Not much activity on the blog this week; my schedule is upended because I’m off of work for the week, and that means I’m not waking up early enough to post (I know, tough life). Expect regular posting to resume next week, perhaps Tuesday, when work resumes. Hope everyone’s 2012 is joyous, healthy and full of love.
It’s probably not surprising to you that I’m not particularly agitated by the so-called War on Christmas (and the horror induced by using the ancient Christian shorthand for “Christ” is pretty funny). I think Jesus can handle it if there’s not a crèche on the courthouse lawn this year, or if the state house calls it a holiday tree instead. I think he cares much more about how we treat those around us, especially those for whom Christmas is not a gift-filled or joyous time.
That’s all I’m going to say about that. Because Christmas should be a time for unity, as we all, whether conservative or liberal, remember the birth of our king and eagerly await his return to set right everything that is wrong with our world.
A lot goes wrong on this planet every day. But one thing went right more than 2,000 years ago. And that’s the only thing that really matters. Merry Christmas, faithful readers. See you next year!
It’s certainly been a rough week for those of us who believe in a God who is both omnipotent and loving. For that matter, it seems like it’s been a rough year. Nevertheless, this past seven days carried with it some heartbreaking news about Liam, the 7-year-old son of one of the more frequent commenters here, Matt. For nearly two years, Liam has been battling leukemia, and despite a large amount of both prayer and medical effort, his battle appears likely to end quite soon.
That really sucks. I just don’t know how else to say it. My wife and I spent a good portion of Tuesday night crying and talking, trying to process how devastating it must be to lose a child.
Needless to say, this led us down a path many smarter, more thoughtful people have traveled many times before. The question of suffering, pain, prayer and the silence of a God we are told loves us.
I spent a lot of the early part of this blog’s life discussing prayer and questioning its usefulness. I feel I must return to it now. Because, look, there’s not much evidence it actually works, at least not in the way we traditionally think about prayer. I’ll let the late Christopher Hitchens explain it the way only a committed atheist can:
Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. …
The Danish physicist and Nobelist Niels Bohr once hung a horseshoe over his doorway. Appalled friends exclaimed that surely he didn’t put any trust in such pathetic superstition. “No, I don’t,” he replied with composure, “but apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.” That might be the safest conclusion. The most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted—the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” of 2006—could find no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances. But it did find a small but interesting negative correlation, in that some patients suffered slight additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters.
Here’s the link for that study, in case you want to check out the summary for yourself. The conclusion: “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft surgery], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.“`
This story grabbed my attention:
The Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing wing is recalling the pink Bibles it was selling to help fund breast cancer research.
Why, you ask? Some of the money might have gone to breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, which is pretty much an end-of-days scenario for pro-life groups given the organization’s clinics also provide abortions. …
That was all well and good until last week, when an outcry in the conservative blogosphere led to the publisher, LifeWay Christian Resources, receiving several dozen complaints about what pro-life advocates saw as an unacceptable link to Planned Parenthood. “The sign might as well read, ‘Buy a Bible and support abortion!” read one complaint on the pro-life blog Bound4Life.
Good grief. Is there anything so damaging to our witness as creating this kind of publicity?
I want to say this very clearly: Planned Parenthood is not evil. Yes, Planned Parenthood provides abortions. Yes, I think that’s wrong. But here’s what else Planned Parenthood provides: Continue reading
There’s a belief among conservative Christians that accepting the tenets of scientific study, especially concerning the origins of the world, is tantamount to rejecting the authority of scripture and, indeed, the resurrection of Christ itself. Obviously, I disagree. We’ve already discussed here the idea that an ancient, pre-scientific religious text is simply not trying to answer scientific questions about the origins of life, but rather the theological questions about how we got here. God created us in his image. That’s all the Bible is really trying to say. The exact how and when, that’s not really important to scripture’s message.
