Thursday, January 26, 2006

Take up Your Cross and Follow Kanye West, the Hip Hop Jesus?

You can see the cover for yourself. There on the front of Rolling Stone is Kanye West, which is no surprise since he is a hip hop/rap superstar, but he is wearing a crown of thorns and spattered blood. According to news reports the Catholic Church has branded Kanye West as a "moron" after this 'stunt', and other religious leaders have been quick to condemn this act as sacrilege. In the same issue he poses as Muhammed Ali as well. West, you may remember, is the person who had a mega-hit with his rap/hip hop song "Jesus Walks".

Not surprisingly the press has jumped all over this story, and the comments have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kanye West is without question an interesting chap. He has, for example, a painting of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dining room in his home, and at times he seems to want to be viewed as a Christian person. Certainly, he does not shy away from controversy.

Leaving aside West's or Rolling Stone's motives for a moment, one of the questions we should ask about this is--- Does the outrage about this have anything to do with the fact that many people find a black image of Jesus troubling? Before you too quickly dismiss this notion, consider that we also now have a film entitled "Son of Man" from South Africa, which is making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. In it Jesus is depicted as appearing on earth as an African revolutionary fighting apartheid, racism and the like. People in America have found that idea troubling as well.

The issues I want to probe are twofold: 1) the problem that we all see Jesus from our own anachronistic point of view; 2) why is it that a black image of Jesus troubles some white American Christians so much, when they were certainly not much troubled when various white folk have portrayed Jesus in film and on TV, since Jesus certainly wasn't white (despite the best efforts of some to argue for an Aryan Jesus).

Let me start with a quotation from a wonderful and stunningly beautiful Christmas song, on the James Taylor Christmas CD he did for Hallmark. It is entitled "Some Children See Him"

"Some children see him lily white
The baby Jesus born this night,
Some children see him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heaven to earth come down,
Some children see him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair.

"Some children see him almond eyed
The Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see him almond eyed,
With skin of golden hue.

"Some children see him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see him dark as they
And oh, they love him too.

"The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace
And filled with holy light.

"Oh lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant king
Tis love that's born tonight."

Lyric by Whila Hutson and Alfred Burt (Hollis Music Inc. BMI).

This song reminds us poignantly that we all have a natural tendency to see Jesus in our own image, rather than seeking to see ourselves in his image. If you simply look at the history of Christian art you will see Jesus being indigenized for every culture--- dressed in Italian style, looking like an Englishman, portrayed as Oriental, looking like an African and so on. This is only natural. We all desperately want Jesus to be one of us, to be approachable, to be someone we can identify with. In the case of Kanye West, who does see himself as something of a prophetic figure, I think the more charitable interpretation of what he has done, since he also posed as Ali, is that these are persons West would like to emulate, would like to be like. And that, in the end is a good thing. But lets probe these two issues a little further.

Just for the record, Jesus was indeed dark skinned. Probably not as dark as those who come from sub_Saharan Africa, but nonetheless very brown indeed with dark hair, and dark eyes. How do we know this? Its not hard to figure out from archaeological work, the digging up of graves and ossuaries. In this respect he would have been like others in that region who lived in a sun-baked land where it does not rain between May and October. He would also not likely have been more than 5 feet 5-7" tall. If you go to Israel today, you will discover that most of the natives who have lived there for generations are also of similar hue, whether they are Palestinians or Jews or something else. So clearly the blond haired, blue eyed fair skinned Jesus with an impeccable Oxbridge accent is not the real Jesus. One of the better aspects of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of Chrst" was Jesus actually spoke Aramaic-- a language almost none of the audience could understand.

And here we are getting at the root of the matter. A Jesus who does not look like us, doesn't talk like us, doesn't dress like us, and lives according to a different culture is alien to us. He is very hard to identify with. Instead of changing ourselves into an image more like his which requires hard work and not a little imagination, it is so much easier to mentally change him into the image of ourselves. And this domestication of Jesus if taken to an extreme (for instance with the Aryan Jesus concept) becomes in fact idolatry--- the attempt to recreate God in our own image. But for most of us, it never goes that far. We just desperately want Jesus to be approachable, someone we could actually imagine emulating.

I would like to suggest that the outrage at Kanye West's act, which was of course meant to be provocative, may indeed have surfaced the obvious fact once again that racism is indeed still an issue and indeed a besetting sin in our culture, no matter how much we would like to stick our head in the sand and say it is not. I do not say that all or most of the reaction was caused by racism, but those who were affronted simply because West is black do have issues to deal with. For those who take seriously Gal. 3.28 which says that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, no male and female" cannot ignore knee-jerk racist reactions to things. The church needs to look hard at itself and ask questions like--- "Why is the eleven o' clock worship hour the most segregated hour of the week in America even in 2006?"

I was preaching last November at a church outside the suburbs of Philadelphia to a truly multi-racial congregation (it was about 50% white, 30% black and 20% India Indian), and it struck me how very different this church was from most of those I preach in throughout the country. The ones I am invited to tend to have congregations that are either almost entirely white or almost entirely black. The reason this church was not that way was in part because it was a Pentecostal Church, and churches like that which are Spirit-drenched and full of enthusiasm and exuberant praise and preaching tend to attract all kinds of persons, right across racial lines. The Holy Spirit is dangerous. When the Spirit is allowed free reign, the Spirit tends to break down cultural and racial barriers.

