Friday, August 17, 2012

This Blog Is Going on Hiatus


I started this blog to add my voice to the conversation about human sexuality that was then current in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the wider church, and our society. The debates have not ended, not by a long shot, but the ELCA has made its decisions. We have paid some small cost for doing what I believe is the right thing. Our church body is now kinder, more inclusive, and more just. We have begun to move on.

I've derived a deal of satisfaction and pleasure from writing these blogposts. I've gone on some interesting side-trips dealing with biblical interpretation and translation. I had some fun with Harold Camping's failed Judgment Day prediction in May of 2011. I have interacted with some terrific people who read and commented on my blog. Some of them have agreed with me. Some have disagreed. Either way, I've enjoyed the conversation.

Now I'm thinking this blog may have run its course.

At the end of the month, I will be taking a sabbatical, an epic bicycle tour from Seattle back to my home in Illinois. I've started a new blog, Velocipedic Saturnal, to chronicle the trip. And yes, if you read the blog, I promise to explain what "velocipedic saturnal" means.

Thanks to everyone who has read this blog. If you are a subscriber, don't unsubscribe. I may choose to revive the blog after my return from Seattle.

God bless,


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Traditonal? Sure. Biblical?


There are no Chik-fil-A restaurants in my hometown. People tell me that they are good. Like, really good. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never eaten at one.

If Chik-fil-A wanted to build a restaurant here, I wouldn’t raise a finger to stop them. The rule of law prevails in the United States. Chik-fil-A has a right to do business here, provided they conform to the pertinent regulations. I might even welcome them because they would provide jobs and contribute to the local economy.

On the other hand, I don’t think I would choose to eat there. The reason, naturally, is that I disagree with their corporate stance on same-sex marriage. I don’t want to spend my fast-food dollar patronizing a business that contributes to organizations which actively seek to deny what I see as a basic civil right to a minority population.

I am not perfect in my moral judgment, but I buy shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee and I try shop at Wal-Mart as little as possible. I think I could forego the untasted pleasure of waffle fries.

Then again, I’m not out to organize any boycotts. If you choose to eat at Chik-fil-A, or even to speak out against same-sex marriage, I will defend your right to do so. I will disagree with you, vigorously and vehemently, but I will not try to stop you.

These waters, after all, are somewhat murky. Even Wal-Mart sells shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee.

In the midst of all the furious flapdoodle pursuant to Chik-fil-A’s COO Dan Cathy’s anti-marriage equality remarks, I happened to be reading through the book of Deuteronomy once more. I was forcefully reminded that, while “One Man/One Woman” is certainly a traditional definition of marriage and a longstanding value in our culture, it is not, as some people claim, the biblical definition of marriage. In fact, there is no single definition of marriage in the Bible.

If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.      (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

I have quoted those verses from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Read them in whatever translation you like. Read them in the original Hebrew if you are able. But please note the following points:

1. These purport to be the direct words of God mediated through Moses.

2. This law assumes the possibility, even the legitimacy, of polygamy.

3. No judgment is rendered against multiple marriage, only against a father’s favoritism toward the children of one wife over those of another. 

Maybe the case for marriage as the union of one man and one woman can be made on other grounds, but simply calling it “biblical” is neither helpful nor accurate.

I don't know where the chart above originated. It has appeared, typos and all, on numerous websites. I lifted it from Dr. Robert Cargill's blog. Click it to enlarge.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I am a bat-fan of long standing. I have probably read hundreds of Batman comic books. I'm sure that I watched every episode of the old Adam West TV series. I have watched a few of the many animated cartoons made of Batman. I have seen every big screen movie depiction of Batman, including the 1943 and 1949 serials, except the latest. Some of them more than once.

Batman is easily my favorite of the costumed superheroes, mostly because he is not "super." He has no special powers. He is human and quite mortal. His character is morally complex, psychologically twisted, and, well, open to diverse interpretations.

For my money, director Christopher Nolan's take on Batman has, with only a few missteps, been spot-on. All of which is to say that I have been anxiously anticipating the movie The Dark Knight Rises. I'm not a first-day-midnight-show kind of guy. I prefer to catch a matinee after the crowds thin a bit. But that does not mean I haven't been eager to see this film.

My excitement has been dampened somewhat by the news from Aurora, Colorado where a heavily armed man named James Cooper allegedly entered a movie theater during a midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises, and opened fire on the crowd killing a dozen people and wounding more than 50 others.

"Allegedly." Let's be clear about this. The shootings were horrifically real. We use the word "allegedly" only because Holmes has not been convicted.

When arrested in the theater's parking lot, Holmes is supposed to have told police "I am the Joker," a reference, I surmise, to the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In that movie Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred obliquely refers to Batman's nemesis the Joker when he says "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Senseless. If that word is overused in reports of this tragedy, it is because it is such an apt descriptor. When events of this type occur, we are left unable to make sense of them. Why do such things happen? How can a person go so terribly wrong? Our minds stagger and reel trying to make sense of it all, but there is no sense to be made.

Senseless. That doesn't stop pundits and bloggers from trying to make sense of things, usually by blaming their favorite scapegoats. Rep. Louie Gohmert said that the shootings were the result of "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." No, really, he said that. And mega-church pastor Rick Warren posted a tweet implying that blame rests on the teaching of science.

Finger-pointing and scapegoating are not helpful. Perhaps in the weeks and months ahead more helpful responses will be heard. Perhaps new ways to prevent such acts will be found. Then the tragic shootings may still be senseless, but at least we will have learned from them.

One thing I know. Occurrences such as this remind us vividly that life is short, fragile, and precious.   I have written before that I believe Jesus' core message can be summed up as "Trust God and take care of one another." Or, in more biblical language:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)

What else can we do?

Hold those you love close. Pray for the victims, their families, and their friends. Pray, too, for the shooter and his family, if you can. Give to the relief of any who suffer. Help, if you are able, to find ways to prevent future tragedies. Trust God. Take care of one another.

I had a nice picture of Lewis Wilson, the first screen Batman, to illustrate this post, but when I got done writing it no longer seemed appropriate.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Love’s Courage To Be Strong

This morning at my weekly pastors’ text study, we discussed, among other things, next Sunday’s second reading, Ephesians 2:11-22. In this passage the apostolic author writes that Gentile Christians have been made a part of God’s people through the work of Jesus Christ ending the former divisions of Gentiles and Jews.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

I was particularly struck by the idea that hostility had been put to death on the cross. When I commented to that effect, one of my colleagues and friends asked, “But has it?”

And of course it hasn’t. Hostility among believers seems particularly rampant these days.

I was reminded of a favorite poem, a sonnet by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1859-1935).


Friendless and faint, with martyred steps and slow,
Faint for the flesh, but for the spirit free,
Stung by the mob that came to see the show,
The Master toiled along to Calvary;
We gibed him, as he went, with houndish glee,
Till his dimmed eyes for us did overflow;
We cursed his vengeless hands thrice wretchedly,--
And this was nineteen hundred years ago.

