Monday, December 31, 2007

Religion Classes at Amarillo College

And now for a shameless plug. Here's our Course Schedule for Spring 2008 at Amarillo Bible Chair:

Day Classes

RELG 2302 Life of Paul 1:30-2:45 T & Th

PHIL 1304 World Religions 1:30-2:45 T & Th

PHIL 1304 World Religions 10:30-11:45 M & W

Evening Class

RELG 1302 New Testament 7:00-9:45 pm Monday

Did you know? . . . .

Any of these classes may be taken for Humanities credit, and will apply toward any degree program.

All course work is guaranteed to transfer to any college or university in the State of Texas.

Classes may be taken for “Leisure Studies” credit, and anyone is welcome to simply audit a course free of charge.

Students at Amarillo College may choose to major in Religion.

Pre-registration is underway, and classes begin January, 2008. To enroll, visit the the Amarillo College website at . . .

For more information, you may call and speak with Becky Hugg or Frank Bellizzi at (806)372-5747, or visit our website at

Friday, December 28, 2007

Health-and-Wealth "Gospel" Gets Questioned

Ever since this story first came out, I've been intrigued. I haven't followed it closely, but it seems as though the Senate is probing the financial records and procedures of "ministries" headed up by folks like Creflo Dollar. (Could Dickens himself have come up with a better name?)

Is this simply a Senate attempt at expose? The Senate can't declare that folks like Dollar are guilty of theological malpractice. Since any tax or financial investigations could have been conducted by the IRS, it seems like this is an attempt on the part of Congress to shame what they think people should be ashamed of.

People, like me, who don't respect Dollar and his cohort might feel good about the spotlight being pointed at them. But where does the probing of religious groups and leaders end? And doesn't the Senate have bigger fish to fry?

What do you think about this?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Trials of a Teacher

One of the many things I've learned during these two years of college teaching: Survey courses are tough. Why? Mainly because a survey requires you to figure out how to summarize material that really deserves to be studied in depth. In a survey class, I feel like I'm riding a motorcycle through a museum.

For example, every semester I teach a class called "The New Testament." It's a basic first-year, content-survey course. Of course, anyone who's spent much time with the New Testament knows that several of its books provide enough content, questions, etc. for a semester’s worth of exploration. One of the Gospels? Luke-and-Acts? But in a survey, the New Testament books average less than one per class session. So the teacher has to decide which parts receive attention and which parts get more less neglected. That’s the challenge. An even bigger challenge is to set up the course and teach in a way that gets students learning on their own, reading outside of class, etc.

One thing I've tried to do is to establish a few anchor points, basic observations about the New Testament that can be applied to various parts of it. For example, near the beginning of the course we explore the idea that a good understanding of the New Testament includes an awareness that Jesus himself and all of the earliest Christians were Jews. At the same time, the first believers were not merely Jews. Of course, we then turn the spotlight on the pre-eminent first-century Jewish Christian, Paul. And what do we see? Even after his Damascus Road experience, Paul is perfectly content to think of himself as a Jew.
  • He continues, for example, to reckon time in the Jewish way: "But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost" (1 Corinthians 16:8).
  • He speaks of himself and every other descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "we who are Jews by birth" (Galatians 2:15).
  • And when it’s necessary—as in his debate with the "super apostles" at Corinth--he puts his Jewish identity front and center: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I." (2 Corinthians 11:22).
From examples like these, we gather that what was different about the Christian Paul was not that he had rejected his Jewish identity. So what exactly was different about Paul the Jew following his confrontation with the resurrected Christ? In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he gives us a clue. Speaking in some detail about his work as a Christian missionary, Paul writes:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Without any knowledge of the Book of Acts, one can gather from this passage that Paul is not only an apostle to the Gentiles, but that he also deals with fellow Jews. What he's discovered is that the most-effective approach is to play the part of a "cultural chameleon." Around Jews, says Paul, he is like a Jew. Around Gentiles, "those not having the law," he is like a Gentile.

Here, two telling disclaimers stand out. First, the Christian Paul no longer considers himself to be "under the law." Although he can be like one under the law of the Jewish Scriptures, he himself is not under such law. Which is not to say that Paul the Christian is somehow lawless. Knowing that his first disclaimer might be misunderstood, he adds that he certainly is under divine rule. Indeed he is "under Christ’s law."

It must have come as a shock when Paul’s fellow Jews understood that he no longer considered himself subject to Mosaic law. When asked why, he no doubt would have used the language of Philippians 3. Although Paul could easily confide in his adherence to Mosaic law—"as for legalistic righteousness, faultless"—he was eager to renounce all of that for "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ" (see Philippians 3:1-11). Not that there was anything wrong with keeping the law. But there was something wrong with assuming that the mark of circumcision, and the observance of sabbath ordinances and dietary laws were not only important but even essential for the people of God in Christ.

Such a radical and unexpected break required Paul to employ in his explanations language that was equally radical and unexpected. This explains passages like Galatians 6:15. There Paul insists that what ultimately matters is that the perfect work of God in Jesus the Messiah had ushered in "a new creation," a time when and reality where the difference between circumcision and uncircumcision means nothing.

The work of God in Christ had so changed the way things are, the language of "a new creation" wasn't a stretch. An altered reality. A radically changed world. That's what was different.

[A good bit of this reflection was generated as I read Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest, pp. 53-69].

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Very Merry Christmas to You

I don't think I'll make it back here much until the end of the year. I hope that you and yours have safe travels and good times during the holidays.

Favorite songs of mine come in and then go out of my life. This year my favorite Christmas song goes like this:

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
Shining afar through shadows dim
Giving the light for those who long have gone
Guiding the wise men on their way
Unto the place where Jesus lay
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on.

Oh Beautiful Star the hope of light
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains till the break of dawn
Into the light of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on

Oh Beautiful Star the hope of rest
For the redeemed, the good, and blessed
Yonder in glory when the crown is won
Jesus is now the star divine
Brighter and brighter he will shine
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns.
Give us a light to guide the way
Unto the land of perfect day
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, shine on

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Class on the Gospel of John

Last year I was asked to teach the Wednesday-night auditorium class. We spent six months getting acquainted with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. During the last quarter of this year, one of our elders has been teaching the class, a survey of the Minor Prophets.

When he asked me to teach during the first quarter of 2008, we agreed that a New Testament book would give some balance. I decided on the Gospel of John. We'll start in a couple of weeks.

I have to confess that I have a thousand ideas but no settled agenda for the class. Naturally, I want John's intent to be satisfied; that the signs of Jesus would lead us to belief, which leads to life (20:30-31). Just saying that, though, sounds a little trite. On average, the people in the class are in their seventies. Most of them have been Christians longer than I've been alive. I understand that John can work as more than an evangelistic tract, that people who've heard the gospel always need to hear it again, etc. But how should that go? What are some good ways for a teacher to draw people into familiar material and help them to hear it afresh?

Anyway, I can teach the Gospel of John as I've taught it before. There's no lack of resources. But I want to improve my presentation and the experience of the class. Any suggestions? I know that some of you (Matt) have taken up this challenge, and I especially want to hear from you. What have been your experiences? What really worked?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Problem of the OT: John Bright's Solution

A quick review will bring us up to speed. John Bright, in his book The Authority of the Old Testament, begins by stating the issue he wants to explore and resolve:

Even he who affirms that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose, and will, . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings, and expressions of an ancient piety, actually to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed as such in the church? (p. 18).

