Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Web Watch

Every once in a while, I like to talk about websites that most visitors to this blog are going to like. Here are a couple of my favorite recent discoveries:

1. Many serious Bible students recognize the name Harold Attridge. The Dean of Yale Divinity School, Attridge is one of today's top biblical scholars. He specializes in New Testament studies and has written one of the very best commentaries on the book of Hebrews.

Those who read in the area of New Testament and homiletics likely know the name David L. Bartlett. For many years, Bartlett was a professor of Christian Communication at Yale.

Anyway, recently the Congregational Church of New Canaan, Connecticut arranged for Attridge and Bartlett to discuss a few books of the New Testament. The sessions were taped, and the DVDs were used in the church's small-group Bible studies as a sort of primer to Bible reading and discussion within the group. In addition to the video sources, there are also some print resources. You might enjoy what they're calling the Yale Bible Study.

2. One of the better places for reading about the Bible and Religion on the Web is the site hosted by Hebrew Bible scholar Ehud Ben Zvi. Check it out. (Note: I have found a few dead links at this site, but most of them are good links to good sites).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rescue Your Hebrew

How many students of biblical Hebrew have mastered the basics only to discover that they could hardly make it through more than one verse of the Bible? Beginners soon realize that completion of the first-year textbook is just the beginning, not the end. Stuck somewhere between the fundamentals and fluency, most of them give up. In a reflection to which any language student can relate, Jerome once wrote about his own struggle to get beyond the basics of Hebrew:

What efforts I spent on that task, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired, how often I gave up, and then in my eagerness to learn began again, can be attested both by myself, the subject of misery, and by those who then lived with me. But I thank the Lord that from a bitter seed of learning I am now plucking sweet fruits (Epistula, 125.12).

Good teachers look for anything that will make the seed of learning not quite so bitter. But what is the best way? Until now, one of the best methods was for the student to sit down with the Hebrew Bible and a reader’s lexicon like the one by Armstrong, Busby, and Carr. What most students find, though, is that this help isn’t as helpful as they’d like for it to be.

A more thorough and much more tedious method—one that I’ve spent many hours with—is to use the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB), assisted by Bruce Einspahr’s fabulous Index in order to identify a root and get to the pertinent section of BDB. This way of working through a text has a couple major advantages: it acquaints the student with the real treasure to be found in BDB, and it helps to ensure the accuracy of the student’s understanding of the text. The downside of this method is that it slows the pace to a near standstill. What is gained in thoroughness is lost in fluency.

But now there is an alternate tool that may be the best thing yet. It’s A Reader’s Hebrew Bible, by A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).

This work starts with a text of the Hebrew Bible that is virtually identical to the one found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Then, for every Hebrew word that occurs less than 100 times in the Bible, and for every Aramaic word occurring less than 25 times, there is at least one footnoted definition. In the case of verbs, the footnote also identifies the stem (binyan).

For the glosses, the compilers have relied on the best resources: the L. Koehler-W. Baumgartner Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and BDB. At times they also include definitions from W. L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and from other sources.

Something else. A Reader’s Hebrew Bible identifies all Hebrew proper nouns occurring less than 100 times and all Aramaic ones occurring less than 25 times. Every such noun is printed in a gray scale that is easily distinguished from the regular, black type. Every student of Hebrew has struggled long and hard trying to determine of root of an unfamiliar word only to discover that it was a name. This tool solves that problem.

In his preface, Bryan Smith describes his own experience of using his own product in order to regain proficiency:

Directly before me I placed a page from A Reader’s Hebrew Bible. To my left hand was an English Bible. With my left hand in the footnotes and my right hand in the main text, I moved through the Hebrew verses, looking down at each gloss in the footnotes. Whenever the Hebrew grammar would stump me, I would glance at the rendering in the English Bible. Once I was able to make sense of the Hebrew, I moved on to the next sentence (p. ix).

What Smith describes is exactly the sort of method that can take students to the next level of proficiency. In my opinion, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible is the best tool available for intermediate students who want to increase their reading fluency. It’s also the best choice for people who want to brush up their Hebrew.

Note: Of course there are any number of computerized Hebrew texts, with powerful searchability, produced by Gramcord, Accordance, Bible Works, etc. I have and sometimes use Bible Works, but it's just not the same as reading the text from a page in a real book.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Between Semesters

Last week was Finals Week at Amarillo College. On Thursday, we reported all of the course grades for the semester. Looking back on a term just completed, I usually have two feelings:

1. I wish that I'd done a better job of teaching. One of my great fears is that my classes will only reinforce the notion that the Bible is a boring book, tedious and impossible to understand. Teaching that engages students, that leads them to become invested in the subject, is not easy. Sometimes I do that fairly well. Other times I don't.

2. I'm confident that my students know and understand much more of the Bible than they did at the beginning of the semester. It recently got back to me that one of them commented, "He makes us work." I was glad to hear that. Without intimidating students, I want to set high standards for them. The Bible and Religion shouldn't be easy As, should they?

Anyway, on to the next challenge. Beginning in January, I'm scheduled to the teach five courses. Here they are, with a few notes about each one:

1. Introduction to World Religions

Few people on the planet can teach this course really well. I'm not one of them. Not even close. So this is the course where I abandon all hope of being the sage on the stage. I'm much more the guide on the side. Here's how it goes: First, we explore some definitions of "religion" and the growing diversity of religion in the United States. Then, one at a time, we take up
  • Native American Spirituality
  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
The course textbook is the mostly-good World Religions, 5th edition, by Warren Matthews.

2. Life of Paul

Mucho fun, this is a sophomore-level course that Religion majors are required to take. But it doesn't count as a general humanities credit. What this means is, the class size is small and students tend to be motivated. There are so many ways this course might be taught. I haven't mastered my own approach just yet. Currently, we use the outline of Paul's life provided by the Book of Acts. As we go along, we study the letters at those points in time where Paul likely wrote them. After the Bible, the secondary textbook is F. F. Bruce's, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.

3. The New Testament

This is a first-year level introduction focused on the content of the NT. For this course I've settled on a three-unit approach:
  • Gospels and Acts
  • Letters of Paul
  • General Epistles and Revelation
The secondary text is Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, 2nd edition. One of the best features of this text is that it comes with a CD-ROM that contains everything in the book, plus some short videos, questions and answers, etc. Really nice.

