July 26

When Will We Listen?

U.S. Coronavirus cases rise steadily.
CNBC image.

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them…” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:3-5, 9-10)

With 3% of the population and some of the best medical technology in the world, the U.S. has 27% of the world’s Coronavirus cases and 23% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths. Something is dreadfully wrong. When will we ask what it is?

Virus cases in the European Union are plummeting. Yet the measures they took didn’t harm their economy nearly as much as our government’s response did. Why is our response so ineffective and economically painful?

During these times of crisis, the EU and its member states are working together and helping each other. (ECCEU Report)

The answer is relatively simple, and can be summed up in one word: greed. Greed is good, right? Gordon Gekko said so. So did Ayn Rand.

This may explain why our nation took the steps it did: downplaying the risk, being slow to close and quick to reopen, dragging its feet on testing, refusing to implement contact tracing, and even refusing to wear masks. Our own convenience has become an idol, more important than saving the lives of people we don’t know. Our own optimism has become an idol, outweighing the risk of sickness and death to those we do know and love. Our money has become more important than even our own lives.

Robber: Your money or your life!

Victim: Take my life, please. I’ll need my money for my old age!

The Bible says something different. While our churches argue about homosexuality, a topic that is arguably mentioned four times in the Bible, there are literally hundreds of instructions about the evils of not sharing our wealth. These range from Genesis (4:9-11) and the books of the law (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have too many to list here) to the prophets (again too many to list), the Gospel (ditto), and even Proverbs (e.g. 14:31; 19:17; 31:8-9) and the Psalms (e.g. 41:1, 82:3). We are to share our food and clothing (Prov 22:9; Is 58:6-7; Lk 14:13-14), even with immigrants (Dt 27:129), and even those whom we may believe are from a criminal class (Lk 10:25-37). Accumulation of wealth is an idol condemned (Is 5:8, Lk 12:16-21; 1 Tim 6:9-11).

Did God send the Coronavirus as a plague to punish an unjust nation? It’s possible (Dt 28:21, Lam 3:37). But in truth, the punishment we now receive we created ourselves. Cornonavirus showcases the fallacy of our “greed is good” culture. We wrote this future, God didn’t.

But will we listen to God now? God told us mortals what is good (Micah 6:8). We are called to put the good of the whole first, not our haircuts (buy a set of clippers here) or our gyms (try walking, or split your neighbor’s firewood). We’re called to wear a freaking mask–even if it’s only a little effective, every case we prevent avoids another potential death! We’re called to support widespread testing and, much as it rankles my libertarian conservatism, contact tracing. (Come on, folks– the government already knows where you’ve been because they have access to your cell phone location, and they can  listen to your conversations anytime they want! The intelligence agencies already know who we’re in contact with, they just don’t tell the health agencies.)

And we’re called to go out less. Yes, I’m going crazy with the kids home all the time. Yes, I occasionally have to substitute an ingredient or rethink a meal plan because I’m out of something and don’t run to the store every day anymore. Yes, I hate Zoom meetings and miss seeing people in person.

But the longer we avoid doing these things, the longer this will go on and the worse it will get.

Will we listen, or will we continue to be a rebellious nation?

P.S. As I wrote this post, the New York Times reported that Hurricane Anna, the first of the season, is bearing down on one of areas most hard hit by the Coronavirus. It’s likely to hit Corpus Christi, whose name means “the Body of Christ.” Wildfires are ravaging the West. Americans are no longer welcome in many other countries, including some we consider allies. Mothers are being tear gassed. Agents without uniforms are grabbing people off the streets. Reporters are being shot at, tear gassed, and beaten by authorities.

Are we ready to listen yet?

July 25

The Story of the Mythics

It’s a love story, a mystery, and a story of self discovery. But most of all, I wanted to write something fun to read.

I began writing The Mythics 30 years ago when I was still an agnostic. From the beginning I intended it as Christian allegory, and though I didn’t know it yet, I was nowhere near ready to complete it. It began with a character, Elm, who was a religious outsider like me. His story leads him between the simplistic, often legalistic beliefs of the society he lives in, and the mysterious person and beliefs of “the old man.” a nameless monk who lives in a lost city in the mountains who receives visits from an even more mysterious old woman who may or may not actually exist. Even in those early days, I recognized the mystery of God. Indeed, God was so mysterious that I had yet to find him!

