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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Fear not.

I had a tough time sleeping when I was a kid. I wasn't afraid of the dark, but I did not like the quiet of night. My issues were more than being a light sleeper, one easily disturbed. No, I found it hard to rest because I was always vigilant. I feared burglars.

I grew up in a two bedroom apartment on the 1st floor of a two story, 4 unit building off the state highway between a school bus station across the street and a forest that surrounded the town's reservoir. I lived there until we moved to another part of town when I was 13. The woods were such a great place to play and explore. However, when I was small, I heard adults talking about burglars, in our apartment complex. Somehow, I learned about rapists too, maybe from that episode of Little House on the Prairie. My dad worked swing shifts so for a week or two every month he was not home at night. Maybe when he was home I felt more secure and slept better. I don't remember. I do remember many little noises. Before I knew about the settling of houses, the shuffle of mice, and the force of wind, I laid in bed trying to determine if the noises were coming from a man slowly moving around my home, seeking to harm me, my little brother, and my mom. I was paralyzed in my bed. Fear froze me. Self-control froze me. I did not want to make any of my own noises to attract the attention of the criminal just outside my door.

I listened. I planned - can I throw my blanket over his head? can I hurl one of my brother's toys at his eye to give us time to escape? I prayed a little as well. I grew up believing in Jesus. I'm sure he heard my prayers. Eventually, I always fell back to sleep. The noises never stopped. My tolerance for them did though.

I'm a scientist now. One of the things I account for in my experiments is noise. When I inject samples, my mass spectrometer detects many peaks, but I only care for peaks that are at least three times bigger than all that static. If I chased down every peak in the noise, the static, the background, I would not get anything done, and I have so much to do at my job.

As an adult, in America, in the conservative, evangelical branch of Jesus' church, I learned to fear again. I was taught from the Bible to not fear. However, there were many exceptions. I didn't need to fear for money or job security or safety. But I should be vigilant for those who would steal my faith - Catholics, liberals, Democrats, the gay agenda, those with different understandings of Jesus and of the Bible. I was constantly on the lookout for wolves in sheeps' clothing. If a sheep made an abundant living off of other sheep, he wasn't a wolf. If a sheep asked to be treated as an equal, she was really a wolf, undermining the authority of scripture. I've decided to stop being afraid. I've decided to see what happens if I actually trust Jesus and his command not to worry about all this stuff.

I'm not very good at it though. I still worry about my kids. I worry about my bills. But at least I'm not worrying about crappy government, stupid Supreme Court decisions, evolution in our schools, or the gay agenda. I'm trying to live by a few rules. Love God. Love my neighbor. Fear not. I'd like to add "judge not" to my list, but I'm such a judgmental person. I used to judge the liberals, now I judge the conservatives. If I get the love my neighbor part right, I think the judging issue goes away.

Jesus talks about thieves. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly. John 10:10 Cultural paranoia did not give me abundant life. It robbed me of sleep. Fear deprived me of peace as a kid and it did the same for me as an adult. The antidote to fear is love. John the Beloved Apostle wrote in his little epistle, perfect love casts out fear, 1 John 4:18. I want to live in love.

Who are the wolves? Fear peddlers. Sheep eaters.
Who will protect us? The good shepherd.*

* I am not saying burglars shouldn't be reported to the police, or that wolves should be given free reign. It's not judgmental to report what a wolf did. There is nothing wrong with sheep baaaa-ing loudly on the internet calling attention to wolves. Baaaa - that pastor slandered me and it hurt. Baaaa- that pastor protected the person who molested me. Baaa - that pastor has the richest lifestyle of anyone in the congregation. Baaaa - that pastor copied my words and called them his own and made money off of it. Baaaa.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why is the church attractive to women?

Last December I wrote a blog post on this same topic titled, Why is the church not attractive to men? The only reason I'm writing another post is I listened to another podcast yesterday wherein the male preacher was complaining about the feminization of the church. He rattled off a few statistics that seemed bad to him, but sounded good to me. One such statistic is Christianity is the only world religion that attracts more women than men. His other remark is feminism started in the church then spread to the culture, not the other way around. Men don't like all this female stuff, including feelings for God, non-Biblical language about having a personal relationship with Jesus, and popular worship music today sounding like Jesus-my-prom-date ballads.

If Christianity is indeed the only world religion that has more women adherents than men, and I have no idea if that's true or not, could it be from the New Testament's own subversive assertion that our gender and class and ethnicity fade away when our identity is in Christ, see Galatians 3:28? Could it be that the New Testament church was subverting the patriarchy from the beginning when one it's apostles was a woman named Junia, Romans 16:7? Could it be that Jesus's message to the oppressed, the weak and the downtrodden would have less support among the privileged? Could it be the result of the church's outreach to the weak and needy, women and children, widows and orphans?

Certainly the Bible has it's share of passages of patriarchy, but they exist alongside of, and in dialogue with passages that subvert the patriarchy. The church definitely has its problems with patriarchy as well. However, where there are strong branches of patriarchy they often coexist in the same neighborhoods with branches that reject patriarchy. For every Catholic church on the street, throughout the world, there are a couple Pentecostal storefronts, half of which are started by and led by women.

I can't speak to why other world religions attract more men, if they really do. Nevertheless, for all it's problems, there are so many, Christianity may be like democracy as described by Sir Winston Churchill, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Is all religion the source of all the world's evils? That depends on whether materialism is acknowledged as a religion. Christianity evolves which is it's strength. What is orthodox today was liberal or intolerable in the church's past. The early church did not baptize soldiers until they quit. The American church defended the ownership of slaves. Much of the church does not officially accept homosexuals into full communion unless they are celibate today.

This brings up the touchy feely complaint against the church. Jesus was totally fine with the adolescent apostle John cuddling with him.
23 Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved . 24 Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake . 25 He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it ? John 13 
Personally, I have never had dinner with one of my guy friends and snuggled up with him. Maybe this level of physical intimacy is normal or acceptable in Jesus and John's culture. Maybe this did not actually happen, but written by John for allegorical purposes. Some think John was gay. Whatever it is, it's not the celebrated American masculinity. Has the critic read David's Psalms? Quite a few of them sound like God-my-prom-date ballads. The things criticized by those who are alarmed by the femininity of the church, which is frequently referred to as Christ's bride, are things found in the Bible itself. If the consequence of that is privileged men are not interested, that is not a problem to be solved by hiding these passages from them, nor by promoting violent patriarchal passages against these.

Remember, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, Luke 19:10. Jesus is for losers.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

St. Paul says we should put passion to death. Really?

