Friday, September 10, 2010

The Skeptic in the Sanctuary

On Wednesday I posted about my own journey that has both challenged and and strengthened my faith. Like many who were raised in the church, we discovered a disconnect between the Bible, Faith and reality. I suggested that for me, doubt is what leads to faith.

It must be the week for self-disclosure. Robert Cargill is a guest blogger on Jason Boyett's beliefnet blog today and he describes his own struggles with faith. He goes into far more detail than I did, but I think you will find his story encouraging. Like many of us, he is struggling to live on top of the divide of faith and reason. If this is where you are currently living, then I think you will find it a piece that you can identify with as well as draw encouragement from.

Robert Cargill is a fellow blogger and biblical scholar. He was also the host of the National Geographic special on the Dead Sea Scrolls that I posted earlier.

Should Christians "Worship" Jesus?

I recently finished James Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence (Westminster John Know Press, 2010). It is an interesting, informative read. I posted Larry Hurtado’s review on an earlier post, so I do not plan to give a full-blown review here. But I would like to provide a summary of Dunn’s conclusions and focus on a particular point he makes in his conclusion.

In chapter one Dunn looks what it means “to worship” and focuses on the terminology of worship found in the Bible. What he discovers is that worship language is rarely used in reference to Jesus and cultic worship is never offered to Christ. Rather worship in the New Testament is more focused on God. Jesus is never the object of praise and thanksgiving. Instead giving thanks to God for what was accomplished in Jesus is more common. Dunn acknowledges that even the rare occasions that Jesus is worshipped is striking. But the picture is more complicated than simply saying, “Yes, Jesus was worshipped too.” If we what we mean is that Jesus was worshipped “like” or “as” a god/God, than the picture is murky. Jesus seems to have been to some degree an object of worship, but in a role that made him the enabler or the medium of effective worship (pp. 27-28).

In chapter two Dunn looks at the practice of worship in the New Testament with a focus on prayers, hymns, and sacred meals. Dunn concludes that Jesus was central to Christian worship. He was the subject of their hymns, their sacred meal and it was in his name that their prayers were said. But few hymns and prayers are offered to him. The focus on Jesus in early Christian worship was not so much on Jesus, per say, as it was on the fact that he made worship possible. Jesus had brought God near to them, prayers were offered to God through him. He was the means by which they came to God (pp. 57-58).

Chapter three examines the concept of monotheism in early Judaism and the activity of heavenly mediators and divine agents. Dunn demonstrates that within Judaism there was a strong adherence to the worship of one God, while at the same time allowing for other figures/beings who acted like God. The Angel of the Lord, the Spirit of God, and the Wisdom of God were all used as ways to speak about God and the immanence of God. It was a way to speak about God’s actions in creation without infringing upon the transcendence of God. Even human figures like Enoch, Moses and Elijah were incorporated into the Jewish religious framework in a way that did not make them “gods”. In fact, in those cases when worship was attempted, it was stopped (e.g. Rev 22:8-9). What this demonstrates is that there was an atmosphere in the first century in which worship of Jesus could arise, but there was no precedent in that atmosphere to which Christians could appeal. These other intermediary figures were not worshipped. (pp. 89-90)

In the final chapter Dunn looks at Jesus’ monotheistic practices and his titles including “Lord,” “Word,” and “God”. Dunn notes that the first Christians called Jesus “Lord” and ascribed to him what the scriptures normally ascribed to YHWH as Lord. But at the same time, Jesus affirmed monotheism, prayed to God as his father and expressed his need of and reliance on God. The exalted Jesus was the mediator, through whom Christians approached God and gave thanks and glory to God. But God was still Jesus’ God. The Christian description of Jesus as “Lord” and “God” probably was made with the understood qualification that there was much more to God than could be seen in and through Jesus. So then, Dunn concludes that the first Christians did not think of Jesus as to be worshipped in and for himself. “If he was worshipped it was worship offered to God in and through him, worship of Jesus-in—God and God-in-Jesus . . . The Christian distinctive within the monotheistic faiths is its affirmation that God is most effectively worshipped in and through, and in some real but finally unquantifiable sense, as (revealed in) Jesus.” (p. 146).

Overall I find the volume to be a balanced and thoughtful review of the evidence. What struck me most about his conclusion was the practical outworking that he brought to his work here. He expresses his concern that (modern) Christian worship can deteriorate in to what he labels as Jesus-olatry. “That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (p. 147). Since idols were intended to absorb the worship due to God, Christians may be doing the same thing in the way that they worship Jesus. That is, Jesus absorbs the worship due to God alone. For Dunn, “the danger of a worship that has become too predominantly the worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and that the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited.” (p. 147). Dunn seems to be suggesting that modern worship does (at times) wander away from the paradigm that is found in the New Testament and as a result we confuse God with Jesus. I have my thoughts on this, but what do you think? Is Dunn correct? If so, what are the implications for the modern church and what, if anything, should we do to change it?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Infancy Gospel of Thomas - Cartoon Style

Mark Goodacre and James McGrath posted this video today. It is an animated version of Thomas 9. While most people do not read these other Gospels, they are valuable for us to study as we try to learn how various Christian groups thought about Jesus.

