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Friday, August 31, 2012

Outraged Convention Delegates Demand Truth about Chair's Origin

Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood amused delegates with his 11 minute conversation with a chair representing an imaginary president Barak Obama, but some members of the GOP are expressing outrage over doubts about the chair’s origins.

“I have it on good authority that that chair wasn’t made in America,” says Nathan Blunt, a lawyer with the Conservative Preservation Society (CPS).   “That chair represents our president and our country even if it’s only in the disjointed, rambling, and scatological conversation between an angry old man and an imaginary person. We deserve to know where that chair comes from. “

Blunt and the CPS have demanded a full and accurate account of the chair’s origins.   “If that chair was made in America, then why won’t Mr. Eastwood tell us where he got it? We demand to know the truth.”

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Changing Faces of Jesus - History with the Jerk

The other day I started writing about the book I’ve been reading – Geza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus.  It is another of those “historical Jesus” books attempting to strip away the layers of myth and legend in order to discover the real, true, historical, actual-factual Jesus that lies underneath the exaggerations of the New Testament. And as I said in my earlier post, I’m not necessarily opposed to this kind of book.  I usually enjoy them.  But Vermes’ book is proving to be less than satisfying.  I’m just not convinced by his arguments.

I’ve now read through chapters three and four – which focused on the historical Jesus that can (or can’t) be found in letters written by “The Odd Man Out Among the Apostles,”[i] – Paul.  For Vermes there can be very little of historical value about Jesus in Paul’s writings because he was “the odd man out,” the apostle who never actually met Jesus.  “He had no contact with the earthly Jesus; he did not hear his teaching or experience his spiritual presence and influence.”[ii]   And this is true.  Paul was the “odd man out,” the “untimely born…least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15).  And it is also true that Paul gives very few details about the life of Jesus, but to say, as Vermes, that there can be nothing of historical value (read “true”) about Jesus in Paul’s writings is saying too much (and not letting Paul say enough.)

For example: 

Paul’s public speech in Antioch recorded in chapter 13 of the book of The Acts of the Apostles contains some historical details of Jesus’ life.  In that speech Paul grounds Jesus in history by connecting him with the ministry of John the Baptizer, by describing the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem’s failure to understand him as the predicted Messiah, by describing their inability to find a just cause to execute him, and by describing Pontius Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death.  These are details that could be used to describe Paul’s understanding of the historical Jesus but they are summarily dismissed by Vermes.  For him, they are the inventions of the “not always reliable author of the Acts of the Apostles.” [iii]  And, here again, I have to agree – sorta’. 

The speeches and perhaps some of the narrative recorded in Acts probably were invented by the author of that book.  But that’s simply how historians worked.  Historians “have to make things up” because our memories are faulty and imprecise.   “In fact, we all do this. Every time we ‘remember’ the past we are in a sense inventing it, not out of whole cloth of course, but by filling in portions, leaving things out, etc., in keeping with what we think (often unconsciously) is “called for by each situation.”[iv]    Yes.  The author of Acts has probably invented this dialogue somewhat but that doesn’t mean we should arbitrarily dismiss it as completely without historical value.

In dealing with the "authentic" letters of Paul[v], Vermes reminds me of the Jerk. Not a Jerk, mind you… but Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk.  

“I don’t need any of this. I don’t need any of this stuff and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything. Except this…this ashtray and that’s the only thing I need, is this.  I don’t need this or this, just this ashtray…and this paddle game.  The ashtray and the paddle game, and that’s all I need.  And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game the remote control, that’s all I need.  And these matches. The ashtray and these matches and the remote control and the paddle ball…and this lamp. The ashtray, the paddle game and the remote control, and the lamp, that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too!  I don’t need one other thing!  Not one… I need this.  The paddle game and the chair and the remote control and the matches for sure!  Well, what are you looking at?  What you think I am? Some kind of a jerk or something?”[vi]

Over and over and over again Vermes insists that there is nothing of the true, historical Jesus to be found in Paul’s writings.  There are no details about the earthly Jesus’ life except that he was Jewish, but that’s it…nothing else except that he was from the linage of David.  He was Jewish and from the line of David, but nothing else, except that he was crucified…that’s an important one.  He was Jewish, and he was crucified but that’s it – except the resurrection.  Just those things… he was Jewish, and he was born of a woman, and he was crucified and resurrected, but that’s all the detail Paul knows…

I exaggerate, to be sure… but I found it funny. 

