Archive for December, 2009

Not A Minute Too Soon

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Well, I sat and sat trying to think of a really thoughtful blog topic to end 2009 and start 2010.  I pondered my way through any number of mind numbing possibilities from quotes and commentary from the Desert Fathers/Mothers to the ever ready “lives of the Reformers” to “what’s wrong with the church anyway” to personal reflections on my life and how I want to do better in the future.  Thankfully both of us were saved from these less than worthwhile entries by a Facebook post from a friend/colleague.  He suggested I read an article and I spent the next ten minutes laughing. 

Call it desparate for an idea or call it finding a better way to end 2009 and start 2010.  Either way, it came and not a minute too soon.  The point is, I am grateaful that my sober, serious attempts at starting a new year were highjacked just in time in favor of a choice I find much more compelling and healthy.  Considering the great  unknown that faces all of us, the history yet unwritten that we will experience, the people, places, events and circumstances we will encounter, I am inviting you to begin 2010 with a sense of humor.  I have decided to laugh my way into the next decade.

So, in the spirit that gave Scrooge a new lease on life and made him a much nicer person to be around, I end 2009 by turning my blog over to Dave Barry.  May the New Year begin with a gut splitting laugh and a sense that no matter what 2010 holds for us, we will live it and, after all, living it is so much better than the alternative.

Happy New Year!

Prophecy and History

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth whom Christians believe to be Yeshua, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world.  They refer to Jesus’ birth as the Incarnation, meaning God became a person.  Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ for several reasons.  They speak about his sinless life, his miraculous ministry and his atoning death, but, most of all, they speak of his resurrection as the single most significant evidence for the claim that he is both Savior and Lord.

I would like to address another reason that gets less attention in our time but one that the early Christians thought was critical and compelling; Jesus was the Christ because the events of his life fulfilled prophecy.  At Christmas the issue of prophecy reemerges during Advent, the four weeks just prior to Christmas when Christians prepare themselves by rehearsing the events leading up to Jesus birth.  The narrative found in Matthew’s gospel carefully matches the events leading up to and following Jesus’ birth with the fulfillment of specific prophecies: Isaiah 7&9, Micah 5 and Jeremiah 31; however, the preferred birth narrative is found in chapter two of Luke’s gospel. Luke’s more particular and historically focused narrative was popularized and made more accessible when Linus quoted it to help Charlie Brown understand what Christmas was all about.


Taking Matthew’s prophetic emphasis and Luke’s historical focus into account, I would like to offer a brief observation about the relationship between prophecy and history, an observation that I believe is worth our attention in the coming year.

Prophecy can be both fore-telling and forth-telling.  In the instances I have listed above, I believe that prophecy is fore-telling, predicting, if you will, future events of great importance.  I would like to focus on the prediction from Micah 5:2 that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6) and the manner in which that prophecy was fulfilled (Luke 2:1-7).

MPTP: The historical conditions in which a prophecy will be fulfilled is seldom provided ahead of time but those conditions should not be ignored because they reveal something significant about the nature of the God who is both the source of the prophecy and its fulfillment.

Mary and Joseph were at the center of this story of fulfilled prophecy but that fact did not entitle them to a free pass.  They did not take a magic carpet ride to Bethlehem.  The narrative does not tell us that they prayerfully and carefully planned a family trip to Bethlehem in order to fulfill the prophecy regarding Jesus’ birth.  The narrative is clear.  Mary and Joseph were driven, even coerced to take that trip to Bethlehem by Caesar Augustus.  The Roman Empire created the historical conditions surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Mary and Joseph complied.                                      


The God of the Bible loves stories.  The God of this story did not circumvent history; He worked His purposes in it.  In doing so God affirmed that history has real meaning and purpose; therefore, so do the lives of people, all people.  Prophecy did not suspend history; it became a part of history.  The Christmas story tells us that God did not stop or suspend the world’s history in order for Jesus to be born; He proved its worth by entering it as one of us.  “And that’s what Christmas is about Charlie Brown.”

The Dangerous Idea

Thursday, December 17th, 2009


In 2007 Alister McGrath published a book entitled, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.  In actuality the book was not so much about Christianity’s dangerous idea as much as it was about Protestantism’s dangerous idea.  What was this dangerous idea?  All Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, and much like the Genesis command to “be fruitful, increase in number and fill the earth”, man, have we ever!  I would suggest to any doubters who are  interested in finding evidence of our prolific Protestant intrepretive bent that they visit the Yellow Pages for any major city and look under the heading “Churches”.  There you will find the cumulative results, per the latest edition, of our proclivity for interpreting the Bible for ourselves.  The scions of the 16th century Protestant revolution are now legion and, potentially, each new individual interpretation of the Bible is latent with the next edition of  the “true church”.

As a historian I make my living studying what has emerged on the scene since Luther, Calvin and the boys shook things up in the 16th century.  Let’s just say I never run out of study material.  This is particularly true of American Christianity where the faith has been forever democratized and exported.  So what do I offer in light of this dangerous idea run amuck, as some would say?   I would like to suggest that we keep in mind that interpretation should have some kind of framework, not a theological framework per se but more of a functional one.  I would like to suggest that we not equate interpretation with the Bible but that we equate interpretation with our understanding of the Bible.  There is the Bible…everything else is commentary (Midrash).  Interpretation starts with the Bible, but theology is what emerges from my attempt at understanding and communicating my understanding of the Bible.

