Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Mouths of Children

Sometimes explaining theology to a child yields interesting results.
For example while we were on the way home this evening, my three-year-
old asked "Where's God." Which led me to... Wait. Before I start, let
me preface this by saying that he is obsessed lately with racing. We
are always racing everywhere: to the car, to his room at bedtime, and
so on. So anyway, I tried to explain to him that God is everywhere all
at once. Ultimately, this led to the fact that God was in the truck
with us, and at home with Mommy. He said: "Is God already at home?" I
said yes, and he said "He beat us! God was racing!"

I don't know if the whole idea of God being everywhere all at once
sunk in (you never know: he may repeat it all back to me in a week, or
he may forget it all). I can say with some confidence, though, that he
did not understand why I was laughing so hard.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

From Ken Schenk's Quadrilateral Thoughts blog:

"We have to accept the fact that the original context of the Bible was sexist in its orientation. We can't be as Christians in our context, not and be faithful to the core message of Christ. But when we are studying the original meaning of the Bible, we simply have to deal with the fact that we are reading male-oriented texts, as all the texts of the day were. This is one area, interestingly, where Western society as a whole--even the fallen world at large--has thankfully moved closer to the kingdom than the New Testament itself, since its books were truth incarnated within the thought patterns of its day.

God took where they were, met them there, and pointed them in the direction of the kingdom. Pity those like the Grudems and Pipers of the evangelical world who mistake the wineskins for the wine. "

Probably one of the lessons about Biblical interpretation that I most value from my education thus far is this idea of trajectories in Scripture. That is, the idea that when set within the cultural context from which it came, the Bible can set us on the path toward certain theological conclusions that are not explicitly stated in the text itself. It's an idea that was well understood (and then taken much too far) by the pre-Reformation church, but which certain forms of modern Protestantism have largely lost. This sort of reasoning gave us, among many other things, the doctrine of the Trinity: though no such doctrine is ever specifically articulated in the New Testament, there are many passages that point in that direction and, when followed to their logical conclusion, result in the Trinity. The abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries is another example: it's not often remembered nowadays that the abolitionists' position rested largely on their conviction that slavery was fundamentally counter to the message of Christ. Though the New Testament never explicitly says "slavery is evil," it points strongly in that direction - especially in places like Galatians 3:28 and Paul's letter to Philemon. If in Christ "there is neither slave nor free," and a Christian master is urged to receive back his runaway Christian slave as "no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother." It's only a short hop from there to the conclusion that slavery is inherently anti-Christian.

Some of these ideas, however, meet with resistance. Indeed, from would-be debunkers of Christianity, many of them do: it is makes their argument easier. If they can argue that the Bible promotes slavery and the oppression of women and that the Trinity (especially the divinity of Jesus) is a later Christian invention (*cough* The DaVinci Code *cough*), then it's easier to argue that Bible is irrelevant.

There is also controversy over some of these issues within the church, particularly the issue of the roles of women. That is what Dr. Schenck is discussing: there are many (myself among them) who see in the New Testament a trajectory leading toward the equality of men and women within the leadership structures of the church (and the marriage). Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, disagree, and argue that gender-based hierarchy remains in force in the church.

I do have to disagree with Dr. Schenck on one point, though: I think the ESV, though overall an excellent translation, does suffer as a result of the politics of its origin. It's translation of certain passages most favored by egalitarians is plainly constructed so as to minimize the impact of such passages for egalitarian arguments. An example being Romans 16:7, the ESV's translation of which is deeply problematic, and is designed to undercut a specific egalitarian argument (namely, that a woman in the New Testament-era church bore the title "apostle").

Ultimately, though, I think Schenck is right. The Bible does put us on a particular path on this issue, and I expect that ultimately, this view will win the day, and in a century or so will be largely taken for granted among Christians, in much the same way that the abolitionist arguments of our predecessors have done.

(Which is not, of course, to say that there is no racial prejudice within the church, certainly there is. But there's also nobody arguing for the re-institution of slavery, either.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

"But let no one suppose that joy descends from heaven to earth pure and free from any mixture of grief. No, it is a mixture of both, though the better element is the stronger, just as light too in heaven is pure from any mixture of darkness but in regions below the moon is clearly mixed with dusky air." -Philo of Alexandria, On Abraham 205.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Please Let This Be a Joke...

