Locusts and Honey

I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll work from there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.0417locusts

For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6).   Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all.   Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.

So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.

Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.

My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.

So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).

So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):

Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,

And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God

And there is no other;

And my people will never be put to shame.”

Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.

So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy.   John could have simply spoken the message but by dramatically acting it out, it had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.

Now this is just a proposal. It is not a full-fledged argument. Still it makes sense to me of a puzzling text. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Practical Advice for Christian Writers

Being a Christian writer means, on the one hand, no more and no less than to be a Christian who writes; we are called to honor God in any and all work that we do. But there is something special about writing as a Christian vocation. Language, both spoken and written, is part of God’s creative action and His interaction with humanity. In the beginning, God said, ‘let there be light,’ and the first work God gave Adam to do, before the Fall, was to name the animals. God inspired the writers of the sacred Scriptures – which include a great deal of poetry. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he taught in parables. To be a creative writer is to imitate, in our own way, God’s divine creative action. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Furthermore, writers are in a unique position to help present the Christian faith in a compelling way. We need to be able to defend the truth of the Christian faith with strong, clear rational arguments, but the words we use in our arguments are of little use if they aren’t invested with meaning, which only the imagination can provide; and we won’t get people engaging with us unless they feel interested by or (even better!) drawn toward Christianity. Imaginative literature can help the apologist in many ways.

But how does one become a writer? I have found that many Christians are eager to write, but are unsure how to go about it, or have habits or ideas that are getting in the way of their growth as writers.

Without further ado, here are five pieces of advice for writing as a Christian… and an invitation at the end of this post to come join us if you’re intrigued by this as a vocation in apologetics!

  1. Pray, but don’t wait for inspiration.

My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to discouragement when a burst of creative energy subsides. God gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.

Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”

Then write.

“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).

  1. Write. Learn. Revise. Write more.

Writing is something you learn by doing. Your early work won’t be any good; that’s okay. How else are you going to learn? Think of sports or playing a musical instrument, and how much time and effort you would have to put in before you can play well in a big game, or do a solo at a recital.

The key is to learn from what you’ve written. That means you need to develop the ability to assess your work objectively, and to see where and how to improve. Feedback from a writing group, fellow writer, mentor, or teacher is extremely helpful in this regard.

  1. Read.

Writers write. They also read! Reading both widely and deeply will help you grow tremendously as a writer. You’ll see the different ways that great writers tackled the same sorts of challenges you’re facing, and you’ll get a deeper and more intuitive grasp of what you can do with language and form.

Don’t just read modern works in your favorite genre. Read the classics; it will break you out of imaginative ruts you didn’t even realize you were stuck in. Go upstream: read what your favorite authors read. And don’t just read Christian authors, either!

  1. Make time to write.

If you want to be a writer, then write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media, then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. Writing takes time and effort and, above all, practice. Find a routine that works for you. Many blog posts and books recommend getting up early to write in the morning, for instance – if that works, great, but if it doesn’t, find what does work. (For the record, I am not a morning person, and I do not write in the mornings. No way.)

  1. Learn the craft.

Too often Christians take the “good enough” approach. If it has the right values… if it presents the Gospel… if it has Christian ideas in it… then it’s good enough, even if the writing is so-so, the plot is weak, and the characters a bit cardboard. This is a terrible mistake and a terrible missed opportunity. Christian writers are called, as creators, to show forth the truth and beauty of our faith both in what we say and in how we say it.

Put in the time and effort and attention to learn how to communicate well – how to use the right word in the right place at the right time; how to set a scene, how to create a compelling character, how to explore a difficult theme. Learn how to write so that your work is both true and beautiful.

Let me quote here from Dr Michael Ward, writing on this very subject:

“When there is so much apologetic work to be done in a world desperate for the good news of God in Christ, it may be asked what could be more important than to strain every sinew in the service of the Gospel – and to forget luxuries like beauty and think only of utility. Isn’t beauty an extravagance? Shouldn’t we think only, or at least chiefly, of effectiveness, of usefulness?

“Questions worth asking, to be sure. But what is the Gospel? It is not just a message, something said for the achieving of a particular utilitarian purpose. It is also a life, indeed ‘life in all its fulness’, something made by God to be received and enjoyed by us for its beauty, as well as for its goodness and its truth. […] In other words, it is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to make room for the aesthetic category. Pointless, ‘useless’ beauty is essential to the good life lived under God.”

