Monday, October 31, 2011

Choosing an English version of the Bible to read - Part 2


There are at least four different translation philosophies. One emphasizes translation word by word, e.g., as in the New American Bible. The advantage of this approach is the correspondence between the words of the original manuscript and the translated version. The disadvantage is that approach entirely ignores the use of colloquial expressions, i.e., phrases that have a meaning substantially unrelated to the meaning of individual word. For example, the colloquial expression “the cat’s meow” means something very good and has nothing to do with the sound made by a cat.

A second translation philosophy emphasizes expressing the text’s meaning, whether that meaning is located in individual words or phrases. The New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) both utilize this approach. The disadvantage is that the translation loses much of its direct correspondence with the original manuscript but preserves the original’s meaning.

A third translation philosophy seeks to convey what the translator(s) believes is the theological meaning of the original. The Living Bible employs this approach, expressing an evangelical theology both in word choice and in amplification of certain passages.

A fourth translation philosophy calls for incorporating other agendas into the translation. Notable examples of these include:

·         Preserving phrasing that has become widely recognized and used in English. This happens most notably with efforts to retain some of the time-honored and well-loved phrasings in the KJV.

·         Choosing phrasing, words, meter, etc., that will convey the sense of poetry in the original. Texts designed for use in worship often utilize this approach, e.g., the translation of Psalms found in the various Anglican Books of Common Prayer.

·         Building on translation efforts and scholarship produced by people in another language. The Jerusalem Bible is an excellent example of this, incorporating much French scholarship and dependent, in some measure, upon a French translation.

·         Updating the language to keep pace with current usage. For example, the use of masculine nouns and pronouns for inclusive terms does not reflect either the original, in which all nouns had a specified gender, or contemporary usage in which inclusive terms are gender neutral. The NRSV is a good example of this type of translation, as are the recent updates of the NIV.

Obviously, translators may employ both this philosophy and one of the first three.

My preference for reading and studying the Bible is the NRSV. Admittedly, my view may incorporate some bias. One of my seminary professors, Bruce Metzger, directed the NRSV translation process. However, the NRSV is widely recognized as an excellent if not the best English translation of Scripture.

Comparing various English translations of the Bible is widely proffered advice for erstwhile biblical students. I do not commend this practice. Without substantial textual knowledge, preferring one English translation to another is simply an opportunity to express personal opinion, confirming pre-existing bias. Instead, invest the time in first understanding the translation philosophy and agenda of the different versions, reading various commentaries on the text in question, and only then comparing the different English versions to appreciate the nuances of English and not deluding yourself that you have a better sense of the original.

Lest you think that I have made reading the Bible more difficult than it should be, stop for a moment, and consider the huge number of different Christian denominations (more than 2500 in the U.S. alone!). Many of these groups exist because people read the Bible with little if any awareness of how they approach the text, how the text came to be, and what genuine scholarship has to say about the text. (Of course, some of the groups exist simply because people have not learned to get along well with others.)

The value of an educated ministry, good preaching, and solid adult religious education is that it offers an opportunity to spend time with the Bible, allowing the light of God to shine through the text that is a window creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Choosing an English version of the Bible to read - Part 1


This is the first of two posts that consider the question of which English version of the Bible a Christian should read. This post considers the King James Version and general issues involved in translation; the next post discusses translation philosophies and other English versions. My underlying presumption is that most Christians rightly do not want to expend the time and effort to become genuine biblical scholars.

Tangentially, I have known a few evangelicals who claimed to read the Old Testament in Hebrew and a somewhat more numerous group who claimed to read the New Testament in Greek. Both groups, in fact, did not do what they claimed. They simply used an interlinear version of the Bible with the original language on one line and an English translation on the line below. This approach in reality treats the editors of the interlinear text as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture because the editors decide both what constitutes the original text (problems associated with determining the text are discussed below) and the best English translation. At best, relying on an interlinear version is misguided; at worst, this relying on an interlinear text represents bogus scholarship.

During the several decades of my ministry, a number of people have astonished me by claiming that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was the best English translation, the definitive English version of the Bible, or even, in one memorable conversation, the original version of the Bible.

No original manuscripts exist for any part of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. Most of the Jewish Scriptures (basically, the Christian Old Testament) are written in Hebrew (a few passages exist only in Greek). Most of the New Testament was written in Greek (a few phrases in the gospels are in Aramaic). Contrary to what well-meaning but ignorant people have told me, Jesus did not speak English (it did not even exist in the first century!) nor Hebrew, but Aramaic, which was the language of first century Palestine. The gospel authors intended the few Aramaic phrases in the gospels as direct quotes of what Jesus allegedly said in a specific moment.

Literally, thousands of manuscripts exist for most parts of the Old and New Testaments; no early manuscript exists that includes either the entirety of the Old or New Testament. I’ve already commented upon the difficulty in translating from Hebrew into any other language because of the lack of vowels, capitals, punctuation, and spacing. The plurality of manuscripts, mostly undated, compounds translation problems. Which manuscripts are definitive? Is older always better, i.e., more faithful to the missing original or are some later manuscripts based on an earlier, more faithful, manuscript that no longer exists? Did originals ever exist or was the oral tradition, which predates the written tradition, sometimes pluriform?

Modern translations are generally better than older translations such as the KJV (finished in 1611). First, the English language has changed greatly in the last four hundred years. Some eleven hundred plus words used in the KJV have a different meaning in English today than they did then. For example, charity in the King James means love instead of its contemporary meaning of alms or welfare. The word kine, also used in the KJV, denotes the plural of cow.

