Distributed Mind

"I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Your hosts: J. Lowry, B. Martin.

February 04, 2010

Christianity, Politics, The Bible, and Means vs. Ends

by ben

I've been threatening to write about politics in the context of Christianity (specifically, that is, how do we as Christians approach such a thing?) at length for some time now. Of course, in years past I wrote about it a lot in this venue. But, I've been meaning for some time to put together a longer, more coherent piece of text on the subject. I even began the process of writing a book about it last year, but things being what they were and are... But, once again, my brain has been turning on this subject... I hope to be able to get back to this project now - though I need to do some thinking before I do too much writing.

Here's something I've been thinking about at the moment, though. At the top of this journal has for a long time been a quote from Jesus, as recorded in Matthew: "I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (NET, Matt 10:16). I put that on our header for a reason, of course, which is simply that it has a lot to do with my thinking about how we as Christians should approach politics. You could add to it, it occurred to me today, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (NET, Rom 12:21).

What I'm saying is that I think our goals being good is not enough: the ends, as I say often, here included, do not justify the means. The ends and the means go together, and I think as Christians, that is especially important for us. And not just the means, but the intent (take a look at I Cor 13...). This is I think a large part of what I would like to talk about...

There is also plenty of room for discussion about ends, too, of course. And I know that is a sensitive point for many Christians. But that's not where I want to start.

22:25:01 - Religion - ben - No comments

October 07, 2008

Christian Hypocrisy in the Second Century

by ben

Much could be said about hypocrisy in the church. Much has has been said about the subject, now and every time before right back to Peter, Paul, and James. Here's a decent quote from circa A.D. 150 from II Clement (which is totally misnamed since it's not believed to be, and doesn't claim to be, by Clement):

For the Gentiles, when they hear from our mouth the oracles of God, marvel at them as beautiful and great; afterwards, when they have learned that our works are not worthy of the words we speak, they then turn themselves to blasphemy, saying that it is some fable and delusion. For when they hear from us that God saith, “There is no thank unto you, if ye love them that love you; but there is thank unto you, if ye love your enemies and them that hate you;” when they hear these things, they marvel at the excellency of the goodness; but when they see that we not only do not love them that hate us, but not even them that love us, they laugh us to scorn, and the Name is blasphemed.

(That's from an aging translation by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (thanks to Wikisource).)

22:37:40 - Religion - ben - No comments

July 14, 2008

Independence Day

by ben

I spotted a couple of items on the web recently that touch on points about Independence Day that I've been meaning to write about for a few years now and haven't gotten around to (though I'm not claiming these authors' opinions match mine).

First, conservative (theologically and politically) blogger "Mr. Dawn Treader" writes a piece about whether the Revolution was justified from a Christian perspective (making a point about Biblical exegesis along the way) and points to an "ancient" (1999) piece by Mark Noll (who wrote an entire book related to Christians and the Revolution). The Revolution's shaky Biblical foundation and the paradoxical celebration of the Revolution by the church in America is something I've been interested in for a while.

And then, from David Gushee on Associated Baptist Press some remarks about church celebrations of Independence Day (pointed to by "Jesus Politics"). Gushee makes some probably fairly reasonable points. I don't have much to add, other than I'd actually like to make some more general points about the relationship between the church and patriotism, but also about secular celebrations of this country and some of their often unrealistic portrayals of our history. If I ever get around to it...

20:44:58 - Religion - ben - No comments

May 25, 2007

Harmonization

by ben

Apparent discrepancies (I say "apparent" since there is no "apparent discrpenacy" that is not a subject of dispute) in the gospel accounts are an interesting problem - and I don't just mean in an apologetic sense, but also a literary sense. I mean, on the one hand they have become a source of contention about the accuracy of the gospel accounts, but on the other hand they can be used to extract more information from the rather terse literary form of the gospels.

Take, for example, the dying words of Jesus. Matthew and Mark merely record that Jesus "cried out in a loud voice" when dying (though they make a point to note that Jesus said "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" earlier). Luke reports that "Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!' Having said this, he breathed his last." And John says that "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished.' He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit."

This is what I thought of when I was reading an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, "Angels and Ages" pointed to by Language Hat. Gopnik deals with two interesting examples of this sort of problem. The main part of the article is concerned with whether Edwin Stanton at Lincoln's death said that he belonged to the "ages" or to the "angels." But there is also the interesting case of what John Wilkes Booth said when he shot Lincoln. Gopnik, explicitly referencing the problem with the gospels, writes,

It is not hard to see, in this exegetical exactitude, something that recalls the attention that scholars give to fine-point disputes about the words and tales of Jesus and his apostles. This attention to verbal minutiae extends to the secondary figures in the Lincoln gospel, not least his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth either did or did not say, just as, right before, or shortly after he murdered the President, “Sic semper tyrannis,” the motto on the state flag of Virginia. Possibly, he cried “The South is avenged!” or “Revenge for the South,” and he cried this in the box, or on the stage, or paired with another cry. Of the forty or so reliable witnesses to the assassination whose accounts are collected in Timothy S. Good’s “We Saw Lincoln Shot,” some sixteen heard the Latin or the English, only four heard both, and many say that they didn’t hear the assassin say anything at all. Two witnesses heard Booth say, “I have done it!” Well, which was it? It is possible that he said only Sic semper tyrannis, onstage or off, and that the words were easily misheard by a stunned audience: “The South is avenged.” On the other hand, he may have cried out both, and then added the gloating remark as he fled. But then why didn’t more people hear him?

