Friday, April 12, 2013

Need a place to spread your ashes? Why not send them to the Holy Land?

Well, it's Friday and time for another episode of  . . . 

You Can't Make This Stuff Up!

Death is that one event in life that we can't avoid. But we can and often do plan for it. Pre-planning of funerals has become more popular as individuals decide they don't want to leave the arrangements to their loved ones. At the same time, pre-planning allows for the individual to be involved with the plans and to design, if you will, how they want to go out.

One thing to consider when thinking about a funeral is how and where to have one's remains deposited. One can be buried in the ground, buried at sea or cremated. While options one and two are usually restricted by local health and zoning laws, option three allow for more variety. Ashes of the deceased can be stored at home in an urn (Meet the Fockers), or spread at a the deceased's favorite location (a lake, park, or the back garden). 

Now, for the devout Christian, there is an opportunity to have one's ashes spread in the Holy Land. Check out this video from CNN.

Here is a bit from the article.

Company president Larry Deverett says he has found the perfect spot for people of the Christian faith to have their own or their loved ones cremated remains scattered.
The spot is located in a small garden in an orchard on a hill above the Sea of Galilee, the area where the New Testament says Jesus prayed, taught and performed many miracles including walking on water.
“I researched the market and found that there is a strong need and demand for this type of service and the No. 1 location on the planet, when you are talking about spirituality, is the Holy Land,” Deverett said.
"There are literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of urns sitting in people's homes, and people really don't know what to do with those ashes. You know at some point in time whether they are moving or after a few years they want to do something proper with the ashes," he said.
For $750 after cremation, you can have your ashes shipped and scattered near the “Jesus Trail,” where a bearded man resembling a person right out of the Bible performs a ceremony. It is all put on a DVD and sent to the family.
At one time it was popular to plant a tree in Israel. Now you can plant a loved one. 
Sigh, you can't make this stuff up! 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ancient Burial Site Discovered: Under the Sea of Galilee

Recent reports have revealed that a large mound of rocks 
was discovered under the water in the Sea of 
Pic from MSNBC Science
Galilee. The size and shape indicate that it is human made. Scuba divers who inspected the site suggest that it is an ancient cairn, or burial mound. 

The mysterious structure is cone shaped, made of "unhewn basalt cobbles and boulders," and weighs an estimated 60,000 tons, the researchers said. That makes it heavier than most modern-day warships. Rising nearly 32 feet (10 meters) high, it has a diameter of about 230 feet (70 meters). To put that in perspective, the outer stone circle of Stonehenge has a diameter just half that with its tallest stones not reaching that height.
 "Close inspection by scuba diving revealed that the structure is made of basalt boulders up to 1 m (3.2 feet) long with no apparent construction pattern," the researchers write in their journal article. "The boulders have natural faces with no signs of cutting or chiselling. Similarly, we did not find any sign of arrangement or walls that delineate this structure."  They say it is definitely human-made and probably was built on land, only later to be covered by the Sea of Galilee as the water level rose. "The shape and composition of the submerged structure does not resemble any natural feature. We therefore conclude that it is man-made and might be termed a cairn," the researchers write.

The water level and coastline of the Sea of Galilee has changed throughout history. The ancient city of Bethsaida, for instance, was once closer to the sea shore, but shifting coastlines and water levels has caused the water to move away from the city. In the 1980's a drought led to the discovery of the ancient Galilee boat more popularly known as the "Jesus Boat."

Thankfully archaeologist were able to study the mound before it reached the media. Otherwise we might be reading about the alien space craft that brought the beings that helped build the pyramids and eventually crash-landed in the sea. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who gets to decide who is an evangelical?

I have gone back and forth about writing this post. I am afraid I might open a can of worms or Pandora's box by broaching this topic. But one purpose of this blog is to raise issues and to encourage discussion. 

