Friday, April 30, 2010

New Poll: Surprise! Young People Don't Read the Bible

A poll of 1200 18- to 29-year-olds released earlier this week finds that while 65% of respondents consider themselves Christian, 67% do not read the Bible. USA Today--that venerable old rag--covers the story here. (Full disclosure: I can't swear by the poll; it was conducted not by Pew or even Rasmussen, but by LifeWay Christian Resources, which sounds to me like a group that makes both devotional materials and canned food for school lunches.)

For me, it's a sad thought that fully 2/3 of American millennials--as the media has lamely dubbed the most recent generation--have little or no Biblical literacy. Not because I have any vested interest in mass conversions--I don't give a fig--but because the Bible remains a vital part of American religious and secular culture. We ignore it at our peril.

According to a 2008 ARIS (American Religious Identity Survey) poll, 76% of Americans describe themselves as Christian; include Jews and Mormons, and we can push the number of Bible-based believers up toward 80%. Put bluntly, four out of five Americans should read the Bible as part of their devotional practice.

But we all know, from polling and personal experience, that they do not. Maybe they should start. Literate religion is better religion. It is deeper; it is complex; it is more nuanced. It asks tougher questions and delivers subtler answers. And it is based on something better than a vague notion of faithiness. (And yes, I'm stealing from Stephen Colbert here.) The definition of faithiness? The firm conviction that Jesus loves you just as much as he loves fluffy bunnies. Faithiness is a nice idea, but it's not a particularly Biblical one.

But even if you don't count yourself among that 80%, you still can't get off the Biblical literacy hook, because you're in the minority--and hence regularly dealing with Bible-based religionists. Isn't it better to know something of the rituals, myths, and traditions that inform the lives of the vast majority of your countrymen and women?

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. American religion informs our politics, our literature, our cinema, and our culture, and the Bible informs American religion. It's our national myth--and "myth" here is not a pejorative term.

So you should know it better, jerks! And you should read my blog. Okay? Or maybe just read the Bible. I'd be fine with that too. Click here for more

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Noah's Ark Found?!!?

Extra, extra! A late item just came across the "Eat the Bible" news desk. (Okay, there's no news desk--just the Ikea kitchen table my girlfriend bought last fall.) Word arrived earlier today from Mount Ararat (in Turkey) that a portion of Noah's ark has been found! Alan Boyle over at MSNBC reports on the "discovery" here.

Why do I put "discovery" in quotes? Because I can debunk this story tonight, from the aforementioned Ikea kitchen table: this is not Noah's ark. Why?

First, the find was made by an evangelical Christian group--and obviously they don't have any vested interest in unearthing material proof of the story of Noah. (The group is called Noah's Ark Ministries International--they've apparently got a wide-reaching platform.)

Second, the "find" amounts is little more than a wooden structure of unknown age. Others have argued that the wood pile is little more than--and let me make sure I get my scientific terminology right--an "old hut."

Third, groups have been claiming to find pieces of the ark on Ararat about every decade or so for literally the last two millennia. Every other "ark" has proven to be either an "old hut" or a fraud.

Fourth--and this one's important--there is absolutely no geological evidence to support the claim that a worldwide flood covered the entire earth and wiped out all human and animal life nearly 5000 years ago!

So let's stop searching Ararat for musty wood and turn our attention back to Genesis 6. It's a gorgeous story gorgeously told, and it's got real moral and religious weight. Isn't that enough? Click here for more

Colossians 1: What Is Lacking in Christ's Afflictions?

I want to write today about a New Testament passage that makes some theologians and Biblical scholars very nervous: Colossians 1:24.

Colossians is one of the "deutero-Pauline" letters. These letters are purportedly written by Paul, Christianity's first great missionary and theologian; however, a majority of modern scholars argue that because of notable linguistic, stylistic, and theological differences, it is more likely that they were composed by followers of Paul in his name. (Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians are the other deutero-Paulines.)

In Colossians, "Paul" (and I'll drop the quotes from here on out) is writing from captivity in Rome to a new church in the city of Colossae--located in what would now be Turkey. In one of the letter's movements, he describes to the Colossians the pain of imprisonment--but with a positive cast: "I am rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (1:24).

Though it seems masochistic to some, the notion that sufferings are an occasion for "rejoicing" is nothing new--in Pauline literature or the gospels. Both Jesus and Paul argue that suffering, and especially suffering for Christ, is a blessed trial.

