Sunday, September 21, 2014

Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ

It isn't often that I write about a piece of fiction; I believe this is the first time I have ever quoted the thoughts of the director who made the movie adaptation of a piece of fiction. But when reading Roger Ebert's biography of Martin Scorsese, I chanced across some comments by Scorsese about the book The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Scorsese's film version stirred controversy, to say the least. It has been many years since I saw it, and I have not read the book, so I'm not sure how faithful Scorsese was to Kazantzakis' vision. I wanted to share his comments because I was surprised -- and touched -- by Scorsese's view of the original book, and particularly his view of Jesus' last temptation on the cross. Below is an excerpt from an interview between Scorsese and Ebert. (Ebert came across as harboring some resentment, dislike, or antagonism towards his own Roman Catholic upbringing; Scorsese did not come across that way so much; he was likewise raised Roman Catholic. That tension was a recurring theme in the biography; it does play out here in a minor way in the interview.)
Scorsese: We just wanted to make him [Jesus] one of us, in a sense. ... Christologically correct, they call it, that Jesus is God and man in one. That's the one thing we assume, okay, bang, we go in with that and Kazantzakis too, you know, in the book. And the idea that, if it's man, then he has to be afraid of dying. 
Ebert: And he has to be capable of lust. 
Scorsese: And he has to be capable of everything. And what I thought was so great -- so great -- about Kazantzakis's book was that the last temptation is not for riches or whatever; it's just to live the life of a common man, to have a family, to die in bed and that sort of thing. It's almost a love that he has for mankind, you see. The love that he has for us. That's the idea. And in order to die he has to know what we go through. If he doesn't know what we go through, what good is God, you see.  
So what did the fully human Lord think about, when his enemies taunted him to come down from the cross, and he had begged for the cup to pass from him? I think that Scorsese was right about this: it is possible that there was a last temptation born out of love for us, and love of life, and fear of death. It's what it means to be fully human.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Teenagers and some thoughts about "Honor your father and mother"

My regular readers will know that I teach a teenage Sunday school class. Today's main consideration was "what the law of God is really for" -- where God so loved the world and we join him in loving the world; where God does not ask us to bow down to him (rather than the idols) but asks us to do right by our neighbors; where we are called to build a good life, build a loving family, build a community that is secure and supportive and stable; where God gives us the pattern that enables us to do that.

But in a class of teens, the call to "honor your parents" deserved a moment's consideration. Younger children can have a very deep trust in their parents, and a deep dependence. As teenagers, that's changing. The class is full of people who are either young adults or within a short time will become young adults. I asked for a show of hands how many of the teenagers could name one thing -- anything -- that they now did better than their parents. As I kept naming the hobbies and interests of my students, and began including things like working electronics, soon every hand in the room was raised. And I mentioned that by now, all of them had seen their parents make mistakes; it's human, and everybody makes mistakes. (I should add, by now I expect everyone has asked their parents a question to which they don't actually know the answer.)

So with the naive trust of a child now ruled out, a teenager is going to look at their parents as more human, closer to equal. (It does help to look at them as equal, and not give into the temptation to dismiss them as worthless simply because they're imperfect. We are all imperfect too.) So these  teenagers still living at home may need some thought about why to trust their parents' judgment. We considered experience: that the teenagers may be young adults, but they're newbies, and newbies make mistakes. We considered that parents have had years and years to see how certain things work out in the real world, and do have a better idea about how some things work out in real life. And if they're trying to teach you something, it's because they want to spare you learning it the hard way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A brief response to "10 Theories About Who Really Wrote the Bible"

A lot of traffic has been directed to this blog lately by a writer who has linked one of my posts on early church scholarship. While I appreciate the link, the materials in the incoming post contains a mix of well-known material and things that seem biased and inaccurate. Here is a quick response. The numbered / bolded items are the claims being made in the incoming article; below each are my notes.

10. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. 
I think most scholars are in agreement on that, though some will hold out that Moses played a part. Parts of it seem to trace back to the code of Hammurabi. There are some interesting hints in the Talmud about the time and place of editing. We don't have a completely clear view of how the documents of the Pentateuch were written.

9. The Documentary Hypothesis
The idea of multiple sources and/or editing of the Pentateuch is generally accepted by current scholars.

