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Friday, September 28, 2012

I've Discovered 'A Marginal Jew'

I went to the Newton public library the other day and, in perusing the shelves, I discovered John P. Meier's book A Marginal Jew: Volume 3 Companions and Competitors.  (Our libary doesn't have volumes 1 and 2 or 4...)

I've seen these books referrenced in other books that I've read, but I haven't read them.  And I've misunderstood the title - "Marginal Jew..."  But now that I've started reading, I'm really rather impressed and am eager to track down (and or purchase) the entire series.

For a 'brief' summary and an interesting lecture by the author, you might like to watch the following video:

The Sound of Me Not Sleeping

This is the sound of me not sleeping.

In addition to the material I recorded myself, I used the following souds from the Freesound Project:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Cover Painting

When I finished reading the book (which was, I think, a history of germs...) I cut out the pictures and used the hardback covers for paintings.  It wasn't a particularly great book.

Mixed media - paint, oil pastels, pencil, paper on cardboard

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What I'm Reading - The Battle for the Resurrection

I’ve been reading several books about Jesus recently – Geza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus, Gary Habermas’ The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, Anthony LeDonne’s The Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Willi Marxsen’s The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and Robert Gundry’s Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America

And now I have finished reading Norman L. Geisler’s The Battle for the Resurrection[i].  And while I am more inclined to agree with Geisler’s defense of the resurrection of Jesus than I am to accept Marxen’s or Vermes’ dismissals – there is very little I like about this book. I agree with Geisler that Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event and that he was raised in physical material body.  But that’s about where the agreement ends.

From the beginning Geisler’s book is antagonistic, from the very title.  He sees this as a battle, as war against the enemies of historic and orthodox Christianity – at least Christianity as he understands and practices it.  Those who disagree with him are unorthodox, pretenders to the faith who are challenging the very foundations of the Church.  And Geisler is unwilling to tolerate any deviation in the doctrine of the resurrection within the ranks of Orthodox Christianity.[ii]

Geisler posits three tests for what he defines as the orthodox, biblical understanding of Jesus’ resurrection:
1)      It is an event in history
2)      It is a material body
3)      It maintains numerical identity

I accept and believe the first point of this test – though I’m not convinced by Geisler’s appeal to the inerrancy of the bible.

The second point I accept – but not in a way that would be acceptable to Geisler.  He maintains that Jesus’ resurrection body is a fully restored human, fleshy, material body.  I say yes…but it is different. Jesus’ resurrected, glorified body, is different – it is changed, transformed.    

Geisler argues that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples in which he offered to let them touch his wounds, and when he ate with them were appearances in order to demonstrate the material, physical nature of his resurrection. [iii]

But I’m not convinced.  His appearances to his disciples wasn’t merely to demonstrate his material existence, but to demonstrate his reality and the continued relationship they had with him, and as a demonstration of the restored communion they would have with God.

It’s the third point of this test that divides us.  Geisler maintains that the resurrection body of Jesus and that of his followers is/will be exactly – exactly – the same as that body possessed before death.  He even goes so far as to maintain that the “view that every particle of the resurrection body will be restored is possible but not necessary.”[iv]   It would seem that Paul’s description of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 (heavenly, imperishable,  raised in power as a spiritual body) would argue against him, but Geisler says this indicates that the resurrection body is a supernatural body[v] – but still tries to argue that it’s exactly the same body.   

It’s interesting that in the whole book, Geisler never gets around to answer the underlying question.  In his entire defense of the historical, material, numerically identical resurrection, Geisler never answers the question: What is death? 

Biblically, death is something more than just the extinguishing of physical, material existence.  Death is separation from God – the source of life. Death is the separation from God due to sin.  And if biblical death is something more than physical death – then any biblical explanation of the resurrection must be more than just the physical material resurrection. Geisler never address this.  For him it’s all about affirming the physical materiality of the resurrection and castigating those who disagree with him.

[i] Geisler, Norman L. The Battle for the Resurrection, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville TN, 1989.
[ii] Page 28
[iii] Page 136
[iv] Page 174
[v] Page 109

Monday, September 24, 2012

Blue/Orange - A Freesound Dare

I make frequent use of the many sounds available at the Freesound Project.  But not only is it an enormous resource, it is also a community of musicians, producers and audio-crafters.  We sometimes challenge each other to various "Dares" to see what we can create from a limited selection of sounds.  This particular dare (#15) involved the use of opposites. Each of the sound samples we used had be chosen as part of a pair of opposites (quiet / loud, long /short, high / low etc…). 

