Friday, March 30, 2018

Interpreting the Resurrection of Jesus

Even though today is Good Friday, this article is about the Easter story and how Jesus’ resurrection can be affirmed by contemporary people.
A Novel Interpretation
The writing of this article was spurred by my reading of a novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973, 1994). After finishing it in 2012, I wrote this in my “books read” record: “One of the most challenging theological novels I ever read. A book of great profundity and erudition.”
Last month I finished reading Gardner’s book for the second time—and I was impressed and disturbed by it again.
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t necessarily recommend it. Why? Because debunking the resurrection of Jesus is one of the main themes of the book.
At the beginning of the novel, Peter Fromm is a precocious, fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christian boy from Oklahoma who chooses to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School. There he is “slowly but surely” led by Homer Wilson, his mentor who is a part-time professor and a Unitarian minister, to question and then to reject many of his Christian beliefs, including the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, shortly before he is scheduled to receive his doctor’s degree, to marry, and to be ordained and assume a full-time church position, Peter preaches at his mentor’s church—and has a dramatic psychological breakdown.
Questionable Interpretations
In spite of being a minister and seminary professor, early in the book Wilson acknowledges, “I do not consider myself a Christian except in the widest, most humanistic sense. I do not, for example, believe in God.”
Homer Wilson spends considerable time discussing theological ideas with Peter, who gradually begins to discard belief in the reality of the resurrection—along with ideas about the transcendence of God. So Peter comes largely to adopt what Wilson calls “secular humanism.”
Wilson tells Peter that one who preaches to modern people has “to choose between being a truthful traitor or a loyal liar.” In order to serve in a paid church position, he believes, it is necessary to choose the latter: that seems clearly to have been Homer’s choice, and Peter also apparently comes to accept that position. The duplicity of that choice, however, leads to Peter’s breakdown.
Much of the problem in accepting the reality of the Easter story centers on the interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as being the resuscitation of his physical body. Peter assumes that that is the view of resurrection found in the New Testament.
Of course, Peter also considers, and rejects, Jesus’ resurrection as simply the spirit or idea of Jesus being “resurrected” in the minds of his disciples.
Recommended Interpretation
My interpretation of, and belief in, the resurrection is based on firm belief in the reality of God and in transcendence. Thus, my affirmation of the reality of Easter is grounded in a worldview quite different from that of secular humanism.
If one believes, as Homer Wilson and then Peter Fromm did, that the physical world, which can be fully examined by science, is the totality of reality, then resurrection cannot be affirmed in any historical sense.
My views are in general agreement with those of the eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright as summarily presented in his book Surprised by Hope (2008), which I highly recommend.
For me, and for Wright, Jesus’ resurrection can be, and must be, understood as something other than literal resuscitation and certainly as something other than a metaphorical, completely non-historical story.
Firm belief in God and transcendence, however, makes affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection possible, understandable, and a matter of great joy and hope.
Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"Let's Get Drunk!"

