Means? I logged on to LuLu publishing and within twenty minutes had it published, cover and all!

I unpublished it, made a few modifications, and then republished it the next morning. My perfect bound copy arrived by UPS today. I need to adjust the font and take care of a few details, so I have it so only I can buy copies right now. But when I'm happy with it, I can put it on Amazon and whooptie doo.

I have seen the future and it is me (because now any whacko can get published for the cost of paper, shipping, and handling...)

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Secrets of Hebrews

Everybody wants to know the secrets of Hebrews. Who was the author? Where was it written from? Who was it written to? When was it written? Why was it written? We cannot speak of definitive answers about any of these questions, even if we can peck at a few.

At the beginning of the summer, I felt convinced the author was a male (masculine singular self-referential participle at 11:32) and probably a Jewish male (although I can't prove it). Apollos is tempting, but really we just can't know, other than no one thinks it was Paul. I felt pretty good about it being written after the destruction of the temple in AD70 and probably to a Gentile community of believers at Rome. Already here I was in the minority of English speaking scholarship, who generally vote for Jews before 70. Rome remains the most popular vote for destination and still gets my vote (13:24).

When I wrote my little book on Hebrews, I guessed that there might be something going on in the synagogue that claimed to be an atoning replacement for the absent temple. Big guess of course. I still think that might be what stands behind 13:9-10. Of course the old standard is that a Jewish audience is contemplating a return to mainstream Judaism.

A little over a year ago I noticed that Hebrews (in its main argument) never tells its audience not to rely on the Levitical system. This seemed peculiar to me if the point of Hebrews is to argue for them not to rely on the Levitical system. It is really peculiar if Hebrews was written before 70 to dissuade an audience from reliance on the temple. Of course Hebrews never uses the word temple and you could argue that a bit of secrecy is going on because "the walls have ears." But I began to wonder if Hebrews is more a consolation in the temple's absence than an argument against reliance on the Levitical system per se.

I was having these thoughts last year as I was editing my dissertation (by the way, I got my first word back on it today and, with fingers crossed and hands assuming the prayer position, it's looking good for it to get published). Then surprise, surprise, Pamela Eisenbaum says something very similar at SBL. Then surprise, suprise, Richard Hays gives a paper something like this in Scotland. It's bubbling up and who knows that I've had some of these thoughts too on my own?

But it was a couple weeks before the conference that I had my big thought--in the sense that my degree of certainty went up considerably. If you read the situation chapter of my book, I am very tentative and uncertain in what I conclude.

The problem with my answers so far has been that while 6:1-2 lead me to think the audience was Gentile (these are not "beginning words about the Christ" for Jews, not "ABCs of the beginning oracles of God" for a Jew that is the foundation laid when they became enlightened about the Christ), I had not been able to explain why Gentiles might be tempted to abandon Christian faith for mainstream Judaism, in that scenario. Or how would an argument that Christ replaces the Levitical system convince Gentiles to continue in faith?

My aha moment was when several of these developing threads came together for me. And I should mail off tomorrow an article submission with my idea to New Testament Studies. Here is the formula:

1. Christians at the time of Hebrews considered themselves Jews, whether "Gentile Jews" or ethnic Jews. They were all Christian Jews. To speak of Christians and Jews in distinction from each other is anachronistic. There was as yet no "parting of the ways."

2. Many Christians probably didn't expect God to let the Romans destroy Jerusalem and the temple and then for it just to sit there. Whatever happened to the second coming of Christ who destroys the lawless one after he sets himself up in the temple as God? What about my house will be a house of prayer for the nations? There's no house there. What about the rebuilding of the temple after the destroying part? Most if not all of the early Christians in Acts don't seem to have a clue that the temple is about to be destroyed. Paul even makes an offering in the temple in Acts 21, a little more than 10 years before it was destroyed!

3. Maybe Hebrews is an apology rather than a polemic. That is, maybe the audience needs an explanation for how Christian Judaism can be true in the absence of a temple, rather than an argument against reliance on the Levitical cultus. If Paul argues with other Christians that "faith of Christ" justifies apart from "works of law," maybe Hebrews argues "Christ's sacrifice" atones apart from the need for any other atonement.

4. A Gentile might be tempted to give up on the whole thing under these circumstances. They might want to believe the Jewish Scriptures, but not see how. What would be at stake would be Judaism for them, a tendency to turn away from the "living God."

