February 29, 2012

Technology vs Gathering (and the role of the Leader)

For most of history, the primary tool of mass communication was a cathedral (or amphitheater) and the best broadcasting system was the carrying voice of a knowledgeable cleric. From this perspective, the rise of telecommunication might be the single most practical reason why church attendance fell steadily in the US since a century ago, especially in Protestant churches that promoted teaching & preaching as the main reason for gathering.

It only makes practical sense. If the group's key duty is merely to ingest brand-approved content, there are much more convenient alternatives.

Increasingly, today's large audiences only assemble for exceptional headliners who put on a higher quality show. That doesn't mean we're psychologically bent towards rock stars, or anything. It just reflects the practical value of exclusivity. Whether it's Joel Osteen, Bon Jovi or the Los Angeles Lakers - in general - we only get out for high quality, one-of-a-kind, live experiences. In stark contrast, as far as lectures & sermons go, most of them can be audited later without loss of content or quality. That's not a tragedy, just the nature of things. Some have therefore concluded that churches need better shows to draw bigger attendance. (Add more incense & stained glass, while we're at it?) But that's not necessarily so.

What we need are more compelling reasons to gather, at all.

Fortunately, in terms of pure exclusivity, nothing compares to the value of you - not necessarily as a headliner, but as participants in a genuinely interactive experience.

((***Of course, this is somewhat hard to find, and daunting to try and produce. The practical difficulties of achieving such group activity are essentially two: (1) finding participants who are semi-equipped to jump out of audience mode into positive, healthy and constructively corporate activities, and (2) finding a skillful, benevolent and patient facilitator to train a group as they seek better ways of interacting effectively; but on that, I digress. Whether easy or difficult, the promise of finding Chist in that which each joint supplies is something I might just get up on Sunday to go participate in... unless I'm just hearing mini-lectures in sequence. (Or, much worse, ignorant, wishful, indulgent mini-lectures in sequence; but I digress again).***))

Throughout christian history, the necessity of the cathedral gave clergy more power, both controlling the message and presenting its broadcast as vital, but congregations assembled primarily because gathering was practical, not because the priest/pastor insisted. Today's believers increasingly find ourselves edified by a litany of voices. So, again, why should we all have to gather at preacher-ville? The pulpit's lost power is partly geographic.

For better and worse, then, I predict that technology's pace will continue to shrink church attendance. The silver lining could appear if it turns out the more valuable gatherings are the ones that remain viable, and it would certainly be nice to see fewer auditoriums of passivity, and more productive group functioning. The dark cloud, of course, is the increasing power of 'rock star preachers'.

The divergence continues.

What Christian gatherings, if any, do YOU find to be worth getting out for, these days?

February 28, 2012

Reinventing School

An excerpt from Seth Godin's free e-book, Stop Stealing Dreams (section 17):
Here are a dozen ways school can be rethought:
  * Homework during the day, lectures at night
  * Open book, open note, all the time
  * Access to any course, anywhere in the world
  * Precise, focused instruction instead of mass, generalized instruction
  * The end of multiple-choice exams
  * Experience instead of test scores as a measure of achievement
  * The end of compliance as an outcome
  * Cooperation instead of isolation
  * Amplification of outlying students, teachers, and ideas
  * Transformation of the role of the teacher
  * Lifelong learning, earlier work
  * Death of the nearly famous college
The whole manifesto is a great read, and well worth your time. Sometimes Seth exaggerates slightly, but usually not by too much. While we'll still need plenty of what he calls "factory workers" in the future, it's also true that we no longer need to aim ALL our public school kids in that general direction. Seth says schools should teach leadership and problem solving. Well, yes. But not to everyone. That's kind of the whole problem to start with. (Read on...)

A word of experience from the old Math teacher: High School Algebra, watered down as it is, yet remains the strongest screen-out for college attendance precisely because standard curricula still haven't completely stamped out Algebra's natural demand for decision making and complex analysis, not to mention at least minimal abstract thinking ability. That said, the most prized math teachers today do a good job of leveling that playing field, helping low level thinkers find tricks and "steps" for answering standardized "problem" sets, which represent basic concepts of traditional algebra, but which no longer teach well what Algebra is designed to teach best. (And don't even let me get started on the present state of H.S. Geometry!) I don't personally think most teenagers should be required to learn abstract mathematics. But schools supposedly treat everyone "equally".

