Apr
2013

Whose Land? (Part 1)

Until 2010, I had never been to the Holy Land.  Despite a career spent studying the Hebrew Scriptures, I had never seen the hills and valleys and deserts and lakes of the land where many of these texts were written.  That year, for the first time, I took this pilgrimage, together with students from the seminary and Christians from the Pittsburgh area, as part of PTS’s World Mission Initiative.  It was a life-changing experience.  I returned with another group last year, and plan to go again in 2015. 

As a Bible scholar, to stand at Qumran and look out at the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered,

and to sit in the ruins there in the room that Roland de Vaux called the Scriptorium, where many scholars believe those ancient manuscripts were copied,

was for me an indescribable experience!

To stand on the mountaintop at Masada and look down on the outlines of the Roman camps and the still-visible remnant of Titus’ massive siege ramp (top right in the picture above) sent chills down my spine.  And of course, no Christian can look on the stones of the old Roman street that runs past Caiaphas’ house from Gethsemane into Jerusalem, a road that Jesus certainly trod,

or follow the Via Dolorosa through the Old City

from Pilate’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, without being profoundly moved.

Yet on each visit, it has been the people who have moved me most, not the places.  Our trips, organized in cooperation with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, have as their express purpose not only to encounter the land of David and of Jesus, but also to offer support for the struggling church in Israel and Palestine.  The hospitality of Palestinian Christians, who opened their homes to us and worshipped with us; the laughter and smiles of children, the commitment of young people determined to remain in their homeland despite enormous political and economic pressure to leave—all were inspiring.

But when I tell this story to people here at home, I am often met with puzzlement.  Many American Christians do not seem aware that the church has survived in the land of its birth for two thousand years.  It is a surprise to them even to hear the phrase “Palestinian Christian”: the word they expect to hear after “Palestinian” is “terrorist.”  They are surprised to learn that we felt in no danger walking the streets of Bethlehem, or indeed anyplace we visited in the West Bank.  Many friends, Christians and Jews alike, seemed not only surprised but even offended by my critical statements concerning Israeli policy, particularly the separation wall that now snakes around and well into the West Bank,

the numerous checkpoints barring travel through as well as into and out of the West Bank, and the Jewish settlements that sprout like mushrooms, swallowing up ever more and more land.

After all, isn’t this the land that God promised to the Jewish people?  Aren’t the Arabs—the so-called “Palestinians”—really interlopers, with no real claim on the land?   Don’t the Jews have a right to defend themselves, by whatever means prove necessary?

These questions have been posed for me forcefully in this past week from several directions.  First, I saw this disturbing picture of Israeli soldiers surrounding the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

This picture reminded me of stories I had heard from Arab Christians, of being denied access to Christian holy sites.  Friends asked me if it were not possible that these soldiers were there to protect Christians, and I acknowledge that this may be the case (though in that case, I wonder why they were blocking access to the 13th Station of the Cross).  

Then I learned that, once again this year, many Christians from the West Bank were denied permission to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week or Easter.  According to the Catholic News Service, “the Israeli government said it rejected only 192 of the 19,000 requests it had received — because of security reasons.”  But many Christian parishes in the West Bank reported that only 30-40% of their requests for passes were honored this year.  Ashraf Khatib, who took part in the Palm Sunday procession this year and last year, observed a significant decline: “Last year we had buses from all the parishes, around 17 to 18. This year only eight buses came. Some places, like Jenin, did not get any permits and while we had four buses last year from Bethlehem, there was only one this year.”  Further complicating matters for Palestinian Christians longing to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem, Khatib claimed, is the policy of issuing permits to some family members but not to others, so that a family cannot make the pilgrimage together.   

I read this article after seeing  a comment on an earlier blog from Rick, who asked, “Can you provide a historical background for the current land claims of the different groups: Jew, Christian & Muslim?”  So–it became clear to me that this is a topic that I must address.

