Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Proof of the Continuing Unity of the Body of Christ

I know it's common for us Christians to consider ourselves divided. This is for the very obvious reason that we distance ourselves from each other, criticize each other, and even sometimes condemn and attack each other. There are no feuds quite so bitter as when brothers fight brothers.

But consider some points: all Christians together celebrate with pride the great accomplishments of Christians from other groups: Handel is not celebrated by Lutherans alone, Mozart has more than a Roman Catholic audience, Dostoevsky is lauded by many Christians who have never set foot in an Eastern Orthodox church.

Consider some more points: all Christians together hang their heads in shame with the dishonor of those in other camps, whether the issue is a pedophile priest or a televangelist calling for the assassination of a foreign leader.
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1Co 12:26)
Sounds like us, doesn't it? We may disown each other when we embarrass each other, but that doesn't change that we still belong to each other. I mean, we don't get embarrassed when Mormons do something goofy like bribe Olympic officials, do we? So as Paul was saying, the greatest thing we should strive for is love.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Newsflash: Jesus Never Married, Never Had Children

These are the times when very basic history needs to be reviewed. Most people are aware that the Bible never mentions Jesus being married or having children, but some have imagined that this was a mere omission and look for answers on his life elsewhere. Very well then, what do we find outside of Scripture?
They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world ... Further, they do not know the reason why the Lord did not marry. In the first place he had his own bride, the Church; and in the next place he was no ordinary man that he should also be in need of some helpmeet after the flesh. Nor was it necessary for him to beget children since he abides eternally and was born the only Son of God. -- Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book III, 6.49. (circa 190 A.D.)

Reminder: Christian Reconciliation Carnival

Reminder: Please send in your entries and/or nominations for the next Christian Reconciliation Carnival by tomorrow night. The Carnival will be up soon afterwards at Dr. Platypus' blog.

Monday, February 26, 2007

On anti-Christian marketing and the current "tomb" hype

Down in the comments on the piece below, SlaveOfOne mentions that he(?) questions why I see an anti-Christian motive in the current hype surrounding "the Jesus tomb" and possibly even in its production and Easter release. Because I had not explained why I see it that way, I wanted to go over that more explicitly.

His comments "Let the evidence be seen, let the evidence be heard" -- this is in large part what I have called for myself. Still, some of the evidence that should be seen and heard includes the fact that some of the people claimed to be in this grave already have known grave sites elsewhere. While weighing opinions and evaluations, we should not forget the print comments from two of the actual archeologists in question to the effect that the current claims are unviable. One of the archeologists of the original site stated plainly that the current claims on probabilities were false claims, that the conclusions fail to hold up by archeological standards, and that he himself thought there was a profit motive in this latest film. (A profit motive in making a film, from the director of Titanic? Who'd have thought it?) Ok, I'm being silly, but this whole thing does make me roll my eyes, and I probably owe it to anyone reading to explain exactly why.

First, I was very nearly expecting something like this because recent years have seen a steady trend of releasing anti-Christian material -- and lately with media fanfare -- scheduled close to Easter. Examples shortly, but let me mention a few things: the media try to be audience-savvy, and the target market for these pieces is the growing anti-Christian market, such as folks who tend to buy the diatribes of the latest atheists willing to publish books saying that Christians are not only fools but dangerous ones.

Take a parallel example to watch how the markets work. Just as the parallel example, the existence of noticeable number of Christian apocalypse-watchers has provided a market for apocalypse books; but the market-watchers are savvy. So when the existence, durability, and profitability of this market became clear, an industry was developed to support it and feed it and profit by it. They also try to expand the market, just from a purely business standpoint of an industry that wants to see a profit: so the more apocalypse-watchers the better (from that perspective), and promoting those materials promotes apocalypse-watching. As a result, there is now an industry that gears itself to find and produce apocalyptic literature particularly tailored to people who consume apocalpytic fan fiction, if you'll pardon my flippancy.

