Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Humanness of the Unborn
My mother sent me the following, which ultimately comes from a Nashville newspaper, and the hospital where various of my friends have had surgery, so I believe this story is reliable. I would suggest you read Psalm 139.13-14 and then read the following and view the picture above.
A picture began circulating in November. It should be 'The Picture of the Year,' or perhaps, 'Picture of the Decade.' It won't be. In fact,unless you obtained a copy of the US paper which published it, you probably would never have seen it.
The picture is that of a 21-week-old unborn baby named Samuel Alexander Armas, who is being operated on by surgeon named Joseph Bruner.
The baby was diagnosed with spina bifida and would not survive if removed from his mother's womb. Little Samuel's mother, Julie Armas, is an obstetrics nurse in Atlanta . She knew of Dr. Bruner's remarkable
surgical procedure. Practicing at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville , he performs these special operations while the baby is still in the womb.
During the procedure, the doctor removes the uterus via C-section and makes a small incision to operate on the baby. As Dr.Bruner completed the surgery on Samuel, the little guy reached his tiny, but fully developed hand through the incision and firmly grasped the surgeon's finger. DrBruner was reported as saying that when his finger was grasped, it was the most emotional moment of his life, and that for an instant during the procedure he was just frozen, totally immobile
The photograph captures this amazing event with perfect clarity. The editors titled the picture, 'Hand of Hope.' The text explaining the picture begins, 'The tiny hand of 21-week- old fetus Samuel Alexander Armas emerges from the mother's uterus to grasp the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner as if thanking the doctor for the gift of life.'
Little Samuel's mother said they 'wept for days' when they saw the picture. She said, 'The photo reminds us pregnancy isn't about disability or an illness, it's about a little person.'Samuel was born in perfect health, the operation 100 percent successful.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 2:42 PM 13 comments:
Monday, March 30, 2009
TALES OF CHRISTIAN TAILGATERS
A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy street.
Suddenly, just in front of him, the light turned yellow. He did the right
thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red
light by accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating woman was furious and repeatedly honked her horn,
screaming in frustration, as she missed her chance to get through
the intersection, while also, dropping her cell phone and makeup.
As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up
into the face of a very stern looking police officer. The officer ordered
her to exit her car with her hands up.
He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted,
photographed and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a
policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back
to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her
He said, 'I'm very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind
your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front
of you and cussing a blue streak at him. 'I noticed the 'What Would Jesus
Do' window sticker, the 'Choose Life' license plate holder, the 'Follow Me
to Sunday-School' bumper sticker and the chrome-plated Christian fish
emblem on the trunk; naturally... I assumed you had stolen the car.'
Posted by Ben Witherington at 4:58 PM 14 comments:
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Animal House Part Three-- The 12 Apostles (plus 1) of the Animal World
Identify the following apostles of the animal world with one of the 12. I've left a few hints below. BW3
Clearly this one should be called Rocky (aka Peter/Cephas)
Aha, the Boanerges, James and John
This must be Judas Iscariot
Clearly this one should be called Rocky (aka Peter/Cephas)
Aha, the Boanerges, James and John
This must be Judas Iscariot
Posted by Ben Witherington at 8:27 AM 6 comments:
Mona Greasa-- The Real Da Vinci Code Secret
In order to truly appreciate the following video (and kudos to Craig Beard for finding it), you need to put on the old Bee Gees song 'Grease', as done by Franki Valli... and sing along, "Grease is the word, that you heard....." You catch my drift. Just imagine what could have been accomplished with ten thick burgers.... I'm thinking the whole last supper painting, complete with entrees :) BW3
Posted by Ben Witherington at 8:09 AM 1 comment:
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
THE SAD STATE OF CHRISTIAN WORSHIP--Spirit-Filled Singing
Christian worship is of course a human activity, and thus involves the same sort of flaws other human activities involve. What is amazing to me is that so little thought is actually put into what a theology of worship should look like--- what is the purpose of worship? How does it differ from say, going to a concert and watching a Christian artist perform? Who is the subject and object of worship? What roles should the congregation or clergy or both play in worship?
Because so little meaningful discourse is available on this subject, I have recently written a little primer on a theology of Christian worship on the basis of what the NT has to say, and it will be forthcoming from Eerdmans under the title Doxa: Worship in the Light of the Kingdom. Here below is a draft sample of the discussion on one of my favorite subjects---- the role of music and in particular singing in worship. See what you think. Note that I have left out the footnotes here. BW3
Christians today are used to addressing God in shockingly familiar and even casual ways. Some even talk to and about God as if God were a long lost pal. What always strikes me about the stark contrast between what happens so often today, especially in prayer, and what we find in the NT is that the NT writers were looking for the most exalted language they could possibly find to pray and praise and proclaim God’s goodness and grace in a bolder way. There was not prose or even poetry elevated enough to do the subject of Christ and redemption he wrought justice. Looking for help, the earliest Christians turned to the Psalter and other such musical resources.
Ephes. 5.18-20 provides an entry into the heart of early Christian worship, which surprisingly enough the NT writers do not say enough about. Paul, in a circular homily meant for a variety of his churches says this in instructing them about worship—“and don’t become intoxicated with wine, in which is recklessness, but rather continue being filled in Spirit, singing to one another psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to (our) God and Father.” It will pay us to look closely at this.
In vs. 18 we have a clear contrast– do not get drunk with wine (Paul does not say do not drink wine, but rather don’t engage in dissipation), but rather be filled in Spirit. This contrast is also found in the Pentecost story in Acts 2 and suggest that early Christian worship was often ecstatic and jubilant, involving loud singing. The outsider might have a hard time telling the difference between exuberant praising (especially if it involved singing in tongues) and a drunk person singing and carousing.
It is not impossible that Paul is contrasting Christian worship with Bacchic rites which involved drunkenness and frenzy and orgiastic behavior. In any case, it should be noted that Paul says to Christians who already have the Spirit “be filled” and the verb is in the present continual tense—keep on being filled up by and in the Spirit. The phrase whole-hearted or even exuberant singing doesn’t do justice to what is being described here. A person is wide open to the internal workings of the Spirit and the result is, both internally and externally exuberant song.
Here Paul is likely referring to the sort of repeated fillings that happen to Christians who already have the full measure of the Spirit, but are inspired in spiritually high moments to speak and sing. In such cases it is a matter of the indwelling Spirit inspiring and lifting up the individual, not a matter of the individual getting more of the Spirit. The Spirit after all is a person, not a substance one can get more of. You can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in you than you can be a little bit pregnant. Here the singers are caught up in love and wonder and praise and adoration of God by the Spirit that moves them.
John Chrysostom is right in suggesting that Paul is contrasting intoxication that leads to one sort of singing and inspiration which leads to another. Paul is not talking about some second work of grace or of sanctification here, as the contrast makes clear. “For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit. What is meant by ‘with your hearts to the Lord’? It means with close attention and understanding. For those who do not attend closely, merely sing, uttering the words, while their heart is roaming elsewhere.” (Hom. Ephes XIX). Paul means singing from the bottom of one’s heart, and so this is an exhortation to heartfelt and sincere praise and singing, with cognizance of the lyrics’ meaning.
