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Saturday, December 30, 2006

on dialogue

PamBG has some good advice for what she labels "VIII" Christians -- you'll have to read her post if you want a definition -- on how to dialogue with "liberal" Christians.

One thing that makes such dialogue difficult is the assumption on the part of some participants -- and in truth these could be either the "conservative" or the "liberal" participants -- that the world's population can be cleanly split into two groups. If you don't agree with their side, you must belong to the other side.

The reality is that Christian theology is a rich spectrum of ideas, and they can't all be squished into a nice, neat little dichotomy. There are too many angles, too many nuances, to divide the world like this.

That's not to say labels are never appropriate. Labels can be a beneficial shorthand for describing complex theology. If we hear that someone is a Catholic or an Anabaptist, a Calvinist or an Arminian, a Lutheran or a Pentecostal, we already know a few things about that person's beliefs and/or practices. And though these groups have their differences, Christianity is big enough to include all of them.

So the problem is not in labeling per se, but in choosing overly broad labels that don't acknowledge this rich diversity. In a recent post Bob at I am a Christian Too looks at an article by Peter Berger titled Going to Extremes, which examines the pitfalls of fundamentalism and relativism.

Unfortunately, these two extremes feed off one another, each becoming the bogeyman the other side fears. If your worldview allows for no choices but a blind certainty about everything or an absolute rejection of absolutes, it's easy to imagine that most of the world falls in line with the opposing side, no matter which side is yours.

The reality is that each side grasps a part of the truth. Fundamentalists understand that there do exist abolute truths, and relativists grasp that no finite human can be omniscient. It is only when we embrace both of these truths that we are confronted by the reality that some of our cherished beliefs just might by wrong. That realization makes dialogue not just desirable but necessary. Challenges to our beliefs help us clarify our thoughts and refine our understanding.

A retreat into certainty can blind us to the truth just as surely as a retreat into relativism.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

where to spend your money

At his blog Today at the Mission, [rhymes with kerouac] offers us a glimpse of daily life in a homeless shelter. Nearly every day brings new challenges and adventures with truly unique individuals. Now [rhymes with kerouac] has collected the best stories of his first year into a book, also called Today at the Mission. It's well worth the price, and 100% of the book's profits will go to support the mission.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

christmas according to luke

In my previous post I looked at the Christmas story as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Now I'm going to look at the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of Luke.

If there is a theme to Luke's version of the Christmas story, it's the unexpected.

The gospel begins with the story of a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, who don't appear anywhere else in the Bible. They are an older couple with no children. Zechariah is a priest. While he is offering incense, the angel Gabriel appears and tells him that his wife will soon get pregnant. Zechariah is skeptical, and as a consequence his voice is taken away until the child is born.

Next, Gabriel finds a girl named Mary, and tells her that she too will soon be pregnant. Like Zechariah, Mary is skeptical. She tries to explain to Gabriel that she can't get pregnant while she is still a virgin, but Gabriel isn't interested in a biology lesson. God will make it happen, he tells her.

Right at the beginning, we have two unexpected pregnancies. After both women have conceived, Mary visits Elizabeth. Elizabeth feels her child leap in her womb. He wasn't even born yet and he already recognized the presence of the Christ. (Later, John would send messengers from prison to ask whether Jesus was the one. (Luke 7:18-23) Did he forget?)

Mary responds to Elizabeth with a song of praise that includes the words:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

I can't recall any Christmas carols of our time that use harsh words toward those in power. But in the context of Luke's gospel, this reversal of fortune is just one more unexpected element of the story.

After Mary leaves, Elizabeth gives birth. Because Zechariah still can't speak, others are prepared to give the boy his name. They choose the name Zechariah to honor his father, but his father surprises them by writing the name John -- the name Gabriel gave him -- on a tablet. Once again, the unexpected.

After naming his son John, Zechariah is able to speak again, and he wastes no time speaking about what great things John will do. And yet, within Zechariah's prophecy, he says that John's role will merely be to "prepare the way" for the Lord. And that's the end of chapter 1.

Chapter 2 begins with one of the best known stories of the Bible, Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable because there was no room in the inn. There are two unexpected turns in this part of the story. Jesus of Nazareth was not from Nazareth. He was born in Bethlehem, the City of David. And yet, the one who would later be called King of Kings and Lord of Lords was born in a barn.

