Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Scattered, stray, whatever. Here are a few thoughts to close the week; as always, feel free to follow up and let me know if any of them strike you as good candidates for further discussion on this blog.

Speaking of candidates (can’t get away from it, can you?), the latest negativity in the Republican field was kicked off by none other than James Dobson of Focus on the Family–and of that controversial John 3:16 ad aired during last week’s AFC playoff game. This time he strongly suggested that true believers concerned with morality should support Rick Santorum because his wife put her career on hold to raise the couple’s seven children, one of whom is a “special needs” child. This makes her a more worthy first lady than the wife of Newt Gingrich, who is unworthy due to a long relationship with the candidate while he was still married to another woman. Oh, but then it turns out that the good Mrs. Santorum had a live-in relationship with a much older man prior to her marriage to the former senator. Does any of this matter, and to what extent if it does? Is it legitimate fodder for consideration of political candidates? And it’s not even February yet.

The issue of environmental preservation was raised yesterday. I apologize for the incompleteness of the thoughts; I expect to return to the topic. I’d also encourage you to read the comment on that post by “Schoff” and see if that raises any additional thoughts. Some of what he raises will be considered in conjunction with a fairly popular book by David Platt, entitled Radical. It was passed along to me by a good friend this week, and I’ll work on it between class preparation sessions.

And about that John 3:16 ad. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s available on youtube (what isn’t?). I mentioned in a post earlier in the week that I thought it was not as great a move as many other people seemed to believe it to be. I can go either way on the idea of airing this type of commercial, one that offers a Christian message as opposed to the selling of cars, beer, or stupid reality shows for the further dulling of our minds. On the other hand, should the faith be reduced to a sound-bite, on the same level as the aforementioned messages? Do we portray it as on option to be purchased due to consumer preference and nothing more? But my other concern was with the “actors” in the spot–small children, taking turns reciting the well known verse. Not much diversity among the reciters, for one thing. But what about this age-group giving “the message” to football fans? There is a difference between a childish faith and a childlike spirit with which the faith must be embraced, a difference in no way discernible through this ad. It’s hard enough to create and maintain space for Christian views in the public square; this, in my opinion, does not move us in the direction of a position on human flourishing–the public good if you will. As Charles Barkley famously said, “I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.”

I went to a pro basketball game last night for the first time in 17-18 years (it’s so long I can’t quite remember). Aside from being pleased to see the long-downtrodden Philadelphia team playing good team basketball, including defense, it was a nice evening out with my daughter. But she raised a concern over something that is now so much standard fare in professional sports that I don’t think much about it. The young (and, yes, very attractive) women who once filled the role of leading cheers now perform another function–keeping men in their seats with movements and costumes that have nothing whatever to do with basketball. And this is an event to which families with children are present in significant numbers; “Family Packages” are promoted to draw them in with (slight) discounts on certain seats and concession items. What are they saying to the young boys and girls with undeniably sexually charged costumes and movements on display at center court during breaks in the game? Should it be of concern, or are kids subjected to so much of it that they don’t see it the same way? Judging by the loud-mouthed, vulgar fellow seated behind us, whose comments wer untempered by the presence of my daughter in front of him, we’re not doing anything good. Does it really sell tickets? Just wondering. And a little more reluctant to return before another seventeen years go by.

What Will Happen to Our Home When We’re Gone?

A different sort of question today. No, it’s not about something children might ask about the house they live in when they leave for an extended vacation, or perhaps move permanently to an entirely different place. It’s about the place called home for the entire human race.

Much has been brought to our attention in recent years regarding the status of the earth’s health. Maybe the first memory some of us have of not taking everything natural for granted was in Smokey the Bear’s reminder that only you can prevent forest fires; or maybe it’s the image of a native American standing by the side of a littered roadway with a tear running down the side of his face. Water pollution, air pollution, global warming, overpopulation, escalating rates of species extinction, and a host of other issues, some real, some imagined or concocted have come to our attention over the relatively recent past.

One outgrowth in the academic world is a new field for philosophers called environmental philosophy. It is the topic of the current issue of a journal I have referred to a couple of times on this blog, Philosophy Now. The history of this particular sub-discipline is, like all things academic, subject to debate; but usually included in the accounting is an essay by Aldo Leopold entitled “The Land Ethic,” published in 1949. In it, Leopold formulated what has become a widely discussed principle which says, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity of, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” At first glance, it seems simple enough. But reflecting on it for a little while shows how a field of philosophy/ethics could be spawned. What exactly is the biotic community? How do members of that community related to one another? Who decides for the community? What does the integrity spoken of mean, and how do we know it? What vantage point must be assumed to even begin to answer this? Is such a point attainable? What longterm goals should be in view in order to make sense of what will tend toward integrity, stability, and beauty, etc., etc.?

