Saturday, March 31, 2012

Red Letter Sayings of Jesus

If we want to know who Jesus was, and what he wanted (WWJD), we need to think about what he taught. The Fellows of The Jesus Seminar analyzed the sayings of Jesus from 1986 to 1993.  Their work  was published in The Five Gospels (Polebridge Press and Scribner). 76 scholars participated PUBLICLY in proposing, discussing, and voting, red, pink, gray, or black to indicate that a saying was definitely by Jesus, probably, possibly, or not said by Jesus. Bob Funk, who led this effort, said that he had always been fascinated by "red letter editions" of the New Testament, so he created his own.
Many criteria were used, building on what scholars like Bultmann and Norman Perrin (Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, 1967) had been doing for decades. (Bob always dreamed of updating Bultmann's great work shown here. Perrin shown right.) The scholars who did this work all would like to see it done again, by many more scholars. (All Biblical scholars, except the most extreme literalists, have their own opinions on what Jesus said and didn’t say. Most of them are too cowardly to give their opinions in public. Perrin avoided this problem by identifying themes such as "Kingdom of God" and then analyzing particular texts related to the theme.)

All of the sayings of Jesus voted “red” are given here -- the top 15 aphorisms and parables most likely to have been said by him:

Turn the other cheek                              Matthew 5:39
Give your coat and shirt                        Matthew 5:40
Congratulations to the poor                   Luke 6:20
Go a second mile                                Matthew 6:20
Love your enemies                                Luke 6:27b
Leaven                                                Luke 13:20-21
Emperor and God                                 Thomas 100:2b
Give to beggars                                     Matthew 5:42a
The Samaritan                                     Luke 10:30-35
Congratulations to those who hunger  Luke 6:21a
Congratulations to those who are sad  Luke 6:21b
The shrewd manager                             Luke 16:1-8a
The vineyard laborers                           Matthew 20:1-15
“Abba,” father                                      Luke ll:2b or Matthew 6:9b
The mustard seed                              Thomas 20:2-4

Sometimes the version in one gospel can be shown to be older than the saying in the others. The text of Thomas, not in our usual Bibles, is found on line. To understand the parables, one needs to strip them of the often moral or pious conclusions added later by others.

The original teachings were simple, and the references would be easily understood by first century Palestinian peasants. Turning the other cheek put a Roman soldier in a position to break a rule. Giving your shirt as well as your coat would leave you naked. Roman soldiers could not command anyone to carry something more than one mile. Leaven was disgusting and impure according to Jewish ritual law. The world obviously does not bless the poor, the hungry, or the sad. These teachings tend to turn upside down conventional thinking.

So what is a Christian? How would we recognize one? Are there any? Are there any churches worthy of his name? Next: What is missing from these teachings, and why?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Thinking about Jesus

As the week called “holy” approaches, I feel drawn to comment on the leader of those who call themselves “Christian.” There are many kinds of Christians. For years I have been a kind of Christian Atheist, fond of Jesus as an amazing human being, a teacher of wisdom who became a powerful symbol of many diverse things. For 40 years I have studied, meditated upon, and preached about and around Jesus, his teachings, and what has been made of him. The four gospels in the accepted canon and the many other gospels of the first and second centuries testify to the many ways there were and are to think of him. [see below about photo]

First of all, I do think there was a man Jesus as described in the gospels. This is a difficult statement to make. He wrote nothing and much of what was written about him was written years after his death, and much of that is suspect as history. Much of what he taught is pretty much straight Jewish teaching of the time (in the school of Hillel). If things had turned out a little differently, we (or Jews only) might be reading of Jesus in The Mishnah. Tomorrow I will share the top teachings of Jesus.

The first “history” about him is that he appeared at the River Jordan with John the Baptist, who  baptized him. This implies strongly that Jesus was first of all a disciple of John’s. The next historical incident is that Jesus assembled disciples around himself. From this act and his later teachings we can deduce that he broke away from John and had a new message that differed from John’s. John apparently had preached that “the world is ending soon. Repent, and be saved now!” Jesus seems to have decided that the world might continue, and that God wanted us to be saved in the present.