Some months I pick a short passage from the Bible to meditate on every morning. Last month I tried to marinate in Colossians 3:5-15. Verse 12 is a beautiful call to a life of love.
12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;
Paul sets up this idea of putting on a new life with a putting off, a putting to death of a different life, which begins in verse 5.
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.
The first few weeks of reading this passage, I focused on the positives in this passage, but towards the end of the month I noticed the third thing Paul asks me to put off, passion. In my culture, passion is esteemed. We are encouraged throughout our lives to find our passion and make a career for them. In church we sing songs encouraging our passion for God. There are even annual evangelical conferences named Passion. Is Paul really saying passion is ungodly?

Before I survey how the Bible translators have responded, I think it's important to zoom out of my American, western culture. In Asian cultures, passion is not a good thing. The Buddha has had tremendous influence on the East. He would have no disagreement with Paul's statement. In fact it is attributed to him this saying, The hunger of passions is the greatest disease. Paul, writes as a Middle Easterner, someone who grew up in the intersection between East and West. It's not a surprise then that after Paul, many Christians took this admonition literally. Justin Martyr wrote, "To yield and give way to our passions is the lowest slavery, even as to rule over them is the only liberty." The Catholic Church teaching on marriage teaches that sexual passion in marriage is something that is out of place when separated from fecundity, making babies.
2363 The spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.
One sect of the church, the Waldensians, thought intercourse in marriage without the hope of pregnancy was wrong. The Roman Catholic church opposed this teaching. The early church, and the church sects with direct ties to the early church, the Catholic and Orthodox churches still highly value virginity, taking Paul's admonition in his first letter to Corinth that not touching a woman is better. Like Paul, they also recognize not everyone has this gift of celibacy, and marriage is better than burning with passion. (1 Cor. 7). Passion - there's that word again.

Hopefully, my readers will see that some cultures and churches and sects can fully embrace Paul's command to put to death passion. One of Paul's own solutions for that is to get married. Now I want to show how English Bible translators have handled Paul's command. Here is a link to a big list.

Instead of passion some Bibles say, lust, evil passions, inordinate affection, lustful passion, vile passions, inordinate affection, unnatural lust, unholy desire, and lechery. Paul uses a simple and common greek word, pathos. It's not the word used by him in 1 Cor.7:9 either. His greek word is just about burning. Translators add "passion" for their readers. Although it's a common word, it only appears three times in the Greek New Testament. The context of the passages may justify words other than "passion" by itself, but what is "plain reader" of the Bible supposed to do? How is Colossians 3:5 to be literally read? As I tried to show above, it can be and has been literally read differently across eras and cultures. My American evangelical culture values passion. We are encouraged to be passionate in our vocations, in our worship of God and in our marriages. I am perfectly fine with that.

Does our culture and era affect how we read scripture? That should be obvious. Is there only one way to read the Bible? I think certain parts have much less wiggle room than others. The ecumenical councils of the early church locked down a couple things. The three person of the Trinity. The full divinity and humanity of Jesus. Salvation by grace. Despite the firmness of the worldwide and faithful church on these topics, the space for vigorous discussion and debate is still plenty large. Yet we still manage to have huge fights about things other than these topics.

I am guilty of doing this as well. I'm trying to do better. Let love be a uniter instead of looking for what divides us.

At one time, the church felt the earth's center in the universe was not negotiable. Some still think the Catholic church compromised when they admitted Galileo was right. If these groups still exist, I don't think Darwin's theory will ever be received by all of the church. The influential early American philosopher/theologian, Jonathan Edwards owned slaves till the day he died without any sense of guilt thrown his way by abolitionists. Some well-known Christians today defend American slavery since the Bible permitted it! The offices in church allowed to women is still an issue of serious contention, though not pertaining to the main creeds of the church. Have these people faithfully read the Bible? I can't judge their faithfulness. I think their interpretations are wrong though. They think I'm wrong. Can I fellowship with them though? I have. I will, in heaven. When I commune with the church, our agreement is on Jesus, God and Savior. Everything else is gravy, some of it is chaff. Some churches focus much more on the gravy than on the meal. Some gravy varieties are more appealing to me than others.

I hold some inclusive interpretations of the Bible because I am trying to read the Bible with a hermeneutic of love because God is love because Jesus changes everything. I seek to be open-handed and generous. I can think of many worse things to be known for. I'd like to be known as someone passionate for a culture of love.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Oh the things my mind retains

Last night, on the eve of my 44th birthday, my mind drifted towards a very old, but very vivid memory. I remember being a youngster in the backseat of my grandparents' car at a drive-in. I think it was the long closed Waterford drive-in. This memory drifts by regularly in the flotsam of my mind, so I've considered it many times. I figured I was about six years old. I also think my grandparents had expected me to be asleep by the time of the 2nd movie. I don't remember what the first movie was. I only remember the end of this movie in my memory.

I got out of bed and thought I'd see what Google could do for me. I searched for "70's movie, guy crucified on a box car." The clip on YouTube has enough screaming in it to wake a toddler.

Yeah, that image is a bit much for a youngster to digest and forget.

Google came through. Boxcar Bertha is a Martin Scorcese movie before he hit his stride and became famous starring David Carradine. Many reviewers mention it being an exploitation movie with plenty of violence and sex. The biggest shock to me last night was learning this movie came out in 1972. I was two years old! I saw my first crucifixion before I ever graduated to Sunday School. I had no grid to process what I saw. Yet I remember it so vividly to this day, nearly 42 years later.

Yesterday, the Tumblerbot asked me what my earliest memory is. Until last night, I thought it was when I was around 3 running to the bathroom before I had an accident and I did not make it. It had to be potty training age. I remember playing outside with a friend and ignoring my body's signals until it was a crisis. I remember running and knowing I wasn't going to make it. I remember the release and then the memory ends. At least, as a toddler, I had a grid for messing myself.

I want to warn all of you who have the privilege of being around very small children. They miss nothing. So give them an abundance of safety and love, in words and images and actions.
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Boxcar Bertha
Boxcar Bertha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

energy and heat from your roof

I first saw this today at Inhabitat's blog. I have seen roofs with panels that heat water. I have seen solar panels on roofs. But now SolTech Energy in Sweden figured out how to combine them. The thin film solar panels are laid on the roof. Then the glass tiles are laid over them. The glass tiles heat up air that is used to heat water, which is stored, and available for heating and domestic water use. This idea is so cool.
This is their schematic.
Here is their finished product.
Glass tiles can't be cheap, and the roof would need extra strength to support it all, but the awesomeness of the whole thing cannot be beat.

update:
It turns out an American company in New Jersey named Englert has developed a similar system with thin laminated solar panels on a standing seam metal roof with the glycol/water piped underneath the roof.