But society tries to make belief easy. On the one hand there is the legalistic tradition that tells us to fit in and do what everyone else is doing. The Edict and the Station represent these, a system of keeping everyone in their place, similar to a caste system. Though Christianity doesn’t have caste, it does have the tradition, emphasized by Martin Luther and John Calvin, that God puts everyone in a particular role and we should be happy with what we have. Some are born rich; most are born poor. This has often been used to justify economic oppression.

The other religious fallacy in the book is represented by the followers of Trinus, a twisted representation of God masked in a holiness tradition and led by men seeking power. Trinus, of course is a thinly disguised metaphor for the Trinity– not the true Trinity but a popular belief that disempowers God to make him nothing but our judge in the afterlife. Many theologians, for example, believe that the Holy Spirit works in us only as we read Scripture. They leave no room for healing or revelation. The religious leaders hold the power, and they allow only conventional interpretation of Scripture, often from a particular English translation. But Scripture is richer than that. It contains multiple voices seeking to explain complex mysteries that cannot be put into words. And English, flexible as it is, nevertheless cannot capture the richness of Hebrew or Greek. The Bible, especially in translation, only points us to God. It cannot contain God. Nor can any human person comprehend the mind of God.

While some may balk at my representation of the old (perhaps apostolic) religion as a pantheon of Gods, this was intentional: God does indeed have many faces, from the three men who ate dinner with Abraham and Sarah and the mysterious figure who wrestled with Jacob, to the burning bush seen by Moses and the still small voice heard by Elijah. But at the root, God is what Genesis tells us: all powerful, male and female. When we dissect God and choose to honor only parts of the whole, we aren’t worshiping the true God, hence the prophecy in the book of the reunification of Sun and Moon.

All of this was envisioned in my first few years of writing the book. But I couldn’t finish it. I continued to work on the book off and on for many years. I’d make some progress, develop the world and its characters. But I couldn’t see the ending because my own spiritual path was still too incomplete. I had studied theology at a university. I came to believe in God about a decade after I started writing because of a powerful spiritual experience. I began reading the Bible regularly. But I still had no real knowledge of Christ or the Holy Spirit. I tried several times to bring the book into a final form, but none of my attempts satisfied me.

It wasn’t until four years ago that I truly met Christ and saw the Holy Spirit at work. Only then could I tie all the pieces of this story together coherently.

There is much more to the story than religion, of course. It’s a love story, a mystery, and a story of self discovery. But most of all, I wanted to write something fun to read. Religion provides an inescapable backdrop, but I didn’t want the story to get lost in it.

You get to judge whether I succeeded. Those who have read it have enjoyed it. I hope you will, too.

 

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July 22

Praise for Ordinary World

“No matter my protests, no matter my awareness, I am of Babylon and I shall suffer its eventual fate.” (Ordinary World)

One reader describes this as “among the most poignant lines ever written.” It seems particularly relevant now.

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July 21

Luke 1: The Prologue

Luke introduces his Gospel with a long prologue, a run-on sentence that spans four verses. This cannot compare with some of Paul’s, to be sure. But for many years it did discourage me from looking at it closely. I discovered much later what I’d missed. Luke’s prologue is rich in meaning. It tells us much about Luke’s perspective, and what he intends his Gospel to do.

But much of that gets lost in the conventional English translations because they stay close to the literal meaning. We shouldn’t dismiss the literal meaning, of course. But Greek and English differ greatly. Some words in Greek carry a more specific meaning than their English counterparts. And some Greek words allow much more ambiguity than the English translation.

Let’s take, for example, the Greek word ἐν, a simple preposition meaning “in.” In is in, right? How complicated could it be? Yet the definition of the word isn’t quite that simple:

properly, in (inside, within); (figuratively) “in the realm (sphere) of,” as in the condition (state) in which something operates from the inside (within).

You can see that this doesn’t entirely correspond with the English word “in,” and we don’t really have a word that carries that meaning.

Many translators substitute the English word “among.” That’s because for someone in 1st century Greco-Roman culture, perhaps especially in Jewish culture, a person was identified with the group to which they belonged. Where a Greek-speaker might say that something happened “in” a group, we as individualists would be more likely to say “among” the members of the group.

When we look at a translation like the NRSV and compare it with the Greek, we find that it leaves out a lot of the subtle meaning of the words. It comes out flat and lifeless. The NIV offers little improvement. And the KJV, while its language remains beautiful, doesn’t really come close.

