An Inspired Thought for Your Friday

Ever since I learned last semester that some early Christian texts were thought by the church fathers to be inspired yet not canonical, it’s caused me to think about how we should use that word.

Inspired. All Scripture is inspired by God, or God-breathed, as the author of 2 Timothy writes. A lot of ink, and perhaps some blood, has been spilled defending various definitions of that word. And even though the author was only speaking of the Hebrew Bible – plus apocryphal books such as Enoch, if Jude’s citation of it means anything – it makes sense to extend it to the New Testament scriptures, as well.

But if early Christians made a distinction between was canonical and inspirational, then that seems like it would open the door for us to recognize the inspiration of God in the words and writings all through history. Important ancient works such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, which some did consider canonical; liturgical writings such as the Book of Common Prayer; and more modern-day texts, such as Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – these all carry the breath of God, even if they’re not part of the sacred canon.

And perhaps this can include even writings – and, in our culture, speeches – we would not consider specifically Christian in scope. God is the God of all humanity, including human communication, and just as the Bible describes him speaking through the mouths of pagans like Balaam (or even non-humans, such as Balaam’s donkey), perhaps today he inspires others to give us the word we need to hear from him.

All of that is a really long introduction to the video I posted above of plane-crash survivor Ric Elias (h/t Shawn Smucker). What Elias has to say is short, but it is no less important for that – and to the extent his words improve the way we treat others, well, I’m willing to say Elias had a little divine help, whether he realized it or not. Have a great weekend, everyone.

John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

Continue reading John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

Summit, Day 1: Death and Resurrection

Every September, my alma mater gets together biblical scholars, preachers and the like to talk about pretty much any topic you can think of. It once was called Lectureship; now it’s called Summit. I wrote about Summit last year, and I’d like to do the same thing this year, highlighting what stood out from each day of classes and/or sermons.

The day started with Glenn Pemberton, an Old Testament scholar who suffers from chronic foot pain that leaves him in a wheelchair most days. I’ve mentioned him before, as he wrote and delivered perhaps the most poignant, honest prayer I’ve ever heard.

Glenn discussed Psalm 38, one of the bleakest of lament psalms, and gave six clues for why he believed the author of the psalm was familiar with deep, chronic pain – most convincing are his points regarding its structural discontinuity and abrupt swings of emotion. He closed with this question: “How do these psalms help the reader with whom they resonate?”

His response: Psalm 38, like other lament psalms, “restores our ability to speak. It gives us the language to restore and maintain contact with God. These words are forceful and audacious, equal to the writer’s situation. Most of all, they’re honest.”

As I’ve discussed, there’s a place for brutal honesty with God – who either causes or allows the suffering and is seen as either a tyrant for punishing beyond what is merited or neglectful for forsaking his “covenant partner.” On the former, Glenn described it this way:

God has had a few too many drinks of anger. The poet asks God to sober up first, or find a designated rebuker until he’s not so inebriated with wrath.

But the psalm also “models a tenacious grip to God – even when we believe God has caused our suffering. God may be the problem, but this writer knows no other source of help or hope than this same God.”

When Glenn talks about God being “inebriated with wrath,” certainly no passage fits the description better than Hosea 2.

Famed scholar Walter Brueggemann provided something of a live exegesis of the chapter, which opens with God’s stinging condemnation of faithless Israel and concludes with his pledge to win her back. It is, Brueggemann argued, “the most perfect poem in the Old Testament that articulates the sum of all biblical faith.”

Continue reading Summit, Day 1: Death and Resurrection

The ‘Big History’ of God’s Evolving Universe

Update: TED’s WordPress embed code actually links to the wrong video, so you’ll have to visit this link to watch it. Sorry for the inconvenience!

My wife and I like to wind down before bed by watching one or two TED Talks – partly because we’re that nerdy and partly because Netflix has begun streaming them in little 10-talk packages by subject. We’re working through the “Ancient Clues” packet, which has all sorts of fun talks about human origins and the like.

The talk above by David Christian, an Australian history professor, is perhaps the strongest argument I’ve ever seen for the nature of God’s work in the universe. He never mentions God – indeed, doesn’t give us any reason to think he believes in any god at all – but his treatment of “Big History” and the various “Goldlilocks moments” when conditions were just right for the universe to buck the law of entropy and produce greater complexity rather than greater disorder is an inspirational telling of just how intimately involved God is in his creation.

Continue reading The ‘Big History’ of God’s Evolving Universe

On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson

Last night was a special night.

Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, came to town and spoke about “Transforming the Conversation” between Christians and the GLBT community (LGBT? Does the order matter? Must stop obsessing over minutiae!).

Justin is a captivating, hilarious speaker – easy to listen to and agree with. The thing that struck me most about his talk was how universal his suggestions were. They would certainly lead to better relationships between Christians who disagree on the subject of homosexuality and between the church and non-Christian gays and lesbians, but they would also lead to better relationships, period.

I’ll be honest: I came into this presentation expecting to nod in agreement the whole way through and think thoughts along the lines of, “Yeah! If only (unenlightened person x) were here to finally hear the truth!” So imagine my surprise and disappointment when, on his very first point, Justin pointed the finger, rhetorically speaking, at me.

Continue reading On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson

Summit Day 2: Books, Celebrity and a Dash of Polygamy

I almost wrote a book once.

Back in my previous life as a journalist, I was the lead reporter for our newspaper on the sensational raid by Texas Child Protective Services of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints compound south of Eldorado (pronounced with a long “a,” if you’re not from the area). Hundreds of children were removed.

It was the largest such action ever taken in the history of the United States, it was based on a hoax phone call, and it was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court weeks later, but it resulted in convictions and long prison terms for several men who had taken child brides, and ultimately a life sentence for the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs.

Anyway, I was around for the first year of that process, which was crazy and intense and, for a couple of weeks anyway, the focus of national media attention. Suddenly, two or three of us reporters for the li’l ol’ San Angelo Standard-Times were competing with the likes of CNN, the Salt Lake Tribune, The Associated Press and even The New York Times for stories and interviews (and winning, I might add).

So, I figured, a lot of people seem to be interested in this, and someone should write a book, and why not me?

But it’s hard to write a book. Writing 2,000 words for a Sunday in-depth news story? No problem.

Finding an agent and carving aside time once a week to produce a manuscript of indeterminate length? Problem.

With kids and other responsibilities, including switching jobs and ultimately changing cities, pressing in, I ended up abandoning the project. But I still think there’s a book in me, probably not about that, but about something, though I have no idea what.

All that to say, I have great respect for those who actually have written books, especially ones I’ve heard of, and especially especially ones I and other people I know have heard of. I’m kind of in awe of people who have done that, actually.

And when those people write books that, if not precisely change my life, at least solidify and confirm that the direction it’s taking is the right one? Well, that’s even cooler.

And so it was pretty awesome to meet Rachel Held Evans yesterday.

Continue reading Summit Day 2: Books, Celebrity and a Dash of Polygamy