Thursday, December 07, 2006

So... I'm it... I guess...

So apparently I've been tagged. Man, I don't even remember the last time I did one of these internet surveys. Crazy. Anyway, several of my answers are going to be identical to Jenny's, 'cause, well, we live in the same house. I'll mark the ones that are the same.

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate?
Coffee. Maybe with a little dollop of Scotch.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just set them under the tree? Yes. When I was really young, and my parents were still married, about half (usually the smaller half) of Santa's presents were wrapped, and the other half were just sitting under the tree. The end result of which was that on Christmas morning, my brother and I would get up and go see what we'd gotten before getting our parents up. Anyway, after my parents divorced, Santa's presents at Dad's house were never wrapped, while at Mom's house they all were. In our house, we have dogs, cats, and a crawling baby, so if we put any presents under the tree before Christmas Eve/Morning, they wouldn't be intact when it came time to unwrap them. So for us, all the presents are wrapped, and none of them go out until sometime in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. Jenny and I actually have gotten in the habit of racing to see who can get their presents for the other out first. I usually win. Twenty-five years old and I still have trouble sleeping on Christmas Eve.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? Again, my parents' differing styles came into play here. Dad always put colored lights on the outside of the house and on the tree, whereas Mom put white lights on the tree and no lights on the outside of the house, just some candles in the windows and a wreath on the door.

4. Do you hang mistletoe? [Same as Jenny] We have a fake cluster (real is poisonous to pets and babies) with a bell that we hang between our living room and kitchen.

5. When do you put your decorations up? Usually the weekend after Thanksgiving. When I was really young, we'd get a live tree, and so it'd usually be later, but when I was 9, Mom and Dad each got artificial trees, and so we started putting the decorations up earlier. Well, Mom did... nowadays Dad may decorate for Christmas or not. He usually manages to have his tree up by Christmas Eve. The last couple of years, Jenny and I have put it up for him a couple weeks before Christmas. In our house, we usually put them up the weekend after Thanksgiving. Except for any lights going on the roof. For those we jump on the opportunity to do it when it's fairly warm out and the roof is dry. Learned that lesson the hard way our first year in the first house - it's really hard to get from your roof to the ladder so you can get down and go inside and warm up when your butt is numb from sitting on a wet roof, hanging lights in 40-degree weather.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish? Hmmm.... yes.

7. Favorite Holiday memory as a child: Jeez. Lots. Christmas has always been great for me. I'm told that my reaction to seeing that I'd gotten a Nintendo - the original NES, so I was probably about 6 - was pretty funny from a parental perspective. Actually, and this is going to sound weird, later in high school, I enjoyed driving myself home from Midnight Mass. At 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, you can drive through a town like Leitchfield (which, though it isn't big, isn't that small, either) and see maybe one other car. It's very peaceful. But in general, Christmas has some of my best childhood memories, so it's hard to pick one.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? Wha... What do you mean? What "truth" about Santa?

Okay, so in '91, the year my parents divorced, I spent Christmas Eve at my Dad's house. I woke up at about 4:00 Christmas morning and went to see what Santa had brought and... nothing. I ran into Dad's room, freaking out 'cause Santa hadn't come. Dad told me to get back in bed while he checked the situation out. A few minutes later he came back in and told me Santa had come while he was in the other room. A couple months later I went "Wait just a minute..."

So I was a gullible kid. Sue me.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? We could usually manage to finagle an early Christmas present. Whether on Christmas Eve or the week before, or something like that. No real traditions like the pajamas in Jenny's family or anything like that, just some years we got to open a present early, some years we didn't.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas Tree? [Mostly the same as Jenny, except for the part about the cats... she's the cat lady here, not me] Pre-lit with colored lights, angel on top, gold bead garland, and all our family ornaments (lots of Hallmark stuff, etc.). No tinsel - animals spread it and eat it. We usually get a new ornament every year (mine are almost all cats - do you sense a theme with me?) and for special occasions (New Home, Parents-to-Be, etc.) but there's lots of room left for more. :-)

11. Snow! Love it or Dread it? Love it. It should start snowing on Thanksgiving, at the latest, and from that point on, snow enough and stay cold enough to maintain about a 4-inch layer until absolutely no earlier than New Year's Day. I'm in general a winter sort of guy.

12. Can you ice skate? When I was in 7th grade, my mom and brother and I went ice skating basically every weekend for most of the winter. I got pretty good by the end of that winter, but I haven't been since, so I'd probably fall and break my ass if I tried it now.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? I've gotten a lot of great gifts. It's hard to pick out my favorite. My pajama set from Jenny the year before last was pretty nice. But no, I can't really pick a "favorite."

14. What’s the most important thing about the Holidays for you? [Same as Jenny] I like spending time with family. I also enjoy giving gifts. The big thing, though, is comemorating Christ's birth (even though it was probably really in the spring).

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert? Yes.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? Hmm... can't really pick one from among the others. There are lots of things I like to make sure I do at least once in a holiday season - watch It's a Wonderful Life and The Muppet Christmas Carol, for example. I also really enjoy putting up Christmas decorations. But it's hard to single out an individual holiday tradition and elevate it to the position of "favorite."

