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Jewish-Christian Feuds in the New Testament – Review of “The Reluctant Parting”

June 22, 2018

If you’ve been a Christian for a good while or if you are not a Christian, let me emphasize something about my title above: it does not refer to feuds between Jews and Christians but to quarrels and debates between Jewish groups which followed Jesus as Messiah.  In this, I’m following the book I’m reviewing.

Let me interject this before getting into specifics: I highly recommend this book! It is very readable for those with little background yet meaty for the well-informed.  With that said, I will develop some of the reasons and a broad outline of the book.

The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, by Dr. Julie Galambush, is far from the only book to focus in on the great variety Christian beliefs among communities of Jesus followers in the first to early second century.  (But it takes a unique and in-depth approach.) Such communities were almost always partially to fully Jewish.  So it should not surprise us that the New Testament (NT) was written primarily by Jewish authors, for a mostly-Jewish audience (Luke being the main likely exception).  And that group going beyond the “Twelve Apostles” who were reputedly direct disciples of Jesus and may or may not have written any of the NT books.

However, the real significance of this strongly Jewish authorship, and of the heavily Jewish context and content of our specifically “Christian Scriptures” (NT) we almost completely miss.  This is true of almost all Jews as well as Christians.

This is pointed out by both the author and by the writer of the powerful forward, James Carroll, prolific author and former priest.  Author Julie Galambush is in an unusually good position to know of our misperceptions, as both a highly qualified biblical scholar and a Jewish convert, previously having been a Baptist minister.  Carroll points out in the forward that, despite hundreds of years (and thousands of books) of focused historical and spiritual searching, “Jesus remains the hidden man of Christian faith. He is the hidden man of Jewish memory, too…. But Julie Galambush suggests that this hidden Jesus… can have a fresh set of meanings to Christians and Jews alike.  Christians can recover Jesus as their Jewish Lord who preached nothing but the God of Israel.  Jews… can… recognize in him an embodiment – as this Christian sees it, at least – of the longing for God’s reign that remains central to Jewish hope.” (xiii.)

The core thesis of The Reluctant Parting is partially told in the title.  Followers of Jesus-as-Messiah, particularly the large proportion who were observant Jews and wanted to remain so, separated only slowly and painfully from the larger population of Jews who rejected the idea of Jesus having been the expected Messiah.  This fact is fairly widely recognized among Christians – at least those who have read the NT carefully and gained some historical knowledge.

What is very little understood yet critical to understanding the setting and meaning of the NT is that the pain and acrimony of separation we see at various places throughout it involve conflicts specifically within the relatively small “family” of those who did follow Jesus-as-Messiah.  These small communities were geographically spread apart, apparently even in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (current Israel), and in scattered diaspora Jewish communities around the Roman Empire. So conflicts and separations were not just among strangers, but often involved family and neighbors.  The adage that fights are often more intense or bitter the closer are the combatants seems to have been at play significantly in the early decades of the gradual transition out of Judaism.  This affected particularly ethnic Jews but also newly converted Christian Gentiles and the near-Jewish “God-fearers” worshipping among Jews.

The book accomplishes a lot more than Galambush pointing out and illustrating the “insider” Jewish-Christian struggles and separations. I also consider it an excellent introduction to the NT overall.  Like the typical “introduction” text (and most are written in basic textbook style for college or graduate students), it covers all the NT books and their basic groupings.  This one is more readable and interesting than most, I find more so than any I’m familiar with (far from all of them).

What else you’ll find in The Reluctant Parting is a generous amount of well-summarized “backgrounds” material.  This is critical for understanding both the books of the NT and the real-life setting of its original readers and the authors – cultural, political, economic, religious and other conditions and belief systems.  In the process of reading the author’s explanations, one can gain a lot of insight about the establishment and growth of sects in the Ancient Near East (which in the case at point, Jewish Jesus-following, became a separate and major religion).