There is a difference between mere ecstatic uttering of nonsensical things, and heartfelt praise which is an act of adoration. Perhaps Paul knew about the Dionysiac rituals in which getting drunk was seen as the means of achieving religious ecstasy or frenzy or spiritual exaltation (cf. Is. 28.7; Philo, Ebr. 147-48; Vita Cont. 85,89; Macrobius, Sat. I.18.1; Hippolytus, Ref. 5.8.6-7). Since early Christian worship took place not only in the context of a home, but also often in the context of a fellowship meal, the issue of drunkenness and worship were not unrelated issues for Pauline Christians as also 1 Cor. 11 demonstrates.
As Gordon Fee points out, what often gets overlooked in the discussion of Ephes. 5.18-21 is that we have a series of participles that modify the exhortation to be filled by/with the Spirit– speaking, singing, giving thanks, and also submitting-- in this case mutual submission of all believers to each other. The Spirit inspires all these activities. Fee also rightly notes that the emphasis here is not on the ecstasy producing potential of the Spirit, but on being filled, or having the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Nor is the emphasis on being ‘high’ or drunk on the Spirit as opposed to being drunk from wine. Rather the picture is of individuals and a community together being totally given over to the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence and leading.
Philo seems to describe something of the life situation Paul has in mind here: “Now when grace fills the soul, that soul thereby rejoices and smiles and dances, for it is possessed and inspired, so that to many of the unenlightened it may seem to be drunken, crazy, and beside itself....For with those possessed by God not only is the soul wont to be stirred and goaded as it were into ecstasy but the body is also flushed and fiery... and thus many of the foolish are deceived and suppose that the sober are drunk” (De Ebr. 146-48).
Far from being filled with the Spirit leading to dissipation or drunkenness, Paul affirms it leads to wisdom and to the spirit of a sound mind and to the proper adoration and singing that all of God’s creatures should render back to God. In other words, it is the key to living the Christian life in a manner pleasing to God and edifying to others as well as one’s self.
The Spirit is both the means and the substance of the filling, and vs. 19 tells what sort of response the Spirit prompts in the believer. Christians sing hymns to Christ and also give thanks to God through the impulse and empowering of the Spirit. Note the implicitly Trinitarian nature of this discussion. The life of the Spirit-filled community is to be characterized by joyful singing, thanksgiving, and submitting to one another. “If believers were only filled with wisdom, the influence would be impersonal; however the filling by the Spirit adds God’s personal presence, influence, and enablement to walk wisely, all of which are beneficial to believers and pleasing to God. With the indwelling each Christian has all of the Spirit, but the command to be filled by the Spirit enables the Spirit to have all of the believer.” (Fee).
It is possible that the three sorts of songs mentioned in vs. 19 had differing forms. Psalmos probably means the psalms, usually praise songs with accompaniment, since the term originally meant ‘to pluck a string’. Hymnois may be more hymn-like liturgical and acappella pieces which were pre-written, and spiritual songs may mean spontaneous songs from the heart prompted by the Spirit, but we can’t be certain about any of this (cf. Col.3.16).
What these verses suggest is both old and new elements in Christian worship when it came to music. Paul says these songs are to be addressed, surprisingly enough, to each other, rather than just to God! They are to speak to one another in songs of praise. This makes clear that worship is not just a matter of adoration, but also involves edification. Vs. 19c probably does not mean ‘only in your hearts’, but rather ‘in a heartfelt way’ understanding that it is ultimately to the Lord. Perhaps what is meant is that the internal praise is to the Lord, but the external praise is to each other. We are always to do this in the spirit of thanksgiving (cf. 1 Thess. 5.18), and we are to do it, submitting ourselves to one another. It is not to be a protracted display of ego, and as 1 Cor. 14 suggests believers are to defer to each other, taking turns.
Notice too that here, as in 1 Cor. 14 nothing suggests a clergy dominated worship service. Everyone is allowed to join in and participate as the Spirit leads them. However we would be wrong to think this was leaderless worship, for Paul has just listed for us in Ephes. 4 the various leaders of these sorts of congregations when an apostle was not around—- prophets, evangelists, and pastors who are also teachers (Ephes. 4.11). Their job is the equipping of the saints unto the building up of the body of Christ, and certainly worship is one of the activities which accomplishes that building up and unifying of a group of Christians. Can we say more about the music itself? I believe we can.
The parallel passage in Col. 3.16-17 bears close scrutiny. Vs. 16 indicates that the basis of sound and wise teaching and admonition is the word of Christ dwelling in the midst of the community richly. Notice that this exhortation is given to everyone, and the assumption is that this is as appropriate when predicated of all as when these terms are used in 1.28 to describe Paul’s ministry. This exhortation is not directed, for instance, just to the men of the audience, any more than the next exhortation about singing is. Once again, three types of songs seem to be referred to– psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Psalms would presumably refer primarily to the OT songs we find in the Psalter, hymns could be said to refer to the kind of Christological material we find in Col. 1 (it certainly refers to something sung to a deity), and spiritual songs would refer to songs prompted by the Holy Spirit, perhaps spontaneously. The grammar allows the conclusion that singing is viewed as one form of teaching and admonishing each other, and certainly Ephes. 5.19 mentions speaking the songs to one another. Col. 1 revealed Paul using a hymn for just such an instructional purpose. According to vs. 17 the Christian life is also to be characterized by being and showing oneself thankful for all God has done, and by doing and saying all that one does and says in the name and according to the nature of Christ.
When we see singing as under the heading of instruction and exhortation, it becomes clear once more that worship is seen to be an ethical act, and one aspect of this is that as God is glorified properly, the people are edified. What Paul is stress here is that these songs express the Word of God which is to dwell in the speaker and singer richly. Singing is quite specifically connected here with admonitions. But the end of vs. 16 makes clear that the ultimate aim of this singing is “singing in your heart to God”, or perhaps better said, singing whole-heartedly unto God. Vs. 17 punctuates this even further when Paul insists that whatever we say or do, and especially so in worship it should be done in the name and according to the nature of Christ, giving thanks to the Father through Christ. Christ is seen as the mediator of our relationship with the Father, but here and in Ephes. 5 the implication is as well that Christ is the object of worship and adoration.
Psychologists tell us that music reaches us in places and ways that mere words cannot do. It engages and arouses the affective and right brained side of who we are, and so it is crucial in worship, for in worship the whole person should be engaged, the whole self presenting itself as a living sacrifice to God, consciously, intentionally, purposefully. Worship is not an activity where you should expect to come and lose yourself, but rather to find your true self in the shadow of the Almighty, who comes down to inhabit our praise.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 9:23 AM 15 comments:
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
DUPLICITY-- OH WHAT A SUBTLE WEB WE WEAVE...
In a world of mindless entertainment, sometimes one wonders if there is still a place for a brainy romantic spy yarn, and apparently, thank goodness, the answer is still yes. Such a movie is Julie Robert's return as a leading lady to the big screen, having turned the big 4-0 a while back. Yes she has played cameo roles or large cast roles in Charlie Wilson's War, and the Ocean's 11 etc. sagas, but in this movie, with the help of Clive Owen, she returns to form, on center stage, as a leading lady. She looks a bit gaunt and a bit more curvy than in the past, but its still the same sassy Julia with the angular face and the gigantic smile and laugh.
