If a biblical prophet gave the 2006 State of the Union address, what would the message be? Ethics Daily has some thoughts.
it seems to me...
reflections on life as I see it
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Across the water from the prison island, next to yet another sewage plant and trash-deposit station in Hunts Point in the South Bronx, there's a multistory prison barge that has been used in recent years for children in detention. Several thousand juveniles thirteen years old or older have been held there at one point or other in a given year about one hundred at a time while they awaited transfer to more permanent facilities. It's a tremendous structure, with six floating floors of prison cells, one of them under water. From the sky, however, it looks decorative. It's painted in clean colors, blue and white, and looks as if it might be some sort of a pleasure craft, a cruise ship possibly.
The city spends $64,000 yearly to incarcerate an adult inmate on the prison island. It spends $93,000 yearly to incarcerate a child on the prison barge or in the very costly and imposing new detention center built on St. Ann's Avenue. That's abut eleven times as much as it is spending, on the average, for a year of education for a child in the New York City public schools during the last years of the 1990s eighteen times what it is spending in a year to educate a mainstream student in an ordinary first-grade classroom in the schools of the South Bronx. There are countless academic studies of allegedly "deficient" social values in the children of the poor, but I do not know of any studies of the values of the educated grown-ups who believe this is a healthy way to run a social order.
- Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections
It's a story that is repeated in slums throughout the United States. The policy makers who can't find the money to give impoverished kids a decent education must then find a much larger sum to lock the kids away. And yet, there's more to it than that. As Kozol points out elsewhere in his book, it would be worth it to keep the kids in school and away from gangs and drugs and violence even if it were not cost effective to do so. What price can you place on a child's future?
Every human life is precious, and although we'd all like to believe we live in a society where we are all equal, the reality is that kids born into poverty don't have the same opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.
In a neighborhood where the major industry is sewage treatment, it is inevitable that many of the children will develop health problems. Where three square meals a day are not always possible, hungry kids will have trouble learning effectively in school. Where adult role models are few, because many fathers have been sent to prison or have simply abandoned families they were not able to take care of, children are more likely to turn to gangs.
It's true that people ultimately are responsible for their own choices, but people do not make these choices in a vacuum. In a society that increasingly turns its back on its most vulnerable citizens, many children are being denied even the hope that they can escape their circumstances. When everything they see tells them that there is no way out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And all this is happening in a nation in which 75% of the population claim to be Christians! How far we have strayed from the one who began his public ministry with these words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
- Luke 4:18-19
It's easy to talk about it, as I'm doing now. What takes courage is to do something about it. But what's the answer?
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
From Catapult magazine, a story about finding comfort and hope in the liturgy of a U2 concert.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
We are truly blessed to live in an age when we have so many Bible translations to choose from. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we have too many choices.
Case in point: I've just received word that the Society for the Promotion of Individualized Theologies (SPIT) will be publishing not one but two new translations this year, the New Liberal Bible and the New Conservative Bible. One of my friends from college has a brother whose neighbor's ex-wife's cousin's boyfriend has a friend who went to school with someone on the translation committee. Through these connections, I was able to get advance copies of both books.
Frankly, I'm a little disappointed. Though the committee calls these "translations," not "paraphrases," I have some reservations about their faithfulness to the original text. Now, granted, it's not always easy to find an exact equivalent for the Hebrew or Greek word. Granted, too, I'm not a Greek or Hebrew scholar. I'm just a layman with an interest in theology.
Still, it seems to me that both these new translations frequently cross the line into interpretation, sometimes offering, um, questionable interpretations. I'm going to give some examples, along with links to the NRSV so you can compare the translations. Please let me know if you agree with my concerns, or if I am way off base.
First example, in the New Liberal Bible (NLB), Genesis 22:2, God says to Abraham:
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him a great big hug on one of the mountains that I will show you.
Now I don't know the difference between the Hebrew words for "sacrifice" and "hug", but it just seems to me that this translation completely changes the tone of the story. Especially when Abraham ends up hugging a ram.
Now let's look at the New Conservative Bible (NCB), Matthew 22:17-18. The Pharisees are asking Jesus a question:
"Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?"
Jesus answered, "Hell no! Taxes are just legalized theft. It's your money, and the government has no right to take it! Don't give to Caesar, give to God."
Again, I'm not a scholar, so I don't know the nuances of Koine Greek. However, I wasn't able to find another translation where Jesus uses the word "theft" in this passage.
Here's another example from the NLB, Matthew 5:9, where Jesus says:
Blessed are the PEACEMAKERS!! Don't you get it, President Bush?!?"
Again, I was not able to find another translation that mentions George W. Bush. But even if this translation is somehow accurate, it gives me reason for concern. Bush's term in office ends in three years, and then the NLB will be out of date. If we are going to insert contemporary names into the Bible, it should be done in a way that will not soon make the translation obsolete.
Which brings us to the NCB's translation of 2 Timothy 3:16.
