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Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Pilgrim's Song for Palm Sunday

We begin in the dust of the road, weary and tired. Our feet are sore. Our throats are dry.  But in the distance we can see it, that city on a hill, the ancient-eternal city of Jerusalem, the pilgrim’s destination.

The torah instructs us that we are pilgrim people.  Even though we may be settled in our homes, the Blessed One has taught us to remember that“…a wandering Aramaean was my ancestor.[i]  And so we make the three annual pilgrimages for the great Jewish festivals[ii].  We go up for Shavuot to celebrate the revelation of the torah to Moses.  We go up for Sukkoth[iii] – the Feast of Tabernacles, and as we do today, we go up for Pesach – the Passover - [iv] so that we can remember the time of our departure from Egypt, to recall the dramatic and miraculous events which led to our exodus from that ancient land of slavery.
We followed the Blessed One then, as he led us from Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds though we were pursued by the Egyptians and their chariots.  We followed him as he led us to meet with him at Mount Sinai where he gave us the torah.  We followed, though somewhat reluctantly and grumbling, to the Promised Land.  And now we continue to follow him, wandering after the Holy One of Israel.  Our feet are blistered. Our legs are weary.  But we follow because he is our God.  We are hungry.  We are thirsty.  But we will be filled. 
And even though we are road-weary we sing pilgrim songs, songs of the road.
I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the L
Jerusalem, built as a city
which is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up…
as was decreed by the L
to give thanks to the name of the L
We sing in anticipation of the Passover hallel:
Hallelujah! Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the L
Blessed be the name of the L
from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting
the name of the L
ORD is to be praised![vi]
Our pilgrim band may be tired, but we walk on.  The children, with youth's wellspring of energy run on ahead, laughing and dancing, darting after butterflies. Some of us are slower; age has weakened our joints.  We breathe hard, panting for breath between the lines of the psalm, as we walk up these steep hills.  But there is always a hand ready to help us, to steady us.  We walk together.  You look tired.  Have some of my water and give me your bag. I will carry it for you. We’re almost there.  And there we will celebrate.
 Along the way our band of pilgrims has encountered other travelers.  They have joined us.  Or we have joined them.  All of us, together, making our way towards Jerusalem.  We have shared with them our stories, and they have shared their laughter with us.  We have shared our food and our songs and our prayers. 
And here now, as we pass the town of Bethphage[vii] we see fig trees, hundreds of them along the side of the road.  Several of the older children run towards them, but before we can warn them against eating any, they realize for themselves that the figs are not yet ripe.  The leaves are there, but it is not yet the season for figs.[viii]
And now we are nearing the town of Bethany[ix].  There are more fig trees here. The children run to check again, but they are disappointed again.  Their frowns are fleeting, however. They are quickly distracted by shouts and cheers from the road up ahead.

A large group of travelers has joined us on the road here and they are as excited as we are, perhaps more.  At their head is a man they are addressing as “Rabbi” and “master.”  He is smiling and laughing, too.  Though, if you’ll watch, his smile falters a little every now and then. There.  Did you see it?  That frown as he looked off towards Jerusalem?
But how can anyone frown at such a time as this?  There is a sudden cheer from the group as two of their members return from the nearby village.  They are leading a young colt – an unbroken colt, it would seem from the way it struggles and bucks against their leading. The colt rears his head back suddenly, and the young man holding the leading rope is jerked backwards.  He falls on his bottom in a plume of dust.  The colt neighs loudly and the crowd is laughing uproariously.
The rabbi, Yeshua, I believe they are calling him, laughs too.  His frown is gone, replaced by a wide grin.  He reaches down to lift up his fallen disciple. 
“It was just as you said, rabbi,” says the disciple holding the colt’s reins. “We found the colt tied up at a door way, out in the open street.  We untied him to bring him to you and some people there stopped us.  “What are you doing, untying that colt?”  We told them just what you said, “the Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.”  Your word was good enough for them.  They let us bring it to you.”

Yeshua nods and thanks his disciple.  Immediately some of the men in their group begin to strip off their outer coats.  They lay them across the back of the colt and waving their arms towards the beast, invite this Yeshua to sit upon it.   He laughs again and embraces them and then sits on the colt.

He looks like a king.  But kings ride horses and this is only a colt.  And then someone remembers the words of the prophet Zechariah:
 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[x]
His disciples are cheering and the crowd is shouting.  They are wild with enthusiasm, and it is hard not to get caught up in their excitement.  Soon we are all shouting with them.

