Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Highly Illogical

March 27, 2020

Sometimes it’s the little things that are inspiring and surprising.

As a casual Trekkie and somewhat more than casual admirer of J.R.R. Tolkien, I found a curious blending of the two a few years ago after the Star Trek movie reboot.  Namely, a very delightful if slightly corny Audi commercial starring the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and his reboot alter-ego, Zachary Quinto.  It’s a cute commercial but I never understood the song Nimoy was singing.  I thought it was just a nonsensical sort of thing to compare his outdatedness with Quinto’s more with-it persona and car.

Now I find out  there’s a history to what Nimoy is singing about Bilbo Baggins.  A history that goes all the way back to 1967 when Nimoy, in addition to starring in a new series called Star Trek, was releasing musical albums.  Two at this point.  And he sang this original song called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins on one of his albums, and then lip-synced it for a campy TV show during the summer of 1967.

Mind blown.  I respect the Audi commercial even more now for their attention to detail – even a detail many would miss!

 

On Considering Death

March 25, 2020

Thanks to Jo Anne for sharing the following C.S. Lewis quote:

“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

As I began verifying the quote it was quickly apparent it has received a lot of Internet attention in the past several weeks.  Many people are rushing to caution against interpreting C.S. Lewis incorrectly and thinking he would encourage us to not take precautions against COVID-19.  How quickly we want to interpret things to support our point of view or discourage competing views!

Rather than go this direction, I’ll offer this observation.  Lewis lived in a time when mortality was a much more real thing.  Not that people have ceased dying since the mind-20th century, but certainly our familiarity with death has continued that drastic decrease already underway in Lewis’ day.  As he points out aptly from history, death has long been an all-too-familiar companion to vast majorities of people.  Glancing through history books where the sweep of empires roils back and forth through the pages should give ample evidence death was more common and more brutal than we are accustomed to thinking of it these days.  Lewis himself served in World War I and lived through World War II.  He understood firsthand what it looks like when millions of people suddenly encounter death.

Now, death is an anomaly in the West.  At least death before a certain age.  Now we presume death is something primarily for the unfortunate few with pre-existing conditions or for the elderly.  We hide death away in sanitized rooms with strict visiting hours and palliative care to mask the reality of death for those who would prefer not to face it head on.  The ever-increasing average life span in the last century has lulled many people into a false confidence that death may – for now – be an unfortunate eventuality, but  we need pay it little mind until we are of a certain age.

Frankly our secular culture demands this.  If there is nothing more to life and existence than a random assemblage of atoms for an infinitesimally small period of time and then nothing but a rather swift dissipation, then this life becomes extraordinarily important.  Ironic, as we insist life is random and without meaning that we should cling to it all the more tightly!  Yet this is who we are.  Enlightened materialists unable to cope with the cold reality of the meaninglessness we have clothed our lives in, yet scoffing at the foolish theists who insist on the nobility and meaning and purpose of our bare, unadorned nakedness.  It is not what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning, they dare to say, but simply that we are.  Silliness, of course.  And our culture returns to ignoring death as long as possible, studiously occupying ourselves with any number of equally unimportant and random details.

Lewis holds a far more realistic point of view, which is that life is desperately unpredictable despite our attempts to make it predictable.  None of our advances have changed this reality but, given a broader range of alleged understanding we pretend our information is somehow power.  And it isn’t that we don’t have some power.  Anti-biotics and better understandings of hygiene have greatly improved both quality and length of life, as have advances in dentistry, surgery, and a host of other -ies.  But it only takes another global conflict of the micro-biological (COVID-19) or macro-biological sort (warfare) to remind us how easily our routines and control is upended.

Another important thing to bear in mind when reading Lewis’ quote is that he is speaking to Christians.  His words make no sense (or have no basis for making sense) to a non-theist.  Only the Christian can truly live this life in confidence and hope and joy, knowing that death is an unpleasant passage to something much grander and larger and better.  The Christian should not despise this life, but they should hold it in the proper relationship to the scope of eternity – if that is possible.  So we exhort the living continually and mourn the dead in Christ for a time.  We acknowledge our mortality with an even eye and a steady hand, neither rushing towards it prematurely nor fleeing from it inordinately.

