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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Boy with the Changeable Shirt (an Homage to Edwin Friedman)

Far, far away, in a remote hollow in the mountains, there is a tiny school for boys.  Every boy in this school, young and old, is on a team, and every day, those boys do everything with their team—eat, sleep, study, do chores, and play.  Each boy wears a shirt of the the color of his team from his first day at the school to his last, all the time, every day.  A boy on the Red team always wears red and never blue, and a boy on the Blue team always wears blue and never green.

But there was one boy in this school who was different from all the other boys.  This boy was very poor and only owned one shirt, but it was a special, magical shirt, for this shirt would change its color all by itself.  Unlike all the other boys in the school, this boy was part of all the teams.  When he was with the Green team his shirt turned green, and when he was with the Yellow team his shirt turned yellow.  He cared very much about the other boys.  When he was with a boy who smiled, he would smile too, and when he was with a boy who frowned, he too would frown.  On the whole, he was happy.  He enjoyed very much how all the other boys accepted him.

Now at this tiny school all the boys on all the teams look forward to the same wonderful event at the end of the year: a great tournament where all the teams compete against each other in games of strength, speed, smarts, and skill.  The boy with the changeable shirt looked forward to the tournament too and got more and more excited as the year went on, even though he didn’t know what games he would play when the day actually came or what team he would play them for.  He couldn’t wait to be with all of his friends at once.

At last the day of the tournament arrived.  The boy with the changeable shirt saw many of his friends early that morning wearing their best jerseys of Red and Blue, Green and Yellow, Purple and Orange.  He smiled back gleefully at each one as they smiled at him.  But soon the noise in the halls of the school began to diminish as the boys ran out of the building onto the grounds.  The boy in the changeable shirt tried to follow them, but he couldn’t move.  He stretched and strained after his friends, but he was stuck where he stood.  He called after his friends who were leaving him behind, but they didn’t hear.  And as the tournament began with every other boy gone, he became very sad.  His shirt became a drab off-white.  In fact, it ceased to look like a shirt at all, and he himself no longer looked like a boy.  For the boy with the changeable shirt didn’t know that he wasn’t actually a boy at all, and he didn’t wear clothes.  He was a mirror hanging on the wall of a hallway in the school.  His face and his shirt changed with every boy who walked past him.  And when they smiled at him, they were actually smiling at themselves.

It can be easier to be what the people around us want us to be than to be ourselves.  Rather than being honest about who we are and what we think wherever we go, we look like our family when we’re with them, like our friends when we’re with them, and like church folks when we’re with them, and they love us for conforming.  But unless we wear allegiance to Christ boldly whomever we’re with, we have no part of him.  “Whoever acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).  Such persons cannot inherit God’s kingdom.  The more they compromise themselves along the way, the more they cease to be persons at all.  They fade with the rest of the world they once reflected that is passing away.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Sin" through the Centuries

This is a graph of the frequency of occurrences of the word "sin" (case-sensitive) in a 5% sample of all American works in English in Google Books.

The volatile line in the 17th and 18th centuries is partly because there is a relatively small number of works available from that era.  It's interesting how the frequency of "sin" in written literature shoots up not at, but a bit after both the Great Awakening (ca. 1740) and the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1800).  I wonder how much of the decline of the appearance of "sin" through the 19th and early 20th centuries is due to the explosion of Christian publishing in antebellum America before secular publishing gradually caught up.  It's also interesting to note the small bulge during the post-WWII religious revival (during which time "under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance, for example) which tapered off in the 1970s to rebound slightly and remain basically flat since.

A few questions for the comment thread.  (1) How does this graph reinforce or challenge what you've believed about American religious history?  (2) What does this graph tell us about the era we're living in?  (3) What can this graph teach us about how we can proclaim the gospel effectively?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

May Your Day Be Merry and Bright

The most enriching thing you are likely to read this Christmas Day is the pair of short devotionals by Charles H. Spurgeon that Zach Bartels has quoted on his blog.  Go on, click it.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Calling

On Monday and Tuesday nights, PBS aired a 4-hour documentary entitled The Calling, which follows the stories of seven people—two Orthodox Jewish, two Evangelical Christian (one in a Black setting and the other a Samoan in a White setting), two Muslim, and one Roman Catholic—on their path from seminary into the beginning of their ministries as clergy.  Each subject was documented by a filmmaker of his or her own religion, and then director Danny Alpert wove all their stories together.

I hope you watched this film.  Really the only thing I can say about it is that I wish it had been longer, like ten 1-hour episodes, because I found it so compelling and because there are some gaps and unanswered questions in some of the narratives.  That also might have allowed room for other subjects, like Reform Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Mormon, Pentecostal, and Eastern Orthodox clergy candidates.

Unfortunately, I don't believe the film is available in full online, but you can watch a special 85-minute cut here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

12 Questions (and Answers) of Christmas

He's done it again: Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales and mastermind of the current work in progress, What's in the Bible?, has released something terrific, "12 Questions of Christmas" by British naturalist puppets Clive and Ian.  Check out one of my favorite questions here:

This free web-based series of vignettes is predictably brilliant.  Vischer has a tremendous knack for explaining through story, and just like the What's in the Bible? series itself, he demonstrates his belief that kids are capable of grasping a heck of a lot more than adults often give them credit for.  Also like WITB, adults who watch these shorts along with their kids are pretty well guaranteed to learn something themselves.  Gather your brood and watch them all!