Hoshanna”! Someone shouts, and for a moment I think that they have called out his name, “Yeshua” the words are very much the same.  “Hoshanna! They shout again and again.  “Save us! Save us now! Deliver us! Deliver us now!” 
And it isn’t long before our shouts have become a song.  We are singing another of the hallels- the psalms of praise. 
Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD!
ORD, we beseech thee, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the L
We bless you from the house of the L
The L
ORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.[xi]
Several of the disciples dart away from the road and begin gathering branches and brushwood cut from the nearby fields.  They race back to the road with armloads of these branches and they begin spreading them out along the road in front of the colt.  Others are waving them in the air and shouting and singing.

Blessed is the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
In the heights, cry out “Hoshanna!”[xii]
And still other voices are with us singing:

Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
thy welcome shall proclaim,
and heaven’s eternal arches ring
with thy beloved name.
He comes, the prisoner to release
in Satan’s bondage held;
the gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes, the broken heart to bind,
the wounded soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
to enrich the humble poor.
Hark the glad sound! the Savior comes,
the Savior promised long;
let every heart prepare a throne,
and every voice song.[xiii]
He is the promised one, the coming one, the one who will save us.  We cheer him on. Ride on! Ride on! Hosanna! Ride on!

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark, all the tribes hosanna cry;
thine humble beast pursues his road
with palms and scattered garments strowed

And, because we are singing from this side of history, we can sing more than those weary but eager pilgrims so long ago.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
O’re captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.[xiv]

Let us–who are pilgrims wandering after God today, say to him as he enters the city: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.  Let us wave before him like palm branches those final words inscribed above him on the cross.  Let us show him honor, not with olive branches but with the splendor of merciful deeds to one another. Let us spread the thoughts and desires of our hearts under his feet like garments, so that entering us with the whole of his being, he may draw the whole of our being into himself and place the whole of his in us. Let us say to Zion in the words of the prophet: Have courage, daughter of Zion, do not be afraid. Behold, your king comes to you, humble and mounted on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.[xv]

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, may your reign become real through the works of our hands and your love become alive in our hearts.

Hosanna and Amen.

I am grateful to Charles Foster's book The Sacred Journey for some of these thoughts. 

[i] Deuteronomy 26: 1 - 5
[ii] Exodus 34:23
[iii] Leviticus 23:42-43
[iv] Deuteronomy 16: 1- 8
[v] Psalm 122: 1 - 4
[vi] Psalm 113: 1 - 3
[vii] Aramaic “House of Un-ripe Figs”
[viii] Mark 11: 1, 13
[ix] Aramaic “House of the Figs” or “House of affliction/poverty”
[x] Zechariah 9:9
[xi] Psalm 118: 25 - 27
[xii] Mark 11: 9 – 10 Anchor Bible Translation
[xiii] Phillip Doddrige (1702 – 1751) – can be sung to “Joy to the World”
[xiv] Henry Hart Milman (1791 – 1868)
[xv] St. Andrew of Crete

Friday, March 30, 2012

Family Philosophy Time

A few days ago,  my friend James McGrath suggested that it's very important to talk to our children about Philosophy.  If we don't, who will?

So I sat down with my 10 year old son to talk about philosophy. The conversation went something like this:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I’m Reading: Revelations

It’s not a typo and I haven’t mistakenly named the last book of the New Testament in the plural.  The full name of the book I’ve just finished reading is Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels[i].  Pagels is a well respected professor of religion and author of several books focusing on Gnostic texts.  Her latest book is a history of the canonical book of Revelation and of other, Gnostics revelation texts.  In Revelations she shows how John’s Revelation came to its place in the accepted books of the canon and why these other Gnostic works were excluded.

In 1945 a cache of ancient manuscripts was found in Egypt.  These documents have come to be known as the Nag Hamadi texts.  Some of these were “gospels” and some were “books of revelation.”  It is to these that Pagels would like us to turn our attention – but I was really surprised by how little space she devoted to them in the book.

Revelations is not a commentary on the canonical book of Revelation, but out of necessity Pagels does give some comment and an outline of her interpretation of this notoriously difficult book.  Her interpretation surprised me a little; and this surprise surprised me.  I like the book of Revelation.  I’ve read it and re-read it again and again. I’ve read quite a few commentaries on it, both modern and some ancient and I haven’t (yet) encountered any that interpreted it in the way she has.  I guess I haven’t read the right ones yet.

Pagels believes that the writer of the Revelation was a “strictly observant Jew” who was enraged with “Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s teaching” who had begun to corrupt the synagogues of Asia Minor[ii].   She interprets John’s harsh words against “those who claim to be apostles but are not[iii],” and those “who hold to the teachings of Balaam[iv]” and “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan[v]” to be these Gentile followers of the Christ who had joined the Jewish community through the teaching of Paul but who did not adhere to the torah.

