Thursday, November 29, 2007

Which text: Masoretic or Septuagint?

I'm currently studying two topics. (1) I'm reading Brevard Childs's Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, in preparation for two posts on the canonical approach. (2) I'm familiarizing myself with the book of Amos, because I plan to blog my way through the whole book.

Childs's proposal:

The two topics have come together this week, at least in my mind. It was triggered by Childs's assertions about the Masoretic text:
The thesis being proposed is that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament. …

There were many different Jewish communities in the Hellenistic period with different authoritative texts. Why should the one community which finally supported the Masoretic text be singled out? The reason is that only this one historic community has continued through history as the living vehicle of the whole canon of Hebrew scripture. …

But was not the relation of canon and text very different for Christians from what it was for Jews? Did not Greek-speaking Jewish Christians continue to use the Septuagint as an authoritative text, as the New Testament and early church fathers appear to demonstrate? Why should decisions within the Jewish community, some of which extended chronologically after the rise of Christianity, be deemed normative in any sense for Christians? …

The crucial point to be made is that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish. It made no claims of having a better text of scripture, as did, for example, the Samaritans. …

In sum, the church's use of Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament was valid in its historical context, but theologically provides no grounds for calling into question the ultimate authority of the Hebrew text for church and synagogue.1
I wish to make two points in response to Childs's proposal.

Two objections:

First, "that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish" is completely irrelevant. We should not think, anachronistically, in terms of a formal council giving its official imprimatur to a specific canon of books and a specific (Masoretic) text.

There was no promulgation of a canon even at Jamnia, as Childs knows. The various books were recognized as normative by the religious community (or communities) in a piecemeal fashion. The Law and the Prophets were agreed upon first. But the boundaries of the Writings and what we regard as the apocryphal texts were still disputed during the formative era of the Christian Church.

The determinative consideration was the practice of the various communities:  which books they treated as normative when they gathered for worship and instruction. Therefore it is irrelevant that Christians did not develop a doctrine of scripture.

As Childs indicates, the New Testament and the Church fathers appealed to the Septuagint as an authoritative text. This matters, because at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text is.

Which brings me to my second point. The establishment of a normative text was not a purely spiritual act, but also a socio-political one. The stabilizing of the Masoretic text enabled the religious authorities to seize control of the theological agenda. As Childs indicates (p. 98),
Following the stabilization of the Hebrew text, the various Jewish communities began to establish their identity on the basis of the Masoretic text.
Childs sees that development as constructive; and no doubt it was, in large part. But consider the very different perspective of Joseph Blenkinsopp. He says that the decisive factor in delimiting the canon
was the need to resolve conflicting claims to authority, the point at issue being the interpretation of the received corpus of tradition. This may not lead us to view writing, with Lévi-Strauss, as an instrument of oppression and control, but it should alert us to the possibility that it will embody claims of a polemical and tendentious nature.2
I submit that this polemical impulse — an impulse to seize control of the theological agenda from one's opponents — applies not only to the selection of a canon, but also to the many choices which had to be made as the text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized.

Childs indicates that the Masoretic text was stabilized around the end of the first century. In other words, it was stabilized after the core documents of the New Testament had been written.

We ought to consider whether partisan considerations were at work in the formation of the Masoretic text. In a follow-up post, I will consider the text of Amos 9:12 in light of that question.

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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, pp. 97-99.

2Joseph Blenkinsopp, Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins. University of Notre Dame Press, 1977, p. 4.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Scot McKnight on emerging Christianity

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don't know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I'm grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (which symbolizes emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

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  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren't too bothered about it — it isn't even interesting to them.
  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn't true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn't even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don't care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that's just the way it is.
  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don't trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?
  4. Questions about hell:
    I've had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven't heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can't believe that's true.
  5. A moral critique:
    I've had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It's easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.
  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don't care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don't just admit that, they delight in it. They're not seeking a universal theology. They're willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.
I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,
This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.
Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight's third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren't taking things on authority; they're waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six "questions" of McKnight's presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A prophetic voice decries Christmas consumption

(cross-posted on [A]mazed and [Be]mused)

Yesterday was one of the biggest shopping extravaganzas of the year. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on a Thursday, and most of them take the Friday off work, too. En masse, they head to the shopping malls to begin buying, getting, consuming:  spending themselves into massive debt to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus.

baby Jesus Christmas presents losing balancing

Rev. Billy doesn't like it. Not one little bit!
We're trying to get people to back away from the Walmart; back away from the Target; back away from the Home Depot! … Backing away from the product, slowing down your consumption is a spiritual act. … Stop shopping, children! Amen!

Rev. Billy is a persona created by performance artist and activist Bill Talen. He is featured in a movie, What Would Jesus Buy?, which is produced by Morgan Spurlock (who scored big with Super Size Me).

What Would Jesus Buy? is built around a 2005 documentary of Rev. Billy's activist hi-jinks. The original documentary was made by Rob VanAlkemade, the director of What Would Jesus Buy?. Footage from the original documentary alternates with interviews and commentaries from experts and everyday consumers.

According to SignOnSanDiego, the movie's message makes it a tough sell to potential distributors:
"Major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs," VanAlkemade said after a sold-out screening of the movie Sunday at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington.

Starbucks — a frequent target of Rev. Billy which got a court order to keep him out of its California stores — pulled out as a sponsor of Silverdocs. The festival is presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.

Festival spokeswoman Jody Arlington said Starbucks expressed discomfort with the movie and raised security issues, but it let Silverdocs keep the sponsorship money even as it withdrew its logo. Starbucks Mid-Atlantic manager Carter Bentzel denied the decision was linked to the movie.
This is a good illustration of the potential negative impact when enormous, multinational stores like Walmart control the lion's share of a particular market. So much for supply and demand as the sole regulatory principle of a free market! If Walmart doesn't like your movie, they can pretty much turn the lights out on you.

