For those interested in Scripture, I highly recommend The Bible as Literature Podcast. In a recent episode (149), the hosts (whom I know personally) make the case that reading the Bible literally (though without prooftexting) is a good thing. In fact, they call out those that “[spout] platitudes about the ‘dangers’ of taking the Bible literally.” In this post, I will examine this claim and why I have a difficult time coming to grips with it.
On the surface, there are admittedly many strange and discomforting passages in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intellectual underpinnings of the exegetical view above, it seems to me, is the assumption that the unsavory parts of the Bible can be explained away by using the literary context surrounding the offending passages. In other words, if the Bible is saying something “bad,” then you haven’t read that section of the Bible correctly. The mistake that the fundamentalist makes, this view goes, is to prooftext and thereby ignore what the context of their chosen passages is, missing the greater picture. Another related axiom that can be implied from listening to the podcast (as I understand it) is that the individual books of the Bible also harmonize into a cohesive whole, producing one singular message of goodness about God.
I find these assumptions difficult to accept (though I try) for reasons of historical context. Mores change. The past seems more barbaric to us than the present as civilization progresses to reduce rates of disease, poverty, illness, homelessness, ignorance, and other ills. An alternate view of the Bible emerges than that put forward in the podcast. The Bible, rather, is a collection of works spanning centuries and the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures are murky waters filled with questionable moral standards from a time of primitive understanding and tribal justice. We should take into account not only the literary context but also the historical context and recognize that some stories in the Bible are good and others come from a time less civilized than our own. (more…)
A few days ago, I started reading a book that I bought about a year ago in a bookstore’s bargain aisle. The book is Paul by E.P. Sanders from the “A Brief Insight” series. The letters of the Apostle Paul form a big chunk of the New Testament. In those letters, his unique way of addressing problems in religious communities have had an enormous influence on the development of Christianity.
But Sanders’s 200-page work is the first book I’ve ever read focused specifically on Paul. Before I even finished reading the first chapter, I already started thinking about what the next book would be that I would read about Paul. I do this often: whenever I get interested in a new topic, I go on Amazon.com and try to find the most authoritative book on that subject. It’s handy information. Sometimes I even make a short bibliography of what the first books would be that I would read if I were to study the topic more closely.
It’s always satisfying to find the one definitive book on a subject: a recently-published and comprehensive resource you can turn to that will bring you up to speed on a subject in one fell swoop. Interested in Johannes Brahms? A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal that Jan Swafford’s biography, a 752-page tome decorated with 33 reviews averaging 4.5/5 stars, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the place to turn for all your Brahms needs. (more…)
I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.
I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.
Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.
And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.
When I started historyjournal.org, I thought there were relatively few people blogging about history. I’ve since learned that there are many such blogs on all kinds of topics. Below are two helpful lists of quality history blogs:
Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel has reviewed a new exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible”. The reviewer applauds the installation, which features objects from Qumran but also many general artifacts from biblical times.
Looking through the photo slide-show attached to the review, I perceive that the exhibit is laid out according to a new style of exhibit display. When I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL a few years ago, I noticed that the museum had chosen a fresh approach to museum design. Instead of overwhelming the viewer with a plethora of artifacts and informational plaques, the museum recreated historical environments in each of its varying rooms. One room was Lincoln’s childhood cabin. Another was his funeral visitation room. Each display was artfully lit, engaging, and informative without being overwhelming.
From what I can tell, this style has caught on and the “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit appears to be equally refreshing. Perhaps it’s time for me to visit Wisconsin again.
Sometimes a theory about the past makes for such a good story that it is hard to let go of it, even when it proves to be false. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad, he found a beautiful gold funerary mask of a royal. Imagine, if the mask was of Agamemnon himself, to have a portrait – in gold! – of a hero from Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, where previously only our imaginations colored those characters. Alas, when the mask was dated, it was pronounced a few generations off from Agamemnon, but how beautiful it would have been if it was his.
Another elegant theory of our past is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. In 1996, geologists from Columbia University William Ryan and Walter Pitman postulated that a massive flood from the Mediterranean Ocean through the narrow Bosporus strait created the Black Sea as we know it today. Over seven thousand years ago, they said, water burst through the strait and rushed into the Black Sea with force 400 times that of Niagara Falls. Many communities living around the sea were wiped out and the stories told of this catastrophe later became the Great Flood myths in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient narratives. Finding an archaeological counterpart to the story of Noah’s ark is a tantalizing idea. The famous oceanographer Robert Ballard (who discovered the RMS Titanic on the ocean floor) even led an expedition to the Black Sea to test the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.
Unfortunately, the theory, in light of new evidence, seems to be false. In such a case, one would chuck it from memory, if the idea was not so artful. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review comments (according to an uncited quote on Wikipedia) that “if you want to see the Black Sea flood in Noah’s flood, who’s to say no?” I disagree with Mr. Shanks: one should not believe in faulty scientific theories. But the debunking of the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is nevertheless a buzzkill to the imagination.
One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.
The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.
The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.
The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.
I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.
I often follow the daily readings of the Orthodox Church in America and think about how the passages selected each day relate to each other. Sometimes the connection is clear and sometimes a common lesson is hard to discern or seems to not even exist.
The daily readings for today are from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John. The first reading describes Paul’s mission to some of the Gentile cities (Acts 14:20-27), the second one presents Jesus Christ claiming to be the Good Shepherd and the gate to God’s kingdom (John 9:39-10:9), and the third reading shows Paul defending himself before King Agrippa and describing his credentials in Judaism and conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:1-5, 12-20). What is the connection between the readings? I think the compilers of the lectionary are drawing attention to the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the teaching of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.’ ” If in this allegory Jesus is the Good Shepherd who enters through the gate to the human community, then the Book of Acts suggests that Paul is the gatekeeper. After describing Paul’s mission in Gentile lands, the author of Acts states that “[Paul] had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”.
Though he is the gatekeeper, Acts also describes Paul’s credentials in Judaism, how he “belonged to the strictest sect of [Judaism] and lived as a Pharisee”. Thus the daily readings establish both the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ as trustworthy teachers who approach the human community through the front gate of old Judaism. While Jesus is the Good Shepherd of God’s people, Paul is the gatekeeper that opens the door for the Gentiles to receive this teaching.
From my journal, the last segment of the Holy Week commentaries:
“PASCHA. Slept late into the morning. Went to Agape Vespers, the last service of Holy Week. How interesting: the gospel reading, the very last Scripture in the Holy Week services, ends with Thomas doubting Christ’s resurrection (John 20:19-25). But the following verses about Jesus showing himself to Thomas are not read! [. . .] There is no closure, interestingly. But I don’t know what that means. [Actually, as my friend Jesse has pointed out, the readings on the next day, Bright Monday, pick up where the ones on Pascha leave off. Nevertheless, it’s still odd that the Holy Week readings ‘end with a whimper’ with the doubting Thomas passage].”