For my piece I began by thinking – not so much in terms of music or auditory cues - but rather in colors.  My opposites are based on the colors blue and orange – which are complimentary colors, opposite each other on the color wheel. My search through the Freesound Project’s collection of sound based on this idea lead me to these four particular sounds:

The Blue Samples are long, elemental, related to nature.
The Orange Samples are short, human and technological.

With that said, here is my entry for Dare #15 – Blue/Orange 

It's Non Sequitur Teaching Time with Jesus

The lectionary gospel reading for this week (Mark 9: 38 – 50) is full of interesting and difficult statements from Jesus, troubling statements. 

First off – John complains that someone outside of their group was using Jesus’ name to drive out demons.  Was this early copyright infringement?  Was John concerned about the illegal use of trademarked material – or was he trying to deflect attention away from the disciples’ failure (see last week’s reading: Mark 9: 30 – 37)? 

Jesus disregards John’s complaint saying that “he who is not against us is on our side.”  Seems clear enough… at least until we compare this statement in Mark against the other synoptic accounts.  Matthew and Luke record Jesus saying, “Anyone who is not with me is against me and anyone who does not work with me is working against me (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23).”  Is there a conflict between these two statements? 

The verses that follow don’t really seem to follow.  It is non sequitur teaching time.

Jesus says, “Whoever gives you a cup of cold water because you belong to my name will not lose the reward.”  We usually hear this verse in Matthew’s voice (Matthew 10:42). In Matthew this is about true disciples giving water in Jesus’ name, but in Mark it’s about the disciples being given cold water because they belong to Jesus’ name.   What does this mean?  Why are the disciples being given water?  And what is the reward that the water giver is not going to lose?

Following this Jesus addresses anyone who would “cause offense to one of these insignificant believers” (or, in another translation, “little ones”) saying that it would be better for them to be tossed into the sea with a large stone tied to their neck. 

This leads – without transition – to a discussion about cutting off and gouging out body parts if they cause you to sin.  This is hyperbole – I hope!  For it is better to “enter life maimed” than to have all your parts and be thrown into hell (gehenna- which isn’t exactly hell but that’s another discussion for another day…) where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.    There is a lot to unpack in these statements, but what I find especially interesting is the idea of “entering life” which is equated in parallel form with “entering the Kingdom of God (vs. 47).  What does it mean to “enter life”?

And then again, without transition, Mark records Jesus saying “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  To which I say, What?  Jesus continues, “Salt is good but if it loses its saltiness with what will you season it?”  I’m not sure how this follows.  What? What?  Jesus goes on without explaining… “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  What? What? What?

So we have cold water, and an unspecified reward. We have devouring worms, unquenchable fire and salt. We have a salting with fire (whatever that means).  And we need to have peace with one another.  Is that a connection back to John’s complaint about an outsider breaking into the Jesus franchise? What are we to make of all this? 

Mark doesn’t help much. He doesn’t give us any editorial explanations.  And the context doesn’t help much either.  The next story is about Jesus arguing with the Pharisees about divorce.  The non sequitur teaching continues…

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 40

Inspired by the recent discovery of the "Jesus' Wife" fragment  I decided to make this week's Powerpoint image look like an ancient papyrus.  These images are free for you to download and to use in your own personal, work, school, or church projects.  Use them for whatever you like  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Second Coming of Jonathan Edwards Bickle

This is the way it begins.
in the darkness
in the dark.
This is the film, and this is the beat.
This is the way it begins:

In the murky blackness of a life in bars -
avenging and spinning,
and listening to music in cars,
walkin’ the streets,
and dark alleyways
hailing my boys and making these beats.

I am the unstoppable force of God's lonely man.

I am the Cosmic Christ,
the ascended master.
the reigning champion
Prince of Chaos,
with a cowboy hat on my head
and shit-kicking steel-toed -

Boots for the tyrant
and a boot to your head,
I’m packing a Glock
that’s ready to go off
a .45 caliber of power
and glorious might to make
what I want and what I say right.

I am the decider.
I am the dealer.
I am the speedway driver in a hot four-wheeler.
A highway terror, a roadside monster,
a fuel injected beast from the depths of hell.

Jaded American culture faded to black,
this boot-strappin’ rugged individual
is smokin’ crack.
He’s a loaded smoking gun for hire
to them that’s got the cash

This is the film.
This is the way it begins.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A New Video Game for Fans of the Left Behind Series

If Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins were video game programmers....

