Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Relationship of the OT to the NT according to John Chrysostom

Reflecting on texts like Hebrews 10.1 "the Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-- not the image/portrait (eikon)/ realities themselves" John Chrysostom (which means golden mouth), the greatest preacher and teacher of the Greek-speaking Fathers who commented on the NT in detail (mainly in Antioch and Constantinople--349-407 A.D.) has some interesting reflections on the relationship of the OT and the NT. Bear in mind that Chrysostom, like all these church fathers was very orthodox in his theology and had an extremely high view of the inspiration, authority and truthfulness of the Scriptures. Here is what he said in one of his homilies:

""What then is the shadow (skia) what then is the truth (aletheia)? ...You have often seen an Emperor's portrait which is prepared on a dark background, then the artist by drawing white lines all around it, makes an emperor, an imperial throne, and horses standing nearby, and body guards, and bound prisoners of war lying down. Now when you see these things merely sketched out you neither know everything nor are you totally ignorant of everything, but you know that a man and a horse are drawn there, though they are indistinct. But you don't accurately [or fully] know what sort of emperor or what sort of prisoner it is until the truth of the colors comes and makes the face distinct and clear. For just as you don't ask everything of that image/portrait before the truth of the colors, but if you receive some indistinct knowledge of what is there, you consider the sketch to be sufficiently ready , in just that same way consider with me the Old and New Testaments , and don't demand from me the whole fullness of the truth in the [OT] type...For as in the painting, until someone draws in colors it is a shadowy sketch." (Hom. om 1 Cor. 10.1ff).

Chrysostom is putting his finger on some important Christian guidelines for properly reading the OT, namely that it must be seen in the light of its sequel, but it must not be confused with that sequel. The OT is not the NT in advance and the conditions, terms of discussion, theological rubrics and ethical categories are all preparatory, sketchy so to speak, not final, full, or completely revealing. The 'shadows' or 'sketches' are true as far as they go, but they must not be confused with the full bodied portraits of Christ, the Christian life, the nature of reality, the ultimate and full character of what God demands of those saved by grace and so on.

Now this whole way of reading the OT involves a consciousness of historical development, and also of progressive revelation. There is a before and after to God's revelation of the divine purpose and will, and one gets the clearest picture of what God is like, what God intends, what God demands in Christ and in the eschatological revelation that comes to Christians after Pentecost. This in turn led to the reading of the OT in terms of typology-- types and ante-types, and again we can see this played out in both Paul in texts like 1 Cor. 10, and in Hebrews. In fact the NT writers believed that what was happening to Israel at least in part happened as an object lesson for later generations, particularly the eschatological people of God to heed and shun.

This way of thinking assumes that God's character is the same at all times (sorry 'openness theologians') and so it is not a surprise that things that God has done in the past, and the way he has dealt with his wayward people then foreshadows what is yet to come. In a sense then, Chrysostom is urging Christian readers of the OT to remember that what we find there is a preliminary sketch which begins to give one the idea of proper theology and ethics, proper ways that humans can relate to God and the like, but not the final definitive revelation of what that ought to look like. He also affirms that the new covenant is not simply the old covenant renewed. It involves new promises, new stipulations, new expectations. This is in part because it is believed that more has been given by way of grace to the followers of Christ than was given to God's OT people. 'To whom more is given, more is required'.

Then too, this whole way of reading the canon, is narratological. You don't have the climax to the story prematurely. The hero does not show up prematurely in the OT, but only when the 'fullness of time' has come (see Gal. 4). As C.S. Lewis once aptly put it 'when the author of the play steps out on the stage, the play is over" (or nearly so).

Now what is so interesting about this whole hermeneutical approach is that it believes that one must do justice to the history if one is to do theology and ethics right. Christianity was a religion grounded and founded in history, and so theology proper was a reflection on God's mighty acts in history which had a before and after to them. It was not an abstract science or philosophy where one took ideas and simply linked them together without them arising out of historical events and their substance. In the end, Chrysostom's hermeneutic mirrors that of Paul and the author of Hebrews. It would be my view that we should go and do likewise.

Let me stress in closing, that Chrysostom would have been horrified if someone had said to him-- 'well then you are saying that some of the things in the OT are not true'. His response was clear-- 'No, I am saying that we only have the outline, the preliminary sketch of truth in the OT, and we cannot tell what it fully or properly means to so or ought to look like without the fuller definitive filling in of the substances or colors in the NT.' Chrysostom was clear enough that just because something is preliminary and not definitive, this does not mean it is untrue. It does mean it is incomplete. A timely truth, is no less true than a timeless or more complete one, but if must be evaluated for what it intends to tell us, not what we would like it to tell us. The OT must not be read as if it already was the NT, and all the same things applied, but it must certainly be read as the pre-quel to the sequel if you are to fully understand the sequel at all correctly. Reading the Bible processively and progressively as historical development from front to back, and then also from back to front provides the sort of balance necessary for proper interpretation. All of it is needed and valuable if we are to 'get the picture' God has been painting for us for so long.

Think on these things.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Michael Vick's Mea Culpa

It is not unusual to hear super star athletes give their testimony of how they have given their lives over to Jesus. But few of them have come immediately after pleading guilty to federal crimes. Today at his post plea agreement news conference Michael Vick stood up and took responsibility for all that went down, and said that during this time he had sought forgiveness from Jesus and turned his life over to God. Here is the link to the video highlights---


Michael said that going forward the focus would be on Michael Vick the man, not the football player. He apologized to all the kids he had let down, and told them to learn a lesson from his immaturity and bad judgment. He denied nothing, and accepted responsibility for everything, casting no aspersions on his fellow defendants.

Watch the video, and see what you think. Should we believe the man who lied to everyone that matter until his co-defendants decided to rat him out? Is this the new contrite Michael Vick, on his way to prison and an orange jump suit instead of an Armani 3 piece suit? We must hope so. And what exactly went wrong? Why did a million turn to dog fighting when he had plenty of thrillers and spills on the gridiron? Where did he go wrong? There are a lot of contributing factors, of which I will list just some:

1) money is power, and it also is intoxicating, especially a lot of money. People begin to believe that they can do anything, buy anything, get away with anything because they have the money. They begin to believe they are not like the average person, are immune to tarnish or harm, or can pay lawyers to get them out of tight scraps. They think they can 'afford' to be reckless, feckless, and just plain immoral and will not have to pay the price. The Michael Vick story tells us otherwise-- it tells us as Numbers 32.23 once said "be sure your sins will find you out." Or as Paul was to put it in Galatians "whatsover a person sows, that shall they reap". Sooner or later, sin comes a cropper.