And Clive Owen is still the sophisticated handsome Brit, who provides the perfect foil for Julia's character. The screen writer involved was also involved with Michael Clayton and the Bourne sagas, and so one would expect some interesting plot twists and turns, and one is not disappointed. Here is a movie one actually has to pay attention in, to keep up. It will remind you some of the Oceans movies in terms of cinematography, music, and pizazz, and not of spy thrillers that involve lots of action. You do however get to jet set around the world to various venues previously visited by James Bond. In the post-modern sense this is not an 'action' flick, for in this movie the action is mostly in the heat generated between the two lead characters. But clearly there is more here than meets the eye, as the flashbacks increasingly reveal as the movie progresses. Here is the studio's own summary of the plot....
"Synopsis: Oscar® winner Julia Roberts and Clive Owen reunite for Duplicity, from writer/director Tony Gilroy (seven-time Oscar®-nominated Michael Clayton). In the film, they star as spies-turned-corporate... Oscar® winner Julia Roberts and Clive Owen reunite for Duplicity, from writer/director Tony Gilroy (seven-time Oscar®-nominated Michael Clayton). In the film, they star as spies-turned-corporate operatives in the midst of a clandestine love affair. When they find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes espionage game, they discover the toughest part of the job is deciding how much to trust the one you love.
CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) have left the world of government intelligence to cash in on the highly profitable cold war raging between two rival multinational corporations. Their mission? Secure the formula for a product that will bring a fortune to the company that patents it first.
For their employers--industry titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and buccaneer CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti)-- nothing is out of bounds. But as the stakes rise, the mystery deepens and the tactics get dirtier, the trickiest secret for Claire and Ray is their growing attraction. And as they each try to stay one double-cross ahead, two career loners find their schemes endangered by the only thing they can't cheat their way out of: love. --© Universal Pictures"
This is a 2 hours + movie I can happily recommend to adults and teens, as it eschews violence altogether, and is none too revealing in the amorous scenes. And in fact it is something of a morality play. Sometimes the player gets played, and in a world of duplicity and corporate espionage, who exactly can you trust?
What this movie very nicely demonstrates is that once a person starts telling large quantities of lies, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain consistent to the web one is weaving. It's just the opposite with truth. Truth telling allows you to sleep well at night, know who you are, and who you can trust and not have to be constantly looking over your shoulder or reviewing your previous words to see if you are being consistent.
This movie is a classic revelation of the fact that God set the world up to be run on the basis of truth, and when an individual, or a company, or a country doesn't live that way, it not merely loses its way, it loses its identity. As Claire and Ray find out to their cost, you cannot unconditionally love someone you cannot fundamentally trust, for love and its vulnerabilities are based on trusting one another.
There is a very revealing scene between the two stars near the end of the movie, where they say that they long to start over from scratch and live a life that is true, truthful, honest, open, and loving. What it reveals is that love and truth and trust and faith always were intertwined, and were meant to be so. Alas, this leaves the duplicitous in a world without love and in a world of hurt. As Jesus put it "you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free..." free to love.
If you go to see this movie, and I would certainly commend it, see if you can figure out the major hole in the plot which should have been fixed. But since this movie is all about secrets, I will say no more.... nod, nod, wink, wink.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 1:46 PM 2 comments:
Monday, March 23, 2009
WHERE'S WALDO.... ERR.... WITHERINGTON??
Ah those college years..... here are two pictures from a UNC college retreat trip to the beach in N.C. Kudos to you if you can pick BW3 out in these pictures. Also in these pictures--- Tom Morris a future teacher of the year at Notre Dame, Don Tyndall (no not the coach of Morehead State) a future professor of Dentistry at UNC, and two future Presbyterian ministers....
Posted by Ben Witherington at 5:38 PM 10 comments:
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
DISCUSSION ON GOD AND THE RESURRECTION--- GARY HABERMAS, ANTHONY FLEW, AND N.T.WRIGHT AT WESTMINSTER, CAMBRIDGE, AND ELSEWHERE
Here is a discussion worthy of your attention. Kudos to James Foster for the link. There are in fact many links on this page. Some to the discussion held at Westminster in London between the three figures mentioned, some to the debates Gary Habermas has had in Cambridge and elsewhere with atheists of various sorts.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 11:04 AM 7 comments:
Monday, March 16, 2009
FALLIN' IN LOVE WITH JESUS
Kirk Whalum is one of my very favorite Christian jazz artists, not to mention he does a lot of jazz Gospel and so I have some samples here, and you will see he brings the heavy hitters with him--- see which version of this song you like the best, involving Jonathan Butler, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, as the singers. Wow. Jonathan Butler not only wrote this song, I have watched him walk the walk for 30 years. He is a Christian from South Africa. I would highly recommend to you the Gospel according to Jazz I,II, III which is Kirk Whalum's response to being dropped by Columbia Records-- he decided to praise the Lord in a bolder strain. BW3
Posted by Ben Witherington at 11:54 AM 6 comments:
Sunday, March 15, 2009
YAHWEH WILL BE THERE
Michael McDonald is one of my favorite soulful singers of all time, and he has done a lot of work backing up others and helping them make hit records. James Ingram, from Ohio was a Gospel singer who had some soul hits as well, and here is one of them under the title "Yo Mo Be There". This is taken from a 1992 all star concert in Japan, and yes that's Nathan East and Lee Ritenour in the band. This is the best quality video I could find of this rare concert. I should just add that Michael has long since confessed his faith in the Lord.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 8:01 PM 4 comments:
When Theology is Claimed as Intellectual Property
In our world where human beings seem to think they have 'entitlement' to all things which can be claimed we now can wondrously behold the miracle of the 'theological patent' or copyright of theological ideas--- like say the theory of double imputation. Kudos to Craig Beard for finding this out---
Posted by Ben Witherington at 9:15 AM 10 comments:
PRESIDENT OBAMA'S PRAYER PARTNERS
There is an interesting new article in the Sunday NY Times on Barack Obama's prayer partners. Here is the link, see what you think.....
Posted by Ben Witherington at 3:53 AM 1 comment:
Saturday, March 14, 2009
THE HOUSTON MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
These picture were all from the recent ministry trip to Houston. The top picture is the beautiful dome in St. Mary's Seminary where I lectured. The rest of the pictures are from the very fine exhibits at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. There was a special exhibit on Bactria, Alexander the Great's kingdom in Afghanistan (yes that Afghanistan). These finds comes from tombs of the descendants of Alexander's rulers in the northern part of the country. The incredibly fine glass work and gold objects are in themselves worth the price of admission, and you can begin to sense the sweep and scope of the effect of Hellenism all the way to the steppes of Asia and India. The gold bowl is especially beautiful, and believe it or not it was for putting the head of the deceased in (no its not a really expensive jello mold).
