Tuesday, June 26, 2007

'Roman Bridges Standing Up'

How exactly did the Roman army, in about 200 years conquer the then known Mediterranean world? Was it because they were better fighters than everyone else? Well, it seems clear that they were not usually as fierce as the Gauls, nor were they as good at cavalry and archery as the Parthians. What was it that gave them the edge?

Firstly, they were the best organized armies on the ground in general, and usually the best equipped. But secondly, and more importantly, they had the best engineers and engineering skills. When you actually traverse the ancient world and see the remarkable roads, bridges, aqueducts, siege ramps and the like built by Roman engineering, you have to be impressed. Above you will see an honorific column which stands on the big bridge depicted below. The big bridge depicted below is still used and usable after 2,000 years, which is more than I can say for the longevity of most similar constructions in America.

Who built all these remarkable roads and bridges? The soldiers themselves. This is why the honorific column above lists the legion involved during the time of Trajan and Nerva (i.e. late first early second century A.D.) who were proud of what they had accomplished. They knew that armies could not fight where they could not march, and so building incredible roads and bridges was a key to their conquering any country, but especially one as rugged and mountainous as Turkey.

What did they use for construction materials? They used good solid very local stones. Do not picture them hiking distances hauling huge rocks which then had to be hewn into building stones. The Romans were far too practical and sensible for that. The Romans were also far too practical and sensible to have an all volunteer army--you need a majority of trained professionals to do what they were doing, and they needed to have multiple skills. The Roman engineers' accomplishments make our army corp of engineers look ordinary most of the time. If the Roman corp of engineers were around, New Orleans would have been totally rebuilt a long time ago. Of course, they would have deliberately moved the whole city well back from the levies and the lake before they rebuilt the city, forcing the whole town to move further inland.

What you see just above here (enlarge the picture and look more closely) is a small bridge being traversed by a shepherd and sheep, right next to what is likely a watch tower. You can see another watch tower further along in the distance as well. This little bridge is crossing what is left of one of the tributaries the mighty Euphrates in eastern Turkey, after all the damming. The Romans didn't believe in building anything shabby. They built it to last, because they planned to rule forever (Roma aeterna). This is what comes from thinking and dreaming big and then acting on it with adequate skill.

There is a marvelous book on Roman bridges published by Cambridge U. Press (the oldest press in the English speaking world, with which I am proud to work). It is by Colin O' Connor, and it has many wonderful drawings of these bridges and roads which can be found everywhere from England all the way to eastern Syria and beyond, and from Spain all the way to Egypt and beyond. Unfortunately this book, entitled in good practical Roman fashion "Roman Bridges" is out of print and hard to come by. It lasted far less time than did the bridges described therein.

One of the things most impressive about Roman engineering is attention to detail and order. These folks were left brained to a fault. When you stand on top of Masada in Israel and look down at the still visible remains of the siege ramp and the siege camp of Flavius Silva you realize you are looking at engineering greatness. You can see it in these bridges as well-- they knew materials, angles, edges, inclinations, arches etc.

They didn't hire out to the lowest bidder! They didn't skimp on the right materials! They took the time to build things right. When they needed a road to go somewhere they did not take no for an answer. We could learn a lot from these folks. And above all they were almost always practical. They didn't build things for artistic effect-- they built it to be sturdy and last and take a lot of wear and tear. I could go on, but this is enough. They knew that attention to detail in regard to the small things was important. They could have invented the famous 'gradatio' saying---

'For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost, for want of the horse the messenger was lost, for want of the messenger the battle was lost, for want of the battle the war was lost, and all for the want of a nail'. Think on these things.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Mouments of Arsemea

Arsemea was a once proud city in the kingdom of Comagene, now in Eastern Turkey. Set way up on a hill, and just on the backside of Mt. Nimrud, it overlooked a rich fertile river valley. Here Mithridates I, the other famous king of this kingdom (besides Antiochus I whom we have spoken of before) set up mounments and monumental inscriptions to himself, setting himself in the company of the demi-god Herakles (=Hercules) just as Antiochus had done. And at Arsemeia there appears to be a tomb, going all the way down to Hades which Mithridates may well have been buried in at one point. The entrance to the portal to Hades is seen above, and the steps leading way down into the earth can be seen below, except that the picture should be a quarter turn to the right. Mark Fairchild, who took some of these pictures went clambering down these slippery steps into Hades for yet more pictures--- not me. What he found was stairs which went down a huge way underground-- oh yes and some spiders etc. Me personally I didn't have a death wish, nor a desire to commune with the shades in Hades just yet.

The picture you see below shows a portion of the longest Greek inscription to be found in Turkey and perhaps anywhere. The Greek is good Hellenistic Greek all in capital letters with seldom any separation of words, lines, sentences etc. This of course is also how our Greek NT was written originally on papyri (no the chapters and verses are not inspired--- they came later in the Middle Ages).

The picture below shows me sitting between Mithridates and Herakles, who presumably is welcoming Mithridates into the afterlife. It appears Mithridates is way over dressed for the occasion and venue. It also appears that Herakles is suggestion that perhaps some caber tossing might be in the offing.