2) A second problem here is the cult of personality, and the idolizing of sport's stars, putting them up on pedestals as if they were role models. For the most part they are not and shouldn't be viewed that way. But with sports omni-present on TV and sports stars making huge money, sports stars become vicarious heroes of the wanna bes. If your favorite player does this or that, then you think, 'well if its alright for him, it bound to be alright.' This is the logic of teenagers and young adults looking for approval, a sense of self worth, even a measure of premature fame.
3) And unlike Biblical culture, our culture is fixated on youth. 'Youth must be served' is our motto. So we watch endless programs with the young and the restless-- swimsuit models with barely any swimsuit and barely old enough to be beyond being called 'jail bait', young athletes, young this and young that. We even made up a phrase for it--- 'the Pepsi generation'. How very different this is from the culture of the Bible where it was the oldest and wisest who were most revered in society, and youth was deemed to be wasted on the young, who were too immature to appreciate such life and vitality. And here is an important Biblical point--- the person to be admired is the one smart enough to realize that youth and beauty are fleeting and vain, and cannot be recaptured once gone, but eternal life, is forever. Life is not too short when its eternal, and you have the gift of eternal life.

4) A fourth problem, and it really is a problem is 'gangsta culture' where we idolize and emulate the bad boys and bad girls of society. Youth think that this makes them macho or tough, when all it really does is make them jaded and used up and abused before they are even old enough to vote. It hardens them against all the possible good influences out there in the world. Rap culture is of course wrapped up in 'gangsta culture' but it does not have to be. I have met Christian rappers who are more like beat poets or even prophetic voices without the usual expletives and some of what they do is positively interesting and creative. Of course much of this culture has grown out of the inner city problems in the 'hood, but surprisingly enough it has been embraced by suburban and urban kids who have not had it rough growing up, but rather embrace the culture as they think it makes them cool, or tough, or more likely to be looked up to by their version of the in crowd.

All of this was in play in Michael Vick's case, and it produced a not unexpected tragedy. Here is a young man tremendously athletically gifted who let all those who love him down, and most of all let himself down by allowing himself to be swept up by the siren song of trying something 'bad' and 'dangerous', and 'on the edge'. Not to mention involving cruel, and wicked abuse of animals.

I do not know what will transpire with Michael Vick, but I do know we should pray for him. I do know that I hope he has embraced the Lord and truly sought forgiveness. I do hope his momma is right about him.

In the meantime, it is not enough to sigh a sigh of relief and say "there but for the grace of God go I." In the meantime, we should look in the mirror and ask how we have been enablers of such dark and dangerous behavior, by financing such stuff. And this of course involves our stopping from supporting such stuff with our entertainment dollars, or even our regular dollars.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ignorance is Bliss? Biblical Illiteracy in the West

I was in London some time ago at a one man performance of the Gospel of Mark. Alec McGowan's presentation was wonderful, done entirely from memory, and with only the aid a few props. The dramatic presentation was done in two parts-- Mk.1-8 followed by an intermission, and then Mk. 9-16 (in the Authorized Version of course, lest the ghost of good King James be offended). What was interesting was being a fly on the wall during intermission and listening the comments of the general public in the lobby whilst they quaffed their wine and munched their croissants. One person exclaimed: "It all began rather abruptly. Where were the birth narratives then?" Another chimed-- "Where's the Sermon on the Mount? I missed that bit. Will it be in the part after the intermission?" I could only groan, but then at least the former person knew there were Gospels with birth narratives (just not Mark's), and at least the latter person knew about the Sermon on the Mount (also not in Mark). It was all rather depressing, but I perked up when the bell rang and we got to hear more from Mssr. McGowan.

But it isn't the rather more literate and literary British public that it ignorant of the Bible, the west's greatest cultural icon. In a recent survey of Americans, apparently more than 10% of Americans actually believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife! Yikes! Only half of those polled could even name one of the four canonical Gospels, and only one in three knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Even more amazingly, less than half could name the first book of the Bible. On the other hand, the same survey indicated that 75% of those polled believed that the saying "God helps those who help themselves" was in the Bible (nope, that would be from the pen of Ben, Franklin that is).

Even more revealing was the fact that the survey had the participants self-identify their own faith tradition. As it turns out Evangelicals only did marginally better in this survey than others and most of them would not have gotten a passing grade had it been a test. Ouch. If you want the gory details you will find them in Stephen Prothero's recent book 'Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't'. Need I add that those polled did even more abysmally badly when polled about their knowledge about Hinduism, Buddhism, Confusianism, and also Islam? Read it and weep.

Now why has there been such a huge drop off in religious literacy in the West? Some would correlate this with the decline in church and synagogue attendance, others with the decline of the use of the Bible in public education, and still others to the failure of parents to train their own children in their own faith tradition. All of these explanations are probably partially correct, but there is something not being mentioned here-- namely evangelism and apologetics. Where exactly are the advocates of the Bible and its values in the public sphere? Why has evangelism become a very minor agenda for so many churches? Why is it that there are so few efforts in those churches to teach people how to articulate and persuasively present the Christian faith?

Let me share with you a moment from my own experiences of doing shows with the major networks both cable (e.g. Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel) and traditional (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox). I have almost always been treated with respect, and most of the interviewers had great interest in a subject they professed to care about, but knew too little about. Often these are literate and bright people, and some are even people of faith. But unfortunately they don't know the Bible either-- so when something happens involving the Bible they call up the scholars and yell for help! They have to ask you to tell them first what the real questions are, before they ask you for the answers! I have had long chats with the lead religion writers for more than one major news magazine, and they desperately would like to know more about the Bible, or this or that relating to faith, but those chats turn into crash courses to getting these folks up to speed in their own subject matter in which they are supposed to be familiar. It has been a very revealing last 15 years working with the media. And the good news is that religious programming has begun to do a bit better with major audiences, so maybe, just maybe we can squeeze some more Bible into the public discourse in this way. Now if believing Christians and Jews would just support such programs instead of turning on the sleaze and tease shows.

Well of course part of the problem is the very nature of the modern and western church. It is all too often narcissistic and self-serving to the core. It spends the vast majority of its budget on itself-- its own buildings, its own clergy, its own self-help and nurture programs. The church has ceased almost altogether to be what it was at its inception-- an evangelistic movement, that also did some nurture and training of converts. Instead we are nurture institutions that might have a missions committee. Talk about placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable as the culture becomes increasing less Biblical.

Reading the book of Acts together with reading the budget reports of most churches today is an exercise bound to cause depression. The "me" culture of the West, bent on radical individualism has been endorsed, even co-opted and taken over and baptized by the church. Rather than countering the narcissism of the culture, we cater to it, with all sorts of 'needs' based preaching and teaching that is long on 'how to's' and very thin on Biblical substance. But frankly 'how to' doesn't help if you don't first know 'what for' or even 'why bother'.

What's wrong with needs based preaching? First of all in a culture immersed in constant advertisements and sales pitches, most people in the West have no idea what their real needs are. They can identify their wants, and they mistake them for actual needs. All the while that most profound of all needs, the need for God and for actual knowledge of God leading to relationship with God goes begging.