Booth himself, for whom the assassination was, Swanson says, a kind of diabolical work of performance art, insisted on the “right” reading. “I shouted Sic semper before I fired,” he wrote a few days later, in his own note, which he intended to be sent to the newspapers.

Mind you, Gopnik is talking about eyewitness accounts - no one is disputing that these people saw the event, but only whether their accounts are accurate.

At the end of the article, Gopnik makes the point that even had we been at Lincoln's death bed there's no guarantee we would have known exactly what Stanton said - certainly the eyewitnesses at the Ford's Theatre didn't know exactly what Booth said. And things are no different today - there are often arguments about recorded comments and speeches.

I think there has to be a lesson here - or more than one. On the one hand, one might be inclined to say that naysayers who take minor discrepances in the gospels to be indicative of fundamental contradictions that show the gospels are either majorly inaccurate or, worse, complete fiction should lighten up a little. Probably true. But there is a problem for those practicing a conservative hermeneutic too, because usually of how much weight is often placed upon exact phrasing in the gospels. I understand all the theology that has been built up around that practice - not all of it sound, I'd be inclined to say - but still, I think it ought to give people pause. Now, no credible scholar would ever buy into "proof-texting" as they call it (though they might disagree about what constitutes proof-texting), but people still do it all the time, even people who say we shouldn't do it (I plead guilty, your Honor).

22:55:30 - Religion - ben - No comments

March 17, 2007

Essential Non-Essentials

by ben

I'm a few days behind on this one, but still, it's good enough I want to give it some attention. David Wayne, a more doctrinally conservative and reformed blogger, wrote a great post this week called Emeril as Theologian. Dumb title so ignore that. But basically, Wayne is diagnosing the problem of taking issues that in the past have not been considered essential issues by many people and "kicking them up a notch" into essential issues. He brings up eschatology, adherence to six day creationism, and even one I've brought up in this forum before, namely women in ministry. This promotion of non-essential issues is a big problem in my opinion, as you may have noticed from posts here in the past. I'm just glad to see it getting more attention elsewhere.

01:22:44 - Religion - ben - No comments

July 22, 2006

Not-So-Random Links

by ben

On his link blog Jesus Politics, Carlos Stouffer recently posted two interesting links. The first was to a very interesting article ("How Biblical is the Christian Right?") by one Margaret M. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Chicago. The article is not exactly an in-depth analysis of the hermeneutic of right-leaning religious groups (her main source is web sites of such organizations, after all) but it has some interesting things to say nonetheless. For the most part I think her article is dead on.

The second link led me to a post by Al Mohler explaining his own conversion on the issue of women's ordination. I think it sheds some light on why this is such a big issue for Mohler. (Of course, that won't stop me from vocally disagreeing with some of the dubious things he has said on this issue.)

(I am going to come back to Christian publishing, incidentally. But I accidentally lost the larger part of a post on the topic, so you'll have to wait longer...)

02:09:29 - Religion - ben - No comments

June 25, 2006

A Dubious Claim of Complementarianism

by ben

One of the most popular claims of those who oppose women in ministry, especially those who would refer to themselves as complementarian (whose claims go beyond merely women's roles in ministry but also in the family and sometimes in society), is that any hermeneutic that would support the idea of women in ministry would also naturally lead one to conclude that homosexual practice, even the ordination of practicing homosexuals, is perfectly acceptable. Al Mohler, one of the most prominent voices among complementarians and conservative Christians in general, is a supporter of this position as evinced most recently by a blog post of his from this Friday (as pointed to by Carlos Stouffer).

Regardless of how one feels about the issues of homosexuality and the ordination of women, I hope that all can agree that this claim is blatantly false. There are several reasons why this is the case.

First, most basically and importantly, from a strictly Scriptural standpoint this claim is unsupportable. While critiques of the status quo interpretation of Scripture by from the pro-homosexuality positions may have raised interesting questions (again, regardless of how one feels about the answers), there is little to no reason internal to the text to reconsider the traditional interpretation of the text. That alone is not necessarily enough to rule out a re-examination of the text, but it certainly will have some bearing. More importantly, that is nothing at all like the argument about the ordination of women. That issue arises directly out of the text! While there is definitely I Timothy 2:11-15 or I Corinthians 14:33-35 (which on the surface seem pretty explicit) there is also Priscilla who along with her husband Aquila corrected the doctrine of Apollos (Acts 18:26); and Phoebe (Romans 16:1), a "deaconness"; and Junia (Romans 16:7 - though the name has often been translated Junias - a man - though this is widely believed to be incorrect); and the constant mention by Paul of women as fellow workers; and of course the classic passage of Galatians 3:28; Philip's four daughters, among other women, who were prophets (Acts 21:8-9); and of course Deborah, a prophetess and leader of Israel for a time (Judges 4-5). Now, again, whether one looking at those passages comes to the same conclusions as those who support the ordination of women is irrelevant - the real point is that the questions they are raising often come directly from the text. One most certainly need not doubt the inspiration or authority or directness of Scripture or practice too bizarre of hermeneutics (note that Mohler is only accusing his opponents of the last one of these, in this case) to doubt the "traditional" position. While Mohler's reading may seem more obvious it hardly settles the issue, at least in many persons opinions - and as the list of passages above should make clear, there is a legitimate reason, I think, to have doubts.

