Saturday, May 29, 2010

Some New Testament Resources

Over the last few days, I've taken a closer look at some Internet resources that I can use either for myself, or for the students who are a part of my New Testament course. Here are four:

1. A new scholarly journal called Early Christianity has published all of the content of its first issue online. Volume 1, Number 1 includes "An Editorial Manifesto" and a series of articles that deal with "New Directions in Pauline Theology," as well as some book reviews. Looks interesting. I'm wondering, though, if they'll provide free access to every subsequent issue. I'm thinking they won't.

2. New Testament scholar and Duke University professor Mark Goodacre has a site for his podcasts. I've listened to two or three of them so far.

3. As many have already discovered, Goodacre also hosts a much larger site called New Testament Gateway, an "award winning web directory." It's huge and first-rate.

4. Sometime back, Open Yale Courses posted the videos and transcripts of Dale Martin's lectures in an undergraduate class called "Introduction to New Testament History and and Literature." Ever wondered what it would be like to sit in on an Ivy League N.T. course? This is it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Money for a Ceiling-Mounted Projector! Now What?

Amarillo Bible Chair recently received a generous grant from a local, private foundation that contributes to educational efforts like ours.

In my request letter, I said that it would be so nice if we could move our classroom projector from a floor stand to the ceiling, and just have it out of the way. They agreed. So now we have the money to make this improvement; and I have the summer to get it done. Only problem is, I have no idea of where to start.

A few of the particulars and some of my questions:

1. We have enough money, I think, to purchase a new projector as well as pay for the mounting hardware and installation, etc. If we go ahead and get a new projector, I'm not sure what we should do with the old one.

2. Also, I'm not sure of what brand and type of projector we need. Our classroom measures approximately 30 x 24 feet. It seats no more than about 30 students. So a projection with a diagonal measurement of about 50 inches is just right.

3. Here in Amarillo, I'm not sure who'd be best for the mechanical and electrical installation.

Any recommendations?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Complete in Christ: Introducting Colossians with Questions and Answers

1. Who wrote Colossians?

In the very first verse the author calls himself Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus (NIV). This is the former Saul, who was called into Christ's service on the road to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-19)

2. If Paul was the author, who was he writing to?

According to chapter 1, verse 2, Paul wrote to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae.

3. Colossae. Where was that?

It was in the Roman province of Asia, a region about the size of the State of Arkansas and located at the western end of modern-day Turkey. The site of ancient Colossae is now uninhabited. Here's what it looks like today. Prior to New Testament times, it was a major city. But by the time Paul wrote to the Christians there, Colossae had been in decline for many years, and would have been regarded as "off the beaten path." Not exactly colossal.

4. Most of the time, Paul wrote to churches that he himself had planted. Is that true of Colossians?

No. In 2:1, Paul clearly states that the Colossians had never seen him. And according to 1:6-7, the Christians at Colossae had learned the gospel from Epaphras.

5. So who was Epaphras?

From what we can gather, he was from Colossae (4:12), and had planted the church there. It's safe to assume that he had learned the message about Christ during that time recorded in Acts 19:9-10, when Paul taught every day in the hall of Tyrannus for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

6. If Paul had never been to Colossae, what caused him to write to the church there?

The best explanation is that Epaphras, knowing first-hand the trouble in the church, traveled to Rome where Paul was under house arrest (4:3, 18). Epaphras went there knowing that he could ask for Paul's advice and help. In response to his appeal, Paul wrote the letter we call Colossians.

7. What were the issues in the Colossian church?

Apparently, the congregation had come under the influenced of some impressive but misguided teachers. According to 2:4, these people were capable of deceiving others. In the words of 2:8, they threatened to take the minds of others captive by philosophy and empty deceit.

8. What was this "philosophy and empty deceit"?

Once again, the letter itself, especially chapter 2, is our best source for answering the question. Apparently, the false teaching at Colossae involved a mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs and rituals. These included the following:
  • Abstaining from certain foods and drinks, and observing special days (2:16)
  • Worshipping angels, who may have been seen as mediators between God and humanity (2:18)
  • Observing general rules that emphasized denial: "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" (2:20-21)
  • Harsh treatment of the body (2:23)
9. Why were these beliefs and practices opposed in the letter?

For a variety of reasons. First, in some cases, the doctrine of the misguided teachers was outright error. An obvious example is the worship of angels mentioned in 2:18.

Second, some of these observances may have been right in and of themselves. But in the case of the Colossians, they were kept for the wrong reasons. As Paul explains in Romans 14:1-6, an individual Christian is free to regard one day more sacred than another, so long as he is convinced in his own mind, and so long as he doesn't make what he values an ethic for the entire church.. On the other hand, if a Christian feels compelled to observe certain days in order to remain in God's grace, that Christian is headed in the wrong spiritual direction (Galatians 4:8-11).

Third, and most serious of all, the effect of such teaching was to give place to the elemental spirits of the universe and to downplay the importance of Christ.

10. "Elemental spirits"? What does Paul mean by that?

