Tuesday, September 30, 2008

grief

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
-- William Shakespeare

Monday, September 29, 2008

alarmism?

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
— Revelation 6:5-6

Am I being a bit dramatic here? Maybe.

On the other hand, you try living on unemployment checks, a little part-time work that has dried up, and the odd free-lance assignment you can find, for three months, with no insurance for two months. See how calmly you take it when the economy goes to hell in a handbag while leaders of both parties preen and posture and prepare to bail out the wealthy power-brokers who screwed it all up, while accusing each other of posturing and telling the people who need help the most, "Sorry, you have made your bed and now you must lie in it."

Yeah, I'm a little preoccupied about the mess, and I've been praying for grace and faith for myself, wisdom and compassion for our congressional leaders, and common sense and compassion for the fat cats who have driven us to this point.

Still, it's hard not to see some divine action in here. God has used us to judge and lay low a number of empires and evil regimes the last hundred years or more. It's not hard to picture him saying, "And now I shall judge the ax."

We have done a lot on the international scene that we have felt justified in doing simply because we could and it was in our "national interest," as though that meant it automatically was in everyone's best interests -- wholesale destruction of the American Indian nations, for starters, without getting into our colonialesque behaviors in Africa and Asia.

And if I'm being melodramatic and expecting the worst, let me just say that expecting the worst means you're rarely disappointed, and occasionally surprised in a pleasant manner.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

alcohol and me

I got drunk, once. Not out-and-out drunk, but it was the most serious buzz I've ever had, and I'm sure it showed.

A group of us had taken a tour of a private school with LEEDS Platinum certification, to get a sense of what could be done to make the charter school greener. We went back to the house of the new principal to debrief and discuss our impressions, and he offered a variety of wines and beers. I picked a beer, and although I thought I went slowly, I also hadn't eaten anything all day.

Bad move. I realized about halfway down the bottle that my eyes were semi-glazed, and I was having trouble sitting up in the chair. I immediately slowed down on the drinking, said little, and waited for my head to clear. We finally left the house about 90 minutes later, so I had plenty of time to detox.

No one said anything, so I don't know if they even noticed. but I'm forever grateful that I had hitched a ride with another board member.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

truer than fiction

It's been observed many times by many people that nothing ruins a book quite like being told you have to read it.

There is, however, one book that stands out as an exception to this rule. Not even English class at John Paul College could dim the torch of this book as its light flickered through the dreary annals of required reading. That book was William Golding's "Lord of the Flies."

It's a short book, probably not even 200 pages, but I remember being fascinated by the stark realism that permeated the book. As the story begins, a group of boys has been stranded on an island with no adults. The boys, three of whom are named after major characters in "Coral Island," plan to establish a utopian society on this island while they wait for adults to come and rescue them. There's fresh water to drink, there are pigs they can kill for meat, and fruit they can eat, and one of the boys has Coke bottle glasses they can use to start fires when they need to.

But there are signs early on that their society will be less utopian than they intend. Without the restraining influence of adults, the boys' behavior becomes wilder, more dangerous, and angrier. Soon there is Betrayal. Torture. Murder. The boys soon split into two tribes, and under the sway of their leader, the tribe of choirboys launches a war of extinction against the other.

Eric Ziolkowski, my religion professor freshman year of college, cited "Lord of the Flies" as an example of the Christian doctrine that human nature is depraved. With a chuckle he described the book's view as pessimistic, and got a huge laugh. From what I could tell, I was the only one in the class to think Golding's depiction of human nature was pretty accurate.

It would be nice to think that violence and hatred -- and their close cousin, callous indifference -- don't come naturally to us, that, as Lieutenant Joe declaims in "South Pacific," such values have to be carefully instilled. It would be nice to believe in the noble savage, ruined by corrupt civilization. Life has taught me otherwise. It is not society that is corrupt but we ourselves. Society, if anything, acts as a deterrent. The evidence lies no farther away than the nearest school.

I've often suspected that people who talk about socialization as a benefit of public education either didn't attend a public school, or were part of the group that made it hell for the rest of us. In my recollection, at least, it was no picnic. It was in sixth grade that one of my classmates decided it would be funny to put pins into the cap of his pen and stab people in the rear end with them between classes, when teachers couldn't see what he was doing. Another schoolmate, when he was 17, picked up two 12-year-old girls at the mall, and took them both back to his home where he raped and murdered them both. It wasn't just where I grew up, either. A few years ago, a senior in Norde Bastille beat a freshman so badly the younger student had to be taken to the hospital, all because he had moved the senior's book bag out of the way so he could seat down and eat lunch. If it was anything like the fights they used to have in my high school, teachers had to force their way through a crowd of spectators packed shoulder to shoulder at least six people deep.

Nobody has to teach children to hog all the best toys and refuse to share. That's just natural and -- God help us -- even logical. It makes sense. At least to some degree, we have to be selfish in order to survive. But human nature goes deeper than that. No one needs to teach us how to be petty, cruel and vicious either. Every child wants to be well liked, but for some reason most children also want to decrease the popularity, esteem and success of others.

When we enter preschool or kindergarten, I doubt very many of us are reminded by our parents to call another child a "poo-poo head." We just do it. The school bully who shakes down smaller kids for their lunch money isn't strapped for cash. He's doing it because he enjoys the rush he gets from causing fear and humiliation.

And that's what is so engaging and so chilling about "The Lord of the Flies." We live it. It doesn't matter if you're in church, Sunday school, or at a soccer game. Children are never more than a few minutes from anarchy and savagery. All that holds them in check is the presence of a mature adult to remind them how they should behave. Let the adult leave the room for a minute, and the savagery emerges. Sometimes it's only spitballs and cruel names, but sometimes it's much more. And sometimes, it doesn't even matter if the adult has left the room.

You're not going to find "Lord of the Flies" kept in a genre any more specific than fiction, or (more deservedly) literature, but the truth is that it's horror through and through. Literary convention may have persuaded us that a book must use preternatural monsters to externalize the human condition, but those boys show a true face of humanity, unpleasant as it is. The phrase "man's inhumanity to man" is a strange one, as "inhumanity" seems to be one of the hallmarks of humanity.

A week after we marked the seventh anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers, Jon Stewart made a sobering point on The Daily Show about 9-11 and all the battles that have been waged because of it. "Nineteen people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough to make the world safe enough that nineteen people wouldn't want to do harm to us."

Obviously, we can't. We won't stop violence by answering it with more violence, but we also won't stop it by ignoring it. The truth is, we simply won't stop it, period. All it takes for violence to occur is a single man with a gun, or even a kid with a baseball bat.

And that is a level of horror that fiction can never reach.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.




This post was re-written from a similar post by The Brucker. Anyone who reads it should feel free to re-write it again, and keep the meme going.

Friday, September 26, 2008

romans 7

Romans 7 contains one of the most human pictures in this epistle so far. In the middle of some intriguing but admittedly abstract explication upon the relationships among Law, sin and God, Paul shoves theology aside for a moment and explains something that anyone, of any religion, can relate to.

In a couple sentences, he sums up the frustration of every child who wants to please her parents; of every husband who wants to do right by his wife; of every person who wants to do what she knows she should, but finds it easier and more natural to do something else instead. Here's how Paul puts it:


I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul answers his question in verse 25, when he says “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And of course there are plenty of examples of dramatic changes touted by deliverance ministries. You know the sort of thing: the drug addict who suddenly finds that heroin no longer holds an attraction; the alcoholic who stops drinking cold turkey; the abuser who suddenly realizes what a cad he's been to his family, and changes.

You can find them, but a large part of my spirit positively recoils at the thought of them, as they remind me of the slick salesmanship of Pentecostal preachers who use them as an example of how following Jesus ends all your problems and makes your life hunky-dory.