On a different portion of the hill is another statue, which is hard to identify. You will find it below in two different pictures. This could be a statue to Mithridates Queen, but it is hard to tell. Notice she has her party hat on and is carrying a scroll-- a sign of literacy, which would be rare amongst women in that age, indeed rate amongst anyone (about 10% of the populus could read and write).

Here below is another monumental inscription on both sides of a stone again in good Hellenistic, if Asiatic Greek. It was common to set up honor columns to oneself in that society, bragging on what one accomplished, or was alleged to have accomplished.

What do we learn from such ruins? I am always struck by the degree and level of advanced civilization in these ancient cultures. We think we are so smart, but when it comes to building things, they sure knew how to do a better job of building things to last than we do. We could learn a lot from their craftsmen and artisans and inscribers. I am always also structure by how even mighty kingdoms rise and fall in history. We should not assume we in America are exempt. By any standards the USA is a very new and young country with a very short history. We have no idea how long it will last. When you think of Egypt being a country with over 5,000 years of recorded history as a nation or people group this makes you realize we are the new kids on the block, to say the least.

Another thing you learn about the ancients is that they are tremendously religious people. They don't make important decisions without consulting the divine in one way or another. They think a lot about the afterlife what legacy they want to leave behind on the earth. We would do well to have that degree of concern and seriousness about legacy and the afterlife. Most fundamentally the ancients believed that older was was wiser, was more learned, was better, was more likely to know the truth. An old religion, tried and true, was much more likely to give one the right answers than a new one. These folks didn't make our mistakes, for we tend to assume the new is true, and the latest is the greatest. The reason Josephus wrote a history of the Jews called Antiquities, is because he wanted to show how old and long established his people and their religion was. Ancient peoples did not idolize youth and the accomplishments of the young the way we do, or at least they did not idolize them more than they did the elder in society who was wise and had learned from life and schooling and experience.

One of the constant mistakes Americans make in regard to the Middle East today is not understanding that politics always is involved with religion in that part of the world, and always has been. America is the peculiar people who seem to have assumed politics and religion could be separated. And we have paid the price in Iraq and elsewhere for ignoring the religious roots of dissention, debate, violence, society and so on. These are the sort of things I learn from such explorations of such sites, always bearing in mind the famous aphorism-- 'those who fail to learn from the past, are doomed to repeat it'.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Beehive Houses of Haran

The beehive houses of Haran are an interesting study in ancient domiciles. In some ways living in them is like living in a cave-- moderate temperature in the summer, warm in the winter without any sort of heating or cooling devices. We do not know for sure what sort of house the family of Abraham lived in whilst they resided in Haran, but it certainly could have been something like these mud brick houses in the shape of beehives. These houses are one step up from nomadic tents. Once inside the house something else comes to light of Biblical significance--- there are tents still being used inside, usually in the courtyard to protect from the sun, and the cloth is made of cilicium-- goat's hair cloth, which comes in two colors-- jet black and various shades of brown, as shown below--

This is precisely the material Paul used to make tents, and his family before him. Indeed, Tarsus is in the center of the textile area where tents were made-- Cilicia, from which the material cilicium gets its name. One of the mistakes often made when one learns that Paul worked with his hands with cloth and leather is to assume he was a blue collar person. This was not the case. Indeed, his family in Tarsus had been granted the prestigious Roman citizenship, probably for their service to the Empire-- namely making tents and leather goods for the Roman army. Very few Jews were prosperous or prominent enough to be granted such citizenship, and of course Paul inherited it from his parents-- he was born a Roman citizen.

Jews had very different views of working with one's hands than did patrician or well-to-do Romans who saw it as beneath their class and dignity. Not so with Jews, who had a very high view of all sorts of hard work. Clearly Paul's family stood in this tradition.

It is noteworthy that Paul practiced his trade only sometimes once he became a missionary. On other occasions he accepted patronage and hospitality. The different practices in different places depended on how patronage was viewed, for instance in Corinth. There Paul's possible patrons seem to have assumed reciprocity applied, and Paul could not afford entangling alliances, or making promises to patron to be their in house teacher for the foreseeable future.

So Paul did ply his trade in Corinth, and there was another and missional reason to do so as well-- the Isthmian games were held there, and travelers to the games would be needing tents. And so one could say Paul sometimes had an 'in tents' ministry. But it is equally clear from Rom. 16.1-3 that Paul could and did accept patronage at times, and did not always support himself when he did his evangelistic work.

On the one hand Paul believed that minister's deserved to be paid. He did not agree with some of the mistaken theological notions that today often come under the 'tent-making' ministry banner. Paul, like Jesus, believed a workman is worthy of his hire. He also believed he had a right to refuse support, if he felt it was coming with stipulations or requirements for some sort of pay back.

Paul no doubt worked in the shops in the agora in Corinth, and it was likely there that he met high status persons like Erastus who came calling as the city treasurer wanting to collect a tariff or rent or the like. Thus Paul was able to mix business with evangelism it would appear. What is interesting is that while Paul could have set up a tent or a tabernacle for Christian meetings, instead they met in the homes of their more well to do members. This got them off the streets, but still the meetings were open to strangers wandering in, as the reference to the 'idiotes' the uninitiated person who wanders into a tongue speaking secession and thinks the practitioners are mad in 1 Cor. 14.

