This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

This Quest Is Finished.

            In his new book, Zealot, Reza Aslan claims that his unbiased, objective, historical scholarship proves that the real Jesus was a violent revolutionary bent on retribution and holy war.  This conclusion is exactly the opposite of the results of the unbiased, objective, historical scholarship of someone like J. D. Crossan, who says the real Jesus was a non-violent Cynic philosopher.
            It all depends apparently on which unbiased, objective, historical assumptions and method you choose to start with.  That governs which parts of the gospels you decide are “historical fact,” and which you can discard as “later fictional additions.”  If you start off your unbiased, objective, historical research with the entirely subjective set of biases and procedures demanded by historical science, then you will identify as “historical” whatever those biases predetermine.  Aslan and Crossan have the same method; they just make different initial decisions about the criteria for what is and isn’t “historical.”  Hence, the results: one “true, historical Jesus” looks like a vague flower-child, and another looks like a Taliban fighter.
            In the end we get a product that claims to be “true,” “objective,” “unbiased,” and “historical,” but which is really just what we end up with when we force a text through that particular set of arbitrary filters.  That’s all.  We are left not with the “true, historical Jesus,” but with Crossan’s Jesus, Aslan’s Jesus, Meier’s Jesus, or any of the other attempts at this project, going back to Strauss in the 19th century, or further back to Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson famously took a razor to the gospels and sliced out everything that did not seem reasonable to him.  And so it has been ever since.  Scholars use whatever sophisticated methodology they choose in order to extract from the gospels the Jesus they want, and leave the rest as the fictional additions of later writers.
            I believe it was Robert Funk who said “beware of finding a Jesus congenial to you,” and then spent the last part of his career finding, and publicizing, a Jesus congenial to him.
            My hope is that Aslan’s book will open some eyes, especially among “progressives” who are most prone to be tempted by such shiny objects.  There is no “objectivity” in this work; everyone approaches it with a bias expressed in their methodology.  More importantly we need to lose the hypothesis that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” are two different figures who can be cut apart and examined separately.  The New Testament only gives us Jesus Christ.  Everything in the New Testament is presented through the powerful lens of the resurrection.  There is and can be no reliable methodology which can be applied to extract the “historical Jesus” from this unified, though multifaceted, portrayal.  To attempt it results only in a body which has been severed into two incomplete and dead pieces.
            The Quests for the Historical Jesus were Modernist projects based on Modernist values and assumptions.  These are not only the faith in objectivity and the identification of the historical with the true, two things we now know are wrong.  But at least as important is it rooted in the veneration of the expert, the “scholar”, the (almost exclusively) white male scientist who is above all and the measure of all.  It should not surprise us then that the Jesuses these people dream up bear a marked resemblance to their creators’ fantasies about themselves.  Every new Jesus tells us more about the desires and fears of the scholars involved, than about Jesus.
            As James Cone points out in his new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, if you want to know the real Jesus find him among his poor, courageous, and victimized followers, not among the safe and the privileged, the tenured and the published.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Small Enough to Grow.

            A lot of churches are not small enough to grow. 
            (This goes for presbyteries and denominations as well.)
            If a church has a sense of its own mission, and a significant number of members are  obstructing it, the church probably has to lose them.  Or it could continue in the familiar template of a long, slow decline. 
            It is healthier to lose unhappy dissenters, than to continue to muddle through in disunity.  An organization that is spending too much of its energy holding itself together is not going to have enough energy to do what it is called by God to do in the world. 
            A smaller, focused, committed, intentional congregation is more effective than a larger congregation that doesn’t agree on, and therefore can’t say, who they are or what they are called to do.  An effective organization is much more likely to grow.  It could find itself with more members than it had before.  While a larger, divided congregation is more likely to remain in a downward spiral. 
            I have seen a shrinking, small church suddenly lose 25% of its members, only to turn around and show gains within a year because it was no longer hindered by those unhappy members from doing its mission.  That church is now larger than it was before the split.   
            So, if you have unhappy members in your church, allow them to move on to where they can be happy.  If you are unhappy where you are, move on to where you can be happy. 
            AND FEAR NOT!!!  A happy and united congregation has a better chance to see significant growth, than one that has unhappy people holding it back.
            Oh, and churches have to develop a strong enough sense of themselves and their mission so that the members have something to be happy, or unhappy, about.
            So the choice for many churches is: a) lose a lot of people quickly, and retain the possibility for growth, or b) continue to lose everyone, but slowly, and have no possibility for growth.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Blog Adjustment!

I have moved my sermons to a different blog:

The "Republic" That Failed.