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Music for The Post-Apostolic Wasteland

Earlier today I posted a brief poem entitled Post-Apostolic Wasteland.

Now I share with you some music for that wasteland, a soundtrack for Professor Jon Hagalgolson's wanderings.

You can download it - free - here.
I used the following sounds from the Freesound Project:
Polar Ladies 

Post-Apostolic Wasteland

He could barely remember the time before,
before the collapse, before the bombs,
but once he had been a teacher -
Professor of Ancient Hearsay Evidence
at Baigent-Leigh University -
Professor Jon Hagalgolson.
Now he wanders through
a post-apostolic wasteland
in search of the Manuscript
that had been stolen from him.

Forever pursued by Russian agents
and members of a sacred mushroom cult,
he must find the missing pages of this ancient text
before his enemies
or something worse than the bombs
something much worse
will fall upon the land.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Stones Cry Out - The Shoemaker's Shop

I have already mentioned the project that my brother and sister-in-law are working on (and to which I am contributing some help...), The Stones Cry Out,  an Arabic language television program about Jesus and archaeology in Israel.  The crew is currently filming the first three - of thirteen - episodes.

If you'd like to see some of the behind the scenes work watch this video.
If you'd like to listen to some of the music that I've prepared for the show, listen to this song.

And if you'd like to see some still photos from the show, you can look at these.
These photos come from the shoemaker's shop - part of the first episode, which focuses on the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran.

Rock and Roll Apocalypse (Tom Waits style)

On the radio someone is screamin’
about the imminent falling of the moon,
and outside these paper thin walls
the howlin’ wind is rippin’ trees to timber.
The coffee is hot but the night is dark
and I drink with a certain reluctance
because now I know that the time is short
before I stand condemned.

John Lennon’s ghost is marching
through the rain swept streets tonight
with a golden trumpet in his right hand
and the keys to a Mercedes in his left.
The herald of the new age of love
never quite knew what he believed.
He believed it all and not at all,
and then he was no more.

And as anyone anywhere can tell you,
the Rolling Stones will never die,
they’ve already been taken straight to heaven
along with the Lizard King Morrison.
Kurt Cobain was there to greet them
still holding that goddamned shotgun
“Welcome,” he said, “to eternity,
but I think this might be hell.”

It’s a marvelous night for a moondance
with the stars faillin’ out of the sky,
a fantabulous night for the apocalypse
‘neath the collapse of nations and kings.
The night is magic but when the spell’s been cast
only dreams of death will survive,
and no amount of chanting will repair
a circle that has been broken.
The ringing in your ears now
is the sounding of the trumpet of the Lord
and the sky is about to be cracked
like a boiled lobster’s shell.
The show is over, the end has come;
it’s time for our final reward.
The heavenly choir has sung the last encore.
It’s the rock and roll apocalypse.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 39

One new Powerpoint (or similar presentation program) background image each week - that's the goal.  You are free to use these images in your own school, work, church, or personal projects.  You're free to use them in any way - I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mystery - The Stones Cry Out

My brother and I frequently collaborate on projects.  Last year we worked together on a zombie movie. On another occasion when he was hired to work as the director of photography on an independent film called Kansas City Beat, I put together a short piece of music - that the directors liked and asked if they could use in the film.

And now we're working together again, albeit in different parts of the world.  He is in Israel filming the first three episodes of a Arabic language television program entitled The Stones Cry Out.  I am - not in Israel- helping with the scripts and with the music.  (The crew has received funding for another 10 episodes!)

Here is one of the songs that I've put together for the show.

You can hear a little bit of the song in this behind the scenes video.

I spoke with my brother a little bit this afternoon.  They had some excitement while filming at the Jordan River today.  At one point my brother had climbed into a tree in order to get the necessary shot when he realized that he was being covered in a swarm of ants.  Instead of flailing about, trying to swat them - and possibly dropping the camera or falling from the tree - my brother did the sensible thing and climbed out of the tree and baptized himself in the river.

Later the crew saw smoke coming from one of the laptop cords.... Fortunately my sister-in-law was there to yank the cable out before the laptop was fried.

A crazy day, but my brother said that he likes what they filmed today.

In making the song above I used the following sounds from the Freesound Project :

Friday, September 14, 2012

No Time For Treatment

B.’s flaming heart turned cold when he saw the churning ground,
the broken spines of falling trees and crashing limbs,
the arcing, sparking power lines in the street.

