Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Note to the Followers of Harold Camping


Last July I wrote this post  about Harold Camping’s prediction that May 21, 2011 will be Judgment Day. Almost immediately I got replies from some of Camping’s followers. Not wanting to get involved in a protracted, ugly and pointless debate, I wrote this post stating that I would not allow comments from Camping’s defenders. When I check my blog stats, I’m surprised to see how many hits those two posts get. Yesterday, I added yet another post touching on Camping’s end time prediction.

I will, at least tentatively, allow May 21sters to comment on this post. I will be moderating  carefully, however. Please keep your comments short and try to address a single point. No matter where you stand on Harold Camping, please be polite and do not impugn anyone’s motives.

If you believe Harold Camping’s teachings, I imagine that you are getting pretty excited about now. May 21 is close at hand. I know that you are convinced that you will be raptured out of this world on that day. I am equally convinced that you will not. We don’t need to debate this. A very short time will show who is right.

I am concerned for you, though.

If you find yourself still on earth on May 22, please don’t panic. Don’t assume that you have been left behind. Don’t worry that the horrible tribulations that Camping has predicted are going to fall upon you. They won’t. You will still be here because there will have been no rapture. There will be no tribulations. So, first don’t panic.

Don’t despair either.  The world will go on and you can go on. You can start over. The God of Jesus is a God who gives second chances. Read Luke 13:6 ff. Pick up. Bear up. Move on.

Remember that you are only human. Human beings make mistakes. You made a mistake in believing Harold Camping. That’s all it was: a mistake. Forgive yourself. God forgives you.

Remember, too, that Harold Camping is only human. I know that their is a certain mathematical logic to his teachings, but the most rigorous logic will yield false conclusions if it begins from false premises. Harold Camping has made a mistake. Forgive him, but don’t follow him. And don’t get fooled again.

Give up speculating about the end times. It is fruitless. It always has been. Everyone who ever set a date for the end of the world has been wrong. Jesus warned his followers against such speculation. Begin to live in the now. Love God and do good.

Finally, go back to church. I know that Harold Camping has told you that salvation is no longer available in the churches. He is wrong about that, too. In a good church community, you will find welcome and forgiveness. You will hear the good news that God loves even human beings who make mistakes.

God bless you.

I borrowed the photograph of a Judgment Day billboard from this website

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tomorrow's Headlines Today

MAY 21, 2011 -- JUDGMENT DAY?

When I lived in the city, I would sometimes buy my Sunday paper late on Saturday afternoon. That’s when the first Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune hit the streets. Inevitably I would make a pathetic joke about reading the paper to find out what would happen tomorrow.

Some Christians read the Bible as if it contained tomorrow’s headlines. Typically this involves taking a verse or two from Daniel, a couple more from Revelation, a dash of the Psalms, a pinch of 1 Thessalonians, some current events, a little speculation and combining them in ways that the Bible’s original writers would never be able to recognize. In other words, it involves reading the Scriptures without regard to their historical context, their canonical context, or even the context of a specific verse within a book of the Bible.

The photograph above shows a religious tract that I have kept on my bookshelves for about 19 years now. It is in the form of a newspaper, 20 pages long. It was mailed to me by a group called the Mission for the Coming Days. They claimed that Jesus would “rapture” all true believers out of the world on October 28, 1992, leaving the rest of us behind to face 7 years of tribulation.

They were wrong.

But you knew that, didn’t you? Everyone who has ever set a date for the rapture, the return of Jesus, the end of the world or what-have-you has been wrong. It’s because they have misused the Scriptures. The Bible doesn’t work that way.

The Bible contains a lot of prophecy, but very little in the way of prediction. Prophecy is God’s word spoken to a specific set of circumstances. The prophet’s goal is usually to inspire repentance. Only occasionally do the prophets foretell future events and even then it is in vague terms. Jesus himself refused to set a date for the end and discouraged his followers from speculating about it.

