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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

Modern Myths Reconsidered

One of my favorite websites is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's science page, ABC Science.  It often has fascinating articles, some of which feed naturally into my conviction that Christians today have to pay attention to science and its findings.  ABC has posted two science news articles that probably don't have any theological implications but are still interesting.  Both take a jab at modern myths.  The first posting, entitled, "Can a full Moon affect behaviour?" offers a succinct answer to that question: no.  Evidently, numerous studies have found no link whatsoever between human behavior and full moons.  The other posting, "Some chocolate-eaters have lower BMI," raises questions about the link between eating chocolate and obesity.  Research indicates that moderate consumption of chocolate paired with exercise can actually be beneficial esp. since it is known that chocolate does have a positive impact on heart health.

If you're interested in science in general and/or the relationship of science to faith in particular, I recommend that you keep an eye on ABC Science.

Thinking About Jesus' Parables

What did it actually mean that Jesus taught in parables?  Could his use of parables suggest a weakness in his teaching method?  For some thoughts, go to "He Taught in Parables".

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Far Country

God is at home. We are in the far country.

Meister Eckhart
Source: Unknown

Following Up On Mark

Two days ago, I announced a new member of the Rom Phra Khun family, Rom Phra Khun Bible and moved the long series of postings on the Gospel of Mark there.  It turns out that only one of you (out of an average of 30-50 readers a day) followed the series of reflections on Mark to its new home.  Very clearly, I have failed to communicate the importance of such exercises as that series for the church in the early 21st century.  One of the things we must do in the 21st century is to discover new ways of looking at scripture.  If we don't, the church will become an increasingly isolated right wing religious sect out of touch with contemporary society and its needs—out of touch with reality, actually.  For us as Protestants, re-engaging with the Bible in ways that make sense is one key way of rediscovering the significance of our faith in the new ages that are going to come tumbling down on the human race at an ever-accelerating rate.  The Mark series of postings grappling with the historical and theological nature of that book are one very humble attempt to reengage with scripture.

So, let me invite you, patient RPK readers, to give Rom Phra Khun Bible a look and, from time to time, check on the progress of the Gospel of Mark postings.  They have a purpose.  Thanks.  Herb

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Serendipitous Lord

Dictionary.com provides the following definitions of the word "serendipity": "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident" and  "the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident."  For the origin and history of "serendipity, it states, "1754 (but rare before 20c.), coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." The name is from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Skt. Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island." Serendipitous formed c.1950."  Some online browsing indicates that some scientists acknowledge that their discoveries can be at times the result of serendipity.  The idea seems to be related to the experience of having good luck, but there is more to it than that.  Serendipity merges luck with an ability to see something in chance or random events and experiences that others don't see.  It suggests an ability to make connections between things that don't seem to be connected.

While a brief foray into the wild world of the Web, didn't turn anything up, I assume that someone in the world of theology has made a connection between the idea of serendipity and the way God works in the world.  For me, the whole idea of God's involvement in human affairs has always been problematic.  For one thing, we inhabit the tiniest speck of a grain of sand in the immensity of the universe.  Why would God even be interested?  More to the point, within the limitations of our biological programming we do have a fair degree of freedom, and most Christian theologians agree that God "respects" our freedom.  If that is true, then God's ability to act is severely limited.  Still more to the point, it makes no sense whatsoever to blame God for the ugly, evil things that happen in life as do many faithful Christians.  If God was in Christ, then God doesn't work that way.

So, how does God work in our lives and in human history?  Just suppose for a moment that God the Holy Spirit has an unusually refined (divinely refined!) ability to work serendipitously.  The Arab Spring presents an interesting possibility.  After generations of suffering under oppressive misrule, a street vendor in Tunisia sets himself on fire to protest local injustice, and then the Spirit goes to work making connections and the result is the Arab Spring.  Only the Spirit could make the connection between a vendor and a regional revolution for justice and freedom.  I'm still working on this, but it does seem to me that the God who is Present in our lives lurks in places where most of us don't see the divine lurking, tugging at our hearts and minds, making connections that we don't make without inspiration (meaning the indwelling of the Spirit).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sending Mark off to a New Blog

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
That's enough for the Gospel of Mark, at least here at Rom Phra Khun.  What I've decided to do is to start a new blog and continue the Mark series of postings there (there's another 40-some to go!).  I've named the new blog Rom Phra Khun Bible.  Rather than try to keep posting something here at Rom Phra Khun every day, I'll move back and forth between the two blogs and keep readers here notified when a new posting appears at Rom Phra Khun Bible.  For the time being, I plan to post here M-W-F and maybe Sunday and there T-Th-S.  We'll see how it goes.

So, I encourage readers to check out the new blog.  It looks very different from this one.  But both share the same ultimate goal, which is to continue to chew on matters that matter, especially ones that have to do with faith in Christ.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyond Comprehension

I like to talk about "what's coming" in terms of near-future technologies, and sometimes my "victims" think I'm nuts.  I don't think so, naturally, and it is postings like the one from CNN concerning the American scientist Ray Kurzweil entitled, "Futurist: We'll someday accept computers as human," that form the basis of my conviction that the world is going to change dramatically and relatively soon.  Medical science will learn how to lengthen our life spans by hundreds of years.  Nanotechnologies will give whole new post-industrial processes as well as products.  There is going to be growing interest in what we might call "spiritual technologies" such as meditation.  It isn't clear how all of this will work out and who will benefit from it, but a new world is coming and fast.

If this subject interests you, I recommend that you spend a few minutes viewing a video Kurzweil put out in 2009 called, "The Singularity of Ray Kurzweil" (here).

