Thursday, April 23, 2009

Guest Geek: Charles F. Melchert on James

Chuck Melchert specializes in the interface between educational ministries and the wisdom traditions of early Judaism and Christianity. Since his retirement from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Chuck has taught as an adjunct professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Chuck's Wise Teaching: Biblical Wisdom and Educational Ministry has just been reprinted. In addition, Chuck is a beloved friend who lives what he teaches better than most anybody I know. His thoughts on the Epistle of James below.

Greg asked me write a few words on “What fascinates me about the Book of James?” There are many reasons, but chiefly it is three things:

a) James differs from many New Testament writings by focusing so strongly on astute practical advice about how to behave and live together in God’s ways. James highlights doing it more than thinking about theological rationales for doing it.

b) This focus aligns with the “wisdom” spirit characteristic of Jesus’ teaching as well as books like Proverbs, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, as well as some early Hellenistic moralists. (I have long been fascinated with wisdom writers generally.)

c) Because James focuses more on God than on the distinctiveness of Jesus (as did Jesus himself), it offers an approach that is more open to believers in God and good living who practice with other religious traditions. It seems to me, today we are constantly urged to separate ourselves from those who differ from us religiously. I rather think we need each other as support and as collaborators to aid a world that seems increasingly alienated from the values religious traditions foster, and increasingly self-destructive. Indeed, there may be particular value in a book like James who seeks to foster a believing community of Jews who are also believers in Jesus, and who apparently did not find that a conflict in practice. Are there useful lessons here?

1. The Book of James is a very early Christian writing, most likely by the brother of Jesus - even if the Book itself was edited/re-written/expanded/condensed by a colleague after James death.

2. There is no mention of Jesus’ death, resurrection, miracles, or any particular “historical” event, nor any direct quotation of Jesus’ parables or teachings. Yet, like Jesus, he regards “you shall love God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself," as the central and essential teaching, which he calls the “royal law” or the “law of liberty.”. The Book of James frequently expresses the spirit of Jesus’ sayings without ever citing one in the exact form now found in the gospels - perhaps because he learned it from his brother, not from the (later?) gospel writers.

3. The Book addresses very early communities (congregations/synagogues) of Jewish believers in Jesus (which he never calls “Christians”!). They are small, struggling, lack formal structure, are still expecting the early coming of “the Lord,” and are oriented to Israel’s Torah (teaching), using it as mirror and standards for believers’ behavior. James focuses most upon the life of new believers in community, not their individual, private lives. James speaks to the question, “How can believers behave with one another in keeping with God’s gifts and teachings whuile living in a culture which is not in friendship with God?”

4. The focus throughout is on actions, behavior and relationships consistent with God’s kingdom, not just beliefs or faith-statements about God or Jesus. God’s laws are less a rule book to follow than they are a mirror by which we can see and assess ourselves clearly and truthfully.

5. The book describes a number of communal conflicts and other ways believers can go astray, in actions, relationships and speech, and then probingly asks, “Where do these come from?” It attributes our failures to mis-guided desires or cravings and to our “double-mindedness” - which leads us away from a religion “pure and undefiled,” that is, which cares for the poor and one another.

6. One of those conflicts which James shares with Jesus is the ongoing struggles between the rich and the poor (inside and outside the believing community) and how that affects believers living together faithfully and lovingly.

In this book we can glimpse some of the issues that faced these new communities of “Jewish believers in Jesus” in the first century, perhaps only thirty to forty years after Jesus. What is so striking to this reader is that both James’ diagnosis and description of these struggles, and his prescriptions for living in God’s ways, are so sound, realistic and relevant even today. And especially, again like Jesus, the spirit of this text is genuinely humble, as is fitting in “a servant of God and Jesus.”

If interested in further reading, try these quality works:

The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson, offers contemporary paraphrase quite faithful to the text.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James. Eerdman’s, 2004. A series of excellent essays on James - historical, literary and theological.

Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. Routledge, 1999. Studies the wisdom qualities of James linked with Jesus, Kierkegaard’s use of James as well as the Book’s contemporary significance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sermon: Luke 24:36b-49


Lemme see if I’ve got this straight. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women go to the tomb, where they encounter two “men” – angels, maybe? – instead of the dead body of Jesus. But the men don’t believe the story. Then Peter runs to check out the scene, which essentially confirms the women’s story. Rather than believing the women (no comment), he wonders what seems to have happened. And then – on the same day – two other disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus when Jesus himself sidles up to them. But the two don’t recognize Jesus. It takes sacramental activity – that is, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it – only then are their eyes opened – this is a passive tense verb; their eyes are opened – it takes sacramental activity for these two disciples to recognize Jesus. Even though it is very late – have not these two “constrained” Jesus to stay with them in Emmaus because it was late? – the two hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what has happened. And before they can even open their mouths, the others – the eleven and who knows how many more? – blurt out, “The Lord is risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” Did anyone tell us about Simon?

Mary and the others at the tomb. Peter’s cross country run. Emmaus. Jerusalem late at night. All in one day. You tell me, Do I have this right?

Phew. And now, on that same night, just as the reports are being processed – poof! – Jesus shows up again in their midst. “Peace to you.” And these people, these followers of Jesus who have already – do I need to say, “already”? – been celebrating the resurrection, they freak out. They think it’s a ghost! I’ve had one possible ghost experience, and it freaked me out too. So they freak out.

What is it about the risen Jesus that he can be standing right in front of us, and we don’t recognize him for who he is?

You tell me: is that how it goes?


That was a long time ago. And now we’re in Easter Season reflecting back on that moment when the risen Jesus encounters his followers. Clearly, we’re not in the same space they are. A great distance divides us from them. We know the story, some of it before we read it, and we know how it should end. A good Easter text from the Gospels ends with a commission – and we, who know the story and who have received it – we know to whom the commission is addressed. It’s ours. That’s how we hear Easter texts.

You are witnesses of these things. And, look, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. Wait in the city –
okay, that’s not for us; that’s for the disciples – Wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.

That’s ours, our Easter commission. You are witnesses of these things, clothed with power from on high. That’s you and me, Jesus is talking about.


But whoa. Wait a minute. “Clothed with power from on high?” Whoa. That doesn’t sound like us. Not at all. Where is that power Jesus is talking about?

Do you feel it, seminarians? Do you feel the power of the Holy Spirit just bursting your buttons, just filling you with fire to get out there and change the world? Is that where you’re at? Just lemme at ‘em! Gimme one of those dying congregations, and I’ll turn that sucker around in no time! Well, me and the Spirit. Lemme at ‘em! Is that you?

I’ll share this: it’s not how you sound to me. I hear some anxiety. I hear a sense of inadequacy, a sense of “What’s it gonna be like out there?” I hear humility, and introspection. I don’t hear a lot of you just riding the wave of the Spirit, itchin’ to be witnesses to the world. And by the way, that’s okay.

But whoa. What about those churches? What’s going on there? A recent article by William Brosend reminds us that half of our congregations barely made it to church in the first place – and those are the ones who want to be there. We look out from the altar or the pulpit, and we see those faces. The drawn faces of the ones for whom every day tastes bitter. The arms folded across the chest of the ones who attend church regularly but who aren’t really buying what we’re selling. The folks who lean in on our every word, hoping for just a taste of vitality because they so desperately need a good word. We look out: hardly clothed with power from on high, are they?

From any objective point of view, our churches are not quite burning with Holy Ghost power. Our religion is in decline in the United States, rapidly so. Maybe one in six persons regularly participates in worship. The church budget soup gets thinner and thinner. Mainline denominations are cutting staff. It ain’t just liberals, and it ain’t just the economy. Evangelical bodies are in decline too. Seminaries, I might add, are closing or “right-sizing” right and left. “Filled with power?” Whoa. I’m trying to imagine most of the church people I know describing their home church to a friend at work or a fellow parent. “Filled with power?” Not what comes to mind. “Filled with power.” Hold on, now. Whoa. Where is all that power? Where?


