We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Organizing the Jesus Mission - Mark 3:13-19 (xxxvii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 37th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

In posting #35 of this series (here), we saw that as his ministry developed Jesus faced increasingly large and complex crowds of people. Mark 3:1-12 suggests that the demands placed on him, both emotionally and in terms of time, had become a heavy burden. In this passage, Mark 3:13-19, we find Jesus taking steps to deal with that burden. He called twelve "apostles" and commissioned them to be his companions, to preach, and to perform exorcisms.

New Testament scholars generally emphasize the fact that Jesus called 12 disciples, arguing that this number is symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Some argue that it was the later church that "invented" the idea of The Twelve to demonstrate that the church is the true heir of Israel. Others contend that the fact that Jesus appointed The Twelve is so widely attested to in early church records that it is all but certain he did establish an inner circle comprised of 12 disciples. Assuming he did, it then becomes reasonable to argue that Jesus himself took the first steps towards the organization of the church. Although there's no evidence to suggest he had a larger purpose than to respond to the pressing needs of his own ministry, he did lay the foundations of what became the church. He selected those who later became the church's first leaders. In this sense, there's a clear line of continuity between the pre-Easter Jesus Mission (or Jesus Movement or Jesus Community) and the post-Easter church.

One can also argue, furthermore, that in choosing an inner circle of 12 disciples Jesus also intended that his movement and ministry be taken as the True Israel. He took this opportunity to assert once again that he faithfully represented the God of Israel. His followers were the true heirs of the nation. This was yet another bold challenge to the over class, which also took itself to be the real heirs and would have rejected out of hand the idea that fisher folk and their ilk could truly inherit God's favor. Jesus conceived the embryonic church, then, as an alternative nation centered on his message of divine compassion for the under class.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

FPC Log: "Facts on Growth 2010" (ix)

Faith Communities
Today Logo
In late 2011, Hartford Seminary's Faith Communities Today program issued a report entitled, Facts On Growth:2010, which contains important statistical insights into what constitutes a growing church in the early 21st century.  The report considers five key areas of church life: (1) context & composition of the church; (its identity & orientation; (3) worship; (4) programs & recruitment of new members; and (5) leadership.  Under each category, the author, C. Kirk Hadaway, sifts through the data to discern the characteristics of churches that are growing and those that are not.  Some of its findings will surprise no one, but some do, and a key contribution  of the report is the way in which it quantifies most of the parameters of ecclesiastical growth.

Insights include the fact that in metropolitan areas downtown churches were more likely to be growing than suburban congregations, an important change in recent years.  The data confirms that Southern churches, newer churches, and churches with more young people are more likely to be growing churches.  Hadaway notes that churches that, "have a healthy mix of ages tend to be growing, but most important to growth is the ability of congregations to attract younger adults and families with children.” (p. 5)  As has been found in other studies, there is little correlation between theological orientation and growth, although conservative or evangelical churches are more likely to have characteristics that encourage growth.  Hadaway observes that,
“More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission. Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing. They do not grow because they have always been at the corner of 2nd and Main. They do not grow because they are focused on themselves. They grow because they understand their reason for being and they do the things well that are essential to their life as a religious organization. One of the stronger correlates of growth was the extent to which the congregation “has a clear mission and purpose.” (p. 8)
Other key factors in growth include a joyful worship life, a commitment to growth, excitement about one's church, and particular types of programs including marriage enrichment.  Hadaway writes, “The programs that produced the strongest relationships with growth were: 1) young adult activities; 2) parenting or marriage enrichment activities; and 3) prayer or meditation groups.” (p. 16)  In the reports' concluding section, Hathaway states that congregational growth is more likely if a church is located in a growing geographic location, has a clear sense of identity, is younger, is spiritually vital, belongs to a conservative denomination, has innovative worship, emphasizes evangelism, and is led by a younger and full-time pastor.  In every category, however, there are growing churches that do not exhibit the usual characteristics of growth.

From all of the data and insights contained in Facts on Growth: 2010, the most important insight seems to be that churches that want to grow have to commit themselves programmatically to growth, have innovative, joyful worship, and run other programs that meet people's needs in their community, such as marriage enrichment courses.

Monday, February 27, 2012


When your past
comes to live
in the woods
behind your house,
you must go
to the window,
forgive yourself
once again,
and welcome
the creature
that suns himself
on the sill.

Nancy Compton Williams
Source: Sacred Journey

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The "bi-modal sleep pattern"

If you're having trouble sleeping at night, Stephanie Hegarty's BBC article, "The myth of the eight-hour sleep," might be worth a look. According to the article, historical research suggests that until the late 17th century Europeans normally slept in roughly two four-hour periods divided by an awake period of an hour or two.  "First sleep" and "second sleep" was considered normal.  Things evidently began to change with the advent of street lights as well as changes in the way Europeans valued time.  Spending so many hours in bed was thought to be "a waste of time."

The article also suggests that at least some people who have "trouble sleeping," may actually still be trying to replicate this older sleeping pattern, which seems to be closer to what nature intended for us.  People who wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep aren't suffering from insomnia.  They just don't know that after a couple of hours they are supposed to go back for second sleep!


And a sermonic note: this morning's  sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, is from John 3:1-21 about the late night encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee.  Commentators and preachers sometimes make much of the fact that Nicodemus "snuck off" to see Jesus late at night as if he didn't want anyone to know.  But, maybe Nicodemus there's nothing more to it than he went to chat with Jesus between first and second sleep.  During the day, both of them were busy.  Jesus, especially, had huge crowds following him around, so maybe it was just easier for Nicodemus to go see him between sleeps.  Jerusalem wasn't all that big a place in those days, so it wasn't likely that Nicodemus could keep the visit a secret, and he may not have really had any reason to do so.  It may be that nothing more is going on here than that he went to visit Jesus between sleeps, a time convenient for both of them,.  Or, maybe not.  We don't know, but it is fun to speculate!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

There is a new posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews entitled, "Reflections on Rick Santorum"s View of Faith," which describes and then critically evaluates presidential candidate Rick Santorum's understanding of faith. The purpose of the posting is to discern the impact of his faith on a Santorum presidency.  Theologically, Santorum advocates a form of moral dualism that has serious implications for the way in which he would govern as president.  Readers might find the posting worth a look see.

How Come Zebras Have Stripes?

