Friday, April 28, 2006

On Lutheranism

The Lutheran Zepher asks, "What does it mean to be a Lutheran?"

Let me first answer, "Why am I a Lutheran?"

The first and most basic answer is that I'm a Lutheran because my grandparents were Lutheran. I was baptized into Lutheranism when I was three months old. My parents didn't drag me to church often, but we had enough of an identification with one congregation that when I wanted to play in the Sunday School basketball league, I knew where to go. And so I also joined the youth group there and went to annual LCA youth retreats (anyone else go to Crossways in Baltimore in the mid 80's?).

I don't remember what they taught me when I was a youth. I went to college with (1) a personal identity as a Lutheran and (2) the conviction that it didn't really matter if I went to church or not (I've learned as a parent that children rarely get the message you intended). So I drifted away from the Church and embraced the liberal arts mantra of the foolishness of Christianity.

But something more than that stuck somewhere deep in my sub-conscious mind. Years later, when I rediscovered Christianity, I checked out a number of denominations and their theology, and the superiority of Lutheranism was clear to me. I'd like to think, based on this, that I chose Lutheranism freely, but I'm a post-modern so I can't do that. I know too well why I chose it.

Still, regardless of what has led me to be a Lutheran, I really do like it, and so I'll return to the original question, "What does it mean to be a Lutheran?"

Obviously, what I've said to this point has some relevance to that. Being a Lutheran is something that gets into your blood and stays there. It's not just like being handed a hat that you continue to wear your whole life. It shapes you. It makes you who you are. Being a Lutheran makes you a Lutheran.

And so, for me, what it means to be a Lutheran is mostly about the way you see God. While Lutheranism can be gathered up into a tidy set of doctrines, I think it's more about a sort of intuitive feel that you develop toward Christianity. I suspect that a lot of Lutherans can't (or at least don't) even articulate precisely what this means, but when you hear something said about God, you can respond "No, that's not right!" or "Yes, that's the Gospel!" I think this is why I came back to Lutheranism. It's where I recognized the Gospel.

So what is this "je ne sais quoi" of Lutheranism? I think it's about seeing Christ as one who sets us free. We can make definitions about Law and Gospel or about Justification by Faith Alone or what have you, but if we don't see that Christ is setting us free, we aren't Lutheran.

I'm a theology geek, and I'd love to add something about the Theology of the Cross and God always coming down to us and so forth. And I think those are requisite elements of Lutheran theology, but I don't think all Lutherans are theology geeks (there's a chance I'm wrong about that), and I think the essence of Lutheranism is simpler than that.

I think there's something to the German nomenclature of Lutherans calling themselves "evangelische." Lutheranism, at its heart, is nothing more than a deep-seated passion for the Gospel, the good news that Christ sets us free.

A Human King

One of the most surprising things I found in Luise Schottroff's book on the parables was her translations including the phrase "a human king", as in Matthew 22:2, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to the reality in the following story of a human king who made a wedding supper for his son" (a translation of Schottroff's German translation).

I'm pretty sure the bit about "may be compared to the reality in the following story" is paraphrase on Schottroff's part, and simply there to emphasize what she takes "may be compared" to mean. So I was also skeptical about "a human king." I thought this too must be a gloss. Checking a number of translations I found "a king" or "a certain king" but no "human king."

However, as you may recall, I am trying to learn Biblical Greek, one of the chief benefits of which is I it gives me confidence to look at the Greek text and see what's there. So I did. And at Matthew 22:2, I found "anthropo basilei." Hmmmm.

Now I know that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, but in my limited Greek vocabulary, I do know both of these words -- human and king.* What's more, I'm told that word order in Greek conveys emphasis rather than meaning. So if "anthropo" is possibly being emphasized, why is it dropped from most translations?

My guess is that most translators think it's unnecessary. Of course this is a human king. What other kind of king would it be? Well, in most interpretations it would be God.

But, what if the king in this parable isn't meant as a picture of God, just as the judge in the parable of the persistent widow wasn't a picture of God?