So perhaps we can take the Kanye West tempest in a teapot episode as a teaching moment. Perhaps we could ask ourselves why multi-cultural images of Jesus disturb us, if they do. Perhaps we could ask--- Shouldn't we be getting on with trying to conform ourselves to Christ's moral image, not conform him to our physical one?

As Fredrick Buechner once said "He had a face" but it was not a face defined by the color of his skin. It was defined by the content of his character and his mission. It is not an accident that the NT nowhere describes the physical appearance of Jesus. The Gospel writers clearly did not believe that "image is everything". They believed rather that being in God's image, and being reformed in Christ's image is what its all about. Think on these things.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Age of Impatience and the Lust for Certainity

I have said in another connection that God reveals enough of the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not need to exercise faith. I think this truth should be applied liberally when we are dealing with controversial and controverted questions in Scripture, the answers to which we do not yet have certainity about.

There is a lust for certainty about all kinds of things in and out of the Scriptures in the Evangelical or Conservative Protestant world and sometimes that 'itch' is scratched in ways that does no service to Biblical truth, and no justice to the Christian community. Sometimes it leads to fear-based practices-- take-overs of schools and churches because of the fear that something has been or might be said that does not square with one's particular narrow reading of Scripture, or even just because we do not like what has been said, even if it is perfectly Biblical!

It is a mistake for the conservative church to buy into and become a part of the problem of "the closing of the American mind". We need more dialogue, not less, more study, not less, more understanding, not less. More openness to learning and fresh insight, though of course as my grandmother used to say-- "don't be so open minded that your brains fall out". The call of the Protestant Reformation was 'semper reformanda' always reforming, and we certainly need to hear and heed that call here at the cusp of the 21rst century when it comes to our use and abuse of the Bible.

Posturing and posing are not what we need from our Evangelical leaders, whether in the pulpit or in the schools. I am reminded of the old story of the preacher who was preaching on a controversial subject, in this case the timing of the return of Christ. He was uncertain about what to say at one juncture, so he wrote in the margin of the sermon-- "preach louder here and pound the pulpit". "Methinks he doth protesteth too much".

What we need is more light, and sometimes less heat, so our zeal will be according to knowledge rather than a substitute for it. I was reminded of all this by a wonderful quote I read today from a great scholar who practiced his trade at Durham (England). Alfred Plummer puts it this way:

"There are men to whom uncertainty on such questions as these seems intolerable. They cannot 'learn to labour and wait'; they cannot wait patiently, and work patiently, until a complete solution is found. And hence they hurry to a definite conclusion, support it by evidence that is not relevant, and affirm that it is demonstrated by what is perhaps relevant, but is far short of proof."

"Intellectual probation is part of our moral probation in this life, and it is a discipline much needed in an age of great mental activity. Impatience of the intellect is a common blemish, and it is disasterous both to him who allows himself to be conquered by it and to the cause of truth. He does a good service both to himself and to others, who cultivates a dread of jumping to unproved conclusions, and who in speaking and writing watchfully distinguishes what is certain from what is only probable, and what is probable from what is only not known to be untrue." (Plummer, Commentary on St. James and St.Jude pp. 299-300).

What is remarkable about this quote is that it was written in the last decades of the 19th century, well before our 'information' and 'technology' and 'internet' age. Nevertheless, it is as apt and applicable today as then. Here's hoping we will reflect on this insight.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


The story of the Waodani has been told many times now, but we now have a movie “The End of the Spear” put together by Every Tribe Entertainment to remind us of the story. It is a long time since there has been a positive movie about Christian missionaries who become martyrs (contrast “The Missionary” which could hardly be a more negative movie about Christian missionaries), but this movie is unreservedly positive.

Without question the Waodani were one of the most violent tribes in the Amazon basin. In their view spearing other persons, including members of their own tribe they didn’t like, gave them strength, and in due course hopefully the strength to jump the mighty Boa, the Boa Constrictor of course. There was some connection between such an act and making the leap into the next life.

In the late fifties five men from America went to evangelize the tribes of the Amazon basin including the Waodani. These missionaries including Jim Elliot and the father of Steve Saint, as well as their wives and children. The story of Jim Elliot is well known in Christian circles, and I had the good fortunate of studying with his wife Elizabeth Elliot in the late 70s. We all learned Jim’s famous explanation for why he was prepared to give his life for his faith—“he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” This movie does not focus on his story but rather on that of the Saints, and is told from the point of view of the son, Steve Saint, who in 1995 moved with his family from Florida to live with the Waodani (there is a documentary--- ‘Beyond these Gates’ that chronicles the developments since the 50s).

The presentation of Christianity in this movie is not heavy handed in any way, which makes it an excellent film to take non-Christian friends to, who want to understand what it is about Christianity that is worth living and dying for. The message of the Gospel is mainly carried by the actions of the missionaries. There are no images of long sermons to the Waodani. In fact surprisingly, the five men do not really know the Waodani language before they seek to make contact with this dangerous tribe. This of course is not the way they train missionaries any more.
We might have expected the movie to focus entirely on the martyrdoms and their consequences, but in fact I am happy to report that much of the story is about how the wives and children of these missionaries bravely stayed on this mission field , and in fact were mainly responsible for the conversion of the Waodani as they chose to live with the tribe. It is a humbling and stunning act of love and forgiveness. And eventually even the tribal leader Mincayani is led to the Lord. He has since then made several trips to the U.S. to bear witness at Crusades and there are some humorous scenes during the trailers of the movie from the documentary of Mincayani’s visit to a grocery store in the U.S.

