Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 4- Sister Rivalry

Genesis 29:31-32 (NIV)

31 When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, "It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now."

[The Vision of Rachel and LeahDante Gabriel Rossetti, 1899]

Jacob was indeed blessed but it came at the cost of two sisters wrestling for Jacob's love and blessing. Jacob believed that departing to Haran would lessen the pain he's caused, but being blessed by God isn't easy. On his journey Jacob will soon find that running away from his troubles only causes more grief. Here are the verses I will be referring to on the wrestling sisters, Leah and Rachel.
Through Jacob, he blessed others in his 20 years in Paddan-Aram. Yet there were some who took advantage of his blessings, and in the end Jacob's blessings increased. There is a comical tale in Rashi's commentary which is telling of Laban's greed when he first greeted Jacob (Genesis 29:13).

13. Now it came to pass when Laban heard the report of Jacob, his sister's son, that he ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he kissed him, and he brought him into his house. He told Laban all these happenings.
יג. וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ לָבָן אֶת שֵׁמַע יַעֲקֹב בֶּן אֲחֹתוֹ וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבֶּק לוֹ וַיְנַשֶּׁק לוֹ וַיְבִיאֵהוּ אֶל בֵּיתוֹ וַיְסַפֵּר לְלָבָן אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:

Rashi's Commentary

that he ran towards him: He thought that he (Jacob) was laden with money, for the servant of the household (Eliezer) had come here with ten laden camels.[from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
וירץ לקראתו: כסבור ממון הוא טעון, שהרי עבד הבית בא לכאן בעשרה גמלים טעונים:
and he embraced: When he (Laban) did not see anything with him (Jacob), he said, “Perhaps he has brought golden coins, and they are in his bosom.” [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
ויחבק: כשלא ראה עמו כלום אמר שמא זהובים הביא והנם בחיקו:
and he kissed him: He said,“Perhaps he has brought pearls, and they are in his mouth.” [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
וינשק לו: אמר שמא מרגליות הביא והם בפיו:
He told Laban: that he had come only because he was compelled to do so because of his brother (Esau), and that they had taken his money from him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
ויספר ללבן: שלא בא אלא מתוך אונס אחיו, ושנטלו ממונו ממנו:

And so after a thorough cavity search, Laban announced that since he is kin that he could take him in (even though he doesn't have to). Laban asked Jacob to name his wages for working for him. Jacob said he would work 7 years for Rachel, Laban's younger daughter. Already the wheels of deception within Laban's head are turning as he "cooks" up a scheme to profit immensely from the one blessed by God. After 7 years, the hasty Esau within Jacob speaks up, asking for his wife. Laban pulls the old switch-a-roo and to Jacob's surprise, it was Leah! Karen Armstrong describes the misery he faced for the deceptions he has caused in the past.
"Jacob the trickster had been duped in his turn. With strong poetic irony, he was forced to acknowledge the rights of the firstborn child. Before he was given Rachel in marriage too, he had to agree to work for Laban for another seven years. But his marriage to the sisters did not bring peace to the household. Because Jacob loved Rachel and not Leah, he introduced the same sibling rivalry into Laban's home that had split his own family asunder." (In the Beginning, "A Blessing of a Curse?")
In Rabbinic tradition, Leah was destined to marry Esau and the description of her eyes as tender (or weak from crying, Genesis 29:17) is interpreted as Leah earnestly praying for God to change her destiny. God granted her wish, but not Jacob's heart. God makes up for Jacob's neglect, by opening up her womb. With each son she bore, Leah grew to make peace with Jacob's hatred towards her and thanked the Lord by her fourth child, Judah. I found Armstrong's statement on the forgiving, healing, and reconciliatory nature of Leah's thankfulness as foreshadowing of Judah's attempt to reconcile his family very touching. Although her thankfulness is momentary it is a peek into the hearts of our wrestling characters. Each of them have their own personal demons which they struggle with so that they may recapture Eden.

Back and forth the sisters wrestled for God's blessing and Jacob's love (Genesis 30). [Notice that God chose to bless one of them with fertility at a time.] When God would not bless her with children Rachel took matters into her own hands by offering her maidservant to Jacob, as Sarah did with Abraham. I wonder if this offer opened up any of Jacob's childhood emotional wounds since he must have noticed his father, Isaac, in silent misery caused by Sarah and Hagar's rivalry. Jacob yearned to keep his family together and feared that the Edenic promise of prosperity and blessing might slip through his fingers at any moment. The tension between the sisters became more hostile as Rachel named her second son, by her maidservant, Bilhah, after the struggle the sisters endured: "Then Rachel said, 'With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed'; so she named him Naphtali." (Gen. 30:8). Back and forth they wrestled, and Jacob tired of it all asked Laban to let him go home (30:25).

Jacob knew that he could never truly live at peace with himself and reconcile the members of his family until he faced Esau. The sibling rivalry between his wives was a daily reminder of his fear to his past actions. The man who would be renamed Israel (Hebrew: יִשְׂרָאֵל‎, "struggler/striver with God") could not even stand to face his wives struggling over his blessing and love. The man who through all others were blessed could not find any blessings within his own home. Jacob's story is a testament to the struggle each and everyone of us may face in life. Jacob is not remembered for overcoming his inner demons, but that he CHOSE to continue wrestling even if it meant wrestling with the Divine itself. It is the struggle itself that makes us who we are, not the demons we've overcome.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Let Us Hate, as our Father in Heaven Hates

Homosexuality is a topic I rarely touch, not because of it's controversy but because it is a subject I know little about. I can't even begin to understand what it means to be gay anymore than I can begin to understand being a woman (a subject that my wife reminds me on a daily basis). What I do understand is that our sexuality is a part of our identity. It is part of our humanity and therefore part of our culture and society. It is not something that we should hide and lock up in the closet (no pun intended) nor is it something we are comfortable flaunting in public like animals (although many would agree that we are quickly becoming more comfortable with sexuality in the public sphere). Yet, there is no harm, nor should there be any fear in talking about sexuality in general and more specifically, homosexuality. What do we have to lose by simply talking? Do we really have to hate as our Father in Heaven hates? And will we transcend the fear and the hatred we have for those who may be carry the slightest differences?

Directed by Daniel G. Karslake, For the Bible Tells Me So is a 2007 documentary about the issues and struggles between homosexuality and Christianity. Can someone be a Christian and a homosexual? Does God really hate them? I first saw this film about a year ago and regardless of your views I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. The video is up on Youtube in 9 parts, so watch it while it's still up.

"You have to think when you read the Bible. Which is why before the Reformation perhaps the Roman Catholics were right in saying that ordinary people shouldn't be reading the Bible cause they usually get it wrong." We assume that based on our understanding of God and the Bible that we know that our interpretation is correct. Yet we constantly forget that these texts weren't written directly for us. In my humble opinion, keeping the context of the scripture in mind is the only way of avoiding the pitfalls of prejudice and justified hatred that Christianity has stepped into almost willingly.