In the same way, the growing anti-Christian demographic has been noticed as a market trend, and watching the production of such materials I have no real doubts that the market has established itself to the point where pieces are being created specifically for the anti-Christian market, that there is now a small industry devoted to finding and producing anti-Christian material. They probably have next Easter's piece planned already, and more in the pipe for later years. It's supply and demand. Now, looking at the production schedule, is demand for anti-Christian material particularly high at Easter, or is it just industry tradition like spring fashion shows? If you say neither, please consider a few things.
  • The movie of The Da Vinci Code was originally slated for release just before Easter last year; it was rescheduled for release in May (after Easter) only after they could not meet their original schedule.
  • Likewise last year a rather dated manuscript discovery, the Gospel of Judas, suddenly became news right before Easter. The rush to meet the Easter deadline -- and bypassing normal scholarly channels -- contributed to the fact that the original translation was faulty and perhaps at a few points misleading about whether Judas was really a hero.
  • A previous Easter warmup season had seen the release of the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, a collection of essays published largely by regulars at Internet Infidels and noted for its often-caustic tone and creative selection and interpretation of the facts. (Examples on request.)
  • Within that book, one of the individual chapters was originally released on the Internet Infidels website Easter weekend of 2001. I think the author originally published it on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, timing it as an attempt to rain on the Christian celebration of Jesus' resurrection. However, the material was not difficult to refute so there were at least two Christian responses up by that same Easter.
  • This year: another decades-old discovery suddenly becomes news right before Easter, touting claims long since dismissed by the actual archeologists involved.
All this around Easter: Coincidence? We can be charitable but let's not be naive; the Easter timing is no coincidence. The media has an anti-Christian market to feed, and is actively looking for and producing anti-Christian pieces to release annually around Easter. I'd actually been wondering where in the world this year's entries were when they finally announced this one, and I thought, "There they are!" Last year they had two entries, so they may not be quite finished this year. I think we should expect more of this in future years. I think, as with the apocalypse industry, it runs the risk of over-saturating; people will hear Chicken Little say the sky is falling until they cease to believe it. Likewise here I would not be surprised if a steady series of overreaching anti-Christian claims will eventually make people skeptical towards overreaching anti-Christian claims. Until that time, they will try to increase their market share by promoting anti-Christian views; that's what industries do when they have a product to sell.

You (SlaveOfOne) also sounded as if you believe there is insufficient actual evidence to make any conclusions at all about the tomb site in question. For my own part, I'll mention that Mary Magdalene's tomb has long been recognized as being in Constantinople, so I feel no qualms in saying that these current claims are going against existing evidence. Identifying a "Mariamne" ossuary as Mary Magdalene is also at least open to question; the New Testament never once refers to her (or any other Mary) as Mariamne, and Christian CADRE saved me the trouble of digging up the answers to a question I'd already wondered publicly, whether Mary Magdalene can be identified with Mariamne. The identification of a "Mariamne" or "Mariamene" ossuary with Mary Magdalene is a stretch just on the name itself, apart from the fact that she aleady has another tomb. That, along with the statements by the archeologists who have studied this material since its discovery in 1980, leaves me with no reason to take the current claims seriously. Look at the evidence, sure; give it a free ride despite the facts to the contrary, I don't think so. The current tomb has yet to rise above the level of an entertaining conspiracy theory.

I'm all in favor of facts and I enjoy a good piece of research. But as for a hardy and robust challenge, this just doesn't deliver; I'm not going to take a lightweight claim seriously just because they don't have anything better in the pipe for release this year. Probably the strongest thing they have going for them this year is an accomplished major motion picture director. We have to keep our perspective when a new claim conflicts with other facts already known. Even people who cannot consider Jesus' resurrection to be a fact for philosophical reasons would do well to look at the many other facts already available that contradict this particular claim. Assuming the film is correct about the Mariamne in the ossuary being married to the Jesus in the neighboring ossuary, it's simply another family with fairly common names.

Though have you noticed another stretched claim? Jesus wasn't married to Mary Magdalene in the first place. If it were the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene wouldn't be there anyway.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Annual Anti-Easter Pageant: 2007 Edition

It just wouldn't be springtime unless someone was preparing for Easter by putting together a press release, novel, article, book, or film designed to attack Christianity.

This year's entry is a burial chamber near Jerusalem found some decades ago containing a number of ossuaries, the Talpiot tomb, which is now being promoted as containing the physical remains of Jesus of Nazareth. Three of the ossuaries are said to have inscriptions Mara (a variant of Miriam, they say), Yose (Joseph), and Jesus son of Yose; another is said to bear the name Matthew. With this information, the 2007 edition of the anti-Easter pageant is set to begin.

