struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Category: Ecclesial Whine (page 2 of 3)

Genesis 1 and Creation as Function

In Genesis 1:5, part of the creation narrative in 7 days, God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night.’ Why wouldn’t God just call them ‘light’ and ‘dark?’ This signals to us that something strange (to us) is going on in the text, and it turns out that it has to do with how we understand existence in the modern world. That might seem like a huge leap, but allow me to explain.

We in the modern world posses a material ontology, meaning that we tend to think about something’s existence based on its material properties. Salt exists because Sodium and Chlorine bonded ionically, and thus it possesses the material properties required to give salt its existence. The chair I am currently using is made from the finest cheap plastic goop you usually find in only the lowest grade outdoor patio furniture. It possesses legs, a back, armrests, a seat, and it starts to bend in funny ways during the winter when I let the space-heater get too close. All material properties, giving rise to what I call ‘chair.’

It’s completely natural that we would take this same material-oriented ontology to the text of Genesis 1, because when we talk about the origins of the universe, we do so in a materially oriented fashion. We want to know about the age of the Earth/universe, the composition of planets and stars, distances, etc. These are all material concerns.

Material ontology is part of our worldview, and worldviews always insert themselves into interpretations. So, we have to ask ourselves: Did the Israelites (and the rest of the Ancient Near East) view the world in a materially oriented way? In other words, when they wrote about origins and creation, were they referring to the materials of the universe, or did they have something else in mind?

Obviously, I wouldn’t have bothered asking the question if I didn’t think there was something else going on. We can see a different understanding of the world in verse 5, where God calls light and dark by different names. ‘Day’ is a period of light, and ‘night’ is a period of dark, and when that section concludes with “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” we see exactly what God just created: Time.

A period of light followed by a period of darkness gives us the basis for time, unless you live in Scandinavia during either the winter or summer. It’s important to note that for us materialists, God hasn’t created anything material on this day. The sun, moon, and stars don’t come until day 4, and no one in the ancient world had any concept of the particle-wave theory of light. Rather than creating materials, God is establishing functions.

That word, functions, is enormously important because while we often judge the existence of something on its material properties, the people of the Ancient Near East had a functional ontology. For them, something existed if it had a function in an ordered system. My cheap, plastic chair, in this sense, isn’t a chair until someone actually uses it, giving it a function. The ancient Israelites didn’t understand how the earth revolved around the sun, or that the moon reflected the sun’s light, but the interchange between night and day created the function of time.

Before we jump into the rest of the days in Genesis, we ourselves, in our materially-ontological glory, use functional thinking as well. If I told you that I got a new computer,  you probably aren’t going to be interested in when and where it was manufactured, the chemical composition of the components, etc. You’d be asking me about its speed, storage capacity, features, battery life, etc. In other words, you’d ask me about its functions, not its material composition. The Ancient Near East, and Genesis 1 in particular, is quite like that.

See how this plays out over the next few days in the creation narrative:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

During day 2, God separates out “waters from the waters” (whatever that means) and eventually ends up with “waters above” and “waters below.” According to ancient reasoning (see the image), water fell from the sky so there must already be water up there (they didn’t know about the water-cycle), hence the “waters above.” The important word here usually gets translated “expanse” or “firmament”, and it is what’s formed after God does all this separating. This firmament was like a giant dome, and God calls it “heaven,” though in Hebrew the word is “sky.”

So… the big question here is: What did God actually do? He didn’t create anything material, but what function do we see? Go back to what I said about waters being “above.” The heavens/firmament hold back those waters and control their flow – meaning they allow for the function of precipitation and weather.

Day 3:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

A lot happens on day 3. Dry land appears, the seas are gathered together, and then the Earth does something amazing: it sprouts vegetation. It never says anything about the material composition of seeds and plants, and we are only told that the Earth itself sprouts. If we hold to a materialistic view of this creation account, then it would seem as though plants are just appearing like mold on a piece of bread. This won’t make much sense, and we would have to contort the text in order to make it fit into our worldview. However, from an ancient, functional perspective, here emerges the function of vegetation.

We now have 3 functions: time, weather, and vegetation. In my next post, we will look at the functionaries.