As far as aesthetics go, the glass tiles look so much better. But you get what you pay for.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Another New England compatible alternative house construction idea

New England has an abundance of trees, rocks and sand. The sand comes from glacial till, back when the glaciers spread over this area and bulldozed everything down to the granite. As they melted, ground down rocks and sand were left behind. Sand is abundant in these parts. How can it be used for home construction though? By itself, it can be a great wall, but not in a cold climate, because it does not insulate. Bagged sand is a great way to build walls between frames. But without clay and lots of muscle it won't form a strong earth bag house or a rammed earth home. Small bags can be used to build walls, as is being done in South Africa and Israel by Ecosteps. Big bags in gabions can do the trick as well. As I've struggled with this issue before, I thought I would have to settle with a foam insulation. But there is a new option available, mushroom insulation. The Long Island packaging company Ecovative Design has expanded their concept from protecting fragile packages to insulating homes with dead mycelium. They even insulated a tiny house this way as a demonstration, affectionately titled the Mushroom Tiny House. Like any other insulation, sheathing protects it from the elements. It might be kind of cool looking on some interior walls to leave it as is. Thus my proposal is a mushroom sandwich with sand, or stone, providing strength and thermal mass in the middle between insulating slices of mushroom.

This is Ecovative's picture comparing their product to foam. Oil + foam expansion or mycelium + agricultural waste.
I wonder if a roof could be insulated this way as well?

Now, all I need is land, a building permit, money, and time...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jesus changes everything in the Bible

In Jesus' sermon on the mount, as written by Matthew in the 5th-7th chapters of his gospel, he teaches many counter-intuitive, even heavenly, ideals. One of those is about non-retaliation and extending love even to our enemies.
Matthew 5:38 You know that Hebrew Scripture sets this standard of justice and punishment: take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say this, don’t fight against the one who is working evil against you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you are to turn and offer him your left cheek. 40 If someone connives to get your shirt, give him your jacket as well. 41 If someone forces you to walk with him for a mile, walk with him for two instead. 42 If someone asks you for something, give it to him. If someone wants to borrow something from you, do not turn away. 43 You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you this: love your enemies. Pray for those who torment you and persecute you— 45 in so doing, you become children of your Father in heaven. He, after all, loves each of us—good and evil, kind and cruel. He causes the sun to rise and shine on evil and good alike. He causes the rain to water the fields of the righteous and the fields of the sinner. 46 It is easy to love those who love you—even a tax collector can love those who love him. 47 And it is easy to greet your friends—even outsiders do that! 48 But you are called to something higher: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (The Voice)
This teaching forces Christians to wrestle with many things in the Old Testament, like what I read this morning, in my daily lectionary reading, Psalm 149.
1 Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, And His praise in the assembly of saints.
2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
3 Let them praise His name with the dance; Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.
4 For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation.
5 Let the saints be joyful in glory; Let them sing aloud on their beds.
6 Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand,
7 To execute vengeance on the nations, And punishments on the peoples;
8 To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron;
9 To execute on them the written judgment— This honor have all His saints. Praise the Lord!
The mood certainly gets weird from the middle of verse 6 on. I'm sure even most devout Jews these days aren't taking this verse very literally. But maybe the Maccabee family did when they overthrew the Greek rulers who defiled their temple in Jerusalem. Did the Crusaders find comfort in this verse as they set out to kill the infidels? I'm sure some Jews as well as Christians even today take this hymn of worship literally to some degree or other. Maybe they consider the two-edged sword figurative for an AR-15 rifle. Here is the evangelical/fundamentalist dilemma. In the 2nd epistle to Timothy is written a key verse for inerrantists,
2 Tim. 3:16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness...
The key question for me is this Psalm one of the scriptures inspired by God? In the gospels, Jesus says when we see him, we see God. Jesus says he only tells us what he hears from God. Jesus tells us he only does what God tells him to do. So if one part of the Bible is in contradiction with what Jesus teaches, it makes sense to me to assume that part is not inspired by God. The turn in v.6 of Psalm 149 is a clear example to me, of the intersection of the humanity and the divinity in the Bible.

In yesterday's post, on the chaff of American evangelical Christianity, I wrote that this blending of human and divine in the Bible is obvious, but I had joined my tribe, in it's devotion to inerrancy, to affirm the divinity of these parts that even Jesus does not agree with. If I call it figurative, can I claim it inerrant when the author does not seem to be speaking figuratively? If I call it the Psalmist's honest expression, is it inerrant if it is not inspired by God? Did God really say this through the Psalmist? Uh-oh. Now I'm speaking like the Satanic snake in the Garden of Eden...Did God really say...? The question is extremely important and it is not demonic. Did God really command Moses and Joshua to wage war genocidally? Did God approve of Ezra's order for Jews married to Gentiles to divorce them and send away their wives and half-Jewish children? Did God tell Moses the proper way for Jewish soldiers to force captured women to be their wives? Are these things of God, who Jesus fully represents?

When Jesus is my lens for examining the Bible, I am no longer threatened by those ugly passages. Since Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever as Hebrews 13:8 asserts then I can believe he had nothing to do with the 2nd half of Psalm 149 or the even more violent Psalm 137. Letting go of inerrancy and using the Jesus lens is how I have begun to make peace with the texts of terror in the Bible.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

American evangelical chaff

I am an american evangelical raised in the fundamentalist strain of the faith. I had the book, The Fundamentals, for awhile, but I never read it. Lately, some of the sacred cows I used to defend vigorously, have lost their luster. This isn't new for me. I know longer think, like I told a poor girl in my high school youth group that listening to Pink Floyd means no salvation for her soul. I am an idiot. Now I like Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, too. But I elevated chaff to wheat. Miscellany to necessary. Dust to Must. Like then, so now, things I presumed gold looks more like pyrite. I don't like feeling foolish. But I am a fool, and, I feel I need to document my change in thinking. I do think I'm really learning to trust God's constant refrain in the Bible, "Fear not." There are three issues I've stopped fearing.