What is surprising is Paul's suggestion that his sufferings complete "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." This is striking language, for what could be "lacking" in Jesus's sufferings, described elsewhere as the ideal vehicle for forgiveness? How can Paul characterize the afflictions of Jesus as anything less than perfect?

The editors of my Oxford Bible beat a hasty retreat in their footnote to this verse: "not a denigration of Christ's death, but a reflection of the apocalyptic belief that God's people must suffer before the culmination of history." Okay, but this smacks more of hasty assertion than reasoned argument.

Even worse, the makers of the Bible's King James Version totally drop the ball with 1:24, delivering a mangled, barely readable translation: "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church." They say that Shakespeare may have helped out with the King James Bible; if he had anything to do with this verse, I'm glad he mainly stuck to plays.

And neither the Oxford editors nor the KJV translators can get away from the Greek original, which clearly uses the word husterema to describe Christ's pains. Husterema has only negative connotations in most Greek dictionaries: lack, destitution, poverty, deficiency, want. And many orthodox readers want to keep any such words away from Jesus's sacrifice.

But for the moment, I'd like to embrace this notion of lack--not to "denigrate" the atoning sacrifice of Jesus or to suggest, heretically, that his death means less than it should. By contrast, I want to emphasize the other side of the formula. If Christ's afflictions are "lacking," then our sufferings must make up the difference.

In making this bold statement, Paul greatly re-values human suffering--and perhaps, human action. Elsewhere, Paul suggests that human suffering is not worthless because it mimics or mirrors Christ's. If Jesus suffers, our suffering then is ennobled.

In Colossians, Paul steps further, arguing that our affliction not only resembles Christ's; it fulfills or completes it. The Greek is antanapleroo--"to fill up." Thus, Colossians renders human suffering not only noble, but necessary.

Again, some orthodox scholars may run from 1:24. Me? I embrace it.
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Leviticus 19: The Bible, Immigration, and "the Alien"

On Friday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) signed into law the nation's most restrictive immigration legislation. (The New York Times's coverage begins here.) Under the new law, immigrants must always carry correct documentation, and law enforcement agents will have broad powers to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally (those who look Mexican?). It also allows citizens to sue government agencies if they feel immigration laws are not being enforced.

While illegal immigration is a pressing challenge for the nation, the potential ramifications of the Arizona law are frightening. Though Brewer promises scrupulous new training for Arizona police, it is hard to believe that the legislation won't result in widespread profiling and new brands of harassment.

Now, I don't mean to get too political in this blog--this is primarily a space for thinking about the Bible. That being said, I feel it necessary to remind anyone who will listen what the Torah says about immigrants:

"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

We have all been immigrants and strangers, write the authors of Leviticus. We should then treat new immigrants and strangers not just with tolerance, but with "love." (Rabbi Denise Eger expands on the notion very effectively in a recent post to her blog.) Here, the Torah urges basic adherence to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. By contrast, Arizona's new legislation treats immigrants as if they are and always will be "others." A sad precedent. Click here for more

Friday, April 23, 2010

Leviticus 18: The Day After Earth Day

Yesterday, I resisted the temptation to do an Earth Day blog post--it seemed too obvious. So today, I've decided to do a day a day-after-Earth-Day blog post that is neither obvious nor timely.

In recent years, environmentalists both in and outside faith communities have striven to point out the Bible's earth-friendly pieces. This endeavor came to a head in 2008, when Harper Collins released a Green Bible; it highlights "environmental" passages (in green, I hope!) and prints on recycled paper. A couple years back, put some of the best together in a nifty little slide show. But today, I'll give you just one:

"The land will vomit you out for defiling it" (Leviticus 18:28).

Take that, defilers! Click here for more

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Romans 6: Cheating God, Gaming Grace

In his beautiful short story "The Immortal," Jorge Luis Borges tells of a deathless race who discover that good and evil exist in perfect balance. They further realize that in a world characterized by such balance, good works are not entirely good because they must be matched by evil works. Conversely, acts of evil--even horrors like assault, rape, or murder--are not entirely bad because they will someday effect equivalent goods. These immortals, then, resolve to remove themselves from the equation, opting for a life of complete inaction. (If you haven't read Borges, start with just about any story in the Collected Fictions and thank me later.)

Like Borges's immortals, the Bible's Paul lives in a cosmos that works in morally predictable ways. For Paul, sin and righteousness are part of a moral world system over which God presides. However, though Paul is confident he knows how that world functions, he does not want early Christians to game the system.

Let me explain ...

In Romans, Paul develops a unique view of Biblical history that recasts the Jews as a people chosen to demonstrate the moral function of the universe to the rest of humanity.