A better example might be of the Apostles, who bickered and fought for three years over which of them was greater in the Kingdom of God, which of them had given up more, and which of them was more faithful. It took a while, but they eventually grew out of it and discovered the heart of Jesus' message as he saw it, to the point that Matthew the collaborator and Simon the zealot were united in martyrs' deaths.

A CHANGE IN PAUL
Of course, since Romans is Paul's letter, if we want a character-driven example of change, we might want to look at Paul himself. Romans undeniably is a book of theology, but it's more than that: It's a book of Pauline theology, chronicling Paul's own ruminations and insights into the nature of God, growing out of his own frustration with the Law and his inability to be faithful as he knew he ought to be.

I see Paul as someone who, as a Pharisee, earnestly desired to know God. He studied the Torah, memorized whole portions of the Tanakh, and undoubtedly was recognized as an up-and-coming rabbinical authority. His ambition was to serve God zealously by jealously observing the Torah and allowing no sin to enter his life.

And yet he found that the Law that was meant to bring him life instead brought him only condemnation; and that sin seized upon the opportunity provided it by the Law and blossomed into death within him.

From what I've read in his letters and in the book of Acts, I think Paul was so vehemently opposed to the Way, not because it held that Jesus was the Son of God, but because its teachings about grace and forgiveness (rather than strict observance of Torah) ran counter to everything that he believed. And on the road to Damascus, he came face to face with the failure of his reliance on observance of Torah, and the house of cards collapsed.

The change that took place in him led to a reordering not just of his epistemology, but also to his relationships. His wife either separated from him or asked for a divorce, and many of the men he had been close to now became his opponents.

Jesus talks about change as well, obviously, a shift from outward adherence to a code, to inward attention to the heart and the attitudes that manifest themselves in behaviors. Don't just keep from killing people; you also have to avoid hating them. Don't just settle for only the just penalty the law allows (an eye for an eye was actually a rather liberal, soft-on-crime position for that point in history, where you could kill someone for personal injury); instead, forgive those who hurt you.

RELYING ON THE FLESH
I've always understood this passage of Romans to refer to the struggle with sin, that even though our spirits are redeemed, our flesh remains corrupt and struggles with the sin nature -- but Christ, who has redeemed the spirit, also will redeem the body. Thus I see it as redemption as an ongoing journey, which is why Paul gives thanks to Jesus for delivering us from this body of death: beginning in this life, continuing through the rest of our lives, and then into the final redemption of the flesh.

It's easy to rely on the flesh, on our own earthly efforts or will, and to see it as evidence that God is working in us, to change us. I have a friend who gives great credit to Jesus for his formidable self-control. He has a tremendous problem with anger -- he can't stand when someone criticizes him or disagrees too sharply -- so over the years he has learned to tamp down the volcano of white-hot rage, which he sees as sanctification. He is, after all, not exploding at people – not usually, anyway – but you can see the anger simmering just beneath the surface.

In many ways he unwittingly has made a spiritual fetish out of his self-control, and he boasts as though it was a great accomplishment of the Holy Spirit in his life that he never wants to have sex with his wife, contents himself with bland food, and has managed to drive out many pleasures from his life because they're addictive or too worldly.

I was taught early on in my Christian years that Judaism was a dry and lifeless religion, obsessed with rules and laws that we aren't obligated to follow. Aside from mischaracterizing Judaism, the people pushing this particular view also often pushed strict rules and requirements in terms of Christian behavior. That's pretty minor stuff, though; I don't know that we have many people at our church who deal with legalism that shallow. To the extent that legalism is a problem, I expect it's more doctrinal and internal than behavioral.

I'm reminded of a book by Larry Crab called "The Pressure's Off." In it, Crab talks about people who ironically live lives of quiet subjugation to the Law, even as they claim to be free of it. Ask Natasha and myself about our children and why they're well-behaved, and you'll probably hear me say something about the amount of time we spend with them, reading books, playing games, involving them in running the household, and being involved with their lives. It's all by the grace of Christ that they're turning out so well, because we've been doing what we're supposed to as parents. (And I love to hear what a great dad I am, and that my kids are turning out great.)

Of course the truth is that you can do everything right and have it all go wrong, because no one really does it all correctly. I lose my temper at the girls, say stupid things to them, get annoyed when they act like children and overreact, and at times get too strict or too lax with them.

That my girls do as well as they do is an act of grace. I've known other parents who do everything right, and still have a horrifically hard time with their kids. The rule of influence remains in place, but the Law does not shape how things work; if it did, no adult would be functionally sane, because our parents all failed in crucial ways according to the Law.

And of course that can be crushingly painful. I have a dear friend in Georgia who is gay, and her mother seems to take it as a personal indictment of herself as a parent. "If I had done a better job, my daughter wouldn't be a lesbian."

And of course the appeal to Law -- I did everything right, so she should be straight -- has had a great effect on their relationship, since it turns the issue into one of my friend's supposed disobedience to God and rejection of the moral lessons her parents taught her, rather than walking through their relationship with grace and love.

LIVING BY THE SPIRIT

If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we must stop condemning ourselves and one another for real or imagined failings where the Law is concerned, and instead work together. Evangeline and I have been reading Romans together at bedtime, and shortly after this is a passage about the gospel's ministry of reconciliation -- something Law does not allow, since Law only recognizes hitting the bullseye or the shame of missing the mark.

A side issue that comes up during these discussions is the fallacious trifurcation of Torah into three segments: the sacrificial law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. While these are great descriptions of the different functions of Torah, the truth is that the Hebrews made no distinction as I've heard many evangelicals do.

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about: Christ fulfilled the sacrificial law, and the ceremonial law was only for a different dispensation, but the moral law remains in effect and binding upon us today, which is where we go to give one another all the tsursis we do over behaviors we find objectionable. The Israelites made no such distinction, and neither does Paul. His argument is that all the Torah was fulfilled in Christ, and so we are free from all its demands so that we may live in the Spirit instead.

Living in the Spirit therefore means living the sort of life modeled by Christ, what you also could refer to as living under his lordship. In a sense, it means approaching situations less from a right-wrong moralistic stand than from a good-bad perspective, where the good under consideration is how actions affect people.

I have a transgendered friend, for instance, whose mother was advised by her pastor that God would want her to disown him (!) -- a moralistic stand that takes no consideration of the relationship or how such personal rejection is going to play out on a person.

The adult who is addicted to pornography isn't in sin because she turns to pornography for sexual gratification, and the solution isn't just to remove her erotica from the house -- though that's not necessarily a bad idea -- but it's more in the lines of understanding what she is seeking from pornography, and where she can find it in a healthier, better context. Emotional intimacy with her husband, for instance.

Or to use the example of my TG friend. The moralistic stand is to say this right or wrong; a better, more christocentric response is to walk with my friend, stay close, and not let the moral issues of right or wrong enter the relationship. By seeing my friend as a person -- by seeing him as Christ, honestly, which he is either in acts of sin (which Christ has identified with), or in righteousness (for all our righteousness gains meaning in Christ) or really just in being human (for Christ became human and identified with us in all our shame) -- I can escape, hopefully, the pitfall of self-righteous judgmentalism, and be the voice of Christ in his life, because I don't cast him aside over something that I disagree with him on. The beauty of the gospel is that we all have beauty and value, no matter how we vote, what we eat, how we look, or what we do.

I always remind myself that prostitutes, thieves and extortionists, and even lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable talking to Jesus and asking him for help. The only people who didn't feel comfortable with him were religious people like me, who felt they were something special for being so religious or righteous.

I say this not as one who has perfected it, but it's an idea I've understood a long time, and it's one that has made me more socially liberal as time has gone on.

The struggle I find I have more is keeping the attitude of Jesus even toward people who encourage behavior or attitudes contrary to what he teaches. Political example, just because it's been on my mind a lot lately. We're engaged in a war right now, in Iraq, that is unjust by any standard I'm aware of for just wars. Iraq never attacked us, nor from what we can tell did it even pose any threat to us when we massed our troops at its borders and then spilled them in.