His tires blown, his axle broken,
he staggered to the ground and lost a shoe.
Baghdad was on fire and his house was burning down

He plunged his arms into the skeletal remains
and retrieved his coat, the uniform coat of soldiers
the uniform worn by his enemies.

It was still morning when he heard the air-raid sirens
and sliced his hands with jagged shards of broken glass.
He swallowed the sugar on his tongue and went on.

His peripheral vision was clouded, his cheeks were bleeding
and creditors were beating at his breast for his purse,
but there was no time for treatment.

A word of explanation....
A friend of mine recently commented after reading one of these poems that although he liked the poem, he was " too honest to pretend" that he understood what it meant. That's okay.  Influenced by the Dada and Surrealist movements I write these poems by taking random bits of sentences in the books that I am reading, the songs I hear on the radio or that are running through my mind and other bits of flotsam and jetsam and putting them together in a new and strange way.  

In this particular example you might (or might not) recognize bits of the Left Behind series, and the music of The Talking Heads and the musical Godspell.   

And an Update

I decided to record a pseudo-folk /rock version of my writing.  I'm just getting over a pretty severe cold so my voice sounds.... well you can hear it.  But it sorta' makes me sound like Conner Oberst, no?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Artifact 3

Artifact 3 from jeff carter on Vimeo.

From time to time, as I sit in my makeshift home studio, I find and record these artifacts from space. They fall through the atmosphere and into my computer.   This is the third Artifact that I have recorded. Artifacts 1 and 2 are available here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 38

Later than usual, but still keeping up - here is this week's Powerpoint Slide for Everyone - or, if you don't like this one you could check out the other in the series.

These images are free for you to use as background images in your Powerpoint presentations at school, work, or church or for whatever purpose or project you have in mind. Use them as you will.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.  Thanks.

The Stones Cry Out - Behind the Scenes

This is the newest collaborative project between my brother and myself. Or rather, this is a preview of our latest collaborative project. He is currently in Israel filming the first three (of thirteen) episodes of a short television program called The Stones Cry Out.  This particular video is a behind the scenes sort of teaser for the program. The focus of episode one is on the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

BTS Ep1 from Brad Carter on Vimeo.

In this preview you can hear a short bit of two of the songs that I have prepared for the show.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Letter to a Humanist Professor

Dear Professor,

While it is true that this is
a religious belief based, however tenuously, on faith
I must remind you that it will not be tolerated.
This is the moral chaos at the root of your
heterodox, metaphysical philosophy.

You will not be allowed to travel
a hundred thousand miles every year -
not without the video recording devices and cellular telephones
of prominent television and radio preachers
trained upon you – we are watching.
And we are waiting for you to answer our questions,
questions we have asked repeatedly.

This is supposed to be the home of the free
and a land of milk and honey
but you, sir, have plunged us all
into a revisionist nightmare;
using the mind controlling properties
of television and higher education
you have made the children of this world
wiser than the children of light,
and we are not pleased.

Ellanjay Dobson

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Jesus Loves the Little Children... Doesn't He?

We all know the Sunday school chorus, right?  Jesus Loves the Little Children…[i]
                Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world
                red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,
                Jesus loves the little children of the world.

This is the image of Jesus that many of us, most of us in this room, have been raised with. It’s warm and comforting. This is the kind and loving Jesus that we’ve been taught and that we expect to find when we read the gospels.  It’s not altogether wrong, but it’s not exactly what we find in the gospel of Mark. In fact, the image of Jesus that we find in today’s passage (Mark 7: 24 – 37) is difficult to understand.  He confounds our expectations and ruins that treasured little chorus for us.

Jesus spent the majority of his career as a wandering teacher and healer in the green hills of Galilee, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and proclaiming the imminence of the Kingdom of God to a Jewish audience.  He traveled from town to town and village to village, teaching in the synagogues, driving out demons, giving sight to the blind, causing the deaf to hear, and even raising the dead. 

Galilee had, at one point in time, become heavily populated by Gentile peoples. But in the years since the victories of the Maccabees the region had become more Jewish than not once again.  Still, it was surrounded like an island in a Gentile sea.  To the North and East was Syria, to the West was Phoenicia.  To the south was Samaria.  Surrounded as they were, the Jews of Galilee were proud of their heritage.