But after nineteen hundred years the shame
Still clings, and we have not made good the loss
That outraged faith has entered in his name.
Ah, when shall come love's courage to be strong!
Tell me, O Lord -- tell me, O Lord, how long
Are we to keep Christ writhing on the cross! (1897)

The image in my mind is this: Hostility was crucified with Christ. Like all things Christian, the death of hostility is a reality that is not yet fulfilled. When fulfilliment comes hostility will finally be destroyed. Until that day, when Christians are hostile toward one another, or toward the world that God so loves, Christ still writhes on the cross.

Scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version. Robinson’s poem was copied and pasted from this website. Illustrating this post is Rembrandt’s remarkable painting Descent from the Cross by Candlelight.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012



Hosted by a different website each month, the Biblical Studies Carnival is a round-up of blogposts in the field of...well...biblical studies. No matter where it is hosted, the Carnival is always full of fascinating scholarly links.

By "fascinating" I mean "fascinating to me." Your mileage and all that...

This month's Carnival is found at Mike Kok's Gospel of Mark blog. It includes a link to Joel Watts' post of Jordan's Hypothesis.

Yay, Jordan!

I found the carnival poster image at the Pocket Blonde blog, which deals with another of my interests: pens and inks.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jordan's Hypothesis: The Real Solution To The Synoptic Problem


If you don't know anything about the Synoptic Problem, please click here to read a post that will give you enough information to get the joke.

My junior year, that is, my first year of seminary I shared an apartment with a a fellow student, a young man my own age, named Jordan Scharf. Jordan was intelligent, articulate, and witty.

He was my friend.

I was studying for a Master of Divinity, a professional degree. Jordan was going for a Master of Theology, an academic degree, a step toward a doctorate. As I recall, his thesis was to be something about the theologian Tielhard de Chardin. Jordan seemed destined for academic greatness.

Unfortunately, at the end of our first year of school, my friend was diagnosed with leukemia. His doctors treated the disease aggressively. Jordan went in and out of remission. He was able to return to school for a short time, but after a two year struggle, my friend succumbed to the illness. I think it was 1982, when Jordan was about 25 years old, that he died.

Okay. That's not the funny part.

Jordan once shared with me his "solution" to the Synoptic Problem. I thought it was funny, have always remembered it, and have shared it many times. Recently, when Joel Watts posted a humorous video extolling the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis at his Unsettled Christianity blog. I replied by posting Jordan's Hypothesis:

The Gospel of Mark was the first draft of a doctoral candidate’s dissertation. He submitted it to his advisor who suggested the need for more background information about Jesus’ birth, maybe some more teaching material, and a stronger ending. The student rewrote his dissertation and submitted the Gospel of Matthew.

His advisor thought the revision was much stronger but felt that the teaching material should be better integrated into the narrative, thought a story about Jesus’ youth might be helpful, and suggested that the genealogy could be expanded back to Adam, etc. The PhD candidate did another major revision and produced the Gospel of Luke.

Once again the advisor was critical and asked for major revisions. Frustrated, the student took drugs and wrote the Gospel of John.

Not surprisingly, Joel liked this bit of theological geek humor. He asked if he could publish it on his blog, and so it got a post of its own which drew a comment from none other than Mark Goodacre, the third name in the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis.

Then Dr. James McGrath picked it up and posted it on his Exploring Our Matrix blog. I've also found it on Dr. Platypus's blog.

Now, Joel has asked permission to possibly use Jordan's Hypothesis in his book. (As if permission were mine to give). This means that three decades after his untimely death, my roommate may actually be cited in a scholarly publication.


Anything clever or funny about my quotation of Jordan's "Hypothesis" owes directly to him. Any lapses of grammar or errors of fact are strictly my own. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Synoptic Problem


The word "synoptic" comes from the Greek and literally means "seen together." The Books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "Synoptic Gospels" because they contain much of the same material and largely follow the same outline. They can be laid out in parallel columns for comparison and study. These three Gospels can be seen together.

The Gospel of John goes its own way. It is made up mostly of unique material and doesn't lend itself easily to comparison with the other Gospels.

The Gospel of Matthew contains roughly 90% of the Gospel of Mark. Luke contains a little more than 50% of the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke also have some material, mostly teachings of Jesus, in common that is not found in Mark. All of the synoptics have some material found in none of the others.

The "Synoptic Problem," as scholars call it, is the question of just how these three Gospels are related.

The most commonly held solution to the Synoptic Problem is the so-called "Two Document Hypothesis." This theory postulates that Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke both had copies of Mark which they used as one source for their own writings. Matthew and Luke also had another common source, a hypothetical, probably written, collection of sayings that scholars call "Q."

The designation "Q" probably comes from quelle, a German word meaning "source." The simplest definition of "Q" is material found in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.

So, the Two Document Hypothesis holds that Matthew and Luke, working independently, both used Mark and the hypothetical Q  as sources for their own Gospels. They also included a certain amount of their own material, referred to as "M" for Matthew, and "L" for Luke.  The Two Source Hypothesis is often illustrated with a diagram like this one:

Although the existence of Q is strictly hypothetical, the International Q Project, a group of notable New Testament scholars, worked to reconstruct its text as nearly as possible. Using their knowledge of how Matthew and Luke used Mark, they built what they believe to be the nearest possible approximation of what an actual Q source would have looked like. Based on this work, some scholars claim to have found two (or is it three?) layers of tradition in the Q material and have even proposed a structure for what the community that produced Q would have looked like. It is fascinating work (at least to a New Testament geek like me) but seems an elaborate structure to build on the shaky foundation of a hypothetical document.

There are other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem.  The strongest contender is the "Farrer Hypothesis" (also known as the "Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis" after some of the prominent scholars who have championed it). The Farrer Hypothesis does away with the need for hypothetical sources. In this scenario Mark was written first, Matthew expanded upon Mark, and Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew as sources.

Other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem have been proposed, but the Two Document Hypothesis and the Farrer Hypothesis have the best scholarly support. There are also highly nuanced variations of these two hypotheses.

As a student of the Bible, I find all of this quite fascinating. As a preacher, I am less concerned with the solution to the Synoptic Problem than its very existence. Paying attention to the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke handle the same material helps me better understand what each author is trying to say. Understanding a text is a necessary step before proclaiming it.

Coming soon: The Real Solution to the Synoptic Problem. I found the illustration of the Two Document Hypothesis at this website.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Adam and Eve and the Cat in the Hat


When I was young, one of my favorite books told a story about a cat, an anthropomorphic cat, about the size of an adult human. This cat walked upright, carried an umbrella, and wore a red-and-white striped top hat.

In the story, the cat shows up unexpectedly to torment a pair of human children who are home alone while their mother is away. The cat's mischief causes mayhem and consternation for the youngsters. Somehow, by the story's end, the cat manages to clean up the mess it has made and beat a hasty retreat just as the children's mother returns.

The story also features a talking goldfish.

I'm sure you recognize the book I'm talking about as Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. It's a great book. It is not only highly entertaining, it also teaches some valuable life lessons. It is not, however, factual.

