Trinity, Advent and Longing for a Baby

sleeping babySeveral weeks ago, I got the joyous news from my son Jonny and his wife Emily that they were expecting a baby.  They had been trying for a while, so they were very excited, and I was excited with them.  Not long after, Jonny called, and the tone in his voice intimated the bad news: Emily had a miscarriage.

Recently, Emily “opened up” about the whole experience in an article that she wrote.  As I read, with tears in my eyes, her transparently honest account of her feelings during and after her brief pregnancy, and thought of other friends who long for a child, I reflected on how the whole experience captures many of the desires and longings that are at the heart of Advent.  (Since many persons can relate to this, I’ve attached Emily’s article below if you’d like to read it).

Indeed, barren wombs and miscarriages are vivid reminders that we live in a broken world, a world that still needs healing, a world where the last enemy has not yet been fully conquered.  It is a world that longs for the coming of a baby.  One of the verses of my favorite Advent hymn expresses the longing this way:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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A Pointless Article

“When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

So wrote Winston Churchill, explaining the elaborate courtesy with which, on behalf of the British Government, he declared war on Japan in 1941.

Intellectual combat, like actual warfare, benefits from politeness. And in this respect, C.S. Lewis provides us with a notable example.

In his ripe, late work, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis guns down one of his Cambridge colleagues. But you will not learn the name of Lewis’s target from the pages of his book; he never mentions it. Why make your opponent’s fate worse by brandishing his identity before the public? Play the ball, not the man.

In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis sets out to discover what makes a book good. (We may usefully apply his findings to films and plays as well as books.) He concludes that what makes a book good is whether it “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”.

Very well. And what is good reading? Good reading is reading which does not use the book, but receives it.

Using a book (or a film, or a play) means interpreting it so that it serves some pre-existing agenda of your own, turning it to account, making it do things for you. Receiving a book is something quite different. Receiving means surrendering to it, allowing it to work whatever degree of authority it can attain, and paying respect to it on at least two levels, not just as ‘something said’ – that is, something with a social or political or religious message, – but also as ‘something made’ – that is, a work of art, a work of beauty, with its own internal logic or design or pattern. Continue reading

What does the King have to do with an election?

The minor election cycle (i.e. the two-yearly) is barely over and the major one (four-yearly) has started ramping up so that we have something to think about for the next two years. Just after the election I happened to be driving across the city with news radio on to alert me to traffic problems to avoid. It was interesting to hear both Republican and Democrats speaking about their plans to “get something done” in the next Congress, as well as to learn that those Democrats and Republicans were elected with the lowest percentage voter turnout since the early 1940’s. Each side was talking about its priorities and, not surprisingly, there was no mention of themes that had been big during the election especially when addressing religious groups: abortion and/or reproductive rights, marriage, whether defense of or equality of, moral issues of any type. 

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ALVIN PLANTINGA, BARACK OBAMA, JONATHAN GRUBER AND THE HEART OF AMERICAN DARKNESS

It is not often when I’m reading a tome of analytic philosophy that I am stopped in my tracks by a passage that reads like a penetrating diagnosis of what’s wrong with contemporary America. But that happened recently, and I have not been able to get the passage out of my head. The passage appears in Alvin Plantinga’s 500+ page volume Warranted Christian Belief in a chapter where he is discussing how sin distorts our ability to see the truth.

Prior to the passage that arrested my attention, he noted that it is a matter of common sense that we are naturally disposed to accept the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Moreover, the notion of truth assumes a certain sort of relation between our beliefs and the way the world actually is. The truth accurately depicts a world of objective reality.

Unfortunately, however, some environments can be so toxic that our notion of truth can be smothered and squelched to such an extent that we end up with no concept of truth at all. Plantinga went on to give a concrete example of this phenomenon, and this is the passage that left me pondering for days.

“It is said that one of the most serious results of the long Communist tyranny in eastern Europe was just such a suppression of the idea of truth. The truth was officially perverted so often and so cynically (for example, the official organ of the Communist party devoted to the dissemination of propaganda was ironically named Pravda, i.e., truth) that people came to lose the very idea of truth. They were lied to at every level in utterly shameless and blatant ways; they knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying and that those to whom they lied knew they were being lied to, and so on; the result was that the whole idea of truth tended to evaporate. One said whatever would be of advantage; the question of whether it was true no longer arose” (Oxford University Press, 2000, p 216). Continue reading

Is There a Better Word than “Lord”?

Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.”  Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations.  Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ.  On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example. logo_kyrios

One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios.  The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience.  We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.”  We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?

The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status.  Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word.  Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States.  They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit.  For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.

Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it.  I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it.  I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power.   Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something.  Then again, maybe not?!

Josef Pieper on True Leisure and Festivity

As the fall semester winds down and the holidays draw near, I thought it fitting to offer a couple of book recommendations for the upcoming season of leisure and festivity; books about, well, leisure and festivity!

In Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper argues that Western society has virtually abandoned, to its great detriment, the practice of genuine leisure, defined as time spent in contemplation of higher things. There has been a great shift, he says, in the conception of mankind and the meaning of man’s existence towards a bankrupt philosophy of total work. In this view, man “is essentially a functionary, an official, even in the highest reaches of his activity.”  But this worker-of-the-state life cannot contain the whole of human existence, one which includes activities that are valuable for their own sake. For example, reading and discussing great works of literature, philosophy, theology, and poetry; the quiet consideration of a beautiful painting or live landscape. These are the things that highlight the meaning, truth, and beauty in what Pieper calls “the whole of creation.” They are activities that are worthwhile even if they aren’t “for” some pragmatic end. True leisure prevents us from being “half-hearted men with flat souls,” as Fr. James Schall would say.

Pieper’s assertion about the necessity of true leisure resonates with our intuitions, conscious or not, about the nature of things, including ourselves. The lynch pin of his thesis, nota bene, is the metaphysical assumption it is based upon. After all, a creator God must exist for the idea of “the whole of creation” to be coherent, for there to be any transcendent, immaterial truths to serve as objects of contemplation. “Philosophy…is not the loving search for any kind of wisdom; it is concerned with wisdom as it is possessed by God,” he argues. Furthermore, man must be more than a material entity for true leisure to occur and have significance. The increasing secularization and materialism of Western culture is at the root of the current dysfunctional relationship between work and leisure and the misconceptions about the essence of the latter; yet, Pieper spends little time discussing this. In some ways, he addresses it implicitly, but the reader is left wishing Pieper had pressed this point much further, and had more powerfully contrasted the meaning found in theism with the alternative: the nihilism of godlessness.

With that said, Pieper’s In Tune with the World serves well as a supplementary companion text, particularly because he fleshes out this crucial element a bit more. He explains that true festivity, genuine festivals, are dependent upon worship of the divine; otherwise “the root of both festivity and the arts is destroyed…Nietzsche says that all festivals are nothing but ‘spectacles without spectators, tables full of gifts without recipients.’”  “Can we festively celebrate the birth of a child” Pieper asks, “if we hold with Jean Paul Sartre’s dictum: ‘It is absurd that we are born’?”

Our deepest convictions about ourselves and our desire to celebrate meaningful things causes a mental revolt against such hopeless nihilism, and the only absolute, final solution is God. Because of what we are by virtue of the divine grounding of the world, there is objective meaning and value in humanity; birth, life, love, and death are not absurdities, but sacred elements of an inherently precious human existence.

Mark Lanier: Christianity on Trial TOMORROW (Nov 6)

You’ll definitely want to mark your calendars because our good friend Mark Lanier will be giving the A.O. Collins Lecture for this fall. He will address his recently published book Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith.

This free lecture will take place on November 6 at Belin Chapel here on HBU’s campus (in the Morris Cultural Arts Center).

His lecture will begin at 7:00 pm and there will be snacks and a book signing afterwards.

We hope to see you there!

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The Spooky Interior Life of Religious Hypocrites

photo(43)The American holiday of Halloween has become one that, at times, is hotly contested in Christendom; especially among evangelicals. Pastors may preach 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Stay away from every kind of evil,” or even reference 1 Corinthians 10:21, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons,” in reference to not participating in Halloween activities like ‘Trick or Treating.’ Without getting into the exegetical understanding of these passages—though I cannot deny my heart has greatly desired this (Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings)—I want to point out a reminder on this Halloween: evil applies to much more than the explicit imagery associated with Halloween. Continue reading

Paul’s Conversion and Name Change: Separating Fact from Fiction

It’s an oft-told story in Sunday School classes and pulpits: when Saul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, God changed his name to Paul. Just one little problem: it’s not true!

st-paul-conversionTo begin with, it’s probably inaccurate to say that Saul was “converted.” Typically when we use conversion language, we are referring to changing from one religion to another, e.g. from Christianity to Islam. This is certainly not what happened to Saul. When Saul met Jesus on the way to Damascus, Christianity was not a distinct religion from Judaism (don’t get me started on the enormous problem of whether ‘religion’ was even on the first-century conceptual radar!). Jesus and all his earliest followers were Jewish. Early Christians were considered to be members of a Jewish sect (“the Way,” according to Acts), not a new religion.