The war was encouraged and approved of by the cultural elite of our nation -- a people who are just as disproportionately not represented in the military as they are disproportionately represented in the halls of power where the decision to begin the war was made. Congress is overwhelmingly made of wealthy white leaders, while those fighting and being killed in Iraq are more largely (though not entirely) Hispanic and African American ... and remember, for a long time after the war started, they didn't have adequate protection.

That gets me angry, and it makes me even angrier when I recall that many ministers, including Franklin Graham, hailed the war as something that God approved of. And of course GWB did a great job of playing the faith card during two presidential elections to win the support of the Christian Right.

An economic example, since that is also on my mind a lot. Our nation has a problem with runaway consumerism and has for years. We consume vast amounts of the world's resources for no reason other than that we can, and to do it, we've pushed wages down abysmally low overseas. Workers drip sweat in the fields and children lose fingers in sweatshops so we can have low-cost clothing and DVD players that we'll throw out when we feel we've used them up.

Our own destructive spending habits have been further fueled by predatory lending practices in America that have allowed the middle class to feel prosperous even as wages stagnated, savings shriveled up, and debt ballooned.

And yet I still hear people spewing nonsense about it being our right to squander our resources, get exorbitant salaries and golden parachutes for failure. And despite the lip service we all give to protecting the environment, I don't see many people making even half the effort that my family and I have made to reduce the amount of trash we throw out. (Check the garbage can after church some day -- wasted food and drink, wasted paper that could have been recycled, and a barrel load of trash after a two-hour worship meeting. That just isn't right. Those are resources we're squandering.)

It's as though no one has made the connection between caring for creation and their lifestyles. We expect that by agreeing it's a shame that things are so bad, we somehow are part of the solution, even though we're not even taking baby steps toward solving the problems.

In many ways, all that makes me pretty angry too.

And yet, you know something I've noticed? Jesus can be pretty kind to the Pharisees too. He ate with them, accepted their invitations to go to their houses, and didn't mind having late-night discussions with them. He only got impatient with them over their judgmentalism. Aside from some admittedly spectacular repudiations, he treated them as kindly as he did the lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans who came to see him. He never even called Caiaphas or Annas names for arresting him.

John 14:15-16 gives another example of how the Spirit is the key to obeying God and to true transformation. In that example, the context is about Jesus being the Way to the Father, and the talk about vines and branches. "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."


I don't know if I've said anything new. I wrote something related to this a few years ago, about how the Cross transforms every moment of our lives so that it becomes an experience of intimacy with God, and even the crummy moments testify to his love.

I think that one thing the Law does, is it keeps us focused on ourselves and our misguided sense of our own importance and righteousness. "I did what you wanted, why aren't you doing what I want?" And of course there's a whole cottage industry of this snake-oil in American Christianity. We have preachers telling us how to raise our children so they're guaranteed to turn out right, peddlers of a false gospel telling us how to make God make us rich, and other shysters and con men telling us how to be healed or delivered from our problems, and always if we fail, the answer is: It's your fault. You didn't have enough faith or follow what the Bible says.

Walking in the Spirit means being less concerned with how righteous someone is than being concerned with how they are -- which was always the intent of the Law, but not what sin has done with it. The Torah said not to commit adultery, so that we would not sow pain and heartache in our marriages; living in the Spirit means your goal is not to satisfy the requirements of the Torah, but your goal instead is not to hurt your wife and children, or (for that matter) the woman whom you would have involved in an illicit relationship based on falsehood and deception, which at its inception would have been steeped in corruption.

I think we drift to the Law because its measurable benchmarks are easier to relate to. It's easy to tell if you've committed adultery, and to pride yourself on not having done so. It's not so easy to say "I've never been drawn intensely to someone other than my spouse."

The Law also lets us wriggle out of our motives; i.e., "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, but it's his fault and here's why." The Spirit puts our hearts on the line and forces us to admit "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, and I need to repent of that anger."


Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

palin for president

'activist' judges

Can we please put to rest this notion of activist judges?

It's a line I keep hearing from conservative friends of mine who are upset by judges who don't follow the strict constructionist philosophy of Antonin Scalia. In Scalia's definitively conservative view the only interpretation of the Constitution is the one that was held at the time of its writing. Any judge who views the Constitution as a living document whose meaning and interpretation changes as America ages, is overthrowing laws based on their personal views.

Under such a reading, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation was a blatant case of judicial overreach. A group of activist judges on the U.S. Supreme Court took it upon themselves to overthrow the entire social order in the South, and to discard a hundred years of segregation.

That was hardly a constructionist reading of the issue. It clearly was justices overturning laws "simply because they don't like them."

I understand the conservative reasoning on this, but I don't buy it. This is a case of justices doing something just and interpreting the law, which the Constitution requires that they do, rather than merely advancing a political philosophy.

And really, would you want a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution? Even if such a thing were possible -- it's not, because the people who wrote the Constitution lived in a different time, with different social values and experiences from ours -- I'd hate to live in a 21st century governed by the attitudes, mores and beliefs of latter 18th-century America.

We're the same country in the sense of continuity, but our demographics, technology, economy, politics, and geopolitical position are radically different from theirs. Even Thomas Jefferson felt that the nation should ditch the Constitution every 30 years or so, and start again from scratch, to reflect the changes in society.

If you wish to assert a constructionist view of the Constitution, the burden of proof is on you to show how a criticism of "activist judges" can be leveled in the case of same-sex marriage rules but does not apply in case Brown v. Board of Education -- which, it should be noted, also overturned the court's previous "Separate but Equal" Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

Another disastrous constructionist rulings is Dred Scott, which is widely regarded as one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history.

The Constitution makes the point quite directly that the rights not expressly given to the federal government are reserved for the states. The rights not expressly given to government at all belong to people.

So while I disagree with Roe v. Wade, I don't see that as ruling by judicial fiat. It's a statement that the Constitution does not give government -- at any level -- the right to dictate whether a woman can have an abortion. And since the government lacks that right, it means the individual woman has the right to choose.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

how i feel

How do I feel sometimes? Powerless.

Unable to get a job.
Unable to give my kids the social chances they need.
Unable to keep them challenged and interested at school.
Unable to forge a way that I once saw as clearly as burning sword.
Unable to gain acceptance while retaining my integrity.
Unable to keep others from sliding into bitterness and despair.
Unable to cry, "Land ho!" and hope that it is not another cresting wave.
Unable to write two meaningful sentences that no one else has written a thousand times before.

Other times I merely feel overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by an economy that is tanking so fast that the Ti-D Bowl man has drowned.
Overwhelmed by the demands of being a parent.
Overwhelmed by social machinery I've never understood myself.
Overwhelmed by doubt that keeps me spinning too fast to read a map.
Overwhelmed by the feeling that life has become a spectator sport.
Overwhelmed by the alienation others around me feel.
Overwhelmed by the sea that rises and rolls, mile after mile, without release.
Overwhelmed by ideas that want to be shared and stories to be born if only I had the discipline and the will.

Still other times I feel more capable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

acts 22

What's striking about the uproar in Acts 22 is what it's not about.

A quick bit of background. In Acts 21, the Apostle Paul had shown up in Jerusalem with some Gentile Christians and had gone to the Temple. A group from a rival sect of Christianity that was decidedly less liberal than Paul on matters of Torah, told people that Paul had defiled the Temple by taking Gentiles there and that he had been preaching anti-Semitism wherever he went. The ensuing riot was bad that the Roman commander had to bring his army into the city and arrest Paul to save his life.

So, in Acts 22 Paul addresses the crowd from the relative safety of the soldiers' barracks. He starts speaking in Aramaic, the popular language of Judea at this time, and the crowd calms down immediately. "Didn't someone say this guy has been spreading hatred against the Holy City?" someone says. "That can't be true, listen to him talk. He speaks our language with a native accent. He's one of us."