But Vermes goes even further.  In his interpretation not only does Paul know none of the historical details of Jesus’ life (except this ashtray and this paddle game…) but Paul has deliberately rejected the historical Jesus.  “In fact everything seems to suggest that in order to emphasize the paramount importance of the Jesus revealed in visions, Paul deliberately turned his back on the historical figure, the Jesus according to the flesh…”[vii]

The Jesus that Vermes finds in Paul is nothing like the Jesus that Vermes finds in the gospels.    And Vermes says that Paul made it all up. 

Vermes also believes that Paul’s letters (which predated the written gospel accounts of Jesus’ life) have influenced the way the gospels were written.  It is his opinion that Paul’s description of the Eucharist meal became the synoptic gospel's description of the last supper.  “…there is a good chance that the eucharistic interpretation of the communal meal was due to Paul, and that the editors of Mark, Matthew, and especially Luke, who follows Paul most closely, introduced in into their respective accounts in the Synoptic Gospels.”[viii]

But… if Paul’s writings were so influential to the authors or editors of the gospel, then why doesn’t the Jesus of the gospels look more like the Jesus Vermes credits to Paul?  I think that this is another case of Geza Vermes over-exaggerating the differences. 

[i] Vermes, Geza The Changing Faces of Jesus, Viking Compass, New York, NY, 2001, page 63
[ii] Page 71
[iii] Page 85 Vermes deals with book of Acts specifically in the next chapter…
[v] And Vermes accepts only Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and probably 2 Thessalonians (apart from occasional additions and glosses).  Page 64
[vi] Steve Martin – in The Jerk 1979
[vii]Vermes,  Page 75
[viii] Page 74

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Changing Faces of Jesus: Overstating and Undervaluing

I have recently begun reading The Changing Faces of Jesus by the historian Geza Vermes[i].  It’s another attempt to “strip away the myth from the man”[ii] in order to “reveal the true, historical figure of Jesus hidden beneath the oldest Gospels.”[iii]

This is generally the kind of material that I like to read but, although I am only two chapters into the book, I am finding myself reacting negatively to almost everything he writes.  This negative reaction isn’t merely because I am one of those “religious authorities” who “do not like to be faced with contradictory evidence.”[iv]  I have often found my ideas and beliefs challenged by “contradictory evidence” and by new and differing interpretations – and have found my faith strengthened and renewed by exploring them.  I may be, at times, reluctant or resistant – but I want to grow and learn and so I purposefully seek out this “contradictory evidence.” 

My negative reaction to the first two chapters is, in part, a reaction to Geza Vermes’ sometimes condescending tone.  He takes it for granted that his interpretations are (or should be) immediate and obvious to anyone with half a brain.  He laments those “average believer[s]” who “cannot swallow” his non-theological presentation of “the so-called Gospel of John.” [v]    It’s difficult to learn from someone whose knowledge is so rarefied…

He also writes of himself as a “scholar…a detached historian in search of information embedded in the surviving sources.”[vi]  The first I cannot argue.  He is a scholar.  But is he an impartial, detached historian without bias?  Doubtful.  As another historian has said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”[vii] 

This kind of approach is either disingenuous (it’s impossible to be a neutral, detached historian; those claiming to be so are fooling themselves or are trying to fool us…) or it is bad scholarship.  “Those who attempt to arrive at a non-religious historical Jesus do not follow the advice of any contemporary philosophy of history.  These interpreters do not strip away religious elements from the gospel because they are hostile to Christianity; they do so because they are poor historians.”[viii]

My negative reaction to Vermes’ presentation is also because I am not convinced that his interpretations are very good.  And this isn’t just a reactionary response. (At least, I am trying to not let it be …)  After reading the first two chapter s– which focus on the Gospel of John – I think that 1) Vermes overstates the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels and that 2) he undervalues the theological development in the synoptics (as compared with John.)