            Sometimes when I refer to America as a “democracy” someone will “correct” me in a patronizing and superior way, saying that, no, America is not a democracy, it is a republic, and that I should read the Constitution.
            I have read the Constitution.  Whether it describes a “republic” or a “democracy” is a matter of semantics.  I could find neither word used anywhere in it.  Conservatives who were afraid of democracy preferred to call it a “republic,” and still do.  Certainly the Constitution does not give us anything like a pure democracy, which would be unwieldy on a national scale even today, let alone at the end of the 18th century.  What we have is a representative democracy in which the will of the people is expressed through the election of representatives.
            The word “republic” gets sanctimoniously thrown around as a way of diminishing the democracy emphasis and replacing it with the idea that only some select few really are trustworthy enough to have power.  When the Constitution was ratified, remember, only white, male, property owners could vote.  Plus, the economy of much of the country was based on the uncompensated labor of slaves.  In fact, the original document does its best to protect this execrable and obscene institution.  Republic advocates point to these circumstances as proof that a democracy was not intended by the Constitution.  Rather, they say, the framers envisioned a paternalistic system in which a select few – white, male, property owners – managed the affairs of the many.  Something like that is what they define as a “republic.”  This is what they want to go back to.
            Fortunately, the ink on the Constitution was barely dry before 10 amendments were added to it.  Some hold that these amendments “limit government,” which is true.  But what they mainly limit is the ability of government to restrict the rights of people who are not white, male, property owners.  These amendments protected the rights of more and more people, and moved us dramatically in the direction of an inclusive democracy.  We have been continuing on the same trajectory ever since.  Most amendments to the Constitution have had the effect of broadening the rights of the people (such as amendments I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XIII, XIV, XV, XVII, XIX, XXI, XXIII, XXIV, XXVI).  That means that the proprietary rights of the privileged class of white, male, property owners have also steadily been diminished.
            And make no mistake, this is what the hysteria and paranoia is all about.  The self-serving illusion of the “republic” managed by benevolent white, male, property owners is becoming increasingly untenable.  By 2050, whites will not be the majority in this country.  It is already impossible to win a national election without some support from non-whites.  They think they can reverse this tide by restricting voting rights.  But as we saw in 2012, this only makes people more steadfast in exercising those rights, even if they have to stand in line for 8 hours to do it.  They think they can reverse this tide by gerrymandering Congressional and legislative districts, allowing minorities to maintain their grip on power.  This will work for a while.  But eventually the people who do the work, create the wealth, pay the fees, and spend the money will rise up and put a stop to it.
            The so-called “republic” of privileged white, male, property owners that some wish to recover or reinstate basically failed, nearly at its inception.  It failed, not from some conspiracy, act of treachery, or external coercion.  It failed because it was unsustainable, not to mention unjust and unreal.  For no matter how some may try to point out how great things where in 1789 (for people like them), the rest of us are incurably infected with the blessed disease of democracy.  We do believe that God created all of us equal.  We do believe that all of us are entitled to a say in decisions that are made.  And we do believe that we are all in this together to care for, support, and encourage each other.  And we reject the idea that some are more equal than others.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Magic Eye.

            (I have found that this analogy is effective in getting the attention and prying just slightly open the minds of even the most jaded and cynical members of confirmation classes.)

            A few years ago there was a minor fad over a book called The Magic Eye.  The Magic Eye was a collection of computer-generated images that, at first glance, appear to be an array of nearly random shapes and often colors.  A more careful examination reveals certain subtly repeated patterns.  But the images don’t look like anything in themselves, except maybe a kind of abstract art.  The viewer is supposed to stare at the image and intentionally let their eyes relax and unfocus, until seeing a dual image.  Then comes the “magic” part.  After an indefinite period of time, gradually a three-dimensional image resolves into view.  Instead of looking at apparently random colors and shapes, you are viewing an unrelated three-dimensional form.  It is quite striking.
            What happens, I am told, is that the viewer’s brain gradually decodes the 3-d form embedded in the image.  The image itself, of course, does not change.  It is printed on the page in ink.  What changes is the perception of the viewer, enabling them to see a form that is initially invisible… but is always there.  Something inside the viewer changes, and a form appears to emerge out of the printed image.
            While this is happening, that is, while we are staring at the page, all we see is the blurred, dual image.  But then, as the 3-d form starts to resolve, we might even comment, saying, “It’s coming!” because that’s what the emerging perception feels like.  It feels like something that wasn’t there is now beginning to “arrive;” something is showing up that wasn’t there before.  This is not what is happening, of course.  What is actually there on the page doesn’t change.  But we describe it this way because it feels like what is on the page is changing.
            No amount of empirical analysis, no careful deconstruction of the shapes and colors on the page, will lead an observer to conclude that there is a 3-d form embedded in them.  Maybe, if informed that such a form is encoded therein, a person might, with the aid of a computer to do the esoteric math, discover it.  But you’d have to be open to the possibility and then actively looking for it.
            My point is that in order to see the form, the viewer has to change.  And the viewer perceives this change as a change in the image, interpreting it as something coming into it.
            This is an analogy for the spiritual life.  The Presence of God in our world is invisible to the casual, superficial observer.  It cannot even be deduced from a careful analysis of the empirical data.  In order to see it, we have to relax and be present, allowing a subtle shift in our perception.  Then the Presence may appear to emerge.  It is perceives as something that initially appears to be “coming,” even though it has been embedded/encoded in the world all along.
            Not everyone actually sees the form when they look at a Magic Eye image.  Some folks can’t do it.  For them, it remains a mystery testified to by those who have had the experience.  Seeing the form remains aspirational for them.  Or: they can conclude that the seers of the form must be lying, delusional, superstitious, or mentally ill.  Since they can’t see it, and reality is empirical and objectively verifiable, they can only conclude that the form isn’t real.  They might mock those who claim to see something otherwise invisible, and dismiss the whole Magic Eye thing as a scam.  
            Of course, this is the way many simply dismiss God and the spiritual life altogether.  If they can’t see it, it’s not there.
            But people need to be reminded that that there could be something real out there that we can’t perceive until something inside of us changes.  And when Christians say something like “Come, Lord Jesus,” they are not necessarily asking for something that is not here to arrive.  But they are asking for the ability to perceive something that is already here and always has been.