Glimpses of the Promised Land

I’ve talked a bit about feeling like I’ve been in exile over the past couple years and luckily it seems like I am starting to see the Promised Land again. I entered into my MA here at Fuller with a lot of pressing issues I needed to address. I felt completely deconstructed by my previous studies and left with no real resources to piece things back together. At the core of a lot of it was epistemology and my loss of confidence in foundationalism as a viable model for the current philosophical and cultural landscape.  I also had some areas of study  I just needed to dive right into. Over this past year, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do just that.  I feel I am starting to hone in on a better epistemological method. Many of my research hunches about where the conversations are going in numerous fields/topics have been vindicated and I am starting to get my confidence back in my own abilities to write and do biblical research. It’s strange how things change over time. Not long ago I felt totally adrift at sea, now I am starting to feel like its time to set anchor.

God has been working on me a lot too. I noticed him in some small details of my life recently and it was encouraging. They were silly little things that wouldn’t seem important to anyone. For example, I needed a dime for one last page of photocopying from a book in the library and had no money to do it. I would have to trek all the way home for one but I decided to check the floors of the copy rooms on the off chance there might be one laying around. The first room had nothing but when I went up to the second floor, there it was, right in the middle of the floor in front of the copying machine. It was like God was saying, this is small potatoes Steve. I can do this. Another instance was when a friend of mine gifted me a book that was on a topic we both shared an interest in. It was totally out of the blue and much appreciated. I know these are not terribly huge or earth shattering events but I had kept my eyes open for God, and noticed him show up in the minutest of ways. Another instance was when I was on the computer and managed to book all my flights, hotels, car rentals for trips this quarter and subscribe to the necessary scholarly organizations and register for a conference all in one fell swoop. I have been really stressed about this quarter because of all the commitments I have to keep, I have a close friend from college getting married which I am standing in the wedding party for, a trip to the SBL/AAR conference in November, two sets of parents visiting and oh I also get to TA a class this quarter. Not to mention study for the GRE and work on Ph D applications. It seemed an insurmountable task. Yet, somehow my trip stuff all pooled together into one productive afternoon. It was serendipitous and I felt like God was behind it. Then, after committing to the fact that I would have to spend a small fortune to stay in San Francisco for the conference, a friend offered to put me up for free. God has really been addressing the area of finances with us this year. It’s quite humbling to be working on your second masters and also be on food stamps. That’s just where we are right now and God has been meeting our needs. In Denver, we were very intentional about working hard and being responsible with our money. I think in some ways, God needed to show us that he can support us when we are in need and that it isn’t all about the work ethic.

Throughout it all I’ve been trying to get at the heart of the issue, why is it that I still feel like I can’t trust God?  In some ways, I feel like its God fault I’ve encountered so much adversity these past few years but then I am beginning to see the fruit of those experiences.  It changes my perspective and sometimes I think I just need a good Holy Spirit God cry session to get all this junk out.  I might visit the Pasadena International House of Prayer to do just that.  I need to let go of the overwhelming sense of loss I experienced and am trying to figure out the best way to go about it.  All in all things are getting better even though life continues to throw me challenges.  It’s good to be alive and I’m happy with where I am right now.  I think that’s all I can hope for at this stage of the game.  Soon  a lot will be changing but for now, I’ll just rest in the fact that I am finally making some progress in my life without God kind of phase.  Exile is only for a time and I for one am glad that it looks like it will soon be over.  I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side………Will it be the Promised Land?… That still remains to be seen.  One thing I do know,   I will be glad to be out of the wilderness


Did Jesus go to theater camp?


Partially reconstructed theater at Sepphoris

Partially reconstructed theater at Sepphoris

When we read in Matt. 6:1-8;16-18, curiously, Jesus demonstrates knowledge of theatrical terminology and practices which would seem out of place in first century Jewish contexts.  How did Jesus know what a “hyporcrite,” literally one who wears a mask or plays a role, meant when he lived in a largely rural town?  Did Jesus go to theater camp? It may sound a bit cheeky, but the truth  may not be so far off.  Richard A. Batey in “Jesus and the Theatre,” New Testament Studies vol. 30 no 4, O 1984, pp. 563-584, makes a strong case that Jesus knew Greek theatrical terms such as hypocrite, “hupocritai” occurring in Matt 6, vv. 2, 5 and in 16 “hupocrites”, because he lived close to the Hellenistic Roman city of Sepphoris.  How is this significant?