The code phrase here for being “saved” is “Kingdom of God.” Matthew changed this to “Kingdom of Heaven,” but that comports with Jesus asking that God’s “will be done on earth as in heaven.” I was shocked to learn about 15 years ago that the Greek word for “kingdom” was the same word used when we speak of “the Roman Empire.” This created for me the same kind of electrical shock that it must have had for folks in the first century when Jesus first used it. His “gospel” or good news was highly political: We need to live here and now as if God were in charge. The Romans are irrelevant. There are many books in recent years to explain this in detail.

Luke records that Jesus taught “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” [or “within” or “in your midst.”] This appears also in Thomas 3:  Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.”

Another way to understand “being saved” is to think of “being healed or made whole.” Many Jews speak of “healing the world.” Not so different.

Jesus was called “son of God.” This did not at first imply divinity. It was a term that meant “like God” or “son of Adam,” or “the Human one,” as Walter Wink described him. The Jesus Seminar scholars translated it: “this mother’s son.” He was also called “Messiah,” a Hebrew title which in Greek is “Christ.” This too, did not at first imply divinity, but merely a chosen leader. Those who are concerned about the divinity question must deal with Mark 10:18: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”

The most interesting book on Jesus I have read in recent years is by Paul Verhoeven, film director (Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Black Book) and very serious Bible student. Because of his work in film, which is highly influenced by his childhood in the Nazi occupied Netherlands, he looks for the drama in Jesus’ life. He asks, “What in the gospels strikes us as genuine human activity and response?”  I hope to write a review some time on his 2010 book, Jesus of Nazareth.

Photo of Jesus above: Starting with the assumption that Jesus resembled a typical peasant from 1st century CE Galilee, Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England, and his team of researchers: "started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time to determine the shape of the face, and color of eyes and skin." The result was a person with a broad peasant's face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Thought for Lent

For those who count on tomorrow
as for the fragile cherry blossom
tonight unexpected winds may blow.
Shinran Shoran

Shinran was a Buddhist Reformer of 13th century Japan. He thought that everyone ought to be able to access Enlightenment without the mediation of priests and monks. This is called True Pure Land Buddhism.

The statue of him to the right is in New York City on Riverside Drive north of 105th. What makes this statue awesome beyond its artistic value is the fact that it stood 1 mile from ground zero in Hiroshima. It was brought to New York in 1955.

I attended worship twice at the Jodo Shinshu temple in Sebastopol, CA when I lived near there ten years ago. Information about the temple and the Amida Buddhism it represents is found here. The temple was given to the congregation in Sonoma County by the Manchurian Railway Co. of Japan, which had it shipped from Chicago, where it had been the Japanese pavilion at the 1933 World's Fair. (!) Imagine the global politics involved in this since at the time the Japanese were raping China and Manchuria....

During WWII the temple was closed while its members were sent to internment camps. Young people in the area stood guard when there were threats to burn it down. A documentary was made about the temple and the young whites, called Leap of Faith: How Enmanji Temple Was Saved.

Count the unexpected winds that blew in this story.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"More from Mr. Maher"

My letter to the editor (Feb. 23) of the Chronicle of Glens Falls was never printed. There was a lot of local news and business activity that probably squeezed me out. (The other possible answer is that Mark Frost, the editor, didn't want to print any comments from someone happy to pay taxes.) I've written letters to newspapers before that were not printed, so life goes on. Then last week Mark expressed sadness at the passing of Andrew Breitbart. He seconded an opinion by Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist. Among other things, Goldberg detests the U.N. and argued vociferously for war against Iraq.

I would be polite not to say anything critical of the dead, but Breitbart  had no such scruples. Wikipedia reports that "In the hours immediately following Senator Ted Kennedy's death, Breitbart called Kennedy a 'villain', a 'duplicitous bastard', a 'prick'[13] and 'a special pile of human excrement'."[14][15] Breitbart is credited with bringing down Anthony Weiner (who brought about his own downfall) and ACORN (a very helpful group of community organizations), and for "smearing USDA official Shirley Sherrod with a video titled 'Proof NAACP Awards Racism'. Breitbart's video showed Sherrod speaking at a NAACP fundraising dinner in March 2010 in which she admitted to a racial reluctance to helping a white man get government aid." (The unedited video showed a very thoughtful person reflecting on how all of us get drawn into prejudice.)