In an article entitled, "How the zebra got its stripes," reporter Emily Sohn describes research done at the University of Lund, Sweden, on the origins of zebra stripes. What the Swedish researchers discovered was that horseflies, which are a serious bother to herd animals such as zebras, are less attracted to black and white zebra stripes than they are to dark skinned animals. In general, the flies are more attracted to dark surfaces than light colored ones, and they are even alightly less attracted to the zebra pattern than to white surfaces. According to the article, "Measurements confirmed that the most polarised surfaces attracted the most insects." So, one reason that zebras have stripes is to keep the biting bugs at bay. There could be other reasons as well, but at least now science has a partial explanation for zebra stripes based on credible (and interesting!) data.

There is no getting around it.  Evolution is incredible.  The creative potential of living cells to "figure out" things like how to frustrate biting flies seems almost boundless.  It is made all the more incredible when we consider that the whole evolutionary process is evidently random.  Zebras have stripes when less fortunate herd animals don't have stripes for no better reason that they do.  Somewhere way back when tens or hundreds of millions of years ago some of their evolutionary ancestors had (maybe) patches of black and white hide, which marginally gave them a reproductive advantage that increased over the ages always favoring those "zebras" that were more zebra-like.

How come God does these things this way?  Why does God favor seemingly random evolutionary development?  Why has God impregnated creation with this kind of potential and set it on its merry way?  Wouldn't it be nice to know!  One thought: as a process, evolution seems to combine both structure and randomness.  It is not chaotic because it produces concrete life forms of various kinds and complex ecosystems for them to live in.  If anything, evolution seems to produce increasingly complex and creative forms of life as time goes on.  But it does so in a random way within the basic rules of how evolution works.  It is a system that is at once controlled and yet uncontrolled.  It has direction but moves forward randomly.  Evolution is at one and the same time constrained and unconstrained, free and yet structured.  There is Law and there is Grace both built into the very nature of reality as we know it.  Law sets boundaries on the random process that graciously gave zebras stripes.  How come?  Ultimately, God only knows.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Keep Quiet! - Mark 3:11-12 (xxxvi)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 36th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

This passage, Mark 3:11-12, dove tails quite neatly with Mark 1:21-28, which we looked at in posting #13 of this series. In both of these passages, people possessed by evil spirits declare Jesus to be either God's holy messenger (TEV wording) or the Son of God. In both, Jesus orders the demons to keep their mouths shut about who he is.

From a strictly historiographical perspective, all of this is problematical and outside the bounds of the historian's competence. Assuming Jesus didn't carry on public conversations with the demons (since he was ordering them to silence, it would be a silly contradiction to think he did so in public), we can't verify that he actually did order demons to silence. Demons, in any event, are a phenomenon historians can't study. The best we can do is to say that either the author of Mark had sources that believed Jesus did such a thing, or he made up this theme for his own gospel purposes. This theme does, however, highlight the fact that Jesus was seen to be an unusually powerful exorcist, a man who could converse with and exercise authority over evil spirits. Beyond that fact, it still seems that Mark is using this theme to reflect one other fact, namely that Jesus wasn't obviously the divine Second Person of the Trinity and he never declared himself to be holy or divine. The crowd is testimony to the fact that Jesus' compassion, authority, and power were evident to his contemporaries. The demons are testimony to the fact that other people didn't see in him an essential divine-ness. It takes even his disciples all the way to the end of Mark 8 to figure out that Jesus is something beyond the average human, and even there Peter declares Jesus to be only the Messiah, that is God's agent, not God (8:27-30).

I think we have to take Mark's gospel interpretation seriously. In other ways the author is apparently sensitive to historical themes, such as the growth in the size and complexity of the crowd and the growing antipathy of the over class to Jesus. It seems likely that the empirical Jesus didn't strike most of those who knew him as anything other than an unusual, powerful individual.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Crowd - Mark 3:7-12 (xxxv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 35th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

The crowd is important. It's an active, important participant in the gospel's reconstruction of Jesus' life. This passage, Mark 3:7-12, recalls that theme. It focuses our attention on the crowd of people who swarmed to Jesus, and it alerts us to changes taking place in the nature of that crowd. First, it's clearly growing in size, and one senses from Mark's narrative how overwhelming it was becoming for Jesus. It threatened to crush him (3:9). It contained, especially, many suffering people in need of his healing touch (3:10). Second, it was a more international crowd. Jesus' fame had spread beyond Galilee and beyond the larger Palestinian region. We should note here that people were coming to him from non-Jewish regions as well, according to Mark's list in 3:7-8. Nothing is said of it, but the implication seems to be that Gentiles were now numbered among those attracted by Jesus.

This last point is extremely important from a church history perspective. The first great crisis the church faced, after the Resurrection, was the "Gentile Problem". An important part of the earliest church felt that it should admit into its numbers only those Gentiles who underwent circumcision and converted to Judaism. The bulk of the church eventually rejected that viewpoint. It may well be that the author of Mark is here reminding his readers that the Gentiles began coming to Jesus early in his ministry. He was their teacher and healer/exorcist too.

In any event, the crowd was growing in size and complexity. Again, I'd like to note that while the particular event described here seems generic rather than specific, the underlying developments revealed through the story seem to have historical weight. Jesus' ministry, over time, attracted more and more interest in an ever expanding geographical region. Communications and travel conditions were quite good so that news about Jesus could spread quickly, and it wouldn't have taken all that long for people to travel to Galilee from surrounding territories to find out about Jesus for themselves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is Franklin Graham a Christian?

Yesterday morning. Mr. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Christian NGO Samaritan's Purse, appeared on the MSNBC morning news program, "Morning Joe."   The "morning Joe" interview team, headed by Willie Geist, started the interview by asking Mr. Graham if he believed that the president is a Christian.  (For a video clip of the relevant part of the interview, see here).  There has been some controversy over remarks by presidential candidate Rick Santorum on that point.

Graham danced around the question and would not say in so many words without reservation or equivocation that President Obama is a Christian.  He acknowledges that the president says he is a Christian, but the doubt in Graham's mind seems to be that the president doesn't exhibit the marks of a true Christian.  By way of contrast, Graham readily acknowledged that Santorum is a Christian because, according to Graham, he displays the clear values of one.  Mr. Santorum has to a degree relied on the same logic.  Yes, so his line goes, Mr. Obama says he is a Christian, and I take him at his word...but.  What follows the but are complaints about the president's false, unbiblical "theology," which Mr. Santorum seems to think is just an ideology that values Planet Earth over against humanity.