4. General Epistles

This is a first-year, one-hour credit class that meets at lunchtime on Wednesdays. We eat, drink, and read. No textbooks. No tests. No term papers. Grades are based on attendance, quality of participation, and one-page written responses to questions about the biblical text. The more questions a student answers, the higher the grade. 15 good responses earns an A.

5. Intermediate Biblical Hebrew

In the Fall of 2007, sixteen students began a first-year Hebrew class. About five of them made it through the first two semesters, one year's worth of language study. At this point, two of those students are still standing for the second semester of second-year Hebrew. Mah Norah! (How awesome!) We're one Christian, one Jew, and one Bible Chair director. And I have to say, studying with Rhonda and Trent is one of the highlights of my week.

Having completed the first-year grammar, Biblical Hebrew, by Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright, we're currently making our way through Readings in Biblical Hebrew: An Intermediate Textbook, by Ehud Ben Zvi, Maxine Hancock, and Richard A. Beinert (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Considering the Cold and Calvinism

Here in Amarillo, Texas, it'll struggle to get up to 25 degrees today. It was 9 when I got up, currently 11.

Today's high in Bangor, Maine? 50. Go figure.
- - - - - -
New graduates of Southern Baptist seminaries are three times more likely to be card-carrying, five-point Calvinists than are Baptist pastors. Nearly 30% of the seminarians are, compared to 10% of the older group. A good number of my brightest, most serious students at Amarillo College are staunch Calvinists. It might be time for preachers and elders among the Churches of Christ to do some teaching on this subject.

I'm no fan of the preaching style that bashes the Baptists, mashes the Methodists, and crucifies the Catholics, but is there any major point of doctrine that the Churches of Christ are willing to get in a spat over? (And, no, disavowing that instrumental music is a salvation issue doesn't count).

Sociologists repeatedly tell us that the growth of a religious movement depends upon its taking a stand that resists the culture at large or, in the American context, other religious cultures. As I see it, there's plenty in the name of God for Christians to resist. But how will that happen unless our leaders explore and teach about basic issues of truth? No, not every preacher will be an Augustine, a Luther or a Campbell. But every one should carry on the best ministry of the Word possible. Revival and numeric growth are always accompanied by a growth of the Word.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Psalm 137: On Bashing Babylonian Babies

I've been teaching from the Book of Psalms on Wednesday nights. What a blessing. But what a challenge, too.

We started out with an introduction and overview. From there, each class session has been devoted to one psalm in particular. Next Wednesday night will be the last time for me to teach the class. I've decided to go with Psalm 137. Here it is from the New International Version:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

As you guessed, I wanted to get to this one because of its one of the best known of the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms. Verses 8 and 9 pronounce a blessing on the one who smashes the little children of the enemy. It's not something most people expect to find in the Bible. Savage vindictiveness can be found in other places in the Scriptures. But it's not often this raw.

Naturally, I plan to take the class back to one of our first observations about the psalms: they aren't like the Ten Commandments or a prophetic oracle. That is, they don't come from God per se. Instead, the psalms are primarily the words of people. It is only because these particular psalms make up a biblical book that people of faith regard them as being part of God's written word to humanity. By their very nature, the psalms tell us about God in a much more roundabout way than something like a prophetic sermon.

From there, I want the class to explore the kinds of experiences that led the poet to feel this way--massacre, looting, destruction, robbing people of their dreams and their well-being. I want to explore questions like, Don't passages like this one speak of the way that we ourselves sometime feel? I want to get into questions like, What are Christian people to do with their own deep anger? Is it appropriate for us to pray our own rage? How do we do that? Or do we just do it, like Psalm 137?

While I'm turning the text over in my mind, I'm interested to hear what you think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You Might Want to Read . . .

The November 2008 issue of the Gospel Advocate magazine features several articles on "The Emerging Church Movement." Evidently, when the Advocate, a Churches of Christ publication, sold all the paper copies of this one, they chose to temporarily post the feature articles on the Web. I haven't had the chance to read them yet. I suspect that they will mainly disapprove. But it should be interesting to hear the various takes.

Last spring, I did a few posts about the Ascension of Christ: a little complaining about how the biblical teaching has been overlooked, and then some of the teaching itself. More recently, Wade Hodges has published in New Wineskins magazine the best thing I've ever read on the topic. Take a look at the article Hail to the King!

A couple years ago, Restoration Quarterly published a very informative and challenging article by Evertt Huffard. Since then, RQ has begun to make some articles from their back issues available on the Web. I'm glad they chose to include this one by Huffard: "When Scholarship Goes South: Biblical Scholarship and Global Trends."

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Few Notes on Music in Churches of Christ

I've been thinking lately about the quality of singing in Churches of Christ. I don't have anything like statistical proof or scientific research to back up any of this. What I do have are my observations. What they tell me is that there are several things that sometimes work against vibrant musical worship in today's congregations. Here's a short list:

1. Poor Acoustics

Something I see (and hear) over and over again are newer, plush church facilities designed to be cost-effective and comfortable, but not to be "sung in." Carpeted floors, padded seats, noisy heating/air-conditioning units, and porous ceiling tiles conspire to create a worship space that sucks up sound. Some church leaders, aware of these kinds of problems with their buildings, have made changes to worship areas so that the setting will be more conducive to genuine worship. Good for them.

2. Praise Teams

I have no theological or aesthetic objection to praise teams. But I do think that they can be a barrier to the participation of the whole assembly. In some of my experience, it seemed to me that the praise team was a little too loud. The distinctive, amplified voice of the team was saying, "Listen to the performance" rather than "Sing along with us." Sometimes this feel is compounded by the on-stage music minister/worship leader who doesn't acknowledge the assembly, encouraging them to sing, but who constantly looks to and directs only the team. These sights and sounds combine to communicate: "We're going to sing for you. Just sit and listen." When it comes to good congregational song, I think that praise teams can be most effective when their amplification is subtle, their presence is inconspicuous, and when the worship leader looks to and leads the entire congregation.

