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John Dominic Crossan’s new book on the Bible and God’s violence

April 14, 2015

Scholar Peter Enns posted this short review/summary of a fascinating book by John Crossan… Well worth the read, although I will warn you that it is in somewhat philosophical or legal language in places.  But go ahead… it’s good to be stretched!

a brief thought on John Dominic Crossan’s new book on the Bible and God’s violence.

Jesus’ Final Week: Peace amid Violence?

March 31, 2015

The Gospels of the New Testament focus on Jesus’ final week, or the “Passion of Christ” more than anything else.  “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Confrontation with priests and scribes.  Arrest and denial by Peter. Trial, mocking and scourging.  Crucifixion. Resurrection.

Sandwiched between these events is a well-known but poorly remembered or understood incident: the “cleansing of the Temple”.  That’s the order in which Matthew, Mark and Luke present it.  John places what appears to be the same event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (a difference that is more than trivial).

What is the significance of this action by Jesus? What may it tell us about him? Whether we take it as based on fact or only as another part of the larger “Passion” story that is mostly fictional, it seems to say some important things.  It also seems to provide the clearest, most sensible provocation for the arrest of Jesus of many reasons offered.  That is, if the incident was as major an event as the Gospels, particularly Mark, seem to convey.  There it seems to be well beyond the merely symbolic action that many consider it.  More like “occupy the Temple”.  Literally. For at least a number of hours. (See Mark 15, and my discussion of it here.)

In this previous article I bring out a fascinating, generally overlooked aspect of the Barabbas story. Remember the offer of Pilate to free either Barabbas or Jesus? Barabbas was imprisoned for murder during “the insurrection”.  Mark never explains… it sounds as though this rebellion may have been known decades later as a specific event.  Perhaps more likely, it may be meant to represent one of the many uprisings we know occurred both in Jerusalem and around the countryside.  Or does the term refer to the Temple cleansing by Jesus and his supporters?

Regardless, it is rare in the Gospels that we see any glimpse of the serious unrest in Israel in the time of Jesus.  But here is one.  One which we tend to read right past.  Yet it indicates an insurrection involving at least 3 rebels (by inference, and likely more) and more than one death (see Mark 15).  The “thieves” crucified with Jesus were “bandits” (closer translation of the Greek term) who we would call guerrilla fighters or insurrectionists.  They must have been captured around the time of the cleansing incident….  Is it possible the action was not fully under Jesus’ control and became more violent than he intended?

If the incident was relatively small and brief the accounts still indicate some amount of force exerted by Jesus, and potential injury.  What does this say about what we tend to see as a commitment to nonviolence by Jesus? Especially when combined with statements that at least a few of his disciples were armed and that at least one put up violent resistance at Jesus arrest?

I am not one to try to “harmonize” all conflicting accounts in the Gospels or other parts of the Bible. But in this case, consistency may exist.  Here do we perhaps see Jesus walking a tightrope without falling to either the violent ways of Empire on one side or to passive acceptance of oppression on the other? If so, this incident may be showing Jesus as a model for approaching systemic change – it is seldom simple and without cost.

What do you see when you read the passages on this last great action of Jesus prior to his arrest? 

 

Author Interview: “Apostle Paul; A Polite Bribe” Part II

March 28, 2015

Howard Pepper:

If you have any interest whatever in the Bible, early Christianity, or particularly Paul and the other Apostles, you must go to the author interview linked from Ronald Way’s article here. He interviews Robert Orlando, the author of “Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe” and film “A Polite Bribe”. See my reviews of both as well. But this 16 minute, Part 2 interview is more than worth the time… Listen to it, as well as Part 1!

Originally posted on Exploring Religion with Ronald Way:

Apostle Paul by Orlando 2 inTonight we are posting Part II of the Robert Orlando author interview for his book, the Apostle Paul: a Polite Bribe. As of this evening while I write this blog, over 1,100 of you have listened to Part I of the interview, which was posted last week. Now we finish this fascinating story back in time to when the very first Christians were being brought Paul’s universal message, “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male or female.”

You will also encounter the vicious struggle for control of the future of Christianity that was occurring in this first century world. Listen to Robert Orlando’s account of that last fateful meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem church as he arrives in the city, along with 20 of his gentile followers, to present his offering (a huge amount of gold), which turns out to…

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Book Review – “A Theology for the Social Gospel”

March 26, 2015

There’s quite an irony here: I’ve procrastinated writing this review precisely because I consider A Theology for the Social Gospel a particularly important and fascinating book. 