Meanwhile, there’s a tendency among theistic evolutionists to say something similar in the opposite direction, that science doesn’t have anything to say about matters of faith. That these worlds are “nonoverlapping magisteria” to use a fairly popular phrase (hey, I’d heard of it before!). I don’t think this is quite right either. It’s true that science itself does not make theological or moral conclusions, but we’d be remiss as Christians if we did not view our theology in light of what we discovered about the world God chose to create.
As RJS, summarizing John Polkinghorne, says at Jesus Creed:
Science is not the religion of the 21st century – but a theology that ignores, or even worse denies, the revelations of modern science will fall short in its attempt to understand and explore the nature of God.
I’d go further and say the revelations of modern science, thus informing our view of God’s nature, must therefore influence our view of God’s word – not just in areas where the text “contradicts” the scientific evidence but in its entirety.
I’m speaking specifically of how we view the God who would decide to create a species in which he would place his image and then uses the incredibly slow process of evolution to do it.
In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell speaks a little about his childhood conversion story, which is traditional by any definition of the word: on his knees, beside his bed, saying the sinner’s prayer. In a postmodern world, he writes, it can be easy to be embarrassed by stories like that. No child making that decision is really doing so of his or her own free will, but rather through the influence of environmental factors that, once loosened in teenage and college years, might ultimately lead to a far different choice.
“With very little effort,” Bell writes, “a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one’s parents and the power of religion to shape a child.”
Bell argues we should embrace our pasts, despite the “temptation at times to become hostile to our earlier understandings, feeling embarrassed we were so ‘simple’ or ‘naive’ or ‘brainwashed’ or whatever terms arrive when we haven’t come to terms with our own story.”
In short, “That’s where we were at that point in our life, and God met us there. Those moments were necessary for us to arrive here, at this place at this time, as we are. Love frees us to embrace all of our history, the history in which all things are being made new.”
Though I’ve never felt embarrassed by my (first) conversion story (I was 4, and I tacked the sinner’s prayer onto the end of praying for dinner), there are plenty of things in my earlier life about which I do feel a little uneasy, mostly my very opinionated high school career as a “song” and column writer.
Yes, I wrote columns, some of them for assignments in our Government class, others just for fun – the doctors tell me the dorkiness is incurable; it’s certainly been a lifelong affliction. Though perhaps that should be the embarrassing part, it’s not. Rather, the content is something just short of horrifying to me now. And my words, especially about homosexuality, still haunt me today.
Like Bell, it’s easy to see now the source of what I wrote (I won’t be quoting anything; it is that revolting to me). There were ultraconservative influences at home and at school. There literally were no voices of moderation in my life, and that includes the textbooks from which I was taught and the radio I listened to. I was a product of my environment.
My opinions, at least on homosexuality, started to change when I learned my favorite uncle is gay. Continue reading
One of the highlights – if not the highlight – of my journalism career was being asked to help our sister newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, cover the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. I was mostly asked to liveblog and tweet (not so fun when all you have is a number keypad for texting in those Dark Ages), but I got a couple of bylines in the dead-tree version and got to be in the same city as Barack Obama became the first black major-party presidential nominee in our nation’s history. Pretty cool stuff.
Six months later, the Rocky was shuttered, and I left for better-paying writing jobs in non-imploding industries.
But covering the convention had a lasting, transformative effect on me, and it started at the very first event I covered, the convention’s opening interfaith prayer gathering.Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of Denver’s Church of God in Christ, broke from the party to criticize abortion but aimed his most withering fire on pro-life Republicans and conservatives, some of whom had disrupted the gathering by shouting that Obama was a “baby killer”:
Others loudly proclaim their advocacy for the unborn, but they refuse to recognize their responsibility and the responsibility of our nation to those who have been born. They are presently and historically silent, if not indifferent to the suffering of our inner cities.
Further research led me to believe that Obama’s ideas for reducing the number of abortions would likely prove more effective than those of the Republican Party, whose quest to slash family-planning budgets and promote abstinence-only education has led to an information deficit, especially among poor girls and women, that increases, rather than reduces, the number of unplanned pregnancies and, therefore, the number of abortions.