(By the way, my family hasn't kept up with the release of volumes of WITB very well, but when I get caught up I'll do a follow-up to my review of Volume 1.  Also, Vischer very graciously responded to my earlier post and engaged in dialogue about how concerns from me and folks like me might be addressed in WITB curriculum.  He's quite the class act.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010


If you are reading this blog (or writing it), you are almost certainly guilty of what is exquisitely lampooned in this video.  Please enjoy, and then define your terms.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some Evidence for Paul's Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

Some of the books of the Bible say who wrote them.  Others don't.  While scholars exert significant effort to figure out or hypothesize who wrote the anonymous works, they spend much more effort debunking or defending the authorship of the books that state who their author is.  This seems backwards to me, but there you go.  (Also, there is a third category: books that don't claim an author themselves, but other biblical books claim who authored those anonymous books.  The big example is the five books of the Torah, which are repeatedly attributed to Moses in the New Testament.  This is probably the most controversial ascription of them all.)

One area of intense wrangling is the "deutero-Pauline" letters—epistles that some claim were written by a "second Paul" in Paul's name.  The hypothesis is that Ephesians and Colossians (at least) were written by a disciple of Paul, and the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) were probably written by another disciple of Paul (which I guess would make them trito-Pauline).

With respect to the Pastorals, each side in the debate has a number of arguments.  Some evidence that I believe supports Pauline authorship is Paul's farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35.  This is a passage written by a "third party"—not the hand that wrote either Romans or 1 Timothy—that puts in Paul's mouth many of the same themes that we find in the Pastorals:
There are other themes in the Pastoral Epistles that aren't in Paul's address, but this comparison does show continuity between the content of the Pastoral Epistles and what a witness recorded Paul as saying during his life.  (And it is worth noting that Paul's exhortation was delivered to elders in Ephesus, over whom Timothy later presided.)

Not that this settles anything or changes anybody's mind, because few people if any are objective about this.  Someone who wants to believe that the Pastorals were written by Paul (like me) will see the parallels with Acts 20 and find confirmation for what they already think.  Someone who wants to believe that the Pastorals were written by someone else will conclude that their true author was a very loyal disciple of Paul or a very skilled writer who took Luke's account as the inspiration for his own work.  But no one (or a very tiny number) is actually weighing the evidence without a foregone conclusion.

Now, I know why people like me are biased toward believing that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles.  We are theologically committed to the principle that the canonical books are the word of God, on which we desire to base all of our doctrine.  If Paul didn't write a book with his name on it, then that ascription is a lie, which means that the book cannot have been inspired by God, who doesn't lie—at least not in its entirety.  That raises the question of whether the book is inspired at all or how we distinguish between the inspired parts and the uninspired parts of it.  That in turn raises the question of whether the ancient Church, if they mislabeled this book as canonical, mislabeled other books as well.  Eventually this line of reasoning challenges whether we have any heavenly basis for our doctrine at all or if it comes from fallible texts generated solely by fallible humans.

So that's why I have a bias toward Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.  What I don't understand is why others have a bias against Pauline authorship.  I really don't get it—what's the principle that such people are guarding so defensively that they will predictably explain away all evidence for Paul as author?  (The same could be said for other things in biblical scholarship, like archaeological corroboration of history recorded in the Bible.)  From an outsider's point of view, it just looks like for the last 200 years or so a scholar isn't allowed to believe that the Bible was written by who it says wrote it and be taken seriously in the academic guild.  When academicians offer theories of what anonymous "community" produced the Pastoral Epistles or what some book's redaction history was, it just looks to me like they are trying to win the respect of their erudite peers and/or tenure.  Proposing alternative authorship theories is like a scholarly peeing contest, and the more creative the better.  (Yes, I just used the phrase "scholarly peeing contest.")  In the unlikely event that someone is reading this blog who has a bias against traditional authorship ascriptions (like Paul for the Pastoral Epistles) and I totally misunderstand your motives, please set me straight, because I'm at a loss here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Parable of the Minas

Jesus' parable of the minas (pronounced m'NAH or in Aramaic m'NAY) in the Gospel of Luke is parallel to but not quite the same as his better-known parable of the talents in Matthew.  Here are some various observations on the parable of the minas (perhaps better entitled "the parable of the citizens and the slaves").  Go ahead and read it first or better yet have the text available to refer to.

1. Jesus' kingship takes time.  Jesus tells this parable because the people with whom he was traveling to Jerusalem, expecting him to be the Messiah, "thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (v. 11).  This is a classic example of the "already but not yet" pattern in New Testament theology.  It was not unusual for Jesus to talk about the kingdom as already here (see for example Matt. 12:28), but at the same time it hasn't come yet.  He indicates here that it will take a while to happen, even though it is "near."  The coming of the kingdom requires both urgency and patience.  It reminds me of the saying, "Hurry, but don't rush."