Next, Bright describes and critiques what he calls three classical solutions to this question. In turn, the three misguided solutions attempted to
  1. reject the Old Testament, either completely or, at least, practically (e.g., Marcion)
  2. Christianize the the Old Testament, mainly by reading it as though it were a Christian allegory (e.g., Origen)
  3. correct the Old Testament, using the standard of the New Testament (e.g., nineteenth century liberals)

Bright correctly notes that one thing all three have in common is that each one takes the New Testament as its point of orientation. As he says it, In each case, the true text is the New Testament. The Old Testament text must conform to it, be made to conform--or get out! In no case is the Old Testament it's own witness, in its plain sense and in its entirely, taken seriously as having validity in the church (111).

So what is the solution that Bright has been waiting to announce? In his third chapter--the heart of the book--he states and explains it. A few of his statements mixed in with my own commentary:

But it is here submitted that the key to the solution of the problem is to be found in the theological structure of both Testaments in their mutual relationship--that is to say, through the study of biblical theology (112).

Bright goes to great lengths to defend the idea of a unified biblical theology. Despite the real differences between the two testaments, and the real diversity within each, he says, a genuine unity exists. The differences between the two are mainly because they are written on either side of the cross:

Characteristic of the Old Testament faith is its forward look, its straining ahead toward God's future, the triumph of his kingly rule in the earth (136).

The Old Testament was incomplete theologically. What it hoped for was not yet. But what it hoped for now is in Christ. Consequently, the New Testament announces and refers to the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. Thus Bright's thesis is:

The normative element in the Old Testament, and it's abiding authority as the Word of God, rests not in its laws and customs, its institutions and ancient patterns of thinking, nor yet in the characters and events of which its history tells, but in that structure of theology which undergirds each of its texts and which is caught up in the New Testament and announced as fulfilled in Jesus Christ (155-56).

So, what do you think? Is Bright's a good response to the question of what he calls preaching an A.D. message from a B.C. book?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

3 "Solutions" to the Problem of the Old Testament

"The church can never part with the Old Testament. But it is not enough to say that. After all, what responsible person would question that the Old Testament has abiding values or that some knowledge of it is necessary for the proper understanding of the gospel? Even those who would deny the Old Testament canonical status would admit as much. So we must go step further and say that not only will we have to retain the Old Testament, we will have in some way to use it as a part of normative Scripture." --John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, p. 77.
But how? That is to say, how should the church use the Old Testament Scriptures in this New Testament Age? That's the question that Bright attempts to answer in his book. But before he does, he puts the spotlight on what he calls three classical responses to the question he has raised. Using my own headings--and throwing in my two cents from time to time--here are the three classical solutions to the problem of the Old Testament:

1. Toss It

This approach says that the best way for Christians to deal with the Old Testament is to reject it. The position is named after its first strong advocate: "The attempt to get rid of the O.T. was encountered by the church as far back as the second century in the first great heresy with which it had to deal, that of Marcion" (Bright, 60).

Bobby Valentine has recently written about the man named Marcion and his movement. He talks about how, ironically, Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament and his adoption of alternative scripture led the orthodox Christians of the second century to start settling on the question of which books should be regarded as authoritative for the church.

As Bright and Valentine both point out, Marcionism never completely died. No, not many people have argued so radically against the OT as Marcion did. But the tradition lives on. Bright includes in his list of Marcionite scholars the following well-known people:

Adolf von Harnack, a prominent historian of Christianity who believed that the church should reject the canonical rank of the OT and place it at the beginning of the Apocrypha.

Friedrich Delitzsch, the son of Franz Delitzsch, who wrote a two-volume attack on the OT called "The Great Deception." Bright says Friedrich was a Marcionist "in the fullest sense, even to the point of denying that Yahweh, God of the Israel, is to be identified with the Christian's God" (p. 66).

Rudolf Bultmann, famous and infamous NT scholar. According to Bright, his negative attitude towards the Old Testament was much more subtle and understated, but nonetheless real.

Having grown up among the Churches of Christ, with our strong Marcionite tendencies, I was kind of relieved to find out that mine was not the only tradition that took a low view of the OT.
Christianity has always been right to reject the Marcionite solution. But because it keeps hanging around, the church should remain vigilant.

2. Christianize It

That is to say, save the Old Testament by reading a Christian message from it. This was simple in the early church. That's because reading a book allegorically was popular in the Greco-Roman world.
Bright explains how the church bought into this approach and used it in biblical interpretation: "It was generally believed that Scripture had various levels of meaning. Origen popularized a threefold sense corresponding to the supposed trichotomy of man's nature: body, soul, spirit" (p. 80).

By reading the Bible in this way, passages like the so-called "cursing psalms" and stories that relate the complete destruction of the enemies of Israel can be "prettied up." Those parts of the Bible, it is thought, teach a message that is much more consistent with the loving, forgiving spirit of Jesus. By the same token, by reading the OT allegorically, people could think of the Song of Songs as a love story where Christ is the husband and the church is his bride.

Of course, the problem with this solution is that it insists that we overlook, and sometimes even deny, the literal sense of the text. This approach ultimately divorces the biblical text from any sort of discernible, agreed-upon meaning. Five people can come up with five very different allegorical readings of the same text. So who's to say which one is correct? Thus, the allegorizing approach fails to measure up to what Bright calls "sound exegetcal principles."

Here I have to add a tentative counterpoint. I am undecided about the legitimacy of going beyond the literal sense of the biblical text. When it comes to interpretive method, why do we assume that people like Origen were wrong and that people like us are right? If we conclude the reason is because we're children of the Enlightenment and he wasn't, then we've admitted that we might be more tied to the Age of Reason than the Rock of Ages. And aren't we even going so far as to say that the New Testament writers used a bad method in order to tell us the good news?

In response to this question, most Protestants have said things like, "Well, people like Matthew, with his strange way of reading the Old Testament, were writing by inspiration. We're not. Therefore, Matthew gets to do anything he wants, while we have to stick with only historical-critical readings." Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a dodge? Does the New Testament teach us all things except how to interpret the Bible?

3. Correct It

This alternative to the problem of the Old Testament formed a value judgment from the New--especially the teaching of Christ, easily found in those red letters--and imposed that standard on the Old. This, Bright tells us, was the position of nineteenth century liberalism with it's evolutionary and progressive view. An assumed development over time was the reason that statements and assumptions found in the Old Testament could be corrected by what is found in the New.

Here Bright points to the words of F. W. Farrar: "Is it not an absolutely plain and simple rule that anything in the Bible which teaches or seems to teach anything which is not in accordance with the love, the gentleness, the truthfulness, the purity of Christ's gospel, is not God's word to us, however clearly it stands on the Bible page?"

So, I'm curious to hear your responses. What experiences have you had with variations of these three "solutions" to the question of the Old Testament? Which ones are still hanging around in the Christian circles you know?

Bright has his own answer and alternative. I'll talk about it next time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christian Use of the Old Testament

In the previous two posts, I've

(1) talked about the inspiration of the Old Testament and its authority in the life of the Christian

(2) raised the question of how the Old Testament can and should be used as Scripture by the church. I've gotten a few responses, all positive, and I appreciate your encouragement.

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An aside: I want to emphasize, again, that attitudes toward the OT will improve, and its reading and use in the church will increase, only when Christian people are taught well and when good examples are given at church. As my teacher Phil Slate used to say, "The cutting edge of the kingdom is the local congregation."

Although it's been many years since I last read it, He Loves Forever by Thom Olbricht, is the one of those good examples I'm thinking of. In this book, a mature scholar from the Churches of Christ gives us what amounts to an Old Testament theology in an easy-to-read format. With a Bible in the other hand, that wouldn't be a bad place to start. I also appreciate and have used the OT booklets by John Willis who has taught at Abilene Christian for many, many years. His love for God and his deep study of the biblical text show up on every page. Who are some writers who have opened up to you the meaning of the Old Testament?