In other words, Seth's pretty much right on the money. The biggest problem with U.S. schools is the factory mindset. Someday we're going to quit pretending that one size fits all.

February 27, 2012

St. Peter, Jewish Bigot

If Acts is historically reliable, early Petrine Christianity must have been *more* strictly separatist than most if not all other Jews within first century Palestine. Perhaps it was only the misplaced zeal of a new convert being put in charge, but it seems as if Peter became adamant that this Jesus movement was going to do the whole God [Jewish] thing properly, for once! Like many new converts, he overcooked it a bit.

Whatever his motivation, Peter's opinion was definitely atypical among early Jews when he said to Cornelius, "ὑμεῖς ἐπίστασθε ὡς ἀθέμιτόν ἐστιν ἀνδρὶ Ἰουδαίῳ κολλᾶσθαι ἢ προσέρχεσθαι ἀλλοφύλῳ κἀμοὶ ὁ θεὸς ἔδειξεν μηδένα κοινὸν ἢ  ἀκάθαρτον λέγειν ἄνθρωπον".  Heretofore, Peter and his companions shared an understanding (ἐπίστασθε) that it was unacceptable (ἀθέμιτόν) for Judean/Jewish men to associate with foreigners, whom they felt were impure (κοινὸν) and unclean (ἀκάθαρτον). Clearly, this attitude was as distasteful for the author of Acts as for readers today, but please consider one very simple suggestion:

This is not Luke's general critique of Judaism at large. This is Luke's particular critique of Judean-Christendom, to that point in time.

In the first place, accepting Acts 10:28 as an accurate representation of St. Peter's opinion and personal practice only allows us conclusions about Peter and his companions, themselves. More importantly, a plethora of recent research resoundingly shows that most Palestinian Judaisms were hardly standoffish to gentiles. Most famously, the Temple's "Court of the Gentiles" permitted them up to a point at Jerusalem's holiest site. This makes the Sanhedrin more welcoming to gentile outsiders than the Apostles were to their own gentile widows, who apparently were not allowed when the church broke bread together each night, house to house.

Point: If Acts stands as evidence, the earliest Christians were far more bigoted under Peter's leadership than were other Jews circulating among virtually all other known forms of Judaism at that time.

This historical fact does not contradict Acts, but provides us perspective. Since there is nothing within Temple practice nor the Torah to support Peter's complete bigotry towards gentiles, our leading suspicion must be that Luke was criticizing someone other than "all Jews" in this passage. Specifically, Luke must have been lambasting Peter. Otherwise, if Luke believed all Jews treated Cornelius as Peter would have it, then how could Luke report that Cornelius was "well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews"?

That alone should speak volumes, and yet the strongest evidence for Luke's personal attitude comes not from the context of Acts 1-15 but from the fact that Acts 21 provides the nearest back story for Luke's initial research for composition. Granting historicity (again), the saints in Casarea, circa 57 AD, are the ones whose eyes we should look through when reading Acts 1ff, especially 6-11. That is, if Philip the evangelist and Cornelius' surviving family are the ones who told Luke these stories, and if they did so in the context of Paul's unfortunate conflict with the ecclesia of James, then Philip the evangelist and Cornelius' household cannot be considered impartial as sources. Neither can Luke's deliberate reliance on these Caesarean sources speak very well for his composition's opinion of earliest Judean-Christendom.

The Caesarean back story provided by Cornelius' own children suggests that he'd lived on at peace with Caesarea's Synagogue Jews. It is Peter to whom Luke gives a different opinion. It is Peter to whom Luke repeatedly ascribes ignorance and intolerance. It is Peter whom Luke was critiquing in Acts 9-10.

Therefore, if we believe Acts to be reliable historically, then we must conclude it was Peter who had chosen to exclude himself - and his followers - from virtually all contact with gentiles.

This may not be an "early church" to be proud of, but it's what scripture reveals. For an index of posts that addresses related historical issues and possible theological ramifications, please go here.

Thank you, Lord, that we, as the church, can overcome any weakness and move beyond any failure. Now scatter again those who need scattering, so that we all may move towards your objective: a healthier church.