This is not an interpretation that I’ve encountered before. Again, maybe I’m reading the wrong books.  Pagels seems to have anticipated my rejection of her interpretation.

“But, some readers may ask, when John attacks the ‘synagogue of Satan’ isn’t he talking about actual Jews, that is, members of local synagogues who are hostile to Christians?  When he warns ‘those who way they are Jews and are not,’ doesn’t he mean the opposite of what he says – that they actually are Jews who don’t deserve to be called by that name?”[vi]

She calls this interpretation “convoluted.”

But I disagree.  Or maybe – I accept that it is a “convoluted” argument, but it seems to square with what much of the rest of the New Testament seems to indicate about the state of relationship between the “Jews” and the burgeoning “Christian” community within the established Jewish synagogues.

We find this kind of “convoluted” argument in John’s gospel where Jesus refers to some of his “Jewish” opponents as children of the devil.[vii]  This clash is found throughout Paul’s letters.  In one of them he says that not everyone descended from Israel is actually Israel.[viii]  These are just a couple of references to this same kind of argument.  Why is it convoluted (and wrong) in Revelation, but natural in these other places?

Pagles also suggests that “John” (whoever he might have been, -but certainly not John the Apostle, according to Pagles) wrote in bizarre apocalyptic style as a sort of code in order to hide the meaning from prying Roman eyes because “open hostility to Rome could be dangerous; he may have feared reprisal[ix].”  This is an idea I’ve heard and read before. But it’s not one I’ve ever found very convincing.  If this is a code intended to disguise anti-Imperial propaganda, John failed.  That message is pretty clear – even if the book as a whole is difficult.  I don’t believe that John (whoever he may have been) wrote as he did to –hide- anything; this is a “revelation” after all.  John wrote to reveal not to hide.  But John’s choice of images and allusions are drawn from a deep knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and are used to reveal his message about Jesus, and the things to come.

Pagles seems to believe that history has proven John’s Revelation wrong[x] and that it only has value in a post-modern sort of subjective-true-if-it-works way instead of being grounded in an objective and historical truth.  I won’t defend an “inerrant” definition of biblical inspiration, but if any text (scripture or otherwise) can mean anything then it means nothing. 

In the third chapter, “Other Revelations: Heresy or Illuminations” Pagels gives a very brief overview of some of “revelations” found in the Nag Hamadi texts.  But it’s very brief – barely 30 pages (out of the 180 pages of actual text).  This is the material that I actually expected when I picked up the book at the library. I knew of Pagels’ other writings on Gnostic material and I had hoped to learn a bit more about these other revelations.  Oh well.  I guess I’ll have to hunt them down and read them.

While I disagreed with Pagels through chapters 1 and 2 and was disappointed by chapter 3, I thought chapter 4 “Confronting Persecution: How Jews and Christians Separated Politics from Religion” and chapter 5 “Constantine’s Conversion: How John’s Revelation Became Part of the Bible” were wonderful.

These two chapters are a short history of how the Christian church moved from persecuted minority to the religion of the empire – and how the book of Revelation was variously interpreted for political and ecclesiastical purposes and used against enemies from without and from within the developing Christian church.  This was great material, and I would have been pleased to read more.

As an example- Pagles notes how Tertullian’s interpretation of Revelation led him to an impassioned plea for a secular government that would allow its citizens the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their conscience – a liberate religionis – freedom of religion.  “Those of us who think of human rights and natural rights as concepts born of the French and American revolutions, might be surprised to see this African Christian standing up to defy Scapula, the Roman magistrate stationed in Africa, circa 205 C.E., with these words: ‘It is a fundamental human right, a power bestowed by nature, that each person should worship according to his own convictions, free from compulsion.’”[xi]
In the book’s conclusion Pagles briefly laments that Gnostic voices of revelation were excluded from the canon.  She describes them as “visions that lift their hearers beyond apocalyptic polarities to see the human race a whole…to see each one of us as a whole, having the capacity for both cruelty and compassion.” 

“Living in an increasingly interconnected world, we need such universal visions more than ever.”[xii]

I won’t at this time go into an apologetic defense of ‘orthodox’ (whatever that may be) Christianity against Gnosticism, but I hardly think we need these forgotten ancient voices to bring back Gnostic ideas.  The Gnostic texts may have been suppressed, but their ideas have never really disappeared.  Listen to Oprah, or Osteen, or Chopra if it’s Gnosticism you want.

[i] Pagels, Elaine, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation,
 Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2012
[ii] Page 54
[iii] Revelation 2:2
[iv] Revelation 2:14
[v] Revelation 2:9
[vi] Page 59- 60 – Italics in the original.
[vii] John 8:44
[viii] Romans 9:6
[ix] Page 30
[x] Page 135
[xi] Pages 131- 2
[xii] Page 176

Woman in Brown

Oil Pastels and Ink on paper

Over the Waves of the Bold and Splendid Sea

The title of this song is drawn from some lines written by an Irish pilgrim.