This is a prime example of the traditional intpretation being a horror show. Is this really a parable about how God will kill and torture those who insult him by refusing his invitation? Surely a human king might do that, but God?

We've touched now on the mystery of hell. This parable certainly seems to suggest something about hell, but I don't think we must see God as choosing to destroy those who reject his call like a monarch throwing a temper tantrum.

The parable speaks very clearly of how people disregard the invitation to God's feast. We make light of it. We go about our business. And even if we "go to the banquet" we may not take it seriously (the guest without a wedding garment). All these things, Jesus tells us, are going to get us into serious trouble. This is, I suppose, more a starting point for reflection than an interpretation.

I must also mention here Luise Schottroff's critique of the "ecclesiological" interpretation. There's a temptation here to anti-Jewish interpretation. It sees those first invited as the Jews, and those who subsequently go to the banquet as the Christian Church. Because those "first" invited rejected the invitation God "sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city." Some would even say that the author of Matthew took this slant and interjected this message into Jesus' parable.

Against such interpretations we must ask, who are "those who have been invited"? Are the Jews "those who have been invited" while the Gentiles are those in the street? I don't think so. It seems to me that "those who have been invited" is a broad and inclusive term.

Who is invited to the wedding feast? All are invited! This is the very heart of the Gospel. And if the parable tells of a two-part invitation, it is only so it can teach us of two perspectives of the invitation. I also agree with Schottroff that it we would be missing Jesus' point to limit our understanding of those who accept the invitation to Christians. To say otherwise is to reduce the Gospel to a mere transaction. The Gospel is surely bigger than that.

Out of Touch with the Blog World

I've been mostly out of touch with the blog world for the last couple of weeks. Besides not posting on my own blog, I've not kept up with the many quality blogs I usually read. Has anybody posted an encapsulation of the best of what's going on recently?

This week I went to Las Vegas for my neighbors' wedding. Most people get married in Vegas with just themselves and Elvis, but my neighbors invited lots of people. I love weddings, and this one, performed by a "ship's captain" on one of the boats at Treasure Island was fun, even if missing a bit of the sanctity of marriage.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who have continued to drop by in my absence. It turns out that some pretty good conversation developed in the unjust judge comments while I was away.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Unjust Judge

This and a few other parables unique to Luke's gospel stand out as daring examples. It seems so impious to use an unjust judge as the centerpiece of a story to teach us about God. Who would dare it? Yet for this very reason, this parable offers insight into all the parables. It offers insight into the nature of parables.

First, despite the traditional name of the parable, the unjust judge isn't the centerpiece of this story, the widow is. Yet, by Jesus' own words we see that what we learn about God in this parable, we learn from the unjust judge.

The parable is quite clear and the application is clearly specified in both introduction and conclusion. Even so, because of the daring juxtapostion of God with the unjust judge, some interpreters have balked at the interpretation. For example, Thomas Keating (following, I believe, Bernard Brandon Scott) suggests that Luke has misapplied the parable and that it is really the widow who Jesus intends to use as the figure for God. As much as I like that idea, it isn't what the text says.

The key is this: just because the unjust judge in the parable corresponds to something Jesus is teaching about God, we need not apply all of what the parable tells us about the judge to God. This is what scholars mean when they emphasize that parables aren't allegories. For instance, while the parable surely teaches that God will answer when we persistently pray, it absolutely does not teach that God only answers to get us to be quiet. I think most of us intuitively understand that about this parable, so it serves as a useful starting point for thinking about the other parables.

The other interesting thing about this parable is that it pictures a widow asking for justice. The Old Testament prophets are constantly railing against people who refuse to give justice to widows and orphans. Because these weakest members of society are denied justice, God will act.