"There about 6-7 verses in all of scripture that speak to even remotely of what we may call homosexual activity or homosexual conduct." This may sound like a small factoid from the Reverend Peter Gomes but it demonstrates the anxiety and fear people have when it comes to homosexuality by overemphasizing the importance of these verses as opposed to verses on poverty. Homophobes may have stronger arguments if there were 30 verses scattered throughout the Bible, but a stronger argument doesn't mean that it's morally right to persecute anyone.

"I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, the Bible does." This is by far the scariest quote of the film (from the West Wing clip) because not only do people actually think like this, but it rests the burden of morality on something else instead of ourselves. We let something (or someone) else think for us, reason for us, choose right or wrong for us, and in the end this form of thinking is used to justify denigrate and subjugate people who do not believe like we believe. The reasoning that "if God hates it, then it's okay for us to hate it as well" is monstrous and absolves us from loving one another.

Should not the Church be moved to heal the damage its teachings have inflicted on LGBT people? When did the Church overwrite the teachings of Christ's universal love with teachings of hatred? Forgive me if I paint the Church with a broad brush, there are some progressive and liberal churches that are welcoming and willing to heal the damage caused by some of Christianity's teachings. But the issue still at hand is that Christianity is still overwhelmingly against homosexuality based on a handful of verses. Where is the outcry against poverty, the hungry, the sick? How many people will starve to death by the end of this film? Yet, we worry about and preoccupy ourselves with what two people may do behind closed doors.

For those in Bible study groups or anyone who would like to hold in depth group conversations about this film there is a study guide available for download (PDF file, 77 pages) created to accompany the film. You can find it here. And if for some reason this film is no longer available on the internet then I highly recommend renting it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bored on Sunday?

Well if you woke up too late to go to church today and want to make up for it somehow you can always sit back and watch a few religious documentaries online. They may not be for everyone (I'm a documentary junkie) but they are interesting too watch and completely free, if you know where to look. Warning: Depending on the Copyright holder these films may be taken down at any time, so watch them while you have the chance.

Religulous. Bill Maher's irreverent look at religion in general from an agnostic point of view. Not for the faint of heart, watch at your own risk. Don't write me angry comments for posting this since you've now been warned. I do happen to agree with his questioning religious views, and even though this film slants more towards mocking believers instead of dialoguing with them, I still think this film is worth watching. There is strong language and nudity. Now you've been warned twice.

Jesus Camp. Film about a Pentecostal summer camp for kids and which follows three children and their beliefs: Levi, Rachel, and Victoria. Personally this film scared me halfway to Gehenna. The most heartbreaking moment for me was the kid who prayed for help in believing in the Bible.

Muhammad-Legacy of a Prophet
. A beautiful film on the life and struggles of the Prophet Muhammad. Breathtaking, informative, and a must see for Christians.

Children of Abraham. A three part series which takes a look into Abraham and the three Monotheistic faiths which claim him as their founder. Part 0ne, two, and three.

There are plenty more out there worth watching, including one I'll be posting tomorrow on homosexuality, but this should be enough to keep the curious entertained for now.

Peace and blessings.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I try and do one impossible thing everyday." Professor John Merchant, while attempting to edit Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" down to a 60 second scope in class.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 3- The Deciever Becomes the Bargainer

Genesis 28:10-15 (NIV)
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway r
esting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

[Jacob's Ladder, by William Blake, 1800]

The story of Jacob and Esau is an intriguing tale on self-identity, deception, struggle for power, and redemption. If you sit down and really read Genesis you may find that it is an amazing text which touches on several areas on the human experience. Here are the verses I will be referencing on Jacob and Esau.

After deceiving both his father and brother, Jacob is sent to Laban's house for protection, at his mother's request, and marriage, at his father's. This seemed confusing at first since it's almost as if he is being sent away for two different reasons. I wonder if Rebekah finally spoke to Isaac about her encounter with God after the incident in Chapter 27 and had to come up with a reasonable solution to fix the problem. I also wonder how long Esau could have held back his anger out of respect for his father, but if Jacob stayed it may have been only a matter of time before his anger would have taken over. Esau may have even threatened the blind and aging Isaac by moving away with his family, taking the strength and any tribal protection he provided with him, if Jacob was not dealt with properly. One of the brothers had to leave and the tribe could not afford the loss of manpower and strength that Esau afforded them, so the weaker and younger brother was banished. This may have caused Isaac to counter this threat by reconfirming the "accidental" blessing he gave to Jacob with another blessing! Karen Armstrong puts it best as "the family that was supposed to reverse the curse of Babel and reunite dispersed humanity had itself been scattered and fragmented." (In the Begining: A New Interpretation of Genesis. "The Blessing of Jacob")

Yet, it is Isaac's second blessing, or rather Rashi's commentary on the blessing, which caught my attention.

Genesis 28:3

3. And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples.
ג. וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ וְהָיִיתָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים:

Rashi's Commentary

And…the Almighty God: Heb. שַׁדַּי. May He Who has enough (שֶׁדָּי) blessings for those who are blessed from His mouth, bless you.
ואל שדי: מי שדי בברכותיו למתברכין מפיו יברך אותך:

Blessing is transmitted through the mouth, AND He (God) has enough blessing for everyone. This stood out like a sore thumb as a description of our very fallible nature. We CAN bless/forgive others immensely (Limitless blessing only after we begin to bless others) yet we struggle to open our mouths and we selfishly keep those blessing for ourselves (others don't deserve to be more blessed than us). Once we begin blessing others the only limits we have are self-imposed. Isaac's second blessing over Jacob was more than just a reconfirmation of the first, Isaac was telling Jacob that he was strong enough to undo the damage caused by their family and humanity. And the key to that strength dwells within us if we only learn to open our mouths.

It is with these words that Jacob leaves to Haran and arrives at a "place". No name is initially given to this unnamed place, but one of the Talmud commentaries associates this place with Mount Moriah, the Jewish axis mundi, which bridges the Divine and mortal realms. Mount Moriah is also said to have been the place where Abraham set out to sacrifice Isaac, the location of Solomon's Temple, linked by some Christian traditions to the location of the crucifixion, and within Islamic tradition Mount Moriah is associated with Mohammad's point of departure into the heavens during his Night Journey. Regardless of the actual location, the place he arrived at was to be considered holy. It is in this place that Jacob dreamt of a ladder to Heaven with angels ascending and descending as God reconfirmed the blessing Jacob had taken from his brother. Three times he had been blessed and yet after being blessed by God himself, and recognizing the holiness of the place where he experienced the Divine, Jacob makes a conditional bargain with God.