I think that even at age five or six I would have laughed out loud at anyone who dared suggest that the events of this story had actually occurred. It is not that kind of book.

Another favorite book from my childhood tells the story of a man and a woman who live a harmonious life together in a beautiful garden. There they enjoy a close relationship to the God who created them. They are innocently, naively, naked.

One day, when God is away from the garden, a talking snake happens along. The snake's mischief causes mayhem and consternation for the couple. Did I mention that this snake apparently has legs? Unlike the Cat in the Hat, the snake doesn't clean up after itself, and by the time God gets back to the garden, everything has gone to hell.

This is, of course, the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. It, too, is a great story and highly entertaining. Beside this, it teaches some valuable life lessons. Perhaps most importantly, it describes the nature of our life in this beautiful, broken world.

Describes, not explains.

Some Christians insist that the story, because it is in the Bible, must be factual. This overlooks the fact that the Bible contains many different genres of literature, sometimes within the same book.

Last month, in this post at the Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark had a pointed reply to those who would read such a story literally:

Seriously, people, it’s a story. If you don’t know how to read stories, then you don’t know how to read.

If you don’t know how to read stories, then you become the literacy equivalent of that person who never lets you finish a joke because they’re always interrupting with irrelevant questions and thinking they’re particularly clever for pointing out that a bar stool probably couldn’t support the weight of a gorilla.

 I sometimes encounter Christians who say that the story of Adam and Eve must be factual because, without a real Adam, there is no need for a Savior. This is wrongheaded thinking. For humankind to need a Savior, Adam does not need to have been real. Only sin needs to be real.

 A talking snake with legs!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Don't Write All The Good Stuff

Clint has a good post titled "If It Weren't For The Bible I'd Give Up On The Bible" over at his blog Lutheran Confessions.

Seriously, if this is all the bible does, all it is good for, if this is how the average non-Christian experiences the bible as it is used in Christian community or quasi-Christian culture, then I want nothing to do with it. I'd rather leave the bible dusty and aging on the shelves it typically occupies, and move on. At this point I sympathize more with the agnostics, atheists, and post-religious.

What pulls me back from the precipice: The bible is just so damn interesting.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are Lutherans Protestant?


Years ago, a fellow Lutheran told me, “The Catholics think we’re just like the Baptists; the Baptists think we’re just like the Catholics.” That statement is based on some broad generalizations. So it’s not completely true. But it’s not entirely false either.

My mother-in-law told me that she once asked a Lutheran pastor, “Are Lutherans Protestant?” I assume that she must have attended a service at a Lutheran church. Worship in many Lutheran congregations is very Roman Catholic in its style and feel. In fact, our published Communion liturgies are closely based on the Roman rite. I have several times had Roman Catholic visitors to my church remark to the effect that “You worship just like us!”

I’m sure that the pastor, in his reply to my mother-in-law, was well-intended. Unfortunately, his answer was convoluted and unsatisfying. I’m not, however, sure that I can do any better. The fact is the question “Are Lutherans Protestant?” is not so straightforward as it may appear.

On the one hand, Lutherans are the original Protestants. The word might not have been invented for us, but we are the first Christian group to whom it was applied. Only later were other Christians, who were not affiliated with Rome or the Orthodox (capital O) churches, called “Protestants.” In this general sense of “neither Roman Catholic nor Orthodox,” Lutherans are unequivocally Protestant.

On the other hand, some Lutherans pointedly reject the title “Protestant.” Lutheranism, they say, is not a protest movement. It is a reform movement. Luther and his compatriots sought only to correct some abuses within Roman Catholicism and thereby to restore the Church to a pristine state of theology and practice. To the end of his days, they (correctly) point out, Martin Luther considered himself a good Catholic (or was it “catholic?"). Later, more radical reformers, may deserve the title “Protestant,” but not us.

I have to admit that this point of view is appealing. Unfortunately, the idea that Luther’s reforms did not involve protest strikes me as a romantic fiction. In fact, the early Lutherans protested many Roman Catholic practices (e.g. the sale of indulgences) and doctrines (e.g. papal primacy). It also seems to me that there is an essentially, and perhaps dangerously, conservative impulse behind this thinking. If Luther’s reforms were not protests, but an attempt to repristinate Christianity, and if those reforms were successfully enacted in Lutheranism, then further reform, change, and progress are neither necessary nor desirable. Lutheranism then becomes locked in the 16th century, like a prehistoric insect encased in amber.

Still, I don’t want to move too quickly to embrace the term “Protestant.” The reason is that Lutherans are not “just like the Baptists” or any other Protestant group. (And yes, I know, those other Protestants are not all alike either). In theology and practice Lutherans have not really strayed too far from our Roman Catholic roots. Though not Roman, we remain a part of the Church catholic. We affirm the historic creeds and we abandon tradition only when it stands in the way of the proclamation of the Gospel. An old theology prof of mine described Lutheranism as a movement within the catholic Church.

Some Lutherans like to describe themselves as “evangelical catholics.” That’s really not a bad description. We are evangelical because of our commitment to the gospel (the "evangel") of justification by grace through faith. We are catholic because we are a part of the universal Church. Unfortunately the “evangelical catholic” moniker is applied inconsistently. Sometimes it is used in ways that are polemical, divisive, or just plain silly.

So what shall we say? Lutheranism is a movement within the Church catholic. Lutherans have certain distinctive emphases that set us apart from both the Roman Catholics and other Protestants. The Lutheran distinctives are gifts that we bring to the whole Church. We are catholic but not Roman. We are Protestant but with an asterisk.

What do you think? Whether you are Roman Catholic, Orthodox,
Lutheran, or some other kind of Protestant, I'd like to hear your take on the question "Are Lutherans Protestant?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Too Good Not To Share

Over at Huffington Post, Esther Hamori, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Seminary, has a clear and incisive article titled, Biblical Standards for Marriage. Quote:

While the traditional view is that the Bible sets standards, and cultures either follow these standards or don't, the Bible itself shows us that cultural norms and biblical positions shifted in tandem. This does not mean that anything goes; it's simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one's first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.

Click here to read it all.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gender Language


Gender language is one of the most contentious issues in biblical translation. "Inclusive language" Bibles are welcomed by some and reviled by others. The Today's New International Version (2005) was scuttled by controversy concerning its inclusive language, while the masculinist English Standard Version (2001) has been warmly adopted by "complimentarian" churches.

Unlike English, biblical Greek and Hebrew are gendered languages. In Hebrew every noun and adjective is either masculine or feminine. Greek has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Grammatical gender does not necessarily correlate to any physical reality. For example, a city is not female, but the Greek word πόλις (polis = "city") is feminine.

The Greek word ἀδελφός (adelphos) means "brother," a male sibling. It's (nominative) plural is αδελφοι (adelphoi). The Greek word ἀδελφή (adelphe) means "sister," a female sibling, and has its own plural, αδελφαι (adelphai). When refering to a mixed group of male and female siblings the masculine plural αδελφοι (adelphoi) is used. How, then, should this word be translated?