But here in this passage, Jesus suddenly and inexplicably leaves the Jewish hills of Galilee and takes his disciples[ii]  on a trip to the coastal city of Tyre in Phoenicia – to Gentile territory. We don’t get to hear what the disciples thought about this trip; Mark doesn’t tell us.  So I have to wonder what they might have been thinking.  Gentiles weren’t to be trusted.  The rabbis encouraged Jewish travelers who, for whatever reason, absolutely had to travel through Gentile territories, to be wary of leaving their animals unattended at Gentile inns because Gentiles “were suspected of practicing bestiality.” [iii]  Travelling businessmen were encouraged to not enter Gentile towns, but rather, to conduct their business outside of town.  Gentiles were uncouth and savage outsiders, and Jews were encouraged to avoid interaction with them.

But now, without explaining his reasons for the journey, Jesus has made his way to Tyre and went into a house.  He didn’t want to see anyone, or to be seen by anyone.  This happens quite often in Mark, actually.  We frequently see Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, leaving the crowds and his disciples to be alone.  So he’s traveled to the coastal city of Tyre and locked himself away from the world.  Nevertheless, word got out that Jesus was in town.  People from Tyre had heard about Jesus before.  Many of them had, themselves, traveled from Tyre to Galilee in order to hear Jesus teach and to have their illnesses cured. [iv] Now, they discover, Jesus – the wandering preacher and itinerant healer - had come to their town.  He could not keep his presence a secret.

One woman, in particular, made her presence known.  She intruded into Jesus’ seclusion in order to beg for the life of her daughter, and Mark goes to some length to make sure that we understand who, and what she was. She was a woman, a Greek woman born in Syrian Phoenicia…  Mark wants his reader to understand, without question, that the woman was not Jewish.  She was one of the unclean, uncivilized Gentiles.   And now this woman… this Gentile woman… comes bursting into Jesus’ alone time to beg him to drive the demons from her little daughter.   Can you hear her? Please sir, please, have mercy, please heal my little daughter.  She is begging.

Now we have already seen Jesus acting with compassion for precious daughters.  In chapter five Jesus raised Jairus’ little daughter, and healed the woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years.  Jesus called her “my daughter.”  But these were Jewish daughters.   When the Syro-Phoenician woman -the gentile woman- begs Jesus to save her daughter, Jesus answers, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

This is not Jesus loves the little children

Jesus doesn’t act with the compassion we expect. Jesus doesn’t respond with love.  Instead Jesus compares the woman and her daughter to “dogs.”  This was a common epithet levied by Jews against their gentile neighbors.  They were dogs and swine, not worthy to be taught the torah, and not worth Jesus’ healing.  For those of us raised to understand that “Jesus loves the little children” this comes as something of a shock. But in all reality – this was the prevailing Jewish opinion about Gentiles.  The Jewish people, by nature of their covenant with God, were his special children.  The gentiles were outsiders.  They were unclean. They were dogs.

Now some commentators, who are rightly horrified by this calloused and uncaring Jesus, point out that the word that is translated as “dogs” actually means “little dogs.”  This, they say, softens the blow. See? Awww puppies…  But dogs were not kept as house pets.  And they weren’t cute.  They were savaging beasts, covered in mange and flies.   And it, in no way, softens the blow to say “little dogs.”  It’s still a horrible thing to say.

Others, still trying to get around this horrible depiction of Jesus, suggest that Jesus was using a particular teaching technique called “periastic irony” – that is, Jesus –the teacher- said precisely what he did not mean, with the expectation that his student would be able to understand and respond by correcting him.   This is, perhaps, a plausible explanation.  I think this is perhaps what Mark, the gospel author, is doing with the story, but I’m not convinced that Jesus is being ironic here.

Irony is difficult.  It’s easy to miss – because on the surface, what is said sounds perfectly normal. The humor or instructiveness of irony is in the ability of the audience to understand the hidden, underlying meaning – which is usually the complete opposite of what is being said in the surface layer.  A devoted and practiced disciple would probably be able to recognize and respond to Jesus’ instructive use of irony, but would this woman have been able to understand?  She’s a stranger to him.  Even allowing that she may have been one of those who traveled from Tyre to Galilee to hear Jesus speak, would she have been so familiar with his teaching techniques as to recognize and respond?  And, consider that she’s coming to him in extreme desperation and fear.  I can’t see her responding this way.

Jesus says to her, “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  And this beautiful woman replies with her own riposte, “But sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

This woman, this gentile woman, this woman from Syrian Phoenicia turns the tables on Jesus and he suddenly recognizes her as something more than a “little dog.”  She becomes human.  “Because you have said this you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”   Just that - a word from his lips and the demon is gone – but our dilemma persists.