So I've read about the Conservative Bible Project from a couple different sources. My first reaction was to hope it was a joke. My second reaction was to pray fervently that someone, somewhere would jump out and yell "Gotcha!" But alas, it was not so. It appears to be entirely serious.

If you don't have the time or inclination to read the website, I'll sum up: basically, the creators of Conservapedia (which, until now, I've never been entirely sure was not itself some sort of very subtle satire) have decided that all modern Bible translations are too liberal, and that the best way to remedy the situation is basically to paraphrase the King James Bible in such a way as to better reflect their own socio-political views.

The interesting thing is that at first blush the description I just gave might seem harsh, but after having read the description, I'm not sure that they would disagree. They actually seem fairly open about their political agenda.

But here's the thing: first of all, the Bible is between 2 and 3 millenia old, and as such naturally defies simple classification according to 21st century American (or, more broadly, Western) socio-political categories. In other words, the Bible is not - and should not be seen as - entirely "conservative" or "liberal" by our standards, because the Bible was not written according to our standards.

Second, it is perfectly true that certain socio-political or theological biases will creep into a translation of the text. It's only natural: translation is an inexact art, requiring the translator to make choices based on his or her best evaluation of the underlying text. Such choices cannot be completely divorced from the person making them. As such, a person's translation of a passage - particularly a difficult or controversial passage - will reflect that person's own views to a degree. Though steps can (and should) be taken to moderate this effect, it is not realistic to expect to eliminate it entirely. This is why translations done by committee (as nearly all modern translations are) are superior to those done by individuals or small groups - various biases ideally tend to cancel out, allowing a better view of the text itself. The problem, though, is that these folks are not, as nearly as I can tell, just attempting to eliminate a supposed "liberal bias" in modern translations (which, as far as I can tell, is not there anyway, broadly speaking). They are trying to replace a perceived liberal bias with a conservative one. Attempting to eliminate bias is one thing, intentionally inserting it is just mucking with the text, and is completely unconscionable.

Also, there is no apparent concern with faithfulness to the text, but rather with ensuring that the text support a socio-politically conservative viewpoint. For another, the words "Greek," and "Hebrew" are not to be found until near the bottom of the page (where recourse to the original languages is treated basically as plan B). What we have instead is the statement that much of the problem, as they see it, can be corrected "simply by retranslating the KJV into modern English."

So basically, this is a modified form of King James Only-ism, overlaid with a hyper-conservative socio-political perspective. What these folks, well-intentioned though they may be, are doing is not correcting anything. They're modifying the Bible to make it more palatable to them as conservatives, and I don't know any words strong enough to express how wrong and absurd that is.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Things that make you go... *facepalm*

I went back and forth for several minutes as to whether or not this was even worth my time, but finally decided that I couldn't let it go. Sometimes you just have to point out the stupidity of something stupid, just so you don't explode. Well, I do, anyway.

This video has apparently been circulating the internet. I ran across it just this evening:

If you're not inclined to sit through the five minute video, I'll give you the basics. Starting with Luke 10:18 - "I saw Satan falling like lightning from the sky" (my translation) - he argues that although the text as we have it is written in Greek, Jesus originally spoke these words in Aramaic (true enough). Thus, he argues, Jesus would have used the word baraq for "lightning" and bamah for "sky" (the Greek ouranos here is often translated "heaven," or "heavens"). This collocation of baraq and bamah in the words of Jesus naturally means that Barack Obama is the Antichrist.

This is why I have a love-hate relationship with the Strong's Concordance. It's a great tool when used for what it's meant for, but when it gets misused... hoo boy. So, a couple brief points of refutation, then I'm done:

1)Obama's first name comes from the verbal root BRK ("to bless") and is a variation on the Hebrew name Baruch ("blessed"). The noun baraq ("lightning") is completely unrelated, however much they may sound alike. Similarly, the English words "bare" and "bear" are completely unrelated, despite sounding alike.