Context is a key factor in translating αδελφοι (adelphoi). In some instances it clearly means "male siblings" as at Mark 12:20 ff, where the Sadducees tell Jesus a story about a woman who married seven brothers in succession. In other cases, it is not so clear. The Apostle Paul regularly refers to his fellow believers as αδελφοι (adelphoi). Are his words intended only for male believers? In some cases I think it is clear that Paul is addressing both men and woman. I've heard it suggested that the Christian community at Galatia was exclusively male, and I have a pet, though unproven, theory that the community addressed in 1 John was all male. Does that mean that αδελφοι (adelphoi) should be translated as "brothers" in Galatians and 1 John? Or does the message of these works apply also to female readers?

Don't even start me on the word ἄνθρωπος (anthropos), a masculine noun that refers to a  human being without reference to their physcial sex.

The bottom line is: modern English doesn't work the same way that biblical Hebrew and Greek work. Translation always involves compromise. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of inclusion. I recognize. however,  that this reflects my own theological biases, just as masculinist translations reflect someone else's theological biases. There is a lot of sloganeering and vituperation around issues of gender language. Perhaps it is wise simply to note that the issues exist and that they are by no means simple.

When choosing a Bible, be sure to read the translators' preface carefully. It will probably tell you a lot about the translators' approach to gender language. When reading a translation of the Bible, pay attention to footnotes.

Don't take any wooden nickels.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Really Want To Give This Bible Away!


So, if you have any interest at all in the Common English Bible...even if it's just a passing curiosity...reply to this post. Give me your name and mailing info. I'll forward it to the publisher and they will send you a FREE paperback copy of the CEB. FREE.

I promise that I will not publish or in any way misuse your personal information!

The CEB is a good, readable translation of the Bible. So, come on, sport, whaddaya got to lose?

I mean really what do you have to lose? I mean it's free and all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Good Article at Guardian.UK

There is a good article titled "How Biblical Literalism Took Root" by Stephen Tomkins over at the website. A teaser:

One practical problem of this text mania is that the Bible, unlike the church, can't answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. So those in search of religious certainty have to find it all in the text: if it says the earth was created in six days, or that gay sex is an abomination, them's the facts, end of story. And if it forbids charging interest, well there's always wriggle room.

 Click here to read the rest.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ecumenical Rep Stuff


Yesterday, after a Mothers Day luncheon with my mom and mother-in-law, I had the privilege to attend a service of "Solemn Vespers in anticipation of the Episcopal Ordination of the Reverend Monsignor David J. Malloy, J.C.L., S.T.D. as the Ninth Bishop of Rockford." I was there as a representative of the Northern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. My Bishop, Gary Wollersheim, was not able to attend.

I was running close on time and had to park three blocks away from the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rockford. I hurried along and entered the cathedral just behind a group of four priests. A woman wearing a name badge greeted us. "Fathers this way," she said.

"I'm Lutheran."

"Oh, this way," she said. Taking me by the wrist she hustled me to the very front of the sanctuary and led me to a pew with a sign taped to its end.


I was seated between 2 aldermen.

The service was conducted with a high degree of professionalism. We sang a hymn and intoned three psalms. There was a brief reading followed by a "Welcome by Rector, Father Carl Beckman, to Ecumenical and Civic Leaders." I stood as my name was called. "We are honored by your presence," the rector said to all of the leaders. I'm not used to being treated as a dignitary.

Next came a homily by retiring bishop Doran. Then Bishop-elect Malloy made his profession of faith and oath of loyalty.Bishop Doran blessed Msgr. Malloy's miter, crosier, and ring, the insignia of his new office.  We sang the Magnificat. as the altar was censed, prayed intercessions and recieved a triune benediction.

The Ecumenical and Civic leaders were ushered into a reception hall where we were given a gift, a handsome glass paperweight which I have given to my own Bishop. The Bishop-elect greeted us individually. As I shook his hand, I gave him greetings from Bishop Wollersheim and assured him that we in the Northern Illinois Synod would pray for him.

Later, as I walked the three blocks back to my car, I found a dollar bill in the street. All-in-all it was a good day.

Something I noticed: when Bishop Doran handed his crosier to anyone else, they did not touch it directly, but held it with a cloth. Can anyone tell me whaddup with that? The photo of Bishop Malloy, at his ordination, came from the website of the Rockford Register Star.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just Realized

I haven't given a Bible away this week. Want it? The first reply to this post gets a paperback edition of the Common English Bible. Give me your name and mailing address. I WILL NOT PUBLISH YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION! I promise.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Reflection on Pastoral Ministry


My sermon yesterday was based on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. I drew on some of the same ideas that I had also used in this post. The main point of my sermon was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ welcomes the outcast and invites into the kingdom of God those whom we might choose to exclude.

Now ours is a small congregation. We really have only one child member, a bright and inquisitive 10 year old girl. Saturday evening, going over my sermon, I decided that I'd better call her mother.

"I don't usually run my sermon past anyone before I preach it, but I thought you should know that tomorrow I'll be talking about the Ethiopian eunuch. I don't want to raise any awkward questions for you. I don't plan to explain what a eunuch is, but I plan to say, 'One form of genital mutilation was required for a man to enter the temple; another form of genital mutilation would keep him out.' I'll find a way around it if you want me to."

She thought about it before she said, "That should be OK. She's at that age where she's curious about sex. We try to give her honest answers. If she asks, I think we can handle it."

"Okay," I said. "As long as your answer isn't 'Let's go ask the pastor.'"

We both laughed.

No one had signed up to serve as lector yesterday. That didn't worry me. I have members I can call on at the last minute and trust that they will do a good job. I drafted a woman to read before the service started. The assigned lection uses the word eunuch about five times. My last-minute lector was doing a great job, but the third time the word came up, she stopped, looked at me, and asked, "How do you pronounce that?"

Did I mention that ours is a small congregation?

I said, "Yew-NICK. You're doing fine."

She finished the readings. The congregation began singing the Alleluia verse as she stepped down from the dais. I stopped her for a second and quietly asked, "Do you know what a eunuch is?"

"No," she admitted.

So, a few minutes later, I found myself in the pulpit, departing from my notes.

"I wasn't planning to do this, but I think I'd better explain about eunuchs. A eunuch is a man who has been fixed the way a cat or dog is fixed."

There is no deep meaning in this blog post, just an acknowledgement of something that my colleagues in pastoral ministry knows: Sometimes being a pastor is a lot of fun, but even when it's not fun, it is always interesting.

Oh, and a request for any laypeople who happen to read this: please pray for your pastors. They, after all, pray for you.

I snagged Rembrandt's painting of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch  from wiki.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birthday Bible Giveaway

Today is my birthday. In celebration, I'm giving away another paperback copy of the Common English Bible. The first person to reply to this post wins it! Give me your name and mailing information, so I can forward it to the publisher. As always, I promise that I will not publish your private information!