The second reason this claim is false is historical. At many points in history, women have been accepted in ministry and this has not lead to either abandoning a straightforward approach to interpreting Scripture or to accepting homosexuality. I have heard of earlier examples, which sadly I am not familiar enough with to elaborate on, but I can pick this thread up over 300 years ago when Quakers abandoned the idea of pastors (which they have since taken back up) and allowed men and women to speak in meetings. Pentacostalism is another tradition in which it is common for women to be ordained, and that practice dates back into the 1800s as far as I know. While there are some Quakers that would allow the practice of homosexuality today, the conservative branch would not, and for the first 300 years none would have. As to Pentacostalism, well, need I even say it? History demonstrates that a church that holds to a traditional approach to Scripture can support the ordination of women and not conclude that homosexuality is acceptable.

Again, whether one agrees with the interpretations of those who support the ordination of women is irrelevant - the question is about what kind of hermeneutic one can maintain and still hold to that interpretation. It seems clear to me that one can hold to a hermeneutic that should be acceptable to any believer, however traditional, and still come to that conclusion. I wish and pray that Mohler and other complementarians would stop resorting to their claim to the contrary. We hover, it seems to me at this moment, on the brink of "unnecessary division." I say this as I continue to pray for wisdom for myself and for those who lead in the church - Dr. Mohler included.

The reason, incidentally, why this issue is of importance, is because of the division arising out of the increasing push from certain "conservative" (whatever that means in this case) elements in the American church. Whereas before the argument had been about who was right and who was wrong (or at least it seemed to me, though I am known to be somewhat naive), it has been increasingly common to claim that egalitarians and such are actually undermining the gospel or abandoning the Bible. While those sorts of claims (about all sorts of theological disputes) have always been made in more fundamentalist and divisive branches of the Protestantism, recently they have been repeated in mainstream evangelicalism. To me the issue is moving beyond the more straightforward dispute over the correct doctrine and into much more dangerous territory. Thus it is that those of us who have been sitting on the fence for a very long time are no longer so inclined to sit on that fence - even if we are involving ourselves in a slightly different dispute than the one we had so far avoided.

07:10:05 - Religion - ben - No comments

May 28, 2006

A Different Perspective on Scripture

by ben

The Better Bibles Blog points to a new series by David Plotz, deputy editor of Slate, who is reading through the Bible for the first time and recording his impressions. As he explains in his introduction, he is not entirely ignorant of the Bible, being Jewish and having attended a Christian school with Bible classes, but he hasn't ever actually read the whole thing. However, a recent reading of the bizarre story of Dinah prompted him to examine the whole thing. A lot of his impressions so far are the kind of things you may have heard before from people who are not especially familiar with the Bible, but what's different here is he's doing the whole thing from the beginning. It's a good opportunity to see how truly bizarre the Bible we often take for granted can appear to someone not as familiar with it, even someone who comes out of a religious tradition that embraces it.

22:12:30 - Religion - ben - No comments

May 22, 2006

On the Tension Between Compassion and Law

by ben

One thing I keep seeing Christians write about immigration is that there is that they feel a tension between the need to uphold law and order and the need to show compassion. I am no fan of the "law and order"-style Christians usually because the vast majority of the time that is merely an excuse to get their own way or to give in to fear, whatever. But I can appreciate that on the immigration issue, some people are really having trouble with this. Let me then suggest to them, hopefully to their benefit of their conscience, that they have made a false dichotomy.

Entering the country and remaining and working without approval from the proper authorities is against the law. But (1) so are many other things which we do not consider serious problems; for example, I've met precious few Christians who don't speed, for better or for worse. And, more importantly, (2) there is nothing inherently immoral about immigration. Although there are policy implications, some of them moral, for immigration on the whole, no single act of immigration could ever be considered immoral. This is absolutely critical because it means that in the context of the current debate, where we are discussing comprehensive immigration reform, we can choose what is and is not illegal. Technically we can make anything not covered by the Constitution illegal - but we don't need to, and usually we don't, and we can do the same thing to a lot of immigration. When all these leaders are sweating that being compassionate will require us to not show proper respect for the law, they are getting everything out of order. First, let's decide what immigration should and should not be legal. Increase the immigration limits already - there is absolutely no reason for them to be as low as they are. Even from the American perspective they seem to be too low (though admittedly this is difficult to establish, given all of the biased parties involved in the debate - it benefits certain economic interests to claim that there are not enough working immigrants). Then, only after we have decided what should be illegal, should we talk about what punitive measures are appropriate. Finally, the debate about what to do about immigrants already here for some time should happen in conjunction with this or last after all those things have been settled. And then, most of the problem has already disappeared, hopefully. No one has to choose this sort of dichotomy yet.

