Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
What kind of book is this? (I'll indicate below that I think the title is misleading.) It isn't a typical church history, a record of doctrinal disputes, church councils, popes, and the like. Rather, two things really mark what Bass is about here.
- It's a book about practices. The author is a leading voice in the ongoing movement to define Christianity in terms of practicing the faith rather than doctrinal correctness. While Bass takes a chronological approach, her emphasis lies on how Christians have lived their faith: caring for the sick, creating songs, praying the rosary, and so forth.
- It's inspirational. By "inspirational," I mean that at times readers will feel inspired to follow the examples Bass provides. I also means that Bass intends to inspire. Almost every section begins with a vignette from contemporary life.
At the same time, I'm getting a little tired of books that have misleading or spectacular titles. A People's History suggests that the book will devote itself to the little people. And the subtitle, The Other Side of the Story suggests a book that counters the dominant narrative by taking the side of the little people over against the big people. (Bass cites Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which does precisely that, as an inspiration.) But for every discussion of caring for the sick or Perpetua's martyrdom, we encounter the familiar "big" names: Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Calvin. Things grow more populist as we enter the modern age because more sources are available to Bass. I think she intends to do what the title suggests, but the book isn't quite the "alternative" its title suggests.
Perhaps a different title would make the point? Something along the lines of Living the Faith: A History of Christian Practice? Any suggestion from me will sound a little hokey. What I'm saying is, people could easily pick up this book expecting to find a liberationist or counter-cultural narrative. Just the same, this is a valuable, inspirational, relevant history, one that will help ordinary Christians discover their heritage in empowering ways.
An additional thought. The arrangement of People's History revolves around a couple of dozen Christian practices. Study groups might use this format for an extended engagement with the book, which would profitably take several months.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Internet access has been spotty lately, but a couple of highlights from the trip so far....
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on Elephant Day. That included hand feeding the elephants; an elephant show that included how elephants perform labor, how elephants relate to their trainers, and even elephant painting (no kidding, with a brush and with precision); an elephant ride through forest and river; and a raft ride down the river. Huge fun. One of our hosts, the fabulous Dada, taught us "Chang, Chang, Chang," the traditional children's song about elephants.
Yesterday was an extremely full day. We received a tour of Payap University, our host institution, complete with a presentation by the president. Payap is a private Christian university, and its primary aim is to educate whole people.
We also enjoyed a presentation by Laurie Maund. Laurie is an Australian Buddhist who has lived and studied in Thailand for almost 40 years. He's developed innovative international work with Buddhist monks throughout South Asia to address the HIV/AIDS crisis. Their distinctive Buddhist approach has even been welcomed in closed societies like Vietnam and Burma. Laurie really connected with our kids with the work he does to organize novice monks, basically high school age books, to work as peer educators and mentors for other youth.
Finally we experienced Monk Chat with Phra (meaning Monk) Saneh at the Buddhist university here. Phra Saneh explained how Buddhism frees people to be happy, in large part by clearing their minds and simplifying their lives. For example, he asked why we wear shoes. To protect our feet. Well, if shoes are to protect our feet, why do we need more than one pair? Why suffer over shoes? Phra Saneh also provided a powerful experience with meditation. Some of the students found themselves experiencing a profound new level of peacefulness. I bet I'll set lots of us, myself included, using our meditation beads on the flight home.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Our hosts are amazing people. Having made the trip in 2008, I've found real joy in reuniting with John Butt (Rhodes class of 1960), the founder of the IRCP, and Mark Tamthai, now its director, along with their staff.
Today we begin "work" -- a couple of class sessions this morning, followed by a tour of Doi Suthep, a famous mountain temple this afternoon. The temple features twelve scenese from the life of the Buddha, and John Butt shines in using that series to introduce Buddhism through the Buddha's life. Should be a great day!
Monday, July 13, 2009
And by the way, the trip is part of Lancaster Seminary's Leadership Now. If you know any promising young people, especially around 14-16, take a look at our Summer Leadership Academy for 2010.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
They're also surprised when I mention that it's a "new" idea in the time of Jesus.
Just this week I came across a contribution on the topic by Alan Segal on Loren Rosson's blog. I admire Alan a great deal. He is the author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. If you're interested, take a moment to read Alan's entry. Then if you're really interested, go ahead and buy the book.
For an alternative take on the history of resurrection hope in Israel, see Jon D. Levenson's Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
More to the point, the parable of the Dishonest Manager is among the most challenging passages in the New Testament. The problem? What are we to make of a parable in which the hero is also a scoundrel? As C. H. Dodd famously observed, it looks as if even the author of Luke struggled with this one, tacking on multiple -- and conflicting -- "sermon notes" to the end of the story.
Fabian is making me think about this parable differently. He brings forth massive evidence that agricultural managers (oikonomoi) were nearly always slaves in the ancient world. Thus, the manager is also a slave -- or possibly, a freedperson (a manumitted slave). When the master threatens to remove the manager from his position, the threat implies the possibility of demotion to deadly manual labor: "I'm not strong enough to dig," the manager reflects.