That can't be my cake. There aren't enough candles.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch


To begin, this Sunday's first reading:
An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “ Approach this carriage and stay with it. ”

Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “ Do you really understand what you are reading? ”

The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. As they went down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea. (Acts 8:26-40)

I’m really not clear on just what the Ethiopian eunuch was doing in Jerusalem. The text says that “he had come to worship” but, as I understand it, he would have been barred from any meaningful participation in Jewish worship. As an Ethiopian he was probably not Jewish. He may have been a God-fearing gentile, but as a eunuch he would not be allowed to become a proselyte, a full convert. And as a eunuch he would not have been allowed to participate in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple.

It’s a curious thing: one form of genital mutilation was required to get into the assembly (Genesis 17:14). Another form of genital mutilation would keep a man out (Deuteronomy 23:1). I guess God’s people have always had an unseemly fascination with genitalia.

At any rate, Philip told the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, and when they came upon water in the wilderness (resonant as that phrase is with imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures), the eunuch asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer, apparently, was “Nothing.”

That answer was not good enough for some early Christians. By the second century, a verse had been added to this narrative:

Philip said to him, “If you believe with all your heart, you can be.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.” (Acts 8:37, rightly relegated to a footnote in modern Bibles).

I think I can understand the impulse behind this added verse. We can’t go around baptizing people willy-nilly, can we? But in some ways this is a troubling addition. It undermines one important point of the story. The Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider. Rules and regulations had kept him from participating in worship of the Lord, the God of Israel. In Jesus Christ, God was now reaching out beyond the borders of Israel to include even an Ethiopian eunuch among the people of God. The most marginalized, the most excluded, were now being brought into the fold, and nothing...NOTHING...could prevent them from being baptized.

Someone has said that whenever we draw a line to exclude people, Jesus stands on the other side of the line. Jesus stood on the side of the Ethiopian eunuch. Who does Jesus stand with today?

To state that question another way, whom would you exclude from your fellowship? Whom would you marginalize?

Some Christians exclude women from roles of leadership in their churches. In those churches, Jesus stands with the women. Some churches marginalize lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. (An unseemly fascination with genitalia persists among God's people to this day). In those churches Jesus stands on the LGBTQ side of the line. I am convinced of this.

But here is where it gets tricky for me. Although I am convinced that it is wrong to exclude or marginalize women and LGBTQ individuals, I find that I want to exclude and marginalize the Christians who disagree with me on these issues.


Does this mean that Jesus stands on their side of the line that I have drawn? I’m afraid so. And though I don’t think that Jesus agrees with them, nevertheless, he stands with them, loving them as his sisters and brothers, inviting me to cross the line that I have drawn, to embrace the brothers and sisters with whom I disagree.

Lord, increase my faith! (Luke 17:5)

If you are the kind of person who checks out parenthetical Bible references...(Isaiah 56:1-8). Scripture quotes are from the Common English Bible. I snagged the image of Lambert Sustris' 16th century painting of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch at wiki.

Friday, April 27, 2012

While I'm Thinking Of It


Reply to this post with your name and mailing address, I will not publish your information. I will forward it to the publisher and they will mail you a shiny new paperback copy of the Common English Bible, all for free!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

National Workshop on Christian Unity


It has been almost a week since my return from Oklahoma City. I hit the ground running when I got back. Catching up on work has kept me from updating this blog. Until now.

In the comments to this post, Victoria Gaile was nice enough to ask for "a summary 'now that I'm home, here's what I thought' post." So, here goes. Victoria, this one's for you.

I spent four pleasant and harmonious days among Christians, some of whom I have deep and substantial disagreements with on matters of doctrine. The ordination of women, homosexuality, the meaning of the Sacraments, the interpretation of Scripture, and so on and on. These are real issues that divide us which cannot be, and were not, ignored.

So often my encounters with fellow Christians are unpleasant. The NWCU was not.

I scribbled lots of notes during the Workshop. Among them is a question that occurred to me: "Do all Christians have a vision of Christian unity?" I think that the answer must be "Yes." For some Christians unity would mean that all believers march in lockstep with their particular brand of doctrinal orthodoxy. As if doctrinal orthodoxy is what saves us.

Doctrine is important, of course, but to insist that others adopt our doctrine is fundamentally unloving. Love, I believe, is the ultimate orthodoxy.

An analogy: my brother and I had different relationships with our father. Why would I expect all Christians to have precisely the same relationship to God in Christ as my own?

It is unrealistic to expect that all Christians will have precisely the same doctrine. The New Testament reveals that the early Church was not of one mind in all matters. New Testament orthodoxy is large enough to encompass both Paul's Gentile Christianity and the Jewish Christianity of James. The New Testament contains both Matthew and Luke. Their unity, finally, is not in doctrinal conformity, but in the cross of Christ.

Divisions in the body of Christ are real, but the National Workshop on Christian Unity shows that Christians of various denominations can live together in harmony and work together in cooperation.  We do not need to be in full agreement. We need only be respectful, kind, forgiving, and charitable.

It's a pity that so many of us find that so difficult.

Illustrating this post is a photograph of the cross that I bought in an Oklahoma City gift shop.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Long Way Home

"The first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion is to take off our shoes. For the place we are approaching is holy. Else we will find ourselves treading on people's dreams. Worse, we may forget that God was there before our arrival." -- Episcopal Bishop Kenneth Cragg

That quote was included in this morning's Bible study on Ephesians 1:18 by Bishop Teresa Snorton of the Christian Methodist Episcopal church. It represents, I think, the most responsible way to approach ecumenical, interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.

What's the difference?

Ecumenical dialogue takes place among Christians.

I've heard "interfaith" defined two ways. It either means dialogue among Christians and Jews who share some Scriptures in common, or, more inclusively, among the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Inter-religious dialogue would include every religion.

Bishop Snorton's Bible Study was delightful. Her approach to the Scriptures is different than mine. She had me using my iPad to look at various versions and even two editions of the Greek New Testament to see where she was getting her points from. In the end, though our approaches differed, our conclusions were very much the same. There may be a lesson in that.

We stood and paused for a moment of silence at 9:02 AM, the time at which, 17 years ago today, the bomb exploded at the Murrah Federal Building killing 168 people. The Bishop stopped mid-sentence for this remembrance.

Bishop Snorton spoke gracious words about "Risking Change to Create Unity." This, she said, requires a both/and theology. An either/or theology limits our choices and options while a both/and theology expands choices an options.

The last address of the Workshop was a challenging talk titled "The Hope of Our Calling Is Exceeding Our Expectations" by African Methodist Episcopal Bishop John White.

I ate lunch with a table of Roman Catholic priests feeling very much like the dog in the manger. Then I visited a gift shop to buy a cross that I will hang over my desk.

About 2:00 this afternoon I caught the shuttle to the airport where I am sitting, once more "secure" inside the TSA perimeter, writing these words.

My flight leaves in about 1-1/2 hours. Plenty of time for a cup of coffee...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

And Now The Day Is Done

Since my last brief update I have attended the final plenary session of the Lutheran Ecumenical and inter-religious Representatives Network, a meeting that was devoted mostly to business.