In his book, Backgrounds of Earliest Christianity, Everett Ferguson helps us to understand what people in the first century assumed about them. As Ferguson explains, long before the time of Christ, many Greeks came to believe that the heavenly bodies were gods. To this day, the planets in our solar system bear the names of pagan gods. The spheres of the universe were under the control of these gods, whose power was unlimited. Of course, the religious thinking and practices of the day were heavily influenced by this view. Much of what people did was designed to protect themselves and to win the favor of the elemental spirits. Evidently, the misguided teachers at Colossae had mixed this view of the world with the Christian view.

11. So what did Paul say in order to correct and warn the Colossians?

Plenty. The first goal was to re-establish the majesty and pre-eminence of Christ in the minds of the Colossians. The word all shows up 24 times in this short letter. In most instances all refers to Christ in some way. Notice, for example, the use of that word in a passage that intensely focuses on the supremacy of Christ, Colossians 1:15-20. According to these verses, Christ is:
  • the image of the invisible God and the first- born of all creation (1:15).
  • the creator of all things (1:16).
  • before all things, and the sustainer of all things (1:17).
  • the head of the church, and the first-born from the dead (1:18).
  • the dwelling place of all the fullness of God (1:19).
  • the one who reconciles all things to God the Father (1:20).
This was the Jesus of whom the Colossians had first heard. This was the Jesus whom they had first received. And they were to live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as they had been taught (2:6-7). To put it another way, living for Jesus Christ meant not only the right understanding of him, but also right kind of life. This is the subject of the very practical section in 3:1-4:6.

12. What kinds of behavior does Paul emphasize there?

He seems to be writing to a group made up mostly of former pagans. Having referred to a sinful lifestyle, he goes on to say, You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived (3:7). But now, as God's chosen people, the Colossians are to put off the old ways of sin, and put on the new way of righteousness in Christ. They should give special attention, says Paul, to the way they relate to other people and to what they say.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History at Present: Three Major Debates

My last post was about the very beginning of the book by John Tosh, Historians on History (2nd ed., 2009). There I describe what he calls "the fourfold rationale for the study of history" (p. 9). In addition to those, Tosh also describes and provides examples of three major debates that have emerged within the ranks of historians over the last thirty years. These, as I see them, are as follows:

1. History About and/or By Subordinates.

As Tosh explains, "One of the most marked features of Western society since the 1960s has been the success of excluded social groups in securing access to the instruments of cultural power." One aspect of that shift has been that "'invisible' groups, like women and blacks and sexual minorities, have recognized that their own political prospects depend on contesting the national consensus and acquiring a dignified--or 'usable'--past of their own" (9). This change has generated mixed feelings among historians. Conservatives have mostly rejected this development, while other historians have been more welcoming.

2. History: Is It One of the Humanities, or Social Sciences?

As Tosh words the question, "Is history of value primarily as a source of cultural and personal enrichment, or does it hold the key to understanding society and planning social change?" The former option, which is the traditional one, would conclude that history is, therefore, among the humanities. The latter option, generated in large part by "the upsurge of student radicalism and the call for 'relevance'," would conclude that history should be placed alongside sociology and economics as one of the social sciences (11). One of the buzzwords associated with seeing history as a social science is the term "structure." Like sociologists, it is said, historians can and should identify patterns that can be used as interpretive models. Many historians have suspected, however, that following this path would permit the social sciences to impose their explanatory frameworks on virtually all historical research and that history would, in turn, lose its autonomy.

3. History Since the Rise of Postmodernism

Perhaps more than anything else, the work and influence of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has led many academics to think of discourse as something that is controlling and repressive. The proper starting point is a place of suspicion. And we're right to mistrust and question traditional historicism. This application of postmodern thinking has led to at least two consequences in the field of history: (A) Historians feel free to apply the literary method called "deconstruction" which asserts that no text can have a single, fixed and coherent meaning. (B) Postmodern thinking has undermined the historian's confidence in the possibility of reconstructing human agency and the events from the past. This has led to "sometimes wholly novel readings" of history. It has also led to the assumption "that provisional interpretations of representations are all that can legitimately be attempted" (13). Not even oral history, the living voice, is exempt from the critique of Postmodernism. What is remembered, and how is it reported? What, on the other hand, is suppressed? These sorts of questions point up the imperfections of individual or even shared memories.

According to Tosh, these three are the big, live issues with which history is wrestling today.

Monday, May 17, 2010

John Tosh on the History of History

One of my current reads is Historians on History: Readings Edited and Introduced, by John Tosh, 2nd Edition (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2009).

As the titles indicates, this book is an anthology. Tosh lets us listen to various historians as they "reflect in public on the nature of their craft" (p. 1). The "Introduction" provides an overview of the entire book. Tosh begins by discussing "four longstanding and influential aspirations of historians." To get a handle on them, I've given these four aspirations the following titles:

1. History for its Own Sake

Some historians simply want "to discover what happened in the past and what it was like to live in the past" (2). History is interesting. So why not pursue it for its own sake? The author explains that a rigorous, single-minded application of this approach is what has come to be known as "historicism." This method prizes above all the mastery of primary texts, the relevant documents. Secondarily, historicism relies on the ability of the interpreter's "powers of imagination." The historicist sees himself "stepping into the shoes of people in the past." However, this second aspect of what a historicist does often gets downplayed. Otherwise, we're more likely to wind up with eccentric, idiosyncratic presentations. Again, for writers in this tradition, "knowledge of the past is an end in itself, and they have a lofty indifference to the claims of social utility." They see the value of their work in its ability to provide "a storehouse of accumulated human experience for our contemplation and delight" (3).

