Sunday, December 08, 2019

The November 2019 Biblical Studies Carnival is up at Theology Pathfinder. I'd like to highlight the entries that I found the most helpful for my own purposes.

Most edifying: 

November 2019 saw the release of the new book God's Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology (Duvall and Hays). I haven't read it yet; however if the title of the work is also its central thesis, then this work has the potential to direct our attention back to the one thing needful.

Last month also saw the release of Theology as a Way of Life (Neder), which puts theology back in touch with its roots: "Know the Lord", as knowledge becomes love.

Other matters of interest: 

Roger Olson posts a thought-piece, "Can God Change the Past?" It seems to me that, if He wanted to, He'd have done it already. Roger Olson's thoughts run more toward the implications of his premise for the question of open theism.

Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition reviews the new book from InterVarsity Press, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism.

Enjoy the Carnival!

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent: Season of Hope

Few things in life are as dark as losing hope. Without hope, our actions seem pointless and our motivation fades. Trying harder can cover for awhile, but it's not the same as hope. Trying to be optimistic can help for a time, but trying to look on the bright side is not the same as hope. Hope is the anticipation of something that will bring relief or meaning or light, will bring some kind of blessing or benefit.

We try to keep hope in front of our eyes. Many people keep photos of loved ones as placeholders until they see them again. Some people keep countdown clocks showing the number of days til a big event. Here in advent, we look forward to Christmas. We each have our own ways. We may keep an eye on the calendar, or select a thoughtful gift for a loved one, or decorate a tree, or plan a celebration, or hang Christmas lighting. The beauty and anticipation of Christmas are just as legitimate as keeping a photo of a loved one. When we are motivated by hope, the actions make hope an active part of our lives.

Christmas reminds us of life, new birth, new beginnings. When Christ was born, we could see the beginning of the new creation before our eyes. God who makes all things new has included us in his plans for blessing. When he creates a new heaven and a new earth, he will not neglect to renew our hearts as well. When light comes to the world, it comes for us into our own minds as well. Peace and joy may seem like isolated points of brightness struggling against the dark for now, but it will not be that way forever. Christ is born as the king, and the songs that the angels sang are just the beginning. Those angels are waiting to sing those songs again, not only to a handful of shepherds but to all of us at the fulfillment of days. Joy will become the norm. Peace will become the standard.

It is the renewal of all things when his kingdom comes. In Christ, we have reason to hope.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Kingdom of Forgiveness

Jesus prayed: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing." He prayed this at the beginning of his execution, which was a long, drawn-out ordeal.

We Christians often reflect on Jesus' death and its role in our forgiveness. We may recall what he said to one of the criminals dying beside him: "Today you will be with me in paradise." In sermons, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as the criminal on the cross, or as the betrayer like Judas Iscariot, or like Barabbas as the one whose guilt he bore while we went free.

Today, instead of focusing on ourselves as the criminal who was caught, or the one who got away,  maybe we can also see ourselves as the objects of Jesus' prayer for mercy: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing." Maybe we can see other people alongside us -- who need forgiveness as much as we do -- and see them too as the objects of Jesus' prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing."

Today, we can rest in Jesus' prayer: his prayer is for our forgiveness.

(Based on the lectionary reading for today, Christ the King Sunday.)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Holiday Charity Drives -- The Good, the Bad, and the Common Ground

'Tis the  season. It's not quite Thanksgiving yet, but the commercial radio stations have begun to play Christmas music, the stores have begun to stock Christmas decorations -- and the charities are starting to solicit donations from people who are in the holiday spirit of generosity. But am I the only one disturbed by the tone?

Once I had a nominal facebook friend try to shame everyone on his friends list into donating to his then-favorite charity in support homeless gay teens. If anyone didn't support that cause with a donation, it was implied that they were part of the problem. I've had other friends request contributions to other incredibly-specific-social-problem charities for their birthdays. There is often an element of trafficking in guilt, shame, or victimhood to charity requests, with the worst of them coming across like an excerpt from the comically-insane points system in The Good Place. Goodwill is not manipulative, so why are so many charity requests?

The thing is, as much as I may pray for anyone who requests my help, whether homeless gay teens or people plagued by suicidal thoughts, I tend to help where self or friends or family have been hurt. I'm more likely to volunteer at 12-step events or donate clothing to homeless veterans' charities or contribute to certain medical charities.

We help because we care. But we cannot assume that people who do not help our cause do not care, or are bad people. I may not donate to their cause; they may not donate to mine either. I think many people are generous where they themselves have felt the pain or loss and can relate. If each person shows their generosity in the place where they feel the need, then each group will receive generosity in proportion to the number of people affected. The size of the outreach keeps scale with the size of the need.

For myself, may I pray for all in need. May I cheerfully help where I feel called to help. And may we support each other on our separate journeys with goodwill.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

God's reasons for creating: Insight for parenting

"Why did God create the world?" has been an often-asked question. While some will say we do not know why God created, there is a uniform agreement that God did not create out of need. One traditional answer from Christians is that creation comes from an overabundance of God's love and goodness. Beyond the armchair arguments of theologians, the answer has implications for everyday life. Is God's relationship to us unknown, or based on his need, or based on his generosity and grace? His reasons for creating us form the basis for the whole relationship with us. So for us, it matters very much whether our existence is based on God's overflowing love and goodness.