Overstating the Differences

There is no point in trying to deny the fact that John’s gospel is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.    This is, without condescension, obvious. There are differences in style, language, theme, and narrative structure.  And despite attempts throughout the years to create a harmony of the four gospel accounts they remain distinct and separate.  But in The Changing Faces of Jesus Vermes describes the difference between them as a “total irreconcilability…[ix]” It should be kept in mind that there are indeed differences between John and the Synoptics and to merge them into one harmonious account is to lose their distinctive messages, but I think that Vermes overstates and exaggerates the differences between them so that he can dismiss John’s account as unhistorical – and therefore not ‘real’, not the ‘true’ Jesus. 

One example of this exaggerated difference is in Vermes’ interpretation of the varying accounts of Jesus’ family life.  He notes that in the synoptics Jesus is described as “showing reserve, verging on hostility toward his family, including Mary.”[x]  They think he’s crazy.  They expect special treatment – which he refuses, and even seems to disown them saying that his mother and brothers are the disciples (Mark 3: 31 – 35, Matthew 12: 46 – 50, Luke 8: 19 – 21).  But, he says, in John we have a more intimate family relationship.  “After the miracle [at the wedding of Canaan], the family group – mother, son, and brothers – and the disciples leave together and go to Capernaum.  John’s sketch presupposes closeness and warmth between mother and so, so different from the cold and unfriendly attitude toward the interfering family discernible in the synoptic account. “[xi]

But are John and the synoptics so different in their descriptions of Jesus’ family dynamics?  In his brief book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? , historian Anthony Le Donne interprets the miracle at Canaan with the same familial hostility. 

“Jesus rebukes Mary sharply.  He says, ‘Ti emoi kai soi, gunai’   … Literally translated, it would say, “how to you and to me, woman?’  A dynamic translation of the idiom (one that captures the sense of the phrase) would read something like this:  ‘What does my business have to do with you?  - Mind your own business, woman!’  If this translation seems overly harsh, keep in mind that this exact idiom is used by ‘demon-possessed’ people to rebuke Jesus in Mark 1:24 and 5:7.  It is the hostile rebuke of someone who is about to be tormented or forcibly made to do something against his will. Jesus’ strong rebuke of his mother suggests that their relationship was less than cordial.”[xii]   

For all of their very apparent differences, the synoptics and John seem to be presenting the same family dynamic.  Yes.  There are differences in the way Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story.  Yes. They focus on different interpretations of the stories they share in common.  Yes.  There are indeed many conspicuous differences – but the differences are not so extreme as to be, as Vermes insists, “totally irreconcilable.”   

Undervaluing the Development

Vermes has in these first two chapter repeatedly described John’s gospel as elaborate, highly evolved, even as “the climax in the evolution of Christian dogma in the New Testament, its most polished and ultimate expression.”[xiii]   

“…compared with Mark, Matthew, and Luke who stand between the historical Jesus and the earliest formulations of Christianity, John reflects the fully developed form of the primitive belief, the end product of the early church’s thinking about Jesus.” [xiv]

And all of this theological evolution and development, in Vermes’ interpretation, moves John’s Gospel further and further away from any historical truth like that contained in the synoptics.  For Vermes, the synoptic Gospels seem to serve (in these first two chapters focused on John, anyway…) as a sort of historical foil for John’s flights of esoteric and mystical elaboration.   Thus John’s soaring balloon is punctured and brought crashing down to the solid ground and is dismissed as not the true historical Jesus.

But in doing so, I think Vermes misses something really important.  For all their similarities, the three synoptic gospels are each quite distinct – and each is highly developed in its own way.  Matthew may not have John’s elaborate speeches, but he does have a highly developed presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.  Even Mark – the shortest and (seemingly) least developed account – is far from simple.  They are developed in different ways for different audiences and with different theological intent.

But even besides that- synoptic gospels shouldn’t be read as straight, unvarnished histories any more than John’s gospel.  And even though John’s gospel is theologically developed that does not mean that it is altogether without historical value.

Disclaimer– I freely admit that I may have to modify my opinion here on this last point.  Vermes deals with the synoptic gospels in chapter 6.   It could be that he will modify the way he has characterized the synoptics so far.