Importantly, the second person thee, thine, and thou used for the deity in the KJV was the familiar form of address (this is why Quakers insisted on using these forms of the second person) rather than the more formal you and your. Today, the usage is reversed. People wrongly think that the KJV addresses God formally, the opposite of the translation’s original English meaning. The KJV translators invite the reader into a close relationship with the deity. Consequently, reading the KJV requires some translation on the part of people fluent in English, translating the text from antiquated to modern English in order to understand the translators’ intent. Alternatively, readers may accept the KJV as the definitive text and therefore the de facto original.

Second, modern biblical translators have access to far more manuscripts than did the KJV translators. The comparison of various manuscripts can shed light on difficult translation questions. The availability of more manuscripts also provides scholars, for some texts, significantly older manuscripts on which to base their translation.

Third, modern translators have a better understanding of the ancient languages, history, and cultures than did the KJV translators because of several centuries of scholarship, resulting in improved translations.

My next post on this subject will discuss translation philosophies and various contemporary English versions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap


The Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap was militarily and morally wrong:

·         The swap gives terrorist groups an incentive to capture more Israeli military personnel, an incentive analogous to ransoming kidnapping victims tacitly encouraging future kidnappings;

·         The 1000 plus prisoners Israel is releasing probably includes a considerable number who will resume their criminal activities;

·         The swap was uneven – one Israeli soldier exchanged for more than one thousand prisoners.

Those reasons are not simply practical but also moral. Incentivizing criminal behavior (the first reason) undercuts the rule of law and is therefore immoral. Prevention of future harm by individuals fairly convicted of past crimes justifies imprisonment; releasing such individuals wrongly jeopardizes community safety. Israeli lives and Palestinian lives are of equal moral value, a premise that the grossly uneven swap implicitly denies.

Serving in the military, any nation’s military, is an inherently risky endeavor. Shalit dying at the hands of his captors during an Israeli recuse effort would have been morally and military preferable to the swap.

The policy of not leaving a comrade behind, which is part of the ethos of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as well as the U.S. Marines and other military organizations, is important for several reasons including morale and fighting effectiveness. But the Israeli-Hamas swap for Shalit fails to uphold that standard. The IDF failed to rescue its comrade. Public pressure forced the Israeli political establishment to make an unprecedented an ill-advised swap.

The Israeli government’s action reflects the bankruptcy of their policies in dealing with the Palestinians.

The swap also underscores the essential and central role that good intelligence has in both counterterror and counterinsurgency operations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 4


My last three posts (one, two, and three) on the Bible's authority have analyzed five different approaches to reading and understanding Scripture, showing why each is inadequate. This post presents a positive alternative that builds on the best of the other approaches while also emphasizing the importance of allowing God to move in new and life-giving ways.

Sixth and finally, one can read Scripture creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically, i.e., reading (or hearing) Scripture as experiencing God's light shining through a window. If the window is dirty, the light blurs. If the glass is imperfect, the light divides into a prism. The light shining through the window, which a person cannot hold or grasp, illuminates life, but only as far as one can see by dint of non-Scriptural knowledge, insights drawn from historical-critical study, self-awareness, and dialogue with the larger community.

The process of understanding Scripture creatively recognizes the inherently dynamic character of existence: nothing remains the same. Change is pervasive and endemic to existence. What God sought to communicate through Scripture yesterday may not be what God seeks to communicate through the same text today or tomorrow. Analogously, some texts may have no meaning in a given period but be vital in another era. Scriptures about slavery, women, and homosexuality exemplify this changing importance, as do many other passages.

Communally emphasizes the importance of engaging both the long tradition of Scriptural interpretation and the ongoing conversations among scholars about what the text means today. The consensus that emerged about the validity of women’s gifts for ministry and the affirmation of homosexuality as a God blessed form of sexual expression bear witness to the importance of communal rather than individual interpretation. Communal conversation ensures that the helpful insights of the historical-critical method ground the text in the reality of its human origin and transmission. Humans not God made the window’s glass.

We Christians need to broaden communal engagement in our “flat world” to include dialogue with other religious traditions. God is universal; God loves all people; God engages all people. Consequently, we reasonably expect to find wisdom in all of the world’s major religious traditions. Indeed, the knowledge that is most likely to aid us in walking the Jesus path is also part of these other traditions.

Global, communal reading encourages a cautious, minimalist approach to doctrine, which Jesus summarized as loving God and loving others. Guidance that is more specific is needed for daily living but also more tenuous, subject to greater error and more frequent revision. Christians do well to walk the Jesus path lightly, treasuring their Scriptures and tradition while engaging in constructive educational discourse with those who walk other paths.

Life is evolutionary. Scripture interpretation, therefore, reasonably progresses (evolves) over the centuries. For example, God is neither localized in a particular place nor murderous, both characteristics associated with God in some the oldest texts found in Scripture. Thankfully, spiritual and religious knowledge develop and expand, as do other fields of knowledge.

Consistent with pragmatism, the knowledge gained is held tentatively. Does living in accord with that knowledge lead to a more abundant, loving, life-filled path? Do others, Christians as well as people from the world’s other great religions, discern similar patterns as they gaze at the light through their windows?

Read Scripture creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically; let the light shine in your life!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 3


This post continues where the two previous posts (one and two) on the Bible’s authority ended, exploring the fourth and fifth approaches to reading the Bible (the first three are regarding the Bible as the literal word of God, the Bible as human words God inspired the authors to use, and the Bible as a human book).

Fourth, one can read the Bible devotionally. This is how most Christians read the Scriptures and the basis, sadly, for much of the preaching and teaching that happens in the Episcopal Church. Questions of personal interpretation – what does the text mean to you? or, what is God saying to you through this passage? – take center stage. Insights from the historical-critical study of the Bible play at best minor roles.

