Sunday, December 31, 2023

Best of the Blogroll 2023

I like to welcome the New Year on this blog by a grateful recognition of the posts from the prior year which most enlightened, edified, or uplifted me, from my blog friends and neighbors. Here are the best-loved posts of 2023:  

  • At Common Denominator, one of Ken Schenck's "recap" style posts caught my eye with acknowledging the need to bridge the gap between church academics and congregations
  • At Glory To God For All Things, there is an unfortunately persistent blog malfunction with the permalinked page, but one of my favorite posts there does come up early on the search results for The Way of Shame and the Way of Thanksgiving. In better news, the permalink is more functional for his Thanksgiving reflection on The Communion of Giving Thanks, with its unexpected insight for our understanding of atonement. 
  • At Hyperekperissou, Phil Snider continued with a series of book reviews. I find myself intrigued by the "home monastery" idea presented recently as a practical guide to a contemplative life. 
  • Michael Kelley at Forward Progress has been on a roll this year. My first favorite (in publication order) was 2 errors when thinking about God's work in our lives. I am more likely to fall into the first error, and hadn't honestly considered it to be a problem. Food for thought. Then he adds some imaginative narrative to help moderns like us understand an old passage of Isaiah about the made-to-order god from the idol shop. Finally, discusses ways to increase our love for God's Word with an eye to the practical, faithful, and humble. 
  • Joe Hinman (Metacrock) is always on the front lines with his interactions with atheists. As such, he often meets people whose shield against faith is The Amalekite Problem. Here Joe works to take the conversation beyond "the Amalekites were jerks". 
  • The Pocket Scroll drew me in recently with a conversation about Your Own Personal Theologians
  • Roger Pearse is often my connection to the study of historical documents, given my love of primary sources. He writes on the possible discovery of one of Valentinus' letters among those of Basil of Caesarea. And (for the historically-minded) a fascinating find of another lost manuscript (miscatalogued, really) recovered from the Vatican library about the reign of Julian the Apostate. Unlike many recovered manuscripts, this one is not a mere scrap but weighs in at 16 pages. 
  • Reading Acts tends to offer reviews of books I might not otherwise have seen, and the shortlisted favorite book review this year is John Goldingay's Proverbs. It does what I believe should be the main focus of Biblical scholarship: extending and deepening our understanding of the original material. According to Goldingjay, Proverbs seeks to enable people to learn wisdom for a life lived faithfully and in awe of Yahweh -- and so his book adopts the same goal. Topics include the ethical aspect of wisdom, the life-enhancing ability of wisdom, and the work needed to acquire it. 
  • At Sun and Shield, Martin LaBar gives a gentle rejoinder for our pessimistic age in The Problem of Good

With sincere appreciation for all the Christian bloggers who bring God's light to the online community, thank you for blogging in 2023. All the best for 2024!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas

It's been a rough year. May God's goodness and presence be visible to us all as the neighborhood Christmas lights. 

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth: peace, goodwill to all!" 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The good news in its Jewish roots: "Here is your God!"

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John took different approaches to telling the account of Jesus' life. Matthew and Luke start before Jesus' birth; Mark starts when Jesus is an adult; John starts with metaphysics and philosophy. And yet all four place one vital point toward the beginning: 

A voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight." Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23 (Isaiah 40:3). 

That famous passage of Isaiah was singled out as a vital part of understanding Jesus by all four of the gospel writers. That passage of Isaiah is not mainly about the messenger that we call John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord. In Isaiah -- as in the gospels -- we see the forerunner mainly for the forerunner's message: 

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain;
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout: 
Lift it up, have no fear, say to the towns of Judah: "Here is your God!" (Isaiah 40:9)

That "good news" is the basis of  Bible's four gospels. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote, much of the Jewish community spoke Greek. Here is that passage (Isaiah 40:9) in the classical Greek Bible used in the Jewish community: 

In Isaiah's translation there, we already see the Greek word that comes to us as "evangelize". Isaiah's message is picked up by John the Baptist, then by the four evangelists, and down through the ages to us. God is here. It is our generation's turn to lift up our voices and have no fear. As St Paul mentions, "How can they believe who have not heard?"

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Who do we say that he is? "Prepare the way of the LORD"

Beginnings are important. Researchers and problem-solvers try to trace things to their beginnings. Authors and speakers know that their first words will set the tone for all that follows. The Gospel of Mark chooses this quote as the launching point for explaining Jesus:
"a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him." (Mark 1:3)
When Mark identified John the Baptist with Isaiah's "voice calling in the desert", Mark names John as the herald announcing the coming of the LORD (see Isaiah 40). The word "Lord" in our language or in ancient Greek may be ambiguous, but the word "LORD" in the original Hebrew was not ambiguous at all. It was the holy name of God, not to be casually pronounced, a name reserved for God. When Mark identified "the voice calling in the desert" as John the Baptist, Mark thereby implies that the one John announces is the long-awaited LORD from Isaiah's prophecy, the God whose arrival was good news, "good tidings", or (in older English) gospel. 

There are accounts of Jesus' life that introduce Jesus at his birth. Mark's introduction starts with his identity. Over the centuries we may have lost sight of the boldness of that introduction, but a first-century Jewish audience would probably get his point: the most joyful event in the world was unfolding, one which could not leave the world unchanged. God's arrival in our world is the good news, and the kingdom of God is among us. 

Sunday, December 03, 2023

"Christianity is all about guilt" -- fact-check

In a message forum this week I saw someone post that "Christianity is all about guilt" and went on from that basis to the rest of her message. But she lost me at the start with the claim that "Christianity is all about guilt." That does not match Christianity as I know it, learn it, and experience it in the church. 

I understand there is room to ask: Who gets to say what Christianity is about? But for a Lutheran like me (we're the Sola Scriptura bunch), that is answered in the Bible where we have received what we know of Christ and the apostles, passed down to us from those who knew first-hand. 

So if I take my favorite freeware search tool and ask it to give me all the Bible verses containing the word "guilt", I get these results. If you were prepared for a long list, you'll be disappointed. Here they are: 

The first point that caught my eye is that there are only 2 verses in the whole "King James" translation that contain the world "guilt": two verses in the book of Deuteronomy, and none in the New Testament or anywhere else in the Old Testament. Looking closely at the two (2) verses found, the search results show the word italicized, which is how it flags the reader that a word was added by the translator. That is, the only 2 occurrences were considered to be implied in the translator's judgment, rather than being part of the original text. That's far from being something that Christianity is "all about"; it has only a slim excuse to be included in the conversation. 

But what about Christianity's emphasis on forgiveness? What's forgiveness about, if not guilt? First a perspective-check: forgiveness is a positive, healing action, so using an emphasis on forgiveness as a pretext to say there's something negative is a distortion. 

Forgiveness is usually associated with sin or wrongdoing, whether the person has the feeling of guilt or not. So I ran another search for "sin" (including variations like sin(s) and sinner(s)). I found the results interesting enough that I wanted to share the results. Below is a chart listing the books of the New Testament and the number of times "sin" was mentioned in each book. It's interesting that the book of Romans discusses it the most by far. The emphasis of Paul's letter to Rome is an outlier among the books of the New Testament. I wonder (without having a way to get the answer) whether the "all about guilt" poster's experience had an over-emphasis on that one book. 

As for the books which pass along the life and teachings of Jesus, I've previously shared a word-cloud of the 4 gospels and, reviewing that today, I see that "guilt" and "sin" are not among the top 100 most-used words in the gospels. The gospels are about the kingdom of heaven among us through the presence of Christ.