And one last thing…

I am not persuaded by Vermes description of John’s gospel as being so far removed from first century A.D. Jewish thought as to be unrecognizable to any conceivable Jewish audience.  For example:  in the John’s gospel Jesus is presented as sharing in the knowledge and glory of God the Father.  Vermes says that this is “uncharted waters because no parallel concepts can be found in Judaism or for that matter elsewhere in the New Testament.” [xv]

There was no homogeneous, monolithic, standardized Judaism in the first century, and John’s gospel – as peculiar as it is – fit well within its boundaries – at least for a time.  But Vermes is keen to dismiss John’s gospel as a-historical so he argues that John’s gospel doesn’t fit with historical Judaism – and out it goes.   

I’m not convinced, but I’ll keep reading.

[i] Vermes, Geza The Changing Face of Jesus, Viking Compass, New York NY, 2000.
[ii] Jesus Christ Superstar – Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice
[iii] From the book’s front cover blurb.
[iv] Page 9
[v] Page 8
[vi] Page 9
[vii] Howard Zinn
[viii] Le Donne, Anthony Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids MI, 2011.  Page 8
[ix] Vermes, page 12
[x] Page 16
[xi] Page 17
[xii] Le Donne, page 46
[xiii] Page 8 - 9
[xiv] Page 14
[xv] Page 50
[xvi] McGrath, James The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context, University of Illinois Press, Urbana IL, 2009.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 36

I've been creating these background images to share with you -one each week.  You are free to use them in your own Powerpoint (or similar presentation program) presentations - or for anything else.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.


I found and recorded these two artifacts from space in my basement.  You are free (and encouraged) to download them for your own continued enjoyment.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How Could I have been so Grossly Oblivious?

It was in the not-so-summer of Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death that I first met Marcel and when he loaned me his copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague.  I’ve read through that book several times over the years and it has occurred to me that there were several things about that first encounter that should have registered as more than slightly odd.  They didn’t. Not then.  But I’ve had a long time to think about it now and I’ve begun to wonder.

The first thing that I should have noticed is that that year without a summer, when Mary Shelly was writing about her modern Prometheus and volcano affected weather patterns were frightening and perplexing people around the globe, was almost one hundred years before that great existentialist was born and one hundred and thirty one years before he wrote that particular novel.  How was it that Marcel could have been carrying around a tattered paperback edition over a century before its possible existence?

The second thing that didn’t immediately occur to me, though you will think that it should have been obvious , was that Marcel was, in fact, a monkey.  He wore a bright red tarboosh and vest with gold trim and tassels and spoke with an outrageous French accent, but still, he was a monkey.  Specifically he was a Red-Eared Guenon.

How could I have been so grossly oblivious?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Sad Post wherein I Betray Some of my Ignorance and Failure

I recently auditioned for a role in a musical. I've been in a few shows over the years and I enjoy singing and acting. But I was really out of my league for this one.  The others that I observed auditioning were seriously well trained singers and competent dancers.  (I can't dance - and betrayed my ignorance when I asked for a definition and description of a "ball-change" during the dance audition...)

I was really surprised to get a callback invitation.
But in the end I didn't get the part.

Ah, well.  My wife says that I shouldn't expect to get a part in every show I audition for...

The above is a small collage / painting that I made some time ago.  If I can't dance, then at least I can paint.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What I’m Reading: Historical Jesus

I like Anthony Le Donne’s little book - Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?[i]  - though I think the title and the subtitle are reversed.  This 150 page book is a primer in the postmodern philosophy of history and in memory theories in the context of the historical Jesus.  This is not a “life of Christ.”  It is, instead, an introductory guide into how to think about the life of Christ from a postmodernist historian point of view.

And I know that I’ve already set some folk’s teeth on edge.  It’s that much used but rarely defined word “postmodern.”  And Le Donne doesn’t define it much more than as a reaction to the “modern” approach.[ii]   Postmodernism is difficult (if not impossible to define) because there is no unified and codified standard of postmodern thought, there is no rule book, no agreed upon goal.  But whatever it may be there a couple of related ideas that can be considered foundational – multiple voices and multiple points of view. And with those multiple voices and views comes doubt about or rejection of objective reality and absolute truth.

And this makes many Christians nervous. [iii] But Le Donne, as much as he emphasizes the need to recognize these multiple and overlapping and even contradictory perceptions, does not reject the idea that absolute truth (in a historical context) exists.  It is, however, inaccessible to us – except through the distorted and refracted lenses of the memories of those who wrote about the life and teachings of Jesus.