What is most impressive about this movie, is that the heart of the movie is the heart of Jesus’ call to non-violence and love of one’s enemies. This is why the movie is named as it is--- The End of the Spear. The end of the cycle of violence comes when the beginning of the Gospel is embraced, or at least, it is supposed to. It makes you wonder when you realize America is one of the most violence prone cultures on the planet. The final scene in the movie, where there is confession to Steve Saint of who killed his father is powerful, particularly when Steve says – “you did not take his life, he gave it.” Like his Master Steve Saint was speared for the iniquities of our violent world, and the result of his death was many were in due course saved.

This is a movie Christians can whole-heartedly support, and the end of the film tells us that half of the money made on the film will go towards the ongoing ministry work being done by the Saints and others in the Amazon basin. I would urge churches to get together large groups and go and see this movie and support its ministry. It would be grand if the support for this movie could reach a fraction of the total that that other Christian movie about violence had--- ‘The Passion of the Christ’. While one can see that this is a low budget film, and there are no special effects, it is still well put together and the human drama in it is compelling. This is a movie one can take older children to, as a child is at the center of the movie, and it would be especially good with youth groups, already indoctrinated into the culture of video violence. I hope it will get the support it deserves from those of us who profess the Gospel.

If Only


I would have dressed up,
Only it was too much trouble.

I would have gone out,
Only it cost too much.

I would have driven,
Only travel’s dangerous.

I would have eaten,
Only I weigh too much.

I would have danced,
Only I didn’t have a partner.

I would have returned,
Only it brought back bad memories.

I would have gone,
Only I didn’t have time.

I would have visited,
Only I wasn’t wanted.

I would have tried,
Only it was a waste of energy.

I would have helped,
Only they didn’t need me.
I would have cared,
Only I didn’t feel like it.

I would have cried,
Only I wasn’t sorry.

I would have volunteered,
Only I had better things to do.

I would have voted,
Only it wouldn’t have changed things.

I would have donated,
Only they’d made their quota.

I would have spoken up,
Only I was afraid to.

I would have acted,
Only others got there first.

I would have felt sorry,
Only I didn’t feel guilty.


I would have prepared,
Only it was too much work.

I would have studied,
Only I wouldn’t have passed.

I would have corrected it,
Only it was too late.

I would have told the truth,
Only it would have offended.

I would have graduated,
Only life intervened.

I would have gotten the job,
Only they didn’t like me.


I would have prayed,
Only God only knows.

I would have worshipped,
Only I hate to sing.

I would have fellowshipped
Only I didn’t know them.

I would have served,
Only I didn’t have the calling.

I would have loved,
Only it hurt too much.

I would have lived,
If only.


Jan. 20th 2006.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Bible in Public Schools-- Should it Be Taught There?

Today, Jan. 16th in the news there is a story that various Georgia Democrats, presumably trolling for votes in the upcoming elections, are proposing that there be legislation allowing the Bible to be taught as literature and as a cultural artifact, in the public schools. But wait--- Should we see this as a violation of the separation of church and state? Inquiring minds want to know. Here are some of the considerations to keep in mind.

Firstly, there is no doctrine in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence establishing the separation of church and state! What there is, are statements that there will be no "establishment of religion" or "state church", by which was meant that the government would not sponsor or 'establish' any particular church or religion for that matter. The Founding Fathers knew enough about state sponsored churches in Europe to think that was not a good thing.

But the intent and the concern of our Founding Fathers was quite specifically to and primarily to protect the various churches from the state, not the other way around, so as to establish freedom of religion. Of course it is true that various of our Founding Fathers were Deists, and they were wary of a specifically Christian influence on politics and the state. This is perfectly clear from the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson. But even Jefferson wanted his edited down version of the NT taught to children in schools.

So, the question about the teaching of the Bible in public schools is an entirely different matter than "the establishing of a state church" by national or state government. If you study American history you will discover that the Bible until late in the 20th century had always been part of public school life, and even curriculum. In fact, when I went to elementary school (back at the dawn of time when the earth was still cooling in the 50s and 60s) we used to recite the Lord's Prayer together before we went to lunch, and of course we learned the ten commandments, among other things.

If you are a student of American educational history you will discover that into the 20th century even major public and state universities required courses in "natural and revealed religion" the latter usually referring to the teachings of the Bible. In short, there is plenty of cultural precedent for teaching the Bible in public schools, and there is no prohibition of this in the founding documents of our country. But this does not settle the matter.

The proper questions to ask would include: 1) who would teach the Bible in public schools: 2) how would it be taught? Would it be taught as literature (as in the Georgia proposal). But what exactly does this mean? Does it mean one would study the cultural impact of the Bible on other literature and art in our culture? For example, I once did an essay for a literature class at Carolina on the use of the Psalms in Shakespeare's sonnets. That would be one non-sectarian approach. Does such a proposal mean the various genre of literature in the Bible would be studied and examined in themselves (e.g. poetry vs.prose, oracles vs. narrative and so on)?