In other words, I am laying a large share of the blame for religious illiteracy in the West on the Church which has failed in the prime mandate of making disciples of all nations, failed in the mandate to train up sufficient Spirit-filled, Biblically adept proclaimers of God's Word who will win some by being winsome, leading outsiders into a life long pilgrimage of learning in the school of Christ. We need look no further than in the mirror to find one of the sources of our religious malaise.

And furthermore, it is important that our culture be challenged not just with emotive preaching promising feel-good salvation, because that frankly does not change the culture, it simply baptizes the culture of feelings and calls it good. We need to challenge the culture at its highest and deepest levels of profundity, challenge it on the basis of its most fundamental assumption which has led us down the road to narcissism. Thank goodness we have people like my friend Lee Strobel who are beginning to figure out how best to talk with and persuade our distracted and depressed and desperate culture, hellbent, but wanting to be heaven bound.

I used to love to read the cartoon strip Pogo. It was a wonderful mirror on our culture. In one strip Pogo and his friends decide they must take on the dragons of their world that are encroaching on their privileges. But when Pogo leads his troops out into the field he discovers they are ill suited to the task, unwilling to pay the price, and don't really know what they are fighting for or about. Pogo returns to his superior and reports "we have met the enemy, and he is us!"

It's time for the church to take that good hard look in the mirror. We, the self-serving church, are one of the main contributors to our culture going to Hell in handbag. We are contributors to the culture's Biblical illiteracy. We have ghettoized our faith, and have even assumed we had a cultural justification for doing so-- "the separation of church and state"!!!

The Founding Fathers, who were various in their own faith, or lack thereof, nonetheless understood, a culture without a religious foundation does not long stand. The separation of church and state was not intended to mean the separation of religion and state, or the separation of the Bible and its influence from the public sphere. Those Founders simply were not going to practice the establishing of an official state religion, a mistake made by almost all other Western nations.

It's time friends to take it to the streets, take it to the world, get out of your comfort zone and share the Good News that God has not abandoned us.

To that end, I was ask for your prayers as I leave on Aug. 29th to go to Hong Kong and teach and preach to Chinese folks of some faith and no faith about the mysteries of the book of Revelation. I believe China will play a major role in the 21rst century, and the Good News is that some doors are opening to the Bible and its witness there. I was asked to be the founding dean of a brand new Christian studies Masters and Doctoral program at Bejing University, but had to decline. Instead I sent a friend and colleague who is a fine Bible scholar in his own right-- K.K. Yeo, with a promise that I would come and help. The exciting news is there are far more bright Chinese students who want to become experts in the Bible than we have spaces in the program. Of the some 43 that graduated from the Masters program last year, more than half want to do their doctoral work as well. Pray for the church in China, and for God to raise up a mighty witness. God is good all the time--- and he has not finished with the human race just yet, and what he is most looking for is availability rather than ability.

Who will go for Him? Do not say "Here I am Lord, take my sister" or "Here I am Lord, take my brother." Say "Your servant is here--- send ME!!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hermeneutics-- A Guide for Perplexed Bible Readers

Remember Hermes? He’s the little guy you see from time to time on the logo at the florist shop, wearing a WWI trench helmet and always on the run. Actually, in Greek tradition he was the messenger of God, delivering the word of some deity to humans who badly needed to hear it. Hermes, and the concept of his role, is the basis for the Greek words hermeneutike (first found in Plato Epin. 975C) which refer to the art of interpreting. We find the word hermeneia for instance in 1 Cor. 12.10 where Paul refers to the interpretation of tongues.

In modern discourse the term hermeneutics normally refers to the art (not science) of interpreting important, often ancient or sacred, texts such as the Bible. But why would we need a guide to the perplexed in regard to the interpreting of the Bible? After all, don’t Christians have brains and the Holy Spirit to guide them? Well yes, but all modern brains are affected in the way they think by the modern cultural milieu in which they are immersed. They are affected as well by their whole educational progress (or regress) through school as well.

And frankly, ancient Biblical cultures, languages, and modes of conveying meaning are often so different from what modern ‘common sense’ may deduce that we do need some guidelines to help us interpret the Biblical texts which came out of very different cultures and circumstances from our own, ESPECIALLY if we are only trying to interpret the Bible on the basis of one or more English translations, none of which are perfect representations of the original language texts.

WORD UP--- Every translation is already an interpretation of an ancient Biblical text. Once you get this fact through your brain, you realize that all modern persons need some help in interpreting the Bible. We need to give the Holy Spirit more to work with in dealing with the modern thoughts that naturally go racing through our brains when we have a close encounter with the Word of God. What I offer below is just a few of the guidelines or signposts to help prevent misreading of Biblical texts. In this posting I am offering 3 guidelines. There are many more, and sometime later I will bring them up.

1) ‘What it meant is what it means’. Meaning comes contextually not from just having words in isolation but words in conjunction with one another in a specific sentence or larger context. For example, the English word ‘row’ can be a noun or a verb, depending on the context.

It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. Dictionaries are compilations of information based on close studies of how words are used in various contexts. Dictionaries do not define words, they reflect the denotations and connotations they have been discovered to have in texts, conversation and the like.

When I say ‘what it meant is what it means’ in reference to any text, but especially the Bible, I mean that the meaning is encoded in the complex of words and phrases we find in the text. Meaning is not something we get to read into the text on the basis of our own opinions or ideas. Meaning is not in the eye of the beholder. Meaning is something that resides in the text, having been placed there by the inspired author and requires of us that we discover what that meaning is by the proper contextual study of the text. ‘Significance’ however is a different matter altogether. A text can have a significance or even an application for you or me, that the original author could never have imagined. But the text cannot have a meaning that the original inspired author did not place there. Meaning is one thing, significance or application another. The job of hermeneutics is to help us rightly interpret the meaning of these important Biblical texts.

Let me give you an illustration. The Book of Revelation was written probably around A.D. 90 in the first instance for the seven churches in Asia mentioned in Rev. 2-3 to strengthen them and help them get through a rough time of persecution, prosecution, and even execution in the last decade or so of the first century when the evil Emperor Domitian was persecuting Christians. The whole book was written to them in the first place, and it was all meant to have meaning for them.

None of Revelation was written in the first place for 21rst century Christians. Thus when the book talks about an evil empire, and a beastly ruler named 666, and about flying things with scorpion-like tails, it is not in the first instance referring to some modern world dominator, or the European Union, or to Blackhawk helicopters! Those first Christians in the first century could never have understood those texts to refer to such things, because of course such things did not exist in the first century A.D.

Let me insist once more—‘what the text meant for them, is still what it means today’. John was referring to the Roman Empire and Emperor and speaking hyperbolically about plagues of insects, something all too familiar to that world. Now here is what is interesting.