It is time for me to pass from the shelter of a habitation.
To journey as a pilgrim over the waves of the bold and splendid sea...
Time to deliberate how I may find the great Son of Mary.

-Celedabhail (in The Annals of the Four Masters)

These lines were quoted in the book The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster.

In this song I used the following sound samples from the Freesound Project:
A Higher State
Alarming Glitched Drums

If you're interested, you can download the song here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - week 14 - Palm Sunday

I've been posting a background image for use in Powerpoint (or similar presentation program) every week.  This week's image is, unlike the previous 13, rather specific to this week.  Since it will be Palm Sunday, the image was created specifically for that.  You are still free to use this image (or any of the previous ones) in your school, business or church projects.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.


The old ladies (and one old man) that I paint with on Monday have told me that the squid and octopus that find their way into my paintings on a fairly regular basis are beginning to grow on them.  They still think I'm weird, but they've come to accept the octopus that I bring with me.

My most recent painting - Capture- generated a brief flurry of discussion.  'Who's captured whom?'  One argued that the flamingo had captured the octopus, 'see the way he's standing over it?'  Another said it was the other way 'round, 'The octopus is dragging him down into the depths.'

I think the best answer was that "Jeff's been captured by the octopus. That's why he paints them."

I admit that that could be true.

Acrylic on canvas and paper - 11" x 14"

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What I’m Reading: The Sacred Journey

I am not what I want to be.
I am not (yet) what I want to be.

The insertion of that three letter word changes everything. That simple three letter word changes the static to the dynamic.  That three letter word transforms the statement from despair into hope.

As I read Charles Foster’s book The Sacred Journey [i] I realized both meanings. 

I want to be holy.  I know that our Father in Heaven has clothed me with the holiness of his beloved and unique son, Jesus, but I am not worthy to wear those clothes. I want to be close to God.  I know that I could do nothing to get to him and that he has, nonetheless, drawn close to me, but I am not always – not often aware of his presence.

I am not what I want to be.

And this may be the existential quandary that has driven innumerable pilgrims of every faith tradition around the world and through the millennia of human history to begin a journey.

I am not (yet) what I want to be.

The implication of that inserted three letter word is that I can – at some point – arrive. If I begin I can move; I can travel. I can be transformed. And at the end of my travels I will arrive. 

We’ll sing in the morning the songs of salvation,
we’ll sing in the noontime the songs of his love,
and when we arrive at the end of our journey
we’ll sing the songs of Zion in the courts above.

Foster leads the reader through the stories of the Christian Scripture deftly illustrating that not all who wander are lost.[iii]  From Cain and Able through Jesus and the Apostles the bible is filled with travelers.  

A few weeks ago I asked the question “Why is Jesus always leaving?”  I asked it again a few days later in music.   Foster has an answer for that question. Why is Jesus always leaving? It’s because Jesus is the "God who walks."  He walks among us and with us and sometimes he leads us out into the wilderness, sometimes he leads us up to Jerusalem.  He began his teaching by inviting people to follow him as he walked.
And so I want to make a pilgrimage.  I want to wander.

And as I say that I immediately list all the reasons why that is altogether unfeasible:
            I have responsibilities here.
            I don’t have any vacation time left.
            What about my family?
            Where would I go?  It’s not as if there are any “holy places” or shrines in southern

I know… I know… if it’s really important to me I’ll find a way and everything else is just an excuse. But the questions and the doubt (and the fear) remain.

Foster’s book has got me all stirred up, and I’m not exactly happy about that. If I allow myself to rest in my comfortable sedentary life-as-I-now-know-it I will not know the mystery and wonder of the journey. I will stay, pretty much, as I am.  But having read the book I am compelled to do something with it.  Now that I have heard the word I must heed what it says or I will be one of those double minded fools… I will begin to forget the reflection of myself that I have seen in this book.

I will have to think about this for a while.  A pilgrimage is not just a walk down the road on a sunny afternoon.  And it is not at all a tourist’s vacation.  I will continue to ponder the challenge of this book.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  And, if I am to avoid the curse of Gnosticism[iv], I must incarnate this desire and put my flesh on the road. I cannot think about it for too long. I must get up and go.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

[i] Foster, Charles, The Sacred Journey, Thomas Nelson Inc, Nashville TN, 2010.
This book is part of the Ancient Practices Series edited by Phyllis Tickle.
[ii] Salvation Army Composer – William Gordon “Salvation’s Song” 
[iii]  J.R.R. Tolkien
[iv] “Physical pilgrimage involves bodies, blisters, hunger and diarrhea.  …It is accordingly one of the best prophylactics against, and cures for, one of the deadliest and most prevalent disease crippling the church: Gnosticism.”  page xvi 

Monday, March 26, 2012

I Livz Wit Drty-Mout Bad Kittehs!