Churches remain one of society's institutions most resistant to change.  What is likely to happen is that while Christians continue to fight over how old the Earth is and whether or not there was a "historical Adam," the world will simply leave them in the dust.  The church will become an increasingly small retro curiosity.  How will faith in Christ be expressed in the 22nd century?  Will we make it that far?  These are questions worth pondering.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Recommended Viewing: N. T. Wright

Earlier this year, Dr. N. T. Wright, well-known biblical scholar, delivered a lecture at Calvin College entitled, "How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels."  The lecture lasts for one hour, and readers can view it (here) and read a brief synopsis of it (here).  Wright does an excellent job of putting the four gospels' portraits of Christ into their original context, and in the process he argues that scholars and church folks of all stripes pretty much miss the original point those portraits.  They fail to see the historical and political realities of the actual Jesus of Nazareth.  Wright is a good public speaker and delivers a persuasive presentation of his views.  It is worth the time.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jesus' Family - Mark 3:31-35 (xlvi)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 46th 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).

Members of Jesus' family arrived at his home (3:20), but they couldn't get in because of the large crowds. So they sent in word to Jesus that they were there. Jesus took the opportunity to teach the crowd about the meaning of family.

Did this event take place? There's no way of knowing. The whole passage (3:31-35) is vintage Mark. No details. We don't know what happened afterwards. It's hard to believe that Jesus ignored his mother. What did they talk about? How did Mary express her motherly worries? How did Jesus respond? I think that we can take it, on the basis of Mark 3:20, that Jesus' family was deeply concerned about him and may have shared the fear that he'd become mentally unstable. It seems possible that they'd then taken the trouble to visit him. But we've no way of knowing any of this for certain, and it is just as likely that Mark took some fragment of historical memory and wedded it to Jesus' views on the nature of the family.

The interview the author took his data from might have gone like this: Informant, "Not everybody was so fired up about Jesus. Lots of people thought he was a little strange, maybe even mad. The big shot Pharisees thought he'd been possessed by some kind of an evil spirit." Researcher: "How widespread were these feelings?" Informant: "Pretty widespread I'd say. Even his family worried about him. There was that time when they came to see him." Researcher: "What did they say? What happened?" Informant: "I don't really know. Jesus was teaching a bunch of people, and we were kinda surprised that he didn't just get up and go see his mother. I think they did go off and talk awhile. But, I can't remember exactly. I just remember that they came to see him. They probably wanted him to go back to Nazareth and stop stirring things up so much. The Pharisees were gettin' pretty hot about Jesus by then. You should ask Peter about it. If anybody knows, he does."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Crazy Exorcist - Mark 3:20-21(xlv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 45th 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).

Although we have no dates, it is clear that Mark contains a chronology of events. By the time of this passage (Mark 3:20-21), Jesus' popularity among many was increasing even as the over class was increasingly opposed to him. Jesus' popularity is underscored by the fact that the crowd that assembled at Jesus' home (TEV, RSV, JB, Goodspeed, & AV as a variant reading all state that Jesus "went home") made such great demands that both he and his disciples "had no time to eat." (TEV) Even with the addition of the Twelve as preachers and exorcists, Jesus' popularity had become an even greater burden than before.

Jesus' reputation, however, was a mixed one. There were those who were convinced that Jesus had gone mad. Mark, typically, gives us no details as to what caused them to think this way. Perhaps his teaching was so outlandish that many couldn't accept it. Or, again, it may have been Jesus' penchant for attacking powerful interest groups that caused some to doubt his sanity. In any event, the rumor spread that Jesus had become mentally unbalance until it reached Jesus' family in Nazareth.

It is significant that neither Matthew nor Luke contain this passage. Only Mark reports the impression that Jesus was crazy. His purpose in doing so might have been to reinforce even further the idea that Jesus' divine identity wasn't apparent to those around him. Those who knew Jesus saw him only as a man. I'd like to return to this point in the next posting and speculate on why the author of Mark may have been so insistent that Jesus wasn't obviously anything more than a man.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Milestone Worth Noting

According to a recent news article (here), the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer appear in a print edition—this for the first time since it was founded in 1768.  As of this month, the Britannica will be available only online.  Evidently, the emergence of online encyclopedias in the early 1990s has driven printed encyclopedias out of business, and the Britannica has managed to survive only because it adapted itself to the virtual world fairly early on.  This is just one more bit of proof that the digital age has become dominant almost in the bat of an eyelash.  The computer has changed everything.  I suppose it is now only a matter of time before I am going to have to give in, buy an iPad, and begin to read books on the thing.  As one who grew up in a different era, the digital age is still a bit strange and at times even off-putting.  There's no way we would want to go back to typewriters, mimeograph machines, and stand-alone libraries, no way in the world.  But, this is a weird age for those of us who grew up without those things, and it is only the tip of the iceberg given all that is coming next in the years to come.

Anyway, I thought you all would want to know that the "real world" Britannica is no more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Quoting from the YouTube blurb accompanying the following clip,"Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer."  A brief comment follows, but watch the clip first.

Something is happening that the bombast of the radical atheists and radical biblical literalists tends to obscure.  There is a spiritual convergence taking place between science and faith.  Some scientists are discovering that their studies lead them to the edges of spirituality.  They may not believe in the personal God of the theistic religions, but they sense the Something that lies within and beyond physical reality.  They are discovering that physical reality is not at all what it seemed to be just decades ago.  They are learning that human life is not just bones and muscles and tissue.  It is also spiritual.  It is defined by the human spirit.  For us as Christians it requires only a small step to see in the human spirit the presence of the Holy Spirit and to believe that just as the atoms within us are part of the Universe so the spirit in us is connected to the Universe and its Creator.  For us, Jesus Christ, is the key instrument—the singlemost important lens—through which we encounter the Spirit, the Universe, and the Creator.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Jewish View of the New Testament

The Presbyterian News Service posted an article entitled, "New book explores a Jewish view of the New Testament," which reports on a newly published book, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, published by Oxford University Press.  I haven't seen the book and can't recommend it, but it sounds like a useful tool for those who want to dig deeper into the original social and cultural setting of the New Testament.  FYI.

