Qumran Revisited

October 30, 2006

Guess what? For years now, archaeologists have told us that the infamous Dead Sea Scrolls, located at Qumran, were produced by an isolasionist/fringe group of Jesus’ contemporaries known as the Essenes. Now, evidence has surfaced which shows that most of the scrolls were probably originally located in Jerusalem and then transported to Qumran – a fortress-turned-pottery-factory – as it became more and more apparent that the Romans were going to launch an all-out invasion.

The practical upshot of all this is that some of the VERY strange-sounding texts that have been located at Qumran were not the product of a lunatic fringe, but the product of various lines of mainstream thought in rabbinical Judaism at the time.

I know a lot of historians and archaeologists don’t like this. It opens up the possiblity of a fairly substantial re-examination of the culture of Jesus’ day. But, in a strange way, it is an appealing idea to me. It shows that Jesus’ message surfaced amidst a huge cultural maelstorm. People were confused, even despirate to find some way of explaining how God could be faithful to Israel even as the Roman grip on God’s people became tighter and more apparent.

Jesus’ solution – to submit to the rule of human oppressors while simultaneously recognizing the presence of the real Kingdom – God’s kingdom – may only make more and more sense as historians begin to sort through the implications of this new discovery.

(News item via Scot McKnight)


Today’s Essay Question

October 28, 2006

Everyone get out a blank sheet of paper and a no. 2 pencil and prepare to write a paragraph on this subject:

God’s wrath and judgment: is it a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? Explain your answer, paying particular attention to Romans 2:16 in which it is made clear that part of the “good news” of the gospel is that Jesus is coming to judge everyone’s secrets.

For bonus credit, explain whether Christians can “avoid” God’s judgment. That is, do believers get a free pass when God starts judging folks, or are they judged “according to their works” just like everyone else?

The Value of Ambiguity

October 26, 2006

Jesus doesn’t answer a lot of quesitons…not directly anyway.

Have you noticed that? Almost every time someone comes to him with a question (and this happenes a LOT in the gospels), he responds with another question… or he tells a story… or he gives a response that doesn’t answer the original question…or that even turns the original question on its head.

There is a certain genius in the way Jesus interacted with people who claimed to be looking for truth. Sometimes, he realized that people’s questions were the wrong ones, and he insisted that they ask more relevant quesitons. On other occasions, he sent people on deeply personal journeys of thought and reflection rather than simply TELLING them an answer. Stories, parables, and strategically ambiguious responses often do much more to lead people to truth because they cause people to seek out the truth themselves.

Truth that is discovered through wrestling, puzzlement, and experience is much richer, much more textured, than something that is spoon-fed in clear, albeit quaint and two-dimensional, statements of fact.

I say all of this because, somehow, in my spiritual journey, I never learned to value ambiguity. Instead, I always wanted to be the answer guy. I wanted to be able to tell people who God is, what he wants from us, and why. Instead of helping those around me on their own quest for truth, I often tried to force my own limited ideas about truth down everyone else’s throats.

Questions that demand simple answers are often cold and inadequate. Why not learn to respond to them in stories, poetry, song, or even puzzles? Truth, deep, truth can never be reduced to a bullet-point list or a simple statement. It can only be experienced after much wrestling and grappling, often steeped in self-examination and wonder at the mysteries of God.

In a culture that is increasingly skeptical about Christians’ claims to truth, the last thing that is needed is a generation of spiritual know-it-alls who try to force feed cold, often overly-simplistic ideas about God on everyone else. Perhaps, instead, we need to return to Jesus example – one that respected truth that transceds “answers”; one that recognizes peoples’ need to wrestle with and encouter truth.

What do you think?

Magnum Opus

October 21, 2006

Every great artist has his or her magnum opus. DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa. Bethoven wrote his Fifth. Martin Luther King had his Dream, Lincoln his Gettysburgh, Van Gough his self portrait.

PaulThe defining work for Paul, trained in the arts of ancient greek rhetoric, is unquestionably his epistle to the Romans. Church history is filled with the names of people who came to faith – or whose faith was dramatically transformed – because of the message of this book. Luther’s 95 Theses were probably birthed after he had immersed himself in this letter. Wesley’s conversion also reportedly owes much to Paul’s message in Romans. If one subscribes to the theory that, without Paul, Christianity would never have been widely accepted outside of national Israel, it could be argued that contained within Romans are the most influential ideas ever to have been expressed by man.

So what is it about Paul’s message in Romans that is so compelling? The answers vary, but if you ask me, the power of Romans is felt in its “good news” that God is acting toward us in a way that is both just and good. Paul does not flinch for one moment in telling us that, because of our wickedness, all people are accountable to God. But Paul also assures us that God is good, that he has not abandoned us to sin and death. In Jesus, God deals with our wickedness not by destroying us, but by declaring us to be “right” and then leading us out of it.

Not everyone likes this message. Those whose identities are invested in systems of religiosity do not want to believe that it is that simple. They want to think that things they do, or wear, or eat, or the people they hang out with, or that places they go, are the things that make them right with God. They want to think that God is against everyone who doesn’t follow their system. For those clothed in religiosity, the message of Romans is too universal, too “easy.” It is dangerous and scandalous, despirately in need of appropriate tempering and watering-down. 

God really is good. It is a wonderful, dangerous message.

Let the Pandering Commence!

October 18, 2006

Today, we received in the mail what will doubtless be the first of many, many political advertisements for the November 2006 elections. It was printed in color on large cardstock, I’m guessing about 11″ by 7″ when doubled-over on itself. Unfold the ad, and you see a lengthy plan of action for the candidate.