The Bible is the Very Word of God, inerrant in all that it teaches, including matters of history or science, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. Bite me, Charles Darwin!
I think this translation reads a little too much into the Greek word theopneustos. But again, I could be wrong; I'm not an expert.
Also, through online research I've discovered that the phrase "Bite me, Charles Darwin" has very little textual support in the ancient manuscripts. And there are some questions of authenticity in the few manuscripts where it does appear.
Finally, I want to look at a verse that is troublesome, I think, in both translations. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says in the NCB:
Do not be deceived! Abortion doctors and gay rights advocates will never inherit the kingdom of God.
A footnote adds, "and stem cell researchers," but that phrase is generally thought to be a late addition.
The NLB, on the other hand, says:
Do not be deceived! The intolerant will never inherit the kingdom of God. I can't tolerate intolerance.
I'm left not knowing which translation to trust. And if that weren't enough, the committee is already working on their next big projects, to be published in 2007: the New Emergent Bible, the New Calvinist Bible, the New Jesus Seminar Bible, and the New Megachurch Bible. I can't wait.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Steve Odongo is a butcher in Tororo, Uganda. He's got a good business going, buying animals from the rural markets and slaughtering them. His Gracious God Butchery is poised for growth, but capital is hard to come by in Uganda. Enter Kiva.
I've written before about microlending. What makes Kiva unique among microlenders is that they allow individuals to lend directly to entrepreneurs in developing countries.
So, I've joined with a few other people to loan Steve Odongo $500 to expand his business. He will receive the money the first of next month, and will pay it back as he is able over the next 6 to 12 months.
If you're interested in making a loan, please bookmark Kiva's website. They are currently enjoying a surplus of lenders, but they are signing up new entrepreneurs every few weeks. For as little as $25, you can help lift someone out of poverty. And it's a gift that keeps giving, because after the loan is paid back, you can lend the money to another entrepreneur. There's no limit to the number of people who can be helped with the same money.
I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Micolending won't solve all the world's problems, but it is probably the best tool yet invented for overcoming extreme poverty.
Monday, January 16, 2006
A few days ago Melancthon talked about what Celtic Christians called "thin places," and described one such place for him.
I found a thin place during my college days. Coronado Heights is a hill overlooking Lindsborg, Kansas. It was on this hill (or possibly another hill nearby) where Francisco Vasquez de Coronado stood looking out at the prairie and conceded that his search for cities of gold was futile. He had been tricked.
From the top of the hill, one can see a good 15-20 miles in any direction. Even today it's a lightly populated area, mostly farms and rolling hills. Standing on Coronado Heights looking out at it all, I can see why, after creating the world, God said that it was very good.
In the 1930s Coronado Heights got a stone castle in a WPA project.
I'm not sure why, but the place has almost a magical quality for me. When I'm there I not only feel closer to God, but I also feel more open toward other people. I'm an extremely introverted person, but Coronado Heights brings me out of my shell and enables me to connect.
I went to the Heights several times during my years at Bethany College in nearby Lindsborg. One time during finals week, a friend and I went up to the Heights as a stress reliever after an all night study session. I'm not a morning person, but there's something about Coronado Heights in the early morning that can put my mind in a different state. I remember walking the trails around the hill and feeling like God was walking beside me.
One weekend evening when I was with some friends on the Heights, we watched a car winding up the road to the castle. A group of students from McPherson, 15 miles away, had come to the Heights to smoke marijuana. I've never used illegal drugs and don't plan to ever try, but that night I saw the kids from McPherson not as dopers or losers, but as human beings. It made me aware of how much we all have in common despite our differences, and helped me toward overcoming some of the prejudices I had grown up with.
In the spring of my sophomore or junior year, several of us students had a sunrise Easter service at Coronado Heights. For perhaps the first time in my life, the resurrection seemed like a real and present event to me as the sun slowly creeped up onto the expansive horizon. I could almost imagine following the trail around a bend and seeing an empty tomb.
A few years after graduation I had a reunion with my college friend Heather, and we went to the Heights to watch the sunset. Standing on the roof of the castle, talking about old times as the sky turned from orange to red to purple, I saw something in Heather that I had missed before. Our friendship turned to romance and then to engagement. We eventually broke it off before tying the knot, but as a result of what grew out of that evening on the Heights I discovered for the first time what it meant to be truly close to someone.
Last fall, I added a new chapter to my Coronado Heights memoir when I took my wife Nicki there. We had left our son Iain with his grandparents to have a day to ourselves. Another family arrived at about the same time as us, and when we saw their young boy we both thought that he looked a lot like Iain will probably look in a few years. The boy raced into castle and up the stairs to the roof, and we heard his mother call to him, "Be careful, Iain."
There's something almost magical about that place.
Friday, January 13, 2006
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Let Justice Roll is sponsoring Living Wage Days this weekend.
I've written previously about a living wage, so I won't repeat. It just seems to me that a person who works full time shouldn't have to live in poverty.