The fact is that such potential problems such as overpopulation, to take one example, have been discussed at least as far back as 1798 essay by Thomas Malthus, who had dire forecasts. He saw the problem becoming even more pronounced if we as a race could make any headway against the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which he delineated from the Book of Revelation: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Disease. Tim Delaney’s essay changes this to the “Five Horrorists” which now face us, adding “enviromares” to the list. These are some of the mass-scale disasters, such as the nuclear melt-down in Japan last year–things that have a natural world component coupled with an environmental impact exacerbated by technological “advancements.”

Jim Moran outlines three reasons why “saving the planet” is difficult (I confess: it is difficult for me as a Christian theologian to shift my thinking that salvation is something of which we are the saved rather than the saviors). The first of these is overcoming anthropocentrism; the second is understanding our place in nature (the first principle might have set this one up), and defining moral status. My interest is not to delve too deeply into the specifics of Moran’s thesis, but to begin thinking biblically, theologically about the possibilities that the earth is in need of saving by humankind, and whether or not that is a specifically Christian interest. Or has stewardship of the earth and its resources been so far from our concerns that when someone finally points to a bit of smoke that should not be there (metaphorically speaking here), we either shout down the messenger or take his account of the facts and along with it his worldview assumptions? Make no mistake here: the idea of our being created in the image of God with a special place in the scheme of earth’s history is very much at stake in this discussion.

Where might we begin to participate in the discussion? How might we fittingly teach a better way to our children–and their parents and grandparents? Or should we allow what will happen ti happen and go about saving souls? Just asking.

Too Many Bibles(?)

I just bought another one. It was so easy, too, given the point-and-click method of purchasing that has taken over my shopping habits for things I drive (cars, golf balls), give (gifts for any and all occasions), and read. Especially the latter, whether hard copy or e-book. What I just finished purchasing a few moments ago was yet another version of the New Testament.

One might well ask the why question here; don’t I already have enough versions to find one that says just what I want it to say, getting around those troubling passages that defy either explanation or a stubborn will? Perhaps some readers may be kind enough to give me a pass on the matter, reasoning that someone who teaches theology for a living ought to be aware of what is on the market. Thanks for that. And oh, what a market it is. For the record, the one just procured is the Kingdom New Testament, a new translation by British scholar N. T. Wright. As I went about making the purchase I decided to peruse for just a moment the variety of translations on offer. Most of them are ones with which I was already familiar, though additions to the list continue to be made. Here is a partial rendering of that list, most of which have the word “Version” at the end, which already sounds like an acknowledgement of other versions: King James, New King James, American Standard, New American Standard, Living Bible, New Living Translation, Revised Standard, New Revised Standard (do we detect a pattern here?), English Standard, Common English, New International, Today’s New International (rather clearly assigning the other one to yesterday), The Message, Jewish Annotated, and (my “favorite” newby on the list) the Restored New Testament, which includes the gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas. One may be forgiven if thinking that adding to the canon is not exactly the same as “restoring” the canon. And all of this is only the English language side of the multifaceted book we continue to refer to as The Bible, the Word of God.

What should we make of all this? Occasionally one may hear the complaint that the proliferation of translations has taken from the church a common language in which to memorize and recite God’s Word. That may be so; but it seems futile to turn things around and settle on a common version at this juncture. Other voices say it is more important that we understand the sense which the original authors conveyed to their readers, which may mean translating words differently to create the same sense in a contemporary audience. As language changes–and it does, and at a more rapid pace than ever before–perhaps our need for new translations continues.

Today’s post is not intended to make a point, but to solicit your experiences with various translations of the Bible. Which do you prefer, and why? What might you suggest regarding the way a congregation might handle the multiple versions that are in use? Is this a problem, or is it a boon to the church? What are your thoughts?

A Costly Stupidity

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about being stupid, something of which conservatives are often accused. At that time I offered the thoughts from Philosophy Now as to what constituted stupidity in the first place. That description includes “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” As was then noted and can readily be seen, such a description allows a precious few of us to escape inclusion in the stupid condition, at least on occasion.

