Thursday, August 31, 2006

Which do we value more?

I just read this op-ed piece in the LEO, by a former stripper who now teaches creative writing and is working on a PhD. In the face of her damning final paragraph, I have to ask:

Which, as a culture, do we value more: a bright, creative woman who teaches young adults to express themselves in writing, or a sexually appealing woman willing to dance seductively? If where our treasures are truly indicates the location of our hearts, then I don't think I'm going to like the answer.

The Problem With Pain is That There is Pain (The Koan of Faith and Suffering)

The problem of pain, or evil, or suffering (depending on who is presenting the problem and how they phrase it - it is all the same problem) has long plagued theists. It can basically be rendered thus:

These premises cannot all be true:

I. There is a being, called God, who is:

1. omnipotent (all powerful, able to do anything)
2. omniscient (all seeing, all knowing, able to see and to know, to perceive anything), and
3. benevolent (all loving, compassionate, willing the best for everything).

II. There is pain, or evil, or suffering in the world.

This problem is presented as a logical problem, a rational problem. A rational or logical criticism of the forms of theism which, in the face of suffering, in the face of pain, in the face of evil, still assert that there is a God who is unlimited and unchallenged in knowledge and power, and who wills the best for the created order.

In the face of such a presentation, theists fight a logical, rational problem with cold logic, pure reason. They craft theodicies, rational, logical, philosophic attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. These theodicies, these attempts to explain how God can know everything, do anything, and love unconditionally while still permitting if not outright mandating pain, suffering and evil. This charge, that either God does not exist at all, or is not omniscient and/or omnipotent, or that God is not benevolent in any way that we can relate to benevolence, is difficult to get around.

After all, if God is, in fact, all knowing, then nothing escapes God's attention. If God is all powerful, then nothing is beyond the limits of God's ability to act. As such, if God is both omniscient and omnipotent, then God's will would be, as Augustine and later Calvin assert, irresistible. Nothing could happen outside of the will of God. As such, if the traditional theist description of God's abilities is correct, then God is ultimately responsible for pain, suffering, evil. God must, in some way, will evil, which would keep God from being perfectly good or benevolent.

There have been many good theodicies advanced through the years, starting with the first theists. Some more recent ones, like those advanced by Richard Swinburne, the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford and author of, among other books, Is There a God?, help shift the ground of the problem a little bit. Swinburne holds to a theistic description of God, while eating away bit by bit at what is generally meant by words like "omnipotent" and "omniscient."

Swinburne stands with the vast majority of Christian history in saying that God's omnipotence should not be in question just because God cannot, for instance, do contradictory things like "make a universe exist and not exist at the same time, make 2 + 2 to equal 5, make a shape square and round at the same time, or change the past." This is not, Swinburne argues, "because God is weak, but because the words - for example, 'make a shape square and round at the same time' - do not describe anything which makes sense." As such, Swinburne, standing well within the Christian and theistic tradition, argues, God can simultaneously be omnipotent and yet still be unable to do certain things, because those things are contradictory and are not even theoretically possible.

Where Swinburne begins to deviate from Christian theological tradition, and get particularly interesting, is when he applies that same mode of limiting God while still affirming God's fundamentally unlimited nature, to the question of omniscience:

Just as God cannot be required to do what is logically impossible to do, so God cannot be required to know what is logically impossible to know. It seems to me that it is logically impossible to know (without the possibility of mistake) what someone will do freely tomorrow. If I am really free to choose tomorrow whether I will go to London or stay at home, then if anyone today has some belief about what I will do (e.g. that I will go to London), I have it in my power tomorrow to make that belief false (e.g. by staying at home). So no one (not even God) can know today (without the possibility of mistake) what I will choose to do tomorrow.

This sets up what has often been called the "Free Will" theodicy. That is, much pain in the world is caused by human freedom, and it is logically impossible that even God should be able to predict the result of human freedom or to limit human freedom while simultaneously willing humans to be free. This theodicy rests on the assumption that:

a. human beings, and perhaps other creatures (though that is not necessary), are, in fact, free agents, and

b. human freedom (and free will in general) is a good which outweighs the pain which results from it.

It is not my purpose here to say whether or not this theodicy succeeds. That is ultimately a decision for each person to make for themselves. Free will may appear to be a self-evident good, but how willing are humans to limit their own freedom in order to obtain some measure of limited security in times of trouble? If freedom were obviously a good so great that it outweighs pain and suffering, then we would not be so willing to hand over civil liberties to our militant government in the wake of terrorist attacks.

My purpose here is to state that, whether or not any theodicy works, it answers the wrong question. While pain, suffering and evil are presented to theists as logical, rational, theoretical problems, the real problem which arises from pain, suffering and evil is a very concrete existential one. The real problem with pain, suffering and evil is one which cannot be addressed by any theodicy. The real problem is that we experience suffering.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading through Jacques Maritain's 1942 lecture to the Aristotelean Society of Marquette University, later published as Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil. When I first read it I was stunned by the clear thinking which Aquinas and Maritain brought to this great theological/philosophic riddle. But, of course, when I first read it I was a 19 year old boy, clinging to a way of experiencing God which has long since stopped working for me. Reading it again, these eight years later, I expected to be almost offended by such a rigid and dogmatic approach to a deeply human problem. After all, that is the nature of theodicies.

Maritain begins his lecture with some metaphysical notes, relaying that Thomas borrowed from Augustine the notion that "evil is neither an essence nor a nature nor a form nor an act of being - evil is an absence of being; it is not a mere negation, but a privation: the privation of the good that should be in a thing."

This is a way of saying that while evil does exist in things, it does not have an independent existence, and so does not need to have been created, and as such does not need to have been created by God, who created all that is. Of course, while this may or may not work on paper, it would be cold comfort to anyone who reaches out to God for help removing the evil which exists in them, creating so much suffering as it robs them of their very being.

Maritain's lecture is filled with many other rational ways of arguing that evil ultimately represents a kind of good, the best possible arrangement of things. He employs both the "Free Will" theodicy and the Medieval hierarchy of goods ("Without fallible freedom" [note: that is, freedom with the possibility of error, of sin] "there can be no created freedom; without created freedom there can be no love in mutual friendship between God and creature; without love in mutual friendship between God and creature, there can be no supernatural transformation of the creature into God, no entering of the creature into the joy of his Lord. Sin, - evil, - is the price of glory.") to argue that the permitted bad in the world leads to a good even greater than the good of a world without anything bad.

But even he and his beloved St. Thomas are aware of the pastoral limitations of this. He places Thomas as diametrically opposed to Leibnitz, anticipating the objections that some readers will have to the apparent callousness of all theodicies:

In the optimism of Leibnitz we are bound to see a rationalistic deterioration of Christian truths: the author of the Theodicy justifies God as Job's friends did, and the Scriptures warn us that God holds such advocates in horror.

A philosopher like Leibnitz adopts the truths contained in the text from St. Thomas... in a merely philosophical sense, and as a satisfactory answer given by pure philosophy; this philosopher, then, will tell us it is a good thing for a mother to bewail the death of her child, because the machine of the world required it in order to be more perfect.

That is exactly what I hear every time I read a theodicy. In reconciling the evil, the pain, the suffering in the world to the perfect goodness of God, theodicies cannot help but say that which is obviously false (that there is, in fact, no suffering) or that which, worse, is patently absurd (that bad is really good, if you understand it properly).

This is what I felt as I read the recent posts by JE Holman and Matthew at Debunking Christianity. They both wrestle with the existential crisis of being in some way unable to believe what they wish they could believe. Making the inner turmoil of their painful divorce from faith public, rather than being greeting with the compassion that any decent human being would feel for someone who has suffered so, they were greeted with the cold, rational theodicy of Scholastic and even Modern Christian theology. Many of the Christians who commented on their posts did not follow the example of Christ and enter into their suffering. Instead they followed the example of far too many theistic philosophers, and stood outside of their suffering, looking down with cold, rational judgment, trying to explain how their experiences could not have really been as they experienced them.

Perhaps we look at the Problem of Pain all wrong. Perhaps, instead of treating it like a logical puzzle to be solved with the "right" rational answer, we should treat it more like a koan, a mystery to be lived with and meditated upon existentially rather than rationally. Such a treatment would not, of course, persuade the many atheists, agnostics and skeptics who see Christianity in particular and theism in general as being unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to their very rational question. But it would be a more human, compassionate, and ultimately Christian response to a problem which is less rational and more existential.

Ultimately, if you ask someone who is suffering, the problem of pain is that we feel pain, the problem of suffering is that we suffer, the problem of evil is that there is, in fact, evil all around us and inside us. The answer, then, is not to say that down is up and bad is good. The answer is, instead, to address the problem, not by answering it, but by working to solve it. To end suffering. Of course that is idealistic and impossible. But if we all vow to work to alleviate suffering, taking perhaps a kind of Christian version of the Bodhisattva vow, we could at the very least make the world a much better place to live in.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The organ made for seeing God...