If you get a copy of this highly insightful, important book, be sure to read both the introduction and the epilogue.  The introduction sets up the issues regarding why the perspective Galambush takes on the NT writings and their setting is highly relevant to our forms of faith today… to our subconscious as well as conscious views toward those of differing traditions and beliefs (particularly Christians toward Jews and vice-versa).  In it she describes Parts One and Two, and how they can be read separately (not recommended by me, for anyone).  She says of Part One that it “… provides an overview of the history of the post-exilic period, and introduces the contents and arrangement of the New Testament, including a brief discussion of early Christian writings that were not included in the Christian canon.” Part Two covers the specific books of the NT.

The Epilogue is “The Image of the Jew in Christian Scripture”.  Here’s one statement of how and why major problems developed and still persist in this area to this day: “One might hope that a sensitive reader could come close to hearing what the authors intended to say, but in the case of the New Testament, the barriers to an ideal reading are very high indeed.” The author goes on to develop the specifics.

The way most Christians have treated the New Testament, if they even read it seriously at all outside of snippets at church, is as a guide to personal salvation and spiritual practice.  They’ve had very little historical sense or interest.  Thus the traditions of centuries of often-distorted Christian theology and attitudes toward ancient (and now modern) Judaism and Jews then and now are just taken in without the moderating and correcting effects of much that is right within the New Testament itself.  But it does take some background and careful reading to discern much of this.  And this is precisely what this book helps provide in an exceptionally clear, interesting and readable way.

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A Fascinating Spiritual Memoir: Review of “The Hardness of the Heart”

May 15, 2018

The Hardness of the Heart is an interesting form of autobiography covering a portion of Wade Fransson’s life.  It is the second volume of a trilogy which focuses primarily on his spiritual transformation and maturation.

It covers a couple decades of Fransson’s life and ties periodically back to issues and themes begun in volume one, The People of the Sign, which covers the author’s earlier years.  As you’d suspect from there being three volumes (the last soon to be published), the book goes into a lot of detail. I found the specifics to be engaging and often fascinating.  Whatever one may think of Fransson’s religious beliefs and spiritual emphasis, there is plenty of drama in his life experiences and in the way he describes them.  As a former preacher in the Worldwide Church of God, he knows how to tell a story.  And he does it throughout the book.

The narrative, along with the transparency of a man exploring his own psyche, willing to expose his failings and falterings, keep the theological reflections interesting.  I presume this would hold for most readers even with little religious background or interest.

For readers who do have similar religious backgrounds, there may be special “aha’s”, a feeling of camaraderie, or perhaps an experience of support in growing beyond the boundaries often set by conservative or “literalist” styles of church.

I personally found particular interest in how the author progressed through stages of deeper understanding, confrontation both inwardly and outwardly toward others, and step-by-step withdrawal from the “Church” (basically a small denomination).  This was sometimes painful and always stressful.  The story has an extra layer than that of most who’ve gone through a similar process, as I have myself — Fransson was a minister and missionary of some repute in the Worldwide Church of God when it went through a series of splits.  So this meant not just a quiet, simple withdrawal but a number of wrenching person-to-person tensions and partings.

The frustrations and trials of organizational life don’t end there in this book.  Minister Fransson becomes Corporate Man Fransson, only to encounter a similar set of personal ambition, authority and ethics struggles in some of America’s medium-sized to very large corporations… names you will probably recognize.  This slice of the book I consider perhaps as valuable as the insights on personal development and “demon slaying”.  What you probably realize goes on in corporations you will get an inside glimpse of here; and sadly, it’s not a pretty picture in all too many frames.

There is a further level of self-revelation in The Hardness of the Heart — that of Fransson’s romantic life and family life.  We get to see the slow agony he underwent in the collapse of his first marriage.  This is part-and-parcel of the other elements he develops in greater depth and his inclusion of it certainly fills out the picture of his life… going beyond the “religious” or belief-system and career aspects.  Happily, we see him learn and grow into a readiness and ability to build a deep and harmonious new relationship.  His telling of this process and a suspenseful proposal to the woman he’s come to completely adore (as well as be a true friend to) I found to be a great finale.