According to Paul, sin exists from the beginning of the world, but humans cannot recognize it. Only with the introduction of Torah law--with Moses at Sinai--do humans become cognizant of sin. The law's primary purpose is not to dictate human action but to show that people--or in this case, the Jews--cannot completely avoid sin, despite both legal guidance and good intention. Hence Paul's famous phrase in Romans 3, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (v. 23).

Paul goes on to explain that the sin we cannot help but commit eventually calls down the free gift of grace. Through this grace, God offers his son Jesus as an atoning sacrifice that allows the Lord to show "forbearance" (3:25) and pass over human sin.

The equation is simple: Sin exists. The law indicates sin. Sin calls down grace. Grace compels sacrifice. Sacrifice atones for sin.

But like a nervous pit boss in Vegas, Paul does not want readers who understand the system to then exploit it: "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more [...] What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!" (Romans 5:20-6:2)

Apparently, some of Paul's early followers (or detractors?) think they've found a loophole in his system. If sin calls down grace, and grace leads to atonement, shouldn't we just sin a lot? These people are like criminals let loose in Borges's fiction, free to commit violent atrocities knowing that equivalent goods will someday spring forth.

Obviously, such a loophole would prove disastrous for Paul's argument, so he closes it quickly. He continues, "How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" (Romans 6:2) And later, "We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin" (6:6-7).

As I understand him, Paul argues that the game is already over. Jesus's sacrificial death closes the cycle and allows for sin's redemption. The next step for early believers is not to keep sinning to draw more grace but to accept the atoning power of Christ's death and resurrection and be redeemed.

Nonetheless, in raising this objection, Paul seems to indicate that members of his audience are tempted to cheat at grace. And in introducing the notion that human evils may compel divine good, he lets out a tiger that is not easily put back in its cage.
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Monday, April 19, 2010

A Note on Mark 14

Paul Ford, an associate editor at Harper's, writes the following in the "Readings" section of the May issue:

"There are moments that come to me in the shower. Emotions combine in certain alchemical ways and bring upon me a desire to fall to my knees, heart pregnant with celestial fire. I am ready to subjugate myself to the sky sprites, prepared to say, 'Not my will, but Thine'. But, sadly, I am apostate."

This in a cunning response to a question, posed online, "Is there an afterlife?"

Alas, if only all apostates could quote the Bible so well as Ford ... or all the devout, for that matter. Ford channels Jesus here, from either Mark 14 or Luke 22. I'll give you the King James translation of Luke 22, in which Christ nearly despairs on the night before his crucifixion: "And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done." Click here for more

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Acts 28: The Pope in Malta

This weekend, the Pope is enjoying a brief sojourn in Malta, a tiny island off the southern coast of Italy. I check myself: given the seething anger over the Catholic sex abuse scandal, it's unlikely that the Pope is enjoying much of anything these days. But a few days away from the Vatican are likely a welcome respite for Benedict.

As the Times reports
, the Pope's visit coincides with the 1950th anniversary of Saint Paul's shipwreck on the Mediterranean isle. (An international trip to celebrate the 1950th anniversary of a boat sinking ... really? What's next? A trip to Nazareth to mark 1997 years since Jesus got his learner's permit?)

The story of Paul's unexpected arrival is told in the 28th chapter of Acts:

"After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us round it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god" (28: 1-6).

Today, Malta is home to many Catholics, and its "natives" have indeed welcomed Benedict with kindness (though some have suggested that the pontiff seems to be fleeing "justice"). However, in the wake of a spate of recent missteps, it is unlikely that many are mistaking the him a god. Click here for more

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

1 Corinthians 11: Should Christian Women Veil Themselves?

Across the Atlantic in the City of Lights, l'affaire du voile simmers on. Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a highly publicized speech, proposed a national ban on the headscarves traditionally worn by conservative Muslim women. Al Jazeera's English-language news broadcast has been following the story from the Muslim perspective:

For Sarkozy, women who wear the veil threaten laicite, an ideal of French secularism enshrined in the nation's constitution. For his opponents, such a ban would infringe upon Muslims' right to free religious expression. Peter Berkowitz lists some of the difficulties involved in justifying a full veil ban in an op-ed published last week in the Wall Street Journal. (Coincidentally, the Quebecois government is debating similar legislation.)

But scholars, politicians, and pundits who get bent out of shape over the veil in Islam often forget that early Christianity had its own affaire du voile. In a vexing chapter in 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul urges women to veil themselves in church--and perhaps even all the time. President Sarkozy would not have been amused.