2)The Hebrew word bamah never, so far as I'm aware, refers to the sky, but rather to hilltop or mountaintop shrines - high places on earth. The Greek word ouranos means "sky," as distinct from land and sea. No Hebrew speaker who knew an ounce of Greek would have translated bamah with ouranos, or vice versa. If Jesus' words are being translated from Aramaic to Greek, the Aramaic word underlying ouranos would certainly be shamayin, which means "sky, heavens."

3)The Isaiah 14 passage is not about Satan. It's about Nebuchadnezzar. Read the context. The word lucifer there is a Latin rendering of the Hebrew for "star of morning" (i.e., Venus). By a trick of medieval exegesis, the common noun lucifer came to be taken as a proper name, Lucifer, and applied to Satan. But that never ought to have happened, because the passage isn't about Satan. Isaiah's prophecy is predicting the fall of Nebucachadnezzar.

4)Let's grant, for one brief, brain-melting instant, that this whole argument is right, and that Jesus is really referring to Barack Obama. What is he saying? "I saw Satan fall like Barack Obama"? Seriously? In what way did Barack Obama fall, and in what sense is Satan's fall like it?

5)The context of the Luke 10 passage is not eschatology or the Antichrist. Sidebar: "Antichrist" is an ill-defined concept in the NT anyway. Most of what we associate with the concept of a single eschatological Antichrist figure comes from medieval and, later, dispensationalist theology. The word "antichrist" only shows up once or twice in the NT, in the letters of John. It's nowhere in the gospels, and nowhere in Revelation. End Sidebar. Even if we accept that Jesus is saying "like Barack Obama," that doesn't mean that Obama is the antichrist (whatever that means anyway). It would just mean that there is some point of comparison between Obama's "fall" and Satan's.

But hey, as long as we're accepting this gentleman's conclusions for the sake of argument, let's look at Matthew 24:27 - "For just as lightning comes from the east and shines into the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be." So if lightning = baraq = Barack, then what Jesus is really saying is that "Just as Barack comes from the east and shines in the west," and that's compared to the coming of the Son of Man. Which means that, far from being the Antichrist, Barack Obama is actually the Messiah, returned to Earth to lead the true people of God! Somewhere, right now, John McCain is saying, "Aw, damn."

Nonsense. Baraq is completely unrelated to "Barack," and bamah was certainly nowhere in Jesus' discourse here. Even if it was, the idea that Jesus would drop the name of a person who won't be born for 2000 years into the middle of a conversation about something completely different is silly. What Jesus is doing here is comparing the sudden and spectacular fall of Satan with the sudden and spectacular descent of lightning from a stormy sky. His disciples have just come to him talking about their power over demons, and he responds with this.

Okay, so I've spent way more time on this than I wanted to, or than it deserved, but now I've written it, so I'll go ahead and post it. Suffice it to say, this is what happens when somebody learns just enough about the original languages to be dangerous.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

No Joy in Beantown

I'm reading all sorts of news stories all over the internet now about how David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are both on this infamous list of 104 baseball players to tested positive for PEDs in 2003. Now of course, Manny has already tested positive this year, and served his suspension, so this isn't really huge news. Ortiz is a much bigger story, and a much bigger disappointment, but unfortunately, I can't say I'm really all that surprised (though, to be fair to Papi, there are only a handful players in the game who would really, genuinely surprise me at this point - Jason Varitek and Derek Jeter spring immediately to mind, but there are others).

As to the whole PED issue is a quagmire with no quick or easy answers, so far as I can see. Focusing on which players have used in the past and how to handle things like stats, records, championships, and the like is just going to prolong a problem that is best handled only by a solid drug policy moving forward, and the steady application of time.

But what really hacks me off is this list. The players who agreed to be tested in 2003 were guaranteed two things: that there would be no penalties for positive tests, and that the results would be destroyed immediately after the league was finished with the study it was conducting, so that they would never become public. Obviously that didn't happen. What did happen is that the Feds seized the list, which shortly thereafter became a court-sealed document. But the list is still becoming public. Not all at once, mind. No, the names are leaking out in ones and twos every few months, so that just as the media frenzy over one is dying down, out pops another. A-Rod's results not a big story anymore? Alright, let's release Sammy Sosa's name. Sosa turns out not to be a huge story? The media frenzy died down too quickly? Darn, well, let's toss out a couple names from the Red Sox, that'll make news! Because that's what this is. This is some lousy [expletive deleted] who has been entrusted with confidential information getting his jollies by stirring things up. Nobody benefits from that. The list ought to have been destroyed, because that's what the players were promised. But if the results were going to be released, then they should've been released all at once. The only people who benefit from this trickle of information are the jackass doing the trickling, and the media, who now have something new to blather about for awhile.