Every once in a while I pick up some book or another by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, much like my former logic professor occasionally picks up something by Wittgenstein, as a sort of test. Teilhard's thought is deep, but too often obscure to me, making demands on my attention that I am not yet ready to meet. I can concentrate on small sections at a time, but if I read too much, or for too long, I get lost in a sea of meaningless words; words which may have had meaning for him but whose meanings are inaccessible to me.

But in a sea of meaningless words, from time to time a gem emerges. The other day I was reading a fragment, concisely titled "Note on the Physical Union Between the Humanity of Christ and the Faithful in the Course of Their Sanctification," from a collection of previously unpublished essays, and stumbled on one of my favorite Teilhard quotes:

The organ made for seeing God is not (if you get to the bottom of the dogma) the isolated human soul; it is the human soul united to all the other souls under the humanity of Christ.

This quote is found in the context of a discussion on what Teilhard calls the "permanent eucharistic union," a union which "explains the fundamental union between the eucharist and charity, between the love of God and the love of our neighbor." The context speaks to the way in which our "eucharistic" relationship with God through Jesus informs all of our other relationships, as we grow through that relationship sanctified.

The relational implications of sanctification are very interesting to me, as is the connection which, through this, Teilhard sees "between the eucharist and charity." After all, it stands to reason that as our very substance is - at least according to this theology - fundamentally changed by our sanctifying relationship with God, that change should permeate all of our interactions. But even more interesting than this is the fact that Teilhard seems to be arguing that the connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with others goes both ways.

In arguing that the "isolated human soul" is not the organ made for seeing God, Teilhard argues that we have no relationship with God outside of the context of a community. And here, in fact, there are layers of community which all come together to place us in a context wherein we can experience some contact with God.

The first form of community is most obvious, and most clearly what Teilhard means. This community is an entirely human community. When Aristotle, in his Politics, noted that human beings are "social animals," it wasn't exactly breaking news. Even then it was common sense that human beings are by nature political, in the best sense of the word. You never see a human being entirely isolated from a social context. Rather, we are born into communities, born into cooperative relationships, born into a social context within which our every thought and action takes place. At no point are we entirely autonomous, entirely removed from a social context.

As such, people who argue for a "just me and Jesus" theology have fundamentally misjudged human nature, and as such have misjudged what is possible for humans, even and especially in terms of our relationship with God. It may or may not be possible to have a personal relationship with God; that is, a relationship which constitutes a meeting of persons. That depends on whether or not God is personal, a person. But, whether that is possible or not (and, as I said, its possibility rests on the nature of God, a nature which is mysterious to us - though I'd at least like to think that God is in some way personal), it is decidedly not possible to have an individual relationship with God. This is impossible not because of anything in or about God, but because of our very nature. Simply put, we may be persons, but we are not pure individuals.

I may often feel alone, but there has never in my life been a moment in which I have been truly alone. I have always, always operated in a social/political context, existing in relationship with other persons. I was born into a family, which Aristotle noted is the first and primary political unit. Since then I have added many new social/political contexts to that primary unit, going to school or church, meeting with friends, etc. I have lived in a number of different social/political environments. But I have always, in some way or another, responded to someone other than just myself when I think or when I act, when I emote or react to those emotions.

We are by our very nature interconnected and interdependent, and this nature carries over into our relationship with God. Teilhard sees this written into the very fabric of the universe. It is a part of nature, and that nature, which elsewhere Teilhard calls consmogenesis, reflects the will with which God continually creates the universe. So here he can say, axiomatically and without additional arguing, that we are not designed to see God as individual souls in isolation from each other, but only in a community of united souls.

As such, while our relationship with God should impact our relationship with others, so too our relationship with others impacts our relationship with God. If we in some way cut ourselves off from our community, we also cut ourselves off from our ability to experience the presence of God. If we follow Teilhard's reasoning (which he does not always make obvious) this is not because of the nature of God, whose presence does not change, but rather because of our own nature. We are not fully ourselves when we are not in community, and as such do not possess the full range of our abilities, including our ability to "see" (by no means literally) God.

But this way of viewing the quote in question, which focuses only on human nature and human communities, is not the only way to view the quote. I don't know French, and do not have access, then, to the specific French words which Teilhard used when he wrote this fragment. But the specific language of Rene Hague's translation, which should be a decent indication of the language which Teilhard himself used, strikes me:

The organ made for seeing God is not (if you get to the bottom of the dogma) the isolated human soul; it is the human soul united to all the other souls under the humanity of Christ.

Here I have used bold type to draw attention to the shifting way in which Teilhard speaks of the souls here in question. He goes from speaking of the isolated human soul - that unnatural entity which is, divorced from a social/political context is not even properly speaking fully human - to the way in which that soul, no longer isolated, is "united to all the other souls." This category, which completes the context within which one can see God, is not limited to human souls.

Perhaps this was an unintentional slip. After all, we are here dealing with a fragment written perhaps in January 1920 (when it was found it was not even dated, but has since been dated to then) and not published until 1969, after his death. But the language certainly doesn't seem careless. Perhaps, then, Teilhard is speaking of a context broader than just the human social/political context. Perhaps he is saying something more than just that human beings need to bond together in a spiritual community, a social/political cooperative group designed to help facilitate our experience of God. Perhaps he is saying that human beings need to be mindful of their relationship with all forms of life in order to have a proper relationship with God.

If theological ethics begins with theology, which far from describing God (as though that were even possible) describes instead our relationship with God, then perhaps it speaks beyond our relationship with God and our relationship with humans to our relationship with all forms of life. We know that in a very physical way we depend on a much broader context than we generally acknowledge. Our life is sustained by all of the lives which surround us, as we exist in an interconnected and interdependent relationship not only with all other humans, but with all that exists in nature.

Perhaps, then, Teilhard is saying that our relationship with God depends on and is connected to our relationship with absolutely everything else, our connection to and unity with "all other souls." If so, and if he is right, then how we act in this world matters far more than we thought it did, and there are far many more moral objects (that is, entities with moral standing, even if they are not, properly speaking, moral agents, since it makes no sense to say that they engage in moral behavior) than we generally imagine.

This idea, then, could serve as a theological ground for both environmental ethics and animal rights, along with informing interpersonal and communal relationships in human communities.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


For whatever reason, we Americans are always looking for the newest, the brightest, the most advanced technology. We are forever falling for clever marketing with bells, whistles, and other techno-gadgets that we don't need and never wanted. Hopefully I'm not about to prove that I'm just another American foolishly chasing some techno-fad.

As you can see, I have redecorated the place. While not everything is exactly where it needs to go, the chances are less-than-subtle and more-than-cosmetic. Perhaps my blog is having a mid-life crisis.

Anyway, I've decided, perhaps brainwashed by the Blogger/Google brain trust, to "upgrade" to Blogger beta. As soon as I figure out how to make this new way of blogging fit my basic needs, it should be much easier to navigate this site. I'm particularly pleased with the archiving here, which is why I chose to make the switch.

So please bare patiently with me as I clumsily knock down a few cyber-walls, temporarily exposing the virtual-plumbing.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Books for Bible Seminar

Since Troy asked so nicely, I'm posting here some of the books that I'm using for next week's seminar on the Bible. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I am - despite my apparent reputation in the blogosphere - by no means a Biblical scholar. There are certainly books left off here which may be more useful than some of the books listed here. But the books listed here are books which have in some way or another shaped the seminar I'll be giving at Fourth Ave UMC in Louisville, KY next Wednesday, to kick off our Wednesday Evening Forum series. I will try at some point to also put together a list of the books that my pastor, Dr. Jean Hawxhurst, used for her doctoral dissertation on roughly the same topic. I know that we have several books in common, but I'm sure that her list is more thorough than mine.

Whose Bible is It?, by Jaroslav Pelikan.

Probably the most important book for my seminar, this is my source for almost everything concerning the formation of the Biblical canon. Subtitled A Short History of the Scriptures, it is just that. Short enough to be readable for lay people, it is still thorough enough to anticipate most of the questions I brought to it. It is a history of both the formation of the Bible and the way in which the Bible (which is not a single book, but that is for another time) has been read through history.

Making Wise the Simple, by Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos.

This text, written by my Scripture professor in seminary (again, for the record, I am a seminary drop out - please don't mistake me for someone with a Master's degree, as has happened here before), helped shape my approach to the Torah. It aims for a distinctly Christian interpretation of the Torah which remains faithful to the Jewish roots of Christianity. It is one of the most thorough books I've ever read, fittingly from someone who once told me that while my exegesis is creative, I need to read the text much more carefully.

The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg.