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
An ad man from Tyson Foods arranges to visit the Pope. After receiving the papal blessing he whispers, "Your Eminence, do we have a deal for you. If you change The Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread....' to 'give us this day our daily chicken....' we will donate $500 million dollars to the Church."
The Pope responds, "That is impossible. The Prayer is the Word of the Lord and it must not be changed."
"Well," says the Tyson man, "we are prepared to donate $1 billion to the Church if you change the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread....' to 'give us this day our daily chicken...'."
Again the Pope replies, "That is impossible. The Prayer is the Word of the Lord and it must not be changed."
Finally, the man from Tyson says, "This is our last offer. We will donate $5 billion to the church if you change the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread....' to 'give us this day our daily chicken...'," and he leaves.
The next day the Pope meets with the College of Cardinals to say that he has good news and bad news.
"The good news is that the Church has come into $5 billion."
"The bad news is that we are losing the Wonder Bread account."
Saturday, January 07, 2006
This was part of one of the daily readings at Sacred Space this week:
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
- John 1:47-51
Right from the start, Nathanael recognized that there was something special about Jesus. It appears that Jesus noticed something special about Nathanael, too. Of all Jesus' early disciples, this "Israelite in whom there is no deceit" must have appeared at first glance to show the most promise. He saw in an instant that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel; surely Nathanael would be one who would quickly grasp Jesus' teachings, perhaps be the one to explain them to the other disciples.
And yet, as the events unfolded, it was not the scholar Nathanael taking the lead. It was the fishermen, Peter and John and James, who became Jesus' inner circle. At the empty tomb it was Peter and John who After Pentecost, it was again Peter and John taking the lead, boldly teaching about Jesus, risking arrest for doing so.
Whatever became of Nathanael? He is only mentioned once more, in passing, near the end of John's gospel.
The lesson here for me, I think, is to follow the example of Peter and John, who did not rest on what they knew but continued growing in their faith until the end. After Jesus' death and resurrection, they took roles that they probably never even dreamed about before they met Jesus. Nathanael may have grown too, but he did not step up to the leadership role that the erstwhile fishermen did. Furthermore, they did not merely sit under the fig tree and study. They acted on their faith, even doing the same things Jesus had done.
I've gotten a few reminders recently -- like this one -- that God's ways are not our ways. God doesn't always call the best qualified person to fulfill the role. Exactly what that means for my life I don't yet know. But it seems to me that it means something.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
The OOZE has a recent article by Frank Viola, The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle. Viola puts into words something that I've never been quite able to pin down before.
The Protestant Scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself—irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.
Viola is describing a dangerous practice that can lead to all sorts of erroneous doctrines and church splits. I'd hazard a guess that virtually all "non-denominational" churches use this approach.
Let me stress right now that the Bible is authoritative for Christians, and was so even before the New Testament was canonized. But that doesn't mean each verse, passage, or half-sentence is as authoritative as the whole Bible. If it were, we would decimate the human population by strictly following passages like this:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.
- Deuteronomy 21:18-21
We would defend the ownership of human beings as property with this:
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.
- 1 Peter 2:18
On the other hand we would eliminate debts this way:
If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned.
- Leviticus 25:25-28
Employers would hand out paychecks daily, even to illegal aliens:
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.
I never hear TV evangelists preaching on these passages.
The reality is that nobody consistently takes every word in the Bible at face value. There are parts of it that clearly were written to a specific group of people at a specific time, and were not meant to be followed by all people at all times. There are parts of it that should be taken seriously, but only in a metaphorical sense.
The big problem with reading Bible verses in isolation of their surroundings is that when they are stripped from their original context, the meaning can easily be distorted. Viola gives an extreme example:
“And he [Judas]…went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). “Then said Jesus…‘Go, and do thou likewise’ ” (Luke 10:37b).
Clearly these verses were never meant to be put together like this. But neither were many of the proof texts used by Christian apologists today.
Viola recommends a different approach:
What is needed is a brand new approach to the New Testament. An approach not based in the New Testament letters as they are arranged in our Bible. But an approach that is based in "the story" . . . which blends together Acts and the Epistles in chronological order.
By placing Paul's letters in the context of the church's growth as recorded in Acts, we might have a better understanding of what Paul was writing about, who he was writing to, and why he said the things he did.
The truth is, Viola's "brand new" approach is really not so new. The early Christians would have taken this approach for granted, because they were living in the original context. In modern times many scholars have spent their lives learning about the world in which both the church and the Bible originated. By contrast, the jigsaw Bible is the fruit of those whose overt intention is to elevate the Bible's position, to make it uniquely the source of Christian doctrine and theology.
It is certainly a worthy goal to remember the Bible's uniqueness, its central role in the Christian faith. But let's not forget that each book of the Bible was written to people living in a specific place and time, and each book was written to address issues the first readers were facing in their lives. To strip passages of their original context, it seems to me, is the first step down the slippery slope toward denying its authority.