This is all weird and seems to be murky.  Except, it really isn't.  Off camera and away from the reporters both gentlemen would surely agree that whatever the president may think he is, his actions are not those of a true Christian.  We have to remember that we are dealing here with individuals who stand as far right theologically as they do politically, and one of the things Christians do out there on the fringe right is judge the rest of us who are down stream for not being truly Christian.  Such judgmental attitudes are a distinguishing characteristic of their beliefs.

What is troubling is to see exponents of far right theologies speaking on national television apparently for all of us who (with trepidation) take the name of Christ.  What is still more troubling is the influence their narrow-minded, seriously unloving religiosity seems to be having on our political life.  We need to be clear here that in the United States of America whether the president is a Christian or not is irrelevant to the qualifications of his office as chief of a secular state.  We want an ethical, honest, wise, canny, and competent president.  People of other faiths (including atheism) can be ethical.  They can be honest.  They can be wise.  They can be canny politicians and competent statesmen.  Our nation is not a theocracy, and there is no religious test for holding office.  We decided in the years after the American Revolution that we do not want state churches and that  the state is to keep religion at arms length, for the sake of religious freedom as well as for freedom from religious domination.

Injecting religion into our politicking is thus unwise and one could even say, given our commitment to a secular state,  "un-American".  We need to stop it and go back to making the political judgment of who will be our leadership for the next two, four, and six years on the basis of what is best for all Americans.  Now, me, personally, I will draw on my faith in making my judgment on these matters.  That is my prerogative.  I can even state publicly, if I choose, the faith values on which I base my choices.  That too is my prerogative in a democracy.  What is not my right is to expect that public policy must conform to my understanding of biblical theology, which is precisely what Mr. Santorum is claiming to do.  He argues that he is the best candidate because he espouses a Christian theology, which he publicly makes the measure of what is right for the nation.  He does so while casting aspersions on his political opponents including the president, which means he has turned his view of biblical principles into a political tool, weapon, and set of talking points.  There is a huge difference between claiming that the president's policies are unwise or misguided and claiming that they are wrong because they are not Christian.  And that is most troubling of all.

As for the question in the heading, of course he is--just not my kind of Christian, that's all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Food Stamp Presidents

Matt. 25:31-46 as a Wordle (from "Rectory Musings")
In the video clip below, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) recently addressed the hot political issue of "the food stamp president" based on data taken from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It turns out that the food stamp program expanded more rapidly in terms of total amounts expended, number of recipients added, and benefit per recipient under Presidents Bush, Jr. and Sr. Rep. Gutierrez makes the further points that: (1) recipients are of every race, creed, and political persuasion; and (2) the primary purpose of food stamps is to prevent hunger among children and the elderly, which two groups are the program's main recipients.

In spite of these facts, certain politicians have taken delight in deriding President Obama for his support of feeding children, the elderly, and other Americans in genuine need of assistance in hard economic times.  What is particularly troubling from a faith perspective is that these same presidential aspirants habitually tout their Christian faith and habitually criticize the president for his supposedly "secularist" attacks on religion.  They call him a "socialist on the European model," further implying an anti-religious bias Mr. Obama does not actually have.

That is, a certain faction of American Christians have managed to find fault with the president for not only doing precisely what his predecessors did, but also for supporting what is clearly a government program that fulfills one of Christ's measures of true faith, namely feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46).  This faction of Christians has managed to appear hard-hearted, to be politically divisive, and to cast faith in Christ in a light that does not reflect his teachings and ministry.  Rep. Gutierrez thanked all three presidents for being "food stamp presidents," and so should we.  Amen.

P.S. You can read the transcript of Rep. Gutierrez's remarks (here).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Worth Thinking About

Yesterday's Huffington Post online contained several postings on its Religion Page  worth reading and thinking about.  First, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush wrote a posting entitled, "Rick Santorum's Political and Biblical Mistake," which calls presidential candidate Rick Santorum to task for apparently claiming that President Obama espouses a false, unbiblical theology that he seeks to impose on the nation.  Raushenbush makes the points that it is not wise to introduce theological differences into politics and that Mr. Santorum can himself be charged with unbiblical views.  Second,  an unsigned news posting entitled, "Hannah Kelley, Pastor's Daughter Accidentally Shot At Church, Dies," picks up on an article from the Tampa Bay Times (here) reporting the death of  Hannah Kelley, a pastor's daughter who was accidentally shot and seriously wounded at church on Sunday, February 12th.  The sad incident suggests that sometimes guns do kill people almost of themselves.   Third, there is an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, who writes for the Salt Lake Tribune, entitled, "Evangelicals Defined: The History Of American Evangelicalism," which originally published in the Salt Lake Tribute under the title, "Who are evangelicals?"  The article offers some insights into how hard it actually is to define "evangelicalism".

And, finally, the posting entitled, "The End of Church," by Diana Butler Bass offers comments on the future of religion in America.  She looks for a reorganization of religion and of Christianity, noting that a large majority of Americans remain interested in spirituality and faith—but not in the conventional, traditional ways of the past.  This posting, too, is worth a read and some thought.  Happy Reflections!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Good Historian Trusted Mark (xxxiv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 34th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Raymond E. Brown's discussion of Luke as a historian in his book,  Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 319-322), presents a relatively positive evaluation of Luke's historiographical credentials. Brown's estimation is based on the contents of Acts, but we'll remember that Luke-Acts are a two-part work written by the same author. Brown argues that the events in Acts are historically plausible. Acts, furthermore, contains verifiably correct details. The author, writing 30-50 years after the fact, couldn't possibly have known all of those details himself. Brown concludes, "...the author of Acts does not get bad grades for historical accuracy in the various sections of his book. Though he wrote more in a biblical style than in a classical history style, it is not ridiculous to think that the author might have been a fitting candidate for membership in the brotherhood of Hellenistic historians, even if he would never be made president of the society." (p. 322)

The author of Acts is the author of Luke. If, in Acts he does a fairly good job at preserving historical accuracy, it follows that he would have done the same in the gospel. In this light, then, we should note that Luke took over 75% of the contents of Mark into his own gospel. It's not quite correct to leap to the conclusion that because Acts is fairly accurate, therefore Mark is also fairly accurate. It is correct, however, to argue that the author of Luke-Acts was clearly concerned to preserve accurate data about the past; and to that end, he relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark for his portrayal of the Good News according to Jesus Christ. The author of Luke thought Mark was reliable. The author of Luke, furthermore, had a good sense about historical accuracy and what was reliable.