Here is my letter to the Chronicle under the heading "More from Mr. Maher":

Dear Mark,

Regarding Jonah Goldberg’s comment about the perspective of Andrew Breitbart. “I have profound contempt for those on the right who claim a birthright to a monopoly on virtue and tolerance. I reject in the marrow of my bones the idea that liberals need to apologize for being liberal or that conservatives have any special authority to pronounce on the political decency an honesty of others.” The ease with which I can turn around his words shows how little dialogue there is in our political culture now. The only way I see to stop this is not to speak out of anger, to call out others politely, when I think that they presume a higher moral ground. We need to lower our voices and argue for our principles and opinions without insulting or debasing the other. I for one would like it if conservatives would stop using “liberal” or “socialist” as dirty words, and stop the untrue insults of our President.

Dennis Maher
Lake Luzerne

Maybe I am too subtle. I said "right" when Goldberg said "left" and "liberal" when he said "conservative." My point was that if such things can be switched like that, something is wrong. Such comments are merely unsubstantiated claims. We need to argue at greater length why we think that the other view is wrong and ours is correct.

This week Mark expresses regret that Congressman Chris Gibson will be running for the new New York 19th, removing him from our area. I still can't figure out how such a conservative as Mark came out of Wesleyan. I do wish that all of us could discuss issues on merits without making them so ideological. To do that even I would have to risk accepting that something I think I believe is wrong.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spiritual Wisdom from the Sphinx

I think all this talk of spirituality is way too serious. One of the things that comes to my mind when I hear talk of “spirituality” is the film Mystery Men (1999). The cast of superheros drawn from the 99% is terrific. Ben Stiller plays “Mr. Furious,” Janeane Garafalo is “the Bowler,” Paul Reubens is "the Spleen," and William H. Macy is “the Shoveler.” The evil genius is played by no less than Geoffrey Rush.  Wes Studi is filled with quiet stillness and the puzzling words of wisdom we expect from the spiritually wise.
“To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn,” he says. “He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”

One of the characters acts out and the Sphinx says to him: “You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums. You must be like wolf pack, not six-pack.”

As they train to face their evil opposites, he tells them "Learn to hide your strikes from your opponent and you'll more easily strike his hide." When they express their fears, he counsels “When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts” and “When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you.”

Mr. Furious responds, “Don’t you think that your words are a little formulaic?” The Sphinx says, “Until you learn to master your rage...” to which Mr. Furious interrupts and completes –  “your rage will become your master. Isn’t that what you were going to say?” Wisely and appropriately, Mr. Sphinx answers, “Not necessarily.”

So we have a lesson on how to speak wisely. I can do it, too, and so can you.

If you do not believe in God; God will not believe in you.

If you want to find the spirit, you must let the spirit find you.

If life is to have meaning, you must make meaning in your life.

If you follow your bliss, your bliss will follow you.

If you want to be spiritual in your religion, you must be religious about your spirituality.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

John Hick Dies – Myths and Metaphors Still Live

In 1977 I was an assistant pastor in Duluth Minnesota. A theological controversy arose that year when John Hick published a book of articles entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. This book introduced me to some British scholars in theology, philosophy, and Biblical studies. How else would I have known about Dennis Nineham, Michael Goulder, Maurice Wiles, and of course – Don Cupitt.

When the book came out I was asked to write a review of it for the presbytery newsletter. I was positive about the book and it ran along side a review of The Truth of God Incarnate, which came out quickly in response to the Hick volume. I noted then that “A book with a title such as this invites a quick, negative reaction....”