I have also included some shots from the collection of Impressionist Art, and a couple of Biblical paintings. Enjoy BW3
Posted by Ben Witherington at 5:39 PM 2 comments:
Friday, March 13, 2009
THE GOOD BISHOP WEIGHS IN-- TOM WRIGHT ON 'SURPRISED BY HOPE'
N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" has been called an instant classic, and now with two years of positive reviews under its belt, it was time to sit down with the Bishop and ask some follow up questions which arise from some of the things he has said in the book and some of the responses he has gotten.
I caught up with Tom in Prague, but he delayed answering for a day until he could get home to Bishop Auckland Palace, where you find him safely ensconced in the picture above (coupled with a picture of Durham Cathedral at dawn, looking over the Wear river bridge).
Since both Europe and America are rapidly becoming more multi-cultural and emphasizing the goodness of religious diversity, it is natural to expect an increasing diversity of afterlife views even in the West. In light of this fact, how would you approach taking your message of hope to the streets, how would you do evangelism on this important topic in this post-modern post-Christian setting and era?
1. Diversity of afterlife views. Yes, indeed, we are becoming more diverse (though not hugely so I think in the UK -- there tends to be an assumption that Christians believe in heaven and hell, some other religions believe in reincarnation, and most people are either agnostic or think death is final). There aren't actually too many options, really, in either the ancient or the modern world; just variations on well-known themes.
I don't see the full Christian eschatology as the primary thing to talk about in evangelism. The primary thing is Jesus himself, and the vision of the loving, rescuing creator God we get when we focus on him. However, the vision of new heavens and new earth, and of God's project, already begun in Jesus, to flood the whole creation with his restorative justice, does indeed generate a powerful evangelistic message: not just 'you're sinful, here's how to escape the consequences', but 'your sinful life means you're failing to be a genuine human being, contributing to God's project of justice and beauty -- here's how the project got back on track, and here's how you can be part of it, both in your own life being set right and made 'something beautiful for God' and in what you do THROUGH your life, bringing justice, hope, joy and beauty to God's world as we look forward to the final day'... I'd better not go further or you'll get the whole sermon?
Question 2--- There seem to have been at least two persons who saw the risen Jesus on or after Easter who were not amongst his disciples at the time---- James his brother and Saul on Damascus Road. One of these surely took place during the initial period of appearances, the other after those 40 or so days, which is to say after the Ascension. Yet they both claimed equally to have seen the risen Lord.
In your view was either of these appearances to non-disciples visionary in character, and does it make any difference to your case that resurrection always meant something that happened to a body after death and the initial afterlife?
2. James, Paul and 'visions'. The difficulty here is that in our culture a 'vision' is thought of as a 'purely subjective' thing, so that when people say 'so-and-so had a vision' they assume there is no correlated phenomena in our own space-time-matter world. The whole NT is predicated on a different view: that heaven and earth are twin parts of God's good creation, and that they overlap and interlock in a variety of surprising ways, so that sometimes people really do see right into God's dimension and sometimes aspects of God's dimension -- in this case, the risen body of Jesus -- are visible from within our dimension.
That is of course what I think was happening when Paul saw Jesus, as I have explained in the relevant chapter of The Resurrection of the Son of God. Such moments are genuine anticipations of the final day when heaven and earth will come together as one glorious reality, when 'the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea'. Our culture is built on the denial that such a thing is possible, let alone desirable, so things fall apart into either 'ordinary seeing' or 'vision', the first being 'objective' and the latter 'subjective'. To unravel this further would need a few paragraphs on epistemology...
Question 3--- About half way through your book you make clear that Purgatory is not a Biblical doctrine, and that of course salvation is not a reward earned by good works.
There does however seem to be both in early Jewish traditions and the teachings of Jesus and Paul a connection between good works and some sort of reward when the Kingdom comes on earth (not, it would appear, rewards of varying status in heaven, or years off of purgatory).
What do you make of this, and passages like 2 Cor. 5.10 which speak of all Christians being accountable at the bema seat judgment of Christ for the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad?
If salvation is by grace through faith, what do these rewards amount to? And is there no correlation between behavior in this life and getting into the eschatological Kingdom on earth later, as Gal. 5 would seem to suggest?
3. Rewards etc. As C. S. Lewis pointed out a long time ago, there is a big difference between a child (a) passing a French exam and being given a bicycle as a 'reward' and the same child (b) being given, instead, a month in Paris now that she is able to enjoy and profit from it.
Not a totally accurate example but it helps: if the final state to which we look forward is that of complete humanness, fully reflecting God's image into the world, and if our faith, hope, love, fruits of the Spirit, meekness, patience, etc etc in the present are genuine anticipations of that, then the final state will be from that point of view the reward (b) will be ontologically connected with the preceding activity.
Both Jesus' basic ethics and Paul's are eschatological, that is, they are based on the fact that the kingdom is already inaugurated as an act of sheer grace and looking forward to the fact that the kingdom will one day be consummated, also as an act of sheer grace, and celebrating the fact that what grace does is to enable failed, sinful human beings to be caught up in God's restorative justice so that, by that same grace active through the Spirit in their lives, and by their Spirit-enabled thinking through of what it's all about (Romans 12.2, etc etc), they are anticipating in the present some aspects at least of the full humanity which will be theirs at the last. Again, much more could be said, not least on how to retrieve the notion of 'virtue' from a fully biblical point of view.
Joel Green and other NT scholars have been conferencing with neuroscientists and writing a good deal about how the mind is simply the software of the brain, and without the physical body, the whole person simply ceases to exist. In other words, they are advocates of some sort of monism in the form of the equation 'no body=no person'.
I take it from many things you say in 'Surprised by Hope' that you believe in a limited dualism between body and soul, or body and personality, such that the person survives death and goes to be with the Lord, but that ultimately that dualism will be resolved when the resurrection of the body happens, and those in Christ are made like him once and for all.
How would you answer the monists, who insist they have mind/brain science on their side?
4. I do think -- and at this point Aquinas, and the Greek Orthodox theologians, and the early fathers, agree with me -- that humans are incomplete without a body.
However, I agree with theologians Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern, that if there is to be a resurrection that presupposes some kind of continuity between the embodied person now and the embodied person then. One way of 'solving' this might be to suggest that at death we are 'fast-tracked' straight to the eschaton; I don't buy that because the new world will be made out of the old one, not created de novo, and that clearly hasn't happened yet.
Another way of 'solving' it is to say that God 'remembers' us, not just with a kind of nostalgic looking back at the person we once were but are no longer, but that he somehow holds us in life (as the Psalmist says) within his own being. Hence Polkinghorne's image: God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves. For me the telling points are Jesus' words to the brigand: TODAY you will be with me in Paradise -- though Jesus won't be raised for another three days; and Paul's in Philippians, 'My desire is to depart and be with Christ which is far better'. I don't think Paul could have said that if he'd believed it would be a non-existent state prior to the resurrection. Wisdom 3 of course uses the language of 'souls in the hand of God', which may be a way of saying pretty much the same thing.
I don't like thinking of this as 'dualism', but rather as a temporary duality, a kind of half-existence with God obviously taking the complete initiative to hold in being the true identity etc of persons who once had full bodily identity and will again...
