Friday, April 29, 2011

Easter Arabic Style

So often it is easy for western Christians to forget that there is a vibrant Christianity in the east. We sometimes act like there are no Christians living in the Middle East. The below video should help to remove our myopia

The video is from this past Sunday, recorded in a mall in Beirut Lebanon. It is a group of people declaring the resurrection, in Arabic of course. The lyrics are: "Jesus is risen from the dead, defeating death by death and giving life to those in the grave." Take THAT Easter Bunny.

Living Life for the Church: The Mount Athos Monks

On Easter Sunday 60 minutes had a story on the monasteries located on an isolated Greek peninsula. The monks who live there have been worshiping God the same way for over 1000 years. 60 minutes was able to go to Mount Athos to learn about monastic life. The last time a
TV crew was at the monastery was in 1981. So you know this is an unusual occurrence. Here is the show.

Thanks to my wife, Lori, for point this out to me.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Urban Legends about the Bible: Seven Myths to Avoid When Preaching

There are interpretations of the Bible that have surfaced in pulpits across North America for generations. These are often presented as “facts” that provide important background information for understanding the Bible. The problem, however, is that these are myths, fanciful interpretations that have been attached to particular passages, but have no basis in history.

Trevin Wax has listed seven of these myths. I must admit that some are new to me, but others are not. Here is Trevin’s entire post. Please be sure to stop by his blog and see some of the other urban legends that preachers should avoid. I do have a suggestion for how the first myth arose, perhaps I will post on that one soon.

Here is the list:

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus in Mark 10:25. Maybe you’ve heard of the gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” The camel could pass through it only after stooping down and having all its baggage taken off.

The illustration is used in many sermons as an example of coming to God on our knees and without our baggage. The only problem is… there is no evidence for such a gate. The story has been around since the 15th century, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

Various versions of this claim have been repeated by pastors, but it is a legend. It started in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. There is no evidence for the claim in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna or any other source. Furthermore, the thickness of the veil (three feet) would have precluded the possibility of a priest being dragged out anyway.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

As a way of getting across the reverence of the Jewish and Christian scribes toward God, preachers like to describe the honor given to God’s name. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that scribes did these sorts of rituals every time they came across the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. Joel Willitts explains:

This is powerful stuff isn’t it? Well the only problem is that it just isn’t true… The context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea.

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

Voltaire was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” There is a myth out there that within 50 years of Voltaire’s death, his house was owned by a Bible society that used his own printing press to make Bibles. Sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. Regardless, Voltaire’s prediction of the demise of the Bible was vastly overstated.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

I’ve used this illustration many times. But there isn’tevidence to support this idea. Still, because it seems like a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” commentators and preachers have accepted it. It’s possible that the verdict may still be out on this one, but not if Todd Bolen is right:

“The explanation for the ‘fire of Gehenna’ lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing.”

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Please don’t repeat this myth. There has been no “missing day” discovered, and the legend has been circulating longer than NASA has been in existence, with different scientists playing the part.

Please take some time and look at Trevin's blog.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Myth of the Church's Golden Age

From time to time in my classes or in other venues, I will hear students or other believers wax nostalgic for the "New Testament church." Invariably what they mean is a desire to get back to the way the church was in the first century before it went and got all messed up. They desire that early, pure form of community that was evident among the first disciples and followers of Jesus which was then handed down to second and third generation followers of Jesus. Sometimes they don't restrict this nostalgia to the first century, but allow it to extend into the fourth century; before Constantine went and messed it all up.

I refer to this nostalgia for the past as the "myth of the church's golden age," this idea that there was ever a time when the church was in a form that was closer to what God intended. This is similar to the mythic America of the 1950s. The idea that this was America's golden age and that everything was wonderful until the evil 1960s. Has anyone ever heard of McCarthyism? The Red Scare? Korea? Brown verse the Board of Education? This was most certainly not the golden age of America.

And the church in the first century was also not living in a golden age. Whenever I hear someone pining for the Days of Ole, for the true, New Testament church I ask them: which one? Which "New Testament church" do you want to be like?

Do you want to be like some among the Thessalonians who were so excited about the second coming of Christ that they decided it was no longer necessary for them to work and began to live off of others?

Or the Galatian church where some were trying to line up the male believers for adult circumcision?

How about the Colossian church where the people seem to enjoy a variety of teachers whose teachings were making life more restricting for them?

An even better example would be the Corinthian church. Who wouldn't want to be a member at a church that was split by various factions, where worship services resembled a circus, communion was dominated by the wealthy and a prominent member of the congregation was openly sleeping with his step-mother?

