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Saturday, October 28, 2006

how people of faith read a stop sign

1. A postmodernist deconstructs the sign (knocks it over with his car), ending forever the tyranny of the north-south traffic over the east-west traffic.

2. Similarly, a Marxist sees a stop sign as an instrument of class conflict. He concludes that the bourgeoisie use the north-south road and obstruct the progress of the workers on the east-west road.

Stop 3. A serious and educated Catholic (or Orthodox or Coptic or Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or whatever) believes that he cannot understand the stop sign apart from its interpretive community and their tradition. Observing that the interpretive community doesn't take it too seriously, he doesn't feel obligated to take it too seriously either.

4. An average Catholic (or Orthodox or Coptic or Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or whatever) doesn't bother to read the sign but he'll stop if the car in front of him does.

5. A fundamentalist, taking the text very literally, stops at the stop sign and waits for it to tell him to go.

6. A preacher might look up "STOP" in his lexicons of English and discover that it can mean: 1) something which prevents motion, such as a plug for a drain, or a block of wood that prevents a door from closing; 2) a location where a train or bus lets off passengers. The main point of his sermon the following Sunday on this text is: when you see a stop sign, it is a place where traffic is naturally clogged, so it is a good place to let off passengers from your car.

7. An orthodox Jew does one of two things:
1) Take another route to work that doesn't have a stop sign so that he doesn't run the risk of disobeying the Law.
2) Stop at the stop sign, say "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us thy commandment to stop," wait 3 seconds according to his watch, and then proceed. Incidentally, the Talmud has the following comments on this passage:
R[abbi] Meir says: He who does not stop shall not live long. R. Hillel says: Cursed is he who does not count to three before proceeding. R. Simon ben Yudah says: Why three? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. R. ben Isaac says: Because of the three patriarchs. R. Yehuda says: Why bless the Lord at a stop sign? Because it says: "Be still, and know that I am God." R. Hezekiel says: When Jephthah returned from defeating the Ammonites, the Holy One, blessed be He, knew that a donkey would run out of the house and overtake his daughter; but Jephthah did not stop at the stop sign, and the donkey did not have time to come out. For this reason he saw his daughter first and lost her. Thus he was judged for his transgression at the stop sign. R. Gamaliel says: R. Hillel, when he was a baby, never spoke a word, though his parents tried to teach him by speaking and showing him the words on a scroll. One day his father was driving through town and did not stop at the sign. Young Hillel
called out: "Stop, father!" In this way, he began reading and speaking at the same time. Thus it is written: "Out of the mouth of babes." R. ben Jacob says: Where did the stop sign come from? Out of the sky, for it is written: "Forever, O Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens." R. ben Nathan says: When were stop signs created? On the fourth day, for it is written: "let them serve as signs." R. Yeshuah says: ... [continues for three more pages]

8. A Pharisee does the same thing as an orthodox Jew, except that he waits 10 seconds instead of 3. He also replaces his brake lights with 1000 watt searchlights and connects his horn so that it is activated whenever he touches the brake pedal.

9. A scholar from Jesus seminar concludes that the passage "STOP" undoubtedly was never uttered by Jesus himself, but belongs entirely to stage III of the gospel tradition, when the church was first confronted by traffic in its parking lot.

10. A NT scholar notices that there is no stop sign on Mark street but there is one on Matthew and Luke streets, and concludes that the ones on Luke and Matthew streets are both copied from a sign on a completely hypothetical street called "Q". There is an excellent 300 page discussion of speculations on the origin of these stop signs and the differences between the stop signs on Matthew and Luke street in the scholar's commentary on the passage. There is an unfortunately omission in the commentary, however; the author apparently forgot to explain what the text means.

11. An OT scholar points out that there are a number of stylistic differences between the first and second half of the passage "STOP". For example, "ST" contains no enclosed areas and 5 line endings, whereas "OP"contains two enclosed areas and only one line termination. He concludes that the author for the second part is different from the author for the first part and probably lived hundreds of years later. Later scholars determine that the second half is itself actually written by two separate authors because of similar stylistic differences between the "O" and the "P".

12. Another prominent OT scholar notes in his commentary that the stop sign would fit better into the context three streets back. (Unfortunately, he neglected to explain why in his commentary.) Clearly it was moved to its present location by a later redactor. He thus exegetes the intersection as though the stop sign were not there.

13. Because of the difficulties in interpretation, another OT scholar emends the text, changing "T" to "H". "SHOP" is much easier to understand in context than "STOP" because of the multiplicity of stores in the area. The textual corruption probably occurred because "STOP" is so similar to "SHOP" on the sign several streets back that it is a natural mistake for a scribe to make. Thus the sign should be interpreted to announce the existence of a shopping area.

14. A "prophetic" preacher notices that the square root of the sum of the numeric representations of the letters S-T-O-P sigma-tau-omicron-pi in the Greek alphabet), multiplied by 40 (the number of testing), and divided by four (the number of the world--north, south, east, and west), equals 666. Therefore, he concludes that stop signs are the dreaded "mark of the beast," a harbinger of divine judgment upon the world, and must be avoided at all costs.