Number One:
When I went to the Christian liberal arts college my freshman year, I was somewhat scandalized, really scandalized, but then really liberated, when my class had no time for young earth creationism or flood geology. I have swung around that pole of creation/evolution for a long time. I'm a biologist. I love science. I love biology. I've read the fundamentalist books defending a literal seven day, recent creation and I've read evangelical books saying that the evidence for an old earth and evolution are not threats to the faith. I even read the Intelligent Design books, thinking it might be a middle way. But lately, I've been reading outside my Christian subculture. Right now I am reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey, and it is excellent. The British naturalist is not an exciting writer. He writes like a scientist. In this book, he looks at some of living creatures that have deep roots in the fossil record, such as horseshoe crabs and velvet worms. This summer I read a short book, The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood by David R. Montgomery. One benefit of these books for the general audience instead of the christian fundamentalists is that I can borrow them from the local library. I did buy and will soon read Four Views on the Historical Adam. When I'm not reading books like these I'm reading blogs by Christians that explain the evidence for evolution and contrast the issues that young earthers and worldwide flooders can't explain, while still loving Jesus and not becoming devil worshippers. I like the Biologos blog, Science and the Sacred, for straight up science, I like Naturalis Historia, and for an intersection of theology and evolution, Musings on Science and Theology. The third blogger chooses to remain anonymous. I suspect that is because coming out as an old earther evolutionist could have career consequences. There aren't any career consequences for me. It is low risk for me to be public in my belief that young earth creationism is evangelical chaff. The wind has blown it away. It was never nutritious anyway.

Number 2:
I did read the conservative evangelical book from the 70's, The Battle for the Bible, by Howard Lindsell. Around the same time this book came out, a group of evangelical leaders got together and formulated the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Inerrancy has become a conservative evangelical shibboleth. I used to support it. However, in the past few months I've read a few books, three by evangelicals, that, in my view, show that inerrancy can mean whatever it wants, as long as the author bows to it. The four recent books are Is God a Moral Monster?, Against the Gods, Who wrote the Bible?, and The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. The last one is a beast. I'm also glad I read the third one before reading the last one so I can know what topics are ignored in such a massive book. However, that massive book did demonstrate the evolution (see what I did there) of the text of the Old Testament. I have waiting for me on my Kindle Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. When I'm not reading big books on Bibilical textual criticism, I benefit from a few bloggers as well, each consider themselves evangelical as well: Peter Enns, Roger Olson, and Michael Heiser. Shaking off inerrancy as chaff does not take away from the Bible as the word of God, because Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is a massive backstory for Jesus always regarding highly the life of faith, like Abraham, (see The Meaning of the Pentateuch). The book is a mingling of the human and the divine with expected consequences. The shiny parts that look like Jesus, divine, the ugly parts that don't look like Jesus, not divine. Greg Boyd and Brian Zahnd, among others, have been making a strong case for viewing the entire Bible from the revelation of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus is the surprise ending that reframes everything that came before. Thus, inerrancy, I've realized, is chaff. It claimed way too much, promised way too much, and can't engage numerous problems with the text without redefining itself to meaninglessness.

None of these things are creedal issues. These are topics to talk about. They are tribal issues things that show what slice we want to belong. I'm an outlier in my tribe, but I haven't stepped outside of earliest formulations of Christianity, which were concerned with the Triune God and fully human and fully divine Jesus. The third item is also not creedal, but it sure gets people's hackles up.

Third:
In high school, I prayed with one of my gay friends to entrust his life to Jesus. But Jesus did not un-gay him. After college, in the early 90's I volunteered a couple nights a week at a free AIDS test clinic. I wanted to be the hands of Jesus to those who feared for their lives. I also learned in the 90's, in my evangelical world, that people could pray the gay away or have therapy to undo their bad relationship with their fathers. This year, the biggest evangelical ex-gay ministry folded, admitting that those two things do not happen. Three other books I've read in the past couple years by conservative Christians say the same thing: The end of Sexual Identity, Washed and Waiting, and Homosexuality and the Christian. This past spring I also reviewed a great book God's Gay Agenda by an evangelical who formerly served with YWAM, who now pastors a small church, and is a lesbian with a wife. This book engages the Bible head on and makes a strong case that the conservative, anti-gay, evangelical culture is missing something in translation, both in language but also in context. At some point I will buy Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more in depth Biblical re-assessment of this issue. I think Christians can disagree over their understanding of homosexuality and sin from the Bible, yet still be siblings in the faith. Just like I think Christians can listen to Pink Floyd without threatening their salvation. Homosexuality is an issue I have wrestled with in over 130 posts on this blog. As I wrestled, reasoned, read, listened, and tried to understand, I'm now at the point where I think it is chaff. It's not essential. It's not creedal. It's not something I need to worry about. What I do need to worry about is loving my neighbor as I love myself. I need to love my gay neighbors as much as my white, conservative, straight, married, Christian neighbors. One way I can love my gay brothers and sisters is to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives to reveal to them the path they pursue, either towards a life of celibacy or a life of companionship and marriage. I don't think excluding them, and making conditions on my acceptance of them is loving. Jesus saves them, not me. I think full inclusion of my gay brothers and sisters in church is an Acts 10 opportunity for the church. Just as the full inclusion of women into leadership is as well. I used to not think these things. I need to give everyone who still thinks like I did as much grace as I need.

I argue a lot on the internet. I don't like that feature of me so much. I'm not interested in arguing these things. I like reading and sharing what I've learned. I like encouraging those who might disagree with me to read the books I read and arrive at their own conclusions from more than the dozen paragraphs here. Be warned though, the more I've learned, the less I know. I titled this "American evangelical chaff" because I don't think these issues are historic, worldwide, orthodox church issues, the first two especially, the third I'm waiting on ancient church data to consider. Suggestions are welcome.



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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Advent, Joseph, Love, God

Betrayal is the worst, and as far as Joseph knew, Mary had betrayed him. His fiance was pregnant. He had brutal, legal options available to him in this patriarchal society they lived in, yet he chose the least likely one, the one of generosity and love.

As Matthew tells it,
18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. Matthew 1
He didn't choose his rights, he chose peace. God chose something greater though. God had not only chosen Mary, he had chosen Joseph as well. Matthew continues the story,
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph encountered a divine messenger. God wanted him to know that Mary was telling the truth. Her conception was a miracle wrought by Him. Furthermore, Joseph was to stick with the original, pre-conception wedding plan.

The story only gets more chaotic from this point though. He proceeds to marry a pregnant gal, voluntarily taking on disgrace. No wonder they never moved back into the neighborhood. They did have to move, which might have been a relief, but the timing was poor. Mary was pretty late in the pregnancy, "great with child," when politics intervened and he had to register for the census in his hometown, Bethlehem, an hour away, by car. Seventy miles is a long trip on foot or donkey. When they finally arrive, he can't find a place to settle down or have a baby. Perhaps his family in town was not happy to have the disgraced couple stay with them.

