Friday, October 29, 2010

The Problem with "Biblical Family Values"

It's autumn in Ohio which means that the leaves are falling and my mailbox is filling up with political postcards from parties of all stripes. My time-honored practice is to treat both the leaves and the postcards in the same manner. I put them at the curb so the city can pick them up.

It is not unusual for politicians to begin attending church during the election season and to quote the Bible. These are both sometimes met with unfortunate results. Since these people are not usually regular readers of the Bible they often have no clue what it says. Sometimes they know some "famous" verses, but have no clue what they mean.

I remember one particularly embarrassing scene that took place when an important and much debated bill was making its way through congress. The bill was intended to help children in the USA, but was being held up due to the normal, ugly processes of sausage making in Washington. During an interview one leader decided to throw out a Bible verse to support the need to pass the bill. The politician quoted the KJV translation of Mark 10:14a which reads "suffer the little children to come unto me." The politician then insisted that the children had suffered enough and therefore the bill should be passed! I take it this individual had never actually read the verse, but was familiar with it nonetheless.

Another symptom of the clash of politics and the Bible is the oft-asserted claim that politician "X" will support "biblical family values." But as Michael Coogan points out in an Op-Ed piece this week, the Bible can have some very strange family values. Here is a bit of what Coogan has to say.
In addition to the above I can think of other examples of family values that I would not want to replicate simply because they are in the Bible. Abraham denies that Sarah is his wife (twice) and later forces his eldest son and mother to leave home (Hagar/Ishmael). Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped and he says nothing since he is more concerned with what the surrounding people will think. David does a similar thing when Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. And I know of no one who suggests that we should execute a rebellious teenager, although I am sure that thought may have passed through the mind of a few parents.

Coogan's point is well taken. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean that it is something that should be followed. And when we throw around such phrases like "biblical family values" we leave a lot open to interpretation. We often know what we have in mind, but those who hear us do not. The uninformed would be justifiably shocked if they went to research the Bible's family values and came across some of the above examples.

As Coogan points out, we would be better off looking for and communicating the underlying message of the need to love and respect one another. And the best way to do that is not to tell people about our biblical values, but to actually live them out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Esther: The Making of a Woman

Myrto Theocharous is a friend Lori and I met while spending time in Cambridge a couple of years ago. She was working on her PhD. She recently moved back to her native Greece where she is teaching at the Greek Bible College in Athens.

She has an interesting post today on Esther and becoming a woman of God. Among the many good things she has to say there is this paragraph.

The powerful men of this world, as the book begins, assemble to ensure that women end there, in blind obedience to the orders of man, devising ways to enforce it with all their might. But that is just the beginning of the book. It does not stop there.

The Esther of God does not reject man but she draws him into her history making, she opens up avenues for him to do justice.

Myrto has some keen insights about how a godly woman uses the powerful men of her world to bring about justice. Read the rest of her comments here.

Are you sure you want to do a PhD?

Rob Cargill Posted this on his blog. Everyone who wants to do a PhD should watch it. They don't call it a terminal degree for nothing. If the program doesn't kill you the search for a job just might. I have many students who came to me and ask about doing a PhD in biblical studies. This video is obviously intended to warn people of doing a PhD in the humanities. We still need good people in the field, but you should know what the future holds.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Suffering of Job and Natural Disasters: Creation Untamed III

This is the third installment of my review of Fretheim's Creation Untamed. In previous posts we saw how God created the world good, but not perfect. We also saw that God created a world which included natural disasters that were made worse by human sin.

In chapter three Fretheim examines the book of Job. This is not a place where one would usually turn to to think about natural disasters, but as Fretheim points out, much of what causes Job's suffering is the result of natural disasters: windstorms, lightening, fires, disease (p. 65).

Probably the main stumbling block for many readers of Job is the opening scene in which God and the satan agree to a wager concerning Job's faithfulness. Fretheim spends a good bit of time here unpacking the scene, but probably his most important point is this. Job never takes a direct hit from God. The primary source of Job's suffering is elements in God's creation mediated by the satan. Much of Job's suffering is from natural disaster and some is from moral evil (the various bands of raiders that attack his land). But God is not directly involved here (p. 72).

Job's response to all that has befallen him is reveled in the various speeches attributed to him in chapters 3-37 . Again and again Job returns to the problem of the way creation works. Job understands that his suffering is a results of the way creation works. Fretheim says:

"Job faults God for not creating an order that functions in direct correspondence to human behaviors. The most fundamental issue for Job is theological, more specifically, a certain theology of creation. For Job, God's creation is out of whack; it is a disorderly place that cannot be truly counted on and that God does not carefully control in a way that God should" (pp. 74-75).

In the speeches attributed to God in chapters 38-41, Job is shown that creation is diverse and complex. God's governance of the world is not all controlling. Human beings are not protected from the wildness and randomness of creation. God allows creatures to be what they were created to be which includes the potential for danger (p. 78, 82). The world God created is good, but not perfect. It is not a risk-free place for human or animals. God did not provide danger-free zones even for righteous people like Job (p. 83). God challenges Job to trust God's design of creation and to have confidence that, no matter how dangerous a place, God does have concern for the well-being of creation (p. 85).