Paul begins talking about his credentials, and they're impressive. He was taught by Gamaliel, a well-known and respected member of the Sanhedrin. Probably by this point people are starting to feel a little uncomfortable about how  they've been acting. Paul shares his story. He mentions that he persecuted followers of the Way, even going all the way to Damascus to have them thrown into prison.

Back when The Point was first launching its North Brunswick congregation, I remember Tim the pastor guy asking why we thought non-Christians were so hostile toward Christianity and the gospel. There were the expected answers about pushy Christians engaging in drive-by evangelism, like the annoying fellow who tries to strike up a conversation so he can give you a tract.

There were all sorts of other reasons too. Somebody mentioned some of the scandals that rocked Christianity in the 1980s, like the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart, or the more recent scandal of child molestation in the Catholic church. Someone else mentioned the sometimes pugnacious behavior of prominent evangelical leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.

And of course someone probably mentioned that the gospel runs counter to all the values of the world.

If that's the case, if people are supposed to greet the gospel with hostility, I'd expect the crowd to lose it somewhere between verses 6 and 16. That's where Paul talks about his surprising conversion to the Way, his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, his miraculous healing, and his decision to be baptized. These are all things that mark Paul's conversion experience.

It's not like people are going to miss that. The Way began in their city some 20 or 30 years earlier. The book of Acts notes that when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost about 3,000 people became believers. The Jews who were not followers of the Way still knew them. They were related to them, bought and sold with them, and worshiped with them at the Temple or (in the suburbs) at the synagogue. If anyone in the world at this point in history knows the story of Christianity, it's the people of Jerusalem.

Truth is, no one seems to care. If Paul had stopped here, it seems like they would have said, "Eh, it's OK. Sorry about the misunderstanding."

But of course, Paul never did know when to stop. Look at what gets everyone's outrage. It's in verse 21, when he says that God told him to go and preach to the Gentiles. And that's when people start clamoring for his blood. It's not the gospel that drove them to a fury: It was racism, plain and simple.

Even the Sanhedrin, in Acts 23 didn't really care that Paul was a follower of Christ. The Pharisees, who got short shrift in the gospels, are completely willing in verse 9 to let Paul go, since — as far as they're concerned — their only difference with him pertains to his interpretation of the doctrine of the Resurrection. (That Jewish-Christian relations are not as close today as they once were owes a lot to the last 1,700 years.)

So I think about that question that Tim asked, maybe three years ago. The answer I gave is "the chip on our shoulder." I've talked with many people, including Jews, about Jesus and what I've found in him. Over the years I've noticed that people don't mind an honest discussion about religion and spirituality. Many even find it interesting.

What they don't like, of course, is being lectured, and pressured, and being beaten with the hell stick. And of course no one likes getting into a discussion with someone who expects there to be a fight and so is ready with the biggest stick, best stock answers, and nicest boxing gloves so they can be guaranteed a win.

Paul's audience reacted badly to his message because of their issues. Christians' audiences today react badly because of ours.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


waste of time

OK, I am now convinced that "Second Life" is a total vortex where time is concerned. I have now deleted my account. Five hours wasted in one week is too many.

Friday, September 19, 2008

a personal hell

How can you take "you're going to hell" as anything but personal when someone makes you their pet project, even if it's just for one conversation?

I don't dispute that people's heading to hell is the popular evangelical doctrine; what I am saying is that it is hard not to take such a statement personally when it is meant personally. "You will go to hell, unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior."

It doesn't bother me as a point of doctrine if another religion indicates that I'm hellbound. It's abstract, it's cerebral, so who cares? There's something in the delivery, though, that makes me cringe.

Good news shouldn't be "You're going to hell"; and looking at the New Testament, it wasn't. Instead it was "Everything that you've been looking for, everything that you see wrong in the world around you, the answer is in Jesus Christ, whom God has raised from the dead."

I'd be such a bad evangelical.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.



Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bullwinkle assassinated

forgotten power

What's happened to us? We never hear songs like this anymore, or at least I don't, unless I'm listening to recordings. Music used to be something that inspired us, drew us together, made it possible to get through hard times together, and even made drudgery bearable.



Nowadays it seems like it's an empty exercise in narcissism, either of the singers who write only about themselves, or in the listeners who use their iPods as a shield against the world. It's hard to believe that only forty years ago, people were using music to bring an oppressive establishment to its knees here in America, speaking up for Civil Rights, protesting war, and not only imagining a better world, but believing that it was within our power to create it.

Where are the Pete Seegers of today? Does no one perform powerful music this beautifully anymore? I was in tears listening to this song, and I hope that you were too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

sermon on the mount

Matthew 5-6 comprises most of Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew's gospel, this is where Jesus teaches the Beatitudes, calls his followers the salt and the light of the world, and then begins teaching about his relationship with the Torah.

Jesus begins by saying that he has not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets but to fulfill them. He's pretty firm on this point, going as far as saying that the least stroke of the Torah will not disappear until everything has been accomplished, and he warns not to teach others to disregard the Torah.

What's interesting is that right after this, Jesus begins setting up a contrast between what the Torah says and what he expects of people. In my Bible, Chapter 5 is broken into sections, with titles like “Murder,” “Adultery” and “Divorce.” Six of these in a row begin with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said” or something similar. In each of these cases, Jesus raises the bar from an external behavior proscribed by the Torah to an internal one that meets a higher moral standard, one that usually only the person involved can know.

We all know the drill. It's not enough not to murder someone; now you can't even hate them. It's not enough to keep from adultery; you're not allowed even to desire someone other than your spouse. It's not enough to desire only what the Law allows; you're supposed to forgive the lout who put out your eye and broke your tooth.

This is in sharp contrast with how the rabbis of Jesus' day had come to view the Torah. Over the centuries, rabbis and other teachers had added a second layer to the Torah, much of which is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, an oral law that served as a fence around the sacred Torah.

The idea was that if you followed the oral traditions, you wouldn't inadvertantly break the requirements of the Torah. For instance, the Torah forbids boiling a kid in its mother's milk; thus, it is forbidden to mix meat and dairy, so that there is no risk of accidentally breaking the Torah proscription. The Torah forbids working on the Sabbath, so rabbis imposed a limit on how much walking a person could do – a Sabbath day's walk – so that no one accidentally would walk too far and break the commandment.

Jesus is also setting a fence around the Torah, but in the opposite direction. If someone wrongs you enough that you want to kill him, he says, clearly you must address your anger, rather than simply struggling for the self-control not to kill him. Otherwise the unsettled rage may one day still lead to murder, or to an otherwise cruel act of revenge.

Similarly, while some folks have gone to the extreme route of suppressing women, blaming them for every act of lust a man commits, even for rape or adultery; Jesus says it's the man's responsibility to control his attitudes toward women. (He also undercuts the contemporary practice of men issuing a get to divorce their wives over minor offenses,stipulating that the only reason a man may divorce his wife is if she in unfaithful.)

Thus, while we often erect barriers based on the idea of regulating our external behavior – don't associate with people whose lives are deemed immoral or in rebellion to God – Jesus wants the focus to be on us and how we view other people. That's where the revolution of God begins, not in how we act, but in how we think and feel in our hearts, because those inward attitudes are the well that brings either life or death to those who drink from it.

That's a challenge, because all we can know of other people, unless we know them well, is what they do, and it's on that basis that we usually judge them. Well, that and what's in our hearts and what motivates us. It's so easy to grow angry at another person because of what they do, without ever stopping to wonder why they do it.

I know of a mother, for instance, who this year pulled her son out of the charter school my daughter attends. It's a great school, and it was offering her special-needs son a lot of personal help and resources. He's now in the public school system, where he's less likely to get the individual attention a child in his situation needs. Is she a bad parent? Did she make a wrong choice? I want to say yes, but I really don't know.