Often I wonder. I wonder about the things Jesus does before he leaves that Holy Ghost commission. Strange things he does. These arouse my curiosity.

First Jesus engages the disciples with his body. If the disciples mistake him for a ghost, that’ll set ‘em straight. Hands and feet, same ones that had been crucified. Flesh, bone, presumably scarred, “Handle me,” he says. He shares his body with them. I wonder about that.

Then he has a snack. Broiled fish sticks – not fried, but broiled. Is the Risen One hungry? Does he have the munchies? Is the snack for his hunger or for their perception? A piece of broiled fish. Wonder about that too.

And finally a Bible lesson. I’m especially curious about that. I mean, I take my Bible seriously. When Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures,” I know better. We know better. No biblical passage tells us that a Messiah is going to suffer, no passage predicts he’ll rise from the dead, and no passage imagines forgiveness preached in his name. We know, with all our theological education, that early Christians found these things in the scriptures, but no objective observer would have seen them. I wonder.

Hands and feet? A bite of fish? Non-existent predictions? These provoke my curiosity. What’s up with these? Strange, they are.


There’s a guy here in Lancaster, a middle school writing teacher, who gives most of his evenings to volunteer work. He goes to group homes, juvenile detention centers, boys and girls clubs. He visits treatment centers for addicts and alcoholics.

The man takes pens and paper. That’s all. He sits down and invites people to write. They have just one instruction. They must begin, “I remember.” “I remember.” Then they write for ten minutes. When they’re done they’re invited to read what they’ve written. “I remember.” When you’re in prison or a group home, the future looks grim. Sometimes it takes connection with the past, a reminder of where you’ve been and what you know, before you can look into the future in a new way.

This educator visited our United Way board here in Lancaster, and we wrote too. Before he left, men in very nice suits were opening themselves to the group with tears, giving one another – giving themselves – courage from the truth of their stories. Looking at life differently because they had looked back. “I remember.” “I remember.”


The risen Jesus calls us to remember. Faced with a commission we cannot perform. Recipients of a promise we seem not to live up to. The risen Jesus meets us, and – SAY IT WITH ME – we remember. He shows us his body, with which he touched and blessed and bled. And we remember. He enjoys the hint of a meal, this Jesus who took, blessed, broke, and gave for those crowds, as he would for his disciples. And we remember. The Risen One recalls the scriptures of Israel that formed his vision and his message. And we remember. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Do you remember?

We remember
. For our hope is not a vain pie in the sky optimism. Our commission and our promise defy mere wishful thinking. We remember the One who calls us, we remember the stories of Israel and the story of Jesus, we remember that long day when the Risen One confronted his disciples. As we prepare ourselves – heart, mind, body, and soul – to gather at this table, we remember. We remember.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Radical Paul according to Crossan and Borg

Twice this year I’ll be teaching Paul courses, one for pastors and laypeople and one for our seminarians. For both courses I’ll assign the new bestseller by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (HarperOne, 2009).

Maybe the subtitle says it all, but I think they’re right. All the time I meet people, pastors included, who dislike Paul. Either he was misogynist, or anti-Jewish, or homophobic, or freaked out by sex, or socially reactionary, or too other-worldly, or out of touch with the Jesus he worshipped.

The book helpfully begins by sketching the reasons people might object to Paul, then it advances its most compelling argument. Almost all scholars distinguish between the authentic Paul, the disputed Paul, and the “pastoral Paul.” That is, we all agree that the authentic Paul wrote seven letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Folks dispute whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. And outside of conservative evangelical circles, few scholars attribute the pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, to Paul.

Crossan and Borg demonstrate how authorship makes a huge difference. The socially conservative Paul, who tells women and slaves to submit to their masters and who seems to focus on a heavenly future more than the transformation of this present age, is found only in the disputed and pastoral letters. Crossan and Borg call these the conservative Paul and the reactionary Paul, respectively. But we find the radical Paul in the authentic letters. This Paul regards women as equals in ministry, promotes the freedom of slaves, and proclaims a gospel that confronts the present order with a community of equals empowered by the Spirit of the risen Christ. And by the way: this radical Paul does not see Jesus’ death as substitutionary suffering for the sins we have committed. Rather, Jesus’ death demonstrates the character and passion of God to make things right (we often say, to “justify”) in the world.