God, who had spoken to both parents, and told them of great plans of the child, a new king for their nation, wasn't talking to them anymore. They had faith because of what they had experienced of God, they had hope, based on what He had told them, but He was silent. As Luke tells it,
1 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancĂ©e, who was now obviously pregnant. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2
The journey, the "lodging," if not guided by God directly, was an empty canvas for Joseph to fill in.  He painted with love. Soon afterwards, as Matthew tells it, another messenger from God tells them to flee to Egypt. Again, Joseph is left to fill in the blanks, for who knows how long, until it was time to return to Israel. When he did, another dream message tells him to move to Galilee, where they settle. Galilee is not a well regarded area. Again, Joseph chooses the way of shame, based on dreams from God. He trusts God. He has great hopes for his son. He loves his family.

Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 13:13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. Why is love superior? Later on in the early church, John the Beloved writes, twice, in his first letter, "God is love," 1 John 4:8, 16. I've been pondering lately why God is not ever equated to faith or hope. I understand faith to be based on my past experiences. I understand hope to be my approach to the future. But love is for the present. Love is what I am to do NOW.

Like Joseph, I have had dreams and encounters with God. Like Joseph, I have a desire for a better future. Like Joseph, the canvas given to me is not a paint by numbers type. It has large blank spaces. But if I fill it with love, I fill it with God. He may be quiet in my life now. But I can fill this now with love, and be a messenger of His, for someone else. When I a present with love, I am representing God.

In John's final vision, I remember doing Greek translation and getting thrown off at a frequent phrase. God is described as the one who is, the one who was, and the one yet to come. I always thought that last phrase would be the one who "will be", but it's not.
Revelation 1:4 Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come...Rev. 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God—the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come—the All-Powerful! 
The highlight for me is He is the God, firstly, WHO IS. He is present. He is love. We know the back story. We have glimpses of the future. In between, right now, we have love. The baby Jesus is God's loving gift of himself.

1 John 4:7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
 9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 
10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. 13 And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. 14 Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 All who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. 16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. 18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.

Since perfect love casts out fear, we know why those angels keep saying at Advent, "FEAR NOT," because love arrived.

Merry Christmas. Fear not. Live in love, even when betrayed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why is the church not attractive to men?

I just finished listening to the 2nd Sunday of Advent message from Pastor Brian Zahnd in St. Joseph Missouri. He was not speaking about the shortage of men in church. But what he spoke on got me thinking about the question of this post, and the hand wringing it inspires in some church leaders. He spoke on Daniel's vision of the goat who would dominate the world, Alexander the Great, and the son of man who would prevail, Jesus, the lamb who was slain but lives, as seen in John's revelation. The contrasts which Zahnd highlighted between Alexander and Jesus were striking, but on in particular stood out to me. During one of Alexander's conquests he crucified 2000 enemies. Jesus, however, announced his kingdom, proclaimed its victory, by letting his enemies crucify him. Alexander's backdrop as a Greek was Homer's Iliad and it's violent hero Achilles. Jesus's backdrop as a Jew was Isaiah's vision of a king who suffered and died and was rejected to save his people. They both died in their early thirties and Alexander's kingdom long ago faded away, but Jesus's kingdom continues to expand.

Alexander's example inspired subsequent despots, men who were successful at warfare, destruction, and victories on the battlefield. Some churches preach a Jesus who looks like Alexander rather than stands in sharp contrast to him. Those churches attract men. Those men become what they worship.

A beat up, outcast, weak Jesus attracts outcasts, the weak, and the broken, men and women. Defeated men and women. Minority men and women. Unsuccessful men and women. Jesus tells a story about this in Luke 14.
12-14 Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
15 That triggered a response from one of the guests: “How fortunate the one who gets to eat dinner in God’s kingdom!” 16-17 Jesus followed up. “Yes. For there was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’
 18 “Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’ 19 “Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’ 20 “And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’
 21 “The servant went back and told the master what had happened. He was outraged and told the servant, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’ 22 “The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’ 23-24 “The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’” The Message
Jesus is for losers. It's not a message that can bring the crowd of winners, men who think highly of themselves. But it's a great song by Steve Taylor. I'd love to hear this every Sunday morning coming into church to set the right frame of mind for all who enter.


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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lincoln's legacy - Red states receive blue cash

This article is depressing, Was the Gettysburg Address a mistake? at Politico by Chuck Thompson who writes strongly in hope of letting the southern Tea Party states secede. He's pretty much calling their bluff and hypocrisy. In general, the "liberal, socialist" states pay more in taxes than they receive back from the feds, and the southern states receive more than they pay. See graphic here and article here.

 Thompson writes in the article concerning the South's response to Reconstruction was "... casting itself as the woebegone victim through typically radical politics (obstructionist), religion (evangelical), race relations (segregated), education (under-funded) and business (anti-labor), has done its level best ever since to remain an emotionally estranged partner who nevertheless sticks around for the financial support."

The Northern liberals keep donating their money to help the poor in other states including those in states who need assistance. Those states who proclaim fiscal restraint to the detriment of those in need, that the feds then come to pick up the tab for. Now with the highly imperfect ACA (Obamacare) which sought to help more of the sick by paying for them to be on Medicare, many of these states refused the offer, and prefer to keep the needy in need. In places where megachurch pastors refuse to publicly comment on the unmet need of the poor in their states being blocked by their states.

The reason the federal government is offering to get everyone insured is because the states and the charities could not get it done. People were suffering and going into bankruptcy because of unaffordable healthcare, but churches, charities, and proud state governments could not, perhaps some would not, solve the issue, nor even stem the bleeding.

On this anniversary of the Gettysburg address it would be nice to strive for the ideal of the Declaration of Independence which Lincoln appeals to in the opening and close of that short speech.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
....that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

If we all are created equal, let's treat our neighbors as nicely as we'd like to be treated. If the people want medical care, let's stop obstructing their government from getting it to them. I'll give Lincoln the last word, close to the end of his life at the Second inaugural address, spoken like someone familiar with the open-handed posture in the parable of the good Samaritan.