What this means is that we can't simply write Mark off as a theological mystification of the actual Jesus. If we are to question the factual reliability of his accounts, we need to have good reason. I would argue, further, that even where we can question the factuality of a given event, we can frequently rely on the underlying development of events and chronology betrayed in the event. Luke the historian trusted Mark. That trust counts for something.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mark's Data Reconsidered (xxxiii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 33rd in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Following on our previous posting in this series (here), and a number of other recent entries, we're still faced with the problem of how Mark collected, collated, and recorded his data. We've noted a number of clues. The constant presence of the disciples, for example, may be a "footnote" telling us something about one of his sources. In Mark 2-3, we have what may be another clue, the progressive growth of the over classes' animosity towards Jesus. In the 31st posting (here), we noted that in Mark 2 the over class went from harboring ill thoughts about Jesus to openly expressing their negative feelings to him directly. By 3:6, they're plotting to kill him. On the one hand, the sequence of events is too neat and doesn't leave room for mixed feelings about Jesus or for those of the over class that may have sympathized with him. Still, as I noted in the 31st posting, Mark does capture what must have been actually happening, that is that the more the over class heard and observed the less it liked Jesus. By whatever research method he may have used, the author of Mark knew that the over class didn't automatically reject Jesus. It took time for their antipathy to form and grow. The author was aware of historical processes and portrayed them in gospel form. It seems possible that his data included a number of incidents in Jesus' life, as remembered by his informants. Some of the stories themselves may have suggested the historical developments that took place, and Mark may have shaped them and re-worked into his own gospel drama.

The point I want to emphasize here that Mark very probably reflects with some accuracy historical processes that took place in the life of Jesus. He even seems to have some degree of sensitivity to a time line, in which a series of events is made to reveal the progressive unfolding of such processes. If the story line has some basis in history, isn't it possible and even likely that the individual stories that compose that line also have some basis in the actual past? And, again, if Mark is sensitive to historical changes that took place in the events of Jesus life, wouldn't that suggest that he was using some historically reliable data to shape his gospel? Let me emphasize, as always, that we're playing here with speculation and probabilities. But, in any event, I don't think we can dismiss lightly the possibility that Mark offers us some clear windows on the empirical Jesus.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cut Them Some Slack

Democracy might be messy. It's certainly complicated. It takes a while to consolidate. But for the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs. So let's cut them some slack. It's only been a year.

Fareed Zakaria
"Zakaria: Democracy takes time," CNN

Thursday, February 16, 2012

To Give and Receive With Gladness

To be a saint is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews.

Frederick Buechner
Source: Now and Then
From: inward/outward

Chapter & Verse

The Geneva Bible (from Wikipedia)
The Bible is divided into chapters and verses and few people doubt the utility of its being so divided. Indeed, the need for some scheme was felt even in the early church, and from that point on various methods were tried (and discarded) over the centuries until the 13th century. As you might expect, the division into chapters came first and verses followed later. It was the English theologian, Stephen Langton, while lecturing at the University of Paris sometime between 1203 and 1207, who divided the Vulgate Bible (a Latin translation) into chapters. A somewhat later version called the "Parisian Bible" became the standard format and carried over into English translations of the Bible.

The division of the Bible into verses started with a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus. In about 1447, he divided the Old Testament into verses, but his verses weren't numbered. The numbering of verses as well as the development of verses for the New Testament is credited to Robert Estienne, a French printer-editor. In 1551 he published a Greek-Latin New Testament which he divided into verses. Four years later, he published the Vulgate, using Rabbi Nathan's verses for the Old Testament and his own for the New Testament. The first English Bible to have verses was the Geneva Bible (1560), which followed Estienne's versification. The same system was carried over into the King James Version (1607).

As necessary as this division into chapters and verses may be, it also poses obstacles to understanding the content of the Bible. There is a very real tendency among average readers and scholars to read verses and chapters as isolated units, esp. in relation to material just before and after the verse or chapter in question. This division has also opened the door for proof-texting, which allows anyone to think anything they want and still find "justification" for their improbabilities in Scripture by citing particular verses, often lifted out of context. We tend to forget, in sum, that the division of the Bible into chapters and verses is an entirely artificial construct.

For further information on chapters & verses in the Bible see (here).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reading Ephesians 1:1-2

It is the challenge, joy, and headache of our times that when it comes to the Christian faith everything is pretty much up for grabs.  Nothing can be taken for granted.  Things are often not what they seem to be.  Take, for example,  the first word in the first two verses of Ephesians (Eph. 1:1-2).  These two verses purport to be the opening salutation of the Apostle Paul to the Christians at Ephesus and read::
(1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: (2) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a problem with the first word of the text, "Paul".  Mainstream biblical scholars seem to generally agree that the actual Paul didn't write this letter—for reasons of both content and linguistic usages.  The best guess is that a colleague or disciple of Paul wrote this letter and that it was probably written after his death, sometime later in the first  century.  The actual author probably signed it with Paul's name so that it would be more widely read and accepted as having the authority of Paul, which is to say the Book of Ephesians is a forgery.  Forgeries are not uncommon in the New Testament, and in the past we have glibly claimed that it was common in ancient times for authors to attribute their writings to famous individuals so they would carry more weight.  There's been some more recent scholarship, however, that contends that this sort of thing was no more acceptable in ancient times than it is now.  The ancients knew what constituted a forgery and rejected the practice just as we do today.

So, if Paul didn't write these words and they are a forgery that apparently fooled the ancient church, do they carry any weight for Christians today?  My sense is that our best answer is, "yes," in spite of the admitted serious flaw of their being forged.  It is impossible to believe that every letter Paul ever wrote is now in the New Testament.  The early church found some to be of more value than others, enough so that these valued letters circulated more widely in the Christian movement than Paul had originally intended.  The measure of a letter's value was not just that Paul wrote it but, rather, that it had an intrinsic value in and of itself.  Ephesians was one such "letter".  This letter to the Ephesians thus is of value in its own right in spite of the fact that it is not Pauline, and the fact of the matter is that we can't be 100% sure it didn't come from Paul anyway.  We can think of circumstances in which the author believed himself to be conveying Paul's thoughts directly even though he was not using Paul's words.  Admittedly, it probably didn't happen that way, but as long as the authorship is uncertain we should not totally rule out a legitimate connection to Paul that would place the letter in a category other than being a forgery.

