Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alexander Campbell's Favorite Joke?

Okay, here's a question for any Stone-Campbell historians out there: Did Alexander Campbell have a favorite joke?

I've heard that he did. If so, I'd like to track it down (that is, if it's to be found among his writings). At this point, all I have is oral tradition. Here's what I recall from what I was told:

Like a lot of brainy, industrious people, Campbell had a lively sense of humor. But like a lot of funny people, he didn't tell many jokes. Instead, he would quip about this, comment on that, often in a way that made people smile. However, there was one joke he liked to repeat. It went something like this:

Once there was a young preacher who was traveling to another city by coach. A few minutes after he boarded, he was joined by two older attorneys, members of a firm which was known for getting its rich, guilty clients off the hook.

Soon after the trip began, one of the lawyers exchanged introductions with the young preacher and asked him, "And what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said.

Hearing that, the two crusty old men looked at each other as if to say, "Let's have a little fun with this youngster." So one of them started in, doing what lawyers do. Asking questions.

"I've sometimes wondered this about preachers: In the midst of a sermon, do you ever say something that you didn't mean to say? Something erroneous?"

"Yes," said the preacher, "I'd say that happens sometimes."

"Well, in that case, once you realize it was an error, do you go back and correct it?"

"That depends," said the preacher.

"Depends? Depends on what?"

"Well, if it was a serious error of fact, something that makes a real difference, then I go back and correct it. But if the difference is negligible, then I just go on."

"Sounds like a good principle," said the lawyer. "But could you give an example of how you would use it?"

"Alright. Let's say that I went to quote the passage from the Book of Revelation that says, 'All liars shall have their place in the lake of fire.' but instead it came out, 'All lawyers shall have their place in the lake of fire'."

"Well, what would you do?" asked the lawyer, his eyebrows raised high.

"I'd consider that such a slight difference, I'd just go on."

Supposedly, this was Campbell's favorite, oft-repeated joke. Can anyone verify? Cite a source?

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Does "Culture" Mean?

Several weeks ago, I mentioned an assignment: Next month, I'm supposed to speak to a group of older, life-long Christians on the subject of "Christianity and Culture."

I know, this deserves a series of lessons. But I haven't been asked to do that. Just one talk for about 40 minutes.

By the way, last month's presentation on "The Sovereignty of God" came out better than I thought it would. Just one more sign of grace. But back to "Christianity and Culture."

I'm starting with the notion that I know what "Christianity" means. But what about culture? I have to confess I felt a little embarrassed when I first started thinking about that question because, for all the times I've confidently referred to culture (and they are many), I don't think I've ever reflected much on what it means exactly. I had ideas. But they were vague. (Turns out, there's a good reason they were vague. Stay with me here).

So I decided to look up culture in a good dictionary, comparing the definitions, reading about the word's etymology, listing synonyms, etc. Here's a bit of what I found.

I went to the massive, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that, apparently, culture comes from the Latin cultus, a word that was used to speak of what we today call agriculture, the work of farming. And, if there's one picture that's most often associated with culture, it's the picture of a plow tilling the soil (as a means of cultivating a field for the sake of producing a crop).

From there, it must have been a series of steps that led to what people usually mean today when they speak of culture: it is what cultivates a society, making that group of people who they are, ordered and productive (like rows of plants in a field, producing a crop). The Oxford Thesaurus says that synonyms for culture include customs, lifestyle, and way of life.

So you see why my initial thoughts were so vague. According to one definition that showed up in the British Journal of Sociology (vol. 14, 1963) nowadays culture means

the whole complex of learned behavior, the traditions and techniques and the material possessions, the language and other symbols of some body of people. Got it?

Here's a similar definition--which is sort of tongue-in-cheek--from a really fine book on the topic called All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, by Kenneth A Myers. He says that culture is

a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors, and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom don't know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food.

So I have a bit of a problem. In my presentation I want to give some kind of definition, a meaningful description of culture. But it's a word that, as currently used, means something like environment or atmosphere.

Before delving into the question of how Christians should think about, respond to, and even shape culture, how 'bout a short, simple definition? Or some kind of analogy? Any thoughts? I'd appreciate hearing what you think.

Friday, September 19, 2008

5 Ways Blogging Has Changed My Life

Okay, so I got tagged by Arlene Kasselman. My assignment (and I've chosen to accept it) is to talk about 5 Ways That Blogging Has Changed My Life. Here goes:

1. Blogging has introduced me to a wide array of usually bright, interesting, funny people of goodwill, people I never would have known about any other way. I really enjoy this blogging culture that I'm a part of.

2. Blogging has forced me to realize what a struggle it is for me to sort out what I think, to say what I mean, and to say it as well as I can. Every week, I run straight into the fact that I don't know exactly what I think and that, once again, I'll have to turn it over in my mind and write it out. Only by doing that can I come to some sort of provisional conclusion. That I have a blog prompts me to keep thinking in front of others.