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Most of the responses to my earlier posts reinforce ideas like the material dependence of the New Testament on the Old (Jesus once said, "Remember Lot's wife"), the incompleteness of the New Testament's witness without the Old (Knowing about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ requires reading about him in the Old), etc. This is important stuff, no doubt.

But, again, what I want to explore is the question of how the Old Testament can and should be used by Christians as Scripture. Again, in the words of John Bright, "How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed in the church?"

For example, like today's Jews, Christians do not literally implement the instructions found in the Book of Leviticus. Yet Christians rightly believe that the Old Testament, including Leviticus, is the church's book. So how, in what way(s), can Leviticus serve as Scripture for the body of Christ?

Any thoughts?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

How Should Christians Use the Old Testament?

When he delivered the Gray Lectures at Duke Divinity School in November 1959, the unassuming John Bright never imagined that his speeches would become a book that would remain popular for several decades to come. But they did, and with good reason.

Perhaps better than anyone else, Bright proposed and explained a Christian approach to the Old Testament that honors both the OT's position as one of the two parts of the Christian Bible and the biblical mandate to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). That's not an easy task. As Bright explains in the Preface to the book The Authority of the Old Testament, the question he takes up is one that had plagued him for many years:

"I suppose that it is inevitable that it should have: it is a problem that no teacher of Old Testament studies can forever evade. Certainly I was unable to do so. I had long found myself troubled by the fact that so few preachers--myself included, I fear--really seemed to know how to proceed with the Old Testament, or were guided in their preaching from it, if they preached from it at all, by any conscious hermeneutical principles. . . It early became clear to me that the place of Old Testament studies in the theological curriculum was not something that could be taken for granted. I was driven to the realization that if I could not present my students with some positive position with regard to the place of the Old Testament in the Bible, and provide them with some guidance in their use of it in the pulpit, they might justifiably regard all that I was trying to teach them, however interesting it might be historically, as of questionable theological and practical importance."

What exactly is the question regarding the place and authority of the Old Testament? Bright sums it up as follows:

People who affirm "that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose and will . . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed in the church?" (p. 18).

At some point in the course I teach on the Old Testament, I ask my students some version of Bright's question. After all, it doesn't do much good for a person to know the content of the OT if she doesn't have a good idea of how it should be used by the church (I teach students from the Bible Belt who are, almost to a one, religiously engaged).

So what would you include in a response to Bright's question?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Rehabilitation of the Old Testament

In the comments on my last post, Matt was wondering if I had run away. . . .

Still here.

So why haven't I been posting anything lately? I started to say that what I'm doing nowadays just isn't that blogable. But then I realized how lame that sounded.

The best I can come up with is that I've been wrestling around with some beastly questions, and I just didn't want to share the confusion or display my cluelessness in public. Maybe I'll get up the nerve to do more of that some day. In the meantime, here's something I've been thinking about a lot:

"[The Old Testament] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

"I still believe that all I am required to believe and do is contained in the New Testament, and that there is no command or ordinance in the Old Testament binding on a Christian, unless it is in the New Testament, any more than though it had never been commanded." --Elias Smith, The Age of Enquiry: The Christian's Pocket Companion and Daily Assistant (Portsmouth, NH, 1810), p. 23.

rehabilitate -- "to restore to good repute, reestablish the good name of"

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Does the Old Testament have the kind of reputation and regard (and use) that it should have among the Churches of Christ? Let me tell you some of my experience.

Over the past twenty years, I've been seriously asked whether the Old Testament was inspired (in spite of the fact that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the language of inspired scripture refers precisely to the Old Testament).

I've also been asked why Christians should even bother with the Old Testament. "Why do even have it in our Bibles?" a deacon of the church wanted to know.

And, I've been told that the Old Testament was nailed to the cross, something I regard as an unfortunate misunderstanding of Colossians 2:14.

Churches of Christ have a problem. Even in congregations where leaders regard the Old Testament as they should, you might guess that they don't. In the last three months, I have visited four congregations of the Church of Christ. The classes I attended were on Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews. Sound familiar? The sermon texts were all from the New as well.

We have a problem. And it will be corrected only when preachers and elders and other teachers, not only in schools, at ministers' meetings, and on blogs, but especially in churches, begin to speak and plan their ministries of the Word as though the Old Testament is not only inspired but is, therefore, "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

But what if preaching from the Old Testament doesn't turn out to reveal Christ? It's obviously not directly, immediately about Him, right?
My preacher friends, try something. And if this seems too iffy, then do it in the safety zone of Sunday night, or small groups or whatever. Preach through, say, the Book of Judges. See if it doesn't, in every lesson, have you hoping for and reaching forward to Jesus. See if you can end any of those sermons without Christ as the epilogue and exclamation point. (I know, some of you have already done something like this. I'd appreciate hearing about your experiences).
Esau sealed his fate and received an inferior blessing because he disregarded something he should have treasured. We should keep in mind that those things written aforetime were written for our learning, so that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4). It's time for us to rehabilitate the Old Testament.
What do you think?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Onesimus: Not a Runaway After All?

I know, it's been a couple of weeks since I last posted. A few things came along and derailed my best intentions. I do plan to add a final installment to the mini-series on T. B. Larimore. But something else I've been working on has made it to the front burner. . . . .

Most introductions to Paul's Letter to Philemon describe the historical backdrop like this:

"Like everyone else in his position in the Roman empire, Philemon had a number of slaves. One of them, Onesimus, had run away from Colossae, . . ." --John Drane, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 342.

Another introduction puts it this way:

"Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus . . . . Onesimus eventually made his way from Colossae to Rome . . . where the slave was converted to Christianity, perhaps by Paul himself." --Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 370.

Yet another example, this one much more dramatic:

"For causes unknown to us Onesimus ran away from his duties under Philemon. This was a serious crime, which resulted in stern punishment if the offender was caught. Burning, branding, maiming, or even death was possible." --Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 321.

As that last quote indicates, interpreters who take this traditional approach have had a difficult time explaining how Onesimus, a runaway slave, not only makes it all the way to Rome, but then meets up with the Apostle Paul. One writes, for example:

"There is no way of knowing how or why Onesimus visited the imprisoned apostle." --Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 635.

I'm not sure why, but on this question the insightful work of New Testament scholar S. Scott Bartchy has been almost completely overlooked. Several years ago, Bartchy pointed out that when we read the legal evidence from the ancient world, a different picture emerges. According to this alternate view, Onesimus was not a fugitive slave who held no rights. Instead, Onesimus the slave had a dispute with his master, Philemon, and was now exercising his legal option to seek out a third party (in this case, Paul) who could serve as an advocate for the slave. According to this position, Onesimus left the town of Colossae with Philemon's knowledge. And, Onesimus fully intended to return to his home under new, better conditions and without punishment.

What follows are three quotations that represent the Roman legal evidence for the alternative view:

1. A slave is not a fugutive "who, having in mind that his master wished physically to chastise him, left to seek a friend whom he persuaded to plead on his behalf. " --Proculus, a prominent Roman jurist of the early first century A.D.

Here we have a clear indication that physical punishment of slaves was well-known in the Greco-Roman world. Whether Onesimus feared as much is anyone's guess. If that was the case, however, then according to this statement Onesimus would have had grounds for seeking out a third party.

2. "If a slave leaves his master and comes back to his mother, the question whether he be a fugitive is one for consideration; if he so fled to conceal himself and not to return to his master, he is a fugitive; but he is no fugitive if he seeks that some wrongdoing of his may be better extenuated by his mother's entreaties." --Vivianus, Roman jurist of the late 1st and early 2nd century A.D.