The failure of this approach to reading the Bible should be obvious: empty pews and spirits as people vote with their feet, finding a faith that is intellectually unsatisfying and incredible (i.e., literally, unbelievable). At its best, this approach leads to conclusions congruent with healthy theology and religious psychology, but those insights are more a function of the perspective and biases brought to the task of reading Scripture than the result of actual intercourse with God through the reading of Scripture. At its worst, this method produces just the opposite: reinforcing bigotry and other values at odds with Jesus’ witness. One priest friend of mine describes much of the Church’s ministry over the last several decades as a campaign for human rights, ideals compatible with the gospel but framed in language and with a justification lacking a substantive Scriptural basis.

Fifth, one can read the Bible relying upon the authority of another person. This is the basic Roman Catholic approach to the Bible: the Church’s teaching magisterium provides the authoritative theological scaffolding for interpreting Scripture. Contrary to what they claim, many Protestants adopt the same approach but employ different interpretive scaffolding. For example, many evangelicals turn to the Schofield Reference Bible to understand how different verses relate to one another and for discerning the correct theological themes that each verse highlights (the former comes from the cross references and the latter from the explanatory notes). Other Protestants rely on other reference Bibles or notes, but all of these approaches look to someone or some institution to provide the text’s definitive interpretation. Yet other Protestants trust their pastor to provide the authoritative interpretation.

The obvious problem with this approach is that the interpretation is no better than the authority. And no matter how well the authority may walk the Jesus path (or have done so at a particular time), the authority is human and not God. The Roman Catholic Church attempts to finesse this problem by declaring the Pope Christ's vicar on earth. Yet as an Anglican, I remain convinced of the Pope’s fallibility, e.g., I’m convinced that God's gifts and call for ministry are not given based on gender.

In the final analysis, this approach is about humans changing humans; God is relegated to the margins, reduced to window dressing (the use of God talk, for example) or bookends (beginning and ending the conversation with a prayer).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Iraq: Is the end really in sight?


The United States has announced that it will withdraw all but fewer than 200 troops by the end of 2011. The remaining troops will guard the U.S. Embassy there. This plan represents a change in policy direction. The U.S. had intended to leave several thousand troops in Iraq to aid in training the Iraqi military and police.

One important factor that prompted the U.S. reassessment Iraq’s decision to subject U.S. military personnel accused of criminal acts, beginning in January 2012, to civilian (i.e., Iraqi) criminal justice proceedings. The U.S. military prefers to have a status of forces agreement with host nations that stipulates either adjudication by the U.S. military or a clear delineation of the types of cases over which the host nation will have jurisdiction, limiting these to alleged crimes not committed in the performance of duty. Without some form of protection, U.S. military members could face criminal prosecution for the accidental death of a civilian killed or property destroyed during a legitimate military operation.

However, I’m very thankful for the U.S. decision for unrelated reasons. The war in Iraq has lasted too long. Leaving several thousand troops in Iraq for another decade, or even longer, will not materially alter Iraq’s future. After eight plus years of occupation and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on training, equipment, and public works, Iraq seems unlikely to thrive economically or politically. Spending marginally more lives and money will simply add to the waste.

Iraq seems poised to become, once again, a dictatorship. This time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki h occupies the best position from which to grab power. His political appointments, policy pronouncements, and use of government funds coupled with the continuing inability of Iraq’s political parties to cooperate bode ill for democracy’s future and indicate that he recognizes his potential ascendance. Meanwhile, the longstanding rivalries and animosities between clans, tribes, ethnic groups, and religious sects remain unchanged.

In my mind, the biggest questions are when the reality and identity of a new dictator will become clear and whether Iraq will remain one country or divide into three parts (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd). The appearance of the new dictator will mean that after eight years of war, hundreds of billions of dollars added to the U.S. debt to fund the war, and the deaths of tens of thousands (including 4796 Americans) that the net result will be having swapped one dictator (Saddam) for another one. Neither the U.S. nor the world is safer today because of the second Gulf War. Sadly, Iraqis are also probably no better off than if Saddam remained in power – only the identities of the winners and losers have changed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 2


This post continues a previous one on the authority of the Bible, examining two more ways of reading Scripture in addition to the first approach, viewing the Bible as the literal word of God.

Second, one can read the Bible as human words dictated by God. This does not equate God's words with the Bible. Instead, this approach emphasizes that the human words of Scripture were God's choice (i.e., the best available) for communicating God's will to people. Scholars can profitably study the original language (no original manuscripts exist), and then translate the text into other languages; commentaries and other resources can provide information about possible interpretations of the text, conjectures about the historical context of the text, etc.

Although this approach seems to value all Scripture, in fact the approach is rife with difficulties:

1.    Because no original manuscripts exist and there are thousands of textual variations, who decides what God intended? Many of the variations are trivial but some are major, e.g., Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus argues that all of the passages that have Jesus attesting to his divinity are late additions or changes reflecting the emerging and increasingly normative theory that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the only begotten son of God.

2.    Similarly, written Hebrew originally had no vowels, punctuation, capitalization, or spacing. It consisted of an unbroken string of consonants. Who decides what God intended? Much of the time, deciphering the text is not too difficult. However, some key passages are unclear, e.g., the name of God is YHWH, but nobody knows the word or its meaning.

3.    If God intended the totality of the Bible, what is the justification for valuing some of it as history or no longer requiring obedience? How does one reconcile God telling Israel to kill all of the Amalekites and Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies?

Over the last thousand years, Christians (except evangelical Protestants in the U.S.) have generally moved away from this approach to Scripture. Similarly, Christians have almost completely abandoned what we now see as the obviously antiquated and failed attempts of prior generations to preserve this understanding of Scripture, e.g., allegorizing difficult passages to harmonize prima facie conflicting teachings in different parts of Scripture.