There were allegedly suicides on October 29, 1992. Members of the Mission for the Coming Days thought that they had missed the rapture and took their own lives in despair. Maybe some of them had given their life savings to the group’s work and were now left with nothing. I don’t know. The group’s leader allegedly went to prison, charged with fraud, when it was discovered that he held investments that did not mature until after October 28, 1992. Again, I don’t know for sure.

I do know that the whole story is a sad case of deception, whether intentional or not.

Now radio preacher Harold Camping and his followers are predicting that May 21, 2011 will be Judgment Day. Camping arrived at that date by using a verse or two from Daniel, a couple more from 1 Thessalonians, a dash of personal revelation, a pinch of know the recipe. They are convinced that they are right. I am equally convinced that they are wrong.

In that sense, May 21 will indeed be "Judgment Day." It is the day that Harold Camping will be proved wrong. I am confident of this because the Bible doesn’t work the way Camping claims.

To paraphrase one of my mentors, the Bible does not reveal the shape of the future, but it reveals the One who shapes the future. More to come.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Noli Me Tangere


This woodcut, titled Noli Me Tangere, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) has been a longstanding favorite of mine. It depicts the sunrise scene from the Gospel of John where Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden outside of his empty tomb.

Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" (John 20:14-17 NRSV).

This story is poignant and full of mystery. Why does Mary not recognize the risen Jesus? Why is she forbidden to touch him?

Dürer shows Mary, kneeling before Jesus, her left hand resting on a jar of oil which she has brought to anoint his corpse. Her right hand reaches to touch him. He extends a nail-pierced hand to forbid her. Balancing the composition, the background features the morning sun dawning over a hillside and a small group (more women come to visit the tomb?) approaching on the garden path.

It is a beautiful picture and it makes me laugh. To explain why Mary mistook the risen Lord for a gardener, Dürer has dressed Jesus in a floppy hat and slung  a garden spade over his left shoulder. Whether the humor was intentional on Dürer's part--and I suspect it was--it is nevertheless appropriate. What better day to enjoy a little holy hilarity than Easter day?

Blessed Easter!

It is because Mary Magdalene was sent to tell Jesus' disciples the good news of his resurrection that she has been called the "Apostle to the Apostles." I found the copy of Dürer's woodut here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

God's Calling Card


Feeling a bit put out at the way the Bible is too often (mis)used, I once wrote:

I believe that the Bible is God's calling card, an invitation to conversation. Why do so many people use it as a trump card to end conversation?

In my last few posts, I have argued that the discrepancies in the Bible, especially the Gospel accounts, are due to the fact that the writers have different theological agendas. We do the Bible, and ourselves, a grave disservice if we try to "moosh" its varying viewpoints together into a sort of "Gospel of St. Cuisinart" as John Petty so nicely put it.

This morning on his Exploring Our Matrix blog, Dr. James McGrath linked to two items worth reading. Both highlight the diversity of voices to be heard in the Bible.Thanks, Dr. McGrath!

The first is Kristin Swenson's article at CNN's Belief Blog, "Read the Bible, Even If You Don't Believe It."  Dr. Swenson writes:
If you're not biblically literate, you can get along all right, but you're missing out. It's like a cocktail party with raucous conversation. You're invited, but until you know something about the Bible, you'll be stuck talking about the weather at the punch bowl.

Read the entire piece here. It is well worth it.

Also worth the read is Timothy Beal's piece "The Bible Is Dead; Long Live the Bible" at the Chronicle of Higher Education website. A quote from Dr. Beal:

Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what's at stake, namely the Bible's credibility as God's infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

Dr. Beal goes on to cite Dostoevsky and  Blind Willie Johnson. Intrigued? Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Maundy Wednesday


I have been blogging about some of the discrepancies found in the Bible, particularly the ways in which the Gospel of John diverges from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). I believe that those differences are due mostly to the fact that John has a different theological agenda than the other Gospels. John has a higher Christology. So, where the other Gospels say that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus' cross to the place of crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus, always self-sufficient and in control, carries the cross by himself.