Let me first declare my allegiance to reality: if, upon studying the case, I actually thought these were the bones of the Jesus of the New Testament, that would change my evaluation of Jesus. And naturally the facts as known now will become more complete as time goes on. Still, my first review of the case raises the following points:
  • The discovery dates to 1980. These claims are old and have been researched before. The archeologist who oversaw the excavations considers the current claims to be nonsense, though well-suited for publicity.
  • Neither is this the first time someone has tried to invent a grave for Jesus. He is also purported to be buried in Japan and India.
  • Update #2: James White believes that the upcoming documentary will claim that the ossuary of James was also found in this same tomb. Not only is that ossuary still undergoing a fraud investigation at this time, but its find has also been dated to the 1970's, which is before the discovery of the current burial site, which would mean that the James ossuary did not actually originate in the same tomb.
  • The names listed from the ossuaries were very common names.
  • As mentioned before, the early information has at least one name that does not actually coincide with the names as known to us in the Christian records, "Mara" for Mary. In historical records, Jesus' mother's name is Mariam (also spelled Miriam); "Mara" as said to be on the ossuary is not actually a direct match. If this were claimed to be Mary the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, it's not clear how common it was to inscribe an ossuary with something that is a variant of the person's name rather than the person's actual name. A full review of the original inscriptions is required to make any adequate assessment of how closely the names match.
  • The articles I've seen have not given the original form of "Jesus" from the ossuary, which would also be of interest in evaluating the claim.
    Update #1: James White, with more complete information on the claims, comments on the varying names on the ossuaries with a Mary link.
  • The current publicity has also not given the names from the entire set of ossuaries. If, in fact, this were the family tomb of Jesus, we should recognize all the men's names from the full set of ossuaries as belonging to Jesus' family from the Biblical records. I have yet to find a full listing of the names on the other ossuaries. The claim cannot be fully evaluated until the full findings are made known. But when certain names are highlighted and others are omitted from the lists, it does raise the question: Why the partial information?
  • The burial site of Mary, mother of Jesus, already has two contestants known to the early Christian community that knew and loved her; the site being currently discussed was unknown to the early church, which is to say those who knew Mary and were involved with laying her in her final resting place.
  • Another of the "Biblical names" found on an ossuary at that burial site is Matthew; however, that is actually a problem for claiming the tomb as the burial site of the holy family as Matthew was not a family member.
  • Further, the inclusion of the name Matthew, if assumed to be the evangelist Matthew who was a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, is problematic since the remains of Matthew also have a history that does not include the burial site in question.
  • The current round of research into this old burial site has apparently used DNA analysis to determine that this is a family tomb. Did they do a DNA analysis on the remains of Matthew? If the remains labeled "Matthew" are also genetically related to the sets of remains labeled Mara or Jesus, that would be fairly demonstrative proof that this is not, actually, the tomb of the Jesus of the New Testament, since we have fairly extensive lists of relatives in the New Testament and there is no Matthew among them.
  • The inclusion of a "Matthew" and the silence about, say, a "Simon" (which could be expected, as he is listed among Jesus' relatives) lead me to wonder whether we are looking at an entirely different family.
  • It would also require the belief that the Jewish authorities and Roman authorities, eager to stop this new religion, overlooked such an obvious location for the body as a family tomb with a labeled ossuary.

So the initial reality-check finds several points that are against this being the same Jesus in the Bible, along with some open questions where full information is not readily available. However, there is also an entirely separate set of problems for identifying these remains with that of the holy family, problems caused by the facts that this was, after all, an ossuary site. Ossuaries are bone remnants, a reburial made after the body has decayed down to merely bones. The supposition that these common names tied particularly to the Jesus and Mary of the Bible would require a number of other things to also be true:
  • It would mean that Jesus' family had kept track of his remains until they were bones fit for an ossuary and had still given their full endorsement to the accounts of his bodily resurrection.
  • It would mean that Mary and the rest of the holy family -- leaders in the Jerusalem church for decades and well-known figures to all the early Christian leaders -- were willfully deceiving the entire world including their closest friends for the remainder of their lives.
  • It requires believing that Jesus' family risked being put out of the synagogues and the floggings and death which the Jewish leadership were visiting on followers of Jesus, all for a lie they themselves had made.
  • It would mean that Jesus' brother James, who risked his life to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and was murdered by a Jewish mob for his trouble (see Josephus), did that in the full knowledge that the stories in circulation about Jesus were lies he had himself told.
  • It would require the belief that those family members who had doubted Jesus before his crucifixion also kept their silence with this inconvenient set of bones in the family tomb.
  • It would also mean that when Mary died and was buried years later and the tomb was re-opened to allow her burial, this other set of bones in the family tomb did not manage to be noticed or revealed.
  • If the other sets of bones in the tomb are presumed to be of people who died in later years after Jesus' crucifixion, the same problem would arise for each and every fresh burial: the inconveniently-labeled set of bones in the family tomb.
All in all, the "new" tomb from nearly 30 years ago sounds like just another entry in the annual anti-Christian pageant. It looks like a misidentified tomb with common names becoming part of an annual phenomenon: anti-Christians have discovered that, like the most dishonest televangelists, they too can make a dollar or a reputation off the name of Jesus. It has become a regular feature of spring.

Other articles of interest:
Internet Monk
Christian CADRE

Saturday, February 24, 2007

One holy catholic and apostolic church

This is a reply to Ed Jacoutot, a Roman Catholic fellow who has been commenting over at Dr. P's blog about the Protestant/Catholic divide. He asked,
I see nothing in these descriptions that Catholics can find a quarrel - and if there is hardly a quarrel - why are we not one? ... Maybe it will help (me at least) if some of your Protestant readers can tell us what it is that we Catholics or our Church [do that] makes them cringe so? And, maybe I am wrong - maybe the animosity I think I detect is much milder than I imagine and instead - we are in reality "Brothers in Christ". Wonderful would that be so. I’m listening.
Bless him, the world could use more people with that attitude on all sides. And first of all I have no doubt we are brothers and sisters in Christ. That is exactly what makes discussing our differences so delicate and awkward, and this post has to be one of the most-rewritten posts I've ever published.

Where to start?
To his question, the historical answer to "why are we not one?" is not where I'd choose to begin. I do not believe it helps towards reconciliation to focus on the dramatic events of the 1500's as such. It's not only that the high drama of such moments tends to inflame passions rather than to promote reason. It's also that the divisions and disaffections had been growing for a long time before that, and the historical moments of the 1500's were, by that point, I believe nearly inevitable. So to answer Ed's question, what exactly Rome does that makes other people cringe, I would step back, and not try to compile a list doctrines and practices or individual decrees, but the assumptions on each side that made the rest inevitable. So here's Ed's question as I receive it: how do I explain the underlying differences that fuel the rest of our differences? And how do I do it without giving offense? And I think the only place I can start is with the Nicene Creed.

One holy catholic and apostolic church
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
The Nicene Creed does a nice job of proclaiming what the church must be.
  • One: We all long for full unity. But I also believe that, whether we officially own each other or not, we are in some sense still genuinely unified in Christ, even if the mind says to the heart, "I don't need you," or something along those lines.
  • Holy: set apart for God.
  • Catholic: Just in case someone here is new to the discussion, "catholic" in its original and ancient sense simply meant universal in the sense of broadness, being comprehensive in range. It was a word in general use; originally it did not refer specifically to church matters or to the church in Rome, but to what was broad and all-encompassing.
  • And apostolic -- for the moment let's leave aside the question about whether anybody beyond the original apostles counts as an apostle, at least agree on this much: the original apostles of Christ are certainly included. Being apostolic means at the very least adhering to the things taught by Christ's own apostles. The idea of being apostolic is important in the sense of continuity, holding to the original teachings of Christ and his assembled believers, as a guarantee as to truth, to knowledge, and to purity. One of the church's great jobs is the faithful transmission of both the knowledge of Christ's redemptive work and the teachings of Christ as received from the original apostles and passed along to each new set of disciples.
The View from Rome
Then we come to the question of how Rome sees herself. I'm gathering from what I've heard from those belonging to the church of Rome: Rome definitely sees herself in the role of "one holy catholic and apostolic church." Some even see Rome as that to the exclusion of other Christians. Rome has a view of history in which she alone was faithful and true, where everyone else -- whether in error or in deliberate evil -- has left the only true and faithful church, by which she means herself. She sees herself as the catholic, broad, comprehensive church; she sees herself as the church tracing back to the apostles. She proclaims her catholicity and apostolic origins.

Evaluating Rome's Claims
Let me say plainly that if I actually believed that about the Roman Catholic church, I'd leave my church tomorrow and go to a Roman Catholic church without delay. Let me also say plainly that I'm not trying to get anyone in Rome to transfer their membership elsewhere; I'm not in the sheep-stealing business here. But most of the objections I have to Rome come directly from the question whether she is catholic and apostolic. I know it's nearly impossible to discuss these things without annoying everyone all around; my only excuse is that I was asked for my thoughts, and if anyone is curious, here they are. Let's take a few examples.

Do I see Rome as apostolic?
Rome claims Peter as the first pope; I know there has to be a temptation for any Roman Catholic reading along to jump into a conversation about whether "On this rock" (etc.) conveyed special authority to the bishop of Rome. And I think that's a conversation we'll have here, but not today when I'm responding to someone else's question. For now let's just discuss some implications of that claim that Peter is the first pope in a church that is ancient and apostolic. We know from Scripture that Peter was a married man, and his wife traveled with him on his missionary journeys. Today, Rome forbids that a married Roman Catholic man could become even a humble parish priest, much less pope. Just on the surface, that seems to go against the idea that Rome has kept the ancient faith and practices unchanged from the days of the apostles. It's also a little bewildering, from an outsider's perspective, that the "women priests" issue is addressed always in terms of what Christ did as the normative rule, but the "married priests" issue is not addressed in the same way with what Christ did being the normative rule. As I work through this example and others, please keep one thing in mind: I am not choosing my examples because I believe they are the keys to the division so that this particular thing (e.g. married priests) could resolve the division; no, instead I'm choosing my examples because I believe that Ed, the kind soul who asked the original question, or someone with a similar question could read it and understand why I'm unconvinced of Rome's claims about herself.

Do I see Rome as catholic?
My next example is the Copts, the ancient church of Egypt. The Copts have a subtly different understanding of the two natures of Christ. Most of the churches hold that Christ has two natures, one human and one divine. But the Copts hold that the human and divine natures inside Christ are united seamlessly as one nature which is both fully human and fully divine. They were excommunicated early in church history, after the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Copts say their views were never properly understood by the remainder of the church and that subsequent writings against them have often misrepresented their views. They have been condemned as monophysite in the sense of recognizing only one nature by denying either the humanity or the divinity of Christ; this is incorrect in their case because while they do recognize only one nature, that of the Incarnate Word, that nature is both fully human and fully divine. Now I am convinced that if "catholic" means "comprehensive, encompassing the broad range" then the Copts' view of Christ's nature should be within acceptable limits (more on that directly). If that's not included, then "catholic" isn't broad enough to deserve the name. I would like to clarify one thing: I am not saying that the church cannot define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable belief; I am saying that the holy catholic and apostolic church, using holy, catholic, and apostolic criteria to define those boundaries, would have included the Copts by now. Or to say the same thing the other way around, if the goal is to be holy, catholic, and apostolic, then there is nothing that would exclude that teaching of the Coptic church. True, there was a probable misunderstanding involved back in the 400's A.D.; but it has been well over a thousand years. The clarifications have been made long since. I'll say this: if the true church is the "one holy catholic and apostolic church", that church already includes the Copts within that definition. When I confess that I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, I have a picture in my mind that includes Anglicans like C.S. Lewis, Copts with their One Nature of the Incarnate Word, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Protestants and so forth. Such a church is catholic, though it's not particularly Roman Catholic.

Rome versus Constantinople, in a Lutheran's eyes
One more example should do it. I'd also like to consider the Eastern Orthodox, a church every bit as ancient as Rome. They protested that Rome had introduced new doctrines and practices, things that had not been received in the church tradition, things that had not been taught by the apostles or believed or practiced in the church in the wider world. Speaking for myself here, when we see a new doctrine or practice being introduced, being debated, perhaps being largely accepted in one region of the world but not in another, then that teaching is neither catholic nor apostolic by definition; if we saw a new teaching introduced some centuries after Christ's apostles came and went, then that doctrine can never be apostolic in the same sense as doctrines taught by Peter and John and the earliest church. As such, I do not see how it can properly become a required teaching without damaging the claim that the church's required teachings have ancient and unbroken apostolic authority.

The rest of the story of Constantinople is, like the story of Luther, so dramatic and so tragic, so history-shaking, that I will not review the story here in any depth because it also tends to inflame passions rather than aid reason. I will make this brief comment. At that critical moment when the Christian city of Constantinople was about to be conquered by a Muslim army, when Constantinople applied to Rome for help, Rome made such official help conditional on doctrinal concessions. I have heard Roman Catholics complain that the Eastern Orthodox, in their desperation for military aid, behaved improperly. I will even say that, from where I sit, it looks like some certain ones of them did behave improperly. But I have never heard a Roman Catholic suggest that their own church, in its desperation for doctrinal concessions, behaved improperly in placing such a horrendous condition on aid for the Eastern Church, which, since then, has greatly diminished under hostile rule to the point where many people honestly suppose that Christianity is a merely western religion. Once you work out what, exactly, were the bargaining chips on the table being weighed against each other, I simply don't see how that was anything other than the original Indecent Proposal. There's not a Roman Catholic alive today who bears even the slightest responsibility for what happened back then. The shame is that it happened at all, and that the divisions have continued.

The Protest Begins
I haven't reviewed all the pre-existing divisions in the church here, just enough to serve as examples. At the end of the 1400's A.D., the one holy catholic and apostolic church was deeply and bitterly feuding within itself worldwide. This is the scene onto which a German monk strayed and nailed some debating points to a church door. Some of the objections he raised had been raised by the Eastern Orthodox before him, though in a more polished Eastern Orthodox voice than his unpolished rustic German one. I can't help but wonder if that was a chance missed in which certain non-catholic, non-apostolic doctrines and practices could have been renounced -- or at least set aside as non-catholic, non-apostolic, and therefore non-binding -- and the church could have been re-unified.

But if Rome would not listen to Constantinople whom it in some sense respected, it would not listen to a hot-headed German priest and professor. However, this time the issues were raised within the territory of the Roman Catholic church, and a great number of the people found themselves in sympathy with the frustrated German monk, not for his charm to be sure, but because he had the courage to say what so many had long been thinking. The aftermath left no real doubt: large numbers of the faithful followers of Christ already had grave doubts about the church in Rome.

To answer Ed more directly
All that I wrote above had one aim: that you know what is in my mind when I give a more brief and direct answer to the question asked. For me, the main issue with the Roman Catholic church is not that she is outdated and apostolic, but that she is not apostolic enough; not that she has such variety of peoples and beliefs, but that the variety is not quite broad enough to deserve the name catholic. For me, the biggest cringe factor in Rome is the way Rome treats other Christians, and the most dangerous doctrine she teaches is that she cannot possibly be wrong even on doctrines and practices that are not properly catholic and apostolic as I've discussed at some length above. From there, it's a direct implication that, according to Rome, she cannot possibly need to change, she cannot possibly be an obstacle to the union of the church, and it is unthinkable that the problems lie exactly with whether Rome is truly catholic and apostolic.

When men like C.S. Lewis are outside the Roman Catholic church, when churches like the Copts and the Orthodox are outside the Roman Catholic church, that church is not catholic. A church is not catholic and apostolic unless it includes every single shade of belief which truly reflects the apostolic teaching, and requires no beliefs beyond what is apostolic and catholic.

A united church?
I dream, hope, and pray for a re-united church. If you have made it this far reading material that is incendiary yet hopelessly tedious at the same time, I can think of no other explanation than that you also dream, hope, and pray for a re-united church.

Picture it: within the Church Catholic, an esteemed and ancient Coptic School of interpretation (or an Alexandrian School, if they'd rather be known after the ancient See of Alexandria). The Eastern Orthodox School of interpretation would bring the understanding of God's essence and God's energies to the rest of the church, an understanding which has developed in the Christian East but is fairly undeveloped in the Christian West. The different prayer traditions of the various churches would enrich each other. And, as a side benefit, when the criteria for beliefs and practices became "holy, catholic, and apostolic", the majority of serious objections raised by the Protestants would also be addressed. When the church (all-inclusive) becomes holy, catholic, and apostolic, I believe she will find that she is already One.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Christianity in Tolkien: What is Strength?

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also challenges our worldly ideas of strength. Is there a land in all of Middle Earth strong enough to defeat Mordor?
A land like the Shire
could defeat a land like Mordor
not by might of arms such as the long stalemate waged by Gondor
but like this, with compassion for the enemy.
In Tolkien's scheme, the Shire was stronger than Gondor. Gondor, for all its might of arms, had become a little too much like Mordor, just as Saruman had become a little too much like Sauron. But the Shire was a humble land filled with people who boasted no great deeds. They loved good tilled earth, good food and celebrations. They alone in Middle Earth had the strength needed to defeat Mordor. They still had humility, compassion, and hope. Frodo's love of his enemy played an essential role in the rescue of Middle Earth.

All graphics from New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, presented under fair usage.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What do the KKK and the NAACP have in common?

This was written in response to Dr. Platypus' call for posts on racial reconciliation as part of the next Christian Reconciliation Carnival, which he will be hosting. I'm swerving an inch from the topic, but it's still in the same neighborhood. Dr. P.'s call for posts is up; please send in your posts and questions on anything related to Christian reconciliation for the next Christian Reconciliation Carnival.

The KKK and the NAACP agree?
I did a spooky thing researching this post. I actually went and read several articles at a KKK website to do a little fact-checking. Yes, of course I found some appalling things; I'd have to rate that website "exceeds expectations" on prejudice. Their message was being dressed up and marketed as some sort of Christian nationalism, even though I expect most Christians -- including most Christians of European descent -- would have trouble recognizing Christianity in their message.

The reason I went to the Klan site is because I was fairly sure I had noticed some common ground between the message of the KKK and the NAACP. No, really, hear me out. Here are things that both the KKK and NAACP want to point out: Drug problems in the black community. Welfare-dependence, poverty, family breakdown in the black community. Blacks overrepresented among criminals and convicts. HIV/AIDS rampant in the black community. Poor educational performance in the black community. When both the leaders of a community and their worst enemies acknowledge the same problems, it's time to admit that the problems are there. I also wonder whether the best way to disarm those enemies (e.g. the Klan) is to effectively tackle the problems in the black community. Effectively ... that's where the rubber meets the road.

If we believe the problems in the black community are hopeless, if we have abandoned the problems and the people and made it "their" problem not "our" problem, then racism has already crept in. If we give up hope for the redemption of black communities, then we give up the common ground of our shared humanity. If pointing a blaming finger replaces love, the difference between our thoughts and open bigotry becomes a matter of degree rather than kind.

The Image of God
When I read those articles at the Klan website, I saw a trend in how the Klan views blacks. The KKK does not recognize in blacks what is common to all humanity: the image of God. Blacks are made in the image of God, like all other races, and because of this blacks have an incalculable worth and dignity through God's act of love in making his masterpiece of humanity. The image of God is one that blacks also share including a rational mind, the capability of love, and the drive to creativity. Blacks, along with all of mankind, are given the gift of lordship over the world and the responsibility of care for the world, and the call to be a channel of God's blessing to the world. Blacks, along with all of humanity, are loved and treasured by God. Bigotry fails to see the image of God in the other.

The Fall of Man
When I read those articles at the Klan website, I saw a trend in how the Klan views whites. The main thing the KKK does not recognize in whites is also common to all humanity: the fall into sin. We all share in the fall, blacks and whites both. Christ died for us all, and has redeemed us from every nation, tribe, people, and language. Christ restores us, cleans us, forgives us. He binds up the brokenhearted, is at home with the outcasts, and welcomes sinners. This is our common humanity and our common bond. While prejudice may talk the game of being Christian, it does not see our sin as our common bond, does not offer hope of redemption. Strangely, we find that self-elevating self-righteousness degrades us, while in our humility we are uplifted.

Hope and Transformation
There is a limit to what a law can do. In the years since slavery was abolished in this country, some things have become very clear. No law can set a man's mind free. No law can give hope. No law, reaching in from the outside, can change what is inside us. Justice in the laws was necessary; it just wasn't enough. Opportunity is necessary, but it is also not enough to fix a broken life or a broken community. If the black communities are to have life again, there must be hope. Hope causes change from the inside out. It allows people to notice opportunities and do something with them. The first hope has already been discussed: that we are all made in the image of God. Next I'll discuss the very practical hope of redemption.

In the U.S., an incredible number of young black men give up on themselves and become criminals. It is common to hear the call: let's reach the next generation and save them from that fate. I think that's too low and distant a goal. I think we have to reach this generation and save this generation from that fate, even the people already in prison. Redemption can do that. Redemption starts with lives that are already ruined and meets them with compassion instead of judgment, forgiveness instead of accusation. Redemption proclaims the year of the Lord's favor when our debts are canceled, our sins are forgiven. I do not believe it will work to reach the children but give up on the parents. I believe we must reach the parents, wherever they are, even in prison, with the message of hope and redemption.

We hear that it is unfair how many blacks end up in prison. That raises a whole series of questions about whether the justice system works. But I think the justice system has problems at every stage, not just in the courtrooms, not just in the arrests, but in how different neighborhoods are handled. There is a temptation to solve the problem backwards, trying to reduce how many people are caught rather than how many people commit crimes. Failing to address the crime problem in black neighborhoods just leads to more black-on-black crime. This makes for some neighborhoods that are overrun by crime, neighborhoods where I wouldn't want to stay after dark. So how about the people trying to raise families there? If black communities are going to have their dignity restored, they must be safe places to raise children, safe places to live, safe places to work, safe places to start businesses.

My neighbor across the street is a teenage black girl who spends weekdays with her aunt on the wrong side of the tracks and weekends with her father in my neighborhood. "The police don't care," she tells me. There's crime going on all over the place. Parents send their young children to run drugs for them because nobody will question a child. "They aren't doing anything to stop them." Speaking of needing a safe neighborhood, this young girl has already been raped twice while in the other neighborhood; it has definitely taken a toll on her outlook on life. Chalk up a few more reasons for needing to reach the parents' generation if we want to give hope to the children.

The Light of the World?
In those neighborhoods, where are the churches? My friend tells me that her church in that neighborhood is full of people who praise the Lord on Sunday and deal crack on Monday. I wonder, does the preacher ever tell them to stop? Did he used to tell them to stop but gave up? Has he kept saying it but stopped meaning it, stopped expecting anybody to listen to him? Or does he just not dare to say anything for fear people won't listen and he'll be proved irrelevant? Meanwhile, by not saying anything, he would have already made himself irrelevant on that level. The Bible isn't afraid to name the ugly sins we fall into, the ways we trap ourselves and wreck our lives.

