Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Apocrypha: Tobit

November 11, 2019

I’m staking my claim here and now: in the unlikely event I ever form a band, its name will be Tobit’s Dog.

The dog is one of the more fascinating elements of this apocryphal book, the more so because of the superfluousness of his presence.  He’s mentioned only twice in the book – as a journey is undertaken and then again as it is completed.  Some suggest the dog is an angel, an answer to a father’s prayer for angelic companionship and protection for his son and his fellow traveler (5:17).  If this is the intended meaning, it is not without irony that this angelic canine is all but ignored and invisible to everyone in the story but the reader/hearer.

Tobit is basically a story about a young man (Tobias) who undertakes a journey at his father’s (Tobit) request, to retrieve a sum of money Tobit entrusted to a friend earlier.  Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the angel Raphael, though Tobias and everyone else but the reader/hearer is unaware of this identity until towards the end of the story.   Along the way, Tobias acquires a wife, dispels a demon, and finally upon return provides a curative for Tobit’s blindness.

But frankly, the dog is the most curious part of the story.

This story is not well constructed or well told.  It lacks the tight narrative style of Ruth.  It is interspersed with moral exhortations clearly contradicted (in the temporal sense) by the actual story itself.  Tobit is a minor character with superhuman holiness – which is rewarded only by blindness, poverty, and suffering.  This despite repeated claims throughout the story that God rewards his faithful and preserves them from all harm.  And while this is shown to be true in the end, I doubt many people would consider eight years of blindness much of a divine reward.

Characters are perfunctory and one-dimensional.  Events are laid out in barebones fashion without any sense of real drama or uncertainty.  There is little to nothing in this story that links it to anything else in the Old Testament, and worse still, there are aspects to it that stand in contradiction to the rest of the Old Testament (such as Raphael’s ‘magical’ solution to driving a demon away).  As a moral tale, it is flat and uninteresting despite  the possibility of a great deal of good dramatic (or even darkly comedic) circumstances.

Frankly I don’t see the point in recommending this as reading to someone, let alone debating whether it should be a part of the Biblical canon.  While there’s the potential for  harm here (magical solutions, curious portrayals of angels and demons, etc.), it offers nothing not better conveyed by other books of the Old Testament.  It echoes Job and Ruth and other stories in Scripture but in a far reduced capacity and beauty.

This book was treated as canonical by Christians as early as the 4th century and confirmed in that status by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  However the Jewish people do not acknowledge it as part of their Scriptures (the Old Testament).  It is presumed to have been written not much earlier than the 3rd century BC, and perhaps as late as the close of the 2nd century BC.

But that dog.  That dog is a curiosity!

 

ANF – First Apology of Justin Martyr

October 3, 2019

This is the longest of the Ante-Nicene Fathers I’ve encountered so far, but also in many ways the richest.  He writes to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in the early or mid 2nd century, asking for their understanding and a change in their treatment of Christians.  He makes his defense for Christians on several fronts, becoming our first apologetic resource preserved for such a long period of time.

He argues that Christians at worst should be considered foolish or silly for their beliefs, inasmuch as their beliefs and corresponding behaviors in no way violate Roman laws of conduct or otherwise cause problems for the Empire, but rather are actually models of good conduct.  They ideally should be respected as such, but Justin knows this is probably a stretch.

He argues that if the Christians are to be evaluated philosophically or theologically for their beliefs in terms of  whether or not this would merit persecution, this would be a considerably unfair  standard applied to no other religion in the Empire.  The incredulity of the Christian claims are certainly no crazier than many of the Greek/Roman myths which so many people espouse at least a formal belief in!

He spends a great deal of time quoting from the Old Testament to show how the events of the life of Christ were prophesied.  He then spends time quoting from the Old Testament to show how many of the Greek and Roman myths were actually derivative (knowingly or otherwise) from the writings of Moses.

It struck me that Justin assumes his readers/hearers will take  his claims seriously.  In other words, he presumes they espouse at least a surface level belief in divinity and prophesy, and that they could easily ascertain for themselves whether or not the works from the Old Testament he cites actually do predate Greek and Roman myths.  This is fascinating to me, living in a day and age where the prevailing assumption is increasingly against any sort of personal divinity, against the concept of specific, verifiable prophecy, and against the idea that Scripture is anywhere nearly as old as it appears or purports to be.

It’s hard to imagine how different the apologetic task would be if these three assumptions were still in place today.  To be able to take people to the Word and allow it to speak to them instead of having to first clear away all the false ideas and erroneous understandings regarding the reliability and age of the texts!  But even then, many of the people I speak with about the faith presume there is no absolute truth, that any god will do – or none at all.