 

The “Strange” Gospel of Judas and its Window into Early Christianity

April 26, 2018

The Gospel of Judas is no longer “new” and is out of the news coming from the popular press.  However, it retains a place of importance, if we keep it in right context.

As radical as its thesis seems to us in this century, this gospel’s revelation just a dozen years ago fits right in with many discoveries in the last 75 years or so, and the great significance they hold for our understanding of how Christianity formed and grew in its first two to three centuries.  In this article, after some important context, I’ll give only a very short review of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and The Shaping of Christianity” by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.  They both are highly accomplished scholars of the New Testament, early Christianity and its milieu.

So how is it that, after nearly two millennia, discoveries have been made in recent decades which profoundly affect our picture of Christianity’s origins and early nature? Were historians and archaeologists not searching in earlier times? Certainly they were.  And they made important finds in various periods.  Some significant ones were in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly in Egypt, others mid-twentieth century.

Luck (or “providence” or “synchronicity”) may have played a part.

For example, Bedouin explorers happened upon, without knowing what they’d found, the treasure trove we call the Nag Hammadi library (a good number of bound volumes dating to early centuries of the Common Era, buried in a vessel in a remote area of Upper Egypt).  That was 1945. Like the Gospel of Judas, these volumes were in the Coptic of the area, having been translated from Greek originals in many cases.

We can’t very precisely date the Gospel of Judas, but we know something by this title existed during the 2nd century, and with some amount of circulation, because it is named and opposed by the proto-orthodox Irenaeus, writing around 180 C.E.  The assumption (it being very likely) that this is the same book places its composition within less than 100 years of our four Gospels of the New Testament, probably within roughly 50 years of the Gospel of John.

However, in the few-to-several decades that are likely between this gospel and the canonical gospels, and which is roughly a century past the writings of Paul, things changed… a lot in some areas.  Among the most critical of these is increased persecution of Christians, parallel with their increased separation from Jewish (fully or partially “observant”) followers of Jesus in the first few decades after his death.  The latter generally could benefit from a “Jewish exception” the Romans allowed to the typically-required worship of the Emperor, earliest Christianity being primarily a Jewish sect rather than a new religion apart from Judaism.

Returning to the context and importance of the Gospel of Judas, it involves this: As the Romans had begun persecution of certain Christians, particularly leaders, various Christian groups were reacting differently.  According to Pagels and King, this document particularly reveals the internal “family” tensions and acrimony over how to react. Literally, lives were at stake.  Anxiety must have been high, to say the least.  This drives at least much of the emotion and invective found in this short volume.

There were worldview differences in addition to the martyrdom issues driving the counter-narrative of Judas as the most loyal and “getting it” disciple of Jesus.  But a similar kind of hostility is evidenced within the other gospels and epistles of the New Testament, whether toward “the Jews” or other break-away Christians (as seen in 1 John).

Analyzing the content further, as to the beliefs involved, becomes difficult.  This is made worse by there being substantial missing pieces in the manuscript due to physical decay and damage.  Textual damage aside, the range of novel expressions of Judaism, emerging Christianity and pagan or “classical” (e.g., Platonic) religious views makes understanding many documents of this period particularly challenging.  Determining if and how the Gospel of Judas may fit in with the broad range of Gnostic documents we now have (mostly since 1945) is a specialized process with debated conclusions, beyond even summarizing here (and beyond my more detailed areas of study).

Here’s why this relatively short and quite accessible (for non-scholars) book on the Gospel of Judas is of particular importance, in my view: It analyzes this recently-discovered document in relation to the broader religious and societal issues of its period, one in which we have relatively few documents outside of those preserved by the gradually-developed orthodoxy of the late 2nd century and beyond (particularly works that became our New Testament and a number of works largely harmonious with them).

The very fact that only in the last century or so have we discovered numerous “Gnostic” (this label being hard to define or delimit) or other heterodox texts indicates the powerful effect of winning doctrinal battles.  With dominance it was, in that day, possible to almost completely “bury” opposing viewpoints (or force their burial by those hoping to preserve them).  One of the key things strongly confirmed by their unearthing is the broad diversity of early Christianity.