I think I can account for pretty much all of Hebrews' argument on this scenario. We'll see if I convince anyone.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon Starters: The Words of God

The outline of my sermon this morning:

Having the right tools or the right person with the right knowledge makes all the difference between a 10 minute thing and something that never gets fixed. Romans 10 tells us that the word of faith that results in salvation is in our mouth and heart. You don't have to bring Christ down from heaven to be right with God. You don't have to bring him up from the grave. Faith is only as far away as your heart.

The Word Near You 1: The Spirit of Christ
John 1:1-14: The Word made flesh is Christ, the word par excellence.
"Tabernacled" among us, as God met Moses in the tent.

Now present through the Spirit, John 16:7-13.
Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Leads believers into truth.
Not always clear what is the Spirit and what isn't. Word is near, but not always recognized.

Some people have an overactive conscience that isn't the Holy Spirit
David Seamands, Healing for Damaged Emotions, Healing of Memories, "damaged love receptors"

Some people have no conscience... we can at least pray for them.

Many in the coming generation have a conscience that is a blank slate: they are willing to do what Jesus would do but don't have a clue what that is!

A place to start:
Love neighbor--don't do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you...
Love God--are you willing to do anything God would ask you to do?

The Word is Near You 2: The Speaking of God in History
A wander through Hebrews: the word of God is bigger than the Bible

Hebrews 4:12-13: Everything is naked and exposed before God's word.

The word of God, the Bible, is near us, but not always clear what God's word in it is:

The fundamentalist who limits the word of God to the Bible, the letteralist. Surprising interpretations about the Sabbath and about Moses' veiling in Paul.

The "liberal" who doesn't care what the Bible says at all.

The confused person who doesn't know who to believe on what the Bible says.

A place to start:
The love commands in how to live.
2000 years of Christian reflection on the Bible in what to believe (like the creeds). No need to start from scratch when God's been working through things with the church for 2000 years.

The Word of God 3: The word of faith that leads to salvation
Romans 10:5-13
We can walk by faith even when we don't know everything about the words of God near us.

Is your heart troubled about judgment: 1 John, God is greater than your heart
Is your heart troubled about sin: 1 John, if you confess your sins, God will forgive them
Are you worried about truth: Walk by faith until God gives sight.
Are you worried about salvation: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Keith Oberman is an MSNBC host whose sympathies clearly don't lie with George Bush. I imagine he's a Democrat, but I don't find him extreme. If he is a Democrat, he is unusual in that he is quite funny. Republican talk show hosts usually have the upper hand in the "sardonic wit" department. But one thing is for sure--he's a clever beast.

I smile whenever I watch his show at the end (usually when putting children to sleep). He always ends with the comment "one thousand, four hundred, and ninety-whatever days since Mission Accomplished in Iraq." Clever beast I tell you. How do you argue with the point: George Bush was rather naive to think the battle was over just because we were in control of Baghdad. And now this war has lasted longer than we were in World War I and the Korean War, and in about a year, we will have been in Iraq longer than WW2. Don't pull the endless war on terror idea--the war in Iraq is a different thing.

Today his cleverness showed as he noticed that Tony Snow knew what was coming down yesterday when he berated the Democratic party for the defeat of Lieberman in Connecticut. Lieberman lost for his support of the war in Iraq, and Bush used the defeat of Lieberman to argue that the Democrats are weak on defense. It is hard not to conclude that the Bush administration took advantage of the fact that a "defense" issue was going to arise today to set up the Democrats as weak on defense. Very clever... has the look of Karl Rove. Frankly, you can't blame them from using the knowledge to their own advantage.

In fact, being a Republican, I received an email from Ken Mehlman yesterday, chair of the Republican party with the same message: "if you stand for a strong defense and victory in the War on Terror, you have no place in the [Democratic] party and you must be purged."

I had wondered yesterday why the Republicans were making such a big point about the Lieberman defeat. I guess now I know why.

Of course Oberman was not to be deterred. He showed a clip from July 4 in which Bush happily proclaimed that the war in Iraq was taking the war to them so we don't have to face them here. Then he showed a clip of Bush yesterday I think, noting that we shouldn't think that we are safe here in America. Does anyone really think that the Islamic psychos can't spare twenty or thirty from Iraq to blow up themselves somewhere else?