Yet - see, the time has not yet passed when we can make a difference by advocating for a fundamental change in our approach to immigration. The Judeo-Christian tradition, American history, and civil libertarian ideals all favor a more permissive position on immigration. For those worried about making laws upholding their moral tradition, this is a perfect opportunity. And for a change everyone can be on the same side even! But if we take a hands-off approach, and let Congress debate this on their terms (which has from the outset been determined by the worst, most xenophobic tendencies in our society), then we may risk having to choose between respect for law and compassion. For now, we still have a choice, so let's not give in to paralysis.

(Incidentally, it may seem strange to some that I am so quick to defend those who break the law on immigration, but so quick to condemn corporations and persons of power for breaking other laws. But that word is the key: "power." I defend immigrants in part because I think that immigration should not in general be illegal, but also because the vast majority of immigrants in this nation are precisely not the rich and powerful. Although the Bible condemns favoritism, it also upholds the principle that we need to protect the vulnerable.)

02:55:24 - Religion - ben - 1 comment

May 13, 2006

A Bibliography on Church and State

by ben

To go with the bibliography on New Testament books, since I am also doing a lot of reading on the relationship between church and state, I am posting a bibliography on that too. I have barely had a chance to do any reading yet, so at the moment it does not contain much, but I will add more as I go. Meanwhile, if you know of any books on the topic that either you found to be interesting or even just thought sound interesting and would like me to check out, please let me know.

I have finished reading all but the appendix of The Search for Christian America (as of a couple weeks ago almost) and I will post some thoughts on it and some quotations from it soon, hopefully.

01:43:47 - Religion - ben - No comments

May 01, 2006

Somebody Else's Thoughts on Fixing Things

by ben

A. K. M. Adam has an interesting post up about, well, I'm not sure how to describe it, I guess about the dangers in trying to fix problems, namely that we can never (and thus should never assume that we can) perfectly fix any system, and that ultimately we can only affect positive changes by not relying on our own abilities to fix them but rather by relying on grace. It's not a finished statement on anything, but more a beginning apparently. Anyway, I've heard people say similar things before, but this one sort of just hit me in the right way at the right time. I am one of those people who is especially prone to assuming I can fix things, no matter what (even when I frequently don't have a clue how to do so), so I found it esepecially relevant. (And, hey, it even references MacGyver, though you will have to forgive his not-entirely-accurate description of the concept, apparently he doesn't watch it.)

00:09:19 - Religion - ben - No comments

April 23, 2006

Some Miscellania on Crime

by ben

According to an old AP article, the peak number of murders in Gary, Indiana occurred in 1995 when there were 132 murders in a city of about 103,000 people, or about 1 per 1000. It's lower these days (almost half of that), but still quite high. A very frightening exercise is to compare that1995 murder rate to hot spots over the world now. It turns out that Gary of 1995 wasn't much better off than some of the world's scariest places now - in some cases it was worse. I'm not sure really what to do with that. Should Gary's homicide rate make me more concerned about Baghdad's, or should Baghdad's make me more concerned about Gary's? Either way, it is a scary number. (Incidentally, back then the unsolved murder rate in Gary was something like 90%.)

On a completely different point, we hear a lot about how bad off society is these days, and one of the continually cited indicators is violence. If we look at statistics about violence though, the numbers seem to suggest that much of this decline is - how shall we say? - completely made up. Well, that's not quite true. Taking homicide as an indicator of violence, we would find from the Bureau of Justice Statistics' table of homicide rates (and their useful summary complete with a very helpful chart) that the homicide rate in 2002 was the same as in 1966. The homicide rate was starting to increase drastically in the late 1960s, and it stayed elevated until the late 1990s when it dropped steeply. So, the homicide rate is higher than it was in the days of Beaver Cleaver, but it's lower now than it had been for some time. Certainly, it is better now than it was a little over a decade ago. A look at their chart on longer-term trends shows that the current level is the same as it was prior to 1920! (The low homicide rate of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s was not typical for the century, though admittedly prior to 1910 those numbers show a surprisingly small homicide rate back then.) So, while we may be surrounded by more images of violence (though I suppose someone had better check!), we are not more murderous in this nation today than we were in most of the decades of the Twentieth Century (assuming that data is essentially correct). This fact makes me even more skeptical of falling-sky arguments. Don't get me wrong, I don't like what I see when I look around, but let's not pretend that we continue to reach new depths, because it simply isn't true. (I know that we could look at other numbers that would tell us other things about this nation, like divorce rates, abortion rates, and so on, that would give us a more negative picture - and indeed on some fronts things may be worse than they were - but, interestingly, not in all).

Of course, murder rates, as in Gary and Chicago, tend to be higher in cities. The BJS "Crime Data Brief" from 1999 points out that much of the decline in the homicide rate in the 1990s came from cities of 1 million or more inhabitants (which does indeed exclude Gary, though some quick, rough calculations show that Gary's homicide rate change alone would have made a nearly 0.4% drop in the national homicide rate). I can't help but wonder how much our view of current American society is colored by cities. This leads me to wonder if rural states are in part more conservative because of lower crime rates. The violent crime rate by state (which can be found in Table 5 of the 2004 "Crime in the United States" report) though seems to not be highly correlated to politics or even population density, though I didn't bother to actually calculate the correlation.