Please understand from the outset that I do not in any way question the right of Israel to exist, disparage the enormous accomplishments of this modern nation, or question the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own, where they can live in security.  Nor do I claim that two trips and less than a month total in Israel/Palestine have made me any kind of expert on the current crisis.  But I do know a bit about the Bible, and it is from that perspective that I intend, in my next blog (or two, perhaps) to address the issue of this land that three faiths call Holy, and to whom it belongs.   Pray for me, and with me, please.

Mar
2013

Standing at this tomb of water. . .

It is Holy Saturday—a day of waiting and expectancy, poised between the anguish of Good Friday and the exultant, full-throated joy of Easter.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been learning to pray the Rosary.  On Friday, then, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ suffering and death—a meditation driven home powerfully and poignantly by the readings and music of Good Friday worship.

The meditations set for Saturdays are the Joyful Mysteries—Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, his presentation at the temple as a baby, and Mary and Joseph finding Jesus, now a young boy, in the temple asking questions (see Luke 1:26—2:52).  As I was praying, it suddenly hit me: the womb and the tomb and Jesus coming forth, from each, to new life!

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you discover that the spot traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace is in a cave.

The limestone hills of the region are honeycombed with caves, which were used in Jesus’ day for storage, as stables, and as homes, so it may well be that this is indeed the spot.  Startling to think on that today, reflecting on the broken, abused body of Jesus, taken from the cross and laid in another cave: the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56).

The womb and tomb connections were driven home particularly by a song that has been in my head since Wednesday.  In chapel that day, remembering Jesus’ tomb, we gathered around the baptismal font and heard, beautifully played and sung, this contemporary setting of an old hymn (I have given the original words below).  The line “Standing at this tomb of water” has stayed with me, and meditating on the waters of Mary’s womb has given them a new resonance.  Water of life, water of death; beginning and ending and beginning again.

The power of this image, its depth and richness, are that it is not just a story about long ago and far away.  Jesus defeated death, not just for himself, but for us all.  His triumph over sin, death, hell, and the grave is our triumph, too!  Remember this, friends, when this day of waiting is over, and Easter morning dawns.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so are we.

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

 

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

 

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

 

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

 

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

 

John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)

Mar
2013

A Disabled God?

In the Christian West, tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Usually this day is given to joyful children’s processions, to waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” In churches that do not observe Good Friday as a rule, or for persons whose work prevents them from attending Good Friday observances, the result may be that we go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter, with scant attention given to the cross in between.  Or, Easter Sunday may become the day when we sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and talk about Jesus suffering and death, with little attention paid to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

However, the lectionary readings for the day remind us that tomorrow is not only Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40), but also Passion Sunday (Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14—23:56).  We are reminded that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem took him in the end to Calvary, where he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).  Christians have always understood that the cross of Jesus is the place where our own death dies—the place where our separation from God and from one another is undone, and we are delivered from sin, death, hell, and the grave.  But from the very beginning, we have struggled to understand why, or how, this happens.

The Bible presents many ways of thinking about the cross. For example, in the gospel of Luke, from which this year’s lectionary readings are taken, Jesus is the sovereign Lord who remains in control, even on the cross. While in Mark and Matthew, Jesus dies with a loud, inarticulate cry (Mk 15:37//Matt 27:50), in Luke, his last words are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)—a prayer of confidence, drawn from Psalm 31:5. No one kills Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead Jesus, in control to the end, voluntarily surrenders his spirit to God. By his death and resurrection, Jesus wins the final victory over the Enemy, Satan, and liberates the world from bondage to sin and death (see Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:1-11).

In the gospel of Mark, however, Jesus is the servant who identifies with those who suffer.  So, in Mark 10:41-45, Jesus teaches his followers that while the world regards as great those who lord it over others, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).  The model for this life of service is Jesus himself: “For the Son of Man [this is the way Jesus refers to himself throughout the gospels] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  As the great Scottish Christian George MacDonald wrote, “the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be more like his.”