Apocalyptic prophecy by its nature uses more generic universal symbols and metaphor to speak about certain historical realities. I am not at all suggesting that the text of Revelation is not referring to things happening in space and time—John IS speaking about such things. But he speaks about them in generic and highly graphic metaphorical ways. He uses phrase like ‘it will be like… it will be like’ indicating he is drawing analogies, not offering literal descriptions.

All too often modern interpreters of Revelation don’t understand this. They either assume if its figurative language it isn’t referential, or they assume you are denying the particularity of the text if you deny it refers to one particular person and set of circumstances. But that’s not how generic symbols work--- Mr. 666 could just as well be Hitler or Stahlin as Nero or Domitian. It refers to any evil world dominator of a pagan or godless sort. This is precisely why Christians in any and all generations in the last 2,000 years have felt John was speaking to their situation. He WAS--- but there are wars, and rumors of wars, and plagues and cosmic signs in the heavens in every generation of church history, not just the last one.

2) ‘Context is king’. One of the great, great dangers in modern interpretation of the Bible is proof-texting. What this amounts to is the strip-mining of certain key terms and ideas, linking them together with similar or the same words in other texts and contexts, and coming up with a meaning which none of the original texts had. This is why I often offer the aphorism-- a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.

Let’s take a 'perfect' example—the word perfect in the NT. Jesus said “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ in Mt. 5.48. In 1 Cor. 13.10 Paul says that “when the perfect comes, the partial disappears.” Are they talking about the same thing just because they use the same term? Well, no. The context of Mt. 5 indicates that Jesus is referring to that sort of whole-hearted loving of others that characterizes God. ‘Be perfect’ means be loving like the Father is loving.

Paul on the other hand is talking about when the eschaton (the final perfect condition) comes, and we see Jesus face to face and understand all things perfectly and clearly. Words only have meaning in contexts, and plucking words out of contexts and linking them to other uses of the same word is often a recipe for disaster and misinterpretation. Each verse of Scripture, indeed each key term in Scripture should be interpreted in its historical, literary, religious, theological, canonical contexts, to mention but a few. This of course means that the modern interpreter of the Bible must be a student of Biblical interpretation, must study to find themselves approved. Treating the Bible like a Ouija board, and just opening it up and thinking the meaning will leap out of the verse on the page into one’s brain, especially if we keep thumbing through and looking for other examples of the same word, is simply laziness and not careful contextual study of God’s word. Read Ps. 119 and how it talks about the diligent study and meditation on God’s Word that is required.

Let me give you an illustration. I had a phone call over twenty years ago from a parishioner from one of my four N.C. Methodist Churches in the middle of the state. He wanted to know if it was o.k. to breed dogs, 'cause his fellow carpenter had told him that it said somewhere in the KJV that God’s people shouldn’t do that. I told him I would look up all the references to dog in the Bible and get to the bottom of this. There was nothing of any relevance in the NT, but then I came across this peculiar translation of an OT verse—“thou shalt not breed with the dogs’. I called my church member up and told him “I’ve got good news and bad news for you.” He asked for the good news first. I said “well you can breed as many of those furry four footed creatures as you like, nothing in the Bible against it.” He then asked what the bad news was “well” I said, “there is this verse that calls foreign women ‘dogs’ and warns the Israelites not to breed with them.” There was a pregnant silence on the other end of the line, and finally Mr. Smith said “ Well, I am feeling much relieved, my wife Betty Sue is from just down the road in Chatham county!”

3) Genre matters. Before we can interpret a particular type of literature we need to understand what literary type or kind of literature it is. Prose should be interpreted according to the kinds of information prose is meant to give, poetry should be interpreted as poetry, historical narrative as narrative, parables as the literary fictions that they are, and apocalyptic prophecy must be interpreted as the highly metaphorical literature it is, and so on. As C.S. Lewis once said, until you know the purpose and kind of a text, what it intends to say or convey, you don’t know how to read it, properly. And frankly no one should ever start reading the Bible with its last book. That’s not because its unfair to peek at the conclusions before you read all the rest. It’s because Revelation, as apocalyptic prophecy, is the most complex material in the canon, the literature most likely to be misinterpreted by modern persons. Let me give one more illustration

1967-68 was an interesting time. Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon and hit a golf ball a mile! If only my driver would do that. But seriously folks, I was riding with a friend on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the clutch blew out of my Dad’s 1955 Chevy. As the Bible says ‘my countenance fell’. There are no gas stations, or really any kind of help of that sort to be found on that beautiful mountain parkway. Luckily my friend Doug and I got a push off the parkway into a Texaco station, and then, on that hot July day we decided to hitch hike back to High Point in the middle of the state.

Almost immediately we were picked up by a really ancient couple dressed in black driving a black 48 Plymouth. Doug, now a lawyer in Greensboro, decided to strike up a conversation and referring to the moon walk of Neil Armstrong. The elderly man driving said that was all fake—a TV hoax. Doug, not recognizing invincible ignorance when he saw it, decided to argue with the man. Meanwhile, picture me elbowing him and whispering for him to shut up, since we needed the ride.

Turns out we had been picked up by genuine Flat Landers from the N.C. mountains. Doug however persisted and asked “Why don’t you believe they went to the moon, and why don’t you believe the world is round?” The man retorted “It says in the book of Revelations that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. World couldn’t be round, could it, if its got four corners to stand on.” Now what was wrong with this man's comment, other than that Revelations (plural) is not the name of the last book of the Bible! The problem was he had mistaken the genre of that book. He had assumed it was teaching him cosmology and geography, when in fact it was teaching theology and eschatology. It was saying in a metaphorical way that God’s angels will come from all points on the compass to do his will and span the globe. If you don’t grasp the kind of literature you are reading, you aren’t going to know what kind of information it is trying to convey. Interestingly, the problem with that Flat-Lander’s interpretation is not either that he took the book of Revelation seriously, or that he thought it was referential. It is indeed referential. But the realities it is describing, it describes in metaphorical terms.

Well, I think I hear ole Hermes calling me to move on to other floral venues. So we will leave it at that for now.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wikipedia Scandal Reveals the Naked Truth

Lots of my students, unfortunately, use the Internet as a substitute for good careful research. It's seductive and easy and quick. It forestalls long hours in the library. It often leads to shoddy research and worse papers.

I can tell you right now that some of the most popular sites which they use are not at all reliable sources of information. One of those is Wikipedia. The following article, sent me by my son who is a techy also reveals the dark underbelly of what can happen when you rely on sources of information from these sorts of User-driven websites.


When doing work in theology or Biblical studies or the cognate fields don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field. Period.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Pastor approves Cursing your Enemies

In the truth is stranger than fiction category is the story that my friend Bill Barnwell sent me about a Southern Baptist pastor in California.