This allows the Christian to be brave and courageous, and to take risks for the sake of loving our neighbor that may be admirable to non-theists but must ultimately  be (in their eyes) the height of folly.  So it is that Christians have always laid their lives down in service to those in need when nobody else was willing to take the risk.  Christians have died with the victims of plague and casualties of war they tended to, just as their patients died.  Their courage and love has been often noted, and hopefully will be emulated today and for as long as we wait for our Lord’s return.

So don’t be too quick to co-opt Lewis’ words to either disparage precautions against contagion or to summon Christians to adherence to social distancing.  Rather, in Christ may his followers live this day in joy, loving God and neighbor as we are given opportunity to do so and without too much over-calculating of the possible costs.  All of the costs have ultimately already been paid for us by Christ.  Let us love our neighbors who insist on safe distances between us and them, but let us be the first to show love and care for those who do not have that luxury.  We are all of us in the Father’s hands.  What more could we ask for?

 

 

Apocrypha – 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika)

March 25, 2020

Likely authored towards the  end of the third century BC or early second century BC by an Egyptian Jew, 3 Maccabees deals primarily with the efforts of Ptolemy IV to overthrow the Jewish people and God’s defense of his people.  Thus the traditional title is confusing because it deals with events which occurred well  before the rise of the Maccabees. The more ancient title of Ptolemaika makes more sense since the main character described is Ptolemy IV Philopator.  Because it does not appear to have been authored in Hebrew or by a recognized prophet it has remained outside the Biblical canon despite the Roman Catholic decision to include it based on the Apostolic Canons.  These  were believed to have apostolic authority although that is no longer believed to be the case by many scholars.

The book begins in mid-thought, as though it were originally part of a larger work or the introduction to this work has been lost.  The historical events in the broad sense are true and accurate though this writing attributes divine and angelic elements to those events which sound as though they are exaggeration or embellishment, though of course it is possible they are true as well.

Again, this seems an unreliable text even as it deals with actual events.

Apocrypha – 2 Esdras

March 24, 2020

Another apocryphal writing claiming authorship by the Old Testament figure Ezra.  This, like 1 Esdras, contains historical errors which make this almost impossible, such as claiming (in 1:40) the advent of the Biblical prophet Malachi (who dates to roughly 430 BC) even though the book claims to be written by Ezra in the neighborhood of 574 BC.  The Jewish people did not view this book as canonical, and I think we are right to treat it similarly.  Many scholars argue this book was likely written in the late first century AD, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  If this is the case, the author is projecting back to the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in light of the second destruction by the Romans.

The book itself is primarily a recounting of a series of visions and angelic visitations attributed to Ezra.  As such, the genre of the book is most accurately apocalyptic, having to do with end times and seeking in large measure to answer the question of why so many people apparently will not be saved.  It affirms the bodily resurrection of the dead (1:23, 31) and also seems to refer to the Messiah (2:41).

An angel by the name of Uriel is the primary messenger to Ezra, providing him with a series of seven visions designed to grant Ezra comfort and a modicum of understanding as to how and why God does things they way he does.  Those who reject God are condemned and those who suffer as God’s people are encouraged to maintain strength and hope as their trust will be vindicated.

Apocrypha – 1 Esdras

March 23, 2020

With this entry in my Apocrypha posting series, we move from those books associated with Western Christianity to apocryphal writings more prevalent in other Christian  traditions and Judaism.  Again, these are generally not accepted as canonical – on the same level as the books of the Old and New Testaments, but various groups at various times have either included them alongside the canonical Scriptures or even included them with them.

1 Esdras purports to be written either by the Old Testament prophet Ezra or a near-contemporary of his, providing specific details about Ezra’s work in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple in the late 6th and early 5th centuries.  It draws heavily on Old Testament passages from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  However it also has several direct contradictions of Biblical passages in Haggai and Esther.  The author undoubtedly did not intend harm in their retelling and reworking of the Biblical accounts, but we should treat it as such, rather than a work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The book details the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It begins briefly with the timeframe directly before the fall of Jerusalem and then leaps to the time of Cyrus the Persian and the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild.  As with other apocryphal writings it expands greatly on the Biblical material, purporting to record specific prayers and exchanges between Biblical and extra-biblical figures.  One such example is an extended section detailing a competition between three bodyguards of King Darius of the Persians, with each describing what they think the strongest thing in the world is.  One claims wine, another the king, and the third women.  The latter position, voiced by Zerubbabel (who cheats and also includes truth as the alternate, strongest thing) is judged the winner.