Sepphoris was founded by Herod Antipater as “the seat of his power and centre of culture” in Galilee and Perea. Here, the remains of a Greco-Roman style theater have been found in the style of Vitruvius, a great architectural mind who built the Roman water system. Herod the Great had sent his children to Rome to be educated and trained in the ways of Roman politics and culture. When Herod Antipas returned and subsequently took control as one of four tetrarchs or rulers of the region after his father died, he founded a city resplendent with Roman luxury and opulence,  symbolizing the embodiment of Roman culture he had experienced while in the capital of the empire. Being that the city was only an hour’s walk from the town of Nazareth and that Nazareth was along the main highway south of Sepphoris makes it likely that Jesus traveled there. Jesus was involved in a trade, carpentry, that would require commerce with such places and it is likely Jesus travelled to Sepphoris to conduct business and knew some Greek in order to carry out regular business deals. It is here that the young Jesus may have talked to actors or seen a performance of Greek tragedy.  One can imagine Jesus taking a break from his hard work and listening in on a  practice between actors, seeing them getting ready for a show or catching the show with his dad while they were in town.

In Jesus’ own description of the hypocrites in relation to fasting, Matt. 6:16-18, he describes how they paint their faces, the same way actors prepared for their tragic roles and comedies. Additionally, according to Craig Evans, the description of “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” in Matt 6:3 is actually instructions about how to use one’s hands in performance.  Clearly Jesus knew something about the theater and some of its mechanics.  The remains of a theater in Sepphoris has been found and dated to the period of Antipas based upon Hasmonean coins discovered in the orchestra area. (Coins were often thrown as praise for good performances, much like roses today at ice skating events.)  Hupocritesoccurs thirteen times in Matthew compared to once in Mark and three times in Luke. The theme became important for Matthew in delineating true worship from false piety and he uses it often. This would not make sense unless Jesus knew what the term meant.  Even more so, Jesus’ indictment of the pharisees and teachers of the law, the religious folk, as “hypocrites” would be particularly biting as the religious Jewish elite saw acting as a form of lying.  This is why they are offended when Jesus  accuses them of  false piety.  He is calling them a bunch of liars.  Pretty in your face.  Matthew utilizes this theme to great effect throughout his Gospel.  It would appear that Jesus had to have known some kind of Greek and more specifically, Greek theatrical terms, in order to make the kind of accusations he was making.  How did he acquire such Greco-Roman terminology? Did Jesus go to theater camp?  The idea makes me smile just a little bit.  Regardless of how he came to know the terms, Jesus certainly understood what they meant and used them to great effect.  Jesus didn’t “act the fool” but told it straight.  That’s why he was so controversial.

Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

The Barna Group – Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.

The above article is based on recent research in the changing landscape of young adults and faith.  Over the past decade I have seen a lot of this going on and have tried to address some of these issues in my blog.  The research reinforces in my mind the need to present a more robust articulation of our faith tradition that handles the many challenges of an increasingly pluralistic and technologically advanced culture.