However, I’ve found it hard to plan an adequate review for.  It is so packed with great content that I’d wanted to do a chapter-by-chapter review.  But even if that would hold interest (possible), it’s more than I want to take on right now.  So this review will be observations of interest, a number of profound quotes and a very broad summary.

To me it is both amazing and sad that the book is so little read or referenced anymore.  I don’t know just how popular or influential it was in the years following its publication in 1917.  I do know that the author, Walter Rauschenbusch, was already broadly respected, particularly for his well-known classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907).  Now 1917 may ring a bell for you as an important year.  It should!

That is the year the United States entered World War I and the last full year of the war.  Rauschenbusch makes references to the US entry so he must have finalized the text late in the year.  (It was mostly from special lectures he’d given in April, 1917.)  The presence of the war figures into the content of the book in several ways and places.  So some familiarity with world conditions and the nature of the war’s first three years (to 1917) is helpful for keeping the book in proper context.  Similarly, the context of the few previous decades in terms of American Christianity is important… things like the effects of “higher critical” study of the Bible, which went back at least 150 years prior to Rauschenbusch’s work.  “Higher criticism’s” more detailed and “rational” (not hemmed in by Church dogma) look at the nature and content of the Bible had already provoked the Deist views of a distant clockmaker God and subsequently the warmer, Jesus-oriented liberal Christianity of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

This was the period in which both the now-archaic term “Social Gospel” and the pathos of the “movement” behind it were born.  In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch seems to date its momentum period from about the 1880s.  This may seem a few years early if one is not very aware of the post-Civil War era, as I wasn’t.  Becoming more knowledgeable of historical religious developments and their impact is an important thing for us all in our history-and-context-starved culture.  This book can be one small step in that direction.  But caution is in order: it could be misleading in places for people without some background in the Bible, Church and secular history and theology.  One small example: certain now emotionally-loaded terms such as socialism and communism were used differently then.

So, it’s about time to define “social gospel”, right? Well, yes….  However, the author never really does that himself, that I noticed (and I was looking).  I think that may be because even then there was no agree-upon definition of just what it was (and wasn’t), in simple, brief terms.   But in reading one gets a pretty good idea of the main concepts, goals and processes of the social gospel.  The main focus seems to have been a shift from an individual’s salvation and spirituality to the welfare of masses of people together, both physically/materially and spiritually, and the “social” scene (i.e., society overall).  Rauschenbusch makes clear the many places the perspectives and emphases of the social gospel differed not only from fundamentalism (which was largely a reactionary movement to the development of both “social gospel” and general progressivism) but also from older forms of orthodox theology and practice in Christianity – American and global.

In this effort, Rauschenbusch deals, chapter-by-chapter, with most of the key categories of Christian thought: The “Consciousness” and “Nature” of Sin, The “Fall of Man” [gender-neutral or inclusive language was not yet in use, even by progressives], The “Kingdom of Evil”, The “Social Gospel and Personal Salvation”, The “Church as the Social Factor of Salvation”, The “Social Gospel and the Atonement” to name just a few.  Here is an author who has a broad and deep grasp of many subjects… well qualified for his self-chosen difficult task.  He had set out to suggest theological concepts drawn validly from the Bible and fitting for an approach to “The Gospel” that is clearly other-than-orthodox (or “heterodox”).  I believe he’s done it in such a way as to remain relevant and well worth reading today, nearly 100 years later.

As to his aim, he leads the book off thus, “We have a social gospel.  We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it.” He quickly adds, “… a readjustment and expansion of theology, so that it will furnish an adequate intellectual basis for the social gospel is necessary, feasible, desirable and legitimate…. The social gospel needs a theology to make it effective; but theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it.” (p. 1)

My opinion is that Rauschenbusch here provided excellent theological basis and explanation to potentially make Christianity “effective” on a social as well as personal level.  Whether or not, in America, this has happened is a debatable subject I suppose.  What was “social gospel” has morphed into various forms and certainly has had continuity in mainline Protestant churches (his original context).  Might it be said that his type of theology also influences the “Emerging/Emergent” and related movements within or coming out of Evangelicalism as well? I personally think so, although not directly through this book or even Rauschenbusch’s larger body of work….  But it has been an influence.  Others have “taken up the mantle”, not all of them mainline or “liberal” Christians.  Many of his concepts continue as prominent in various circles, conservative to liberal, such as the battle of Kingdoms in opposition (that of God and of “Evil”… not a personal devil in his view, but a “super-personal” force).

