Friday, January 27, 2006

Greek to me

Those of you who look at my "What's in my bookbag" list may have noticed an ominous appearance there this week -- Basics of Biblical Greek. Yes, foolhardy though it may be, I am attempting to learn Greek more or less on my own. I know many of you who visit this page have been down this path yourselves. So...any advice?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Loathing and the Love of God

Today, as the Church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul, I am led to consider the special gift of my generation (Gen X) -- self-loathing. (My parent's generation got to revel in free love, and I get self-loathing. Where's the justice?)

If you are a GenX'er like me, you know what I'm talking about, but if not look at the culture and see our special contribution. What begins as self-loathing becomes an ever-growing gray cloud encompassing everything around the self in cynicism, despair and disgust. As teenagers we were just finding our footing so this was limited to bad haircuts, black clothing and anti-social behavior. Now, as adults, we're learning to come to terms with the scope of who we might mean by self and have turned this into a socially acceptable art form. What I mean is this -- we have gifted the culture as a whole with a cynical attitude and general ill-will toward our indigenous institutions.

A perfect example of this can be seen in the movie "The Last Samurai". This movie is about a worthless, drunken American soldier embittered by his experience of American hypocrisy and Indian killing. Sent to Japan, he discovers the beauty of the Samurai culture and learns the "true" meaning of things like honor and respect. In short, this movie, disregarding the hideous socially regressive effects of Samurai culture in 19th century Japan, spits upon all that is vile and sordid in American culture and puts another culture on a pedestal. Us: bad. Not us: good.

This sort of thinking is very influential in our cultural attitude toward Christianity and the Church. Christianity can easily be beaten down by reference to its track record. It brings about hate and division. It cripples our educational system. It was used to support slavery. It helped subject people to autocratic rulers. It was a tool that Constantine used to solidfy his power.

To review: America sucks, the Church sucks, Christianity sucks. Who wants anything to do with these rotten institutions? I'll just be spiritual. What? You're not convinced? Look at the Bible. Abraham sucks. Moses sucks. David sucks. Israel sucks. Peter sucks. Paul sucks. In the past this has been glossed over, and these people were polished up to be "Heroes of the Bible", but now we can look at them objectively and see that they suck.

Here's the thing. They do suck, and the Bible surely means for us to see that, but that's not all we are meant to see. The big picture is that God is redeeming all of this suckiness, and one day everything that sucks will "shine like the sun" (Matthew 13:43).

The story of the conversion of Paul helps me to see past my generational heritage. It gives me hope. It reminds me that in spite of all the sordid and vile things in our past, I have reason to take pride in our nation and to take pride in the Church.

Today's Sacred Space prayer begins with a reminder that "to be present is to arrive as one is and open up to the other." Naturally, I went right into thinking about how I needed to open up to God as I am, but the next line threw me for a loop. "At this instant, as I arrive here, God is present waiting for me." Do you see the radical idea that emerges by combining this definition of presence with the awareness that God is present?

God arrives, as God is, and opens up to me! And my response must be to come to God, as I am, and open up to God. This is how Christ met Paul. This is how he meets me.

Now the challenge is to take that wonderful Gospel of God's love and extend it out from myself and into the world around me in the same way that the self-loathing has previously been spread.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Salvation of Non-Christians

Lee at verbum ipsum has a good post today wrestling with the salvation of non-Christians.

He boldly questions the easy answers of "many paths to God" and salvation for "all people of good will" while seeking better understanding. Check it out.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Treasure Hidden in the Field

I happened to find recently that Luther Seminary has made Craig Koester's J-term lectures, "Genesis to Revelation", available in RealAudio format. I've listened as far as Song of Solomon, and I'm enjoying it very much.

If you have a multimedia-enabled computer, check it out:

Genesis to Revelation

Friday, January 20, 2006

Oral History

I read somewhere recently that when cultures begin to record their oral traditions (by writing them down, for instance), the capacity for oral tradition is itself destroyed. This was stated as if it were a commonplace, an accepted fact.

Now I don't know much about this. I'm sure it has some basis in terms of the precise, word-for-word preservation of things like Homer's epics and the early texts from the Old Testament, but there seems to be an associated assumption that we in modern socities don't have any real contact with oral traditions. I don't think this is true.

As an example, there is, I claim, a strong canonical form of oral history in certain battles of the American civil war. There is, of course, no end of written and audio-visual material recording the history of the war, but there's some emergent oral tradition beyond this.

I discovered this recently when I was visiting the Gettysburg battlefield with my uncle. We went on new year's day so all the vistor centers were closed, but I got the history in its canonical form from Uncle Mike. When you tell the story of Gettysburg, it has a certain form.