Those who hold that the Bible contains neither errors nor contradictions typically explain away this discrepancy by saying that Jesus started out carrying the cross alone, and later, Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service, thus eliminating the contradiction. Unfortunately this kind of harmonizing also eliminates a clear understanding of John's unique theology.

Let John be John, I say. And let each of the Bible's writers speak for themselves. They all fall within the spectrum of orthodoxy, but each proclaims the message in their own way. Rather than explain away their contradictions, let us attend to them and so learn each writer's unique perspective.

A few days ago, a friend emailed me a link to this article.  It seems that Colin Humphreys, a physicist from Cambridge has written a book in which he claims to have resolved another discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus' last supper with his disciples is a Passover meal that apparently takes place on a Thursday. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is actually crucified on Passover, which means that the Last Supper must have taken place a day earlier.

In all fairness I have to say that I have not read Humphreys' book and honestly, don't think I will. So, I am not in a position to assess the strength of his arguments. According to the article referenced above, Humhreys resolves the difference between John and the Synoptics by arguing that Jesus used a different calendar than the one that “was in widespread use at the time of his death....” By that calendar, Passover would have fallen on Wednesday.

This may account for a one day difference in the date of the last supper, but it does not explain the three year difference in John's account of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple as compared to the account in the Synoptics.

Nor does it explain some other, significant differences between John's account of the last supper as compared to those accounts in the Matthew, Mark and Luke. For instance, in John's Gospel there is no mention of the bread and wine that Jesus shared with his disciples; there are no “words of institution.” Instead, John's Jesus gives a lengthy “farewell discourse” and washes his disciples' feet. In short, there is no indication in the Gospel of John that the Last Supper was a Passover meal.

In John's Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36) None of the other Gospels uses this title. The exact meaning of the term is hard to pin down (that was probably John's intent) but it is a symbol of sacrifice and salvation and echoes the account of the Passover in Exodus 12. That Jesus, the Lamb of God, would die on the Passover, at the same time that lambs were being slain in the temple at Jerusalem is symbolic, significant and fraught with meaning.

Some may want to explain away every contradiction in the Bible. Not me. John was not writing a history; he was proclaiming the gospel. Rather than conflate the four Gospels and lose their unique character, I think we should let each speak for itself.

 The Lamb of God graphic came from good old wiki.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Intellectual Camels


I just counted. There are 38 Bibles in the bookcase beside my desk.* Most of them are different translations. There are several other Bibles around the room and more in my office at church. I also have several electronic Bibles on my desktop computer and a few more on my iPod.

I love the Bible. I read from it every day.

In my last blogpost I raised the question “Who carried the cross?” According to Matthew, Mark and Luke it was a certain Simon of Cyrene. The Gospel of John says that it was Jesus himself. Over at the Progressive Involvement blog, John Petty picked up on my post and expanded upon it. I think he says some of the things I said better than I did. Thanks, John!

In previous posts I have dealt with the questions “How did Judas die?” and “How many angels did the women meet at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning?” These are just a few of the discrepancies found in the various books of Scripture. Some others: Did Jesus chase the money-changers out of the temple on his last visit to Jerusalem before his crucifixion (per Matthew, Mark and Luke) or was it almost three years earlier (per John)? Did James and John ask Jesus to give them the seats of honor in his kingdom (Mark 10:35 ff. ) or was it their mother who made the request (Matthew 20:20 ff.) ? Did the risen Jesus instruct his followers to return to Galilee (Matthew 28:10) or to wait in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49)?

I could go on at some length, but I think this suffices to make my point. The Bible is not a single book. It is a collection of ancient literature written by a variety of people who sometimes disagree about points of fact and even about theology. We understand the Bible best when we read the books as the writers intended instead of trying to conflate them into a single narrative or force a single theological framework upon them. In fact, the points where the writers disagree are usually the most instructive, for it is there that we learn each one’s distinctive theology.**

I once had a discussion about the Bible’s discrepancies with a man who proudly described himself as a Fundamentalist. I think he was rather frustrated with me when he said, “You just read the Bible looking for errors.”

I don’t.