Even More Biblical Limericks - 1 Kings 3:16 - 28

Two prostitutes, both mothers of sons
came to consult wise King Solomon,
though the problem was tricky
an answer came quickly:
cut the boy with a sword and all's done.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What I’m Reading: The Brothers Karamazov

“It was he, not my brother, killed our father.  He murdered him and I incited him to do it… who doesn’t desire his father’s death?”

“Are you in your right mind?” broke involuntarily from the President.

“I should think I am in my right mind…in the same nasty mind as all of you…as all these…ugly faces.”  He turned suddenly to the audience.  “My father has been murdered and they pretend that they are horrified,” he snarled with furious contempt. “They keep up the sham with one another. Liars!  They all desire the death of their fathers.  One reptile devours another…If there hadn’t been a murder, they’d have been angry and gone home ill-humored.  It’s a spectacle they want!”[i]

The Brothers Karamazov is a daunting work – over 700 pages of dense Russian literature, populated with hundreds of characters, each deeply drawn, and filled with complex thoughts about God, justice, morality, free-will, faith, and doubt, and reason.  It is a challenging book, but it is a work that I have enjoyed reading, twice (so far...)

The story center’s upon the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – an old, licentious buffoon, and father of the four brothers of the title.  Each of them had reasons to despise the old man.  Each of them is tainted by their desire to murder him.

Though the story is told by an unnamed narrator, who at times has a clear and almost omniscient understanding of the inner thoughts and feelings of the various characters, he is not all knowing and is not a completely reliable narrator.  He frequently admits his ignorance.  Several sections of the book are told by voices other than the narrator’s.  This shifting and subjective vantage is both a help and a hindrance in knowing the truth. Though the voice of the narrator and the voices of other testimony that he includes frequently overlap there are gaps.  We see much, but not everything.

And in the end, it is impossible to know who killed the old man.

Was it Alyosha, the young, sanguine “cherub”?  Was it Ivan, with his melancholic and wild intellect?  Was it the impulsive Dimitri?  Or was it the “stinking” illegitimate son, Smerdyakov?[ii]  We do not know, but everyone who reads the novel is drawn to one or another of the brothers.  Dostoevsky has invested each of them with intense and personal details, often drawn from his own life and character.  Smerdyakov, for instance, suffers from epilepsy just as the author did.

And the old buffoon himself, Fyodor Karamazov is invested with many characteristics of the author – his erratic personal life, his gambling, his debts – and even his very name: Fyodor.

The Karamazov brothers form a tragic dysfunctional family – a fractured family.  It is only as the novel opens that the brothers come together for the first time in their lives.  Taken broadly, they represent various aspects of all humanity – in their noble and praiseworthy attributes as well as in their depravity and ignorance.  They, like all of humanity, marvelous and terrible, horrible and lovely. 

It is a novel about guilt – both individual and collective – for who hasn’t, as some point, desired his or her father’s death?  But it is also a novel about desiring one’s own death – at least in a spiritual sense.  The desire to see our father dead is the desire to undo ourselves. 

The book’s epigraph helps to make this clear:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” – John 12:24

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov  translated by Constance Garnett, page 646
[ii] His name literally means “son of the reeking one.”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tyrannimated Monsters in the Valley of Gwangi

Stuttering pterodactyls
are scre-scre-screeching overhead,
the echo rings along the stony canyon walls
as cowboys thunder into the valley,
six-guns and lassoes,
and repeaters at the ready.

In this isolated valley at the desert's edge
reptilian relics are preserved
in the retro-future vision of Saint Harryhausen.
In this valley, by a confusion of scale
impossible rear-projected monsters
succumb to the guns of horse riding heroes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Even More Biblical Limericks - Exodus 4: 24 - 26

God was mad, set to take Moses' life,
Zipporah, his bride, took up the knife.
She circumcised their son
which Moses left undone;
waved the blade and said, "I'm your blood-wife!"

An Apocalypse Without Context

Yesterday I posted about the questionable value of proof-texting. 

This is a collage I made a few years back to illustrate something of this idea.  It's an apocalypse without context.  The various images - which have been taken from their original sources and recombined along with some drawings done by myself and by my then three year old son into a new an altogether different picture.

Does anything from their original message remain? Or does the resultant work stand completely on its own? Does it help or hinder one to not know where I've drawn my source material?