Genesis 28:20-22 (NRSV)

20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’

Jacob, unable to forgive himself for what he has done to his family and what's been done to him is even cautious about receiving a blessing from the Mouth of One who has enough blessings for all. In their book The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut and David E. Stein explain Jacob's anxiety and fear driven prayer.
"He is only at the beginning of his quest. This is his first experience with trial. Understandably, with anxiety he cries out that he will do anything if only someone will help. Jacob, to be sure, does not deliver a "proper" prayer. He prays realistically from the heart. The vow is his human response to the covenant that God has offered him."
During times of crisis we call out for help begging and pleading on our knees, willing to do anything for help to dig us out of our troubles. I've been in this state countless of times bargaining with God that if he helps me with my current woes I'll go back to church, pray more, etc,etc. Yet we fail to realize that this type of mentality is only a way out of claiming personal responsibility. If God does not answer our prayers, we become calloused towards asking for any help from anyone which in turn leads to more and more division and separation. Once we stop bargaining for help we can discover the strength and potential that has been tucked away within our inner being. Like Jacob, we all seek to redeem and reunite ourselves and humanity yet we fail to realize that paradise can be found if we simply open our mouths and begin to bless one another.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Jewish Gospels: Part 1- Jesus, the Jew?

Traditional Christians believe Jesus Christ had a flesh and blood mother. Joseph and Mary followed Jewish practices and customs, so what about Jesus? He couldn't have been Jewish, could he? The Jews argued with Jesus and later tortured and crucified him, so how could he possibly be one of them? Well unless you're a Docetist, believer in Christ being fully divine, then I can't see any logical argument that could undeniably support Jesus being anything other than a 1st century Palestinian Jew.

[Jesus teaching in a Synagogue, Author Unknown.]

Oh, people have tried to argue that he wasn't Jewish, which surprised me when I attempted to read their fear-induced propaganda. Now, I must confess that I never connected the dots between Jesus and his Jewishness until well into my teen years. In fact, I never really considered Jesus' humanity throughout my childhood because we were raised to believe he is the Son of God. The divine nature of Jesus was incredibly emphasized, overshadowing his humanity. Rereading the Gospels as an adult there is no escaping that Jesus was born and raised Jewish. I should probably attempt to clarify what it means to be Jewish. Today, you can be considered Jewish by birth (your parents, specifically your mother, are Jews), by nationality, and by religious status (converted to Judaism). I'm sure the lines were more black and white when it came to being a Jew in 1st century, Roman-occupied, Palestine. In fact, I can't think of any group/nationality/persons that would have been allowed to participate in Temple practices if they weren't Jewish. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Temple and all things Jewish was an exclusive enterprise: either you were Jewish or you weren't.

Luke 2 is riddled with Jewish traditions and practices that the holy family practiced during the early years of Jesus. There are plenty more examples of the Jewishness of Jesus scattered throughout the Gospels which begs the question, if Jesus was a Jew, and his disciples were Jews, then shouldn't we be reading the Gospels, which were written for Jewish Christians, with a modicum understanding of Judaism? Should we not read the Gospels as Jewish works? John Shelby Spong brings up this fundamental question in his book "Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes". This excerpt summarizes the need to rethink and reread the Bible from a Jewish perspective.
"So the Jewishness of Jesus, the Jewishness of Mary, his mother, the Jewishness of the Apostles, the Jewishness of Paul, and even the Jewishness of the heroes of the Hebrew past was at worst systematically denied and at best subtly understated. It is thus easy for me to understand today that few people in the Christian West have been able to think of the Bible, including both testaments, as a Jewish book. If one cannot even embrace emotionally the Jewishness of Jesus, then why would one study the sacred scriptures of the Jewish people as the primary means of knowing and understanding this Jesus? How aware are people today, for example, of the fact that every author in the entire Bible was Jewish by birth or conversion and that there was only one convert? How often has the interpretive task of the Christian expositors of the Gospels begun with the suggestion that, since the books we call Gospels were written by Jewish authors, we might want to study just how it was that Jewish people wrote sacred narratives so that we might understand even the Gospels? Has it not occurred to anyone to ask, 'How can a Jewish work be understood if one ignores the Jewish context, the Jewish mind-set, the Jewish frame of Reference, the Jewish vocabulary, and even the Jewish history that shaped and formed the writer?' But that has been the reality of the Christian West for most of our history."(Ch. 2. The Gospels are Jewish Books)
Are we not ignoring the human nature of Jesus by ignoring his ethnicity, traditions, and culture? If Jesus was truly fully God and fully Man what aspects of his humanity are compromised or even dwarfed to obscurity by his divine nature within Traditional Christianity? If our religious beliefs, culture, traditions, and ethnicity helps to shape our individuality and are important elements to being human, what pieces from the enigma that is Jesus of Nazareth are we throwing out by excluding his Jewishness? Even though the Gospels are seen and read as Christian works I believe that even the most conservative of Christians could learn something important about Jesus and his teachings when understood through Jewish eyes. If we struggle to understand the world and culture that shaped Jesus of Nazareth, how can we come close to understanding his message?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Some Assembly Required: Part 2- The Best (and Worst) Intentions

James F. McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, Indianapolis, over at Exploring Our Matrix has posted a few thought-proving pictures a couple months ago. Click on the previous link to check them out for yourself. What do you think? Did God put the Bible together himself or did God use people to do the work for him? What does this tell us about the Bible itself? Can the Bible escape man's fallible nature or does it contain fingerprints of man's highest hopes and dreams to our deepest fears and darkest issues?

As I've stated many times before, if I believe in anything with every ounce of my being it is that man is capable of making mistakes. With this humble approach to our fallibility how then do we reconcile the view that the "infallible and inerrant" Bible was penned, edited, arranged, and transmitted by the hand of Man? Should we even try to reconcile these two points or simply look at our freshly assembled Bible with new eyes?

In my previous post, I mentioned two views on the nature of the Bible and questions surrounding it's fallibility. Both of these are rooted in Divine Inspiration, but as Dr. Jay from Yoga for Cynics reminded me (which I had forgotten) there is a third view when it comes to the nature of the Bible. This will once again be represented in crude graph form. (This graph leaves A LOT out of the history of the Bible but this is just to illustrate my point on divine inspiration.)

It is only on Faith that we believe that the Bible originates from divine inspiration. We have no physical proof, although Christian apologists can come up with some pretty clever arguments that the Bible has been divinely inspired. There are also some really intriguing arguments that Muslim apologist have given on the Qu'ran, but that's a post for another day. If the authors of the Bible lacked angels whispering in their ears what does this tell us about the text itself? What does this tell us about God? What does this tell us about man?

I define divine inspiration a bit differently than God whispering in a human ear, guiding their quill. I believe divine inspiration is the interaction, connection, and communion with the Divine/Spirit that allows humanity to tap into divine knowledge for the benefit of mankind. Divine inspiration is not secluded to one branch of faith because the realm of the Spirit is not exclusive. We may use different symbols, methods, and practices to reach out to the Divine but it is the reaching out that is the important factor. The "reaching out" also does not have to be to a monotheistic Divine Being out there somewhere looking out for our well being (that is if you acknowledge his existence). The Divine can also be found by reaching within ourselves and discovering the good, the beautiful, the loving found within our inner being. Wherever the Divine may resides, I believe it is found by the yearning to reach out for something better than what we currently are.