If one studies the social context in which Abraham and Paul lived, one gains a lot more insight into their spiritual and theological remarks. For example, in 1 Cor. 5 Paul draws an analogy between a tent, like he made, and the human body. Both are temporary and vulnerable domiciles subject to decay, fray, wear, and tear. Paul was not a person who would have said something like 'a man's home is his castle'. No, it's but a temporary and mobile dwelling place on the way to the resurrection body. So whether you lived in a tent or a beehive, you knew perfectly well that this world as it is was not your home, you were just passing through on the way to the new heaven and new earth, with a stop off in heaven along the way, if the Lord tarries.

Maybe it would do us well to redefine the word home-- maybe we should say "home is where the Lord is". For he has been our dwelling place in all generations. Maybe we should place less stock in our culture in buying and building the perfect house, and more in building the perfect life with a sturdy relationship with God and others. Maybe we should stop looking for the building of temple in Jerusalem and spend more time being the temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we need an extreme makeover in the whole way we view what is of lasting value in life, and what is a mere roof over our heads. Think on these things.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Prophet-- Lebanon's Sage on Child-Rearing

Kahlil Gibran was one of the great Middle Eastern poets of modern times. He was born in Lebanon in 1883, but he spent most of his life, and did most of his writing here in the U.S.A. By far his most famous and memorable book is The Prophet. Gibran was born in the Marionite Christian town of Bsharri in northern Lebanon and his maternal grandfather had been a Marionite priest. The Christian influence on his writings is clear, but it is not the only source of his poetry and wisdom. Gibran grew up in south Boston in the 1890s and first showed promise as an artist. Indeed, so much promise that he had his first art exhibit in 1904 in Boston. Thereafter he went to study with perhaps the most famous sculptor and artist of the day-- August Rodin, in Paris. Gibran became a tough critic of the corrupt practices of the eastern orthodox church in Syria and Lebanon, but he retained much of his deep rooted faith and spirituality. The work called The Prophet was in fact conceived while he was but a child in Lebanon, was written in Syriac and Arabic first, and then turned into fluid English much later. It is interesting how much influence this work came to have on American youth in the 60s and 70s during the counter-cultural revolution of that period. His book Jesus, the Son of Man is pretty powerful as well. It becomes clear, the more you read of Gibran that he was also profoundly affected by Bahullah Bahai, the founder of the Bahai movement, a spin off from Islam, and also from Christianity. This means one must critically sift what Gibran says, but after sifting there is still much wheat to be garnered from the chaff.

I for one was deeply impressed with "the Prophet" and its profound insights and spirituality. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the 26 poems that make up the work.


And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, "Speak to us of Children."

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

While this is a natural manifesto for a somewhat rebellious Christian child like me, my interest in it now is in what Gibran wants to convey about the proper theology of children, and how parents should relate to and raise them. One of the things that has most disturbed me about conservative Protestant child rearing in recent years is the attempt of parents to either 1) relive their own lives, hopes, and dreams through their children, and/or 2) re-create their children, not in God's image but in their own. We often proudly say "well he's a chip off the old block". But isn't a child supposed to be recreated in Christ's and his heavenly Father's image, not in the image of his earthly parents? I think Gibran is trying to speak to this in this poem.

There is another point Gibran is stressing in this poem. Our children do not belong to us-- they are gifts of God which come through us, may well resemble us, but God has his own plans for them along the way. The question becomes when does a parent, if ever, realize they need to ask the question--- but what would God have me do with this child, much as Samuel's mother had to ask? Letting go of one's children is hard. I know, I have three of them, and one is moving to Washington D.C. tomorrow. I will sorely miss the good times we have had together in recent years. Yet I know deep in my soul it is the right thing to do-- a mother should never become a smother, and father should never be a bother. We are the bow, but God is the archer, and he knows where the target is-- whereas I can only guess.

It is a delicate balance I know between care and possessiveness, concern and fear when it comes to children. One of the problems that can happen with home-schooling children is that often they do not learn how to cope with the world or real life. They do not learn the proper social skills. They grow up in a Christian laboratory or hothouse, and the question becomes whether the plant can be successfully transplanted into a real outdoor garden somewhere. This is what happens when fear-based parenting replaces faith-based parenting.

And Gibran is suggesting that we need to have more faith in God, and help launch our children into the world, not merely shield them from it. Is it not true, after all that God is greater than the world? Is it not true that "greater is he than any forces in the world"? This surely should affect the way we raise our children if it is indeed true.

I do not claim to be an expert in Christian child-rearing, but this I do know. The world is God's world, and Christianity is an evangelistic world-transforming religion, not at heart a world-negating religion. These truths ought to affect the way we do our child-rearing as we launch them into their own futures.

If ever there was a parent who might be forgiven for being over-protective of a child it was Abraham, with Isaac-- the child of his great old age, the promised one. And yet there came a day when God required the child of him, indeed he asked Abraham to be prepared to go up the mountain and sacrifice the child. Before you ever say "but God would never ask me to do X,Y, or Z with or for my child" you should re-read that story. If you want to receive back your children someday in joy, you must be prepared to give them up to the Lord in tears if need be, and give them up to the pursuit of their own futures. When you do this, sometimes the child even becomes the tutor if not the father or mother to the man or woman.