More Biblical Limericks - Genesis 38: 8 - 9

T'was his duty and Onan was bound,
get Tamar pregnant; her belly round.
But Onan didn't care
to produce any heir
and instead spilt his seed on the ground.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Proof-texting for Fun and Prophet

Proof-texting is a bad thing, right?  It’s bad form.  We’re not supposed to use an isolated section of a text in order to support our arguments.  Doing so ignores the intent and meaning of the original text – and may even contradict the original.

Advertisers and politicians often engage in this kind of writing, either to sell a product or to defame their opponents.  Reviews and speeches are scoured for quotations that can be isolated from their original context and presented to mean something else.

You could proof-text your argument for atheism with the bible by saying that “the bible itself declares that ‘there is no god.’ (Psalm 14:1)” It is true that the phrase “there is no god” is in Psalm 14:1 but the fuller context of that verse (and of psalm 14 as a whole, and of the entire book of Psalms) declares that there is, indeed, a god. 

Those who make predictions about the end-times, the end of the world, and the rapture of the church are frequently guilty of this kind of argument.  Harold Camping made a fool of himself and his followers last year with his elaborate proof-texts “proving” that Christ would return in May and then, upon closer examination, in October of last year.

And yet this is precisely the kind of argument that the Gospel of Matthew presents.  The most obvious example in Matthew is his use of Isaiah’s prophecy:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him “Emmanuel”.

Isaiah was writing to the people of his time to give them hope, and to offer them a sign that God was with them and that God would save them from the threats and dangers that they faced.  He told them that a young woman was about to give birth to a son and that before that child could be weaned the armies of their enemies would be destroyed.

But when the Hebrew scriptures were later translated into the Greek language the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ was translated with the Greek noun parthenos – ‘virgin.’  And when Matthew set out to compose his gospel he was able to use this text to develop his arguments about Jesus.  He ignored the historical setting of the original prophecy and interpreted the Greek translation as a promise for the distant future. He recycled the text and turned it into something new.

“…what Matthew does with this particular text is the kind of thing that spiritual men and women, Jews and Christians, and visionaries such as poets and painters, have always done with the text: they see new meanings in it, and realize its relevance to different situations.”[i]

So my question is this:  When is proof-texting a valid method of interpretation?  Why is Matthew’s proof-texting better than Harold Camping’s?[ii] 

[i] Morna Hooker, Beginnings: Keys that Open the Gospels,
Trinity Press International, Harrisburg PA, 1997, page 33.
[ii] To be clear – I do believe that Matthew’s proof-texting is better than Camping’s.  I’m just trying to understand why.

More Biblical Limericks - Ezekiel 16:49

T'wasn't the gays of old Sodom town
but the rich folk who lived there around
and the way they ignored
the plight of the poor
that brought the fiery sulfur rains down.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Biblical Limericks - Judges 3:12 - 23

Ehud the man was skilled with both hands,
strapped his sword to his thigh with a band;
stabbed the king as he sat,
saw the sword lost in fat,
and escaped through the window as planned.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Radio Telescope Records Cries of the Damned

Recently, astronomers at the Mt. Rumi Science Learn-a-torium released recordings made by deep space radio telescopes that pin point the location of hell.  The recordings were made during a series of observations of a black hole in the Virgo galaxy.  Black holes are incredibly massive objects in space that create gravitational fields so powerful that space itself is curved around them.  Stars, planets, even light itself is ‘sucked’ into these black holes.  And, as recently revealed, so are the souls of the damned.

In these recordings on can clear hear the sound of shrieking and crying souls.  “Their cries are pitiful,” said Dr. Drusba, chief of stuff at the Learn-a-torium.  “If you listen carefully you can even hear what sounds like teeth grinding,” he added.

Prominent theologian Dr. Jack Van Impe believes this is vindication of the Biblical doctrine of Hell.  “Now, this black hole, it sucks in all light and all energy so that it is totally black.  This one has sucked up two billion, three hundred million suns plus millions of dwarf stars – and dwarf stars never loose their heat; it goes on forever and ever.  And these dwarf stars make the heat inside these black holes twenty-five million to thirty million degrees Fahrenheit.

“Consider this and then quit saying there couldn’t be a hell.  Twenty-five to thirty million degrees Fahrenheit!  Now this is interesting because Jesus mentioned a place of ‘outer darkness in Matthew 8:12, and Matthew 25:30 and Jude verse 13 also calls it the ‘blackness of darkness forever.’  Think about it.”[i]

Steven Hawking was unavailable for comment.