3. Often, when I get a comment from someone who's read what I've written (and I always feel like a kid getting a present when I see a new comment) the feedback provides me with the sort of "peer review" I don't get any other way.

4. Blogging has often reminded me that we do not know other people in mind only. This is precisely why, when we come to "meet" other bloggers via the Internet, we deeply want to meet them truly, in person. When Paul wrote the celebrated Letter to the Romans, apparently not even that fabulous piece of correspondence could communicate what he wanted to give them; that exchange would have to wait until he saw them face to face (Romans 1:11). To all of my blogging buddies I say, "I long to see you."

5. Blogging has helped to show me and remind me of what an intriguing world this is, what an interesting time it is to be alive. Blogging has been and, for now anyway, will continue to be a part of my life.

Thanks for the tag, Arlene.

Oh, and here's a link to the originator of this chain post.

This time I'm going to forego the tag, partly because a bunch of the folks I might have picked have already been tagged.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Restoration of Old Testament Christianity

In the "Introduction" to his most recent book, What the Gospels Meant, Gary Wills points out something I found especially interesting: the first biblical scenes depicted in Christian art were not scenes from the New Testament.

Naturally, one would guess that the artists of the catacombs would first portray Jesus. I imagine depictions of him healing a blind man, stilling the storm, talking with the woman at the well, and, above all, hanging on the cross. But all such guesses would be wrong.

True, early Christian artists eventually made Jesus a prominent subject of their work. Most often, we're told, they portrayed him as the Good Shepherd, the one who had graciously gone out seeking the lost sheep, now carried on his shoulders. But before they focused on Jesus, the artists of the church turned their attention to other subjects: Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, and other characters from what Christians would someday call the Old Testament, but which the earliest Christians knew simply as "the holy Scriptures" (2 Timothy 3:15).

From this, Wills makes the point that these typical subjects of early Christian art reflect something bigger: the first followers of Jesus reported more than His words, and stories about what He had done. That much they knew. In fact, some of them were eyewitnesses to the events they told.

But to them, much more than simply talk about Jesus, it was just as important for the first believers to connect the hero of their stories to the promises of God recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures; to relate the Christian message to the legacy and hope of the descendants of Abraham which they knew from their sacred writings.

According to Luke, this point of Christian emphasis was something that started with Christ himself. Speaking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus began with Moses and all the Prophets and explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

Later, Jesus reminded his disciples that he had told them, Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (24:44).

As he explained to them the meaning of his death and resurrection, Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (24:45).

Starting with that example from Jesus, the early church did more than simply announce that God had raised the crucified Jesus to new and unending life. They were also intent on showing that the deeds of God in Christ were perfectly consistent with the words of God in Scripture. Indeed, one might call this the New Testament pattern. Notice how this turns up in the following passages (with emphasis added):

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteous from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. --Romans 3:21-22

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. --1 Corinthians 15:3-4

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, and heirs according to the promise. --Galatians 3:29

The last of these quotes--with its reference to Gentile believers being the descendants of Abraham--points to something especially significant. It shows that when Christians of the first century used the language of the Old Testament to describe what God had done through Jesus, they were not simply drawing a line from promise to fulfillment. More than that, they were expressing their view that Jesus Christ is what the Scriptures were all about all along, that one kind of relationship between the Old Testament and the Christian faith is a relationship of identity or essential content.

This does not mean that Christians overlooked or suppressed the literal sense of the Old Testament. For example, Stephen's sermon recorded in Acts 7 contains many references to specific people, places, and periods of time. Nevertheless, the first believers in Jesus also saw in the Old Testament references to Christ and strong continuity between ancient Israel and the Christian movement:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spirutal drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. --1 Corinthians 10:1-4

Here I won't go into the whole question of why Paul says it was a rock (as opposed to fire and cloud) that traveled with the Israelites in the desert, something unexpected to say the least, and sort of funny when you think about it. My main purpose is to simply say that there are plenty of good, biblical reasons for abandoning the old language of "restoring New Testament Christianity." For any such restoration, according to the New Testament itself, would depend upon the history, vocabulary, themes, and promises found in the Old Testament. More than that, the New Testament appears to assume that Christian readers of the Old would, in its pages, consistenly meet up with Christ and with themselves and the movement of which they were a part.

I want to stop here and ask: What do you think? What makes sense, or what doesn't? Why is this right, wrong, or some of both?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Memories from the World Trade Center

(First posted on 9/11/05)

As we were learning the terrible truth on the morning of September 11, 2001, there was one person I especially wanted to see: my daughter Chloe. She wanted to see me too.