3. Performance Music

That Christian recording artists sound great singing their songs on the radio is no reason to try to get a congregation to sing the same songs. Sometimes the differences make a huge difference. For example, sometimes music performed by Christian entertainers requires a vocal range that most people just don't have. Sometimes a song is just too complex for a group of non-specialists. Too, sometimes the rhythm and feel of performance music is generated by instruments, a major problem in most Churches of Christ. I realize that many of the traditional songs sung in congregations include moving parts, alto leads, etc. But those songs were introduced and learned at a time when a good number of Christians attended annual singing schools and when the musical training of a congregation was much more of a priority than it is today.

4. Unfamiliar Songs

Every well-known song was once brand new. Some of today's newer songs can be worthy additions to the church's repertoire. But new songs should not be sprung on the church in the context of Sunday-morning worship. Small groups, Bible classes, and Sunday-evening worship times can be the setting in which new songs can occasionally be tried out and learned.

5. Lowered Expectations

It seems like singing in worship is no longer understood to be a religious responsibility. Does anyone under twenty years old sing in worship anymore? In some churches, it seems like the musical part of worship is a time to look around, talk to the person next to you, watch the music minister and praise team, etc., but not sing. Not so long ago, there was a time in Churches of Christ when not singing was about as unacceptable as "forsaking the assembly" (that is, not going to church). After all, the same New Testament that said "not forsaking the assembling our ourselves together . . ." also said "speaking to yourselves in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs." Case closed. Singing was considered an act of worship that God required. So you either had strep throat, bronchitis, or laryngitis plus a doctor's note, or you sang. Looking back on that time in my life, I happily realize that sometimes the theology of our mostly-borrowed songs was actually more-balanced than the theology of our pulpits. Consequently, we sometimes sang our way into a truer way of seeing. But what if we hadn't sung?

These are some of my observations. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Population Shifts and the Future of Churches of Christ in the U.S.

The Census Bureau now estimates that minorities will become the majority in the United States by the year 2042. That's different from earlier estimates which had previously identified the tipping point at 2050. The times, they are a changin'. And faster than we thought. Consider:
  • Over the next few decades, the Hispanic population of the U.S. will triple. By contrast, during that same period of time the non-Hispanic, single-race white population will barely increase at all. Could President Obama eventually be followed by a "President Hernandez"?
  • In just 15 short years, minorities will comprise half of the children in this country, perhaps the most important statistic in this list.
  • Currently, about 1.3 million immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year. That number will likely climb to about 2 million a year by 2040.
  • Over the next few decades, the Asian population in the U.S. will rise from 15.5 million to well over 40 million.
  • During that same period of time, the number of people who see themselves as multi-racial will climb from 5.2 million to over 16 million.

As these changes are taking place, what I see among the Churches of Christ is a widespread satisfaction with church life and our few church plantings which are almost-exclusively white, middle to upper-middle class, ignorant of the world on our back doorsteps and, consequently, destined for a waning influence in a future United States.

Here in Amarillo, for example, mission efforts conducted by Churches of Christ among Hispanics and Asians are almost non-existent. And interestingly enough, those efforts are not being conducted by the college-educated, multi-staff, well-to-do congregations. Those groups(where I most naturally fit in) seem very interested in overcoming what they see as their sectarian past. But they do not have an evangelistic motivation or rationale to replace the old one.

The congregations who have the strongest outreach to minority groups in Amarillo are the ones with older facilities, located in the poorer sections of the city, and who hold to what I would describe as a much more traditional outlook. Is it that way in your city too?

I do not intend to disparage what is currently being done. In fact, I applaud and want to do anything I can to encourage those efforts. What I also want to say is that, along these line, the Churches of Christ must pick up the pace. Immediately.

What do you think?

Monday, November 24, 2008

James Dobson a Racist?

Most every Sunday evening, while driving to another of those traditional 6:00 o'clock church services, I listen to the last few minutes of The Thomas Jefferson Hour. It's a syndicated show that airs on public radio stations. You can listen to podcasts of old episodes on iTunes.

The show features historian and humanities professor Clay Jenkinson who responds to questions from the host as though he were Jefferson himself. Usually, toward the end of the program Jenkinson stops playing Jefferson and simply talks as himself with the host.

In yesterday's broadcast, Jenkinson, taking on the guise of Jefferson, had discussed the recent election of Barack Obama. "Jefferson" confessed to doubting the intellectual capacities of black people, and discounting evidence to the contrary. Like almost all the white people of his day, Jefferson was a racist.

When the conversation finally turned to Jenkinson discussing his own reactions to the recent election, he spoke with disapproval of some of those who attacked Obama and who promoted the candidacy of John McCain and Sarah Palin. Jenkinson mentioned Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and

a whole host of absolute bigots, including [James] Dobson . . issuing a newsletter basically saying "Don't vote for this man because he's a negro."

I was shocked. I had no doubt that because of Obama's positions on abortion and other issues, he was opposed by Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family. But I had not read or heard that Dobson even appeared to be racist in any of his rhetoric.

That's a very serious charge to be making against someone who, by all accounts, is a significant leader among conservative Protestants. So someone help me out here. Can the r-word stick to James Dobson? Or does Clay Jenkinson owe Dobson an apology?

Note: To hear Jenkinson's statement for yourself, go to the iTunes Store and search for the podcasts of The Thomas Jefferson Hour. The episode number is 744, entitled "Electoral College." Fast forward to minute 46:50 . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Baseball Cards, Babe Ruth, and the Bible

A few years ago, I came across what has to be one of the most interesting works of art in New York City. It's not at the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art. (Hate to say it, but I've never been to either). No, this one is preserved in the rarefied air of the ESPN Zone.


It's a large mosaic that's made of baseball cards. But as it is with all mosaics, you don't see the baseball cards (tiles) when you first see this one. What you initially see is the big picture.

In this case the picture is the face of Babe Ruth. Only when you get closer do you realize that the Babe is depicted by a large number of creatively-placed cards. The effect is similar to that of a towering home run. It's fantastic. To get a taste of what I'm talking about, check out these photos.

Anyway, I've been reflecting lately about how a mosaic can resemble a piece of literature. I'm especially thinking about the books of the Bible. When a person first starts reading, he encounters it as a series of cards (each verse representing one card or tile, let's say).

