The Fear of Truth

In a couple of weeks, I’ll begin Advanced Introduction to the New Testament, a fitting followup to my first class. As a history and theology “major” (that’s sooo undergrad), I’m very interested in the historicity of scripture – what actually happened and to what extent. In the Old Testament, much of that is unanswerable.

As I understand it, the concept of history came into its own by the time of Christ, and I’ve assumed these several months that the New Testament is more historically accurate than the Old, but I don’t really know that, and it’s a little scary to think of what other assumptions I have about the lives of Christ and his followers that aren’t correct.

For example, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, in this CNN.com column seems to take aim at the historicity of some of what we might consider the crucial elements of Jesus’ life on earth:

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.

For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.

In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

How much of Jesus’ story are we willing to reject historically and still be able to maintain the Christian faith?

Continue reading The Fear of Truth

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Merry Xmas!

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!

Immanuel

It’s been a rough week for God.

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.“`

Continue reading Immanuel

Happy Thanksgiving!

Classes and work are done for the week, and we’re preparing for the arrival of family later this morning, so I’m taking a moment to wish all four of my blog readers a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I’ll return on Monday.

(If you’re looking for reading material, this is a fun post about what the first Thanksgiving was really like. You can even think about how, in just a couple of centuries, oral tradition has greatly changed the reality of what actually happened in Plymouth that day, and what that means for the oral traditions that shape much of the Bible.)

‘Keep Making Money’

If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest twists in the personal life of Kim Kardashian (it’s OK to admit it), she and her husband of less than three months, Kris Humphries, have filed for divorce.

This isn’t normally a topic worthy of consideration for this blog – although Kardashian does sound like the name of an ancient Near Eastern ruler, come to think of it – but reading stories like this one about the insane amount of money thrown around Kardashian’s ultimately meaningless wedding is sobering:

Kardashian’s divorce could be good for her “business”, which for the uninitiated precious few includes multiple TV shows, clothing lines, and brand endorsements of products ranging from perfume to booze.

Well, she certainly made her wedding work for her: while it is said to have cost $10 million, it was all paid for by sponsorships and tie-ins, from freebie $20,000 Vera Wang gowns (she wore three) to a deeply discounted $2 million Lorraine Schwartz ring. …

As for Kim Kardashian herself, she’s laughing all the way to the proverbial bank. The New York post pinned her earnings from the wedding at $17.9 million, a figure derived from adding up her various sponsorship deals and freebies. That’s overly simplistic, given the amount she’d have had to shell out to Jenner and various agents for their cuts. But this is a woman who made $12 million the year before her wedding extravaganza and charged $2,500 entry to her birthday party, so we can’t underestimate her money-making abilities. Using the $17.9 million figure as a crude estimate, Kim raked in just under $250,000 a day, and over $10,000 an hour, for her 72-day marriage.

And her brand won’t suffer either. Her next E! series on life as a married woman is already in the can, and as executive producer, she has the ability to go back and edit that footage to cast herself in a positive light. “Kris Humphries will look like a complete jerk,” Piazza predicts. “That’s what will end up saving her brand. It doesn’t matter; she’ll keep making money.

Is there anything that screams, “America!” more than that last sentence?

A couple of somewhat related thoughts came to my mind while reading this article.

Continue reading ‘Keep Making Money’

Happy Samhain!

Is there any holiday more fraught with danger for the Christian than Halloween?

It’s the devil’s holiday, right? If you’re like me, you grew up seldom if ever trick-or-treating but spending plenty of Halloween nights in church, enjoying “fall festival” – or whatever euphemism was in vogue at the time. There were certainly no Halloween decorations or other such festive holiday garb. We carved a pumpkin once or twice, which only tells me my parents just weren’t hard-core enough in their Halloween opposition.

And, sure, there’s a point to which Halloween has been used to glorify the darker side of human nature – horror-movie marathons, witches, black cats, an overall embrace of the macabre – and I can see why that would turn off a lot of Christians. But it’s worth pointing out that any holiday is only as evil as you make it out to be. Is watching horror movies Halloween night worse than spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on trinkets and in obeisance to to the commercialism of Christmas? Maybe. But I’d have to think about it.

Continue reading Happy Samhain!