On to another, vaguely related topic. I was talking to Justin on Thursday about, when comparing different nations, how poorly violent crime rates (among other things) correlate with religiosity. The United States is very near the top of industrialized nations in religious participation, and I think most observers would agree that among true Christian believers it must have one of the highest rates as well. Most European nations, on the other hand, are in dreadful condition Spiritually-speaking. And yet... their violent crime rates are rarely higher and often lower than ours. This puts to lie, I think, the idea that atheists will be automatically more evil in general. I am not talking about sin - clearly one can not expect to find a "righteous" atheist in Christian theological terms. What I am talking about is public morality. Even Paul said the God-less could be lawful on occasion (see Romans 2:14-16). Despite this apparent disconnect (which I admit may not be complete; some would point to inculcated "Judeo-Christian morality," for example), many in this country like to claim that most of the problems in this nation are due directly to declining faith in God. Well, perhaps we would be even worse off (in secular terms) with lower rates of belief and religious participation, but many essentially atheistic countries are doing better than us. I think we need some careful consideration about the relationship between the faith of some and the condition of the society as a whole. Which is not to say that evangelism - true evangelism concerned with souls not a "culture war" which is concerned with political points and lip-service - is unimportant, but rather to say the exact opposite: We may not be able to save our society no matter how faithful we are, but we can bring persons to God one at a time. To do that we must both announce the saving grace of God but also demonstrate that faith. But let that demonstration be a true demonstration and not demonization - there is no place for self-righteousness in the kingdom of God.

01:31:07 - Religion - ben - No comments

April 05, 2006

What Not to Do as a City

by ben

In Ezekiel there are many prophecies against Jerusalem. In one God compares Jerusalem to Samaria and Sodom, saying Jerusalem was worse that either of the other two. Granted, the emphasis is on the sin of Jerusalem, but I still thought that the description of the sins of Sodom was interesting:

This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, had abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and committed abominable crimes before me. So, when I saw it, I removed them. (Ezekiel 16:49-50, NET)

In some translations the "but" before the part about helping the needy is replaced by another conjuction such as "and" (in the New International Version) or "neither" (in the King James Version).

02:36:07 - Religion - ben - 1 comment

March 29, 2006

One Piece of the History of Women in Ministry

by ben

Just in case anyone ever tries to tell you otherwise, it didn't take modern feminism for women to become involved as leaders in modern church ministry (I say modern because their role in the ancient church is not as clear). I am actually not sure how far back it goes, but I knew, of course, that women were on an equal footing (in terms of teaching) among the Quakers from basically the beginning, which was in the Seventeenth Century. So they were more than three centuries ahead of modern feminism. I already knew this, but what occasions this post is a post by Suzanne McCarthy reproducing part of Margaret Fell's 1666 pamphlet Women's Speaking Justified. Regardless of whether the Quakers are right or not, the point is that women in teaching positions in the church is not directly a result of modern feminism. It may have made the practice more acceptable, but it certainly didn't create it. (Although in many of the denominations where women are ordained today, such as the Salvation Army, the practice begain in the middle of the Nineteenth Century - still too early for modern feminism.)

04:33:28 - Religion - ben - No comments

March 21, 2006

"Proof-texting" and Infinite Series

by ben

It has been frequently said that you can prove anything with the Bible, by merely pulling the proper quotations out. We sometimes agree to this intellectually while not fulling considering the force of this fact, I think, or at least I have been guilty of that.

One classic example is the argument about "eternal security." For every passage someone who believes in eternal security can quote (say, "...no one will snatch them out of my hand" in John 10:28) someone who does not can quote one as well (say, Hebrews 6:4-6, or some such). That one doesn't really worry me much (frankly, I am not one who believes that a firm opinion one way or the other on eternal security is anywhere near to affecting my salvation). Sometimes, however, the issue may be more practical, such as women's role in the church. Of course, in both of these examples, both sides will have reasons why the other's interpretation is not the correct one. But that is not relevant to my point, since the way most persons (myself usually included) read Scripture, we might never think twice about these passages if we could not find somewhere else (often in a book by the same author or even in the same book) another passage "contradicting" them. (This problem - lack of awareness, absent apparent contradiction, of interpretice difficulty - should make us think about how we read Scripture, indeed. I do not mean that we merely fail to consider it in the larger textual context, which is what I am mainly getting at, but also that we assume too much straightforwardness in Scripture and read it too recklessly, forgetting the situational context, the genre, and so on. But this is a topic for another time.) While it may be true that one side is consistently misinterpreting the text, the fact of the matter is that in most cases it is not obvious which side is doing so. Or even if it is, it is often not grossly negligent misinterpretation by our present, inadequate, standards. What I am really trying to say is that we must always be careful when using Scripture to support an argument, even if we do not see such contradictions. Which, I emphasize, is not to say anything about the authority or correctness of Scripture, but rather, as usual, about how we must read it, which is to say, on its own terms. (I probably do not need to point out that often, for many Christians, the interpretation and Scripture itself have become so entangled that persons will accuse others of holding "un-Biblical positions" even when the other position is itself argued entirely from Scripture. Which is not to say that no position is ever un-Biblical, merely that not all that are accused of being such are.)