We could wonder if the problem was just among Paul's disciples, but a quick look at 1 John and we realize that we were not the first Christians to perfect the art of the church split.

Some will suggest that the best example of the "New Testament church" is found in Acts where everyone met in homes and held all things in common. To which I respond, yes, and they also had elements of racism when the Greek widows were not being taken care of. And let us not forget the case of Ananias and Sapphira who not only lied to the church about their offering, but received an instant death warrant because of it. Not exactly the kind of things you want to use to attract new members.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let's not forget that all of Paul's opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

So the next time you hear someone waxing nostalgic for the "New Testament church" ask them which one they mean.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

N.T. Wright on what hell "is" and where it is located.

As you know, Rob Bell's book Love Wins has caused many to resurrect the conversation about the nature of hell. Does hell exist? Does a loving God send people to hell?

In two short videos below, N.T. Wright explains his view on what hell "is" and where hell is located. As I pointed out in my review of Love wins, Bell is not the first one to question the popular view of heaven and hell. What do you think of what Wright has to say?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Does belief in a loving God lead students to cheat on exams?

Back in November I posted an interview from the Chronicle of Higher Education with an individual who is a hired pen for students. This person was making a significant amount of money writing papers for college students. While this in and of itself was unsettling, I was even more shocked to learn about the number of papers he had written for seminary students. I complained that these people were cheating their way to ordination and somehow thought that doing ministry was more important than the education intended to help them get there.

Well apparently the problem is a result of one’s theology. According to new research, those who believe in a loving God are more likely to cheat. Here is what the researchers discovered.

Two psychology researchers — Azim F. Shariff, at the University of Oregon, and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia — found in a pair of studies that students who believe that God is kind and gentle are more likely to cheat on tests.

In the first study, 61 undergraduates were asked to take a mathematics test on a computer that contained a software glitch. If they failed to press the space bar immediately after reading each problem, the glitch would cause the correct answer to appear on the screen and that just wouldn’t be fair. After taking the test, the students were asked about their perceptions of God.

Of course the sneaky researchers — believers in a benevolent God, no doubt — had peeked to see who had used the space bar and who hadn’t. While they found no differences between self-described believers and non-believers, the psychologists discovered that the students who think of God as angry and punitive were significantly less likely to have cheated.

You can read the full article here.

I will note that the research was compiled from math students rather than those studying theology. But one still has to question: what is wrong when one’s theology leads you to cheat? I suppose I will have to tell my students that God is not as loving as the believed. At least I won’t have to worry about them cheating.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Larry Hurtado on the Resurrection of Jesus

Professor Larry Hurtado, Edinburgh University, provides some thoughts on the resurrection of Jesus.

The conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory seems to have erupted soon after Jesus’ death, and it was central in earliest faith of the Jesus-followers thereafter. A few notes about this in connection with Easter Sunday 2011.

  • The conviction was that it was Jesus of Nazareth who had been raised. That is, there was a direct connection between the crucified figure who had been active in Roman Judea and the figure of earliest Christian faith.
  • This was not a claim that Jesus had been resuscitated and brought back to life of this world, but instead that God had catapulted Jesus forward into life of the world to come.
  • One immediate implication of this claim was that God had vindicated Jesus against the death-penalty imposed by the earthly authorities. That is, in the earliest setting, Jesus’ resurrection was very much divine vindication.
  • The likelihood that Jesus had been executed as a messianic/royal claimant meant that God’s resurrecting him vindicated this claim. That’s probably why the messianic claim about Jesus seems to have been so central in earliest Christian preaching.
  • Resurrection of the righteous was, for many Jews (but not all), a central hope and expectation. That is, “resurrection”, the personal vivification of people by God was by Jesus’ time already a familiar concept. This hope seems to have emerged sometime in the “post-exilic” period, and in the time of Jesus was still under debate, the Sadducees the main Jewish party portrayed as denying this belief.
  • The unusual thing about the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead was that he had been singled out in advance of the resurrection that was to be given to all the righteous. This immediately meant that Jesus was somehow special, that God had chosen to favor him apart from and in advance of the vindication to be given to the righteous (such as Moses, Abraham, David, etc.).
  • The references to Jesus’ resurrection include the claim that this involved also his exaltation to heavenly glory “at God’s right hand” (the phrase lifted from Psalm 110). So “resurrection” in Jesus’ case must be understood as connoting his vindication and glorification. That is reflected in the “post-Easter” references to Jesus as Messiah and as “Lord”, and the assertion that he now shares in the name and glory of God.
  • In short, the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death was central in earliest Christian faith, and also was powerful in generating attendant convictions as well.

Happy Easter

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.