Clever beast, that Oberman. He just sets you up with clips and tidbits... you draw the conclusion.

Terror Plot

A quick prayer of thanks to the Lord that the individuals who were planning to blow up dozens of planes were stopped. Sometimes the Lord lets such people through, but apparently not this time.

What we need to ask ourselves seriously is whether this plot would exist if we had not invaded Iraq. And Israel must also ask whether the way it has approached Lebanon will have the same effect. And if the answer is yes to either of these questions, then we must admit that we are not able to defeat the forces of darkness strictly by military might. We have to win hearts and minds too to keep the squashing of one enemy from raising up 10 others. And neither the US nor Israel seems very good at that about now.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Truth, Justice, All That Stuff

It may seem trivial to use a line from Superman to try to capture some of the greatest strengths of the American way of life. But the line is so good.

Truth: We may be postmodern now, but let's not throw out the old Enlightenment sense of truth too much--even if it did get a little arrogant. The idea that there are right and wrong answers is ultimately fundamental to the American Way of life. Math problems have answers and there are better and worse ways to go about things. I'm not going fundy on you, especially since I think scientists in general tend to be more objective than we religious types.

I know it doesn't sound like me, but ultimate relativism in the category of truth is incompatible with the American way. Either a person committed the murder or they didn't. Either the motor will drive the car or it won't. Either tax refunds will spur on the economy with the appropriate accompanying variables or it won't. Even if a philosopher could deconstruct everything I just said, we would need the "myth" of truth for the American way to continue to exist.

When you're wrong, no amount of talking and explanation will make you right.

Justice: Another very important part of the American way is justice--blind justice in particular. In some ways of course, this is a myth we have told ourselves, for our justice system often convicts the innocent and lets the guilty go free. But it is a goal we must ever strive for. We must strive for a justice that is blind to color, race, gender, and indeed all but the crime in question.

Here the enemy in my view is "group culture." Group culture is when a police officer gets off because he or she is "in" or when a black person gets convicted because he or she is "out." Frankly, it is unamerican to treat an American differently than a non-American. Justice is blind to interest group and treats everyone with impartiality.

But justice is not vindictive. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Not two eyes for one or five teeth for two. And justice is not something administered by individuals, but by the state.

The American way is really the way of Western Enlightenment culture with an American twist. Sure, it is at times culture rather than absolute truth. Sure, the culture of the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s did not live up to its own ideas over and over. But the ideals remain and cannot succomb to postmodernism or "tribalism."

All are welcome here, as long as they are willing to abide by our social contract. We do not invade other sovereign nations unless we have their permission, the permission of their people, the consensus of collected, just nations, or a clear and present danger. We bend over backwards to protect the innocent, no matter where they may be. An American soldier of honor will die for an innocent Iraqi or Lebanese who gets caught in the fight.

This is a land of opportunity, a land of capitalism with certain safeguards so the system does not become oppressive and only benefit a few. It is a place for the pursuit of happiness, as long as your pursuit doesn't harm anyone. It is a place for all to practice their religion as long as it does not harm others.

This is the American way: truth, justice, and all that stuff.

What's some stuff I've forgotten?

Monday, August 07, 2006

4 Ezra

4 Ezra is a Jewish writing that dates to about AD100, meaning that it was written at about the same time Revelation and the latest parts of the NT were coming off the press (so to speak). I've had to dabble in it for years of course, but finally sat down and read it from front to end at leisure. It's basically written by someone trying to figure out what God is up to after not only letting the Romans destroy Jerusalem and the temple, but in letting it just sit there in the dust for thirty more years after.

It's about the problem of evil from a Jewish perspective and why God allows bad things to happen to His people while letting the wicked prosper their socks off.

4 Ezra is an apocalypse like Revelation, some of Daniel, some of 1 Enoch, etc... It is placed on the lips of Ezra because Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple once before as well. Of course historically, the temple was rebuilt by the time of Ezra and the Persians were in control. An earlier generation of scholars might laugh or scorn the author of 4 Ezra at this point, saying, "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, you silly forgerer--you got it way wrong. How about taking responsibility for your own ideas rather than hiding behind someone else."