Quite often these infancy narratives were written as a way to fill in the gap of time between Jesus birth and ministry, information not provided in the New Testament. The Jesus that appears in these narratives is often impish and the performer of miracles not found in the Canonical Gospels. This version may seem a bit comical, but it is not far off from the way the story is narrated in Thomas.

Rosh Hashana 2010

Happy New Year to my Jewish friends. This is the Jewish year 5771.

While much of the world has adapted to the western calendar, more properly known as the Gregorian Calendar, other cultures and religions also celebrate their own new year. Muslims, Jews, and the Chinese are among the most notable of those who celebrate two new years, the western one and their own.

Rosh Hashana is Hebrew for "Head of the Year". The holiday is established in Leviticus 23:24 and is declared to be a day of rest. It will often be celebrated with "round" food items intended to resemble the "head". People will greet one with the Hebrew greeting of Shana Tova "Good Year" or Shana Tova Umetkah "A happy and Sweet Year".

Rosh Hashana also signals the beginning of the Jewish Holiday season. Next week Jews will celebrate Yom Kippur and after that Sukkot. I will be doing a three part series on Yom Kippur next week.

Shana Tova to my Jewish friends and readers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does studying the Bible lead to doubt?

I am not sure who Jason Boyett is, but his mini essay on doubt caught my attention the other day. Jason reminds me of so many people including myself. Jason grew up being taught to believe particular things about the Bible. But as Jason studied the Bible he began to realize that things did not always line up the way he had been taught. The Bible does not always live up to its billing. At times you run across stuff that doesn't seem to line up and the deeper you dig the murkier things become. In the end, some of the stuff that you were studying and thought to be "true" leads you to doubt.

On June 28 2002 I graduated with a PhD in New Testament. This was the culmination of nine years of postgraduate work that had taken my wife and me on a long and circuitous journey that we had not anticipated. According to the commonly accepted view, I should be an expert in my field. Unfortunately, the degree makes me feel that much more incapable of articulating much of what I think and believe.

When I began my theological education I endeavored to gain the tools I believed were needed to be an articulate defender of the faith. What I discovered, however, was that much of what I had come to believe and been taught by well-meaning individuals was either incorrect or situated on a precarious set of evidence. This taught me to question things that I encountered and to probe tradition and doctrine for accuracy. This was, after all, my life’s goal. What I found as I studied and probed these questions was not satisfactory answers on which to build an unassailable faith, but more questions! The more I studied the more I was forced to question and the less I discovered answers. For me it became a cycle that threatened to undo the very task I had set out to accomplish in the beginning. Instead of becoming a defender of the faith I was beginning to resemble more and more its detractors. It was not that I wanted to (nor do I yet) discard faith. The problem was that my expedition had led me to realize just how frail and, to be quite honest, implausible much of the doctrine of Christianity is, at least in the form it had been delivered to me. The ultimate question that arose from my enquiry (and remains until this day) is what I am to do with this thing called ‘faith’ and how does it affect me as a human being?

There are some who would read what I have just written and conclude that I have become one of the many casualties of a (liberal?) theological education. A particular encounter in my ‘pre-educated’ life seemed to predict such an outcome. My wife and I had served in a church for a few years. As we were preparing to leave and begin my seminary training I received the usual jokes about attending ‘cemetery’ and becoming too smart for my own good. One individual in particular warned me in an almost conspiratorial tone, ‘be careful brother, too much of that stuff can be dangerous and cause you to take your eyes off of God’. I assume that he meant I would lose my faith. In some ways I think he is right. My education has been extremely dangerous to my faith, at least in terms of how I was taught to think and believe. On the other hand, I have come to a point where I have learned to question so much that I find faith is required of me now more than ever before. For me doubt is the essence of my faith and I am like the man who said to Jesus, ‘Lord, Help my in my unbelief!’

So where does all of this lead me? To that which I find unexplainable and unacceptable. In other words, it leads me to faith. My doubt is the essence of my faith. The fact that I find many things about Christianity not only implausible but outright impossible means that I have nothing on which to base my relationship with God but Faith. Thus how can I believe in the resurrection of Christ and other seemingly impossible, unexplainable and even perhaps unhistorical doctrines and traditions? I do so by realizing that this is where faith begins. An honest person will admit ignorance in such cases. A person of faith will find ignorance as a basis for belief. There is a lot that I am unsure of. One thing I am sure of, I believe in God and I hope that, like Abraham, I will be able to have faith that God will do what He has said He will do.

What about you? Where have your studies led you?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Free Commentaries Online!

Thanks to Michael Halcomb for pointing this out.

Apparently College Press has decided to make their commentary series available to everyone for free. Alternatively, you can download the whole series on Michael's blog since he has been kind enough to condense all 58 volumes in to seven files!