The work concludes with Ezra’s reading of the Law to God’s people.  Again, an interesting book to some degree but certainly not as reliable as the Old Testament canon.

Holy Communion and COVID-19

March 21, 2020

As previously noted, our congregation is suspending corporate worship for the time being.  I make this decision only because I am specifically ordered to by the civil authority and because I do  not sense in this order any intention to suppress God’s people gathering together as God’s people, but only a desire to temporarily avoid gatherings that might spread infection.

This necessitates I as a pastor and my congregational leadership and members thinking about how we carry on as the body of Christ in this time.  I’ve intentionally refused to livestream or record worship services to  post  on Facebook or YouTube because  the sermon I deliver each Sunday is for my congregation.  People that by and large I know fairly well, and who know me.  When we speak to each other, we speak in the context of that relationship and trust, and the sermon is no different.  What I say to them and how I say it to them is in part conditioned by my relationship to them.

Therefore, for someone not part of our immediate community of faith to listen in could be problematic.  Without the relationship and trust, they don’t know how to hear properly what I’m saying.  This isn’t  their fault – at a very real level the words aren’t for them.  They’re for my people.  The Word of God is for everyone, to be sure. But a sermon as an explication and application of  the Word of God has to be crafted and fashioned with a hearer in mind.  Paul’s message to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17) would hardly have been appropriate to hearers in Jerusalem.

So I’ve maintained for a long time that if we’re going to post things online, they need to be designed for digestion online, by a community I cannot know, and that cannot know me.  The message has to be focused on the Word as it might apply to anyone, rather than the Word as it applies to my small flock of regular hearers.

Enter COVID-19.

Now we’re scrambling to find ways to allow our members to receive the Word of God in a sermon (as well as Bible studies and other things).  We’re going to experiment with livestreaming to our very small congregational group on Facebook tomorrow.  We’re also  arranging for  a phone-in, conference-call type solution for our many members without access to  either Facebook or the Internet.

But one question remains – what about Holy Communion?

Well, that’s going to have to wait.

While there have been efforts made over time to figure  out how to bring Communion to people  when they cannot gather for it together, those solutions are problematic to varying degrees.  Either they end up breaching the very reasons we aren’t gathering together in the first place (the possible spread  of infection) or they somehow alter what happens in Holy Communion.  Our denominational leadership prepared a brief statement indicating why some of these practices are problematic and to be avoided, while reminding us that for centuries, Holy Communion was an infrequently celebrated event.  We receive God’s grace and forgiveness daily, and while we should not willingly despise or avoid Holy Communion, when we must forego it for a period of time it does  not damage us spiritually, even though we might long to partake in it.

For now, patience.  And prayer that this outbreak will subside quickly and we can once again gather as the body of Christ to receive his good gifts to us in Word AND Sacrament.

 

ANF – Justin on the Sole Government of God

March 17, 2020

Another disputed writing of Justin Martyr in the second century, but one certainly in keeping with the other disputed works I’ve already reviewed.

This treatise is aimed at directing his Greek readers and hearers to monotheism utilizing the sayings and teachings of Greek writers.  He calls on Aeschylus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Euripides, Menander and others, citing them directly as they make statements pertaining to the singular nature of God.

Justin’s point is that Greek polytheism is antithetical to Greek writers themselves.  He is not dealing with Trinitarian issues nor should this treatise be intepreted somehow as an argument against Trinitarianism.  There is a fundamental difference between worshiping multiple, separate and unique deities (polytheism) and worshiping one single God (Deuteronomy 6:4) who is comprised of three distinct aspects or persons bound together in divine unity (John 10:30).

Once again Justin does and admirable job of apologetics by marshaling the respected voices of Greek culture in defense of Biblical monotheism.  He does not spend much time pushing for the Biblical identity of this singular god, content more with pointing out that Christian monotheism should in no way be rejected as baseless when the Greeks themselves revere writers of their own who reached the same conclusions.