Sheila (happy birthday, honey!) quickly observed that the plan of action includes both (a)  strong support for the education system AND (b) strong opposition to gun regulation, including weapon registration.

Think about recent headlines, and then take a moment to savor the sad irony that presents itself in this plan. Yet….these are exactly the hot button issues that will catapult a West Texas candidtate into the state legislature. This ad is doing nothing more than telling the people they will get what they want if they vote for this candidate.

 Other positions that caught my eye:

– Abortion? No! Capital punishment? Yes!

– Protect rights of patients who use HMOs? Yes! Oppose frivilous lawsuits? Yes! (Trust me here: accomplishing both isn’t nearly as easy as it may sound…)

– Teacher pay raises? Yes! More funding for nursing homes? Yes! Improved FM road system? Sure thing! Tuition grant programs? You bet! Put lots of people in the prison systeml? Count on it! Broadband in rural areas? Why, of course! But…(brace yourself here)…

– State income tax? No! Appraisal tax increases? No! Tax breaks for seniors, military, farmers, ranchers, and – in case we’ve left anyone out – “working families”? Yes! (The only category of people left, “non-working” families, who presumably generate no income to begin with – will apparently somehow be taxed into oblivion…)

– Groundwater conservation? Yes! Protect rights of “property owners”? Yes! 

As I said, this is nothing more than politics as usual. Its telling people they can get exactly what they want (when they can’t and won’t)… and assuring them that, if it costs money, someone else will pay for it. We can do it all: send all of the illegal immigrants home, put all the bad guys in jail (forever), give you nice roads to drive on, protect you from frivilous lawsuits, lower your utility and insurance rates, and keep people from outsourcing your job.

I used to think this was amusing, but now it is just depressing. I would RUSH to the polls if I ever found a candidate who would simply tell the truth, speaking realistically about what can and can’t be done by a responsible government.

Is that too much to ask?  

Romance, American Style

October 15, 2006

Writing scripts for Hollywood is easy. I could do it with my eyes closed. Here, for example, is the predictable plot pattern for just about every romantic comedy I have ever seen (exception – My Best Friend’s Wedding, which is my favorite romantic comedy for that very reason):

1. A Question is posed (usually by Her) – can anyone ever find the perfect match? True love?

2. He meets Her. She is Free and Independent, and doesn’t like him, but He is taken with Her.

3. In the course of trying to Woo Her, He is forced to do Something Deceptive, perhaps lying about a Dark Secret From His Past.

4. She is skeptical about his Wooing, having been Hurt many times before. But he only tries all the harder to Woo her over.

5. She finally decides to Trust him and is Won Over. Alternatively, just as she is getting ready to Trust, #6 happens.

6. By accident, She discovers the that He did Something Deceptive (see 3) while trying to Woo her. She now falsely believes that all of his Wooing was insincere, and is deeply hurt.

7. There is a Confrontation about the Deception. He is either speechless, or his Truthful Explanations are not accepted by Her. (Occasional Variation: both have been Deceptive and they are both Hurt).

8. Insert Dramatic Musical Montage here, usually involving forelorn Lonely Walks along a boardwalk or beach or The Place Where They Met. We are meant to ask: Don’t they see how they love each other? Can’t she understand the truth about him? Why has he given up? Will they EVER BE TOGETHER?! No! This can’t be! The suspense is palpable.

9. His Close Chum has an Honest Conversation with him in which He is forced to come to terms with his Feelings for her. (Just once, I’d like to see Him totally blow Her off because she refuses to trust him, requiring Her to make the next move – but this NEVER, EVER happens). In the meantime, she is about to do something Irreversible, such as Leaving Town.

10. At the last minute – right before she does something Irreversible, He does something Wildly Romantic in an effort to get Her back. She cannot help but be Overwhelmed. They kiss.

11. There is a Celebration. Usually, at a wedding of some sort.

When I’m not trying to choke back vomit through a Dramatic Musical Montage, I often think about this: what is it about the American female psyche that demands to see this story again and again?

Lets be honest here – these are stories for women. Guys are watching these movies, but they are doing it because either (a) their significant other wants to watch it or (b) it features Jennifer Lopez. So what are they telling us about what American women want in their relationships? Here are a few of my tentative observations:

– Women want to be Free and Independent, but they also want a relationship of Trust, where they can be Vulnerable. Its hard to have both, because…

– Guys act like jerks. A lot. There seems to be a lot of wishfulness that the Right Guy will have Truthful Explanations for why he has been a jerk.

– Women aren’t confident that they can identify Mr. Right. They need him to make himself painfully obvious by relentlessly pursuing them as his True Love, even to the point of putting up with their Distrust. Have you ever seen a movie where She relentlessly pursued Him, knowing He was Mr. Right? Thats a little too psycho, isn’t it? But why shouldn’t it happen? (Again, My Best Friend’s Wedding gets kudos here because that WAS the plot…)

What else can be learned from this deep, insightful film genre?

Rolling Stone on Galactica

October 13, 2006

The editors at Rolling Stone have declared Battlestar Galactica to be the best show on TV. They are right.

If you think this SciFi channel series is your typical, shallow sci-fi tripe: a lot of explosions mixed with confusing pseudo-science babble, you are wrong. It is an incredibly well-scripted and well-acted drama. Now in its third season, it is exploring legitimate questions about survival, terrorism, torture, democratic government, and – yes – even faith in the face of annihilation, in a way that no other TV show can or will.

Forget about the largely anemic fall lineups on the mainstream networks. This one deserves space on your DVR.