With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. Abraham Lincoln

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Open-handed - a posture personally, theologically, and politically

Last night a friend from church asked me what side I fall on politically. Old labels carry too much baggage though. I know who I have been and I know who I want to be. I want to be someone who loves God and loves my neighbors. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus explains through a story who
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 qualifies as a "neighbor" (anyone in need) and what it looks like to love them (generosity of time, space and money), I see an all encompassing philosophy of life. It's a philosophy that is unhindered by artificial social barriers. It sees unity with all who bleed. No one in need is excluded. All are included. The examples of villains in Jesus' story are those who cannot be bothered with the inconvenience of aid, who cannot forget past grievances, who transfer the faults of a group onto the individual, who delight in justice instead of mercy. What makes the Samaritan good is the open-handed posture. What makes the others in the story counter examples is their closed-handed.

What makes Jesus intriguing to so many is his open-handed posture. But he wasn't always. His hand was closed to those who hurt others. His hand was closed to those whose hands were not open. A closed hand ignores the cries of the poor, the moans of the sick, the songs of (incorrect) worshipers. A closed hand takes instead of receives. An open hand gives, defends, heals, and protects.

I fall politically where I fall theologically, where I want to fall personally. Call me open handed, because progressive, or liberal, or inclusive, or generous are too easy. Open-handed is much harder, but more beautiful.
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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pastors who practice conspicuous consumption

I'm not naming any names because this is a recurring issue for pastors who come into wealth. They start living wealthy and proudly. Then they get called out on it and respond angrily. "God has blessed me. You're just jealous. Who gave you the right to judge me?"

I'd like to defend the multitudes.

The "haters" are simply responding to the juxtaposition between the Jesus they read about and the lifestyle He condemns. These people are not haters, but brothers and sisters, crooked like all of us. But even Balaam learned from his talking ass.


Matthew 6:19-21

The Voice (VOICE)
19 Some people store up treasures in their homes here on earth.This is a shortsighted practice—don’t undertake it. Moths and rust will eat up any treasure you may store here. Thieves may break into your homes and steal your precious trinkets.20 Instead, put up your treasures in heaven where moths do not attack, where rust does not corrode, and where thieves are barred at the door. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Jesus



Omid Safi who blogs at "What Would Mohammed do?" and is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - explains this much better than me on his latest blog post Jesus doesn't want you to be rich. Even though he does not believe in Jesus as his savior, I don't think he is hating on anyone.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Trying to be a lover and not a hater

I think, because I don't know for sure, that a posture of love presents as civil, kind, humble, generous and inclusive. For whatever reasons, especially in my defenses of fundamentalist christianity, more so online than in real life, I have not presented myself in these ways. I might have thought was behaving out of love, but I wasn't.

One of the slogans in evangelical christianity is that we become what we worship. What was I worshiping that was hard, lacking grace, ignoring other people's stories that didn't align with the big picture I believed? Words on a page? Elaborate assemblages of those words? Safety? Worshiping the Word of God, a person, deity in the flesh, complicated and dangerous is so much more difficult. It's the simplicity of it that makes it difficult. Living by two rules, love Him and love my neighbor, is too open ended.

I wanted to title this post, "trying to not be an asshole," but it might not be very loving to some of my neighbors who would read this. That's my current life goal, to not be a stinkin' chute of waste in the world. It's still not as good as love my neighbor and love Jesus. The difference with Jesus's commands and others is the lack of the word "not."

A lover is civil. A lover is kind. A lover is generous. A lover is inclusive. A lover also pulls down old blog posts that do not present love.

Galatians 5:22-24

The Message (MSG)
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
23-24 Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Another low impact New England house idea - clay slip and wood chips

As I noted previously, New England farmers raised more rocks than crops over the past few centuries. The last ice age scraped all the dirt off the granite and formed Long Island. However, after the farmers gave up on New England, and more efficient fuel sources replaced wood, New England's forests have returned in abundance. My previous proposal for a New England gabion house uses the abundant rocks, but needs spray foam, which is not a low impact product, to provide insulation. Lately, I've been reading about slip-chip walls. Basically, wood chips are coated in clay and lightly stuffed into a wall form then allowed to dry out. As in many low impact homes, the thicker the walls, the better. Some builders use reed mats as permanent forms. Other builders have used a double wall of (free) pallets for a straw-clay infill on the Pine Ridge reservation. Straw and wood chips trap air which increases the insulation properties of the in-fill. Processed hemp will work as well, but, foolishly, it's not legal to grow in the United States. That may be coming to end though. Colorado farmers harvested their first crop recently.

Anyway, there is plenty of chatter on American websites about the potential of wood chip- clay slip infill. Apparently, the ideas have more history in Germany, but I have not found the German sites yet, except for the German wiki article on Lehmbau. This German site has some info and an english version as well.
Natural Builders Northeast - my part of the country.
Earthen Built
Heartwood Homesteads
Pot Kettle Black has pictures of a house in Groton Mass. under construction with chip-slip
Natural Design Build
Green Space Collaborative
Network Earth has a good long article on clay and home construction
FoxMaple , where this image comes from

Of course, a passive solar orientation along with proper summer shading will go a long way towards making this a home that is easy to keep comfortable with minimal costs.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Head Start: an expensive program with few short term results but great long term results

During the current government shutdown of 2013, one of the programs that is currently stopped is the early childhood education program started 50 years ago called Head Start. Originally, it was believed that earlier education would improve the IQ of those children who participated. This did not happen. In fact, not much happens. The Department of Health and Human Services itself found very little difference between third graders who were or were not in Head Start when they were three and four year olds. This finding is trumpeted by conservative essayists at places like the Heritage Foundation. However, when the subjects are revisited every 10 years for 30 years, a different story emerges. While Head Start cannot increase a child's IQ, it can introduce the practice of self-control, something not every child is born with yet every child can learn. Here is a big quote from the previously linked article.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not, if you think about it — the study found that the ability to exercise good self-control had a much greater effect on success later in life than did academic test scores or parental income. How was success defined? The researchers looked at the child’s situation in adulthood — income, credit ratings, tangles with the law, drug abuse problems and physical health — all factors where real-world numbers tell the tale. The conclusion: The better a very young child can exercise self-control, the more successful that child will be as an adult. The research shows that this is true even for children in wealthy families. The benefit goes to kids whose parents are poor role models themselves. The researchers who discovered this found that when a 3- or 4-year-old learns either at home or in a pre-kindergarten program to share, to take turns and to wait patiently for things to happen, that ability sticks with them through the rest of their lives. You can learn that in a well-parented home, but not so easily from parents who themselves never learned self-control. This turns out to be a big factor in the poverty cycle.
It looks like a big investment in the beginning of a generation has a big payoff when that generation enters adulthood. There are several studies in multiple countries arriving at the same conclusion.Here is one,
Childhood self-control and adult outcomes: results from a 30-year longitudinal study.
Here is another,
A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety
Here is another popular treatment at Time magazine. The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later
Read more about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
For what it's worth, religious upbringing does not guarantee reduced impulsivity, which might explain why wild and reckless children of pastor's is such a stereotype.

