Archive for November, 2012

The Bible is (mostly) a book for grown-ups

November 29, 2012

While I disagree with much of what she sayabout the Bible and theology in the opening paragraphs of this HuffPost piece, I mostly liked Yale religious studies professor Christine Hayes’s “five common misconceptions about the Bible.”

She overstates misconception #5. No surprise there: anyone who refers to the God of Christianity as “the god of western theological speculation” is obviously prone to overstatement. (It would come as a surprise to our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, among others, that the triune God of the Nicene Creed is a product of western theological reflection!)

She writes, “The attributes assigned to ‘God’ by post-biblical theologians—such as omniscience and immutability—are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives.” Really? Beware of any Bible scholar who uses the word “simply not,” because you can be sure that what he or she is saying is highly disputed and far from simple. Little about the Bible is simple—and isn’t that the main point of her blog post? Oh, well…

Needless to say, at times Yahweh possesses the attributes of omniscience and immutability (among others). The Old Testament speaks with multiple voices on the subject of God and God’s attributes, and it is the legitimate task of theology to synthesize or make sense of these voices.

Still, I strongly agree with her misconception #4—that the stories of the Old Testament are “pious parables about saints” or “G-rated tales easily understood by children.” They are, instead,

psychologically real stories about very human beings whose behavior can be scandalous, violent, rebellious, outrageous, lewd and vicious. At the same time, like real people, biblical characters can change and act with justice and compassion. Nevertheless, many readers are shocked and disgusted to discover that Jacob is a deceiver, Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat and Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she is disguised as a prostitute!

The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are perfectly pious models for our own conduct causes many readers to work to vindicate biblical characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the moral complexities and the deep psychological insights that have made these (often R-rated) stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on their readers. The stories rarely moralize. They explore moral issues and situations by placing biblical characters in moral dilemmas — but they usually leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Seeing the world in color for the first time

November 28, 2012

I’ll have to remember this quote from Bill Murray the next time I preach on this text, for instance. From an interview in today’s New York Times, Murray describes a recent extemporaneous speech he gave at a minor-league baseball hall of fame:

I spoke about the first time I went to Wrigley Field in Chicago, and I was a big Cubs fan, and I watched all the games on TV, but when I grew up, TV was in black and white. So when I was 7 years old, I was taken to my first Cubs games, and my brother Brian said, “Wait, Billy,” and he put his hands over my eyes, and he walked me up the stairs. And then he took his hands away. [He begins to get choked up.] And there was Wrigley Field, in green. There was this beautiful grass and this beautiful ivy. I’d only seen it in black and white. It was like I was a blind man made to see. It was something.

Sermon 11-18-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 3: Thanksgiving”

November 27, 2012

My Thanksgiving sermon from a couple of weeks ago, relevant for any time of year! 😉

“So even this Thursday, as some of us are drifting off to sleep in a turkey-induced coma, in front of the Lions or Cowboys game on TV, we ought to be thankful for faith and food and family… and, yes, even football. It’s all from God! And if we learn to see things that way, then we begin to grasp just how much we have to be thankful for!”

Sermon Text: Deuteronomy 8:6-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The sad news was all over Twitter and Facebook on Friday: Hostess Brands is going out of business. I don’t know anyone today who actually eats Twinkies or Ding Dongs or Hostess Fruit Pies anymore—except when we deep-fry Twinkies at county fairs, of course! I don’t think today’s generation of kids eats these things. As one commentator in the New York Times said, American consumers want less processed foods. They want to know, quote, “the story behind their food,” unquote—which might not be a story that a Twinkie would want told.

When I was a kid, I wanted to eat Hostess snack cakes, but Mom wouldn’t buy them. Not for health reasons, mind you. It’s because they were more expensive than their southern counterpart, Little Debbie. Believe me, I ate some fake chocolate and partially hydrogenated cream-filled something or another from Little Debbie in my lunch nearly every day between first grade and seventh grade. Which means that, estimating very conservatively, I probably ate over 1,100 Little Debbie snack cakes just in my lunch alone. And, see, I lived to tell the tale! So they can’t be too bad for us, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Does the Pope really hate Christmas?

November 26, 2012

The DeLorean dashboard from “Back to the Future”

There was a scene in the 1985 movie Back to the Future in which Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown demonstrates to Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly how easy it is to time-travel in his tricked-out DeLorean. You just punch in the “destination date” on the dashboard and away you go. At one point, Doc Brown tells McFly that he can even go back and observe first Christmas, whose coordinates he types in as “DEC 25 0000.” (Or did he put “0001,” I can’t remember. There was no year zero. The calendar starts in year 1.)

Even as a 15 year-old, I rolled my eyes. Hollywood! The first Christmas didn’t take place, as far as anyone knows, on December 25, nor did it take place in the year AD 1, never mind AD 0, which doesn’t exist. Even my old NIV Study Bible, if memory serves, said that the birth of Christ took place around 6 B.C. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and the Massacre of the Innocents included all male children under 2, implying that Herod thought Christ’s birth had taken place within the past two years.

Does it matter that we got the date wrong? No. Does it have any bearing whatsoever on the historicity of Jesus or the Virgin Birth? No. Is it controversial to say that Christ wasn’t born on December 25, 1? No.