17. What tops your tree? [Same as Jenny - but did I really need to say that? It's the same tree.] An angel figurine.

18. Which do you prefer: giving or receiving? Giving, by a fair margin, actually. I'm not sure exactly when this happened, but at some point in the last few years I realized that I was looking forward to having people (especially Jenny) open the gifts I'd gotten them more than I was looking forward to opening my own gifts. Of course, I'm still a big fan of opening my own gifts. A really big fan.

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song? "O Holy Night." Done properly that song can nearly move me to tears. In general my favorite Christmas songs are the more worshipful ones, the Christmas hymns - "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel," and the like. But "O Holy Night" is the best by far.

20. Candy Canes! Yuck or Yum? Candy canes are hard to eat. The peppermints that I can just unwrap and pop into my mouth are great - when they're around they're like cigarettes for me: I eat them all the time, especially after meals (and I don't have to worry about going outside to eat them, and it's okay if my clothes smell like peppermint - pretty sweet deal, really).

Oh, that's the end of the survey. I kept hitting the down arrow to get to the next question, and turns out there are no more questions. Just as well, I suppose. Gabe's awake now.

Oh, and I guess I should tag somebody... hmm... I'll tag Jon.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And they shall take up serpents

A few days ago in London (Kentucky, not England) a woman was apparently bitten by a snake during a church service. She was dead four hours later (the story can be read here, among other places).

Most of us are at least aware of the practice of snake-handling in churches. It's more common in small rural churches than in, say, megachurches, but most of us are familiar with it, even so. There are a whole host of problems with it, theologically. For one thing, it seems to me that playing with venomous snakes in the expectation that God will keep you from being bitten stands in plain violation of the commandment to not test God (Deuteronomy 6:16, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12). From a theological standpoint, it seems that this ought to be sufficient to discourage the practice.

Also worth noting are the concepts of hyperbole and metaphor. It seems entirely probable to me that when when Jesus tells his followers they'll be able to handle serpents without being harmed, he may not have meant that they would perpetually impervious to snake venom (side note: the same passage mentions drinking poison without harm - do these snake-handling churches, say, put out hemlock punch during services?). There are lots of ways to interpret that statement that avoid the obviously problematic conclusion that Christians are immune to snakebite (though that would have made Snakes on a Plane a more interesting movie: "It's okay. I'm a Christian!").

Finally - and of no small significance - is something that is generally well-known among Biblical scholars, but somewhat less known among laypersons, namely, the questionable provenance of the concluding paragraphs of Mark's gospel. In order to avoid an overly detailed and technical explanation of the discipline of textual criticism, and of the specific details of this situation, I will simply say that the earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at 16:8. The remainder of the chapter - vv.9-20, which include the bit about handling snakes and drinking poison - were added later, possibly being excerpted from a late 2nd century document which is now lost to us. Moreover, the oldest of those manuscripts which do contain the text mark it in some way as being an addition, whether with asterisks or scribal notes to the effect that the passage is spurious. What is likely the case is that at some point someone decided that the ending of Mark was too abrupt and needed some reference to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, and so felt it necessary to tack on a fuller ending (such practices at that time were not entirely out of the ordinary, nor thought to be terribly dishonest - the concept of intellectual property did not exist then). This ending, whatever it's origin, managed to get adopted into the majority of manuscripts, and all indications that it was a spurious addition were eventually lost, with the end result that the Textus Receptus - the manuscript that underlies the King James Bible - runs seamlessly from 16:8 into 16:9. Also, in addition to the manuscript evidence, the internal evidence of vv.9-20 argues against the passage's inclusion with the text of Mark. There are significant differences of style and vocabulary in these 12 verses, including a number of words not found anywhere else in the document.

Now, this discussion does raise some interesting theological questions. How do we deal with the fact that the church for several centuries has regarded these verses as inspired Scripture? I'm not so much a Protestant that I'm willing to simply ignore tradition entirely. But if Mark, the inspired author, did not actually pen these words, can we be certain that they are, in fact, inspired Scripture? It's a sticky question with no clear or easy answer (the study of the Bible is full of such questions). Either way it has serious implications for the concepts of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy - both of which I affirm, for the record (as a professor once put it, "I just don't see a future in Biblical errancy").

Sticky theological and textual questions aside, though, I think we can safely conclude that anyone - however strong his or her faith - who picks up a venomous snake should not be surprised when they get bitten and die.

Also, as Jenny pointed out, this must be a difficult time for the poor woman's family. If they honestly believe that a true Christian ought to be able to handle snakes without harm, what must they think about this woman's eternal fate? Unfortunately, the people who practice such things in church are often also the type of people to reject the kinds of arguments I've made above in favor of a "Well, the Bible says..." Unfortunately, this traps them in something of a lose-lose scenario. If their theology is accurate, then this woman may well not have been saved. If it is, as I have argued, improper, then her life was thrown away doing something that Christians really ought not be doing. In either case, a senseless tragedy.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Note on Eschatology

This was originally posted on my Xanga blog on August 2nd, having been prompted by a Newsweek interview with Tim LaHaye (co-author of the Left Behind series) that I read during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict.


