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Fresh Ideas for Free: #1

If Matthew believed that Jesus' life had been pleasing to God, prior to that dramatic baptism, then the 'Sermon on the Mount' (as a treatise on how to please God) *must* reflect Matthew's implicit testimony about how Jesus lived before his baptism.

I've said this before. I just felt like saying it again.

If anyone wants to investigate further, and publish something along these lines, I'll happily settle for a footnote. Have away!

The Land of Interminable Pregnancies

Some friends of mine, who just love to see babies join families, heard about this far away country where all of the families were pregnant, but none of the mothers would ever deliver to term. The mothers, all very round in the belly, each acted as if they didn't even know what a pregnancy was. Very few of the people in this country had ever seen a baby. And it was almost impossible to actually find one, even if you deliberately went around looking.

Well, like I said, these friends of mine are so passionate about babies, and they feel so strongly that the purpose of life is to have more babies so even more people can be loved by their families. So these friends of mine were just crushed that this faraway country had nothing but pregnant women who never seemed to give birth. But then, after weeping, and praying, and saving, and planning, a group of my dear friends all got on an airplane and flew to the Land of Interminable Pregnancies.

When they came back, they told the most amazing stories. They'd met with one woman and told her about the miracle of birth. When the woman believed, she went right into labor! She gave birth, and had a baby! This was such wonderful news, I couldn't help but weep tears of joy.

My friends told more stories like this. One night, a hundred more people had all come to a big tent meeting at which the message of giving birth had been prominently shared. Forty-five more women had babies that night! Forty-five couples became new families! Praise the Lord! How amazing, the faith of my friends, and their prayers that took hold. To see all these lives changed, to see new life begin in the midst of these peoples families! I'd never heard a more wonderful tale.

A year later, however, a few of my friends went back again for a second visit. This time, I went with them. I kept looking for one-year old babies. But I didn't see any. I kept looking for happy new families. I couldn't find more than a few. My friends made contact with almost all the new mothers from one year before.

With few exceptions, every new mother confessed shame and expressed guilt over the fact that their babies had died. Those whose children had grown were now having meetings all by themselves. Somehow, they'd figured out how to take care of babies. But the ex-families just stayed away, feeling inadequate.

As sad as that made me, what happened next floored me. My wonderful friends, who cared so passionately about babies, gathered all of these mourning ex-mothers together for another tent meeting. This time they invited three-hundred of their friends' friends. Hundreds of previously interminable pregnant women had babies that night. But three days later, we were on the flight home.

Why don't we stay? I asked. Why don't we help teach these new families how to actually take care of a brand new infant life?

That part isn't our job, I was told. We just have to trust God for that part. Somebody plants. Somebody else waters. We're only doing as much as we know how to do. They said. As we flew home.

I weep now, every time I see my friends going back to the land of interminable pregnancies. Maybe I'm the one who's inadequate, but I can't allow myself to feel too much joy over babies being born, when I know the chances of these new lives being nurtured with even the minimum amount of skillfulness needed to keep them alive... simply isn't there.

My friends here at home don't understand why I can't go to their meetings anymore. Every week, they have praise reports about new mothers giving birth. Rarely, if ever, do I hear about children growing up to maturity. My friends here at home all think it's just wonderful every time a new baby gets born. But it makes me so sick with grief that I almost have to vomit.

Don't they see what they're doing? Don't they care?

In a land of interminable pregnancies, they should stop teaching women how to give birth. Let the babies stay in utero until we've learned how to bring them into this world WITH A FUTURE.

Let's first build a world worth bringing these babies into. Then let's go to the families that can't seem to give birth. THEN, let's share with them the message of new life. Only then.

Knowing John Adams' Ghost

How do we "know" God? So as not to be word-nazis, let's put this in practical terms. To illustrate:

Let's imagine John Adams was presently walking the earth as a ghost, and let's further imagine that he had the power to interact with people to some degree, but that most of those whom Adams contacted weren't able to fully receive his communication. (If you saw Patrick Swayze in Ghost, we could imagine a few people see and hear him as well as Whoopi Goldberg did but that most folks barely see or hear him at all, like Demi Moore eventually did.)

Okay. John Adams' earthly life was historical. We have records. We also have biographies and historical reconstructions which attempt to put together a more holistic picture of what Adams' life was like, the context of all his known actions, and the finer details that paint a more vivid picture of who he was. With so much material, earnest students of Adams' life might well be able to say they not only know lots of things *about* John Adams. The best students should rightly be able to say, in some sense, that they've come to KNOW John Adams.

Fair enough. Seriously. I think we can all understand what that phrase means, in said context. But what about knowing John Adams' ghost? How might knowledge of the historical Adams be of any help? Could it really be an advantage?

Despite what you might expect me to say, I say: Yeah, maybe so.

If two random people got to have an encounter with John Adams' Ghost, we might expect the one who'd learned more about the Historical Adams to have some advantage over the one who had not. Then again, that depends. If we're talking about two people who had very little ability to sense ghosts, they still might not recognize Adams at all, in any practical sense.