Although I believe that all scripture could have been divinely inspired the only historically accessible method to reading scripture would be the third option: scripture was written entirely by man with the best (and worst) intentions containing their views of the divine. More on that in a minute. We must also keep the context in mind, those living during the era of the early church believed that there was divine inspiration. Regardless of how we may read, interpret, and study scripture (or what eventually became scripture) we must remember that it was written for a target audience with a specific message at a specific time. It was not written for us in the 21st century because the early church (Paul and even Jesus himself) believed that they were living in the end times. The issue is not rereading scripture coldly by removing the divine from it, but to keep in mind while we read that a select group of people decided what was to be considered canonical.
The word "canon" is derived from the Greek noun κανών "kanon" meaning "reed" or "cane," or also "rule" or "measure," which itself is derived from the Hebrew word קנה "kaneh" and is often used as a standard of measurement. Thus, a canonical text is a single authoritative edition for a given work. (Wikipedia)
The books that were selected for canonization were to be the authoritative texts for the emerging Christian church. This was at a time when different forms of Christianity were battling each other for control. The proto-orthodox movement did come out victorious in the end but the significant point is that there WERE other forms of Christianity with different gospels and different views on the nature of Christ which lost and eventually died out. The losers never get to write their version of history.

So how do we know that the Biblical canon was not affected by religious politics? I'm not a Biblical scholar but as far as I've read it was affected, just take a look at the Nicene Creed and it's revisions. Outside of mere clarification, the revisions seem more like patch jobs to fix any holes in the creed to keep the heretics out of the loop. This is a major issue that most Christians dare not even question. Instead of acknowledging the fallibility of the bishops presiding over the canonization process they give them a free pass because IF there were any doubt to the authenticity and authority of the Biblical canon then their faith may be in jeopardy. When I first began reading into early church history I felt my faith slipping away, and most of my fellow Christians have disowned me because of my curiosity into the history of the same church they praise. Ironic? A bit, but I felt it necessary to learn more about my own faith if I am to continue claiming it. I don't believe I ever lost my faith but it was challenged and transformed.

But this does not get to the core of Dr. Jay's helpful reminder of the third view which he summarized in the comment section of the last post: "the Bible was written and put together by men without any divine intervention, based on their best and worst ideas about God, as well as quite a bit of self-interest (need to justify subjugation of women, slavery, atrocities committed against neighboring tribes, etc.)." The view that the Bible was written by fallible men is heresy to many but a realistic view for others. All the beauty, atrocities, wisdom, fear, and hope found within the Bible originates from the hand of men. I'm sure there are some out there who may say this line of thinking directly leads to Atheism, and I disagree. Oh, it may lead someone there but saying that scripture was not divinely inspired by God is more of a testament to our fallibility and humanity than an argument against God. There are horrific tales found within the Bible that I believe are remnants of mankind's hatred and darkest fears which we collectively have to come to terms with, and hopefully learn from their follies. But the gems of wisdom, beauty, and love speak of our progress as a species yearning to become better, to outgrow our demons and evolve into a more beautiful and harmonious creature. Atheist and secular humanists may say that the wrathful and jealous God of the Bible is no longer needed, and I agree. The vision of the b.c.e. God no longer speaks to my 21st century heart. It is the yearning, which divinely inspires me, to become more loving to our fellow man that I understand, interact, and connect with in our modern world.

Blog Series: Some Assembly Required

Part 1: Some Assembly Required
Part 2: The Best and Worst Intentions

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 2- Deciever and Decieved

Genesis 25:29-34 (NIV)
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom.) 31 Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright." 32 "Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?" 33 But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

[Esau Selling His Birthright, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1627.]

Jacob and Esau wrestled each other before birth. There is even a Jewish legend which state that "Each of them wished to be born first, and it was only after Esau threatened to kill Rebekah, his mother, if he was not permitted to be born first that Jacob acceded (Midrash ha-Gadol [ed. Schechter, Cambridge, 1902] on Gen. xxv. 22; comp. Pesiḳ. R. [ed. Friedmann, Vienna, 1880], p. 48a)Read more here.The story of Jacob and Esau is an intriguing tale on self-identity, deception, struggle for power, and redemption. If you sit down and really read Genesis you may find that it is an amazing text which touches on several areas on the human experience. Here are the verses I will be referencing on Jacob and Esau.

Jacob (Hebrew: יַעֲקֹב‎, meaning “supplanted” or “held by the heel.”) was born struggling with and dependent of his brother. His flesh may have been weak but the soul was strong. It is in this struggle that Jacob is caught between fighting and loving his brother. Not much is said of Jacob's childhood outside of a short tale of Jacob swindling (or trading for) Esau's birthright. Unless brought up within a Jewish tradition, the tale sounds pretty straightforward. But when you take a closer look the tale becomes increasingly richer and more complex. It starts off innocently with Jacob cooking a stew. I've read a few commentaries referring to Jacob "cooking" a scheme. Clever but the more interesting part was the stew itself which the Talmud (Bava Batra 16b, sorry could only find the reference, no link) mentions are lentils which in Jewish tradition are cooked as a mourners meal alluding to the death of Jacob's grandfather, Abraham. The stew that Jacob was cooking was meant for Isaac sitting shiv'ah, (Hebrew: שבעה, "Seven") NOT Esau. Of course this is how later Jews interpreted the scripture but it is still important to understand how they read their own holy books instead of a just through the lens of Christian interpretation. So Esau marches back home after a day of hunting and demands to eat the mourner's meal meant for Isaac. The short-sighted Esau did not take Jacob's reply about his birthright seriously and wanted to devour anything that was immediately available. Esau probably didn't even take the oath seriously as some of us may have done as children while crossing our fingers behind our back (in Jewish tradition it's been said that they were both 15 at the time of Abraham's death). But the oath was said and Esau, who as firstborn thought he would still receive everything he deserved, did not worry that his timid, mild brother could take everything from him. Click here for a detailed and interesting analysis on Jacob and the selling of the birthright.

As we continue reading it is Rebekah who "cooks" a scheme to have Jacob claim both birthright and blessing. We see the real Jacob this time as he does NOT protest from going along with the plan, he is worried of getting caught! I wonder what the quiet twin was thinking while dressing up in his brother's clothes? Worse yet, try and imagine what Jacob was thinking during the last lines of the blessing.

Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed."(Gen. 27:29)

Jacob, for fear of getting caught, must have been trembling as Isaac asked Jacob to come close enough to smell him. This, as Rashi states in his commentary, is what convinced Isaac that this was the right son because he smelled the Divine fragrance of Eden.