Spirit-less Gospel -Mark 3:28-30 (xliv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice

This posting is the 44th 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 3:28-30 is a difficult passage. I don't really see the connection between Jesus' parable about Beelzebul and this statement about the Holy Spirit. The author of Luke, evidently, also didn't see any connection because he removed the statement about the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:10) from the story about Beelzebul (11:14-23).

What is striking, however, is how infrequently Mark makes reference to the Holy Spirit. The only time the Holy Spirit is related to Jesus in a clear manner is found in the story of the baptism (Mark 1:8). Mark's parenthetical explanation suggests that Jesus was charging his enemies with attacking the Holy Spirit when they accused him of being him possessed. They were confusing the work of the Holy Spirit with the consequences of demon possession. But the whole thing isn't that clear. After this passage, Mark refers to the Holy Spirit only twice, once in connection with David (12:36) and once in relation to the disciples (13:11). This is in marked contrast to Luke and the Acts, where the Holy Spirit is centrally present. Some commentators consider the Acts to be nothing less than a history of the work of the Holy Spirit. We can only conclude that the Holy Spirit isn't very important in Mark and not very important to understanding the person and work of Jesus.

It's not likely that Mark's lack of interest in the Spirit was coincidental. The author, after all, did explicitly associate the Spirit with Jesus' baptism. It's more likely that a close identification of the Spirit with Jesus was out of keeping with the author's purposes. Such an identification would suggest that Jesus had the very divine properties that the author wanted to keep from being obvious or prominent. The human Jesus, so important to Mark, would have been obscured or even lost.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Actions Not Words - Mark 3:22-30 (xliii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 43rd 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's Jesus was an exorcist and healer. Through the first three chapters of Mark, we learn almost nothing directly about Jesus' teachings. What teaching he does give is in the form of refutations of his doubters and enemies. On a larger scale, there's nothing comparable in Mark to Matthew's Sermon on the Mount or Luke's Sermon on the Plain. Jesus is first and foremost an exorcist and only secondarily a teacher. The passage in Mark 3:22-30 reinforces this emphasis on Jesus the exorcist. So closely is he associated with exorcism, that his enemies charge him with being in league with the devil.

The Good News of Jesus Christ wasn't captured essentially in Jesus' words, then, as it was in his actions. The liberation he brought wasn't so much from ignorance as it was from captivity to evil powers, both human and extra-human. If we assume that the author of Mark based his portrayal on primary oral sources, we can conclude that the thing people most remembered about Jesus wasn't his formal teachings. What they remembered most clearly was the dramatic, liberating way in which he healed the under class. He convinced them that God did love them. Some scholars, at least, argue that Jesus gave his teachings in bits and snatches. He never systematized those teachings. Mark certainly doesn't contradict that opinion.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Learning to Speak Sami

Sami Flag (from Wikipedia)
In a recent AP news article entitled, "In Hebrew's revival, a Nordic people see hope," reporter Daniella Cheslow describes the efforts teachers of the Sami language are making in reviving their native tongue.  The Sami (also know as the Lapp) are an indigenous people living in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  Cheslow estimates that there are roughly 80,000 to 100,000 Sami of which only about 30,000 speak a Sami language.  According to the the Wikipedia entry, "Sami people," there are ten distinct Sami languages, all of which are endangered.  Cheslow's article reports on a trip made by Sami language teachers to Israel to study the way in which it maintains the Hebrew language in the face of continuing immigration of new people to Israel.  Israeli teaching methods have been studied by other indigenous peoples seeking to save their languages from a slow extinction, including the Welsh.

While the world is painfully aware of the decline in the bio-diversity of our world, most of us are less aware of the continuing loss of linguistic diversity as well.  It was my privilege to work for a time with Karen churches in northern Thailand.  The Karen in Thailand are facing the same decline in the numbers of ethnic Karen who speak Karen.  Only recently has the Thai government allowed the use of Karen as a language of instruction in public schools where the Karen predominate, and there is immense pressure from the larger society to use Thai as one's first language.  Although they learn Karen at home, fewer and fewer young people can read the language and more and more they speak only Thai.

There is more at stake than the loss of just the language.  Language is a primary carrier of culture, and where a language is dying away it is certain that a culture is dying as well—ways of dressing, eating, and living together in a unique society.  Cultural diversity is important because it maintains the richness of human life.  There are thoughts best thought in Karen just as there are thoughts best thought in Thai.  We learn from our differences, and it is just that much harder for us to learn from each other when yet another language dies.  I remember vividly a gathering of Karen local church leaders discussing the decline of the Karen language at which one older participant spoke to the tragedy saying in effect, "Karen is a gift from God, and if we are to be faithful to God we have to save our language."  Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Heroic Model of Church Renewal

In his book on church renewal entitled, Turnaround and Beyond: A Hopeful Future for Small Membership Churches, author Ron Crandall places the hope of small churches to gain traction in the world of church decline on their pastors.  The book is largely a how-to manual for pastors filled with advice and admonitions, which when take together present a daunting list of demands on pastors.  The set of skills required to turn churches around is broad, and the attitudes a pastor has to cultivate are those of a near-perfect follower of Christ.  And, unfortunately, most of the advice is presented as things pastors must do if they are to achieve church renewal.  Little is said about the role of the church, particularly other leaders in the congregation, which leaves the impression that it's up to the pastor whether a church grows or not.

Tell me it ain't so, Joe.