Seeing this reality undercuts the “received” narrative pushed by Luke in Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in our NT) that a single and relatively unified “church” developed from the first weeks after the death of Jesus.  Per Luke, this simple Spirit-led development continued at least until the unspecified “ending” he gives to Acts around the time of Paul’s final imprisonment and journey to Rome.  (In this, conveniently ignoring the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and its massive impact on both Judaism and Christianity.)  After Luke’s story, unwritten legend takes over for a lengthy period.  It isn’t until Constantine and his hired “historian”, Eusebius, early 4th century, that anyone picks up on Luke’s beginning and tries to create the picture of continuity of authority and orthodoxy going straight back to Jesus and his original Apostles.  Among other key documents from this over-two-century period is the Gospel of Judas.

If the Gospel of Judas or this work by Pagels and King on it is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend reading their book.  It is well written and moves one along without bogging down in details of a scholarly nature.  Still, it is well footnoted with scholar references as well as good added explanations, so I recommend at least perusing these (special notes section, actually).

The introduction section is strong and certainly not to be skipped.  Then follows four chapters about the setting and contents of the Gospel.  After that is an English translation of the text with notation of the places where some of the text is missing or has been reconstructed, if suitable.

Wrapping up, before “Notes” (see above) and indices is “Comments on the Translation”.  This is not technical, as it may sound, but important commentary that is definitely not to be skipped….  As long as one has read this far, silly to miss the meaty stuff included here.

If you are, like me, doing “catch up” reading (years after publication), or are merely interested in the history and nature of how our most widespread world religion developed in its early days, I think Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity” is worth your time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter Stretches Minds as well as Spirits… Approached with or without “Faith”

March 27, 2018

I’m re-posting what I put up just before Easter last year. It has a couple links to articles that are still live and the articles pertinent.

I didn’t comment on the photo attached last year, but will now, given its fascination for me and interest more broadly, I imagine.  It is one I took in fall of 2016 in Ulm, Germany, the Danube just out of frame.  It was shot, among many others, well up the high spire of the “Ulm Minster”, the highest church in the world (technically not a cathedral – originally under Catholic construction, but Lutheran since the Reformation).

Its height is 530 feet.  I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the observation deck, 469 feet up, and highly recommend the adventure (unless you have heart trouble… there is a defibrillator about 2/3 of the way up).

The other addition to the original post, below, is that since then, the ground-breaking historian of religion and anthropologist enthusiastically referenced there, Jonathan Z. Smith, has died.  The article of last year:

*****

Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.

My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations.  Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now.  I hope you take time to read some of them.  Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating on more than one level.  Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.  This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history.  And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.    

One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The GuardianAnother, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here.  They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them.  Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.

Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have).  There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else.  Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods.  Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.

I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making.  This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom.  It’s right that it should come up.  Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular.   And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.

My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”.  This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues.  I will say categorically,

It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it.  This is particularly true for “Christian America”.

The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.)  He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail.  It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory.  Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not.  So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.

But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area.  Too many to begin naming them here.  But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.).  This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.

 

Easter Approaching – A Good Time to Explore the Birth of Christian Faith

March 21, 2018

This post from two years ago takes us from the past century of Christian faith to its first century.  This last century was highlighted early by the now-largely-forgotten but then-greatly-followed Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925.

You’ll see below that the same natural-supernatural conflict of 1925 actually sits “between the lines” of the birth of Christian faith in its first century.  There is also the familiar conflict and anxiety over “where is society going?” in both centuries.  I hope you enjoy this re-post as well as the rest of the series surrounding it….

In parts 1 – 3 (here, here, and here), we’ve taken a high altitude look at the often-warring “ways to truth” of supernaturalism and naturalism.  These are represented mainly by traditional Christianity and science.  The passionate competition between them is not always obvious.  Only certain writers and certain issues bring it to the surface.