Rev. Billy comments, "The multinational corporations have got as much control over us as the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s." Then again, there's always the democratic power of the World Wide Web:
VanAlkemade pledged that the movie will find its way to audiences despite the marketing challenges. … "Maybe someone shot this screening today and we'll see it on YouTube tonight. It's worldwide distribution. It's instantaneous."
How will Christians respond to the movie? I haven't seen it; but as I watched the Youtube clip, I alternated between laughter, cringing, and shouts of "Hallelujah! God bless Rev. Billy!" Christianity Today offers a generally positive take on the movie:
Aside from a few more serious, melancholy scenes, WWJB is more or less a comedy. It's hard not to laugh at the confused faces of holiday shoppers as a robed choir marches through Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret stores, singing about the impending shopocalypse as hovering security guards call for reinforcements. It's classic agit-prop theater — using humor and stagy gimmicks to shake things up, entertain, and provoke. It's a creative brand of protest, certainly, and according to the choir director (and Rev. Billy's wife) Savitri D, it's a protest grounded in Christian tradition: "Jesus was preaching within a tradition of theater as activism."

… Some critics have noted that the film's playfully sacrilege use of Christian forms and traditions may alienate some audiences. Rev. Billy's character is clearly modeled after a sweaty, breathy, over-the-top southern televangelist (Billy name drops Jimmy Swaggart) who prances around in polyester suits and occasionally "speaks in tongues" or is "slain by the Spirit." Catholics might also take offense at some of Rev. Billy's antics, whether he's in a makeshift confession booth on a city sidewalk (taking "confessions of shopping sins") or "baptizing" a baby outside of a Staples.

Yes, it's condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity. But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.
Aint that the truth! Amen! Amen!

But would it be appropriate if I bought copies of the DVD for everyone I know, as Christmas presents?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Anglican Church of Canada is splitting even as you read this post

The same sex marriage issue continues to roil the Anglican Church of Canada. A conference underway right now (Thursday and Friday, Nov. 22-23) is bringing about a formal split.

For the record, I am not an Anglican. But I am a Canadian, so it seems appropriate for me to alert readers outside of Canada to such a significant event.

I personally support same sex marriage. Nonetheless, it is heartbreaking to see congregations and denominations riven over this issue.

Here is some relevant background from the Globe and Mail:
The general synod, or governing body, of the Anglican Church of Canada voted earlier in the year not to "affirm" the authority of member dioceses to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions, but at the same time it voted not to declare the issue to be a matter of core Anglican doctrine.

What its decision meant is still being debated by church canon law experts, but the consensus seems to be that dioceses are not blocked from authorizing the blessings — and three have in the past few weeks:  the dioceses of Ottawa, Montreal and Niagara.

The bishop of Niagara has given his approval for the blessings to be implemented, but, to date, the bishops of Montreal and Ottawa haven't.
In response, two retired bishops have joined a different Anglican "province" located in another part of the world:
Bishop Malcolm Harding, retired Bishop of Brandon, has announced that he will minister under Archbishop Gregory Venables and the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of the Americas, effective immediately.

Bishop Harding is the second Canadian bishop to make this announcement in the past week. It was announced on Friday that the Right Reverend Donald Harvey had been received under the Primatial authority of Archbishop Venables and would be free to offer episcopal oversight to biblically faithful Canadian Anglicans. …

[Bishop Harding commented,] "I cannot in conscience travel the path that the Anglican Church of Canada is traveling, away from historic Christian teaching and established Anglican practice."

The Anglican Province of the Southern Cone (Iglesia Anglicana del Cono Sur de America) is one of 38 Provinces that make up the global Anglican Communion. It encompasses much of South America and includes Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay and Argentina.
Similarly, in the United States,
the dioceses of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, California, and Quincy, Illinois, as well as several Virginia parishes have indicated they plan to leave the Anglican Episcopal Church and affiliate with overseas churches.

Recently, the Virginia diocese began a court battle with its renegade parishes over title to church buildings.
Back to Canada. Bishop Harvey is the moderator of the Anglican Network in Canada, which describes itself as a national fellowship of Canadian Anglicans who share a commitment to "biblically-faithful, historically-authentic" Anglicanism.

The Network is holding a conference this week in Burlington, Ontario. The Network has received messages of support from Anglican churches in the USA, Africa, and Australia:
I know that as Canadian Anglicans you are beginning this new initiative only after much prayer and searching of the word of God. The issue on which you have taken a stand is absolutely correct. Your obedience to the word of God is a necessary witness both to the Church and to society about the way in which God has designed us to live. You have my admiration for your courage and my prayers for the Lord's richest blessing on this venture. I extend my warmest Christian greetings to Archbishop Venables and to Bishop Harvey.
Peter, from Calgary, Alberta, is live-blogging from the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) conference. It appears that the split is a fait accompli:
Rev Charlie Masters - ANiC is now a reality, it has been launched. We are open for business.

We are part of the Anglican Communion. We will be episcopally lead and synodically governed. We are incorporated and we are real. We are part of the common cause partnership. ANiC is a temporary provision with the hope that there will be a new N American province.

Commited to discern and raise up numbers of new people to be ordained. We understand there will be parishes transferring juristictions. There will be church plants. There will be housegroups thinking about becoming church plants but not at that stage yet. …

Eventually parishes will be part of the Southern Cone, ANiC affliliation for individuals only. Currently both 'types' can be members of both - this is transition (so a little up in the air).

Charlie - what we are trying to do is like trying to build an airplane while we are flying. …

A number of events coming up:

Church memberships 23rd November 2007.
Ordinations 2nd December 2007.
Celebration 25-27th April 2008 Vancouver.
Confirmations and Church plants - TBA.
First Synod - November 2008.
How sad that it has come to this.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The merits and demerits of historical criticism

In the previous post, we identified internal inconsistencies as a fundamental problem for biblical interpretation. Then we introduced the first attempt at a solution, historical criticism, taking Gerhard von Rad as illustrative of the method.