ANF – The Discourse to the Greeks

March 13, 2020

I’ve been bogged down for months now trying to slog my way through Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.  More accurately, I’ve been avoiding slogging my way through it.  At last I’ve convinced myself to skip over and come back to it, as it’s really a small book in it’s own right.  As such, I moved on to far briefer work of Justin’s, The Discourse to the Greeks.

This is an extremely short work wherein Justin argues that Christians should not be criticized for holding their beliefs because, compared to Greek mythology, the Christian God is far more noble and non-contradictory.  This is a theme he will take up again at more length in Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks, which will be reviewed next.  Here he doesn’t bother to quote Greek poets or prophets but simply points to well known Greek myths – which are supposedly held by the Greeks to all be true – and recounts the abominable traits and behaviors of the gods/goddesses, boiling down in most cases to a complete lack of self-restraint.  Far from being the rulers of all things, the Greek deities are rather completely ruled by their emotions, acting unpredictably, capriciously, viciously and dishonestly.  He also criticizes the female Greek goddesses for acting too masculine and the male Greek gods for acting too effeminate at times.

He briefly contrasts the Christian faith and the Biblical writings, which are both instruction in and (in Christ) demonstration of perfect mastery of one’s passions and desires soas to live a holy life.  Rather than inflaming or justifying our base emotions and impulses, Scripture rightly identifies the wrong indulging of these things as harmful and sinful, something in line with Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who nonetheless, in order to avoid the fate of Socrates were careful to pay lip service to the deities who were flagrant contradictions of the values they sought to elucidate and instill.

This apologetic can still be useful today.

SETI@Home Alone

March 5, 2020

1999.

The war in the Balkans is still raging.  The Euro is introduced to Europe.  Napster is released.

Clinton is acquitted of perjury charges in regards to his relationship with an intern.

Spongebob is released.

The Columbine High School massacre occurs.

Internet Explorer version 5 is the current one, and fears about Y2K are ramping up.

The Matrix and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are both released.

And an experiment in massively distributed computing possibilities is launched.  SETI@home aims to utilize spare computing cycles on dormant, Internet-connected computers to analyze data in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.  It isn’t the first experiment in massive distributed computing, but it’s perhaps the best known and longest running.  And as of March 31 it is being put on hiatus as researchers have so much backlogged data they need to analyze.

I never downloaded the software to participate.  Even then I was skeptical of other people using my computer in one way or another, a skepticism that has only grown and intensified as such intrusiveness becomes the norm rather than the well-intentioned exception.  But I remember thinking it seemed like a good use of all those PCs out there and our increasing bandwidth capabilities.

Did any of you participate in this?

 

Apocrypha: 1 Maccabees

January 9, 2020

This is perhaps one of the  most  useful apocryphal writings I’ve read thus far.  It provides practical, detailed historical information for changes in the Holy Land in the centuries between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus.  It is not considered canonical for several reasons, the most  obvious one being the Jewish people did not consider it canonical.  It was authored sometime after 134 BC and written in Greek rather than Hebrew, which many consider reason to rule it out of canonical status as an Old Testament book.  The apostles and Jesus do not refer to this book either.  St. Jerome and others assert Flavius Josephus as the author but there is considerable skepticism of this claim.

As a historian, the overall  arch of these events has been known to me for years, but it was wonderful to finally read the actual material itself.  It goes into great detail, outlining multiple battles with multiple different powers and personalities.  It is bound together by the figure of Mattathias and his sons – John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar (to a lesser extent) and Jonathan.  We are witness to the initial interactions between God’s people and the Roman Empire – a relationship that would prove fateful for the next several hundred years.  We hear about the institution of what we know today as Hanukkah as well as several other festivals that don’t appear to be observed any longer.

This is definitely a worthwhile read as a historical document.  Certainly it has value as such whether or not it is considered canonical, and I have no difficulty seeing how this could be a valued part of Hebrew history without being given canonical status in the Old Testament.  Theologically it demonstrates powerful faith in God against overwhelming odds, and details in very straightforward, non-theological terms how God miraculously enabled his people  to triumph against far more numerous and powerful enemies.