But when we depart from the literal translation, we are challenged to remain true to the author’s actual meaning. Whenever we try to mix connotation with denotation, we risk distorting the meaning. As I translated this passage, I tried to consider its literal meaning, the more subtle implications of the words used, and the text it introduces. It took more words to convey the meaning, and the sentence was already too long for English, so I split it in two. Both sentences are still long, but I don’t see how to break them down further without losing meaning.

So here, for better or worse, is my translation.

Many have tried to arrange an encompassing narrative to express the magnitude of the things revealed in and among us, which from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have passed on to us. As one who has been involved myself, and after careful investigation of every part of the story, it seemed good to me to put this in a narrative to you, most noble Theophilus, so that you would come to experience that which you have been told and thus know it with certainty.

You’ll notice that in this translation, Luke emphasizes the aspect of revelation, that Jesus’s life and death revealed something new and astounding that others have not adequately conveyed. Obviously the most prominent feature for Luke was the inclusion of the Gentiles– us. But as we work through his Gospel, we’ll see more. For Luke, the coming and work of the Holy Spirit among (and within) us cannot be overstated. While Mark, like Luke emphasized an economic message, for Luke this economic shift is inseparable from the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom.

Another aspect that this translation includes is the distinction between head knowledge, “that which you have been told,” and heart knowledge, that which we truly know because we have experienced it. The Greek word ἐπιγνῷς means not just learning, but knowing through experience or relationship.

Luke intends for his Gospel to achieve that experience and relationship. He wants not to convince us, but to bring us into relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. He wants to influence not merely our minds, but our hearts.

July 18

Luke: Who Are the Many?

Many have undertaken to draw up an account… (Luke 1:1 [NIV])

As I said in my previous post, Luke begins by alerting us that he’s going to say something that “many” have so far failed to say. Who are these “many”? We don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses.

Most scholars believe that Luke wrote sometime in the 70s, about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This puts it about the same time as Matthew, after Mark, and before John. Some insist that because Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome and doesn’t mention Paul’s execution in 64, Luke must have completed his work before Paul’s execution. But we should remember that Luke tells us not only what happened, but what it meant. Symbolism is important and, as I said before, Luke does nothing by accident. His major movement tracks the Gospel coming from Galilee to Jerusalem, then to Samaria, and finally to the Gentiles. Paul’s arrival in Rome represents the great victory: the Gospel comes to the seat of Empire itself. This final movement provides the finale for Luke’s narrative of the Gospel. The martyrdom of Paul (and of Peter as well) adds nothing to this movement– and for Luke, the Word eclipses those who carried it. Acts does not tell Paul’s or Peter’s story, it tells God’s. As a writer, Luke need not include all information, only that relevant to the narrative.

So let’s assume that Luke and Acts were indeed written in the 70s. This gives us more context to guess at who the “many” may have been. Paul’s letters were in circulation. The Gospel of Mark had already been written. These two sources are fairly certain.

Many scholars think there existed a written collection of the sayings of Jesus, which they call Q, used by both Matthew and Luke (as well as Thomas, and may have been available to Paul as well), but no copy of it has ever been found. Did Q actually exist? Possibly.

Some argue that Luke had access to Matthew’s gospel. I tend to agree, having found literary evidence that Luke responds to some of Matthew’s positions. I’ll write more on this later, but let me give as example the language Luke uses in his version of the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew emphasizes the sheep on the mountain– the symbolic representation of Zion as the place to which the nations come– using language that echoes Isaiah. This was important symbolism for the Jewish community. But it put Jews at the center of Christianity. Matthew was a Jew writing to a church of Jewish Christians. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles. His version of the parable emphasizes the wilderness and doesn’t mention the mountain at all. We can see a similar change in the Beatitudes, placed by Matthew on a mountain but by Luke on a plain, a level place. For Luke, equal access for the Gentiles is a major theme.

Let’s consider another possibility: The Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Scholars still debate whether John the Apostle or someone else wrote it. In one theory, admittedly not widely held, the “beloved disciple” refers to Lazarus, the one man John’s gospel tells us Jesus loved. Moreover, it would make sense to wonder if Lazarus would ever die (John 21:23), since he already had. Some believe that the name “John” comes from the man who transcribed Lazarus’s words, possibly “John, whose other name was Mark” (Acts 15:37). Considering this in depth would take more time and space than this post allows. However, this eyewitness probably had already begun teaching, and Luke may have had access to those teachings as well. We do see some interesting common word use between Luke and John.