If you know me, you surely recognize that the words of the title are not mine. Rather, they are the words in a wonderful (pun intended) movie that was unnecessarily marred by those words.
Carl’s Recommendation
June and I have two fine grandsons (as well as five fine granddaughters). Carl Joseph Seat Daoust is our younger grandson, and we greatly enjoyed being with him and his parents last month in Tucson, Arizona, where they live.
Prior to our visit, Carl and his mother (Karen) read together the children’s novel Wonder (2012) by Raquel Jaramillo, who published her book under the pen name R.J. Palacio. They then saw the 2017 movie based on that novel.
Carl, who will turn 11 in August, was very favorably impressed by the book and the movie—and he highly recommended both. He also strongly suggested that we read the book before seeing the movie.
June did, but I failed to get that done before we watched the movie earlier this month. I greatly enjoyed the movie anyway.
Auggie’s Determination
The central character of “Wonder” is August, whom everyone calls Auggie. He is a boy just Carl’s age—but he was unfortunately born with serious facial deformities, which even multiple plastic surgeries were not able to fix very well. 
Auggie, who reportedly looks better in the movie than as he was portrayed in the novel.
Auggie has a good and supporting family: very loving, understanding parents and an outstanding big sister. His mother largely gives up her own work in order to help Auggie in his early years, and then she home-schools him. When he is ready for the fifth grade, they decide it is time for Auggie to start public school.
Fortunately, Auggie’s classroom teacher and school principal are very understanding and supportive. (I wish every kid could have as good a teacher as Mr. Browne and as wise a principal as Mr. Tushman.)
Unfortunately, Auggie experiences negative attitudes from most of the other kids at school—and most hurtful of all is the betrayal of the first friend he had among his classmates. But in spite of all the snubs, hurts, and active rejection, Auggie hangs in there with remarkable determination and fortitude.
My Consternation
Near the end of Auggie’s school year, his mother, admirably played by Julia Roberts, finally is able to finish her long-neglected master’s dissertation. When she shows the finished copy to her husband, he rejoices with her. That is when she exclaims, “Let’s get drunk!”
Why was that brief scene with those words inserted, for Pete’s sake?
It seems so unnecessary to have that line in such a heart-warming children’s movie. Why did the filmmakers want to leave the impression with the kids watching the movie that that is the way adults celebrate when they are happy?
Perhaps I am not qualified to write about getting drunk, since I never did and never intend to. But have seen the antics of drunk people, and, on occasion, have tried to engage in conversation with people who were drunk.
And I have known, and especially known of, people who killed themselves or were killed by others because of driving drunk. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation reports that in 2016 there were 10,497 “alcohol-impaired crash fatalities.”
That is more than 27 a day every day of the year—and a sizeable percentage of those were school-age kids. We are upset when 17 students get shot and killed–as, certainly, we should be. But that many die every week because of drunk drivers!
So why do some people think getting drunk is a great way to celebrate? And why should “Let’s get drunk!” be included in a heart-warming, inspiring children’s movie?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

TTT #8 God Loves All of Creation

Everyone has heard much about God’s love. But do we sufficiently comprehend the extent of that love? Probably not. This article about God’s love is adapted from the first section of the eighth chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs To Know Now (TTT), available in its entirety by clicking this link.
God’s Love Is Not Just for Humans
To begin with, it is important for us to realize that God’s love is not just for human beings. Perhaps Christianity through the centuries has been the most anthropocentric of all of the world’s religions.
There are, however, many references to God’s concern for nature in the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament, and Christian environmentalists have increasingly called attention to those passages. For example, Psalm 145:9 declares, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” But have we really thought what it means for God to love all creation? Probably not sufficiently. 
Emphasis on God’s Beloved Creation
To address the lack of adequate concern for the natural world, back in 1983 at the Vancouver Assembly, the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to commit publicly to addressing environmental concerns as part of a common effort to promote Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. That became known as the JPIC process. (The image below was the logo of that Assembly.) 
Then in 1990, the WCC sponsored the World Convocation on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea. One study unit in this program was called “Creation as Beloved of God.”
Creation, the physical universe in its entirety and not just human beings, is loved by God. That was the important emphasis of the WCC in the 1980s and 1990s.
There has been a similar emphasis in the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 was titled “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.” Reflecting upon that important message, Elisabeth A. Johnson, a noted Catholic theologian, wrote in 2001 about “God’s Beloved Creation.”
God’s Love and Our Love for Creation
Most people seem to have long thought that the purpose of the natural world—the purpose of all the plants, animals, and minerals in the world of nature—is primarily to supply the needs of human beings.
The creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis certainly does sound as if humans are the “crown of creation.” When the first human couple was created, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (1:28).
The English words subdue and have dominion, however, may not be the best to convey what the Biblical writer really had in mind. To grasp that maybe we need to consider more fully the implication of these words: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (1:27).
The idea of humans created in the image of God has nothing to do with how we look; it has everything to do with our capacity to be loving and caring as God is. If God loves the physical world—and certainly God does—then we humans created in the image of God must love and care for the world also.
Since God loves all of creation—which includes the physical world, the world of sticks and stones, of plants and animals, the whole world of nature—it is incumbent on us human creatures to love/care for the natural world also.
My fear is that we are failing in that sacred task.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In Appreciation of Walter Brueggemann