Imagine how different the message of this parable would be if it were about a teenager pleading with her father to buy her an iPod! But that isn't the sort of image it presents, and so I must adjust what it teaches me about prayer accordingly. Jesus says, "And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" This parable doesn't promise that God will grant me a comfortable life, it promises that if I pray for justice in the world, God will answer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Parables of Jesus

I've just finished reading Luise Schottroff's book, The Parables of Jesus, newly available in English translation from Fortress Press. While I frequently found myself disagreeing with her interpretations, I learned a great deal and found her methods well worth considering.

Schottroff's basic method is to resist the traditional "ecclesiological" interpretation of the parables, seeking instead to find an interpretation that is grounded in the socio-historical relevance of the parable. She is constantly on guard against anti-Jewish and pro-patriarchal interpretations. This leads her to some understandings of the parables that are exact opposites of the traditional interpretations.

For instance, in the parable of the talents, she takes the slave who buried his talent in the ground and named the harshness of his master to be the hero of the parable. I'm not prepared to accept such radical reversals. Even so, while the effect of seeing it is jarring, it is jarring in a good way. Even if I disagree, I'm forced to reconsider my own view of the text. I can no longer take things for granted.

Most compelling is Schottroff's sensitive awareness of the terrible images that we are willing to accept as pictures of God. In the introduction she writes:
In the doominant tradition of interpretation God is represented in these texts by the owner of the vineyard who destroys the murderous tenants, the bridegroom who excludes the "foolish" young women from bliss, and the king who kills his guests. This tradition of interpretation compels the interpreters to read a horror story as Gospel. Is God really to be compared to a king who executes his own guests?

Well, sure, when you put it that way it sounds terrible. And shouldn't it? Then, once that grip has been loosened, things get interesting.

Last year, I blogged through the parables as an Easter devotion. I was going to do something different this year, like maybe the Sermon on the Mount, but I think I will have another go at the parables, seeing if I can apply some of what I've learned from Luise Schottroff to my own readings of these texts.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Buzz

Courtesy of Google News, here is a sampling (intentionally biased in selection) of the online headlines regarding the "Gospel of Judas"
"Judas did as Jesus asked – 'gospel' reveals the other face of a traitor", The Times (UK)

"Judas: this is what really happened", The Guardian

"Translated Ancient Documents Refute the Bible", Fox 12 Boise

"Gospel of Judas has Church worried", The Advertiser (Australia)

"Gospel of Judas inspires awe, wrath", Boston Globe

"Jesus asked Judas to betray him" Newindpress (India)

"Judas text sheds new light on gospels", ABC Online (Australia)

"'Gospel' truth: Judas obeyed Jesus' orders", New York Daily News

"Gospel of Judas casts doubt on traditional beliefs", (Canada)

"History of Christianity: The Gospel according to Judas", Independent (UK)

"Experts claim Judas was 'misunderstood'", (UK)

"New testament: Judas redeemed", Sydney Morning Herald

"Apostle’s manuscript suggests betrayal was Christ’s idea", Chronicle Herald (Canada)

"A Real Bible Belter", New York Post

"Gospel of Judas is a Revelation", Newark Star Ledger

You can see where these stories might draw in more readers than, for example, this headline from the Seattle Times:
"National Geographic releases 'Gospel of Judas' translation"

But my personal favorite, with Freudian significance, is this headline from the Bakersfield Californian:
"Gospel insignificant, some in clergy say"

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gospel of Judas

So, I heard on NPR tonight that a translation of the "Gospel of Judas" is being released. A fourth-century text of the gospel was found in 1978 and is now being released by the National Geographic Society.

Apparently, according to this gospel, believed to have been written in the first or second century, Judas was "in on" the secret with Jesus and given instructions to do what he did. This is an interesting, but strange, twist to the "other" gospels saga.

The modern complaint about the canonical representation of Judas is that he is an anti-Judaic personification and demonization of the Jews in general. I don't think this "new" outlook really offers an improved outlook if Judas is still taken to be a personification of the Jews. Does it, perhaps, lend credence to his reality as a historical person? I think maybe so.

The NPR story referred to the gospel as an archealogical find as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is surely a gross overstatement.