Much of how I approach the life and ministry of Jesus comes from this member of the Jesus Seminar, who teaches at Oregon State University. The Heart of Christianity takes many of his insights in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and places them within the what he calls the Emerging Paradigm of Christianity. Borg is one of two authors I've read who urge a way of reading Scripture which is bound neither to literalism or fundamentalism on one side and detached historical and textual criticism on the other side. Everything that I've written on reading scripture for meaning rather than literal-historical truth value starts with Borg.

Unleashing the Scripture, by Stanley Hauerwas.

Hauerwas is a theological ethicist, not a Biblical scholar, but this work is one of the more lucid guides I've read on how to read the Bible. Like Borg, Hauerwas urges readers to not get attached to either quintessentially American way of reading scripture mentioned above. For Hauerwas, as I've mentioned here before, the Bible is meant to be read (and heard) in the context of a community of faith. The final section of my seminar is titled "Reading the Bible in Christian Community," and it owes a great deal to this book.

The Old Testament, by Peter C. Craigie.

This was one of the texts used in my Scripture class in seminary. While it is full of more information than I could ever process surrounding the collection of works which Christians call the "Old Testament" and Jews call the Tanakh, I only use it for my sections on Source Theory, which may not even make it to the final draft of the seminar. Whether I end up using it in the seminar or not, however, it is a great resource for anyone looking to better understand the Hebrew Scriptures. I'd try to find it in an academic library, because as it is used as a seminary text, it is bound to be expensive.

Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman.

This book is a source of great frustration to Christians, who are wont to point out with me that the sensational title is a bit misleading since no part of the book concerns a passage of scripture in which Jesus was supposedly misquoted. The title seems, in other words, totally divorced from the content of the book, designed more to inflate sales than anything else. That said, I found this book, which the author claims is the first work on Textual Criticism written for a general audience, very helpful. I know that Ehrman has a bone to pick with Christianity, but despite accusations of bias from other scholars whom I admire, I thought that most of the content here represented honest scholarship shaping the religious views of the author rather than the other way around. Ehrman and I disagree about God and Jesus, but I can still respect, and use, some of his work.

Worthy is the Lamb, by Ray Summers.

Written in 1951, this is still the best work to date on apocalyptic literature. The subtitle lays out the difficult work of the text: Interpreting the Book of Revelation in its Historical Background. Summers' main contention is that for any work to be considered the Word of God, it has to first and foremost be the Word of God for the people who first received it. As such, while many popular interpretations of Revelation focus on its predictive nature, finding its meaning in our present and the future, Summers looks to events surrounding the writing of the text for insight into the perplexing nature of John's Apocalypse.

The Four Witnesses, by Robin Griffith-Jones.

Luckily, I decided to take this book, which had been sitting on my shelf untouched for a couple of years, to the beach with me. It has really helped me dig into and reflect on the text of the four canonical Gospels. I can't say that this is the best, or most insightful book on the Gospels, but it is lively, well written, deep, and most importantly it stimulates my thinking. The best thing you can say about any treatment of any part of the Bible is that it helps you form and refine your own thoughts about that part of the Bible, and I can certainly say that about this book.

Friday, August 25, 2006

This Boo Radley Had a Gun

I just read this story, by Rachel Hoag of the AP:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Aug. 24) - The father of a 17-year-old girl who was shot in the head while ghost hunting with friends said Friday that the group had been out for harmless fun.

"It doesn't make any sense. These were five good kids and this was something they've done in the past," Greg Barezinsky said.

Rachel Barezinsky was injured Tuesday night when a man who lives in a house considered spooky by local teenagers shot at the carload of five girls, police said.

Barezinsky, a high school senior whose classmates started classes Friday, remained in critical condition, the family said. She remained on a breathing machine and neck brace but was able to give a "thumbs up" sign, they said.

"It's going to be a long haul," Greg Barezinsky said. "It's going to take time."

The girls and other high school students have gone out to cemeteries to hunt for ghosts before, Greg Barezinsky said at Ohio State University Medical Center.

Family members said they did not want to discuss the felonious assault charges against Allen S. Davis, 40, who lives in the house with his mother.

Davis' home, across from a cemetery and overgrown with trees and weeds, had a reputation among local teens for being haunted. Students at Thomas Worthington High School in suburban Columbus had been daring each other to knock on the door or go in the yard, police Lt. Doug Francis said.

Three of the girls had gotten out of the car and taken a few steps onto Davis' property, but then jumped back in and circled the block. Barezinsky was struck while sitting in the car as it passed the house again.

Davis has told reporters he fired from his bedroom window to scare away trespassers and didn't mean to hurt the girls. He told officers he was aiming for the car's tires. He called the girls juvenile delinquents and said they shouldn't have been on his property.

He told reporters Wednesday he had prepared the rifle after numerous instances of trespassing.

"It's really something how homeowners defend themselves and the way the laws are written, we're the ones brought up on charges while the perpetrators get little or nothing," Davis said.

Francis said Davis told investigators he had never called police about any problems with trespassers.


Reading this story reminded me, of course, of the spooky Bradley residence in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. But while Boo Radley proved to be both misunderstood and, ultimately heroic, saving Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell's night-time knife attack, this Boo Radley not only shot a teenager, but had the gall to defend his actions by appealing to his homeowner's rights.

When children can't live out ghost stories, and when property is more valued than human life, we live in a sick and depraved society.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What's Goin' On

I don't have the time or energy to do a real post today, but filled with pangs of (mock) guilt for not writing what I meant to write today, I thought the least I could do was write some bloggy update. So, here's a bloggy update.

Adam started preschool today, though I still don't have a job. Having struck out looking for "real" jobs, today I spent the time he was at school going from retail outlet to retail outlet, dropping off my resume. It looks like, at least for a little while, I'll have to make some money peddling goods.

But, even though we signed him up for preschool so that we would have someplace for him to go, near his mother (she works in the same building), while I was in law school (another hairbrained scheme foiled - I don't want to be a lawyer after all), his starting preschool today feels a little like a rite of passage. He's not my baby any more. Like it or not, he's a big boy. A big boy with a backpack, which looks really cute on him even if he did throw a fit when his mother tried to make him wear it for a staged picture this morning commemorating the event. O.K., maybe he still has some baby in him after all.

I'm also working on two "projects" for church:

1. A sermon for this Sunday's chapel communion service, using Jeremiah 1:4-5 as the text. The sermon will, unlike the aforehyperlinked blog post, have less to do with "morality in a plural society" and more to do with how we rob the Bible of its power when we yank passages out of context to speak to the issues we wish it would speak to, reading meaning into the text rather than drawing meaning out of the text. The thesis, then, has less to do with moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion, and more to do with affirming a contextual reading of that critical passage, apart from a political agenda concerning abortion.

2. A seminar, which kicks off our next semester of Wednesday Evening Forums (perhaps the reason I agreed to lead the Education team at my church, before I knew that I would be perpetually swamped by the ongoing crisis that is Children's Ministry), that I'll be leading on the nature of the Bible, and how it has been read throughout the past and present. When I agreed to the topic (which, alas, I helped form) it didn't occur to me what a huge topic that is. I'm going to have only 50 minutes to cover three basic sections:

I. What is the Bible? A look at the nature, structure and history of the Bible.

II. How Do We Read the Bible? A look at the literary genres represented in the Biblical text, and at the modes of interpreting that text.

III. Reading the Bible in Christian Community: A look at how we balance the need to critically engage the Biblical text with the spiritual needs of a community of faith that holds to the authority of the Bible.

As if all of that will fit neatly into a 50 minute time slot! Even better, the format I agreed to (which really is the best format, unless I want people dropping like flies in the middle of the second section) includes only 8 minutes of lecture time for each section, followed by group discussion on the issues raised. This requires more discipline than I've ever tried to have as either a writer or a speaker, as you've probably noticed by the extreme lengths of some of my posts.

To top it all off, it turns out that my pastor, with whom I have a wonderful working relationship (if it weren't for her I may have never stepped foot in another church after I left ministry - meeting her saved my spiritual life), did her doctoral dissertation on this very subject! She even used many of the sources that I've been using to put the seminar together. No pressure, but I can't bluff, since for once someone in the room may know even more than I do!

At some point I should be posting a new piece on the problem of evil, a piece which oddly enough comes from:

a.) reading these two posts at Debunking Christianity, and

b.) watching an episode from the fifth season of my all time favorite TV show, the West Wing (yes, it has finally supplanted Northern Exposure - I have many seasons of both shows on DVD, and the West Wing stands up better, in my mind, to repeated viewings; and that's the tiebreaker).

What, you might ask, does that have to do with the problem of evil? Well, the posts at Debunking Christianity are concerned with an issue related to the problem of evil: what can Christians make of people who really want to and try to believe, but simply can't? To see how that relates to the problem of evil either read the posts yourself (less antagonistic and more personally vulnerable than many of the posts there), keeping that question in mind, or wait for me to finally take the time and energy to write down the thoughts that have been swimming in my mind.