You start by telling about Buford at the seminary and his concern for good ground. You then tell about the Confederate troops coming to Gettysburg because they thought they could get shoes there. As that first skirmish unfolds, you tell the story of Reynolds saying, "Forward! For God's sake forward!" just before he is shot. You dilligently record the orders of Robert E. Lee to Longstreet to take cemetary ridge "if practicable".

Moving on to the second day, you tell the story of Sickle's blunder, crossing the peach orchard in search of better ground and how the 1st Minnesota unit had to fill the hole to save the Union army. Then you move through Devil's Den and to the charge on Little Round Top. You talk about how Chamberlain was a schoolteacher as you tell the story of "the tenacious 20th Maine". You record his orders to hold the hill "to the last" and then recount how he did that. You tell the story of Chamberlain's men running out of ammunition. You must not omit his call of "Bayonettes!"

For the third day, you tell the story of Pickett's charge. This is an appropriate place to insert remarks about Lee's belief in the invincibility of his army if you haven't already. You must describe the "grove of trees" (unless you prefer the variant reading, "copse of trees") as the focal point of the Confederate attack. You describe the charge across the open field and over the fence at the Emmitsburg Road. When you tell of the Virginian's breaking through the Union line, you must describe this as the "high water mark of the rebellion."

This is how the story of the Battle of Gettysburg is told. (My apologies for any required bits I left out.)

So what's my point? Well, I've never been a big fan of form criticism, but it seems to me that a story like I've just recounted gives us some degree of insight into the layer of transmission of oral histories just before the actual oral history itself. There are some clear points to be made and even some particular phrasings to be observed. The history of Gettysburg as I've recorded it here hasn't crystalized into a single precise narrative -- and probably because of our various technologies for recording history it never will -- but I think you can see how this rudimentary outline could, over time, gel into a canonical narrative.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Normally I pass on memes, but for some reason this one caught my fancy on LutheranChik's blog.

Four jobs you've had in your life:

In this order...

Petroleum distribution engineer (a.k.a. gas station attendant)
Sports writer
Pizza distribution engineer
Software engineer

Four movies you could watch over and over:

The Princess Bride
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The World According to Garp

Four places you've lived:

Wiley Ford, West Virgina (of which I may be the most famous former resident)
Cumberland, Maryland (home, or former home, of Baltimore Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, actor William H. Macy and actor Eddie Deezen [voice of Mandark on "Dexter's Labratory"])
Lonaconing, Maryland (birthplace of Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove, once named by The Sporting News as the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time)
Portland, Oregon (birthplace of Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama")

Four TV shows you love to watch:

Baseball Tonight

...and, should I really admit this?


Four places you've been on vacation:

New Orleans (right before Hurricane Katrina)
Cleveland(!) (I went for the inaugural season of Jacob's Field)
Victoria, BC

Four websites you visit daily:

Maybe not every day....


Four of your favorite foods:

Ribeye steak
Buffalo wings

Four places you'd rather be right now:

Camden Yards
Fenway Park
Wrigley Field
Safeco Field

Nevermind that it's winter and there won't be baseball in these places for another three months. In my mind, it's always baseball season.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Preach the Word

A "sermon" that is driven by an agenda or source other than Scripture-—even one that pretends to have a text but does not actually expound it-—has no basis to be called "word of God," no matter how valid a religious exercise it might be.
-Frederick Gaiser, in a recent editorial for "Word and World"
This is a very big deal to me. For the past five years or so I've been a member of a congregation which has abandoned the lectionary in favor of thematic sermon series. At first, I thought, "Well, that's odd but I guess I can live with it." But it has continued to be a rock in my shoe, increasing in irritation until now it is one of the big reasons I'm contemplating a change of scenery.

I was willing to give it a try because it's true that the lectionary is adiaphora and need not be kept merely because "that's the way we've always done it." But as is so often the case, it turns out there's a reason we've done it that way.

With the "sermon series" approach, the theme of the sermon is selected and then the "readings" are put with it. This invariably guarantees that the Biblical text will, at most, serve as a prop in the background of the preacher's message. That's a pretty poor substitute for the role the Bible can play in worship.

On the Road

Lutheran Zephyr had a good post on what truly makes for a "pro-life" orientation and just how hard that is to live by consistently.

In his comments he enjoins, "Think of the poor waiting at the bus stop in the cold rain as you drive by in your heated Honda." This particularly resonated with me because I have very recently experienced a peculiar reversal of this situation.

Now I'm not poor by any measure but, as something of a would-be environmentalist, I do ride the bus regularly. One night last week, as I was standing in the rain waiting for the bus, someone pulled over to offer me a ride. At first I thought it must be someone I knew from work but as I looked in the car, I didn't recognize the man. On impulse, I accepted the ride anyway -- the bus was due any minute and I don't mind the rain, but it seemed, strangely, to be the polite thing to do.