Among the issues, perhaps the creation–evolution debate is most significant and heated.  The year 1925, nearly a century past now, was a key marker, already well into this great cultural struggle.  That year was the famed “Scopes Trial” (so named for the science teacher defendant, Mr. Scopes).  This “monkey trial” pitted famous secular attorney, Clarence Darrow, against a very popular political and Christian leader who had been three times a candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan.

The issue: teaching evolution in public school.  Technically the anti-evolution case (Bryan) prevailed.  But in effect, “evolution” (Darrow) won.  Apparently the showing of “creationism” wasn’t pretty.  (I’ve not bothered to check how Bryan argued the case.) The main point is that things seem to remain at about the same state in this stand-off, after all this time. Emotions are still often high on both sides – whether on evolution-creation specifically or any of several, sometimes related issues.

Now if 100 years is not really a long time in terms of the progress of paradigms, maybe 2000 years isn’t either!  I’d argue that is the case! Supernaturalism, in our sense here of two distinct tiers or “way things work” within the universe, is older than that.  But let’s use the beginning of Christianity as a meaningful marking point for current-day supernaturalist thinking.

So what caused the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism? This is a massive topic itself, which we can deal with only in broad strokes here, without the scholarship of documentation.  I will say, however, that out of passion to understand, I have spent many hundreds (if not thousands) of hours deeply exploring this subject, particularly in the last decade.  I’m not merely repeating common conceptions which are often misconceptions.  So…

Where did the New Testament (NT) writers get the ideas that went into this new religion?

The answer is complex but it’s accurate to simplify things by saying it was mainly “revelation” and expectation of the “appearance” of the Messiah.  The latter is often called the “return of Christ”.  The more accurate rendering of the Greek is “appearance” or “presence”, and “Christ” is merely Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”.  So the point is “appearance of the Messiah”. Or we might add, for Jesus’ original Jewish followers, “(re)appearance of Jesus as Messiah (rather than defeated on a cross).

The two key concepts of revelation and Jesus’ victorious status are interlinked, particularly in St. Paul’s case… where we get the biggest influence on Christian theology.  It appears the original Apostles’ expectation was significantly different than Paul’s.  They expected fulfillment of Hebrew scriptural visions of a Jerusalem-centered Kingdom of God blessing the world through Yahweh, the Jewish God, administering Jewish law.  The Messiah was his human “Anointed One” (meaning of “Messiah”).  Paul, not having known the human Jesus, saw him as a cosmic savior.  This involved a very different nature, status and effect of messiahship: breaking down all meaningful Jewish-Gentile distinctions (though still retaining “privilege” of heritage and such).  Paul brought a new focus on inward spiritual transformation by believers’ identification with Christ (Messiah).

Paul makes the point repeatedly that his information about the heavenly Christ (he spends almost no time on the earthly Jesus) came by direct revelation to him.  He declares he did not get it from any human source.  It was about visions and being transported to heavenly places, with him unable to tell if bodily or only spiritually (2 Corinthians 12).

Now it happens that I believe people sometimes do receive “revelations”, often beneficial, and in extraordinary ways.  Maybe visions or auditory messages.  Or the much-studied and very real-seeming experiences of a “near death” or clinical death situation, and other ways.  In believing this I needn’t be a “supernaturalist”.  I don’t have to separate their source out as above-and-beyond the “natural world”.  And I can still allow for “God” (or a universal “mind”) to be involved, utilizing natural processes still little understood by us.  I know they gradually are being better observed and understood.

But St. Paul, like most ancient Jews and pagans, conceived a powerfully intervening God within a dualistic (what I’m calling two-tier) reality.  The most common current view of God is similar.

Although Paul contributed specifics of theology beyond other NT writers, it seems clear that his “founding” contemporaries, the other Apostles, also “inherited” (in Hebrew Scriptures and strong religious traditions) expectations of Messiah’s arrival.  He would be a God-anointed special human (certainly not divine). In the late Greek and early Roman period in Palestine, many candidates were identified and often rooted out and killed by the occupiers. For the Jews, these were desperate times that called for desperate measures.