Is it not so that there is no odor more offensive than that of washed goat skins? But this teaches us that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with him. [From Tanchuma Buber 16] (Click here to read Genesis 27 with Rashi's commentary.)

Immediately after the blessing Jacob runs off for fear of facing his brother still garbed in his clothing. When Esau comes back to finally receive his blessing poor Isaac realized that he may have passed on the Divine blessing to a total stranger. Yet after this fleeting thought he realized that it was indeed Jacob because the person he blessed smelled like paradise. But it also could have been that Isaac knew of Jacob's cleverness and realized that his strong-willed wife, Rebekah, had taken part in the scheme. I found Esau's response intriguing as he asked if this is the reason why his brother was named Jacob.

Did Esau think that the naming of Jacob was prophetic in some way, and that he (Esau) was destined to a lower status than his brother? In verse 37, Isaac does not respond to the first question but to the second he merely states what is done is done, Jacob is now the master over Esau. Isaac could only promise that at the time when he grows restless (or when he grieves) is when he will be released of this hold from his brother's yoke. Isaac understood Esau's pain and comforted his son by telling him that when he makes amends with his brother, Jacob, that he will be released of his pain caused by deception. Regrettably Esau, does not find it easy to forgive his brother for taking his birthright and blessing. The Deceiver and the Deceived have years to mull over this one event. Nothing is said of how Esau dealt with the deception as the text follows Jacob to Haran. The silence of the Genesis writers builds the suspense during Jacob's return. Had Esau forgiven him or had he held his grudge for years? Jacob endured much during his years away from home, and in the back of his mind he must wondered what his twin had endured. But before he can return, Jacob must come to find himself and discover his journey with the Divine before he faces his brother.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 1- A Divided House

Genesis 25:21-23 (NIV)

21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.

23 The LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger."

Christians who praise the Bible for supporting strong family values might need to reread Genesis which is riddled with families with serious issues. But that's a post for another day. The story of Jacob and Esau is an intriguing tale on self-identity, deception, struggle for power, and redemption. If you sit down and really read Genesis (look up a few Hebrew words) you may find that it is an amazing text which touches on several areas on the human experience. Here are the verses I will be referencing on Jacob and Esau.

[Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gustave Doré]

The story begins with Rachel questioning God about her jostling sons and God responds that they are fighting for superiority (one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger). Esau, the firstborn, was born incredibly hairy and Jacob was born holding firmly onto his brothers heel (that's one strong neonatal grip, or more likely symbolic of Jacob's weakness and dependence on the stronger brother). Esau grew up to be an outdoors man, a skilled hunter, and dearly loved by Isaac. As the firstborn he was energetic, a natural leader, destined for success, and the heir to Isaac's blessing and birthright. Jacob grew up being the quiet, stay at home brother. He may have helped the women in the camp with daily chores (he also cooked) and was loved by his mother, Rebekah. What initially caught my eye was that both parents admired their polar opposites. In Genesis, Isaac does not speak much (can you blame him after almost being sacrificed by his father?) as a second born himself, and does not carry the characteristics of a natural leader like his father, Abraham, who challenged God's justice and led men into battle (Genesis 14). The introvert Isaac loved his outgoing and energetic son, Esau. Rebekah, a strong-spirited and independent woman, loved her quiet, introverted son, Jacob. In chapter 24, Rebekah ran to water Abraham's servant (sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac) AND his 10 camels, and she also made the decision to marry Isaac despite her family's hesitancy. The weak father loved and admired the stronger son, and the strong mother loved and admired the weaker.

Rebekah doesn't say a word about her encounter with God (ch. 25) as Isaac was prepared to pass his blessing to Esau. This is where things got a bit complicated for me. What is the difference between birthright and blessing? I, who have yet to delve into Judaism and the Old Testament, thought they were one and the same. The Birthright dealt with inheritance after the father's death, with the firstborn receiving a double portion of the inheritance over his siblings. The Blessing was a designation of the head of the extended family/tribe after the father's death and also usually went to the firstborn although this was not always the case (click here for a more detailed explanation.) Yet even after Esau traded his inheritance for food and even after Esau married Hittite women, which was a source a bitterness between Esau and his parents, Isaac STILL decided to pass the blessing (leadership) onto his irresponsible eldest son. If Isaac knew about Rebekah's encounter with God then Isaac was deliberately opposing God's will for his own purposes. Click here for a very interesting explanation for Isaac's decision to bless Esau.

After Jacob craftily obtained Esau's birthright the strong-willed Rebekah noticed the prime opportunity to have Jacob also grab the blessing (more on both topics in Part 2). The uncertain Jacob worried that the disguise as Esau might fail and Jacob might receive a curse instead. Rebekah, throwing all caution to the wind, tells Jacob that the curse would fall on her, the schemer, instead of him. But if Rebekah was attempting to fulfill prophecy (the older will serve the younger) then why would God allow any curse to fall on her? Or was Rebekah merely scheming to have her favorite son has head of the tribe? Whatever her true intentions were poor blind Isaac was deceived into blessing the wrong son (or maybe the right son), leaving the twice deceived Esau desperately pleading for ANY blessing.

38 Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!" Then Esau wept aloud.

39 His father Isaac answered him,
"Your dwelling will be
away from the earth's richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.

40 You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck." (Genesis 27:38-40)

Esau, the hunter and defender of the land is left penniless to serve his weaker brother. Maybe Esau deserved it, or maybe he was meant to forever wrestle with the hardships of life so that he may learn to appreciate the beautiful things in life. Esau comes across as unappreciative, rebellious, and an unforgiving brother. Maybe as twins, and polar opposites, they must both allow the traits of the other brother to grow within themselves. In her book, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, Karen Armstrong states that Jacob too must wrestle with his deception and "until he [Jacob] was reconciled with Esau, his twin, and with the Esau within himself, he would find no peace." They must seek out and find their inner selves despite the meddling wills of their parents. The family is divided and will travel down separate paths only to conclude that peace can not be found until they seek to reconcile the differences both between and within themselves. Abraham's descendants, whom through the world would have been blessed, wrestle with blessing each other.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Deus Sol Invictus or Constantine the Henotheist?

Matthew 17:1-2 (NIV)
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.

John 8:12 (NIV)

12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Constantine The Great changed the course of history during his battle at the Milvian Bridge. He had a vision which not only put Christianity on the global map, but elevated it from a persecuted minority to the dominate majority, forever changing the West.

[Representation of Christ as the sun-god Helios or Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. Mausoleum M, from the Tomb of Pope Julius I in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter's Basilica.]