Now, it is true that pastors play a key role in helping churches turnaround.  In most cases, a church isn't going to reverse decline if the pastor isn't committed to that goal and provides effective, enabling leadership.  The problem with Crandall's heroic model of church renewal is that it fails to acknolwedge the fact that a successful turnaround depends on the church more than it does on the pastor.  This is especially true in a small church.  If the members, including especially key lay leaders aren't on board, renewal won't happen.  Period.  A capable pastor can do things to encourage a church, but at the end of the day the church has to have some degree of willingness to be encouraged.  Some churches are capable of renewal, but frankly many are not because of the attitudes, fears, and just plain humanness of the members.

Perhaps some of those that are unlikely candidates for turnaround can in fact turnaround with heroic pastoral leadership.  Granted.  The problem is, sadly, that most pastors aren't up to the heroics.  We make mistakes, fail to present things "the right way," trip over our own foibles, struggle with our own baggage, disappoint people sometimes with cause & sometimes through no fault of our own.  Those of us who are less than heroic can still pastor churches pretty well, but we can't carry the immense burden for renewal that Crandall places on us.  We're just not that good at it.

Compounding the problem of pastoral limitations is the reality that the small pool of "really good" pastors tend to gravitate to larger churches while many smaller churches either have no pastoral leadership at all or depend on part-time pastors or lay leadership.  And, again, in some situations lay pastors and part-time pastors provide outstanding leadership, but as a rule they are even less likely to be able to provide heroic leadership than are full-time pastors.  They are still more dependent on the quality of the church's other leadership as well as the general membership.

At the end of the day, renewal depends on the mix of pastor, lay leadership, and congregation.  Usually renewal depends initially on the initiative of the pastor, although I know of cases where it originated with lay leaders in the church itself.  If the pastor seeks to jump start renewal, it then depends on the response of the membership, and at the end of the day a church can't be tricked or cajoled or finessed into "going along."  It has to want to, especially its key lay leadership, leaders who just might perceive a threat to their own place in the church in the whole idea of renewal.  If they resist, the result can be conflict, which only makes renewal less likely.

There are those who will interject that the Holy Spirit can transform any situation into something good.  "Where there's God, there is always hope."  That, in fact, is an important observation, but it comes with its own issues.  The Spirit does work with and through human agency, but it apparently works best when we are reasonably willing to be worked through.  The Spirit does not magically turn incapable pastors, resistant lay leaders, or weak churches into something else.  In our humanness, we can either open channels for the work of the Spirit, clogged up as the channels may be with that humanness, or we can throw up dams that frustrate the work of the Spirit.  The trick, then, is to know how to be a channel rather than a dam, which is very different from mastering all of the skills, investing the life-consuming time, and always displaying the proper attitudes demanded of a pastor by Crandall's heroic model of church renewal.

Various sports figures are reputed to have said, "The harder I practice, the luckier I get."  In terms of church renewal,  we might well say that the more church and pastor together behave in line with the Spirit, the more likely the church is to grow.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A New York New Species

The species of frog from NY Times
A recent posting in the NY Times online entitled, "A New Species in New York Was Croaking in Plain Sight," reports that scientists have identified a new species of frog has been discovered in New York City and surrounding counties in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It is enough like other, more common frogs that nobody who knows about frogs noticed it until recently—so similar, in fact, that biologists had to do DNA testing on it to confirm that it is a separate species. Evidently, it makes a different call, but for a long time nobody noticed that either. Kinda makes you wonder what might be lurking up here in Lewis County. Surely if an unidentified species of frog has been hanging out in the Big Apple all these years, there has to be some hitherto unknown species of something waiting to be discovered in the back yards of Lowville.

By the way, they haven't named the new species yet.  The NY Times invites suggestions.

Two-edged Sword

CNN.com's Tech page recently posted an article entitled, "In today's warp-speed world, online missteps spread faster than ever," which I recommend for reader's consideration.  It makes the point that the various Web media can be used for rapidly disseminating misinformation that can sometimes be hurtful.  The Web has created a hunger for instant news, instant contact, and instant involvement.  Haste easily makes waste, and in the world of the Web once the cat is out of the bag it can spread at viral speeds.  Sometimes, a person simply acts hastily and unwisely, and sometimes a person or agency spreads lies deliberately.  It turns out, for example, that the story about a banker who supposedly gave a 1% tip to a server and wrote a derogatory message on his receipt is not true.  It is a hoax.  Still, if you google the story you will find the uncorrected story all over the Web.

It's a word to the wise for all of us who use the Web to communicate and rely on it as a source of information.  It really is like a knife.  It is useful and not safe all at the same time.  The thing is that often enough it is more like a dull knife than a sharp one—more likely to cause cuts and to leave jagged wounds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


The appearance of blessing on the surface may obscure the fact that [megachurch] churches are frenetic, showy places with lots of bells and whistles, filled with people who are not all that committed to Christ, but who have become addicted to stimulation and entertainment in their spiritual walk. They want to experience Christ’s presence but only if it comes wrapped in an exciting package.

N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church (2005), p. 72

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Theological Disputation Over the Person of Jesus (xlii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 42nd 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).

As we have seen in postings 36 (here) and 13 (here) in this series, the Gospel of Mark insists that Jesus' divine identity was hidden from those around him. It also portrays Jesus as trying to keep things that way by ordering demons and those he healed to keep quiet about himself. What's going on here? It's hard to understand why a gospel writer would want to proceed in this manner, and certainly both Matthew and Luke rejected Mark's approach even as they availed themselves of his information. Mark, in short, wanted to inform his audience that Jesus' divine nature wasn't historically evident. It seems only logical that Mark's audience must not have realized the hidden nature of that identity. If they did there'd hardly be any reason for the author to write in this manner. That audience, furthermore, could hardly have been non-Christian. It would be ridiculous for Mark to engage in an evangelistic approach that emphasized the difficulties in discovering who Jesus was. The author wrote for a Christian audience that believed that Jesus' divine nature was self-evident.