I write all this in light of the foolish libertarian Ayn Randian questions about whether our government should be involved in social issues, like alleviating poverty. Since the moral argument holds no weight for the Fox News loving Randian, I'm presenting the benefit in economic terms. A member of society who is not in jail, and has learned self control and delayed gratification is a member who can contribute to, participate in, and give increase to society. Not all children are in families that can teach essential skills to prosper. Children born in privileged families have the fiscal resources to recover from mistakes that would socially impair those in poverty. A little help from successful taxpayers can prevent the proliferation of prisons and prison populations which are a drain on society, especially America's, who has the largest prison population in the world.

Head Start enables us to be better. Defunding programs like this is a short sighted political move.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New England gabion house idea

Although I love straw bale houses, New England is not a big wheat producing region with lots of waste straw to bale. I'm not certain, but I think straw would have to be imported for a Connecticut house. It's a great insulating "brick" to build with, but I've been pondering what is local, and abundant and affordable to build with?

I also love earth bricks, but our soil typically needs to have clay supplemented in these parts, to make them. I have seen a Canadian rammed earth house built in a sandwich around a foam core. Rammed earth has the same needs as earth bricks and earth bags as well.

I live in Connecticut, where farms are very good at raising rocks. Literally, for centuries, New England farmers have to clear new rocks out of their fields, heaved up each winter by the freeze thaw cycle. Stone walls are everywhere around here. Like many things in these parts, glaciers get the blame. Nevertheless, stone is an abundant natural resource. Quarries are also a common site in these parts as well. Most of them are abandoned these days. There are many homes around here built from stone, both dressed (quarried) and undressed (as is), with mortar holding them together. I am really attracted to the strength of these homes.One big drawback for this climate is the lack of insulation in these stone houses. They do not resist heat flow. Nor does this climate have large temperature swings in the daytime and nighttime to that might create a temperature flywheel effect. The stone is good at retaining a constant temperature, which is a feature if it's a comfortable temperature for humans.

This is my proposal. Wire cages filled with loose stone as walls, but with spray foam on the outside. Maybe the cages are pre-filled then lifted by crane into position on the wall, like in this video.

I looks like these cages are not alternating in their vertical edges, which does not seem like a good idea to me. Regardless, the interface between the rocks and the cage seems to be an enticing habitat to creepy crawlies, both rodents and insects, as well as fungi and plant life. But a spray foam on the exterior would not only insulate, but also would deny all potential unwanted co-residents a location to move into as well as tie the structure together. The use of spray foam on the exterior is a good idea from the brilliant Corten Container advocate, Renaissance Ronin.

I think leaving the interior uncovered could be a neat look on the interior. It might be overwhelming too. Here's a link to an architect's website showing a house made of wood and gabions. The occasional internal wall of internal gabions looks really nice to me. Apparently, this house is not in climate that has to worry about winter. Wood, sheet rock, plaster, or plain are all options for interior walls. Electrical and water lines would have to stay exposed or only run through interior walls or the floor.

I have to admit that spray foam is not that environmentally friendly. It's a compromise. A short term concession for a long term payback in reduced carbon fuel usage in the long term. It also would require cladding of some sort over it. 

The interior exposed stone could help hold a steady temperature for the conditioned air space, reducing the energy requirements.

I can't help myself. I am very attracted to solid, castle-like construction. Next thing you know I will be proposing natural pools that form a moat around the house.

Monday, September 02, 2013

book response: Against the Gods by John D. Currid (2013)

When it comes to understanding the Bible, context is extremely important. Dr. Currid has provided a very distilled, but excellent introduction to the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world that the Jewish scriptures emerged from in his book Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Archaeologists have done tremendous work and translators, who cannot keep up with all the discoveries, are making the context better and better. Dr. Currid focuses the book on a few key stories from Genesis and Exodus. He has a chapter on the creation account, Noah's flood, Joseph and the false rape accusation, Moses and his infant escape, Moses's escape from Egypt, God's name "I am that I am", Moses's miracle rod, the parting of the Red Sea and seemingly plagiarism of Canaanite Psalms.

The book description on the back of the book is enlightening for what leading question it does not answer. "Did the Old Testament writers borrow ideas from their pagan neighbors? And if they did, was it done uncritically?" The abundant examples Currid notes from the ANE show that these Bible stories listed above did not arise de novo. This reality does not have to threaten one's faith, but it should challenge extra-Biblical presuppositions. Dr. Currid's summarizes his proposal for the borrowing of stories at the end of the book,
Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about he relationship of the Old Testament to the ancient Near Eastern literature and life... the truth that the biblical writers often employed polemical theology as an instrument to underscore the uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the universe and how it operates. p. 141
In other words, the polemically theological Bible story composer refashions popular stories, stripping them of polytheism and refocusing them on the one, true God, Yahweh. This is something the church has done for centuries. The New Testament writers, following Jesus Christ's own examples, took the Jewish scriptures and found in them prophecies of Jesus. The church around the world has taken popular music and changed the lyrics to worship the one, true God. Missionaries have used cultural motifs to explain the work of Jesus on their behalf. I recommend the classic book, Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson, for a multitude of examples of this missionary practice.

Proverbs 27:6a says "Faithful are the wounds of a friend." Dr. Currid is a friend to evangelicals. Dr. Currid is an evangelical, a Presbyterian senior minister and Professor of Old Testament at RTS in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nevertheless, for those of us who have not taken seminary classes on the Bible's ANE milieu Dr. Currid's brief book can be shocking and potentially devastating to certain versions of evangelical faith. This book is not about simple answers. It provokes the reader to think with and like the scholars. Certainly 140 pages is not enough, but the extensive footnotes offer plenty of options to further educate oneself in the formation of the Bible. (Dr. Currid does not mention it in this book, but many proverbs have parallels in Egyptian literature as well.)

I'm extremely grateful to Crossway for providing a complimentary review copy.
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Monday, August 19, 2013

book response: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan (2011)

During my Haiti trip I brought my Kindle and read in transit and in down time. After finishing Tom Sawyer, I read a book I bought on sale at Amazon, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan, a Christian philospher and apologist who teaches in Florida. He uses the criticisms of the Bible by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism as the topics for his chapters. I found the book helpful but uneven. Some things were really good, but not everything. I have many highlights which I will be interacting with in this book response.