What are we to do with this Jesus who doesn’t appear to love all the little children of the world?  There are at least two different ways that we can understand this story – neither is easy.

First, if this story represents an accurate telling of an authentic historical event – then Jesus did give voice to the persistent Jewish prejudice that gentiles were unclean and unworthy.  This picture of Jesus will be difficult for us to accept, however.  Most of us are very used to considering Jesus in his divine nature.  We understand him as perfect, as holy, as pure.  But we also have to remember that Jesus also had a human nature as well.  He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man.  And as a man – as a human, he is subject to the same vulnerabilities that we are.

If we remember that Jesus was fully human in every way (without neglecting that he was also divine in every way…) we will remember that he had to learn and to grow and to mature.  And perhaps part of that learning and growing and maturing happened in this story. He overcame the prejudice of his culture and became the Jesus we have been raised to expect – the Jesus who loves the children of the world, no matter where they come from

The second way to understand this difficult story is to accept the idea that Mark, in writing this gospel, was not writing a modern history or biography of Jesus.  He was writing a gospel – a theological document.   And in doing so he felt free to take artistic liberties the stories he’d heard about Jesus and to rework them in such a way as to make this incident a particularly poignant story for his gentile audience. 

It is largely believed by New Testament scholars that Mark wrote his gospel shortly before or shortly after the failed Jewish rebellion against Rome to a mainly gentile audience.  We see some evidence of that in the fact that Mark frequently includes parenthetical statements to explain Jewish customs to his readers.    The inclusion of gentiles into the worshipping community was the paramount issue for the first century church.  And the story of Jesus’ confrontation with the woman in Tyre, and with the predominant racist attitude would be of comfort and guidance to those Christian communities struggling to understand how and why to include these gentile dogs into their fellowship.

Either we are forced to reconsider and adjust our ideas about the human nature of Jesus – or we are forced to reconsider and adjust our ideas about how the gospel texts were composed and transmitted to us.[v]  But, in the end, either interpretation leads us back to confronting ourselves.  Do we harbor any undiagnosed prejudices?  Do we dismiss the pain and suffering of others merely because they are not like us?  Do we ignore those who are different from us?   Do we perpetuate disparaging stereotypes about people?  Do we despise or fear Liberals or Conservatives, the Elderly, the Mentally Ill, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists….or any other group, race, culture, creed, or sexual orientation?

It can be difficult to grow beyond the prejudices of our culture.  But we must or we’ll never really know the Jesus who does, indeed, love the little children of the world.

[i]  Words by Clare Herbert Woolston (1856–1927) Inspired by Matthew 19:14.  Some versions of the song change the words slightly by inserting the color "brown" between "red" and "yellow."
[ii] Though they aren’t specifically mentioned in this passage, Mark tells us that the disciples were there “in those days” (Mark 8:1).
[iii] Quoted in Heszer, Catherine Jewish Travel in Antiquity  Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, Germany. 2011. Page 301.  Granted, these thoughts from the Mishnah were written in the years after Jesus, but they can be taken as illustrative – though not universal.  Not all of the rabbis spoke of the Gentiles this way. 
[iv] Mark 3:8
[v] As with everything, there are varying shades of interpretation along this spectrum.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Did Jesus Ever Need to be Spanked?

I ask the question because of the text I have been looking at for this coming Sunday’s sermon (Mark 7: 24 – 37) and because I want to share one of my favorite paintings.

The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and the Painter (1926) was painted by the German artist Max Ernst, a leading figure among the Dada and Surrealist movements.  In it we see Mary, the mother of Jesus, spanking her firstborn son – who has apparently been a very naughty boy. His halo has fallen to the floor.  In the background Ernst and his friends turn away. Perhaps they are uncomfortable seeing this.

Indeed, it is discomforting picture.  Most of us are probably not very comfortable with the idea that Jesus might have needed to be spanked (or that he might have needed any other sort of corporal or non-corporal punishment whatever.)  And this is probably because we tend to think of Jesus in his divine nature.  Jesus, as the perfect, God incarnate God-man, seems to us incapable having any sort of blemish or fault, incapable of any sort of behavior that might need correction – or, heaven forbid, punishment.

But in thinking of Jesus that way, we run the risk of forgetting that he was also fully and completely human.  And with that comes lots of potential discomfort for his followers.  Being human makes him … vulnerable.   Could Jesus read?  Did Jesus need to learn?  Did Jesus ever need to be spanked?