But this seems an ignorant response itself, one laden with anachronistic and cultural presuppositions. I have a pet theory (which is either itself ignorant, has already been suggested before, or is something I should publish quickly) that many pseudonymous authors put "fail safe switches" into their writings just to make it clear that they weren't really writing about Ezra, Judith, or whoever. It was like a clue to say, "This is a parable of our present time." If this is the case, of course, then it is wrong to dismiss such writings simply because they weren't written by the name on them. I mean, no one scorns Dickens, "I just found out he made it all up... There never was a Tiny Tim!!" I'm sorry, who are you? It's a novel, twit. And so it may be that these things were simply an ancient type of writing with which we are not familiar and thus don't know the "rules" on how to read them.

The Top Ten Interesting or Relevant Things about 4 Ezra:

1. It mentions Adam as the culprit behind the mess of the world.
Believe it or not, Paul's idea that sin and death entered the world through Adam is a pretty unusual idea in Judaism. The Enoch books which are before Christ more blame fallen angels from the time of the Flood. In fact, it is not until a (perhaps first century BC) work called the Life of Adam and Eve that any Jewish writing even equates Satan with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Genesis never says this.

"A grain of evil seed was sown in Adam's heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now--and will produce until the time of threshing comes!" (2 Esdras 4:30; cf. 7:11; translations from the NRSV; it was originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, but no longer survives in the original language)

More on Adam: 6:54; 7:118.

2. It has a full blown sense of the afterlife.
It has a sense of torment and reward immediately at death (7:75), as well as a future resurrection. The corruptible will perish at that resurrection (7:31). The wicked will go to the pit of torment, the righteous to a paradise of delight (7:36). The face of the righteous will "shine like the sun, and how they are to be made like the light of the stars, being incorruptible from then on" (7:97).

Cf. also 4:35, 41-42; 5:41-42; 6:16, 19, 25-26; 7:13, 17, 32, 78 (cf. Eccl), 80-100, 123-25, 131; 8:46; 10:16; 14:35.

3. Almost no one will be saved, certainly no Gentiles, and hardly anyone in Israel either!
4 Ezra's answer to the problem of evil is not a very happy one. Basically, no one is going to be saved (e.g., 7:60; 8:1, 3; 10:10). Well, okay, just a few. The earth is compared to a woman who is getting old and, accordingly, her later children are more sickly than her earlier ones (5:51-55). Things are going to get worse and worse (it reads in some places like Mark 13--e.g., 9:3) and then the end will come.

God basically isn't very gracious in 4 Ezra. In fact, in E. P. Sanders' classic work on Judaism where he tried to debunk the common idea that Jews believed they had to earn salvation through works, 4 Ezra was the only Jewish writing from the time he thought didn't picture God as gracious and compassionate and, in general, Judaism as a religion of grace. Ezra finds himself thinking that he himself is doomed, but God corrects him: "you have a treasure of works stored up with the Most High" (7:77).

So 4 Ezra is untypical of Jewish writings in the sense that a person is saved through works rather than through God's grace and faith in God (cf. 7:105; 9:7 also note the mention of faith there in combination!).

But I think even this portrait takes 4 Ezra a little out of focus. 4 Ezra does believe that God "is gracious, because he is gracious to those who turn in repentance to his law" (7:133; note the opportunity for repentance at 9:11). The same passage also proclaims God merciful, patient, bountiful, and abundant in compassion. People can get through even though every one has sinned. We have to remember that 4 Ezra is trying to figure out how God is righteous even though he has let the Romans toast Jerusalem. This is about all he could come up with.

There is a strong sense at least that God made the world for Israel (thus, election): 7:10-11.

Notice the importance of faith: 6:6, 28; 7:34; 9:7.

By the way, I'm sure all this has been suggested, but I wonder if this guy was brought to Rome from Jerusalem as a captive after the Jewish War (cf. 3:29; look at 10:22).

4. All have sinned and are in really big trouble.
I've already hinted at this but 4 Ezra has something like a Romans 3:23:

"Who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who is there among mortals that has not transgressed your covenant" (7:46). See also 3:36; 4:24; 8:35.

Notice that sin is defined in terms of the Jewish law. See also 5:27; 13:38.

5. 4 Ezra looks for the arrival of a political Messiah.
I've often written that the Christian conception of Jesus as Messiah was not at all around before Christ. They didn't expect the Messiah to be divine or to come from heaven or, particularly, to suffer. Psalms of Solomon 17 expects a political leader to come pound the Romans. A part of 1 Enoch that either dates to just before or just after Christ (the Similitudes) does have a more heavenly sense of a Son of Man.