Maybe these guys do, but I don’t. I read the Bible expecting to encounter God’s word. The contradictions are just there.

I also had a conversation with an inerrantist pastor who told me “The ELCA teaches that the Bible is errant.” I had trouble convincing him that we don’t. I don’t believe that the Bible is inerrant, but neither do I believe that it is errant. The Bible does not mislead. Its writers just sometimes disagree.

Then there was the layperson who told me, “If you just accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God you will know peace.” I explained to him that I was quite at peace. Peace doesn’t come from reading the Bible uncritically. Peace is a gift of God given through the cross of Christ. I suppose I could try accepting that the Bible is without error or contradiction, but it would not bring me peace. The cognitive dissonance would likely kill me.

So why am I telling you this? It is because I want you to know that you can be a faithful Christian without surrendering your intellect. You can be a believer without denying the evidence in front of your eyes. No matter what some may tell you, you don't have to shut off your brain when you read the Bible. You don’t have to swallow intellectual camels and strain at doctrinal gnats. Jesus loves you.

*That’s English Bibles, not including 6 Greek New Testaments and a Septuagint.

**If you want to follow my thinking a little further, this means that Christian orthodoxy, as defined by the canon of Scripture, insists upon a few basic points but beyond that allows for a range of theological possibilities. So,
e.g. Matthew’s Jewish Christianity and Paul’s Gentile Christianity are both orthodox but Docetism and Gnosticism are out of bounds.

Props to Annie Salness who drew the cartoon that accompanies this post. I found it on her blog, here. She has some beautiful artwork. Check it out!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Who Carried the Cross?


The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) agree that the Roman soldiers who led Jesus to the place of his crucifixion compelled a certain Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene was a city in what is now Libya. Mark’s Gospel mentions that this Simon was the “father of Alexander and Rufus” which raises the intriguing possibility that Mark expected his original audience to know who these men were. Luke adds the detail that Simon carried the cross behind Jesus.

It is never surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke agree with one another. They are called “synoptic” (Greek for “seen together”) because they follow the same outline. Scholars have good reasons to think that Matthew and Luke both used Mark’s Gospel as one of the sources for their own writings. I find it much more interesting and instructive to examine the points at which these three works disagree, because it is there that each one’s unique theology can be discerned.

The Gospel of John is quite different from the synoptics. It follows its own outline and narrates many events and teachings of Jesus that are not found in the other gospels. John 19:17 says quite plainly that Jesus carried the cross “by himself.” Simon of Cyrene is never even mentioned in John’s Gospel. How shall we account for this difference?

Roman Catholics, and anyone else who has participated in the devotion of the Stations of the Cross, will be familiar with the tradition that Jesus fell three times on his way to be crucified. In this tradition, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross after Jesus fell the first time. Although the tradition is widely known, it has no basis in the Scriptures. None of the Gospels mentions Jesus falling.

Still, the idea that Jesus started out carrying the cross and that only later Simon was compelled to carry it is one way to explain the apparent discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. It is much the same sort of explanation that my hypothetical Church of Deadwood Dick used to account for a man lighting a cigar and tapping the ashes out of a pipe. As in that thought experiment, though, it might be wise to ask if this is the most reasonable explanation.

The Gospel of John has a high Christology. That is, it presents Jesus as and powerful, much more so than the Synoptics. In John 1:1 ff. Jesus is described as the pre-existent Word of God and as God incarnate. John’s Jesus possesses divine knowledge (2:25). Repeatedly in John’s Gospel (and only in John’s Gospel) Jesus makes “I am” statements which echo the divine name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. (Some of the “I am” statements can be found at John 6:48. 8:12, 10:11, and 11:25, but read the whole Gospel to find them all).

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as being in charge of every situation. Even when he is arrested, the armed crowd that comes for him falls “to the ground” when he speaks and he is able to demand that his disciples be let go (18:6-9). In John, Jesus’ crucifixion is described as a “lifting up” (3:14, 8:28, 12:32) and “glorification” (17:1). These are all signs of John’s high Christology, as is John’s plain statement that Jesus carried the cross “by himself.”