Then I hiked over to the Oklahoma City Memorial and briefly toured the hauntingly beautiful, achingly sad ground. Tomorrow, April 19, will be the 17th anniversary of the bombing, an act of domestic terrorism, that destroyed the Murrah Federal building and killed 168 people.

A group of us gathered across the street around a statue of Jesus weeping on ground once occupied by the parish house of St. John's Catholic Church. There we held a service of prayer.

Next we toured the Museum which tells the story of that tragic day and its aftermath. I got a little choked up more than once. The Oklahoma City bombing is a testament to the depths of human depravity and a witness to the courage, the goodness, and the faithfulness of which our kind is capable.

I ate a few hors d'ouevres at a reception following the Museum tour. I listened to 1-1/2 of the three speeches that were made but then finally hit my limit and slipped out quietly to walk back to the hotel.

Tomorrow will be the last events of the 2012 National Workshop on Christian Unity and another long day of travel to get home.

I think I'll finish this glass of wine, do a little packing, and get some sleep.


Midafternoon Update

I would need to check this out, but I heard someone say that, at the National Workshop on Christian Unity, the denominational networks meet apart more than together. If this is true, it's ironic.

I did, however, just come from a joint meeting of the Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist networks.

The Roman Catholics met separately during this time. Someone called this "the elephant in the (other) room."

We do what we can together.

I've said the Nicene Creed twice in worship now. Both times with the filioque clause (Google it). Is it any wonder the Orthodox are not represented?

Another comment heard at the last session: "It's easy for Mainliners to talk to one another. The real divide in Christianity is between the Mainline and Evangelicals."

Midday Report


• When I get home I will have to repair the many typos in these posts from Oklahoma City.

• This hotel has the best elevator music. This morning I heard Billie Holiday as I rode from floor 12 down to 2. I thought for a moment about riding back up just to hear the rest of the song.

• Meanwhile back home the city comptroller was arrested, charged with embezzling $30 million in 6 years!

Once the couple in the next room quieted down, I got a night of sound sleep. Breakfast this morning was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. NCC reps announced that the Council is reorganizing. I ate with a table of Episcopal priests who counted up the number of times the NCC had reorganized within their memory: 4.

After a brief Morning Prayer led by a Roman Catholic bishop, I attended a seminar on Ecumenical Advocacy. The speaker was dynamic, but the topic didn't apply to me as much as I had hoped.

Over lunch, Episcopal Bishop Steve Charleston, a person of Choctaw heritage, gave a wonderful talk about Racism and Catholicity. He introduced himself as a "good news preacher. The good news is I'm not long-winded." His talk was, if anything, too brief. He reminded us that religious traditions that are closed and set are death-dealing.

That was a paraphrase.

After lunch I had the first real hour of free time that I've had since I hit the ground. So, I've updated my blog with this midday report.

Tonight I will visit the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and museum with a group from the NWCU. I'm looking forward to it.

And now, once more into the fray...

Individuals v. Committees


Most popular Bible translations are the work of committees, but there have been many versions made by individuals. Some of these have been influential, some popular, some just weird.

Late in the 4th century, St. Jerome produced the Vulgate, a translation of the Bible from its original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into the common language of the day, Latin.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther translated the Bible from its original languages into vernacular German, so that the common people could understand the Scriptures for themselves.

At about the same time, William Tyndale published a complete English New Testament, translated from the Greek. He also translated parts of the Old Testament.

In more recent times, Robert Young made Young's Literal Translation (1862) into English that scrupulously reproduced the verb tenses and other grammatical idiosyncrasies of the original languages. (English verb tenses do not correspond exactly to those of Hebrew and Greek).

R.F. Weymouth made a fussy, old-fashioned English translation of the New Testament in 1903.

In 1924, James Moffatt's New Translation rendered both Testaments into "effective, intelligible English."

Edgar Goodspeed translated the New Testament into very readable English in 1913. An Old Testament by 4 other scholars was added in 1924 and published as The Complete Bible: An American Translation.

Ronald Knox translated the Vulgate into lovely English. His version, with imprimatur, was published in 1948.

J.B. Philips published a fun, loose, popular, and highly readable translation of the New Testament in 1957.

In 1959 came the conservative Berkley Version, with New Testament by Gerrit Verkuyl and Old Testament by a team of U.S. translator.

Australian classicist Ann Nyland published her translation The Source New Testament with Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning in 2007. It was controversial for the translator's handling of passages regarding homosexual intercourse and the role of women in church, home, and society.

I have hard copies of most of these Bibles and electronic copies of the rest.  I have made use of them all from time to time.

I've heard it said that translations made by committee are more trustworthy than those made by individuals. A team effort is less likely to reflect the translator's biases. I observe, however, that translation committees are just as likely to have biases as individuals. The New English Translation (NET) was largely the work of scholars from Dallas Theological Seminary, a conservative school with a inerrantist view of Scripture. The popular English Standard Version (ESV) was made by a committee that was heavy on Calvinists and complimentarians (i.e. Christians who do not allow women roles of leadership in their churches). My own go-to Bible, the New Revised Standard Version  was produced by a team of scholars with what I would call an academic bias.

In short, committees can be just as biased as individuals.

I found Caravaggio's dramatic painting of St. Jerome at the website of the Ronald Knox Society.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Minister, A Rabbi, And An Imam...


I usually sleep poorly my first night in a hotel room. Not last night. Last night I closed my eyes and lapsed into a deep and dreamless 9 hour slumber.

I woke this morning to a long day of meetings. We're packing a lot into the time we have here.

Breakfast was sponsored by the Blackmoor Institute. You'll have to Google it. This blogger app is kind of Spartan. I could probably make the links, but I'm too tired to fuss with it.

After breakfast, I attended a session on the Art of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Dialogue led by an affable Roman Catholic priest named Leo Walsh. There were many things I learned but let me cite just one. Fr. Walsh invoked the Lund Principle: "Churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel then to act separately." Or, "What we can do together, we should do together."

Today's keynote address was a talk on the history and legacy of Vatican II after 50 years. The speaker, John Borelli was engaging and scholarly. He reminded us that the results of the second Vatican Council are still being lived out.

A panel discussion over lunch looked, among other things, at the effects of Vatican II on other church bodies.

Then I attended a session led by a rabbi, an imam and and Methodist pastor on "Reading Each Other's Scriptures." This was a highlight of my day. It was good to see people of different religious traditions interact with respect and good humor.

Next was a meeting of LERN in which we discussed the so-called "Lima Document," a 30 year old "convergence document" that outlined broad areas of agreement among various Christian denominations on the subjects of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Again, Google it.

The day's last event was a joint Episcopal/Methodist Communion service at St. Paul's Cathedral. It was cool.

I feel fortunate to be here among intelligent, articulate and civil people who are committed to actualizing the unity of God's diverse people.

Good night!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Down To Earth

The sun shone bright in a clear sky as the little jet dipped into a landscape of red soil intersected by a brown river.