The Church set the date to begin with. We’ve known for a long time that the Church got it wrong. And the fact that Christmas corresponds to the winter solstice is uncontroversial (unless you’re one of these people).

With this in mind, I’m confused about the news coverage regarding the Pope’s new book on Christmas, including this overheated lede from CNN:

(CNN) — It’s Christmas, but not as you know it: a new book released this week by Pope Benedict XVI looks at the early life of Jesus — and debunks several myths about how the Nativity unfolded.

In “Jesus of Nazareth — The Infancy Narratives,” the pope says the Christian calendar is actually based on a blunder by a sixth century monk, who Benedict says was several years off in his calculation of Jesus’ birth date.

According to the pope’s research, there is also no evidence in the Gospels that the cattle and other animals traditionally pictured gathered around the manger were actually present.

“According to the pope’s research”? Please! The pope is an accomplished scholar and theologian, but he hardly needed to do any primary research to come up with this. None of this is new. And none of this is controversial. We were taught in seminary that animals weren’t a part of the manger scene until St. Francis in the 13th century.

Regardless, the news media are wrong to use the word “myth” to describe these things. It isn’t a “myth” that Jesus was born on December 25 or that there were donkeys, sheep, cows, or camels at the manger; it’s a tradition. Nor is it a myth that Jesus was born in the year 1; it’s a mistake, long since corrected.

In clarifying these issues for the public, Pope Benedict is merely sticking to what the Bible tells us. As a Protestant, I can only say a hearty “Amen”!

What N.T. Wright said, part 26

November 23, 2012

N.T. Wright. I’m sure it would be O.K. for the Right Reverend to loosen his collar.

I’m preaching this week on another classic thanksgiving text, Luke 17:11-19, the healing of the ten lepers and the one who returned to Jesus to say thanks. The grateful leper was a double-outsider—he not only had a disease that ostracized him from society, he was also a Samaritan, considered a heretic and half-breed by that same society. Yet only this outsider responded properly to God’s saving work.

It is not only the nine ex-lepers who are shown up. It is all of us who fail to thank God ‘always and for everything’, as Paul puts it (Ephesians 5.20). We know with our heads, if we have any Christian faith at all, that our God is the giver of all things: every mouthful of food we take, every breath of air we inhale, every note of music we hear, every smile on the face of a friend, a child, a spouse—all that, and a million things more, are good gifts from his generosity. The world didn’t need to be like this. It could have been far more drab (of course, we have often made it dull and lifeless, but even there God can spring surprises). There is an old spiritual discipline of listing one’s blessings, naming them before God, and giving thanks. It’s a healthy thing to do, especially in a world where we too often assume we have an absolute right to health, happiness and every possible creature comfort.[†]

How does what we “know in our heads” become part of what we know and feel in the deepest recesses of our hearts? We can’t fake being grateful, after all—I mean, not in the long run. Either we are or we aren’t.

I want to be a genuinely grateful person. I’m sure my sermon on Sunday will struggle with these sorts of questions.

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 206.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 22, 2012

Just in time for Thanksgiving is the third video from our “Attitude of Gratitude” series. In this one, I asked people from our church to answer this question: “Name one thing that’s happened to you today, or that you’ve experienced today, for which you are thankful?”

What if we got into the habit of asking ourselves this question each day?

Another thought on my previous post about evolution

November 21, 2012

I appreciate that there are Christians who reject evolution because it contradicts their understanding of scripture, especially Genesis 1 and 2. Alongside my denomination and most of the universal Church, I don’t share that understanding, as I said in my earlier post. We must agree to disagree. I don’t believe science, the Bible, or Christian theology are incompatible. Indeed, they are allies, or they should be. Science gets into trouble is when it goes beyond its boundaries and tries to speak metaphysically—about that part of reality to which science has no access.

And of course we Christians get into trouble, I believe, when we do the same in reverse.

I fully support our United Methodist position on the topic of science and faith (from the Book of Discipline, ¶ 160 § F). I’m underlining the sentence that I believe is especially relevant here:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

While I don’t agree with them, I’m sympathetic with Christians who reject evolution on biblical grounds. Nevertheless, I don’t think that Christians should reject evolution on the same grounds that many atheistic evolutionists reject believing in God. In other words, either evolution explains how we got here, in a naturalistic sort of way, or God explains how we got here, in  a supernatural sort of way. The two explanations are mutually exclusive: it’s either God or science but not both.

If we Christians accept that premise, then we have more to worry about than just evolution. If we’re sick, go to a hospital, receive treatment, and get well, are we any less healed by God because doctors and medicine and medical technology intervened in our healing? I don’t think so. I believe it’s God at work through this intervention—and isn’t it amazing that God gives us bodies capable of being healed in this way?

When God answers our prayers, after all, that “answer” isn’t usually like the parting of the Red Sea: it’s usually through otherwise natural, fully explainable circumstances. Whether it’s by evolution or some less controversial means, God usually works in a mundane, natural sort of way. But we Christians still believe it’s God at work.