As we move through the early centuries of the early church in my History of Christianity class I was intrigued by a singular comment on Henotheism (and within Christian Legend, Monotheism) within the Roman world before Constantine's conversion in 312 A.D. I'm not talking about the rising popularity of Christianity before the Edict of Milan in 313. A.D. but the isolated movements towards a form of single god worship during this period in a polytheistic world.
"...the cult of the sun god became a major and, at times, dominant force in Roman religion. The cult of the Syrian sun god from Emesa, installed at Rome under the emperor Elagabalus (218–222), was short-lived, but in 274 the emperor Aurelian began a vigorous campaign of propaganda celebrating the sun god as the exclusive protector of Rome's imperial might. Under the epithets oriens ("the rising one"), invictus ("the invincible one"), and comes Augusti ("comrade of Augustus"), Sol was hailed as "the rising sun who dispels the forces of evil," as "invincible conqueror of Rome's enemies," and as the "companion and guardian deity of the emperor." (Sol Invictus from Encyclopedia of Religion.)
I have yet to study the influences that Greek and Roman society, thought, and beliefs may have had on Christianity (another topic we touched on last week), but if there were state sponsored campaigns which placed a single deity above all the others predating Constantine then, in my humble opinion, this would have been a factor in creating an environment more welcoming to the Christian faith. (I'm curious now to know what caused Diocletian to persecute Christians so heavily. Were Christians undermining the empire or even supporting one of his rivals? I'll have to grok this some more...) Without going into the laundry list of similarities between Jesus and Christianity and the various Mediterranean and eastern gods and their religions, I find the concept of a growing trend of Monotheism (or more probable, Henotheism) in the Roman world predating Constantine very intriguing if it actually happened (I'm a Religion nerd, I admit it). The legend that Constantius I, Constantine's father, was also Christian is quaint but still a Christian legend (The Life of Constantine, Eusebius, Ch. 13-21). Even in Eusebius' account of Constantine's conversion the emperor seeks out the help of the Divine for political and military purposes (Eusebius, Ch. 27-28). He wanted to win so he asked God's help (the Christian God), and he won. So did Constantine notice a growing trend towards Monotheism and jump on the popularity train? I don't know, But it seems more likely that he included Christianity as part of his popularity propaganda instead of an actual conversion since the Arch of Constantine (triumphal arch over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge) and coins (until 324) contained pagan imagery. Even though Constantine supported the church it seems that, to retain his popularity base, he still recognized other gods along with the Christian God as a henotheist for political purposes.

How did the Senate react to the growing trend towards a monotheistic religious system? How did the commoners react? How did this affect the economy? Decrease in sacrifices to gods must have put a few butchers out of business. Religion was and still is a business. Before 70 A.D., the ancient Jewish sacrificial system must have profited from sacrifice at the Temple, the Quraysh, the guardians of the Ka'aba, held a booming economic market until the radical turn towards monotheism led by Muhammad in the 7th century A.D., and even churches today collect offerings from it's members. How did this affect social life in the Empire? More importantly how did this affect the theology, faith, and traditions of Christianity itself? Many people have pointed out (Google "Jesus Pagan gods" to see for yourself) that Christianity was seriously influenced by pagan religions. I'm no historian and I do see similarities but this is of little relevance to the modern Christian. Why? Because Christianity as we know it today would not be recognizable to the Christians during the first few centuries. The Christianity of today is not the Christianity of yesterday.

Even if Christ was equated with or even represented as Sol Invictus in the 3rd and 4th centuries he is not today by Traditional Christianity. It is important to keep in mind how history has viewed Jesus, but as time progresses so does all aspects of human life. Jesus Christ and Christianity 2000 years from now can (and probably will) be just as alien to us as our Christianity would be to the early church. We must remember that the believers of the first few centuries were limited by their world view and may have seen Jesus Christ differently than we do, be it Sol Invictus, Jewish prophet, or even non-trinitarian. There is no way for us to turn back the clock to a "golden age" of the Christian faith, nor should we. Faith should always progress forward even if it means challenging our present views, beliefs and the memories of our past.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Guide to a God-Sized Puzzle

For those who are interested, here is a simple guide to my Blog Series which touch on a variety of topics under five main categories: Personal, Inter-Faith, theology, spirituality, and Miscellaneous. Since this blog is about my personal journey to understand various views about the Divine my beliefs may sound different in various posts. My views have evolved, and hopefully will continue to evolve, throughout the life of this blog. If this is confusing or if you have any questions in regards to my current views feel free to fill out the blue comment box to get in touch with me directly. No personal information will EVER be published. To read a specific series in chronological order you must scroll to the bottom as the posts are ordered from new to old, top to bottom.

Peace and Blessings.

    • All Aboard. A look into the validity of other faiths and how to come to terms with them.
    • Inter-Blog Dialogue. A response and explanation of my beliefs to fellow Christian blogger, Ben, at Discovering God's Holy Plan.
    • You Must Believe. Questioning the boundaries of exclusive truth.
    • The Sacredness of Ground Zero. Part 1-4 are now up (9/06/10). A look into the 2010 "Ground Zero" Mosque controversy, the growing tide of Islamophobia, and what it says about inter-faith dialogue in America.
    • Adventures in Unitarian land. New(ish)! Parts 1 and 2 are now up. A 2 part series on my 2010 visit to the UU of Murfreesboro.
    Spirituality (New Category)
    • Axis Mundi. A look into the ubiquitous Axis Mundis, the spiritual centers of the world.
    • Stranger in a Strange Land. A glimpse into the religious symbolism and spirituality found within Robert Heinlein's beautiful sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.
    • The Fountain: A Quest for Immortality. A series based on a paper I wrote for my Religion in Pop Media class taught by Rabbi Rami which includes the Rabbi's response. The paper covers the religious symbolism and spirituality that is found in Darren Aronofsky's 2006 sci-fi film, The Fountain. This is by far my favorite film of all time.
    • The Legend of Zelda. A series which focuses on the religious and spiritual themes found within my favorite video game series of all time, The Legend of Zelda. This was by far my favorite (and most time consuming) series to write.
    • Attack of the McGlone. A series on the confrontational evangelist, John McGlone, and his visits to MTSU.
    Upcoming and New Series
    • The Jewish Gospels.  A look into the lost Jewishness of the Gospels and the impact that loss had on Christianity. Parts 1 and 2 are now up (10/26/09)
    • Wrestling with God and Man Parts 1-5 are now up. A series on the story of the wrestling twins, Jacob and Esau, and the struggle we all face with God and Man. (3/09/10)
    • The Fountain Revisited.  Parts 1 and 2 are now up (12/13/09) This series takes a second look into my revised thoughts on the spiritual and religious themes found in Darren Aronofsky's 2006 sci-fi film, The Fountain.
    • Adventures of the Unbeliever. Part 1-5 are now up (08/20/10) A collection of thoughts and experiences as a Unbeliever interacting with Christians in church and on the street.
    • How Good Do We Have to Be? New! Part 1 and 2 are now up (09/06/10). A series on Rabbi Harold Kushner's comforting book on guilt and forgiveness, How Good Do We Have to Be?.