8. Deuteronomy Originated As Royal Propaganda
This section is close to a conspiracy theory, with "propaganda" and forged documents being "deliberately planted". Of course you can't disprove the "planted document" theory at this distance in time, but that is not the same as being credible; that part reads like a smear-job presented as a conjecture. To demonstrate the point, consider one thing: even if we imagine that the king took the "found document" and had his people add some notes to it and distribute it, that could just as easily be attributed to devotion and good management as to ulterior motives. At what point do we find it justified to question other peoples' motives and assume the worst as a given?

7. Daniel Is 'Prophecy-After-The-Fact'
A good number of scholars agree on that, and would peg the genre more as an apocalyptic-style political commentary for those parts. (Some others think differently, if they take a different view of the date of writing.) But if it were an apocalyptic-style political commentary written after the fact, the timing of the release would have made it fairly clear that it was no prophecy. It wouldn't have been a case of the author trying to "pass himself off as a genuine seer" (again the thinly veiled accusation of dishonesty); that could hardly be done successfully about events now past. The point, at that date, would be about the come-uppance of the enemies of God and Israel, more than some sort of effort to make a reputation as a seer.

6. The Gospels Are Not Eyewitness Accounts
Here the author really piles on the bias, though in ways that are common enough on internet forums: calls the Biblical gospels "anonymous", "religious advertisements", and asserts (incorrectly, when we consider the epilogue / affidavits section of John) that they never claimed to be reporting events they themselves saw. But the gospels don't seem to have been anonymous by the standards of their day. The idea that the writings had no authors attributed until the second century may be based on the first written accounts we have about the gospels dating from the second century, which is not the same thing at all as the earlier readers thinking they were anonymous, and does not mean that a scroll circulated as "Matthew's" or "John's" (etc) was somehow of unknown origin. And calling them "advertisements" suggests a materialistic/profit motive, or insincerity and self-interest, which I haven't seen good reason to take seriously. (On the point about "Lord" and Christology, some quick points of interest: When Matthew's conversations show people calling Jesus "Lord", it seems to be how he translated the "Rabbi" parts in Mark, which isn't actually a Greek word; not all the "Lord" parts of Matthew are meant as Christological. Also, given that Mark opens his gospel by applying a quote about the LORD (Jehovah) to Jesus, it's doubtful whether Mark's Christology was all that low. Things aren't always as straightforward as they seem.)

5. Matthew and Luke Plagiarized Mark
Again the slanted presentation: they shared source materials. Given that Luke and Mark were co-workers along with Paul at certain points, I would be surprised if Mark didn't give his consent to the re-use. The author of that piece does work around to the point that Matthew and Luke are expanded and more accurate, but not before he has leveled charges of intellectual dishonesty at them which he never retracts.

4. The Lost Gospel Q
Yes, there are large numbers of scholars who note that Matthew and Luke shared source material, and hypothesize a source called Q. (Luke made it plain enough he was using all the existing material he could find, like a good researcher should.) It's going a little bit far talk about Q's "recovery"; though there have been worthwhile efforts to reconstruct it based on things in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. Going beyond that to hypothesize that Q's authors believed Jesus to be a wisdom-teacher only whose death had no salvific importance ... is going further than the material will really take you. Remember how Q was reconstructed? It omitted things already found in Mark. So we wouldn't know whether Q also contained material that was in Mark, such as the passion narrative, because the "reconstruction" excludes anything that was already in Mark ... like the passion narrative and empty tomb.

3. Simon Magus And St Paul Were The Same Person
Seriously? At least the author of the article acknowledges in his early remarks that this is not accepted by mainstream scholars and is "more speculative", though I think the author calling it "radical" gives it more dignity than it has earned. I really can't buy the series of long stretches it takes to turn Paul's letters (from a man well known to the early churches, who addresses his friends by name in letter after letter) into the works of Simon Magus.