Y'know, I used to be an enormous fan of the Left Behind books. But then two things happened. First, the series got way over-long and got a little too, shall we say, market-driven (it really ticked me off when the message boards on their website started requiring a paid subscription). Second, I went to seminary. Now, again, maybe I've just become the jaded academic - the seminary grad your pastor warned you about. But frankly, when I look at the linguistic and theological and exegetical training I had at Asbury, and set that next to the entire dispensational framework ("premillenial dispensationalism" is the formal term for the theological school of which the Left Behind books are a popular exemplar), my first reaction is, "You can't do that!!"

For example, take the rapture. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the doctrine of the rapture holds that at some point (opinions differ as to what point precisely) during the seven years immediately preceding Jesus' return, all Christians will be removed from the earth and taken directly to heaven. Now, first of all, it should be noted that the first clear example of someone teaching this particular idea was sometime in (if memory serves) the mid-19th century. A.D. That's important. Also, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is often cited in support of this doctrine. This is a problem.

Taken in isolation, the verse seems very much to support the doctrine of the rapture: "Then we who remain alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; thus we will be with the Lord always." There are two main problems, though. The first is context. The immediate context of verse 17 is verses 13-18. Paul is not, in this passage, primarily discussing the return of Christ. He mentions it here in the context of a discussion about those Christians who have already died at the time of the writing of the letter. His audience is concerned about those Christians who die before Jesus' return (exactly what concerns they may have expressed is uncertain - we must remember when reading Paul's letters that we usually have only half of a conversation). Paul, then, is here exhorting his readers not to worry: God raised Jesus, He will raise those who die in Christ before Jesus comes back (v.14). In fact, he says, when Jesus does return, those who have died and those who yet live will meet Him at the same time. Neither will precede the other (v.15). In fact, when the Lord returns, we will all - sleepers and those who still live - meet Him at the same time (v.17). Thus what we have here is less a prediction of the rapture than an explanation (and an offer of comfort) regarding those Christians who have died before seeing Jesus return.

The second problem with citing this verse in support of the rapture is rather more obscure. It involves a bit of Greek vocabulary in its historical context. At the crucial point of the verse we have the following "we will be caught up... to meet the Lord." Now, I've translated this phrase in pretty much the same way as everyone else, "to meet." The problem is, it's not a terribly clear translation, as it lends the impression that the underlying Greek is a verb, rather than a noun. In fact, a more wooden translation would be "to (or for) a meeting of the Lord." Of course, that makes less sense in English, hence the polishing done in my translation (and everyone else's, too). The thing is, the noun for "meeting" here (apantesis, if you want to know) is something of a technical term. It refers, in fact, to the Roman practice of the triumphal parade, where a general (or the emperor) fresh from winning a battle, would march into a city (whether Rome or somewhere else) with a parade consisting of his troops and of the spoils of war - exotic animals, captured slaves, enemy kings/leaders, etc. As the triumphator approached the city with his army and his spoils, the people of the city would go out to meet him and escort him into the walls. The word for this meeting is the same as is used here in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 - apantesis (ah-PAHN-tay-sis). The same word appears twice more in the New Testament: in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, and both usages are consistent with this meaning. So whatever one does with 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and rapture theology, this has to be taken into account.

I'll close off with a couple of quotes from the article above, and be done...

Newsweek: "[M]y understanding is that current biblical scholarship reads some of the apocalyptic scenes in the Bible as metaphorically addressing events that were taking place as the Bible was being written."
Tim LaHaye: "
These are usually liberal theologians that don’t believe the Bible literally."

Newsweek: "So the Revelation should not be interpreted, for example, as a polemic against Rome?"
Tim LaHaye: "
That’s what they say. We believe that the Bible should be understood literally whenever possible."

There's a seriously problematic false dichotomy in play here. LaHaye is basically asserting that not believing the Bible literally=being a liberal theologian. Well, I cry foul. I, frankly, don't believe "the Bible should be understood literally whenever possible." I believe the Bible should be understood literally whenever the text intends to be understood literally. It may not seem like a big difference, but it is, in fact, a huge difference. Often the text of Scripture narrates supernatural events with the full expectation that the reader accept those events as actually, literally having happened - the miracles of Jesus, up to and including the resurrection, are an example. But sometimes the text narrates events with the understanding that the audience not take them literally. The parables of Jesus are an example. No one believed that there really had been a man with two sons, one of whom took his inheritance early and ran off to squander it (Luke 15). God is perfectly capable and (if the preaching of Jesus is any indication) perfectly willing to express certain spiritual and theological truths using symbol, type, and metaphor. If we insist on taking the symbology and the metaphor as literal, we miss what the text is trying to say. With all due respect to Dr. LaHaye, he seems never to have asked whether or not Revelation is meant to be taken as a literal description the end of time. I happen to believe that it isn't. What it is meant to do is a different post for a different day. Suffice it to say that I think those who draw up timelines of the tribulation and ask where America fits into end-times prophecy are missing the point rather badly and forcing the text to answer questions it was never meant to answer.

(Oh, and I may have said this before, but I find myself often thanking God that there are no references to donkeys or elephants in Revelation - "See! The Antichrist is a Democrat!!!!")

