Commentary Entries on Mark for working preacher.org

I’ve written four entries on the middle chapters of Mark’s gospel for the online preaching commentary workingpreacher.org.

You can find links to these, and my past entries there, at this link. 

Here is a snippet from one of them, on Mark 7:24-37 (The Syrophoenician woman):

This text suggests that we ask: whose are the marginalized voices today who are speaking truth to power? Where might God be active in a way that our power structures are unable to control or domesticate? As a white male and member of the academic establishment, I am not sure I have the right to answer such questions.

Many modern Christians may see this dynamic in Mark’s Gospel and move immediately to advocacy. We decide who is marginalized and provide a voice for them. We try to nibble around the edges by selling fair trade coffee or driving a Prius. These are not bad things, but they do very little. Mark’s Gospel testifies to the utter change enacted through a real encounter with those who are marginalized or excluded.

A profound example of this is provided to us through the life and work of a little-known Catholic Priest, Father Joseph Wresinski. He grew up in abject poverty in France. He started a group called the “Fourth World Movement” that seeks to eradicate poverty by brining together people from all walks of life. Father Joseph, in his book Blessed are You the Poor, seeks to uncover the radical nature of a gospel of encounter, especially through his own experience with persistent poverty. He claims that the gospel is much more than a text to be read. It is a place to experience those who have been “mutilated by extreme poverty,“ a land where I can go and meet with men and women familiar in speech and gestures and ever worthy of love” (13). This means that we can only get access to what he calls an “immeasurable grace” through the poor: “Only the very poor can obtain it for their more privileged fellow people.”

These are radical ideas, and certainly present certain theological problems. They are, however, exegetically defensible. They cut to the heart of Mark’s observation about God’s activity and the encounter of Jesus with the woman. The gospel is not just advocacy or social programs. It is encounter that changes.

These are radical ideas, and certainly present certain theological problems. They are, however, exegetically defensible. They cut to the heart of Mark’s observation about God’s activity and the encounter of Jesus with the woman. The gospel is not just advocacy or social programs. It is encounter that changes.

Upside Down in Istanbul

Warning: Blog Post containing person reflection ahead. . .

bosphoros
Me in 1996 with Istanbul in the background

My friend Greg Hillis is currently in Istanbul and I have been living vicariously through him and his pictures. When I was a junior in college, I was lucky enough to spend a semester abroad. Most of our time was in Greece and Italy, but we spent a week in Istanbul in between those other two iconic locations.

We visited the bazaar, where most of us bought 5 or 6 dollars worth of stuff, haggling over every last nickel. We also bought Turkish rugs, haggling over hundreds of dollars. We took a boat trip across the Bosphoros, and when we got off on the other side a sign said, “Welcome to Asia.” I didn’t stop to wonder why the sign was in English. Then there was the Baklava, the coffee, the apple tea, and other amazing victuals. I loved this city.

welcome to asia
The sign says it all. Two of my best friends (Nat in front; Chester on the right). Nat accompanies me ever few years to Greece on our study abroad trip called “Chiseling God.”

I was captivated by the call to prayer, with a tonality foreign to me and an impressive ubiquity in the city. Because I was such a nerd, I carried with me on that trip a small tape recorder (think how technology has changed!). Nikos Stavroulakis, our teacher (who now gives lectures to my own students when we visit Chania, Greece every few years) took me one evening to an odd corner of the city which he said had the best Muezzin. He was right. I recorded it. I remember wondering: what would happen in my hometown if every morning we all were awakened with a call to prayer? This was not just a religion I was experiencing, it was a culture. Such a connection had never occurred to me before.

I grew up in an evangelical, conservative protestant setting. Jesus was the only way to God. Other religions were condemned. Such beliefs are easy to hold when you’ve never encountered anyone from another religion, or been forced to think about the natural link between culture and religion. On this trip Greek Orthodoxy had already slapped me hard. Their way of practicing Christianity was drastically different from my own; it may as well have been a different religion. But now I was in Istanbul.

Then, Nikos took us deeper. He took my noob theology and shook it by the throat. We started visiting mosques. We hit the big ones, like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, but these feel as much like museums as they do places of worship. He also took us to neighborhood mosques. One in particular I will never forget. It was small, originally built as a Christian church, but otherwise nondescript. We removed our shoes and stood near the back. A man came in with his son. He was teaching him how to pray. He would demonstrate the proper way to bow down. The son would try to copy. The dad would correct. The son would try again. Intimate. Beautiful. Earnest. That was the moment my life shattered. I had always said that these people were going to hell. Now I asked: Are they going to hell just because they had the audacity to be born in a different part of the world than me?