As for the West Wing, it indirectly directed me to a book that a seminary student gave me right before I flunked out of college the first time. On the show, president Bartlett quoted, in Latin, as he is wont to do, a line from Aquinas concerning the problem of evil. For whatever reason, it reminded me of the opening of a lecture that neo-Platonist Jacques Maritain gave to the Aristotelian Society of Marquette University in 1942, since published as St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil. So late last night, with my thoughts concerning the issues that Joe E. Holman and Matthew raised in their respective posts still swirling around, I picked up the text of that lecture and re-read it. I hadn't looked at it in maybe six years, having long since given up any attempts at theodicy. As I read it, expecting to see in Maritain's lecture the cold rationality, so unsuited to human suffering, that I had always seen in both Aquinas and Augustine (from whom Aquinas borrows heavily on this issue), I was stunned to see a deep pastoral concern.

I still have issues with the theodicies offered by Aquinas, even when Maritain uses his so eloquently poetic voice to present them. But the post that I will eventually write will take less exception with Aquinas than I thought that it might, and much less exception with Aquinas than my paper on his and Augustine's treatment of the problem of evil from a Medieval philosophy course.

So, that's what's goin' on. Hopefully I'll actually get to write some of those things soon. Meanwhile, the search for work which (unlike my writing) actually pays money continues!

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Bible as a Weapon

I don't have time to offer any insightful commentary on this, and I suspect that none is needed. Anyone who bothers to read my blog probably already understands just how misguided a totally literal approach to the Bible, with no appreciation of context, is. That said, I saw this, from the AP, as I got on my computer to check my email before a meeting this afternoon:

Church Fires Teacher for Being Female

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (Aug. 21) - The minister of a church that dismissed a female Sunday School teacher after adopting what it called a literal interpretation of the Bible says a woman can perform any job - outside of the church.

The First Baptist Church dismissed Mary Lambert on Aug. 9 with a letter explaining that the church had adopted an interpretation that prohibits women from teaching men. She had taught there for 54 years.

The letter quoted the first epistle to Timothy: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

The Rev. Timothy LaBouf, who also serves on the Watertown City Council, issued a statement saying his stance against women teaching men in Sunday school would not affect his decisions as a city leader in Watertown, where all five members of the council are men but the city manager who runs the city's day-to-day operations is a woman.

"I believe that a woman can perform any job and fulfill any responsibility that she desires to" outside of the church, LaBouf wrote Saturday.

Mayor Jeffrey Graham, however, was bothered by the reasons given Lambert's dismissal.

"If what's said in that letter reflects the councilman's views, those are disturbing remarks in this day and age," Graham said. "Maybe they wouldn't have been disturbing 500 years ago, but they are now."

Lambert has publicly criticized the decision, but the church did not publicly address the matter until Saturday, a day after its board met.

In a statement, the board said other issues were behind Lambert's dismissal, but it did not say what they were.


Update: 9-22-06, 12:07 pm

For the sort of commentary and analysis that I just don't have the energy to provide at the moment (along with a level of Biblical expertise that I'm not likely to ever have) see Ben Witherington's take on this story here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Five Years: A Mini Milestone

Five years ago today, after a brief courtship and engagement, Sami and I were married in a ceremony performed by my grandfather, at the small country church where we met, and where her grandmother served as the organist for over 60 years.

Five years... a lifetime and a blink. It seems like she has been a part of my life for as long as there has been a me, like I've written her in to all of my memories. It seems, as well, like I hardly know her, like I wake up each day next to a mystery.

I have no words to describe her enduring faithfulness, or her faith in me which gives me faith in myself. She saw some good in me, and claimed it, bringing it out and making it a part of me. She has given me the strength to live a life of conviction, following and trusting my heart even if it doesn't always lead us to the most obvious places.

She models for me a life of passion and a life of integrity, performing daily miracles through her work with autistic children. She has given me faith in the human race, a race which though it has produced so many horrors has also produced such a wonderful, if complicated, character.

David Byrne once wrote that a revolution can start, slowly but surely transforming the world, one person at a time, in an encounter with beauty. She is my beauty. She fuels my revolution. Without her I am an angry and directionless bundle of bitterness and resentment. But with her my life has purpose and meaning, because one such wonderful person was willing to share it.

Happy Anniversary, Sami. I don't have much, but all I have and all I am is yours.

Direct Pipeline to the Top?

Three times in my life, now, someone has told me that they have received a direct and special revelation from God. Three times in my life, now, has someone said that their words in some unique way represent the very nature and will of God.

The first time, I was in my final year as the Youth Minister of a church in Louisville, about to be appointed to serve as the pastor of my own church. One of my closest friends had been the pastor, but he requested a transfer to another church, to be replaced by a man with whom, I soon learned, no matter how kind he was to me and my family, I simply could not work.

In one of his first sermons before his new congregation this pastor claimed that God spoke to him in the middle of the night, telling him to say what he was about to say. He had, in other words, received a special revelation from God, which in an authoritative way represented the will of God, which he was to then communicate to his congregation.

When I told my grandfather, a retired Southern Baptist pastor turned author of devotional books, he told me to tell my boss that the next time God called him up in the middle of the night, he should call me and place God on three-way calling so that I could hear the voice too! While my grandfather's comment may have been in jest, he understood the dynamics of the situation well. When someone claims a revelation from God which no one else can test or even witness, no parameters can be placed on that revelation. When the person claiming such a revelation is in a position of authority over a congregation, the situation becomes even more dangerous. To their own authority is added, if anyone in the congregation believes them, the very authority of God.

The next time someone claimed a unique and personal revelation from God, I was - though I didn't know it at the time - about to resign after only four months as a pastor. The chair of my Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, the committee responsible for overseeing the pastor and for mediating disputes between the pastor and the congregation, called me in the middle of the week to complain about my preaching. She was a charismatic woman, who had a profound and life-altering salvation experience, which she saw as ushering her into a special relationship with God. Her complaint was not with my skill as a preacher, or with the professionalism with which I executed my duties as pastor (both of which had been problems with their previous pastors), but rather with my interpretation of scripture and the theology which I taught from the pulpit.

"Freedom of the Pulpit" is a long-valued Methodist tradition. Simply put a pastor is not employed by the individual congregation which he or she serves, but rather by the United Methodist Conference in which they serve. They are then appointed to a particular congregation, and charged with using their gifts to meet the needs which they and the Conference to which they are accountable identify for that congregation. While the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (or, in churches with more than one staff member, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee) has a role in evaluating the pastor's performance and in communicating local concerns to the pastor, the pastor has near-absolute freedom to teach and preach as she or he sees fit, under the supervision of the Conference Board of Ordained Minister, the District Committee on Ministry, and the District Superintendent, and not the local congregation.

Placing the pastor's freedom to teach and preach beyond the supervision of the local congregation allows the pastor to, in some way, preach and teach prophetically, telling the congregation things which they may not want to hear. Because of this, not all congregations value the pastor's "Freedom of the Pulpit," because it means that the theology taught in their church may not be a theology which they agree with.

A friend of mine, now retired, was a pastor in the American South during segregation. Feeling called by God to speak out on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, he preached racial equality in every church that he served - by no means a popular or even safe decision. After one sermon he overheard two men in a heated discussion in the back of the church. One of the men was berating my friend, calling down curses on him for such sins as race-mixing and stirring up trouble. The other man, my friend recalls, calmly said,

"I don't like what he has to say anymore than you do. But, if he can't tell us what he really thinks, we've got nothing."

My congregation, and particularly the woman who chaired the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, didn't see it that way. Faced with a pastor who had the nerve to tell them that their vision of God was a destructive one, counter to the Gospel, the "good news," something simply had to be done. So she called me at home to give me a laundry list of complaints from the congregation, and to set me straight about some things. I was dead wrong, she asserted, in some of the things I was saying from the pulpit. How did she know this? God told her.

When someone claims a unique revelation from God, a revelation which can be neither witnessed nor tested from the outside, there can be no discussion with that person. God agrees with them, so it doesn't matter what you say or why you say it. To disagree with them is to disagree with God.

Earlier this week someone contacted me about an essay which I had written. The conversation at first seemed constructive, but as it dragged on it became stranger and stranger. This person claimed to have had conversations with God, in which God revealed things to them. In short, the content of that revelation, while private and totally inaccessible to others, trumped all religions traditions and reasoned theological statements. This conversation brought to mind my two previous encounters with claims of direct revelation, and forced me to consider a problem.

It is easy to dismiss such modern claims of special revelation, especially (as in the first two examples) you know the person making the claim. You see their basic humanness, their fundamental character flaws. Sure, they're not bad people; you've seen far worse. But neither are they such saints that they could claim, by virtue of any merit they possess, some special insight into the nature of God. They've been wrong before, and they'll be wrong again, so it is easy to assert that when they make such reckless and dangerous claims, that they are obviously wrong.