Odd that this book wasn’t radical by today’s measurements. I wrote then "The writers hope to help bring the verbal expression of the Christian faith into the 20th century. A 'myth,' says Maurice Wiles, is a 'poetic way of expressing the significance of Jesus for us.' Frances Young finds the many varieties of belief today and in our tradition to be a 'cloud of witnesses' to the truth of God which is beyon our words. Michael Goulder sees 'the growth of a community of self-giveing love (the church) as the basic thrust of the will of God in human history.' He explores the origin of the idea and language of the incarnation: how the original idea of a 'man approved by God' (Acts 2:22) was replaced by the idea of God-become-man. The language is found to be taken from the Roman emperor worship, an idea quite appropriate for the ancient and medieval world.

"Leslie Houlden notes that the original and more significant lanuage of experience ('I am justified by faith!') was overcome by the language of the creed. Don Cupitt speaks of the 'paganization of Christianity,' whereby devotion shifted from God to a man, a heresy no less than to speak of Mary as 'Mother of God.' Wiles gives a detailed analysis of the word 'myth' and its usage, and says 'What holds Christians together is not the same beliefs but the use of the same myths.' The editor speaks of myt as 'byperbole of the heart.'

"All contributors look for new ways to speak of the mystery of the incarnation; of the human ity of God and the divinity of all that is human. This task I affirm will rid the church of much confusion." Guess I haven't changed much.

Hick was mostly concerned with world religions. The authors were concerned that readers might think them too negative or destructive. Each proclaimed his faith, even Don Cupitt. That makes the book an interesting historical document showing a moment of time in the development of these philosophers and theologians. They were concerned then, as I have been for years, that we needed an upgrade of religious (and spiritual) language.

Hick was a Presbyterian in Britain, and when came to Claremont, he sought membership in San Gabriel Presbytery. He was advised to withdraw lest there be a huge floor fight. I remember that this non-event made the news as a threat to any progressive thinking in our Presbyterian family. Have I mentioned that by elevating education and learning, Calvin and the others who started the Presbyterian project, planted the seeds of its destruction?

The best obituary is, as we might expect, by John Dart.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

William Hamilton Is Dead with God

I have blogged a lot in my mind recently, but not here. I've been reading a lot. Today the title and the subject are difficult. I missed his death Feb. 28, but there are many comments on his obituaries in USA Today, the LA Times, and the NY Times. Most of the comments attached to these obits are the most ignorant, superstitious reactions I can imagine. I accept that Christian and Jewish myths make a comforting and meaningful reality for many people. It may be a given that anyone who believes anything will fear and lash out at anyone or anything that threatens their faith structure. No, William Hamilton won’t find out that there is a God. Nor do I think that he will he rot in hell. He did not think so: “Looking back, I wouldn’t have gone in any other direction. I faced all my worries and questions about death long ago.”

Easter, 1966, Time recognized with a classic magazine cover the work of Hamilton and Thomas J. Altizer (with quite a few others) in formulating “death of God theology”. The cover story reads rather well after nearly 50 years. This is personal for me, because I graduated college in ‘66. I was engaged to be married. My brother-in-law to be and friend died in a car accident in May. This contributed to my becoming a Christian over the next two years. The theology story receded in my life, but I continued to be attracted to the concept of “Christian Atheism.” Today I think that it best describes my beliefs.

Hamilton and Altizer wrote Radical Theology and the Death of God that year. (This book is available on line.) Reaction to the Time cover (remember, most everyone read it then) was swift and negative. “Your God may be dead, but ours is alive!” and similar sentiments appeared on church signboards everywhere. Few read the book. (I bought it but didn’t read it at the time.) Hamilton lost his job at Colgate-Rochester Seminary in Rochester, NY. I read that members of Third Presbyterian (now fairly progressive) shunned him and his family.

Hamilton died at 87. “The ‘death of God’ enabled me to understand the world,” he said. He became well known as an interpreter of Melville and Moby Dick. Ironically, he explored the death of God and America’s struggle with that emerging but hidden reality through this iconic novel.

We wouldn’t know enough about William Hamilton if Lloyd Steffan hadn’t written a helpful article in the Christian Century in 1989. What follows are Steffan’s words and quotes from Hamilton:

“For Hamilton, the nature of Jesus’ self-understanding remains beyond our historical reach. It is not the historical Jesus but the Christ of the kerygma whom Hamilton affirms, the Jesus ‘bringing the Kingdom, the new age, here and now into the midst of ordinary lives’ who shows us a ‘way to be human,’ who establishes a bond of comradeship, who draws us out of our private lives into the world, who provides us with a place to stand. ‘What he was is hidden; what he proclaimed, offered, defined, is not.’ Hamilton has repudiated God, not Jesus -- not the Christ of the kerygma.