Third, one can read the Bible as a human text and study the text with all of the literary, linguistic, and historical tools with which humans study other human texts. This approach, known as the historical-critical approach to the Bible, gained momentum beginning in the late 1700s and by the 1970s when I was in seminary dominated Christian Scripture scholarship among all but literalists. Even many evangelicals, to some degree, relied upon this approach until the late twentieth century revolt against the moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention occurred.

But this approach also has a huge shortcoming: if the text is a human product, how can one hear or experience God's revelation in or through the text? Not having a good answer to that challenge led many clergy to develop a bifurcated approach to the Bible: they read the Bible devotionally to hear God speak (see the fourth approach discussed in my next post) and studied the Bible using the historical-critical methods. This bifurcation explains why generations of Christians remained almost completely ignorant of the historical-critical method, a phenomenon that prominent biblical scholar James Smart commented upon in his mid-twentieth century book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An addendum to more musings about Occupy Wall Street


A reader contributed, via email, some thoughts about an international perspective on shortening the workweek. He remarked that salaried French employees whom he had supervised had work habits similar to their American peers, i.e., focusing on the task rather than the hours spend on the job. His anecdotal assessment is that well-compensated salaried employees, in general, produced as much after the implementation of the 35-hour workweek as before enactment of the 35-hour legislation.

He made a second important observation:

What did have an impact on how multinational corporations parceled out white-collar jobs across different countries: the relative cost of doing business in France, such as prices of commercial real estate in Paris; and the near impossibility of layoffs in France should it become necessary. One didn’t create a position in France unless one was very certain that either the position would exist indefinitely or the corporation would go bankrupt and lay off everyone.

In an increasingly global economy in which multinational corporations seek competitive advantage in their decisions about where to locate employees, legislation about the length of the workweek, minimum wage, etc., will frequently effect labor markets in ways that are difficult to quantify. For example, did the 35-hour week reduce, increase, or have little effect on the number of hourly workers in France? Given the amount of statistical noise in labor data, even tentative conclusions are difficult.

What globalization does suggest is that the world is in a transitional period, moving from national economies to an international economy, i.e., the European transition begun with a single currency toward a single, integrated economy is also occurring on a global basis, albeit more slowly and with much greater complexity.

Transitions often create new winners and losers. Transitions are also very difficult on people whose lives the friction of changing dynamics destroy. I suspect that the anger and frustration of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its sister protests elsewhere (one began today in London) express some of that transitional pain. The pain is not a reason to end the transition abruptly but a reminder that walking the Jesus path requires special concern for the most vulnerable, a priority that includes those squeezed by basic social transitions over which they have no control.

Monday, October 17, 2011

More musings about Occupy Wall Street


Some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, unemployed at home, live better than they did before the protest began. Numerous people and organizations have donated food (both cooked items such as pizza and raw ingredients from which volunteers prepare appetizing, healthy meals), clothing, and other items. Some of the protesters earn pocket money by charging tourists for photographs. (Cf. “The Occupy Wall Street Economy,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2011)

The Occupy movement continues to gain momentum, with an increasing number of protesters involved at a growing number of locations around the world. The movement is still too new to discern if it will last or if it will succeed in refocusing the government’s attention on the legitimate needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Sadly, the United States seems to move inexorably toward a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Several commentators have noted parallels between conditions the Occupy movement is trying to protest and what happened during the Depression. One of those parallels strikes me as especially important: large corporations flourished then and now. During the Depression, corporations cut costs by reducing employment, achieving efficiencies and often-greater production by using technology. In the current weak economic recovery, corporations are reluctant to hire new employees, often managing to trim their workforces while expanding production. “Doing more with less” is the new mantra.

Many U.S. citizens disdain minimum wage jobs, especially if those jobs require backbreaking manual labor under unpleasant conditions, such as much farm work that, like harvesting many fruits and vegetables, cannot be effectively mechanized.

On the one hand, employment seems preferable to unemployment. Having lived for several years on an income well-below the poverty level and yet unwilling to accept any social assistance, I find it difficult to understand why a person would not choose any available employment over public assistance. Incidentally, by February 2012 unemployment benefits for more than 2 million of the long-term unemployed will run out - unless Congress extends the benefits. That seems unlikely, as the extension might cost $40 billion or more.

On the other hand, I reasonably expected that my years of poverty (living with no phone, no TV, little furniture, no car, etc.) would end when I finished my schooling. Sacrificing quality of life enabled me to complete my studies more quickly than if I had become a part-time student. Persons with little or no education have little prospect of ever earning a living wage in this country (of course, most of us know an anecdotal exception to that generalization, but the data overwhelmingly supports my generalization). Without hope, why choose to work under unpleasant conditions in hazardous circumstances (e.g., farm workers have a high rate of the on job the injuries) with no hope of promotion and still not earn enough to support self or family?

The Occupy movement prompts me to ponder several questions:

·         Has technology progressed to the point where people with decent paying jobs should only work 30 or 35 hours per week in order to create more jobs and to distribute income more equitably? Reducing the workweek has probably not created more employment in France, where many seek to circumvent the number of hours allowed per week to boost their income.

·         Have standards of living plateaued? If so, should we raise the minimum wage to a level where a full week’s work earns a reasonable standard of living? Will doing so further increase unemployment? Are jobs eliminated by increasing the minimum wage really jobs worth having (if firm eliminates the job, apparently the firm does not need the work performed; the job does not pay a living wage)?

·         What, if any, job-training programs have demonstrated a consistent success in landing their graduates good paying jobs? Programs that fail to meet that standard are wasteful at best and fraudulent at worst.