Of course, this is true of any sort of reading. But people have ways of reading the Bible that don't match up with how they read anything else. I'm thinking about that method of Bible that study spends a lot of time looking at one or just a few verses. According to this method, the student will often skip from one verse to another verse found in a different book. The comparisons between the two passages seem very natural. In this method, a person or group might spend a half hour on one or two verses, with no big picture in sight.

Now, there's something to be said for this method. It can be engaging and instructive. Provided that it's governed by a healthy theology, it can itself be healthy. I've done some of this myself.

But there's also something to be said for looking at all the cards together at the same time in order to get the big picture. Of course, when it comes to Bible study, "the big picture" can refer to any one of a series found in ever-expanding frames. Some examples:
  • A psalm or a parable can be the mosaic.
  • So can a whole book, like Psalms or one of the Gospels.
  • Old Testament scholars think that Deuteronomy through Kings (not counting Ruth) is a mosaic.
  • New Testament scholars now treat Luke-and-Acts like one.
  • Biblical theologians sometimes look at either the Old or the New Testament as a mosaic.
  • Out from there, of course, is the Bible as a whole.

One problem that preachers and Bible teachers encounter is the challenge of teaching a text as it relates to and is informed by the larger whole. Let's face it, if a person preaches from, say, Romans chapter 5, there's a good chance that most of the audience will not hear the sermon in light of the whole letter.

However, allowing a passage to be heard in the context of the larger whole is next to impossible given the time limitations we've placed on Bible classes and sermons. A few tiles here. A few baseball cards there. Never the whole mosaic.

Something closely related is the ironic dearth of biblical knowledge in the U.S., including in our churches. Read some of the sermons that were preached many years ago. It's amazing to hear how often the preachers could make a passing reference, knowing that most listeners would either catch the allusion, or at least want to figure it out.

But before I get too far off the track here, I want to say that what I'm describing is a real problem. It has the potential to frustrate teachers of the Word and impoverish churches. Christians should work to overcome it. So here are some of my questions:

1. What are some of the ways that churches--parents, elders, preachers, ministers of education, etc., etc.--can effectively work to make sure that the church sees the big picture(s) of the Bible?

2. Who are some of the teachers who most effectively overcome the problem I've described here?

3. Of the different churches you've known, which one knew its Bible the best? Why were they more knowledgable than the other congregations?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Psalm 1: Two Ways

In the spring of 1945, C. S. Lewis published a little book he called, The Great Divorce. He realized, naturally, that the title would raise a lot of eyebrows. How could anyone talk about a good divorce? And here was a book about a great one?

But Lewis wasn’t speaking of divorce in the usual sense of that word. He wasn't talking about marital divorce. He meant instead the divorce between Heaven and Hell; the real opposition between truth and falsehood; the radical distinction between good and evil. There is a real choice we have to make between the two, he said. And that choice of ours leads us to one of two very different destinies.

Why would he need to write a book about that? Because, explained Lewis, we fallen human beings want to accept a dangerous idea that just isn’t true. We somehow want to believe

that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or’; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain (p. 5).

Lewis was rejecting the notion that when it comes to how we live our lives, we can have it both ways. Instead, we must recognize a distinction and choose between right and wrong. In the end, such choices will make the difference between Heaven and Hell.

The Great Divorce was a strong attack against muddled thinking and life with no integrity. But those things haven’t gone away, have they? Sixty years later, people continue to accept the idea of no absolutes. When it comes to matters of faith we’re told that “All roads lead to the same place.” When it comes to morality and ethics, we’re told that you and I might hold convictions that completely contradict each other. But each is perfectly right to retain them as individuals. I can have my truth, and you can have yours. Nobody has to give up anything.

I don't know if it's true or not, but it makes a good story. You've heard it, I guess. A well-known philosopher gave a speech advancing the idea of relativism, no such thing as consistent, unified truth. In the question-and-answer session, he was asked, “Are you certain that you’re right?” to which he said, “Absolutely.” But no discrediting or embarrassment of such thinking will make it go away. People will keep believing and saying that, when it comes to how we live, we can have our cake and eat it too. Why? Because, deep down, that’s what we would like.

Into our world, sick with sin, enters the very first Psalm. It announces that there are only two ways; that those two ways are diametrically opposed; that they run in completely opposite directions:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law he meditates day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he does shall prosper.

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish (KJV, retouched by FVB).

Two ways, says the writer. Many centuries later, Jesus himself would affirm this view:

Enter by the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Two ways. Paul said the same thing:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).

Two ways.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Last Letters: A Short Introduction to the History Behind 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus

Any careful student of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus will eventually raise an important question: When did the Apostle Paul write these letters? Or did he? These questions represent a major puzzle of New Testament history and chronology. They deserve to be explored.

Since the eighteenth century, a good number of biblical scholars have concluded that the historical references in these letters—sometimes called the Pastoral Epistles—are simply contrived and inaccurate. In this post, I won't take up the impressive linguistic evidence against the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. But I do want to sort out the biblical text and other evidence which come together to shape the classic solution to the historical problems.

The Question

In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul points back to a time when he departed for Macedonia, urging Timothy to “remain on at Ephesus” (NASB). It’s obvious that this letter was written sometime later. But when was that?

We do know that Paul once traveled from Troas to the province of Macedonia. He was responding to his vision of a man pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). However, there's no record in Acts 16 of Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus. In fact, at that time, Paul could not have left Timothy to continue the mission in Ephesus, because he had not yet begun his work there. Ephesus was the most important city in the Roman province Asia, and Acts 16:6 tells us that Paul and Silas were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”

As an alternative, someone might say that 1 Timothy 1:3 points back instead to Acts 20:1. That verse tells us that Paul “left to go to Macedonia.” But in this case as well, Paul could not have left Timothy in Ephesus. Acts 19:22 says that while he was in Ephesus, Paul sent both Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia. The next time we meet Timothy, he is with Paul in Corinth (Acts 20:4). So there’s simply no point in the timeline of Acts when Paul went to Macedonia, leaving Timothy at Ephesus. But that is what 1 Timothy 1:3 implies that Paul did.

A similar problem presents itself when we read the letter to Titus. There we learn that Paul has evidently gone to the island of Crete and has left Titus there (Titus 1:5). But where do we read about this in the Book of Acts? We don't.