What's intriguing about this statement is that it provides the possibility for a mother to plead in behalf of her slave son or daughter. Though he couldn't be a mother, Paul certainly could be a father, which is exactly how he describes himself in relation to Onesimus. Twice in Philemon verse 10 Paul refers to Onesimus as "my son."

3. "A slave who takes himself off to a friend of his master to seek his intercession is not a fugitive." --Paulus, Roman jurist of the late 2nd century A.D.

This sounds much like the first quote. But here, there is no certain reason required in order for the slave to leave seeking a third party to intercede.


1. Given this background, it seems much more likely that instead of being a runaway, Onesimus was exercising his legal rights as a slave. Instead of imagining that he was a fugitive who just happened to run all the way to Rome (hundreds of miles away) and then somehow (in a city of a million people) met up with Paul (who was under house arrest), we can posit that Onesimus left Colossae knowing exactly where he was going and who he wanted to talk to when he got there.

2. When American Christians discuss slavery in the Bible, it is tempting for them to look at the words of the New Testament against the background of slavery in the antebellum South. But when we consider things like the real legal provisions for slaves in the first-century, significant differences begin to show. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that in the ancient world poor free people actually resented many slaves who were able to "get lost" in the bureaucracy of a large, wealthy household, or who had relatively-cushy jobs and didn't have to work so hard for a living.


1. If this alternate view reveals the way things really were in the case of Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul, how does that change the way in which we think of that personal triangle?

2. How would this change the way in which we hear the Letter to Philemon?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Letter from T. B. Larimore

In the "Gospel Advocate" dated March 22, 1894, David Lipscomb explains one reason why he's calling attention to the weeks-long "meeting" that T. B. Larimore was then conducting at Sherman, Texas.

The purpose of his report, he says "is simply to use this meeting as the basis of an appeal to preachers and churches everywhere to do more preaching. It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save folks, and the means of salvation ought to be vigorously operated night and day as long as there are people to save."

Lipscomb points to passages like Acts 19:9-10. In the lecture hall of Tyrannus, located in the city of Ephesus, Paul had spoken every day for two years. As a result, everyone living in the province of Asia had heard the word of the Lord.

The editor also notes Acts 20:30, where Paul reminds the elders from Ephesus that for the space of three years he had not ceased to warn them night and day with tears. Then, with tongue in cheek, Lipscomb concludes that long meetings are scriptural, provided that they don't continue night and day for more than three years! Lipscomb realizes that all of this raises an important question:

"But how can a preacher hold up so long and preach continuously every day? How can he find sermons enough to preach? On these points I wrote Brother Larimore for his experience, etc., and received the following reply:"

[What follows is the entire letter from T. B. Larimore as quoted by Lipscomb. Words in italics appear that way in the original, I assume because those words had been underlined by Larimore himself]:

Yours received. Much obliged. I hastily answer as best I can. We are just beginning to get things loosened up at the roots. The interest is increasing every day. You are anxious to know how I am holding up. I am well. Nothing can be better for me than to preach twice every day and three times on Sunday--unless it is to preach three times "every day and Sunday too." My voice? It's all right. Length of sermons? Fifty minutes--entire service, seventy minutes. When is the meeting to close? No mortal knows. Subjects and material for sermons? The Bible is full of them. Its treasures are simply inexhaustible. Study? That I do. I am not only studying, but learning--learning rapidly every day. I see new beauties in the Bible every day, and am simply astonished at at the sweet, sublime simplicity of God's eternal truth. Exhaust the Bible themes, and thoughts, and truths, at this rate, after a while? Yes, when the swallows drink the ocean dry. What books do I consult? The Bible, Webster's Dictionary, and the Bible--these three, and no more. How long to I propose to fight on this line? Till mustered out of service. Texas is glorious country. Sherman is a good, growing town. Young and old are standing by me bravely in this fight. May the Lord forever bless them all. We are having a pleasant meeting--not wild, bewildering excitement, but a genuine revival, the effects of which will last till time shall be no more--a sacred school, where a thousand pupils are learning the word, the will, and the way of the Lord. I have a perfect home, where every wish is gratified.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More About That T. B. Larimore Meeting

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the great T. B. Larimore (1843-1929) and his emphasis on Christian unity.

That post included a bit of information about a famous 5-month "meeting" that Larimore held in the city of Sherman, Texas during the first half of 1894. Preaching fifteen sermons a week, Larimore led over 250 people to Christ. I wanted to know more about that meeting.

While I was in Abilene for the ACU lectureship, I got to spend a little time in their library. The staff there helped me track down the microfilm reel for Volume 36 (1894) of the Gospel Advocate magazine.

Evidently, we know as much as we do about the Sherman meeting because David Lipscomb, the main editor of the GA, took quite an interest in what was happening. Starting on the front page of the issue dated March 22, 1894, Lipscomb wrote:

"The meeting now in progress at Sherman, Texas, has grown to considerable proportions, and a few random remarks and observations concerning it might not be unprofitable reading in these columns."

Evidently, Lipscomb had learned about the meeting in a letter he had received from one "Brother Earnest Hildebrand." Lipscomb describes Hildebrand as "an active co-worker in the meeting, and a zealous member of the Sherman church." Lipscomb then quotes Hildebrand's letter:

"Brother Larimore's work with us has been, in many respects, remarkable. It began with the new year, and has continued, with steady and constantly-increasing interest to the present--nine full weeks--two discourses every day and three every Sunday. Still, nobody seems tired, and no one seems willing to entertain the thought of closing the meeting. Indeed, the church, preacher, and people seem more anxious and in better condition in all respects for work to-day than on any previous day of the year. There has never been the slightest indication of even a probable decline in interest, or in the mental, physical, or heart-power of any one engaged or interested in the work."

Hildebrand then turns to the question of how Larimore is holding up:

"How our preacher endures all this mental, physical, and heart-pressure, and grows clearer and stronger every day, we do not know. He attributes it to Providence, and this may be the secret of it all."

And the results to that point?

"The number of additions thus far is small considering the number and character of discourses--133 discourses, and 153 additions. These figures express only a small per cent of the good accomplished by this work."

What was the procedure? How did things work?

"The services are all very simple: a prayer, a song, a sermon, an invitation song, confessions, baptism, any necessary remarks or announcements, closing song, benediction. The sermons are strictly scriptural and practical. Our brief voluntary song-service closes and the pulpit service begins promptly at 3.30 P.M., and 7.50 P.M. every day, and at 10.50 A.M., 3.30 P.M., and 7.50 P.M. every Sunday. The entire services, not including the voluntary song-service, occupy seventy minutes."

That's the entire letter from Hildebrand as quoted by Lipscomb. Interesting, isn't it?

Comments? Reactions? Thoughts?

P.S. Once he realized what was happening at Sherman, David Lipscomb wrote a letter to Larimore to get an update from the preacher himself. Next time, I'll post the letter that Larimore sent to Lipsomb in reply. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Wright Response

Over at the website called "On Faith," hosts Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham recently posted this question:

Best-selling atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote: "Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Why is he right or wrong?

Check out the reply from N. T. Wright, "Human Behavior, By Any Other Name . . . "

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Few Resources on Caring for Creation

The post just before this one, about our 100 billion bags a year, seems to have struck a chord. Many thanks to John Dobbs for giving it a needed push. For what they're worth, here are links to some other things you might find helpful:

On Preaching the God of Creation tells a little about how I came to the decision to place this truth on center stage at least once every year that I preached.

The Best Preaching on Earth is a short review of a book by that title. It's a fine collection of sermons and sermon ideas.

If you decide to do some teaching (or, more teaching) on Christians and the Environment, you may want to check out a book by Roger Gottlieb called A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future (Oxford, 2006). It's billed as "the first comprehensive account of religious environmentalism."