And yet, when they make claims of some special revelation, they are following a pattern set before them by our own religious tradition. After all, they are not the first people to claim some revelation from God which provides special insight into the very nature or will of God. The Bible is full of such claims of special revelation. Such is the nature of prophetic literature.

A prophet is simply someone who receives a message from God, and then shares it with a community of faith. What, then, separates the prophets of old from the modern would-be prophets mentioned above? My friends at Debunking Christianity would probably say "nothing." They might applaud me for seeing such a troubling connection between an easily discredited modern phenomenon and the ancient claims which lie at the heart of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and then lament that I lack the courage to, in face of this, abandon my faith in a pre-modern superstition.

What, after all, is the difference between my former pastor claiming to have heard the inaudible voice of God, and this conversation between Jeremiah and God, recorded in Jeremiah 1:4-10 (JPS), in which Jeremiah is called to go and speak for God:

The word of the LORD came to me:

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the

I replied:
Ah, Lord God!
I don't know how to speak,
For I am still a boy.
And the LORD said to me:
Do not say, "I am still a boy,"
But go wherever I send you
And speak whatever I command you.
Have no fear of them,
For I am with you to deliver you
-declares the LORD.

The LORD put out His hand and touched my mouth,
and the LORD said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.

See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.

Jeremiah's prophetic authority rests on his direct revelation from God; his calling by God to represent the Word of God. But isn't it, in form, just like the revelatory claims mentioned above? Doesn't consistency demand that if the one is impossible then the other is impossible, and if the one is possible then the other is possible? Doesn't, in other words, consistency demand that if the three above claims are absurd, then the claims of Jeremiah and the other Biblical prophets must be equally absurd?

Such a treatment, however, overlooks what the Biblical prophets and these modern would-be prophets do not have in common: a spiritual community to support their revelatory claims.

For a prophetic claim to make it into a collection of works which is seen by more than one enduring religion as representing in some special way the very Word of God, it has to be accepted not only by a community of faith in its own time. It must also transcend its own time, and be accepted by generations as an authentic revelation. It must speak beyond its time and place to all times and all places.

The process of moving from a claim prophetic revelation to the Biblical canon was for these claims a very long and arduous one. According to Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and author of several books, including Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice and Reformed and Feminist (long-time readers know that this is not the first time she - my former teacher - has been mentioned here) the process includes:

1. The initial revelatory claim: that is, for instance, Jeremiah's teachings in his own lifetime.

2. The acceptance of that claim by a community.

3. The later recording and compiling of the teachings represented by that initial claim, which often happens long after the death of the prophet.

4. The acceptance of the writings by a community.

5. The growing claim that, in some way, the initial teachings and the writings in which the teachings were compiled represent in some special way the very Word of God.

(These are not her exact words, but my memory of a lecture which she gave on the subject. And, as you know, memory is a tricky thing, so I apologize if I have in some way accidentally misrepresented the details of her view. Amy, is this basically what you remember?)

While it is dangerous to use science as a metaphor for religion, the process of moving from the initial claim of divine revelation to its codification in scripture is not entirely unlike the scientific peer-review process. The revelatory claim, in other words, must be backed up by the experience of others, even if that experience isn't an empirical one. The revelation isn't just a case of God speaking to one person, in isolation. Sure, it might start that way. But then the person receiving the revelation is called to go out and share it with others. As they, the people of God and intended audience of the special revelation, receive and accept the revelation as mediated through the prophet, it becomes accepted as the Word of God.

Each of the people claiming some special revelation from God are, frankly, not on par with the prophets of old. Corrupted by spiritual pride, and using their revelation as a weapon against others to accumulate power and authority for themselves, they may or may not believe that they received an authentic revelation from God; but whether they even believe that themselves, their revelatory claim has not been supported by anyone else. It has not been accepted by a community, nor is it often even presented to a community for acceptance.

I can't say whether or not there are in fact cases of special divine revelation, either today or in the past. I'll never know that, and frankly I'm perfectly comfortable not knowing. I can say that the people who make revelatory claims as a means by which to dominate religious discussion and claim that God agrees with them are not in a good position to judge the merits of their own claims. So used to seeing themselves as right, would they recognize the voice of God if God had the audacity to disagree with them?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What the Lord Requires (time warp edition)

In my last post - that ever contagious Book Meme which Liam says is spreading like the flu - I said that the book that I would most like to see written was Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Reflections on Scripture by my real-world self, Chris Baker. In truth, slowly and not so surely, that book is being written, if you can say that the process of birthing it really is "writing." I have written some new material for it, which has sometimes been included in this blog (see the sidebar on the right), but most of the process has been going through old sermons and seeing what can be salvaged.

Because I started preaching at such a young age (hell, I quit at a young age!) many of my early sermons are very immature, and I wish that they didn't exist. Still, I have, in my free time, been pouring through them, editing liberally, and trying to turn them into something that can be used now. Why don't I just start from scratch? I often wonder. Why do I insist on digging up artifacts from my past? Perhaps because I am trying to connect who I am now to who I was then. Perhaps because, even though my steps were and are clumsy, I was, then as now, moving toward a way of thinking about God that is worth communicating to others.

During Adam's nap today I got to look at one of the last sermons from my "early" period. I gave this sermon, titled "What the Lord Requires" as the guest speaker at a church pastored by a good friend of mine, while I was still a youth minister in Louisville. The text came from Micah 6:6-8, and at that time I always preached from the NIV, finding it the most "user-friendly" translation. I have since switched to using the JPS when preaching from the Tankh, and using the NRSV when preaching from the New Testament. I have not yet mustered up the energy to alter the text of the sermon, so I still use the masculine pronoun to refer to God. I have even included here a note I wrote to myself to remind me of the sort of introduction I wanted to give. I have also included the numbering system from the outline that I used to construct the sermon, and have left the parts that I saw find to bolden in the bold font used in the original sermon. This, then, looks exactly like the sheets of paper I held in front of me as I delievered this sermon years ago.

This should, in other words, be a time warp of sorts. Perhaps you can help me edit this one so that it will conform to the tone of the more recent scriptural reflctions which will some day be part of my long-suffering "book."


(Place Micah in its historical context – it was written after Israel had split into two kingdoms, and after much of what had been Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. It was written in a time of great fear, by a people who believed that they were being punished for their sins against God. The first three chapters outline they ways in which the people have sinned against God; but then the book takes a more hopeful turn. By the time we hit chapter 6, the subject of this morning’s message, Micah writes about how people should approach God, how they can be reconciled to God, and what God desires from them.)

I. How do we approach God?

1. Different religions have many different names for God, many different ways of describing God, and many different rituals designed to help believers approach God. Some religions, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim that God is One; others, like Hinduism and polytheistic indigenous traditions claim that God is many. Some religions claim that beliefs about the nature of God are vitally important; others, like Buddhism, find beliefs about God irrelevant. Among the world’s various religious traditions, then, there are a number of diverse ways to approach God, and the subject of God.

2. Even within our own Judeo-Christian tradition there are a number of ways to approach God. While we believe in one God, that God in whom we believe has many names, found in both the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish and Christian Bibles. We call God Father, Maker, Saviour, Redeemer, Lord, Creator, Sustainer, and a whole host of other names and titles. While we as Christians believe in one God, we have also created the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, dividing that one God into three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of these doctrines point out the universal truth, that God acts in many ways, and that there are a variety of ways to approach God.

3. Just as there are a variety of ways in which religious systems approach God, there are also a variety of ways in which religious people approach God, and it is this – these ways in which individuals approach God – that seems to be Micah’s concern. When we approach our God in prayer, both as individuals and as a church, we come with many different attitudes. Some of us come humbly, knowing that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and knowing that the grace of God can never be earned, just freely given and freely received. Others, however, approach God as they would approach a politician or business partner, looking for some kind of leverage in a high stakes negotiation. We say, “Lord, if you do this, then I will do that. But, if you do that, then I will do this.” We sometimes come to God as though we were entitled to come before Him, as though we have some shots that we can call. In other words, sometimes, when we approach God, as individuals and as a church, we forget the basic truth that Micah wishes us to understand from 6:6 – that however we approach God, we must approach God knowing that God is God, and we are not God. It is God who is in charge, God who calls the shots, God who holds all the cards, God who runs the universe. God is God, and we are not.

II. What sacrifice do we bring to God?

1. So often, because we wish to negotiate with God, desiring to somehow earn God’s favor, we approach God with some kind of tangible sacrifice. In our bargaining prayer we say to God, “If you will only do what I want, then I will never commit this particular sin again.” Or, “If you will only answer my prayer, I will give up this particular bad habit or material possession.” We offer God so many different sacrifices – things which have great value to us – to try to earn some kind of favor or make up for some kind of mistake. And, of course, we are not alone in this. Every major religion has a tradition of some kind of sacrifice to God, or the gods, or the forces of nature, or whatever. For as far back as there is recorded history, we humans have tried to offer up things that have value to us to some kind of power higher than us, to curry some kind of favor with it. We used to do this to try to make the crops grow, or to keep enemy armies from invading us. Now we do it to make more money, or to feel a little less guilty for a bad habit or evil action. But we always tried to negotiate with God with our sacrifice.

