March 2011

I just got through reading a marvelous article in the March First Things that I wanted to make you aware of, if you aren’t already. It’s entitled “Reading the Bible with the Reformers” by the dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George. His contention is one that is increasingly heard in orthodox circles these days, namely, that we need to recover the practice of reading the Bible with the historic Christian tradition in mind, rather than giving in to a tyranny of the “present.” Back in the 1990s, I wrote an amendment to the Moravian Ground of the Unity (the confession of faith of the world-wide Unitas Fratrum) that embodied this idea, so it isn’t new to me, but George makes the case incredibly well. A sample:

We do well to return to this tradition of Reformation biblical exegesis. C. S. Lewis noted: “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” For the present can become imperial, seducing us into imagining that the assumptions that reign today have always defined what it means to be reasonable, sensible, and mainstream. Against the tendency toward presentism, Lewis observed that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We can suffer from a biblical presentism. It is all too common to think of biblical interpretation as answering the question “What is the Bible saying to us now?” This approach, which one finds both in liberal mainline churches and in conservative evangelical ones, owes a great deal to the liberal Protestant theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. The father of modern hermeneutics, Schleiermacher defined religion as the feeling of absolute dependence and understood Scripture as a detailed expression of the faith that satisfies our need to feel a sense of absolute dependence. With this subjective account of the meaning of Scripture, Schleiermacher displaced the central teachings and dogmas of the Church, putting in its place a phenomenology of Christian self-consciousness. In view of this approach, it is not surprising that Schleiermacher’s entire treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is contained in a thirteen-page appendix to his nearly 800-page textbook of systematic theology, On the Christian Faith. The important questions, for Schleiermacher, concerned the present influence of biblical preaching and its ability to create in modern men and women a “God-consciousness” that would induce feelings of absolute dependence.

By and large, the modern Protestant tradition has appealed to historical-critical exegesis as a source for objective biblical teaching that can work against the presentism implicit in Schleiermacher’s approach. Unfortunately, for all the important intellectual contributions they have made, historical-critical methods of interpretation were developed as part of a distinctively modern project. The goal, which has been often and vigorously stated since its inception in the late-eighteenth century, was to release the Bible from the shackles placed on it by the intervening two millennia of biblical interpretation. For example, in his famous 1885 Bampton Lectures, Frederic W. Farrar described the long history of Christian interpretation of the Bible as something to be overcome: “How often has the Bible thus been wronged! It has been imprisoned in the cells of alien dogma; it has been bound hand and foot in the grave clothes of human tradition; it has been entombed as a sepulcher by systems of theology, and the stone of human power has been rolled up to close its door.” It was the aim of Farrar and his colleagues to liberate the Bible from its churchly bondage.

They largely succeeded, but the effect has not been to reorient the churches around a revitalized biblical center. The historical-critical approach breaks the Bible down into discrete units to be further dissected in terms of competing hypotheses about authorship, literary form, original context, source of origin, and so forth. This makes for good academic debate, but without a narrative or doctrinal unity the Bible cannot compete with the imperial present. As a result, the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible has been swept away, but little has taken its place. As the historical scholars write their monographs, we’re left enclosed within our presentism, reading the Bible only from the perspective of own age and not with the Christian ages.

An imperialism of the present also thrives within a populist evangelicalism shaped by the likes of the celebrated evangelist Billy Sunday, who once boasted, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jackrabbit does about ping pong, but I’m on the way to glory.” A higher level of discourse is carried on in the Evangelical Theological Society, but even this august group of scholars only recently has amended its annually subscribed statement of faith to include, in addition to the affirmation of biblical inerrancy, a required belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. If, in Paul Tillich’s terms, Protestant principle has swallowed up Catholic substance in much of contemporary evangelicalism, this is because evangelicals have paid too little attention to the sum total of the Christian heritage handed down from previous ages.

That’s the critique (there’s more, but that gets to the heart of it). For the antidote, continue reading George’s article, and let me know what you think.


It’s that time of year again. I go public with my forecast for the major league baseball season. Here’s hoping I’m more correct about Harold Camping prediction about the Second Coming than I was about the Show in 2010

Actually, I wasn’t entirely wrong last year. I did get the NL East (Phillies), wild card (Braves), and Cy Young (Roy Halladay) correct, while in the AL I did have three of the four playoff teams (Rays, Twins, and Yankees) right. So that’s something.