The most quoted contemporary Old Testament scholar is, arguably, Walter Brueggemann, and I am happy to be writing, finally, an article about this superlative scholar and articulate author, who celebrated his 85th birthday this past Sunday.
A Bit about Brueggemann
Born in Nebraska on March 11, 1933, Walter Brueggemann (WB) graduated from Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri—as did Reinhold Niebuhr before him. Then WB earned doctorates from both Union Theological Seminary and Saint Louis University. He was ordained in the United Church of Christ.
After 25 years as a professor at Eden, in 1986 WB moved to Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia where he served as a professor until his retirement in 2003—but he has continued to write and to speak profusely.
WB has authored some 60 books, including commentaries on several Old Testament books. His slim book Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out was published in February, and his newest book A Gospel of Hope will be released the end of this month.
In addition to his steady stream of books, WB is already scheduled to be a “keynote presenter” at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ triennial meeting in Philadelphia this November—and he has at least nine scheduled speaking engagements between now and then, some for two or three days.
(I am looking forward to hearing him speak at Asbury UMC in Prairie Village, Kan., on April 6.)
A Bit about a Brueggemann Book
One of WB’s best-known books is The Prophetic Imagination. He wrote the preface to that book’s first edition during Lent in 1978; I recently read the second edition that was published in 2001.
In the preface of the latter, WB mentions that for him Abraham Heschel is “definingly important” (p. xv). But unlike Rabbi Heschel, the author of The Prophets whom I wrote about (here) in December, as a Christian scholar WB sees Jesus as “the fulfillment and quintessence of the prophetic tradition” (p. 102).
The purpose of WB’s The Prophetic Imagination is not just to help his readers understand the past. It is even more to help them see what prophetic ministry means in the present. Thus, he asserts,
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us (p. 3).
The first chapter is mostly about the “alternative consciousness” that was fostered by Moses. That is contrasted in the second chapter with the “royal consciousness” of King Solomon. The latter largely became the “dominant consciousness”—and the target of the Old Testament prophets.
WB contends that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses.” He did this partly by countering “the economics of equality with the economics of affluence” and “the politics of justice with the politics of oppression(p. 31).
The royal consciousness—then or now—doesn’t talk about anything new, so there is no hope for the future other than as an extension of the present, which is the continuation of the past. In contrast, WB emphasizes the “hope-filled language of prophecy” (p. 67). 

A Bit about BHO and DJT
As I was reading WB’s book, it seemed quite clear to me that the “Make America Great Again” slogan is an expression of the royal consciousness (emphasis on past glory and recovery of that past), which the prophets (including Jesus) opposed.
On the other hand, Obama emphasized newness and the “audacity of hope.” Although harshly criticized by the far right (because of his talk about “fundamental transformation”), at least to some extent BHO seems to have exhibited the prophetic imagination that still is so badly needed in the world today.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