2. But, of course, as Micah points out as he lists the various kinds of sacrifices that he could bring to God, our sacrifices become more and more ridiculous. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” What would God do with the rams, with the oil, even if Micah had them to offer, which he doesn’t? “Shall I offer the firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” It is, of course, easy to sacrifice the life of another for our own sin. It is not so easy to sacrifice our own life.

3. But the sacrifice that the Lord requires is just that – our own life. Our very own life. Not in death. God does not seek to destroy us. Instead, he wants us to sacrifice ourselves in life, so that he can remake us. The sacrifice that God desires from us is found in the very way that we live. The sacrifice that God desires from us is the sacrifice of our own wills, of our false claim to be masters of our own destiny. God wants us to sacrifice our control. The sacrifice that he demands from us, then, is no sacrifice at all. It is, instead obedience. The key to a healthy relationship with God, then, is to approach God knowing that He is God, and that we are not God. And knowing that, we should also know that God desires our obedience, not our sacrifice. God does not want us to offer up ridiculous things to try to make up for the fact that we consistently sin against Him. Instead He wants us to be obedient, to accept His grace, and to stop sinning.

III. What does the Lord require?

1. So, knowing that God is God, and we are not God, and knowing that God desires our obedience rather than our sacrifice, how can we, who so often stumble and fall in so many ways, be obedient to God? What does it mean to be obedient to God, anyway? Or, in other words, exactly what is it that the Lord requires of us?

1. “act justly”

The first thing that God requires of us, according to Micah, is that we “act justly.” The concept of “justice” has always been important to people. It is the hallmark of all great societies. But it is often left undefined. All people use the word justice, but they do not always use it in the same way. Frequently our inability to “act justly” comes not just from laziness or a lack of desire, but from honest ignorance. We use the word justice, often, but do not always know what we mean by it.

In my opinion, justice both implies and requires three things:

1. To do what is right.
2. To not do what is wrong.
3. To encourage others to also do what is right and not do what it wrong.

We are morally obligated, and called by God to not only avoid doing what is wrong, but to actively do what is right. That is why the Epistle of James tells us that “anyone… who knows the good he ought to do, but does not do it, sins.” But not only are we responsible for our own acts, and also our failure to act, we are also responsible for the influence we have on others. We are not only obligated to avoid wrong and to do right, we are also obligated to encourage others to avoid wrong and to do right, and we are obligated to restrain those who are doing wrong. This is the obligation of justice.

2. “love mercy”

But we are not just commanded to “act justly,” we are also told that the Lord requires that we “love mercy.” We are, like God Himself, to always temper justice with mercy, in all of our actions and interactions, because justice without mercy always fails to be justice.

We, who presume that we are righteous, are often rightly offended by wickedness in others. And we know that we are called to restrain that wickedness. However, far too often we become obsessed with the sins of others, and forget to temper our so-called justice with the mercy of God, who has shown us mercy. Far from being Jonathan Edward’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” we are in fact “sinners in the hands of a merciful God” who has called us to show mercy to those who sin against us just as He showed us mercy when we sinned against Him. Justice without mercy is always a miscarriage of justice, and so fails to be justice at all.

3. “walk humbly with your God”

But how do we, as individuals, family members, church members, and citizens of our great nation, go about the difficult task of balancing justice and mercy in our individual interactions as well as the actions of our families, churches, and our nation? How do we temper justice with mercy in our own lives and the lives of others? To this Micah reminds us that the most important thing that God wants from us is to “walk humbly” with Him. Humility, which comes from our walk with God, and is, in fact, necessary for any walk with God, teaches us something that seems very important to Micah, and to God. It teaches us that God is God, and we are not God. I know that I’ve said that a lot this morning. But, if there’s anything that you take away from this message and the worship here today, I want it to be that point. God is God, and we are not God. Too often we get the roles reversed, and believing ourselves to be God, or to be like God, we take on the responsibilities of God. We judge the actions and the spiritual state of others, forgetting that it is not our place to judge; forgetting that, in fact, we don’t have enough information on which to make a sound judgment; and forgetting that we are no better than the people that we presume to judge. If we are to be who God requires that we be, then we first and foremost have to be people who walk humbly with God. To do that, we need to be people who can freely and honestly acknowledge our own mistakes, and we need to be people who can look past the apparent mistakes that others make. We need to be people who can relinquish any claim or desire to judge others, turning our gaze first on ourselves. Then, when we allow God to finally remove the plank from our eyes, we can see clearly to remove the saw dust from the eyes of another.

To sum up, while, like the Hebrew people in Micah’s time, all of us have in one way or another turned away from God, God not only desires us to turn back to Him, He has in fact empowered us to do so, and provided us with the means to do so. So, we need to approach God, knowing that God is God, and we are not God. We need to approach God bringing not a sacrifice of some kind of our own choosing, but rather the sacrifice of our very lives, and our obedience. And, we need to approach God, knowing that what the Lord requires of us is to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Book Meme

I don't ordinarily do this sort of thing, but I was so moved that PamBG tagged me that, what the hell, I'll do something bloggy!

[note: I added honorable and occasionally dishonorable mention to this list to get around the fact that it asks for only one book in each category. I cheat. Shame on me.]

1. One book that changed your life: The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning.

There are so many great books to choose from. I cut my theological teeth on C.S. Lewis, who opened my eyes to the process of thinking about God, even if, now, my thoughts about God bear little resemblance to his thoughts about God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, and Thomas Merton have each shaped my approach to my faith. But, while not overtly theological, this gem of a book by a recovering alcoholic and defrocked priest about the liberating power of God's grace helped me to accept myself, and stop trying to earn the love of God, as though it were a product to be bought.

Honorable mention goes to The Dignity of Difference, by Jonathan Sacks, and The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman.

One of my best friends in high school turned me on to this strange novel by an MIT physicist. It is a fictionalized account of the dreams that Albert Einstein might have had as he was formulating his theory of Relativity. Each dream presents a world operating under a certain theory of the nature of time. I don’t often read novels, but the ones that I do read often become life companions, and this is one such companion. I could just as easily picked some of the more fantastic (literally) novels from my childhood, such as any of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, or any of several novels by Madeleine L’Engle or Douglas Adams. While I read almost exclusively non-fiction books, I rarely read them more than once. But a good novel I’ll never get tired of.

Honorable mention goes to Dune, by Frank Herbert, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin.

3.One book you’d want on a desert island: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, by John Wesley.

I seriously doubt that a book would do me much good on a desert island, but if any book (other than, say, a book on how to get off the island) would do me good, I suppose that this Methodist manifesto on sanctification would be the one.

4. One book that made you laugh: Love Feast, by Fredrick Buechner.

The third of four Bebb books, this novel by a Presbyterian minister and National Book Award finalist follows the crazy adventures of diploma mill operator and evangelist Leo Bebb, a man so fake he just might be real, as he takes the Gospel literally and offers a free feast to whomever will come and eat it. My favorite scene has Bebb witnessing to a bitter and cynical college professor, giving him the standard Gospel message, only substituting “shit” for “sin.” Bebb is an absurd character, and there is nothing I can write about him that will do justice to the depth of his absurdity. Anyone with any interest whatsoever in religion and storytelling should read Buechner’s Bebb books, Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt. Each are great, but Love Feast is the funniest. Of course, none of these books rival Beuchner’s best novels, Brendan, and Godric, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, for spiritual depth or majestic use of language, but unlike those more serious works, these strange tales will tickle those with a twisted sense of humor.

Honorable mention goes to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, and (though it may not have meant to be funny – I can’t quite tell) The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton.

5. One book that made you cry: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi.

This memoir, by an English literature professor who taught at the University of Tehran before and after the Iranian revolution, describes what was lost in that formerly great part of the Persian Empire, when the clerics took over. When church and state are merged, there are great losses to both church and state, not to mention art and liberty. Anyway, this is one of the best, and most moving, books I have ever read, more than earning its place on the New York Times Bestseller List. Usually when I read such a popular book the inner snob in me wonders what the fuss was all about. Not this time. If you haven’t read it yet, drop what you’re reading and pick it up.

Honorable mention to Adam, by Henri Nouwen, and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis.

6. One book that you wish had been written: Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Reflections on Scripture, by Chris Baker.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

Lewis despised this book, which inspires such an unhealthy fascination with evil. He was disgusted that it was one of his more popular books, and would be appalled to see how many evangelical Christians in America treat it like an appendix to the Bible. He wrote so many great novels aimed at adult audiences, such as ’Til We Have Faces (my favorite of his novels, and the last book he ever wrote) and Perelandra (the second book of his Space Trilogy, which he said was “worth a thousand Screwtapes”), but aside from his children’s books and some of his non-fiction works, he may be best remembered for this terribly executed bad idea of a book. James Forsyth even turned it into a play, Dear Wormwood. If I were God, I would give Lewis a mulligan.