This whole mess is just rotten from one end to the other. The fact that there are and have been players using drugs is awful and wrong, but the way this list from 2003 is being handled is infuriating and, in my opinion, just as wrong.

Friday, July 03, 2009

On Language Learning

One of the myriad Biblical studies blogs I read posted a link to a post on yet another blog, here, where Dr. Mark McGinniss comments on the link between admiring the Biblical languages and willingness to endure the difficulties of learning them. I absolutely agree: if you admire the Biblical languages, you will be willing to put forth the effort of learning to read them.

I think there's more that may be said, though. I've been party to (or observer of) a number of conversations at Asbury, both in person and on the school's internet discussion forum, on the necessity of language study, particularly for those entering into congregational ministry. There are a whole range of (very excellent) arguments given as to why the clergy ought to have good working knowledge of the Biblical languages (and, to be honest, I'm fighting the temptation to jump off-topic in that direction).

There are also a number of arguments on the other side. Asbury only requires 2-3 semesters (combined) of Greek and Hebrew for an M.Div. There are many who think that is plenty, and many who think it's too much (I happen to think it quite inadequate, but I digress). The most common arguments usually center on two points: 1)Learning these languages is difficult and time consuming. 2)Does a pastor really need to do the legwork of reading the Greek/Hebrew him-(or her)-self when there are so many resources - commentaries and dictionaries and whatnot - that have already covered the same ground?

My view, for what it's worth, is that these two objections are linked. The perceived difficulty of learning the Biblical languages is inversely proportional to the perceived need to learn them. Or, to put it another way, the more sure you are that you need to be able to read Greek and Hebrew to understand Scripture, the easier (though still not "easy") you will find it to learn to read Greek and Hebrew. Conversely, the less persuaded you are that you need to learn the languages, the more difficult and onerous the task will seem.

This really goes for learning any language, not just Biblical Greek and Hebrew. That, I suspect, is part of the reason immersion is the best method of language learning: entering an environment where you cannot communicate with the people around you creates - or should create - an intense perceived need to learn their language. Another example: I taught myself to read French this past January. It's a lovely language, and I'd had the books I used to learn it for several months, but did not start learning it until very early January. Why? Because my Ph.D. program required that I pass a competency exam in French, which was scheduled for February 1. The need to learn a language facilitates the task of learning that language. (For those curious, I did pass the exam, and developed quite a fondness for French along the way.)

All that being so, then, a seminary student who does not think that learning the Biblical languages is particularly necessary to his or her career in the pastorate will find it harder to learn the languages than someone who (like myself) regards it as crucial. So, to Dr. McGinniss's excellent observation - "If you admire the use of Hebrew (or Greek), you will weather the frustration" - I would add the following: if you feel that the use and knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is important or valuable, you will find the frustrations easier to weather.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

In which I learn a spiritual lesson while mowing

"Covet" is a weird word in modern English. It's one of those that preachers and Sunday school teachers are always called upon to explain. "What does the Bible mean when it says, 'Thou shalt not covet?'"

The usual and, I think, correct answer is that it does not merely mean wanting something someone else has. Looking at my friend's new car and thinking, "Man, I wish I had one of those," isn't coveting. Rather, it's wishing that you had the new car instead of your friend. Or feeling ill toward your friend because he or she has the new car.