In a recent book on a Christian view of work, David Jensen says that we are not co-laborers with God, building the Kingdom on earth, but merely engaging in grateful responsive labor to the purely divine work. This seems to be an attempt to avoid suggesting that our deeds have something to do with our own salvation whether present or future or the coming of the Kingdom whether present or future.
From the last section of your book Surprised by Hope, it seems clear that you think Jensen is saying too little, and indeed is wrong. Help us connect the dots between our future hope in Kingdom come, and our present work. Is it a mere foreshadowing of Kingdom come, or an actual foretaste, and so part of that work? Does what we do now, get perfected when Jesus and the Kingdom come in full? What does it mean to be co-laborers with Christ and why should that give us hope in the present as well as for the future?
5. We are not building the kingdom by our own efforts, no. The Kingdom remains God's gift, new creation, sheer grace. But, as part of that grace already poured out in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, we are building FOR the kingdom. I use the image of the eleventh-century stonemason, probably illiterate, working away on one or two blocks of stone according to the orders given to him. He isn't building the Cathedral; he is building FOR the Cathedral. When the master mason/architect gathers up all the small pieces of stone at which people have been working away, he will put them into the great edifice which he's had in mind all along and which he alone can build -- but FOR WHICH we can and must build in the present time. Note 1 Corinthians 3, the Temple-building picture, and the way it relates directly to 1 Cor 15.58: what you do in the Lord is NOT IN VAIN, because of the resurrection.
I have absolutely no idea how it might be that a great symphony or painting, or the small act of love and gentleness shown to an elderly patient dying in hospital, or Wilberforce campaigning to end the slave trade, or the sudden generosity which makes a street beggar happy all day -- how any or all of those find a place in God's eventual kingdom. He's the architect, not me. He has given us instructions on the little bits of stone we are meant to be carving. How he puts them together is his business.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 5:44 AM 34 comments:
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
It sneaks up on you unawares
While you are preoccupied
It catches you quite unprepared
Enthralled as you are in your pride.
Blindsided, you flinch instinctively
When suddenly you are accosted
You realize in an instance ‘it’s now…’
Or else you’ve totally lost it.
All those years of pure preparation
All those long times of careful thought
Have arrived at this destination
So why do you feel you are caught?
Shocked by the sudden challenge
Your defensive reflex, a surprise
Call up the ‘the hope that’s within you’
And look them right in the eyes.
Like fumbling with keys in the doorway,
You find you’re at a loss for words,
Why suddenly this ineptitude
Your nervousness seems absurd.
And there is no graceful exit,
No quiet bowing out
No way to delay the inevitable
You’re in the ring, no doubt.
‘Speak now, or else forever
Forever hold your peace’,
The questioner is insistent
She seeks some sort of release.
When the moment of truth is upon you
And you have no time to prepare
Will you know what to say in that instant
Will you find out how much you care?
Will you call on the Spirit for guidance
Will you ask that the cup might pass
Will you be alarmed by your feeling
That the moment is here at last?
Will you feel like a total coward
A child without his homework
Will the force of the question flatten you
Will you turn your head with a jerk.
Will you say ‘I don’t know him’
Will you deny him multiple times,
Will you say ‘I must be leaving’
When recognized, turn on a dime?
When all your learning fails you
And all your bravado too,
When you have no cup of courage
And you don’t know what to do,
Will the moment of truth unmask you
And reveal the imposter inside,
Are you really his true disciple,
Or are you just along for the ride?
In the moment of truth you find out
Just exactly where you are,
Either someone whole-heartedly committed
Or someone who hasn’t gone that far.
Are you flirting with being his follower
Without fully embracing his grace
And when the road gets bumpy
Are you wanting out of the race?
The moment of truth reveals all,
It gives you a progress report
As to whether the truth is within you
Or is it still something you court?
But the moment of truth need not define you
It’s not a final exam,
Even Peter’s denials didn’t end things,
“It need not decide who I am”
And when you see another failing
Fumbling, falling down,
Don’t turn away in scorn,
It could be you on the ground.
But for the grace of God,
We all would come up short
When the moment of truth comes calling,
Christian faith is no spectator sport.
March 10, 2009
Posted by Ben Witherington at 6:40 AM 4 comments:
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ANTIQUITY-- A TEXTBOOK
THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ANTIQUITY--- G.M. Burge, L.H. Cohick, G. L. Green (Zondervan 2009).
‘Of the making of Introductions to the New Testament, there is no end, and much reading is a weariness of the flesh’ but not all Introductions are created equal. This particular Introduction seeks to thoroughly place the New Testament within its Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural contexts, and this, it must be said, is a big improvement over most Evangelical Introductory texts, especially those of an earlier era. Thus, the authors are to be commended for putting a lot of work into this resource, which is visually alluring, quite readable and could be used either at the college or introductory seminary level. The authors, Gary Burge, Lynn Cohick, and Gene Green, all teach at Wheaton College in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies.
All such Introductions have their pluses and minuses and this volume is no exception. Let us first mention the pluses: 1) the volume is well written and readable, avoiding a lot of technical terms and scholarly jargon; 2) the authors stick to areas with which they are most familiar and on which they have done research and writing. This brings some strengths to this volume that a single authored volume could not have, as no single person is an expert in all the New Testament; 3) the numerous pictures, maps, charts, and excursi are helpful, as are the two tiered bibliographies; 4) the quality of the production of this volume is high, with excellent binding and durable pages. This book is intended to be a reference volume and textbook for the long haul. 5) the book is of a manageable size (less than 500 pages of text), making it serviceable for a one semester course.
Now for some problems with this volume. Without question, most scholars, including many Evangelical scholars, will see this volume as reflecting either a pre-critical or overly conservative approach to the New Testament data when it comes to issues of authorship, date, audience, sources and the like. For example, the traditional view on the authorship of all the NT books is generally advocated (even when documents, such as the Gospels, are formally anonymous), though objections to these views are noted, and efforts are made to mitigate their force. Or again, the approach to the Synoptic Problem does not grasp the nettle and really wrestle with why 95% of Mark’s Gospel reappears in Matthew’s Gospels with over 50% exact verbal correspondence. As I tell my students, if I get two term papers and one of them contains 95% of the other one with over a 50% verbatim rate, I’m going to know there is some sort of literary relationship between these documents. In other words, this is a book for Evangelical Christian colleges, and will be less serviceable in other contexts where a better representation of the spectrum of opinion on such issues will be desired. Perhaps if one sees this as an Introductory text for Evangelical college students only some of this is understandable.
Secondly, there is a difference between looking at cultural data as ‘background’ material, and recognizing that one needs to wrestle with the interface between the context and the content of the New Testament. The text of the NT is an artifact, just as much as any other ancient archaeological object and it reflects the culture and conventions of its age. It is not just that the context illuminates the text, it is that the text emerges from, addresses, and reflects that context in its style, its rhetoric, its social conventions, and in a myriad of other ways. Helping the student come to grips with the need to learn about all of these ancient contexts, literary, social, rhetorical, philosophical, religious, theological is crucial. Here, a few more introductory and orienting essays would not have gone amiss to help with the integration. As it is, most of the integration is left to the students themselves.