Might it even be said that the teachings of this leader and many others of the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, which propelled many liberal Christians into activism in politics and social causes, indirectly led to (perhaps as a reaction) the surge of evangelical conservative social/political activism beginning in the 1970s?  It seems clear that the divide we see in politics these days has a close parallel in theology… orbiting largely around how “social” is the gospel vs. how “individual”.  It is fascinating to see how many of today’s issues and controversies are foreshadowed in A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Have you read the book? If so, what are some of your impressions, some favorite parts or quotes?  If not, are you up to being stretched?

Author Interview: “The Apostle Paul; A Polite Bribe”

March 18, 2015

Howard Pepper:

Great introduction and interview! Thanks to Ron. I’ve seen the film and read the book fully twice, and some parts more (plus reviewed it and the film). The material deserves the extra attention! Even with a seminary education and a whole lot of biblical study beyond it, I was only generally familiar with Paul’s collection… very thankful to be better informed now.

Most serious readers of the Bible are familiar with the general conflict of Paul with the Jerusalem leaders but Orlando’s in-depth exploration of the revealing role of the collection and Paul’s determination to deliver it in person, along with the apparent result, makes things a lot clearer.
For people “settled” in the received (traditional) account of early unity among the Apostles and early believers, fostered largely by the book of Acts, this “rest of the story” that is generally overlooked may be UNsettling. But that must be faced if Christians are to have a realistic understanding of the beginnings of their faith. Key within that understanding is Orlando’s point that issues of ethnicity and customs which tend to separate people groups were (and remain) more significant than abstract theology.

The interview, available at the blog below, moves along quickly… very well done and well worth 20 minutes to hear.

Originally posted on Exploring Religion with Ronald Way:

PART I

Apostle Paul by Orlando 2 in

Over the past few years I have had an overriding interest in the Apostle Paul, because the Christianity that we have inherited would not be the same if Paul had not existed and spread his version of the Messiah/the Anointed/the Christ, throughout much of the Greco-Roman world. Some of his teaching was and is world-changing and good (“You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female. Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” Gal 3:28).

Yet, his vision of Jesus was hardly recognizable by the original Apostles, or those others that followed the teacher day after day, from village to village, during the roughly three years that he taught them. Paul didn’t care about Jesus’ teachings or his life, he cared only about his vision of what he perceived as the risen Christ. He…

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Apostle Paul: “A Polite Bribe” – Q & A with producer Robert Orlando

March 17, 2015

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Robert, isn’t it pretty radical to suggest that Paul’s arrangement with James and the Jerusalem Church leaders to gather a large collection for the support of believers in Jerusalem might be construed as a sort of bribe?

[Note: Robert Orlando is the screenwriter and producer of the unique-style documentary, “A Polite Bribe: An Apostle’s Final Bid”.  It has gotten critical acclaim from a broad range of biblical scholars and interest from lay people as well….  It has a scholarly foundation but tells the fascinating human story of St. Paul, his mission and his conflicts with fellow Apostles as well as the broader Jewish community of his day.  Information and copies are available here.]

Yes, simply because the nature of the collection, in part, was to persuade the Jewish-Christian Apostles in Jerusalem, namely James (Jesus’ brother) that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was worthy of their acceptance, based on the revelation Paul received in his vision from Jesus, and more importantly in the fact that Paul, late in his mission (Rom 15:30.31) was still trying to win their approval, and against the warnings of others.

 

Weren’t Paul and the others on the same page as to what the gospel was?

 

Absolutely not!  Though there “supposedly” was temporary agreement, as Luke attempts to convey in Acts 15 (49AD), it was clear by the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans (58 AD?), that he no longer believed, (and suffered serious anxiety), as to whether the collection would be received by James and his fellow Apostles.

 
If the collection, whether our idea of a bribe or not, was something more than a benevolent gift of support, what was it designed to accomplish?