If that sentence is overwritten it's because I'm really, really tired. My flight to Oklahoma City was 50 minutes late in arriving. Further delays on the ground meant that I missed the first event of the Lutheran Ecumenical and inter-religious Representatives Network (LERN) gathering: lunch. I finally had a granola bar and a bottle of Dr. Pepper around 3:30 this afternoon.

My afternoon was filled with meeting new friends and catching up with an old one. There was a lengthy meeting where I got to hear about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's ecumenical and inter-religious activities of the last year.

I'm proud to be a part of a church that works toward actualizing our unity in Christ. The ELCA has full Communion agreements with 6 other church bodies and is in ongoing conversation with several others.

This evening I attended the opening worship of the National Workshop on Christian Unity. Participants in the service included Lutherans, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and I hope I haven't forgotten anyone!

The homily was given by the Most Rev. Paul Coakley, archbishop of Oklahoma City. He spoke about the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. He talked about "deeper unity in truth and charity." Perhaps most tellingly he addressed this diverse group as "My dear brothers and sisters in Christ...."

We worshiped there in a unity that was not born of shared doctrine or common practice. It was not a unity of polity or theology or institutional cohesiveness. We worshiped together in a commitment, rather, to the same Lord, and in a desire to obey Jesus' command, somehow, to love one another.

And so to bed.

Up In The Air

I am typing these words into an iPad while flying over America's heartland, en route from my home in Illinois to Oklahoma City where I will spend the next several days at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) and the concurrent meeting of the Lutheran Ecumenical and inter-religious Representatives Network. (LERN) I am finally beginning to look forward to the event. Up to this point I have mostly just been dreading the travel. You see, I haven't been on an airplane in more than 20 years and I really didn't enjoy it much then.

Airplanes might be a comfortable form of transportation for people less than 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. I'm a little larger than that in every dimension. Beside that my sitbones are beginning to ache. I hope not to find out, but I suspect that this seat cushion works better as an emergency flotation device.

I was up this morning at 4:00 to drive 50 miles to catch a bus that took me to the airport by 7:45 to catch my flight by 9:10. The flight, naturally enough, was delayed. A late arrival and mechanical issues conspired to delay take-off. Headwinds are further slowing things down. It looks as if I'll be late for lunch.

Passing through the TSA checkpoint at O'Hare Airport was not as unpleasant as I anticipated. I had to empty my pockets, take electronics out of my bags, remove my shoes and belt, and submit to a body scan. The TSA personnel were professional and courteous, though more efficient than friendly. That, come to think of it, is probably for the best.

Waiting at the gate, I pondered the compromise between liberty and security that post 9/11 America has made. From the moment I was passed through the TSA checkpoint, I have existed in a hermetically "secure" environment. I couldn't carry more than 3 ounces of liquid through security but bought a 25 ounce bottle of water on the other side.

I paid $25.00 to check a bag that I could have carried on, just so I could have a pair of scissors and a bottle of hair conditioner when I reach Oklahoma City. I may ditch these things before my return flight.

The captain just announced that we will be beginning descent and 25 ounces of water have left me feeling saturated, so I'd best make my way to the rear of the plane before the seat belt light comes on.

Blessings from 20,000 feet.

Another Week. Another Bible...


If you would like to be the happy recipient of this week's paperback edition of the Common English Bible, just be the first to reply to this post. Give me your name and address so I can forward them to the publisher who will then send you a spanky new CEB with that fresh Bible smell we all love!

I will not publish your personal information. I promise!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Now, Look...

The last time I tried to give away a Bible, no one bit. So, let's try it again. If you would like a FREE paperback copy of the Common English Bible respond to this post. Give me your name and mailing information. I will not publish your personal information or misuse it in any way.  I will just forward it to the publisher so that they can send you your Bible.

The Common English Bible is a new and highly readable translation of the Scriptures. It includes a nice set of maps produced by National Geographic. And did I mention that it's free?

First reply to this blog gets it. I'll have another one to give away next week.

Thursday, April 12, 2012



A significant factor that distinguishes the many English versions of the Bible one from another is equivalence. Some versions of the Bible are translated according to a philosophy of formal equivalence while others are made according to a principle of dynamic equivalence.

Formal equivalence is sometimes called "literal" or "word-for-word" translation. A formally equivalent translation is relatively transparent to the source language reflecting, to the extent that it is possible, the grammatical structure and even word order of the original.

Strict formal equivalence is not really possible. Wtords in the source language may not have a precise equivalent in the target language. That is, words in different languages have different ranges of meaning. Some words are untranslatable. In Greek there are little words called "particles" that add emphasis, for example, or "iffy-ness" o a sentence but which cannot be reproduced in English. Greek also employs double negatives which, if rendered literally, result in ungrammatical English. Word order is also used very differently in Greek than in English.

As an example, here is a very literal rendering (it can't really be called a translation) of Romans 12:9-10 from the Greek:

The love unhypocritical. Loathing the evil, sticking-like-glue to the good, in brotherly-love to one-another persons-with-familial-affection; in honor one-another persons-who-go-before....

Dynamic equivalence is sometimes described as thought-for-thought translation. The idea of dynamic equivalence is to render the meaning of the source text into the target language with less concern for the actual words and grammar of the original. Dynamic equivalence translations tend to be freer, more idiomatic and more natural than formally equivalent translations. I think it is safe to say that they are also more interpretive. The success of a dynamic equivalence translation depends in large measure on the translator's understanding of the source text.

Here is Romans 12:9-10 from the New American Standard Bible, a high formal equivalence translation:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor....

And for comparison, from the Common English Bible, a much more dynamically equivalent translation:

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other....

The translation philosophies of formal and dynamic equivalence both have their strengths and weaknesses. English readers, with hundreds of versions available to them, are probably fortunate that they don't have to choose a single type of translation. When I teach my New Testament class in the Diakonia program, I require my students to write paper explaining a passage of Scripture. I always tell them to compare the passage in several versions.

Some of the more formally equivalent English translations of the Bible include the King James Version, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible and the New King James Verson.

Dynamic equivalence translations include the Good News Translation, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation and the Common English Bible.

The New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version steer a middle course, with the NRSV leaning toward formal equivalence and the NIV family favoring dynamic equivalence.

I don't usually illustrate my blog with my own photographs. Perhaps you can see why.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blessed Easter!

On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.  But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.  We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

Luke 24:13-33 is quoted from the Common English Bible. Rembrandt's sketch of the Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus came from this website.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Rachel Is Weeping For Her Children



The third and last of our depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus from the Art Institute of Chicago is a 60-3/4 x 55 inch oil on canvas painting by Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion. This painting is notable for jewel-like colors which were so much a hallmark of Chagall’s style.

A Russian-born citizen of France, Chagall was the 20th century’s premiere Jewish artist. His works are filled with Jewish themes and symbolism.

It is perhaps surprising that Chagall would paint a crucifixion, though he depicted the scene several times. It is not surprising that his Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. His head is covered, as is required of observant male Jews. The traditional loincloth protecting Jesus’ modesty is, in this painting, a prayer shawl.