In the text before me, the very human Jesus suddenly leaves the Galilean hillside and finds himself in the coastal city of Tyre – a gentile community. There he is confronted by a Gentile woman – specifically a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has been afflicted by a demon.  She begs for Jesus, whom she recognizes as an exorcist and healer, to drive the demons from her daughter.  But, instead of reacting with compassion, Jesus insults the woman, saying, “First let the children eat all they want for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Did Jesus accept the common attitude of Jews in the first century A.D. that all non-Jews were filthy, unclean dogs?  Was Jesus guilty of racism?

Many commentators make the strange suggestion that because Jesus used (or that Mark records Jesus using) a Greek word that translates as “little dogs” that he was being cute.  Aww, look at the little puppies. But that’s hardly possible. Dogs were not kept as house pets. They were not cute…

Others suggest that Jesus was using a verbal technique known as “peirastic irony” – that his comments were a sort of test for her and that he expected her  to demonstrate that she understood what he really meant by correcting his ironic statement.  In this interpretation, he didn’t really think of her as a “dog” but expected her to show the truth of his underlying teaching with her own witty riposte.

And this may be what the author Mark is doing with the passage – but I hardly think it an appropriate interpretation of Jesus’ remark in and of itself.  A practiced and devoted disciple may have understood Jesus expectation (if this is a periastic ironic comment) and have been able to respond in turn.  But would this woman – a stranger to Jesus, who came to him in desperation and fear for the life of her daughter have been able to understand the irony and then be able to respond in kind?  I don't think so.

I’m not yet sure how to understand this passage. 

But I think that Jesus may have needed, at least on this occasion, some corrective discipline.

We're All Going to Die!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Changing Faces of Jesus – The Jesus He Wants to Find

In one sense, the final chapters of Geza Vermes’ book The Changing Faces of Jesus[i] are unnecessary.  Chapters one and two dealt with the Jesus described in the Gospel of John, chapters three and four with the Jesus of Paul, chapter five with the portrait of Jesus found in the Acts of the Apostles, and chapter six covered the Jesus described in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Finally now in chapters seven and eight, Vermes describes the Jesus he believes to be the ‘real’ and ‘historical’ Jesus.

But he’s been doing this all along – holding this portrait up against the various portraits of Jesus he describes in the different parts of the New Testament.  The only new thing in these chapters is that Vermes is grounding this portrait of the ‘real and historical’ Jesus in “the realities of the Jewish world of his day.” This way, explains Vermes, is the only chance we have to “transform Jesus into a lifelike character.”  In another section Vermes describes the job of the historian as “to reconvert the Christ of the Gospels…into the real tangible, flesh-and-blood person who once used to walk on the rocky dusty paths of the first century rural Galilee.” [ii]  In these chapters Vemes quotes extra-biblical sources like the writings of the historian, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of the rabbis in the Mishnah to recreate the milieu of Jesus’ time and place, to retrieve the atmosphere that he breathed, so that we can “catch a glimpse of what he really was.”[iii]

I think his choice of verbs here is particularly illuminating.  According to Vermes, we must “transform” Jesus and “reconvert” Jesus because the gospel writers have “concealed” and “disguised” him.[iv]   Though Vermes has described himself as an objective and neutral historian, [v] it’s apparent that he does have an agenda.  This isn’t a criticism or fault.  But he should be open and up front about it. Pretending to be unbiased is bad form and bad history.   It is true that the gospel writers have not written unbiased objective histories or modern biographies of Jesus.  We do need to read the gospels carefully, keeping in mind the Jewish context of Jesus’ life, but I am not convinced by Vermes’ arguments that primitive Christian church so completely obscured the historical Jesus. 

The historical portrait of Jesus that Vermes finds compelling is that of a Hasidic Holy Man like Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa.  The lives of these charismatic rabbis and healers are brought to life by Vermes to illustrate their similarity to the Jesus he believes lies beneath the gospels.  They were pious teachers and charismatic healers who spoke and acted as God’s men in turbulent and changeable times.  And, indeed there is much similarity to be found between them and Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth.    The description of these men and of the culture and religion of Galilee during the first century A.D. is (in my opinion) the best material of the book.  Seriously.  It’s worth plowing through the rest of the book to get to this material.

But (and there’s always a “but”, right?) I do have some quibbles.  I have in my previous comments on Vermes’ book accused him of cherry picking facts, and of exaggerating differences and dismissing similarities in order to make his arguments.  And I think he does more of that in these chapters. 