 

Paul was faced with three possible outcomes in his meeting with James, 1) all Gentiles would need to be Jews first before they could become Christians, and that meant circumcision for adult males, 2) the Jewish leadership would NOT allow Gentiles to be circumcised, or follow Jewish Law, which would split the movement and uproot the Gentiles from Jerusalem, or 3) Paul would need to offer a third way, which meant a middle ground. And what was this middle ground? A collection, a gathering of funds from the Gentile churches to support Jerusalem that would both support the Temple and offer a way for Gentiles to participate with the mother church in Jerusalem.  

 

But didn’t the “Jerusalem Council” decision after that meeting come to a sort of middle ground in only asking Gentile believers to abstain from eating meat from animals not killed in a “kosher” way or that had been offered to idols, and from sexual immorality, thus allowing them to join observant Jews in the Jesus movement?

 

Yes, but later, this middle ground was lost as evidenced in Paul’s letters. Though Acts 15 describes the agreement in 49 AD, in the later letters like 2 Corinthians Paul is accused by fellow Apostles of embezzling the funds or trying to buy favor with the Jerusalem Apostles. In Romans 15:30, 31 (58 AD), Paul clearly faces anxiety and fear of death upon his return with collection. Finally, there is the account of Acts 21 (90-120 AD?) itself, where James does not embrace the collection or defend Paul at the Temple. Many scholars have also written on the fact that this was an historical period when ethnic tensions were coming to a boil in Jerusalem and the Temple was no longer accepting foreign offerings. My position in the book and film is that James did attempt an agreement with Paul, as Acts 15 describes, but over time, with the delays and difficulties, they eventually ended the experiment of Gentile mission.


The film and book suggest that Paul’s massive investment in collecting the gift over many years and delivering it in person at great peril was likely NOT received by James and the Apostles, at least not fully or unconditionally.  What leads you to this conclusion?

 

Because:

a) in Acts James does not outrightly accept the collection, but rather suggests that Paul use the collection money to pay for the Nazarite vows for seven other Jewish men and

b) because James does nothing to warn Paul of the predictable outcome that will occur at the Temple, and c) because though Paul, after the assassination attempt on his life, and transfer by Roman army to Caesarea (57 miles away) does not hear from his Jewish brethren in the 2-3 years that followed.
What are the implications of Paul’s collection not being accepted, as he himself feared it might not be?  Apparently he felt something major was at stake.  Can you explain?

 

Paul had done all he could through his missionary work and the writing of his letters to persuade his Jewish Christian brethren that his vision for Gentiles was from Jesus (God). His collection was the ultimate symbol of a new world when Gentile money could support Jewish causes, namely the new Messiah Jesus, and the Kingdom soon to come. The rejection of the collection was the rejection of this vision. 

***

We’d love to hear what this exchange brings to mind for you. Is it “news” to realize that Paul’s several-year collection and his determination to deliver it in person, not through representatives, occupied so much of his attention, was a known “gamble” on his part, and could be said to have even lead to his death?

You can also hear an interview with Robert via the blog of Ronald Way here, where he has been posting about the film and book, along with other fascinating interviews and discussions.

Review of “Faith Shift – Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart”

March 5, 2015

Talk about a book whose time has come! Here’s a treasure of a resource for the many thousands (or millions) of us who have had a major shift of our faith… or may be in the midst of one.

Faith Shift Amaz. image

Author Kathy Escobar brings several powerful perspectives to the book.  Two key ones are that she has lived it herself and she lives and ministers among many in transition or on the fringes of faith.  

In a sense, faith is always shifting in every growing person.  But here we are talking about shifts major enough to cause disruption and turmoil.  Right now is a period of great movement within churches and people of faith.  Many churches and denominations are losing members, some splitting, some closing, a few aggressively growing… and on it goes.  We read about the numbers.  Occasionally we hear someone’s story of “losing faith”, losing and re-finding it, or leaving church in one condition or another.  But rarely do we get to hear one story after another, after another.

And it really works how Kathy weaves snippets of people’s stories throughout the book as they relate to her chapter themes.  If you have any interest, either personal or intellectual, in issues of spirituality, church community, beliefs, relationships within religion, etc., this book will engage you.  But especially if you are one of the “shifters”, past or present, you will relate to it and benefit from Kathy’s acquired wisdom.  Her honesty, practicality and warm support will be healing for you if you are still in the rawness of either interpersonal or internal conflicts of faith.  