That admittedly is a rather simple example, since I don't know the woman or her situation well. To be completely fair and honest, I'd have to look at the times in my own life right now where there are conflicts or grudges against other people, and see what baggage I'm carrying them.

Backing up a minute: Jesus says “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” There have been a lot of politicians over the years who have used this phrase to describe America, inadvertantly or deliberately suggesting that our nation has some special place in the economy of God, or that we have a special contract with the Divine to work his will upon the earth.

That's patent nonsense, as nations are kingdoms of this world, and however much we spiritualize our nation's actions, we attribute them to our inherent godliness at our own peril. But the politicians are right about one thing: This saying of Jesus wasn't about individual believers. It's about the church as a gestalt; i.e., how a community of believers behaves.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


the legacy of Pete Seeger

For much of this afternoon, Evangeline has been singing an adjusted protest song from the 1960s:

If you love your Uncle Sam,
Support your troops in Iraq.
Bring 'em home --
Bring 'em home.

The song has its origins with Pete Seeger, who popularized it during the Vietnam War, but it came to us via Bruce Springsteen in "The Seeger Sessions." Evangeline is finding that she favors the music of the 1960s, so naturally she loves this song.

She also has decided that one of her goals this trimester -- students at the charter school get to individualize their course of study -- is to write and perform a song of her own composition.

I got ten bucks says it's a protest song about something at the school, in the footsteps of Arlo Guthrie, who wrote his first protest song in fifth grade, about a math test.

raising children with a wild streak

"I, like many college professors, yearn for rarer traits -- curiosity, passion, a wild streak. Yes, teamwork and leadership skills will help your child to implement someone else's ideas, and extensive extracurricular activities will foster responsibility. What your child really needs, though, is an inventive, self-reliant, restless spirit.

"For me, the heart-wrenching interview moment is when we ask these teenagers what they would choose to do on a day spent alone. Many say they never have the chance. Worse still, some have no answer at all. This should disturb and sadden any parent. In the end, my scholarship votes ride on two questions: Is this someone that I'd be excited to have in my class? And is he or she open to being changed by my class? Class rank and extracurricular activities are less important than genuine individuality or enthusiasm. It matters not whether someone is bold or shy, worldly or naļ¶„. Is there a flash of determination, a streak of independence, a creative passion, an excited curiosity?

"We need more students like the ones who leave after graduation to work as missionaries or in the Peace Corps. More like the ones who start successful businesses while in school. More like the ones who find the courage to go overseas for a summer or a semester because they know their own worlds are far too small.

"Some students are team players and high achievers, but I'd trade them for stubbornly creative iconoclasts. Some students as children were taught to color inside the lines, watch Barney the purple dinosaur, and always ask permission. We need students who found out what Crayons tasted like, loved reading 'The Cat in the Hat' and paid little attention to rules -- students whose parents encouraged their children's curiosity."

-- Mark Pruett, from"Raise children with a wild streak"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

temptation in the wilderness

To me the most interesting part of Matthew 3-4 isn't the story of Jesus' baptism. It's the temptation in the wilderness, when Satan appears to Jesus and challenges him to find out whether he's really the son of God.

Let's back the scene up a bit. Jesus goes down to the Jordan River to be baptized. That's not particularly surprising; everyone was being baptized. Dress an Essene up like Elijah, preaching repentance out in the wilderness like a crazed prophet – the first truly crazed prophet since Malachi and the others – and it's pretty reasonable for religious fervor to sweep the countryside.

People are hungry to know more of God, to hear about him, to fill the void in their lives. Jesus, who at the age of 12 had felt such a strong desire to connect with God that he actually ditched his parents and stayed at the Temple in Jerusalem to ask questions, is surely going to go down to be baptized as well.

Jesus probably didn't think of himself as the Son of God at this point. I think he saw himself as a person who believed strongly in God, perhaps even as someone with a unique understanding of God, but I don't think he had any notions of his own divinity at this point.

When he went to be baptized, I think he was trying to draw closer to God and to understand the Voice that he had heard calling him for years. And when he came out of the water and heard that selfsame Voice say "This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased," he got more confused than ever and went into the wilderness to sort it all out.

Matthew writes that Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting, for 40 days and 40 nights. The whole reason for this fast was for Jesus to set aside his earthly physical needs and understand the deep stirrings in his soul that had intensified since his baptism.

The longest I've ever gone without food was for six days; if Matthew is to be believed, Jesus did it for nearly six weeks. During that time he would have stopped having bowel movements, though for a while he would have felt the urge just from out of habit; he would have felt a little irritable from the lack of gustatory stimulation he was accustomed to; and he would have started getting weaker after the third week or so.

Matthew says that after 40 days, Jesus was hungry. A better word is "starving." When you've gone that long without food, your body has used up its stores of fat and even excess muscle. By this point, it's starting to digest itself.

And then, Matthew says, Satan appeared and tempted him.

I should state right here that I'm not wholly on board with the popular evangelical view of Satan  as the embodiment of evil. In the book of Job, we saw ha-Satan in an adversarial role, challenging God's position on Job's righteousness and leading to Job being sifted like wheat, so that Job and everyone else could see what he really was made of, and where his faith truly came from.

I see the same thing happening here. I imagine Jesus walking through a desert place, alone, hungry, hot and weary beyond belief, when he comes across an old man. The stranger is courteous to a fault, probably even giving Jesus a drink of water. If he makes Jesus think of anyone, it's not the mythic figure of Samael but of his own father or one of his father's old friends.

They fall to talking, and after discussion has gone this way and that, the old man cuts to the very heart of the struggle that has definied Jesus' every waking moment for the last six weeks.

"If you are the son of God," the friendly old man says, "turn these stones to bread." Find the answer to your question, and get something to eat. Resolve your hunger, both spiritually and physically. Don't put yourself through this any longer, you can settle the issue once and for all.

In "The Brothers Karamazov," the Russian author Fyodr Dostoevsky suggested the issue here was that by turning stones to bread, Jesus would offer the people physical proof and a physical reason to put their faith in him. "Believe in me," he would say, "and I'll fill your bellies!"

Proof means no doubt, and no doubt means no faith. If our eyes can see clearly, what need have we for faith, which hopes for things not seen?

Dostoevsky had the right idea, but he had the wrong audience in mind. Satan is asking Jesus to prove to no one but himself what he's been wondering at least since his baptism: Is he the Son of God? It seems preposterous; all Israel is the son of God. It's the pagans whose deities run around having children with mortal women, or the "sons of God" from the early chapters of Genesis who do this.

And yet the Voice at his baptism called him a son, and that corresponds with a yearning Jesus has felt his whole life. It would be so nice to have proof, one way or the other. If he is, then he has bread and can eat; if not, then he can laugh at the silliness of the whole affair, go home and get something to eat.

Jesus rejects the offer. He wants to know, but he wants to know God's way, and God works with faith, not evidence.

The second temptation is similar to the first: Throw yourself off the Temple, and let the angels save you. Again, it's proof positive, since Psalm 91 promises all sorts of rescue to the man who puts his faith in God.

And what's more, it broadens the scope. It's not just Jesus who would know, but the Sadducees who teach the people, and the people as well – everyone gathered near the Temple would see him start to plunge, and then witness him being caught by angels, and know him to be someone special. If the angels don't save him, then the nagging emptiness is gone, once and for all; but if they do save him, Jesus will have an instant audience for his message.

And that, I think, starts Jesus wondering: message? What message? Up to this point, perhaps, he's been preoccupied principally with questions about his own identity and his own relationship with the Almighty.

He's schooled in the teachings of Hillel, though, and he knows that no one exists as an island to himself. We are all one vast archipelago, connected by stretches of earth, rock, and sand that are only superficially obscured by the sea. When the tides pull back, we remember our interconnectedness once more.