Preachers, find out how some biblical conservatives are plugged into environmental issues; see the website for the Evangelical Environmental Network. The links on the left side of the home page include "Fact Sheets" that you can use in your teaching in order to reach even those Rush Limbaugh fans in your congregation.

"The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it"
--Psalm 24:1, NIV

Sunday, September 30, 2007

100 Billion a Year

So now that we in the U.S. have talked about conservation for decades, now that we've gotten concerned about at least the probability (or certainty?) of human-generated global warming, now that Al Gore and "Live Earth" and other people and events have called our attention to environmental issues, now that even churches have gotten much more "green," guess what?

By itself, this country continues to go through an estimated 100 billion plastic bags (in the north) or sacks (in the south) every year. Said 100 billion bags require 12 million barrels of oil for production. And, no, they're not biodegradable. They'll be around for a long, long time.

Now, to get your mind wrapped around the figure 100 billion, consider: one billion seconds ago it was 1959. One billion minutes ago Jesus was walking around in Galilee.

But we're not talking about one billion. We're talking about 100 billion plastic bags. Every year. (I don't know the relative merit that paper might have over plastic, but doesn't it seem like paper would eventually return to the earth from whence it came?).

So why don't Americans take reusable bags or crates to the grocery stores? Writing in today's New York Times, Peter Applebome puts it succinctly: "the lesson for now pretty much seems to be that no matter how piddly the effort, no matter how small the bother, well, it's too much bother."

Applebome concludes: "Plastic bags are a small part of the picture. (sport utility vehicles, McMansions, long commutes anyone?) But you think, if we can't change our behavior to deal with this one, we can't change our behavior to deal with anything."

So what's it going to take for Americans to start doing what we should have been doing for a long time?

Source: Peter Applebome, "Human Behavior, the Politics of Global Warming and the Ubiquitous Plastic Sack," New York Times (Sunday, September 30, 2007) p. A28

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

See You at the Pole?

Tomorrow is the date for the annual "See You at the Pole" events here in the U.S. Years ago organizers settled on the fourth Wednesday of each September.

The idea behind "See You at the Pole," a decidedly-Christian thing, is simple: students gather at their school flag poles and pray. There's even a suggested meeting time: 7:00 AM. Adults, whether staff of the school or not, are also invited.

I have never gone to one of these. When I first heard about "See You at the Pole" back in the mid-90s the event was described in a way that made me want nothing to do with it. What I gathered was that it was all about getting around and even thumbing your nose at an assumed government hostility towards religion, especially Christianity.

Once again, I heard again all of that defensive and silly talk about God being kicked out of the schools (who managed to do that?), and about how, in the 1960s, the evil U. S. Supreme Court had outlawed Bible reading and prayer in public schools (lies!).

So I never went.

Earlier today I visited what appears to be the official website for "See You at the Pole." The wording there comes across as more reasonable than my original take. I still don't plan to attend "See You at the Pole." Maybe you (or a son or a daughter) do, or definitely don't plan to attend.

Why? What do you make of this?

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Beauty and Power of Congregational Song

I want to tell you about Darryl Tippens' booklet "That's Why We Sing," subtitled, "Reclaiming the Wonder of Congregational Singing" (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2007).

There aren't many items I might put on a list of required reading for elders, preachers, and worship leaders among the Churches of Christ. But this is one of them. Tippens starts out with these words:

"When I think of my most memorable moments in church, the times I have felt closest to God, almost always they involve hymns. When I was a small boy, I recall my mother going forward to receive Christ in baptism, as we sang:

Trust and obey,
For there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.

Whether it was through exuberant gospel songs in Sunday worship, devotional songs around a campfire, or Christmas carols sung heartily with family and friends--the joy of divine love and the wonder of forgiveness reached my head and my heart largely through music." (p. 5)

Following a short, rousing introduction, Tippens talks about his purposes:

"In the pages that follow, I wish to do two things: first, to recall some of the main reasons why singing is central in the life of the church; and, second, to offer some suggestions for its preservation and renewal." (p. 8) He accomplishes those goals so very well, it's hard to imagine how it might be done better. A few more quotes.

On the capacity of singing to connect us to God:

In the free church tradition, of which Churches of Christ are a part, a suspicion of sacrament and mystery is common. We have tended to emphasize knowing the right things (doctrine) and doing the right things (ethics and conduct). As one wit has put it, we're good at doing worship 'from the neck up.' Thinking, doctrine, and ethics are very important, of course; but we must admit the obvious; they alone are not sufficient to sustain our faith. One can know the right things, but falter. Our hearts cry out for more, a divine encounter. We want to enter Bethel (the house of God) and shout, 'Surely the Lord is in this place!' (Genesis 28:16). We don't just want memories of a God who once touched his creation; we want communion with him today. (p. 9)

On the power of singing to teach:

Hymns . . . rehearse the stories of Scripture. In word and melody we experience Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection. We remember our sinfulness, our need for redemption, our duty to our neighbor, and the promise of eternal life. In a time when people have a diminished capacity to absorb long sermons, hymns stand ready to offer important inspirational and didactic service to the church, as they have done for millennia. (p. 15)

On accentuating the positive:

Many of us reared in Churches of Christ have heard a number of arguments for a cappella singing that seem to carry far less weight than they once did. It is perhaps time to consider other ways of approaching the subject. Many of the old arguments were negative in nature--why instrumental accompaniment is wrong. I suggest that we would receive a better reception if we offered positive arguments for unaccompanied singing. (p. 19)

On congregations learning new songs:

Unfortunately, some song leaders alienate segments of the congregation because they fail to consider that many do not know the new songs. Many older members appreciate the new hymns, but they sometimes feel left out since no one took time to teach the new songs before making them a part of the worship service. (Compounding the problem, often there is no musical notation to give struggling worshippers any help.) The resulting alienation is unnecessary. In singing there is an intimate intertwining of the minds, hearts, and spirits of the worshipers. Singing is not only for God, it is for one another; but when a segment of the worshipers cannot participate because of basic unfamiliarity, the possibility of joyous transcendence is blocked. Worship would greatly benefit from a simple commitment to introduce new songs as a part of the church's teaching program (p. 24).

Preachers and teachers, before your next sermon or lesson called "Sing His Praise!" or "Our Worship in Song" etc., you'll want to read this fine little work. With stories and quotations from Augustine and Karl Barth all the way to Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamont, "That's Why We Sing" will both inspire and inform you. Above all, Churches of Christ should take to heart and put into practice its message.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Female Deacons: 5th and Final (For Now)

A few months back, I did a series of posts about female deacons. I wanted to offer a few perspectives and make a few points. But I never really rounded off the discussion, never brought it to a close.

So that's what this post is about. I've added links to the earlier posts if you'd like to go back and see what was said there.

The first post, "Why Not Start with Female Deacons?" was about something I think is strange. Some congregations of the Church of Christ are expanding the roles filled by their women; but why is it that they don't appointment female deacons as a first step in that direction? The ordination of female deacons would be, I think, a relatively easy case to make. Yet few congregations seem to be interested in the female diaconate.

In later posts, I mentioned that there seems to be plenty of good evidence that churches of the New Testament age ordained female as well as male deacons. To repeat, this position is consistent with

A. the distinctively-Jewish background of the New Testament (see "Female Deacons, 2")

B. what we know of early Christian history (see "Female Deacons, 3")

C. statements from early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (see "Female Deacons, 4")

In this series, I have not dealt with the important New Testament texts, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (especially v. 11) and Romans 16:1-2. That's mainly because the scriptural pieces of the puzzle are the most accessible. Many people who visit this blog know those passages quite well already, and could comment on them as well or better than I can.