The point is that the early church valued this letter for its contents, which means that we can give it the benefit of the doubt.  It is in the scriptures, and we can treat it as scripture.  For those of us who are not biblical literalists, furthermore, the uncertain origins of Ephesians serves to remind us that the Bible too participates in the flawed reality of life.  The Spirit works through its flaws just as it does in other arenas of life.  The Book of Ephesians, thus, can have serious spiritual value for us today just as it did in ancient times.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Empirical Jesus Revealed - Mark 3:1-6 (xxxii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 32nd in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Interpreting events in Mark is complicated. This passage, Mark 3:1-6 for example, seems both contrived and real at one and the same time. On the one hand, it contains no specific little details. It follows very neatly on 2:23-28 and elaborates the subject in that passage. If Jesus, furthermore, had attended this synagogue previously, he'd done so without healing the paralytic's hand. What made his enemies think he'd do so this time? If he hadn't visited this synagogue, how did they know he would? Why, again, did they think he'd heal this man this time? Or, was there a "truth squad" following Jesus around to try to catch him doing something wrong? As it stands the event is too neat and doesn't quite ring true, historically. There's the added problem that Mark reports Jesus as feeling both angry and sorry for his enemies (3:5 TEV). Now, how would the author of Mark know what Jesus was feeling? Did Jesus say to the disciples, "Boy, did I have mixed emotions about those Pharisee guys"? And then the disciples remembered that and somehow the data got to Mark. Seems farfetched.

On the other hand, the event is vintage Jesus: His compassion for a member of the under class. His attack on the dehumanizing aspects of the Law. His open defiance of his enemies, which we can take as his attempt to communicate with them. The evolving plot to assassinate Jesus (a continuation of a theme in Mark 2). Even his reported mixed emotions, a very human response that still manages to convey Jesus' compassion for the over class, rings true. This story, in all probability, summarizes in gospel form important elements of the empirical Jesus' personality, behavior, and message. It probably recalls, stereotypically, things that happened in the empirical Jesus' life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Plot Thickens - Mark 2 (xxxi)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 31st in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Mark isn't just telling a story. He's presenting gospel data and lines of argument. In posting 29 (xxix) of this series, I argued that most of Mark 2 contains a definition and description of the nature of Christian community. At the same time, Mark is also pointing to a progression in the tension between Jesus and the over class. That theme runs through the chapter.  In 2:7, the Pharisees are critical of Jesus' forgiving a man's sins, but they don't actually voice their thoughts. Jesus read their minds, as it were. In 2:16 the Pharisees voice their criticisms of Jesus' eating with sinners, but not directly to him. They go to his disciples. Finally, in Mark 2:24, the Pharisees voice their criticisms of the disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath directly to Jesus. On one level, the whole sequence seems entirely artificial in its construction. It's much too neat for the real world. At another level, however, I suspect that Mark is pointing to something that did happen. The more the over class came to know about Jesus the more openly critical they became of him. I can just hear some informant telling the author of Mark, "At first, you know, the Pharisees didn't say much. They mostly just listened. But we knew they weren't happy about things. And Jesus kept egging them on, kept criticizing them to their faces. And he encouraged us to do things that only made matters more tense. After awhile they started to question us and question Jesus more and more openly. Things soon got really bad." This is completely speculative, but if the author did use oral sources and was told things like this, then we can see him crafting his raw data into gospel data, a set of stories that capture several intertwining themes and carry the gospel story forward with dramatic effect. In any event, there's no good reason why the author's gospel description doesn't contain strong hints as to historical realities.

2012 comment; Another possibility is that the author's informations related stories similar to the ones contained in Mark 2, and it was the author who discerned the pattern of increasing conflict from them. If this was the scenario, then the stories in Mark 2 even more closely mirror actual historical events than I speculated as possible back in 1998. There is a larger point here, which is that it is not at all far-fetched to think of Mark's material as coming from oral history sources. We can see credibly how his stories and his arrangement of them could reflect the living memory of his sources.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How Come We Have to Have Churches?

From time to time someone will ask a pastor, why are churches even necessary?  We don't get the question often, but we do get it.  Paul Tillich, writing in his book, Dynamics of Faith (NY: HarperOne, 2009 [1957]),  gives what surely must be one of the most creative answers to the question of why humans need faith communities of some sort.  He argues that every spiritual act "is dependent on language and therefore on community."  It is in such communities that language lives, and, "Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience!"  It is faith communities that create languages and symbols of faith, which can only be fully understood by the community.  Faith thus requires language, which means it requires a community.  Tillich concludes, "Only in a community of language can man actualize his faith." (p. 27)

Sixty-five years later, I suspect that many church-based thinkers would today answer that Christianity is really a long story that begins with Christ himself.  The church is the steward of the story.  It is the place where it is told, cherished, and preserved.  Tillich would probably answer that, yes, the church is the repository of Christianity's stories, but there are no stories without language.  He would be right.

Thus, we can only speak of Christian faith by drawing on the language spoken by the churches.  Without them there is no living faith.  As important an insight as this may be, it only reflect a larger truth, which is that no human institution can live without language.  Language lies at the core of what it means to be human.  It binds culture together in a way that nothing else does.  So, Tillich is right, but he also isn't saying anything that doesn't apply to human society more generally.  We can't live without language.  Still, the fundamental point here is that churches do not exist for the purpose of coercing faith or preserving certain kinds of dogma.  They are stewards of language, story, traditions, and much more all of which are elements of personal faith.