Above Jesus’ head is the inscription INRI. An artists’ convention, the letters abbreviate the Latin phrase Iesous Nazarenus, Rex Iudorum (Jesus of Nazereth, King of the Jews). Just below that the same phrase is written out fully in Hebrew. I take the inscription to be unironic. Chagall intends this Jesus to be the arch-exemplar of Jewish identity.

Arranged around the cross are scenes of 20th century persecution of Jews. A Russian shtetl is overturned and burning. Refugees languish in an overcrowded boat. A brown-shirted Nazi loots a burning temple. At the foot of the cross are figures fleeing violence: A woman clutches an infant. A man cradles a Torah scroll. A man with a placard hung around his neck gestures in confusion and despair. A figure in a green coat, carrying his possessions in a sack, runs toward the viewers’ right. This last figure is seen in many of Chagall’s works. Some say that he represents the prophet Elijah, others the Wandering Jew. Chagall’s symbols are often ambiguous or multivalent.

Floating above the cross, looking on in horrified sorrow, is a quartet of heavenly witnesses. The men may be the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The woman might represent Rachel, the mother of Jacob, and figuratively, of all the Jewish people.

Thus says the Lord:
     A voice is heard in Ramah,
          lamentation and bitter weeping.
     Rachel is weeping for her children;
          she refuses to be comforted
          for her children,
               because they are no more.
                        (Jeremiah 31:15)

A shaft of light falls upon the cross. In Christian iconography this might represent redemption, but this is not a Christian painting. There is nothing redemptive in all this suffering. The radiance is rather a heavenly spotlight shining upon what has been done to Jesus and to all the Jewish people.

Painted in 1938, the White Crucifixion was Chagall’s reaction to the atrocities being committed against his people. As a Christian, I see in this painting a call to repentance for the way that my faith has contributed to violence against God’s chosen people; a challenge to stand up for those who are persecuted; and a reminder that the crucified Jesus suffers with all who suffer.

Today is Good Friday. In church we will pray for “the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God.” We will say: “Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises.”

Today is also the first day of Passover. I wish my Jewish friends a glad and blessed Pesach.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Christ, And Him Crucified


The second of three images of Jesus' crucifixion from the Art Institute of Chicago for this Holy Week is an oil painting by 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. At just over 114 x 64 inches, this canvas is imposing. Every time I see it, it stops me in my tracks.

Zurbarán employs a standard iconography, and this painting is remarkably similar to others of the period, such as that by his patron Diego Velázquez.

This crucified Christ is serene. The image owes more to John's Gospel, where the Lord Jesus is absolutely in charge up to the moment of his death when he proclaims “It is finished,” than to the agonized and human Jesus of Mark's Gospel who cries out “My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Though evidently dead, Zurbarán's Jesus seems to stand upright, more supporting himself then hanging from the cross.

Still, Renaissance realism is the order of the day. This Christ has no halo.

The work is masterful, painterly and perhaps a bit show-offy. See how realistically the artist renders the human form. See how well he has mastered the play of light and dark. See how accurately he represents the textures of the wooden cross, the iron nails, the scrap of paper beneath Jesus' feet that bears the artist's signature, the excessively large and billowy loincloth. (Zurbarán was apparently noted for his rendering of white cloth!)

The impenetrably black background is a reminder of the darkness that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, “fell over the whole land” when Jesus hung on the cross. It also serves to focus the viewer's attention on the painting's sole subject.

I think that the artist has put all of his technique into the service of a message. Like the Apostle Paul, Zurbarán proclaims only “Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012



The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favorite places in all the world. It houses a remarkable collection of art treasures ranging from the ancient to the postmodern. For this Holy Week, I would like to share my reflections on three images of Jesus crucifixion from that collection.

First is a work by 15th century Italian artist Carlo Crivelli. Measuring 29-1/2 x 21-3/4 inches, it is not a large work. Painted in tempera on wood, the scene has a golden quality. The setting is a barren and fantastic landscape. In the near distance is the city of Jerusalem.

The cross, is front and center. Christ, dead or nearly so, wears his crown of thorns. The artist has wrapped him in a traditional loincloth. This bit of modesty was probably not afforded to the actual victims of crucifixion.

Flanking the cross are Mary, the mother of Jesus, clothed in her traditional blue-and-rose robes, and St. John, the son of Zebedee, their faces etched with grief. There is a long standing assumption that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” mentioned in the Fourth Gospel was this John. He is depicted here as a beardless youth. Tradition has it that John was the youngest of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and the only one to live into old age, the rest (excepting Judas, of course) all dying as martyrs.

In the Gospel of John 19:26-27, we read that Jesus, seeing his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross, said, first to Mary, “Woman, here is your son.”

Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

At the foot of the cross, a new community was formed, a fictive kin group, a family based not on blood relationships but on loyalty to Jesus.

A curious detail in this painting is a human skull at the base of the cross. The hill on which Jesus was crucified was called “Golgotha,” an Aramaic word meaning “the place of a skull.” This point is mentioned in all four Gospels.

A legend has it that the skull was that of Adam, the father of all humankind. The sin of Adam and Eve infects all of humanity. The cross of Jesus is God’s remedy for our sinfulness.

As the blood of Christ runs down the cross, it washes over Adam’s skull, symbolically baptizing him, and by extension, all of his children. The cross of Jesus is meant for the salvation of all people.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Blogging As Spiritual Discipline


 I find that it works best if I begin a blogpost with the conclusion already in mind.

I have been trying, as a part of this year’s Lenten discipline, to blog more frequently. I’ve also been trying to ride my bicycle more. I’ve done pretty well at both of these things.

Why blog for Lent?

The themes that I explore on this blog are inherently spiritual. I write about God and the Bible and such. Beyond this, the very act of writing is a spiritual exercise. It requires a certain openness, a certain honesty. The truth is, I find blogging to be very satisfying, but also very difficult.

Writing with greater frequency has helped me understand just why I find it so difficult. There are two things I fear: being mistaken and being taken amiss.

Avoiding mistakes involves a level of attention to detail that is not a part of my nature. When I write these essays, I spend more time than I like checking facts. But, if I say something like “Cyrus Scofield was a scoundrel” I want the weight of evidence on my side. I don’t mind if a reader disagrees with my interpretation of facts, but I like to make sure my facts are straight.

 As for being taken amiss, I know that I am responsible for what I write but not for the way someone else reads it. Still, I often wrestle with words, striving to express myself as clearly and unmistakably as possible.

The twin fears of being mistaken and being taken amiss lead me to self-censor a lot. I probably discard as many words as I publish, if not more.  Blogging more often for Lent has been an exercise in trust. It has required me to trust myself to say what I believe clearly and courageously, to trust my readers to understand me, and to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the whole process,

I have published a number of posts in the last few weeks that I would not have published before. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to write a post only to throw it away because I couldn’t bring it to a satisfying end. I find that it works best if I begin a blogpost with the conclusion already in mind.

See what I just did there?