At the end of his defense he includes quotes from several people, each claiming Christians should be treated more equitably.  Most of these are considered spurious – imaginative religious fiction which Justin might not have known as such.  The one most likely to be authentic is a letter from Emperor Antonine’s father, Hadrian, indicating that Christians should not be subject to persecution or legal actions against them unless they are indeed guilty of breaking Roman law.

Say What?

October 1, 2019

I know, I’m no scientist.  It’s been a long time since I sat through a biology class.  So this article caught my attention.  Three sexes?  What does that mean?

I read the article the one above was referencing and it provided no further elaboration of this.  It does, however, mention the discover of one species of nematode with three sexes more prominently/earlier in the press release than the article above.  I’m assuming what they’re referring to is this species has three chromosomal sexes – not just the XY of male or XX of female.  According to this site, there can be chromosomal variations on these two typical genetic sexes.  This site does a better job of a more in-depth explanation of what variations in chromosomal sex means.

What the original articles don’t clarify is whether or not all the studied samples of this one species of nematode have three sexes, or they happened to notice it in one of the samples.  Since some of the variations on XY or XX chromosomal sexes mentioned in the Quora article lead to diminished physical, intellectual, or reproductive capabilities, are these similar situations in other species?

Lots of questions without many good answers yet, which makes it all the more curious that the three-sexes issue takes top billing in the headlines.  At the very least, it says something about what catches people’s eyes these days.  I’m sure a headline heralding Eight New Nematode Species Discovered! wouldn’t garner much attention!

 

Book Review: A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World

September 9, 2019

A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World by Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller

I ordered this thinking it was a spin on Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s, perhaps updated a bit, or some other form of martyrology.  It is not.  There are accounts of five martyrs in the book, the most recent being the third century and the oldest being the account of St. Stephen in Acts 7.  Although it is billed as a starting theological text for the curious, it is really more of a devotional.  Around the unifying theme of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, each section begins with the account of a martyr and then contains several short devotionals or homilies.

They’re probably very good.

But I’m not very good at reading them.  It’s a default in my character, that very rarely will a devotional from someone else stir me.  I’m grateful that they exist, aware that a great many people – perhaps everyone else but me – really enjoys them and gets a lot out of them.  I don’t.

So I’m not going to evaluate this book.  The devotionals I did read (the first 4-5) were very fine.  They are theologically oriented, asking the reader to consider various theological aspects of the parable of the sower.  And it is well-grounded in Lutheran theology.   Lord knows we all need more inspiration and grounding in our lives of faith, and this may be a wonderful resource for you.

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

Book Review: The Best We Could Do

July 8, 2019

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir  by Thi Bui

I received my first graphic novel in late high school or early college, a gift from my best friend.  As a literature junky, I found it interesting, but difficult to consider it literature.  The artwork was good, the story was interesting, but it felt too compacted, too  sparse.

My interest in Vietnam and it’s history began years ago when I was tasked with taking over teaching a course on the Vietnam conflict from a fellow faculty  member.  I did a lot of reading and grew fascinated by the curious role of this country in the larger Cold War maneuverings of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  During seminary the field work congregation I served was in the process of attempting to merge with a Vietnamese Lutheran congregation, and I was able to spend time with the several Vietnamese families, second generation folks who came over when their parents fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Then in 2016 my wife and I were privileged to visit the country on business and pleasure purposes, and it deepened my appreciation of the beauty of the country and people as well as the complexity of their history, of which the US was only a very small part.

And Vietnamese cuisine is amazing – something that has been on my radar for  the last 20+ years!

So this book was a mixture of interests, memories, and impressions.  While I think it’s a great work, I still don’t know what to make of the graphic novel format.  If I don’t try to think of it as literature, but its own unique  thing, it’s much simpler.  Thi Bui tells a wonderful and at times overwhelming family story, and does so in a way that is compelling both visually and textually.  It is not an easy story, and she doesn’t attempt to reduce it to one, but rather to find a way to live with and in the complexity that is her family and her two countries.

If you’re interested in memoirs, family dynamics, Vietnam or history, this is a very worthwhile read.

 

Voluntary Book Burnings

July 3, 2019

I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury, and while I’m  not sure I would agree that his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451 is his best work (or at least my favorite), it is hugely influential culturally for good reason.  But his warning against autocratic suppression and elimination of undesirable literature and eventually all books assumes the idea that such policies will be implemented by a hostile governing authority under rule of law.

I agree with Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that such warnings as Bradbury’s and George Orwell were good in inoculating us against fascism and communism, but powerless to prepare us for a reality where people  are primed primarily to amass unrelated trivia facts and focus on non-stop self-entertainment.  Rather, we should have also been pushed more  to consider the ramifications of another means of control, one of abdication of personal responsibility along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

So it is that books can be banned instead of burned.  Not as an official government policy but simply by merchants being pressured to not carry some books that some people  find offensive.  However when the merchant is Amazon, the impacts of such non-binding restrictions can be far more powerful than if individual brick and mortar bookshops were targeted and pressured.  And without most of the possible negative repercussions.  So it is that Amazon will quit selling certain books.  The nice thing is  that this has been noticed.  The scarier reality is that undoubtedly lots of decisions about what to carry or not carry are regularly made.