If Jesus is the Son of God, then surely he has a message to share with the people, a message that comes straight from the heart of God, a message that will transform not only people but their society as a whole. Perhaps he imagines that message as a mighty wave itself, rising over the islands, drawing the water down to reveal the vast and unseen mass of land that joins all lands together, revealing the connections that we have willed or allowed ourselves to forget so that we can view one another with hostility. Not only Judea, but all the world could be swept up in this new understanding.

And then, from atop a high mountain, Jesus sees all the kingdoms of the world, stretched out in all their glory and finery. He is in the position of Caesar himself, able to bring calamity or peace to the Celts in Britain, to the Gauls in France, to the desert-dwellers in Assyria, and to those who live along the Nile.

All he would have to do is make his voice a trumpet, and the entire world will hear his message, from Spain to India. He's not even asked to prove whether he is the Son of God; it's assumed as a given. Instead, the temptation comes as an offer: "Worship me, and all this will be yours."

This one's a no-brainer, really, but it also sets the tone for the ministry Jesus will work at for the rest of his life. When he performs miracles, they are never self-serving like the miracle of bread would have been; and invariably he will tell people to keep quiet about them, lest the crowds come to him for the wrong reasons.

He teaches people where they are, even in crowded cities or temple courts, but often he withdraws to lonely places in an attempt to escape the crowds. And Jesus never, never seeks political power.

When Peter, thinking of the conquering Messiah, rebukes Jesus for prophesying his death, Jesus returns with a withering "Get thee behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but rather the things of men."

Jesus' entire life from this point is a repudiation of the third temptation. In rejecting earthly power, although he probably didn't realize it until late in his ministry, Jesus accepted a lonely end on a cross, tortured to death by the very political power he had spurned.

This is all well and good, but it ultimately means nothing if it doesn't speak a truth into our lives. The best applications come when we find something within each character to identify with, both the noble and the ignoble.

It's safe to look at Jesus and see how he resisted the temptations when they came his way – far too many people point out that he relies on Scripture, as though this were a new insight – but there's no real application there, nothing that speaks to me as a person who struggles with sin, no insight into what snares may lay me low -- and no warning of the danger I may pose to someone else when I point them to a road other than God's.

First, I suppose, is the value of uncertainty. His response to the temptations reveal that Jesus consistently rejected things that would prove his divinity, either to himself or to other people, and he also rejected the position where he could enforce his will upon the people will they or no, even when it was for their own good.

For my part, I'm also content not to argue over or to seek proof for areas of faith, not even to hold God to the test. I reached the point some years ago where I could join Puddleglum in saying that I would be on Aslan's side, even if there was no Aslan to be on the side of, even acknowledging that there may very well be no Aslan at all, beyond our own imagining.

And in that vein, I don't feel very tempted to power, not often at any rate. I get disturbed regularly by the push and pull of Christians who have whored the church to one political party or another, and who think that we can make the world a more righteous, more godly place if only we can pass the right laws and elect the right people.

Which leaves me to identify with Satan.

A lot of commentators have noticed that the temptations Satan hits Jesus with ultimately point the way toward the Cross, and more than a few have noted the irony that he may have caused Jesus to realize the part he would play in God's plan of redemption. They go straight to the heart of Jesus' identity and his mission, particularly when Satan offers Jesus the ownership of the Roman Empire.

I can't help but wonder if that might have been ha-Satan's intent; i.e., if he's a member of God's court rather than wholly in rebellion to the Divine Plan, was his appointed role in this case to steer Jesus to a greater understanding of his role? (Of course, that could be the ironic intent that Satan was unaware of, given God's omniscient ability to play both sides of a poker game.)

I don't think I've encouraged people to put God to the test, not in a long time; nor have I encouraged stuff like using God to satisfy earthly wants and needs. I get turned off by teaching like that fairly quickly.

But I do like to take opposing views and encourage people to sift through the wheat to remove the chaff, and I wonder if I've ever destroyed or hurt someone in the process by encouraging them to ask questions they weren't ready for. How often, I wonder, have I filled the role of an adversary and unintentionally caused someone to stumble?

The ancient Hebrews believed the Satan to be an office in the heavenly court that an angel was appointed to.

I wonder if the angel felt any grief over the misery that came to Uz all because of what he said to God concerning Job. I wonder if he felt remorse over suggesting to David that he take a census of the fighting men in Israel, when David did, and famine broke out as a result. If angels have souls, does that angel feel his own soul is soiled by what he did?



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.



the problem with biblical prophecy about jesus

The preacher at church issued Sunday what he called The Bible Challenge. It's where you read a passage of Scripture from one religious tradition, and then read a passage of Scripture from another religious tradition, and see if you can tell from the flavor of the Scripture which is actually from your religion.

Well no, not really, but that would be fun. He did do something similar, where he had 10 quotes projected onto the screen and we had to figure out which ones actually were from Scripture and which ones weren't. Among the most popular goofs were the Karl Marx quote "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" and two proverbs: one that says a righteous man cares for his animals but the wicked abuses them; and a second that urges giving strong drink to those who are in mortal pain. Some others I think were thrown off by a quote from a pastoral letter, where Paul lays out the requirements for a "bishop."

The longer-term idea is to combat biblical illiteracy by challenging us to read five chapters of Scripture a day, and then to journal about them, as though journal were a verb and not a noun. If anyone gerunds it into journaling -- i.e., "Did you do your journaling today?" -- I may have to resort to lethal force, at which point I promptly will withhold strong drink from those who are perishing.

Monday's passages are Matthew 1-2 and Acts 1-3.

First, the genealogy. Everyone knows that this genealogy flatly contradicts the genealogy given in Luke's gospel, so I won't even pretend I'm saying anything new here. I've heard some people say that Luke's gospel is the genealogy of Mary, but it certainly doesn't say that in Luke's genealogy. They're both patrilineal.

Matthew builds his genealogy around two key figures from Israelite history. The first is Abraham, from whom the Jewish people claim descent; and the second is David, whom the Tanakh treats as the gold standard for kings. Thus Matthew is linking Jesus to the Abraham, the man whom God made his covenant with; and with David, whom God make a second covenant with.

Astute readers are sure to make the connection and see how Matthew is casting Jesus as a new Abraham, representative of a new covenant; and also to see the claim that Jesus, as a direct descendant of David, is heir to the promise that God would make David's throne an everlasting one.

The third leg of Matthew's genealogy is the time after the Babylonian exile. I'm not sure what he's attempting here, unless it's tying Jesus back into the joy of returning from captivity -- something I'm sure Matthew's contemporaries probably felt they could understand, as the Jewish people were scattered all across the Roman world at this point, and even in Judea, they were under the rule of a foreign power, with a king who was not even one of them. (Herod was a half-Edomite.)

So that's the genealogy. Jesus as the author of a new covenant between God and man, Jesus as heir of the promise to David, and Jesus as the promised homecoming. All that makes sense, since Matthew's gospel was written for the Jewish reader.

Moving along, we come to what for me has long been one of the iffy parts of Matthew. It really seems like he's cherrypicking the verses he wants to cite as prophecies about Jesus, doesn't it? He quotes Isaiah 7:4, the virgin will be with child; Micah 5:2, out of Bethlehem will come a ruler; Hosea 11:1, "out of Egypt I called my son"; and Jeremiah 31:15, a voice heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her childern.

And then he has one about "He shall be called a Nazarene," but no one really knows where he got that one. I've heard it linked to a few, including one about a branching bush in Isaiah, but each one's a stretch.

Which, of course, some of the others are as well.

"Out of Egypt I called my son," is a pretty good example, when you recall that passage continues "and the more I called him, the more he turned away." Hosea of course was describing the relationship between God and Israel in the Tanakh, where God literally called Israel out of slavery in Egypt and then, as the Scriptures recount, watched as the people engaged in one form of idolatry after another. The next verse says "They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images."