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    A Glimpse of God

    Completely flat. I did not have time to deal with a flat tire 15 minutes before class although thankfully it went flat in the parking lot and not on the way to class. (The parking lots at MTSU are horrendous, this is the second tire I've lost there.) I called up my wife and informed her of my situation.

    After a long day of classes and marching back and forth across campus (the bus routes are useless to me) I began working on my pitiful car in the nearly vacant lot. Maybe people are less compassionate driving by a troubled vehicle on the road than passing them on foot. It may give them more time to think. Or maybe I looked just as pitiful as my car as I crouched on the wet pavement after a rainy afternoon looking for a proper place to raise my car. I was already halfway through, with my wife on the way, and still student after student took time out of their busy day to ask if I needed help, half of them asking even after getting into their cars. Now, I didn't get a rush of people asking me if I needed assistance, but it was a lot more than I thought I would receive from students after a long day of classes who just want to eat supper or even get to work. A few of them I assumed did not even have the proper tools (nor did I, I just had a jack and a tire iron) to assist me and still they offered to lend a hand. This is when I got a glimpse of God, not a view of Yahweh himself, like Moses who got to see God's rear, but a glimpse of that which we all share and contain within ourselves. It was here that I saw, heard, and spoke with God.

    We get so preoccupied in our own lives that we forget that others may have, are, or will face the same issues we personally struggle with daily. It is at these moments when our true image shines through our mortal bodies: an image of love and compassion for our fellow man. These students (and probably teachers) didn't expect anything in return for assisting me, and continued to ask if I was sure I did not need any help as I graciously declined (it only took me half an hour to finish). It was a simple giving and pouring of that which we are all capable of, that which we are born with and yearn to share as we get older. When I hear "Do you need help?", I hear more than just concern. I hear the Spirit within, the seedling of Love peeking out from beneath our mortal trappings, calling out to its brothers and sisters. There are no words to describe the awe of experiencing a glimpse of God, and even if there were I could not articulate them in a way for you to feel what I felt. I might just be making a big deal out of nothing, or maybe what we seek and pine for is all around us if we just take a minute to look.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009

    What Are You Doing Here?

    1 Kings 19:9-13 (NIV)

    9 ...And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10 He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." 11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."
    Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
    Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

    [Elijah in the Wilderness, by Lord Frederick Leighton, 1878]

    Elijah, spiritually and physically drained, ran for his life and desperately pleaded for God to end it. He had had enough as a prophet, he had failed. Alone, depressed, and suicidal (no one walks into a desert willingly especially without provisions) in his most desperate hour he tells God that he quits.

    4 He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." 1 Kings 19:4 (NIV)

    After restoring his strength with food and water brought by an angel he continues his forty day journey to God's main office: Mount Horeb (a.k.a. Mount Sinai). Maybe he was actively seeking God to restore his faith or just maybe he was making the journey to turn in his resignation. When he reaches Horeb the Lord questions Elijah, "What are you doing here?"

    Those of us who actively seek the Divine, purpose, or even meaning in life come to a point where we want to resign and give it all up. What are we doing HERE? It may be at a dim point of our lives when we are faced with this question, and we may want nothing to do with answering it. Yet the question remains, what are YOU doing HERE?

    The Lord asked Elijah to stand on the holy mountain for the Lord was about to pass by. There Elijah encountered three acts of Nature: a mighty wind, a tremendous earthquake, and a terrible fire. After each the text tells us that God was not in any of them. Was Elijah expecting God to be in any of them? I believe so, which made the final event for the prophet even more startling than the first three. Elijah comes from a tradition where the Divine speaks and acts through Nature. Humanity, having been separated and out of personal contact with the Divine since Eden, could not handle being in the presence of the Divine. Moses was allowed to see God's backside but not his face as He passed by Moses (Exodus 33:20-23). The Divine was no longer hiding behind Nature when Elijah heard the whisper in the cave. He knew that he was in the intimate presence of the Divine. And how more intimate can you get than a whisper?

    There may be times when we want to distance ourselves from that which we are actively seeking out of frustration, loneliness, or even because we feel that we've had ENOUGH. It is at this low point that we must actively pursue the intimate presence of the Spirit. What we call the Spirit is entirely up to the individual. The Spirit does not have to be religious or even Spiritual because even Atheist and Agnostics seek the spirit of Humanity and focus on progressing our global community. When we intimately embrace that inner voice we can unlock a source of nearly infinite strength. It is this intimacy that gives hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, comfort and companionship to the lonely. By reaching beyond religion, symbols, and beliefs we can find a Source within ourselves, an intimate whisper calling out that is drowned out by all of life's worries and fears. It has always been there calling out, "What are you doing here? Come in with me."

    Monday, September 7, 2009

    A Slip of the Pen or Cruel Intentions?

    1 Timothy 2:11-15 (NIV)

    11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

    Compared to the apocalyptic utopia that Jesus paints for us in the gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven, a few of Paul's remarks towards women sounds a bit confusing. The role of women in the church, both early and modern, continues to be a contentious issue. Although both Jesus and Paul give messages that seems to liberate women from under the heel of a Greco-Roman patriarchal society there are still verses that seem to justify keeping women "in their place."

    [Saint Thechla by Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson,1891, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian]

    In Jesus' apocalyptic Kingdom of Heaven there will be no hunger, no poor, no sickness, no war, no loneliness, nor even marriage (Mark 12:25). For those on the lowest rung of society this is simply paradise, and both within Judaism and in the Roman world women were pretty low on the social ladder. So when Jesus came preaching that the current world order will be soon replaced by an Edenic Kingdom of Heaven, I can imagine women sneaking out of their homes, children at the hip, just to hear a snippet of his message. This was very good news for a women during that age was bound to their father's will, and then after marriage bound to their husband's. Yet we must remember that Jesus, Paul, and the early church were a part of a society that did not share some of the egalitarian views that some of us in the 21st century may hold.

    Women were prominent in the early church and even Paul mentions and praises their hard work and dedication towards the movement in his letters. Outside of the Bible my favorite apocryphal text on a bold and daring female apostle is The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It is an intriguing text with a theme on asceticism, though considered fraudulent, about a young virgin who travels with Paul. Along with the late dating on the text, the confirmation by Tertullian of it being a fraudulent work, and its theme on asceticism it was probably also excluded from the canon because of it's positive view of an independent woman who even baptizes herself at one point in the text.