The man who gave me a ride explained that he knew what it's like to have to wait in the rain and that Jesus teaches him to share what he has with others in need. At this point, I think I was able to spare myself a little evangelism by revealing that I also am a church-going man, and I briefly wished I was still standing in the rain. I soon regretted that secret judgment.

The man's name was Freddy, and as he drove he told me about how he had left his home in El Salvador because of political turmoil there. He lived briefly in California and then came to Oregon for work. As this story unfolded, it became clear that this man who was ministering to me by offering me a ride in the rain was a man of much humbler circumstances than myself. The irony was not lost on me.

After talking with him a while, I was convinced (strictly indirectly) that what he had done was a genuine act of kindness -- what Richard Foster calls "true service" as distinguished from "self-service" in the guise of service -- and the only thing I could offer in return was to accept this service.

Monday, January 16, 2006

For the World

There's a famous passage in Luke's gospel where Jesus "sets his face to Jerusalem." If you've made a serious study of Luke, you're surely familiar with it. But the Bible has a way of hiding things in familiar verses. Take a look at Luke 9:51 -- "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem." The NASB is even more explicit, translating this as the time for his "ascension".

All the gospels are clear that there is an inescapable connection between Jesus' glorificaiton and his crucifixion. Here in Luke, this connection is made early. Significantly, Luke follows almost immediately with a collection of sayings about discipleship (Luke 9:57-62).

Sister Ann Shields never tires of quoting John 13:16 in this regard -- "Servants are not greater than their master." If being "taken up" means crucifixion for Christ, then should we be surprised if it means the same for us? As Bonhoeffer says, "When Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die."

This is not a popular model for discipleship (even if people like to quote the saying), but it's an appropriate one for today as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Early in his career, during the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King received a death threat: "If you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house." Shaken, he sat down over a cup of coffee and prayed. This is the answer he received:
Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And Lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.
Three days later, his house was blown up. But by then, Dr. King had set his face on Jerusalem.

I heard a quote today from Pope Paul VI: "We are in the world, but not of the world...but for the world." This is something Martin Luther King Jr. surely understood. His was surely a life for the world.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Thin Place

Most people, I think, have certain places that are peculiarly and consistently mystical for them -- what Celtic Christianity calls "thin places". For me, Mount Angel Abbey is one such place. I was there this morning to hear one of their monks speak on the synoptic gospels. He had some good spiritual insights, but the real benefit for me was just being there.

Walking around the abbey grounds is like walking around my heart. It's an amazingly tranquil place with rarely more than a few people around. The view on either side of the hill is of surreal farm land and rolling hills for as far as you can see. The abbey also houses a seminary, so there's a world-class library there. The beautiful brick church building has an fantastic set of bells that announce the start of liturgical worship periodically and a wonderful pipe organ. And to top it all off, there's a Russian Orthodox museum.

I know there should be nothing remarkable about having a sense of God's presence at a monastery, but it's like this place was made for me.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Bride of Christ

"Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."
-John 2:11

Who are these scholars who say the story in John's gospel of the wedding feast at Cana offers evidence that Jesus may have been married? The text offers certain hints that it is Jesus's own marriage, they say.

Of course the text gives the impression that it may have been Jesus' marriage! The text also hints as to who the bride is, and it's not Mary Magdalene -- it's the people of God. Have these scholars completely missed the nature of the symbolism in John's gospel?

It seems that scholarly deconstruction can be a serious impedement to hearing the obvious in the text. And in recent years it is exactly this habit of Biblical scholarship that has been passing into the public imagination. At Christmas, my cousin told me how he likes to play devil's advocate when talking with some of his conservative Christian co-workers. He asks them, "Which is more likely, the Virgin Birth or Mary having been raped by a Roman soldier and then they made up this story to cover it up?"

I could excuse that from my cousin, but knowing that it comes to him from the ranks of professional scholars drives me nuts. If the circumstances of Jesus' birth were what was in view, wouldn't it have been far easier just to ignore it (as two of the four gospels do anyway)? Why make up this elaborate cover story? Unless....the Virgin Birth story has a different point altogether.

Has scholarship always been this bad?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

He likes me! He really likes me!

I discovered at Lutheran Seminary Life that Brian McLaren posted the open letter I sent him back in April on his A New Kind of Christian web site.

If you're read the "dialogue" section on his site, you know he doesn't post anything without adding an encouraging response. Even so, I was pleased (read: "my ego was gratified") to see this response:
Thanks! I appreciate everything you said here, and I would like to officially dub your posting an online appendix to A Generous Orthodoxy. Thank God for Lutherans! I especially appreciate your expansion on my brief comment in the book about “the Word of God.” Beautifully said – as only a Lutheran could.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Farming Theory of the Atonement

This is a rough work, shooting from the hip. Read it accordingly.

I've been studying the prophets recently, and in an unrelated context I had a discussion about theories of the atonement. Put them together and what do you get?