Does it also mean that one would study the Bible as a book of history or is that excluded? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the question becomes--- who is sufficient for these things? Who would do the teaching? Certainly it would have to be someone who is actually qualified, indeed, considering the controversial nature of the subject, they would probably need to be over-qualified, by which I mean they would likely have to have higher degrees in the Bible and in literature mor broadly, not merely ministerial degrees of various sorts. But this still doesn't answer all the questions. There are plenty of people out there who have higher degrees in Bible, whom many conservative Christians would not want teaching their children the Bible.

Now in the Georgia proposal all they were proposing was an elective course and I doubt that one could hope for a required course in this subject. About electives it would be harder to complain, as it would not be compulsory education for anyone.

It would be interesting to hear all your opinions on this subject. Even if we just say the Bible is an important cultural artifact of American life and should be taught in public schools, how do you react to this? Do you see it as a good thing and a window of opportunity for more to be exposed to the Bible, or would the worries about unhelpful teaching about the Bible outweight these interests?

And last but by no means least, such a course would prompt a debate about which Bible should be taught in public school, and when I say which Bible, I don't mean which translation. I mean would it be the Christian Bible or the Jewish Bible, or both? It is worth pondering.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Let not many of you become Teachers"-- James the Sage

I am in the process of writing a largish commentary on Hebrews and James, two important works addressed to Jewish Christians. I thought I would provide a taste of what's going on (and in the commentary) with the excerpt that follows about early Jewish sages like Jesus and James, without the footnotes of course.


In early Judaism of the time of Jesus and James there had already long since been a cross-fertilization of the wisdom and prophetic traditions, including the apocalyptic traditions in Judaism. This is hardly a surprise since there was such Biblical precedent. Daniel for example is a sage and court counselor who also has apocalyptic visions and foresees eschatological scenarios. In other studies I have shown that there were differences between scribes and sages and prophetic figures in early Judaism. Any of these figures could be teachers, including teachers of the law, but in Lk. 5.17-21 it is interesting that there is an equation between scribes and teachers of the law, a combination also seen in the person of Gamaliel (Acts 5.34). But in Matthew’s Gospel we have a clear distinction between scribes, sages or wise men, and prophets (Mt. 23.34). This is not surprising because the First Evangelist is himself a sapiential scribe, carefully recording and editing his source material in a sapiential and eschatological manner. Our discussion of what James was can be honed and refined by thinking about how the First Evangelist, another Jewish Christian writer deeply influenced by the Wisdom tradition should be characterized. What especially prompts this discussion is that in first person verbs are quite rare in James, and apart from hypothetical questions (1.13; 2.18; 4.13,15) occur only here in this homily and once at James 5.11. What stands out about that latter reference is it involves a beatitude—one of the most familiar forms of sapiential speech which Jesus used. But here James self-identifies as a teacher, and since he does not refer to himself as an apostle or prophet this seems quite significant. Apostles are missionaries, and James stayed put in Jerusalem. Prophets are oracles, quoting God, but James does not do this. But sages are another matter altogether, and they seem to have made up the bulk of teachers in Jesus’ and James’ era. Brosend helpfully reminds “teachers are known by the content of their teaching. This may be exactly what James intended, claiming a significant role that nonetheless turned attention away from himself to his message while accepting the responsibility that comes with presuming to instruct others.” But some distinctions are necessary to understand James’ role and the ethos and nature of his teaching.
The term grammateus itself has a range of meanings, but all of them presuppose a person who is literate, one who can read and write, and so a person who, educationally, is in the upper echelons of society, since only 10% of all ancients could read and write. There was considerable power in being a scribe in those sorts of social circumstances. But was a Jewish scribe simply a copier of documents? But was James a sapiential scribe like the First Evangelist, or would it be better to call him a creative sage in his own right?
James’ homily is written in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and it reflects the traditions of Jewish writers who wrote in Greek, and not only so, he reflects Jewish writers who knew rhetoric as well. As we have already had occasion to note, James reflects the Jewish sapiential tradition in that era, and so we need to look more closely at sapiential scribes and sages such as Qohelet and later Ben Sira and even the author of Wisdom of Solomon. Fortunately, in Sirach we have some quite clear evidence about the way Jewish scribes worked in the intertestamental period and continuing on into the NT era.

Sirach 39.1-11 speaks of the ideal Jewish sapiential scribe:

He who devotes himself to the study of the Law of the Most High
Will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients,
And will be concerned with prophecies,
He will preserve the discourse of notable men
And penetrate the subtleties of parables;
He will seek out the hidden meanings of proverbs,
And be at home with the obscurities of parables.
He will serve among great men and appear before rulers...
If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding;
He will pour forth words of wisdom
And give thanks to the Lord in prayer.
He will direct his counsel and knowledge aright,
And meditate on his secrets,
He will reveal instruction in his teaching,
And will glory in the Law of the Lord’s covenant,
Many will praise his understanding,
And it will never be blotted out;
His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations,
Nations will declare his wisdom,
And the congregation will proclaim his praise...