Back to the other Apostles and followers of Jesus: after resurrection appearances they expected his soon “return”.  And so it has been passed on down to our day.   (In my view, such appearances were visionary only, as actual historical evidence to the contrary is missing and the supposed “evidence” more than dubious, despite what Christian apologists claim… I know, I used to be one of them.)

These other Jerusalem-based leaders, in a similar way to Paul, combined messianic expectations with faith in revelations to remain Jesus followers after his death.  (Paul had his vision a few years, not days or weeks, after Jesus’ death and never spent much time in Jerusalem.)  From indications both by Paul and Luke (in Acts), these initial “Christians” actually remained a mostly-acceptable sect of Messianic Judaism, not an unusual thing at that time.  For simplicity, however, let’s lump their influence together with that of Paul and others as to the emergence of mainly-Gentile Christianity. (There was a fairly lengthy period of it and a distinctly Jewish Christianity existing together.)

To me, a good part of the sorely-needed solution of a 3rd paradigm mediating between naturalism and supernaturalism comes this way: Respecting the roles of both mythology and history. In the case of Christianity, mythology includes quasi-historical accounts supposedly anchoring theology in history.  [More on this later.] “Myth” includes but is not merely fiction… one might say it is a sort of trinity: psychology, anthropology and theology.  For its part, history as a discipline uses rigorous methodology reflecting science though it is not “hard science” and never fully objective.  But it can and should critique that quasi-history portion of any history-based religion such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Recognizing “the power of myth” neither denigrates it nor accords it the supernatural status claimed by Christian concepts of revelation.  By this I mean particularly revelation to authoritative figures such as Apostles or later-recognized prophets, as this became Scripture (divinely revealed “Truth”).  Recognizing myth, however does call us to what is very challenging to even face, let alone do in depth: examine the very founding-and-operating myths of our own views of the world, whether “religious” or “scientific” or some combination.

What we will look at in our next part will be more depth on the “myth of origin” in the story of earliest Christianity… how it seeks to explain things yet has distorted reality in the process.  We’ll explore how the linkage of revelation and authority was necessary and sets views of the world almost as solidly as concrete.

2018 addition: How well does the above line up with what you’ve heard or come to believe about the founding of Christianity and the truth about “the Resurrection of Christ”?

 

Review of “Emptiness – The Beauty and Wisdom of Absence”

February 1, 2018

Author David Auten starts this delightful short book with important context for his readers who are Jesus-followers, “…emptiness lies at the heart of Jesus — who he is and what he is about” (p. VIII – Prologue).  I imply other readers because one need not be Christian to glean encouragement or wise direction from Auten’s work…. A man wise beyond his relative youth.

You’ll quickly see that he loves to learn from his young children.  He cleverly relates the fun and fascination of childhood to his theme of empty spaces, emptying in various ways.

Emptiness draws from the wisdom of Eastern traditions as well as Jewish and Christian. Of course, in them is a heavy dose of the value of release, of even active pursuit of emptying – one’s mind, one’s ego, one’s possessiveness.  Yet the author works in quotes and examples from these wisdom traditions in such a way as to put off or alarm very few Christians, I’d imagine.  In that sense, it is a book of broad spirituality as much as one for Christians specifically, or any subset of Christians.

A perhaps-significant aside is that this feature of the book lines up well with Auten’s own diverse background and his pastoring a church in a diverse region and a diverse denomination (United Church of Christ, which happens to be my own affiliation in recent years).  So, for how the book reflects Christian faith in America today, it’s a “big tent”.  It appears Auten is comfortable with this sometimes difficult situation, particularly for a pastor who wants to nurture and help people grow.  And this book is clearly one effort in this endeavor… a valuable one.

Both the author and the back-cover reviewers describe the book as a devotional one. I don’t often read this genre. I’d call it more than a typical devotional book, however. Its chapters are short.  They are focused on specific aspects of emptying and “nothingness”.  But there is depth of thought and references to various thinkers here that put it nearly into the category of a work of scholarship. But it certainly reads easier than one, and gets one thinking (or not!).