Online vendors (and traditional brick-and-mortar outfits) generally have the appearance of being objective.  They carry a variety of things they hope to sell, and selling is their primary motivation, we assume.  In reality, every person and therefore every organization is inclined towards what they are or aren’t willing to sell.  Objectivity is not completely possible, and factors beyond what the customer might want come into play.

You might want to think twice about what’s on your bookshelf and making sure that you save certain things.  They might not be available down the road.

Book Review: Peculiar Speech

June 6, 2019

Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon

 

This was another suggested text for the preaching workshop I attended in Chicago this week.

(As an aside, if you preach regularly to the people of God, consider checking out this resource – Craft of Preaching.  They sponsored the event, but also provide some good theological resources for those called to proclaim God’s Word.)

This is a fantastic book.  Willimon’s style is enjoyable.  He’s a deeply intelligent man able to convey his ideas in understandable ways without sounding condescending.  He has some fantastic things to think about if you preach to the people of God, not the least of which is to remember that you are preaching to the baptized, to people who are ostensibly the people of God.

My one complaint is that – particularly towards the end of the book – Willimon drifts increasingly into ideas of the Church as adversarial to the powers and structures of the world.  Of course this is true.  But choosing to be adversarial rather than simply preaching the love of God the Father in God the Son Jesus Christ through the power of God the Holy Spirit can be problematic. Yes, the Church must never allow itself to be coopted by the powers of this world (something the Church is very poor  at), but we must also as the Church proclaim the truth and reality of Romans 13.  The Gospel is subversive by its very nature, but if we begin to glory in that adversarial quality, we risk sins of pride and disobedience.  It is truly a difficult line to walk sometimes, particularly in times where the expectation of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric tempts us to grandstand.

Otherwise, there is a lot of good food for thought here if you preach on a regular basis!

Book Review – Justification is for Preaching

June 5, 2019

Justification is for Preaching, Edited by Virgil Thompson

I recently attended a preaching workshop in Chicago.  It was a great workshop, but like most workshops, if there’s a reading list, the workshop is more or less a rehash of prominent ideas from the reading list.  This workshop was no exception, which is both good and bad.

This was one of the suggested texts, a collection of essays in a jubilee volume celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lutheran Quarterly.   As with many such collections, the essays vary greatly in tone and helpfulness, ranging from the very esoteric and academic to wonderfully applicable theological nuggets.  If you’re a fan of Oswald Bayer or Gerhard O. Forde, they figure prominently and repeatedly in this collection.

I very much appreciaged Forde’s essay Forensic Justification and the Christian Life.  There he grapples with one of the challenges in Lutheran theology – how to describe the Christian life in such a way that it does not either render the Law toothless and optional, or contradict a very Biblical theme of God doing all of the real work of creation, redemption and sanctification.  He picks up on St. Paul’s language of saint and sinner for this.  Typically, we emphasize that we are born anew in Christ through faith and baptism and maintain a sort of dual identity  of saint and sinner throughout our lives, with the sinner gradually, more and more weakening as the saint in us grows.  We are typically exhorted heavily towards this end, or we tend to de-emphasize it in order to better highlight the work of Jesus in our justification and redemption.  Forde does a good job of offering a third alternative where the in-breaking kingdom of God within me expands over time within me, so that the sinner in me is eventually completely squeezed out (at death or our Lord’s return).  The emphasis is the ongoing grace of God the Holy Spirit at work in me, rather than my bulging faith-muscles.  Very helpful.

Also of interest was Forde’s article Preaching the Sacraments, where he discusses the connection between preaching and the sacraments (defined as confession, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in Lutheran circles) and the importance that preaching not undercut the Sacraments.

If you like theology, and particularly if you are called to a vocation of preaching (or perhaps if it is your vocation to listen to sermons!) this is a helpful book.

Movin’ On Up

April 22, 2019

Perhaps not exactly to a deluxe apartment in the  sky, but an improvement all the same.

I’ve bit  the bullet (paid) to upgrade my blog site from free to a paid plan through WordPress.  The annoying advertisements are now gone.  I intended to do this much sooner but, well, life and money and what have you.  Look for some tweaks and changes to roll out as I explore the options I have available now as a paid user of the site – including possibly a change back to my original domain name (livingapologetics.org) instead of the WordPress name.

All in good time, but at least it’s the first step.  Perhaps a step up?