2. History as a Map of Time

Next are those for whom history is a way of "uncovering the shape of human destiny." Christian writers of the Middle Ages, for example, believed that human history "was a passage from Creation to the Last Judgment" and that a knowledge of history would "inevitably bear witness to this grand theme" (4). (One of the old approaches to the Book of Revelation was to see it as a description of world history from beginning to end). In modern times this progressivist view of history is best exemplified by the thought of Karl Marx. He divided "all history into the successive phases of ancient, feudal, capitalist and socialist, each more 'progressive' than the last" (5). As we now know, the 20th century saw plenty of giant steps backward. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Cold War weren't exactly hopeful. Together, events like these effectively brought discredit to the progressivist view. Nonetheless, no one since Marx has offered such a comprehensive and persuasive set of answers to the questions with which he was grappling.

3. History as a Political Tool

Then there are historians who subordinate "historical writing to immediate political objectives." In this case, writing history is useful for nation building, or for giving a group of down-trodden people a new sense of self-respect. Remarking on this tendency, Tosh offers an acknowledgement: "No society can sustain an identity or a common sense of purpose without 'social memory' -- that is, an agreed picture of a shared past, which in most cases will be positive, if not inspiring" (6). But, he adds, this sort of story telling almost always wants to go too far, leading to things like American exceptionalism, or to new African nation-states whose historians exaggerate the glories of Africa's past (7).

4. History as Prophecy

Finally, there is the claim "that history offers insights and lessons which arise from the historical record itself, and which historians alone are qualified to teach" (7). According to this outlook, historians are among the most important academics because, after all, they alone can decipher where the world is going based on what has happened in the past. But this approach, which promises something more like prophecy than perspective, begins with a misguided assumption: it assumes that the world and human life and society are more less static. This is the stated rationale for why we can supposedly judge the immediate future based on a knowledge of the past. But it's hardly ever as simple as that. As Tosh remarks, "the future is always open and we need to cultivate a readiness for all contingencies" (8).

Thinking about these four reasons for studying and writing history, it's easy to see why the first one, historicism, has been so attractive in modern times. It's the only one that is not overtly an aspect of power. It makes me wonder, though, if historicism might be some sort of Trojan Horse. "Innocent" history? On the other hand, do historians and the rest of us really want for history to be so innocuous (read: useless)?

So then what are the proper or legitimate reasons for someone writing history? What does this discipline uniquely give us? I wonder. Whaddaya think?

Friday, May 14, 2010

FTD, You and UPS Ain't Smellin' So Good

Unbelievable! On Wednesday of last week I ordered Mother's Day flowers for my wife. The order was confirmed by email. A nice arrangement was to be delivered by UPS on Friday.

Thursday night I went to Oklahoma to spend a few days with my folks. Michele was at home with her girls. When I called Friday evening, she didn't say anything about the flowers (which is what she would always mention first, right?). So I started asking questions. No, she hadn't gotten any surprises that day. No flowers had been delivered.

Of course, FTD's customer service was swamped that night. It was Mother's Day weekend. I was tired and didn't stay on the line long enough to get through.

On Saturday, I reached someone who said that, no, FTD had not received an order from me. When I insisted that they had (but that I didn't have my confirmation with me because I was away from home), the person on the other end of the line changed her tune and said that because of high volume the delivery had been delayed until Saturday. Later that night I talked with Michele. Still no flowers. . . .

On Sunday, I had no luck getting through to FTD customer service. Monday morning my week got busy. Finals, figuring and reporting semester grades, etc.

Finally, I got through today. Spoke with someone I could barely understand. After a long wait, I got a scripted "apology" and a promise that my money would be refunded within "five to seven business days." That's it.

Very frustrating. You've been warned.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Rock-n-Rumble in Altus U.S.A.

The weather was mild in Southwest Oklahoma today, just right for the annual Rock-n-Rumble Car Show in Altus. As my dad and I were looking around at all the custom cars, we met up with Kae Myers. He and his wife, Margaret, are parents to Allan and Neil Myers, two guys I knew well growing up. The photo is of Kae and me and his 1933 Willys custom street rod. Under the hood is a small block Chevy engine with dual 4-barrel carburetors and a supercharger on top. The photo doesn't do the car justice. It's something else. After the show, the cars did a cruise up and down Main Street. Kae invited me to go on the first run with him. What a blast.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Christmastime 2009

Thanks for this photo, Shari. This was the week between Christmas '09 and New Year's Day. I think this was the night we went to Lin's in Amarillo.

From left to right, Rebecca and Aubrey Richardson, Michele, Abigail, Ben, Chloe and Frank Bellizzi. We seem content. That's because we were about to eat, or just had.