Individuals, of course, can and increasingly often these days do go it alone without belonging to churches.  They can only do that, however, because there are churches.  Once the native language speakers of Christianity die, so dies the language and the faith that depends on it.  So, yes, we have to have churches even if we personally go it alone.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Our Purpose

The Shorter Catechism, an honored resource for faith of our Presbyterian tradition, answers the question, "What is the chief end of man?" with the statement, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."  That sounds quaint to modern ears, but it actually means something quite profound, namely that we humans are constructed to reach out for that which is Beyond us.  We are created to have an affection for that which is Beyond the Universe.  Millions of years of evolutionary sculpting has gone into our longing for something, something Beyond.  We name the Beyond "God" because we perceive that it is ultimate and thus at the end of all else that is beyond us—and that it is holy and thus stands outside of the universe in an incomprehensible way.  The catechism claims that we are linked to this Beyond to such an extent that the praise and enjoyment of it is our highest purpose.  Put this way, many dwellers of the 21st century may well consider the whole idea ridiculous, but it is hardly "quaint." Put this way, the catechism claims that we are created for worship and for a level of joy not yet attained.   Put this way, the catechism claims is that earthly evolution is climbing its way aeon by aeon toward God and that the rate of acceleration is increasing.

Why does humanity exist?  What is our purpose?  Our primary reason for becoming is to ride the rising tide of evolution in worship and with joy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

FPC Log: Tepid Revolution (viii)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
It's been awhile since we have had an "FPC Log" entry, which series examines issues in church decline and renewal.  The last one (number 7) looked at some of the characteristics of a "high vitality church.  The question is, of course, how does a church become or continue to be a vital, lively community of faith esp. in the face of so many countervailing cultural crosscurrents?  David Brooks in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "How to Fight the Man," offers some interesting insights.

Brooks starts with a video posted on YouTube by Jefferson Bethke called “Why I Hate Religion," which has "gone viral" as they say with over 18 million viewings. In the video, Bethke criticizes Christianity as a religion for being a facade that does not reflect the true meaning of the Christian faith. Brooks observes that Bethke subsequently backed off of his critique after receiving counter-criticism from several quarters including theologians. All of this reflects, according to Brooks, deeper issues about why our institutions seem to never change and what might constitute a better approach.  His advice is that before someone wants to engage in reform, they had better do their homework, namely read up on the issues involved and draw on the work of great thinkers in the field in order to gain a vision for change. He observes, "rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm."

Brooks makes a valid point.  Whether it be revolution or reform, one does have to have a sense of direction and an ultimate destination.  But what if the ultimate destination is not that clear because it draws its inspiration from an ancient religious movement that cannot possibly be duplicated in its original form?  That is the situation the historic churches face today.  In their decline, they do not adequately reflect the spirit, drive, motivation, dynamic, and faith of the early church, which they take as their model for what it means to be "the church."  They have to be something like that church but in the 21st century and in a myriad of particular settings no two of which are exactly the same.  That is not to say that contemporary mainline churches can't discover (or rediscover) a dynamic congregational life.  In fact, it is not to say that even in the declining churches there remains much vitality.  It is to say that vision isn't enough and study isn't enough if they lack another vital ingredient, namely they need to be a shared vision and a shared study.  One key to change is that it is best done in dialogue.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gospel Husk - Mark 2:23-28 (xxx)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 30th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

I'm fairly sure that this passage from Mark 2:23-28 never happened as Mark described it (but see below). First, the author gives no specific time frame and offers no specific details, such as would lead us to feel there was an actual event involved. Second, why were Pharisees out walking in wheat fields with Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath? Seems unlikely. Third, the whole scene must have taken place close to where Jesus and the disciples were lodging. Sabbath travel laws were strict, but the Pharisees didn't criticize the disciples for traveling on the Sabbath. But, if they were close to home and it being the Sabbath, would they have been likely to eat the wheat? Why didn't they just return their lodgings and eat there? What they did couldn't have been done casually, in spite of Mark making it seem that way. They transgressed the Sabbath Laws in a serious manner. The author may have made the story up entirely as the context for Jesus' teaching about keeping the Sabbath, specifically the statements in verses 27-28. Or, he may have pieced the story together from scattered fragments of his sources' memories and writings. Fourth, the whole sequence of events in 2:13-28 is artificial. Mark doesn't disguise that fact in any way. He's clearly presenting a line of argumentation. The story fits too neatly to be taken as an actual event.
Now, of course, one can invent a logical set of reasons why this story could have happened as Mark tells it. But those reasons have to be fairly complicated and aren't the sort of thing likely to have survived a generation of failing memory to reach Mark's time. What I'm saying is that there are none of those little details that have given other Marcan stories a sense of specificity and probability.

Note: I haven since come across information that, in fact, Jesus himself rejected the idea that picking grain on the Sabbath was a violation of it. The matter, evidently, was in dispute in his time, and he took a less strict view. Thus, an actual historical dispute is reflected here, and it's quite possible that the disciples actually did pick and eat the grain quite casually, knowing Jesus approved.

2012 comment: If it is true that the author of Mark depended on memories gathered through oral history interviews, a third scenario for this story is that one or more of "his" sources remembered something like it. The details of being out in the fields with the Pharisees watching does seem a little complex, but not far-fetched. It could have been that perhaps a Pharisee happened to see the disciples eating the grain on the Sabbath or heard that they did. However the details worked out, the point is that historians can be reasonably certain that Jesus held a view of the Sabbath that conflicted with that of some Pharisees. And the disciples could well have done what this story reports them doing. That is, there is an evidentiary basis to the story—which is the point of this whole long series of postings on the Gospel of Mark.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The New Community - Mark 2:13-28 (xxix)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 29th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

There are three stories included in this long passage (Mark 2:13-28), and they all follow on one connected theme. Jesus, through his actions, was defining the rules of behavior for his disciples in distinction from the social and religious norms of their society. It's important to note that the disciples are a constant presence of some importance in each story. In 2:16 the Pharisees ask them why Jesus ate with sinners. In 2:18ff their own behavior (failure to fast) is subject to question, and again in 2:23ff the behavior of the disciples (picking wheat on the Sabbath) is criticized. What we have here, in a sense, is a charter for the very earliest church. The Jesus Circle, according to Mark, maintained close social contact with social marginals and even includes them in its numbers. It defies conventional expectations concerning pious behavior (2:18-22). And, it doesn't assign ultimate significance to keeping the Jewish Law (2:23-28). The author makes no attempt to link these events chronologically. They are, rather, linked by the common theme mentioned above.

It's not clear at all that any of these events actually happened as such. They represent, I think, remembered values, sayings, and stories about the sorts of things Jesus did. Most of the details in the stories are generic rather than specific, excepting the name of Levi, the tax collector, and the fact that Jesus ate in his house (2:14-15). My own feeling is that in these verses we're located as much or more in the author's own time than in Jesus' time. He's defining, if I'm correct, the nature of Christian community for the church itself. He's describing and defining the church's identity, both to explain why the church is different from other religious entities and how church members should behave. Mark 2:21-22 (new patches and new wine) highlight the theme that the life of the new community is different from the social and religious norms of society. The church contains new wine (Jesus? the Holy Spirit?) and it requires a new wineskin. What we have here, in sum, is quite possibly a second generation Christian saying, " This is who we are. This is how we became who we are."