I had intended to press on to the second attempt at a solution in this post:  i.e., the canonical approach championed by Brevard Childs. But, when I began to write, I found that I still had a great deal of ground to cover with respect to historical criticism.

Canonical criticism will have to wait. In this post I will consider historical criticism in more detail.

The promise of historical criticism

Israel testifies that God has made himself known via historical events. The Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the conquest of the promised land are key, formative events. But even the subplots of the biblical narrative have a revelatory function:  e.g., the Akedah (binding) of Isaac, or the consequences of Achan’s sin.

By rooting its testimony in history, Israel exposed it to critical investigation. Did the revelatory events actually happen? Is there a core of historicity underlying the narratives, even if they are unreliable (or merely unverifiable) at the level of detail?

Historical criticism set out to answer those questions. Many scholars — perhaps most — began from a position of faith. They did not set out to debunk Israel’s testimony, but rather to establish it on a secure foundation. And so, as we saw in the previous post, Gerhard von Rad isolated certain traditions which he regarded as both ancient and normative (non-negotiable).

Historical criticism arrives at a dead end

Regrettably, historical criticism didn't achieve what its practitioners had hoped to achieve. I'm finding it difficult to summarize the results of historical criticism to date, but I hope the following observations will be helpful:
  1. Many parts of the biblical narrative cannot be confirmed by extra-biblical evidence. For example, Abraham is not mentioned in ancient sources other than the Bible. Nor are Joseph and Moses, who might have been expected to appear in Egyptian records.

  2. When biblical protagonists are mentioned outside of the Bible, it can be a mixed blessing. For example, consider the following inscription which makes reference to David:
    … I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David. …1;
    This inscription, chiseled in black basalt, was discovered at Tel Dan in 1993. It was a very important discovery because sceptics had argued that David never actually existed. The inscription not only confirms that there was a "house" (dynasty) of David; it also confirms that King Jehoram (of Israel) and King Ahaziah (of Judah) were killed together.

    But, in one significant detail, the inscription contradicts the biblical account. 2Ki. 9:14-27 says that Jehu was responsible for the deaths of Jehoram and Ahaziah. In the inscription, King Hazael of Aram takes credit for killing the two kings. Thus the inscription both corroborates and contradicts the biblical narrative.

  3. The biblical accounts tend to betray an ulterior motive. For example, consider the biblical description of David's relationship with Saul.

    Saul regarded David as a pretender to the throne. No doubt, after Saul's death, some of Saul's fellow northerners continued to regard David as a usurper. But the biblical account maintains that Saul sought to kill David without cause. David is depicted as extraordinarily innocent in his dealings with Saul. Is the account historical, or is it an instance of political "spin", designed to legitimate David's reign?

    Similarly, the account of Solomon's succession to the throne served to legitimate his reign vis-à-vis his older brother, Adonijah. (See 1Ki. 1:5-53 and, for Adonijah's perspective, 1Ki. 2:15.)

    In general, historical criticism has been successful in recovering what Hermann Gunkel called the "Sitz im leben" (setting in life) of the text. Interpreting the phrase broadly, Sitz im leben refers to the function of a given text in subsequent generations:  in this instance, the legitimation of David's dynasty.

    Historical criticism has found it exceedingly difficult to penetrate further back, beyond the Sitz im leben to the events themselves. This is an important point, to which we will return.

  4. Historical criticism was unable to isolate one ancient source that appeared to be closer to the historical events. Instead, scholars identified four primary sources. Conventionally referred to as J, E, P, and D, the four accounts were woven together in the final edition of the Hebrew scriptures.

    Scholars believe that J and E originally offered rival accounts of Israel's history. The Yahwist (who wrote J), lived in what became the southern kingdom, Judah. The Elohist (who wrote E), lived in the northern kingdom, Israel. Norman Gottwald explains:
    As long as the northern and southern kingdoms stood as rival Israelite kingdoms, the Yahwist and Elohist versions of the national epic were firm competitors. After the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E., the Elohist lost its home setting and a redactor in the southern kingdom joined the two documents, or, more correctly stated, supplemented J extensively with parts of E. For this reason, E is much less completely preserved than J. … The effect of joining J and E was to affirm the national political tone of J but to permeate and leaven it with the religious and ethical qualifications of E.2
    In other words, J and E were both polemical documents, spinning the national epic in accordance with their authors' socio-political agendas. This tendency to "spin" events is equally obvious in the case of the other two sources, P and D.

    We return to the point made above:  scholarly investigations tend to dead end at the Sitz im leben of the texts. Scholars come up short of an objective description of the historical events.

  5. Let me make the same point in yet another way:  the original source material was repeatedly edited and re-edited over a period of centuries, long after the historical events had taken place.

    At some point in Israel's distant past, there were no extended accounts of history. There were only oral traditions, or brief documents, that the authors of J and E were able to utilize. But they didn't incorporate the source material verbatim; they edited it in accordance with their distinctive objectives.

    The same process was repeated after the fall of the northern kingdom, when J and E were combined by an anonymous editor. Later still, P and D were added to the mix. Considerable editorial activity was involved in the process of reducing the several documents to a single text.

    (Phil at Narrative and Ontology has posted an eye-popping diagram of the process here. Good timing, Phil!)

    If Israel ever possessed an objective description of its history (which is doubtful), it was lost forever in the process which produced the biblical texts as they are known to us.

    Israel preserved its history:  and partly for spiritual reasons. But Israel also shaped its history in accordance with the partisan socio-political agendas of certain individuals or (more likely) communities.

I should point out that there has been a backlash against the documentary hypothesis in recent decades. Scholars proposed excessively detailed reconstructions of the text:  for example, parceling out a verse among several sources. Such highly detailed reconstructions failed to generate a scholarly consensus.