Addendum 1
It's worth noting that when Dr. LaHaye says we should take the Bible literally whenever possible, he makes certain glaring exceptions. An example is the letters to the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation. A "literally whenever possible" approach ought, I think, to take these letters at face value - as letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) to whom the book was written. Cover letters, if you will. That's how the text of Revelation presents them. Dr. LaHaye, however, (and most dispensational theologians with him) interprets them metaphorically as referring to the seven ages of the history of the church, beginning with the time immediately following Pentecost (Acts 1-2), and running up through modern times. Ignoring the fact that church history does not match up all that well with this schema, there is absolutely nothing in the text of Revelation which demands - or even suggests - that these letters be taken as other than what they are: letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, the contents of which are available for application and appropriation by other readers as well (hence the "let he who has ears hear" refrain throughout the letters).

Addendum 2 (For Clarification)
It occurs to me that some of what I wrote in the above could bear some clarifying. It's important to note both what I said, and what I did not say.

I did not say that there is no long-term predictive prophecy in the Bible, nor did I say that the Bible tells us nothing about the return of Jesus or of the events immediately preceding it. I do say that the Bible doesn't tell us all that much about these events - and certainly far less than dispensational theology in general and Tim LaHaye in particular would have us believe. I believe this is intentional, as God has other things He would rather we be doing than watching the skies. I also did not say that there will be no rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does say that those who are alive when Jesus returns will be caught up to meet Him. I do not, however, believe that that reference alone can bear the theological weight that is often placed upon it.

What I most vehemently challenge is Dr. LaHaye's assertion, in essence, that those who take the Bible seriously take it literally, and therefore agree with him, while those who take positions other than his are liberal theologians who fail to take the Bible seriously.

I am, by most definitions, a conservative theologian. However, my primary allegiance is to the text of Scripture, and to the God who speaks through that text. If that requires me to take theological position that could be labeled either "liberal" or "conservative," then so be it. I care not one bit for such labels. The fact of the matter is that it is entirely possible to interpret the book of Revelation (and the creation accounts of Genesis) in a manner that is theologically orthodox, academically and exegetically responsible, and yet not "literal." And it is possible, in so doing, to avoid certain distinct exegetically fallacious and theologically dubious errors that may often attend the "literal" interpretation of such a text.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Reason and Rationalism

This is the second of two posts promised some time ago in my Xanga blog. Whereas the previous post was a rare foray into politics (sort of), this one will deal more with philosophy and was prompted, interestingly enough, by a television show.

Some weeks ago, Jenny and I were watching a summer rerun of the TV show Numb3rs. I'm quite a fan of the show - it's one of my favorites, actually. And I'm generally a fan of the character Charlie, the young prodigy mathematician (played by David Krumholtz, who does an excellent job of making me forget he also played Bernard the Head Elf in The Santa Clause). For those unfamiliar with the show, Charlie's brother Don (played by Rob Morrow, who does a similarly excellent job of making me forget Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure) is an FBI agent, and Charlie regularly consults on Don's cases. Anyway, in the episode in question Don winds up working with a psychic consultant on a murder case. Much is made of Charlie's skepticism regarding the veracity of psychic/paranormal phenomena, to the effect that he rejects the notion utterly on the grounds that no scientific evidence for the existence of such phenomena is available. He hypothesizes numerous potential explanations for how the psychic could be obtaining the - generally accurate - information which he claims to have because of his psychic abilities.

This brings me to the subject of this post: Charlie's attitude is not at all uncommon today, especially in scientific and academic circles, where the concepts of reason and rationality are held in such high regard. The dominant paradigm tells that belief in the paranormal or the supernatural is to be spurned as irrational and unscientific. We here stories about a psychic having visions that prove to be accurate, he (or she) must have something up his sleeve - the information must have been obtained some other way. Similar views are held regarding, say, the miracle stories of the Bible. Maybe Lazarus was just in a coma. Maybe when Jesus' disciples said they'd seen Him resurrected from the dead, they had just had a vision or a hallucination. Or maybe they just made it up. Maybe Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Maybe she and Joseph were just too hot for each other to hold off until after they got married (see Bruce Chilton's Rabbi Jesus), and that's how Jesus was conceived. We'll believe anything before we'll believe that psychics may really be psychic, or before we'll believe that the Bible's miracles may actually have happened. We're rational people, after all. We're scientifically advanced and knowledgeable. We don't buy into that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

The problem is that such an attitude is not at all rational or logical. In fact, such an attitude is profoundly irrational. It flies in the face of sound logical reasoning. It's rationalism, not rationality. To dismiss as impossible an entire category of phenomena solely because your presuppositions demand you do so is not only illogical, it is, in fact, patently absurd.

It surprises me - and frightens me, frankly - that so many people who think this way fail to see the inherent illogic of their position. Saying that science cannot prove or discover the existence of certain phenomena and concluding thereby that such a thing must not exist is a classic non sequitur. The conclusion that psychics are all frauds does not follow from the fact that scientists can't prove that psychics are what they claim. Yet in the hallowed halls of academia, we see just that sort reasoning lauded as rationality. I cry foul. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You simply can't say "Science can't prove God's existence, therefore God must not exist." Such reasoning is blatantly fallacious - and yet it's appallingly common, all the same. To say, "I'm a scientist, therefore I don't believe in X," where X is anything from telepathy to the Virgin Birth, is not rational, and it is not commendable. It is an example of what happens when a person's presuppositions get in the way of reason. It's rationalism, not rationality.