The Fear of Being Known

One of the things that inevitably happens when you begin to make yourself known to others is that some people don’t like what they see. I don’t know about you, but I have always had a reluctance to share who I truly am for fear that when I really put it out there, “that big matsa ball” as they say on Seinfeld, people will flee in droves from the shocking truth. Fortunately, it’s not such a severe occurrence but nevertheless, there is some separation which happens when you start to share about yourself to more than your closest personal friends. Your close friends know who you are and accept you junk and all. People who know you less or are acquaintances seem much more ready to jump ship at signs of danger. Its a weird feeling, but I always have that little pang when I see my friend list number drop on facebook or feel like I have to unfriend someone. It seems stupid, but there is that self-doubt which comes to mind, “that person didn’t think I was important enough to stay in contact with.” I’m sure there are innumerable reasons for it and of course I probably deserve it a lot of the time but I can let it affect me if I’m not careful. Which probably ties in to the issue at hand, I care entirely too much what other people think of me. I can’t seem to help it. I feel like its important to be well liked or perceived as a good person even though I know I’m just a turd. There’s always that nagging voice in the back of your mind, “you know people wouldn’t REALLY like you if they knew how messed up you are.” It can seem so convincing and manages to keep us from really experiencing life, from putting ourselves out there. The reality though is that this thing that keeps us locked up inside ourselves for fear of judgment actually is a lie. It is true, some people won’t like you because of who you really are, but a lot of people will. More importantly, God cares for you and I, which in some ways trumps the whole deal. Its not about what I do but about who He is and what he offers us: full disclosure. I don’t have to fake it with God. He is well aware of my shortcomings and misdeeds, my sinful tendencies and my self-obsession. He offers me the supreme gift of making my sins known to Him, something I am always reluctant to do. No one wants to admit how messed up they really are and it seems even worse when God is the one you are spilling your guts to but the truth can be so freeing. Telling God everything frees us from the burden of sin we keep trying to manage. Its a weight of unremitting micro-management. It takes our focus off of what is really important in life and keeps us locked up inside ourselves. I, for one, am tired of it. I’m ready for a revolution in my soul. Time to be honest with God and get the hell out of this internal weigh station. Let’s break through the lines of the enemy and start a revolution in our hearts to make ourselves known. Hey, you never know, you might just make some new friends in the process.

Published in: on September 24, 2011 at 11:54 pm  Comments (5)  

Why atheism is sometimes good

Sometimes atheism can be a good thing. Let me explain. From time to time, I come across folks who have rejected God for various reasons. When we get around to finding out the reasons for their turn to atheism, often times, they describe a divine being in which I too have no problem saying does not exist. The issue is their conception of God. It simply does not correspond to the loving God of theism. Anytime our view of God is a cheap knock off of the all-powerful, all-loving deity, it is right to conclude that that God must die. The mistake so often made by people in this situation is that they just stop there. They become satisfied with atheism. The means becomes an end. The only problem is, it really doesn’t satisfy. What is needed instead, is a superior conception of the Almighty. Only when we have a more accurate view of God, can we hope to be saved from our own depravity and selfishness. If we replace our old view of God with a better one, we can begin to start the healing process and get out of the cul-de-sac of atheism. Then, like Zarathustra, we can say to those ill-conceived notions of some white dude with a beard floating in the clouds, “God is dead” and turn our attention towards the vision of the Alpha and Omega, who is, who was and who is to come. Only to a God of infinite moral perfection can it be said, “You are worthy to be worshipped.” All other Gods need not apply.

Sam Harris is Afraid of Religion

I’ve been asked by a friend to comment on these five segments of a talk by Sam Harris about the nature of faith and reason in the modern world. Let me start with a couple general observations from my time spent listening to atheists about faith etc. and then we’ll get into my responses to the video. I find that many times there is a general disconnect between theists and atheists because Christianity is a rather large and general category into which many pour everything from mild agnosticism to right wing politics and much of it having practically nothing to do with Christianity as a faith properly speaking. The faith itself is diverse and contains a variety of streams and nuances that is lost on most who are unwilling or simply don’t care to know the difference. A lot of times I read comments by atheists and I wonder what they are talking about because what they articulate is not Christianity. I applaud those who want to understand what Christianity says on its own terms, folks like yourself who are more open to actually learning about something before criticizing it. Now that the preliminaries have been dealt with, I’ll dive in to the videos.
Faith Vs. Reason in the Modern World (Aspen Ideas Festival July 2-8, 2007)
Video 1
My first impressions of the video are that I would agree with Harris that any belief is up for debate and discussion, religious or not, if it is worth pursuing. I pick up on an unnecessary dualism he is creating immediately where he positions modernity against religion as if the two have not existed throughout the same periods. I also think he is privileging technology to set apart our period in history as opposed to others which experienced the same if not more competition of ideas. The reason people continue to appeal to ancient traditions for their moral guidance is because they have proven themselves. Ideas that last thousands of years tend to have more credibility than those which were just said yesterday. When he says that his statement about the fact that we shouldn’t be appealing to these ancient ideas for modern problems needs no argument, he is really revealing a cultural bias that favors novelty over anything old. He is also begging the question with such reasoning. For Harris and many other atheists, Sept. 11 has been a watershed moment for reason’s need to triumph over religion. “Look at what can happen” is the thought behind this recent movement. The same thing happened after the thirty years war in Europe which brought on modernity as we understand it today. I wonder since we live in a world created by such reactions if the recent occurrences simply show the lack of modernity’s ability to deal with religious thought in general. Maybe the shift to the personal ghetto of individual religious piety was a bad idea?