It was Paul who warned-- do not exasperate your children. Well nothing is more exasperating that inhibiting or prohibiting your little angel from stretching his or her wings. In fact Paul says that we should not treat our children in such fashion that they lose heart, become depressed, give up trying to be their own person, and pursue God's leading in their lives. We need to hear again the advice found in Col. 3-4/Ephes. 5-6 about child rearing. There comes a time when a parent must finally and fully trust God in regard to their offspring. What did the old sage say "Train up a child in the way that they should go, and they....." And then let go and let God. Think on these things.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Making Waves-- from the Silver Surfer to Evan Almighty

In the world of safe entertainment by means of sequels of popular films, some brands do better than others. Let's admit from the outset that the first Fantastic Four movie while certainly fun, was not--- well... fantastic. And the same can be said of the second one, though I found it a bit better than its prequel. There is the problem that the persons playing Reed Richards and Sue Storm, are just too young, particularly for the role of Richard. Johnny Storm in the comic books was considerably younger than them. Not so in the movie versions. And the Fantastic Four does indeed maintain its basic cast in tact with the second movie. We even get a second dose of Victor von Doom no less. The problem of course with making movies out of long running comic books is which stories do you pick to tell, and do you blend a bunch of different stories or episodes into one full length movie? The latter approach is taken in the second Fantastic Four film, and so we have both the rise of the Silver Surfer, and the wedding of Reed and Sue, and von Doom's return thrown in for good measure, all with the approval of Stan Lee, who once more appears in a cameo in this movie as well-- being on the wedding guest list (or not).

This film is based on several different struggles-- some micro, some macro. Yes there is an intergalactic entity threatening to destroy the whole world of which the Silver Surfer is but the harbinger, but there is also the struggle of Reed and Sue who would like to stop saving the world long enough to have a normal family and a normal life, maybe even children. This is of course a problem for super heroes, because the world seems to constantly need them or at least the world created in the comic books does. This is a strange premise, since the world actually doesn't have any such mere mortals with super powers, and we are nonetheless still here and plugging along. And this brings us to an interesting point that differentiates the Marvel stories, however marvelous, from Evan Almighty. The latter is actually about the relationship of very ordinary mortals (without super powers) to God. The former is about exalted versions of ourselves and how we could save the world if we could just be smart enough to give ourselves more exalted powers. The former comes closer to idolatry, the latter to doxology.

Nevertheless, the Fantastic Four movie is appealing in some respects. Johnny is still wreckless, the Thing is still wrecking things, ole Stretcho is still a bright but nerdy character who can't dance, but he sure can be the rubberband man, and Sue is well, the invisible member of the team. Too bad since she is the best looking one. It is interesting and odd that in this film an alien, the Silver Surfer, a man from a different world, with a super-powered surf board surfing the galaxies (o.k. suspend your disbelieve for a minute-- this makes surfing the web look like child's play) proves to produce the most pathos and exhibit the most human qualities in this movie. Indeed, at the end he becomes something of Christ figure sacrificing himself, going up against the powers and principalities for others not even of his race. The movie has its usual thrills and spills and CG effects, and there is nothing here offensive enough to warn off families from seeing it, but there is a question of what is the message of this film. That we need some super heroes to solve our big problems? That there is no God out there to help us, so we had better sup up our own abilities? It's hard to tell.

Less puzzling is Evan Almighty. As sequels go, I can't really imagine a further sequel to this one. Though this movie has been panned by a wide array of critics, I quite enjoyed it and Steve Carell is certainly charming from first to last as the newly minted Congressman Baxter, who vows to change the world, and as it turns out, in ways he could not have expected. The premise of this movie is the gradual spiritual awakening of a Congressman who is about to get sucked into support the raping of some of our National Park land for development purposes. Not surprisingly the wild animals won't stand for it-- indeed one could say they are leading the stampede against it. John Goodman plays the scheming Senator Long, and Wanda Sykes is comic relief as the secretary to Congressman Baxter. And of course Morgan Freeman replays his role as God-- and very effectively.

In perhaps the one profound divine speech in the whole movie God asks the Congressman-- do I make you courageous, or do I provide you with opportunities to be courageous? Good question. Is God's role in our lives to make us all we ought to be, or rather to enable us and provide us with the opportunities to be our best selves? There something to be said for choosing the latter answer. Is God a cosmic bellhop, or does God actually expect us to play our part in the divine plan? I think it is the latter. The other especially interesting feature to this latter day Noah reprise of a story is that God tells us that the flood story is not primarily a story about God judging the world. Rather it is a story about God's love for us-- he does not desire anyone to perish. So it tells the tale of how God rescued those who would be rescued. This is certainly an interesting reading of Gen. 6-9. The flood was a redemptive-judgment. It redeemed those who were willing to be redeemed, and the same flood waters that helped Noah and his family rise above the catastrophe judged the rest. But there is something else to both the original and this retelling of the Noah story, something about harmony between animals and human beings-- that we are all in the same boat, all God's creatures great and small and God wants all to be saved. God informs the Congressman near the end that ARK in fact stands for Acts of Random Kindness. Alrighty then.