It is a theme I will occasionally return, though not with the intent of dwelling there. Some examples of stupidity in cation just cannot go by without comment, and I’ve waited for more than a week to write about one of them. And sure enough, a cruise ship captain succeeds in providing yet another glaring example of stupidity that is not just humorous or head-scratching, but downright costly and tragic for other people. But today I want to look at the incident involving American soldiers desecrating the bodies of slain Taliban combatants in Afghanistan. No more needs to be said about the specific form of desecration.

And that is just the point–the sharing of details that becomes in itself a rush to provide ever more graphic descriptions of what probably should not have been described in the first place, at least not in public. The soldiers immediately responsible certainly acted on “poor reasoning.” They would, and I presume now do, confess that what they did was stupid, guided more by raw emotion than reasoning at all. Saying that the heat of the battle, the hardships of the deployment, the psychological stress endured, etc., do things to people’s capacity for better judgment is undoubtedly true. We can almost understand, even while we cannot excuse. But what about those who took the photographs and distributed them?

Poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions. All of these are in full display in this situation. A photographer sees the act; without reflection, or with poor reflection, he snaps the picture. Why? If it were to show to a commanding officer as proof of the inappropriate actions, one might defend the decision. But that’s not what happened. Whether the photographer himself or another person gaining access to the now documented atrocity, someone decided to take this to the news media, from whence it quickly and predictably circulated around the world. Poor reasoning? Yes. Entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions? Yes.

Just what those habits and assumptions might be should be something for all of us to think about. We so highly value “the public’s right to know” and “freedom of the press” that we seem entirely incapable of placing them into any context whatsoever, as though they trump every other consideration that might be part of the equation. This inevitably leads to poor reasoning. I suspect that most of us had a voice screaming inside of us when we saw the graphic, even if strategically digitized pictures. That voice said something like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” We understood instantly what damage would be done to American interests, American diplomacy, and American lives as a result of our enemies having this sort of publicity–let alone the bulletin-board material for their Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts. For some people, anything that happens becomes open material for worldwide distribution; consequences need not be considered. In fact, there might even be a personal prize involved for being the one to get the scoop. How stupid. Let’s, at the very least, examine some habits and assumptions.

Stupid actions have been going on in the world and in our own circles since humans have occupied the earth; they will continue, and perhaps even escalate as we lose our capacity to reason well. What we do with them, however, is a matter that needs to be thought about in an overall vision what is good for us. Not incidentally, the same logic applies to our shameful, costly, and destructive societal attitude toward pornography. I initially posted the thoughts on not being stupid in the context of declaring the need for a Christian vision of the public good. The center of our faith is the One who embodied the way, the truth, and the life. Surely we should be able to translate that One into a vision of what the good life looks like. Seems to me it’s the only antidote for stupidity.

Believing Joe, Believing Jesus, Believing Anything

For those who think I may be obsessed with Joe Paterno and his unceremonious exit from Penn State university, hear me out on this. Because it’s more about what people believe and proclaim and why than it is about a legendary football coach. And it’s more about what people think about Jesus than it is about what anyone thinks of Joe.

This post was prompted by two unrelated incidents from last week. First was a suggestion from Lisa Delay (now referring to herself as my muse) that I write something about the take on the Bible proffered by John Shelby Spong in a recent book; the second was the interview with Mr. Paterno conducted by Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. A day or two after reading the latter I went back to the Post to read some of the questions asked of Jenkins by some of her readers and her responses thereto. At first, I was dumbfounded by what I saw.

My perspective was of one who really wanted to hear what the man had to say. Yes, the man in question is one I have admired for his longterm commitment to higher education as more than the backdrop for athletics. Enough has been written on that. When reading the Jenkins account, I tend to believe what he said, perhaps largely based on what I knew of the man prior to all of the unfolding drama of the past two months. When reading some of the vitriolic comments to the article, however–some of which seemed clearly to take Jenkins herself aback–it became evident that nothing was going to satisfy these critics short of an exposure of Paterno as a fraud from beginning to end. When this did not happen, even one of the more celebrated news reporters of our time was summarily charged and convicted of being blinded to “the truth” or being complicit in perpetuating a hoax. Why the venom? Is it solely, or even primarily, because of their righteous indignation over the horrible acts of Jerry Sandusky? I doubt it, not to say that they are not seriously bothered thereby. But I rather suspect that it stems from a prior impression of who Joe Paterno really is, one which is rather far removed from my own (which, by the way, is not in the category of sainthood).