Hat tip: Terry at Monastic Mumblings


Sunday, October 22, 2006

was paul naive?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Romans 13:1-4

As we approach election day in the United States, I find myself reflecting on these words from the apostle Paul. Our attitude toward the government is much different from Paul's. You won't find many Americans who think the governing authorities have our best interests in mind. The phrase, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," is considered an oxymoron.

Paul, though, seemed to have faith in secular political authorities. These weren't just idle words: When Paul himself was in prison in Caesarea, the governor offered to transfer him to the religious authorities for trial. Paul refused.

But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, "Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?" Paul said, "I am appealing to the emperor's tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor." Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, "You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go."

Acts 25:9-12

What was Paul thinking? Didn't he know the Romans' reputation?

There is no nation beyond us; nothing but waves and rocks, and the still more hostile Romans, whose arrogance we cannot escape by obsequiousness and submission. These plunderers of the world, after exhausting the land by their devastations, are rifling the ocean: stimulated by avarice, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; unsatiated by the East and by the West: the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal avidity. To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

Tacitus, Agricola 30

Granted, this excerpt is taken from a speech by a Briton war leader who despised the Romans' intrusion into his territory. Still, this was not an uncommon attitude toward the Romans by the nations they had subjected. It was a common attitude among the Jews in Jesus's time. Many Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would destroy the Roman oppressors and set the nation free again.

The governing authorities in Rome were hardly the sort who could be said to be "not a terror to good conduct, but to bad."

So what was Paul thinking? Was he just naïve?

It's not as though Paul was unaware of Christians' problems with the Roman government. He had worked with Priscilla and Aquila, a couple who had been ordered to leave Rome by the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:1-2). The emperor at the time of Paul's letter to the Romans, as well as the time Paul appealed to the emperor for trial, was even worse than Claudius. This was an emperor who murdered his own mother.

Paul, on trial in Caesarea, appealed to emperor Nero.

Nero's greatest clash with the Christians was yet to come. In fact, it may have come while Paul was in Rome awaiting trial.

On July 19, 64 A.D., a fire spread throughout Rome, destroying as much as 2/3 of the city. Many Romans believed that Nero himself had started the fire:

When someone in a general conversation said: "When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire," he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and firebrands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, and exulting, as he said, "with the beauty of the flames," he sang the whole time the "Sack of Ilium," in his regular stage costume. Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost, allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.

Suetonius, Nero 38

A later historian suggested that this wasn't the first time Nero had tried to destroy Rome:

Nero had the wish---or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his---to make an end of the whole city in his lifetime. Priam he deemed wonderfully happy in that he had seen Troy perish at the same moment his authority over her ended. Accordingly, Nero sent out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief, and at first had a few fires kindled quietly and in different quarters; people, naturally, were thrown into extreme confusion, not being able to find either the cause of the trouble nor to end it; and meantime met with many strange sights and sounds. They ran about as if distracted, and some rushed one way, some another. In the midst of helping their neighbors, men would learn that their own homes were blazing. Others learned, for the first time, that their property was on fire, by being told it was burned down.

Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.16

After the great fire of 64, Nero found the majority of Romans outraged, blaming him for the loss of their property. Nothing Nero tried satisfied them. So, Nero did what any good politician would do: He looked for a scapegoat and tried to change the subject.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44

This is the man to whom Paul appealed in order to avoid being transferred to Jerusalem for trial. This was the man who was in charge when Paul wrote, "Those authorities that exist have been instituted by God," and, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct." Did Paul know anything about Nero?

Paul's words in Romans have been misused for centuries by kings and other rulers seeking to put a divine stamp of approval on their own less-than-altruistic actions.

It seems safe to say, too, that most Americans completely disregard these words of Paul. In our society, both Republicans and Democrats are quick to demonize members of the opposite political party. Is it because we have a voice in choosing our leaders? If Paul had lived in a democratic society, would he have felt the same way? Was his faith in secular rulers misplaced?


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

please tell me it's satire

I found this link at Street Prophets. Apparently, actor Stephen Baldwin has become a born-again Christian. But some of the things he says in this interview don't square with the Christianity that I know.

Some choice excerpts:

SB: I represent the new breed of Christians, baby, that are gettin' ready to kick ass in the name of the Kingdom.

Radar: So can you name the seven deadly sins?
SB: Dude, I'm totally clueless.

Radar: Lust, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, pride.
SB: Although wrath in the Bible isn't a sin.

Radar: Can you name the Ten Commandments.
SB: Gosh, I should know this. I spank my children because they don't know this. Let me think....

SB: See, that's the bad rap the born-again thing has gotten. What being born-again means for me is that I'm having so much fun in this interview that we're not going to go out and get an 8-ball of blow tonight and go crazy. That's what born again means to me: Inasmuch as I'd like to do that, gosh, I'll just go home and read some scripture with the wife.