In the movie version there are of course various humorous scenes with the animals, who actually help to build the ark. There are hilarious scenes of Steve Carell constantly growing hair, and of his interactions with the animals, even within his office on Capitol Hill. Those animals keep following him around and pestering him until he finally relents and builds the ark. And of yes, there is also the message in this film that you need to spend more quality time with your family. Poor Mrs. Noah-- she could hardly have realized what she was getting herself in for when she married the man.

Both of these movies are about an hour and a half, which is perfect for small kids, and there is certainly nothing in "Evan Almighty" to take offense at-- its just good clean summer fun. Not profound, but fun, and not offensive either. Even the trailer with everyone dancing is funny. So enjoy-- but don't expect great revelations.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dung- Nab it!

We're talking a lot these days about alternate fuels-- ethanol for instance. But there is another natural resource that has long been used for fuel in the ANE, including at Haran where this picture was taken. Those little spherical objects in the picture. Well, that's dung. More specifically its probably some combination of donkey, cow, and/or camel dung. Nomads and the poor use it for fuel. They burn it to cook on, to keep warm, etc. In ancient times they likely used it for roasting sacrifices for whole burnt offerings to one deity or another. No wonder we hear in the OT from time to time that a sacrifice produced "an odor that was not pleasing to the Lord", or to quote another Hebrew phrase "and it stank in the Lord's nostrils".

It looks to me like we have a long way to go before we exhaust all the fuel possibilities produced naturally here in the U.S. Forget 'clean' coal, it's about as clean as the 'clean' dung you are looking at above. I can just hear the nomads in Haran now complaining about their fuel options. One of them says "You know this fire doesn't burn worth....." You fill in the blanks :)

Deeper Connections-- Resources for Sunday School, Bible Studies, Youth Groups

I am pleased to commend to you some fine new DVDs done by some first rate scholars, which are useful catalysts for getting deeper into the Biblical text and applying it in practical ways to the Christian life. If you like the Rob Bell videos, you should love these, and you will get far more Biblical bang for your buck with these videos.

Zondervan has just released this new DVD Bible study curriculum for use in small groups and Sunday Schools. I was one of 6 New Testament professors in the project. There are 3 DVDs, with participant's guides: "The Prayers of Jesus," "The Parables of Jesus," and "The Miracles of Jesus." Each study is introduced from a setting in Israel, to set the historical context, and then taught from a creative location here in the USA: a beach, the mountains, downtown Chicago, Boston, etc., to show how the Biblical text can be applied to today's world. With 3 hours of teaching per DVD by Bible professors who know how to communicate the world of the Biblical text to today’s world (Ben Witherington, Gary Burge, David Garland, Mark Strauss, Mike Wilkins, and Matt Williams), “Deeper Connections” will provide the depth that you have been looking for. Through alternating sections of DVD teaching and small group discussion, this Bible Study series will allow your small group or Sunday School class to make DEEPER CONNECTIONS with three main areas: 1. Historical Background: Jewish, historical, social and cultural backgrounds are examined in order to bring out the full and deeper meaning of the Biblical text. 2. Biblical Text: The lessons are taught by Bible professors who teach this subject matter in Bible Colleges and Seminaries. 3. Real Life Application: Challenging and accurate applications that come directly out of the biblical text will help you to live the truth of the Bible in today’s difficult world. For a sample video of the series, you can go to this link: http://zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Product/ProductDetail.htm?ProdID=com.zondervan.9780310271901&QueryStringSite=Zondervan

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mt. Nimrud-- The Turkish Mt. Olympus

Climbing up Mt. Nimrud did not prove to be as difficult as I had expected because we were able to drive to within about 1500 feet below the top of the mountain. I have a variety of pictures and thoughts to share with you in this post. What you are looking at above is in order: 1) the head of Zeus; 2) the next two are heads of local deities it would appear; 3) the top of Mt. Nimrud, and artificial mound inside which is said to be the burial chamber of Antochus; 4) Antiochus I the King of the Commagenes, complete with astral hat and garments, and his tambourine, or offering bowl (take your pick); 5) Heracles (aka Hercules), Antiochus' favorite deity; 6) further statue of Antiochus on the west slope of the mountain (there are thrones and statues on both the east and west sides of the mountain facing the rising and setting sun respectively); 7) royal lion next to the altar to the gods; 8) heads on the western slope; 9) longitudinal view of the thrones and heads and burial mound from the eastern side.