It's such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we might have trouble imagining Christmas without it. Yet, as history the Bethlehem trip is problematic for two reasons. First, it contradicts Matthew's account of Mary and Joseph having a house in Bethlehem, and second, Galilee was not under Roman authority until some ten years after Herod's death. There's simply no reason that Joseph should have taken his pregnant fiancee into Roman-controlled territory to register for a census when as a Galilean he would be exempt. And yet, if the gospel of Luke has anything to tell us about Jesus' birth, it is that nothing matches our expectations.

After Jesus is born, a group of angels announce his birth. They hand out cigar-shaped bubble gum with the words "It's a boy!" written on the side, and post a picture of him on the Internet. No, wait. That's what I did when my son was born. No, the angels call a press conference, which is covered live by CNN and Fox News, to announce that the Messiah is here. No? Then they tell the king's advisors the good news that the real king has arrived, and Herod can step down any time. No again? Well, at least they notify a group of astrologers in another country, who are led to Jesus by a star. No, that's the other gospel.

In Luke, the angels announce Jesus's birth by informing some shepherds, of all people. They wouldn't have been my first choice to notify, but maybe there is more to this than meets the eye. Perhaps this is foreshadowing the day when Jesus would be known as the good shepherd.

Eventually Mary and Joseph leave Bethlehem and go, not to Egypt as Matthew states, but to Jerusalem for the rituals of purification. Jerusalem is Herod's city, but Herod is not mentioned here. Two people are mentioned, though, the prophets Simeon and Anna. They both praise God for this baby. Simeon even says that he can now die in peace, knowing that he has seen God's chosen one. Then Mary and Joseph take Jesus back to Nazareth.

The conflict with Herod, the massacre of the innocents, the flight to Egypt simply don't appear in this gospel. I suspect this omission is intentional by Luke, to emphasize just what Jesus's role was as Messiah. Jerusalem was both the political and the spiritual center of Judean life, yet even when he was an infant Jesus's focus in Jerusalem was on the spiritual. That's not the kind of Messiah everyone was expecting.

I'm sure there is a lot more to each of these birth narratives than I've listed in these two brief posts. I've got a lot more studying ahead of me before I'll be able to say I understand the birth of Jesus. But one thing I have learned is this: These two gospels don't absolutely need each other. Each may lack some details that are covered by the other, but both birth narratives are complete in themselves. While it may sound odd to our modern ears to hear a Christmas story without both shepherds and wise men, or without both the journey to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, the reality is that each of these gospels has something to tell us about Jesus's birth. While we may learn something from combining the two, we can also learn by letting each one speak for itself.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

christmas according to matthew

The Christmas story as we have come to know it is not really one story but two. The gospels of Matthew and Luke each contain a story of the birth of Jesus, and it has become a tradition to bring all the elements from both gospels together to make one complete story.

Remarkably, the two gospels share almost no details in common, other than the miraculous conception and the birth in Bethlehem. What I want to do in this two-part post is to look at each birth narrative on its own, because I think they each have things to tell us, and sometimes the details can get lost when we try to conflate the two stories.

First I'll take a look at Matthew 1-2.

If there is a theme in Matthew's gospel, it is to show a parallel between Jesus' life and the whole history of Israel. Even in the two chapters of the birth narrative, I count at least nine references to the Jewish Bible.

The gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy. If Matthew submitted it to a publisher today, he would be asked to write a better opening. But in ancient Israel, genealogies were important. They are scattered throughout the Bible along with legal code and narrative. So it is natural to begin Jesus' story with a genealogy.

But this is more than just a list of names. There's a point to this list: the number 14. Matthew divides the names into three groups of 14.

Numbers were important in ancient Israel, too. The number 40 appears repeatedly, for example, in the days and nights of the flood, the years in the wilderness, and for Christians the days of Jesus' temptation by the devil. Other numbers, such as 12 and 7, also appear often.

But why 14? This number is obviously symbolic. The actual number of generations in each group is not 14. Matthew only lists 13 names in the third group, unless Jeconiah is supposed to be counted in both groups 2 and 3. And 1 Chronicles 3:10-17 clearly lists 18 generations from Solomon to Jeconiah. Matthew was forced to omit a few names from group 2 to get the correct number.

So what is the significance of 14? The key, I've been told, is that the Israelites (like the Romans) used letters for numbers. Much of their numerology came from adding the letters of people's names and looking for significance in the total. In the case of King David, the total was 14. So this whole genealogy, in addition to establishing Jesus' lineage, points back to King David, the one whose rule was supposed to last forever. Matthew sees Jesus as a fulfillment of that promise.