There are many things that could be remarked on in this passage but most importantly note that the Law is talked about in a context in which Law, prophecy, parable, proverbs and the like are all viewed from a sapiential point of view, which is to say as one or another sort of divine wisdom meant to give guidance to God’s people. It is after all Ben Sira who first clearly identifies Torah with Wisdom, indeed suggests that Wisdom became incarnate, so to speak in Torah. I would submit that the First Evangelist sees himself in the light of this sort of description of a Jewish scribe, and so sees his task as interpreting and presenting the life and teachings of Jesus as revelatory wisdom from God. Indeed he will argue that Jesus himself, rather than Torah, is the incarnation of God’s wisdom, and that it is therefore Jesus’ own wise teaching which provides the hermeneutical key to understanding Law, proverb, prophecy, parable and other things. But is this the agenda and modus operandi of James? My answer to this question must be no. He is more like the person whom the First Evangelist writes about--- Jesus who was indeed a sage, a creator of parables, aphorisms, riddles and the like.
Of course it must be remembered that the First Evangelist, who ought more appropriately to be called the First (Christian) Scribe, saw Jesus as an eschatological and royal sage, not just another wise man. But the issue here is not the content of Jesus’ teaching but its form. In form, Jesus’ teaching is overwhelmingly sapiential in character, even when the content may involve eschatology, and we must remind ourselves again that at least from the time of Daniel, if not before there had been this sort of cross-fertilization of wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. Furthermore, such literature which reflected this cross-fertilization had become enormously popular and influential, and may even have helped spawn or at least spur on a whole series of ‘wise men’ or sages in the era just prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus (cf. e,g, Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the circle drawer), including that unique figure--- the visionary sage, which both Jesus and James fit into the mold of.
In a revealing comment in his recent study on sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism J.J. Collins makes these telling remarks: “Comparison of Enoch and Daniel, on the one hand and 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch on the other shows there are significant variations in the ideal of the visionary sage in the apocalyptic literature….There are some consistent features of apocalyptic wisdom that distinguish it from traditional Hebrew wisdom. Most fundamental of these is the claim to have, and reliance upon, a supernatural revelation. Even a sage like Ezra who disavows heavenly ascents, still relies on dreams and visions…the apocalyptic sage is not at a loss, as Qoheleth was, to know what God had done from beginning to end (Qoh. 3.11), because he claims to have access to the recesses of wisdom in the heavens….One finds then in the sages of the apocalypses a denial of earthly wisdom, but also a claim to a higher, superior wisdom.” Several things about this quote are interesting for our purposes. While James does not at all renounce wisdom derived from the analysis of nature and human nature, nevertheless his most crucial insights about life he attributes to the wisdom that comes down from above, revelatory wisdom. In this respect he is very much like Jesus who was an apocalyptic sage who drew on both sorts of wisdom traditions.
I have differed with D. E. Orton’s characterization of the First Evangelist as being an apocalyptic scribe more in the line of the authors of some of the Enochian literature than in line with Ben Sira. To the contrary, the description we find in Mt. 13.52, which most scholars think provides a clue to help us understand the First Evangelist points us in the direction of Ben Sira not Enoch, It states: “Therefore every teacher of the Torah who has been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Notice that the person in question is: 1) a teacher; 2) knows the Law and teaches it; and 3) has been instructed about the Kingdom of heaven (a, if not the major subject of Jesus’ parables and other teachings). I would submit that the ‘new’ has to do with what the teacher has recently been instructed about (the Kingdom), whereas the old refers to Torah. This teacher in other words does not limit himself to the Torah, but also deals in new treasures as well, namely the various teachings of Jesus. In this regard it is understandable why the author of this Gospel is such a strong critic of Pharisees and their scribes. It is not the noble task of a scribe that he objects to, he is one. It is the Pharisaic scribes who dwell on Torah and its amplification and refuse to recognize the teaching of Jesus and his perspectives on earlier Jewish wisdom including the Law that our author has issues with. Our author is operating in a profoundly Jewish milieu where the teachings of the Pharisees rival the teachings that the First Evangelist seeks to offer.
Another helpful clue to the modus operandi of the First Evangelist is found in Eccles. 12.9-10. The sapiential scribe is one who is weigh or assess, study, and arrange or set in order the meshalim, the parables, proverbs, aphorisms, riddles of the wisdom tradition. This description reflects the three stages of literary composition—experimenting with, refining and shaping, and then arranging in a collection. The scribe is not merely to record but to enhance the wisdom examined by arrangement and elegance of expression, though always expressing himself with care. Wisdom is meant to be both a guide and goad in life, both a handhold and something which helps one get a grip on life (Ec.12.11). The scribe is an inspired interpreter and editor of his sources, but he is self-effacing and points to others as the sages or teachers whose material he is refining, restoring and presenting. If we were to characterize the First Evangelist we would have to say that he is remarkably like the description of the sapiential scribe we find in Sirach. And of course we have seen in James how very indebted he is to the same sort of Jewish wisdom sources--- Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. But James operates quite differently than the First Evangelist in various respects. In the first place James is offering his own wisdom, not merely redacting the wisdom of the past. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way he handles the Jesus tradition as opposed to the way the First Evangelist handles it. The latter quotes Jesus and attributes the material to Jesus. James on the other hand draws on the Jesus tradition without attribution and modifies it to suit his own purposes, melding it together with his own wisdom—sometimes revelatory and counter-order wisdom, sometimes conventional wisdom. There is a reason James, like Paul, calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ, and not his secretary or scribe ( grammateus). He too has received revelation, and he too has insights to share, and new perspectives on previous wisdom teaching including that of his brother. Notice that James does not feel it necessary to quote Torah often to give authority to his discourse, and notice as well that unlike what his brother manifested he is perfectly at home with using Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques to address with maximum possible impact Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, which is to say living in a rhetoric saturated Greco-Roman environment.
Of course we will never know whether Jesus was capable of wielding rhetoric in the way James does, and since he never really addresses foreigners in any lengthy Greek discourse we cannot guess. But whatever else we may say, James proves to be a multi-faceted and multi-talented sage in his own right, able to address audiences outside of his own setting in persuasive ways, while still manifesting the same Jewish Gestalt with that mixture of wisdom and eschatological fervor and content that we find in the teachings of Jesus. Like his brother he is a creative generator of new traditions, new wisdom as well as a reframer of old wisdom, and so he certainly does not merely fall into the category of creative scribe like the First Evangelist, which is to say a person whose skill is just in editing and assembling data whether old or new. In fact, if we may call the First Evangelist the first Christian scribe in the Christian era, we may call James the first Jewish Christian sage in that era. And like his brother, James is prepared to offer a new law, a royal and eschatological and perfect law which combines some elements from the Mosaic covenant (“like love thy neighbor…..”) with other things. Law is seen as but one form of wise teaching and it is handled in a sapiential way. It is truly unfortunate that James was ever caricatured as someone who had not really captured Jesus’ vision of things, but rather merely rehearsed older Jewish wisdom teachings.
But there is a problem seldom noticed here. Jesus in Mt. 23.8-10 warned his disciples that they were not to be called rabbis or teachers, because they had one teacher—Jesus himself. Now James caution about not many becoming teachers may fall in line with Jesus’ warning, and Jesus’ warning may be said to be against the honorific side of things as in involved early Jewish teachers—in other words whoever was a teacher was not to seek the status and praise for doing so. Rather they were to follow Jesus own more humble example. Probably, this is how James will have understood this saying of Jesus.
Furthermore, as we see in James 3, while James follows the Jewish practice of identifying the proper teacher with the sage he models for these teachers something that goes well beyond scribal activities or job descriptions. In other words, while he does not want many to follow in his footsteps and become teachers/sages (cf. Heb. 5.12), he is certainly assuming and hoping a few will do so to guide the Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, some who are perhaps already the elders in those places. The criteria for being such a teacher involves of course criteria of character which is emphasized in James 3, but also criteria of knowing earlier wisdom and being open to new revelatory wisdom as well, and having the ability to articulate it persuasively. One need not be a scribe to be a sage, nor become a scribe in preparation for being a sage. Good character, knowledge of the Word, and openness to new insight from God would suffice. One need not necessarily even be literate to do this, though James certainly was. To judge from the subsequent history of Christianity after the apostolic age, both prophetic and sapiential figures who claimed independent authority and revelation gradually came under an increasing cloud of suspicion, as we already see in the Didache 11-13. The church tended to marginalize such figures, and of course has continued to do so throughout church history. Thus we may be thankful that the writing of a figure like James the sage became enshrined in the canon of the NT, despite the bumpy ride it took to get there. It reminds us that our roots look rather different than most of the current limbs we could inspect which now grow from the tree. It reminds us that early Christianity was a movement not just of the faithful reiteration of older traditions but of fresh revelation, fresh wisdom from and about Christ, who came to be called the very Wisdom of God, the ultimate revelation of the mind and character of God.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Rough Ride down "Glory Road"