At a certain point, the whole project began to resemble a house of cards:  too much infrastructure resting on an inadequate base.3

I am not a scholar, and I am not equipped to defend the documentary hypothesis. However, I am inclined to trust the judgement of those scholars who insist that the core of the hypothesis is sound; that it sheds a lot of light on the biblical texts.

As Walter Brueggemann would say, it is impossible for us to return to an "innocent" reading of the text. But historical criticism is unable to resolve the problem of internal inconsistencies. What, then, shall we do?

If we can't go back, we must find a new way forward.

In 1970, Brevard Childs declared that biblical theology had reached a point of crisis. Childs
proposed that rather than theological interpretation being done according to the schema of historical criticism, it must be done according to the "canonical intentionality" of the text.4
In the next post, then, we will turn our attention to Brevard Childs and the canonical approach to the interpretation of biblical texts.

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1Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition, Free Press, 2006, p. 265.

2Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Fortress Press, 1987, p. 140.

3The same objection applies in New Testament studies with respect to certain scholars' overly-confident reconstructions of Q.

4Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy. Fortress Press, 1997, p. 45.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The rational orderliness of the cosmos as evidence of a Creator

There is one vitally important area where the accounts of science and faith both need to align, and in fact do align, in the understanding of the world. The first, priestly, creation account, whose canonical position [Genesis 1] privileges it in relation to the succeeding stories and poems, is above all an account of ordering. The creation is the organisation of randomness into coherency. This not only gives a significant place to human reason and observation (as the linkage of Wisdom and creation elsewhere implies) but is the fundamental presupposition of scientific investigation. …

Science with God is more rational than science without God. … It is not just that the observable universe is susceptible of rational investigation, but that science can’t work if it isn’t. We have an apparently random quantum fluctuation resolving with great speed into a universe that is not only organised, but finely¹ tuned. … Given the apparently rational and mathematical nature of the world, in which reasonably constructed experiments work, one might be tempted to see greater coherence in postulating a rational rather than a random cause.
Doug at Metacatholic, in a post entitled Creation and Cosmos.

I don't typically borrow from other bloggers unless I have something of value to add to their remarks. In this case, I have nothing to add. I merely want to commend the post (and the blog!) to others who don't regularly read Metacatholic.

¹The original post reads, "finally tuned". I have amended it in light of a subsequent paragraph which speaks of the "fine-tuning" of the universe.

There's probably a lesson in here somewhere about the transmission of biblical texts:  i.e., the introduction of variant readings by copyists who presume to know what the original author intended to write!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Quote of the day: Mircea Eliade


I have corrected my Mircea Eliade quote. Tim, who evidently has a better sense than I do of what Eliade is likely to say, investigated the matter. It turns out that Eliade wrote precisely the opposite of what was ascribed to him by the site where I found my quote.

Here's what Eliade really said:
The ritual nudity of the yogini has an intrinsic mystical value: if, in the presence of the naked woman, one does not find in one's inmost being the same terrifying emotion that one feels before the revelation of the cosmic mystery, there is no rite, there is only a secular act, with all the familiar consequences (strengthening of the karmic chain, etc.).

Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, p. 259.
So Eliade may not be fearless in the presence of a naked woman after all. However, the subject is not just any naked woman, but the mystical nudity of the yogini.

Oh well. It's still an adequate excuse to publish this photo:

nude with light globe

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A generational shift in evangelical Christianity?

[Cross-posted from my "secular" blog, [A]mazed and [Be]mused. By the way, my university-aged son has just joined me as a co-blogger over there, and I'm feeling pretty pleased about it!]
Evangelicals are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns, from disease in Africa, to the environment, to racial reconciliation. And they want to be a witness to these values instead of a tool in the power games of others.
Newsweek. The last sentence of the quote aptly characterizes where American evangelicals have positioned themselves for the past twenty-five years:  as a tool in the power games of others.

(Perhaps I should speak of "Christianists" — the term by which Andrew Sullivan distinguishes this politicized group from other evangelicals.)

The mainstream US media has recently published a couple of articles hailing the arrival of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. The New York Times reported:
The founding generation of leaders like [Jerry] Falwell and [James] Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene [either dying or retiring]. … Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions.

There are many related ways to characterize the split:  a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty.
In my experience, concern for the environment is also taking root among younger evangelicals.

I hope Newsweek and the Times are right to suppose that this represents a generational shift. I'm not quite convinced yet, but I'm hopeful.

There are two trends to consider. The Times is alert to one of the trends, which involves very large, "seeker sensitive" churches.

The church pastored by Bill Hybels averages 20,000 in attendance each week. To maintain a more personal touch, it makes use of 2,600 small groups. The Times comments:
Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America; in the last 15 years, his Willow Creek Association has grown to include more than 12,000 churches. Many invite their staff members and lay leaders to participate by telecast in Willow Creek’s annual leadership conferences, creating a virtual gathering of tens of thousands. …

As his stature has grown, Hybels has seemed more willing to irk Christian conservative political leaders — and even some in his own congregation. He set off a furor a few years ago when he invited former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of his conferences. And the Iraq war has brought into sharp relief Hybels’s differences with conservatives like Dobson.

… On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.
The other trend is more of a grass roots phenomenon. There is a rising interest in something called the "Emergent" church. Or "movement", or "conversation" — Emergent leaders are uncomfortable being defined by labels.

The Emergent movement reminds me of the internet-driven political campaigns of Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Yes, there are identifiable leaders (e.g., Brian McLaren), but the movement as such has no hierarchy, and is not identified with any individual. It is amorphous — a concept that has spread virally — a meme.

As such, it isn't clear how much impact the Emergent movement will have on Christianity. It could self-destruct, as Howard Dean's political campaign did in 2004. On the other hand, it might represent the beginning of something new in Christianity:  a way of doing church differently in a postmodern era.