Since I do not remember ever using any of these commentaries I cannot comment on them. But I did open the first Matthew volume. It was printed in 1968, so it is a bit outdated. But I did find the commentary on Matthew' genealogy for Jesus demonstrating thoughtful, critical interaction with the text.

At the very least, you may find these to be a helpful resource to keep stored on your computer.

Jesus Appears on a Telephone Pole

The following appears in today’s edition of the UK newspaper The Telegraph.

An image of Jesus Christ on the cross has been “seen” in a telephone pole covered in vines next to a motorway in Louisiana.

The resemblance was reported by drivers on Highway 26 in rural Jeff Davis parish. One of them, Rickey Navarre, told US television station KPLC: “It just caught my eye. I said to myself that sure looks like an image of Jesus hanging from the telephone pole. “He might just be telling us something, you know, 'I’m looking over you, I’m going to answer your prayers.’”

Local officials were less inspired by religious fervour when they saw the pole and decided it was a safety hazard.

They said the vines were close to high voltage wires and had already been earmarked for cutting before their potential religious significance emerged.

After news of the potential symbolism of the pole came to light the officials acted even more quickly, in case someone tried to climb it to be closer to Jesus. Mike Heinen, a local electrical manager, told KPLC: “We were getting to that one but since it had such notoriety we went and cleared it up today. “For public safety concerns we don’t want anybody trying to climb the pole or trying to touch the vines.” He said a church might be a better place to go looking for Jesus.

I am not going to touch this one with a ten foot pole. Perhaps you have a comment?

The Israeli – Palestinian conflict: A Struggle for a Homeland

A commitment I made to myself when I started this blog was to avoid politics. It’s not that I don’t have any thoughts on politics, I do. But there are plenty of other blogs out there that deal with that area.

I say this as an introduction to announcing a lecture I will give next week on the Middle East conflict. I have been asked by the Ashland Center for Non-Violence to provide a historical overview of the conflict. I know this is a political topic, but I don't plan to take sides.

The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is often presented as a struggle between competing ideologies and religions. While religion and ideology both play a significant part in this ongoing conflict, a more fundamental element is at work. Both hold aspirations for a homeland where they can live in peace. Israelis and Palestinians represent two people groups that live in a land that has experienced some form of occupation for more than two thousand years. I plan to provide a historical framework for understanding the history of the conflict. The focus of the evening will not be on the validity of each group’s claim, but on the way this very complex situation has evolved over the last one hundred years.

The lecture will take place at Ashland University on Wednesday September 15th at 7:30pm in the Ronk Lecture Hall of the Schar College of Education.

This is the first of three programs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sponsored by the Ashland Center for Nonviolence at Ashland University and the Department of Religion.

The other programs include a new documentary film on nonviolent peacemakers in Israeli and Palestinian, “Little Town of Bethlehem,” which will be shown Sept. 22 at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Ronk Lecture Hall in the Schar College of Education; and a speech by Dr. Elizabeth Phillips, visiting scholar in the Department of Religion at Ashland University, on the role of Christian Zionism in supporting and expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Hawkins-Conard Student Center Auditorium.

The Ashland Center for Nonviolence is a group of citizens committed to exploring and promoting alternatives to violence in ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world. It does this through programming and training that foster discussion and consideration of issues, both historical and contemporary, related to nonviolence. It serves as a resource center for people exploring nonviolence. It links people to information about nonviolence and to activities exploring and promoting nonviolence.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?

My wife, Lori, wanted me to find a hobby. She thought it was fine that I read, write and teach about biblical studies. But she thought I needed to find something that would be a distraction. So I began to brew beer. I already had a deep, abiding love and appreciation for beer. Four years of living in England helped me to appreciate what real beer should taste like. Two uncles who live in England made their own beer. So when I decided to learn the fine art of home brewing I had found a hobby. I am not sure if this is the kind of hobby Lori had in mind, but it is the one I chose.

Imagine my excitement when I saw that the recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review brought both of my passions together in an article entitled: Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer? Michael Horman gives a resounding "Yes" to the question. The ancient Israelites drank beer since it was a common part of the ancient world's diet. Of course the beer of the ancient world was not like the fine brews we enjoy today. Beer in antiquity did not contain hops and it was often produced by fermenting a barley cake in some water.

In the article Horman argues that the Hebrew word shekhar which is usually translated as "strong drink" would be better understood as "beer". He even suggests that one of drinks which the Nazerite was commanded to avoid in Numbers 6:3-4 was beer. Horman notes that the oft repeated phrase from Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 is probably referring to beer.
"cast your bread upon the water and in many days you will acquire and then give servings to seven or eight others for you do not know what evil there will be upon the land"

The description sounds a lot like how the ancients brewed beer!

Horman's article makes me think about Deuteronomy 14:22-26 where ancient Israel is instructed about the tithe. If they could not get to the temple they were to use their tithe to buy food and "strong drink" (beer according to Horman's translation) and then enjoy themselves. I am not sure if most modern churches would approve of me spending my offering this way, but I am glad to see that my hobby has a long history with biblical endorsement.