Now, to clarify: I'm only referring to psychic and/or paranormal phenomena here because that was the subject of the television show that prompted me to post. I'm not trying to equate the claims of psychics with those of Scripture. In the event, I happen personally to believe that a good many people who claim to have psychic abilities are indeed hacks, charlatans, snake-oil salespersons. That doesn't mean that I dismiss all such claims as impossible solely because I've already decided that such things don't happen. My basic point is this: some would argue that a devotion to science and logic necessarily demands a corresponding rejection of the paranormal and/or the supernatural. My argument is that this is a logical fallacy - a non sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). In fact, I would argue that a genuine devotion to reason and logic as such would demand openness to the possibility of such things. A genuinely rational person ought to be able to say, "My lack of experience/belief/proof regarding such things does not mean that they do not exist/cannot happen." A genuinely rational scientist ought to be willing to admit that his (or her) inability to prove the existence of God does not require him (or her) to become an atheist.

Unfortunately, though, a great many people who claim to be rational, logically-minded people are in fact rationalists, instead. They display a single-minded devotion to their own sets of doctrines and presuppositions that is not substantially different from the devotion of a religious person to the doctrines and presuppositions demanded by his or her faith.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Gun Control Means Steady Aim

The Waco Kid: *holds out right hand* "You see this hand?"
Bart: "Steady as a rock."
The Waco Kid: *holds up a violently trembling left hand* "Yeah, but I shoot with this one."
(From Blazing Saddles. As Mel Brooks movies go, it's no Spaceballs, but it's pretty darn funny even so.)

This will be the first (and shorter, most likely) of two posts I've mentioned a couple times on my Xanga blog. Both have been rattling around in my head for a few weeks. With a great deal of luck and a very cooperative son, I hope to get them both out today. If not, so be it.

It occurred to me some time ago that in the general orientation of the political spectrum, the issue of gun control finds, it seems, the bulk of its supporters on the leftish side. Frankly, this perplexes me. Given all the talk one hears from that end of the spectrum regarding the preservation of civil liberties, it seems somewhat self-contradictory that the same group should support legal and political measures that limit "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," as explicitly stated in the Constitution (whereas the words "privacy," "choice," and "abortion" are not even implied in the document). I find this fascinating. Now, I'm not opposed to all forms of gun-control - there are some people who shouldn't be allowed to own firearms, and nobody really needs a bazooka (except maybe me...). But it seems incongruous to me that from a political camp whence come frequent references to Constitutional rights and Big Brother, we should also hear calls for extreme restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms - up to and including calls for a completely disarmed populace.

Now, as to the second amendment, you may point out that although it does say "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," it qualifies that right, limiting it to the context of "a well regulated militia," as "essential to the security of the state," (I'm quoting from memory here, so I may not be getting it verbatim, but that's the general sense). Some read this qualification and say that we have the National Guard. That's our militia. The amendment only guarantees the right of the militia/National Guard to be armed, not the general populace as a whole. My response is that we must look at the historical context in which this amendment was written. First, we must understand what the Framers would have understood by the term "militia." The militia would have been drawn from among the general populace - ideally every able-bodied adult male - and the militiamen would have kept their arms in their homes. Second, we must look at what had just happened: the American Revolution. This was a situation in which the (armed) populace had risen up and thrown off an oppressive government. The aim of the second amendment (no pun intended) is, it seems, to ensure that such a thing could happen again if it becomes necessary. A disarmed populace has no means of defending itself against an oppressive government. Finally, I note that, qualification aside, the amendment still says that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Again, the intent is to ensure the ability of the populace to defend itself against an oppressive government. Saying "the National Guard counts, hand over your guns," simply doesn't work with a proper, historically conditioned understanding of the second amendment.

Thus ends my first blogging foray into politics. I generally prefer to avoid politics in favor of theology and Biblical scholarship, in which arenas I'm considerably more comfortable, but this occurred to me some time ago, and I thought I would put it out there for perusal.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Context, Context, Context.

So I've just been reading from 1 Corinthians 14 and I came across the following passage: "Women must keep silent in the churches; for it is not permitted to them to speak, but they must submit, even as the law says."

Now, this is one of those passages that traditionalists tend to cite in support of ecclesiastical patriarchy, and one over which feminists cry foul. Based on such passages, Paul was a bastion of godly patriarchy to his supporters, or a dangerous misogynist to his detractors. Well I cry foul. Paul was neither. Paul's main crime is being easy to misunderstand. I, for one, am with Peter, who points out that the letters of Paul contain "some hard to understand things, which the unlearned and unstable distort, as [they do] the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction," (2 Peter 3:16).

I once heard a preacher point out that although the Bible has come to us in nice neat chunks, with chapter divisions and verse divisions and - in some modern versions - subject headings, that's not how it was written. The Bible wasn't meant to be read one verse at a time. It was meant to be read one book at a time. This is nowhere more true than in the letters of Paul, and yet at the same time no author is more prooftexted than Paul. And so we get traditionalists praising Paul and feminists booing Paul and nobody ever realizing that Paul just might be saying something different than they think.