Antiochus I was a remarkable king of a relatively small kingdom in eastern Turkey. His lineage was impeccable. He was the 16th generation direct descendant of Darius I of Persia, and the 15th generation direct descendant of Alexander the Great. Not a bad pedigree, and it is easier to demonstrate his connection with Alexander than with the Persians. But like the Persians he was especially fond of astrology, hence his wearing the astral hat and garment with stars on both. My interest in this king is several fold. For one thing he left us on top of this mountain some far more impressive ruins than one finds atop Mt. Olympus to help us understand how ancient peoples viewed the Greco-Roman gods, but he also left us a remarkable inscription, the famous Nemrud-Dagh inscription which is the parade example of Asiatic Greek, a form of Greek we also find in the NT in Ephesians and 2 Peter. It is Greek which is verbose, long-winded, prone to complext sentences and big words. It is simply not true that all we have in the NT is Koine Greek, and this inscription helps us see what is going on in Ephesians and 2 Peter. The honorific inscription (in which Antiochus toots his own horn) in part reads-- 'It was, as being of all things good, not only a most reliable acquisition but also-- for human beings-- a most pleasant enjoyment that I considered piety; and the same conviction I held to be the reason
for a most successful authority, as well as for a most blessed employment thereof; furthermore in my lifetime I appeared to all in my monarchy as one who regarded holiness as both a most trustworthy safeguard and an inimitable satisfaction." In other words, 'the key to my success as a king was I was a truly spiritual and pious dude, and the gods not only favored me, they took me up into their company or pantheon, like Herakles was treated'. In other words, Antiochus decided to place himself on his own personal Mt. Olympus, right up there with Zeus and the gang.

Now this reminds us, if we needed reminding, that in the eastern part of the Roman world, the line between human and divine was much more easily blurred. Persian rulers, and others were regularly claiming to be gods or the sons of gods. The imperial cult of the Roman Emperors was just an extension of this idea into the western part of the Empire. You can see from this I think that the eastern part of the Empire would be more ready to consider even Jesus a deity, than the western part-- if Hercules or Antiochus could make such a claim, why not Jesus? Of course the difference was that Jesus was a monotheist and he served an exclusively monotheistic God Yahweh, which complicated matters when divine claims were being doled out. For Jesus to say 'hi I am God' in Galilee or Judea, if he was speaking to Jews, would be tantamount to saying 'hi, I am Yahweh'. But Gentiles would not have heard such a claim in that way. This is why Jesus is so very careful in the way he refers to his divine sonship. He does not wish to violate Jewish monotheism, and yet he wishes to make divine claims about himself and his ministry. Early Jews before or during Jesus' day did not already have a concept of a Trinity, and it was Jesus who set in motion a Copernican revolution in their thinking about the one God and his character and personhood.

But there is something more to contemplate on the basis of the hike up Mt. Nimrud. Ancient peoples in all these cultures believed the gods were 'up there', and so one could draw closer to them by being on top of a high mountain. We see this of course in the Bible as well with the Mt. Sinai theophanies to Moses and Elijah, and also in the stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus. High places of worship, altars, even temples like the temple on Mt. Zion, needed to be built up high to be closer to the divine zone, the holy space, the realm of God. This is the way ancient people's thought. Furthermore, they not only believed the benevolent deities were 'up there' in the sky or in the heavens, they believed the malevolent one's were as well. It is thus not a surprise to hear of Satan being in the heavenly court in Job 1-2, or about the Devil being the prince of the power of the air, or one demons and powers and principalities being in the heavenlies. The later cosmology that placed Satan and demons under the ground was based in part on the conclusion of Revelation where Satan is cast into the lake of fire, combined with the Greco-Roman ideas about Hades being below, and being equivalent to the land of the dead (e.g. like Sheol). The ancients even believed that the stars were gods, they were the heavenly hosts, which is understandable when one goes out every night and sees those bright lights moving around in the sky. They seemed to be alive, animated. Ancient astrology, unlike modern astrology, was not about human lives being fated in certain ways because of the alignments of inanimate matter. Ancient astrology was trying to chart how the celestial deities were affecting us in various ways.

And this leads to an important point. What about heaven. Where is it actually? Is it part of the material universe or not? Is it just above the mountain tops? The ancients mostly thought it was-- passing through the sky led into the lower regions of heaven, and there were various levels of heaven (see Paul's comments about the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12.1-2).

I would suggest that since heaven is properly speaking the dwelling place of God, and since God existed before there was a material universe, and God created that material universe from heaven, that heaven is NOT a part of the material universe. I remember the snide comments of a Soviet astronaut in the 60s who was orbiting the earth and commented that he did not see God or heaven out his window. Well, actually he had a point. You don't get to heaven by blasting off from earth and turning left at our moon, or for that matter at the end of the Milky Way Galaxy. Heaven to be sure is 'out there', but it's not really up there if we are talking about merely being beyond the earth's atmosphere. In fact I would suggest that heaven is part of a parallel universe, the spiritual universe which is contiguous with the material universe at every point-- like two hands folded together palm to palm in prayer. I would suggest that the Ascension was not an attempt by Jesus to leave earth and turn left at Mars in order to enter heaven. The Ascension was not for Jesus' benefit , but rather the disciples, to let them know he would no longer be on earth in the flesh. And this leads me to another point.

Does the Bible really require of us a belief in a cosmology that requires a three story universe with heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell below? Well no-- that is how various ancients conceived of things, as did the medieval church (read Dante's Divine Comedy). But the Bible does not require us to think in this sort of way about where heaven and hell are. It DOES require us to believe that heaven and hell are realities-- realities beyond our earthly and also our material existence.