Harris makes some logical fallacies in his discussion of the three types of responses of the defense of God. First, the three options is reductionistic. There are more than three options i.e. what if some part of some religions are true? Second, invoking probabilities as a way of writing off religious assertions is nonsense. It’s a red herring. As far as his reasoning for the attestation of Jesus’ life and teaching, he makes an incorrect claim about extracanonical references to Jesus. There are several. He also reveals a complete lack of historiography which tells us that documents that are centuries removed from their original periods are still considered reliable and trustworthy. A few mere decades is more than enough evidence of textual veracity.
Harris views miracles as an abrogation against the laws of the natural world. Christianity does not view miracles in this way. His view is the same as Hume. C. S. Lewis has an entire book devoted to this subject, On Miracles, which delineates these ideas. God does not use unnatural means to bring about miraculous events. These are my thoughts on the first video.
Video 2
As we set in to video two, it becomes apparent that Harris is fixated upon miracles as the main content of religious devotion. This is a huge misread of faith in general. The Christian faith is partially concerned with Jesus’ miracles or the miraculous events surrounding his life. However, these are only a segment of the faith tradition. Largely Christians worship and follow Jesus because of the demonstrable power of his ethical teachings and example of what God desires for humanity. Harris is wrong in his statement that Christianity believes God dictated the Bible. That is not the understanding of inspiration most Christians uphold. They believe God inspired the authors in such a way that their own personal thoughts and writing conveyed God’s words to humanity through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Also, the ten commandments were not set up in an order of importance so comments about their order are non-sequitor.
The usefulness of ideas is a pragmatic way of viewing knowledge. Harris is a rational, empiricist so he has no use for this category of knowledge but I think there is some correlation between usefulness and the truth of something in different areas of life. It’s a major factor for scientific discovery. This does not mean it is always the case that something useful is true, but it also does not mean that the opposite is always the case. To deny any correlation can be evidence is special pleading.
Here in the middle 7:50 we really see what Harris is driving at, reason as religion. He is concerned with certainty and he feels only reason can provide such knowledge. This is my major issue with the new atheists. They simply cannot escape the restrictions of their own assumptions to inquire into other forms of knowledge. If one is unwilling to be critical of one’s own assumptions in the pursuit of knowledge, then of course no other form of enquiry will be dubbed logical. That conclusion is demanded from the outset. This is special pleading.
Video 3
Harris paints a just so picture of ethics that I find particularly unconvincing. One need only look for the numerous atheist charities….in the world to see what I’m talking about. If ethics were so obvious, why is the world so bad? When people like Harris appeal to the ease at which we can teach our children about ethics and morality, I wonder how he can be so historically bereft of the traditions which he owes this state of affairs to. It’s very easy to benefit from the advancement of ethical thought from a tradition such as Christianity. I find it hard to believe that such would be the case if religions did not exist. Rose colored glasses indeed.