Not as a New Testament scholar (which I'm not), but more as an armchair historian I've added to the discussion what I can. Along that line I want to mention something else for your consideration. In his 1919 book The Model Church, the great G. C. Brewer--not exactly a flaming liberal--included a chapter on "The Diaconate."

Brewer does not refer to any of the corroborating evidence outside the New Testament. But he does point to 1 Timothy 3:11 and to Romans 16:1-2, and expresses his opinion that there probably were deaconesses in the earliest churches. However, he goes on to confess that he doesn't think we can decide the question for certain.

It is perhaps most significant that on this question Brewer declines to use his powerful influence and skill in order to dictate doctrine for the Churches of Christ.

Instead, Brewer's advice is for congregations to determine what they think the New Testament teaches and to act accordingly. In so many words he says, "Have a Bible study and make up your own minds." I find that respect for congregational autonomy both refreshing and instructive.

That most Churches of Christ today never make the time to follow Brewer's advice is not the result of new and better evidence against first-century female deacons. Just the opposite. As the previous posts have shown, the evidence "for" is stronger today, even if it's still regarded as inconclusive.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Churches of Christ don't know what deacons are. As someone said in the comments section of one of the earlier posts, if it is assumed that deacons are some sort of junior elders, then many of our people are naturally going to reject the very idea of female deacons before even considering the biblical evidence.

On the other hand, if deacons are understood as "special servants" commissioned to head up a certain ministry sanctioned and directed by the congregation's elders, then the way should be clear for even more-traditional people in the Churches of Christ to have a genuinely-biblical and clear-minded discussion.

So why isn't this happening?

Friday, September 21, 2007

C. S. Lewis: A Sexist?

Nearly sixty years ago, when he argued against the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one [who opposes the ordination of women] is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office" (God in the Dock, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 235. You can read his essay, "Priestesses in the Church?" here).

There are some obvious differences between the context in which Lewis wrote those words and the situation in which members of the Churches of Christ find themselves as we go round and round about "women's role in the church."

Lewis, for example, believed in the priesthood of the priest, not the priesthood of all believers. As he maintained his position on this question, he sensed no need to explain the passages in both Old and New Testaments that speak of women prophets. They were, as Lewis pointed out, prophets, preachers, but not priests.

But here's the connection I want to make. Those who might disagree with Lewis should not call him a sexist; the ideas connected with that word include prejudicial stereotyping against women. He's not guilty of that.

And neither are my brothers and sisters in the Churches of Christ who maintain traditional opinions about this question.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Sexism" and the Churches of Christ

I finally got in late Tuesday night, home from Abilene.

The rest of the lectures and classes I got hear (Monday night through Tuesday afternoon) were just as good as the ones I talked about last time. The Landon Saunders speech on Monday evening was something like an oracle.

Tuesday morning, I got to attend the Restoration Quarterly breakfast; even to got sit next to Carisse Berryhill who at Harding Graduate School and now at Abilene has always been so friendly and helpful to me in my studies. What a great lady and scholar she is.

I also got to hear Mark Shipp (on the early chapters of Hosea) and Glenn Pemberton (on the ambivalence we have in Churches of Christ about someone getting "a call to ministry" and the call narrative in Isaiah chapter 6).

After lunch, I went to Mike Casey's presentation on the subject of his latest book, Sir Garfield Todd. The best presentations you hear come whenever someone is speaking from a mind filled up from study and writing and reflection and prayer. That's the sort of thing I got to hear all day. What a pleasure. I even happened upon fellow blogger Bobby Valentine; so good to finally meet him in person.

That said, there's one perceived negative I want to mention and explore.

Something that most any observer of the ACU lectures would pick up on is that it has now become quite vogue (at least at Abilene during lectureship week) to come down hard on the "sexism" of the Churches of Christ.

In the opening lecture, for example, "racism" and "sexism" were mentioned together. Knowing the current situation in Churches of Christ, it was easy to connect the dots. Anyone who would argue for the traditional practice and position of the Churches of Christ on gender-and-worship questions is an unwitting "sexist" at best.

The next morning I attended a class in which the presenter told the story of a conversation he'd recently had. Someone who had attended the church where the presenter preaches told this preacher that he wouldn't be coming to his church. One of the reasons for staying away? The "sexism." The story was told in a way that affirmed the viewpoint of the dissenter. The upshot was that Churches of Christ have got to do something about their "sexism," or else.

To be fair, I should mention this. I realize that someone might say that, in the perception of someone unfamiliar with the Churches of Christ, current practice in most of our congregations might be taken as blatant sexism. It has sometimes been perceived (when our buildings weren't so plush) that acappella churches simply couldn't afford a piano.

But has it occurred to people who increasingly favor the s-word that congregations of the Church of Christ that are so "progressive" they encourage women to preside at the Lord's table would seem hopelessly sexist to many outsiders because they have not also ordained women to be some of the preachers and elders?

And I wonder. Where is the tolerance for people who hold to traditional positions on these questions, not because of their misogyny (if they know their own hearts and are extended a measure of trust) but because they think that's what the Word of God really says?

Why must these people be told they're guilty of "sexism" by their loving brothers and sisters who evidently assume that the other side can maintain their stance only when they maintain inherited-but-flawed interpretations combined with a bad heart and good-ole'-boy attitudes, the feeling created by the s-word.

Isn't there a way of taking issue with the traditional position on this set of questions without ascribing to others the motive of a latent sexism? I say there is. Study Scripture. Review history. Talk about tradition. Analyze arguments. Speak about how people think and feel. Make any points pro and con. Unveil what you believe is the vision and intent and heart of God according to the Scriptures.

Christian people should be able to do that without resorting to labels and names that serve no good purpose.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Live from the ACU Lectureship

Yesterday I drove across not-so-dusty-because-we've-had-rain-this-year West Texas. All the way from Amarillo to Abilene. (There's got to be a country song in there somewhere, but I think it's already been written).

Anyway, I got to the campus of ACU just in time to hear the opening speech. You can read the story from the Abilene News-Reporter here. Jerry Taylor's sermon on "What Does the Lord Require?" really was excellent.

Afterwards I went to "Gospel and Culture Coffee House" session on "Dirty Little Secret: The PostSecret Phenomenon." Have you heard about PostSecret? The session gave some basic information about this extremely-popular (and powerful) site. Towards the end, the presenters raised questions like,

What does PostSecret teach us about the therapeutic value of revealing secrets?

And what does this huge phenomenon say about the importance of confession in the church?

Today, I went to a morning class on "Telling a Better Story," taught by John Siburt. At 11:00 I got to experience a fantastic keynote speech by Fred Asare, a Christian minister (of the Word and to the poor) from Accra, Ghana. I haven't heard anything so moving in such a long time.

At lunchtime, I went to the Leaven Journal Luncheon. There were eleven for Leaven (just one of the jokes the group came up with). I was happy to meet or meet again the folks who were there. But I was disappointed that a meeting about a common interest and the future one of our better print journals was so poorly attended. What's happening to serial publications among the Churches of Christ? Do people simply not read religious magazines anymore? Is this a result of the demise of the strong doctrinal consensus that used to characterize the Churches of Christ?

I bet a lot of folks will turn out to hear Landon Saunders tonight. He's speaking on Micah 3:1-12, "Night Without Vision."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Off to Abilene

As things turn out, I'm getting to go to Abilene this year for the lectureship at ACU, which starts Sunday night. I won't get to take in the whole thing, but will get to be there for most of two days.
One thing I'm really looking forward to is the chance to meet up with, in the flesh, at least a few people I've met by way of the blogs. I'll be the white, middle-aged, bald guy in glasses. . . . Oh, wait. That won't narrow it down much, will it?