I am thinking about the cross today, not only because we are on the verge of Holy Week, but also because of a question raised by Jennifer, who asks what the Bible says about “those with different abilities. I don’t mean good singers and bad singers. I am speaking more of intellectual disabilities. It isn’t something covered much in the Bible, but it is very important to me.”  Jennifer’s question addresses not only the developmentally disabled, such as those with Down’s Syndrome, but also those who lose their intellectual abilities later in life.  In particular, as more and more of us are living into old age, the incidence of dementia, particularly due to Alzheimer’s, is on the rise.  Where is God in the lives of those who cannot understand the words of the Gospel?

To be sure, the Bible says a great deal about physical disabilities: blindness, deafness, paralysis, and a host of other ailments.  Usually, the point of Scripture is that God is a God of healing and wholeness (for example, see Isa 35:1-10; Matt 11:2-6).  But healing is not always guaranteed.  Consider Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10).  Interpreters vary broadly over what the nature of this ailment was.  Some suggest that Paul had malaria—an illness that, once you get it, keeps coming back, over and over again.  Others suggest, based on Gal 4:13-15 and 6:11, that Paul was going blind.  Whatever his trouble, it is clear that despite his prayers, Paul was not healed.  Still, he declares, “”I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).  Paul finds meaning in his own suffering by identifying with the suffering of Christ.

But what about those with intellectual disabilities?  As Jennifer notes, there is little, if anything, in the Bible to help us here.  Passages which may seem to refer to intellectual disability, such as 1 Thess 5:13, where the King James version reads “comfort the feeble-minded,” or Prov 1:22, which appeals to the “simple ones,” are talking about spiritual weakness or willful ignorance, not about mental illness or developmental impairments.  Still, if Jesus has come to identify with the least of us, to humble himself in service to all of us even to the point of taking on our suffering, weakness and death, then surely Jesus is among those who are mentally as well as physically or economically disabled.  Our relationship with God does not depend upon our right understanding—if it did, how could anyone be saved?  It depends upon God’s love and grace, and God’s decision to come and be with us in our weakness, whoever we are, and whatever our weakness may be.

Early in my ministry, I was blessed to know a woman named Freda, who was dying of a painful bone cancer.  God’s presence in her life was very real.  Toward the end, when I would visit her in the hospital, she would not ask me to talk about heaven, where she would be free from pain, or about the promised resurrection that would follow her death.  Instead, she said to me again and again, “Steve, tell me about the cross.”  The message of the cross to Freda was that she was not alone: that Christ was with her in her pain, and would not abandon her.  I believe that the cross speaks to all of us of God’s presence with us, whatever pain or fear or need we face.  In Christ, God assumes our disabilities into Godself, transforming the place of our deepest need into the place of God’s most abundant grace.

Mar
2013

The Bible and “The Bible”

A number of people have asked what I think about the television miniseries “The Bible,” now airing on the History Channel (see http://www.history.com/shows/the-bible for more information).  I have not seen this program (although several folk have told me about the “ninja angels” at Sodom,and my Scots Presbyterian students were foolishly pleased to learn that Noah was, evidently, Scottish!).  I think I probably should see it, both because this program shows how lots of people think about the Bible, and because it is probably going to shape how lots of people will think about the Bible.  Still I am, truth to tell, uncertain whether I want to see it or not.

Usually, I am not very excited by attempts to transfer the Bible to television or film.  My problem is not that such enterprises are not, or cannot be, done well.  It is rather that any film of any book is not the book.  No matter how faithful an adaptation it may be, the film is something new, something else.  For example: I am a great fan of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films, and also greatly enjoyed the first film of his new trilogy based on The Hobbit.

These films feature scenes and lines of dialogue straight from the books, as well as a design sensibility drawn not only from J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary descriptions, but from Tolkien’s own maps and watercolors of Middle Earth.

