Class, Day 4: The Chasm

From December 1811 through February 1812, a series of earthquakes ripped through the Mississippi River valley in what is today southern Missouri. The earthquakes, not measured at the time but estimated by modern-day geologists to measure between 7.0 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, were felt as far away as New York, Boston and Canada.

They destroyed the town of New Madrid and, for a brief time, sent water flowing upstream on the Mississippi and changed the region’s geological characteristics so greatly that it created Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. Eyewitnesses at the time said water flowed backward on the Mississippi for more than 10 hours, helping to fill the lake.

Our world is experiencing a change no less significant.

“We have experienced a massive earthquake,” my Worship professor said in his lecture yesterday morning, “that is changing the course of the river. “We live in a world marked by a gaping cultural chasm – the kind of chasm that only happens every 500 years.”

That’s right. Not since the Protestant Reformation has Christianity and the social structures underpinning it been so violently shaken as is occurring right now. His explanation is a key that unlocks the reason for the increasing polarity of our political debates, our theological discussions and our everyday lives. He argues we are witnessing another battle in the millennia-long war between the followers of Plato and the followers of Aristotle.

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Class, Day 3: The Magic of History

Through the early centuries of the church and into the Middle Ages, evolution took its toll on the Eucharist.

What originally had been a somewhat mysterious belief that Christ was actually present during communion had morphed into an increasing belief that he was actually present in the communion elements themselves. This led the parishoners to increasingly decline the elements altogether out of a belief they were not worthy to handle the physical body and blood of Christ. What if they spilled it? Abstention from the Eucharist got so bad, the church had to mandate at least annual participation.

When the west rediscovered the philosophy of Aristotle and his belief in the separation of the accidents of an item (the look and feel) and its substance (the essence of it), the pieces were in place for the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the bread and wine miraculously became the actual, physical body and blood of Christ. The Fourth Council of the Latemer formalized this belief in 1215.

This led to other changes, foremost of which was the church stopped offering the communion cup altogether – if Christ’s physical body is in the bread, then so must be his blood, so the wine was unnecessary. Further, what can only be described as the idolization of the bread increased.

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Class, Day 2: The Harrowing Narrative of the Psalms

I was disappointed last semester that we didn’t talk more about the Psalms. My professor said he enjoyed praying them, not teaching them, so our contact was limited to the required devotional time, which no one much liked (hard to be devotional when you’re being graded on the quality and frequency of your entries).

So yesterday filled in some gaps, as we discussed the Psalms, Judaism and Christianity’s oldest songbook.

The Psalms are split into five books, likely an intentional hearkening back to the five books of Torah, which are frequently mentioned and upheld. Perhaps the most important thing I was never taught about the Psalms (honestly, I’m not sure I was ever taught anything about the Psalms) is this: They are not a random collection of poetry.

“You can’t understand the collection of the Psalms except through the lens of the exile,” our professor said.

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Class, Week 3: The Head and the Heart

You know you’re in grad school when you start using words you’ve known for less than 24 hours in everyday conversation.

Which is probably why, during a Thursday night worship service, I was mulling the synchronic attributes of God and how that affects our diachronic lives.

During class yesterday, we discussed the Pentateuch and its likely multiple authorship. Scholars break into two camps – those who read the Bible’s first five books synchronically, that is, as having one unified message from beginning to end, no matter the number of authors involved. And there are others, like my professor, who read it diachronically, which means they see read it in the context of multiple authorship at different times with messages tailored to fit those specific times and authors.

I favor a diachronic approach. I don’t think you can divorce the context and authorship of a piece from its message and purpose. One student in our class essentially asked, “What does it matter” if the Pentateuch was written by several authors over a long period of time or by Moses in the desert with an enormous scroll and writing skills it’s not clear he could have possessed? The message is the same either way. I disagree because, at least to me, it’s clear that while perhaps there are overall universal truths to be gleaned from the books as a whole, the messages of the individual stories and books contradict, or to use a nicer term: have diversity, or “tensions.”

This doesn’t bother me as much as I would have thought it might. As our professor said: Churches are messy. Christians are messy. Life is messy. Why do we expect the Bible to be perfect? Is it because it’s a haven from the otherwise-messy world? But there’s no evidence God works that way; he has never done anything but meet people where they are and used them to (imperfectly) carry out his plans.

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