I would assign this essay to students just for the wealth of information on slavery in the ancient world. Unfortunately, the essay is pretty technical.
Anyway, in Udoh's reading the slave remains dishonest throughout the story. And it's that behavior that (Udoh says we'll never know the basis for this) he wins the master's approval: he acts "prudently" in his own interests.
But Fabian's reading hits a snag. If the manager is indeed a slave -- and Fabian's historical evidence is compelling -- why does he think (a) that he might be forced to beg and (b) that he might receive a welcome from the master's debtors? A slave will not have to beg, and free people will not accept someone else's slave into their homes.
At this point Fabian backs up a little and says, Maybe the manager is a freedperson. Unfortunately, the article devotes little space to the condition of freedpersons in the ancient world (see the brief discussion on 333-34). We should avoid the hasty assumption that a freedperson would have been "free" in a modern sense, as in without obligation to the master. In a footnote on pp. 324-25, Udoh gives the impression that the distinction between slave and freedman is immaterial to this question, since even the freedman manager would be acting in a servile role. (On p. 333 n. 128 he calls the distinction "insignificant.") It seems to me, however, that the distinction is very important for understanding the manager's deliberations and actions. So my question: Would the options presenting a freedperson differ significantly from those of a slave in the ancient world?
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
The verse reads, "And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene as he was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross."
"The father of Alexander and Rufus." Every once in awhile, a biblical passage offers just a little window into history. You can imagine Mark's first audience (audiences?) hearing this verse performed, with people looking around the room at one another. Alexander and Rufus? Really? Perhaps Alexander and Rufus were even in the room at the moment.
At a minimum, the author of Mark expects the audience to know who Alexander and Rufus were. That's all we know. Beyond that, one wonders what effect carrying the cross had on Simon, such that his two sons were prominent believers a generation later. And beyond that, one wonders so much more....
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Quick synopsis: A football coach at a little Christian school struggles with common life issues and with football. His faith and the faith of others play a huge role in the outcome.
Now, the good stuff. From time to time I found myself deeply moved, moved to weeping, by this film. Why? I wondered. I don't know.
- I watched with my two daughters, and I deeply desire that they participate in the kinds of profound faith experiences that sustained me in high school.
- The movie took me back to tender places in my high school years, especially in integrating faith with football and the rest of life. I could quickly relate to how renewed (or new) faith could change a kid's whole outlook on life. My Christian peers played a huge role in my life then, and I could strongly relate to how faith actually contributed to my finding the best in myself as an athlete. We shouldn't mock that part of the movie.
- Some of the plot devices, including kids and their parents, were genuinely moving.
Theologically, the movie maintains that faith makes an impact on your life in positive ways. You see your relationships differently. You find a different meaning in your ordinary responsibilities. You find spiritual empowerment for the most important things you face. You see the good things that come to you as blessings. Prayer matters -- and so do people who pray. In many ways, this film hit those topics at just the right note.
With this movie, my evangelical piety shares a longing for revival. I really long for and pray for spiritual awakening.
I'll add that I wish mainline Christian kids had the same language I had as an evangelical youth for understanding how faith relates to our identity and our lifestyles. We're working on that in Lancaster Seminary's Leadership Now program, but I wish that. (For a critical reflection on that same ethos, see below.)
Technically, I generally dislike football films because the football action is so unrealistic. The football action in this cheaply produced movie is fairly impressive.
The movie also has significant theological shortcomings, and they need reflection.
- The main thing is that the movie suggests that faith solves all of life's problems. Money, personal matters, football, you name it. Loving Jesus might help a football player (or team) play with passion and courage. It won't take a cruddy team and turn them into all-stars. The movie nods toward the outlook that living faithfully might not lead to success, but the whole plot undermines a healthier outlook.
- Faith in this movie is still too small. Our little Christian academy has one black coach, complete with weak racial humor. It apparently includes an African American player -- we know this not because he ever speaks but because he appears in a game scene. In other words, faith is all about personal issues and one to one relationships. It doesn't bear on the social realities that so shape our lives. Why is it, by the way, that Southern Christian schools are so white? (And why were so many of them founded just when public schools integrated?)
- The movie is socially conservative to a fault. The coach and his wife have money problems and no kids. So why does this talented woman keep just a part-time job that makes almost no difference in their financial picture? (I have a sneaking hunch.) Several times the movie insists that following Jesus means submitting to authority. I'm all for that, but you know what? Sometimes authorities, even parents, are unjust and abusive. It's not sufficient to tell somebody to obey authority and leave it at that.
- I just don't share the theology that God determines everything that happens. This movie assumes that theology. If I win a football game, I thank God for the experience and the ability -- but I would never interpret the win as God's will. Even back in the day, we knew better than that.
Bottom line? I was genuinely touched by this movie. My daughter was inspired. It raises important questions. I just have some serious reservations too.