Here is the link to the story that made headlines out there:

This pastor has urged his congregation to pray imprecatory prayers against some folks that blew the whistle on his violations of the separation of church and state laws (i.e. he endorsed Mr. Huckabee on letterhead church stationery and urged his congregation to do the same).

His supposed Biblical precedent for this is the imprecatory psalms of David. I don't know what seminary this pastor went to, but boy has he misunderstood those psalms. They don't reveal the will of God in such matters, rather they shed God's light of truth on what is in the wicked heart of human beings, including in David's heart, that old murderer and adulterer. Praying for someone to bash the Edomite babies' heads on the rocks ought to even give Brother Dobson the willies.

How in the world could this pastor have been a one time leader of the Southern Baptist convention? He certainly needs to repent and rethink. Most disturbing is his grand-standing remark "I was just doing what God was telling me to do." Not even close brother, unless that is your God is Allah. Our God is the God who sent his Son to die on the cross for everyone's sins, not the God of jihad and cursing one's enemies.

The real disaster in this whole situation is the complete failure to follow the teachings of the NT when it comes to dealing with one's tormentors or persecutors. You may remember these words from Jesus-- "love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you." Notice it does not say pray against those who persecute or even pray about those who persecute you, but instead pray FOR those who persecute you. Or perhaps you will remember the little episode when the disciples ask Jesus whether they should call down destruction on those who had rejected them. I trust you remember Jesus' response to that.

At the heart of the Gospel is forgiveness, and non retaliation, and even praying for and loving one's enemies, which is the polar opposite of what this pastor urged his congregation to do. Paul puts it this way "bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Rom. 12.14). In other words--- Pastor Drake is in direct violation of the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and certainly did not get it from ON HIGH when he asked his congregation to curse his enemies!!

I am afraid this pastor needs a refresher course in Gospel ethics, for the question he should have asked was not what DID David do, but what would Jesus and the apostles say and do in such a situation-- HAVE MERCY! 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Expensive Cost of Cheap Goods

There was an interesting story on ABC news tonight about the fallout from the lead paint recall of Mattel toys made in China. The story stressed that the Chinese workers now laid off were making about 18 cents an hour for their toil. Compare this to what blue collar workers would make over here performing the same task, but factor in the differing cost of living in the two places.

But the interesting sidelight to the story was an interview with a small toymaker here in the U.S. who makes toy trains. Suddenly he has been flooded with order requests, though this is probably short lived. There are some 10,000 toy making companies in China to which we out source, and only 50 made in the USA companies doing the same thing. Why? The answer is simple-- America's lust for cheap goods, which has destroyed more American companies than I care to count. Pretty soon all blue collar jobs will be out sourced, the way things are going.

I grew up in a furniture town-- High Point N.C. There used to be about 25 or more furniture plants making excellent furniture. Today if you ask how many companies actually make furniture there the answer is one--- just one. High Point is hardly furniture city any more. I think this is a loss. Americans have lost many opportunities to learn numerous trades which used to require artisanship, apprenticing, and the like. Now it only requires press board, and wood chips and slave labor.

Now I must tell you that I am not an advocate of no out sourcing of jobs, nor am I particularly enamored with protectionism. But I do think there is a heavy price that we pay for the right to buy cheap goods. And I wonder how as Christians we should view these things.

For one thing I wonder why it is that we have simply acquiesed to the culture of conspicuous consumption. Why is it that we feel compelled to buy so much stuff, ranging from junk to luxuries, neither of which we need? Shouldn't we be wiser about our purchases, and seek to buy things that are of quality and will last? Of course that might mean we might have to save up for it, instead of buying on credit! Imagine that.

I used to know a lot of Christians who believed on principle that we ought to never buy anything on credit-- no credit cards, etc. Sometimes they would make an exception when it came to a home, but that was about it. I am afraid we have not thought through, from a Christian perspective, either how we spend our money, nor what we spend it on, nor whether we ought to spend it at all, nor whether it is an ethical thing to buy cheap foreign goods to begin with. No we just stumble from one recall to another, and temporarily may repent and do better, but all the while 'shop until we drop' is the American motto, or "whoever dies with the most toys wins".

When we buy shabby goods with built in obsolescence we simply cheapen ourselves-- and frankly that's an expensive price to pay for conspicuous consumption. From a Christian point of view a person should not be defined or judged by what they have, but rather by what they give.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Fire and Ice

My grandfather was a fireman, indeed he was the fire chief in Wilmington N.C. Here is a wonderful oxymoronic ice sculpture of a fire man. What makes this one especially poignant is that this is an image from 9-11 from a fireman involved in quenching the blaze at the World Trade Center and rescuing those that he could. Utterly exhausted, you see him here sitting down, holding the flag, and being held up by an angel.

This reminds me of an episode from my childhood that involved my grandfather and me. It was a hot humid summer night and the fire bell went off in his house in Wilmington in the wee hours of the morning. My grandfather jumped into his fire clothes and rushed down the stairs. The bell was so loud, and was next to my bedroom, and I had to be peeled off the ceiling when that thing rang. It would have awakened the dead. Grandfather jumped in the red cruiser with the light on top and head off to an apartment fire. I couldn't sleep after that. This was B.C. (before air conditioning) and I was sticking to the sheets anyway.

Hours later he returned exhausted and smelling of smoke. I asked him what happened. He had gone into the blazing inferno and rescued a child upstairs, but not without having the floor collapse under him and him miraculously walk out the front door unharmed. I imagine that same angel was leaning on Pop that night.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Common Zen-se from Mom

You gotta love your Mom. The older she gets the more wisdom she thinks she has to impart. These 'zen' truths (?) she sent along to me to ponder today. My only question is-- what would Jesus say Mom?

1. Do not walk behind
me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead
of me, for I may not follow. Do not
walk beside me either. Just pretty
much leave me alone.

2. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt
and leaky

3. It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to
steal your neighbor's newspaper, that's the time to do it.

4. Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't
be promoted.

5. Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else.

6. Never test the depth of the water with both feet.

7. If you think nobody cares
if you're alive, try missing a
couple of car payments.

8. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their
shoes. That way, when you
criticize them, you're a mile away and you
have their shoes.

9. If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.

10. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how
to fish, and he will sit in a boat
and drink beer all day.

11. If you lend someone $20 and never see that
person again, it was probably worth it.

12. If you tell the truth, you
don't have to remember anything.

13. Some days you're the bug; some days
you're the windshield.

14. Everyone seems normal until you get to know

15. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in
half and put it back in your pocket.

16. A closed mouth gathers no

17. Duct tape is like 'The Force'. It has a light side and
a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

18. There are two approaches to arguing with women. Neither one

19. Generally speaking, you aren't learning much when your lips
are moving.

20. Experience is something you don't get until just after you
need it.

21. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

22. Never, under any
circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a
laxative on the same

Saturday, August 11, 2007

'Talk to Me'-- Can we talk?