·         How much would legalizing marijuana expand the legal economy? How many new jobs would it create? How much would it reduce government expenditures and increase tax revenues? (Since marijuana is the largest cash crop in many U.S. states and the cost of imprisonment per year per inmate generally exceeds $50,000 these are highly relevant questions.)

·         What does Herb Cain’s popularity as a GOP presidential candidate say about the validity of Occupy concerns? Cain’s 999 tax proposal will increase the tax burden on most low and middle income persons, but decrease what the wealthy pay, i.e., reducing the top (the only!) tax bracket to 9% and eliminating all taxes on capital gains and investment income.

The growing disparity between the rich and the poor, along with associated feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and disenfranchisement, bodes ill for national well-being and unity. The nation has real problems. Polarizing solutions that result in disadvantaging the least among us and the most vulnerable are immoral, unchristian, and will only exacerbate national problems. We should never forget that the American Revolution began when a group of colonials felt economically exploited and excluded from government.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 1


Several different ways of reading the Bible, each indicative of a different understanding of Scripture, exist. Over the course of four posts, I will explore six different approaches to understanding the Bible, rejecting five, and arguing that the sixth respects the Scriptures as containing everything necessary for salvation while interpreting them in a way that is congruent with a reasonable and more general epistemology.

Christians honor their Scriptures not because the Bible says it is true (many other books and scriptures make this claim) or anyone can prove that God gave us the Bible (many other people claim that God gave them a book or books). Christians honor their Scriptures because generations of people for millennia have found their lives transformed from death to life and from brokenness to wholeness, as they experienced God's light shining through the Scriptures.

First, one can read the Bible as literally God’s word. Notwithstanding widespread claims among Christian fundamentalists about holding this understanding, few people really act as if they think the Bible is literally God's word. If God spoke the words of Scripture, then:

1.    Reading Scripture in the original language is imperative. Any translation loses important nuances and changes meaning. If God actually spoke the words found in Scripture, then God obviously wants people to experience the nuances and flavor of the language in which God spoke.

2.    Obeying every command, including the 613 found in the Old Testament, is equally imperative. Women, for example, during their menstrual period are unclean and thus should not sleep in the community or sit on the same furniture as other people. The people of God should throw stones at anyone who blasphemes (that is, misuses God's name) until that person dies. No believer should lend money to another believer at interest.

3.    Believers will want to spend much time memorizing Scripture, both to learn what it teaches and because few things could be more precious than God's actual words.

If this sounds a lot like Islamism, it should. Muslims believe the Koran is literally the word God spoke to Mohammed. Muslims read and study the Koran only in Arabic (the original language). They seek to follow all of its teachings exactly. And they spend hours and hours memorizing it.

This has never been the prevalent or orthodox Christian understanding of Scripture. Christians identify Jesus, not a written text, as the word of God. Christians were quick to translate the Bible into the vernacular and recognize that not all of its commands are equally binding. Christians have widely believed that reading and studying the Scriptures had the power to transform a person’s life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A different style of leadership


On October 12, the Episcopal Church commemorates the life and ministry of Wilfrid (born about 640 in Northumbria, England; died 709). Christians in Britain during that period divided over whether to follow Celtic or Roman practices with respect to the manner of tonsure (clergy hair dos), the ecclesiastical calendar, and so forth. Perhaps because he spent several years in Rome and Roman influenced monasteries, Wilfrid insisted on following the Roman teachings.

James Kiefer, writing at the Mission St. Clare site for the Daily Office, drew this picture of Wilfrid’s ministry:

[Upon his return from the continent in 660, Wilfrid] was made abbot of Ripon in Northumbria, and imposed the Roman rules there. In 664, a conference was held (the Synod of Whitby) to settle the usages controversy, and the Roman party triumphed, thanks in large part to the leadership of Wilfrid. He was appointed Bishop of York by Alcfrid, sub-king of Deira (a division of Northumbria), but was unwilling to be consecrated by bishops of the Celtic tradition, and so went over to France to be consecrated, and was gone for two years.

On his return, he found that King Oswy of Northumbria had appointed Chad (see 2 March 672) as bishop of York. Wilfrid returned quietly to Ripon. But in 669 the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore (see 19 September 690), declared that Wilfrid was rightful bishop of York. Chad quietly withdrew, and Wilfrid was installed at York.

For the next few years, Wilfrid enjoyed peace and prosperity, stood high in the favor of King Efrith of Northumbria, and was undisputed bishop of a diocese that included the entire kingdom of Northumbria, with his cathedral at York. But there was trouble ahead.

The queen wanted to leave her husband and become a nun, and Wilfrid encouraged her in this. After she had left (in 672), the king was not as cordial to Wilfrid as he had been, and in 678, Archbishop Theodore, acting in close concert with the king, divided the Diocese of York into four smaller dioceses, and appointed new bishops for three of them, leaving Wilfrid with the fourth, which did not include the city of York. Wilfrid decided to appeal to the pope.

On his way to Rome, he spent a year preaching in Frisia, and so was the beginning of the movement by Christian Anglo-Saxons in Britain to convert their relatives on the Continent. The pope eventually sided with Wilfrid, but the ruling was not accepted in England, and Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria. He went to Sussex, the last center of Anglo-Saxon paganism in England, and preached there. When he arrived, there had been no rain for many months, the crops were ruined, and the people were starving. Wilfrid showed them how to construct fishnets for ocean fishing, and so saved the lives of many. They listened to his preaching with favorable presuppositions, and soon a large number of them were ready for baptism. On the day that he baptized them, it rained. He remained in Sussex for five years, preaching with great success.