2. The Pastoral Epistles Are Forgeries
Again with the emotive terms that contain accusations of dishonesty and deceit. There has been lively debate about whether all the letters are authentic, to be sure, or whether we should simply expect Paul's style in a personal letter to be different than when writing to a whole congregation for public reading. If someone had been trying to ride on the coattails of Paul's authority, why write private letters instead of public ones? Wouldn't they get more mileage out of public letters? Why not advance their agenda or their personal reputation in the letters? Why write to Timothy and Titus, who knew Paul well personally and were more likely to detect a fraud? (I'm half-surprised the author didn't suggest these other letters were by Simon Magus. Imagine if the supposed forger had added a little bit about, "And I'd like to commend to you my friend Simon Magus ...")

1. John Did Not Write Revelation
The scholars in the early church figured that there were multiple Johns involved. It was a common enough name. And apocalyptic literature was nothing new. Revelation retains a strong Jewish flavor, to the extent that I've read some Jewish commentary that speculates whether Revelation's author served as a priest while the Temple still stood. While Revelation has a lot of distinctly Christian notes, it seems to be firmly in the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. That's to be expected when so many of the Christians were, at that time, Jewish Christians.

So that's the other side of the story, if someone wants to compare notes and make up their own mind.

Take care & God bless

By the way I'm typing this up fairly quickly. As I spot typos, I'll come back and update.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: Different ways of thinking about right and wrong: The Pharisees v Jesus

In this week's Sunday school lesson, the teens class considered different ways of thinking about right and wrong, tracing some classic examples of the Pharisees v Jesus, from handwashing before meals through to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This lesson was designed for a 45-minute time slot.

Introduction: Ways "Morality" can go wrong

 We're used to thinking of "morality" as something good. It's meant to be good. The whole point of "morality" is to be good. But it can go wrong sometimes. I'm going to name some ways in which people try to act "good" in a way that is not really all that good. Can you spot the problem with:

* Tattle-tales
* Goody-two-shoes/teachers' pets
* One-upping other people
* Games of "Gotcha", waiting for other people to make a mistake

Allow around 10 minutes for class discussion on that, and guide as needed. Let the students figure out on their own as much as they can. (Are the people involved trying to be good? To look good? To look better than someone else? To use rules as a way to make other people look bad?)

Application (about 5 minutes)

We've talked about some different ways that people abuse the whole idea of morality.

  1. Which ones annoy you the most when people do them to you? (I had everyone in the room answer that one. Got a variety of answers on it.)
  2. Which one is the most natural trap for you to fall into yourself, if you're willing to say? (I let them keep it private, though asked them to give it some thought so that they knew the answer themselves, even if they didn't care to share.) Those with siblings sometimes admitted to doing the tattle-tale thing.

Mentioned that these are the thing that give morality a bad name. Asked if they had ever met someone who distrusted the whole idea of morals, of right and wrong, because of problems like that. (Generally the younger teens had not met someone like that, but the older teens had.) Pointed out that it was a real problem, that there are people who distrust the whole idea of right and wrong because of how people abuse it.

Bible readings: The Pharisees

Assign each of these Bible readings to a student, and tell them: the same question will be asked about each reading, and the question is: What's wrong with the way the person is trying to use morality?
  • Mark 7:2-5 (The Pharisees against Jesus on his disciples and handwashing before meals)
  • Luke 6:1-2 (The Pharisees against Jesus on his disciples picking some grains as they walked past, on the Sabbath)
  • Luke 6:7-11 (The Pharisees against Jesus for healing a crippled man on the Sabbath)
  • Luke 8:9-14 (The Pharisee thanking God that he's not like other men)
  • Matthew 23:23-24 (Jesus on the Pharisees tithing their mint and dill while neglecting the big picture; straining gnats and swallowing camels)
I had each person read out loud and then answer about their own reading (what was wrong about the way they were using morality?) in order to get fuller participation.

Notice that when God shows up, it's the people playing the morality games -- generally the more "religious" people -- who objected and had a problem with him.

General questions for the class. They were defining morality in terms of washing hands, counting mint-sprigs and dill seeds, things like that.

  1. Why would they focus on such piddly things?
  2. Even if you did that kind of thing perfectly, would it ever help anyone?

What Jesus says is most important

Matthew 22:35-40: Jesus answers a question about what's most important in the law

But if someone is the type to count their dill-seeds to make themselves right with God, what would they do with "Love your neighbor"? We actually find out, Luke recorded it for us.

Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan

  • Who were the different kinds of 'bad' people in the story?
  • Who was the good one?
  • At the end, Jesus asked: "Which one was the neighbor?" Looking back at the reading, what answer was given to Jesus' question?
  • Did this kind of "morality" make a difference in someone's life?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pet Theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to ...

Reflections on how to love God and neighbor with heart, soul, mind, and strength ... 

I have a pet theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to how many people we honestly admire. Sometimes I dream of achieving great things, and work towards them. But even if I should achieve my wildest dreams, I hope I never become so full of myself that I don't admire other people more. It would be so small. Some people seem embarrassed to admire other people, as though admiring someone is unbecoming, or somehow lessens their own prestige. I couldn't disagree more. Admiration -- looking at another person, finding their excellence, recognizing it, being truly glad for it -- is the kind of stuff that expands our hearts. And as it expands, it grows stronger, more able to love. Our capacity to love, to take delight in the world, grows larger. Permitting ourselves to enjoy an honest delight is refreshing. And with this permission we grant ourselves, and with practice, the eye becomes more capable of seeing the good in others. Our understanding of other human beings, their thoughts and their accomplishments, increases. Striving to appreciate everything that makes someone worthy of notice, worthy of respect -- this builds in our mind habits that will be put to good service with other people as we go along in life.

Jesus teaches us to consider love as the foundation of what is good. But love has been sentimentalized and trivialized to the point where people hesitate to speak of it as a topic worthy of serious consideration. Admiration has likewise been corrupted into fawning or obsession; it is time to reclaim a more healthy view of it, with a rightful place for esteem and enthusiasm. It seems to me that admiration is one of the more basic aspects of love, one worthy of remembering, and one worthy of practice.

We start as children by admiring people we see as heroes. And we begin by admiring those who are easy to admire. But as we mature in the skill, we become able to recognize the good wherever we find it, and be honestly glad for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Is love is blind? How it sees the good in us all

(Some thoughts on how to meet another person, and to view each other.) 

They say that love is blind, and there is some truth to that. Love keeps no record of wrongs. That is why love can see good things in another person that a less sympathetic view will overlook. If love keeps no record of wrongs, on the other hand hatred takes no notice of the good that has been done.

Of course there are other options besides those two. Indifference overlooks good and bad together. But what about a determined, impartial scrutiny to weigh the good and the evil in another person? Wouldn't that give us the clearest view? The clearest view of what, exactly, though? That approach sets us up as the judge. Are we that sure of our own impartiality? Are we that sure of our own purity and wisdom? Does the lack of humility there weigh against such self-confidence? What about the lack of compassion? And would we want others to view us so unsympathetically? Do we owe anything to our shared humanity to take a kinder view as a starting point, rather than to meet another person with a determination to weigh them in the scales before we recognize their worth? Do we owe anything to the Lord who made them, to the image of God within them, to trust that within them is the potential to be that child of God, as good as we are if not better?

When we have to choose an approach to another person, the wisest approach is love, and the humblest approach is love, and the kindest approach is love. The one that gives us the clearest view of any good in the other person is love. And the most constructive approach -- the one that helps build up the other person -- is love.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The paradox of morality

If a person aims at morality for his own sake, it is self-serving and can never be moral. He has given not only faith but all of holiness, morality, and religion a bad name, which at times even stains the name of God. For those who want to become better people, it is an easy thing to become self-adorers, admiring our own works and purity, failing to admire others, and so becoming small and petty by the very path it seems should lead beyond that.

If a person instead aims at loving his neighbor, he would make every effort to add to his own store of goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control; he will dedicate himself to be found welcoming, friendly, and given to hospitality; he will think of others more highly than of himself. In all this he will pursue the heart of faith, will in his own flesh and blood live out the holy teachings, will run and overtake the one whose self-seeking faith is satisfied with lesser goals.

In this he will be not only like Paul who with good reason numbered himself among the sinners, but will become more like Christ, who was likewise numbered among the sinners, who made no move to justify himself, valuing those he loved more than his own reputation. We should watch ourselves that we do not become the type of moral person who does not care to be numbered among the sinners; that is not the way to follow Christ. If we are not numbered among the sinners, who exactly do we love?