When she came in from school later that afternoon, our sad eyes met. We stayed in that mutual gaze for a few seconds, both of us knowing exactly what the other was thinking.

Living less than a hundred miles from Manhattan, day trips into "the City" are easy to do and always promise an adventure. Earlier in June of that year, Chloe and I had spent one such day together, just the two of us.

On the train ride down that morning, she told me she was really interested in a visit to Ellis Island. She'd been reading about immigrants who came through there. She wanted to know what they once saw, to imagine how they must have felt. Some of them were Bellizzis.

I thumbed through my guide to New York and realized that we weren't going to be able to make it out to Ellis Island that day. I had scheduled a short appointment with a professor at New York University, hoping to set up a plan to read Classical Hebrew there maybe one day a week. It would be expensive, I thought. But on my day off I could enjoy two loves of my life; New York and Old Hebrew. Besides, going through a terrible divorce, I was pretty desperate for something that would help me to feel happy again. No Ellis Island that day, I told Chloe.

I knew she was disappointed. So I promised her that once we'd gotten my meeting out of the way, she could call the shots. I'd be willing to spring for almost any adventure. But it would have to be in Manhattan.

She hadn't imagined an alternative, and wanted to know what I thought would be a fun Plan B. So I started to ask . . .

The Museum of Natural History? Um. No.

(joking) The American Numismatic Society? Lots and lots of ancient coins! Nobody wants to go there except you, Dad.

I bet my teacher, Dr. Oster, would go with me. Then call him.

A few bookstores? (getting irritated) Dad!

Okay, sorry. . . I know! How 'bout the World Trade Center? What can you do there?

I'm not sure, exactly. (looking it up in the guide) But we could go to the top. Says here that they have places to eat. There's a glassed-in observation deck, and you can take an escalator up to the roof.

(looking at the pictures and starting to smile) Okay. Let's do that.

After the train stop and our walk through Grand Central, we took the subway headed south. Having made it to lower Manhattan, we meandered around in Washington Square Park talking. Then it was over to my appointment, which was over soon enough.

As we stepped out of the office building, I wanted to be sure we'd have enough time that afternoon. So I decided to spend the extra money for a cab instead of the subway. Within a few minutes, the driver was dropping us off so close to the buildings that we couldn't see their tops from inside the car.

Looking at the World Trade Center was sort of like looking at the Grand Canyon. You wondered, "Is it bigger or smaller than it seems?" You also wondered, "How was this ever made?" There on the street, most everything was gray, the sunlight blocked by the shadows of the towers. Even the bright signs had a bit of a pall.

Once inside, it wasn't long before we bought our tickets to take the less-than-a-minute elevator ride to the 107th floor. From that point up, most of the WTC's south tower was the observation deck and a level or two with restaurants and exhibits. We walked around the perimeter of the deck, looking in all directions, reading the signs that told us what we were seeing. Soon we were on the escalator, riding up to the roof.

It was incredible. I remember looking up the length of Manhattan and seeing well past the north end of the island, all the way to those towns in New York that lay beyond the Bronx, and east into Connecticut. To the west was New Jersey. I wondered about the number of miles we could see.

The wind was strong and blustery, a constant sound in the ears, like standing at the edge of the ocean. I remember thinking, "It must be like this all the time up here. Wonder what it's like on a windy day." For a second my imagination turned horrific and I thought about what it would it would be like if an unexpected gust were to take my feet out from under me and send me flying from the top.

Between the office appointment and the cab, we had looked around in a tourist shop and I'd bought one of those disposable cameras. Now I was ready to use it. I especially wanted to get a picture of the two of us facing south, with the Empire State Building and all of those lesser skyscrapers behind us. I asked a young woman if she wouldn't mind. She snapped the photo and smiled as she handed the camera back to me.

The roof wasn't where you wanted to linger. Within few minutes, Chloe and I were having lunch at the pizza place on one of those top floors. I guess I'll never forget one of the songs that played in the background that day. It was Billy Joel's "Lullabye."

Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on
They never die
That's how you and I
Will be . . .

Of course, it made me think of me and Chloe.

I don't recall much about the rest of the day. There was a late afternoon shower, and we bought an umbrella at a little shop on Broadway. I still have that umbrella.

Within a day or two after we'd gotten back, though, I started wondering where that camera was. We looked, but didn't find it. The week following September 11th, we looked a lot more, but it never turned up.

Since then, when I'm not wishing we had that photo, I sometimes think to myself, "Maybe it's just as well."

Either way, I have these memories. Now and then, I hear that song. It always makes me cry.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Fred Craddock on the What of Preaching

In 1971, the great preacher and professor Fred Craddock published his landmark book As One Without Authority.