Finally, we come to Second Timothy, the only one of these three letters written from prison. At first glance, it might seem as though Paul wrote this letter during his confinement recorded at the end of Acts. But again, the picture in the letter and the picture in Acts do not agree. For one thing, Acts 28:30 speaks of Paul living in a rented house or apartment. Verse 31 says that he was able to receive and teach anyone who came to see him.

What’s more, Paul fully expected to be released. For example, during this time he writes to the Philippians, “I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (1:19). A few verses later he says “I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again” (1:25-26). In his letter to Philemon (v. 22), Paul requests that a place be prepared for him to stay once he arrives.

How different that is from the Paul we hear in 2 Timothy. There the Apostle is not expecting to be released so that he can travel to Philippi and other places. In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Paul looks to his heavenly home. He clearly expects to be martyred for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

William Barclay sums it up well when he says that the so-called Pastoral Epistles "show Paul engaged in activities for which there is neither place nor room in his life as we know it from the book of Acts" (The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, rev. ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 12).

The Classic Solution

All of this moves us towards a single conclusion: when we read Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus, we are dealing with a time after the history reported in Acts.

The first few words of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon add support for this view. All three letters were apparently written from Rome during the time recorded in Acts 28, and each one reveals that Timothy was with the author at the time. By contrast, when Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, his protege was obviously not with him in Rome. Instead, Timothy was hundreds of miles to the east in Ephesus.

So if we again ask the questions, When did Paul depart for Macedonia, leaving Timothy in Ephesus? When did he preach on the island of Crete and leave Titus to carry on the mission there? And when was he imprisoned at Rome with little hope of release? the best answer is, It seems to have been some time beyond the life of Paul that we know from Acts.

What this means is that Paul must have been released from the Roman captivity we know from Acts 28. This matches up well with the positive sense that Paul had when he wrote the so-called Prison Epistles (I prefer the term Captivity Letters). It also means that, after his release, Paul made further mission trips during which time he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Eventually, Paul was arrested again, taken to Rome, and finally executed there.

But is there any evidence, other than the silence of the biblical text, that supports this view? There is.

The Extra-Biblical Evidence

A strong point in favor of this reading is a statement by Clement of Rome. Clement’s letter to the church at Corinth is the earliest available Christian document outside the New Testament. Writing in about the year A.D. 95, Clement says of Paul,

seven times he was imprisoned, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a preacher in both east and west, and won great renown for his faith, teaching uprightness to the whole world, and reaching the farthest limit of the west, and bearing a martyr's witness before the rulers he passed out of the world and was taken up into the holy place, having provided a very great example of endurance (1 Clement 5:5-7, as translated by Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Apostolic Fathers [London: Independent Press, 1950], pp. 51-52).

Since Clement pens these words from Rome, his reference to "the farthest limit of the west" must mean Spain, the edge of the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, Spain was Paul’s intended destination according to Romans 15:24-28.

A second important piece of evidence from the ancient world is the so-called "Muratorian Canon." This fragment of a manuscript dates back to as early as the year 180 and contains a partial list of the apostolic writings which were read by the contemporary church at Rome. (I'm aware that a newer theory would date the Muratorian Fragment much later and give it an eastern origin. But for reasons offered by C.E. Hill, for example, I am unconvinced and prefer the traditional view). Concerning the Book of Acts it says:

The Acts of all the Apostles, however, were written in one volume. Luke described briefly 'for' excellent Theophilus particular [things], which happened in his presence, as he also evidently relates indirectly the death of Peter and also Paul's departure from the city as he was proceeding to Spain (translation by Daniel Theron, Evidence of Tradition [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1957], p. 109).

Clearly then, Christians living in Rome at the end of the second century considered Paul's trip to Spain a fact from history.

At this point someone might ask, If Paul was released from his confinement in Rome at the end of Acts, how do we account for his being in prison as he writes Second Timothy? How was it that Paul stood before the Caesarean court, was acquitted, but was later arrested once again? If we had good reason to believe that, following his trip to Spain, Paul was brought back to Rome and martyred there, it would make more sense. Again, extra-biblical history provides that reason.

The Great Fire and Persecution

On the night of July 18/19, A.D. 64, fire broke out and spread through the city of Rome. The flames raged for nine days. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, most of Rome was either destroyed or seriously damaged. Although the emperor Nero was not in Rome at the time, many of the people believed that he was responsible. He had ordered the city to be burned, they thought, so that he could rebuild Rome according to his dreams.

Needing a diversion from the damaging rumor, Nero blamed the Christians of Rome, a misunderstood and despised group (compare Acts 28:22). And thus began a deadly persecution against the believers. Some of the Christians were sewn up in animal skins and fed to vicious dogs. Others were fastened to crosses and burned alive. Depraved Nero opened his fabulous gardens to the people of Rome who gathered for public executions (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44).

It is entirely probable that at this time the Romans arrested Paul. If ordinary Christians were being persecuted, then surely Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, would be seized and brought back to Rome. Perhaps the authorities reasoned that if they merely destroyed Christian foot soldiers, they would win only a battle. But if they destroyed Paul, a leading general, they could win the war against Christianity.

Whatever the circumstances, it seems clear that because of ignorance and hatred, Paul, a well-known leader among the early Christians, was returned to Rome where he gave his life because of his stand with Christ. It was just before his martyrdom that Paul wrote 2 Timothy. Picture him sitting in a dungeon, not knowing the time of his coming execution. Winter approaches and he has no coat to keep him warm. As the hours and days pass, he wishes he had his books and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13-21). Still, his words exude a patient trust:

For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8, KJV).

Not long after he wrote those words of assurance and peace, Paul was required to pay the ultimate price for his faith. May each Christian grow in faith and in the knowledge of the wonderful Savior whom Paul so loved and trusted even in death.

Note: A version of this post first appeared in the Gospel Advocate magazine for August 2006.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Memories of a Veteran, Plus Rice Haggard and the Rehabilitation of the Name "Christian"

It's Veterans Day. This will always be an important day for me because of my father, Frank Howard Bellizzi, Jr., who served with distinction in the United State Air Force for over twenty-six years.

I faintly recall the days of the Vietnam War. Back then, Dad was a flight engineer on C-141s, regularly flying in and out of Southeast Asia. There were times when he'd be gone for long stretches. I don't know how many days or weeks. What I do remember is that it was always like Christmas whenever my dad came home.