Harris embarks on the next phase of atheist pet projects these days, ethics in the Old Testament. I have no qualms with the description of absolutely terrible things happening in the OT. It is a cornucopia of human depravity. When you’re talking about ethics in the Late Iron Age, one wonders why it is so surprising. Atheists tend to retroject 21st century notions of ethics onto ancient peoples and point and say “look at how unethical.” Does this make sense when they stand on the shoulders of millennia of ethical development? Harris’ comments about ethics in the ancient Near East are completely wrong. Egyptian, Assyrian and other law codes in fact affirmed the killing of an adulterer as part of their cultural norms. The Bible parallels the cultures of its day in its presciptions for the breaking of laws for the community. Harris’ comments about slavery are ignorant as well. He uses an American notion of slavery and anachronistically positions it as the slavery talked about in the Bible. This is apples and oranges. In the first century roughly one-third of all people were in slavery as endentured servants or willing slaves of one form or another. This was a culture of patronage where only 1-5% of the population held 90% of all wealth. Being free actually could be a very bad thing when you had little access to resources. Most in slavery lived much more comfortably than those who were not. Yet, we also see Paul in the book of Philemon instructing Philemon’s slave owner to welcome him as a brother i.e. as a free person. So pictures of the Bible as supporting slavery like American slavery are naïve and uninformed about the first century world.
As far as the treatment of women is concerned, I agree with Harris that the church has unfortunately been a promulgator of certain notions about female personhood which largely have been due to the influence of Greco-Roman culture and its views about women. This is not so much the content of the bible as it is the traditions that developed after the New Testament ie. 3rd cent. onward. So when Harris points to Greek philosophers to show how ethics was so obvious for people in the 5th cent and then condemns Christianity for, what was largely Greco-Roman influences, we really are seeing some picking and choosing going on when Harris tries to paint a picture.
The Greeks viewed women as property and as dogs. In a culture dominated by reason, they showed no more ethical development in their consideration for women than the supposed counterexamples he tries to show us. So which is it Sam? Isn’t reason supposed to free us from these prejudices? It apparently did not for most of western civilization. One need only look to the teachings of Jesus and Paul to see that they were radically countercultural in regards to women. They let them learn, take positions of authority, and the early church protected women from harm of spouses. There are recorded letters of Roman magistrates complaining about Christian’s who are multiplying in number because they do not expose their children and treat their wives with respect as opposed to beating them. I will admit that the church has a bad record when it comes to women but I think the sources we have in the Bible stand as a counterexample to some of the behavior that developed at a later time due to other cultural influences. This is one of the reasons I am not Catholic. They rely too heavily on the early church period traditions which were problematic in this area.
Video 4
I think in this next video we have the possibility of convergence. Human beings are described as being created in the image of God in the Bible. This means we have the capacity to make moral choices. Evolution shows this to be the case. I believe on this point we have both positions describing different sides of the same coin. What Harris fails to discuss is the fact that virtue ethics are developed in the brain through a variety of factors and the example stories provided in the Bible, both good and bad, are ways to inform our brain of virtue and ethical content development. This is essential for understanding why people still see the Bible as a way to inform our ethical behavior. Clearly context and time periods dictate our interpretive process and no Biblical theologian will disagree with this. The problem with people like Harris is that they make no room for the meaning making process and interpretive analysis that is inherent in any faith tradition. He posits a fundamentalism which says you must accept everything at face value, or you are somehow being inconsistent. I think this is ludicrous. If you are unwilling to allow the faith community to speak for itself and describe why they adhere to the interpretive methodology they employ, then you are in fact inventing a religion that is not the one you are talking about. Harris responds to and criticizes a fundamentalist view of the bible that few Christians uphold. He also has no clue or is not willing to admit that he is in fact upholding a dogma, empirical rationalism. The denial of such a commitment truly baffles me. He spends all this time critiqueing religious claims to truth, rationatlity etc. and yet cannot admit that he himself is committed to a form of enquiry concerning human knowledge. I would agree with his comments about creationism, which is an American phenomenon, but again this is a fundamentalist concern, a small segment of the otherwise larger Christian world.
Video 5
In this video, Harris makes a major misstep. He describes religious experience as purely the phenomenon that corresponds to religious devotion, yet he is unwilling to allow for God as a possible source for this material. In his words, such claims are “unjustified” and “unsubstantiated.” I find this restrictive form of dialogue the most disturbing. In essence it states that human experience cannot be used as a form of enquiry concerning the search for truth. If there is one thing current science has taught us, it is that our expectations influence our experiences. If one is priorly committed to atheism, then it is small wonder an atheist would not interpret their experience in light of theistic categories. They have predetermined a bias against that interpretive mode of description. What if that bias was wrong? What if our experience can inform our judgments about the nature of reality? The pie in the sky atheistic ethics Harris talks about here at the end is truly maddening. His attempt to create distance from atheistic regimes that committed mass killings and untold devastation is laughable. One of the curious things I’ve witnessed in these collections of videos is that Sam Harris is making these statements largely based on fear. He is afraid of what religion will do to society and wants to pre-empt that future fate. I wonder if Harris is actually creating a form of fascism through his rhetoric rather than making a case for atheism. He wants to rid the world of what he believes are dangerous ideas. Ideas have consequences. That is reality, religious or not. It seems rather peculiar to me that he tries to set religion apart from other ideas as if they are in some separate category. I question the prudence of doing anything out of fear even if for what are perceived as good reasons. Can fear affect our reason in ways we cannot anticipate? I believe it can. Fear is a dogma and that appears to be what Harris adheres to in these videos.