Anyway, it's also going to be great to hear some of the best spirits and minds of our day. Looking through the lectureship brochure, it's hard for me to decide on a certain class. The last time I felt like this, I was about ten years old, looking through the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Wishbook.

In case you aren't going to be there, but are interested in the lectures, the theme lectures will be broadcast live at You can also catch them at Acappella Radio on iTunes. The brochure also says that CDs and DVDs of the lectures will be available.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Native American Religions

When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, he thought he would eventually land on the east coast of Asia.

To Europeans of the 1400s, anyone living east of the Indus River was Indian. According to their worldview--and here I used that term quite literally--except for small islands nearby, terra firma was unified. The continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa had their distinctions. But they were connected. Together they were called the Orbis Terrarum, "the Island of the Earth."

So when he saw people in that place where he finally landed, Columbus called them los Indios, "the Indians." Who else could they have been? By calling the people he saw "the Indians," Columbus both reflected and reinforced the assumptions with which he had begun.

Aren't we a lot like him? No, we don't have a global concept that requires us to think of the western hemisphere as a new world. But, whenever we say "Indian" or the politically-correct "Native American," don't we see in our minds certain images, and begin with a set of pre-understandings, all of which get reinforced by how we see what we see?

No, I don't imagine that what I'm describing is restricted to the subject at hand. It's just that non-Native Americans have a hard time breaking out of the cycle of reinforced assumptions when it comes to Native Americans.

That's the case partly because of something that happened in the summer of 1550. It was then that Charles V of Spain called a conference of sorts. He summonsed a group that was to hear opposing arguments on the question, What kind of being is the Indian?

The first presenter, a scholar named Sepulveda, picked up Aristotle's idea that some people are slaves by nature. And the Indians, he said, were such people. Therefore, it was only right for Europeans to enslave Indians and to conduct war and use violence in order to conquer them.

The second presenter, a Dominican priest named Las Casas, had spent many years among the Indians. Referring to long treatises he had written, he argued for days on end that the Indians were sophisticated in the arts and languages and government; that they were gentle, eager to learn and, above all, quick to accept Christianity.

Even before that time, and reaching right up to the present, the prevailing images of the Indian are complete opposites: the sub-human being and the noble non-Christian. For some, Indians have been and are pagan, uncivilized, incapable of learning, unable to govern themselves, beastly and inhumane. To others, though not Christian, the Indian is artistic, civil, able to learn, filled with wisdom.

Common to both views has been the notion that Indians are essentially irreligious. Columbus wrote, "they do not hold any creed, nor are they idolaters." A decade later, Vespucci wrote, "They have no church, no religion, and are not idolaters."

Because of such long-held impressions, only within the last few decades have historians of American religion even considered the religions of Native Americans. (!) Until recently, Indians mentioned in the context of American religion were almost always connected to the missionary efforts of Christians.

More recently, though, some scholars have begun drawing up maps of the territory we call "Native American Religions." And that's what we'll be looking at in the "Introduction to World Religions" at Amarillo College this coming Monday night.

Main Source: Gill, Sam D. Native American Religions: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1982), 1-13.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Listening to Elie Wiesel

My daughter Chloe just began her college career at West Texas A&M University. Convocation ceremonies were Thursday night. The honored guest and featured speaker was Holocaust survivor, teaching scholar, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

Here and there, I had seen so many references to Wiesel. But I really didn't know much about him or his story.

Chloe had read, and was reading again, Night, Wiesel's memoir about his Holocaust experiences. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy for myself. I never knew.

From the back cover of the paperback edition of Night: "Born in the town of Sighet, Translyvania, Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. Night is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel's memories of the death of this family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man."

No, the book is not a pick-me-up kind of read. But I can't remember anything that was more gripping than this book. In one of the more memorable sections, Wiesel interrupts his description and reflects:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw
transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


I will remember seeing and hearing him speak for a long time. Some of the more memorable parts of his speech:

He noted that "Romeo and Juliet" is always and everywhere interpreted as a great love story. It's not, he said. It should be understood as a story about the kinds of things that can and do happen when two groups of people hate each other.

He mentioned that people often ask him how he managed to survive what he went through. He says that the big question has not been his survival, but rather the maintenance of his sanity in the years that have followed. People who have experienced deep grief should get to hear that from time to time, so that they won't imagine that they are alone.

He said he's noticed that whenever a cause has gripped and moved him, it's turned on the suffering of children. I thought to myself, Mature people just sense that there's something uniquely terrible about a child or adolescent being tortured and terrified.

He ended with this story:

Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided that he would spend his life helping other people. He consulted scholars who were expert in the conditions around the world. He wanted to know, "What is the worst place in the world? Where is the quality of life the lowest?" He was told, and he moved there.

As expected, the people of that place were hateful and violent and mean. The young man would stand on the sidewalk every day and tell the people walking by that they should treat each other better, live better lives.

He was ridiculed and insulted.

Finally, one day a girl laughed at him and told him, "Nobody's listening to you. Nobody cares. Why do you keep going on and on with your speeches to people who are ignoring you?

He said, "I used to speak like this so that I could change them. Now I do it to keep them from changing me."

Friday, August 31, 2007

How Good and Pleasant: T. B. Larimore on Unity

One of the finest preachers of yesteryear was T. B. Larimore. He was born in 1843, and died in 1929.

To give you an idea of the kind of man he was, consider something that happened in 1894. By that point in his life, Larimore had developed a certain practice. He would go somewhere for what we call a “gospel meeting” and would stay for as long as he and the host congregation thought that he was doing some good.

On January 4, 1894, Larimore began preaching at a congregation in Sherman, Texas. He would speak every day, twice a day, and three times on Sunday; fifteen sermons every week.

He kept up that pace until June 7th. During those five months and three days, the number of people who made the good confession and were baptized into Christ numbered 254 (Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, pp. 452-53).

A great speaker and writer, Larimore championed the unity of all believers in Christ. He would often quote Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

Then he would make this observation: There are many things that are good, but that are not pleasant. An operation that removes a cancerous growth is lifesaving, which is good. But it’s not pleasant.

Other things are pleasant, but are not good. For most of us, eating pie or cake, candy or ice cream is pleasant. But it’s not necessarily good. And if you ate nothing but sweets that certainly would not be good, even though it might be pleasant.

Very few things in this world, said Larimore, are both good and pleasant, things that actually benefit you and provide a pleasant experience as well. One of those few things is the unity of God’s people. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

[Larimore's actual words can be found in his sermon “Unity,” in Biographies and Sermons, edited by F. D. Syrgley. It's not an easy book to find. I've yet to see a copy myself].

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Kappa Chi Club at Amarillo College

Several Churches of Christ in my area sponsor a Christian student organization at Amarillo College. The name of the club is Kappa Chi.

Kappa stands for koinonia, fellowship. Chi is the first letter in christos, Christ. Fellowship in Christ. I'm the faculty sponsor for this group. Naturally, I want to do everything I can to promote it.

This new school year, Kappa Chi will meet for the first time next Wednesday, September 5th, at noon, at the Amarillo Bible Chair. We're located on the corner of 25th and Jackson, just across from the Washington Street campus.

Lunch will be provided at this meeting. But we need those who plan to come to RSVP no later than next Tuesday. The number to call is 372-5747.

If you know an AC student who might be interested, please send them this information. We want to do all we can to help students "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Top 10 Reasons You Should Study Biblical Hebrew

Today is the first day of classes at Amarillo College. This is always an exciting time.

There's an Old Testament survey course that begins this morning at 10:30. Tonight at 7:00 is the first meeting for "Introduction to World Religions."

Tomorrow morning we'll start the New Testament class. And a week from tomorrow night is the first meeting for "Basic Biblical Hebrew."