It would be wrong if I didn't also mention my mother, Joy. Back in those days she so often lived like a single parent. But in addition to everything else, she made sure that she and my sister Shari and I made it to every meeting of the Church of Christ in New Egypt, New Jersey--on time, Bible in hand, my face freshly cleaned in a struggle that involved spit and a tissue. No woman was ever tougher or sweeter than my mother.

I guess one of my memories from that time will always be with me. It must have been a Sunday or a Wednesday night. My father, stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, returned from one of those long trips and drove straight to church, knowing we'd be there. He arrived just as we were dismissing. I can still see him in his flight suit, standing in the church foyer. As soon as I saw him, I ran as fast as I could straight for him. When he saw me, he bent his knees and opened his arms just before I jumped and threw my arms around his neck.

That's the way I'll always feel about my dad. I love him. I respect and admire him. And I'm thankful for him, and for all of our veterans who have honorably served the United States.

Happy Veterans Day, Dad.

- - - - - - -

Most students of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement will recognize the name Rice Haggard. A minor prophet of the Movement, Haggard is credited with suggesting the name "Christian" to a couple of early American restoration groups: (1) the Republican (i.e., Free) Methodists in Virginia associated with James O'Kelly and (2) the Springfield Presbytery in Kentucky led by, among others, Barton W. Stone (pictured here).

That Haggard influenced both groups, at different times and places, to abandon the names they had taken for themselves and to adopt the name "Christian" is a standard subplot in the story of early American Restorationism. And, thanks to John W. Neth, Jr., historians also recognize that Rice Haggard's anonymous pamphlet on the sacred origin of the name "Christian" was, in fact, written by him.

Something that hasn't been recognized as often is that Haggard's main idea, and even the specific wording in his pamphlet, did not originate with him. The few scholars who have identified the antecedents of Haggard's position and the sources of his rhetoric refer to Benjamin Grosvenor (1676-1758).

From what I can gather, Grosvenor was a very capable English minister and pamphleteer. Recently, the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville sent me a photocopy of Grosvenor's booklet, An Essay on the Christian Name: It's Origin, Import, Obligation, and Preference to all Party-Denominations (London: John Clark and Richard Hett, 1728). Knowing the work of Haggard (published in the early 1800s), I'm looking forward to hearing what Grosvenor had to say 75 years earlier.

It's also been noted that Grosvenor's insistence on the name "Christian" was taken up and advanced by one Samuel Davies, who became one of the illustrious presidents of the school now known as Princeton University. You can read Davies' sermon on "The Sacred Import of the Christian Name" here.

I don't know if Haggard got his ideas from the Englishman Grosvenor or from the American Davies, or from both. It's sort of a Stone-Campbell Synoptic Problem, a major difference being that there's no debate here about who wrote first. Here and there in his anonymous pamphlet, Rice Haggard includes footnotes, citing his sources. So, of course, he could have cited Davies or Grosvenor (or both, assuming for the moment that he had copies of both works). But he didn't. Why not?

Before I dive into the writings (and I know this is sort of backwards) I have a theory. My theory is, Rice Haggard wanted to communicate to the early restoration movements that he knew (the ones in Virginia, Kentucky, and New England) his beliefs about the name "Christian." But he couldn't email them or blog about it, and say "Click on this link and see what Benjamin Grosvenor (or Samuel Davies) says about the sacred origin of the name 'Christian'." So he wrote and published his own pamphlet that borrows heavily from his source(s). His work was so similar to its source(s) that he would have been embarrassed to put his name on it. So he published the pamphlet anonymously and accomplished two things at the same time: (1) he communicated this important teaching, designed to unify, to the fledgling movements he knew, and (2) he avoided becoming an out-and-out plagiarist.

And it would have worked, if it hadn't been for that meddling scholar, John W. Neth, Jr., who connected the dots and realized that it was Haggard who had published the anonymous pamphlet.

I'd be glad to hear from anyone else who has some ideas or knows some other sources on this sub-topic. Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Old and the New: Brevard Childs and Barack Obama

I've enjoyed my year of focusing on mostly older books, "older" meaning the book had to be published before 1968.

Many of my books for this year were written in the early part of the 1900s, not especially old, but earlier than the arbitrary line. It all began with a recommendation from C. S. Lewis, advice I've tried to follow in 2008.

I've cheated a few times. A couple of recent memoirs, a couple of recent novels, etc. But for the most part, it's been older books. For the record, Lewis didn't object to new books. He just thought a good number of old books, real classics, should be a part of anyone's diet.

One of my reads this year doesn't qualify technically, but in another way it does. It's Old Testament Books for Pastor and Teacher by my former professor, the late Brevard S. Childs. Published in 1977, this one is almost entirely about OT scholarship that pre-dates 1968.

Anyway, as I walked through Childs' evaluations of the Old Testament Introductions, his comments on the various OT commentaries, etc., I was again struck by his real appreciation for scholarship from every era of the church. Most biblical scholars and students of our time favor a monopoly of the modern. If it isn't recent, it can't be the best. If it's older, then it might be of interest to the historian, but it has no value for the scholar or preacher.

If anyone had an excuse for entirely focusing on the work and results of modern biblical criticism, it was Childs. He was trained as a biblical scholar in Germany during the the mid-1900s. But to his credit--and this is a major part of his immense influence--Childs saw both the weaknesses of the modern critical approach and the strengths of biblical scholarship as it was practiced before the Enlightenment. Here are a few of his observations about commentaries on the Book of Psalms, classic Childs:

The opinion is widely held that the historical critical approach to the Bible has rendered works on the Psalter prior to the late nineteenth century largely invalid, and that therefore one needs to begin with a critical introduction that sets out the method afforded by modern form criticism before listing the modern critical commentaries. I do not share this opinion. In my judgement, it has resulted in a disastrous reduction for theology, liturgy, and preaching. Rather, I would argue that each period--of course including the modern critical period--has made its peculiar contribution, and that these differing expositions all need to be critically assessed. The real issue is between good and bad interpretation, both of which have been represented throughout the history of the church (p. 60).