It may surprise you to realize that Paul continues until his death to identify himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5). He follows the Jewish law (Acts 21:17–26), makes sacrifices, engages in purification rituals in the Temple (Acts 24:17–18), and observes the Jewish festivals (Acts 18:21; 20:16)—even after he has become a follower of Jesus.

I don’t mean, of course, in any way to undermine the radical change that occurred when Saul met Jesus. His life was certainly turned around, as he amply attests in his letters. A more helpful way to understand Paul’s experience, though, may be as a prophetic call. Many of the Old Testament prophets, like Saul, were “Shanghaied,” so to speak, into proclaiming God’s message. For example, Jeremiah found that he had to speak God’s word, since it was like a fire in his bones (Jer 20:9). Moreover, like Paul, many of the OT prophets experienced a vision of God’s glory or presence when they were called. Think of Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple, or Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot-throne.

Now, what about the name change? This is simply mythical, a part of Sunday School lore. If we read Acts, we find that Luke calls the apostle ‘Saul’ long after his encounter with Jesus (all the way up to Acts 13:9). It’s not until he has begun his first missionary journey that the apostle is first identified as ‘Paul’ (Acts 13:9). And here there is no indication that he has changed his name. Luke’s statement “Saul, i.e. Paul” (Σαῦλος δέ, ὁ καὶ Παῦλος) suggests that ‘Paul’ may simply be another one of Saul’s names. Paul is a good Roman name, which is probably why Paul began favoring it when he began his travels throughout the Roman world. On the other hand, Saul was a Hebrew name (think of King Saul in the OT), which would have emphasized Paul’s foreignness. Also, ‘Saul’ in Greek (σαῦλος) probably had negative connotations, as it described someone who strutted or swaggered, perhaps in an effeminate way, i.e. prancing. It simply would not do for Paul to begin his preaching to Greek and Roman audiences by introducing himself as “Prancer!”

If you’re interested in separating Sunday School myth from Scriptural fact, you might considering enrolling in one of our degree programs at HBU. We offer numerous courses in the Bible, with an emphasis on understanding the Bible in its first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts.

Forget Not All His Benefits

When we read, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2), many of us are quick to say that we are in no danger of forgetting our Lord’s blessings. Similarly, we read about how ungrateful the Israelites were to God in their wilderness wanderings and we simply cannot picture ourselves being such ingrates. It is instructive to note that the Hebrew word gemul, that is translated “benefits” in the King James Version, can also be translated “dealings” or “recompenses.” There are actually many ways in which one can forget about God’s blessings, dealings, or recompenses, and it is sobering to realize that almost every one of us is guilty of one or more of them. Here are some to ponder on.

You can forget God’s blessings:

1. When you refuse to remember any of His blessings
2. When you choose to forget all His blessings
3. When you fail to remember His blessings (by omission, just not getting around to it)
4. When you do not remember enough of His blessings
5. When you are pre-occupied with many things [in a way similar to what our Lord scolded Martha for (see Luke 10:41-42)]
6. When you focus on your circumstances, instead of focusing on the God who is bigger than, and who controls, your circumstances
7. When you focus on your job, instead of focusing on the God who gave you that job in the first place
8. When you focus on your achievement, instead of focusing on the God without whom you would have no achievement
9. When you focus on what you have not achieved, instead of focusing on the God whom you need to enable you to achieve those things
10. When you focus on what others have achieved, instead of focusing on the God who has your master plan to prosper you, not to harm you
11. When you keep on living for the next miracle, instead of thanking God for what He has already done for you (the Israelites perfected that in the wilderness!)
12. When you remember God’s blessings but refuse to be thankful
13. When you remember God’s blessings but fail to be thankful
14. When you remember God’s blessings but thank Him only a little
15. When you remember God’s blessings but thank Him only sometimes
16. When you feel that the Lord ought to have done more for you (forgetting that God does not owe you or me anything, for we are the ones who owe Him what we cannot repay)
17. When you do not realize that God recompenses you for your faithfulness.
The way to guard against stumbling in any of these and other ways is to practice what the palmist says in Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the Lord at ALL times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (emphases added).

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