In that case, each novice (both the studied as well as the ignorant one) would need someone more spiritually attuned to serve as an advisor. The one with much reading could be told to apply that knowledge to their new barely-felt friend. The one without much reading would have less knowledge of the same friend... but about the same realistic grasp of (and quality of interaction with) said friend.

In that regard, J.I. Packer's strategy for "Knowing God" is somewhat reasonable, but it's still practically impotent in the spirituality department. It doesn't teach you how to take things to the next level.

Study the Gospels all you like. You still have to seek and attempt to encounter, deal with, be dealt with by, and somehow "see" and/or "hear" this silent invisible SPIRIT which is Him Who Is. Recognize Him as you may, all your studying still doesn't give you any sensible guidelines for how to distinguish real spiritual sensitivity from the subtle pretense of wishful thinking and superstition.

How do most of us "Know God", today? It usually comes about only through years of trial and error. Worthwhile gains often feel like they happened by accident. All we have is humility, openness and desperate prayer. God does like to reward those who seek Him... but how much of Him are we really asking for, usually?

Last of all - in today's illustration - let's imagine an organization of Adams' Ghost enthusiasts. A kingdom of barely-feel-Him believers is easier to manage, keep safe and control than a kingdom of those who *claim* they can see and hear Him directly. That ALONE means an institutional Adams-cult would more likely support shallow encounters with Adams. That IN TURN means the institution would have to rely more on their written records of Who He Is than they could on their ghostly apprehension of Who He Is.

Of course, I said all this to explain what I meant on Monday.

If your method for "knowing Jesus" is based almost entirely on what you're able to read, while you're just hoping the so-called 'spiritual life' gets deeper eventually (which it does, praise the Lord, but we could have it soooo much better than we typically tend to)... then you're naturally apt to feel threatened by new biographies of your Lord which might complicate the monopolized view you all understandably cling to.

However, if you and your people could actually Know Him in Spirit, then a re-told historical Saga of Him wouldn't hurt in the least.

Jesus' Identity: Son of the Father

'Historical Jesus' Scholars focus so much on Jesus' identity: the social prophet, the cynic philosopher, the Jewish sage, the eschatological prophet, the apocalyptic messiah. But those are all merely vocational.

One's deepest identity is always rooted in one's family origin. If your Historical Jesus is not first and foremost the Son of his Father, I'm not going to think much of your History. What's more, I'll bet most normal christian folks won't care much for it, either. Nor will they, ever.

What we need, therefore, is a Historical Method that gives more weight to Christ's Spiritual origins... which are, after all, purportedly factual... according to the New Testament.

Knowing Jesus... through History??

Nuh-uh. Perish forbid. Knowing Jesus is NOT the same thing as knowing the Historical Jesus. Nor is it the same thing as knowing the Jesus we find in the pages of the Gospels. In order to know Jesus, personally, we must know Him who comes OUT FROM the pages of the Gospels, and into our 'hearts' by faith. More typically, hopefully, we come to know Him through those vessels of Him who bring Him into our lives.

In that sense, I do not understand these, among Richard Hays' questions for N.T. Wright:
What roles, if any, do the church’s scriptural cannon and tradition play in helping us know the truth about Jesus? Is there a legitimate discipline of historical inquiry that can operate outside and apart from that tradition? And if so, what claim does such a discipline have on determining the ways in which Christians know Jesus?
Let me try to condense that: What claim would any legitimate discipline of historical inquiry - which is also non-traditional - have on determining the ways in which Christians know Jesus?

I admit, I'm stupefied by this question. Knowing Jesus? How can History help us know Jesus? Seriously? Does Hays, Wright or anyone really think that's the goal of reading the Gospels historically? To "know" Jesus?

In my humble opinion, the best thing a historically contextualized view of the Gospels could EVER do for us is give us a more precise view of the FACTS ABOUT Jesus.

And yes, we need to know more about Him, and about His life. I believe we need that much more than most people can possibly imagine.

But knowing Him? Actually, presently, Him?

To be fair, I'm not sure if Richard Hays was really suggesting that we "KNOW" Jesus primarily because of what we read about Him in the Gospels, whether traditionally or otherwise. I hope somehow he misspoke or I misunderstood him. However, if Richard Hays DOES think that, then I don't mind saying that he's wrong. Dead wrong.

Furthermore, IF that actually is to any significant degree the established view of christendom in general - and let's be frank, institutional christendom has purposely kept the more mystical expressions of our faith at arms length for many centuries... IF that were the traditional view... it could go a long way toward explaining why Theologians don't want to see History written on top of the Gospels.

If all you have is what's written on paper, you'd better not let anything challenge whatever you've already built up.

That is, you'd better not let anyone ELSE build on top of that paper.

The Biblical/unBiblical "Trinity"

Oddly, this illustrates my pet peeve perfectly. At the end of this post, I'll explain just how it does so.