(Note, when I say "traditionalist" in this post I'm referring specifically to gender roles. That is, when I say "traditionalist" I mean those theolgians who argue that man as head-of-household and man as head-of-church has the status of Timeless Divine Decree. On some matters the term "traditionalist" would apply to me. On this issue, it does not.)

So back on topic: 1 Corinthians 14:34 is one of the portions of Paul's letters that gets prooftexted (prooftexting is the practice of isolating a single verse or group of verses to support a certain position). "Aha!" they say, "Paul says that women ought to be in submission to men in church, not allowed to teach or even speak." Again, I cry foul. Let's look at what Paul is actually saying.

First, we must remember one very important thing: only one or two of Paul's letters are capable of standing entirely alone. Most - including this one - constitute half a conversation. Paul is here responding to questions asked and issues raised by the Christians in Corinth in a letter they sent to him, and which is lost to us. Therefore it is highly likely that this statement is situationally specific, that it, that Paul is responding to some particular concern of the Corinthian church.

Second, we must examine the context. A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext. So it is here. In context, Paul is talking about orderliness of worship. In the preceding verses we see references to how many people ought to be praying aloud at once, to people not speaking in tongues if there is no one to interpret, and so on. And so it is only after a lengthy discussion of orderliness of worship that we find this injunction for women to be silent, followed in verse 35 by a suggestion that women who have questions should ask their husbands later. Thus we begin to see a scenario where the Corinthian worship services were two steps shy of utter chaos and confusion: people all praying and prophesying and speaking in tongues at once, with women - who were generally denied education in the ancient world - chiming in with questions whenever they came to mind. Thus Paul says to all: take turns speaking, and if you have questions, hold them until after the service, please.

"Ah," you may say, "but what of that bit toward the end of the verse about how women must submit?" A good question, I say. Here again we must look at what Paul isn't saying, as much as what Paul is saying. I note that there is no object for the verb "submit" (hupotasso, in Greek, if you want to know), that is, Paul does not say here "Women are to submit to men." Rather he simply says, "they must submit," (or, more literally, "submit themselves/be submitted" the verb is middle/passive in form, but "submit" is less wordy and conveys basically the same meaning, so I've translated it that way). That being the case - since there's no object of the verb - we must return to our context to try and figure out to what women must submit. Given our previous discussion, that is (or should be) fairly obvious: the submission involved is to proper order and decorum within the worship service. Paul's concern here is with preserving order in worship, keeping the Corinthians' meetings from descending into utter chaos (I've been to some modern Protestant churches that could stand to re-read this chapter, by the way). His comments about the silence and submission of women must be read in that context.

"Fine," you say, "but I've got you now, you stinking liberal feminist! What about verse 35, where Paul says it's shameful for a woman to speak in church? Squirm out of that if you can! Bwahaha!!" I say, alright. Let's look at verse 35. Specifically, let's look at the second half of verse 35. We've already noted that Paul suggests women who have questions ought to ask their husbands at home, but he goes on to say "for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." Uh-oh. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Paul really did mean the church to be patriarchal. Maybe the above analysis really is just a bunch of wiggling eisegesis - a pitiful attempt to force the text to say what I want it to say, in plain contravention of the obvious sense of the text. Maybe.

But I don't think so.

At first blush, this verse appears to be rather a problem for my position: it's obviously a general statement; it can't really be construed as context-specific. There are no real textual variants to speak of - certainly no manuscripts in which the clause does not appear (though there are a handful of manuscripts where it apparently gets moved to a different part of the passage). I can't pull any fancy original language sleight-of-hand with the word "shameful." Although the NASB translators soften the blow a bit by rendering it "improper," the word (aischros) means something like, "shameful, base, immoral." So what are we to do? Shall we scrap the entirety of the brilliant analysis above in favor of signs - "Ladies, keep your traps shut until you leave. Thanks, Mgmt" - posted on the doors of our churches? Maybe.

But wait, there's more.

There are two issues worth considering, here. First, is the issue of contradiction. If Paul believes, as this vexing little clause appears to say, that it is immoral or dishonorable for a woman to speak in church, why is it that just three chapters earlier (11:3) we find Paul saying that a woman who prays or prophesies in church ought to have her head covered? What's Paul playing at? In one passage he says a woman can only speak in church with her head covered, but in another, he says that a woman can't speak in church at all. Common sense and basic logic leave us with a few alternatives. One, the clause in question is an insertion by later editors or copyists of the text. This is unlikely, as there are no manuscripts which omit it. Two, Paul was a crazy man who didn't care whether he contradicted himself or not. Also unlikely, given the eloquence and rationality Paul displays elsewhere. Three, the verse in chapter 11 doesn't mean what it appears to mean, and women weren't really allowed to pray or prophesy in church. Unlikely, given references elsewhere to female prophets, and given the fact that the reference in 11:3 is made more or less in passing. Four, the clause in question - 14:35b - doesn't mean what it appears at first glance to mean. My money is on option four, and I'll tell you why:

Greek has two words for "speak." This is not surprising, as we have several in English, as well. Now, by the time the Bible was written, these two verbs - lego and laleo - were essentially synonymous, but not entirely. Earlier in the history of the Greek language, there was a sharper distinction between the two: lego (pronounced like the little toy blocks, or like the Spanglish word for "leg") meant basically "to speak," and could be used of giving a speech, carrying on a conversation, etc. The other verb, laleo (lah-LEH-oh) could also be used of carrying on a conversation or talking in general, but it could also be used of babbling, chattering, or prattling. It's even onomatopoietic: lalalalala - laleo. Plutarch uses it in reference to the vocalizations of monkeys.