Eventually he was reconciled with Archbishop Theodore, and returned to Northumbria, where he was again given a bishopric. He served there a bishop for five peaceful years, but then a royal council found him unfit; he was deposed again, appealed to Rome again, and ended up bishop of the small diocese of Hexham, with jurisdiction over the various monasteries that he had founded. In his will, he bequeathed his money to four causes: (1) to various Roman congregations; (2) to the poor; (3) to the clergy who had followed him into exile; and (4) to the abbots of the various monasteries under his jurisdiction, ‘so that they could purchase the friendship of kings and bishops.’

Several points merit noting:

·         Wilfrid became abbot at age 20. He exercised leadership at a youthful age. Do we allow youth with gifts for ministry and leadership the same type of opportunities?

·         He was clear on his understanding of the Christian faith and sought to follow that path faithfully without excluding those who understood the Jesus path differently. For example, he yielded to Chad rather than initiating a fight for dominance.

·         His ambition appears to have been for God rather than himself, twice stepping aside rather than demanding his lawful place.

·         He was a good steward, seeing his assets as a trust from God to be used for God's work (though I hope that we doubt the propriety of leaving gifts to abbots with which to purchase the friendship of kings and bishops).

Where are such leaders today? How can the Church intentionally cultivate more such leaders?

Friday, October 14, 2011

What does salvation mean?


Salvation, in Christianity as well as the world’s other major religions, has more to do with liberation that enables me to experience the fullness of life in the present than it has to do with what if anything happens after death. I continue to follow the Jesus path not because I have a vague, ill-defined hope for new life but because I encounter truth, experience liberation, and receive new life as I walk the path. Jesus brought healing in the present to the people he encountered, not a promise of healing post-death.

The Apostle Paul wrongly contended that Christians are the most pitiable of all people if there is no life after death because he himself had experienced a life giving transformation, his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road. When I consider the world, when I look deeply into the lives of others, when I plumb my own spirit, I see traces, indications, of a presence, a light, a power, that I can only label God. The encounter has been and continues to be transformative for me, changing self-love into love for others, emptiness into fullness, and chaos into meaning.

Admittedly, I am a Christian because it is the religion of both my birth and the culture in which I live (to the extent that this increasingly secular culture has a religious flavor or roots). However, I would surely be an agnostic if it were not for this elusive power that has me in its inescapable grip, a power that infuses me with life and love in ways that I find difficult to describe. God gives me no choice.

Equating Christianity with a gate to heaven through which one passes by receiving the sacrament of Holy Baptism, offering a “sinner’s prayer,” following the four spiritual laws, or any other act (even holding the right beliefs is an act) has two fatal, theological consequences. First, that type of theology puts the self and not God at the center. Everything is about me and my future. God becomes the means by which I achieve the end of my personal satisfaction. Second, that type of theology substitutes a mechanistic, judgment for God's life-giving love.

Removing the emphasis of a promised future reward as the incentive for walking Jesus’ path means that individuals who would intentionally and freely walk that path must choose to do so because they experience life more fully (truth) by doing so than by not doing so. This walk leads away from self and often brings more hardship and suffering than the person might otherwise experience. Yet the person does not make the choice as a masochist. Walking Jesus’ path entails the experience of something more real than one can experience in any other way.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is believing in life after death important?


Does it matter if a person believes in life after death? That is, does it matter if a person lives in a way such that it is impossible to tell from her or his actions whether she or he truly believes in life after death? (This post builds on the previous two posts about the meaning of belief and of life after death.)

The Apostle Paul’s conviction of life after death gives evidence of a courage and boldness that result from his conviction. The same qualities are evident in the lives and deaths of many martyrs, both Christian and Islamic. Careful analysis of the factors that led to the death of many martyrs exposes a misguided religious fervor, e.g., the martyr who chooses death rather than step on a cross and the martyr who chooses to die in a suicide bombing in order to kill many enemies of the faith.

Conversely, Stoics and others (e.g., Marcus Aurelius and Bill Lawrence (a U.S. POW in Vietnam inspired by Stoicism) exhibited the same qualities of courage and boldness as religious martyrs. Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze to protest injustice do so recognizing that their act may incur negative karma and will certainly not help them end their participation in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

In other words, my studies of religion and history makes it difficult to identify any unique quality or character trait associated with a conviction in life after death.

In seminary, one of my theology professors found my lack of firm conviction about the reality of life after death troubling. He pushed me to explain how people faced with unfairness in this life (e.g., the chronically ill, the economically exploited, and the politically oppressed) could have hope unless these people could believe that God would set things right through judgment after death.

The professor’s line of reasoning has remained profoundly unsatisfying to me for more than thirty years. I cannot escape nor silence the insistent, reverberating counterpoint to my professor’s position of Marx’ critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. Too often, people in positions of power have used the promise of future rewards to pacify those of whom they sought to take advantage. Too often, religions, and especially Christianity, have emphasized acceptance of present difficulties as the will of God in preparation for the glorious reward of heaven.

Future rewards, even when pictured in conjunction with the future punishment of evil doers, does not cancel the unfairness of this life in which some very good people – good by almost any standard – enjoy multiple comforts and luxuries and other very good people – good by the same standard – suffer multiple discomforts and harms. Presumably, both can expect the same reward, for both exhibited the same goodness. The converse is also true. Some evil people live enjoyable lives while others live miserable lives. Why should they expect different punishments? In biblical language, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. What happens in the future cannot undo what has happened in the past or is occurring in the present.

Finally, no way exists for anyone to explore what happens after death and then to report to the living on that experience, if indeed there is any experience at all. The reports of near death experiences by people, while suggestive, also seem very culturally conditioned.