 “‘Perhaps we should say that God became man so that man now no longer needs to become God or even to believe in him. Man may now cease striving for what he is not, making a monster of himself, so he can attend to becoming what he is.’ Hamilton’s Melville leaves behind the Christian God, for, as Ahab demonstrates in Moby Dick, that God is evil, perhaps mad, and a death-dealer that ought not to be worshiped.

“Hamilton continually challenges other Christians to come to grips with their experience of a godless world, world in which God is either absent altogether or present ii the worst way: in the selfish impulses and evil acts of small minds, so that God comes to represent in fanaticism and hatred death itself. Doing away with God may, Hamilton says, make us more bereft, but it may also make us ‘more human, more tentative, more able to live easily with both adversaries and friends.’”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Thoughts While Contemplating Christianity After Religion

In the Dune books there was an “Orange Bible” which conflated all of the wisdom texts of earlier faiths – and religions. Is this where we are headed?

In Star Trek (the original) I don’t think there is any “religion” or “faith” except as found in obscure or primitive-type societies. In Star Trek Next Generation such things have been long understood as emotive expressions of some sort of Jungian archetypes. The wisdom of past religions are remembered and respected. Are these places we are going?

I preached on the Jonestown mass suicide (1978) and later the Hale-Bopp comet as “Heaven’s Gate” suicide (1997). I remember saying that belief can lead us to dangerous places. It isn’t that we will believe this or that, but that we are capable of believing almost any crazy thing.

After my own experience of “the Spirit” as a young adult, after study of Christianity in seminary, after working in numerous congregations and religious institutions, after working with Jesus scholars, I wonder – why think at all any more about these fantastical things? No one pays me any more to do so. I have concluded that no one really knows much about the man, Jesus. The activities of early Christians are little known. There isn’t much there and there never was, except the Christ myth. Martin Kahler said this and I have hated him for it. Bultmann, and Barth, Bonhoeffer and Tillich understood it, but they did not enough with the insight.

This is becoming a sermon, so here is the message: Only we, the table, the bread and wine, and the cross as an instrument of execution by the powers are real. There is nothing else, except all that we think and create and make! [They are symbols that retain power, and will do so until they don't.]

A table is not just a table, it is a center for gathering round, and meeting the other face to face. Around a table perhaps more than anywhere else, we must encounter the other, hear the other, and speak to the other, hopefully without lying or guile, anger or violence. The table is the means for our being human.

Joe Haroutunian, teacher and friend of my teachers, said that "the Spirit" is not a supernatural being beyond and above us. Spirit is the way we speak of our interactions, what happens between and among us.  Similarly, Daniel Day Williams spoke this way of Spirit as the form of love. Robert Wuthnow reminds us that we acted for years as if Spirit needed a space (like a church). Jacques Derrida reminded us that Spirit is the maker of culture, the result of all our interacting. (Such interactions can be used to assemble power against the human – He was writing about how Heidegger came to serve Nazi culture and then would speak no more of “Spirit.”)

Bread and wine are all of the true things that sustain our lives, for there is labor and love in the making of bread and of wine. Sharing our labor and love, and bread and wine and other good food is the most important thing in life. (I don't think Twinkies and other junk count. See Ecclesiastes 2:24a; repeated elsewhere.)

Death is real. We can bear it with wisdom but not without pain when it comes to those we love.

The powers of this world and their weapons are real, too. They bring death unjustly. They must not be feared but should be pitied, for they understand only the accumulation of wealth and power and its expression in violence (often masquerading as something else). Their way is not to a better world or a better life, but ultimately to the end of their own humanity and of the human project itself.

Religion is always allied in some way to the powers and by extension to violence and death. (Hitchens was right.)

Spirituality is what people spin from contemplation of the really real. We should never mistake the spin for what is real, nor the real for mere things.