Nick Norelli (naturally) was posting about why the Trinity both IS and ISN'T "Biblical". In doing so, Nick quoted Rob Bowman at length. A few key excerpts will help set me up to make my own point:
Trinitarian scholars routinely acknowledge that the Bible does not teach the formal, systematic doctrine of the Trinity; that the concept of the Trinity is nowhere explicit in Scripture; that the biblical writers did not themselves think of God as triune or conceptualize God as triune; and so forth.
...
Systematic theology is an intellectual activity or discipline that seeks to answer specific questions that arise from the reading of Scripture. The Bible may not answer these questions explicitly, but it may provide information or statements from which the theologian infers an answer.
...
In short, sola scriptura means that all doctrine must derive from the teachings of Scripture, not that we are restricted to using words found in the Bible or to using concepts that one or more biblical writers explicitly formulated.
I'm just fine with all that, by the way. If you need more, read Nick and Rob. But now, as promised, here's what this does in my brain.

Why can Systematic Theologians "infer" while discouraging Historians from doing the same? As rightly stated above, Christian Theologians construct all kinds of Metaphysical Truth on the basis of their inferences from scripture. So why do the same people turn around and dissuade any would-be Christian Historians from reconstructing Chronological Fact?

One possibile answer: Math. It's possible we've merely lacked someone to put the numbers together correctly. The chief roadblock on Gospel Chronology seems to be John 2:20, about which my own ice-breaking suggestion begins HERE.

Another possible answer: Tradition. What Christendom has been doing for centuries provides good support for what it (mostly) wants to keep doing. In stark contrast, what Historians do has often undermined much of traditional dogma.

The problem is that it's all the same. We construct Truth. We reconstruct Facts. But which one, do you suppose, is more within reach?

Don't worry. Again, I'm all for keeping the doctrine of the Trinity, so far as anyone on Earth understands it. I'm also for Rob Bowman when he says: "the question, once asked, is unavoidable. The theologian does his best to answer it in a way most faithful to the teaching that the Bible does present." I just want that point applied evenly.

What burns me up is that Theologians, having stood with the utmost confidence upon their own constructions of otherworldly truth, much of which we cannot ever confirm absolutely from our mortal perspective - those same Theologians will then turn right around and pooh pooh our ability to express confidence in Historical reconstructions.

It's all politics. It is also unconscionable to be so inconsistent.

So say I. What say you?

My Favorite Joke (meme)

Kermit the Frog and John the Baptist... both liked to eat bugs.
Winnie the Pooh and John the Baptist... both loved eating honey.
Aside from eating, what do all three have in common?

Click & drag over the gap: (----> same middle name <----)

You're laughing despite yourself, aren't you? Well, I didn't say it was the best joke I'd ever heard. It's just my favorite joke to tell, especially in a group.

I tag every blogger who reads this - tell your *favorite* joke. Funny or not. That can be typed. Non-bloggers can leave theirs in the comments.

Happy weekend!

Colonel, why the two orders?

Michael Gorman was kind enough to respond beneath last night's post. I'm hoping he'll return again to re-clarify, however, because I'm still confused. Honestly. (See here for details.)

Gorman vs. Gorman

On Monday, Michael Gorman posted his review of "the Jesus day" at Wheaton's NT Wright Rodeo. In agreeing with Richard Hays, Gorman had this to say, against the inevitable evils of reconstructing a "5th gospel":
The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron...
Fair enough, maaaaybe, but I mused on that point in my last post (an hour ago). What I want to say here is quite different.

Later on down the (really wonderful, btw) post, Gorman writes about Wright's response to Hays, including this bit: "Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel." Gorman then agreed to some extent, but went on to defend the creeds. I've no argument there. But, again, it's his line of reasoning I want to examine more closely. Watch carefully:
One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.
Again, no argument here. But tell me, now. Does anyone else see a conflict in the reasoning of these two quotations, or is it just me?

If the creeds and all of Christian tradition (!) can be safely constructed on top of our four cannonical gospels, without being seen as hermeneutical straight-jackets, then why can't a "fifth Gospel"?

Wright, Hays, and a 3rd Option(?)

I've had my own reasons for being wary of NT Wright - or at least, of his angle on doing History. Richard Hays' presentation at Wheaton last weekend confirms that I wasn't alone in some of these observations. So let this be the second of my posts here reflecting on (the vids of and the reports about) the big conference. More will follow.

My constant impression, at every perusal, has been that Wright thinks with an overabundance of metaphor. His writer's voice is preacherly (homiletic), seeming at times too much after the more dramatic, thematic (subjective?) aspects of Jesus' Story. He's after a "grand meta-narrative". In some ways, honestly, that last bit sounds great to me, but all this together reveals a deeply literary mindset... in which case, whither Wright's "historical" approach?

I know enough else about Wright's work to realize that's not a balanced assessment, but it's still fair enough to stay on point for the moment.

The first piece I read by Tom Wright - somewhere online, two years ago - was about Paul's trip to Arabia. When he started talking about Moses in Arabia as if the symbolic significance of Mount Sinai was any kind of evidence for considering what Paul must have thought about his own trip there, I balked heavily. This, to me, was theological dogma driving historical thought.

Ironically, Wright's major criticism of Hays (reportedly) was that Hays' book was too theological, and too unhistorical. So Wright is the Historian, and Hays the Theologian? Yet, Wright's "History" is itself theologically driven. If so, there must be more room on the *H* side of that scale, beyond Wright. There must be something yet outside both their visions that's still being neglected.

Or at least, something outside their rhetorical boundary markers.