4 Ezra has a primarily political sense of the Messiah. The author thinks the Messiah is pre-existent in heaven (see 12:32; 13:26, 52; 14:9), and in fact likely thinks human souls are pre-existent as well (8:4-5). He will be born of the lineage of David (12:32).

When the Messiah arrives, he will reign for 400 years (7:28). Then he and all humans will die. Then there will be the resurrection of all (7:32). He will destroy Rome when he arrives (he is the lion of 11:37-12:3 and the eagle is Rome). Chapter 12 is basically an apocalyptically presented history of the Roman Empire up to the time 4 Ezra is being written.

He will stand on the top of Mt. Zion and the new Zion will appear, not made with human hands (13:36).

There is a very interesting "Son of Man" type portrait of the Messiah in 13:1-4. He is flying on the clouds of heaven. This imagery probably comes from Daniel 7 rather than NT influence.

See also 5:6; 13:32.

6. A new Jerusalem is being or is prepared.
Even though the current Jerusalem is in shambles. God apparently has another one ready or is getting it ready: 8:52 (rest is involved, see Hebrews 4), 10:27, 42, 44, 55 (where city and building [temple?] is equated). Cf. 10:54; 13:32.

This reminds us of Revelation's city that descends and is at least analogous to Hebrews 12.

7. Ezra is really bold!
Ezra really seems bold to me in his questioning of God. I think a friend of mine, Bruce Longenecker, argued at one time that 4 Ezra doesn't actually conclude that the author thought God was really being appropriate. He later changed his mind, I think.

I think Ezra increasingly accepts God's actions as the book moves on, to where he is more puzzled at the beginning but more defending God by the end.

8. I think the word "Apocrypha" comes from 4 Ezra 14.
Here Ezra writes 24 books of Scripture for the public--these correspond to the Jewish/Protestant canon (14:45). So perhaps the Jewish canon is pretty much set at this point (the idea that it was set at Jamnia is more a legend than established fact). But he "hides" seventy others (14:46). Presumably these include things like the books of Enoch and many other books that we call the Apocrypha. Apocrypha means "hidden," but there are really only 7 books in the Roman Catholic "Apocrypha," along with some expansions to Daniel and Esther.

9. The angel and the Lord are interchangeable speakers.
One fascinating thing to me is that the angel speaking to Ezra and God speaking to Ezra blur together. In 5:31, the angel is talking to Ezra. They have a number of exchanges and then suddenly when Ezra responds, he is talking to God (5:38). So the angel is speaking God's word and Ezra can respond to God directly by responding to the angel.

Tidbits vaguely related in my mind... God's word accomplishes God's work in creation (6:38, 43). The holy spirit is mentioned and is a category in a non-Christian Jewish writing in relation to the inspiration to write scripture!! (14:22; cf.6:39).

By the way, more than once as I read this thing I wondered whether this guy was aware of certain Christian ideas and was interacting with them, working things retro from Christian Judaism back into a form of mainstream Judaism. Of course it is also possible that Christian Jews and this guy (is it a guy?) were drinking from the same Jewish stream. Of course since Christians preserved this thing, you can't always be completely sure that they haven't "upgraded" the manuscripts somewhere.

10. The Western Church deleted a bunch from chapter 7 (verses 36-105).
I say Western rather than Catholic because everything's catholic until 1054 when East and West split. But these verses were cut out of the Latin textual tradition, probably because they leave no hope for a person to switch to the righteous side after death. In other words, you can't support the idea of Purgatory from these verses:

"The day of judgment is decisive and displays to all the seal of truth" (7:104), I think in reference to not long after death.

Scraps that don't fit my top 10 list:
1. Behemoth and Leviathon, always favorites (6:49ff).

2. Compare 8:22 to Hebrews 1:7.

3. God didn't intend all this. It was humanity's fault (8:59).

4. Some language makes us wonder if this guy went to Essene/Enoch school: plant language (9:21, see the Apocalypse of Weeks); dream visions (10:59).

5. The creation of the world is set 3000 years before the temple was completed (10:45).

6. The 5th vision of the seven reminds one a lot of Revelation and actually reinterprets Daniel (11:1-12:51).

7. Ezra may be the last prophet before the end (12:42). While we shouldn't assume the old "they didn't think there were any prophets in the dark intertestamental times" idea, Ezra may have some sense of something like this. Part of the dynamic here is the fact that Ezra=the author of 4 Ezra, which causes the time between the two to collapse somewhat.