Scripture encourages us to view God as the model for earthly parenting. And that is where it connects to our own relationships with our children. When we bring new life into the world, why do we have children? Our reasons affect our relationship with our children.

Of course there are happy couples who want children. Then there are couples who have children to try to save their marriage. There are women who have "atonement babies" to try to recoup their emotional losses and family losses after an abortion. There are people who have children to fill the voids in their lives. There are people who have a sense of duty or obligation about having children. There are couples who simply find themselves expecting a child without serious forethought on the matter.

From all these reasons why a parent might have a child, none of them would prevent a parent from loving a child. But some motives would put the relationship on hazardous ground. Some reasons would risk turning the relationship into something about meeting the parent's needs rather than the child's.

I do not write to cause any anxiety or distress, but simply to raise awareness. The more we can meet our own needs, the more overflow of grace we will have for our children.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Self-love and love of neighbor

Jesus taught that the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself" was of great importance among the commands of the Torah, second only to the love of God. And in that command, the love of neighbor has a touchstone: love of self.

Let's look at Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats with an eye to recognizing ways to show love to self and others:

I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.
We begin to love people -- ourselves and others -- in meeting the basic needs of sustaining life: food and drink. If we are hungry, we feed ourselves. If we are unable to feed ourselves, we do not neglect ourselves but let others know our need. If we see those who are unable to feed themselves, we provide for them in the way we would want others to provide for us. 

I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 
We recognize our basic need for belonging and for welcome. From this we learn not to isolate ourselves or disregard the company of others. While love of our neighbor may begin with physical needs, it does not end there. We recognize the positive good of hospitality and the value of building fellowship. 

I was naked and you clothed me. 
We recognize the distinctly human need of clothing. From clothing we can infer not only covering, but the need for cleanliness and for dignity. 

I was sick and in prison and you visited me. 
Here we recognize care and compassion in times of distress. Someone who visits the sick gives companionship and relieves their suffering and distress as they are able. It follows that self-care includes a positive duty to care for ourselves when sick or injured, and that love will seek to ease the discomfort of the sick. As for those in prison, we are called to be there even for the wrongdoer. It is an act of mercy and reconciliation. If we are to visit those in prison, how much more should we visit those who are isolated for smaller offenses. This teaching reminds us to remember both justice and mercy in lesser cases where a person did wrong but may not be in prison. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Zechariah the priest's literacy, and the name of John the Baptist

There has been some interest in recent years over literacy in ancient Judaism. Some advocate the view that the ability to read or write was incredibly rare; others advocate the view that the ability to read at least short passages was fairly common for men. In general, though, both sides agree that certain people in ancient Judaism were certainly literate, such as the priestly class.

In Luke's gospel we are told of a priest named Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. For those not familiar with Luke's account: when his son was named, Zechariah had been unable to speak for some months. His wife Elizabeth had said the son's name would be John (Luke 1:60), but the others present for the circumcision expected the child to be named Zechariah like his father. So Zechariah motioned for a writing tablet and wrote "His name is John," and the people present for the circumcision marveled at that. Luke does not record whether this was a home circumcision or took place in a synagogue; the information I've found so far would indicate those were common places for a circumcision in that era.

So much for the account we have. Based on it, it's reasonably certain that Zechariah could read and write. Based on his membership in the priesthood, we would expect that Zechariah was literate. There are a few implications to consider: When he motioned for a writing tablet and there was one handy, it stands to reason that it was not too uncommon for someone literate to be present. When he wrote on the tablet and someone else read it, it follows that there was at least one other person present who could read. Zechariah was not the only literate person present at the circumcision. We do not have information on specifically how many people gathered for the circumcision of Zechariah's son or how many of them were able to read it for themselves, so the presence of at least one more literate person does not necessarily help us to estimate the percentage of people who were literate.

Next, consider the fact that Elizabeth already knew Zechariah's wishes on naming their son. How would Zechariah have passed this information to Elizabeth since he could not speak? We can consider the possibility that he might have written his wishes and had someone else read it to Elizabeth -- and yet the other people present at the circumcision, including any literate ones, had not previously known Zechariah's wishes in the way that his wife Elizabeth had. We must at least consider the possibility that Elizabeth could read. She had been the wife of a priest for long years, married to a man engaged in studying the Jewish Scriptures. And it is not the first time we'd have known of Jewish women who were literate; there were various mentions of literate women in the Talmud, such as in the discussions of whether women and minors were eligible to read the Torah portion of the Scripture readings at public worship services.

When we look at ancient literacy, there is a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking. It is common for people to assume that if someone was not literate by modern industrial standards, then instead they were so wholly illiterate that they could not decipher even a short phrase such as "His name is John". That kind of all-or-nothing thinking is, most of all, inaccurate in its disregard for what is practical. Literacy is a spectrum starting from knowing the letters of their alphabet, building up to being able to recognize some words and sound out others, all the way to more fluent literacy that involved both reading longer passages and writing.

We know Zechariah, as a priest, was literate. Based on a brief glimpse into the life of this literate man in ancient times, we know that among his everyday companions he was not alone in his literacy.