Having just mirrored (hopefully) a bit of Kathy’s compassion and practical support, let me now turn a bit more descriptive … to talk about what all the book covers.

Kathy uses a very helpful device to help structure the concepts: a diagram of the common stages of a faith shift.  This unfolds as the book progresses:

  • Fusing
  • Shifting
  • Returning (potentially)
  • Unraveling
  • Severing (potentially)
  • Rebuilding

Each of these rings true to me.  Both from a personal and an academic standpoint.  I went through a major faith shift a number of years ago that I feel incorporated these stages largely as she describes them.  Fortunately, I already had a large store of good psychology and theology (not merely the “fused” kind) plus emotional stability beneath me….  Many are not so lucky!

I appreciate that Kathy repeatedly reminds us that each journey is individual and unique.  The circumstances and details vary widely.  Yet there is a remarkably consistent process for most of us.  Just as there are generally universal stages of child and adult “life development”, so are there of “faith development” (she acknowledges the ground-breaking work of James Fowler in this regard… a real favorite of mine).

The book has a broad potential audience.  Obviously, it is for shifters themselves.  But it is also an important book for those who are close to anyone experiencing a “crisis” of faith, serious doubts, conflicts with church leaders, or any significant shifting of religious beliefs or places of affiliation.  One of the things I infer (which Kathy does not state) from her coverage of the issues  is that churches or religious schools tend to follow the principles of institutions or mere “organizations” more than of true communities… especially communities of love.   All of us involved in churches of any type should be reflecting on many of her points… on how much we are a community expressing love in ways called forth by Jesus.  Or are we binding people (creating “fusion”) more than loosing, healing, supporting them? Doing it in order to remain “orthodox”, or keeping to right belief, is not an adequate explanation.  Does not every thinking person believe theirs is “right belief”?

If we are in leadership positions, all the higher our responsibility; but every member shares some responsibility to see clearly how everyone is being served and given opportunity (without pressure) to serve wherever their gifts and calling may lead.  So much of the book is, under the surface, about bumping up against the drive and need to be in control – by others around us and within ourselves.  This leaders often justify as “doing God’s will” or “saving souls”, etc.  But who is being “thrown under the bus” or otherwise ground up in order to keep a proper outward image and the “wheels of ministry” turning? Kathy shares her personal story in this regard, briefly and appropriately… and similar stories of many others.

Along with so much that is healing and wisely directing, I hear Faith Shift crying out, “Folks, let’s be real!” (Real as in honest, humble, transparent, caring…. And reality is that churches tend to work against being real, so we do have to work at it.)

There’s something truly remarkable in how Kathy handles the touchy subject of theology or belief changes in the process of faith shifts.  She deftly avoids most specifics!  In doing so she keeps the focus on what is happening inside and around the individual… the place of adjustment and process of regaining a “center” or a new positive identity.  As I’m using it here, “belief” refers to both specific theological points and an overall orientation to the Bible and major issues like church authority.

For example (and something I don’t recall Kathy saying much about), faith shifts very often involve becoming less literal in the way one interprets Scripture; often less accepting of traditional views within the shifter’s church or denomination also.  But she’s not just talking about something ephemeral such as getting mad at God over some disappointment.  She’s dealing with deep-seated, long-term re-examination and adjustments that so many people go through.

Often triggered by dysfunction around us (or our own), it’s part of the natural process of growth.  As one encounters more variation – personal exposure is one way – one’s viewpoints tend to broaden.  Another way is deeper study of the Bible, comparing authors and texts.  But what about the people around us?

Often they are not dealing with the same issues at the same time we are. This is much of what makes a major crisis or shift of faith so difficult – it stresses our relationships.  And very often the shifter feels alone, confused, guilty.  Not after reading this book, however! At least there is plenty here to support and help guide a person along, including a helpful resource section at the back, and the knowledge that Kathy’s own faith community, The Refuge in the Denver area (where she co-pastors), is at least one place where traumas and transitions of faith are well understood and such pilgrims are welcome.

If the book sounds appealing, you can obtain it here. And Kathy’s blog is www.kathyescobar.com.  Give it a visit!

Your thoughts and experiences along these lines? If you’ve read the book, please share your impressions, how it impacted you.

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