Friday, May 24, 2013

If God doesn't control the weather then why pray?

Yesterday I posted about piece from Allan Bevere 
talking about why God is not responsible for the
Moore, Oklahoma tornado. The post created a bit of conversation on Facebook and my colleague and fellow blogger Tom Verenna asked some good, but hard questions. Questions for which I frankly don't have answers. 

Today Tom laid out his questions in a post. He does a good job of laying out the problems and raises the questions again. One thing he has a problem with is the way I prayed for the victims on the one hand, but condemned some for suggesting God sent the storm. Here's what he says. 

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy.  Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands.  On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people.  But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?
In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath.  Do you, humble reader, see the problem?
I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm?  Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren't a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.
This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (Joel Watts) and this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it.  It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments.  And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters.  But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it?  It did for me.
How would you answer Tom here? Here is a link to his post

The Isle of Patmos and the Monastery of St. John

If it wasn't for the book of Revelation mentioning that John
was exiled there, I suspect the Isle of Patmos
would be an island resort for the rich and famous. The island is a beautiful place and I could think of worse places to be exiled. 

I had the opportunity to visit there in 2007 with a group of students. The main attraction is the Monastery of St. John the Theologian. The monastery is open to tourists and we even had a chance to witness a worship service. But for many, a visit to such a remote location is a dream. 

Until now however. The Google Art Project has an impressive photo gallery of the monastery that allows you to navigate through the monastery just like a tourist. Of course nothing is like being there yourself. But this will allow millions more to "visit" the monastery while allowing the monks their needed privacy.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Problem with Blaming God for Oklahoma

I was in class Monday evening when I first heard about the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma. My students took a moment to pray for those afflicted by the storm and then moved ahead with the class. 

But almost immediately the thought in the back of my head was about  how will some blame this storm on God. It wasn't too long when the news sources and blogs began relating how certain Christian leaders were evaluating the storm as God's judgement and even suggesting that had Christians in Moore prayed, the storm would have gone around them. 

This is the same kind of nonsense that was trotted out after other natural disasters like the Tsunami that hit Japan.  Of course there is little thought given to a host of related problems like 1) The storm hit so quickly that Christians wouldn't have time to pray (assuming they knew it was coming) or 2) If they did "pray away" the storm that means they sent it elsewhere to kill someone else. 

I felt little energy to respond here to those who make such claims. I have in the past as when the tsunami  hit Japan and in a review I did of Fretheim's book Creation Untamed. Thankfully, my fellow blogger and colleague at Ashland Seminary, Allan Bevere, has responded. And I think he makes some excellent points. I found his second point to be particularly incisive when he discusses the level of arrogance one must reach to begin deciding what is and what is not an act of God's judgement. 

The second issue I have with people pointing to a natural disaster, such as a tornado or a hurricane as God's judgment is frankly the arrogance one has to have in order to claim an inside knowledge of when and where God is judging, and the assumption that a person knows the sins that are the cause of such disasters. I would ask those people who believe that God has passed judgment in Moore, Oklahoma if they are willing to apply that criteria to their own life? If a loved one is killed, do they believe that God is judging them or someone related to them? Do they see their own tragedy as simply unfortunate adversity, while the sufferings of those they don't know are experiencing the angry hand of God? People who point to tragic events as God's judgment have an arbitrary set of criteria for determine when and why the Almighty gets peeved at his children.

It looks like Allan is beginning a series on the topic so read his post here

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Opening Paul's Letters

Of the 27 books in the New Testament 21 are classified as letters and another, Revelation, contains seven letters to churches. But readers of the New Testament don’t always realize that they are reading other people’s mail. I remember when the light first went on for me. For years I didn't hear them called “letters” but “epistles.” Having no idea what an epistle was, I didn't realize I was reading a letter.

Large portions of the New Testament letters (thirteen) were either written by or are attributed to Paul the Apostle. That means that about half of the New Testament is made up of letters from Paul. Which is why the recent book by Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’sLetters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Baker Academic,2012), is a welcome addition to the resources available to the student of the New Testament. In this short book (176 pp), Gray provides the reader with an accessible introduction to reading, understanding and interpreting Paul’s letters. The book is broken into six chapters.

In chapter one Gray discusses Paul’s cultural context. He provides a background of the major historical events that would have impacted Paul’s life as well as the various philosophies and social practices. Understanding the world of Paul helps the reader better understand what Paul wrote and why.
In chapter two Gray looks at the different types of genres of letters that existed and their purposes. He gives an overview of the role of handbooks in antiquity and then provides a short description of each of Paul’s letters and how they should be classified.

Chapter three looks at the form and structure of letters and includes a section on how Paul uses rhetoric within that structure.

In chapter four Gray gives consideration to Paul’s audience, which is just as important as understanding the author. Gray then provides an overview of each of Paul’s letters and suggests an occasion for the letters and the personality of the various churches.

Chapter five is helpful because Gray gives attention to the way Paul uses scripture. While this is not a normal part of studying a letters genre and structure, it is important to understanding Paul. His letters are packed with quotations and allusions to the Old Testament.

In chapter six Gray tackles the question of pseudonymity. He looks at the arguments for and against pseudonimty and includes on a section asking does it matter whether or not Paul wrote them.

This is a well done introduction to studying Paul’s letters. It is short, accessible, but packed with good information that will help take the reader far into the process of studying Paul. Each chapter ends with a set of discussion questions which would be valuable if it is being used in a classroom or group setting. A short bibliography is provided in each chapter for those who want to study further.

I have been using Gray’s book as I teach my Pauline Epistles class and as I write the introduction to my commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. I have found it helpful and well balanced. This would not only be a good textbook in undergrad or seminary, but would also do well in a small group Bible study. I have no criticism of the book, only praise. I plan to add it to my required reading list next year.

Highly Recommended! 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Fewer Seminary Grads Working in the Context of a Church

In a little under three weeks Ashland Seminary will hold a graduation 
ceremony to launch about 200 people into a variety of fields of ministry. Some will become pastors. Some will become licensed counselors. Others will be missionaries. But according to a report in the Washington Post, the trend is away from the more traditional setting of a pulpit and into other forms of ministry. 

About 41 percent of master’s of divinity graduates expect to pursue full-time church ministry, down from 52 percent in 2001 and from 90-something percent a few decades ago, according to the Association of Theological Schools, the country’s largest such group.
Americans, particularly young ones, are becoming less religiously affiliated, and many see churches as too focused on internal politics and dogma and not enough on bettering the outside world. Institutional religion doesn’t have the stature it once did, and pastor jobs are fewer and less stable.
The skepticism about religious institutions has led to a broadened concept of what it means to minister. Like Allen, seminary graduates today use the words “ministry” and “calling” to describe their plans to employ their understanding of theology in a new career or to use their degrees to bring more purpose to what they are already doing. And seminaries are busily trying to accommodate them, creating new degrees for careers in such areas as urban ministry and psychology.
The trend is an interesting one. As people become less focused on a central church entity, they are not necessarily abandoning the idea of ministry. Rather, they are interested in meeting the needs where they find them, outside of what we would traditionally think is the place where ministry takes place.

Are you a seminary grad or soon to be one? What types of ministry do you intend to pursue outside of a church?