2012 comment: However, it is important to understand that the earliest church built its identity on its historical experience with the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not the stories reflect particular events or the church's memory of "the way" Jesus did things more generically, they still originate in the church's memories of Jesus.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Taking Multiverse on Faith

According to Alan P. Lightman's article, "The accidental universe: Science's crisis of faith," published in December 2011 in Harper's Magazine, theoretical physicists are experiencing what seems to be a crisis of faith.  Discoveries in physics in the last two or more decades have not led to the hoped-for "Theory of Everything," which would distill our understanding of all of reality into one simple, elegant principle.  Instead, discoveries in quantum physics and astronomy have taken physics in opposite directions and suggest that there may not be a unifying principle that explains everything.  Most disturbing, apparently, is the theory of multiverse, which holds that there seem to be a limitless number of universes besides the one that we live in, which can have an infinite variety of configurations.  The fact that our universe is uniquely constructed to permit life on Earth thus is not caused by anything in particular.  We live in an "accidental" universe.  That being the case, the search for a unifying first principle that explains everything is a waste of time because "everything" is always going to be accidental.

The problem is that the theory of multiverse can't be proven and may never admit to proof because we are locked away in just one of that infinite number of universes.  We can't observe the rest because they don't exist in our universe.  The configuration of our universe suggests that they exist without offering any way to validate that they do, which means that the physicists have to take them on faith.  Yes, on faith.  This is a crisis, of sorts, because science is not about taking things on faith.  It is about research leading to empirical conclusions that are demonstrably true irrespective of what one believes about the subject under investigation.  However, it just may be that at the end of it all, empirical scientific investigation cannot lift the veil on the true nature of ultimate reality because its tools and techniques are too limited to do so.

Welcome, dear friends, to our world—the world of faith!

Theoretical physicists also usually cite the theory of multiverse to demonstrate that there is no intelligent creator of the universe.  Their thinking is that since this universe is accidental, there necessarily could not have been a divine designer of it.  There seems to be a fallacy in the argument so simple that this non-scientist must be missing something.  The fallacy is that if there are an infinite number of universes, then the one we live in is not accidental.  It is inevitable.  It had to happen.  One could argue, logically, that an intelligent creator (God) chose this method of creation as a way to insure that our universe, solar system, planet, and race would eventually come into existence.  Now, we're not talking about the Grandaddy in the Sky, which is what theoretical physicists seem to mean by the word, "God."  We are talking here about a Beyond, which we cannot imagine (anymore than we can imagine an infinite number of universes) that stands outside of the totality of the multiverse and set the whole shebang going in the first place.

For people of faith, the origin of our faith is not in the speculations of theoretical physics but in personal and communal experiences, which we believe point to a Creator God.  So far as we are concerned, whether physicists can craft a theory of everything or they believe in multiverse is neither here nor there.  Our faith is non dependent on their findings one way or another.  We would observe that if God is indeed who we believe (and trust) God to be, we are not surprised that science does not have the tools necessary for dealing with ultimate reality—i.e. God—because we have been wrestling with these same human limitations for as long as we have believed.

There's another thing I don't understand.  Why do those who think that the idea of God is far-fetched latch onto ideas like multiverse, which so far as I can see is just as far-fetched if not more so.  Where we point to experiences, they point to some vaguely conceived, half-formed mathematical formulations, which they admit they can probably never prove.  But, then, what do I know?  I'm "just" a theist.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Getting Closer

British scientists at the Universities of York and Nottingham report having taken a step towards understanding the origins of life on Earth. At some point, obviously, life had to emerge from lifelessness, and how that happened has remained a mystery. The University of York reports (here) that, "Organic chemists at the University of York have made a significant advance towards establishing the origin of the carbohydrates (sugars) that form the building blocks of life."  The news posting states that,
All biological molecules have an ability to exist as left-handed forms or right-handed forms. All sugars in biology are made up of the right-handed form of molecules and yet all the amino acids that make up the peptides and proteins are made up of the left-handed form. 
The researchers found using simple left-handed amino acids to catalyse the formation of sugars resulted in the production of predominately right-handed form of sugars. It could explain how carbohydrates originated and why the right-handed form dominates in nature.
This doesn't mean that scientist can now explain precisely how non-life became life, but it does mean that they are on the track of that explanation and that it is likely to be only a matter of time until they solve the puzzle of life.  Then, of course, our militant atheist friends will trumpet the achievement as further proof that there is no God while the creationists retreat to a new hidey-hole of things science can't yet explain to take their stand against evolution.  The atheists still won't be able to explain why matter had the potential to become life, and the creationists will still be denying the actual nature of the universe in order to protect a totally unnecessary interpretation of Genesis 1-2.  Between rejection and denial stands another faith possibility, one that sees in the cumulative findings of science insights into the nature of God's creation and thus, dimly, some sense of how God is at work in a continuing act of creation superintended among us by the Spirit of God.  It is one of the ongoing themes of Rom Phra Khun that we can embrace the findings of science without fear because they reflect creation's Creator, again however dimly.  Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Jesus & the Agents of the Over Class - Mark 2:13-17 (xxviii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 28th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

For 20 centuries Christian preachers have been castigating the tax collectors of Jesus' time as bad people--really, really bad people. Evidently, we've had good reason. Tax collectors were the oppressive agents of the over class. They made large, entirely legal profits by taking more from the people than they paid into the government's coffers. OK, they were "sinners," but they were wealthy oppressors, They did the over classes' dirty work for it and, in that sense, made the whole rotten, corrupt Roman system possible. They collected the money that paid the bills of oppression.

Thus, the Pharisees' question in Mark 2:16 is a fair one. Jesus, the exorcist and wisdom teacher, was supposed to be on the side of the people. So, what was he doing making up to the likes of tax collectors? To do so was unpatriotic. It also made him ritually unclean. Now, why would a supposedly pious man do such a thing? They must have suspected that Jesus was finding a way to fund his operation and pay the expenses on his home. His approach and bad attitudes weren't going to get him any funds from the pious wealthy. The poor didn't have much, if any, money. That left the dirty tax collectors as a viable source of funding.