Anyway, for 2011 here’s how I see it:

National League

East: Atlanta Braves
Central: Milwaukee Brewers
West: Colorado Rockies
Wild card: Philadelphia Phillies
NL champion: Atlanta Braves
MVP: Ryan Braun (Brewers)
Cy Young: Roy Halladay (Phillies)
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt (Giants)

American League:

East: Boston Red Sox
Central: Chicago White Sox
West: Texas Rangers
Wild card: New York Yankees
AL champion: Boston Red Sox
MVP: Adrian Gonzalez (Red Sox)
Cy Young: Jon Lester (Red Sox)
Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson (Rays)

World Series: Red Sox over Braves in 5

The “Spirit of Life” fair that the Church of England’s Manchester Cathedral is running on May 2 has put up a “provisional programme” of events, exhibitors and so on. Among the stalls will be:

Two Church Mice: Cards, gemstones, saints, and healing.

Penny Horsemen: Jesus Deck readings.

Celtic Springs: Christian travellers in the New Age. Jesus Deck and Christian creation cards.

Among the workshops will be:

Healing Serpent (Pauline Warner): Looking for inspiration in the Old Testament bible stories about M oses and Aaron in Egypt, we find that the God of Moses was the Great Serpent, the Protector and Deliverer.

Angelic Encounters (John and Olive Drane): Angels are all around us, if only weareopentotheir presence.

Christianity and the Goddess (Steve Hollinghurst): Exploring the relationship between the Goddess and Christian tradition to uncover the divine feminine in Christianity.

So is there really any doubt about what is going on there?

…this is true, it could potentially constitute an extremely important find. If not, well, nothing’s changed. The BBC reports:

They could be the earliest Christian writing in existence, surviving almost 2,000 years in a Jordanian cave. They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.

A group of 70 or so “books”, each with between five and 15 lead leaves bound by lead rings, was apparently discovered in a remote arid valley in northern Jordan somewhere between 2005 and 2007.

A flash flood had exposed two niches inside the cave, one of them marked with a menorah or candlestick, the ancient Jewish religious symbol.

A Jordanian Bedouin opened these plugs, and what he found inside might constitute extremely rare relics of early Christianity.

The director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, says the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.

“They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Mr Saad.

“Maybe it will lead to further interpretation and authenticity checks of the material, but the initial information is very encouraging, and it seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery, maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.”

Read it all. The reporting is not stellar–for instance, the article refers to the expression “I shall walk uprightly” as being in the Book of Revelation, which it isn’t–and I don’t quite get the significance of some of the stuff that is being trumpeted. For instance:

One of the few people to see the collection is David Elkington, a scholar of ancient religious archaeology who is heading a British team trying to get the lead books safely into a Jordanian museum.

Mr Elkington says the relics feature signs that early Christians would have interpreted as indicating Jesus, shown side-by-side with others they would have regarded as representing the presence of God.

“It’s talking about the coming of the messiah,” he says.

“In the upper square [of one of the book covers] we have the seven-branch menorah, which Jews were utterly forbidden to represent because it resided in the holiest place in the Temple in the presence of God.

“So we have the coming of the messiah to approach the holy of holies, in other words to get legitimacy from God.”

I’ve never heard of an association between the menorah and the Messiah, and the prohibition on depicting the menorah only came about after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, so the issue of dating for these books becomes crucial for this claim. Anyway, we’ll all have to wait and see what the experts come up with, and especially for the books to be translated (they could contain nothing more fascinating than Mrs. Moskowitz’s recipe for latkas). But the potential for something earth-shaking is there.

(Via Stand Firm.)

Last month I started teaching chess at an elementary school in Fairfax County as a way to connect to kids and their parents in a non-traditional church setting as well as passing along love for a game I’ve played since I was six. USA Today has an article on the growing movement to teach chess to children, and the difference that can make in young lives:

SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. — Quiet, please The second- and third-graders at McGinn Elementary School are playing chess, which means they’re concentrating, which means they shouldn’t be interrupted.

Even so, Wendi Fischer can’t resist giving a compliment. “You’re really using your brain to think instead of your mouths,” she tells students as she walks from class to class.