Scripture similarly represents an unverifiable witness and raises the question of which religious tradition’s scriptures to accept as authoritative. Accepting the Christian scriptures as authoritative because I am a Christian begs the basic epistemological question of why I accept the Christian scriptures as authoritative and reject other scriptures. Most people inherit a religion by virtue of their birth rather than making a free and equally informed choice among the various religions – if such a choice is even possible. The strongest epistemological approach is to seek common ground among the world’s religious traditions. Sadly, common ground does not exist with respect to their teachings about life after death.

The Apostle Paul clearly acted as if confident of life after death because of his encounter with the risen Christ. However, some interpretations of the resurrection do not necessarily entail belief in life after death for all of God's people. And as I will argue in my next blog post, Paul was wrong when he maintained that if there is no resurrection of the dead that Christians of all people are most pitiable.

In sum, a Christian’s attitude toward and ideas about life after death seem unimportant because they rarely alter how a Christian lives his or her life today.

Jesus gave those who would follow him two great commandments: love God and love others. My love for God prompts me to desire to be with God and to entrust my future to God. That is sufficient for me. My love for my neighbor prompts me to work for justice and peace in this world and to hope for the best for my neighbor in any life that may follow this one.

What then does the traditional Christian proposition that only the saved receive eternal life mean? My fourth and last post in this series on the meaning of salvation addresses that question.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What does life after death mean?


My previous post, which explored the meaning of belief, was a first step in answering the question of whether I believe in life after death. This second, in a series of four posts that answer that question, examines what life after death denotes.

Life after death does not and cannot denote a continuation of physical existence. Many of the atoms in each human body have previously been part of another human body. Even substituting replacement atoms would result in a physical body that is not literally identical with a person’s original body. Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people (including the elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased) would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have.

Incidentally, defining the resurrection body as the physical body come to life explains why the Church burned heretics (to destroy the body) and forbid cremation (thereby preserving the body). Thankfully, most Christians have abandoned physical conceptions of new life that equate their current body with their body in life after death.

Similarly, life after death cannot reasonably connote continuation of a person’s spiritual existence unless humans possess an eternal soul (the finite necessarily has both a beginning and an end). As I have previously argued in this blog (Ethical Musings: Solving the mind-body problem; for a secular perspective, cf. Michael Graziano: The Spirit Ends When The Brain Dies), the existence of an eternal soul seems at best an exceedingly difficult claim to justify. Only when Jews borrowed from the Greeks and others the idea of an eternal soul (this was happening during Jesus’ time – recall the debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees about life after death) did it become necessary to envision eternal destinies for the good and bad. Prior to that time, Jews generally accepted death as the end of a person’s existence. If so, then God might graciously give a gift of new life to any God chose without any necessity to do so for those whom God did not choose.

Alternatively, one of my seminary professors, process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, contended that life after death consisted of a person living forever in the mind of God. Although that proposal has its challenges (e.g., how can a person sustain an independent existence?), her suggestion avoids the difficulties inherent in traditional physical and spiritualized definitions of life after death.

The Christian scriptures offer little help beyond a consistent affirmation that there is life after death and that this is a positive experience. The images and metaphors for life after death, as one would anticipate, have strong roots in the authors’ historical and cultural milieu. After all, what other images and metaphors would make sense to an author or to the author’s audience?

Christian biblical scholars and theologians have generally supported a dichotomous view of life after death: heaven for God's people and hell for all others. They sometimes understand hell as death, because apart from God no life can exist and because the idea of eternal punishment seems incongruous with a God who is love. A minority of biblical scholars and theologians, notably including William Barclay as well as the 18th and 19th century Universalists, have argued that God's love so firmly embraces each person that all receive the gift of eternal life.

Epistemologically, little or no evidence exists for life after death. Investigators routinely debunk claims of alleged contact between the living and the dead. The world’s great religions diverge widely in their teachings about life after death. Hinduism and Buddhism both teach reincarnation; ultimate liberation in both religions consists of ending an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by entering into unity with the ultimate. Some Jewish traditions still teach that death marks the end of a life. Christianity and Islam both affirm life in heaven for the faithful. This lack of consistency makes drawing a conclusion based on human experience problematic.

Let me repeat the question with which I began the last post, what do I believe about life after death?

Frankly, I don’t know. I believe in the sense of desire and hope. But when I critically examine my life, I see little evidence that the trajectory of my life reflects an opinion, one way or the other, about life after death. The concept of life after death being life in the mind of God appeals but somehow seems unsatisfactory or inadequate.

In my next post, I’ll address the questions of whether belief in life after death is important and then in a fourth post what salvation means.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is there life after death?


Someone recently inquired whether I believed in life after death. That seemingly simple question really has two difficult parts. This post will explore the meaning of belief; the next post will examine the meaning of life after death. A third post will consider whether belief in life after death is important and a fourth will discuss the meaning of salvation.

What is a belief? (Unfortunately, this is a far more substantive question than President Clinton’s famous response about the meaning of is.)

·         Is a belief simply an idea that a person finds attractive? If so, then belief connotes desire.

·         Is a belief an idea that a person thinks is true? If so, then belief connotes aspiration or hope, a desire for which one expects fulfillment.

·         Is a belief a concept upon which a person bases action. If so, then belief connotes faith, when faith signifies the trajectory of one’s life.

Each option emphasizes a different understanding of what belief means, usages common in the English language.

I think that most people, me included, find the prospect of life after death attractive, especially as we humans generally tend to think about life after death as a substantial improvement on one’s current existence. The most numerous exceptions to that generalization will be among people who conceive of life after death in terms of reincarnation, whether that next life is living another human existence or taking a different form, e.g., an animal.

God's goodness and love seem to know no bounds. I hope, think reasonable, that God might give new life to those who die as an expression of God's infinite love and goodness toward the person.