(Read the whole piece here.)

What now?

This advice comes from my own experience as a writer – which is quite varied! In addition to my academic writing and popular apologetics writing, I’ve written a memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). I’m also a published poet; my work has appeared in the journals Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal; Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature; Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith; and Californios Review, and most recently in the anthology Word in the Wilderness (Canterbury Press, 2014).

So, it’s with great pleasure that I can announce that starting in Fall 2015, I’ll be teaching a new elective course: “Creative Writing and Apologetics.” This course aligns perfectly with Dr Michael Ward’s “Literature and Apologetics” to provide a particular niche in the Cultural Apologetics MA for literary apologetics. (These courses are in Online format, so both our Houston and our Online students can take them.)

You see, we’re serious about imaginative apologetics. Some of our students will be teachers and pastors and ministry leaders – equipped with a deep understanding of culture and with an integrated approach to apologetics that uses both reason and imagination. Others will practice apologetics in the context of the workplace or the home. And some will work creatively – writing novels, screenplays, blogs, poems, graphic novels, children’s and young adult books…

I’m excited to think of the impact our students will have by being producers of culture. Want to join us? Check out the MA in Cultural Apologetics, and feel free to be in touch with me.

Write on!

Fifty Shades of…Blah

blah_blahThis is my post on ‪#‎50shadesofgrey‬: Blah. Blah. Blah.

So goes the culture in which we live. Full of the blah, blah, blah drone of a zombie culture looking for the next thing that will make it feel human once more, but gravely missing the mark yet again. Sleepers, awake! You were not created to be the walking dead, reduced to searching endlessly to satiate your immediate desires. You are made in the image of the glorious Creator! Bring sexuality back from the dead. It is a life-giving part of being human, not a zombified float on the surface of the earth. Where is our desire for the depths? Where is our dignity and resolve? Have we forgotten what it means to be human? Yes….and so blah, blah, blah goes even our artistic endeavors: revelry in the mundane, death where there should be life. And yet, there is hope.

Kristen Davis: Paganism vs Christian Worldview

Watch Kristen Davis’s recent presentation on Paganism vs. Christian Worldview, or read the talk below.

America is known for being a melting pot. We have people from all over the world, from every culture, nation and religious system. We are a haven for the persecuted and a delight for the imaginative, who need only an opportunity in order to do great things. We are a land of opportunity because we believe “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Yet as of late we’ve watched as many of these rights appear to be slipping away. We’ve watched our country go from a respected world influencer to one of extreme debit that is mocked by foreign nations. What has changed? What has caused this cultural shift? While to be sure there are a multitude of influencers, I believe one of the key reason is because we have lost our foundation.

I am an avid lover of archaeology, because it is a snapshot of the past. In the world of archaeology the culture is static and frozen. The people have long since passed. The places and cultural ideas are no longer shifting and changing. They are the perfect subjects of study because they stay put and do not talk back. Yet as I’ve delved deeper into archaeological study I’ve found that it is also of great insight into modern culture. Because the subject of study is static and frozen, one can view the whole picture from beginning to end, as one views a painting or the story line of a book. The plot has already unfolded and one can see how the changes affected the culture at large, and ultimately the end of a particular way of life. In this way archaeology is instrumental in apologetics, because we are able to see the end results of a particular worldview as it has already played out in another culture.

One such worldview is paganism. Earlier this year I was asked to do a presentation on Neo-paganism at a conference in Frenso, CA. Knowing very little about Neo-paganism I decided to discuss it through the lens of archaeology. Paganism is not a new worldview, it is arguably the oldest and the most prominent in ancient culture. Neo-paganism is merely the resurfacing of that system. I would like to share a summary of my findings on the pagan worldview with you today because I think it is instrumental in answering the questions about the cultural shift we see in America.

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Latin Lover

As a professor, I have taught more than one subject that skeptical students (and their parents) might question the usefulness of. Literature. Philosophy. Latin. Much ink has been spilled by defenders of the Humanities in recent years as students depart from these departments in order to take classes that will prepare them for a specific career, and, they hope, a certain job. I won’t attempt such a defense here but I have been thinking lately about why I enjoy teaching Latin so much, and that has made me remember important aspects of my own education.