So the next time you are longing for a 'mountain top' experience of God, ask yourself this question-- since God is everywhere, isn't it just as possible to get close to God down in the valley as up on the mountain? Antiochus I didn't think so and so he built his shrine on Mt. Nimrud--- but we are not required to follow his example.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen-- the Third Time's the Charm

Finally a sequel that beats its predecessors and is not overloaded or over-bearing or overly long. Ocean's 13, clocking in at 1 hour and 53 minutes and with a PG 13 rating proves that often less is more. We have a coherent, if occasionally complex script. We have good acting, and actors actually having fun doing it. And this movie does not rely on mindless action, but rather on intelligence. Imagine that.

Presenting us with the thieve's take on a Mission Impossible sort of script, Kentucky George (aka Clooney), Missouri Brad (aka Pitt) and Boston Matt (aka Damon) and the usual cast of secondary suspects once more dazzle us with science and misdirection, and cons and all in the service of a good cause-- Putting the sting on ultra bad guy Al Pacino, for the sake of a friend (Elliot Gould) whom Pacino (playing Willie Bank) snookered and sent into a coma.

This movie is filmed in grainy yellows and sepia tones and blues, and it has the usual repartee we have expected from the main characters, with Clooney and Pitt especially good at finishing each other's sentences. MIA is Julie Roberts, and indeed any female characters except for Bank's second in command, played by Ellen Barkin as the femme fatale business manager. One of the many surprise turns is how Danny Ocean manages to lure Andy Garcia (last episode's 'mark') into helping them bring down Bank. One of the more interesting features of all three of these movies is watching Damon play against the grain-- once more he is the nerdy Linus, who usually has a hard time holding up his end of the bargain and con, but in this sequel he does a much better job of it. I could have wished for more Don Cheadle time in this movie, but all in all, I cannot complain to much. It's always a good thing when a movie leaves you wanting more, rather than less.

This movie is slick, entertaining, has music that helps carry along the plot, and has a storyline that keeps you guessing, or at least intrigued and entertained. It is the perfect summer flick to take friends or family to and unlike the previous three sequel movies we have already had this summer, this one doesn't sink under its own weight or length. Hooray. May there be an Ocean's 14 that is as good.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ephesos-- 2007

Ephesos (also known as Ephesus for the Latin form of the name), was without question one of the crucial cities in Paul's world. It is no accident that Paul, with his urban ministry strategy spent over two years in this city, using it as a place to indiginize the Christian faith into Graeco-Roman culture. The pictures you see above were taken by my friend and colleague Mark Fairchild. We were both at Ephesos in May to give lectures, but as you can see, lightning and rain intervened.

What you are looking at is the famous Celsus library which did not exist in Ephesos during Paul's day, as it was built in the second century A.D. Libraries added to the prestige and intellectual capicity of an ancient city. They were not lending libraries, but rather research libraries full of scrolls, and eventually of codexes, and since only 10% or so of the population was literate, they were basically the provenance of well to do people, who were generally and usually the more well educated persons in the ancient world. We are however told that Paul lectured in the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesos, which indeed shows that he viewed Christianity as an intellectually serious enterprise. No one who has long pondered his letters could doubt he thought this way about the Christian faith.

And this brings me to an important point of this particular post. What does it tell us about early Christians and early Christianity that it had so many documents, and was spread by writers and writings, among other things? For one thing it tells us that Christianity was not a movement led by illiterates. This does not mean the leaders were all lettered or learned persons (Peter and John for example are said not to be such in the early chapters of Acts), but all of the major leaders of the early church were literate-- could read and write. This includes Jesus, Peter, James, Jude, Paul, the Beloved Disciple, Apollos, Silas, Luke, Matthew, Mark, and many more. As E.A. Judge long ago demonstrated Christianity was not led by bucolic charismatics. It was led in the main by the more educationally and socially elite members of its ranks. This is hardly a surprise when we realize that the church met in the homes of their more socially elite members (former synagogue leaders, city treasurers like Erastus, successful business persons like Lydia. The idea that early Christianity was a movement chiefly composed of or even led by peasants, slaves, and in general the ignorant or illiterate is absolutely a myth. This is not to say that it was led by a bunch of scholars either, but for sure it was led by some of the more socially elite and/or well educated persons in antiquity.

This brings me to an important point. There is, and has long been, an anti-intellectual element in low church Protestantism, especially in its more fundamentalist and charismatic branches. This is not always the case of course. Yet even today there is often a suspicion that too much study, intellectual effort, too much schooling can ruin one's faith, as if head and heart, reason and faith were necessarily at odds with one another. Not only is this not necessarily the case, a close study of the leaders of the beginning of the Christian movement gives the lie to such an assumption. It is an irony that Paul, one of the great minds of any age, could have been used to spearhead an anti-intellectual approach to the Christian faith. Paul would not have been pleased with this misuse-- indeed if you read Rom. 12.1-2 closely you will discover that submission to God necessarily leads to the renewal of the mind, a crucial part of any conversion or Christian life. In the 21rst century it is time for Christians to get beyond the faith vs. reason, head vs. heart, dichotomies. We need all our human resources mental and otherwise to save a lost world. Indeed we need all that we are and can be just to adequately worship God-- we must love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