TTT #7 The Kingdom of God is More about Society than about Individuals

Consider with me one more article concerning the Kingdom of God before we move to a different topic in the next/eighth chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT).
Who Is “You”?
Unlike many (most?) languages of the world, in English there is no difference between the singular and plural second person pronoun. That is, you can refer to one person or to two—or many more—people.
Partly for that reason, there has been some misunderstanding of the Bible for those who read it exclusively (or even primarily) in English. In spite of being able after seminary to read the New Testament in Greek, to a degree, I usually just read the English translation for devotional use and even for sermon preparation before going to Japan.
As I began to prepare sermons in Japanese, however, over and over again I noticed that passages I had always thought of as speaking to individuals were, indeed, speaking to multiple people, to a community, for you was plural in Japanese just as it is in Greek.
“You” in the KoG
Western Christianity has usually placed far more emphasis on individuals than upon society. Accordingly, individualistic interpretation of the Bible emphasizes that God loves me, Jesus died for me, I can be saved through faith in Jesus, and when I die I will go to Heaven.
To be sure, that is an important part of the Gospel message—but it is certainly not the only, or maybe in the larger scheme of things, the most important.
Emergent church leader Brian D. McLaren has importantly emphasized this point in recent years—but, unfortunately, many Christians don’t seem to have gotten the point yet.
One of McLaren’s books is The Secret Message of Jesus (2006). That “secret message” he elucidated shouldn’t have been so secret, for it was, after all, a central teaching of Jesus.
What was that teaching? It was primarily not about isolated individuals but about the kingdom of God, a new society populated by people who form a community of faith.  
“You” and the KoG Here and Now
Not only has the Western understanding of the kingdom of God often been individualistic, it has also often been other-worldly. By “other-worldly” I mean, of course, that it has been more about life after death rather than about life now on earth.
The “pie in the sky by and by” sort of thinking was used by some, and perhaps many, slaveholders in the nineteenth century to mollify their slaves. And to some degree the same kind of thinking was utilized by white Christians to keep African-Americans satisfied with their inferior status for a century, and more, following the end of the Civil War.
Martin Luther King, Jr., alludes to that sad situation in his powerful book Why We Can’t Wait (1963). He writes, “To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation.”
King says that he also rejected religion which “prompts a minister to extol the glories of Heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell.”
Throughout his book introduced above, McLaren emphasizes that "the secret message of Jesus isn’t primarily about ‘heaven after you die.’ It doesn’t give us an exit ramp or escape hatch from this world; rather it thrusts us back into the here and now so we can be part of God’s dreams for planet Earth coming true" (p. 183).
So surely, one of the true things that everyone needs to know now is that the kingdom of God is more about society than about individuals and is about now as well as the future.
[In the seventh chapter of TTT, which you can read by clicking here, there is much more to read regarding this important matter.]

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Best of Times, or the Worst of Times?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” So began Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. That was then, but what about now?
Pinker’s Rosy Picture
Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard University. His latest book was released last month under the title “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
Pinker, born in Canada in 1954, is also the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). In that book as well as in his new one, Pinker writes how in spite of all the “doom and gloom” talk that surrounds us, the world is getting better in almost every way.
“A perfect future,” a review of Pinker’s new book, was published in the Feb. 24 issue of The Economist. It concluded, “Mr Pinker’s broad point is surely right. Things are not falling apart. And barring a cataclysmic asteroid strike or nuclear war, it is likely that they will continue to get better.”
The chances of an asteroid strike are completely unknown, but nuclear warfare is seemingly a distinct possibility in the near future—and that certainly would obliterate Pinker’s rosy picture of the present state of the world.
Picturing a Nuclear Arms Race
“Making America Nuclear Again” was the title of the cover story of the Feb. 12 issue of Time magazine. The lead article, posted online on Feb. 1, is “Donald Trump Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Nuclear Poker.”  
Author W.J. Hennigan contends that the Trump Administration “is convinced that the best way to limit the spreading nuclear danger is to expand and advertise its ability to annihilate its enemies.” In addition, DJT “has signed off on a $1.2 trillion plan to overhaul the entire nuclear-weapons complex.”
Citing the Trump Administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review” as one of its reasons, in January the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced movement of the Doomsday Clock hands 30 seconds closer to midnight—the closest to ”doomsday” it has been since 1953. (See this article.)
Since then, just last Thursday President Putin of Russia claimed that Russia was developing new nuclear weapons that could overcome any U.S. missile defenses. This Washington Post article pictures what clearly seems to be a new nuclear arms race.
Picturing a Nuclear Free World
Do you remember ICAN? It seems not to be widely known, but it is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—and it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2017.
Perhaps it can be said that ICAN is seeking to use “reason, science, humanism, and progress,” which Pinker emphasizes in his new book, to picture a world much different than the one now developing because of the belligerence—and fear—of the political leaders of North Korea, Russia, and the United States.

Partly as a result of ICAN’s advocacy, in July 2016 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was approved by the United Nations with affirmative votes by 122 (out of 193) member nations (with 71 not voting). (Here is a link to the treaty’s full text.)

When, or if, the TPNW is ratified by fifty UN members, it will become international law—with nuclear weapons being outlawed just as chemical and biological weapons have been in the past.

To date, only five nations (Cuba, Guyana, the Holy See, Mexico, and Thailand) have ratified the TPNW, but 56 have signed it.

So which is it? Is this the best of times or the worst of times? With ratification of the TPNW perhaps it could be the former.