For some time now Don Cheadle has been one of my favorites actors. I especially appreciated his work in Hotel Rwanda, but of course the Oceans movies have been fun as well. But in 'Talk to Me' Don Cheadle has to rise to a considerable challenge-- playing the combustible D.J. Petey Greene, made famous by his work in D.C. from the late 60s into the 70s.

In an age before Shock Jocks, and simply radio in bad taste, there were some pretty far out D.J.s, ranging from Wolfman Jack to Rick Dees (of 'Disco Duck' and Greensboro N.C. fame), to Petey Greene. I ought to know, I was in the business of working for the Record Bar, selling records and promoting concerts back then. I listened to the shtick of a lot of these dudes. Right On.

Greene has been credited with talking D.C. down from burning the whole of Washington down during the uprising on the days after Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, and indeed he did help, for sure, in helping people keeping it cool and keeping it 'real'.

The story of Petey Greene is a remarkable one in many ways. How exactly does an ex-con manage to become one of the leading voices of Black radio, and then of the comedy club circuit, and then even on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (a gig he blew off because he was out of his element, but also because he didn't want to play Step n' Fetchit for an overwhelmingly white audience)?

This movie tells that story in impressive fashion, and it cuts no corners. But then Petey wouldn't have wanted it any other way. The most memorable scene in the movie is when Petey takes the mike on the night King was assassinated and contrasts himself with Martin Luther King in a totally self-effacing way, and brings the temperature in the town down from boiling point, to simmering. His painful honesty was precisely what it was that won him the respect of the audience he had. It is interesting how people sometimes respect honesty, telling it as you see it, more than they do truth, which can be painful.

At the heart of this movie however is the story of a relationship between a African American radio man Dewey Hughes, who meets Petey Greene whilst visiting his brother in prison, and becomes his entree to a legitimate career, and eventually becomes his manager. In a sense, this is as much a story about Dewey Hughes (who has actually won various Emmys, and is still writing and producing music in L.A. today) as about Petey Greene. With Greene being played by Cheadle and Hughes by the equally competent Chjwetel Ejiofor, this movie cooks right along. Add in a fine secondary part played by Martin Sheen as the owner of WOL radio station and the cast is fully up to playing this story for all it is worth. They have the period feel just right, the clothes just right, the music just right, and the social turmoil spot on. It brought back a lot of memories-- both good and bad.

Now in the spirit of Petey Greene I have to keep it real and tell you this movie has an R rating for its 'colorful' language, yet it is certainly worth watching as a period piece and for the fine acting. For those of you who did not go through the Civil Rights era, and don't get it, this is a fine movie to help you see what some of the issues and problems were, especially from an African American perspective. And I have little doubt that Don Cheadle is going to get some Oscar consideration for his performance in this movie, and deservedly so. The critics are about 80% thumbs up for this one, and that is saying something considering how jaundiced some of those folks are.

In the end, this movie helps us reflect on whether Dr. King's legacy has managed to seep into American culture enough to make us less racist now than we used to be. Most would say that it has. I remember the days in the old south when you would go to a gas station and there would be three bathrooms-- men, women, and 'colored'. Thank God those days are gone. But racism, like so many besetting sins that plague the hearts of fallen humans is a sin that like kudzu keeps cropping up and needing to be cut down again. This movie reminds us why that is still the 'righteous' and 'Christian' thing to do.

Friday, August 10, 2007

'Rescue Dawn"-- or Having a Laosy Time

Slipping in under the radar, and appearing in only limited release is a very fine rescue/survivor movie starring Christian Bale, entitled 'Rescue Dawn'. It retells the true story of a Navy pilot named Dieter Dengler (born in Germany, grew up in the U.S.), who found himself flying a classified mission over Laos and was shot down in 1965. There are of course many fine Vietnam war era movies (the Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, the Killing Fields, Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket), but only this movie sticks to the story of a singular individual who managed to survive concentration camp in Laos, escape, and finally be rescued by one of our helicopters.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 13 minutes, and eschewing our normal penchant for violence and refusing to sate our blood lust, this is not your typical war movie. It could nicely be contrasted with Letters from Iwo Jima in some respects. Rather this is a story of human perseverance and courage without assistance from violence (with one brief exception, which was a mistake). It is also something of a buddy movie because Christian Bale has a side kick Steve Zahn, and director Herzog knows exactly how to maximize their potential. We learn in due course that this movie is actually far more about the human survival instinct than about heroism in its normal sense. The movie does not end with Dengler saving his buddy, but rather with the survival of Dieter -- as the last man standing.

The politics of this movie are subtle-- the situation involves an undeclared war, and an illegal incursion into yet another country (Laos) to cut off weapons and supplies to the Vietnamese 'enemy'. Does this sound familiar, considering what some are now suggesting about what we should do in regard to Iran? Perhaps it is not too late to learn something from the mistakes in our past. But Herzog thankfully concentrates on the human story, not on the war, to good effect. We get a strong sense of what it would be like to be trapped in a concentration camp in a jungle, what it would be like to try and escape through a jungle during monsoon season, and just what people are prepared to eat when they are starving (I will spare you the details).

This is certainly a moving story, full of pathos, and yes humor, and without resorting to any special effects or unnecessary violence to juice up the tension. The tension is severe enough without that, after all. This is actually a war movie that I think the family can and should watch, except perhaps for small children. It is a powerful and poignant way to expose one's self to the dangers, and ethical compromises of war, without losing heart that something good may come of it. Survival in this tale comes in the end from resourcefulness. Our heroes end up jettisoning their guns, and relying on their wits. There is much to ponder here.

If you go, be sure to watch the beginning of the credits to find out what happened to Dengler after he returned to the U.S.

Akiane-- Child Prodigy

Where does vision come from? Vision to paint, or to write, to sing or to play. Some folks think it is a natural talent that some people are just born with. But if that is true, then why couldn't it simply be inherited from a gifted parent? Others think it is a matter of developing a skill over time, and of course it is true that we get better at things through hard work and repetition, but this does not plumb the depths of what happens in the case of a prodigy. Consider for example the case of Akiane, now 10. She's been painting and writing poetry since she was very small. She did not learn this at school, or for that matter at home either. Here is the link:


(if you have trouble with the link, then go to Google Video and type in Akiane)

Having watched this, several things are evident. Here is a young girl who had a strong sense of God's presence and where her gift came from at a very early age. Notice what she says at the end of the video about God and Christ being there with her from the cradle. Equally interesting is her description of getting images and visions in her head to paint. Notice that she is painting what she has images of in her head, not from images she sees in the natural world. The ancients would call such a person a visionary.

I have to say I can relate to a story like this. There has been many times when a vivid dream would wake me up in the middle of the night, and I would have to go and write a poem, or something else. And there is a strong feeling that I will have no peace unless I get this out there, and out of my system.