Previous attempts to find the “historical Jesus” have, like Judas in the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar, attempted to “strip away the myth from the man…” [iv]  But Le Donne argues that it is not the historian’s goal to strip away the myth and the interpretation in order to get back to the bare bones of history.  “The historian cannot separate the facts from the interpretations, nor should he/she try.”[v] Instead the goal is to “account plausibly for the multiple memories represented by those who interpreted past events.”[vi]

The past is gone and will never be repeated. All that remains are our memories – but our memories are shaped by our perceptions and our perceptions are shaped by our culture, our ideas, our thoughts etc… The French philosopher Voltaire is quoted in Le Donne’s book as saying, “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”[vii] Perhaps Voltaire was overly cynical,  but history – the sequential events that happened in the past – is inaccessible to us (without the use of a time machine…) All that we have and all that we can have are the stories we remember and that we tell about the past.

And all stories are interpretations – shaped by narrative constraints, ideologies and beliefs. 

As a primer for students of the postmodern philosophy of history, this book is great.  But as a book about the historical Jesus, it’s rather lean.  I think I would have appreciated a more in depth application of this methodology to the study of the historical Jesus.  The few examples Le Donne has included are striking.  Even if I’m not sure that I like or agree with his all of his conclusions, I wanted more.

It’s a surprisingly light book (both in weight and in tone) for such a complex and nuanced topic, but Le Donne uses examples from pop culture and scholarly tomes with equal dexterity to make his points.  It’s neither dull nor condescending.   I recommend it to you if you’re not afraid to have your perceptions challenged.

[i] Le Donne, Anthony Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids MI, 2011
[ii] Page 6
[iii] In point of fact: the publication of Historical Jesus led to the firing of Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University in April 2012, because donors were upset by the content of the book…
[iv] Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice
[v] Page 80
[vi] Page 77
[vii] Page 72

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 35

All this year I've been making these background images for powerpoint (or a similar presentation program) and I've been sharing them with you.  These images are free for you to use in your own personal, school, church or business projects.  Use them however you will.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

If you do use them, I'd appreciate hearing from you. Leave a comment. Let me know...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Entry Interface

Recorded with Ableton Live.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I hesitate to write anything about the novel that I have just finished reading – Silence – by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo.  What can I say – what should I say about Silence.  

“I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers?
    I will cover my mouth with my hand.
I have said too much already.
    I have nothing more to say.” (Job 40: 4 – 5)

Yet I will say a few things. Forgive me if my words are insufficient.

The novel, written in 1966, is based on actual historical events and people.  It is the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries sent to Japan in 1638, during the intense persecution of Christians in the Edo period. It is a story of suffering and despair.  It is a story of faith – but it is also the story of intense doubt.

Why does god allow the suffering of his people?  Why does he not do something about it?

The “silence” of the novel’s title is the discouraging silence of God.  Throughout the book the main character repeatedly questions God – Why do you not speak?  Why do you not intervene?  As much as it might disturb our religious sensibilities Endo depicts a God who has not chosen to eliminate all human suffering, but instead has chosen to suffer with his creation.    

Those suspected of being Christians in Japan during the 17th century were compelled to step on fumi-e- (literally “stepping on pictures”) -crudely carved images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  People reluctant to step on the image of Christ were arrested as Christians and tortured and sometimes killed.

When Christ finally breaks his silence in the novel he says only, “Trample! Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” 

Endo is frequently compared to another Catholic novelist – Graham Greene, and Silence is often compared to Greene’s The Power and the Glory about a cowardly “whiskey priest” in Mexico during the suppression of the Catholic Church in the 1930s.  Though they take different vectors –Silence follows a courageous priest who slowly sinks into doubt and despair, The Power and the Glory begins with a weak willed priest who comes to face the challenge with some measure of bravery – both books are compelling stories of human faith and doubt.

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”
― Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

You might also be interested to read the article Does the Church Thrive Under Persecution  by Marc Cortez.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Whoever Denies Me...

Many years ago, long before you or I were born, there was a man who lived in this village named K-; he was one of the first followers of the way – those known now as Christians – in our country.  This was in the time when followers of the way were still being persecuted by the prefects.  They were arrested. They were beaten.  Some were even killed because of their allegiance to the Nazarene.