And it’s this coloring of our reading by prior associations and attitudes that brings me to the former Episcopal bishop, Spong, known for his engaging manner with audiences–and for his denial of orthodox beliefs regarding the incarnation, deity, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. It’s not only evangelicals who wonder what sort of strange teaching this man has been offering, and how he derives it from what is universally acknowledged as the church’s source book, the Bible. What does one do with biblical data that seems irrefutably to affirm what Spong denies? Well, the short answer is to debunk the idea that the Bible is in any ontological sense the Word of God. This is what Spong attempts to do in his book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.

There are some ideas Spong is unable or unwilling (I don’t know the man’s mind to determine which it might be, or in what measure) to relinquish. One is his commitment to naturalism, according to which nothing happens which is not attributable to solely natural forces, keeping God from having any direct contact with the ongoing operations or decisions of this world. That includes the closing of the possibility of life beyond the grave for Jesus, or for anyone before, since, or yet to come. He is also fully committed to the ideas of liberal thinking about all moral questions, so that when Jesus or any other biblical spokesperson declares otherwise, it is merely due to the agenda of the one doing the reporting, which is obviously to present their preferred reading of Jesus in order to further their own interests. They certainly were not inspired in any meaningful way that would warrant an authoritative voice being attached to their writings.

One wonders what Spong’s prior association with God might be. What colors his reading of what is possible, and of how seriously the word of the reporters should be taken, what their agenda might be? And do these previous impressions about God determine what he is able to accept as words from Him, rather than from biased reporters.

What’s my point? Simply this: all of us are influenced by our prior associations or ideas when we hear something new. That is, there are things we want to hear and things we don’t want to hear; and we can–if we choose–place the words and reports we hear into the already determined framework we carry with us. For Spong or the diehard Paterno critic as for his most ardent supporter, we can allow those ideas to continue to determine what we will accept as true. Or we can allow the framework itself to be questioned. And Christians do not need to fear this sort of questioning if they have already had an experience of the One who describes himself as the way, the TRUTH, and the life. If we know Jesus, we know the truth, through which we can see, in an ever unfolding, always growing way everything else, since by him and for him everything has been made. We may–and at times must–change our perspective on the things in this world, maybe needing to give up cherished ideas. But it centers in our knowledge of Jesus, who doesn’t change.

Tebow or Not Tebow? That Is a Question

Yes, a shameless play on words to get some attention. Confession offered; announcement of proper penance awaited. At least I didn’t say it is the question.

Now that his season has ended, maybe we can begin to work on a balanced perspective into which the unexpected fame and equally unanticipated controversy about Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, can be fit. The controversy has two decidedly different aspects. One is the actual ability to play the position itself that he does/does not possess; that’s only of interest to real football fans. The other side of controversy comes from his public, symbolic ways of declaring that he believes in Jesus Christ. Specifically, the posture of one knee on the ground with elbow propped on the other, hand to bowed forehead has created a new verb in the cultural vernacular: Tebowing. You are forgiven for thinking it was simply praying, but the position has been imitated by folks in all walks of life, many of whom have not had a conversation with the Almighty in a very long time–if ever. One image posted on the MSN homepage had playmates (Hugh Hefner variety, not pre-schoolers) trying it out.

And then there was the freakish/providential total yardage Tebow was responsible for in a first-round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. 316 yards creates a perfect stamp of approval on the player who in his collegiate days at Florida wore eye-black patches with “John 3:16” prominently displayed–at least according to true believers. Anyone who is a believer, a Broncos fan, and a statistics geek simultaneously must be downright ec-stat-ic. The organization Focus on the Family seized upon the opportunity and produced a commercial spot aired in the next game (in which Denver was rather unceremoniously thrashed by New England). The “commercial” consisted of a serial recitation of John 3:16 by a variety of children.

What should we make of all this? Is Tebow wrong to put his faith on display in a place where it does not have anything to do with what he is there for? Is it another way of calling attention to himself? Even if it were the latter, it surely is to be preferred to the primping and performing done by wide receivers and running backs upon reaching the end zone–or just simply making a successful catch of a pass. And players from both teams have been gathering at midfield for a brief time of prayer after games for quite a few years, though this is virtually unknown to the cameras of the networks covering the NFL. Why can’t Tebow just join in at that time with his fellow believers among the players?