Another of Hays' major criticisms is that Wright's unified reconstruction "drowns out" some of the literary (and theological) uniqueness of each Gospel's "voice". Indeed, it seems one of Wright's goals for his Historical Jesus work has been to build a base from which to view Jesus better, so that we may review and/or revise theological opinions. (??)

If that's true, then maybe Wright's version of "the fifth Gospel" IS what church authorities have always been afraid of, actually. I don't know. Maybe, also, ANYTHING that reconstructs a "5th G" is going to get painted that way ANYWAY. Maybe.

Hmmmm.

What's the difference in what Wright's done, and what I'm wanting to see/do? I can't quite tell you clearly... not quite yet. But I can tell you that several conservative scholars have told me Wright does what I'm talking about doing. And then I go on and describe in more depth what I'm looking for. And then they all say, "Nope - you're right - nobody's done that before."

I'll take one quick shot at this, before closing. I'll even do it by metaphor! ;-)

In the game of basketball, one shoots the ball with two hands, but not with two hands. The player's dominant hand provides thrust. The non-dominant hand guides the ball. One hand pushes from below. The other hand holds steady alongside. It does not push. It "guides". More accurately, it holds steady, so the thrust does not go awry.

What church authorities seem to fear is that a "Fifth Gospel" might in fact (for some) wind up replacing the Canonical Four Gospels as the 'thrusting hand' of what drives our church theory and practice. Perhaps, done Wright's way, it might do just that. Again, I'm not really sure.

But what I'm suggesting is that Christendom DOES need - in as full blown a form as might be rationally possible - a "Fifth Gospel" of some sort (even though I don't like that term, but I'll use it for now). HOWEVER, all we need that historical reconstruction to provide is the 'guide hand'.

The Gospels are primary. They will always be primary. Their voice will never - should never - CAN never be "drowned out". But, yes. IF someone's goal in constructing a "Fifth Gospel" was to replace Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, then something would be heinously wrong.

Hays fears Wright may have done just that. I fear Hays thinks ANY positive reconstruction WILL do just that. But, logically, that simply can't be true. Can it?

What do y'all think?

Disconnected Dogmatism

Bear with me: The hit teevee show of my teenage years was called Cheers. In one episode, Sam the bartender, a lifelong womanizer, was struggling with commitment fears because he'd reluctantly agreed to make a baby with his girlfriend, Rebecca. Someone convinced Sam to go see a priest, a very old man who listened intently while Sam poured his heart out, expressing genuine angst and a desire to do the right thing as a boyfriend and possible father.

The dilemmas were sincerely crushing to this poor man, but Sam somehow boiled all of it down to one pressing 'relationship' question, and asked it. The old priest, pausing, said slowly: "Am I to understand that you've been having sexual relations with a woman who is not your wife?" Sam froze. Cue hysterical laugh track. You could see the amoral bartender suddenly realize how badly he'd miscalculated.

A moment before, he'd been expecting real help, but the old priest was coming at Sam from a whole different world, in his mind.

Somehow, that episode made an impression...

-----------------

In my mid-twenties, one day after school, I argued vigorously with our campus Psychologist, about the true mental capacities of one fourteen year old boy, who was new in town. Adopted from God knows what kind of neglect in one city, he'd been living for scant months with a nurturing couple in our district. He'd also come into our school classified as mentally retarded.

Now, this so happened to be my rookie year teaching, but I'd worked with the boy in Algebra (!) and he seemed to show flashes of a higher IQ. Unfortunately, I didn't have the vocabulary or the experience to be at all convincing in relating this to our Shrink. Exasperated, I recall flashing back to that scene from the show, Cheers. Cue the sob track. The boy was removed from his Algebra class. Two years later, thank goodness, his official IQ was a rank or two higher, and the young man got back into regular classes.

Time worked it all out. Evidently, the boy blossomed under new parentage. But in my initial moment of conflict, a dogmatic professional had refused to consider that option. She'd been absolutely certain that things could not be contrary to what her theories and papers were saying.

Apparently, I didn't know enough about her theories to properly interpret my actual experience. Humph.

-----------------

In my mid-thirties, tonight, I was reading yet another recap of the Wheaton conference on N.T. Wright's work. And somehow, this blogger's assessment of Vanhoozer's problems with Wright [near the end of this post] left me reeling back, once again, to Sam the bartender fighting against the old priest. I think the same thing about some of what Richard Hays had to say. More on that in time.

I've not yet read much of Wright - which is one reason I didn't go to the Wheaton conference last weekend. But the conflict between this erstwhile Historian of the Gospels and these Theologians who should be his allies is something I'll dwell on for a good while longer.

-----------------

I may have more to say as I work through the videos. We shall see.

Watch this space.

But for now, let me just say this much:

It's amazing how some people get some things so stuck in their heads that they just can't be practical about what's actual, and about what's at hand. And it's even more amazing that such brilliant people can talk so PAST one another that it takes years, years and more years simply to get a common vocabulary ironed out, between all parties.

I guess, as much as anything, one key lesson may be that dogmatism disconnects.

Lord, help us all, in this area...