[i] These are Van Impe’s actual words – April 9, 2005 – 

More Biblical Limericks - Genesis 19: 30 - 38

Lot, after leaving Sodom and Zoar
lived in caves with his daughters, both whores.
The girls plied him with drink
then, with biblical kink,
conceived Israel's enemies' ancestors.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What I’m Reading: Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian

It’s a short book with a long title and an even longer subtitle – Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, especially its Elites, in North America – by Robert H. Gundry[i] I don’t remember where I picked up this book.  It’s been on my shelves for a couple of years, but I’ve only just now gotten around to reading it.

It’s not a long book at all (the title is almost longer than the book itself)  but it’s written in dull academic prose that is, at times, more complicated than necessary and makes the book feel longer than it really is. The book is less than 200 pages long – and has only three chapters[ii]  I’ll share my thoughts on those three chapters.

1 – Jesus the Word according to John

It has sometimes been argued by those who have studied the gospel of John that the prologue (1:1 – 1:18) was a separate writing that was tacked on to the rest of the gospel sometime later by an unknown editor. Those who subscribe to this idea point out the fact that the emphasis on the logos of God in the prologue disappears completely from the rest of the gospel.  Gundry demonstrates at some length that while the prologue may have indeed been added to the gospel later, it would be untrue to say that the themes of the prologue disappear from the gospel proper. 

In this first chapter Gundry walks the reader through the 4th gospel showing how at every turn the (few) stories and the (many) words of Jesus return again and again to the themes established in the prologue – and how the emphasis on the gospel as a whole is on the Word – that is Jesus – who speaks the words of life, the words of God to the world.

I am looking forward to returning to some of this material again in the near future as I hope to develop a preaching calendar for next year focusing on John’s gospel[iii]

2 – The Sectarian

This is where things get a little tricky.  Gundry interprets John’s Jesus (and thus John – the author- by extension) to be “sectarian.”  To be “sectarian,” for Gundry, is to be a member of a “religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists.”[iv]  

He points out the sharp division in John’s gospel between believers and unbelievers, those who are children of God and those who are children of Satan, between light and dark, He interprets Jesus’ command to “love one another[v]” as a command that the disciples should love those in the Christian community.

In John’s gospel we never see Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors and Pharisees – like we do in the synoptic gospels.  In John, Jesus only eats with his friends – those he loves. [vi]

He acknowledges that Jesus’ followers are not instructed to hate outsiders – as the members of the Essene community at Qumran were[vii]  but shows how Jesus wouldn’t even pray for “the world,” only for those that he loved! [viii] In John’s gospel “the world” is dark, and unenlightened; it refused to recognize Jesus and was full of sin.

Whether we like it or not, an honest reading of John’s gospel will reveal some rather sectarian themes. But this would make sense if it is true (as many scholars of John believe) that John’s gospel was written as a defense of Christian beliefs by Jewish Christians who had been expelled from their synagogues and banished from Jewish communities by those who refused to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  It’s easy to understand the “us –versus - them” attitude that can be found in John’s gospel.

3 - A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America

And this is where it gets a little repugnant (at least to me.) 

Gundry laments what he believes to be a decline in evangelical fervor and missionary zeal.  He decries an evangelical church that seems to be becoming too much like the rest of the world in its pursuit of pleasure and comfort.  And he longs for a return to fire and brimstone styled preaching with emphasis on strong doctrinal preaching and an emphasis on the afterlife- heaven and hell, eternal life and everlasting damnation[ix]

He would be quite pleased for evangelicals to return to their roots in Fundamentalism – defending the inerrancy of the Bible and a literal interpretation of the scriptures. 

I am not opposed to strong doctrinal preaching.  I’m not opposed to calling the Church away from a pursuit of power and luxury and comfort.  But I’m not at all comfortable with Gundry’s desire for a return to the Fundamentalism of the 1920’s or with his adoption of John’s sectarian mindset.

To have been a sectarian in John’s community was to have been in a position of powerlessness and persecution.  The Christian community that received John’s gospel had been cut off from the larger community and had been excommunicated from their place of worship.  They were in the minority and they were harassed.  In that situation it was natural for the Christian community to circle inward for protection.  They loved one another, but didn’t pray for the outsiders.

But to call for John’s type of sectarianism in our contemporary pluralist culture is wrong.  Evangelical Christians in America today are not (no matter how much they might whine that they are) under attack.  They are not persecuted.  They are not being expelled from their places of worship. They are not being cut off from their communities.

It struck me as interesting that Gundy quotes from the sociological research of Christian Smith on this point:

American evangelicalism… is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is –or at least perceives itself to be – embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.  Indeed, evangelicalism…thrives on distinction, engagement, tension, conflict and threat.  Without these, evangelicalism would loose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless.[x]

It’s as if Evangelical Christians have to manufacture enemies in order to feel like they’re accomplishing something.  Perhaps this is why so many of them continue to believe that President Barak Obama is a Muslim who’s intent on turning America into an Islamo-Fascist state.