The thing to note is that these two trends, so different in approach, have similar ideals with respect to social issues. There's an amusing, semi-serious description of the seven layers of Emergence on a Christianity Today blog. Consider the seventh "layer":
Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church? … To their amazement, [the article's hypothetical congregation] discovers significant swaths of the Bible (such as the Pentateuch, prophets, gospels, and epistles) talk about justice, poverty, and compassion. The church begins to speak about social issues and participates in efforts to combat poverty, AIDS, and global injustice.
This paragraph takes a bit of a cheap shot at the Hybels model of doing church — "Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church?" Emergent folks tend to be critical of the megachurch model. Nonetheless, the paragraph's emphasis on poverty, AIDS, and global injustice is consistent with the mission objectives of Hybels's church.

In the convergence of these two trends, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. The reader may note an approving nod to the Emergent movement in the name of this blog, Emerging From Babel.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A fundamental problem: and three attempts at a solution

Doug at Metacatholic has published a provocative post, Deconstructing the Decalogue.

(For those who aren't familiar with the jargon, the "Decalogue" = the "Ten Commandments". Literally, the ten "words" (Gk. logoi):  see the ESV footnote to Deut. 4:13.)

I intend to use Doug's post to illustrate a fundamental problem in any attempt to understand the Bible. In a three-part series of posts, I will lay out three attempts at a solution to the problem. The first attempt at a solution, historical criticism, is described in this post.

Internal inconsistencies:

For ease of reference, I am going to attach a label to the problem that Doug illustrates so well:  internal inconsistencies. One biblical text often contradicts, or appears to be inconsistent with, another biblical text.

Very often, the sickness of modernity is diagnosed in different terms:  faith vs. science. In other words, individuals must choose between the competing claims of rival authorities. Naturally, Christians will choose to believe the Bible instead of "believing" the claims of modern science.

I submit that the problem is more fundamental than that. Christians cannot simply "believe the Bible" because the Bible comprises a range of viewpoints. Scripture is "multivocal" (my preferred summary term). A close reading of scripture does not pit faith against science, but one biblical "voice" against another — often even within a single book (e.g., Ecclesiastes).

Doug analyzes three Old Testament scriptures, which I am presenting side by side in tabular form. The first text, from Exodus 20, explicates the second commandment:  "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex. 20:4).1

Exodus 20:5-6 Deut. 7:9-10 Ezekiel 18:20
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

(1) The Decalogue asserts that God will punish three or four generations for the sins of the father. (2) Deuteronomy makes no mention of subsequent generations; rather, it focuses on the sinner himself. God will not be "slack" with the sinner (i.e., there will be no delay in punishment?), but will punish him to his face. (3) Ezekiel goes even further, flatly contradicting the Decalogue:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father. … The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Doug comments,
The words portrayed as belonging to God both in speech and writing seem to be up for conversation, criticism and dialogue. God in Ezekiel disagrees with God in Exodus, and even though the final redaction of Exodus most likely post-dates these prophecies the tensions and discordances are preserved in the text on its long journey towards canonicity.
What are the implications of this conclusion for exegesis? How can texts which are inconsistent with one another supply a coherent and authoritative guide to doctrine and practice?

Historical criticism:

The first attempt at a solution that I wish to consider is historical criticism.

The historical-critical method presupposes that Israel's understanding of God was contingent on its location in space and time. As the generations passed; as Israel encountered other nations with different religious ideas; as Israel's fortunes on the world stage rose and fell — Israel's doctrines and practices changed.

In my view, this is undoubtedly a biblical perspective. As Walter Brueggemann says, "Israel’s articulation itself would seem to stress the historical."2 And indeed, traditional theology has been open to the notion of progressive revelation:
Different faith groups assign various meanings to the term "Progressive revelation." A common definition is the belief that God did not teach full theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical and other knowledge to humans in the beginning. Rather, God gradually revealed truths over a long interval, according to their needs, and at a rate slow enough that humans were capable of fully absorbing them.
But traditional theology was not open to the idea of irreconcilable contradictions in scripture. That Israel might actually change its mind, and conclude that the doctrines of an earlier era were in error — that was simply unthinkable.

In fact, historical criticism doesn't assume progressive revelation. Methodologically, earlier documents are preferred to later documents. The biblical historian assumes something like a degeneration from an original purity, rather than progress toward perfection.

As an example of the historical-critical method, consider Gerhard von Rad (whose views are here summarized by Walter Brueggemann). Von Rad proposed
that the recitals of Deut. 26:5–9, 6:20–24, and Josh. 24:1–13 constitute Israel’s earliest and most characteristic theological articulation. These highly studied recitals … narrate Israel's remembered "historical" experience of the decisive ways in which Yahweh, the God of Israel, has intervened and acted in the life of Israel. …

Von Rad was drawn to term these stylized recitals as credos, as bottom-line articulations of what is unquestioned and nonnegotiable in Israel’s faith.3
Thus von Rad employed the historical-critical method to isolate the earliest recitals of Israel's faith. He recognized that subsequent generations always circled back to the core material; they retold the stories in ways that were appropriate to new historical circumstances. But it was the most ancient stratum of the tradition that von Rad deemed normative and non-negotiable.

Were von Rad's conclusions warranted? Had he succeeded in isolating the earliest stratum of the tradition? Can the historical critical method solve the problem of internal inconsistencies for us?

In my second post, I will lay out some of the inadequacies of the historical-critical option. I will then direct our attention to a second attempt at a solution:  canonical criticism.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Brueggemann, W. (1997). Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, p. 40.

3ibid., pp. 32-33.

Friday, November 9, 2007

James Kugel's provocative thoughts on the Torah; and the Jewish blogosphere

To be clear, the title refers to two different topics. James Kugel has not said anything provocative about the Jewish blogosphere.

Let me start with the second topic first. Christian bibliobloggers may be unaware that there is a thriving Jewish blogosphere (J-blogosphere) out there. The easiest point of access is Haveil havalim. The 138th roundup of what's going on in the J-blogosphere was hosted by Soccer Dad.