Things Not Seen

can sometimes be heard and/or felt. Scents, tastes, sounds. Wind, friction, gravity. Ambient temperature. Energy. Emotion. We see the effects of these things, but we do not see these things. We know they are real because all human beings experience their effects in consistent ways.

Now, God's Spirit is also unseen. But how is it felt? Superstition has always worried me more than confidence here, even to my own detriment. But lots of people have claimed to feel things that I didn't believe they were feeling, and lots of people have found it convenient to report hearing God when the message was kind to their whims. I could hear from Santa Claus if I tried hard enough. But what's real? What's true? In other words, what should I believe? And what can I feel?

Faith is being convinced about things we cannot see. This includes staying confident about what we did actually feel. What we think we remember feeling. What we might feel again.

Yet, we doubt, often, because all human beings do not report the same type of spiritual experience. In the end, that is partly because lots of us are confused, and partly because too many lie. But it may also be God's way of keeping us on our toes.

Still, we should never discount the power and necessity, for all of our christian lives, of experiencing God's spiritual reality. Faith is believing in things unseen. Not unfelt.

If you knew...

that Acts 1-7 took place in less than six months, would it change your reading of anything at all? If so, what? If not, why not?

I ask today because I'd hoped to blog lots more, this spring, about Acts 1-11, but it's all been delayed. One more Someday. For now, though, I'd love to hear your answers to the above question.

Sometimes chronology matters a lot, and sometimes it doesn't matter so much. Then again, I'm sure many people read Acts 1-7 and never think about real time at all.

Sooo... how about you?

God in the Box: Jonah vs Psalm 139

Some believe Jonah really sank and got swallowed/spit up. Others suppose the story of Jonah was always meant to be understood as a parable. I'll suspend judgment today because either view would support the one point I'm about to make here.

In the fish, Jonah prays: "I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. ... I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple." (2:2,7)

Now, whether this prayer was fictionalized historically in situ - or whether it was actually retold by a miraculous survivor - doesn't matter at all, at the moment. Either way, this is one of those details that dates the story of Jonah to within a century or so after Solomon's Temple was built.

Thus we have Jonah, in the belly of the fish, describing how his prayer must have been heard by God's super hearing, and carried all the way to Jerusalem. Because that's where God lives. And hears prayers from. According to Jonah.

But compare that with these famous verses of David's: "If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139:7-10)

The Psalmist believed God could go anywhere. Did the figure of Jonah really believe God was only in Solomon's Temple? David's God took him by the hand, held and led him directly. Jonah's God worked indirectly, from afar, using indirect means that (although super-incredible) were completely natural. Weather cast Jonah down. Seaweed grabbed hold of him. A fish brought him up.

In sum, I'd argue that the close, grasping hand of God from Psalm 139 is not even hardly conceived of by Jonah's prayer. So to those who wonder if Jonah really believed he could get away from the Lord, I suggest - yeah. He did. Just like it says: "Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord." (1:3)

And now, here is my point.

Fact or fiction, Jonah's story reflects a time after Solomon got God to live in a Box. David's Psalm reflects a more primitive faith in the nomadic God of the Ark and the Tabernacle.

Do with that as you may...

iPad vs. Kindle

You gotta love Michael Hyatt. As a publishing CEO, he should be on Steve Jobs' side. Maybe that sneaks out just a bit in his blog post today, but overall Michael gives Amazon his ringing endorsement by offering several reasons why he thinks the Kindle still beats the iPad for e-reading. On top of that, he compares the iPad to the Segway - beautifully.
"There are just not that many times when you need to go faster than your feet will carry you or slower than your car can take you."
It seems like a very fitting analogy. But then what do I know? I still haven't tried either one. [I haven't ridden a Segway yet, either.] But - for better or worse - the first one I expect to try, at this point, looks like it's going to be Amazon's Kindle. [sigh] Someday.

McKnight Responds

...to Tom, Craig & Darrell. On Beliefnet. About the recent CT HJ forum. Which I blogged about Sunday.

Read what Scot says. I still want to push further, and perhaps Scot plans to do so (?). But I simply must say that I loved every word of his wonderful post!

Several of the comments are excellent, too.

Confessional Reconstruction

Reading Scot McKnight & his three respondents at CT's forum this month on the Historical Jesus, my strongest impression is that these four scholars are focused on evangelistic goals, arguing over whether it's more effective to defend the Gospels or to let them stand as they are. In a pleasant surprise, Darrell Bock comes the closest to my own view, in this snippet:
As both Tom and Craig alluded to but I wish to highlight, there are different kinds of historical Jesus work. Some seek to reduce the data base of Jesus (and challenge the sources), but others seek to illuminate the sources and help to explain what is going on. Yes, we cannot "prove" it all, but we can make a compelling case for much of it, even key parts of it. When a compelling case is made, and when the burden of proof is high, that is impressive.
Good: Historical reconstruction isn't merely deconstructive. We can also "illuminate" and "explain" parts of the Gospels. Context matters. Amen, brother Darrell.

Bad: After that, Bock slips immediately back into defensive mode, talking about proof and persuasion. The rest of his article celebrates how historical work "attacks skeptical claims" in order to influence "discussion" that goes on "in the public square".