1 Corinthians 11 opens with progressive Christian women's least favorite line from the Bible: "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife" (11:3). This passages introduces a concept that comes to be known in some religious circles as "headship"--the not-so-vaguely misogynistic notion that men are the superior partners in Christian marriage.

Sorry ladies, but it doesn't get any better going forward. Paul continues, "any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil" (11:5-6).

This is a complex passage, and it gets no easier in the Greek, as Paul uses certain words in unprecedented ways. (The discussion of head-shaving may pertain to widows who would remove their hair to mourn; it may also pertain to cult prostitutes.) However, the message is relatively clear: Paul urges women to cover themselves when they are engaged in religious activity. And given the fact that Paul elsewhere calls believers to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), some argue that the last phrase--"she should wear a veil"--applies to women at all times.

Paul cites the second creation story in Genesis as support: "a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man" (11:7-9).

This passage recalls Genesis 2, in which woman is created from man's rib. Because woman does not come directly from God, Paul contends, she must cover herself when coming into the divine presence. Some scholars argue that Paul makes a strategic choice here in referring to the second creation story--in which man precedes woman--instead of the first--in which man and woman are created simultaneously, and both "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). This other story undermines Paul's veiling argument, so he ignores it.

In verse 13, Paul asks a rhetorical question that serves to drive his point home: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?" From the preceding, it seems the answer is "no," though the final verse of the passage has Paul backtracking: "But if anyone is disposed to be contentious--we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God" (11:16). Some contemporary apologists for Paul argue that this "custom" is veiling itself, and that verse 16 turns the difficult paragraphs that precede it into a clumsy send-up of Corinthian discussions of gender.

However, to cast Paul in this light--as a satirizing crusader against gender inequalities--is to ignore other sexist passages in his letters. Take, as just one example, lines from later on in 1 Corinthians: "As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (14:33-36).

You heard Paul, women: pipe down! Your husband can explain all that hard stuff to you later on. And put your veil back on--we're going to church.
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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mark 16: Resurrection Is Scary

Yesterday, I was reading the New York Times's coverage of Pope Benedict's Easter address, in which the pontiff stealthily avoided addressing a revived sex-abuse crisis. In the article, reporter David Wakin describes Easter as "the day Christians celebrate the joy of Jesus’ resurrection."

It's difficult to gainsay his definition, but there is something in that word "joy" that strikes me as editorializing. Not to say that, for Christians, the resurrection isn't a joyous event. Indeed, it is the image that proves beyond a doubt that Jesus's death was not in vain--that it was a death whose sacrificial worth saves believers from the oppressive power of sin.

However, it took many years for early Christians to recast the bloody execution of their savior on a cross as a cause for celebration. Jesus's immediate followers, on the other hand, seem to meet the news of Jesus's return with a much different emotion: terror.

I'm referring, of course, to the last chapter of Mark, the earliest gospel narrative. Mark's gospel is the most unsparing in its portrait of Jesus's last days, and it delivers troubling insights into the mind of Christ as he slouches toward the cross.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus is "deeply grieved, even to death" (14:34) and begs God twice that He "remove this cup from me" (14:36). Further, Jesus's last words on the cross suggest that in his final moments, Jesus does not feel joy but abandonment: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34). Shortly thereafter, he breathes his last breath. These words are a far cry from Christ's self-satisfied utterance at the end of John: "It is finished" (19:30).

Mark continues his narrative with the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. And good Christians know what comes next: two nights of waiting followed by a Sunday-morning surprise. However, in Mark, the resurrection comes as a frightening shock to the disciples who first witness it.

As in Matthew, Luke, and John, women experience the miracle first. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the grave in the morning so that they might anoint the body of Jesus. They arrive to find that the great stone blocking the entrance has been removed; a "young man" inside tells them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" (16:5-6).

Especially for modern Christians, I think, the women's response is alarming: "They went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (16:8). This is not "joy." This is flat-out fear.

And this is where the earliest versions of the gospel of Mark end. Later redactors, uncomfortable with this ambiguous conclusion, add two alternate endings: a short one in which Jesus appears promising "eternal salvation" and a longer one in which the resurrection is called "good news," and in which those who spread it gain supernatural powers like snake-handling and resistance to poison. (Seriously!)

But in the earliest Mark, these heartening appendices are absent, and Jesus's return inspires only gasping and fearful silence. It will take decades--and the hard interpretive work of Paul--before this silence can be replaced by "joy."
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