    I believe that the New Testament text that speak about women in a submissive and even a negative light is a reflection of the anxiety that the church leaders were experiencing with the rising of women in leadership positions within the church in a patriarchal society. Frankly, men wanted to stay in power so they made sure that this possible pseudonymous letter was accepted into the canon. Although some verses may be interpreted as the Christian woman's role and duties in a family unit this is still within the context of 1st and 2nd century Roman society. Verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (similar to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) may be a variant of Jewish social laws, meant for a specific church and not universally across what would become Christendom, or even that the verses in 1 Corinthians was an interpolation inserted by copyist either by accident or intentionally from the verses in 1 Timothy (Early Church cut and paste?) to support and keep the male-dominated power structure (Also see Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, pg 182-183). This liberal view of the Bible helps to answer some of the more confusing, and at times contradicting, issues found within scripture although this may be difficult to swallow for others. I personally can not take scripture as infallible or inerrant, but this view allows me to better understand these verses in both a historical context and their 21st century application. Verses like these should be questioned, examined, and debated if they are to be applied to 21st century Christians.

    Must we revert gender roles back to 1st century standards, as Christians being faithful to scripture, or can we transcend them? Would doing so cause us to question other parts of the Bible or just the parts that are unclear or silent on modern issues? The issue of gender equality within Christianity may not be an issue with many of us but we must not forget the impact and influence Christianity has had in the history of the Western World. It was less than a century ago that the 19th Amendment was ratified (thanks to Harry Burn of Tennessee who broke the tie as the 36th state to ratify the Amendment). I'm not saying that Christianity, and especially Paul, is responsible for "keeping women in the kitchen", but how these verses were interpreted throughout history may have caused humanity to walk with a limp instead of making leaps and bounds.

    Friday, September 4, 2009

    Headphones+Jesus+Energy Drinks= An Audio Monk?

    I began my fall classes on Monday and so far I can say that I am both absolutely thrilled and fearful of what will be asked of me in the next few months. For those a bit in the dark, I am majoring in the Recording Industry program with a concentration in production tech (audio engineering). I also have chosen the most random minor, Religious Studies, mainly because my adviser said I could and it's a highly interesting minor. What can I do with a degree in audio engineering and religion? I have absolutely no idea. I'm clueless. But I accept where I am and will strive to make something out of it.

    This semester I am taking History of Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth which I assume will have some overlap in theology and debates on the nature of Christ. Although I'll be a bit busier because of my class load I will attempt to write at least 1-2 posts a week on a topic we've discussed in either class. I won't be posting anything particularly interesting for today because I'll be preparing for Piranha Hour for my multitrack recording class. What's Piranha Hour? Don't ask till after 4:01 p.m. central.

    Peace and blessings.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009

    The Kindness of Strangers

    Genesis 19:24-25 (NIV)

    24 Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.

    Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by the hand of God as punishment for their sins. Although the Bible is unclear as to their primary sin, most people assume it must have been so atrocious to have brought complete annihilation from the Almighty. At least that's what we have come to believe throughout history, and what could be more vile than sexual immorality? Perhaps, inhospitality?

    [Flight of Lot by Gustave Doré]

    The story of Sodom and Gomorrah begins in Genesis 18 when the Lord pays Abraham a visit in physical form which is the first time God comes down and walks among his creation since humanity and God parted ways in Eden. Genesis 18 and 19 parallel each other in common themes of blessing and hospitality towards strangers. Both begin with the Divine coming down in physical form and both Abraham and Lot are anxious to serve them. Abraham is sitting in the "entrance to his tent in the heat of the day" as he sees three men approaching. Likewise, Lot is sitting at the entrance of the Gate to Sodom almost as if he were a member of Sodom's welcoming committee. Before asking their names, where they came from, or what business they may have both Abraham and Lot rush out to greet them, humbly bowing offering their personal services. Already we can tell that being hospitable to strangers is incredibly important and a part of their moral code.

    How many of us would try that with a stranger today in the 21st century? At my house we have multiple locks on our doors and windows, a dog, and a peephole to protect us from strangers (we're installing a moat once I get a job after college ). We never leave our doors unlocked and we never leave it open to enjoy the cool breeze of the afternoon. We don't keep a gun at home but we have many friends and neighbors who do. I find it amazing that these two men literally run to meet mere strangers who might cause them harm which is very likely while living a nomadic life. Some may assume that Abraham and Lot knew these men were the Divine in mortal disguises and that may be the case, but the theme of both chapters, in my humble opinion, seems to be hospitality to your fellow man. In fact, being a hospitable host is an important aspect of Judaism.

    Abraham's three visitors blessed Abraham and Sarah and said that when they return next year they will have a son. It didn't go nearly as well for Lot and his family in Sodom. When Lot met the two visitors at the gate you can almost hear Lot's hurried anxiety to get them into his house for the night. Initially, Lot's remarks to his visitors in Genesis 19:2 comes across as a bit rude as he urgently wants his guest to leave the city as soon as they are rested, but Lot sounds more fearful than impatient. The visitors ("Mal'akh"מַלְאָ, Hebrew for messengers or angels) objected saying they wanted to stay in the square. Lot's opposition to his visitors spending the night in public sounds as if it is based on either intense shame or dreadful fear. Angels or not, he would be immensely ashamed to live with such "animals" as he desperately tries to play the good host in a city of savages. On the other hand, as angels there would be no need to for Lot to fear for their lives, yet he is bound to protect them under his moral code. There are horrific stories within Jewish tradition that describe people from the Cities of the Plain treating strangers cruelly. And if Lot witnessed anything like these tales, this alone would be enough to frighten Lot into putting his life (and the lives of his daughters) in danger when he took these two visitors under his roof.

    The focus on the sin of homosexuality is based on Genesis 19:5 where all the people (commonly translated as all the men which hints at a homosexual mob) surround Lot's house demanding to know the two visitors. יָדַע Ya,da is a Hebrew verb which means " to know." Out of almost the 1000 times the word is used in the Hebrew scripture only about a dozen actually allude to sex. So the text can be read as if the mob wanted to interrogate (maybe even torture) the visitors or that the mob came to "know" the two visitors. Homosexuality is assumed because even after Lot offers his two virgin daughters, the mob refuses and attempts to break into the house. The Cities of the Plain were guilty of a laundry list of sins, and not just homosexuality. Not helping the poor and the needy, unconcerned and letting them starve in the streets sounds 1000 times worse than any sort of "sinful" homosexual activity. Whatever the sins of Sodom and her daughters were Jewish tradition links their sins with the natural disaster that took out these ancient cities.

    Lot risking his life to protect total strangers is one of the most overlooked and most important theme of Genesis 19. As Abraham is blessed with news of a son, Lot is blessed with escaping with his life. Which would sound odd if God did allow Lot to live if he did indeed offer up his own daughters to a mob of rapists. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned throughout the Bible (and throughout Jewish and Christian tradition) it is used as a vehicle and an example for condemnation of living the sinful life instead as an example of redemption. Even though Genesis 19 ends with a dysfunctional family assuming they are the last survivors of their family line (or worse, the planet!) poor Lot redeems his life of misery, shame, and regret in this one act of bravery and kindness towards strangers. Is this not the lesson we should remember when we think of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah? Must we continue to use this one chapter (along with a handful of other verses) to condemn people for who they are, or can we use this to increase our kindness to strangers?