Thirdly, I appreciate very much the fact that this text does indeed at least begin to expose the reader to the importance of Greco-Roman rhetoric for interpreting the New Testament, but unfortunately it doesn’t much treat the diverse use of rhetoric in the New Testament. Furthermore, the usual mistake is made on p. 104 in reading 1 Cor. 2.4 and 2 Cor. 10.10 as if Paul is disavowing the use of rhetoric or rhetorical skill, with the conclusion “Paul did not come to the city (in this case Corinth) as a rhetor to the city, but as a herald who proclaimed the message of Christ….” This is simply a misreading of the evidence, which fails to take into account that what Paul is disavowing is sophistic rhetoric, the rhetoric of the super-apostles, not the use of rhetoric in general (see the work of Bruce Winter on this point). The issue in 2 Cor.10.10 is not whether Paul used rhetoric or not, but his having an ethos problem--- there was some kind of physical impediment that caused Paul’s presentation in person in Corinth to be less persuasive and powerful than his letters. Galatians suggests he had an eye problem, not a surprise after the description of what happened to him on Damascus road. I could also have wished for more of the sort of primary source social data one finds in Craig Keener’s excellent Bible Background Commentary, but then one Introduction cannot be all things to all people, and it is a considerable achievement to be able to deal with both contextual material and the usual Prolegomena issues in the same textbook.
Despite some deficiencies and missteps this Introduction should become the Introduction of choice in Evangelical college circles. It has a wonderful visual component lacking in Keener’s volume, and while it is not as thorough as David de Silva’s fine Intro on Prolegomena issues, the visual component, in an age of visual learners, is now essential to reaching students and getting them into the text. The computer generation of students requires such stimuli.
These three fine scholars are to be commended for their hard work on this volume. I wish it a long and useful life reminding students that a Biblical text without a context is just a pretext for whatever one wants it to mean.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 8:29 PM 13 comments:
Last Chance to see Last Chance Harvey
Sometimes Christmas movies do better in the spring, and this is one such movie. Released on Christmas day, but still playing in some theaters (having taken in a modest $14 million), this movie keeps on percolating along, pleasing one audience after another. In a season of bad, mad, and sad movies, this one will bring a smile to your face, and perhaps as well a tear to your eyes.
Harvey Shine very believably played by Dustin Hoffman is a dying breed--- he is a jingle writer (think Barry Manilow before he had his first big hit-- 'Mandy'), and his boss (Richard Schiff, late of West Wing fame) is trying to tell him his career is over. Harvey is going to London for his daughter's wedding, and its going to be awkward, as Harvey's wife has remarried, and Harvey has hardly kept in proper touch with his daughter, never mind his ex-wife. He's been too busy writing jingles (though he longs to have been a good jazz pianist).
Enter fetching, though middle-aged, Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), who lives with her Mum, and has a job at Heathrow trying to interview people about their traveling experiences and why they are coming to London. This is no easy job, getting people to stop for such an interview. I would know. One time when I was twiddling my thumbs in the Sydney airport Down Under, I was sequestered by a relentless lady who needed to make her quota for the day. She was more than a little persistent.
Kate Walker is a woman tired of being disappointed by men, and a woman who finds it easy just settling for less than life's best for her, though she longs for love. Enter Harvey Shine who: 1) just learned he was fired; 2) went to his daughter's wedding and felt like a total fifth wheel, as his daughter asked her new step father to walk her down the aisle; and 3) he missed his flight back to New York to try and argue his way back into a job. That's a truly bad day, and as luck would have it, Kate is in the same bar at the airport, having a bad day of her own.
The romance that buds over the conversations they begin having in this bar progresses slowly, steadily, and you do not have the ridiculous scenario of them hopping right into bed before they know each other well. In other words, they do not become 'barely' acquainted whilst they are still barely acquainted, which is a good rule for one and all. In fact, we never get to the bedroom in this movie, and it is all the more touching, believable, and enjoyable for it. Hooray-- a movie that doesn't need to come on like a cheap date, too desperate to please.
I love the acting craft that both Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman (has he ever played a romantic lead before?) bring to films, and if there was nothing more to this brief (92 minutes) film, it would be well worth seeing for that reason alone. It is hard to find good romantic films for those over 30, but this is a fine one and well worth seeing. Skip Watchmen as far too violent, sadistic, nihilistic, and sexually explicit, and go see "Last Chance Harvey" instead of "Super Heroes who aren't and the Refugee from the Blue Man group".
This movie is actually about having a second or at least a last chance in life for romance. It does deal with the serious issue of broken families and the havoc divorce, abortion, and other such grave severings cause for the children of divorce. This is a low budget movie which will move you in various good ways, and if you love London like I do, you'll enjoy the scenery as well. Imagine that--- a movie that doesn't require car chases, bedroom scenes, action, action, action to entertain a person. Like Harvey, it may be a dying breed, but is worth a jingle if you have the time.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 11:41 AM 3 comments:
RESTORING HOPE IN A CRASHING ECONOMY
I had originally planned to entitle this little series of essays ‘restoring hope during a crashing economy’, but in the end I decided the double entendre was worth keeping in these ambiguous times. With a profound grasp of the obvious, I am here to say today that America, and indeed the world economy that is dependent on the American economy, is in deep financial trouble, trouble which Christians have contributed to in various ways.
How so? Well, in the first place, most American Christians simply mirror the values of the larger culture or a significant subsection there of, when it comes to economics. They are full partakers of the consumer society, and believe in ’free market capitalism’ as opposed to ‘bad socialism’ and ‘protectionism’, at least until it gets them into financial hot water, and they begin to read the fine print.
As it turns out, even free market capitalism isn’t free and in various ways, it certainly isn’t democratic--- the means of production, the type of production and all related facets of business are controlled from the top down by owners, CEOS, boards and the like, rather than there being shared decision making between employers and employees, which would be a democratic method of producing goods. There is hardly anything democratic about the enormously hierarchial, dictatorial, and ruthless top down way big business is run in the United States. And there is no point in complaining about CEOs taking million dollar bonuses when a company is tanking if you have approved of the corporate structure and philosophy of business that undergirds paying top executives this sort of money in the first place. This is like crying wolf, when in fact you agreed for the wolf to be paid handsomely to guard the hen house in the first place!
Free market capitalism of course is a many splintered thing, which favors a survival of the fittest approach to economics. Not merely a supply and demand approach, a survival of the fittest approach. What do I mean? The so-called law of supply and demand is only one economic factor which controls the economy. This was perfectly obvious when what mainly precipitated last fall's crashing of the stock market (still in progress), was not ‘supply and demand’, but rather the lack of regulation allowing predator banks and loan agencies the chance of offering sub-prime mortgages to people who could not afford them, and whom the banks knew could not afford them, thus perpetuating America’s new status as a debtor nation.