My contribution to this dangerous idea pandemic would be the following eight guidelines for biblical interpretation: 

1) Every interpreter is a theologian,  the only question is whether I am a good one or a poor one.

 2) Interpretation is how I do theology and my theology is not the Bible.   There is the Bible and then there is my understanding of it.

3) My interpretation/theology provides me with a framework for approaching the Bible and influences the way I read and understand it.  

4) Interpretation/Theology is the ongoing business of every faith community; therefore it is never finished.  

5) My interpretation/theology is always autobiographical.  I am part of the interpretation process so interpretation is never a purely objective exercise.   

6) Interpretation/Theology means choosing and using my words carefully.  No language is exhaustive so neither is my communication about God.

7) Theology/Interpretation means holding my views and communicating them with charity and humility.

8) I should be aware of interpretive/theological horizons:  When I am reading and interpreting the Bible, how many other people are influencing the way I read and interpret it?

Happy Interpreting!

History and Entertainment

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

When my youngest daughter was six years old I was  racing to stay current with the latest Disney movie’s most recent heroine whose shoes, shirt, towel, bathing suit, shampoo, tooth paste and story book were being marketed.  There was Belle and the Beast, Ariel’s struggle with that really scary octopus woman from the deep, but the one I remember best was Pocahontas.   I remember this one the best because during a casual conversation with my daughter I forgot for a moment that she was six and that I was a dad and not a history professor.  We had just emerged from the grand showing of the new Pocahontas Disney extravaganza and my daughter was chattering on about the characters in the movie.  She was especially taken with Pocahontas’ love interest Captain John Smith.  Disney portrayed John Smith as a tall, dashing, studly, blond surfer/Fabio dude and my daughter was gaga over this guy.  He was ”just so cute!”  Well, I was obviously not thinking (lost my mind) when I launched into a description of the real, historical John Smith as a short, stout, older man with red hair and a beard who smoked and drank alot.  As I finshed this attempt to bring some historical accuracy to the conversation I noticed that there was total silence.  I looked over at my daughter and she was sitting there with lips quivering and a tear.  Oh, great!   In one fell swoop I ruined the movie for her and the rest of our day.  We did however buy the Pocahontas sandals.

I was reminded of a similar experience via an email correspondance in which a person was reflecting on the television series, The West Wing.  He was concerned about whether the series was being used to idealize parts of our political system.  I liked The  West Wing.  I liked the quick, witty script and I liked the actors and the characters they portrayed.  I consider myself a republican in the  more classical, political meaning of that term, but I liked Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the president.  Now this was a Democrat I could vote for.  The problem of course is that this was a made for television series, not the actual American political system at work.  Idealizing ideology just like idealizing historical figures is great for entertainment but we all know that it is no basis for interpreting life.  How do we know, because the History and Political section in Barnes and Nobles offers us information to balance the store’s DVD collection.  Whether we ever buy and read that information is another issue.

 History is like that.   In many ways, the actual story is better than any attempt by Hollywood to portray it, but, in terms of entertainment, history will always stuggle to compete with the movies.  There is a difference between life and idealized life.  We all know this of course but it does not mean that we like it.  My daughter would have been just fine if I had listened and nodded my head and left her to find out about the real John Smith on her own one day.  Part of growing up is finding out that life does not imitate the movies.  I have a grandson now and I’d like to think that I am not only older but wiser if the subject of Pocahontas ever comes up and he thinks that she looked like the babe in the movie.

Living “In-Between”

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

One of the problems with history is that we do not live it the way we study it.  We study it in fragments because it is not possible to study everything all at once.  We break history into manageable parts and then try and put the all the parts back together in a way that is true to what happened and, hopefully, in a way that makes sense.  But that’s not all.  The way we study history leaves us with the impression that life actually happens in fragments, that life is just one thing after another.  We get the impression that the way life happens is, ”this event happens and then that event happens” (repeat).  The cumulative effect of all these events is our life.   When in truth, we actually live life ”from this to that”.  You see, we spend the majority of our life living in the space between events.

I believe that the majority of life is spent in transition, living “in-between” the events that shape and define who we are.  In fact, these events are  significantly shaped and defined by the way we live “in-between”.  Our lives are shaped and defined by the choices we make while we are waiting for something to begin or for something to end.  This is not just true for our lives.  It is also true of organizations, institutions, civilizations and nations.  Everything is destined to be in transition because it is touched by the mortal nature of humans passing through this life .  The very notion of history tells us that everything is somewhere on the spectrum between beginning and ending.  Coming to terms with this reality can be painful but also liberating.

In other words, we all must come to terms with the fact that our life in this world is not eternal.  It matters, but it is not eternal.  Neither are the organizations, institutions, civilizations or nations that exist in our moment of history.  I think that this issue of transition is part of the problem being faced by those who want to find resolution for the modern/postmodern dilemma.  The problem is that we are somewhere on the transition spectrum between modern and postmodern.  We cannot be fully one or the other because we are still both; therefore, attempts to resolve this issue, to be done with it and move on, are premature.  We are impatient with the “in-between”.

So, if this is true and we are all in transition, maybe more than one transition, what do we do?  We become alive to the moment we are in and make what contributions we can to the people who share it with us.  We try to be discerning about where we are on the spectrum while living with integrity and speaking truthfully.  Stay open.  Be willing to risk.   Listen and be attentive.  Be a good observer of the places and people where you live.  Believe that the events that change the world for better or worse are shaped and defined by people living in transition, living from this to that.