As usual, the evangelical goal of engaging with history is merely to support and defend, to "illuminate" and "explain". But then, what is HISTORY? The Gospels are many things, including a record of events. So my perennial question remains: do those events have any value of themselves? If they do, we must endeavor to reconstruct by faith a christian history of how those events most likely played out.

Yes, History has its limitations. Every intelligent reader of History understands that, to some degree. But as it now stands, the curious skeptic AND the struggling believer BOTH lack an opportunity to consider conservative reconstructions, based on the Gospels.

No, we don't want to construct our own straw man harmony of the Gospels, giving anti-faith activists an easier target. But the ironic tragedy here is that skeptical reconstructions display plenty of confidence in what they assert - and unbelievers lap that stuff up, despite their indefensible presuppositions, because of their confidence - but our christian scholars are the ones who won't go so far as to build one fluid chain of events based on the Gospels.

In other words, it's WE who don't seem to have faith!

That deep contrast may partly explain why innocent skeptics so often place more credence in liberal reconstructions. Conservatives are merely being oppositional. There's no alternative reconstruction being offered.

Let me be VERY clear. We do NOT need a "fifth gospel". The Gospels are perfectly fine, just as they are. But we do need to write a faith-based Historical Reconstruction of Gospel Events. We DO need to write Christian History. If we believe that it happened, then HOW did it happen?

This may or may not aid evangelism, and I don't care to predict if it will.

Integrity alone demands that we take on this challenge.

Walking Distance Ecclesiology

Ancient Thessalonica measures just about one square mile in area. Ditto for most cities Paul planted churches in. Even Rome & Jerusalem weren't too much bigger. To put that into perspective, map a few spots that are one-half-mile from your home in every direction. Now give that circle some corners and you'll have some idea how close the first Christians lived to one another.

But the first Christians weren't just accessible to one another, they were necessary. They needed each other. They no longer fit well with anyone in their towns apart from one another. For knowing Christ, THEY were all that THEY had. Each new Christian found in Jesus Christ had to also find out that their Lord was inside their new siblings as well. Thus, if they needed Him, then they needed each other.

Now try to imagine this: call a meeting for all church going folks, of any denominations, as long as they live in the same local Elementary School zone as yourself. In fact, hold the meeting there. Lots of people could actually walk to it. Then, perhaps in the cafeteria, organize a series of home meetings - by street, block or neighborhood.

I'll end the fantasy there. We could let our imaginations run wild, dreaming of wonderful hootenanies, or we can acknowledge the facts. This is most likely NOT going to happen so easily. And why not? Because we don't NEED each other that much.

Or do we?

Before you answer, please know that I'm not talking about keeping up good relationships with one's neighbors. I'm talking about people both near enough and devout enough to host 6 AM prayer meetings on a weekday. I'm talking about people who can walk around the corner just after dinner and who'd feel comfortable spending an hour together in somebody's spare room, just pursuing the Lord.

Together.

We so desperately need that. Most of us just don't know how badly.

Revelation as Exodus?

Now there's an intriguing thought. I've no idea how the author Brian just reviewed makes "50 parallels" between the two books, but the fact that Christendom was trending away from Palestine [as the fourth beast re-approached Judea] is a connection I'd not made before now. Then again, if I had a nickel for every minute I've ever spent thinking about Revelation, in my entire life, I might be able to buy my family a reasonable dinner one night. Maybe.

But still. Hmmm...

Don't you dare EVER defend me!

An old friend from The Baird School (and I'm not saying who!) was upset with me once because I didn't "defend" his honor online, when he was being criticized. Apparently, he gets this from other folks too, because it's come up a few times since then. Well, "Friend Victim", listen carefully.

The brother who badmouths you may be Jesus' friend. And you are Jesus' friend. And I am Jesus' friend. Jesus called the disciples *His* friends. But despite that, you want me to choose which of Jesus' friends to consider *my* friends? And then you want me to defend one of the Lord's friends by attacking another one of His friends?

Really, Friend Victim? Really?

We agree on this fact, that the single most defining characteristic of friendship is loyalty. Of course, the same thing *ought* to be true for family. Now, friendship is a choice, but you know we get our family members straight from the hand of God. So again, "friend", you want me to be more of a friend to some brothers than I am to others?

Really, Friend Victim? Really?

If someone bad mouths our Jesus, I will absolutely speak up. But you, "friend", are not *my* friend to defend. Vengeance is the Lord's.

So, "Friend Victim", let's say someone insults you tomorrow. What will it be about? Should I let your reputation be more important than that which you've been working towards? Will adjusting the record for accuracy, with respect to your honor, really be more vital to our mission than it will be to keep myself in conversation with the one who persists in their error?

Really, Friend Victim? Really?

In your line of work, brother, you'd better catch on quick to this one idea. The message is more important than the messenger. I may at times defend that which you do, or that which you've said - to the extent that what you've done and said is worthy of being defended. But you yourself? Really? Really, F.V.?

Excuse me. That would be counterproductive, wasteful and probably ineffective to boot.

Don't forget what really matters here, brother. And one more thing. As I told you before. Please.

Get over your self.

How Paul Became Spiritual

Why do so many suppose Paul's years in Arabia were spent in isolation with God? Why suppose that time was so key to his spiritual development? Perhaps this is why: Since *my* christian life didn't begin with a three year sabbatical, I've got a built in excuse for not being as spiritual as Paul was!