Whenever I see the library in Ephesos I am reminded of the intellectual responsibility of Christians to discourse with our culture at a level that can reach even the brightest of the potential converts. It's time to stop dumbing down the Gospel. It's time to boil up the people, tease their minds into active thought. For the mind is a gift from God, and is not only a terrible thing to waste, its an unethical and unChristian thing to waste.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The New 'Answers in Genesis' New Testament-- Children's Edition

Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the foal of a raptor. People attempt to feed the raptor by laying palm branches on the road as he looks hungry.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Billy's Backyard--Graham Library Opens in Charlotte

Billy Graham received yesterday the treatment that normally is reserved for previous Presidents-- he was given his own memorial library in Charlotte, N.C. Standing behind a lecture and looking frail but regal with his long white mane flowing down onto his shoulders Graham's reaction to what had been done for him was typical-- "I feel like I am attending my own funeral" prompted by the many tributes given to him. Billy Graham is and has always been a remarkably humble man despite all his accomplishments. He said yesterday that he was profoundly disturbed by all the memorabilia about his sixty years of ministry because his whole life had been all about Jesus Christ and exalting him, not about himself. So typical. In an age of narcissistic TV evangelists pandering for more attention (and money), Billy was always the anti-narcissist, the embodiment of Phil. 2.5-11's "Have this mind in yourself..."

Three Presidents (Carter, Bush, and Clinton) who owed Graham a great debt of gratitude all offered far more than faint praise, and Bush who was MC-ing broke down all together at one juncture and just sobbed while standing behind the lectern. It was an emotional day all around. You can read the story here


For many years I used to ride by the locale of the house on a farm where Billy grew up, out Park Rd. which used to be out of town, but now is engulfed in ever burgeoning south Charlotte. I've spent time at the Cove in Asheville on various occasions and seen the memorabilia before. I understand why the Grahams might want to be buried there in those gorgeous mountains. I remember so well attending Billy's Crusades-- the last time was when I was living in northeast Ohio. Billy's call to come forward and make a commitment or recommitment to Christ was powerful, as was his straightforward preaching. There were no gimmicks in his message-- he just gave us the plain ole unvarnished Gospel. I remember one time watching a crusade on TV and hearing my sister say, when Billy called us to the altar, "lets go up close to the TV screen". He had that sort of appeal and charisma. I remember all the heat and flack he took in the South in the 60s by having integrated crusades-- as if it were a novelty to try and live out Gal. 3.28 in practice.

I remember so well his graciousness, his unfailing love, his kind guidance, his eschewing of partisan politics as best he could in public. I remember working with Leighton Ford, at one time his right hand man, at Jesus 76 at the Charlotte motor speedway and I saw the impact in his life.

I know beyond doubt that one reason I went to Gordon-Conwell Seminary was because it was Billy's school-- the one he endorsed. I was the first ordinand from the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC to go there in 1974, and they delayed my ordination for a year, I'm sure in part because I dared to not go to one of the 13 seminaries of the UMC. They sent a committee to investigate the seminary and see if it was up to academic snuff and when they discovered it was far tougher and more rigorous than Duke at the time (those umpteen semesters of Hebrew and Greek and exegesis were a bit daunting), they went home shamefaced and left me alone. Billy said it was the place to go, and I trusted he was right no matter what anyone else said. As he used to say quoting his favorite book "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight".

I will profoundly miss Billy when he passes on, in part because he is so very much like my Daddy, who just had his 91rst birthday yesterday. He has that same southern gracious loving spirit which exudes Christian kindness at its best. He has that same fervency of spirit and strong conviction about what he believes in, come Hades or highwater, combined with an inexpressible sweetness of character. They both have been well-seasoned in the Spirit's maranade for many years.

If the measure of the man is the number of lives he not merely touched, but was used by God to transform, and the number of people who have wanted to be like him including me, then Billy Graham is surely and clearly the greatest man I ever met. Greater than any President or world leader in my lifetime for sure. Greater than all my sports heroes put together, even the Tar Heel ones like Michael Jordan. The greatness of the man is shown as well in his deep and abiding love for Ruth his wife all these long years of marriage and travel.

Someday in heaven I hope to have a final chat with Billy. After Jesus, the one person I long to hear from about my service for the Lord is from Billy, my fellow Charlottean. If he and Jesus say "well done good and faithful servant" I will know I did passably well. Its one of the things that motivates me. We have too few role models out there in this world, too few that don't have big feet of clay. It has been said you become what you admire, and I have admired Billy since I was a child listening to him on the radio and wanting to be like him. I have especially admired his zeal wedded to such a profound humility. Billy is the ultimate proof that what God wants above all else in his servants is to do justice/righteousness, love kindness, and walk humbling with God. What God wants most is availability, not mere ability and an uncompromising commitment to the Gospel.

I hope all of you out there in the blogosphere have had the privilege of hearing Billy preach in some way or fashion or place. If not, you need to fix that soon via the Internet. You need to learn to follow his example when Billy responded to the call daily, the call which said "Who will go for me?" Billy always responded "Here I am Lord, I hear you calling. Take me." I hope you will as well. We love you Billy and we know you are looking forward to a far greater reward than a memorial library. You're looking forward to hearing Jesus saying "inherit the Kingdom".