Wayyyyy back at the beginning of the semester, we started reading Peter Enns‘ Inspiration and Incarnation, a book that honestly tackles the problems posed by a traditional literalistic reading of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. He first focused on the creation question, then moved to internal contradictions or “theological diversity” and, after meandering through all of the other required readings in the class, we finish with Enns’ final chapter: How the Old Testament is used by New Testament writers.
He argues, rightly I think, that if we heard a preacher using the Old Testament the way Paul, Matthew and even Jesus did, we would say he or she was misusing, even abusing, the text.
For example, in Galatians 3:16, Paul says this:
The promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It doesn’t say, “and to the descendants,” as if referring to many rather than just one. It says, “and to your descendant,” who is Christ.
Most translations say “seed,” rather than descendent, and the Hebrew word similarly can be used in both singular and plural contexts. But no matter. The fact is in all the passages promising land to Abraham and his seed, the context is clearly plural, not singular. (Gen. 13:15: “All the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever.”)
Why would Paul do this? If a preacher said such a thing, we’d question why he wasn’t telling the truth.
In Romans 11:26, Paul quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:
In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
The deliverer will come from Zion.
He will remove ungodly behavior from Jacob.
This is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.
Except the relevant passage, Isaiah 59:20, actually says:
A redeemer will come to Zion
and to those in Jacob
who stop rebelling,
says the LORD.
It’s a small change, but it completely changes the meaning of the prophecy. Paul simply adapts it for his purposes, seemingly disregarding its actual meaning.
That’s one class of interpretive creativity on the part of New Testament authors. Examples also can be found in Matthew, quoting Hosea, and Hebrews, quoting the Psalms. The other class of creativity is the addition of facts not found in or supported by the Old Testament text. Continue reading
Our professor in class talked about the two kinds of wisdom presented by the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament – constructive and deconstructive. The former is found mostly in Proverbs. It contains keys for “the good life,” maxims that generally prove true and provide glimpses into how to be successful and happy during your time on earth.
But most of the biblical Wisdom literature is actually deconstructive – describing or questioning the fact that, for many people who do the right things, the good life doesn’t actually happen. Instead, they suffer and die. These texts can be stupefyingly depressing, especially so in Ecclesiastes:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no one to comfort them. Their oppressors wield power—but they have no one to comfort them. So I declare that the dead, who have already died, are more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But happier than both are those who have never existed, who haven’t witnessed the terrible things that happen under the sun.
In truth, the Wisdom texts of the Bible appear to be in conversation with each other, and the conclusion they reach is unsatisfying. Because they ultimately do not reach a conclusion, do they? Sometimes we think they do – we’ve probably been taught that they do – but what is it?
We focused the past two weeks on Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, those often-abused or -ignored books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. They aren’t easy books – I could do a whole post about the numerous problems raised by Job’s portrayal of God, and Ecclesiastes is the hands-down winner of the Most Cynical Biblical Text Award – and I don’t think the way we’ve traditionally used them does these texts any favors.
I’m thinking specifically of Proverbs, which contains 31 chapters of allegories and maxims that pretty clearly should not be taken literally; rather, they give good advice and often speak of how things usually – but not always – work. In fact, I think most Christians would agree with this. After all, it’s hard to look at the subsequent, contradicting verses in Proverbs 26:4-5 without thinking perhaps these are not meant to be commandments:
Don’t answer fools according to their folly,
or you will become like them yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will deem themselves wise.
Yet I grew up being taught in the literalness of at least some proverbs, especially 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14 and 29:15:
Those who withhold the rod hate their children,
but the one who loves them applies discipline.
Folly is bound up in a child’s heart;
the rod of discipline removes it.
Don’t withhold instruction from children;
if you strike them with a rod, they won’t die.
Strike them with a rod,
and you will save their lives from the grave.
The rod and correction lead to wisdom,
but children out of control shame their mothers.
And then there’s the classic 14:34, the prooftext used for keeping prayer in schools, criminalizing abortion, prohibiting gay marriage and whatever else the speaker defines as “righteous.”
Righteousness dignifies a nation,
but sin disgraces a people.
Here’s the problem, though. Continue reading