The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement starts from the premise that God is wrathful against human sin. Now, aside from whatever other problems exist with the theory, I don't think this premise is quite right. I just don't think that God wants to punish sin. I also don't think that, although he desperately wants not to, he must.

Enter the prophets.

In the prophets we do see something that on first glance looks like God's wrath against human sin. Lots of nations, particularly Israel and Judah, get smited because they didn't do the right things. But upon closer examination, the prophets are saying that all of these "destructive" acts of God are being done in order to bring about God's intended result of the bringing of the nations to Zion. Isaiah 28:24, speaking of the possibility of restoration asks, "Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?" No. Neither does anyone plow a field without intending to plant something there.

And so I give you what I hereby dub the farming theory of the atonement. God's "wrath", what Luther and Isaiah call "God's alien work" plows the field, preparing the way for Christ. Christ then is the seed, planted in the world that will yield the fruit of the kingdom. In this theory, Christ's death does not "protect us" from God's "wrath" -- rather it fulfills it and gives meaning and redemption in the midst of human suffering.

See Matthew 13:3-9 (as it relates to plowing) and John 12:24 (as it conveys the significance of Jesus' death).

What do you think?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Christmas Concludes

I have survived another Christmas and a two-week visit with my extended family (who live across the country from me). There was an odd element to it as I had been very expectantly celebrating Advent while here in my fortress of relative solitude, but being back with the clan (who aren't particularly pious) broke that off rather abruptly.

My family is ... how can I say this ... peripherally religious. That is, Christianity is part of the family identity but most of them don't actually go to church or things like that. And it's far too easy for me to fall into a mode like that when packed in a guest room with my wife and daughters for two weeks with no time for quiet reflection.

Even so the trip did have some quirky fruit. Here are the highlights....

-My brother, a fan of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" whom I had nearly given up on as lost to modern pop spirituality, announced that he's decided to join the Roman Catholic Church.

-My sister says one of the reasons she doesn't go to church is that whenever she has they've always tried to get her involved in something. :-(

-Christmas Eve is the one time most of my family goes to church (though a few, such as my sister, have even managed to work their schedule to avoid even this). At our traditional congregational home, the invitation to communion included a qualifier saying that all who believe in the Real Presence in the Sacrament are welcome to partake. This at an ELCA congregation, which my brother later characterized as "too liberal."

-After the service my Baptist cousin wanted to know what kind of wine they use for communion (it's quite tasty). My brother responded, "Oh, that's easy, it's the blood of Christ." Did I mention that my brother is becoming Catholic?

-The three reasons my brother is becoming Catholic: (1) the idea of the Church as an institution, (2) the spiritual presence he felt when visiting the cathedrals of Europe, (3) confession.

-A cousin who has been Catholic all his life observed that confession is one of the things he doesn't agree with about Catholicism -- why does he need a man between himself and God? I, a lifelong Lutheran, defended the practice.

-This same cousin, a Catholic uncle and my soon-to-be Catholic brother all confused the Immaculate Conception (the doctrine that Mary was conceived without Original Sin) with the virgin conception of Christ.

-My Catholic cousin said that when he was young he believed everything the Church taught him, but now that he's older he questions a lot of things. For example? "When Cain was cast away from his family, where did the other people come from?" I responded, "You know, the Catholic Church doesn't really teach that the way you think they do." I'll make good Catholics out of this bunch yet!

-My brother's three-month old daughter was baptized while I was there, making an early entrance into the Catholic Church. I lived half my life two blocks from the church where the baptism for held, but this was the first time I had ever been inside.

-We arrived 20 minutes early for the baptism. While we were ascending the stairs my daughter asked me the difference between Catholicism and Lutheranism. When we got to the doors they were locked. I told her, "This is the difference. The Catholic Church won't let us in." ;-)

-My step-mother, who sings in her (Methodist) church choir, said she doesn't like my grandfather's wife because of her religious (Assembly of God) behavior -- for example, she (my grandfather's wife) won't let anyone eat when we go out for a family dinner until she has said grace. If this is offensive to a fellow Christian, imagine how non-Christians perceive it?

-One of my good friends from college, who is now teaching at a well-respected liberal arts college, reports that he has his "Intro to Religion" students read the "Imitation of Christ" to show them that Christianity also has the sort of ascetic traditions that they find so fascinating in religions like Buddhism. He says they couldn't be less interested. One of his colleagues attributed the book to Thomas Aquinas in conversation.

-I visited the Gettysburg battlefield. It is truly a sacred place. And there's an ELCA seminary there that figures in the history!

-I also visited Washington D.C. At the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln is covered in scaffolding. Half the city is under construction.

-The Jefferson Memorial features this quotation: "I have sworn before the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." I'm really not sure what I think of him.