February 22, 2012

Can we "Flip Church"?

These days, teachers everywhere are flipping their classrooms, via the internet. For two really quick explanations of what this means, see here, or here. Basically, students view lectures at home and come together in class for assignments. Brilliant, right? Sure do wish I could try it in TX (sorry, different topic) but here's why I mention the flipped classroom today.

After watching this very touching video at Scot McKnight's blog today, I'm starting to wonder if traditional church might be viable flipping as well. It's a new idea to me, and a very intriguing one. Of course, in some ways, this is already happening. And yet, it should also produce something more than a 'book club' (if you know what I mean).

To be clear, the priest who cancelled all their mid-week stuff has flipped things in one way, and I'm talking about flipping things in a slightly different way, but these ideas dovetail in a beautiful way I won't try and explain.

See what you think. Then see what you can do. Then come teach it to us.

Or, in other words, flip away.

February 21, 2012

Christians, evangelize each other!

Just like Timothy evangelized Paul. (Confused? For an explanation, check out John Byron's historically focused exegesis over at The Biblical World, always an interesting and informative blog.)

Timothy, no doubt, had also been busily evangelizing the Christians in Thessalonica. It always does my heart good to think about those First Thessalonians, exploring their new life together. I wish we all could be half so lucky, today!

February 20, 2012

The Intentional Ambiguity of James' Epistle

Phillip J. Long has the scoop, in his review of a chapter from Karen Jobes' book Letters to the Church. I've not read the book, but I'm very intrigued by Phillip's summary of her position:
She refers to an implicit Christology in the letter, recognizing the fact that James only refers to Jesus unambiguously twice, although she thinks the “Lord’s coming” in 5:7-8 refers to Jesus.  Her strategy is interesting.  She gathers all the references to the Lord in James and shows that these all could refer to either Jesus or God.  This ambiguity was intentional, so that James is speaking of Jesus or the God of the Old Testament in the same breath. James considers Jesus the same as God.   Given the serious nature of blasphemy in the first century, she argues that this is a high Christology after all.
This seems to fit perfectly to my reading of James and provides a third option besides either criticizing James for being insufficiently christian or defending him by assertive reinterpretation of all the "Lord" references.

In short, we might say James' Christology is both "high" and "low", or at least both high and "low-key".

Jobes' position is brilliant and happens to illustrate at least one part of what I was reaching at in 2009 when I suggested that James' Epistle could possibly be described as a first century version of "seeker-sensitive" outreach. Then again, from reading Phillip, Karen's research seems to be focused on James for the sake of the writer's position, whereas I tend to be somewhat more interested in the composition (ie, makeup) of James' audience. Still, I wonder who else would agree that intentional ambiguity does suggest a mixed audience? Or, while we're at it, that  συναγωγὴν should be translated Synagogue in James 2:2, instead of being unjustly homogenized into a multicultural but "assembly".

If James was genuinely writing to the full Hebrew Diaspora, who were meeting in Synagogues, then the deliberate ambiguity makes complete sense, because some had become sympathetic to the Gospel of Jesus, and others had not.

Karen's point seems to be that we shouldn't treat James' thought as Pauline. I agree. But would she argue the same for James' audience? I might presume so. Maybe someone who's read the rest of her chapter can enlighten me soon? I would love to know more...

While you're here, what do you think?

February 15, 2012

What I'm Reading These Days

This is probably going to surprise you.

For the rest of my life, I'll still think of myself as a Math Teacher, but for whatever reason I've been unable to land a new contract in a preferred district, and two years of subbing and networking is long enough. Therefore, I decided before Christmas it was definitely time to start a whole new career, and after some study I settled on apartment leasing/management. [Key facts: I enjoy first impressions - like, a lot a lot - and facilitating transitions, and also fostering community.]

Anyway, I've been researching the business for a few weeks and the big news is I landed my first temp-to-hire position today. Even better, the place seems like it might be a good long term fit, in a company with room and potential for growth. Maybe someday I'll make manager somewhere, or maybe I'll be happier leasing for several years. Time will tell. For now, I'm just happy this new beginning has solid footings, at last. The money won't compare for quite a while, but a restart is a restart. Whattayagunnado?