Determining the trajectory of one’s life is much more difficult. Few people live with an immediate and constant expectation of their own impending death. Most of us live expecting this life to continue and with some fear – large or small – of death, perhaps because we do not know what follows death, perhaps because we do not want to lose our connection to loved ones, or perhaps we are afraid of dying rather than of death per se.

If the trajectory of a person’s life was toward the expectation of new life after death, then that would cause most people to live in a manner very differently than they do. Paul the Apostle, for example, wrote that he preferred to die to be with God rather than to continue in his present life, but would accept whatever God wanted for him. Paul’s attitude is very foreign to most Christians. I suspect that few of us actually live a trajectory based upon a firm conviction in life after death. Otherwise, we would take more risks, live more boldly for God, and care less about the things and transient pleasures of this world.

In sum, we wrongly understand belief as cognitive assent to a proposition. Instead, correctly using the word belief requires far more nuances than we typically utilize and recognizing that actions ultimately speaking louder than words.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Musing about Occupy Wall Street


In general, I am not a supporter of protests and demonstrations, preferring rational discourse that examines the facts and then draws a conclusion. However, rational discourse has little or no power to create emotional excitement or involvement. Furthermore, true rationality is a non-existent ideal. Perception, analysis, and judgment are neurological processes all influenced by emotion as well as logic.

Acknowledging my bias is an important preface to reflecting about the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York City and is now spreading to other U.S. cities. By all reports, the movement’s goals are ill defined. Indeed, terming the protests a movement uses a misnomer, because the protest has no formal structure or organization. From all appearances, the protest seems to be a spontaneous outpouring of anger over the nation’s economic malaise.

Some facts help put that anger in context:

·         During the last several decades, the “playing field” of the U.S. economy has tilted toward the rich, disadvantaging the middle class and the poor. Aided by legislation and government policy, the rich are getting richer (for an explanation of this, cf. Robert C. Lieberman, Why the Rich Are Getting Richer | Foreign Affairs).

·         Some corporations seek to take advantage of current issues to increase their profits. For example, Bank of America’s move to charge its debit cardholders a $5 per month fee in response to Congress limiting interbank transaction fees makes no sense (but much cents!). Processing a check costs a bank between $.33 and $1.67 more than processing a debit card transaction, i.e., a bank already earns a good profit when consumers use their debit cards instead of paper checks.

·         Government programs designed to aid underwater mortgagees have aided fewer than 50,000 people while millions face foreclosure. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies severely restrict the number of people the mortgage relief programs assist because the two government sponsored corporations that insure the preponderance of U.S. mortgages do not want to take losses on mortgages they have guaranteed.

·         Job creation is agonizingly slow, offering little hope to most unemployed persons. The longer a person remains unemployed, the more that person’s skills atrophy and the less employable the person becomes.

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner’s, enumerated a list of Christian values and concerns that the Occupy Wall Street movement expresses in a recent post on the Huffington Post (Jim Wallis: Praying for Peace and Looking for Jesus at Occupy Wall Street, Oct. 6, 2011):

·         When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they stand with the hungry, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they stand for those without a job or a home, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they are peaceful, non-violent, and love their neighbors (even the ones they don't agree with and who don't agree with them), they are walking as Jesus walked.

·         When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.

Then he offers some suggestions about what Christians can do to support the protest:

·         Pray for those out on the streets.

·         Think of ways that you or your church can be Jesus to them.

·         And do one of the things that church folks do best: Bring them a covered casserole!

·         Take your church potluck down to the occupations. Sit, eat, and talk with the protesters. Offer them the sacred gifts of hospitality, company, and friendship.

·         Or a hot cup of coffee.

·         Or send them a pizza. (Think of it as a peace-za.)

·         The Occupiers' desire for change and willingness to take action to do something about it should be an inspiration to us all.

·         It is for me that, even after 10 years of war, we can still act and pray for peace.

Wallis’ suggestions are worthwhile. However, his suggestions fail to address the systemic causes that led to the current protests. Loving one’s neighbor extends beyond care for particular individuals to include advocating structural remedies that establish a more just economic system. Any conception of justice that does not include distributive justice is incongruous with the gospel.

The Occupy Wall Street protest and its echoes in other locations are valuable because they bring attention to the crying need for a greater level of distributive justice in the United States. Laws and policies that level the playing field (e.g., a more progressive income tax, a stronger inheritance tax, quality post-secondary education for all, a social safety net to protect the well-being of children, etc.) are essential. These laws and policies do not eliminate the need for individuals to exercise individual initiative and accept responsibility for their own lives but will provide a better chance for everyone to flourish.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Foreclosures and health


Foreclosures are bad not only for a person’s financial health but also for that person’s physical and mental health. Survey data indicate that over 30% of people who had experienced a foreclosure subsequently skipped medical appointments, almost 50% did not fill prescriptions, and more than a third suffered from a major depression. More than 10% suffered a major episode of anxiety; suicide ideation, based on anecdotal evidence from therapists, had also increased significantly.

These physical and mental consequences of foreclosure obviously harm the individual experiencing them. The consequences, however, also cost taxpayers and those with private health insurance large sums because these people ultimately foot the bill for the healthcare that the indigent receive but cannot afford.

Those statistics make for grim reading. Now for the really bad information: 2.9 million U.S. homeowners experienced foreclosure in 2010 and 1.2 million in the first half of 2011. Data from July and August suggest that the trend has begun to worsen rather than continue to improve.

Concurrently, reports about loan modification programs show that substantially fewer than one hundred thousand homeowners have benefitted from those programs. In other words, unless the government takes decisive steps now, problems are likely to worsen, which will cost taxpayers and those with health insurers even more in the future.