Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thailand photos up on Facebook

Friends, I hope to report further on the Thailand trip, but that'll take awhile to compose. In the meantime, I've posted about 140 pictures on my Facebook page if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Home from Chiang Mai

Nothing to post for now, as I feel like I've been hit by a truck. That, and the 20 hours of flying left me with swollen ankles. But glad to be home, and soon to see my kiddies.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity

This is the first book review I'll be doing for The Ooze Viral Blog. The Ooze is a online resource for the emergent movement, and they've initiated this program to get book reviews of significant books out to catch the public attention. I'm grateful for a copy of Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), which I've been reading on my Thailand trip. Here's an Ooze video of an interview with the author.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
I'm grateful for this book, and I can readily imagine its use in local communities of faith. It's a valuable, insightful, distinctive book. Our churches are starving for a sense of their own heritage, and Bass provides a fresh menu for that hunger.

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

Chiang Mai 23 July 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

Greetings from Chiang Mai

Our group arrived early Saturday morning, and we've settled into things at Payap University and its Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace. We've enjoyed a Thai cultural show, with traditional food, dance and other performances, visited church, toured the Sunday street market, and slipped into a couple of wats (or temples). And we've found a rhythm. While still not sleeping through the night, I did go for an early run this morning.

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

NTGeeks on Hiatus?

I'll be participating in a youth study trip to Thailand beginning this week and through most of the rest of July. As a result, I may not be posting until early August, depending on opportunity. Go with blessing!

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

Alan Segal on the Afterlife

My students often express surprise when I tell them that the "immortality of the soul" is not properly a Christian doctrine. That's not exactly true, especially when we count liturgy (and not only classical creeds) as an index of Christian doctrine, but it's true enough to get them thinking.

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

Fabian Udoh on the Unrighteous Manager in Luke 16:1-8

The current Journal of Biblical Literature features an impressive article by Fabian Udoh, "The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 [13])," JBL 128 (2009): 311-35. I've only enjoyed Fabian's company once, but the next time I see him, I'll be intimidated. This article is grounded in a super-impressive body of research into slavery in ancient Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world. The article raises a major question for me (the last sentence of this post), and I'd be grateful for comments that help me understand the problem.

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.

(Other tough passages include Matthew 19:12 [what does Jesus have in mind?], 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 [what on earth is Paul trying to say?] and Romans 13:1-7 [given what Paul says elsewhere, why would he say this?].)

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

Neglected Passages #4: Mark 15:21

This one will slide a little toward the devotional end. Once in class I was reading through Mark's passion narrative aloud -- what is it about reading aloud rather than just with my eyes? -- when I bumped against Mark 15:21. This little verse, which I'd never noticed before, made me pause. I was too choked up to go on.

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

Facing the Giants Review

Thanks to my amazing daughter Emily, who loves God from her heart and suggested we watch Facing the Giants together. The movie touched her, and I'll devote a few lines to my thoughts. I'll also try to avoid spoilers, though the movie can be pretty predictable.

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.