Fischer, executive director of America’s Foundation for Chess, has become a celebrity among the elementary school set. Kids know her as the Chess Lady, the tiara-wearing medieval queen who hosts the chess lessons they watch each week on DVD. Although chess has long been a staple of after-school programs, the foundation aspires to bring chess into more classrooms through First Move.

The foundation, based in Bellevue, Wash., aims to expand First Move nationally and beyond. Launched in the 2004-05 academic year in 11 Seattle-area schools, the program last year reached more than 50,000 students in nearly 2,000 classrooms across 27 states, mostly by word of mouth. In 2008, Idaho became the first state to encourage public schools statewide to use the game as part of their curricula in second and third grades, and Maryland’s Senate education committee this month considered a similar proposal for its public schools. First Move can be found in Antigua, Kenya, Canada and Mexico, and Fischer’s group has been in talks with the education ministries of Norway and Denmark.

While First Move doesn’t claim to improve students’ test scores, some researchers have found chess can improve academic performance. A 1993 study, for example, found that a group of students in the New York program scored significantly higher on reading tests than a control group.

Fischer is not related to Bobby Fischer (nor am I, for those of you wondering–I used to get that all the time from opponents at tournaments), but has an obvious love for the game and for kids that shows up in this video:


Have chess in your local schools? No? Then how about contacting America’s Foundation for Chess here, and see what the Chess Lady can do for you.

The Anglican Cathedral in Manchester, England is holding a “new age” festival on May 2. According to the Manchester Evening News:

Manchester Cathedral is to host a ‘new age’ festival featuring tarot card readers, crystal healers and ‘dream interpretation’.

Local Anglican leaders have agreed to throw open the doors of the historic cathedral in a bid to embrace alternative forms of Christianity.

If I’m not mistaken, another term for “alternative forms of Christianity” that include practices such as tarot is “paganism.”

Fortune tellers, meditation experts and traditional healers will fill the pews during the day-long festival in May. The Bishop of Manchester, Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, said he wanted to celebrate ‘all forms of spirituality’.

The Spirit of Life festival on May 2 will also feature stalls and workshops on angels, prayer bead-making and massage.

Fire-breathing vicar Rev Andy Salmon, of Sacred Trinity Church and St Philip with St Stephen in Salford, will also perform.

“Fire-breathing vicar”? Does that mean he’s a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher?

Bishop Nigel said the unconventional activities were not incompatible with Christian belief.

He said: “The event is a chance to discover and explore old and new Christian spiritual traditions from living in a community to praying with icons, from healing to bead-making, from Franciscan spirituality to contemporary music and movement.

“Practitioners from all over the country will be on hand to offer their experience of how God speaks to us today through the cultural language and practices so common in mind, body, spirit fairs.”

Right. No doubt there will also be an Asherah pole, temple prostitutes, and a baby sacrificed to Molech.

The Church of England: British tax money at work.

(Via T19.)

UPDATE: A commenter at Stand Firm notes that the web site of “Spirit of Life” says the newspaper report is inaccurate:

Contrary to media reports, the Spirit of Life is a Christian festival offering a balanced programme of different spiritual traditions including Taize, choral evensong and contemporary spiritualities. There are workshops which will discuss spiritualities outside the Christian tradition. There will be no tarot card reading or fortune telling at the event. All contributors are Christians and have undergone a rigorous application process.

So what will actually be at the festival? This:

Fire breathing vicars, dream interpretation, Jesus Deck Readings and spiritual meditations are some of the spiritual skills on display at Manchester Cathedral’s first ever Christian Spirituality fair – the Spirit of Life (2 May from 11am-5pm).

With performances, meditations, stalls and workshops throughout the day, come and discover how ancient spirituality meets contemporary culture at this unique event.

With about 25 workshops and stalls covering poetry, Franciscan spirituality, arts and crafts, healing, icons, angels, meditation, personality profiling, music and blessings, labyrinths, dream interpretation, Christian symbolism of gem stones, tarot and Celtic saints, prayer bead making, choral evensong, foot and hand massage, Jesus Deck readings, Taize chants and, finally, fire breathing!