They came for K- in the middle of the night. The prefect’s soldiers kicked in the door and dragged him from his bed and took him to the prisons.  And there they tortured him.  “Recant,” they shouted at him between blows.  But he would not turn from his faith. They beat him with rods. They broke each of his fingers.  And all the while the prefect said in his soothing voice, “Reject the Nazarene and this can be stopped.” 

K- endured it all and in his weak voice he continued to repeat, "whoever denies me before me, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven." This went on for many days.  K- endured starvation and humiliation. The prefect continued to encourage K- to recant.  “Reject this Jesus and go free,” he said, “you don’t even have to mean it.  Just let the people of the town hear you reject him and all this pain can be stopped.”  But K- would not be turned.  He was pelted with dung and hung upside down for hours on end.  But he would not deny his Lord.

After a week K- was brought before the prefect.  “You have impressed me, K-," said the prefect.  “I have never encountered anyone as devoted to their god.  But I cannot allow you to continue in this.  Others might be encouraged by your example and begin following your Nazarene.  But neither do I want to have you killed.  Your example would be even more potent as a martyr.  So we have come to this.”

The prefect signaled to a soldier at the door.  A moment later ten children, bound in chains at their ankles, were led into the room.  “These are children of your fellows.  Their parents are followers of the way, just as you are.  I will not kill you K- but if you not recant I will kill them.  And you will watch.  Their blood will be on you.”

K- turned away from the terrified faces of the children and looked at the prefect. His words, spoken as loudly as he could, were still only a whisper, “I reject him. Please. Let them go.  I deny the Nazarene. I have none of him.”

K- was released, as were the children.  They ran from the prefect’s room and were welcomed in their homes by frantic and grateful parents.  K- however, left the town and went off to live in the caves near the river.  He shunned visitors and guests and would see no one.

And there, alone in the caves K- died, whereupon he was taken into heaven. Standing before the risen Jesus he wept and said, “I cannot be here. I denied you as my Lord. You must deny me.”  Jesus only said, “But my brother, you gave your life so that others could live – this was everything my name represents. You have denied nothing.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

John and the Synoptics

John and the Synoptics

A gospel quartet with a surprisingly eastern flair, John and the Synoptics, are in town to bring a message of love and joy in their latest cross-country tour.  If you don't find yourself dancing to their music you might be dead - though even the dead have been known to be raised up and set to dancing by their distinctive melodies.

The individual members of the band - Matt, Mark, Lucas and John - have played together for over twenty years and have honed a singular sound  that distinguishes them from other musical acts.  Matt, Mark and Lucas were formerly members of the group Q. but after the mysterious disappearance of their lead singer they reformed with John and have never looked back.

John and the Synoptics will be performing nightly all this week at the Holiday Inn.

It's a Corporation!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gnawing on the Flesh -Some thoughts and questions about John 6: 51- 59

The past several weeks’ lectionary readings have focused on Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, the walking on the water, and the subsequent “Bread of Life” discourse in Capernaum.   This week’s reading is from John 6: 51 – 59, a passage that many have noted makes a sharp break from the preceding verses (6: 35 – 50.)  The Bread of Life discourse in vss. 35 – 50 seems to be a full and complete sermon, with a beginning a middle and an end.  But vss. 51 – 59 pick up again, circling back round to the same material – though with a different emphasis.

In vss. 35 – 50 the “Bread of Life” teaching is –to use one of those fancy college words – Sapiential – that is - having to do with wisdom, especially God’s wisdom.  To eat the bread of life is to believe in the one that God has sent and to be taught by God.  This section may also be Sacramental – having to do with the Eucharist / Communion sacrament, but that seems to be a secondary or minor emphasis.
In vss. 51 – 59 the “Bread of Life” teaching lays stress on the eating (or more literally the “gnawing”) of Jesus’ flesh and the drinking of his blood.  There is no mention of “belief” in this section – only on the receiving and consumption of Christ’s flesh and blood – and the eternal life that those elements impart.

Many scholars have suggested that what we have here are two different “Bread of Life” discourses that have been edited together.