In summary, we really don’t know what sources Luke had. Certainly Paul and Mark had been written. Possibly he also read Matthew, Thomas, and an early version of John. And the mysterious document called Q remains a possibility.

We can say one thing with certainty: the Greek word for “many,” πολλοὶ, emphasizes the number being considered. It can be translated “multitudinous.” Luke responds to more than just one or two accounts. And it shouldn’t surprise us, even before Christianity became widespread, that the momentous events of the life of Jesus created a great deal of talk and written consideration.

Luke tells us that he plans to tell the story in a way it hasn’t been told before. And that’s exactly what he does.

July 14

Luke: An Introduction

Since I first began reading the Bible I’ve been fascinated with the Gospel of Luke. Not only do Luke and its sequel Acts comprise almost 2/3 of the New Testament, but Luke is the only non-Jewish author. He was a Gentile. Given that I, too, am a Gentile, I find his perspective– and his inclusivity– particularly relevant to my own experience.

As time went on, I began to realize the magnitude of Luke’s claims: that the Holy Spirit, formerly reserved for a few chosen servants of God, became available to all at Pentecost. That Jesus conquered sin through His resurrection. And that the spreading of the Gospel– in word and deed– continues the victory.

At Seminary I studied Greek. Admittedly I took the lite version, not the scholarly version. But as a wordsmith myself, and someone who has lived in multiple cultures, I began to realize how difficult it is for a literal translation to convey the depth of meaning of the original.

Let me give an analogy. Not long ago, one of the pastors at our church preached to a mixed group of English and French speakers. Another pastor translated the sermon into French. The preacher referred to “a home run,” and the translator dutifully translated the expression literally. But the French listeners, who did not come from a culture that played baseball, had no idea what the expression meant. The meaning was lost.

So it is with Luke’s Greek. The very first phrase is translated in the NRSV as “Since many have undertalen to set down…” But this misses the underlying meaning of Luke’s words. The Greek word ἐπεχείρησαν, translated by NRSV as “undertaken,” literally means “to put the hand upon,” as in “To put the hand to the plow.” Luke isn’t just saying that his is not the first attempt. He’s stating, quite emphatically I think, that the previous authors didn’t finish the job. Luke is about to tell us something new, something amazing, and something the others have, in his opinion, missed.

This, of course, stirs the debate about whether all the biblical authors are saying the same thing. My answer is: Of course they aren’t! Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience. Luke wrote to Gentiles. John (the Gospel writer) wrote from a more mystical perspective and uses some of the best Greek in the Bible. John (the writer of the Letters of John) was a local preacher, not a theologian. He addressed matters of immediate concern, much like Paul (if in a less educated style). And John (the Revelator) was clearly a native Aramaic speaker– his Greek grammar is tortured, much like my grammar when I try to speak other languages I’m not fluent in. And his purpose was to relay prophecy– an entirely different art.

Luke is clearly a well-educated man, and an excellent writer of narrative. He says nothing that doesn’t contribute to the movement of the story he’s telling (and I don’t mean to imply in any way that it is fiction). He uses no word by accident.

That’s why looking at Luke’s Greek is so important. In a series of posts, I will do exactly that.

As I said, I’m no Greek scholar. But I am a wordsmith, and I know how to use the tools. I understand denotation (what a word literally means) and connotation (the underlying meanings understood by native speakers). And I accept that Luke, as he lays out his narrative, does nothing by accident. What he says in the beginning supports what follows.

So I “put my hand” to an attempt, as many others have before me. Perhaps true scholars will cringe. Or perhaps the Spirit moves us to see something the literal translation misses.

If my work causes you to think, then I’ve done my job. Because I accept it as a given that the Word of God cannot be held in ink on a page. God is infinite. We are not. And as powerful as the written word is, like us it is incapable of encompassing God.

June 13

Sermon: Misplaced Faith

The second of this two-part series (following “What Can Christians Learn About Devotion from Addicts?“) considers recovery from addiction, and the flawed belief that just quitting drugs and getting a job is enough. Too recover, an addict needs something as life-encompassing as the addiction was. We need a new religion to replace the old, false religion. To rely ion the things of the world to fill the hole we carry is misplaced faith. But we’re not the only ones who fall into that trap!