If you would like a more in-depth look, I highly recommend the book by John Walton: 


Superhero Jesus

Everyone knows Spiderman. He flips around with web shooting out of his hands and beats up bad guys. But…if you ask how he gained all those superpowers, you might get different answers depending on the generation of the person you are asking. The older crowd knows that he was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than giving him leukemia, made him a hero. However, the younger generations would answer that he was bitten by a genetically modified spider. Why the difference?

Stan Lee created Spiderman in the early 1960s. In the cold war era, when it seemed like nuclear war was both inevitable and imminent, radiation and nuclear fallout had Americans shaking in terror. Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider spoke to an underlying fear that resonated with many.

Spiderman’s popularity experienced a resurgence in 2002 with a new series of movies. This time it wasn’t radiation. A genetically altered spider bit Peter Parker, which makes perfect sense. In 2002, the Human Genome project was about a year from being completed, with rough drafts of the entire human genome already being disseminated. It was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, our culture was becoming more aware of the possibilities and dangers involved with genetic modification. It wasn’t the radiation of the 1960s, in part because we were doing it to ourselves (and our food).

This is a small example, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. Artistic expression often works with themes that resonate in culture, even when those themes aren’t obvious. In fact, I have a hunch that literature (and I use this word very, very loosely) often speaks to a culture most powerfully when it works with themes that are under the surface. When an unexpected nerve is hit, it hurts worse.

Aside from interesting cultural analysis, the kinds of stories that our culture finds compelling can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Consider the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. What do they have in common? Have you noticed that there have been nauseatingly large quantities of superhero movies? You haven’t? Oh…I see. You live in a cave.

What kind of hero do we want? Let’s leave Spiderman behind and look at two of the biggest superhero franchises over the last few years: Ironman and Batman. Both movie franchises made gobs of money, and most of the movies were fantastic (except for Ironman 2 – that was awful). There are some eerie parallels between these two.

Both are the alter egos of wealthy billionaire playboys who use technology to gain an advantage over their enemies. And both commit acts of subjective violence, underscoring our deeply held belief that violence really can solve the world’s problems. This isn’t a commentary on violence per se, but it does show perhaps who we really trust in our society. We look to the billionaires and entrepreneurs, and especially to science and technology, to solve the problems that we face every day. We hope that through the use of money and technology we can actually even address the great evil that works its way through our world.

This really makes a lot of sense. To whom does our culture look up? We idolize people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, those wealthy, brilliant innovators at the forefront of technological advancement, and we hope that through their innovation our problems will be “solved.”

I’m not intending simply to browbeat our culture and tell them that they’re putting their trust in the wrong thing. In fact, humans of been doing that for as long as there have been humans. But I do see some interesting parallels between our desire for a superhero and Jesus’ experience of the people he encountered in the Gospels. Everybody was looking for a hero to save them from the Romans (they called that hero “Messiah”). And so Jesus had to confront the people’s expectations while at the same time reshaping their desires. God was going to do something very unexpected.

The kingdom of God, after all, was not something that was going to be achieved by military force. Instead, a new reality invaded the world, bringing God’s presence in and through the work of Jesus himself. Or, to put it another way, God’s presence was returning to Earth. While I’m sure nobody would have objected to God’s presence, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the people thought they really wanted.

The same goes for us in the modern 21st-century. Our culture desires billionaire superheroes to bring innovative technology and scientific advancement, and we think this is going to actually save us from both ourselves and the evil that we encounter in our world. However, that hasn’t worked so far, and I really don’t think it’s going to work in the future.

Jesus is not a superhero that is here to solve all our problems. Instead, he is God’s presence that has come to confront evil and actually take the full force of that evil onto himself. This goes far deeper than merely solving problems. It actually cuts right to the core of who we are as individuals and as communities. The problem is that the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of each of us. Neither a superhero nor Google can save us from this reality.

Paul and the New Atheists

The death of Christopher Hitchens brought out some of the most extreme reactions I have seen in recent memory, and I think the trending on twitter for #godisnotgreat says it all. I won’t link to it because, frankly, I want to pretend it doesn’t exist, but many people decided to share their thoughts on Hitchens roasting in hell, quivering under God’s judgment, and so on. I would say, ‘use your imagination,’ but it won’t take much.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of empathy for Hitchens’ fans. For many, he was a source of inspiration, someone who helped them navigate the murky and difficult waters of life with eloquence, reason, and that wonderful British wit I always find so fun. That’s not to say I agreed with him on much, and I am not pretending to. Regardless, he was an extraordinary thinker and writer, and he will be missed by millions.