Do I believe in evolution? It depends

November 20, 2012

Like Carolyn Arends, who wrote this thoughtful column on the subject in November’s Christianity Today, my view of the inspiration of scripture (shared by the United Methodist Church) does not require a literal six-day Creation. I don’t believe that scientific explanations for the origin of the universe and our place within it are at odds with a Christian understanding of Creation.

I also agree with Arends that arguing over the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 can become a rather depressing exercise in missing the point. The point is not to say how God created, but that he created and what it means. The genre of biblical literature matters:

[T]he Bible is not a book; it’s a library containing books of many different dates and genres. That’s why it’s not inconsistent to read Genesis 1 and 2 as an (inspired) ancient Near Eastern cosmology that poetically declares Yahweh to be the Creator, while reading the Gospels as (inspired) first-century, biographical-historical eyewitness accounts of events.

In other words, there’s no necessary relationship between rejecting a literal six-day Creation and denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As Arends points out, Genesis 1 and 2 are true and inspired, but not in the same way that New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are true. The difference is genre. Genesis 1 and 2 are true in the way that great poetry is true (but even more so because of the work of the Holy Spirit). As most of us know, poetry often speaks the truth more loudly and clearly than a dry recitation of historical (or scientific) facts.

Still, Arends rightly points out that “allowing the possibility of evolutionary creation is fraught with difficulty.” And she puts her finger on the biggest potential problem: that we have to distinguish “between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is).” In my view, it’s easy to underestimate the enormity of this problem—because science has a way of overstepping its authority without anyone noticing.

When someone asks me, for example, “Do you believe in evolution?” I have to ask them, “What do you mean by ‘believe in‘?” Do I believe in evolution in the sense that if evolution happened, then God didn’t also create the world and everything in it? Then, no, I don’t believe in it.

Often, the premise of the question is flawed: It says if evolution, then not God—as if God weren’t really transcendent, as if God were simply a bigger, stronger version of ourselves—one actor among others on this plane of cause-and-effect—as if God were in competition with his Creation.

If that’s what “believing in evolution” means, count me out. I reject the philosophical materialism that lies beneath the question. All Christians should, even those of us who have no theological objection to evolution per se.

New Advent series coming: “A Very Merry Vinebranch Holiday Special”

November 19, 2012

For Advent this year, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone (which is preaching scriptures related to a theme) and, instead, preaching scriptures related to favorite Christmas TV specials or movies. We’ll include video clips in the service. By the way, the Grinch sermon will, of course, be based on the original 1966 animated special, not the Jim Carrey movie. Likewise, Miracle on 34th Street (my favorite holiday classic) will be based on the 1947 film with Edmund Gwenn. (Don’t get me started on the ’90s remake!)

Our worship leader, Stephanie Newton, can’t wait! (Will the Vinebranch Band do “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”?)

The schedule is as follows:

Date Christmas TV special or movie
December 2 It’s a Wonderful Life
December 9 How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
December 16 A Charlie Brown Christmas
December 23 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Becoming “who God had authentically created me to be”

November 16, 2012

R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young this week. As someone whose favorite all-time player is hall-of-famer Phil Niekro (who won over 300 games playing on the worst team of the ’70s and ’80s), I love that the Major League’s only current knuckleball pitcher won baseball’s highest pitching honor—the first knuckleballer to do so.

Dickey, a Christian, gave a fascinating interview earlier this year with Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, discussing his newly published memoir. Among other things, he describes surviving childhood sexual abuse while living with his alcoholic mother. He also describes a pitching career that turned the corner only after nearly drowning while attempting to swim across the Missouri River.

DICKEY: I know, you know, I certainly look at it as almost a baptism of sorts. You know, I mean I went into the Missouri River. I was hanging on by a thread professionally. I was like one in four at the time with a six something ERA, which is not very good in baseball at all, and I was one phone call from the general manager away from being released and never playing baseball again, maybe. And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11 and two with like 2.80 ERA and became the [Pacific Coast League] Pitcher of the Year…

DAVIES: Terrific season. Yeah.

DICKEY: Yeah. Terrific season. And I say that only to emphasize the point that, you know, I think when I came out of the river I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well that I think that carried over directly into my pitching and I just cared about each pitch singularly. And so, you know, if one pitch didn’t go well, forget it. Here’s this pitch. What am I going to do with this pitch? And when I did that over and over and over again, I was able to look back and all of the sudden I was putting together a pretty incredible run. And I decided that that’s how I wanted to live my life.

“If one pitch didn’t go well, forget it. Here’s this pitch. What am I going to do with this pitch?” That is a pretty good way of tackling life!

Davies asks him whether knuckleball pitching could be a metaphor for his life: instead of overpowering hitters, throwing a knuckleball is a matter of “letting the ball do what it’s going to do.” Does this relate to the therapy he’s received over the past several years as his personal and professional life have turned around?

DICKEY: Oh, man, what a fantastic insight. You know, I think that’s exactly what happened. You know, I feel like that there was something very divine about that, you know. I began throwing the knuckleball exactly when I really started working on my life and trying to become, you know, who God had authentically created me to be. And I think those things parallel each other.

I like that: knuckleball pitching as a metaphor for surrendering to God.