Sports movies usually fall into a predictable pattern whether its the much praised "Hoosiers" or "Remember the Titans". There is always a big game at the end of the movie that punctuates the theme of the movie whether it is "you have to have heart" or "adversity came be overcome" or "success requires sacrifice" or even "underdogs deserve our support" and several other cliches we could trot out. But few movies actually based in history have more effectively presented us with the intersection between racism in the deep South and basketball.

What is interesting about this particular movie is not just that there really was a remarkable event in 1966 when Texas Western beat Kentucky for the national championship with an all African American starting five, but the portrayal of the dramatic tension in the hearts of people who on the one hand want desperately to win and on the other hand are remarkably prejudiced against people who aren't like themselves. What happens if 'they' play for 'our team', which we so passionately want to win? Could the desire to be a winner really win the battle in the human heart with deep seated and long standing racist ideas and beliefs? Apparently, with at least some persons the answer is yes. This movie makes a point of noting a bigot of a booster whose heart changes when his team Texas Western keeps winning, and even wins the national championship.

This movie is well paced and does not have any filler in it, nor does it pander to the lust for gratuitous sex, violence, or foul language. This is a movie one can actually take your children to without saying "don't look". It tells the story of how Don Haskins went from being a coach of a girls' high school basketball team in Dallas to the head coach of Texas Western who wins the national championship in short order. More importantly it tells the story of brave black and white players who were willing to make sacrifices to be a team and accomplish something remarkable for the good of a multi-ethnic but manifestly prejudiced country during the turbulent 60s.