This brings me to Paul, Jesus, the New Testament, and twitter. Social media has become (or always was?) a cesspool for virulent, violent rhetoric focused against those who are perceived as enemies. And because it is never directly to one’s face that these things are said, people can say anything they want without immediate consequence. This is dangerous, as a lack of direct accountability means that our words, in all their power, can become ruthlessly damaging as we also experience a decrease in empathy. In other words, we experience less of what makes us human.

I found myself thinking about Paul and Jesus, in what they wrote and taught (respectively). They encountered plenty of opposition, and both could be very ‘direct’ when confronting their interlocutors. But here’s the catch: These debates were internal. Paul was dealing with Christian Jews, and Jesus was dealing with fellow Palestinian Jews. Yes, Paul lands some zingers, but he was chastising people that, according to him, knew better. Jesus acted as a prophet, in this regard, seeking to alter the people’s expectations of the Kingdom of God. Both were the most direct when rebuking their own.

One striking counter-example is particularly illuminating. Paul finds himself standing in front of the Areopagus in Athens, giving an account of his “foreign divinities” to pagan (in the technical sense) leaders. His tone and manner were very, very different. He was eloquent and relevant, quoting the Greek writers Epimenides of Crete and Aratus. His graciousness in Athens stands in striking contrast to his letter to the Galatian Christians, where he sounds much angrier and meaner.

Why is that significant? The Athenians weren’t followers of Jesus, nor were they Jewish. He had no reason to be corrective or condescending, and instead explained the way he saw the world while also respecting the culture. It seems that we Christians would do well to take this to heart. Our interactions with those outside of our faith will be far more helpful when they are gracious and compassionate. And when dealing with each other, love. Be direct, but love. And maybe don’t take things quite so personally. And call your mother every once in a while.

Questions, Part 1: Thecla, the Bible, and Women.

After watching the movie “Religulous” and cringing at the stupid answers most people gave Bill Maher, I got an idea for my blog: What questions do people have about the Bible, theology, and Christianity? I don’t have all the answers (actually, I find that I have very few), but I do have resources and love research. Here is the first series (they rarely come in singles) of question:

Autumn asked: Who is Thecla in the early church? Was she a real person? Did she really travel with Paul? What about other women in the early church?

Then she asked: How did the books of the Bible get into the cannon? What were the criteria? Oddly enough, these questions are related, and we will see fairly quickly how they intertwine.

Thecla, according to legend and myth, was a woman who, upon hearing a sermon preached by Paul (the great Apostle in the first century CE) about the virtues of chastity, became enthralled by his Gospel message to the point of obsession. This obsession led to the breakup of her engagement and irritated her mother, and she sought Paul himself – that she could learn under him and join him in his travels. Through a series of events that become increasingly strange (to the point that her mother tried to get her killed because she was preaching Paul’s Gospel – there are also rainstorms, a fire, a cave, hookers, and wild animals), she eventually gains Paul’s blessing to be a traveling preacher, much like himself.

You might be asking, at this point, where in the Bible all of this takes place: it doesn’t. In the second century, there was a book called the Acts of Paul which was intended to be similar to the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts, for short). In fact, there were lots of books supposedly about (and by) the Apostles describing them do all kinds of crazy things. We read about Thecla in the “Acts of Thecla,” which appears to have been part of the Acts of Paul.

It turns out that the Acts of Paul was fiction, written by an Asian bishop who had a man-crush on him (I’m not making this up – Tertullian wrote about this). The Acts of Paul, along with the Acts of Thecla and a number of other works that were circulating around various churches, were deemed “not Scripture.” Church leaders decided that the Acts of Paul had been poorly copied (ie, lots of errors made in the copying process), was irreconcilable with the Acts of the Apostles which was well known to be accurate, and was eventually shown to have been made up. Literally. The bishop in question lost his job over this.