Later, along the same lines, he writes,

Probably the gravest indictment against the historical critical method is that it has effectively blocked all access to the richness of pre-critical interpretation of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian. To some extent the church's liturgical use of the Old Testament Psalms has been able to survive the impact of critical exegesis. In my judgment, it is absolutely imperative for the serious and theologically robust use of the Psalms once again to regain this lost heritage. Obviously traditional forms cannot be simply repristinated in the post-critical age, but neither can the great giants of the past be simply ignored without serious impoverishment of the Christian church (62).

- - - - - - -

I'm not very old. But I'm old enough to remember a time not so long ago when it would have been unimaginable for anyone but a white man to be elected President of the United States.

I drove to work Wednesday morning, by myself, in silence. Why silence? I wasn't being spiritual. The radio in my 1992 Ford Crown Victoria doesn't work anymore. Unlike most folks, I don't get to drive with an electronic distractor. I've thought about getting the radio fixed. But most days, I like to imagine that I'm better for having to sit there with myself. Anyway, as I drove along in silence, impressed with my humility, I couldn't help thinking that I was living at a real turning point. I did not support the candidacy of Barack Obama. But now that he has been elected President of the United States, I'm proud to have seen the day when this could and did happen. And I pledge myself to pray for President Obama and to be supportive of his administration.

The great William Faulkner considered brutal racism to be the great sin of the United States, one that would for a long, long time haunt our national life. He evidently believed that the U.S., especially the South, would remain under a lingering curse. The past is not in the past, he said. It is not yet present. The sins of the fathers would be visited upon subsequent generations, a common theme of his fiction.

No, not all of what Faulkner saw has been put to rest. Far from it. But Tuesday was a historic day. This is the beginning of a different time in the U.S., I think. Do you think so too?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on Teaching College Bible Courses

The Old and New Testament classes I teach are first-year, college level courses.

In both classes, we're halfway through the second units. What that means is, in the OT class we have surveyed the Five Books of Moses, plus Joshua through Kings, and some of the poetic books. Now we're into the writings of the prophets, going through in more less chronological order. In the NT class, we've done a fly-over of the Four Gospels and Acts and are now about halfway through the Letters of Paul (again, in something like chronological order).

If you've ever done something like this before, you know how difficult it can be. If you haven't done something like this, you might be surprised at the number of challenges it presents.

For instance, by definition, a survey course never gives you the opportunity to dive deep. The goal is to cover basic content, which creates a few dilemmas. For one thing, the teacher would like to spend more time exploring each book. The text begs for it, and that's hard to resist. I once heard about a teacher in an OT survey course who by the end of the semester had made it to the middle of Numbers. I regard that as false advertising. It's frustrating to students who expected what the course title promised. As it turns out, my preference for dealing with six books instead of sixty-six in the course of a semester is one of the least of my concerns.

Ironically, content survey is never easy in a Bible-Belt college. That's because of the pre-understandings that many of the students bring with them to class. For example, a good number of students arrive in a New Testament course thoroughly immersed in dispensational premillennialism, i.e, Left Behind-ism.

It usually starts a discussion--and gives the students some needed exercise in using a concordance--when I mention that "anti-Christ" doesn't occur one time in the Book of Revelation. In two 75-minute class sessions on the Revelation, I don't think that anyone is moved off of his or her paradigm for interpreting apocalyptic literature (provided they started with one). I consider it a small victory if students know something of what's in the book, that Revelation is far from unique, and that there's a wide range of interpretive takes, including the one I prefer, which is quite different from the only reading that most of my students know.

Anyway, those are just some of the dilemmas that go along with the real delights of my job. At the end of the day, I've gotten to study and think with and talk about Scripture. And that's a pretty good gig.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Of Raccoons and Religious Renegades, plus Garrison Keillor on Abilene, Texas

In case you were thinking about it, do not attempt to use a taser on a raccoon. According to a recent story from the Associated Press, tasers don't work on raccoons.

I have never been tased. Have you? (Okay, if you have, you might not be ready to admit it). I don't understand the people who ask to be tased to find out what it's like. No one looks like he's having fun. I'll just take their word (or scream) for it.

- - - - - - - -

On the religion front, a man in Childress, Texas has been excommunicated by the Carey First Baptist Church because he publicly favors keeping Childress County "wet" (i.e., permitting the sale of alcohol). According to the story which appears in today's Amarillo Globe-News, the man has hardly been to the church in the last four years, and was notified by letter that he is a wicked man who's being expelled from his congregation.

This reminds me of something that happened in my home congregation of the Church of Christ when I was in grade school. As I recall, two or three members of the congregation who hadn't attended in years were notified by mail that they were being "disfellowshipped" (our term of choice). I don't know if any of them had been contacted in person. Anyway, a copy of the form letter was read to the congregation at the close of a Sunday-morning service. I had no idea who any of these people were.

Years later, I was a student in a high school class taught by one of the disfellowshipped people. During the years that had passed, the teacher had never been back to church. Apparently, being expelled from a congregation that the teacher really wasn't a part of had somehow failed to shake any spiritual sense into this person. I can still remember that the teacher was a pretty good classroom instructor and gave every indication of being a fine person. I hoped that my teacher didn't know that I was a part of the congregation that had sent that letter.

- - - - - - - -

Garrison Keillor recently did one of his "Prairie Home Companion" shows in Abilene, TX. He reflects on his visit in a Salon piece called Among the hardy Republicans.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Questions for Blogger Users

For those of you who are still with Blogger, like me, I'd appreciate it if you could give me some help with two questions I have. I haven't been able to track down the answers at the Blogger help site. So I ask you:

1. Can you post a Hebrew or Greek font on a Blogger blog?

2. Is it possible to include footnotes in a post where each footnote is a link that will take the reader to the note of that number?

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Little Misery, a Couple Movies, and a Few Good Books

So I haven't posted anything lately. And I haven't gotten around to commenting at other blogs either. I got sick, something that never happens to me. Okay, rarely happens to me.

Last week I was sort of under the weather, just didn't feel like doing much. But Saturday I felt baaaaahhd. So I dragged myself to the walk-in clinic where the doctor said, "Strep throat." I started the antibiotics that afternoon, woke up even worse on Sunday, and barely made it to my classes Monday morning! Strange thing is, it's nearly a week later and I'm not that much better today. A little more time, I guess. (sniffle)

Anyway, on my down days, I watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape and American Gangster. I had read all kinds of good things about Gilbert but had never seen it. I had already seen Gangster when it was in the theaters. I'd put both of them in, say, my top 150. You too?