I'll give you an example. Today, it was hot and humid. Today, my grass was really long. And so, today, I mowed my grass in the heat and humidity. We have a large yard and I have a push mower (self-propelled, but still). It was sweaty, nasty, miserable work. Well, about halfway through cutting the back yard I happen to glance toward the street and spy, through a gap in our fence, a pickup truck towing a boat. It was a nice boat. Sleek, shiny, big, and by the look of it, fast. And in the space of a couple of heartbeats several things ran through my head. First, I thought of how nice it would be to be out on a lake somewhere swimming, tubing, maybe doing a little fishing (not that I fish, but we'll roll with it), or just tooling around in that shiny boat. Second, I thought of how unpleasant it was to be pushing a mower back and forth across my ridiculously long (and still slightly damp from recent rain) grass in the heat of a mid-summer sun at high noon. Then, putting the two thoughts together I glared and the tail-end of that boat as it went out of sight and grumbled, "Jackass."

And that ladies and gents, is what "covet" means. I didn't just wish I had a boat. I didn't just see the boat drive past my house and think how much I'd love to be out on a lake instead of cutting my grass. I saw that boat and, for a fleeting moment, actually felt ill toward the people in the truck because they were getting to go out in their fancy little boat while I was stuck cutting my stupid grass in the baking sun.

So there it is. That's my spiritual insight for the month. It may not be especially profound, but it sure whapped me upside the head under a hot June sun.

BibleWorks 8 Giveaway

The blog is giving away two copies of BibleWorks 8 in honor of its first anniversary. The contest runs through July 12th. Full details available here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A couple thoughts about Terminator Salvation

Of the many sights there are to see in our grand capital, tonight I chose the Regal Cinemas on E street. More specifically, I went to see Terminator Salvation, which I've been really wanting to see, but Jenny is less interested in (and because this is my 5th trip to DC - which I love - and I've done most of the touristy stuff at least once before).

Anyway, I went into this movie with a little trepidation. I'd seen the previews, which excited me greatly, but then I read reviews like those at GeekTyrant (here and here) and Rotten Tomatoes, and as I generally respect those opinions (especially GeekTyrant), I was a little wary.

But I went and saw it, and I have to say, I loved it. My chief worry - in spite of the complaints of the reviewers above - was that it would be too divorced from the previous films (full disclosure: when I say "previous films" I mean Terminator and Terminator 2, which are great movies; I've never seen Terminator 3). But the continuity worked well for me. There were several subtle references to elements of the previous movies that tied the whole thing together nicely, I thought. This is especially impressive in light of the subtle genre shift between the first two movies and this one: Terminator and, to a lesser extent, Terminator 2 are at horror movies at heart (though with strong action-movie overtones). This one is a straightforward action movie. That this movie has such a similar feel (to me, anyway) to the first two in spite of that is pretty impressive.

Also, though the folks at GeekTyrant criticized both the script and the acting, I thought both were fine. Christian Bale is one of the best actors around, in my opinion, and he did a fine job as John Connor. Moon Bloodgood (of the late and much-lamented Journeyman) played her part well, as did the woman who played Connor's wife, Kate. The actor who played Marcus did well, apart from his occasional shifts in accent. On one point, though, I quite agree with the first GeekTyrant review: Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese was phenomenal. I was a little worried that I'd have trouble forgetting Ensign Chekov (whom he plays in Star Trek), but quite the opposite. He played the part extremely well, and made it easy to think of him as a young Michael Biehn (who plays Reese in the original Terminator).

So to sum up (because it's late and I'm sleepy and still need to pack), this was an excellent movie. If you liked the first two movies at all, you ought to like this one.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Test #2

Okay, so Twitterfeed is supposed to check my blog feed every half hour. I posted an hour ago, and nothing... Peculiar. Trying again.

Twitter Test

I think I've linked this to my Twitter feed, so it'll show up there if I make a new post... let's see.

Does God Have a Sense of Humor?

One of the perennial questions Christians ask when we're bored is, "Does God have a sense of humor?" The answer is usually yes, but the reason varies. "Of course. Have you ever looked at a giraffe?" or "He must, since he made my goofy kid brother. Hur hur hur." or "He must because we do."

Now, I don't think that God has a sense of humor because of giraffes (though giraffes are pretty funny), and I don't think anybody really believes God has a sense of humor because of their goofy friends or relatives. I think the fact that humans have a sense of humor is a good answer, but today I though of a better one: What makes me so certain that God has a sense of humor is the fact that nothing in this world delights me more than being made to laugh by my child.