There is now a fair bit of literature about Indigo Children, so-called because they are said to see a blue aura around the dreams or visions they have of things. I can't really speak to this, as I have not seen things that way, but this I am prepared to say. As Romans 1 suggests, we are all created in the image of God, and as such have a capacity not only for relationship with God, but to receive gifts from God. Some people are more aware and open to this than others, and some are fairly oblivious to it. There is in addition a harding that happens to people over time as they become more worldly wise and weary, and lose their innocence. Sin does this to people-- it deadens them to God and to receiving spiritual gifts. This is one of the reasons when we see a child prodigy it becomes more evident that this is not a learned skill but must come from somewhere else. Of course an excellent example of this is Mozart, whose life story is worth reading.

So watch the Akiane video and perhaps some of the related segments. You can find this video on U Tube as well, of course. And then lets have a conversation about this. Now you will notice as well, that the way this gifting is interpreted varies, depending on the religious background of the people (or lack there of). Thus one family talks about reincarnation of previous family members in their children, and so on. Here is where I say that people can have genuine gifts from God, but misinterpret their source, meaning, and purpose. And indeed it is also possible to have 'gifts' from sources other than God, from demonic sources unfortunately. This is why spiritual knowledge and discernment is necessary in such cases. But with Akiane I have no reservations about where her gifts are coming from. She seeks to honor the Lord in all she does.
Now here is the surprise. This video was sent to me by a close friend of mine from Turkey, who grew up a secular Moslem (as are many Turks). She came with me to Israel the last time I went, and asked to be baptized by me in the Jordan, and receive communion for the first time, professing her belief in Jesus. God has been doing some things in her life, and thus she sent this video along to me.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cross Talk

It was Lent when the minister called Charlie into his office, his long time church janitor. "Charlie" said the pastor, "I wonder if you could help me with the service this Sunday?" Charlie scratched his head and said 'Sure, in what way?" "Well, I need you to move a piece of furniture around repeatedly."

Sunday came, and the service began normally enough, but when the sermon started something odd happened-- the janitor came in and began picking up the large stationery cross that sat on the podium and moved it, and the minister appeared to be oblivious. Even more odd was the fact that the janitor moved the cross repeatedly yelling out days of the week.

Yet the minister just kept preaching about discipleship. The other odd thing about the service was that no lector had read the Gospel lesson for the day. Rather the minister had simply launched into his preaching at the appropriate juncture.

At first the congregation thought the actions of the janitor odd, and inappropriate even scandalous and sacrilegious , but since the minister kept ignoring it, they pretended to ignore what was going on as well and focused on the minister.

Yet it was hard not to focus on what was happening to the beautiful large embossed wooden cross. At one point the janitor picked up the cross and lugged it down the central aisle plopping it down in the middle of the congregation hollering out "Wednesday". The next thing they knew, after he had rested for a few minutes he carried it all the way behind the congregation and put it first in the right side aisle, then in the left. And as the sermon was drawing to a close the janitor lugged the cross back onto the podium and set it down shouting "Sunday!"

At this juncture, the minister then said "In any given church, the heaviest piece of furniture to pick up and carry is always the cross", and then turning to the Gospel of St. Luke he read the lection for the day-- "If any one would come after me, let them take up their cross daily, and follow me." After which he closed the Bible and said 'Amen'.

Definition of a Saint

Thomas Long defines a saint as follows: "saints are figures out of the Christian past whose lives have been insufficiently researched."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Advice to the Lovelorn-- Learn Love

Fallen human beings have a very difficult time understanding real love. They are born inherently self-centered creatures, and what begins as a necessary survival mechanism, becomes in an adult a practiced art form. In its extreme expression it becomes narcissism, the heart turned in upon itself to such an extent, that like King Midas, everything that a person touches is meant to serve a selfish end or aim and so is harmed, damaged, rendered inert. Lust, desire, affection, even attention getting forms of kindness or compassion are all mistaken for 'love'. What then is real love? By definition it is something inherently self-sacrificial, just the opposite of something that is self-centered, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-satisfying. Even animals can express 'love' in the physical sense (see the elephants above), but that is not the essence of what the NT is talking about.

In her recent eloquent novel 'The Maytrees' Annie Dillard has some pretty profound things to say about real love. A couple of excerpts bear repeating. "The lasting love he studied, not mere emotion, might be willful focus of attention. It might be a custody of reactions. He circled this view for years. Love as directed will did not sound like love's first feeling of cliff-jumping. Call that period eighteen months or seven years-- call it anything but infatuation! It must be acknowledged and accounted for. Recently science had nailed down its chemistry: adrenaline. After eighteen months the body balks at more adrenaline. Then what? He had loved Lou for years and years. On and off, mostly very much on. Those loving years and their persistence, must also be credited. People used to die so young! Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe. Anthropologists say almost every human culture gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy." (p. 129).

One more passage will have to do. "The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard for Maytree long after he knew better. Was he 'in love'...all those years?...Then what guides will-- reason? The darling of the dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man's love. Science rinsed love's every scent from its hands.... Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing: love was an act of will. Not forced obeisance, but-- what? The obvious course of decency? Innate knowledge of goodness? Was it reasonable to love the good and good to love the reasonable?" (p. 187).

These are interesting musings, and they overlap with something the Bible tells us quite often. That love is an action word, grounded in a decision of the will-- whether God's will or human will. Love is not at its essence or inherently about feelings, though it often involves feelings. Love may or may not involve desire, affection, lust, physical pleasure. Much depends on whether those latter things are expressed in the service of self-sacrificial love or not. Indeed those four latter things can be expressed in the service of the opposite of love. Indeed often the most profound expressions of what the Bible calls love have nothing to do with desire, lust, physical pleasure. Take for instance, the ultimate expression of love-- the death of Christ on the cross. Whatever Jesus was feeling on the cross., it was not 'desire' or 'lust' or a longing for physical pleasure. And when we are exhorted in the Great Commandment Part B to love our neighbor as ourselves, this is neither an encouragement to auto-eroticism, nor to lechery. Indeed it has nothing to do with desire or lust or physical pleasuring of oneself or others. Or when the Bible says "God so loved the world that he gave..." we cannot think for a moment that this sacrifice was accompanied by feelings of arousal or 'desire' in the bodily or sexual sense. As it turns out, while the Bible has something to say about sexual relationships and the marital expression of the same (see e.g. Song of Solomon or 1 Cor. 7), it only rarely speaks of those things in terms of 'love', and even more rarely in terms of 'agape' love. Ephesians 5.21ff. is something of an exception, but what is most interesting about that discussion is that the wife is not exhorted to love her husband, but the husband is most certainly and in various ways exhorted to love the wife. The same applies in Col. 3-4 as well. It looks like the male needed more jump-starting when it came to self-sacrifice on the model of Christ's self-sacrifice for the church.