That being said, does anyone care to take a guess as to which verb Paul uses in 1 Corintians 14:35? "Laleo," you say? Why, you're absolutely right! So when Paul says "it is shameful for a woman to speak in church," he does not - it would seem - mean that a woman must under no circumstances utter any speech during a worship service. That would contradict things Paul says in numerous other passages. Instead, we are drawn back to our context: Paul is trying to ensure the orderliness of worship in Corinth. He is not declaring a patriarchal structure for the church for all time. He's trying to keep the Corinthian church from descending into chaos in worship: "take turns speaking, and if you have questions, save them for later; it's disgraceful to prattle on during the worship service." How many of us as children were similarly scolded for talking in church? I was. That, nearly as I can tell, is all that's going on in this passage. Paul singles out women not because he's a misogynist, but because women were the ones chattering during the service and asking questions and being disruptive.

Paul's problem is not that he's a sexist. Paul's problem is that his arguments are sufficiently complex as to resist a nice, neat verse-a-day or chapter-a-day reading pattern, and so he makes statements as part of a larger argument that the unlearned and unstable can easily distort, if they neglect to pay attention to context.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Quit Yer Wine-ing

As most people who know me are aware, I'm rather a fan of certain kinds of alcoholic drinks: beer and red wine, mainly (hard liquor tastes like flavored rubbing alcohol - but it sure clears my sinuses). But it occurs to me that there are a good many Christians who would be thoroughly scandalized at the thought of a Seminary graduate who drinks alcohol. I know a Southern Baptist pastor who refused to participate in the toast at his brother's wedding reception because it was done with champagne (and because it was a Catholic wedding).

Honestly, I don't have a problem with Christians who abstain from drinking alcohol. Why should I? I don't even have a problem with Christian groups - e.g., the Baptists - who forbid the consumption of alcohol by their members. The Baptists have every right to decide what one must affirm and how one must behave in order to be a Baptist. That's their tradition and they're welcome to it.

Where I have a problem is when certain groups declare all consumption of alcohol by any Christian to be sinful. That's a very large-scale assertion, and making it requires, I think, very strong Biblical support. Upon examination of the New Testament, however, one finds no such support. Nowhere in the whole of Scripture is it stated - implicitly or explicitly - that drinking alcohol is inherently wrong. Now, there are several exhortations in the New Testament to avoid drunkenness, but drunkenness and drinking are not the same. That's an important point.

Also worth noting is the fact that Jesus' first public miracle was the making of wine - and good wine, at that. The kind that the host of a wedding party puts out first until the guests have had enough to drink that they are no longer paying attention to the quality of the wine (see John 2). If the drinking of alcohol were inherently sinful, one must wonder why Jesus supplied an entire wedding party with the means to sin.

Some will say in response that when we read in the New Testament about "wine," as in the story in John's gospel, what is really being spoken of is more like grape juice than "wine" as we think of it. I am most curious as to where this sort of argument originated, because quite frankly, it is absolutely false. The wine the ancients drank was wine. Real, honest-to-goodness, alcoholic wine. If it weren't, how could Paul exhort his readers not to be drunk on it (Ephesians 5:18)? The plain fact is that people in first-century Judea drank alcoholic wine as a regular staple of their diet. Just as did people througout the Greco-Roman world, and the whole ancient world in general. In fact, grape juice, as something distinct from wine, is largely an invention of the modern world - something that came along with the advent of chemical preservatives and artificial refrigeration. The juice from grapes actually ferments at an incredible rate. If you take a bunch of grapes, squeeze the juice into a jug, and leave that jug sitting around for a few days, then at the end of those few days (less than a week, as I recall), you will have wine. The only way to prevent the process is by adding chemical preservatives and keeping the juice chilled, which they couldn't do in the ancient world.

Another spurious argument: the ancients only drank wine because they didn't have access to good drinking water. Yes, drinkable water was harder to come by then than now, but not enormously so. The ancients were quite skilled at finding drinkable water. They cooked with it, watered their animals with it, and drank it. They even cut their wine with it, to increase the volume. Besides, anyone who knows anything about alcohol knows that you can't replace water with wine in your diet. Alcohol is a diuretic: it increases urine production, and therefore accelerates dehydration, rather than preventing it.

A final point for consideration: the notion that Christians are required to abstain from alcohol is less than 200 years old, and is primarily localized in the United States. That means, in essence, that if drinking alcohol is inherently sinful for all Christians, then no one realized it for about the first 1800 years of Christian history. Now, there were people during that time who chose to abstain - in part or in whole - from drink, but no one (so far as I know) argued that drinking was inherently sinful. That's new.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that I have nothing against Christians who choose to abstain from alcohol. There are lots of good reasons to do so. Indeed, I'll be the first to say that there are some people who ought to do so: if you can't drink responsibly, you shouldn't drink at all. What I cannot accept is the assertion that drinking alcohol is somehow inherently wrong. There simply is no Biblical support for such a position, and most of the non-Biblical arguments used by Christians in defense of such a position are plainly spurious.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Different Perspective

In the midst of debate over the death penalty, it's interesting to me to look at the perspectives of other cultures. A common argument by those opposed to the death penalty is that execution is less humane than lengthy - or perpetual - incarceration. The ancient Greeks took just the opposite view: they found incarceration inhumane in the extreme. They had prisons, but one was not, for example, ever given a life sentence there. For them, either exile or death was far preferable to the long-term imprisonment of a human being.