Apparently Jim Wallis of Sojourners has come out in favor of gay marriage (here and here). It's not clear to me if Wallis is suggesting that he no longer finds homosexuality to be unbiblical or if he is suggesting that, within our republican form of government, gays should be allowed to be married as well as be the beneficiaries of other civil rights. This is a change for Wallis and time will tell how he nuances his stance on the issue. 

The bee in my bonnet with this issue is not from Wallis but from those  lining up to declare that Wallis is no longer an evangelical. In particular I am thinking of Denny Burk who blogged about Wallis' new stance and had some rather critical things to say about him. But it was the penultimate paragraph of the post that really got my goat, especially the last line.
Declaring support for gay marriage shrinks your platform with evangelicals. Folks like Jim Wallis thrive on being the progressive voice of reform from within the evangelical movement. But now he has revealed himself not to be speaking any longer from within but from without. Embracing gay marriage by necessity means abandoning biblical authority. Abandoning biblical authority by necessity means abandoning evangelicalism. Wallis will no longer be able to credibly call himself anevangelical (for my definition of evangelical see here and here). That means that a very large constituency of people who buy books and attend conferences will be increasingly off-limits to him. Once an “evangelical” declares support for gay marriage, he forfeits his ability to speak to bona fide evangelicals.
After reading this post I couldn't help but ask myself "who gets to decide who is an evangelical?" I understand that Burk disagrees with  Wallis, but I am not sure how he can conclude that Wallis is now no longer able to speak to evangelicals. Burk links his post to his own definition of what is an evangelical where he says.

Evangelicals believe and proclaim theevangel(i.e., the gospel) of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of commitment to the gospel could describe almost every “believing Christian,” but several notable features distinguish Evangelical Christians from the liberal mainlines on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other.
Evangelicals trace all of their beliefs to the inspired Scriptures, which they believe to be the sole authority for faith and practice. American Evangelicals have stressed the inerrancy of Scripture as a necessary condition of its authority (see the 1978Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).
In addition, Evangelicals recognize the decrepit condition of humanity because of sin and the inability of any person to contribute anything to his own salvation from sin’s effects and punishment. Evangelicals therefore rely on Christ’s substitutionary atonement as God’s only way of salvation for sinners who have been alienated from their Maker.
In the Evangelical way, the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work are communicated to the sinner by grace alone through faith alone in the person of Christ alone. Thus, Evangelicals typically stress the need for conversion: that a sinner would repent of his sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals also believe in the necessity and urgency of evangelism.
I agree with Burk on the first line. If I were to define myself as an evangelical it would be based on that first line. But it is everything that follows, the baggage that is added that makes me cringe. The idea that only the Bible has authority in the life of the Christian and that tradition and experience plays no role. That inerrancy is somehow  the guardian of all biblical truth and that we must believe only in substitutionary atonement. I understand why Burk and others hold to these positions. But I don't understand why it is a requirement to be an evangelical. Burk's definition, I would submit, is packed with lots or "extras" that are not necessarily "value added."

Another thing I don't understand is why the issue of homosexuality is the litmus test. One thing that we discover when studying the Bible is that the topic is far more complex than often acknowledged. And disagreeing on this topic, no matter how wrong you may think someone is, doesn't seem like a reason to declare them no longer "evangelical" and pull their membership card. But Burk has done this before as with the case of Rachel Held Evans.

I stopped calling myself "evangelical" a long time ago. Mostly because I am more than uncomfortable with the way the term has been used and the connotations that have become attached to it. I recognize that in some ways I am still closer to those who call themselves evangelicals. But if the description of "evangelical" is the one promoted by Burk, then perhaps he's right and I am not one after all.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Didn't do the reading for today's class? Your professor may know it even before you take your seat!

No matter how much technology changes the way we buy, collect and read books, one thing still hasn't changed. There is no device that magically transfers the knowledge from the book to the appropriate section of your brain. You still need to read the book . Even if you decide to you use the voice option on your Kindle or Nook, it will require listening to each and every word. 