It could be that the author of Mark disagreed that Jesus' divine nature was so entirely clear. It could have also been that this author felt it was incorrect to overlook the human side of Jesus' person and ministry. Do we have, then, a historical work that intended to restore balance to the early church's interpretation of Jesus? Was the author using historical data to resist a theological trend that tended to overlook Jesus' humanity? Historically, Greek-influenced factions within the earliest Jewish church began to emphasize the divine aspects of Jesus' person and works almost from Pentecost. It could be, in sum, that the author of Mark felt that those who over-emphasized Jesus' divinity were forgetting the realities of his person and ministry. Perhaps the author feared that they were turning belief in Jesus into a groundless superstition. Why else would she or he be so insistent on emphasizing the humanity of Jesus and the fact that Jesus divine nature wasn't self-evident?

Attention Smokers: Cigarettes are radioactive!

If you are a smoker or if you are regularly subjected to "passive" cigarette smoke, I would strongly urge you to read a posting at ABC Science entitled, "Cigarettes as radioactive as x-rays." It turns out that two packs of cigarettes contain the same level of radiation as a chest x-ray. And so-called "passive" smoke is toxic as well.  Smokers, if you must smoke, please, do it where others aren't subjected to it.  Please.  But, it would be best all the way around if you would stop smoking entirely.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Ancient Research Historian (xli)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 41st 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 common view among mainline academics seems to be that the Synoptic Gospels were cobbled together by "editors" whose main task it was to integrate oral and written traditions about Jesus into a coherent unit. Their creativity as writers was largely limited to the choices of material they made, how they combined that material, and the order they gave to it. Many would argue that it's incorrect to consider the Gospel writers as authors. Others see those writers as creative individuals, worthy of the title of "author" but still as mostly re-working the traditions they relied upon.

We need to think more about this. The author of Mark was a highly creative individual. He may well have invented the gospel genre. He has a central theme, namely the unfolding the divine identity of the man Jesus. He shows a clear awareness of historical developments. His sources didn't just appear magically on his writing table. He had to go out and collect those sources. He might have conducted interviews in the process. It's very difficult to believe that the author hadn't gone through a personal discovery of who Jesus was for himself. That experience would have had a formative influence on how he wrote his Gospel. Isn't it possible that what we have here is, in fact, the original work of an ancient research historian, based on his sources as any history must be but still an original work? I think so.


2012 reflections: The argument I pursued back in 1998 is an important one.  If it is correct that the author of the Gospel of Mark was a credible ancient historian and the gospel reflects actual events, then its stories cannot be simply dismissed as a work of zealous fiction.  I'm not claiming here that the Gospel of Mark is proof that Jesus was the Christ, but I am saying that those who followed him believed him to be so with what they took were good reasons just as those who resisted him did so for what they thought to be good reasons.  The judgment that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and is our Lord and Saviour is a faith judgment not a historical one.  The judgment that Jesus was a remarkable individual who taught with power, performed what the people of his day considered miracles, challenged authority, sided with the poor, and ministered to them is one historians can make.  Indeed, it was the judgment of several ancient historians including the authors of the four gospels.

It is clear that the author of Mark wrote as a person of faith.  My argument 14 years ago and today is that the author also wrote as a credible ancient historian who worked with sources, shaped the data mined from those sources, and did what historians do, which is to tell the story of the past.  We moderns may discount the conclusions the author made in faith, but we cannot simply explain away the data that informed the author's faith.  That's the point.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's Not All About Gibbs

The NCIS Team at Work
The popular TV crime show NCIS offers an interesting metaphor for local church life.  Although Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, is the ostensible star of the show and most of the plots revolve around him, the show is not all about Gibbs.  It is about the team of special agents and forensics specialists who each contribute to catching the bad guys week after week.  The show is popular because the team's characters are believable, from Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), the Goth forensic scientist, to Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), the team's smart-aleck & sometimes obnoxious number two guy. In some ways the members of the team are mismatched, and one wonders how they can ever work together. They have their troubled histories, which come into play in one way or another most weeks. Yet, out of all of this humanness they craft a remarkable team, dysfunctional and effective all rolled up into one.

Churches are pretty much the same. Sometimes, it is a wonder that they function at all, but at other times remarkable things happen out of the combinations of skills, concerns, and abilities individual members bring to the mix.  It may at times not be helpful to expect too much of a church, but more often it isn't wise to expect too little.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rethinking Church Entirely

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, a teaching elder in and former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is in the process of planting a new church——an online church, a facebook church, or as they are now being called, a virtual church. It will not be a church that has a facebook page but rather one that is located on a facebook page.  In a recent posting on his personal blog entitled, "We’re Starting a New Presbyterian Church," Reyes-Chow outlines some of his thinking about the shape and direction this new, as yet unnamed church, might take.  He intends it to be a "real" church, that is with elected leadership, fellowship, ministries, and worship.  Instead of occupying physical space, however, it will "occupy" online social media with the purpose of creating a genuine faith community where members connect through the social media rather than physically.  He writes, "This is not about building up a crazy number of followers, friends or likes. This is about creating community that finds healing, discipline and love SO that we get the heck out into the world and do some good."  Reyes-Chow intends that this new church will be a member congregation of PC(USA).  It will be interesting to see which presbytery it joins.  Will the day come when there are enough virtual congregations in PC(USA) to form a virtual presbytery?  Would such a virtual presbytery even be necessary?

For readers who are intrigued by the idea of a "virtual church," you might want to look at the debate that has taken place on the blog Out of Ur (here - scroll down the list of articles to find those involved in the debate) on the subject.