Now, I'm not saying one position is necessarily better than another. I'm just offering a different perspective. We often tend to take it as a given that long-term imprisonment is inherently better than execution. It is a usually unquestioned assumption. Other cultures at other times, however, would have found it highly objectionable.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Paul's Radical Ethics

There are lots of accusations and misinterpretations of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Part of the problem is that when we read Paul's letters we only have half of a conversation. Sometimes we can reconstruct parts of the other half, sometimes we can't. Often we're so unfamiliar with the socio-historical context in which Paul was writing that we think certain passages make one point, when in fact they are saying something completely different. There are lots of examples of this, and I could hold forth at some length about them. One main point on which Paul is often quite misunderstood is his position on the place of women - both within the church and within the home. Paul is often accused of (or applauded for) enshrining the patriarchal social system of his day in Scripture. This is only possible if we remain unfamiliar with Paul's context. Again, examples abound, but I have one in mind.

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-4. Verse 3 and the first half of verse 4 would've presented no problems to Paul's readers. Verse 3: "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise the wife also to her husband." No problem so far - Jewish ethicists recognized that husbands and wives had responsibilities to meet one another's physical needs (indeed, Jewish tradition even exhorted men to sleep with their wives at least two to three times a week). So then, v.4: "The wife is not the master of her own body, but rather her husband [is]." Again, no problem so far - husbands have authority over their wives. Paul's audience - men as well as women - would've been nodding in agreement so far. But then we come to the latter half: "but likewise, the husband is also not master of his own body, but his wife [is]." What?!? Wives have authority over their husbands?! (Note that the verb for "to be master" in v.4 is exousiazo; the noun meaning "authority" is exousia). This is a radical notion - the idea that women have authority over the bodies of their husbands equal to that of their husbands over them. This would've been scandalous. It should be noted that the grammar of the verse prohibits any varying of degrees of authority here - the word homoios, "likewise," serves to equate - the husband has authority over his wife, "and also likewise" (homoios de kai) the wife has authority over her husband.

At any rate, I could keep going at some length - about how Ephesians 5:21 and following is often misinterpreted, and so on. But the demands of home life are exerting themselves. Perhaps later in the day I'll come back.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Twoo Wuv

Today - well, yesterday, since it's after midnight - marks eight years since Jenny and I began dating. A remarkable thing, to be not yet 25 and to have spent eight years with someone. That's slightly less than a third of my life that this one woman has shared with me. It's a remarkable thing indeed. Better men live their entire lives in want of blessings I have before the end of my 25th year, and I am grateful beyond words.

But it sparks some reflection on the nature of love. We are led to believe, whether through romance novels or romantic movies that the initial feelings associated with being in love are permanent, and that the maintenance of a healthy marriage is essentially effortless. I've found in my travels that there are some things in life that you simply can't tell someone. Before we were married, I was told several times by married friends that "marriage is a lot of work." Frankly, I didn't believe them. I didn't see how that was possible. "We love each other. How can living together be work?"

Eventually I came to realize something very important: before I got married, there was no one I had lived with who I had not at least occasionally felt like strangling. Nor was there anyone who hadn't at least occasionally felt like strangling me. You see, we tend to think in our modern society that a good marriage is one in which the emotions associated with love remain strong without our aid, and in which neither partner ever feels like slapping the other.

But love is not just an emotion. In the initial stages it most certainly is, and even later, the emotions remain: just this evening Jenny and I were sitting on the couch and I was struck by how beautiful her eyes are, and I told her so. But love is more than emotion. Love is a choice. It's waking up every morning, looking at the person lying next to you, and saying to yourself "This day I give you myself. It may not be much, and I may regret it by day's end, but I'm yours, and I intend to act like it." It's an act of sheer will. Sometimes emotion makes it easier. Sometimes emotion makes it harder. I would be very surprised if Jenny has never contemplated smothering me with my own pillow as I slept. The people we let in wind up being the very ones with the greatest ability either to piss us off or to make our hearts soar.

So that's my reflection on marriage for the day, I guess. Marriage is wonderful. I love being married more than anything, save being a father. And I can honestly say I love my wife more today than yesterday, and more yesterday than the day before. But I can also say - or at least, begin to say - that I understand better now what it is to love than I did when Jenny and I first started dating, those many years ago. It's both an emotion and a choice. And the choice has to be made afresh with every new day. Bring on the morning.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I have succumbed...

Well, I've finally gotten a blogspot blog. I mainly did it so I can comment on the blogspot sites of people I know who have them. If I use this one, it will probably be as a forum for my various theological, biblical, and philosophical musings, with maybe a bit of socio-political stuff, too. I intend to keep my Xanga site, too. I may ultimately wind up switching to this one primarily. We'll just have to see.