The following assertion is an example of the "not-so good" because it is reductionist.
The Theme of the Pentateuch: Abraham’s Faith and Moses’s Unbelief Biblical scholars have pointed out that the theme of faith holds the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) together at its seams. The two major players are Abraham and Moses. Abraham is the positive example of faith, while Moses is the negative example. Abraham had faith without the law of Moses, which was given at Mount Sinai. Despite his wavering, he trusted God’s promise, and so he was declared righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). By contrast, Moses actually failed in his faith—even though he lived under the law given at Sinai. p.43
The footnote points to the work of John H. Sailhamer who is certainly a respectable source, yet if I can rattle off a few examples of Abraham's lack of faith easily, I think Copan leaves himself open to readers' doubts. This theme is attractive yet needs more development than provided in the couple pages he devotes to it.

In contrast, I am powerfully attracted to his summary statement about the crucifixion of Jesus. "God’s glory is revealed in God’s self-humiliation." p. 53 I'm guilty of being fickle. However, my reading background in theology allows me to receive some things with ease and remain skeptical of others. Your own reading mileage will vary as well.

Copan looks squarely in the eye of the ugliness of the Old Testament.
Instead of glossing over some of the inferior moral attitudes and practices we encounter in the Old Testament, we should freely acknowledge them. We can point out that they fall short of the ideals of Genesis 1–2 and affirm with our critics that we don’t have to advocate such practices for all societies. We can also show that any of the objectionable practices we find in the Old Testament have a contrary witness in the Old Testament as well. p.62
For Copan, these aren't contradictions, but accommodations of God for the warped humanity he seeks to save, the very line of reasoning Jesus used when asked about divorce laws. Jesus says divorce was explicitly permitted in the Torah because of the hardness of our hearts.

The laws are not only concerned with restricting the wickedness within but also with distinguishing their culture from those without. For example, the kosher food laws that forbid God's gift to humanity, bacon, to Jews. Why such hardship? "Every meal was to remind them of their redemption. Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world." p.81 There was to be no distinction between secular and sacred or church and state in the Mosaic culture. Everything was sacred.

But some legislation was over the top. Although many parents can sympathize with such extreme laws such as stoning rebellious adolescents, we can't actually endorse them. It's lunacy. Copan offers a posssibility, though it doesn't hold much water for me. "Especially in exemplary or first-time cases, God seems especially heavy-handed. God isn’t to be trifled with. He takes sin seriously, and he is often setting a precedent with first-time offenses." p.90 My difficulty is what this implies about God. Is God consistent or not? In my reading, such laws seem much more human than divine in their origin which leads to questions on how inspired are these scriptures. In later topics, I suspect Copan might have the same questions.

When Copan contrasts the Mosaic laws with contemporary legislation from other Ancient Near Eastern societies, the Israelites look like progressives. However, the slavery laws, which are atrocious are given a pass for being on an incrementalist path by God. 
This was also the type of incremental strategy taken by President Abraham Lincoln. Though he despised slavery and talked freely about this degrading institution, his first priority was to hold the Union together rather than try to abolish slavery immediately. Being an exceptional student of human nature, he recognized that political realities and predictable reactions required an incremental approach. The radical abolitionist route of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison would (and did!) simply create a social backlash against hard-core abolitionists and make emancipation all the more difficult. p. 153
I could work with this if there wasn't so much non-incrementalist laws as well, e.g. so many offenses requiring the death penalty.


The main reason I bought this book was to learn how Copan handles the genocidal passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua. He notes that within the Biblical texts, the claims of complete extermination, were contradicted by later appearances of those tribes in later history. Also, the exemptions for Canaanites such as Rahab and the village of Gibeon demonstrate God's permission for incomplete destruction. Using examples of hyperbolic language from other ancient near eastern documents, Copan shows that hyperbole is normal for battle campaign descriptions. The question arises in my head, did God speak in hyperbole through Moses to Joshua and the Israelites? Copan seems to anticipate this question but cheats on his solution. He blames Moses for using colloquial hyperbole.
Joshua carried out what Moses commanded (Deut. 7 and 20), which means that Moses’s language is also an example of ancient Near Eastern exaggeration. He did not intend a literal, all-encompassing extermination of the Canaanites. p. 185
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Do you see what he does there? He is not acting like a dedicated inerrantist. He is saying God's message got muddled when it came through Moses. He could also be saying Moses communicated in person God's hyperbole with a wink of the eye, but it was lost in the transmission to us today. In that case, he was accurately communicating God's words to his immediate audience, but not to us, today's readers. Maybe some of us did read into the text the hyperbole, but the church has been guilty of using these texts to justify her own acts of terror. Jesus also used hyperbole. Most believers throughout the church's history get that, which is why most of us retain both our hands and eyes. This is a big deal. What God says is not the entirety of what he means. Proof texting is a deadly game. Context is so important. The most important context is that Jesus reveals God. The most important revelation of God's character is that He is Love. This information from the New Testament needs to color everything we read in the Old Testament.

But wait, say my atheist and skeptical friends. Even if the Israelites didn't commit genocide, they did rack up a body count. Their ferocity seemed to be spiritually fueled by God's wrath. What is to be made of God's wrath? Isn't it embarrassing for the modern believer? It's not when one considers the atrocities practiced by the Canaanites and atrocities in general. He quotes Miroslav Volf who lived through the Balkan war.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. p. 192
Copan comments, "The apostle Paul brings these features together: 'Behold then the kindness and severity of God' (Rom. 11:22)." p. 192

The last objection he considers is hell. Why shouldn't God bring everybody to heaven. Again he looks to Volf.
Why doesn’t God show absolute hospitality to all without exclusion? Isn’t this the truly peaceful alternative?” Miroslav Volf astutely observes that “absolute hospitality” becomes difficult when the unrepentant perpetrators sit down with their unhealed, violated victims. Such a perverse view of hospitality would actually “enthrone violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.” p. 201
I have to concede this is a strong argument.

I learned much from this book. I think Copan's arguments may concede more than he intends. The argument at-large is a good one, even when individual arguments can be weak. His explanation of ancient near eastern culture, based on current archaeology is excellent. This book, however, is not the final word for me on the genocidal passages, but it does contribute to mute the alarm when I read these passages. Other books that have helped are The Joshua Delusion by Earl and Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua by Brueggemann. I talked about them last year, here on the blog.
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