However, the films are not the books.  Scenes are missing or rearranged; characters are re-imagined, their interior lives left to be inferred from their actions and dialogue.  Most particularly, the feel of Tolkien’s prose and poetry, the rhythm of his language, is lost.  This is not a criticism: Jackson has, I believe, done as well with his adaptations as any lover of Tolkien’s books could wish.  But the films are films, and to be good films, they need to do what films do best, rather than trying to do what books do.

In her article “Context in Written Language: The Case of Imaginative Fiction,” Margaret Rader observes, “Only in writing can the inference-suggesting information be so carefully controlled and restricted even as inferring and imagining are given full rein” (in Spoken and Written Language, ed. by Deborah Tannen [Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982], 187).  That is, a text not only guides us into new worlds, but also gives us tremendous freedom to imagine those worlds.  Texts are specific—they cannot mean just anything—but their meaning remains open-ended, ambiguous.  Pictures, though, are explicit.  Pictures, especially moving pictures, show rather than tell—which can be an extremely powerful experience.  Still, pictures are more controlling and more restrictive than texts.  In a movie, Galadriel’s hair must be this color, not that.  Boromir will move like this, Rivendell will look like this.

As a result, some of the open-endedness and ambiguity of the text will be, must be, lost in the translation. For an immensely complex and multi-layered book like the Bible, this can result in a sense of over-simplification, of dumbing down. My friend David Odell, a chemistry professor at Glenville College in West Virginia (and a mean clawhammer banjo player!) wrote, “The show reminded me so much of a children’s book of Bible stories—not that children’s Bible stories are bad, but that’s not what I expect to see in a documentary.”

A television show adapting the stories of the Bible, then, is not the Bible.  There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember the difference!  But there is another problem with such an enterprise.  David also wrote, “I can’t help but find irony in how one minute Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments,

and a few minutes (or maybe the next episode) later, God is instructing them to kill their enemies.”

This, again, is not a fault of the series: the History Channel has only a limited amount of time, and is condensing the narratives of the Bible to fit into that time frame.  But in so doing, they are giving those narratives a different context: within the linear flow of images that makes up a television program, rather than within the pages of a text, where a reader can range backward or forward, slow down or speed up at will.

In Scripture, the conquest narrative in Joshua has multiple contexts.  One context places this narrative at the beginning of the story of Israel told in Joshua through Kings (called in Jewish tradition the Former Prophets).  In that setting, the violent conquest of the people of the land in Joshua foreshadows the violence Israel itself will suffer, ending in the loss of the land given by God as Jerusalem is destroyed and its leading citizens are taken into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24—25).

Joshua must also be read in another context: as the end of the narrative extending from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah, or Law, in Jewish tradition).  There, the occupation of the land is the fulfillment of an ancient promise (Gen 15), given to landless, homeless people (see Deut 26:5-10).  Even so, the land is regarded, not as Israel’s possession, but as God’s.  In Leviticus 25:23, the Lord declares, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” God allows Israel to live on God’s land.

A careful reader quickly discovers another, more subtle, context for this narrative.  While in the main plot line of the Former Prophets the story of Israel’s entry into the land is a story of total war and conquest, the writers have preserved other, alternate traditions: old memories that conflict with the main plot line.  So, while Joshua 10:40 reads, “So Joshua defeated the whole land. . . he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (see also 12:23), in Joshua 13:1, God says to Joshua, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”  The opening chapter of Judges describes large areas of the territory of Palestine that were not in Israel’s hands.  In fact, the tribes are described as hanging on by their fingernails in the hill country, surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies.  This explains, I believe, why the oldest songs in Scripture (such as Exod 15:1-18 and Jdg 5:1-31) describe God as a warrior: the people of Israel, living under constant threat, found great power and encouragement in the image of the God who fights for us.

This is a far fuzzier, more ambiguous picture of Israel’s past than a single, linear story line can convey—far too fuzzy for good television.  The ambiguity with which the whole biblical story regards the violence in Joshua does not translate well into images—but the screen loves a good battle scene (as is sadly evident in Peter Jackson’s movies, which are far more explicit in their depiction of violence and gore than Tolkien’s books).