I’m perfectly willing to let Tim Tebow or anyone else figure out what the Spirit is encouraging them to do as testimony to their decision to follow Jesus, provided they are open to wise counsel of other spiritually minded people. And that should be a guiding principle for all of us. Few of us will ever gain anything like the stage on which Tebow has performed; therefore, our words should be few as to what we would do in those circumstances. Acknowledging our dependence on God for every ounce of strength, ability, and opportunity we are given is incumbant on all of us; how we do so is not so clear.

But I do have a somewhat contrarian opinion regarding that Focus on the Family spot. Let me explain my concern. What did you see and hear in that cute commercial? If you are a believer who is already familiar with the words and understands the context, and you share the overriding concerns of the organization that produced it, it said one thing; if you do not have that backdrop, they may have said another. They may have said that the faith of Tim Tebow really is childish after all. And that is what concerns me. That Christian faith itself is that sort of belief is already widely held in our culture; and it may have been reinforced by this clip. I also worry (something I do a lot regarding ideas–call it an occupational hazard) about reducing the word of Christ to a simple formula without a context. But even if that is deemed to be worth doing so that interested persons might ask about it, why not have the verse recited by a series of NFL players who are believers? That, I suggest, would have ben far more powerful.

What do you think?

Saturday’s Scattered Thoughts

Another week coming to a conclusion. Thanks to all of you who commented on the series on omnipotence; it proved to be one of the most succesful series attempted on this blog (though well behind the Sandusky/PSU commentary). And a tip of the hat to Lisa Delay (lisadelay.com) for suggesting it. Proof that requests are indeed accepted!

Last week I began a Saturday series commenting on things in general, some of which may be picked up as themes for future posts, but most of which are just put out there for your own thinking. If they strike a chord, please comment and perhaps we’ll generate a weekend discussion in the process.

The first item is one I seriously considered as a topic to take on. It has to do with the widely and wildly perpetrated youtube video taking on “religion” as opposed to Jesus. You’ve probably seen it, or at least have seen it posted on someone’s facebook status. Rather than commenting directly, however, here is a link to Kevin DeYoung’s blog: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/ DeYoung echoes and develops thoughts very similar to my own, centering on the fact that the thesis is seriously flawed due to its very slippery and shifting definition of what “religion” is and is not, which has the consequence of not taking the whole of Jesus’ words about it into consideration. I’m sure some readers will immediately dismiss my objections as those of an aging traditionalist. So read them from someone else.

On a sad note, please offer prayer on behalf of Ben Witherington and his wife, whose 32 yr.-old daughter died yesterday. Ben is a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary. As I can readily attest, ministry professionals (a bad term, I confess) are very much like everyone else; these things hurt deeply.

And the winner is . . . Dr. Mary Midgley. I had awaited with decidedly unbated breath the latest issue of Philosophy Now to find out who the winner might be of the first Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. Midgley, a philosopher (surprised?) was selected out of twenty-five nominees for her “many contributions to clear thinking.” I am pleased to report that I found the one article of hers that I have read to be consistent with that description.

In a rare 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have gotten it right. In citing freedom of religion as the first and most basic of the civil rights, religious organizations are not bound to ignore a person’s beliefs when hiring individuals. It does not make sense to force, for example, for a Catholic charity to hire an open advocate of abortion, even if the person is otherwise qualified–or an avowed atheist at an evangelical relief organization.

One has to wonder how much defying and stretching of the truth will be tolerated in our perpetual political campaigns. The Romney-Bain Capital issue is just the latest example. Whether the truth can be known at all with all of the charges and counter-charges, the one thing that can be discerned without fail is that our poisoned way of seeking office is becoming even more toxic. It raises anew the questions about the extent of Christian participation in the campaigns; can it be done with integrity? Without reference to any actual positions, I do applaud the considerable attempts of Rick Santorum to steer as clear as possible of the tactics of used be some of his opponents. (But I do disagree with some of his positions, but that’s another matter). And what should Ron Paul do with the endorsement of the legalized prostitution “industry” in Nevada?

My thoughts are not as scattered this week as last; maybe that’s due to focusing on syllabus completion for an upcoming semester, during which that ever asked question of God’s relationship to suffering will be the subject of an elective. The question never goes away, but neither does the answer: Jesus, the Christ. It will take more than a semester to fill out that answer.

Blessings to all.