All of this has made me think of something I learned in real analysis (stay with me, here) about infinite series. An infinite series is what most of us would think of as sum of an infinite amount of terms . While that explanation has some mathematical inadequacies, it will do for our present purposes. Anyway, an infinite series may either diverge (that is, continue to grow to infinitely to infinity or shrink to negative infinity) or converge to some finite value. Among series that converge, some converge because their terms become small enough that eventually the series stops growing. Others, the ones we are interested in, converge because some terms are negative and offset the positive terms (if the absolute values of the terms was being added together instead, the series would diverge). Such series are called conditionally convergent. Conditionally convergent series are interesting because the terms must be added together in the proper order. The conditionally convergent series can be rearranged such that it will converge to any value we choose, or to diverge (this is Weierstrass' Theorem). The terms must be added in the correct order to converge to the actual value to which the series converges. Now, a conditionally convergent series by definition converges. What has gone wrong if we add its terms out of order is that we have made a mistake! This says nothing about the series itself, and everything about our treatment of it. A conditionally convergent series is not meant to be added however we feel like.

I find this a wonderful analogy for the danger of assembling an argument out of Scriptural quotations. Just as adding terms out of order can give us any value with an infinite series, assembling passages incorrectly (not in order, but in some other way, like context) can give us any argument, or just about any argument. Which is to say again, we must approach Sripture on its terms, not ours. How we do that is something I think we should continue to worry about, and I suspect I will spend much of my life addressing that very issue.

(I have used the word contradiction above, in quotes, so let me expound a little on it. I do not think that in many cases we have any reason to see a true contradiction in the text. Some of these might be legitimate possibilities for contradiction if we had different theology or none, but some are clearly artifacts of the limitations of language and logic - difficult concepts sometimes require long, shaded expositions, which can be misread. Sometimes, the author is intentionally asserting a paradox. Admittedly, there are some cases that are harder to resolve. Solutions to the apparent conflict between the two geneaologies presented for Jesus, are, for example, as far as I know, "non-trivial." I think such conflicts say less about the robustness of divine truth than they do about how God has chosen to reveal that truth, and I think that they should give us pause. Indeed, that may be entirely the point in some cases.)

02:51:49 - Religion - ben - No comments

March 01, 2006

Speaking of Proverbs 29

by ben

Proverbs 29:7: "The righteous person cares for the legal rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such knowledge" (NET, copyright 1996-2006 Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C).

I know that my biases influence me to interpret that certain ways. I also know pulling random verses out of Proverbs is dangerous (not that you have to worry about context as much there, but some proverbs might be misunderstood all the same, it seems). But I can't think this one is not clear.

Let me explain how I interpret this in a political context. It appears, to me, that our laws are structured for the most part around the rights of the rich (whether individuals or corporations). This is almost undisputed. We don't want to take their money, or cost them too much money from lawsuits, or prevent them charging whatever price they want on products, however essential. Meanwhile, some persons are not paid enough to live on (even in the United States), are charged more than they could ever afford for critical products that could be sold for a lower margin, are required to work under terrible conditions, or are treated as dispensable temporary labor (without being told this). This is part of the reason I am, in my words, "anti-corporate" - which I don't take to mean corporations are automatically evil, but that I think that many of the mega-corporations in this nation (though, technically, many of them are not in this nation, but rather international) should be kept on a shorter leash. Should we be more concerned about the rights of those who have no recourse because of their economic situation or the rights of some entity with, quite literally, no soul? Obviously, large multi-national corporations provide many useful services, but I don't think we should therefore let them do whatever they feel like.

07:59:17 - Religion - ben - No comments

February 27, 2006

Psalm 146

by ben

In the words of an author wiser and more skilled than I:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live!
I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist!
Do not trust in princes,
or in human beings, who cannot deliver!
Their life's breath departs, they return to the ground;
on that day their plans die.
How happy is the one whose helper is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
the one who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who remains forever faithful, vindicates the oppressed,
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord releases the imprisoned.
The Lord gives sight to the blind.
The Lord lifts up all who are bent over.
The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects those residing outside their native land;
he lifts up the fatherless and the widow,
but he opposes the wicked.
The Lord rules forever,
your God, O Zion, throughout the generations to come!
Praise the Lord!
(NET, copyright 1996-2006 Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C)

(By the way, specifically what interested me when I read this tonight was that, first, that we are not to - and cannot - put our trust in human allies, and, second, the kind of people for whom God stands up. But I don't want to lose sight of the first point while thinking about the second point.)

10:53:55 - Religion - ben - No comments

February 20, 2006

The Essence of a "Church"

by ben

Brad Abare of Church Marketing Sucks (which contrary to what the name might imply is not against church marketing by any means) says in a recent post,

How much should I do? What should I avoid? What is cool? What works?

Here's a simple approach I've learned...

If the electricity went out, and your walls fell down, and your biggest givers died, what would you have left? Would you have a community of people still seeking after the heart of God? Would you still worship even without a band? Would you still be able to learn about God even though you can't show a video or a PowerPoint slide? In other words, what you have when everything else goes away is what your church is really all about.