It is possible to harmonize John’s account with that of the Synoptics’. It is even plausible to say that Jesus carried the cross “by himself” and that Simon of Cyrene also carried it, though I think that this denies the plain meaning of the texts. If one wishes to maintain that the Bible contains no errors or contradictions, then it may even be necessary to resort to such an explanation.

The problem is that explaining away this difference between John and the Synoptics obscures John’s wonderful high Christology. To me the most reasonable explanation for the difference is that John and the Synoptics have different theologies.

I like Gwyneth Leech’s painting of Jesus and Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross in tandem for many reasons, among them Simon’s north African clothing. I found the picture here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Church of Deadwood Dick


When I was in college I read a book titled Deadwood Dick on Deck; Or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up, by Edward L. Wheeler. It was a reprint of a story originally published in 1885 as an entry in the Beadle's Half Dime Library (hereafter, BHDL).

I no longer have the book and cannot find the text online, but as I recall it, there was a scene in which a character told a story beside a campfire. As he began his speech he lit a cigar. A few pages later he concluded the story and tapped the ashes out of his pipe.

The BHDL was a disposable entertainment, a pulp magazine marketed toward boys. The stories were hurriedly written, hastily edited and rushed into print. Apparently Edward L. Wheeler made a simple mistake, forgetting what kind of smoking material his character was using. It slipped past the editors and made it into print. It was all quite inconsequential.

Now, I invite you to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine that there is a cult of people who worship Deadwood Dick. We'll call them “Dickians.” It is ridiculous, I know, but bear with me as we further imagine that the Beadle's Half Dime Library is the sacred scripture of the Church of Deadwood Dick. The Dickians read the BHDL to learn about the words and deeds of their idol. They seek to discern Deadwood Dick's will for their lives in the BHDL's pulpy pages.

Next, let us imagine that there is a subset of Dickians who believe that the BHDL is not only inspired, but also inerrant. Their reasoning goes something like this: Deadwood Dick is a straight-shooter, honest and true. Deadwood Dick would not lie. Since Deadwood Dick inspired the writing of the BHDL, and since it is, in very fact, the word of Deadwood Dick, then it must be true, free of error and without contradiction. Given the premises of this thought experiment, this seems reasonable. Doesn't it?

How then, might these inerrantist Dickians explain the apparent contradiction of the character in Deadwood Dick on Deck who lights a cigar and taps out a pipe? I could suggest a few strategies.

For one, they could argue that the word of Deadwood Dick is infallible, but human beings are not. Edward L. Wheeler's original manuscript of Deadwood Dick on Deck was, therefore, inerrant, but error crept in somewhere along the line, perhaps in the process of editing or typesetting. If Wheeler's original manuscript was lost or destroyed, this assertion could not be falsified.

Or, a Dickian inerrantist might argue that there is no actual contradiction in a character lighting a cigar and tapping out a pipe. Perhaps the character finished smoking his cigar in the midst of telling his story, took out his pipe and smoked it until he finished the tale. Or, maybe he had a cold pipeful of ashes in his pocket and was, in fact, still puffing away at his cigar when he emptied the pipe into the campfire. You have to admit that it could be.

These are two possible ways that an inerrantist Dickian might explain the seeming contradiction of the cigar and the pipe. Both explanations are possible and even plausible. So the point of this (admittedly silly) thought experiment is to ask, which explanation makes the best sense of the evidence before us? Is it to say that there was no error in a non-existent original manuscript of Deadwood Dick on Deck? Is it to deny that there is actually a contradiction in lighting a cigar and tapping out a pipe? Or does it make the most sense to say that Edward L. Wheeler simply made a mistake?

More to come.

If any of my reader's owns a copy of Deadwood Dick on Deck, I would appreciate a little fact checking. What was the name of the character who lit a cigar and tapped out a pipe? In which chapter did this occur? Etc. The picture of Beadle's Half Dime Library No. 138 came from this website.