Why do so many suppose isolation should be more conducive to spiritual formation, in the first place? Perhaps this is why: If we're not able to go be monks and nuns, or at least draw a salary to be a professional christian, then we have another excuse. "I just don't have the time to become a really spiritual person."

Another good way to expose these false cop-outs is HISTORY.

Yes, Moses had Sinai but Moses spent ALL of his years after meeting the LORD in a nearly constant state of community. Compare all the passages that focus on Sinai and it can seem to dominate the whole Pentateuch. But estimate all the hours he spent up on Sinai and it still won't compare to the rest of that 40+ years he spent in the midst of God's people, in-between Midian and Mount Nebo.

Yes, Paul had three years in Arabia, but we've no reason to suppose he stayed by himself while down there. Luke names Arabian Jews among those who found Christ and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. After Stephen was stoned, those Arabian Jews most likely went home to Nabatea (North Arabia) and/or Southern Arabia. If there was at least one Synagogue in Arabia, we have every reason to expect Paul found his way into it and shared Christ there. On the contrary, romantic notions of an isolated experience give us NO cause to suppose Paul would have avoided what Jewish and/or Jewish-Christian communities he came across while in Nabatea.

Let's pan out to a wider perspective.

Paul met Christ about four years before Paul met Christ-in-Antioch. That pioneering gentile church herself had four or five years of experience together when Paul and Barnabas arrived to minister there. Paul was a resident of Arabia for just less than three years, but a resident of Antioch for a decade and a half. It was during Paul's time in Antioch that he got caught up in the heavens (42 AD - 14 years before 56 AD). That experience also came while the whole church was partly focused on saving money for an upcoming famine. So not only was Paul neck deep in community while he had that incredible vision, he was most likely working by day doing his part to add to the funds.

The prayer-meeting when Paul heard the Holy Spirit send him happened eleven or more years after his calling. About twenty years in, Paul was rumored to have healing abilities. Three years after those rumors, Paul actually performed the first healing we know of for sure. Two years later, around spiritual-age twenty-five, Paul survived a viper bite. It most likely didn't take Paul three decades to learn what he said in Colossians... but it did take him that long to be able to say it so well, in so few words.

But now, getting back to Arabia...

Paul undoubtedly DID grow spiritually as a believer during those three years. He undoubtedly DID spend some time alone, but he most likely also spent much time with others. If somehow he didn't find any believers, he might just as well have produced a few. But there's no good reason (that is, apart from respecting traditions that took root after Constantine, in the centuries when official church structure and policy successfully marginalized those who felt driven to pursue a deeper experience of communing directly with God!!!) - *ahem* - NO good reason to think that Paul MUST have gained greatly from isolation, in particular.

As a new christian and as someone whom God's provident hand was directing to great ends, Paul undoubtedly DID grow spiritually while he lived in Arabia. On the other hand, if we could measure such growth, and if I was going to bet money on it, I'd say we have many more reasons to think that Paul probably grew much, much more during his years up in Antioch.

One more quick comparison:

Jesus, you know, grew in favor of God while surrounded by a whole village full of people. In the Lord's case, he was isolated even in a crowd. Moses was also a bit like Jesus in that respect. But Paul was a member of the spiritual christ-ones in Antioch.

We do not learn how to be spiritual from mountaintop or desert experiences. We learn how to be spiritual from communing with God. In my personal experience, that practice happens MOST EFFECTIVELY when it takes place in the midst of our brothers and sisters.

Amen?

Women shouldn't Biblioblog

Then again, neither should men. But now that I've got your attention... Yes, I'm about to weigh in on the quarterly debate: "Why aren't there more women bibliobloggers?" As it happens, however, I have only one very small point to make. Please wait for it, now. Don't peek ahead. ;-)

Those of you still reading may recall that when the original NT Wrong posted the first BibTop50 in November of 2008, she or he closed that anonymous post with the following cleverness:
In Biblical Studies the ability to write meaningful pieces that only you and, maybe, one other person in the world understand is the zenith of achievement. The Biblioblog Top 50 is thus no indication of the worth or otherwise of the blogs involved.
Short months later, Wrong's blog was gone, replaced by the BibTop50 (still hosting a great search engine) which then began self-attributing as "the Biblical Floccinaucinihilipilification Society" (That's flok-suh-naw-suh-nahy-hil-uh-pil-uh-fi-key-shuh n by the way. Get it straight!) Defined as "the estimation of something as valueless", Wrong was clearly having another poke at Biblical Scholarship. More self-mocking about lists and trivialities continued for most of 2009. And then, shortly after another debate on who was or wasn't a "biblioblogger", Wrong quit altogether.

In a roundabout way, this all leads to my point on the gender-blogger debate.

The question is NOT - why aren't there more females involved in (or interested in) Biblical Studies? The question IS - why don't they BLOG? And to the extent that Wrong's characterization of Biblical Studies was accurate, I believe it partly answers the question.