8. God has hidden the lost nine tribes (some mss say 10) of Israel on the other side of the Euphrates River, but they'll come back in the end times. Were the Mormans reading this or what?!!!!

If you want to find 4 Ezra, it is hidden inside 2 Esdras in your handy dandy Apocrypha (usually printed in association with the OT of the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans--but it is not considered Scripture by any of these groups). It's a little confusing. The first two chapters of 2 Esdras are a later Christian addition (sometimes called 5 Ezra). Then the last two chapters, 15-16, are an even later Christian addition (sometimes called 6 Ezra).

Welcome to my world..

By the way, I guess I should say any unique things above are my intellectual property, in case I want to develop any of it for publication at some point.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


As is often the case, my wife Angie put on a movie about 10:30 and then proceeded to fall asleep somewhere in the middle, leaving me to watch until after 1:00 in the morning.

The movie was Downfall, a German movie (with English subtitles) about the final days of Hitler in his bunker. The main character is his secretary, and she would also seem to be the main source of information behind the movie. As the movie neared its end, I had a fair sense of who would survive and who would not, based on who the plot seems to be centered. Given my "hermeneutic of suspicion," this of course made me wonder whether in fact the, all things being equal, positive portrayal of these individuals might be a little skewed. But my impression is that the film is broadly accurate (i.e., I didn't get the impression I have of Oliver Stone films).

I found so many aspects of the film horrifying, and in fact I wasn't able to sleep for some time after the movie ended. Unlike so many films of the adventure sort, this one was non-fiction, and many of those we would want to survive did not. Perhaps the most horrifying scene was Frau Goebbels giving a sedative and then cyanide, I think, to her children. She didn't want her children growing up in a world without Nazi Socialism. One in particular sensed what was going on and didn't want to drink the sedative. As far as I know that part was fiction, but we can easily imagine it.

Children come home to find their parents just hung and shot by roaming death squads personally carrying out Hilter's wishes for all the German people to die for being too weak to bring in the Third Reich. At one point Hitler remarks that the strong have all died already, and only the weak continue to live.

Meanwhile, Hitler lives in a dream world, continuing to act as if mythical battalions will pinch the Russian army. His generals nod and sweat, knowing that all was lost. Many of them shoot themselves in the end. Others are trying to surrender or trying to get him out. Hitler goes ballistic and orders several of his generals to be shot (alas, mostly to no avail--they're well out of his reach by now) for these things. He has Eva Braun's brother-in-law shot within hours of defeat for his part with Himmler in working toward surrender.

I wondered if the movie was calculated to have an effect on the latent and sometimes not so latent neo-Nazism afoot in Germany these days. Hitler--did he have MS--is not portrayed weak in the movie to be sure. But his inability to reckon with reality and his hatred for the surviving, weak German people, does not inspire. He is not someone I think a winner watches and thinks, I want to be just like him. Maybe I'm wrong.

Of course he ends up committing suicide with Eva Braun, whom he has just married, and has his body torched so that it cannot be displayed as a trophy. Goebbels and his wife do something similar. Another doctor secretly blew up his family with two hand grenades over supper.

I was struck by the fact that many of the individuals in the movie have only died in the last five to ten years. Several of them spent time in a Russian prison and were released in the fifties, then to live out the rest of their lives. They lived alongside other Germans up until the present time. It is often noted how ordinary these people seemed, how even individuals who had done atrocious things--or done nothing to stop them--were just ordinary people.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

N. T. Wright on Mark 13

Scott, in an effort to get it Wright, I did a little research for a change and dug up these quotes. Wright doesn't make a big point of whether it means coming or going, but if we take it as coming, he understands the movement to be that "he comes from earth to heaven" (Jesus and the Victory of God, 361).

Here are some other interesting Wright quotes:

First from Who Was Jesus?:
"When Jewish writers spoke of the sun and moon being darkened; when they spoke of angels gathering people from the four winds of heaven; when, in particular, they spoke of a Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven - in each of these cases they were using language in this metaphorical way. It is flagrantly absurd to think that Jesus, in saying that sort of thing, envisaged himself of anyone else literally flying around in mid-air on an actual cloud" (55).