We can (and should) read John’s gospel for what it reveals to us – but it would be completely inappropriate for us to read it in the same way that the embattled Christian community who first received it. We do not face the same threats that they did.  We are not persecuted as they were.


[i] William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, U.K. 2002.
[ii] Three chapters plus a few “extended footnotes” and “some theological desiderata.”
[iii] I will also be returning to some of the things I learned from James McGrath’s books - The Only True God and John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitmation and Development in Johannine Christology.
[iv]  Page 64 – quoting Benton Johnson, “On Church and Sect”  American Sociological Review 28 (1963)
[v] John 13: 34 - 35
[vi] The wedding at Canaan might have been exception to this – except we don’t read of Jesus eating or drinking.  He’s just there.
[vii] 1QS 1: 9 -10 "...he is to teach them both to love all the Children of Light...and to hate all the Children of Darkness..."
[viii] John 17:9.  You might also compare that with 1 John 5:16 – 17.
[ix] Especially an emphasis on hell and eternal damnation.
[x] Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism, 89.Universtity of Chicago Press, 1998.

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 13

Here are this week's Powerpoint (or similar presentation program) background images. As always, feel free to use these images for your projects at home, work, school, church, wherever.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

What so Difficult?

Revelation 8:13

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More Biblical Limericks - Leviticus 15

The ten weren't enough, so to enlarge
Yahweh set down in letters quite large
the Levitical rules
for the rest of us fools
concerning different kinds of discharge.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Like a Crown

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to perform as part of a fundraiser concert for a local charitable organization.  Various church choirs, ensembles, and soloists were asked to sing or play a song.  I was originally going to play a  song on my guitar, but decided (at nearly the last minute) to do something different.

Instead, I performed Like a Crown - a selection from The Odes Project.  The Odes Project has set some of Christianity's earliest hymns - from the Odes of Solomon - into contemporary music.

This is Ode number 1

  1. The Lord is on my head like a crown, and I shall never be without Him.
  2. Plaited for me is the crown of truth, and it caused Your branches to blossom in me.
  3. For it is not like a parched crown that blossoms not;
  4. For You live upon my head, and have blossomed upon me.
  5. Your fruits are full and complete; they are full of Your salvation....

To download a copy of the odes project version of this song click here.

I used two sounds from the Freesound Project
N Dimensional Parallel Space 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ezekiel 23

The Limerick, she said, is of course
far too vulgar and much too coarse
for a prophet to use
and there is no excuse
for Ezek'el to mention the horse.

It May Start Again at any Moment

I made this little piece of music from some sound samples that a friend of mine made.
I would link to them at the Freesound Project but he has since deleted them.

If you like the song, you may download it here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Message from Sputnik

Forget what you know.

Velikovsky was right:
the moon was drawn into space
from out of the Earth's oceans
and the planet Mercury,
the winged messenger, has a plasma tail
that causes amnesia and the collapse of towers.

The children of the damned
hold their secret club meetings
unobserved on the dark-side of the moon
where they make plans for the
insemination of space with their superior
and highly evolved genetic material.

The cold war, the arms race
was merely an excuse
for Niels Bohr to build a better toaster.
If you think you can discuss quantum theory
without a good piece of toast
you cannot have understood a single word.

Ignore all you've been told.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An American Akedah

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  Genesis 22:9-10 (NIV) 

The Secret Place of Thunder - Freesound Dare #11

The theme of Freesound Dare #11 is, fittingly enough, Spring.  As we're getting a few minutes more sunlight every day (at least, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and as the temperatures are beginning to rise we are starting to think about Spring.

But the word Spring - in English - has many different meanings.  Among it's many connotations  it could be the season, it could be a mechanical spring, it could be a flow of water from the ground.  The challenge of the dare was to include these three different ideas in a work using sounds from the Freesound Project.

Here is my entry: The Secret Place of Thunder

The title is drawn from Psalm 81:7.
"You called me in trouble and I rescued you,
I answered you from the secret place of thunder."

If you like it, feel free to download it and to share it with a friend.

I used the following sounds and only these sounds from the Freesound Project:

The thunder, rain, and spring river sounds should be pretty obvious. I didn't mess around with them very much.   The blackbird trill was put through a number of delay effects, as was the mysterious traveler bird noise.  The the bass line and the melody were played with the jaw harp sound in a couple of different layers with multiple effects - some of which created another layer of bird-like tones - which fit in very well with the rest of the piece.

This song goes well with another of my recent bird songs - Anxious For Nothing
Jeff Carter's books on Goodreads
Muted Hosannas Muted Hosannas
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