In it, Craddock explained the how and why of his inductive style of preaching, laced with story and word picture. This was very different from the traditional, deductive style, intent on advancing truth as a set of propositions. At a time when many churches in the United States (especially their preachers?) seemed sick of the old top-down method, the book was a big dose of strong medicine.

A sermon, said Craddock, shouldn't be a biblical text re-packaged as a series of points. Instead, a sermon should take into account the shape and style of the biblical text one is preaching from. The preacher should be careful to use language that is imaginative, suited to the ear, and consistent with the every-day experiences of the listeners. Basically, Craddock was arguing for a more user-friendly sermon, one that said "Come and see" as opposed to "Hear the Word of the Lord." Of course, the success of the book had something to do with the strong, anti-authority feeling of that day.

Over a third of a century has passed since then. In a recent interview, Craddock was asked this provocative question: How have things changed since the publication of that book? And what might that suggest about the ways that we shape our sermons today? Here is a part of his reply:

That book . . . was primarily devoted to the how of preaching. How do you do it? And I was trying to work off of "Everybody wants to quit [preaching], so how do we get new interest in it?" The church was still interested; the ministers had lost interest.

If I were doing it again, I would devote more attention to the what of preaching. Because there are people, going in droves, sitting before pulpits and screens and other media. But they don't know what they believe. They have a sort of flavor of "I think I believe, but maybe I just believe in belief." There's the fear also that, if I believe something strongly, I've become exclusive, as though others didn't have anything. I would spend a lot of time with the what.

But you can't talk about everything in the same book. You try to put the grease where the squeak is, and in nineteen seventy-one, it was on the how. I think the time has come when preachers need to give more attention to what they're saying.

I thought this was a really fine statement, one that I wish more of today's preachers would take to heart.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Dr. Bill Humble Spoke Last Night

The San Jacinto Church of Christ in Amarillo, my home congregation these days, is having an extended summer series. Each Wednesday night, we get to hear a different visiting speaker.

Last night's presenter was Dr. Bill Humble, speaking about "Archaeology and the Bible." What a pleasure. It was no doubt the sort of presentation he's made many times before. But it wasn't stale in the least.

I don't know Dr. Humble well. We've met only a time or two since he and his wife recently moved to Amarillo, as he explains, to be near a daughter and her family. What I do know is that this bright and, yes, humble man has been such a blessing to the Churches of Christ during his long career as a professor at Abilene Christian University, and as a writer and presenter.

The scope and quality of the work he has done through the years is impressive. I'm confident that thousands of people have been helped along the Way by this good servant. I'm thankful he's spending his latter years in the Texas Panhandle and know that he and his family will be a blessing to the churches here.

Any former students of his out there? People who've gone on a Holy Land tour with him? What books, videos, or lectures of his have been a help to you?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Write Your Own Gospel

Okay, here's the deal. You have to write your own gospel account.

Should I say that it has to be for the church you're a part of? That would make it more interesting.

Should I also say that none of your readers will have access to any of the four gospels you know so well? The plot thickens.

Even better, what if you know that your account will have to compete with the others that are available? By the way, is this the author's assumption in Luke 1:1-4? And is this why John is so different?

Let's go with a long-standing consensus and assume that Mark was written first. Let's also assume that the other three gospel writers knew the Gospel of Mark. Were Matthew and Luke and John all thinking, "There's a better way to do this"?

For what it's worth, I use the names of the four evangelists for the sake of convenience. I don't assume I know who wrote any of the gospels, although I like the traditions and have no compelling reason to reject them. And that raises another interesting question: How would it impact what you wrote if your gospel was anonymous? Or if your identity might be suspected, hinted at, but heavily veiled?

Anyway, in writing your gospel, you can use only what's in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No new material (like you have any). Nothing from the apocryphal gospels (would you really want to?). Yours will be a sort of new creation using what's already there.

Also, you can't do a harmony of the gospels, where people include all the material from all four. In fact, like the four accounts we have, you will have to leave out a lot that's found in one or more of the other three. For example, you can have one birth story (Matthew's with the magi) or you can have the other (Luke's with the shepherds). But you can't have both. Or, like Mark and John, you can have neither. Etc.

Ready? Now for a few questions:

1. What major segment (miracle story, parable or sermon of Jesus, etc.) are you sure to include? Why?

2. What major segment are you sure to leave out? Why? (Oh, and in response to this one, you don't get to say, "I'd leave out John 7:53-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20 because I don't think they're authentic anyway").

Bonus: How much difference does it make in your choices if this gospel of yours has a specific destination? For example, what if your gospel will be the account used in a suburban church in the U.S.? Or in a church in a small village in India that's dominated by Hinduism? That is to say, What happens to your choices when they're guided not by your personal preferences, but by what you perceive to be a certain groups' needs? And would a person ever write a gospel without having a particular ideal audience in mind in the first place?

Your thoughts?