Sadly, this seems to be exactly the question most churches never ask these days.

I don't always agree with the Church Marketing Sucks guys (not being a fan of "marketing" in general, even their more nuanced understanding), but I think this time they nail it exactly.

03:14:04 - Religion - ben - No comments

February 07, 2006

Jesus' Anger and Rhetoric

by ben

(A rather sketchy post, I admit, but I wanted to get this down while I was thinking about it.)

I stopped in at Christian Challenge's weekly meeting tonight. Toby Havens was talking about the humanity of Christ, and in the process pointed out that Jesus was known to occasionally display emotion, including anger. How that is all related to Jesus' divinity is actually irrelevant to my present point, because bringing up Jesus being angry made me think about something much more concrete: I remembered what made Jesus angry. Now, that's not too hard for me to remember because it makes me angry too, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

So what made Jesus angry? Well, I suppose it depends on how you read certain passages whether Jesus was angry, but there's a very clear instance that almost no one would question: driving the money changers and the vendors out of the Temple. Angry - he was downright violent. And his disciples, the Gospel of John reports, remember that it is written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Well, anyway, this got me to thinking some more. What other things could I think of that Jesus appeared worked up over. Well, one obvious one is the religious leadership. The "Seven Woes" passage of Matthew 23, where Jesus goes through a list of things the teachers of the law and the Pharisees do wrong. There are several other passages in a similar vein. Luke 11, for example, also contains many condemnations by Jesus of the Pharisees and the the teachers of the law.

There is a distinct pattern here: hypocrites and those using religion for temporal gain are consistently, and vehemently, condemned. The only other people he calls down "woe" onto are those who lead others in to sin (e.g. Matthew 18:6), the rich (Luke 6), and cities that do not repent (e.g. Matthew 11:21) - and two of those three acategories re closely related to the ones already mentioned. And there are numerous passages where Jesus gives stern warnings about not believing him. But the most specific condemnation of any sinners other than the religious leaders for any sin other than for not accepting his mission and message are at the city level - and still it is related to not listening to Jesus. Whenever Jesus yells about sin he takes on the sin directly. Only competing teachers are directly condemned.

What is equally interesting is what Jesus does not yell about. He rarely gets loud about sin - which is not to say he does not say a lot of negative things about sin, quite the contrary, but it does say something about how he addresses sin rhetorically. First, the occasions where he is loud about it: As we have already seen, he addresses the issue of leading others into sin and hypocrisy very strongly. He is very harsh about sin as as an activity in and of itself (say, for example, Matthew 5:29-30), but even that is usually in the middle of a section of moral teaching. He also brings up the penalties for sin - in a very general meaning - in parables. He has strong words in some of his ethical sermons about specific sins, for example, his condemnation of hate as murder in Matthew 5:21-22. But notice how he addresses sin in the lif of individuals. Look at how he talks to the Samaritan woman in John 4, or Zaccheus. He doesn't beat people over the head with their sins as individuals, or even, usually as categories of people. He doesn't say "Woe, adulterers!" though he does condemn immorality - but that's a different way of saying it. And it's in marked contrast to when he condemns the Pharisees as a group. Which wasn't to say every Pharisee was a sinner, we know Jesus had followers from the Pharisees, such as Joseph of Arimathea, but as a group he had something to say about them.

Other things Jesus is almost completely silent on. He never condemns the Romans - whom just about everyone expects him to take on, whether physically or spiritually. Jesus is not like the Zealots, and he seems to be careful about making that point.

So why yell at the Pharisees and physically chase profiteers, but be almost silent about adulterers and even tax collectors and tyrants? I think that must be a delicate question to answer. I mean, I think the condemnation of the religious leaders is easy to handle. And even the Temple sellers makes sense, at least to me (though the message has clearly been lost on many). But we might be more comfortable if he did say, "Pilate, shape up you tyrant!" But he chose not to - I suspect because Jesus really wanted to focus on Israel, and also because he did not want to get mired down in politics. Perhaps he did have strong feelings about the Romans, but he at the very least kept quiet about it (though he may not indeed have been worried about them). (It does occur to me, though, that indeed John the Baptist, not Jesus, criticized Herod, and for adultery, not even oppression.) His approach to "small-timers" is probably the most interesting, though. I think part of this is sensitivity. The outsideres - such as prostitutes and tax collectors, but also the disabled and the Samaritans - needed more gentle treatment. The confident hypocrites needed shaking up. All of them needed a message, but they needed to hear different things about that message to understand it. Anyway, that is my working theory.

It is hard to say how far we could go with these examples. Certainly others, such as John, Paul, the other writers of the New Testament, and the prophets, addressed different things different ways (though I think I would argue Paul's approach is eerily similar, while not identical, to Jesus'). But I think also that, specifically in the United States, there are definitely some similarities today to Jesus' place and time. And I think that we too might do better to go after Zondervan and Christian record labels and hypocrititcal religious leaders, and hypocritical sermonizing politicians than "sodomites" or secular humanists or "liberals." We need to address all those groups - but in appropriate ways. Preach reform to those who need to reform, and the good news to those who need to hear that.