And this is supposed to be a prophecy about Jesus? Yikes!

I really don't know what Matthew was thinking with this one. Hosea tells a beautiful story through the tragedy of his own life, of marrying a prostitute and watching as she had children with men other than him -- and then, rather than divorcing her, redeeming her and restoring her to his side.

It's a parable about what God was saying he would do with Israel, and through a christocentric lens, it's easy to see Hosea's behavior as a foreshadowing of Christ's behavior. But Matthew for some reason links Jesus not to Hosea, the hero of the story, but to Gomer.

A little earlier in the passage, Matthew cites the prophecy about "the virgin will be with child, and you shall call his name Immanuel." That's a great Christmastime verse, but there's two problems with it. One is that Isaiah actually said the almah will be with child, almah being the Hebrew word for "young woman," and "virgin" being only a tertiary meaning, according to the scholars I've read.

We can cut Matthew some slack on this one, since he's quoting the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Scriptures made sometime in the previous few centuries, and the rabbis who translated it from Hebrew and Aramaic presumably had no pro-Christian bias at work in the translation process. Evidently they felt that parthenos, the Greek word for "virgin" was close enough to the sense of almah that they would use it, instead of the Greek word for "young woman," and so they went with it, however much contemporary Hebrew scholars disagree.

But if you read the prophecy in the original context, it's pretty clear that Isaiah was talking about the more immediate situation facing King Hezekiah, namely the army that was laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah spells it out in 7:16, when he says that the land of the two kings besetting Judah will be laid waste. As the chapter goes on, Isaiah gets specific about Egypt and Assyria attacking the two kings. So it's hard to see this as a particularly messianic passage either.

I don't subscribe to an American view of prophecy, where the prophecy must refer specifically to one and only one event; I realize that these things often have layers of meaning and relevance, like an onion. David's psalm about being betrayed by a friend finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus' betrayal by Jesus, and yet it had meaning to David's life as well, and undoubtedly to the rest of us as well.

But come on. I'm not even touching the passages in Micah or Jeremiah, but I think there still are some interesting questions that I've never heard addressed satisfactorily from a pulpit about Matthew's approach to prophecy. Ernie Trask, formerly the pastor at St. Andrew's on the Roundabout in Rotorua, New Zealand, did mention the Hosea 11:1 prophecy in this vein once, but his commentary on it essentially boiled down to "What are you going to do?"

So what gives?

Luke chooses his Scriptures a little more judiciously when he puts them into Peter's mouth. They're not cited as prophecies, but merely as Scriptural guides for the sort of situation they're in, because of the whole Ish-Kerioth affair.

Anyway, it's late, and I haven't much else to say about Acts. Matthew 1-2 showed the lead-up to Jesus' big debut, and the first three chapters of Acts show the lead-in and debut of the church. Luke reinforces the parallels to David by connecting Judas' betrayal of Jesus to a psalm David wrote about being betrayed; and he connects Pentecost to the promises given in the book of Joel.

One other tidbit I've thought of lately is that Pentecost shows God's continued commitment to undoing all that is wrong with the world. Christ's resurrection shows that even death is being undone; Pentecost reflects a lifting or unraveling of the Babel curse.

At Babel, languages were confused and the people were broken up into 70 different nations. On the Day of Pentecost, there surely were many nations unrepresented, but the people who were there miraculously heard the early church worshiping in languages that the speakers couldn't know but the listeners understood completely. It's a reversal of Babel, and a sign that God wants to put the human race back together again, through Jesus.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

'fahrenheit 451'

And the latest book finished that I should have read decades ago: "Fahrenheit 451."

The book widely is presented as a treatment on censorship, portraying as it does a society where books are burned as a menace to society. This reading is common, but it is an error. It's a little more insidious than a story about a totalitarian regime in America, though. The book is how we have done this to ourselves through our preference for shallow entertainment.

The protagonist is Guy Montag, a fireman living in an America where books are illegal. Those who own them are whisked away for re-education, and their books are burned by the firemen. Books, after all, contain ideas, and those ideas can stir the human soul and leave us discontented with oursleves.

There are two poles that Montag moves between, and each is revelatory in what it says about America as it may have been, and America as it may be. The first pole is embodied in Clarisse, an unusual 17-year-old who stops to enjoy the world around her. Clarisse is the naif innocent, but she represents the purity of what even in the 1950s Bradbury sensed was being lost.

While cars whiz past at 100 mph or more, their drivers not caring if they hit someone (or, worse, enjoying the prospect), Clarisse walks. She smells flowers, listens to the wind, and looks at the leaves. She tells Montag stories she's heard from her uncle about the Way Things Used to Be, when people talked with one another, and neighbors knew one another, and people stopped to enjoy themselves and allowed themselves to be miserable at times.

The opposite pole is Beatty, the fire chief in charge of the burnings and the ultimate cynic. Beatty is slick and polished, and he's the ardent apologist for the cold new world that Bradbury has painted. He talks about how the American people dumbed themselves down, and how this has led to greater contentment and happiness.

No one had time to watch "Hamlet" any more, so they contented themselves with reading synopses of great works of literature, so they could know the story and be informed. Ideas became simple and sterile, and being entertained has become the goal of every person.

Books ultimately were banned not to control the people's access to information or ideas, as censors would do; but as a ratification of the dynamic already at work in society. The ideas within books threatened the popular sense of happiness, so people stopped reading them. As the people settled for lesser works of entertainment or contemplation, books were dismissed as meaningless and impenetrable.

Eventually superficial entertainments and superficial thinking became all people wanted. Montag's wife, Mildred, for instance, spends her day in a room with television screens on three walls, watching shows that are computer-altered to appear personalized for her, down to the ads. The shows are stupid, pathetic, utterly banal -- but to Mildred, the characters in her favorite shows are family.

The thought of not watching the TV -- of not getting a fourth TV screen to complete the room -- is unbearable. When Montag does turn the TV off at one point, she gets hysterical.

(And just think, Bradbury wrote this in the 1950s, before the days of widescreen TV, before we had 24-hour cable and satellite signals, and before the advent of the Internet with its personalized entertainment options.)

The book chronicles Montag's struggle to find his place between the two poles of Clarisse and Beatty, while it also shows the risks in not comforming to the powerful cynicism of Beatty. People who read are monitored for subversion, and risk running afoul of the powers that be. Meanwhile the book peeks into the emptiness that characters like Beatty and Mildred live with in their embrace of shallowness, and gives shades of the nihilism that threatens to overthrow their society.

This is a book I should have read back when I was a teen, but somehow I never did. I read several other Bradbury books, including "The October Country," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "The Martian Chronicles," along with "The Illustrated Man" -- but I never read "Fahrenheit 451," for reasons that escape me. My father and I were pretty thorough in our Bradbury blitz, from what I thought.

But as for Evangeline, I decided to save it for her for a little later. She's reading "The Sword in the Stone" right now, and she has plenty of other kid books she likes to read. I don't need to pile a mile-high stack of literature on her right now. Let her be a kid and read books she picks out because she enjoys them, without fear of condescension from her old man over their quality or what a good book should be.

That's how my parents let me read, after all, and it worked out just fine. She'll get to "Fahrenheit 451" when she's ready, even if it's not until she's 38.

'freaky friday'

It may be unpopular to say this these days, what with schaudenfreude and all, but I liked the "Freaky Friday" remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan."
 
"Freaky Friday" ostensibly is based on the book by Mary Rodgers, though Evangeline (who read the book and enjoyed it) assures me that neither movie follows the book too closely. In a nutshell, the plot is that a mother and her daughter end up switching bodies and seeing life through one another's eyes for an entire day. In the original movie, it was because they both wished they could change places, at the same time; in the remake, it was because of a Chinese fortune cookie gone bad.
 