As a pastor, I spend a good deal of time with folks in their 80s and 90s even, and most of them do not own a computer, do not understand much about computers, and are not the least interested in getting involved with them.  Quite a few folks in this age category took an early retirement or decided to definitely retire because their workplaces were in the process or computerizing.  Those of us in our 60s and into the early 70s came at this whole thing as maturing adults.  We've not had any choice about learning to compute, and many of us do it reasonably well.  But we did not grow up in the virtual world.  It doesn't come "naturally" to most of us, although some first wave baby boomers are as cutting edge as anybody and have played a major role in creating the virtual world of internet.  Still, I must confess personally that this virtual church or facebook church is just not my cuppa.  It sounds as though it might have great potential, but not for those of us who are just too wedded to living "out here" in the real time and space world.

That being said, perhaps Reyes-Chow's congregation represents one possibility for the church of the future.  The virtual world is a real world, and it makes sense that the church should find its place and pursue its ministries in that world.  It also offers another possibility for small Presbyterian congregations that can no longer maintain their building, employ a pastor, and do all of the things churches have been expected to do.  Perhaps, there is a way to embody his virtual church in local groups of Presbyterians who gather physically as well as virtually.  And, maybe, some of us in the bridge generation (from the pre-world to the post-world) will eventually find ourselves sharing in an online faith community as well as a physical one.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

God Utters Me

God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of himself.

Thomas Merton
Source: Unknown

Friday, March 9, 2012

Born Again: A Different Take

Jesus & Nicodemus
Things aren't necessarily what they seem to be or what most people (or tradition) say they are.  Take, for example, our understanding of the term, "born again."

In his famous discussion with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, which is recorded in John 3:1-21, Jesus insisted repeatedly that in order to have a full life with God Nicodemus had to be "born again."  At least, that is how the King James Version translation of John 3:1-21 puts it in verses 3 and 7.  According to the KJV, in verse 3 Jesus says, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In verse 6-7, he says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."  Interestingly, the American Standard Version (ASV)  and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) both translate "born again" as "born anew."  That change in translation evidently reflects the meaning of the original Greek as well as does "born again".  It is an important transition because both the ASV and the RSV are revisions of the KJV and stand in what we might term "direct lineal descent" from the KJV.

The most recent descendent of the KJV, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) further revises "born anew" into "born from above," which Robert V. McCabe in an article entitled "The Meaning of 'Born of Water and the Spirit' in John 3:5" says is an equally valid translation of the Greek.  So, in the NRSV Jesus says in verse 3, ""Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." In verse 7, he says, "You must be born from above."  The Message (MSG) and Laughing Bird (LB) paraphrase versions of the passage also translate "born again" as "born from above."

The point is that there is an important difference in our understanding of what it means to be "born again" as opposed to "born from above."  If we are "born again," our original birth is superseded and, in a sense, rejected as being inadequate.  In recent centuries, this sense of what it means to be "born again," has led to the idea in many Christian circles that one must undergo a conversion experience, an experience that involves rejection of the past and embracing a "born again" life in Christ.  The meaning of the original Greek allows such an interpretation of the idea of being "born again."  It is not wrong to argue that Jesus was demanding a conversion experience of Nicodemus.

If, however, we translate the original as meaning "born from above," we can understand Jesus' meaning in another way.  Just as our physical bodies are born, so too must our spiritual nature go through a birth process.  The Laughing Bird paraphrase thus has Jesus saying, "“Listen again, for it is important that you get this. There is only one way into the full life of God, and it is through a birth of water and Spirit. A baby that emerges from a womb got its body from the bodies of its parents. But a growing person is not just a body, and the life-force within them emerges from the womb of the Spirit. So don’t be surprised that I said you have to be born from above." (verses 5-7)  We have a physical birth.  We experience a spiritual birth.  The experience of our first birth, thus, is the model for our second birth.  There is no rejection of our previous life involved.  Following Christ is more of a bringing to completion the birthing process.  This feels more like Genesis 1 where God created the physical universe and humanity and found these things, these physical things, "good" (meaning aesthetically pleasing, beautiful).

In Christian circles, we often talk about repentance as being taking a "U-turn" away from the way we were going and toward God's way.  But, maybe we can just as well look on repentance as a process of growth, coming to fruition, or maturing.  We don't do a "U-turn" so much as we follow the path upward.  When we graduate from college, we don't somehow reject or renounce our high school diploma.  In fact, we build on it.  As we seek to be "born from above," we build on the life given us through our first birth.  Obviously, some things are going to change.  But rather than reject our first birth, we embrace it and seek to be crafted into something still more aesthetically pleasing and beautiful through the work of the Spirit on us.

For some, the idea of being "born again" best describes their experience and journey.  For others, the life of faith is more like being "born from above."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eyewitness Accounts in New Testament Times (xl)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 40th 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 an article on Jesus' resurrection as history, Wolfhart Pannenberg makes the following observation about Paul's evidence for the resurrection: "...Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, did not think a mere demand for faith was enough, but he gave the list of the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. This is a proof as it was commonly used in legal proceedings. The Greek historians, for instance Herodotus, also gave their proofs in such a way. Historical evidence was obtained by an interrogation of the eyewitnesses. It is not without reason that Paul emphasized the point that most of the witnesses were still alive and could still be submitted to an interrogation (I Corinthians 15:6). The proof Paul gave was for his time a historical proof, a first-hand proof beyond doubt."

What I've been arguing is the possibility that the author of Mark based his History of the Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth, in part, on "an interrogation of the eyewitnesses." Pannenberg's observations, assuming they're correct, makes that possibility yet more credible. Oral evidence had a certain legal standing in Roman times. Ancient historians made use of such data.

Those observations also throw into doubt the distinction between gospel and history. It's possible that the Gospel of Mark is a historical work, although one written according to the conventions of ancient rather than modern historiography. That is an intriguing possibility. It suggests that Mark's account just might take us closer to the "historical Jesus" than many scholars have allowed. It may also mean that the author of Mark took a view of the past not that dissimilar from our own. He didn't simply make up fictionalized accounts to package the "sayings tradition" of Jesus that, in turn, solved problems in his home church. He was, instead, communicating to his readers important information for their time and place about the meaning of events that really did take place in a past time and place.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More Evidence - Mark 2:13-17 (xxxix)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 39th 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).