Now, my dear NT/History Blog readers, aside from the obvious personal interest, here's why I consider this blog-worthy.

It's ironically counter-intuitive, and maybe a bit optimistic, but even without summer vacation I actually expect that I may wind up with more spare time [read: spare brain energy] for these academic pursuits. That is, I will in a few months, once I've learned the ropes enough to have my mind free outside work hours. Teaching High School was/is just in my blood, but the job's particular demands (and long hours) often used up that part of my brain for the day, and sometimes wore me out intellectually for a month at a stretch. By making my day job less academic, my hope is to split time and improve both types of brain functioning.

Social by day and anti-social by night.* That's the plan.

*No, not all nights, of course. I do spend some time with my family. Honestly!

Stay tuned...

February 10, 2012

Faith & Skepticism

In a way, both involve a suspension of judgment. That is, when either faith or skepticism are serving us at their greatest capacity, they enable us to replace some prejudice or ingrained expectation with an alternative possibility.

With Faith, that replaced expectation most often takes a particular focus. With Skepticism, it's just the same but in negative. Faith concludes 'X' before seeing the evidence. Doubt precludes 'X' despite common opinion.

The twist tonight is that expectation isn't all plus or minus. Few of us are complete positivists or minimalists. Many profound believers leave plenty of doubt in the details. Most skeptics take personal comfort in holding onto a few central convictions.

This goes farther than saying we're all being peculiar in the ways we select what to uphold and to challenge, and it's hardly as simplistic as the false trendy pith, "doubt equals faith".

The encouragement here is we all need to question our judgment.

The challenge here is we all need to seek out real Truth.

February 2, 2012

Miracles, History and Probability

The miraculous is always "unlikely", but reported miracles are not always "improbable". Yes, both statements are true; it's just difficult to reconcile the Math with the Language on this one. To explore how we talk about such things, let's use Jesus' Resurrection as example 'A'.

If we frame the discussion in terms of actual occurrence, then the miraculous is always "improbable". That's mathematically verifiable because human history absolutely records countless moments during which a dead body did NOT miraculously rise from the grave. The data set on this one, in fact, is ridiculously huge. The improbability of human resurrection occurring within days after undergoing circumstances such as Jesus' execution... well, it's a very big number approaching infinity.

Note (1): The probability of a dead body returning to life is virtually and effectively nil.

By comparison, the probability of a dead body staying dead is also mathematically verifiable, based on a very large and well documented set of data. That is, we have a nearly unlimited record of dead bodies that stayed dead after dying. Again, if we frame this discussion in terms of comparable known events which have actually happened, there's no possible way to equivocate.

Note (2): The probability of a dead body remaining dead is/was virtually infinite - as close to certainty as it comes.

However, since measuring probability requires such large data sets the game changes when we begin to consider reports of unverified and unprecedented events. Although we still have a very large data set of dead bodies remaining dead, we do NOT have a very large data set of people attesting to resurrections that subsequently turn out to be false or imagined. Likewise, we do NOT have a very large data set of people attesting to resurrections that subsequently turn out to be verified as actually having occurred. Therefore, if we give any consideration at all to testimony in such a case, then all talk of "probability" should be ended.

Note (3): Unique testimony of miraculous events may seem credible or incredible, and historians may assert one or the other on whatever grounds seem justifiable, but there is no mathematical basis for measuring the "probability" of whether such testimony may be true or untrue.

To sum up - if we frame the discussion in terms of what typically happens to dead bodies, then the resurrection of anyone seems unlikely, and this does include Jesus. However, if we also take into account the various testimonies which purport Jesus did miraculously resurrect, then we are left with no measurable likelihood, no "odds", and certainly no "probability" that these people were or were not telling the truth. The data set of such claims is unsurprisingly small.

Miracles, by definition, are "unlikely". However, a reported miracle under unique circumstances is neither "improbable" nor "probable". It's unverifiable. Trust the report or do not. There is no "verify". ;-)

To conclude - here's my personal takeaway.

Let's quit arguing over factuality and discuss hypothetical scenarios. If Jesus did rise, then what does that mean? If Jesus did NOT rise, then what does that mean? Those are much more interesting conversations to have, in my personal experience. They are often more fruitful as well...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton