Saturday, July 31, 2010

The voice crying out in the desert

There are some things that all four gospels record. Not all of them record Jesus' birth. Not all of them mention things from Jesus' childhood. But all four of them do record John the Baptist preparing the way for him.

In fact, all four gospels connect John the Baptist with the prophecy of the voice crying out in the wilderness (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23):
The voice of him that cries out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the LORD. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places into a plain." (Isaiah 40:3-4)

The phrasing is similar enough to teachings about exalting the humble and casting down the proud that we can take the hint: we're the wilderness. And when John the Baptist came, his work included teaching honesty and contentment -- not exactly traditional construction work for a road builder, if Isaiah had been discussing literal highways.

John's main work, baptism, also points to the rough places being inside us. The gospels record him casting down mountains and straightening out the crooked -- it's just that we were the crooked ones. To put it plainly, the chief obstacles to a smooth entrance for God are inside our own hearts and minds.

To be sure, nothing will stop God's kingdom coming. It's just a question of whether he finds us as a rocky desert or well-watered plain.

We are once again at a time much like John the Baptist's time. We are once again waiting for the Messiah to come. But Jesus sent his followers out to baptize and teach. If we are the ones baptizing and teaching, then we have inherited John the Baptist's job. It is our turn to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the LORD. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

You are the Messiah: and everything changes

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." -- Peter (Matthew 16:16)
"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." -- Jesus (Matthew 16:18)

There it is. It's probably a tribute to my own blindness that I could have looked at it so many times and never have seen it before: It is that confession – the confession that Jesus is the Messiah – that brings us together as the church.

That is why Jesus pressed the question, "Who do you say that I am?" That is why Jesus chose this moment – the moment of Peter's confession – to proclaim that he was building a "church" - an assembly of people called out for a purpose.

If Jesus is only one of the prophets, there is nothing to call us together. John the Baptist and Elijah and Jeremiah were prophets. There are no Jeremian churches; Jeremiah came to proclaim someone else. John the Baptist came to proclaim someone else. They proclaimed God and his Messiah.

If God is in heaven, and we are on earth, what do we have to do with each other? If this world is falling apart for the lack of the presence of God, aching for things to be put right again, then when will God put things back in order?

That's what the prophets were explaining to us: God would set aside someone – a righteous king – who would rule with justice and who would cause peace to flourish. This king was the Messiah.

People are waiting for the "kingdom of god" – for God to rule and put things right again. The first sign of its coming is recognizing that king.

So the sign that God has not forgotten this world is that he has sent his Messiah. And it is as Messiah that we proclaim Jesus: not only as a teacher, for there have been many teachers. Not only as a prophet, for there have been many prophets. But as Messiah: God's sign to us all that our world has a future, that we have a future, because the kingdom of God will come to this world. He is God's sign to the world that death is not the end, that sin does not get the last word, but forgiveness and resurrection win in the end because of the Messiah.

It is only when we understand Jesus as the Messiah a that we have a reason to hope and a message to proclaim.

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." -- Peter (Matthew 16:16)
"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." -- Jesus (Matthew 16:18)

Notice how Jesus makes his acknowledgment of Peter into a mirror of Peter's recognition of Jesus. When we recognize who Jesus is, it does not transform who Jesus is – but it does transform who we are.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: Series Conclusion

I appreciate everyone's patience during the time that I had put this series on hold. I wanted to give the earnest Mormon in the comment thread a fair chance. He seems to be exactly the kind of very good Mormon that I mentioned at the outset of the series. I was not going to continue until he'd had a chance to say anything I might not have considered before. I was entirely prepared to rewrite the conclusion here if he should have surprised me; that's why I held it back rather than posting it right away.

To sum up where the series has been up til now, we looked at one of the questions that skeptics raise about the Book of Mormon: Does it mention coins in the ancient New World, when (as best as we can determine) there was no such thing before the Europeans arrived? It appears to be a historical problem. We looked at the claim and the counter-claim from the Mormons, and then the real question came up: What about all the avenues of further research that could have been pursued if this question had been raised about the Bible?
  • We considered the ancient manuscripts of the Bible, and the absolute lack of known ancient manuscripts for the Book of Mormon.
  • We looked at the resources for studying the ancient languages of the Bible, and the fact that we do not know what the original language of the Book of Mormon is supposed to have been.
  • We looked at how the general historical background can help answer questions on the Bible because we can place many Biblical cities and events on a map and timeline in world history. We looked at how little certainty -- or even plausibility -- there has been matching the places and events in the Book of Mormon to known places or events in the ancient New World.
  • We looked at the supplemental literature produced by the same cultures that produced the Bible, and the lack of supplemental literature in the New World about the Book of Mormon or the events it describes.
  • We looked at the intended audience -- how the Bible assumes the reader has knowledge of money system in the time period being described, and how the Book of Mormon assumes the reader does not have knowledge of the money system in the time period being described. That is, the Book of Mormon may not have been written for the use of the culture described in it.

As I mentioned from the beginning, the question "Was it a coin?" was only a case study in how to research and find the answer to questions. The original claim that the “pieces” of precious metal didn't mean “coins” cannot be proved wrong -- but it cannot be proved right either. There is no appeal to ancient manuscripts showing that it really meant pieces of metal. There is no appeal made to the original word in the original language; they are both unknown. There is no appeal to the supplemental literature of the cultures involved, or to the approximate time and place of the events and how it was known they used weighted metal of the types described. The entire counter-claim -- that it didn't mean "coins" -- is made without any appeal to facts of the type that might settle the question for us.

So the time has come to ask a different question: not why this one particular thing cannot be proved about the Book of Mormon's relation to history, but whether anything at all can be proved about the Book of Mormon's relation to history. Whether or not someone believes the Bible, it is clearly a product of ancient cultures with a background in real cities, real civilizations, real languages, real cultures with real living histories. On the other hand, someone might easily believe the Book of Mormon had been invented out of whole cloth, and there would be no solid fact or piece of evidence to contradict that – anywhere, of any kind, to the best of my knowledge.

The depth of the problem is serious. Imagine how skeptics of the Bible would behave if there were no known place called "Jerusalem" or "Galilee" or "Egypt", no known ruler named "Herod" or "Pilate" or "Caesar". Imagine that this was a problem not just for the few places or people I have named here, but for every last name or place mentioned in the Bible. Then you begin to appreciate the level of problem faced by the Book of Mormon. And I think no one could blame them, if a person with a grain of skepticism said: The simplest explanation is that the whole thing was made up.

It may be that tomorrow's archaeological find makes it necessary to re-think this. But unless it does, I cannot imagine believing the Book of Mormon's core claim that it is comparable to the Bible in laying out a history of God's people. When it comes to having roots in the world we know and recognize, it's not even close.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Study of Christian Origins

Just a few more weeks until the worst of busy season is past at work. I'm still posting pre-written pieces, but they're things that haven't been posted before.

How did Christianity become the most widely believed religion in the history of the world? How did it become the most widely spread, cross-cultural religion ever known? What could explain its rise from a despised sect of Judaism to its phenomenal success in the succeeding centuries? What could explain how it grew and thrived even when persecuted by both political and religious opponents?

The study of Christian origins seeks to answer these questions. Specifically, it seeks to answer them through academic study, without making any appeal for the truth of Christianity. It seeks to answer these questions while assuming a secular point of view; that is, while assuming that the truth claims of Christianity are not relevant to the question.

This type of study of early Christianity has made some interesting observations. Women may have enjoyed relatively better status in Christianity. Christianity's insistence that life is sacred meant that children were not exposed to the elements as infants in order to be killed. Jesus' teachings on compassion for the sick -- put into action through his followers -- meant that more people survived diseases and epidemics. In short, part of Christianity's success has been attributed to the fact that Christianity is useful to a culture's survival, a beneficial influence in practical terms.

However, all of this overlooks one vital factor, the one that was excluded from the beginning of the study: the question of Christianity’s truth. It may be that the academics studying the question have already decided in their own minds that nothing supernatural could possibly be true. It may be that, in their care to exclude any personal bias from their studies, the believers have accepted the restriction that the truth or untruth of Christianity must be set aside as a personal view irrelevant to the question before us. So the academic field seems to have concluded that the question of Christianity's truth or untruth must be excluded from the equation of how Christianity grew and succeeded. At any rate, in the interest of objectivity we should not bring our personal points of view into an academic question.

Here I would like to raise one question: was the truth or untruth of Christianity relevant in the perception of the new Christians in the period studied by Christian origins? For the people whose lives comprise this remarkable growth of Christianity, was the perceived truth of Christianity relevant or irrelevant? Would they have said they were Christians because it helped them to survive epidemics, or would they have said they were Christians because they believed Jesus Christ rose from the dead? And if some few were interested in surviving epidemics, does that mean that earlier Christians were already caring for the sick before they knew whether it would be helpful to them or might instead be their own death sentence?

I do not mean to say that the academic study of Christian origins should become another quest for the historical Jesus. I do not mean to say that academics should bring their own assumptions about the truth or untruth of Christianity to the table. I mean to say this: the secularists have already brought their own assumptions about the untruth of Christianity, or of the irrelevance of the truth, to the table and have projected their own unbelief or academic agnosticism back onto the earliest to converts to Christianity. Not only is this an anachronism, it is a complete loss of objectivity to project modern academic dispassion back onto the lives and motives of the earliest Christians.

The proper question for the academic study of Christian origins is why Christianity grew so successfully. If some modern researchers do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead -- or do not believe that they should bring their own beliefs into the study of Christian origins -- that is no reason to suppose the early Christians did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that the early Christians would have found it irrelevant whether or not he did. There is reason to believe they did not consider that to be irrelevant, but may have considered it the most vital question.

It is completely true that I do not want to read a study -- that there is very little value in a study -- in which the researchers cannot set aside their own presuppositions and get a fresh look at the facts. In this sense, the study of Christian origins has made a contribution. The atheists, agnostics, and other secularists must do better than to claim that Christianity spread simply because the ancients were stupid and superstitious, and that no answer is necessary beyond insulting the backwardness of people who came before us. Christians likewise are challenged to see things through a different lens -- to recognize that early Christianity was not perfect and that some people find the supernatural difficult to accept. But the real answer to Christian origins does not lie in the reasons why we do or do not accept Christianity today; it lies in the reasons that the early Christians accepted Christianity in their day. For the study of Christian origins it is not a valid question whether or not we believe it to be true, but it is very much a valid question whether they did. Keeping that question off the table is a disservice to us all. Whenever it is excluded from consideration, the study of Christian origins is a travesty.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Getting the most bang for your charity buck

Times being what they are, here are a few tips for stretching our charity dollars. If you have any other tips, please share.
  1. Not sure what to do when a beggar asks you for cash? Keep some McDonald's gift cards on hand. (Any restaurant will do, so long as they aren't too strict on the dress code.) Even if this person trades the card for cash, the other person will take it only if they need the food. Eventually, someone will have a meal from it.
  2. Buy your magazine subscriptions through a charity. For example, M.D. Anderson's Children's Art Project has a magazine subscription drive where they receive a percentage of the proceeds from a number of popular magazine subscriptions. Money you were going to spend anyway now helps a good cause. You may also get a discount on the subscription.
  3. Donate your magazines to a hospital. Now you're really stretching that charity dollar.
  4. Screen your charities. Pick charities with low overhead costs for administration and advertising. Their latest annual report should be available on their website. If it isn't, that's a red flag.
  5. If you have a flower or vegetable garden, take a little something to your neighbor. The old shut-in is a good candidate; most neighborhoods have at least one. Charity doesn't have to involve cash; it's the kindness that counts.

Book of Mormon series: Note

Hi there

I know I said my next post would be the conclusion of the Book of Mormon series ... but that was before I knew an earnest Mormon would come along trying to change what my conclusion is. And while I don't know if he has anything to say that would change my opinion, I would be doing him wrong at this point if I didn't give him his chance.

So pardon the interruption in the series while I give the earnest Mormon a chance to respond to my comments previously. And I'll move on for the time being, hoping to hear back from him soon.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: The Intended Audience

This continues a series looking at a sample question about the Book of Mormon -- the question of whether the text mentions 'coins' and what that means. The focus is generally not so much on the coins, but on the resources for understanding the original text that are available for the Book of Mormon or for the Bible.

We're nearly done; this is the next-to-last entry in this series. Next time I make it a little clearer what was the point of this exercise.

If we were to look at the Bible and try to settle a question about their money at various points in the narrative – whether it was coins or weighted metal or anything else – we would still not have exhausted our options. If you look at the money discussed in the Bible, a drachma or a denarius and so forth – sure, we actually have samples that archaeologists have found. We know exactly what they look like. Dealers in ancient coins even have them for sale. For those whose pockets aren't so deep, the pictures can still be found on the internet. But consider this: the Bible actually has little direct information on the coins. The most detailed passage is probably when Jesus calls attention to the image and inscription of Caesar on some coins used in his day. But he does this to make a point about the coin's relationship to Caesar. For the most part, the coins aren't described; they are simply background to the financial transactions taking place.

Why are the coins in the Bible not described? The Biblical texts do not describe the coins because everybody knew what they were. I wouldn't describe a penny or a quarter to you; you already know what they are. I wouldn't tell you how many pennies in a quarter, or how many quarters to a dollar, because everyone in this culture already knows how many pennies to a quarter and how many quarters to a dollar.

Odd, odd, odd, that the Book of Mormon stops and explains their money system, how many of this goes into one of the next size up, and so forth.
5 Now the reckoning is thus -- a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold.
6 A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver.
7 A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.
8 Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.
9 And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon.
10 And a limnah of gold was the value of them all.
11 And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums.
12 And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums.
13 And an onti was as great as them all.
14 Now this is the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning --
15 A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.
16 And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon.
17 And a leah is the half of a shiblum.
18 Now this is their number, according to their reckoning.
19 Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons.
(Book of Mormon, Alma 11:9-19)

It's tempting to get drawn into the details, but it's difficult to know where to start.
  • The money-unit suffixes contain a bizarre mix of endings. Some are Latin-looking suffixes (-um) and Greek-looking suffixes (-on) that, theoretically, shouldn't even be there in a book of supposedly Hebrew-ish origins. The few plurals are formed English-style on top of the Greek-looking or Latin-looking roots (-ons, -ums). There is no sign of any Hebrew-looking plurals (-ot, -im). It makes the observer wish even more keenly for a look at the supposed original language; it would be fascinating. The skeptic could easily imagine Joseph Smith's amateurish hand at work.
  • If it was just by weight, would there be a point to the table of how many silver this amounted to how many silver of the next unit, or how many gold of one unit equaled how many gold of the next unit? If it's twice as heavy it's worth twice as much, right? So the fact that there is an explanation suggests actual coins rather than weights.
  • Speaking of weights -- if it were by actual weights, you'd expect to see the measures re-used somewhere. We use ounces to weigh both gold and silver. If some of the units were weights, why would they have different units for gold and silver? Different values for gold and silver, sure. Different basic units of weight for gold and silver -- why in the world?

If our focus were coins or money, this would be a problem for the Book of Mormon's credibility, since several different lines of argument from the text converge on the units being actual coins rather than weights, and the ancient New World had no coins as best we can tell. (That's without the linguistic points of interest in the coin names, which pose an entirely different problem for the Book of Mormon's credibility.)

But our focus is on the bigger picture than the question of the money used. So let's step back a little and look at the context.

Some Bibles have little tables explaining ancient coin systems – but they are not part of the text; they do not have a chapter and verse. Those tables of the coin systems have been added as study aids because modern readers of our time and culture do not know the ancient coin systems. The original texts don't contain an explanation because everyone who shared that culture already knew their own coin system.

Why did the Book of Mormon stop and explain the money system in the middle of its narrative? What was its audience? The only book I can recall – aside from the Book of Mormon – that stops to explain the coin system in the middle of the narrative is the Harry Potter books explaining the knuts and sickles and galleons.
"The gold ones are Galleons," he [Hagrid] explained. "Seventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle, it's easy enough." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, from their visit to Diagon Alley.)
The book stopped to explain the coin system precisely because the readers would not know what they were; in other words, precisely because they were made-up and imaginary coins that nobody in the real world had ever used. So why did the original authors of the Book of Mormon, a supposedly ancient text about a supposedly real culture, stop to describe the monetary system in the middle of the narrative?

I suppose someone could say the original Book of Mormon in the original language didn't contain that – that Joseph Smith added it to be helpful to modern readers. There would be no way anyone could prove that claim wrong, given that there are no manuscripts in the original languages. Then again, there would be no way the claimant could prove himself right, either.

Next time: the conclusion and the point of this exercise.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: Supplemental literature of the originating culture

Continuing a comparison of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The point of comparison is this: What resources are available to settle a question about the original meaning of a passage? The case-in-point was the question whether the Book of Mormon originally intended to refer to "coins", used as an example of resources for researching the original meaning.

I don't want to stray too far from the coins or pieces of precious metal. In the case of the Bible, we have other vital resources available to us. Sure, the culture that produced the Old Testament of the Bible eventually scattered and eventually took up other languages than the original language of their sacred writings. But they were still a religious and scholarly culture, and did not stop meeting to hear the words of their sacred book, and did not stop writing and discussing their sacred texts. To settle a question about the original meaning of a passage in the Bible, we could turn to other literature produced by the same culture. There were translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament made in the new languages that the people spoke. There were scrolls used for Scripture reading kept in the synagogues. There was the scholarly, encyclopedic work of the Talmud, which preserves a telescoped version of centuries' worth of conversation on the Old Testament texts. You can review how a certain passage was understood, and what its implications were seen to be, even without all the other helps we have discussed. The Talmud preserves what may be trace memories of the Exodus in the living memory of the people, and trace memories of Moses and the beginnings of regular public Scripture readings. It has commentary on how various laws were observed. If you wanted to settle a question about how to understand a passage in the Old Testament – or check on a question about the money – you could likely find several types of help in the copies kept for worship, the translations made for people who had begun to speak other languages, or in the scholarly and legal commentaries on the texts. There is a lot of supplemental literature from the Jewish culture to help us understand the Old Testament.

Problem: with the Book of Mormon, there is no supplemental literature in the ancient world for the Book of Mormon. But beyond that – and in my eyes it at least as large a problem for the Mormons – there is, as yet, no sign that the ancient Americas had any supplemental literature for the Old Testament, even the Torah. If a Jewish culture had come to the Americas, they would have brought the Torah and lived by the Torah. For a Jewish culture, not doing so would have been unthinkable. So for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it's not merely a question, “Where are the synagogue scrolls of the Book of Mormon?” It brings up the larger question, “Where are the synagogue scrolls of the Old Testament? Where are the copies of the Torah that they were bound by Jewish law to study and accustomed to read whenever they met? Where are the writings of the culture that used the Old Testament in worship and studied the Old Testament in their scholarship? Where have the archaeologists found the mezuzahs containing Scripture that would have been affixed to the doorposts of their houses?” Here the question looms larger: where is there any sign at all that a Jewish culture existed in the ancient New World? Even if the Old Testament were to disappear (God forbid!), there would still be enough supplemental literature to reconstruct it based on other writings from Jewish cultures in the Old World. If the story contained in the Book of Mormon is true, shouldn't we have that same situation in the New World?