Radar: How about a game: Say Armageddon happens today. Of the following, who would go to Heaven, who would go to hell?
SB: I can't do this, you psycho!

Radar: Pauly Shore.
SB: Ugh.... I don't know. By the time I get my hands on him he will.

Radar: Mel Gibson.
SB: They're frying the guy, but everyone's not considering one thing. He was wasted! Does that make it all right? No. But if he said it and he wasn't drunk, then I would have little to no mercy for the guy.

I've never heard of Radar Online, and I'm not familiar with Stephen Baldwin. About half the article reads like a real interview, and half reads like a parody. What's the deal? Is this legitimate? Please, someone, tell me it's satire.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

from whom you learned it

The great proof text for biblical inerrantists is 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

There are some who take this a step further and claim that the Bible is only useful to the individual who reads it. "Don't let other people tell you what the Bible means. Read it for yourself," I've been told.

That's good advice, as far as it goes. As with anything, there's no substitute for personal experience with the Bible. Reading it for oneself is the best way to become acquainted with richness of this amazing book. But like any good thing, this advice can be taken too far. While personal interaction with Scripture is valuable, we can all benefit from what others have learned.

I'm not advocating a simple acceptance of everything that someone says, even someone who appears to be very wise, very knowledgeable, or very spritual. Still, we don't need to reinvent the wheel by trying to get all our doctrine straight from the Bible with no help from others.

First of all, if we were to try, we'd end up spending all our time with our noses in the Bible. Then we wouldn't be useful to those around us. Furthermore, we'd be likely to miss something, or to overemphsize some points and underemphasize others. To get the full impact of the Bible, we need a community of believers who can help correct each other's excesses and faults, and teach us new ways to profit from Scripture.

This community of believers includes not only our local congregations or Bible study groups. In 2000 years, many people have had insights into the meanings of Scripture and the ways we can profit from it. We have many sources that can lead us to a fuller knowledge of the Bible.

A seminary professor visiting my church introduced me to Lectio Divina. A Catholic friend first told me about praying the psalms. My wife first explained to me the value of word studies. A pamphlet gave me a plan for reading the whole Bible in a year. A Bible study at my church showed me how to dig deeper to find personal meaning. Theological books have showed me insights I might never have seen on my own.

If I had decided that the only way to study the Bible was simply to read it for myself and to discount what others said, my spiritual life would have been much poorer.

The remarkable thing is that the very passage from 2 Timothy that I quoted above alludes to this valuable resource, other believers. Here's the verse in context:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

- 2 Timothy 3:14-17, emphasis added

So it's not the Scriptures in isolation that benefits us. It's Scripture studied in community, learned from those who came before us. Only when we become willing participants in the community of faith can the Scriptures equip us for every good work.


Friday, October 13, 2006

muhammad yunus wins nobel peace prize!

Long-time readers of It Seems to Me... (both of you) know I'm a big advocate of microlending. So I'm very pleased to see that the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to microlending pioneer Muhammad Yunus. Yunus started the Grameen Bank in the 1970s, after trying unsuccessfully to obtain bank loans on behalf of impoverished entrepreneurs in his home country of Bangladesh. Other organizations, such as FINCA and Opportunity International, have joined the efforts in what has become a global phenomenon. Newcomer Kiva has taken microlending a step further, allowing individuals to loan directly to developing world entrepreneurs. If you're not familiar with microlending, check it out. It's an easy way to make a significant, lasting difference in someone's life.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

faith and authority

Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -- because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

It's not uncommon for Christians to claim, in discussions with atheists, that life requires us to take some things on faith. I made that claim myself a few posts back.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says something similar, but different. He makes the same argument, but doesn't call it "faith". Instead, by using the word "authority", Lewis alludes to something that we might easily forget. Trusting in someone as an authority is not the same thing as having faith in that person. Certainly trust is an element of faith, but like intellectual assent, it is not the whole.

Just as Jesus did not tell his disciples, "Believe in me," he also did not tell them, "Trust in me." His command to them was, "Follow me," a much more radical calling that would disrupt their careers and in many cases lead to their deaths. That kind of faith requires a much greater commitment than a mere trust in his authority.

To put it another way, I could quite easily accept someone's authority to describe New York City or the Solar System or the Norman Conquest, but I'd be very reluctant to follow that person to my death.

But as Bonhoeffer put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Christ does not simply expect his followers to accept his authority, any more than he simply expects us to give a mental assent to the doctrines about him.

When Jesus said, "Love your enemies," he just might have had in mind something like this response to last week's shooting at an Amish school:

"As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, 'We must not think evil of this man,'" the Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN. "It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry."

Now that takes faith.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

a table prayer

Our three-year-old said grace for us tonight as we sat down for pizza:

God is great.
God is good.
Thank you, God
For all the food...
And for the sprinkle cheese.