I have reservations concerning some key points in the book. I’m not sure the authors satisfactorily account for Romans 13:1-7 (“submit to the ruling authorities”), but then again I’ve never seen a satisfactory interpretation. I also don’t buy their contention that Paul’s references to the law indicate even the law of conscience (pp. 169-71), rather than most specifically the Torah.

Despite these and other reservations, I’m grateful for how Crossan and Borg frame their most important points. They show how Paul’s gospel isn’t about God simply forgiving us but rather concerns a “Spirit transplant” (138). They insist that Paul’s gospel isn’t simply about saving individuals but building community and redeeming the world. And they helpfully remind us that the problem isn’t faith vs. works but faith-with-works vs. works-without-faith.

I should say that only a few opinions in this book are novel. Neither author has made a career of interpreting Paul. If the book had footnotes, it would have to engage Richard Horsley, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, N. T. Wright, Neil Elliott, Brigitte Kahl, and perhaps Elsa Tamez. Newer voices would include Davina Lopez and Joseph Marchal. Yet thank goodness for Crossan and Borg, who will reach a new audience on behalf of the radical Paul, adding new insights of their own along the way.


A hole, hewn from rock.
A hole in the heart of the world.
One empty.
The other bursting forth with life.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David Brooks on Philosophy and Morality

I have mixed reactions to Brooks' column, but today's strikes home. It argues that we make moral decisions largely according to our emotions, to which we later attach our reasoning processes. Social psychologists and others have been saying this for a long time, and I'm curious about the implications. Just thought I'd note the column here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jesus, Research, and Faith: Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison

How could two books, so similar in their subject matter and in the opinions they advance, feel so different and earn such diverse receptions? New books by Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison, two highly accomplished scholars, review the implications of historical critical scholarship for the life of faith. Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) comes from HarperOne, a major trade publisher – complete with national media interviews, a promotional video (okay, that’s really cool), and a spectacular dust jacket. (And thanks to HarperOne for the review copy.) Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus comes from a significant theological publishing house, has garnered little attention so far, and features a well designed cover for its paper case.

Ehrman and Allison agree on most everything important. The canonical Gospels provide our best source for the historical Jesus, who was most likely an apocalyptic prophet. It seems Allison’s Jesus regarded himself as a key, perhaps the central, figure in God’s plan for history, while Ehrman’s more modestly pointed ahead to that plan. Beyond that, both authors recognize that the Gospels cannot be relied upon for straightforward reporting of Jesus’ words and deeds. Both acknowledge that miracles lie beyond the bounds of historical provability. From a historian’s point of view, most any explanation is more probable than a miracle. Both recognize that the Gospel authors and their predecessors revised, embellished, and outright composed some of our most treasured stories. As Allison puts it, “The Gospels are parables” (66). Both affirm that the Gospels promote diverse understandings to important issues. And both conclude with – or begin from – the premise that historical research rules out narrowly creedal, or biblicist, understandings of Jesus and his significance. Historical research bears both theological and spiritual implications. So Ehrman: In the light of critical research, “Some theological claims are certainly to be judged as inadequate or wrong-headed” (279).

I might add that both Allison and Ehrman agree on historical method. We cannot verify the historicity of individual passages, but we can derive a general picture of Jesus from the patterns that emerge in the Gospel narratives.

Of course the books are different. Allison focuses on a simple question and its follow-up: Should theology attend to historical Jesus research? And if so, how? Though Allison does not surprise us by answering in the affirmative, he rejects the idea that theologians should passively submit to this or that historical reconstruction. Ehrman ranges far more broadly, including matters of authorship, the transmission of the text, the formation of the canon, and the emergence of orthodoxy.