Reading is a major part of the education experience  Professors assign pages in a textbook to be read in preparation for a class. Whether that happens or not is another story. At one time I handed out a reading log on which I asked students to indicate the percentage of the readings they had completed. If they indicated 90% then I figured that into their grade. I have been fazing out that practice, however, since more than once I have had a gnawing feeling that the 100% on the reading log didn't mean the same thing to the student as it did to me. 

But with the move towards E-textbooks the tables may have finally been turned. A new company called Course Smart is helping professors to track how much of the reading students completed. Here is a bit from the New York Times article. 

Several Texas A&M professors know something that generations of teachers could only hope to guess: whether students are reading their textbooks.
They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.
“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.
The faculty members here are neither clairvoyant nor peering over shoulders. They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

You can read the full story here. In the mean time, students may either want to start reading their assignments or stick with the paper version of the textbook. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bible, Gender, Sexuality: A Review of James Brownson

James V. Brownson (Eerdmans, 2013).
Sexuality and the Bible is a topic confronting the church in ways like never before. Books are being written, debates are taking place, denominations are splitting and high profile figures are taking stands on what they believe the Bible has to say. At times it is difficult to think clearly about the topic because many on both sides are shouting at one another rather than talking together.

With the atmosphere the way it is one would wonder why we need another voice, much less a book, to weigh in on the topic. But it is because of this toxic atmosphere that James V. Brownson has written this book. He has read and listened to what both sides have to say and concluded that both are lacking in the answers they provide. The book is also personal. Brownson talks early on about his own struggle with the topic when he son told him and his wife that he is gay. The impact of that day is what sent Brownson back to look once again at what the Bible might have to say about homosexuality. 

The book is broken into four parts and there is much that could be said. It will be very difficult for me to cover everything he says, but I will attempt to give a cursory summary of what Brownson lays out in each section.

In part one he examines the arguments of what he refers to as “traditionalists” and “revisionists.” After looking at the traditionalist arguments against same-sex relationships he concludes that the foundational element of their objections is “gender complementarity,” the idea that anatomical and biological differences between males and females are overcome when the two genders come together and constitute a binary, original human. This conclusion is predicated on an understanding of the “one flesh statement” in Gen 2:24. But Brownson argues that the “one flesh” statement in Genesis 2:24 is not referring to anatomy and biology, but a kinship bond. By joining together they create a new kinship bond that represents the image of God in creation (pp. 32-34). If Brownson is correct, than Gen 2:24 cannot be viewed as teaching “gender complementarity” as normative.

On the revisionist side, Brownson notes that many point out that what the Bible says about same-sex attraction cannot be applied to the contemporary world. Since the Bible has nothing to say about long term committed same-sex relationships, it should not be applied today (p.41). The Bible’s call for justice and love is held up by the revisionists as a template for how same-sex couples should be treated today. But, Brownson questions, if the Bible has nothing to say to same-sex couples how then do we build a distinctively Christian approach to such unions (P. 45)? Instead, Brownson argues, we need a wider canonical examination of biblical discussions on sexuality to determine what relevance they may have for modern same-sex relationships.

In part two he looks at how Patriarchy, “one flesh,” procreation and celibacy are in the New Testament.  

Brownson notes that there is a tension in the New Testament between patriarchy and egalitarianism that is resolved in the eschatological vision of the future. The invitation of the future invites people to live now as if they are in the future. Brownson suggests that since the hierarchy of the genders is undermined by the eschaton, so too assumptions about same-sex relationships based on gender complementarity can/should also not be maintained (p.84).

 In looking at how the New Testament writers understand the “One Flesh” phrase in Genesis, he argues that even in the New Testament Jesus, Paul and others are not referring to gender complementarity, but to kinship bonds. He concedes that in the Bible the “one flesh” bond only takes place between a man and a woman, but he also argues that there is nothing inherent in the Bible that would prohibit that same type of kinship bond being formed between gays and lesbians (pp. 104-108). Just because this is what is normal to the Bible doesn't mean that it is normative in a different cultural setting (p. 109).