I wrote about all this in my journal at some length, trying to square my upbringing with new experiences. I concluded with this: “This is all happening to me in Turkey. Mosques are neat, especially when they used to be churches. I’m messed.”

I’m still messed, trying to put back together the pieces. My journey led me eventually to Roman Catholicism, which has a much more expansive view of God than that which I had growing up. The document Nostra Aetate, from Vatican II, grounds the experience of those of other faiths in God’s providence and evident goodness. This document finds authentic religious impulse in other religions. It doesn’t answer all the questions for me, but the tradition is pretty good at embracing those very questions that do not have simple answers.

When I returned to Greece in 2012 with my own students, my old teacher, Nikos, talked to us about the importance of self-discovery, about finding ways to get a new perspective on your most cherished beliefs. Few things can do this better than travel. He coordinated this with the Tarot picture of “Le Pendu.” The Hanger. He hangs upside down by one foot. As Nikos wrote to me in an email: “As for ‘le Pendue’ he’s an interesting figure and of course all of us find ourselves in positions where we see things differently than when we stand on our two feet.”

Istanbul, a wonderful city with even better people, hung me upside down and I will never be able to see the world, or think about God, in the same way again.

12-pendu

Sea Monsters in the Bible: Can we Tell our Kids that the Bible contains Myth?

Last night (April 16,2015), I had the pleasure of delivering a lecture with a colleague in the Biology Department here at St. Ambrose University titled: “T-Rex vs. Leviathan: The Biology and Theology of Monsters.” I talked about sea monsters in the Bible, comparisons with the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, and how we see persistence of such mythology in apocalyptic literature, the New Testament, and on down to today. Dr. Aschliman discussed several recent discoveries about dinosaurs, and how we ought to think of them less as monsters than we traditionally have. There were many interesting things that I took away from this engagement between biology and theology, but I want to write a bit about just one
Dr. Aschliman spent some time talking about feathers on dinosaurs and how some discoveries have led to insights about their behavior. This is all further evidence to support the idea that today’s birds are descendants of dinosaurs. My two boys (ages 4 and 7) attended this event. What struck me is how much of this information we already knew because of the incredible literature that is out there about dinosaurs for kids. The extent to which recent dinosaur discoveries has infiltrated children’s literature is impressive, whether the PBS show Dinosaur Train, displays at our local science museum, or the myriad books we get at the library. We knew that Oviraptor was not actually stealing eggs, but probably protecting them. We had read about many dinosaurs with feathers and how they were used for regulation of body temperature and display. There were many nerdy details in this talk that were new, but the basic premises of cutting edge dinosaur research were well known to my 7-year-old son.
My question is this: why can’t we do the same with the Bible? Every single semester in my classes students freak out in a crisis of faith when confronted with the idea that Genesis 1 and its creation story are a myth. The same with the flood. The same when presented with discrepancies between the Gospel’s stories about Jesus. Bible stories are presented to our kids as historical fact. They grow up with that assumption, until jerk professors like me pop their bubble when asking them to think rationally about the literature they are reading. I see no reason why this should be the case. My son and I are reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He knows it is fantasy. He also is able to craft rudimentary interpretations about what the stories mean. At 7 he is capable of finding truth in myth. This is the very challenge that faces the Bible’s interpreters. Calling the Bible myth does not make it untrue; in fact, if we want to find its truth, we ought to read it according to the kind of literature it actually is. As Dei Verbum says: “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or other forms of discourse” (12). What would religious education, and adult lives of faith, look like if we infiltrated children’s literature and formation with the Bible’s reality, rather than facile assumptions about its historicity?

A Modern Day Psalm

I am a big fan of a band called The Decemberists. Their most recent album (“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World) has a song called 12/17/12. It is a lament for and reflection on the massacre of children at the grade school in Sandy Hook. The song’s instrumentation is sparse: guitar, drum, harmonica, harmonized vocals. What I find interesting about this song is its response to tragedy.
The song’s writer and the band’s lead singer, Colin Meloy does not avert his gaze from such a terrible event. The song starts with a personal point of view, a reflection on the closeness of his own children:

What a gift, what a gift you have given me
Here with my heart so whole while others may be grieving
I think of their grieving.
And oh my boy, don’t you know that I long for you
You are a breath of life and a light upon the water, a light upon the water.

The tragedy is refracted through the writer’s own experience of love and closeness. The second verse talks more explicitly about the violence and the longing left behind in the absence of those who were killed:

How I waste my days wishing you would come around,
just to have you around.

In the end, the poetry of this song chooses not to turn completely to skepticism and despair, but hold in juxtaposition the experiences of love and loss. And, in the end, to praise God for the world that God has made:

And oh my God, what a world you have made here.
What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.
What a world you have made here.