But that’s not all. One never wonders why Allison wrote or for whom. He’s addressing a question that believers care about. Some of our seminarians find the question absolutely compelling: how does faith respond to the challenges of scholarship? To be honest, I wish Allison would spell out his own resolution, however provisional, a little more directly. But one conclusion emerges clearly: the historical Jesus will satisfy neither creedal literalists (Jesus did not think he was God incarnate) nor humanist liberals (Jesus did understand himself to have a distinctive role in history).

And Ehrman? It’s less certain. He devotes extensive attention to reminding his audience that he is not out to destroy their faith, indeed that faith can be enriched by historical analysis. Ehrman recounts his own journey from fundamentalist to agnostic, but he denies – repeatedly – that historical criticism caused his agnosticism. It simply ended his fundamentalism.

It seems Ehrman’s main aim is to introduce biblical scholarship to a popular audience so as to reveal that fundamentalist biblicism doesn’t make sense. This argument will appear to theological liberals (and some moderates) and to the broad secular audience that is fascinated by religion. Few can explain biblical scholarship to a broad audience as effectively as Bart Ehrman does. But marketing makes all the difference. As scholars, Allison and Ehrman are reaching mostly the same conclusions with nearly identical methodologies. Yet consider Ehrman’s dust cover: “Jesus, Paul, Matthew, and John all expressed fundamentally different religions.” What is that about? Do these figures reflect very – and I mean VERY – different sensibilities? Absolutely. But so do Buddhists in Sri Lanka differ from Pure Land Buddhists in Japan. Something unites them as Buddhists nonetheless. Every major religious tradition expresses itself in diverse expressions.

This sort of sensationalism, packaged in such an attractive way, sells books. But anyone with a good college or seminary background in Bible knows most of this stuff. Allison grapples throughout with how to make sense of it. Ehrman, however, spends so much time saying, “The Bible’s not what some people think it is,” that only at the end of the book does he get around to grappling with why anyone might find it compelling. It’s easy to see why religious conservatives respond to him with such hostility. As a recent Salon article crows, “Bart Ehrman's career is testament to the fact that no one can slice and dice a belief system more surgically than someone who grew up inside it.” Is that all there is to it? Interviewed for that same article, Ehrman says, “I'm not trying to convert people to become agnostics like me. I'm trying to get people to think. If I can make somebody a more thoughtful Christian, then I think I've succeeded in what I'm supposed to be doing.”

You can find Bart’s book easily – just walk into any Borders. Why not take the trouble to find Dale’s?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pastoral Note on "Homosexuality"

A pastor friend wrote recently concerning a young LGBT woman in her congregation who has had enough with the "scripture quoters" and wanted resources for writing a letter to the editor on LGBT issues in the life of the church. I prefer not to use "homosexuality" because (a) "homosexuality" is a modern concept unknown to the biblical authors and audiences and (b) sexual diversity extends far beyond what we mean by "homosexuality."

This note posed an interesting challenge. Without going off into academia-land, how does one refer a person to good, accessible resources on the Web? These are the best I'm aware of, and I strongly invite you to add to the list. I hope it's helpful. Here's what I had to say:

I don't want to complicate things for your friend, but there are several approaches, and I'll offer resources for each. All of the resources are brief, but I think your friend should really inform her/himself before launching out.

The first approach is apologetic. It involves "explaining" the passages people use to bash gays. For that, see the resources from Soulforce. See also this 2003 ELCA document.

A second approach is to say the Bible isn't talking about what we're talking about and thus doesn't address "homosexuality" with moral authority. (That's sort of where I am.) This view points out that the vast majority of what the Bible says about marriage has nothing to do with contemporary marriage and sexuality. For this, see Walter Wink, Mary Ann Tolbert, Jay Johnson, and Dale Martin (included below).

A third approach is where I'm moving. It says, "I'm so over this." As Courtney Harvey writes on our Lancaster Seminary allies site, "We may talk about the problems of racism today but we certainly don’t debate if it’s okay to be racist. Why then should we debate if it’s okay to be heterosexist?"

This resource from the More Light Presbyterians includes a recent Newsweek article plus a piece by Dale Martin and a discussion of the "clobber passages."

I hope this helps. Please let your friend know she's welcome to write me....

Wednesday, April 1, 2009