Gerd Theissen's insightful treatment of the calling of Levi and Jesus' eating with sinners in Mark 2:13-17, in The Shadow of the Galilean (p. 127), brings into focus the issues we've been wrestling with concerning Marks' use of evidence. On the one hand, Theissen states, "A story was needed in early Christianity in which Jesus ate together with toll collectors and sinners. This could provide justification for Gentile and Jewish Christians eating together, even if the Gentiles did not observe Jewish food laws. The problem became acute at the end of the forties in Antioch. Did the story come into being in order to solve the problem?" On the other hand, he notes that the story presupposes a frontier toll station by the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus' time the area in question was a border area and there could have been a toll station. That boundary disappeared after 39 CE. There was no boundary again throughout the first century. Theissen writes, "In other words, the story of the toll collector's party presupposes conditions which only existed in the time of Jesus, and no longer held after AD 39. This brings us to a time in which meals shared between Jews and Gentiles in the early Christian communities were still no problem." He concludes, "So could it be that the tradition of the toll collector's party contains a historical reminiscence? There is no doubt that it was used later to solve problems about eating together in the community." Theissen leaves unanswered questions concerning the historicity of the event.

We have, then, an incidental historical fact that came from Jesus' own time, or shortly thereafter, embedded in the story. It's impossible to believe that the author of Mark inserted the fact to fool his readers. There's no reasonable doubt that the story with its embedded fact came together. If this is the case, the story came from Jesus' day. It's at least possible, perhaps even likely, that what we have here is the memories of a witness to the event who told the story as she or he remembered it. The telling including as a matter of course a detail that most people at Mark's time wouldn't have known. None of this precludes the author's having included the story because it addressed the problem of Gentiles and Jews eating together. That problem had arisen, in the first place, because of Jesus' habit of eating with sinners, and the story reflected the way the empirical Jesus acted and quite possibly also recalled an actual event in his life. Theissen's remarks, in any event, lend just a tad more credence to the possibility that the Gospel of Mark is based on oral data collected from people who knew Jesus and the events of his life personally.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An End & A Beginning in Syracuse

First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse
A recent news posting entitled, "One of Syracuse's oldest churches closes on Easter," on Syracuse.com, reports that the historic First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse, will hold its final worship service this coming Easter, April 8th.  Once a congregation of over 1,000 members, it has now only 85 members and can no longer maintain its facilities.  It hasn't had a full-time pastor for five years.

But something is happening at First Presbyterian, Syracuse, which is happening in other places in the U.S.  This dying congregation is giving birth to a new, as yet unnamed, congregation that will operate out of smaller, more humble facilities and focus on developing a ministry to the urban poor begun by First Presbyterian.  Roughly 30 of the remaining members will join in non-traditional worship and pursue a vision of renewed life devoted to the service of its neighbor hood.

For two generations or so, the churches of the future have been evangelical churches including most notably large independent churches, which have experienced explosive growth.  The rise of modern-day evangelicalism has witnessed a parallel, continuing decline in mainline (a.k.a. "oldline") churches such as First Presbyterian, Syracuse.  This is something like the transition millions of years ago from the age of the dinosaurs to that of mammals.  When the transition started the (mainline) dinosaurs were huge and dominant while (new age evangelical) mammals scurried around in the underbrush.  Now, the evangelical megachurches have become the dinosaurs, and the remnants of the declining mainline churches more and more are like the scurrying mammals of our metaphor.  Perhaps, something new is happening again, and we are witnessing the early stages of the next stage in ecclesiastical evolution.  In Britain, a church renewal movement called, "Fresh Expressions," has led to the establishment of numerous alternative congregations.  Here in the United States, the "Emerging Church" movement provides a variety of models for developing new congregations in ways adapted to contemporary society.

The process we're watching is an evolutionary one.  As older forms of the church fail to adapt to rapidly changing contemporary society, they decline.  But those older churches had (and many of them still have) spiritual vitality, which finds new forms of expression more fitting to new times.  It is a messy, jumbled process as a variety of these new forms "compete" to see which are most likely to be vital churches useful to the Spirit.  Today, we have vital historic churches.  We have vital evangelical congregations.  We have emerging churches that are fresh expressions of church life.  In all of this, there is a huge amount of spiritual vitality expressed in the faithfulness and creativity of new generations of Christians.  And that is cause of hope.

It is sad, of course, to witness the passing away of what was once itself a large, vital part of the body of Christ. But...but...but, it is also exciting to consider the prospect of the new church First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse, is birthing.  Amen.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Thank You, Rush

Sandra Fluke & Rush Limbaugh
Unintentionally, Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host and political commentator, has done the English language a favor with his incendiary attacks on the Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, who spoke to members of the House Democratic caucus about contraception and public policy. Rush, as most readers know, called her a "slut," among other things, which sparked a furor in the social media and blogosphere. At first he doubled down on his comments, but then he issued a personal apology to Ms. Fluke, explaining that he only intended to use absurd terms to describe what he considered to be absurd.

What Rush has done for us is to call attention to the usage of the word "slut," which is usually applied only to women (although according to the Wiktionary definition of slut, it can be applied to homosexual men as well) and means a sexually promiscuous woman or an immoral woman. Thesaurus.com provides the following list of synonyms for slut: call girl, concubine, courtesan, fallen woman, floozy, hooker, hussy, lady of the evening, loose woman, nymphomaniac, painted woman, slut, streetwalker, strumpet, tramp, and whore.  Among these synonyms, not one can be applied to a sexually promiscuous man.  Such men are sometimes called "studs," which term doesn't carry the negative sense of the word slut.