And that's all I wanted to say about that. Now, on to James Kugel's provocative thoughts on the place of the Torah in Judaism. Hat tip, Jewish Atheist.

Kugel has his own Web site here. He was recently asked the following question:
I have always avoided studying biblical criticism because, although I am primarily an orthoDOX Jew (daven 3 times a day, shomer shabbat/kashrut), I have somewhat of a cynical attitude to many aspects of our tradition despite my love for Judaism and my commitment to live a "religious life" and raise my children as observant Jews.

I feared that if I were to be convinced that the Torah is not a divine document, that the foundations of my faith (in halacha – not God) would be shaken and that I would not be able to take halacha seriously. Because if the foundational text that the entire halacha is based upon was not in fact divine — then chazal’s primary assumption no longer holds true. If Rabbi Akiva or Rav Ashi or Maimonides or Rav Feinstein all operated under the assumption of a divine Torah and that assumption is not valid (either in whole or part) - well.......

… I am actually not even quite sure what I am asking. I suppose I am writing to you to get your thoughts on how a religious person can maintain his/her faith and fealty in and to a rabbinic system that is so directly based on the belief of a Divine text and the "Four Assumptions"?
Here is an excerpt from Kugel's detailed response (which is certainly worth reading in its entirety):
Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole "prepared table" of Judaism. …

It is part of the whole posture of seeking to do God’s bidding that we absorb ourselves in the details of the traditional way of life, "davening three times a day" as you say, and kashrut and learning and Shabbat. We don’t take easily to going beyond this, looking up from those daily tasks to contemplate our Employer, that is to say, to think about the really basic issues of theology. In fact, to talk about such things even seems to us un-Jewish; it is neither a necessary nor a particularly comfortable activity for someone who has undertaken to live as an Orthodox Jew. …

When you actually consider Judaism as it is, the role of the Torah in it is really not what you say it is. Ultimately, Jews are not Torah-fundamentalists. On the contrary, our whole tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says (despite Deut. 4:2), sometimes reading its words in a way out of keeping with their apparent meaning, and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely. (My book "The Bible As It Was" contains seven hundred pages of examples of how this all began.)

What’s more, as everyone knows, much of what makes up the daily fabric of Jewish life has only a tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with what is actually written in the Torah. I mentioned such things as saying the Amidah three times a day, the berakhot that we recite before eating and on other occasions, netilat yadayim, many aspects of kashrut [e.g. basar vehalav], many of the particulars in the way we keep Shabbat and holidays, studying the Babylonian Talmud, and so on and so forth. Isn’t this an awful lot of what it means to lead a halakhic life? On the other hand, one might also mention such practices as mekhirat hametz, which on the face of it seem in fact to contradict what is written in the Torah, in this case, the prohibitions of bal yera’eh ubal yimmatze. And all these are really only the tip of the iceberg; you yourself could go into much greater detail on this theme.

So someone looking at this situation from afar would probably be reluctant to accept your assertion that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah and their divine inspiration. … No, this observer would say, it is simply not true that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah. Those words were the starting-point, but what has truly proven determinative in them (indeed, what was recognized as such from the start) was the general direction that those words point in and embody, and whose trajectory was then carried forward through the Mishnah and Gemara and all later writings.

That "general direction" is the basic idea that Israel's connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H'. This is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation, and whether it took place at Sinai or somewhere else, biblical scholarship itself has highlighted the utter disconnectedness of this idea from all that preceded it. Before that moment, there was (for centuries) the God of Old, who appeared and disappeared; and there was the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Then, suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

… Time and again, it's not a matter of the specific words, at least not if you try to see the big picture. What really underlies everything — and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation — was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.

In the light of all this, I hinted at the very end of the book at what is called in German a "thought experiment." What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: "You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul." Then He said to Moshe: "Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details." Well, this is a somewhat jarring question, but please go along with it for a minute. In the end, I do not believe that this would, or could, invalidate our system of halakhah.

Of course I do believe in nevu’ah, in divine revelation, and I don’t think that Israel got only that one commandment from God. Theoretically, however, I think it would be enough if that were all, since that would provide the firm basis for everything that followed — Moshe's, or Rabbi Akiva's, elaboration of how this primal divine commandment is to be carried out. Because ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah. And frankly, we don't really seem to all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls. This is our "prepared table," the work of many hands. If someone wants a different table, let him go ahead — but this is the Jewish table, the way Jews serve God. …

Understanding that avodat H' is the true foundation of our halakhah may not de-fang modern biblical scholarship; a lot of what it says will always be disturbing to Jews. But I think that modern scholarship does not, because it cannot, undermine the essence of Judaism or what Jews actually do in their lives; it cannot, as you suggest, cause the system to collapse.

… After all is said and done and Kugel is long gone, the problems raised for Orthodox Jews by modern biblical scholarship will remain. My hope is that the response I’ve outlined here, which is really what I said in somewhat different terms in my book, will also be around for a while, and that it may help people like yourself to look squarely at those problems and at what seems to me to be their only truthful resolution.
My response, in bullet form:
  • I find Kugel's perspective on Judaism fascinating. (1) To talk about the really basic issues of theology is almost un-Jewish. (2) The whole Jewish tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says … and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely.

    I presume that other Jews would take issue with Kugel on those points. But it certainly confirms the impression that Judaism makes on me, a Christian outsider. In the brief time that I spent exploring the J-blogosphere, I found that I was unable to relate to many of the topics of urgent importance to Jewish bloggers. Discussion mostly concerned the extra-biblical demands that Jews live under, and told me virtually nothing about how Jews interpret the biblical texts.

  • The whole substance of the Sinai revelation [is this] … suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

    This statement highlights one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism (the observation is hardly original to me):  Judaism is grounded in observing the commandments in a way that Christianity simply is not.