I am saddened that the more vocal religious leadership seems to so closely resemble that of two millenia ago. But I think that we too can't be too confident. One of the passages I cited when talking about what Jesus' condemned was Luke 6; specifically I was thinking of Luke 6:24-26:

“But woe to you who are rich!
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you, you who are full now!
For you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now!
For you will mourn and weep.
Woe, when men speak well of you!
For their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets.
(WEB)

The prophets always go after the arrogant. Let us be humble, but courageous.

23:05:01 - Religion - ben - No comments

December 20, 2005

My Latest Trip to the Library

by ben

I made yet another exciting trip to the library, and I am very excited about my latest bounty.

I have now The New Testament : Its Background, Growth, and Content which turns out to be merely a very elementary introductory textbook, which was not what I was expecting. It isn't much use to me, though I note that it was rather readable and if I ever had to teach an elementary college or advanced high school class on the Bible I would probably consider it; it seems like it would make a decent one. On the other hand, I don't plan on teaching any such thing in the near future, so that does not help me much at this moment.

More useful is F. F. Bruce's The Canon of Scripture which is quite good based on what I have read so far. It sppears to have less citations than Metzger's treatment of the New Testament canon, which for a citation snob like me is a slight knock. It is also hard to read linearly: notes and footnotes frequently point at large sections to have to be read to understand the current spot - but then that is farily typical for a work of this sort (and one that Metzger's book shared). On the other hand, I found it to be quite readable, it covers the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, and it is very cheap (less than $20 for hardcover); I plan on buying it. It deserves far more attention than I have yet given it, so expect to hear more about it in the future.

In a similar vein I grabbed E. E. Ellis' The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999), which seems to be a sort of comprehensive, in depth look at the origins of the New Testament, more along the lines of what I was expecting to find in Metzger's book. This book seems more idiosyncratic than one would wish though. Ellis has several theories he is working through, and he seems to have some mostly unique assumptions. He gives the rather important document of I Clement a very early date in the late seventh decade - thirty years before the usually cited date! - and seems to think this is not controversial. I certainly don't know the history of the debate on the dating of I Clement, so for all I know this may be a perfectly reasonable position, but these sorts of early dates run through the whole thing. The result is that the whole thing comes across as very conservative, which makes some sense, since he is from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was interesting so far, though, but I am very curious about what sort of critical response it has received.

On a whim I planned on picking up Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993). I haven't looked at it yet, but my impressions from reviews is that the title is a good indication of the content (not surprisingly... funny things those titles). But the opinion on these sorts of things is important to know. Some of it will be true, some I imagine will be exaggerated, but it will all be useful in its own way.

While I was looking for all these books, I saw by chance David Trobisch's book The First Edition of the New Testament (2000) which I had just read about, so I picked that up too. Trobisch's theory appears to be essentially that almost all New Testament texts we have today have their origin in a collection first published in the middle of the second century. He is not saying that the works are from that time - he does not concern himself with their original dates at all - but just that they all passed into a standard collection with consistent editing at a certain point. I am curious what the scholarly response to his book has been; I should track down some reviews. It does not sound entirely implausible, though it is a rather ambitious claim it seems to me (and it would appear his theory might leave more things unexplained than explained), but either way it should be useful. It is useful to consider any reasonable theory about the history of these texts it seems, if only so we know what sort of inferences one might be able to draw. (Or maybe it is just me who finds this interesting, but it is not really useful at all in fact, who knows?)

Finally, since I just read C. S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" I got out two books related to that, namely The Lost Road by Tolkien which contains the short story of the same title which apparently came out the same conversation that read to Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet and Discarded Image by Lewis on Medieval and Rennaisance art, some of the ideas of which figure in Perlandra, strangely enough. I was not able to get yet The World's Last Night: And Other Essays by Lewis which has his essay "Religion and Rocketry" or "Will We Lose God in Outer Space" (apparently it has gone under both titles). (On a related note, my confidence in Lews has so far been decreased by this first serious foray into his writing. Other reliable persons have found profit in him though, so for now I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I did not really care for the Space Trilogy much at all. Well, Out of the Silent Planet was not all that bad, and despite some serious flaws I rather liked it, but after reading the next two books, I had rather lost much of the taste for it. I may write more on this later.)

I also passed by, but did not get check out, several books reproducing certain manuscripts. I can't read Greek so it wouldn't do me any good anyway, and even if I could read Greek I would hardly be at the stage of my education where access to an unedited manuscript would be very useful, except as practice reading the original manuscripts, but then that was why I was mainly interested in them. Someday I hope to have such things on my bookshelf.

The conclusion is I have managed to find a wealth of extremely interesting reading material. This has also been a good reminder that I should be working on my Greek...

This does raise one question for me though: How do people survive without access to a university library? My advice to any young person who values their own education (or parent's who value their children's education) is to make sure they move to a city or town with a quality university library. And by quality I was thinking more like IU's than Valparaiso's, but at the very least one like Valparaiso's. Okay, now I may be speaking somewhat pretentiously. In all seriousness, though, I am reminded what an incredible place to live Bloomington is - thank God for it. I do add though, that sometimes the IU library is not the most convenient place to find books, namely some more popular works are better had from the public library or the bookstore. I find a combination of the the three sources to be indispensable.

08:20:10 - Religion - ben - No comments

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