Honorable mention goes to The Golden Bough, by James Frazer, and Totem and Taboo, by Sigmund Freud.

Dishonorable mention goes to anything by Tim LaHaye.

8. One book you’re currently reading: The Four Witnesses, by Robin Griffith-Jones.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, by Samuel G. Freedman.

Honorable mention to God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, by Hans Kung.

10. Now tag five people: Troy, Brian, Liam, Tyler, and Tom. Sorry, guys, the Internet made me do it!

Back From the Beach

Last night Sami, Adam and I pulled into our driveway for the first time in 10 days. What a relief to finally be home. Of course we loved our time away, living it up in what could best be described as paradise. We had a beach-front cottage, and even our own tennis court. Peace and quiet were easy to come by, and the day to day anxieties were as far away as they ever get. But there's just something about home.

Home, for one thing, is safe. It is a familiar environment, and while it may have its fair share of problems, they are familiar problems, easy to manage problems. Problems you've dealt with before. There may be fewer problems on vacation (and then again, there may not be - I've been on some hellish trips), but when they arise they feel less like an expected part of your day and more like a conspiracy to suck all of the joy out of what should have been a perfect moment.

The American South, by and large, scares me. Being from Kentucky should have prepared me for the fear, bigotry and xenophobia that passes for local color or even common sense in some parts our nation; Kentucky is, after all, about as backwards a place as you can find. We now have a law, for instance, which (modeled after a similar law in Florida) makes it legal to use lethal force on anyone who enters your property without permission. I read a story in the New York Times about a man who, under this law, shot a neighbor during a heated discussion about, of all things, the number of trash cans you can put on your curb at any given moment. The gun wielding maniac in this story shot his victim in the stomach, then, while the victim lay bleeding on the ground, shot him again in the chest. The shooter cannot be prosecuted or even sued because his victim was an unwelcome guest on his property at the time of the shooting.

While this didn't happen in Kentucky, it easily could have. And, under our law, the shooter could not even be charged with a crime. So, having lived in Kentucky all my life, I should be used to a paranoid way of looking at the world which divided it into "us" and "them," the "good guys" and the "bad guys," "law-abiding citizens" and "criminals" who deserve whatever happens to them if they dare to cross those good gun-wielding citizens who so desperately deserve to protect their property from any perceived threat. But driving through the Carolinas, such a beautiful landscape, still scared me a little bit, particularly as I paid more attention to the various forms of cultural communication.

The best examples of these communications were found in Paradise itself, Holden Beach. As I've said before, my great-grandmother owned a home on Holden Beach until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1954, the year my mother was born. My grandmother spent her childhood summers on the island, in that house. While she hasn't been back to Holden Beach since the hurricane which wiped out everything she knew and loved on the island, that beach still has a nearly mythic place in our family. It is a part of our collective identity. While no member of my family has owned land there in 52 years, that beach still in some small way feels like ours, a second home, even if we only visit it once a year. But despite that sense of belonging to the beach, and it belonging to us, while I was at Holden Beach this most recent trip I couldn't help but notice a shift, a cultural division.

Just off the island there are a couple of beach marts, one locally owned (actually, it is owned by one of the famous Holdens, after whom the island is named) and one a chain. The chain store is, at least according to its reputation in town (I can't confirm this) owned by an Arab. If ever there were an outsider in the American South at this point in our history, it is a person of Arab lineage. As such, the locally owned shop put up a big sign shortly after the new chain store opened, which reads:

Beach Mart
The Store With More American
"We Speak English and Pay Taxes"

Never mind that every business in America (except, perhaps, those corporate giants fortunate enough to be favored by the Bush administration, but that is another story) pays taxes. And never mind as well the fact that anyone who wishes to do business in Holden Beach had better speak some pretty good English. The sign in front of the local beach mart was specifically designed to capitalize on a racism which, as the so-called "war on terror" drags on, grows less and less subtle, less and less latent. Unable to compete with the chain store, the locally-owned one played the cards of race and fear.

Perhaps to counter this, or perhaps to tap into the cultural psyche of the area, the chain store has started flying a Confederate flag. They even has a t-shirt for sale, which, after showing a picture of a Confederate flag waving proudly in the wind, read:

If You're Offended By This
You Need a History Lesson

Personally I think that anyone who simultaneously wraps themselves in the cloth of patriotism and flies the flag of open rebellion against the United States needs much more than just the history lesson they promise to those who call them on the bigotry and treason represented by that flag. As it stands, I couldn't spend my little money in either store. Both appealed to our worst instincts; both preyed on and profited from our culture of fear.

But the two stores, across the street from each other, stand next to the greatest place on earth, a locally owned miniature golf course which also makes its own ice cream and waffle cones. I can still feel that sweet taste oh heaven on my lips, in my mouth. I am a sucker for ice cream, even ripping off the Bay City Rollers with my own

I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M! (to the tune of S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y!)

pestering my wife with a constant barrage of musical odes to ice cream.

But not all of the culinary treats of the beach worked out quite so well. It turns out, after years of a vegetarian diet, I can't even eat seafood once a year anymore. I tried it twice, and twice I got violently ill. We were so close to the semi-legendary town of Calabash, by the North Carolina/South Carolina border, that I could almost taste their famous fried seafood, in a much lighter batter than most other places. Picture, if you will, hush puppies that are closer to Krispy Kreme doughnuts than anything else. So light, so buttery, so sweet that they simply can't be good for you. Now picture that same batter on every kind of seafood imaginable. If you ask for your fish broiled they look at you the same disgusted and condescending way that the waiter in London looked at me when, an ignorant and arrogant American teenager, I asked for iced tea.

So close to Calabash, but my days of eating seafood seem finally over. Looks like I won't cheat on my vegetarianism (if there is such a word) once a year any more.

Coming home from dinner one night I saw a bumper sticker which reminded me of the way in which fear, hatred, and the worst sort of xenophobia pretending to be patriotism so dominate political discourse, particularly in the no-longer-familiar-to-me American South. It featured a menacing picture of Uncle Sam, pointing his finger straight, it seemed, at me, saying:

Love it, or Leave It!

Surrounded as it was by anti-leftist propaganda stickers, its message was clear: People who disagree with the politics of the owner of that vehicle are guilty of nothing less than hating America, if not outright treason. Of course my politics, which often question American policies and motives, as well as the morality of our prosecution of wars, comes out of a deep seated love for my country; a love so deep that it is willing to stand up and say that we are on the wrong path, and need to change direction before we harm ourselves and others any further.

Coming of age, and coming to faith, in a conservative evangelical setting, I was often told that true love is the ability to point out to someone how wrong they are, in the hopes that they will change their ways. This doesn't often work out so well in interpersonal relationships. As a teenager I could never convince the people that I loved that they should change their ways to avoid the fires of hell. But there are times when I feel the impulse to engage my country with that sort of evangelical love. If I didn't love my country so much I might leave it. But I wouldn't leave it just because some bumper sticker told me to.

After a week on the beach we drove home through some small South Carolina roads. We drove through many depressed small southern towns, full of the insecurity which gives rise to the politics of fear. Many of the subtle cultural messages I got from signs, stores and bumper stickers in Holden Beach were more apparent in these economically desperate areas. They reminded me of the small town in Kentucky with the church I used to pastor. The town had few jobs, and limited prospects for keeping the kids who grew up there. Most skipped town after high school, either going to school or heading to Lexington or Louisville or some other more populated area to try to find a job. But that church, in that town, had little appreciation for the socioloical and socio-economic factors which caused them to constantly lose their young people. Seeing themselves as the last remnant of a dying way of life, they placed themselves in the midst of a cosmic war between good and evil, us and them.

That same way of thinking permeates many depressed and isolated areas throughout the south. It becomes part of the culture fabric and religious mythos. And as the divide between the haves and the have-nots deepens, as these "good" people become more and more isolated from the rest of society, more and more economically depressed and emotionally despondent, the spiritual war that they wage against an immaterial evil represented in part by hyper-educated city liberals like myself my grow more and more physical.

I'm not trying to sound paranoid, nor am I trying to detract from the great joy that was my vacation. But as I drove through the rural south on my way home, my mind filled with the xenophobic images I had already encountered, I couldn't help but fear that the Christian fundamentalism emerging from these areas could, in a perfect storm of sociological, psychological, theological and economic factors, become much more like the Islamic fundamentalism that so threatens global safety.