So why does Job suffer? Fretheim suggests that God's commitment to human freedom means that God cannot act with complete freedom in the world. God is committed to the structures of creation which means that disasters will strike both the righteous and the unrighteous Matt 5:45 (p. 87). He puts it this way.
The is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, that people may pay for living is such a world. But this is a price that God also pays, for God too will experience the suffering that the creatures undergo. God does not remain aloof, ensconced in some distant abode. God is not like a mechanic fixing a car. God enters deeply into our suffering; rather than control things from without, God works from within. Rather than remain in heaven, above the storms of life, God has chosen to join Job in his suffering and seeks to bring healing from within. And notably, God recognizes that healing may well take significant and sustained levels of conversation and intellectual engagement with the whys and wherefores of life (p. 89).

Fretheim's closing thoughts in this chapter is that God is more honored by the impatient questions of Job than by the friends who place certain questions off-limits (p. 91). In other words, it is in asking the really hard questions that we finally begin to engage God. Disaster, pain and even disease is not a part of "the fall," but God's design. And suffering sometimes has nothing to do with sin but the world we live in.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Zombies in the Gospel of Matthew?

Early in the life of this blog I posted on the mysterious verses in Matthew 27:51-53. In that passage we read that during the 48 hours between Jesus' death and resurrection that a number of saints were raised from the dead and then appeared to people in Jerusalem. I suggested that scene was probably not historical, but a theological construction meant to signify Jesus' death as the trigger to a general resurrection.

Well someone must be reading this blog since there is now a webcomic called ZombieJesus. Here is what one article has to say about the comic.

The comic will tell the story of the 48 hours following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which a horde of zombies attack Jerusalem in search of the messiah's body.

"Zombie Jesus involves all the key players that moved behind the scenes following the crucifixion," said Liefeld. "The Disciples, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea all play key roles as the Undead attack. Most importantly, Lazarus, the man Christ returned from the Dead, arrives to fulfil his destiny.

"Lazarus was delivered from death for a purpose and Zombie Jesus connects all the mystery surrounding the days following the death of Christ. It's 300 meets Dawn of the Dead with a ticking clock reminiscent of 24."

I am not sure what to make of this. Apparently it is not a joke, even though it seems like one. I suppose we should be happy that someone is taking the Bible seriously. But I am not sure this what the author of Matthew had in mind.

Here is a link to some color graphics. Thanks to Terence Mournet for finding these for me.

When Did Jesus Die? April 7th?

People are forever trying to fix exact dates to when something happened in the Bible. A few weeks ago I had a link to a story claiming Jesus was born on September 25th.

Helen Bond from the University of Edinburgh has a brief discussion over on the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins. She challenges what seems to be a growing consensus that Jesus died on April 7th, 30 CE. Helen lays out some good reasons why finding an exact date is difficult if not impossible. As Helen says: "Sometimes it may be best to acknowledge that we know less about Jesus of Nazareth than we often care to admit.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Are sermons still an effective means of communication?

This is a question that I have asked myself from time to time. I have sat through enough church services and looked around and wondered if anybody was really listening. Or, if they are listening, how much will they remember once they leave the sanctuary? Will they be able to recall anything the pastor said by Wednesday? I have observed individuals working very hard, who are obviously prepared, and are making little to no progress with the audience.

As a biblical scholar I find it hard to sit through many sermons. I am not referring to those times when someone massacres a text with something masquerading as hermeneutics. That is another topic. What I mean is, as one who works day-in and day-out with the text it is difficult to listen to a message that often has little connection to the week before or what is coming next week. Its hard to approach the Bible like a MTV video (when they still showed videos). Yes, it is all music, but it is not necessarily tied together with any significance? And while it is entertaining I am not sure I really came away with a grasp of what the song was talking about.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we do away with sermons completely. I think a well constructed homily on a topic still has a place in the life of the church. They are particularly effective and appropriate at weddings, funerals and other occasions. But I wonder if it is a useful means of communicating every Sunday. Might our time be better spent in the study of a particular text in a the fashion more often associated with Sunday school? Might people be better educated and more knowledgeable of the Bible if they were actually drawn into the text rather than sitting back and watching what sometimes ends up being a performance? And it is the person's performance more often than not that determines if it was a "good message" rather than if we actually learned something.

I wonder how many pastors also feel this way? They believe in the need to educate those who come to them week-in and week-out, but the truth is they are as uninspired by what they preach as the people to whom they are preaching. My own dissatisfaction with this approach means that I rarely accept invitations to preach anymore. I am happy to go and teach a class, but rarely a one-off 30 minute lesson.

Perhaps this is evidence that I am more postmodern than I care to admit. But I wonder if we really are helping people be giving them a prepackaged Bible lesson every week. Are we preparing them for what life will bring their way? Are we teaching them to read and study the Bible for themselves? Or are we merely being the person who hands out a weekly ration of Bible sprinkled with just enough guilt to make them come back for more?