"They didn't expect the end of the world; merely the end of the present way the world was run" (56).

And from Jesus and the Victory of God:
"the 'coming of the son of man' does not refer to the 'parousia' in the modern scholarly, and popular, sense of a human figure travelling downwards towards the earth on actual clouds... The word 'coming', so easily misread in English, is in Greek erchomenon, and so could mean either 'coming' or 'going'... The 'coming of the son of man' is thus good first-century metaphorical language for two things: the defeat of the enemies of the true people of god, and the vindication of the true people themselves. Thus, the form that this vindication will take, as envisaged within Mark 13 and its parallels, will be precisely the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple" (359-60).

These are awefully convenient interpretations for orthodox faith, although not so much for American fundamentalist faith. Wright has a fun footnote: "the interesting spectacle of fundamentalist interpreters taking the metphorical language in Mk. 13:26, 30 ('the coming of the son of man') literally, and literal language ('within a generation') metaphorically," (Jesus, 224 n.96). I agree that some of this apocalyptic language is metaphorical. But I'm not convinced that the arrival of Christ was.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mark 13

Mark 13 gives us Jesus' predictions about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD70--or does it? Of course, the Left Behind series thinks Mark 13 is about end time events. An Antichrist will set himself up as god in a rebuilt Jerusalem temple. On the one hand, it is not too hard to see where this interpretation comes from. There are some things in Mark 13 that don't seem to have happened in AD70, like Christ coming on the clouds, sun darkening and moon turning to blood, etc...

On the other hand, the context of Mark 13 leads us to believe that the prophecy is about the destruction of that temple right in front of them. Jesus says that the stones they are looking at will be torn down; the disciples ask when; then the discourse begins. Then there are thornier issues still. There is the statement that "this generation will not pass until all these things happen." Well, that generation's past, which works fine if Jesus means the destruction of Jerusalem. If Jesus meant the second coming, then we have a problem, Houston.

From what I remember, N. T. Wright has a clever solution (so are they all, all clever solutions). He suggests that rather than "coming on the clouds," the sense is "going on the clouds." The Greek word erchomai can mean either. So, he suggests, perhaps it is a reference to Christ abandoning Jerusalem. Since such a going can be coordinated with AD70, and since sun darkening and moon turning can be taken metaphorically (e.g., Acts 2 seems to relate this passage to the Day of Pentecost), case solved.

Then again, is that really what Mark 13 is saying? Should a convenient possible solution trump an inconvenient probable one?

If we leave comfortable surroundings, the discussion gets thornier and thornier. Scholars debate, for example, whether Jesus even predicted that the temple would be destroyed. James Dunn, in Jesus Remembered, makes a pretty good case that Jesus was remembered for predicting some sort of judgment and "rebuilding" of the temple. The main basis I would say is the so called "multiple attestation" of the idea in so many different sources. Some sort of prediction is found not only in the synoptic gospels but in John and the Gospel of Thomas as well. So even an unorthodox person like John Dominic Crossan believes Jesus was remembered for saying something against the temple (man, he likes Thomas).

On the other hand, it is reasonably argued that whatever Jesus said, it surely wasn't as clear as Mark 13 currently is. The disciples in Acts don't seem to have a clue that the temple is going to be destroyed. They continue to worship there, preach there (not against the temple, although Stephen apparently does), heal there, even take vows and offer sacrifices there (Acts 21). Paul talks about a man of lawlessness setting himself up in the temple as God, but says absolutely nothing that would lead us to believe the temple was about to be destroyed.

Indeed, even a close read of Mark 13, other than its beginning, says nothing about the destruction of the temple. It only implies the temple's desecration. Is it possible that it was only in hindsight, after the temple's destruction, that the early Christians came to understand just what Jesus' action in the temple must have signified. Was it only then that they came to understand exactly what Jesus must have meant by destroying and rebuilding the temple?

It seems to me that these are difficult issues to sort out, and they of course run rough shod over simplistic conceptions of the biblical text. My hunch is that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple must have shocked the Christian community almost as much as it shocked the Jewish communities of the world. It is quite possible to read books like Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Hebrews against the backdrop of these events and the ripples they created among Christians.

Of course you would expect that something having to do with Hebrews was driving my interest in this question...

Things to think about... or not.