    Jews will tell you that you can be an atheist and still be a Jew, as long as you continue to daven (pray), eat only kosher foods, and maintain the other practices of Judaism. For Protestant Christians, that is a very alien paradigm. For Protestants, what one believes about Jesus and the God and Father of Jesus is of primary importance. Praxis is also important, but definitely secondary.

    (Roman Catholics are perhaps closer to the Jewish model:  participation in the rites of the Church is regarded as salvific, and it seems to me that the rites operate somewhat independently of the individual's beliefs.)

  • Ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah.

    This is, in fact, the rationale for the extra-biblical tradition. We have the Tanakh, but it provides only a general guide. What does it mean, for example, "you shall do no work on the Sabbath"? How far can I walk before I violate the commandment? Such questions must be answered authoritatively, and that's what the extra-biblical tradition sets out to do.

    At the risk of riding my personal hobby-horse, I suggest that Brueggemann would agree with Kugel's pragmatic observation but go well beyond it.

    The divinely-given text leads inevitably to the human interpreter; and the human interpreter is not only fallible but inescapably trapped in a subjective perspective, conditioned by his or her location at a specific point in space and time. This inescapable reality has enormous implications for the claims we can make about our interpretations of scripture. As Brueggemann puts it, the best we can do is make an interpretation for now, knowing that we'll have to come back and do it all over again in future.

  • What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: "You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul." Then He said to Moshe: "Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details."

    Here we swing back in the direction of Christianity — almost, but not quite! Kugel and Jesus agree on the Great Commandment. And indeed, I think we are very close to Jesus' whole approach to religion at this point.
The problem is, Jews and Christians disagree fundamentally on "the details" that God left to the successors of Moses to work out!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

At last, someone recognizes my "Genius"


This graphic is supposed to represent the results of a linguistic analysis of Emerging From Babel. But actually it's designed to multiply hidden links to a commercial site.

I have removed the following text from the code:

alt="cash advance" /></a><p><small><a href="">Cash Advance</a>Loans</small></p>

It is such a pity, because the analysis was so right about the calibre of my blog!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

My top ten verses of scripture, part 2

(Continued from the previous post.)
  1. "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." (Ez. 36:26-27)

    I could never figure out why this verse isn't quoted in the New Testament. Anyway, it says several significant things:  (1) That we're a disobedient people in need of cleansing and regeneration; (2) That God isn't going to forsake us in our corrupt state — God is going to provide a solution for what ails us; and (3) That the solution necessarily involves the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit.

  2. … whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness … so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Ro. 3:25-26)

    We are near to the heart of the Gospel here.

    Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? This question takes us into deep theological waters. Rather than supply a final answer to the question, I am content simply to point to Paul's language here:  Jesus died so that God could justify us without committing an injustice.

    God was determined to have mercy upon us; and yet it would have been unjust of God to "clear the guilty" without providing some sort of propitiation for sin. It may confound human understanding, but Jesus Christ is the solution to that otherwise insoluble dilemma.

  3. "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" (Luke 24:34)

    The testimony of the Eleven to Cleopas and another, anonymous disciple.

    It isn't easy to select a single verse about the resurrection (raised for our justification? if Christ is not raised, we have believed in vain? Christ, the firstborn from among the dead?). But I love the resounding confidence of the assertion, "The Lord is risen indeed!"

    Sin, death, and the devil do not have the last word in scripture. Christ's resurrection provides sufficient ground for Christians to persist in hope — even in the face of terrible tragedy, if it comes to that.

  4. He [Christ] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:3a)

    And here is the other great achievement of Jesus Christ:  he makes an otherwise dimly perceived God known to us.

    Jesus is God's Son in a unique sense. When we contemplate his words and deeds we gain insights into God's nature that are otherwise unavailable to us.

  5. "There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him." (Mark 7:15)

    This verse is perhaps an odd choice to make it into my top ten. However, the importance of the issue touched on here — whether Christians are obliged to be circumcised, abstain from pork, and observe other elements of the Law of Moses — is obvious from the trouble it stirred up in the early Church.

    The saying quoted above was interpreted expansively by Mark ("Thus he declared all foods clean," 7:19) and restrictively by Matthew ("To eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone", Mt. 15:20).

    It was the determination of this issue that set Jews and Christians on divergent paths. It opened up the church to Gentiles without requiring that they first convert to Judaism. This development made it possible for Christianity to be, at least in principle, a universal religion.

  6. He has shown strength with his arm;
          he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of
          their hearts;
    he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
          and exalted those of humble estate;
    he has filled the hungry with good things,
          and the rich he has sent away empty.
    (Luke 1:51-53)

    This survey would not be complete without a reference to the social justice element of Jesus' ministry (in continuity with the prophets before him). Jesus befriended not only the poor, but those who were marginalized for whatever reason:  lepers, the demon-possessed, Samaritans, women, even those who were considered slack in their observance of the Law. Jesus joined them at the dinner table in an anticipation of the eschatological feast, which will take place when the kingdom of God is consummated.

    Note:  God not only exalts the humble, God also humbles the exalted. The finished work of Christ is the great leveler of society.

    But the completion of Christ's work awaits the arrival of the eschaton. Maranatha! — our Lord, come!
OK, I ended up with eleven verses in my "top ten"! Consider it a symbol of God's grace:  your cup has been filled to overflowing.

I can't help thinking of other verses I've left off my list. The Great Commandment, for example; and the Lord's prayer, and the words of institution of the Eucharist. Moreover, I'm aware that different verses could be substituted for the ones I have chosen, perhaps to better effect.

However, this survey represents the sweep of biblical teaching, from my perspective. I'll be curious to hear what essential pieces others think I've left out.

I think I'll tag James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix to do this meme. It seems to me it's his sort of thing.

Finally:  for a very thought-provoking approach to this challenge, see John Hobbins's ten paradigmatic questions from the Bible.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

My top ten verses of scripture

Doug at Metacatholic has started a meme:  list your top ten verses of scripture.