Joshua has another biblical context that we must explore.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Former Prophets (Josh-Kgs) are immediately followed by the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (twelve short prophetic books sometimes called the Minor Prophets).  The Prophets as a whole, then, begin with Joshua and end with Malachi.  At the beginning of the Prophets, God says to Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (Josh 1:7).  At the end of the Prophets, God says to Malachi, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4 [3:22 in Hebrew]).  The Prophets begin and end with the Law!  Rather than being just another scene in a straight narrative line, then, the Torah given through Moses is the focus of all the Prophets.  The depiction in the Ten Commandments of a just community, bound together by the love of God and of neighbor, is far more “biblical,” if you will, than the exciting scenes of mayhem a visual reenactment of Joshua, or Genesis, or Exodus, will convey.  Context is key.

AFTERWORD:  The Bible Guy joins believers around the world in celebrating the election of Pope Francis.

By taking the name of the humble reformer Saint Francis of Assisi (the first to do so), this Pope from Buenos Aires—the first Pope from the global South, the first from the Americas, and indeed the first since Peter who is not European—has begun very well indeed.  May God’s blessing and guidance rest upon him.

 

Mar
2013

Why “The Bible Guy”?

Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a preacher.  My studies in college and seminary, and my experiences as an associate and a student pastor, only confirmed my sense of call.  When I graduated from seminary, my bishop appointed me to serve two country churches in West Virginia—and I was happy.  Even with its frequent frustrations, parish ministry was a joy.

My first inkling that God might be leading me in a hitherto unsuspected direction came a year or two into my ministry, when I was visiting one of my elderly shut-ins.  This day, her brother was with her.  He had heard about me from his sister, and wanted to meet me—in order, I soon learned, to confirm his suspicions.  Though he had never set foot in the churches I served or heard me preach, he knew that I was a heretic because 1) I was a United Methodist, 2) I wore a clerical collar, and (I strongly suspect), 3) because I had a beard!  Almost immediately, he began to quiz me.  “What does the Bible say about baptism?”  When I started to answer that the Bible says a lot of things about baptism, he interrupted me: “No.  Acts 2:38:  ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.’”  And so it went.  For every question, a memorized proof text was the right answer; my fumbling attempts to address other texts, to express a range of biblical answers, were brushed aside.  All the while, I kept thinking, “Why can’t I talk to this man?  We both care for his elderly sister.  We both love the Lord.  We both love the Bible.  Why can’t we communicate?”

After this encounter, my wife Wendy and I prayed long and hard about where God was leading us.  We realized that I needed to go back to school, to pursue deeper study into the Bible and how to communicate its message more effectively.  When my doctoral degree in Hebrew Bible was completed, a friend invited me to interview at a small, church-related college in South Carolina, where I discovered a new passion: I love to teach!  For the next seventeen years of my life, I found myself a college professor, teaching Bible and religion to undergraduates first in South Carolina, later in Virginia—something I had never thought about doing, but now found to be God’s new direction for my ministry.

While I was teaching in Virginia, a colleague one day emailed me a question about the Bible, prefacing it with “Since you are the Bible guy. . .”.   Immediately I thought, “That is exactly who I am.  I love the Bible: I love studying it, I love teaching it, and most of all, I love the God revealed in its pages.  I am a Bible guy.”  Now, eight years into a new career as a seminary professor, helping women and men prepare for the pursuit of God’s call on their lives, I am even more persuaded that this is my calling.  I am a Bible guy!

In this blog, I want to share the Bible I love with you, and invite you to join me as fellow Bible guys. As time goes on, I hope that we will engage in conversation across these pages.  Perhaps I can answer some of your questions; certainly, I will pose many of my own. John Wesley, founder of Methodist Christianity, referred to himself as homo unius libri: that is, “a man of one book.”  I pray we will find ways to speak across our differences, united by our love and respect for Scripture—that we might become, following Wesley’s example, a people of one Book.