Assuming that Jesus' motivation wasn't pecuniary, as hardly seems likely given the kind of man he was, then we're thrown back on Mark's explanation. Jesus trafficked with these sinners out of a sense of compassion for them. This, in spite of the fact that they were the minions of the over class. Jesus' compassion for the tax collectors provides, possibly, an explanation as to why Jesus openly challenged the pious over class. He did it to try to communicate the gospel to them as well. He apparently thought that he could do that only through daring acts of public compassion and by challenging the Pharisees and others to learn new ways of thinking.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Second Challenge - Mark 2:13-17 (xxvii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 27th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

In this story in Mark 2:13-17, Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to be a disciple. In the course of events, he sat down to a meal in Levi's home with a large gathering of socially objectionable people (2:15).  He did this in a public way and was seen by a group of Pharisees, who questioned his disciples about why Jesus ate "with such people" (2:16 TEV). For the second episode in a row (cf. 2:1-12), Jesus chose to confront representatives of the over class rather than ignore them. They didn't voice their criticisms directly to him, and he could have ignored them if he'd wanted to avoid a direct confrontation.  Jesus chose to challenge them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Failing to Compromise about Compromise

Wiktionary provides the following definition for "compromise": "Noun compromise (plural compromises) 1. The settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions. 2. A committal to something derogatory or objectionable; a prejudicial concession; a surrender; as, a compromise of character or right."

There is a huge gap between the first and second definitions.  The first one suggests working out differences through a process of give and take.  In the world of politics, politicians generally can only get things done if they compromise, and we speak of "principled compromise" as being a good thing.  The second definition takes the opposite view of compromise: to compromise is to "sell out" one's values.  It is thus immoral and ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the body politic.

In times past, Democrats and Republicans largely operated in the political sphere on the basis of definition one.  They practiced the art of compromise.  Not always, of course, and not always wisely or well.  But, messy as it is, politics by compromise allowed the two parties to work together.  Today, however, an important segment of the American public assigns exclusively the second definition to the word "compromise."  The video clip below captures the spirit of our politics beautifully.  In it, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner refuses to label as "compromise," the necessary political process of reaching agreements through a process of given and take.  He calls is the process, "finding common ground."  That is definition one.  When pushed to admit that finding common ground is compromising, he becomes a bit angry.  The video goes on to an exchange between a Republican pundit  and Democratic pundit regarding the meaning of the word "compromise," in which they become dismissive of each other.  They can't compromise over the meaning of the word "compromise."  It's one of those things that would seem silly if it weren't so sad.

What has happened is that the tea party wing of the Republican Party rejects definition one out of hand even to the point of rejecting compromises that weigh heavily in their favor.  That's why Speaker Boehner has to reject the word "compromise."  To their credit, the tea party representatives genuinely want to change the give and take gamesmanship of politics, which sometimes really does not work in the best interests of the nation.  But, they are learning that they can't change the culture of Washington alone.  They need "establishment" Republicans, independents, and Democrats to do so, all with their own concerns and agendas.  Even if they don't call it compromise, eventually they will have to learn to "find common ground" with the rest of the country if they want to accomplish anything at all.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Slowly, Slowly, A More Peaceful World

Flag of the Karen National Union
Various commentators and studies note that slowly the world seems to be becoming a more peaceful place.  Especially since the end of the Cold War, the statistics of international violence have been declining, and in various parts of the world the guns of war are falling silent.  Not all commentators are convinced, of course, that the world really is becoming more peaceful, but recent events in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) suggest there is some hope.  Until recently, Burma had seethed with armed revolution and bloody repression for all of the long decades since its independence in 1948.  It is only very recently that Burma's newly elected civilian government has been pursuing a policy of political, social, and economic reform and reconciliation aimed at bringing Burma back into the family of nations.  These reforms have led the U.S. government to agree to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Burma.

Notable among the peaceful changes taking place in Burma is a recent ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union, representing the Karen tribal people of Burma.  The KNU has fought the oldest and largest of the ethnic wars against the Burmese government, and the declaration of a ceasefire is potentially very good and important news.  Burma's Karen have paid a long, heavy price for war with tens of thousands of refugees living in camps inside Thailand.  The Burmese military's repression of the Karen people has been particularly bloody and brutal.

The war isn't over yet.  No final agreement has been signed.  Still, the prospect of an end to what is considered to be the longest running war on Earth is welcome news indeed.  All eyes turn now to the nations of  western Asia and the hope that the people's revolts of the Arab Spring will take us, eventually, still a little further down the road to a more peaceful, just world.  Peace, we are often reminded, is more than the mere absence of war, and while that is true we'd settle for awhile with a world "merely" absent of war, yes we would.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Woe Is Us

A recent news item on the Huffington Post (here), reports on the views of Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, namely that, "the greatest minority under assault today are Christians. No doubt about it."  The posting, unfortunately, doesn't give more details about Scott's statement, only associating it with claims made by Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich has accused "the media" of ignoring what he terms, "anti-Christian bigotry," which he claims is much worse in the U.S. today than is Christian bigotry against others.

While there is no question that militant "new atheism" and others have been grabbing headlines with their anti-religion campaigns, the massive presence of organized religion and especially organized Christianity in the U.S. makes it impossible to take Scott and Gingrich seriously on this matter.  The Christian Right's zealous anti-abortion and anti-gay movements dwarf the efforts of the atheist folks, as does the considerable political clout of the Christian Right.  Even though most denominations in the U.S., including evangelical ones, are seeing decline in their numbers and the number of "unchurched" continues to grow, it will be a long time before Christians can seriously consider themselves a minority by any meaningful definition of the term.  Scott's sentiments are especially hard to take seriously considering where he hails from, the heart of the heart of the Bible belt, where evangelicalism is an unofficial "established religion."

It's "nice" of Scott and Gingrich to be worried about us (Christians), but what would seem to be more expressive of Christ himself would be a greater concern for the growing numbers of displaced and poor Americans for whom low income is far more oppressive than anything we Christians are experiencing.  Gingrich's rhetoric about the poor ("take a bath, get a job") seems especially wide of the mark given the economic realities we're facing today.  And, finally, historically Christians have sometimes even welcomed persecution because it is in such times that for some reason the church has best been able to share its message.