This leads me to think about the Psalms. The ability of this body of literature to express the full gamut of human emotions is amazing. Not all the Psalms are negative in orientation, but those we call the Psalms of lament plumb the depths of depression, violence, war, abandonment, love, hate, disease, tragedy, and loss. These laments do not leave the reader with only an expression of the negative. They almost always turn at the end to a disposition of praise or hope. The disjunction can often be jarring. Psalm 55, for example, is a personal lament of betrayal. The author says:

My heart is in anguish within me,
The terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
And horror overwhelms me.

While this lament goes on for quite some time, the Psalms does turn at the end to a perspective of praise and hope:

Cast your burden on the LORD,
And he will sustain you;
He will never permit
The righteous to be moved. (NRSV)

Our world is terrible and our world is beautiful. The challenge of faith, it seems to me, is to find some way to believe even while acknowledging all that is evil. The increasingly common reaction to our world today is the new atheism, which uses the violence and tragedy in our world as a way to disprove God’s existence. While this is understandable, for the examples of violence and suffering are unending, this is also the easy way out.
While it may not be intellectually defensible, nor make any sense at all, the person of faith looks out at the world and, in the same breath, says: “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”

Why does Pope Francis talk about the Devil so much?

Pope Francis has recently caused some people to scratch their heads over his comments about the real existence of the Devil. For example, on Sunday June 1, the Pope made a speech to over 50,000 people about the way the Devil wants to destroy the family: “Let us pray to the Lord and ask Him to protect the family in the crisis with which the Devil wants to destroy it.” (http://bit.ly/1rGTUis). On May 10, Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post had a long article exploring Francis’ frequent references to the Devil and some reaction to them within the Vatican (http://wapo.st/1j8bpti). Such views raise eyebrows in western culture, where personal autonomy, belief in free will, and a modern, scientific mindset all proscribe a personified evil being like Satan or the Devil. There are reasons, however, that I think we should consider why Pope Francis talks this way and the implications of it.

From a historical point of view, the idea of Satan or the Devil was, at one point in history, a theological innovation. For most of the history of Judaism, (and thus, most of the Hebrew Bible) there is no understanding of life after death like Christians think of today, let alone a personified evil personage that reigns over a place of torment like hell. A figure called Ha Satan in Hebrew does appear at the beginning of Job, for instance, but he is little more than a strange spiritual free agent, a trouble maker and meddler. I tell my students to think of him more like Doby the house elf from Harry Potter than Satan with a capital S.

The development of a personified evil figure arises within Jewish apocalypticism, a widely varied theological movement that starts somewhere around 350 BCE and develops in diverse ways over time. This apocalyptic worldview was very dualistic, dividing humanity into two groups: good and bad. Apocalypticists divided time into discrete ages. Such views led to reflection about the spiritual realm, resulting in a dualistic view of the spiritual world. This resulted in interest in demons, angels, and, eventually, the chieftains thereof. Within the Jewish tradition, the chief otherworldly adversary had a variety of names: Beliar, Devil, Satan, Mastema (these figures appear in Jewish apocalyptic texts like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament). Not all Jewish groups at the time were in favor of this type of theological innovation. Some, who were more traditional in their approach, rejected an idea of the afterlife, resurrection, and such dualism.

Apocalypticism is the mother of Christian Theology. The New Testament emerges from apocalyptic Judaism, and thus is infused with dualism, belief in the demonic, and its leader, the Devil or Satan (these two titles are used almost synonymously in the New Testament, and even appear in tandem in Revelation 12:9). In the gospels, for instance, Jesus and the disciples constantly face threats from demons (e.g., Mark 5:1-20). The apostle Paul also views the world apocalyptically, and sees Satan as operative in the world (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:18).

When we look back on this spiritual belief 2,000 years later, we can see that this was nothing more than an ancient mythology. With our modern sensibilities and scientific worldview, we might look back and demur. We no longer operate with such a mythology (although this is not true for some segments of evangelical Christianity, nor for some non-western cultures). Nevertheless, I think it is worth considering its merits for theological reasons.

First, we ought to note that this ancient apocalyptic worldview did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, such views of the world tend to arise in specific types of sociological situations, usually those where a community is enduring severe suffering and oppression. When under severe oppression, a dualistic view of the world and the spiritual realm becomes a powerful way of understanding the human condition. The “logic” behind it suggests that, even though a group is being severely oppressed in this life, there is a realm in which God really is in control, and the evil which is being imposed upon them will be thwarted, punished. The righteous who endure will then be rewarded. All theology is contextual, and in a context of suffering, dualism and a chief rival like Satan become a powerful way of framing the longed-for liberation.