It may not be that simple. It may be that the church is the only thing those drug dealers have to keep them from giving up on life completely. Then again, the preacher is human too; it has to be tempting to give up.

It's easy to sit here in a mostly-white corner of the blogosphere and try to play armchair quarterback on the problems in someone else's community. If we're looking at Christian reconciliation, it has to start here: we have to know each other. We have to meet each other and talk to each other. We have to listen to each other, even offer support. I think my church has a sister church in some country in Eastern Europe, where we check on their well-being and their needs, offer them prayers and support; we make it a point to offer friendship, to know how they are and ask how they are. But we don't have a sister church in a poor neighborhood in our own city. Black churches and white churches are, by and large, not "in fellowship" with each other doctrinally. The church's divisions help perpetuate the brokenness and dysfunction of poor communities, making us relatively ineffective in addressing problems. The ultimate Christian gift we can give each other is fellowship.

I wish there were a nice tidy conclusion to this post. But if there were, this post would no longer match the real world. The real conclusion to racial reconciliation is when redemption reaches every corner of the real world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is man a machine or a masterpiece?

The Dawn Treader has been the latest in this neighborhood to discuss whether man is a machine -- a biological machine. Can human consciousness be reduced to "the laws of chemistry and physics plus boundary conditions" acting on matter?

Let's start here: Is the Mona Lisa just paint? Physically, it's just paint. As much as "it's just paint" is not a fair assessment of the Mona Lisa, it's still true: physically, it's just paint. What do we miss when we say that it's just paint? We miss the relationship of the Mona Lisa to the artist who made it, to his mind and to his world, and the meaning that it has because of that relationship.

Let's go one more step: The Mona Lisa amazes us with its artistry precisely because it's just paint. The real marvel that draws us time and again is this: how can you get an effect like that with just paint?

The problem with reductionism is that it does not understand complexity. Reducing something always loses something; otherwise it would not be reducing. The human mind is complex. Can human consciousness be reduced to "the laws of chemistry and physics plus boundary conditions" acting on matter? Well, I actually expect that it can, in the same way that the Mona Lisa has a lot in common, chemically, with some paint buckets in my garage. I expect that we are works of art on such a level that we should marvel, "How can you get those effects with just physics and chemistry?" It takes an amazing artist with vision and a master's command of the medium.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Christianity in Tolkien: What Is Wisdom?

In Tolkien's Middle Earth, Saruman began as wisest of the wise. He spent his time in arcane research in a high tower. He had rare forms of knowledge, uncommon access to information. Isn't that wisdom as the world conceives it?
Gandalf was not generally reckoned to be as wise as Saruman. He spent his time with his feet on the ground, and found himself drawn to the humble.
And when he chose specialized knowledge, the kind he chose was the knowledge not of domination but of friendship, the kind of knowledge that could lead him to know when a friend needed help, or when to show up for a long-expected birthday party.
In Tolkien's scheme, Gandalf was wiser than Saruman, and Gandalf's view of wisdom was truer than Saruman's. A wisdom that forgets why life is worth living, and why good is worth defending, is not wisdom at all. True wisdom is not proud but humble; true wisdom does not exalt itself but exalts the lowly. It has room for friendship, even room for self-sacrifice if that is the price for maintaining these things. True wisdom places love first, and is recognized by joy and gladness. The other may appear wise, but is not.

All graphics from New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, presented under fair usage.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Galileo and Socrates

The other day I met two people who wanted to claim that Christianity has a thing against science, trying to make a general case out of Galileo. I think that's historically ludicrous, given that all the modern sciences and the most advanced mathematics were first developed in Christian lands. That started me thinking how to get them to see past their prejudices and look at the bigger picture. Next time the topic comes up, I think I might see what they make of this; it should be a decent conversation-starter.

Would you say, in the death of Socrates, that Greece had shown its true colors as being against philosophy?

I'd expect not; Greece is the birthplace of many branches of philosophy. The death of Socrates can be understood various ways, but the record as a whole shows there is not a general Greek reaction against or opposition to philosophy; in fairness, few cultures have supported philosophy more.

But that is exactly the same variety of argument that anti-Christians make about Christianity's supposed opposition to science based on the imprisonment of Galileo. It does not matter to them that Christendom is the birthplace of many branches of science. The record as a whole shows there is not a general Christian reaction against or opposition to science, and in fairness few cultures have supported science more than Christian cultures. The modern sciences grew up in Christian cultures.

I'd contend that the Greeks made real but isolated mistakes, and taken as a whole few cultures have ever done more to develop philosophy. On the same ground I'd also contend that the Christians made real but isolated mistakes, and no culture has ever done more to develop the sciences.