I've also spent a good bit of time reading lately. Until recently, I haven't been much into fiction. But I really liked The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (a Michele recommendation). So last week I got a copy of A Painted House, one of the few things by Grisham that isn't set in the legal world. The earlier book was better, I thought. But even when this guy's not at his best, he's a very good writer. Any Grisham fans out there who can mentor this newbie? Which ones are the very best?

Speaking of the best, I really loved almost everything included in The Best Christian Writing of 2006. It includes a free-and-fresh translation of a Christmas sermon by Augustine, an interview with Eugene Peterson about "spirituality," and Michael Foley's theologically-astute discussion of the movie "Groundhog Day." If you pick this book up, be sure to read the "Introduction" by Mark Noll. It's a gem too.

I have to say, I really like these best-of anthologies. I mean, why constantly wade through mostly junk? I already do enough of that in the Blogosphere. Evidently so do you.

Oh, on the culture front, I re-read All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, by Kenneth A. Myers. If you're feeling pretty good about American culture these days, reading this book will balance you out. On the other hand, if you're sort of down on all things American right now and you are easily depressed, then stay away from this one. It's a fine book, I must say; one that I'm glad I went back to as I'm thinking about this thing called culture.

So that's the book-and-movie report from my week or so of languishing. Seen or read or heard or done anything good lately?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Evangelic-olution and the Presidential Election

Something that makes the upcoming U.S. Presidential election so interesting to me: It seems like those conservative Protestants called Evangelicals are no longer such a solid block of voters.

Is that true? And if it is, will it make a decisive difference come November? I'm not sure. But here's a little more about what I mean.

It seems that some evangelical leaders (for example, Jim Wallis, head of the Sojourners) have done a lot to broaden what at least some Evangelicals care about. For example, in a radio interview several weeks ago , Wallis mentioned that in recent memory the huge majority of Evangelicals were focused on (1) abortion and (2) same-sex marriage, but that today it is much more likely that an Evangelical will also care about (1) poverty, (2) HIV/AIDS, (3) places like Darfur, (4) climate change, and (5) the war in Iraq.

I think Wallis is right. If he is, then it seems like the Democratic Party would have an easier time getting Evangelicals to vote for their candidate. (That's not to say that I necessarily think that the Democrats' policies are better on those questions. It is to say that, if a person cares about such issues, his perception would likely be that he's a better fit in the Democratic Party).

Among what I'd call "theological influences" that promote that sort of shift would be teachings, for example, that involve care for the Creation in response to humanity's stewardship of the earth, which goes back to Genesis 1 and involves the love of neighbor.

Now, I'm not one for moving to a conclusion without first establishing the premises,. But I might speculate that if American Evangelicals are significantly more diverse now than they were just a few years ago, then this could turn out to be an especially-interesting election.

In short, I think that a recent growth in diversity among American Evangelicals would be a very good sign for Barack Obama.

What do you think?

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Uneventful Event?

Last night's vice-presidential debate featured no knock downs or train wrecks. And much like the first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the opponents in this one didn't seem to have won or lost.

As might be expected, Sarah Palin appeared to be more than a little nervous, especially at first. By contrast, Joe Biden, who has experienced a lot of high political drama, seemed much more comfortable.

Because last night's vice-presidential debaters were there mainly to promote presidential candidates, they often sounded like a series of ads, first for Obama, then for McCain, back and forth. There were times when I expected to hear the standard voice-over: "I'm _______, and I approve this message."

Since Michele laughed at me because I watched the debate with pen in hand and a notepad on my lap, you should be especially thankful for the following list of a few other things I noticed:

1. Joe Biden got in a good line when he compared a McCain policy to "the ultimate bridge to nowhere."

2. Considering the pressure that was on Sarah Palin, I thought she performed remarkably well. There were a few times, though, when she couldn't seem to do much more than throw out a string of phrases, reminiscent of the Katie Couric interview.

3. I was amused by a Palin line, used more than once, to the effect that we've got to "Stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street." Good luck with that one.

4. Why is there a correlation between running for high political office and not being able to pronounce the word nuclear? It started with Jimmy Carter, continued with George W. (did his dad do this too?), and now Sarah Palin. They all say "Nucyooler." What's up with that?

5. For all of the grumbling about "politics as usual" this campaign certainly does feel different from previous ones. For example, it seems to me that John McCain's stature as an former prisoner of war generates a deference to him that winds up being returned, at least some of the time. More than once last night, Joe Biden said of McCain, "I love him." Can you imagine, in the Bentsen-Quayle debate featured in yesterday's post, Lloyd Bentsen saying something like that about the former President Bush? This race is very different.

What did you think? What stuck out to you?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

20 Years Later: Another Quayle-Bentsen Moment?

Right or wrong, I tend to approach presidential elections a lot like I approach pro football. When it starts getting close to the Super Bowl, I start paying attention.

So I plan to watch the vice-presidential debate tonight, much like I'd watch a play-off game. And I hate to admit it, but I'll watch not so I can hear the policy distinctions between the two tickets, but to see if (a) Joe Biden puts his foot in his mouth and/or (b) Sarah Palin gets rattled and says something goofy.

Does that mean I really couldn't care less about policy distinctions? No. It just means that, as I see it, our one-shot, relatively-short VP debates are much more political theater than they are real debates.

Not to mention that recent history suggests that on election day, the vice-presidential candidate is hardly a consideration. Twenty years ago, George H. W. Bush was elected President in spite of the fact that Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in one of the most infamous slams in television history.

A Republican sympathizer, when I heard Bensten's line (he couldn't wait to get it out) and saw how scared and stiff Quayle looked, I thought to myself, "That's it. The election's over. We'll have to get used to saying 'President Dukakis'." Of course, it didn't happen. In fact, Bush wound up getting 426 electoral votes compared to 111 for Dukakis.

Yes, I think this election is much different than the one in 1988. And I think this one will be a lot closer. But barring a complete meltdown on one side or the other, which is unlikely, I think the debate tonight will hardly make a difference.

What do you think?

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.