And Christians have simply been complicit in this whole system of doing things--- buying the rhetoric that regulation and protectionism is all bad, and free market capitalism all good, when in fact this is far from true. They have also bought the rhetoric that they have a moral and patriotic obligation to consume, and so support the American economy. This, as we shall see is a yes and no proposition. No Christian should commit herself to live well beyond their means, just for the sake of helping prop up an ailing economy. There is no Christian basis for living a life of conspicuous consumption, much less of greed.
Sorry prosperity preachers, your well just dried up. This bulletin just in--- believing God for a financial miracle after you have lived in a financially irresponsible way is treating God as if he were an overly indulgent parent who would continue spoiling an already spoiled brat. And God is not going to honor that sort of flawed belief system, especially not when he has a compelling concern for the genuinely least, last, and lost in this world. So, let’s see if we can’t do a rewind here and begin to rethink things economic from a Christian point of view, rather than just baptizing the financial rhetoric of the political right or left, and calling it good.
PRINCIPLE ONE: THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S AND ALL THAT IS THEREIN
Christians ought to know that human beings ‘own’ nothing in this world, if we are talking about the ultimate owner of things. This is God’s world, and it belongs to God. He has given it to us to be good stewards of, not owners. We brought nothing with us into this world, and we shall not be able to take any of it with us. If you know your history of economics, in the last 2,000 Christians have lived through all sorts of economic trials and tribulations and systems, no one of which was ‘specifically’ Christian, though it is clear enough that some systems are less Christian than others (e.g. totalitarian dictatorial systems, including totalitarian communism seems much more at odds with Christianity and its values than some other economic systems).
Since Christians are merely stewards of God’s property, they are always ultimately accountable to God for what they do with it (see the parable of the talents). God expects responsible stewardship out of us, in fact God expects “a good return on his investment in us”. The recognition that the earth is the Lord’s must cut against either godless capitalism’s or godless communism’s basic assumptions— there is no such thing as purely private property from a Christian point of view, any more than there is any such thing as governmentally owned and controlled property either. It all belongs to God!
PRINCIPLE TWO: DAILY BREAD IS NOT DAILY BLING
The Lord’s prayer is very basic, and as part of the Sermon on the Mount it reinforces the values of sticking to the basics. If you have decent food, shelter, and clothing, you should not be longing for more, and more and more, nor should you be worrying about such things. It is noteworthy that in the Lord’s prayer we are encouraged to pray for daily bread. ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ says the Scriptures. Christians are called in this culture to de-enculturate themselves and live a life of unfettered simplicity. In most cases, it is precisely because so many Christians have bought the lie that it is o.k. to live well beyond their means, participating in ‘debtor nation’, that they find themselves in so much economic trouble now. Tear up most all your credit cards, pay off your bills, and start living frugally. God is not a venture capitalist who rewards Christians behaving badly.
PRINCIPLE THREE: A WORKMAN IS WORTHY OF HIS HIRE AND LET HIM WHO WILL NOT WORK, NOT EAT
Both of these principles are fundamental to what the Lord is calling us to when it comes to ‘making a living’--- a very odd phrase indeed, which seems to usually mean in this country ‘making a killing’. There is an integrity to good hard work, and a worker should be paid a living wage to do it. The basic definition of a living wage is providing basic food, shelter, clothing, and health coverage at a minimum.
Christians who hire people and then pay them less than the minimum wage for full time work are not merely breaking the law, they are breaking their covenant with God to follow his principles of treating workers fairly, indeed treating them with respect and kindness (see the parable of the day laborers and how the vineyard owner gave even those who worked an hour a full day’s wage because their families needed it to survive).
The other side of employer ethics is employee ethics. There is plenty in the Bible that heavily criticizes the sloth, the sluggard, the slacker, and in general the lazy person. Paul puts it this way, each one should carry his own load, to the degree he can, and when he cannot we should all pitch in and bear one another's burdens. Work, is not the curse, toilsomeness in work is the curse according to the Genesis story.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: THE PURPOSE OF HARD WORK IS TO SAVE ALL WE CAN, SO WE CAN ALSO GIVE ALL WE CAN
The reason Christians should work hard is not merely so they can ‘get ahead’ or ‘pay off their debts’, though these are good reasons, but so they can save some money for an uncertain future, and so they can be generous in helping others in the future--- living self-sacrificially.
As John Wesley once stresses “the person who makes all they can, without both saving and giving all they can may be a living person, but they are a dead Christian”. By this he meant, that we are called to follow the self-sacrificial example of Christ, not the self-indulgent example of Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff (with the loot), prosperity preachers, and in general all those consumed with consumption. We live in a self-centered culture and so it requires conscious effort and activity to swim against the cultural flow.
Paul sets a good example when he says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can endure all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4.11-12—noting the proper translation of the ‘superman verse’ vs. 12 which literally reads “I am able…. all things”. The context suggests we must fill in the blank with the word ‘endure’ not ‘do’).
If one will begin to live on the basis of these principles one can begin to find one’s way out of the economic wasteland we find ourselves in. We must live within our means, and having said that, we need to drastically downscale our expectations about our lifestyles. We are not called to lifestyles of conspicuous consumption or lifestyles of the rich and famous. Those lifestyles are not Christian, they are just fallen people behaving badly.
In the second part of this post we will talk about how trust and hope are in fact the basis of any sound Christian approach to economics---but those in whom we invest our trust must be truly trustworthy……Do you know who is and isn’t trustworthy these days?
Posted by Ben Witherington at 7:18 AM 15 comments:
Saturday, March 07, 2009
ART AS WORK, WORKS OF ART
[THE FOLLOWING IS A SMALL EXCERPT FROM MY LITTLE BOOK ON WORK IN THE LIGHT OF KINGDOM COME] BW3
I would like to conclude this discussion about what God calls, gifts, and inspires us to do by talking briefly about a particular profession that Christians need to think better of--- the vocation of artist or artisan. Here is not the place to present a theology of art and its value and place in the Christian tradition, but rather I want to present a brief case for being an artist as a proper way to glorify God and edify others.
But perhaps a word is in order first about God as an artist. We can see this just by looking at the stunning beauty of creation, but as it turns out God is not just a ‘visual’ artist, God is both an inspirer of, but also a composer, of music, as Robert Banks points out. So for instance God tells the Israelite leaders in Deut. 31.19 “write down this song and teach it to the Israelites, and have them sing it.” In fact there is a direct connection made between God giving verbal wisdom to someone and God inspiring song in 1 Kngs. 4. 32—“God gave Solomon wisdom…he spoke 3,000 proverbs and his songs numbered 1,005.” The precise number of the latter suggests someone took a specific count of the number of times the King was inspired and given lyrics this way.
God however is not just heavenly source of inspiration. God is a blues singer. Thus in Jeremiah we hear ‘Therefore I wail over Moab…my heart laments for Moab like a flute…” (Jerm. 48.31-36), but he also sings joyful anthems and ballads “The Lord your God is with you…he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephan.3.14,17). God doesn’t just sing morning music however, he also sings night music—“By the day the Lord directs his love, and at night his song is with me…” (Ps. 42.8). No wonder the natural response to God, is music of all sorts, for God is not merely the inspirer of all sorts of music, God embodies and shares all sorts of music.