Rudolf Bultmann believed vss. 51-59 (and all sacramental references in John) to be the corrective work of a later editor who tried to bring John’s gospel back into line with traditional ideas and to make the discourse more acceptable to the church. Raymond E. Brown takes a ‘middle of the road’ approach, accepts vss. 51 – 59 as authentically John, but transplanted from the narrative of the last supper and the institution of the Eucharist sacrament.

This is an interesting suggestion. 

John, unlike the synoptic gospels, does not include in his Last Supper narrative anything about Jesus instituting the Eucharist sacrament. Though his account of the Last supper is substantially longer than the synoptic (5 chapters!) he says nothing about the communion sacrament.  The body and blood are absent in John’s last supper.

“His purpose in all of this seems to have been to spell out the eucharistic undertones already implicit in the chapter.  He has given 51 – 58 the same beginning and the same ending as 35 – 50; the same type of interruption where the Jews protest; the same promise of eternal life.  But where the original discourse stressed the necessity of belief in Jesus, the new discourse stresses the necessity of eating and drinking the eucharistic flesh and blood.”[1]

It wouldn’t be the only incident of narrative transplant in John’s gospel – the ‘cleansing of the temple’ incident, which occurs toward the end of the synoptics is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John.  And both of these stories are connected to the Passover celebration.  Is that merely a coincidence?

But – so what?  As the pastor for a small, Midwestern congregation of people who will be, at best, largely uninterested in hypothetical constructions of how the gospel came to be … or, at worst, hostile to the idea that John didn’t record authentic historical events in exactly the way they occurred – how do I interpret and teach and preach from this passage? 

Does the shift from an emphasis on wisdom and belief to sacramental consumption matter to them? And to further complicate the issue – how do I handle these issues from within a non-sacramental denomination?  (The Salvation Army, along with the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers- does not practice formal sacraments, believing that all of life should be considered sacramental and holy.)

I’m also rather fascinated by that word “Gnaw”.

John doesn’t use the regular word for “to eat” here.  Instead of the expected esthiein “to eat,” John uses trogein, a word that was used to describe “crunching” and “munching” -the way animals eat.  [2]  It certainly gives emphasis to the sacramental theme – the eating of the bread of life – but it seems that John is deliberately making the message offensive.

The idea of crunching and gnawing upon the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ must have been repugnant and deeply offensive to the Jews who heard this message (whether in the synagogue with Jesus or in the artfully crafted narrative of John).  And perhaps it should be more offensive to us as well. It certainly sounds more like an episode of The Walking Dead than a dignified church service.

Eat Flesh - To eat someone’s flesh was an indication of violent and hostile intent:  “… the wicked came against me, to eat up my flesh…” (Psalm 27:2)  “…let what is dying die, and what is perishing perish.  Let those that are left eat each other’s flesh.” (Zechariah 11:9)  This is brutal slaughter and apocalyptic carnage. In speaking to the vultures and carrion eating animals, the prophet Ezekiel encouraged them to “gather together…that you may eat flesh and drink blood” (Ezekiel 39:17)

And Jesus didn’t do anything to discourage this ghastly (mis)understanding.  It’s as if he were making it difficult on purpose – trying to offend them.  If this was his intent, he certainly succeeded. In next week’s reading we find that even many of his followers were disgusted by this teaching and abandoned  him (John 6: 60 – 66).

So do I preach it this way?  I’m still the new guy here – barely a month in.  If I launch into a “Zombie Christ” kind of sermon complete with slurping and gnawing sound effects am I going to offend members of the congregation? 

And if I do, should that matter? 

Apparently it does.  Just yesterday I received a message from our Divisional Headquarters saying, “To date, Sunday School and Sunday Worship in your appointment have decreased in average attendance over last year. Consider what measures are being taken to promote growth and evaluate for effectiveness…. Continue to guard these souls with tender care and the truth of God's Word.”

Is this cannibalistic Christ part of the “tender care” of God’s Word? 

These are some of the questions that I’ve been trying to answer, and that I will continue to gnaw on through the rest of this week.

And, of course, if I mention Zombies then I have to include a link to my zombie movie!

[1] Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation and Notes, ed. William F. Albright, David N. Freedman, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1966 page 287-289
[2] Moloney, Francis J. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John, page. 381
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