I wonder, therefore, if Francis’ experiences at the margins of society might have had some impact on him in this regard. A dualistic view of the world and its concomitant spiritual realm make little sense to people living comfortable lives, scratching their heads when they read a tweet about Satan from @pontifex. For a severely marginalized community, however, the experience of evil is not their fault; it has been imposed on them. Sin and evil are not the aggregate of human wrong choices, but are bred into the structure of the world. In such a context, the concept of a “hamartiosphere,” (Gutierrez, borrowing the term from Ruiz, Theology of Liberation, p. 103) from liberation theology, becomes a powerful expression of the extent to which thing have gone awry and the deep need for liberation. In this view of the world, talk of Satan and his effects finds a legitimate home.

Second, in my own reading of Francis’ ministry, he seems particularly interested in a profile of God. He talks frequently about a God who is full of surprises, who is unpredictable, and that faith is a journey rather than signing in assent to a set of doctrines. In such a context, a radical view of Satan requires a radical view of God. The dualism inherent in such a view needs a God for victory. In fact, one of the criticisms of such a dualistic view is that humans become little more than bystanders in a cosmic drama. The myth about the origin of evil in 1 Enoch, for instance, which influenced the beginnings of Christian theology, is one where angels rebel from heaven and impose evil on a righteous segment of humanity. Evil is not their fault! Nor, then, is its alleviation. God must rouse and destroy the evil forces. In an apocalyptic worldview where Satan runs rampant, everything depends on God.

We should worry about what can happen when Christianity eschews any belief in dualism and an evil adversary. Throw out Satan and you can get rid of God, too. Christianity then becomes little more than self-maintenance, just an ethical system. Humans just need to make the right choices, buy the right self-help book, or listen to the right podcast, so that we can live in such a way that God will bless us.

The myth of Satan should terrify us, not because of what Satan might do, but because of what God might do. Pope Francis seems interested in change, whether doctrinal or procedural. We might see then, ironically through his statements about Satan, the theological foundation for his ministry. In a world where Satan is a real, operative force, our only hope will be to turn to a powerful God, one who moves, acts, prods, and changes hearts and minds.

This vision is fundamentally biblical and deeply embedded within the tradition of the church. It is also an ancient mythology. But so is any other paradigm through which we refract the inaccessible historical occurrences that lie behind the faith. When Francis talks about the devil or Satan, we best pay attention and consider what the world would look like if we took seriously an active God, fighting on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, moving to liberate them from the hamartiosphere in which they live.

Finding Jesus?

One of the questions in my doctoral comprehensive exams was about the importance (or lack thereof) of the historian’s reconstruction of the life of Jesus to the discipline of New Testament Theology.  At the time, I used this as a springboard simply to regurgitate the history of scholarly opinion on the subject.  I had little ability at that point to reflect and form an actual opinion. Close to ten years later I am more willing to dip my toe into that water, although with humility and the self-awareness that I might be headed in the wrong direction.

My thoughts right now are prompted by the documentary on CNN called “Finding Jesus.” I sarcastically tweeted that anyone who had been to Mass the previous Sunday did not need to find Jesus.  The quest for the historical Jesus is as old at the rise of scholarship.  But I am increasingly of the opinion that the so-called historical Jesus and its quest is wrong-headed.  (I say this with much trepidation, as there are many fine scholars and good people who do engage in this work, some of them who are involved in the CNN documentary.  I mean no disrespect as I explicate my own opinion.)

My basic problem with the focus on the historical Jesus is that it does not respect what scripture actually gives us.  The church chose not to engage in straight history from its earliest decades. Our earliest souce–the Apostle Paul–says essentially nothing about the “historical” Jesus.  The four gospels are interpretive and contextual and their aims were never primarily historical.  In my opinion, we ought to read and interpret these formulations of Jesus, not use them as reconstruction of what is behind them.  One of the potential problems with the historical search for Jesus is that to get there, one must chop up the gospels and use them as approximations of an historical occurrence. To paraphrase Luke Timothy Johnson in Commonweal: “You can have the truth about Jesus, but only at the cost of the truth of the Gospels.”

One way to say this is that to focus exclusively on the historical Jesus would be bad theology. Jesus certainly existed, and the basis of Christian faith is belief in his death and resurrection.  But the focus of the texts of scripture is not backward-looking, but rather forward: looking at how the experience of Jesus is real in the community of faith.  The historical Jesus doesn’t exist, because the “real” Jesus is the one who travels with the church, who causes our ears and hearts to burn like those disciples on the walk to Emmaus.  The real historical Jesus is the one who is present in the sacrament.

Of course we all want to know “what happened.”  The gospel, however, is more about “what is happening” and “what will happen.”  The texts of scripture are focused on God in the world and how God is pulling us into a future that is often against our will.  An undue focus on what happened might cause us to get caught looking in the wrong direction.