Robert Banks puts it this way:
Just as love is not only directed to or expressed by God, since God, as the apostle John says, is love, so is God not only the one who inspires and enjoys music, but also is music and song. This makes God the supreme exemplar, as well as the supreme author and audience, of music. This makes God music’s chief patron, which is why making music ‘to the glory of God’ is so fitting. It is only giving back to what God has given in the first place. It is only recognizing that the musical dimension of life, like the orderly character of the universe, ultimately stems from the musical character of God. In the end we make music not simply because God gives us the capacity to do so or appreciates our making it, but because God is inherently musical.
The problem is America is a very pragmatic culture. Many Americans believe that if something doesn’t serve some obvious utilitarian purpose, or is practical, then it should be seen as superfluous at a minimum, and certainly optional. That sort of practical bent can be seen in some of our famous American quotations. Thomas Edison is credited with once saying that ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Or consider the words of Colleen C. Barrett who argues ‘when it comes to getting things done, we need fewer architects and more bricklayers.’ Without disparaging either of these persons, or the profession of bricklaying, I would suggest that some of the most important work anyone could do is work that moves one to be a better person, inspires one to think about the relationship of truth and beauty and goodness, motivates one to do a better job of glorifying God. And art fills the bill in all of those categories.
It is an old Latin aphorism--- ‘art is long, life short’ ('ars longa, vita brevis'). Rembrandt may be long since gathering dust in his grave, but his enormous painting of the Prodigal Son is alive and well on a gigantic wall in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I know because I have spent some hours sitting in front of this gigantic painting contemplating its meaning, point of view, nuances. Rembrandt’s art lives on and continues to speak for him and to us. Great art, like great architecture, continues to inspire and motivate us to be creative, which, after all, was part of the prime mandate God gave Adam in the first place.
Unfortunately in a workaholic culture that places an inordinate stress on math and the sciences to the considerable neglect of the arts, art is seen as an added extra, it is seen as not having a practical function. Painting for example is not seen as a real profession, unless one is painting the walls of one’s house! Colleen Barrett in the quote above expresses something of this attitude, as does Thomas Edison. They fail to notice that without vision the people perish, their souls shrivel up.
Human beings created in the image of God were called to be creators, makers, artisans, not merely doers of just any task that someone is prepared to remunerate. I would remind you that the so-called oldest paid profession on earth which has always made lots of money is prostitution! It does not follow from that, that in the pursuit of the Almighty dollar it would be a wise thing to prostitute ourselves, or sell our birthrights for a bowl of soup. We are created in the image of God the ultimately creative one. The question is--- what should we do about it?
It was not always the case in America that arts and languages (the vehicles to other cultures) were treated as non-essential when it comes to basic education. I began playing in an orchestra in the third grade, took Spanish in elementary school and Latin in junior high, and we all learned the arts along the way. Not so much any more. We now have schools called math and science high schools, as if other subjects were so clearly of less importance! And indeed the whole attitude of the culture has been changed from our being truth seekers to being job seekers. In interview after interview college freshman explain that they are taking this or that course, this or that major so “I can get a good paying job when I get out”. The cost of such pragmatism is that one is in danger of gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul in the process.
I love to go to the Lands of the Bible and look at some of the magnificent creations wrought in earlier ages. Some of the immaculately wrought sculptures of Praxiteles for example always move me. I ask myself—how have we lost so many of these incredible skills in the arts over the ages? Who could produce Michelangelo’s Pietas today?
Sometimes when I worry about the lose of artisan skills and artistic contributions to our world, I take comfort when I read the story of Bezalel and Oholiab If you’ve never heard these names before it is perhaps because no one has pointed out to you that being an artist or artisan is a Biblical calling or vocation. Consider then Exodus 31.1-5:
1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 "See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts- 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. 6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you: 7 the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent- 8 the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, 9 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand- 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you."
Bezalel was called to the vocation of being an artist and an artisan, and notice how God equipped him. He filled him with his spirit, which gave him not just ability but intelligence and not just intelligence but the knowledge he needed, and not just knowledge but “all craftsmanship”. His vocation is described as follows--- “to device artistic designs, working in gold, silver, and bronze as well as in precious stones, and in carving wood, and if that were not enough, “to work in every craft”. This is one multi-talented artist and artisan, a Michelangelo of his day. But Bezalel was not called to use his craft and knowledge for just any task, he was assigned to make the tent of meeting, the ark of Testimony including the mercy seat or atonement cover, and all other furnishing of the tent of meeting—the gold lampstand, the incense altar, the basin, all the utensils, not to mention the woven garments to be worn by the priests, including Aaron and his sons. Oh yes, he was also to produce the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the tent as well. After this last work order I am imagining Bezalel saying “holy smokes!”. His was the honor of constructing and furnishing the dwelling place of God, and notice that he was not encouraged to use cheap materials, or to go out and buy a trailer made out of pressboard and use it as a tabernacle. No, he was called to use the most precious metals and materials, in order to honor God.
It is interesting, as Gene Veith points out that Bezalel is the very first person in the Bible to be said to be filled with God’s Spirit. We are being told that he is inspired, enlightened, enabled to be an artist! This brings up an important point. Sometimes Christians, especially frugal ones, think that the creating of elaborate, beautiful works of art, worth lots of money, is itself either a waste of money, or at least not good stewardship, if it is not simply sinful altogether. What this story suggests is just the opposite. The believer should give their very best to God, and indeed it is not a sin to construct beautiful art objects or a beautiful building to the glory of God, which is precisely what is going on in this story. The story of work begins with a gardener named Adam, but the first ‘inspired’ worker in the Bible is an artist and artisan, and we would do well to ponder the implications of that fact. Perhaps creativity, including the arts is the quintessential way the image of God can mirror the Creator God himself?
Friedrich Schiller, the great German poet, once said that the path to freedom lies through beauty. It must be said that there is some connection between beauty and freedom. I was in the Norman Rockwell museum recently in Rutland Vermont and one of his most famous paintings was hanging on the left hand wall. It is a painting of the entrance way of a large Gothic cathedral in some major American city, perhaps Rockwell’s home town, New York. One of the workers in the cathedral is standing on a ladder and changing the sign that hovers over the entrance way doors, announcing this week’s sermon. The sermon title is “Lift up your Eyes”. But on the street below, are the commuters, all heads down, scurrying towards their morning jobs.
What a great parable of a workaholic culture, without the time or sense to look up, and see the beauty of things that God and his creatures have made. I cannot speak for others, but good art does raise my vision of what the world is and can be. It gives me hope that human beings can live by the better angels of their natures, and not by the demons that drive them, if they will but be transformed by grace.
Perhaps by catching a glimpse in art of something better, something bigger than they had yet contemplated aesthetics can have an ethical effect on us. And in at least one sense Schiller was right--- by being transfixed by the beauty of Christ, we are transfigured, and set free. Paul puts it this way--- “And we all, who with unveiled face contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with every increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3.18). When we lift up our eyes, and behold true beauty, then in some sense we become what we admire, we become works of the great artisan, the great sculptor of human personality—Christ. And if the Son has set you free to be a work of art, to be your best self, you are free indeed.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 12:40 PM 3 comments:
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