It's not too late for students to sign up for any of these classes.

For those who are on the edge of decision, here are (drum roll, please) the "Top 10 Reasons You Should Study Biblical Hebrew" (with thanks to those who contributed):

10. Saint Peter doesn't know English.

9. If Albert Einstein has something in common with The Three Stooges, it's got to be good.

8. Not study Hebrew? How unorthodox!

7. If you like to start at the back of a book, you'll feel right at home.

6. WWJD?

5. It's the Lord's first language.

4. Nothing clears your throat like pronouncing a "hchet."

3. Ever seen the salaries for rabbis?

2. Barney sings the Hebrew alphabet. Wanna be dumber than him?

1. Gives you four times as much Bible compared to Greek!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Links You Might Like

Two recent posts that I've appreciated and enjoyed this past week are . . . .

one about folks being late to church, by Wade Hodges. You can see it here.

another about "False Teachers and False Teaching" by Richard J. Mouw. It's here.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Biscuits, Gravy, Pianos, Choirs, and Hell

Several church bulletins show up in my mailbox every week. I like to read them when I get the chance. I enjoy keeping up, hearing what different congregations are doing.

I frequently check out the attendance and contribution figures. Every once in a while, I'll do some math, dividing the dollars by the attendance in order to derive a figure for giving-per-person. But please don't tell anyone. That just seems so, I don't know, . . . unholy.

Anyway, I often read the articles too. I've discovered that some preachers are especially good writers. One of my favorites is Dalton Key.

But then there was this recent article, by someone I won't name, that just floored me.

The writer begins by explaining that he's a southerner, and that he likes to eat biscuits and gravy. There's just one problem. He has high cholesterol.

So, he can't have biscuits and gravy. If he had that meal as often as he wanted to, he'd soon be dead. So he lays off the biscuits and gravy.

Unlike him, though, a lot of so-called religious people give in to their own form of biscuits and gravy. They happen to like "instrumental music" and "choirs."

However, warns the writer, if they go on "practicing what they are practicing" what awaits them is "certain spiritual death." And all because they liked and indulged in instrumental music and choirs.

The article closes with these words: "When those who practice such error face the fiery pits of Hell and ponder their position for eternity surely they will not respond with the exclamation, 'But I like it!'"

How does this happen? . . .

How do people get to the point where they think that a cappella worship and the absence of choirs is part of our dying to sin?

How do people conclude, and say with a straight face, that hell is reserved for instrumentalists and choir people?

I'm no fan of biscuits and gravy. But that other part makes me feel sick.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Curse of Knowledge

I recently came across the text of a speech, delivered back in May at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. The speaker was one Richard L. Weaver II, a retired professor of communication.

In the speech, Weaver refers to the newish book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007). Picking up some ideas from that book and building on his own experience, here's what Weaver had to say:

- - - - - - - -

"One problem that most educators face--any adult whose interest is communicating with others--is something that Heath and Heath call 'the curse of knowledge,' and unless we are aware of it, it is unlikely we will compensate for it.

The curse of knowledge can best be demonstrated by a simple game--a game studied and explained by Elizabeth Newton who, in 1990, earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford based on her study. She assigned people to one of two roles: 'tappers' and 'listeners.' Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs like 'Happy Birthday' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Each tapper was asked to pick a song from the list and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener's job was to guess the song based on the rhythm being tapped.

Now, listen to the results. Over the course of Newtons' experiment, 120 songs were tapped out, but listeners guessed only 2.5 percent, or 3 out of 120.

You may wonder what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology?Before listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked tappers to predict the odds that listeners would guess correctly. This is what is stunning: tappers predicted that the odds were 50 percent. They got their message across 1 time in 40, but tappers thought they were getting it across 1 time in 2.

The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge--the song title--and it makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the curse of knowledge--once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has 'cursed' us, and it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.

Heath and Heath remind us that this tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day with CEOs and front-line employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. "

- - - - - - - -

Hmmm. Preachers and pew-sitters too?

This experiment and observation has me wondering, How does 'the curse of knowledge' impact preaching, or attempts to teach and evangelize?

How is "the curse" related to the big question of Christian unity?

Is the curse something that Christians have brought into the church by over-emphasizing the importance of "head knowledge"? A loaded question, I know. ;-)

I'd like to hear what you think.

Source: Richard L. Weaver, "Sticky Ideas" in Vital Speeches of the Day (August 2007) p. 354.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Disunity in the World and the Unity of All Believers

In his fine commentary on the Gospel of John, New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener points to something about Jesus' prayer in John 17, something I'd never noticed before. Of course, I had noticed that Jesus prays more than once for the unity of all his future disciples:

  • " . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (v. 21).
  • "May they be brought to complete unity . . . " (v. 23).
What I had not seen was that, in the Gospel of John, the unity of all believers is quite a contrast to the divisions among unbelievers and, also, divisions between people who believe versus those who do not. Check it out:

On hearing his words, some of the people said, "Surely this man is the Prophet." Others said, "He is the Christ." Still others asked, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. (John 7:40-43)

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided. (9:16)

At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, "He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?" But others said, "These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?" (10:19-21)

Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God. (12:42-43)

Believers are different from unbelievers. And, in the world of unbelief there are many divisions.

Ironic, isn't it? If there's one thing an unbelieving world might agree about, it's that divisions among Christians are a sign that their message itself is inconsistent. How does the Holy Spirit feel about that?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

One Person's Opinion . . .

NEWSWEEK magazine and THE WASHINGTON POST sponsor an on-line series of conversations about religion called On Faith. You ought to check it out sometime.

Here's how it works. Every few days the hosts come up with a question. Most of the time, the question is related to both religion and current events. Then, the dozens of folks on the panel get to respond.

The responses have a blog-like quality. Anyone and everyone can comment on something written by a member of the panel, which includes a wide array of folks like N. T. Wright, Richard Mouw, Martin Marty, Elaine Pagels, Elie Wiesel, and Brian McLaren.

Every once in a while, I scroll down to read the dozens of comments following the wise-and-witty words of some of the panelists. Even when (or especially when) a response is coming from a place much different from my own, I usually find there's something there for me to learn.

But then--and it almost never fails-- at least one person has posted a comment like, "What a load of crap!" A lot of the time, it's more offensive than that.

Usually, the commenter says enough to prove that (s)he doesn't even begin to understand what the panelist has said, is completely out of his/her depth, and really doesn't belong in the conversation.

It's one of the most obvious examples of something that bugs me now and then. There's a real downside to the near-complete democratization of publishing called the World Wide Web.

Fact is, one person's opinion is not just as good as another's. And frankly, I don't like it when brilliance and blathering are given equal (or nearly equal) space.

Yeah, they used to say the same kinds of things when the printing press was a new invention. But we know there are differences. For example, even fifty years after Gutenberg's invention, how many people could actually use it so quickly and easily as you and I use our computers?

People who maintain a high view of humanity aren't bothered much by the proliferation of nonsense. Their assumption is that good, reasonable people eventually separate trash from treasure. Truth and goodness in time prevail. But it seems to me like there are a lot of examples to the contrary.

While I am constantly amazed at the ability of ordinary human beings to do great and godly things, I'm also amazed at the capacity of even "good" people to be foolish in their thinking, blinded by their prejudices, brutal in their actions.

I know, it's a little late to start a campaign to put the Web genie back in the bottle. Besides, that's not what I want. What I want is for the portrait of the Book of Revelation to be realized; for the Truth who is God to overwhelm everything else, and for his kingdom alone to be established.

Until that happens, blasphemy and blathering will still bother me. Maybe I can manage to not be a part of the problem.