The movie has a good deal of humor as well as some poignant moments along the way and both Josh Lucas as Haskins and Jon Voight as Adolph Rupp come across convincingly in the roles they play. But the players on the Texas Western team also put in star performances as the story unfolds of how they overcame racist threats, injury, and illness, and considerable odds to win the championship. There is also an enjoyable soundtrack to back the movie with the 60s hits from Motown and Staxs records.

This movie will probably not win any awards, but as family entertainment that can serve as a basis for discussing deeper issues like racism, it is excellent, and it is short enough and action packed enough and humorous enough that children will enjoy it as well, even if they do not love college basketball like so many of us do.

Christ has Mercy-- Shall Christians not do so?

“Mercy is the highest art and the shield of those who practice it. It is the friend of God, standing always next to him and freely blessing whatever he wishes. It must not be despised by us. For in its purity it grants great liberty to those who respond to it in kind. It must be shown to those who have quarreled with us, as well as to those who have sinned against us, so great is its power. It breaks chains, dispels darkness, extinguishes fire, kills the worm and takes away the gnashing of teeth. By it the gates of heaven open with the greatest of ease. In short mercy is a queen which makes humans like God.”--- Chrysostom (Catena 13)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Quote of the Day-- From a 107 year old Lady

I was doing an event this past weekend in Longview Texas and was told about a woman in nearby Gilmore (spelling?) who was celebrating her 107th birthday. There was an article in the local paper interviewing her. She was asked if she would be around in a year's time to celebrate her 108th birthday. Her instant reply was:

"Sure I will be. You know not many people die between 107 and 108!"

I bet she's right. You go girl.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Munich-- Terror, Terrible, Terrifying

It is hard to believe that the same man who made ET also made Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and now Munich, but he did. This movie has been hailed as Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, and it certainly is a compelling drama, based on the book by George Jonas entitled "Vengeance". Only time will tell how this movie will be judged. What is more certain is that this is the movie that Syriana should have been, and a more effective commentary on both terrorism, and the attempt to 'fight fire with fire' in response to terrorism I cannot really imagine. This is a movie that really all adult Americans should see, if they want to understand not only why so many Jews and Arabs hate each other, but also why Jews have every right to be fearful, paranoid, terrified about what may be coming next. If Presidents of countries can deny that the Holocaust ever happened, we need a few more movies like the one's Spielberg has made.

The kidnapping and killing of Israelis at the Munich Olympics in 1972 is actually not the subject of this movie but rather its point of departure. The story is about what Golda Meir, and members of the Mosada decided to do in response to the Munich massacre, which was to go head-hunting for the eleven Arab men involved in that event, who were austensibly members of Black September. If you are not old enough to remember that group, Google the name and learn a little history about terrorism in the west. It certainly did not begin with 9-11-2001.

The story revolves around the group of men 'unofficially' enlisted by Mosad to do away with the terrorists, picking them off one by one. Eventually nine of the eleven were killed between 1973 and 1979, including the mastermind of the scheme. However, the response to this covert operation was that many more Israelis, Americans, and innocent others were killed by letter bombs and other sorts of acts of terror.

The real heart of the story revolves around a young man named Avner, a son of an Israeli war hero, who leads these men on their mission of revenge. He is a good man, with a tender soul, and a lovely wife and child that he loves dearly, and a great love for Eretz Israel and the right of Jews to have their own land where they are subject to no one but themselves. At least, on paper, that is what he thought he was fighting for at first, but as time went on, he too becomes brutalized by the whole process. One of the most telling lines in the movie is when Avner is speaking with the father of his informant while they are both preparing a meal and the father says, "you and I are alike--- we have the hands of butchers, but tender hearts" This, as it turns out, is who Avner becomes.

Clearly one of the not so subliminal messages of this movie is that if you respond to terrorists in kind, you become the very thing you despise and hate. Vengeance may be a meal best served cold, but it requires cold blood killers, or else it leaves a person without a soul. This point is not lost on the bomb-maker of Avner's group, who when Avner decides to go after, not one of the original terrorists but after a hired woman killer who had killed one of the Jews on his team, the bomb-maker opts out. Tellingly he says "We are supposed to be Jews, we are supposed to be righteous and not just murderers, if we do this I lose my soul. I cannot" It is one of the more moving scenes in the almost three hour movie.

Spielberg very effectively portrays the paradox of being a killer for hire, while at the same time being a family man who loves his wife and children. Avner, struggles however with this reality while some of the others do not. He begins to question what it is all about. One of his partners in the group says that he does this and loses no sleep because "only Jewish blood matters to me", but Avner seems unconvinced. The movie rightly raises the question what is worth fighting and killing for, and does so in a way more poignantly than a war movie could, because in this case we are not talking about a declared war following Geneva conventions. We are talking about a covert and illegal operation which Avner was told in advance his own government would disavow knowledge of. What are the ethics of terrorism, either as an intiative or an act of vengeance in response? The movie does not glamorize either the instigators or the respondents. It prompts many thoughts about terrorism.

The first of these is this-- that terrorism is for the most part the act of cowards, not brave men, particularly when it involves a suicide bomber, for example. I say this because these are persons who know that, at least on earth, they will never be held accountable for their actions, and so their actions are not measured, they are indiscriminant-- and the innocent are always victims in such acts, not just the 'targets'.