After the genealogy, Matthew tells about Joseph's discovery that his fiancee is pregnant, his plans to send her away quietly, and his dream in which an angel sets him straight. Readers may recall another dreamer named Joseph.

In response to the angel's message to Joseph, Matthew offers a quote from Isaiah which, in context, appears to be a word of comfort to King Ahaz. Some modern scholars have argued that Matthew mistakenly took this verse out of context. But if Matthew's aim is to show parallels between the history of Israel and the life of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense to apply this verse here.

Following Joseph's dream is the visit of the Magi. This seems rather abrupt and a little startling to those of us accustomed to hearing Luke's account intermingled with Matthew's. Matthew tells nothing of Joseph and Mary's trip to Bethlehem -- in fact, if this were the only gospel, we'd assume they were residents of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The Magi, led by a star, visit them in a house (2:11). Along the way, they are led by a star. This recalls the imagery from Isaiah, of the light to the nations.

In contrast to the Magi's worshipful reverence, King Herod displays jealousy and rage. To escape Herod's wrath, the family escapes to Egypt, as a result of Joseph's dream. Again, he's not the first Joseph to end up in Egypt because of his dreams.

Matthew offers a quote from Hosea, another passage that meant something else in its original context. Again, though, if Matthew's intention is to show parallels, this quote is entirely appropriate.

Herod's order to destroy the infants of Bethlehem recalls Pharaoh's orders to kill the Hebrew children.

Matthew quotes from Jeremiah, perhaps a more obscure passage than the two previous quotes. Still, the original context is one of hope and comfort. The children who were lost will be returning. Matthew's quote, once again, makes sense only if the weeping is understood as a parallel and not a prediction.

Eventually King Herod dies, and the family can return to Bethlehem. Except that Herod's son Archelaus is in charge there. So they go to Nazareth in Galilee. The odd thing about this is that another one of Herod's sons, Herod Antipas, is ruling Galilee. Why would it be any safer there? Still, Matthew relates this back to the story of Israel with one more quote, "He will be called a Nazorean." It is uncertain to what Matthew is referring. This phrase cannot be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But the point had already been made: The story of Israel was a precursor to the story of Jesus. From the very beginning of his life, Jesus was the ideal to which God's entire history of interaction with humanity was pointing. Everything God had promised was to be fulfilled in him. If that's not good news, I don't know what is.


Friday, December 15, 2006


According to Sitemeter, It Seems to Me... will soon receive its 10,000th visitor. Sitemeter also lets me know how they got here. Many people arrive through search engines. Among the more unusual searches that have brought people to this blog:

  • homeless poetry "you can't see me"
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  • John Godfrey Saxe, atheist
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

our need for the word

Our airwaves are so dominated by preachers of a biblical fundamentalism that one may be tempted to leave the Bible to them. Indeed, they seem to have poisoned the well with their literal, narrow, and unloving interpretations of Scripture. The alternative way of reading and understanding the Bible which has been presented to us is in the way of literary and historical criticism. This method is taught in our seminaries, and is in itself a necessary and worthwhile discipline. But a seminarian's knowledge of hypotheses about literary sources and historical settings can lead to an objectifying of Scripture that keeps it from being a living word for the priest or the congregation.

How can we read and hear God's Word today as a "word of life" (1 John 1:1), when just such a scriptural citation makes us fear that the writer is either a fundamentalist or someone simply inviting us to play the game of "criticism"?

I will be bold to restate and attempt to answer the questions in biblical terms. How can we "receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save [our] souls"? (Jas. 1:21)

The text itself points the direction in which we should go. If the Word is to be implanted in us and if the purpose of this implanting is to save our souls, we are talking about a subjective experience of the Word and not mere critical knowledge. If it is to be received with meekness, we will exclude the arrogant certainties of the radio and TV preachers -- the "bunkshooters," as the poet Carl Sandburg used to call them. In his poem "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter," Sandburg provided us with more than a term of opprobrium. He made the point which many have made about why the Word has lost its power among us: it has not been proclaimed as good news for the poor.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word

I don't think I can add anything to that.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ten verses never preached

The hardest thing about blogging again after a long absence is writing the first post. So, in lieu of offering one of my own, I'm just posting a link. Maybe that will get me back in the habit.

A blog called Church Hopping has a list of ten Bible passages that don't often get read from the pulpit. Hat tip to Cross and Flame of Street Prophets.

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