Above all else, blogging is about SPOUTING OFF! And - generalities being generalities - it remains typical that when men want to spout off, we tend to pontificate about trivialities. [Baseball staats. Sci-fi factoids. Indirect boasting. Unsolicited advice-giving. Long-winded explanations.] Likewise, and also elsewise, it remains generally typical that when women spout off feel like expounding spontaneously in public they largely seem to prefer sharing about more personal and interpersonal interests. [Family. Gatherings & events. Social experiences. Significant personal moments for themselves or a friend.] Add to that, most cultures have taught women to express conflict covertly (not overtly, like males); and what's a good biblioblog without stoking some conflict, eh? ;-)

Obviously, there are many exceptions, and again - generalities being generalities - all these points are both more and less true in some places as opposed to others. Still, I trust you all recognize what I'm getting at.

On the balance, I suggest we might all consider that one reason we lack female bibliobloggers could be that the standardized CONTENT of most recognized biblioblogs is so typically MALE. Seriously. Read twenty random biblioblogs and then re-read all my generalities above. Academic content is academic content, but academics don't have to be such blunt instruments all the time. Sheesh. Maybe we men should pray Red Green's "MAN PRAYER".
I'm a man. But I can change. If I have to. I guess.
Now that's funny. "I don't care who y'are that's funny right there." But in all seriousness, allow me to sum up. Women shouldn't biblioblog and neither should men... at least, not if Wrong was right. Not if our program is somehow just trivializing the Word of God. As a great american once said, it's a sin to bore folks with the Bible.

And so, in closing, here is my humble advice. ;-)

Let's forget staats about WHO blogs. Let's all try to exemplify better ways HOW to blog about Biblical Studies issues. We all know a few bibliobloggers who are better at making these conversations more social and less strictly technical. We all could benefit from bloggers sharing more about personal reactions to their own studies. Without question, female scholars and interested female amateurs can certainly handle the academic stuff, but evidently it hasn't been inspiring most of them to SPOUT OFF.

Least ways, them's my general impressions. Sorry for such a long post. Now I've got to go catch the end of the game. :-)

More on early churches & synagogues

Alan Knox is still blogging on James' Burtchaell's From Synagogue to Church (Cambridge, 2004). These posts just keep getting better and better. Enjoy:
The Jews gathered together in order to maintain their identity as God’s chosen people. While this would certainly include times of reading, teaching, and discussing Scripture, these activities alone do not account for the existence of the synagogue. The synagogue existed because the Jewish community existed and to maintain that community’s identity, existence, and propagation.

Thus, the primary activities that took place when the synagogue convened were community-building activities. For example, Josephus gives an account of a political discussion that begins on one Sabbath, and continues for two or more days as the community continued to come together in order to make some important decisions. (Josephus Life 279ff)

As Burtchaell points out (in the quote [here]), the early Christians gathered together for similar reasons...
Read the rest here.

The Multidimensional Pilate

No, this isn't sci-fi. This is characterization. The central critical issue on Pontius Pilate remains what it has been for the past couple of centuries - why is Pilate so crushingly brutal in Josephus & Philo and yet so hand-washingly coercible in the Gospels?

Many skeptics naturally see this contrast as evidence of Gospel spin, explained by reading anti-Jewish & semi-pro-Roman attitudes into the Gospel writers' agenda. Helen K. Bond's 1998 book Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation charted a much more nuanced if similarly skeptical view. Yet Bond's work hasn't stopped people from dredging up the overly simplistic characitures, as a columnist calling himself "Godless Gross" did Monday in
Australia's National Times.

Responding in today's Brisbane Times, PhD candidate Murray Smith (of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University) has a simpler solution. What accounts for Pilate's differing behavior? Circumstance. Partly traditional and partly just common sensical, Smith's brief analysis nevertheless shows an awareness of the complex historical issues and even raises the bar for keeping politically aware about who and what Pilate had to be at the time of the Passover, particularly. A key excerpt:
If a riot broke out, it was all over red rover for Pilate’s political career. The Prefect’s initial reluctance to execute a popular leader is therefore understandable. His eventual capitulation to the demands of the Jewish leadership, and the crowds they had whipped into a frenzy, also makes sense. The characterisation of Pilate in the Gospels is eminently plausible.

Gross paints Pilate as a one-dimensional character: he is simply brutal and murderous. Gross does this to create a contrast between the ‘weak’ Pilate of the Gospels and the ‘brutal’ Pilate of the Jewish sources (Philo and Josephus). But the Gospels also mention Pilate’s brutality (Luke 13.1) and, like the Gospels, Philo and Josephus also point out how Pilate backed down when it suited him politically (Josephus, Antiquities 18.55-59; Philo, Embassy 299-306).

As Helen Bond concludes in her comprehensive study of Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation: ‘‘demarcation between the ‘harsh aggressive Pilate’ of Jewish sources and the ‘weak, vacillating Pilate’ of Christian ones is much too simplistic’’. The portraits of Pilate in the Gospels and the other sources are nothing like as different as Gross suggests.
It's a newspaper article, not a scholarly one, but it's well worth reading. I would love to see Murray Smith interact more with Bond about Pilate. He's also got a piece in an upcoming book from Eerdmans. So here's hoping we get to see Dr. Smith making more waves in the future.

(HT RC)