It may sound like a mushy, sentimental idea, but it isn't. Not if you understand the context. has "analysed thousands of pages of teaching material to determine the most frequently referenced Bible verses." Evidently they think this is a helpful way to prioritize Bible searches:
Try our word search feature! When you use Top Verses to search the Bible for a word, our results start with familiar verses, rather than Genesis. Next time you are hunting for a reference, you will find it quicker at Top Verses.
Doug points out (in an earlier post) that Leviticus 18:22 — "You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman. That is detestable" — is the 101st most popular verse in the Bible.

Doug's idea is that bibliobloggers should post their own top ten. Perhaps ours will come a little closer to what Christianity is really all about. Doug didn't tag me, but here are some verses that come to mind, with annotations.
  1. The Lord … proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (Ex. 34:6-7)1

    The Bible is about YHWH. If we put anything else at the centre of our faith, we have gone astray.

    But this verse also introduces a point of significant tension:  God is merciful; yet God "will by no means clear the guilty." The juxtaposition is awkward, but both halves of the equation are crucial to who God is.

  2. Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation. … In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3)

    Salvation history arguably begins here. When St. Paul lays out his apology for the Christian faith, he reaches back, beyond Moses, to Abraham. Before the covenant with Moses, grounded in obedience to the Law, came the covenant with Abraham, grounded in faith. There we have God's promise (so important to Gentile Christians!) to bless all the families of the earth in Abraham.

    Bonus:  the text concerns Abraham's pilgrimage from Ur to the Promised Land. That pilgrimage is an apt metaphor for a spiritual journey:  of Abraham himself, of biblical Israel, or of contemporary Christians.

  3. "It was not because you [Israel] were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers." (Deut. 7:7-8a)

    Grace:  God's election of a people who possess no outstanding merit. E.P. Sanders has performed a great service by clearing away a misunderstanding here. Christians had created a caricature of Israel's religion, insisting that Jews believe in salvation by works. Sanders demolished the caricature:  even those texts that appear to teach a works-righteousness in fact presuppose the framework of God's gracious election of Israel.

    The principle is profoundly paralleled in the Christian faith:  "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Ro. 5:8).

  4. "Are you not like the Cushites to me,
          O people of Israel?" declares the Lord.
    "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
          and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians
          from Kir?"
    (Amos 9:7)

    A countertestimony; a minority voice within the dominant narrative of God's peculiar regard for Israel. Here Amos reminds us that God's care extends to all peoples, including Israel's enemies — indeed, to the whole of God's creation.

    Those who become proud because they have a covenant relationship with God are making a serious mistake. We can never presume to have a corner on the market of God's loving kindness.

  5. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
          I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
          your rod and your staff,
          they comfort me.
    (Ps. 23:4)1

    The Hebrew scriptures are honest enough to acknowledge that the path of faith is not always unobstructed or triumphant. Sometimes the believer is brought low — very low. When no other comfort can be found, we take comfort in God's strong and compassionate presence.
(This post is continued here.)

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The lighter side of hell

Humour from the Far Side.







For a sample of Gary Larson's dog humour, see Dog Daze.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The slugfest continues

I should mention that the heavyweight fight between Childs and Brueggemann — or perhaps I should say, the featherweight fight between Phil and me — is continuing over at Narrative and Ontology. Phil has now weighed in with an articulate defense of Childs's sensitivity to the ecclesial context of interpretation.

Also of note: John Hobbins has collated a number of posts around the blogosphere showing an interest in Childs and the canonical perspective. John is also generating a biblioblogroll. Go take a look:  you may find that you're already on it!

A literary review of a literary translation of the Psalms

Robert Alter's new translation of the Psalms is creating a fair stir. There's a particularly good review by James Wood in The New Yorker. (Hat tip, Avdat.)

Wood is a literary critic and novelist. The literary perspective of the reviewer corresponds to Alter's goal of producing a literary translation:
[Alter's] work has been characterized by … a desire to convey in English the concrete ferocity of the original Hebrew. He is particularly alive to formal aspects of ancient Hebrew poetry and prose such as repetition, internal rhythm, and parallelism …. Because the Psalms are poems, he wants to preserve in English what he calls the "rhythmic compactness" of the originals, "something one could scarcely guess from the existing English versions." His helpful introduction is more polemical than the exegeses he has provided for his other translations: he argues that even the King James translators, whom he, like everyone else, has always admired, pad out their versions with filler.
I am of course delighted to see that Wood reads the Psalms much like Walter Brueggemann does. Wood is alert to what Brueggemann would summarize as the absence and silence of God in certain Psalms:
Many Psalms seem to involve three modes, shuffled into different combinations, which one could call plea, plaint, and praise. Psalm 13 is characteristic, beginning in plaint with the great central cry of the Psalter, "How long": "How long, O LORD, will you forget me always? / How long hide your face from me? / How long shall I cast about for counsel, sorrow in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?" …

Then, in the fourth verse, the supplicant switches to a plea: "Regard, answer me, LORD, my God. / Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death." And in the last verse of this short psalm the writer switches again, this time to a kind of formulaic praise, apparently sure that his prayer has worked: "But I in Your kindness do trust. . . . Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me."

The three modes are very close to each other in spirit, staining each other: one often hears a barely suppressed note of desperation in the praise, as if it were about to collapse back into plea or plaint. When the psalmist exults "Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me," at the end of a prayer that is only six verses long, and which has barely earned its right to such certainty, do we accept it as a statement of fact or as an expression of wishful yearning? Why would a God so absent six verses earlier suddenly make himself present?

This is all part of the human drama of the Psalms, that sense we have of a voice arguing with itself and its God.
The review is four "pages" long. If you read nothing else, read page four. Wood's analysis of Psalm 137, and his insight into the KJV translation of verse 7, is not to be missed.

And perhaps I should add:  I've told my family to put Alter's translation of the Psalms on my Christmas wish list.