Secondly, clearly enough the intention of much terrorism is simply to create terror in the heart of one's enemy, so they will enormously over-react, spending money, time, energy, manpower in defensive maneuvers to try and protect one's self from further acts of terror. When one responds in fear like this, the terrorists have already won. It is a good question whether this describes the American response to 9-11. Are we really that much safer with all the billions we have spent since 2001 on airport security and the like? Or would we have been better served pouring the money into eliminating the root causes of terrorism-- injustice, poverty, disenfranchisement, lack of a safe homeland in the Middle East, and the like? There are no easy answers to these questions. And what about a Biblical perspective on terrorism in general and vengeance taking in particular? I will leave you with one thought.

I was busy writing a commentary on Matthew when I got to the famous passage in Matthew 18 when Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive someone who sins against him. Peter doubtless saw himself as being generous when he said--- seven times, which in Hebrew numerology stands for completion or perfection. Jesus responds by saying not seven times but seven times 70 (or possibly 77 times)-- in other words, continually, as many times as it takes.

This is of course an ethic for the followers of Jesus, not for governments, but still it is a remarkable ethic since the OT is famous for saying "an eye for eye....". It is even more remarkable when one realizes that Jesus is deliberately inverting Gen. 4.24 when Lamech says that if Cain was avenged seven times, he would be avenged 77 times. Jesus' ethic involves stopping the cycle of violence and revenge by forgiveness. Instead of payback, it is a matter of paying it forward, and trying to build a new healed situation. This, unfortunately is not an ethic "Munich" mentions even in passing. Instead, the movie ends with Avner with his family but always looking over his shoulder, and deeply troubled by what he has done. Rightly so--- as the Bible says "vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, I will repay". Those humans who sow the wind, will one day reep the whirlwind. Let us all ponder these things.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Sound of the Soul

The sound of the soul
At the speed of light
Passed through my brain
And into the night.

Stifling silence
Sensing the sigh
Feeling the longing
Wanting to cry.

The sound of the soul,
Like a get away train
Doppler effect
Plaintive refrain.

Listening intently
Longing to know
Who am I really?
And does it show?

The sound of the soul
Like a voice in a well
Echoing always
Clear as a bell.

Tuning the instrument
Assessing the tone
Looking for harmony
Searching alone.

The sound of the soul
Out of the depths
Heart cry towards heaven
Wordless precepts.

“By him we cry Abba…
Groaning within
Awaiting adoption
Release from all sin”

“The Spirit assists us
With sighs double deep
Interceding with Abba
My soul to keep.”

Jan. 7, 2006

Joy in the Morning

In writing my commentary on James I was struck this morning with the command in James. 1.2 to 'reckon it all joy'. Here are some of my reflections on Christian joy and what it might refer to.

The discourse proper opens in James at 1.2 with the astounding command to consider it all joy, including all the trials and suffering. It might be better rendered ‘consider it entirely as joy’ because the phrase should be taken adverbially. But what is meant by ‘joy’ here?

Clearly enough it cannot be seen as synonymous with pleasure (hedone) or even happiness (eudaimona) since this joy exists even in the midst of trials, temptations, suffering. Joy is repeatedly said to characterize the experience of early Christians (Acts 13.52; Rom. 14.17; 15.13; 2 Cor. 1.15; 2.3; Gal. 5.22; Phil. 1.4; Col. 1.11; 1 Pet. 1.8; 1 John 1.4; 2 John 12).

Here in James. 1.2 it involves mental calculation or reckoning as the verb hegesasthai indicates. But how does one reckon even suffering as joy? Texts like Jn. 15.16.20-22, 2 Cor. 7.4, 1 Thess. 1.6, and Heb. 10.34 make clear that suffering and joy are compatible from a Christian point of view.

I would suggest here that James is talking about the joy of the Lord here, which in Pauline letters is said to be part of the fruit of the work of the Spirit within the believer. This seems to refer to the sense of contentment that comes from the assurance of and delight in God’s presence in one’s life regardless of one’s circumstances, a presence that is often most evident to the believer precisely when one is in the most duress. This is why the Psalmist says "the joy of the Lord is my strength". This is a joy that only the presence of the Lord can give. The world, or circumstances can neither give nor take away this joy. This joy can not be purchased nor stolen. It cannot be bargained for or earned. It is simply a gift from God that is a residual effect of the abiding presence of God in a person's life. This is not of course the same thing as feeling happy or cheerful. We must avoid the temptation to reduce this joy to a mere emotion. If one can reckon something all joy then it involves a mental exercise, not a passing emotion.

Our culture is too bound up in the world of feelings, even to the point where counselors ask as their main question -- "How do you feel about that? or How did that make you feel?" as if feelings were the ultimate litmus test of what is going on in a person's inner psyche. Feelings however can be very deceptive, the joy of the Lord is not.

In short this joy James is talking about is not just an experience but a reflection on experiences--- all experiences, where the believer says in his heart of hearts "God is holding me in the palm of his hand, whatever comes my way, I shall not be moved or troubled on this day". Amen.

Cat Avoids Cat-tastrophe--- Dials 9-1-1

There is an extraordinary story this morning on MSN news. As a cat owner and cat lover I just couldn't resist posting this. Go to

Anyone with a story of a dog dialing 9-1-1 and saving the life of his master?