As an undergrad at University of California, San Diego, I struggled to find my academic calling. In high school, I excelled in English and math, so I began my college career with disparate interests. During my first year of college, I took courses in syntax, semantics, and phonetics because I was interested in linguistics and none were offered at my high school. Credit hours were cheap, so I could explore and expand my interests without worries about long-term debt. My interests broadened even more, which as I look back, was a wonderful experience.

I excelled as a linguist but struggled a bit with mathematics. Unlike high school, my colleagues at UCSD were quite gifted in math and science, whereas I routinely struggled to get good grades. My struggles were primarily motivational, as I discovered that my natural talent for math was accompanied by only a moderate desire to learn the subject. As I lost interest in math, I began to wonder if I should pursue a new course of study.

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That They All May Be One

It is very clear from John 17 that Jesus intended his church to be one. Indeed, that is also a theme in Paul. There is not to be a Jewish-Christian people of God and a Gentile-Christian people of God, but one people of God, for all barriers have been removed (see, among other places, Eph 2). But Jesus made it clear that this unity is to be observable. In fact, this unity will indicate to “the world” that God really sent Jesus and will lead to the world believing. If they cannot see it, they cannot believe it. Therefore our thousands of denominations are not just a scandal, but an offense against the spreading of the good news. Yet, granted that this is true, what is someone to do about  it? Let me suggest three hopeful signs that even when we may feel helpless, God is at work doing himself what we have not managed to do (indeed, what we have often messed up).

First, there is the relatively recent news about Pope Francis’ reaching out to the Orthodox, taking steps towards bridging a 1000 year division. This is not new for this pope. He was involved in such bridging before he became pope. But it looks like significant steps forward are being taken. One event spurring these steps on is the persecution of Christians of all types in Syria and Iraq, among other places. Standing together is not a luxury in such a situation.

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CFP: 2015 Theology Conference about the Church

The Department of Theology at Houston Baptist University is pleased to host a conference on “The Church and Early Christianity” on April 16-18, 2015. Our keynote speakers are John Barclay (Durham University), Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University), Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary). You can find out more details at hbu.edu/theologyconference.

Call for Papers: We are inviting papers representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students in this area of study.  We are particularly interested in the development of early Christian communities within their wider theological and cultural contexts in the first two centuries. This includes theological reflections about ecclesiology as well as social relationships with Second Temple Jewish practices and institutions, relationships within early Christian communities, and the relationship of early Christian communities with the wider Greco-Roman culture. Participants will have 25-30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A). Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell at bblackwell@hbu.edu by February 15, 2015.

Thinking about God and Loving God

Well, I’m only a few days behind with this post. But given that I’m the new guy who is still trying to get settled, I’m going to claim that as an excuse. So now I’ve finally find a few minutes to put some thoughts together. At the beginning of any semester, it can be helpful to think about why we study theology. One might claim, ‘Isn’t it sufficient to just love Jesus?’ Why do we need to think about topics like how the New Testament fits into the ancient world, or Trinity, or how salvation is accomplished? Loving God is all that is needed.

Claiming that all we need is to love God is of course true. But we must ask how it is that one loves God, and here Jesus’ words are very helpful. When asked by an expert in the law ‘which is the greatest commandment in the law?’, Jesus answered:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt 22.36-37; cf. Mark 12.28-31; Luke 10.25-28).

Notice here that loving God involves the mind. That is, in order to love God to the fullest, we must engage our minds in reflection and study on who he is and what he has done. Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that everyone should become a paid theologian or teacher. Nevertheless, failure to engage our minds as an act of love and worship is to fail in the act of becoming a disciple of Jesus.

So the challenge at the beginning of every new semester is to remind ourselves that in our studies we are worshiping, serving and indeed loving God. Studying shouldn’t led to a separation of the mind from the heart, but rather a full integration of who we are in the process of becoming disciples of the crucified one. The final word can be given to J.A. Bengel, an 18th century scholar, who wrote:

Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.

(This quote has been made well-known particularly through the NT scholar Douglas Moo.)

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

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