My thanks to Cascade Books of Wipf and Stock Publishers which provided me a free copy for review.  It has not influenced my opinions of the book.

 

 

 

Franklin Graham and the Twisting of Evangelical Integrity

January 20, 2018

I’m not saying Rev. Graham caused or has even led the “pretzelization” of Evangelicals’ integrity. Nor that integrity has disappeared completely in every quarter of Evangelicalism. The many, many Evangelicals who have become “emerging” church members or otherwise more progressive or consistent is one sign there are open, thinking people who seek to be integrous among Evangelicals.

 

I’d been thinking about a quick post on the ongoing frustration of the blindness of Evangelicals to the reality of Donald Trump and the damage of his presidency to our country.  Then this morning, I saw an interview of Franklin Graham by Alex Witt on MSNBC Live. (If you happen to be a Fox News lover and distrustful of the more liberal MSNBC, realize Graham was allowed to speak freely and was not stifled or “trapped” in unfair questions. He got to fully express his views with a generous amount of time and he didn’t seem frustrated with the interview.)

Given what I’ve just seen, I’ve decided to feature the particularly egregious example of  Graham since he is head of two large Evangelical institutions.  He also carries much of the influence of his more famous father, Billy Graham.  Sadly, his lack of clear thinking and consistency is mind boggling. (To see it yourself, a Google or YouTube search should soon show it readily… I can’t find it yet this soon to give a link.)

Among the several points that seem clearly and completely out of integrity with Evangelical theology per my decades-long knowledge of it and its stated values are these:

  1. It doesn’t really matter about Trump’s personal morality or ethics, because he is supportive of Evangelicals and is “pro-life”. (Graham did admit Trump’s, and his own imperfections, but that was about all in this interview.)
  2. It doesn’t matter what type of characters Trump associates himself with (going against numerous warnings in Proverbs and Paul’s writings in the Bible).
  3. There is little, if any, spiritual or wisdom-based evaluation about how financial prosperity for the country is attained. Graham’s apparent short-sightedness regarding the grave humanitarian effects and longer-term financial woes of poorly-thought-out deregulation, denial of climate change, unwise and isolationist trade policy choices, etc. is appalling.

One of the most shocking reasons Graham gave for minimizing the importance of Trump’s moral lapses is that he will give him the “benefit of the doubt” (not his exact words) on his denials.  He seems to believe the denials of apparently whatever Trump decides to deny.  He didn’t make a blanket statement but he didn’t cite any exceptions or doubts either.  Rather, he said Trump had been honest with him, that he could be counted on to do what he says.  For the record, Trump can’t be!… Anyone watching at all and “keeping score” has seen this repeatedly, though he is dogged on a few things, particularly some of his most un-Christlike and sometimes unconstitutional policies (e.g., “Muslim ban”, etc.).

I could go on with analysis about just why Graham and so many other Evangelical leaders as well as lay people have this massive blind spot and nearly complete disengagement of thinking faculties, but for now, I just wanted to point out the interview, provoke at least a little thought.

One step further: I encourage the polite and civil engagement of those of us who have Christian affiliations or commitments with this kind of Evangelical thinking.  Not to approach it as debate, but concerned and open questioning… a search for the deeper issues driving this manner of political behavior.

This could well prove insightful for both parties. No name-calling! (Note, I’ve used “blindness”, lack of integrity and such as descriptors for statements and positions I’ve identified but I’ve purposely not labeled Graham with derogatory names, and seek not to with others who I may adamantly disagree with.)  And try, as I have here, not to overstate an opponent’s position and create a “straw man” to knock down… another sloppy form of thinking or seeking to dialog.    

And please offer any insights or encouragements here, for those of us who are dismayed, even if we partially understand, how so many are so enthralled with a man who had no business or sensibility in getting elected to the office of our presidency, and continues to prove it.