For example:  in previous chapters Vermes has been extremely critical of the separation of time between the life of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament, in particular he is reluctant to admit any historicity in the gospel of John because it is so far removed in time from the historical life of Jesus.  But here in these final chapters where he is laying out what he believes to be the most trustworthy portrait of Jesus he is perfectly willing to accept the testimony sources written as late as or even later than the Gospel of John.  

“The Mishna and the rest of the writings of the rabbis post date the period of Jesus and their testimony cannot be automatically applied to the situation prevailing in the first century  A.D.  yet historical circumstances point in the direction  of the relative reliability of stereotypes regularly repeated.”[vi]

He is aware that the sources he quotes concerning the lives of these Hasidic holy men were written several centuries after the fact[vii], but Vermes offers none of the critical dissection he performed on the New Testament sources.  This is an inconsistent criticism of late (and therefore, unreliable…) sources. 

Another slight but telling example is found in his use of the “long ending” of Mark’s gospel in order to highlight the similarities between the New Testament Jesus and his portrait of the historical Jesus.  Vermes tells the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa who, when bitten by a venomous snake, was unharmed – in fact it was the snake who died, prompting the rabbinical aphorism “ Woe to the man bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake which has bitten ben Dosa.” [viii]  This, Vermes says, provides context for Jesus’ “certainty that a man of faith could safely step on, or pick up, serpents without being harmed,”[ix] and supplies Mark 16:17 as the source.  So, even though scholars believe the long ending of Mark’s gospel to be a much later addition to the gospel, because it dovetails with his own portrait of Jesus, Vermes is willing to accept it.[x] 

If I have been critical of Geza Vermes’ book The Changing Faces of Jesus, it is not because I dislike him or his work.  Indeed, I am deeply impressed by his portrait of Jesus as a Jewish ish ha-Elohim (man of God) who performed miracles and exorcisms and taught about the imminence of the Kingdom of God.  His description of Jesus is marvelous:

“[Jesus] inherited the strength, the iron character, and fearlessness of his predecessors, the prophets.  Like Amos facing up to the priest of Bethel (Amos 7: 10 – 17) and Jeremiah prophesying doom in the face of King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36), Jesus was not afraid to stand up to the powerful.  He showed love to children who he proposed as models for those who sought to enter the Kingdom of God.  He welcomed women and felt pity for the sick and the miserable.  He surpassed the prophets.  They embraced the weak, the poor, the widow, the fatherless; Jesus went further and bravely extended the hand of friendship to the social outcasts, the unclean prostitutes and the despised publicans who were kept at arm’s length by his hidebound, pious contemporaries.  He is depicted as capable of demonstrating extreme emotions.  He could be moved by pity and by anger; he let his fury fly and strike opponents and critics.  Slowness in comprehension, let alone lack of understanding, especially on the part of his chosen disciples, often made him indignant.  …. Jesus was a man of steel and warmth at the same time, and a total devotee of God whose perfection and mercy he set out to imitate.”[xi]

But he plays with inconsistent rules (late sources are bad – except when they agree with his presentation) and he makes no acknowledgment of opposing interpretations – even to refute them.   The Jesus that he finds seems to be the Jesus he wants to find. And this could be a criticism leveled at all of us.  Even myself.  But, then again, I’m not pretending to be a “detached historian.” 

At the end of it all, I like the very Jewish Jesus that Vermes presents, but this stripped down version of Jesus isn’t compelling.  The portrait of Jesus that Vermes presents is of a Jewish holy man – acceptable to, but not worshiped by Jews of the first century, and he derides the Jesus of the New Testament as an “otherworldly Christ”  - worshipped by Gentiles who had no real understanding of the Jewish roots of the man Jesus.  The problem is the gap between them.  Between the historical life of Jesus the Jewish holy man and his worship and adoration by Gentile believers – are the original followers (and worshippers) of Jesus who were themselves, Jewish.    In order to bridge that gap, Jesus  must have been something more than what Vermes presents.

[i] Vermes, Geza The Changing Faces of Jesus, Viking Compass, New York, NY. 2000. 
[ii] Page 238
[iii] Page 238
[iv] Page 237, 238
[v] Page 9
[vi] Page 243
[vii] Page 254
[viii] Quoted on page 261
[ix] Page 269
[x] Granted – this idea of picking up serpents is also in Luke 10:19, and Vermes cites it as well, but it’s his inconsistent criticism of late (and therefore-as he says- historically unreliable) sources that bothers me.
[xi] Page 271-2 
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