I have to say, I liked the remake quite a bit. The original movie, made in the early 1970s with Jodie Foster, was decent enough, I suppose. The girls liked the funny stuff, like when the police chased Annabel to the marina and suffered one mishap after another -- a squad car gets cut in two at one point, though neither officer is hurt -- but it seemed to me like the movie never got past the obvious jokes. (Nor particularly past some rather narrowly defined expectations for young girls. All Foster's Annabel wanted to do was to put on makeup and brush her hair.)
 
The remake, because it was made only seven or eight years ago, had a drastically altered treatment of the story. The original mother was a stay-at-home mom, and so you had the standard jokes about a teenager getting overwhelmed by laundry, carpet cleaners and other housewife stuff. And of course there was no real conflict between the mother and the daughter. It was just "Boy, she doesn't appreciate how rough I have it and how easy she has it." The remake follows a widow who is remarrying and a 15-year-old daughter who resents the interloper, and really plays into the mother not understanding her daughter and her situation nearly as well as she thinks she does.
 
And of course, Jamie Lee Curtis kicks ass. So does Lindsay Lohan for that matter, however unpopular it may be to say that, what with the popularity of schaudenfreude and her misfortunes the last several years. She doesn't upstage Curtis, but she definitely plays a better teen and mother-in-teen's-body than Foster did.
 
So while the first one went for the standard yuk-yuk-yuks, the remake reinterprets the story in some impressive and imaginative ways. It got more laughs from me, and deeper ones, than the original did, and went quite a bit further with the character development. It's not really clear that Annabel and her mother changed all that much in the original "Freaky Friday"; in the remake, the movie spends more time establishing their pre-Friday difficulties, and shows them realizing how selfish and myopic they've been about their relationship. By the time it's over, there has been major character growth for both of them.
 
I also saw the remake of "The Parent Trap," or most of it anyway, a while ago. It's not nearly as clever or as inventive as this one. It follows the original movie way too closely to have been worth doing. In my opinion anyway.

'the sword in the stone'

Evangeline has been reading "The Sword in the Stone," by T.H. White, which (as its title would imply) is about King Arthur.

I snagged the book for her a few days ago on PaperbackSwap.com in one of those absolutely perfect bits of fathering. Evangeline hadn't requested the book, but I felt she should read it, so I got it. White's treatment of Arthur, which he continues in "The Once and Future King," is one of my favorite renderings of the legend.

"The Sword in the Stone" shows White at his finest, creatively speaking. His depiction of life in the Forest Savage and of Arthur's entire childhood with Sir Ector and Kay is entirely his, and it's filled with such attention to detail and wry wit that I figure it's bound to launch in her the same lifelong love of Arthurian lore that I've had, but at an earlier start.

I've read her Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur," and she's read a few of those kiddie storybooks that purport to be about Arthur but really say nothing particularly Arthurian, but this is the real thing.

It starts around the time Arthur is around seven or eight, still unaware of his parentage, and living in the care of Sir Ector. The book is riddled with memorable characters like Sir Grummore and King Pellinore, what; charming buffoons like the sergeant-at-arms with his heaving chest and the nurse who fusses over everyone; and (of course) Merlyn.

During the course of the book, Merlyn teaches Arthur by changing him into animals, all with an eye on the day when Arthur will be crowned king and will have the chance to inaugurate a golden age where Might fights for Right, rather than making right.

"The Once and Future King" was White's treatise on pacifism, as well as his exploration of the triumphs and failings of government, and you see a lot of this in "The Sword in the Stone." Arthur has a miserable time among the ants who are preparing for war; and falls in love with life among the geese, for whom war is a completely foreign concept. (Both stories appropriated from White's final and least impressive Arthurian work, "The Book of Merlyn.")

Every experience Arthur has as animal also shows him the danger of the mighty, such as the pike who tries to eat him in Sir Ector's moat, or mad Cully who nearly pins him with his talons when Arthur overnights as a merlin with the other raptors. (Probably my favorite passage in the book.)

Evangeline's not as far as all that. She just got to the part where Arthur has met Madam Mim in the Forest Savage and is looking at an untimely end if Merlyn doesn't show up. Which, of course, he will.

So it's off to a good start. If she enjoys this book as much as she seems to be so far, I suppose I'll have to let read "The Once and Future King," and then lend her my copy of Steinbeck's rendition, not to mention Geoffrey of Monmouth and old Sir Thomas Mallory too. And then there's my "Camelot" soundtrack ...



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.





Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

'Tehanu' and defining ourselves as we grow older

I just finished reading Ursula LeGuin's "Tehanu" tonight, the fourth book in her "Earthsea" series.

Previous books in the series have followed Ged, a wizard from a cluster of islands similar to Polynesia, where magic derives its power from learning the true names of things. The books rely on Jungian archetypes, and it's significant that naming a thing indicates authority over it and effectively neutralizes the power it has.

In "A Wizard of Earthsea," Ged comes not only into his power but into his weakness when he discovers the name of his greatest foe. In "The Tombs of Atuan," naming allows him to free a young woman whose identity has been consumed by a malicious cult. In "The Farthest Shore," it also helps him to repair tremendous damage done to the natural world by a man who sought to best death and make himself immortal.

"Tehanu" has a markedly different writing style from the earlier Earthsea novels, which undoubtedly reflects LeGuin's growth as a writer and the life she has lived since she wrote the original trilogy. While the earlier books showed us a hero who was balanced and in tune with himself, "Tehanu" shows us that balance lost.

This book deals with how identity -- our very selves, what might be the truest name for ourselves -- changes as we age, and yet remains tethered to who we were as children, quite apart from all the things we thought provided our identity in our adulthood.

"Tehanu" isn't about Ged, or at least, not primarily. He's a supporting character in this book, which centers on Tenar, also called Arya, whom Ged rescued from the cult in "The Tombs of Atuan."

In Ged's case, his sense of self is in jeopardy because he lost his wizarding abilities after the events of "The Farthest Shore," and he's been a potent wizard since he was an adolescent. For Tenar, the loss is that she is a widow with grown children, and her own childhood was taken from her by the priestesses of the Nameless Ones in "The Tombs of Atuan."

The struggle for both of them is to redefine themselves, to find their own new names in a world where they either have no names or the world insists on calling them by names that no longer have meaning.

Along on this journey with them is a child whom Tenar has cared for, for the past year, a girl whose parents pushed her into a fire and left her there to die. This girl's identity is unknown to any of them, and she is known only by the name Tenar gave her, Therru, a name that means fire.

It's been a long time -- nearly 20 years -- since I read LeGuin's "Earthsea" novels, but this has been a welcome return, both for me and for my wife, who read them only in the past 12 months. Perhaps because I'm 38, and I'm already seeing how my own identity has begun to shift as I've become first a husband and now a father twice over, the disorientation that both Tenar and Ged experience is something that I understand.

After all, when we're children, we identify ourselves by what we do. In early adulthood, we find our identities in who we are. In adulthood, we finally understand that our identities are something that exists not in isolation, but in our relationships with one another.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


interesting point

As the presidential race has been playing, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been touting her experience as a governor as a reason to vote for the Republican ticket.

In contrast, she points out that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has been running on his roots as a community organizer. While he's been a U.S. senator for two years, he has no experience as an executive, and this makes him unqualified.

Someone recently made an intriguing observation, though: Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor.

Which of those two do you have a higher opinion of?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

phone conversation

Me: What's happening with your father? I was really sorry to hear.
Anthony: So was I. What do you mean?
Me: You told me he was terminal.
Anthony: I did?
Me: You said when I called that we couldn't talk right then because you were talking with your mom and your father was dying.
Anthony: No, I said I was on the other line with my mom, and that my phone was dying.
Me: Oh. (pause) Well, I'm glad your father is feeling better.
Anthony: Yes, it was a close thing, but we're all relieved it's worked out so well. He'll never know what you did for him.