Christian symbolism in tarot? That’s news to me. And what in heaven’s name is a “Jesus Deck reading”? According to British Methodist minister Sally Coleman:

It was designed as a set of playing cards by the Rev Ralph Moore, in consultation with various Scripture and Theology Consultants, in the pack is a set of instructions for games and a description of each card. The cards themselves are an attractive set of playing cards well presented in a black box with the words Jesus Deck in gold block writing on the cover. They are divided into suits according to the gospels and contain pictures of events or stories form the life of Jesus.

And how are they used, say at a setting like the “Spirit of Life” festival. Rev. Coleman explains:

Using the deck in a spirituality fair or exhibition is an exercise in cross cultural translation no matter how you use it. Some practitioners having set up their booths will simply use the Deck as one thing amongst many, offering people who are interested the chance to choose one card and entering into a conversation from there. Stories of the right card for the right person are many, including one from John Drane about a woman who picked out the card showing Judas hanging from the tree; the consequences of that were astonishing and really do point to the God who goes before us!

I use the cards in a form that emulates a five card lay from a tarot deck, when a seeker comes for a reading (you will note that my language is becoming enculturated here) I invite them to sit down, and if they wish I explain a little about how the Deck tells the story of Jesus. I might then offer to pray that the (Holy) Spirit would guide the cards so that the right ones are laid down. I then shuffle the deck lay the five cards and we begin.

I ask the seeker (querent) which card they feel most drawn to, and from then on the reading becomes an activity of three way listening, to the Holy Spirit, to the scriptures through the cards and to the seeker. As I have already said I am amazed at the way that God works through this tool, speaking clearly opening up deep conversations. Some folk have received guidance, others affirmations, and still others deep healing through these readings. Even when I am teaching folk how I use the Deck and they think they are coming for a demonstration rather than a reading the cards act as scriptures two edged sword and lives are changed in the process.

I think I’ll stick with my original conclusion regarding this event, even if there is no fortune-telling.

Things have been awfully heavy around here lately, so I thought I’d toss out a bit of lighter fare. Seems that ABC and People magazine have surveyed a half million people who proclaimed the greatest character in the history of film to be…Forrest Gump. According to the Daily Telegraph of Britain:

Out of more than half a million films made by Hollywood the character portrayed by Tom Hanks ranked top in the biggest ever poll of moviegoers.

Audiences adored Gump as they followed his life from a child to adulthood as he took part in many of the pivotal events of the 1960s and 1970s.

The film was also known for many of Gump’s phrases, such as “My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

While Gump was the runaway winner, British secret agent James Bond was named as the second greatest film character.

Scarlett O’Hara was rated as the third most memorable character.

Anthony Hopkins performance as Hannibal Lecter helped the cannibalistic serial killer rate fourth in the poll.

Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, was named as the fifth most popular character.

Okey dokey. Gump isn’t a character, he’s a device for looking at the 60 and 70s (personally, I found Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan character a lot more interesting). James Bond, on the other hand, is a cartoon character with as much depth as a potato pancake. So since the masses are so obviously wrong, here’s my Top Ten. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

1. Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles) of Citizen Kane.

2. Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart) of Casablanca.

3. Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II.

4. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) of the Alien series.

5. The Frankenstein monster (played by Boris Karloff) of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein

6. Ratso Rizzo (played by Dustin Hoffman) of Midnight Cowboy

7. Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) of On the Waterfront

8. Elwood P. Dowd (played by Jimmy Stewart) of Harvey

9. Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck) of To Kill a Mockingbird

10. Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) of Psycho

UPDATE: A couple of things I thought of after putting this up. One is honorable mentions, which should include Hannibal Lector, Samwise Gamgee (played by Sean Astin) of The Lord of the Rings, The Joker (played by Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight Returns, George Patton (played by George C. Scott) of Patton, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) of M, Guido Orefice (played by Roberto Benigni) of Life is Beautiful, Marie “Slim” Browning (played by Lauren Bacall) of To Have and Have Not, Frank McCloud (played by Humphrey Bogart) of Key Largo, Kasper Gutman (played by Sidney Greenstreet) of The Maltese Falcon, Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) of All About Eve, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) of North by Northwest, and Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) of Taxi Driver.

The other is the “greatest” is a flabby term. Think of it in terms of the character with the most psychological or spiritual depth, interior strength, multi-facetedness, or something like that.

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