This is where the whole “Bible and canon” thing comes into play. Various controversies forced church leaders to actually decide what writings they were going to accept as Scripture, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla were no exception. Too many works were being read and circulated that contained very strange things (far stranger than in the Bible, believe me), whose copies were poorly maintained or overly edited by the scribes doing the copying, or simply went against those works that had been circulating for a long time: like the Gospels, Acts, Romans, etc.

It was not a power play by the church, as some suggest, but rather a more organic process where the most respected works were used as a measure for the others. There were criteria: They had to have been written by an Apostle, had to have been copied accurately, etc. But it was not a way to solidify power, as the DaVinci Code seemed to think.

So where does this leave Thecla? She might have been a real person, but that is about all we can guess. I think it would be very unlikely that she travelled around with Paul and became a great preacher. That does not mean, oddly enough, that there were no women who played important roles in the early church – some of them even being leaders. This takes us to the next question that Autumn asked.

Consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. For the most part, especially after Jesus dies, his disciples (all male) hide, and John mentions that this was done out of fear. As it turns out, they were smart in being afraid. Their leader had just been executed because those in power decided that he was a threat, and as Jesus’ followers, they would be considered suspect. Peter and John run to the burial spot, but for the most part, the important men who were clearly part of Jesus’ inner circle are out of the picture. The big question here is: why?

In times of conflict (for the most part), women were generally safe to walk about in public. The men involved, and especially those identified as leaders, were not. They could be killed if they were found because they were specifically part of the conflict. Women were never leaders in the various insurrections, rebellions, and other bits of violence that took place in that time period. This is why we read about the disciples hiding in a locked room while the women come and go as they please.

But what happens in the book of Acts, when Saul is on his way to Damascus in chapter 9? Saul specifically goes to seek out the “men and women” who belong to this troublesome group. Within the ancient Middle Eastern context (and I suspect this would be largely true today, as well), the only way the women would be included as targets would be if they were also identified as leaders in the movement. While I don’t pretend that this is a conclusive proof of female leaders of early Christianity, it is a trend that ought not be overlooked.

Combine this with the subversive move by John, who describes women as being the first witnesses of the Resurrected Jesus – who then charges them to take the news to the disciples. In the cultural context, it would be stupid to do this. Everyone knew, and various pagan writers end up making fun of Christians for this, that if you want your story to be believable and valid, you have an upstanding man be the bearer of news. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. This, of course, gets turned upside down by John, and I think there is a very subtle message being made about gender roles here.

So much more can be said about this, and it gets complicated quickly, but Romans 16 is also wildly important for this discussion. Paul describes Phoebe as a deacon, and he mentions several other men and women that are important to the church – many in leadership roles. The big name, however, occurs in verse 7: Junia. While some have tried to argue (or just plain assumed) that Junia should be spelled Junias (which is a male name), there is simply no textual evidence. This is important because Paul makes a statement about her in relation to the Apostles.

Scholars argue over this one, but the phrase is often translated incorrectly: “They are well known to the Apostles,” as the ESV translates it, doesn’t adequately capture the meaning of the phrase. It should read (I will spare you the geeky details): “They are well known among the Apostles.” It is a phrase that is inclusive, indicating that Junia was an important leader in the early church.

A Teaser…

I looked at the week that had just begun, and I swear that the events and responsibilities on my calendar were procreating. They are like rabbits, and now I am frantically trying to figure out how it will all get done – an adhd person’s nightmare. But what if these two small, almost trivial, situations were somehow linked?

Something grows inside my chest, I think, like an alien trying desperately to pop-out in an iconic (and parodied) manner. Then again, perhaps I am being melodramatic. This is such an overused scenario, where someone feels this sense of angst, pursues its meaning, discovers their purpose, ignites passion, and then everyone else becomes excited about it for a week-and-a-half. Then an alien pops out of someone else’s chest and the cycle begins anew.

Maybe that is what I am frustrated with? Cyclical cliche, evangelical theodicy, the process of rediscovery without reformation, passion without transformation, blips on radars that disappear faster than my short-term memory, or short-term mission trips that lead us to give up our iphones and televisions for at least 72 hours after we get back – until something good is on or another killer app is approved by that arcane and mysterious entity called the “App Store.”

It’s too early for a beer.
Older posts Newer posts

© 2019 Tentatio

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