Consider for example a man with aged parents whom I know-- ages 91 and 81. Watch them closely. They still very much love each other, but much if not most of the physical side of their relationship is understandably in the past. Most of the loving done involves serving one another, acts of kindness, helping each other complete the journey of life. It has little if anything to do with 'desire' in the erotic sense. Was Maytree right that infatuation is just the beginning of love, and not its completion? How important really is the physical component, even in a good marriage? Well, many counselors today in our sex saturated culture will tell you its incredibly important especially if you want people to remain faithful. I wonder where grace comes into this sort of counseling? What of couples who very much love each other, but cannot, due to physical impairment or other reasons, share in that way any more? Have they become lovelorn? Are they in danger simply because they cannot express physical desire in one particular fashion? It would appear to me that the answer to this query is often no. Because you see, the real deep dimension of love involves something spiritual, it involves a decision of the will, it involves a conscious effort at deeds of loving self-sacrifice. This is love in motion, rather than love as emotion.

Do not misunderstand me. Anyone who under estimates the power of sexual attaction, desire, sexual expression, and the goodness of those things in the right context, is making a big mistake. But it is an equally large mistake to assume that those things are the essence or quintessence of what the Bible is referring to by agape. Agape is something you can share with God, with neighbor, with anyone. Agape need not wait until one is in the mood. Agape involves self-sacrificial actions even when you don't feel like it, even when it causes you pain, or as in the case of Jesus, even death. Until we understand what sort of love the Bible mostly is talking about, we will continue to mistake a host of other things for agape. And it is, after all 'agape' which makes the world go around, 'agape' which led God to send his Son, agape which saved our skins on the cross, agape which neighbors can share without fear of crossing marital boundaries.

Where am I going with this reflection? I would simply say that even Christians have not plumbed the depth of love, and what the Bible has to say about it. My exhortation would be-- rethink your categories as to what is most important in this universe, in your world as well. If it is not agape, then you have not understood the great commandment to love God with one's whole self and neighbor as self. In short, you have failed to learn love, in the Biblical sense. And that is a very great failure indeed for anyone who bears the name Christian.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum-- The Ultimate Thriller

It is now late in the summer movie game, but sometimes the best is saved for last, and in this case the best three-peat movie has been saved for last this summer. The final movie based on the final novel Robert Ludlam wrote about Jason Bourne is now in theaters, and it succeeds at many levels. This one so eclipses the previous sequels of this summer, that it is almost easy to wonder what we were so excited about in May when it came to the Spiderman or Pirates movie series.

Some movies are fast paced, but are still full of filler of one sort or another. There is not an ounce of filler in this movie. Everything is important, and requires close attention-- not good for those who have tiny attention spans and are easily distracted. The Bourne Ultimatum does not rely on gimmicks, CG effects, or razzle dazzle. Even its chase scenes seem mostly tame compared to the one near the beginning of 'Casino Royale', for example. This is because you are watching a psychological drama--- Jason Bourne is searching for his true identity, by trying to remember his past. The issue has to do with character development, or in this case character revelation.

It has been said that memory is the key to identity, and identity formation, and there is a lot of truth in this. Jason Bourne is the perfect example of this truth. He cannot remember most of his past-- indeed he cannot even remember his real name. He must rely on fleeting flashbacks, and mostly on information given him by others, or taken from others, to reconstruct his past. Has his real identity been stolen from him, washed out by brainwashing, or did perhaps he willingly give it up-- perhaps in service to his country? These are the sorts of questions that haunt the man, and drive the plot onward and onward, until Bourne is reborn, by learning at least shards of his past. And this brings up an important point. A person cannot self-consciously become a new person, unless they have a firm grip on what they are leaving behind, And this in turn requires a memory of who one has been, a memory of the way one was, and how one became Jason Bourne.

One of the things that makes this taut 111 minute spy thriller so compelling is of course the drive to find out Bourne's past and so his original identity. In many ways this story is much like the masterful stories of John le Carre, originally in MI5 who retired to write spy novels, quite successfully. And Matt Damon plays his part to the hilt and deserves a nomination for best actor for his cumulative performances in these three films. We sense his anguish, his anger, his animosity, his angst, his ambivalence. What if he discovers he was even worse than a CIA hit man in his former self? What if he discovers that instead of serving his country, he has been serving the whims of a few powerful and wicked men in the CIA and their lust for violence? What if he learns that all the missions he has undertaken, and even the loss of his girl friend, have been for naught, or worse, for bad ends?

Fortunately there is not just Bourne, the troubled hero in this story, there are also two strong women who believe in him-- Pamela Tandy within the home office of the CIA and Nicky Prosser in the field. They are not just bit players in the drama, but are real partners that help Bourne not only pass on his ultimatum but pass his ultimate test and live to learn something of his identity. I have no wish to spoil the story line and end of the series, so I will leave it at that.

There are various aspects of this movie, however that ought to trouble us: 1) the ethics of some of the major players in the CIA who operate with a 'the ends justifies the means' attitude, or even an a-moral attitude when it comes to getting things done in regard to America's enemies. If it is ultimately lies, smoke, mirrors, deception, and murder that are defending us from our enemies, then God help us. 2) there are some things a country should never ask of its citizens, one of which is the voluntary giving up of one's own identity; 3) in America we often assume that 'we are what we do'. Our identity is wrapped up in the tasks or jobs we do, thus when asked 'Who are you?' Some will answer-- I am a doctor, I am a lawyer etc. No, that is not who you are-- that is what you do. Of course for Jason Bourne, this American obsessing with doing as a way of defining being is doubly problematic-- What he does is dirty, and can be shared with almost no one. Who he is beyond what he does is even unknown to himself. He is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and trying to get out. All of the moving around from Moscow to Paris, to Tangiers, to London, to NY is interesting but these are much shorter journeys than the ones Jason is traversing in his soul, searching for himself.

I do not recommend going and seeing the Bourne Ultimatum if you missed the first two films, or at least have seen neither of them. This story is not just another episode, it is the climax of the two previous films. Rent the first two before seeing this. And watch them closely. In some ways this film will remind you of the Mission Impossible series in that human intelligence is highlighted and esteemed. Bourne really does outsmart his interlocutors at many turns. But this is not just an escapade about escaping. It is a journey home, for better or worse. I for one will need to see this film several more times, to fully appreciate the journey's nuances.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Art Linkletter made a career of interviewing children. One of my favorites was when he ask a young African American girl what her favorite Bible story was.

She replied-- "the wedding feast at Cana story".

Somewhat surprised Linkletter then asked: "What did you like most about the story?"

"Well I liked the part where Jesus turned all those gallons of water into wine."

"It was a real miracle" said Linkletter.

"Yes sir, a big one."

"And what do you think that story was meant to teach us?" asked Linkletter.

Without hesitation the little girl replied "When you run out of wine, pray to Jesus."