On the topic of procreation, a common argument used against same-sex relationships, Brownson argues that although procreation always assumes marriage, marriage doesn't necessarily assume procreation. He demonstrates that there are a number of instances in the Bible where lack of children doesn't dissolve marriage. Therefore, the inability to procreate doesn't undermine the marriage kinship bond (p.126) and should not undermine same-sex couples to marry.

Finally, he examines notions of celibacy in the Bible since it is sometimes argued by some traditionalists that gay and lesbian Christians should remain celibate. But Brownson argues that celibacy is held up as either a gift that few are given or as something that was part of a temporary abstention from sex.  Thus he wonders if it is ethical to force gays and lesbians to remain celibate if they do not have this gift from God (p. 146).

In part three Brownson focuses on what Paul has to say in Rom 1:24-27, a passage often held up by traditionalists. He suggests that Paul is not talking about any kind of sexuality, but the kind in which an unhealthy preoccupation with lust and desire manifests itself in destructive ways. The problem is not the type of sex, but what drives it (167-169). He argues that the Bible is categorically against this type of lust, but does not necessarily condemn same-sex couples any more than heterosexual ones. He further argues that when Paul speaks of “nature” he is not referring to biology or anatomy, but “what comes natural.” Paul’s understanding of same-sex relationships was that they were driven by an insatiable drive for such actions. Since Paul and the ancients had no understanding of sexual orientation, Brownson suggests that 1:24-27 cannot be applied to those couples that are committed to one another in a same-sex relationship. The problem is uncontrollable lust, not necessarily the mode of sex. 
Brownson concludes the book by offering a review of his arguments and looking, briefly, at some of the other passages in the Bible that are often used by traditionalists. He concludes that many of these passages have not been properly understood and that while they are condemning certain behaviors, none of them reflect the type of committed, long-term same-sex relationships that we are witnessing today. In most cases, he argues, the problem is with how one individual is using and abusing another for their own sexual gratification. In the bible, notions of mutual respect and love are not understood to be a part of these relationships. Sexuality in the Bible is hedged by warnings against self-gratification, excess, and shaming and/or degrading others. This vision of redeemed sexuality, Brownson notes, can be applied to committed same-sex relationships as well.

As I mentioned above, there is a lot to this book and it is impossible to address everything that Brownson has said. Overall I think he is to be commended for trying to bring an approach that looks at the Bible with fresh eyes. Rather than apply the Bible from the traditionalist position, he has tried to ask how this ancient document needs to be interpreted in a modern setting that is not envisioned by the authors of the Bible. Rather than suggest that the Bible has little to say to modern, committed, same-sex couples he attempts to apply the sexual ethics of the Bible to them in the same way he would a heterosexual couple.

If there is one thing that sticks out to me about this book it is the emphasis that the “one-flesh” bond is not about gender complementarity, but kinship bonds. Based on his reading of the Hebrew Bible I think he is correct in the context of Genesis. There are times, however, when I am not sure that it works in the New Testament since those authors often read those text in very different ways. The use of Gen 2: 24 in 1 Cor 6:16 in the prohibition against prostitution, for instance, seem to envision more than a kinship bond. And the quotation of Gen 2:24 by Jesus does seem to assume male and female.

But this gets to the very point of Brownson’s book.  The extant evidence from the ancient world doesn't indicate they envisioned same-sex relationships as deriving from orientation. Unlike today, the notion of stable relationships formed in love and mutual respect was not part of their worldview.  Brownson acknowledges that and attempts to tease out a distinctively Christian approach to such unions.

I suspect there will be much debate surrounding this book. Certainly not everyone is going to agree with him (from both camps). But I also think it will help some to rethink how the Bible does and does not speak to same sex relationships. Hopefully it will help to change the atmosphere of the debate. 

Overall, I think he makes some good points and while there are areas that I think he could have done a better job, I think he helps move the conversation in the right direction. No matter which side of the debate one takes, Brownson helps bring some sanity to the way we think and talk about it. 

Many thanks to the kind people at Eerdmans for sending me a copy to review here.