William Placher, 1948–2008 | First Things

I stumbled upon a tribute to the life of William Placher recently and found it to be a really well done piece that deserved to be shared. I had no idea Placher studied under Hans Frei at Yale Divinity School. Yet another reason I need to read Frei’s book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. I am definitely drawn to post-liberalism and its focus upon narrative theology. I wonder if that is why I find Placher’s style so compelling. He writes in a very unassuming, yet brilliant way. He lets the reader in on the most up-to-date discussions in theology, infuses them with historic Christian confessions and leaves the reader with a couple of questions/observations, allowing the tension to rest upon the reader. His approach is subtle, but persuasive. He doesn’t tell the reader what to believe, but lets history and theology speak for themselves. I appreciate the tone of his writing and its generous attitude towards the diversity of theological discourse. There is a kind of winsomeness in his approach that I find compelling. I think we all can learn from this as we attempt to engage in the practice of theological writing.

William Placher, 1948–2008 | First Things.

We are all Made of Stars


If you’re familiar with the band Moby, you’ll know that he has a song called “We are all Made of Stars.” The idea is an uplifting one, it being that humanity is united together by the very makeup of our physical composition. How is this the case? When we study cosmology, we learn that all the basic elements for life i.e. carbon, nitrogen, oxygen etc. were forged in the deep nuclear furnaces located in the center of stars. As stars age and decay, they eventually explode, ejecting their contents into the dark abyss of deep space. In the formation of planets and new stars, these elements combine through gravitational forces and the process continues. Yet, for a unique planet such as ours, the expulsion of these elements proves fortuitous, for they become the building blocks of life. Were it not for the existence of stars and their element forging capacities, we would not exist. I think this points to the truly vast and wonderful design embedded in God’s created order. The Bible talks about the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. This must be true, for we are no less than stardust. It doesn’t get much better than that. Hard to believe and yet nevertheless true. We are the unique formations of materials originating in the hot, dense center of colossal balls of light which we can see with the naked eye when we look to the heavens at night. A small reminder of how very special we are in God’s sight. Something to consider when you feel a little down sometimes. We are all made of stars and that’s pretty dang incredible!

Languishing in Exile

I wrote this a few months ago and saved it. At the time I was feeling a bit down and out. I think I see now why a lot of people journal and write out their thoughts. I know what I was feeling at the time but things have gotten a bit chipper for me as of late. Thought I might share it anyways in case folks out there can relate to what I was feeling.

I’m  in a class that is studying the book of Isaiah.  It is largely about one major event that impacted the Jewish people during their time as a nation, the exile into Babylon.  Sometimes I can identify with being an exile.  Feeling stuck without the ability to communicate what you’re really feeling about life, faith and everything else.  What happens when a trip to the desert becomes a Gilligan’s Island scenario?  Did they ever get off the island?  Sometimes I wonder what it means to be here.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve been put here by circumstances beyond my control.  At other times, I feel like I’ve been put here by my fellow believers.  I feel a distancing that keeps creeping in between my friends in the past and now.  Its as if the time and journey I have been on in exile has caused me to be forgotten.  The walls of the city have fallen and nobody cares.  God has abandoned me to the wilderness filled with lions, jackals and hyenas.  I’ve been left to fend for myself.  I never wanted my life to get to this place.  I don’t how long its been since I’ve really been to a church and felt safe.  I keep trying to put myself out there and I keep getting shot down.  Its as if something is keeping me from being able to experience community.  I can’t put my finger on it.

Published in: on July 8, 2011 at 2:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Meaning and Myth

This short video from N.T. Wright is a helpful discussion on understanding the use of the term “myth” as it relates to conversations around Gen. 1-3. Many people get hung up on terminology when they are trying to attach historicity concerns to literary elements of a narrative. If Genesis is a narrative about God’s creation, humankind, and sin, then we need to attend to those elements when considering its interpretation, not time-lines and modern notions of history.