That is, sexually promiscuous men are studs, which seems almost something to be admired, while sexually promiscuous women are sluts, something to be looked down on, something disrespectful.  The term, in other words, is like an archeological artifact that reflects the usages of older times.  Slut is a word from our past when we used other words and terms  to discriminate against women without malice aforethought.  Like the "n word" in race relations so now the "s word" in gender relations is something we can do without.  Thanks to Rush we have dug it up, listened to its usage, and not liked what what we've heard.  It is time to get rid of it.  Thank you, Rush.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Faith & Reason

"Reason is the precondition of faith; faith is the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself...reason is not bound to its own finitude.  It is aware of it and, in so doing, rises above it."

Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (2001 [1957]), p. 87

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Understanding Our Differences

The most recent outbreak of the culture wars, having to do with contraception, is but the latest episode in the high stakes clash of cultures that is taking place in the U.S.  We are finding it increasingly difficult to talk across the boundaries of our differences.  Congress both exemplifies and has become a symbol of the breakdown in communications between Right and Left in America.  In the church, the same thing has happened, and if anything the split between evangelical and mainline churches is deeper and wider than that between the political parties.  We do not seem to be able to talk to each other even though we all take the name of Christ.

What's going on?  Nothing new, actually.  As bad as things seem at the moment, it's been worse, and we are simply going through a particularly forceful upsurge in ideological tension, which is otherwise always with us.  If science reporter Chris Mooney is correct (here), our contemporary culture wars are rooted in our biology.  He points to a growing body of research (here) that is exploring biological differences between self-identified liberals and conservatives, and it appears that we are "wired" differently biologically.  The research suggests that conservatives tend to approach stressful or fearful encounters defensively and to react more forcefully to perceived threats.  Liberals tend to approach potentially threatening situations less defensively and less forcefully—or so the research suggests.

Mooney concludes,
An increasing body of science suggests that we disagree about politics not for intellectual or philosophical reasons, but because we have fundamentally different ways of responding to the basic information presented to us by the world. These are often ways of which we are not even aware--automatic, subconscious--but that color all of our perceptions, and that effectively drive us apart politically.
We have to be cautious here.  First, the research into our ideological differences is ongoing and conclusions such as these are tentative.  Second, the researchers would tend to fit into the category of "liberal," and thus we should take their conclusions with a grain of salt.  That being said, it does make some sense that we are wired differently for a reason.  Some of us are inclined biologically to push the boundaries, explore new possibilities, and see threats as challenges so that society takes up those new possibilities and doesn't stagnate.  Others of us are inclined biologically to see the danger in threats and seek to be protective and stay safe so that society doesn't bite off more than it can chew or go charging off in dangerous directions.

It is hardly surprising that in an age of increasingly rapid change the biologically conservative side of the equation would become increasingly protective and defensive—or that the biologically liberal side would become increasingly willing to head off in potentially dangerous directions (nanotechnology being one of the most promising and scariest).  There is, obviously, more to the culture wars than biology, but it is at least helpful to know that there is a biological component to it all.  We're only doing what humans do, and there is a good reason why we're doing it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Source of Spirituality

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
quoted at goodreads.com

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another Voice on Contraception

North Country Public Radio recently interviewed the Rev. Laurena Will, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg, NY, concerning her views on the current debate over Planned Parenthood, abortion, contraception, and religious freedom.  The posting, entitled, "Pastor sees personal choice threatened in health coverage debate," presents an alternative view to that of the Catholic Church and various evangelical Protestant denominations and groups.  The posting includes both the audio interview and a transcript, and I recommend RPK readers check it out.

Eyewitness Testimony - Mark 2:1-12 (xxxviii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 38th 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 his commentary on Mark, entitled Mark (p. 63), Lamar Williamson Jr. observes that Mark 2:1-12 is "unusually detailed and vivid," which leads "some commentators" to take these vivid details as evidence for eyewitness testimony. As has been clear in previous postings, I'm increasingly convinced that those who think Mark availed himself of first hand oral history data are correct. It seems entirely likely that Mark actually interviewed people in assembling his gospel. There was a tradition in the later early church that the author of Mark received his information from Peter. There's no way to assess now the truth of that tradition, but it could be that the early church was recalling, at the very least, that Mark was based on oral sources close to the events recorded.

If the author of Mark relied on oral data, that reliance has important implications for the historian's use of Mark. On the one hand, oral historical data is notoriously unreliable because it's dependent on fallible human memory. People remember even important events incorrectly. They get details wrong or can't remember them. It's the bane of church historians in Thailand that they have to rely heavily on oral data for studying Thai local church history. In the case of Mark, one can account for the confusing mix of concrete details and broad generalizations as being partly a consequence of having to rely on oral data.

On the other hand, judiciously used, oral history data reveals the texture of the past in a way difficult to obtain from written records. Imagine the opportunity Mark may have had in interviewing people who knew Jesus intimately. Their experiences with Jesus would have given him a vivid sense of who Jesus was, how he spoke, and the impact he made on others. And, again, we find in Mark just such a vivid, startling account of the man Jesus.


2012 reflections:  When it comes to the study of the past, it is generally not that wise to claim, "There's no way to assess now the truth of that tradition."  Scholars are using inventive new approaches and techniques, some based on computer analysis, to do just that.  I've mentioned Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006) as one example.  Bauckham devotes a chapter to  what he calls the "Petrine perspective" of the Gospel of Mark and concludes on the basis of his research that, "...it is entirely plausible that this kind of individuality [of Peter as portrayed in Mark] is the kind that was conveyed by Peter's own recounting of the Gospel stories."  I don't think that Bauckham settles the matter, but he does demonstrate how new research approaches can give us plausible scenario's concerning the material used in the gospels.  Thus it is better to say that the matter of Peter's role in the writing of Mark remains unclear rather than baldly, boldly claim that we'll never know what it was.