2. Jesus brings his kingship.  You and I don't.  Nor do missionaries or social movements.  Nor governments or armies, nor marchers or wearers of hemp.  Jesus brings the kingdom.  Does he work through his church?  Of course.  But in the parable the slaves are working with what their master has given them while waiting for his return.  But his securing of the title and authority of king is really not their business.  He is fully adequate to take care of that himself.  The slaves' job is not to "usher in," "spread," "build," or "expand" his kingdom.  Their job is to be faithful with what is his until he comes back—and to the extent that they do, they are bearing witness to the legitimacy and reality of his kingdom in their own lives and actions.

3. Kingdom is kingship.  You may have noticed that I've been using these terms interchangeably in the foregoing paragraphs.  If you don't know why, it is because the Greek word basileĆ­a, generally translated "kingdom," does not mean a place (like the United Kingdom) but the right and authority of the king to reign, the king's "kingness" or kingship.  The situation in this parable reflects the Romans' willingness to manage their empire through cooperative client-kings like Herod the Great when possible rather than installing their own nobility as governors everywhere they went.  In Jesus' story an aristocrat in a Roman client-state is traveling to Rome to make a bid to be appointed as the next king of the territory by the emperor.  But "his [fellow-]citizens" (compare the Greek in Heb. 8:11), men of the same class as he, hate him and don't want him to be in charge of them, so they send a delegation urging the emperor to choose someone else to be their king.

4. Citizen or slave?  Everyone, and certainly Jesus' hearers, would naturally rather be the former than the latter.  But what distinguishes the two is that the citizens are unwilling for the aristocrat to be their ruler while the slaves (well, nine of them) obey him loyally.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  One sees Jesus as their fellow citizen, a human being not only just like us but merely like us with no authority to tell us what to do, and they live accordingly.  The other kind faithfully and humbly submits to whatever he wants.  When the aristocrat returns as king, the roles are reversed, and the divide in status is made more extreme than before.  The slaves, who were once despised, become rulers.  The citizens, who were once respected, become meat.  Which would you rather become?

5. Life is a test.  Each slave had a mina to work with—one to one-and-a-quarter pounds of silver, which today is worth $567 and then was worth about four months of wages for a day laborer.  It was not impossible for slaves, especially those who had sold themselves, to have this kind of money—some slaves bought their own freedom for five or six times as much—but it was still a lot, and some slaves weren't allowed to have money at all.  A mina might have seemed like an enormous amount to manage to a slave, but from the perspective of the wealthy aristocrat, it was "a very little thing" (v. 17).  It was simply a test given by a prospective king who would need trustworthy men to help him govern his kingdom.  The master didn't give the slaves minas to make money but to make rulers.  Proportionate to the skill, savvy, and most importantly faithfulness of his slaves he made them governors.  All that we have—our wealth and possessions, our relationships, our power, our health, our skills, our experiences—seem so huge to us; they are our entire world, all we can usually see.  But our worlds are tiny and rather insignificant compared to God's unfathomable wealth.  They are small gifts to test our faithfulness to Christ.  When he returns as King and recreates the earth, he will give us stuff to manage beyond our wildest imaginations exactly according to what we do with what we now have.

6. Opportunities are made to be multiplied.  What the aristocrat gives to each slave is intended to be multiplied.  The typical interpretation of the minas are things that God has given us (like talents—our English word comes from an interpretation of Matt. 25) to use for him.  I partly agree with this.  However, since the minas are to be multiplied, this can't strictly be the case—it isn't an application of this text to take one house we own and multiply it into ten houses or turn an ability to speak English into an ability to speak ten languages.  But all of these things that we possess do create opportunities to serve Christ; they can be used for him.  I think that each person's mina is the sum total of the opportunities to serve him.  Invariably, as we serve Jesus in all of our opportunities, the number and scale of the opportunities that we have increase.  If we make the most of the one person we have to touch with God's love, it won't be long before we have two, and so on.

7. Stewardship requires risk.  The one slave who isn't rewarded by his master is chastised for not investing the money he was given.  Let's think about the dividends yielded by the other slaves: as much as ten times what was invested.  That rate of return is astronomical.  The only way the first slave could have gotten a return like that was if he took big risks, gambles even, with the aristocrat's money and they paid off.  The one who took no risk in order to preserve what he was given was the one who remained a slave instead of becoming a governor.  Very often in my experience "being a good steward" is code in Christian circles for buying cheap toilet paper and keeping the thermostat turned down to 56°; it functionally means spending as little as possible.  But Jesus wants his servants to invest what they have in opportunities for him with abandon.  Jesus may be conservative in the sense of holding more tenaciously than anyone to the heart of Torah (see Matt. 5:17-20), but that must be the only sense in which he is conservative.  He doesn't want his servants to conserve but to take smart chances with what they have, even if that risks failure and waste.  Aggressive, high-yield, faith-straining attempts to give him glory and love the world are what stewardship is, and that certainly includes the choices we make with our "mammon of unrighteousness."