It is good to be back in the religiously and culturally pluriform city. It is good to be back in the safety of home. But if I allow myself to retreat to far into this emotionally safe place, I may miss the potential escalation of the culture wars.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Beach-Bound Bum on Blogging Break

One of my wife's biggest objections to my career as a minister was that I would never really come home from work. Sure, my body would from time to time enter her house, but it had never really left work. It had only moved from one office to another office. I was always working on a lesson or a sermon or an event or some other ministerial need.

I started this blog at the end of last October as a way to channel the energy that I had been putting into ministry. Since then I have never gone more than two or three days without writing something, be it a comment or a new post, for this blog.

That's about to change. In about two hours I am leaving for the beach. OK, not exactly the beach - I'm actually headed to Lexington to meet up with my mother. We'll leave from Lexington tomorrow morning to go to Chapel Hill, NC, home of both the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (I still don't know what a Tar Heel is, any more than - despite being part of the Indiana University Alumni Association - I know what a Hoosier is) and my maternal grandparents. We then leave from Chapel Hill on Sunday, bound for Holden Beach, a quaint and quiet beach just about a half-an-hour's drive north of Myrtle Beach, SC.

Holden Beach is also right by Calabash, home to some of the most distinctive seafood in the world. As such, once a year I get to be a hypocrite, and actually eat a dead animal. I know, I know, for shame and all that. But one week per year this vegetarian cuts loose and eats seafood.

Anyway, we'll be at Holden Beach through Saturday, arriving home either Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, depending on how long we feel like driving with a cranky kid. So, by my count that should be just over a week without any sort of Internet connection, which should be enough to drive this former workoholic turned serial blogger a smidge stir-crazy.

In other words, it should be more than a little bit good for me.

Holden Beach, here I come! I'll see you (figuratively, anyway) good folks in the blogosphere when I get back.

"The backlash against gay marriage has produced strong passions and weak arguments."

Taking a break from my beach preparations (has packing for vacation ever dragged on this long?) I got online to check my email and the news, only to see this outstanding op-ed piece by Ellen Goodman of the Washington Post Writers Group.

Surely you know by now that I am strongly in favor of equal treatment for homosexual persons and their relationships. Well, I am just as strongly opposed to bad arguments, and, as Goodman points out in her piece, some seriously bad arguments against equal rights for homosexual have been advanced lately, by people who really should know better.

Rather than doing what I am generally wont to do and going through Goodman's op-ed piece paragraph by paragraph, offering excessive commentary and making sure that you know that I could have written her piece at least as well as she did, if only she hadn't thought of it first; I'm just going to let her words stand for themselves since, let's face it, she's better at this than I am, no matter how much I want to deceive myself.

Here, as Tyler would say, is the "money quote":

Against this evolving backdrop, the courts had to reach pretty far to find some explanation for banning gay marriage other than old-fashioned discrimination. Even so -- as Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in her Washington dissent -- neither court actually explained why "giving same-sex couples the same right that opposite-sex couples enjoy (would) injure the state's interest in procreation and healthy child rearing." After all, as Chief Judge Judith Kaye of New York wrote in her dissent, "There are enough marriage licenses to go around. ... No one rationally decides to have children because gays and lesbians are excluded from marriage."

Anyway, the piece is well worth the five minutes or so it should take you to read it, so check it out.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Beach Reading II: The Verdict

We're heading out tomorrow, though I should post one more time before we leave. Sami and I are doing most of the packing tonight before bed. I came downstairs a few moments ago, into my basement office/study/library, to finally choose the books I'm taking with me (I think). As soon as I finish typing this, I'm packing the books mentioned here, which will hopefully finalize my decision.

Anyway, here's what I've decided, unless I change my mind sometime before the van finally pulls out of our driveway after Sami gets home from work tomorrow.

Lee, Harper; To Kill a Mockingbird. I saw this sitting on my much neglected "Fiction" bookshelf, and just had to bring it. I've read it so many times that I know the story, and many of the lines, by heart. But Sami just told me that she didn't know what she was going to read at the beach, and when I saw this I thought of her. If I don't read it, maybe she will. Also, Tom is sure to point out, the play based on this book produced a great coincidence. Our senior year of high school both Henry Clay and Lafayette, two public high schools in Fayette County, put on the play. Henry Clay did it first, casting me as Boo Radley. Lafayette then performed it later in the year, after Tom had transferred there for reasons beyond my understanding (he transferred in the final semester of his senior year!), casting him, my identical twin, as Boo Radley. I say he overacted the part, he says I underacted it. Anyway, it is a timeless classic that deserves to be dusted off from time to time. Easy to read, and it gets even better with age.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Christianity and Evolution. A collection of essays unpublished in his lifetime. Written by a Jesuit and a scientist, many of these essays concern the relationship between science and religion. Every time I read Teilhard de Chardin, I get about twenty pages in and then completely lose focus. He is such a dense writer and such a complex thinker, I'm ashamed to admit that I can't keep up. But the essays in this book are reasonably short, so I figure that by the time I've lost focus I'll have about finished the essay I'm reading, and won't have to keep up with his argument any longer. The key essay, "The God of Evolution," looks at the theological implications of Darwin's theory and subsequent scientific findings. In short, it casts a new vision of God, using the revelatory nature of science to help aid the theology. Not for those obsessed with orthodoxy, but a must read for anyone who wishes to see the way in which science pushes religion, and vice versa.

Griffith-Jones, Robin; The Four Witnesses. The lone holdover from my earlier list, I picked this book because I'll be preaching again at the end of the month, and would like to have some fresh thoughts on the Gospels. My last series on the Gospels was a look at how Marcus Borg's theory of Jesus' shifting of the focus of religion from purity to compassion informs our reading of some stories in Mark. I'm not sure that this book will yield such sweet fruit, but you never know.

Alexander, Lloyd; The Chronicles of Prydain. This isn't a single book, but a set of books which helped define my childhood. Before I read Lewis or L'Engle or Tolkien, or even Bradbury or Asimov or MacDonald, I read these books by Lloyd Alexander. Based in part on Welsh mythology, The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King follow the adventures of an Assistant Pig-Keeper named Taran, as he wanders through the mythical land of Prydain, trying to find himself. Taran dreams of being a hero, only to have his dreams dashed by the ignoble reality of armed conflict. Broken, he his redeemed, the story of humanity. These books, which are responsible for the darkest Disney cartoon ever, helped me dream the dreams that made my childhood tolerable. I'm taking them with me to the beach, because I re-read them every five years or so, and it is about that time.

"... but the hyenas did not touch him ..."

I've long said that preaching is an act of translation. In a good sermon you take the complex theological ideas you encountered in school or in your private study, along with your detailed method of exegesis, and you translate them into a cultural language which anticipates and attempts to meet the spiritual needs of the people in the pews in a way that they can understand. But, of course, as the Gospel message spreads across the face of the Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many other and more literal forms of translation going on.

All of us in the English speaking world benefit from this too often unnoticed translation, as (despite the protests of a 7th grader in a class I once taught) neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke English. Despite being written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the Bible has since the 15th century CE been a major part of English language literature. The King James Bible, for instance, first published in 1611 as the "Authorized Version," is held next to the works of Shakespeare for its majestic use of the English language. So majestic is its language that even though it sometimes deviates radically from the best translations of the Greek and Hebrew texts, it is still preferred by many who see it as the definitive word of God, perhaps even more divinely inspired than the original manuscripts.

But as the Gospel message moves from culture to culture, more than just the language is translated. Literal translations too often, in translating jokes and colloquial expressions words for word, lose the humor and insight of both. Similarly, because the Biblical text responds to the needs and questions of a particular time and place, it may fail to speak to similarly urgent needs and questions of a new time and place.

My bedtime reading this week has been Jaroslav Pelikan's gem of a book, Whose Bible is It?. After giving a brief history of the way in which the book which we call the Bible (which is not a single book, but rather a collection of many separate books composed at different times in different places, and compiled into not one but three major canons representing two distinct religions) has been compiled and read, Pelikan begins exploring the way in which the Biblical message and particularly the Gospel has been translated for new cultures.

The 20th Century, Pelikan argues, was a time of unprecedented spreading of the Gospel, with missionary agencies dedicated to bringing the Biblical text to cultures and languages which had never had it before. As the Gospel shifted to new environments, it picked up aspects of the thought and language of those cultural environments. One example he gives of this struck me as particularly humorous. This comes from "a creed composed for the Masai people of Africa in the 1960s.":

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion in love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave.

That some of the expressions here seem so, frankly, funny to us, should help us see how funny the Gospel must look when it is first translated into a new language for a new culture. The image of Jesus being "always on safari" may seem strange to us, but how much more strange is the Gospel in our own culture, which turns a wandering first century Palestian rabbi into a model for the CEO of a multi-national corporate conglomeration? But, of course, that CEO is no less in need of the grace of God than a member of the Masai tribe who is comforted by the knowledge that as Jesus lay dead in the grave his body was unmolested by the hyenas which must have been so prevalent in the Roman Empire.