The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

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From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

I’ve been teaching Bible and Christianity now for a while, as well as “World Religions” surveys and a variety of other history of religions courses (Medieval European History, of which a primary component is the history of Christianity between 180-1000; Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, which is essentially a history of Jewishness [for lack of a better term] between 515 BCE and 637 CE, and includes Jesus, Paul, and the first generations of Christianity; Religious Ethics; Western Civilization; and American History, where I devote a substantial amount of time to the American religious experience from settlement to the Reconstruction era; and others as well). I find myself asking now “Why are you doing this? Seriously, Why?”

I used to know; when I was in seminary I believed that teaching the kinds of things that many Christians think are either taboo or too hot to handle was a subversive form of discipleship, and that’s the way I wanted to do it. I love teaching, I love the field of religion, and I love ancient western history, and I have always, ALWAYS, as long as I can remember, been so completely fascinated with the book of the Bible, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

Why?

A question like this only comes up when you lose the passion for what you are doing. I don’t think I was losing my passion for teaching, but there is no doubt I lost the passion for why I wanted to teach and why I wanted to teach the stuff I teach. Readers of this blog over the last few years know that I had a bit of, hmmm, a “falling-out” with “the Church” and the cynicism that this bred I think affected my teaching. The good news is that in our new parish home I’ve rediscovered why. Teaching my students, the majority of whom are very fine indeed, is a form of discipling…which, to me, is totally different from “evangelizing.”

My buddy Ultra Rev blogged last week on the need for pastors and parish leaders to somehow come to terms with the realities of the canon of the Bible, suggesting that this is a question of high priority on the one hand and a “hot potato” that most pastors and parish leaders are ill-quipped or too timid to deal with. I agree, and this is exactly why I do what I do; today’s young people, my students, ought to be our target for this. Ditto for the world religions besides Christianity. I have my students confront the imperial origins of the Bible head on; I lead them to the conclusion that the world’s great religions contain truth, and that their own tradition of Christianity has just as much of a history of error and falsity and violence as any of the others. For many this is dangerous territory, but the future of our faith depends on today’s young people facing these issues honestly and in a spirit of love and sensitivity. What we do in the classroom can be a subversive form of discipling for the Kingdom. Recognizing truth wherever it is found, whether in other religions, in the human origins of the Bible, in the checkered history of Christianity, or in Darwinian evolution, is the key, because disciples recognize and wrestle with truth when the situation warrants it. Disciples need the chutzpah, and I see the mission of the teacher (at least mine, I guess), to provide it.

Like a lot of us, I’m watching the Massachusetts special election for “The Kennedy Seat” with great interest. I grew up in the commonwealth, went to college there, got married there, went to seminary there, and worked there for a long time before moving to New York in 2005.  In some ways, I kind of wish I could sneak into the polls in West Stockbridge, just across the New York border, and cast a vote.

Many of my friends, family, and former high school buddies are seriously on the Scott Brown bandwagon. Most of them are on the South Shore (or grew up there), which is the only real Republican-leaning part of Massachusetts. Growing up, my parents joked that the South Shore should be its own state, since it does its own thing anyway. So I suspect that’s one reason for the Brown appeal for a lot of people I know who actually have a say in how it all turns out today.

As I see things, there are only two real issues that people really care much about in this election at the moment: Health Care and the Economy. (The Boston Globe has a little unofficial survey on the issues here.) Brown is repeatedly on record as being against health care reform, and has pledged to vote against it if he is elected. While this might not sound like much, if he follows through with this, it will be the 41st “nay” vote in the Senate, which will kill the bill at least as it is currently constituted. THIS, more than any other reason, is why the nation is so captivated with this election. It won’t just affect Massachusetts; it will impact the millions without coverage because they can’t afford it (which includes yours truly) nationwide. But this very issue is, I suspect, a very minor one for many who are voting for him, because Massachusetts has mandatory health coverage for every citizen anyway.  The most important Senate vote of our generation is coming down to this, and it’s in the hands of voters for whom this issue isn’t much of an issue.

Just for kicks, here’s the Globe’s take on where each candidate stands on issues that the candidates are stumping for in Massachusetts. If I still lived there, I’d have made a scorecard, which would look like this:  Coakley 3, Brown 1 (barely) and Undecided 1. I’d be in the booth for Coakley.

On behalf of all of us who have been screwed over by the current health care system, get out and vote. Preferably for Martha Coakley.

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

its-the-great-pumpkin-charlie-brown-youre-not-elected-charlie-brown--20061101033906296-000A riff on an old holiday favorite:

Scene: Moments after being fooled into his annual place-kick attempt by Lucy, a depressed Charlie Brown shuffles over to Lucy’s psychiatric help booth. After paying his co-pay, the dialog ensues.

Lucy: Well, now, what seems to be the trouble?

Charlie Brown: I feel depressed. Every year it’s the same. It’s Halloween again, and I always get a bag full of rocks, I get made fun of and made a model for a pumpkin carving, I never get to share the fun with my best friend Linus because he’s always freezing out in the pumpkin patch, and I always worry about my baby sister, who misses all the fun.

Lucy: Well, the very fact that you realize you are feeling this way indicates you are not too far gone. We need to pinpoint your fears. Maybe you have wiccaphobia. This is fear of witches.

Charlie Brown: I don’t think that’s quite it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have phasmophobia, which is fear of ghosts.

Charlie Brown: Well, sort of, but I’m not sure.

Lucy: Or perhaps you have coimetrophobia. This is the fear of cemeteries.

Charlie Brown: No, that’s not it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have Samhainophobia. Do you think you have Samhainophobia?

Charlie Brown: What’s Samhainophobia?

Lucy: The fear of Halloween!

Charlie Brown: THAT’S IT!!!!!

End Scene

Ol’ Chuck isn’t alone. In fact, I would suggest even that the fear of Halloween itself is a strong part of contemporary Halloween lore.  Which is why we get reports like this and studies like this. It used to be mostly evangelical Christians who demonstrated such open disdain for Halloween, which I wrote about as part of my blog entry from exactly two years ago. In that post, I wrote

Instead of remembering the sacred aspect of Halloween, many Christians prefer to avoid it all together as a glorification of evil, a notion to which I’m kinda sympathetic, but when I start working with this as religious phenomena, I’m accused of trivializing evil rather than recognize the vestiges of anything sacred in it. So I’m trivializing evil here, but the same routine vis-a-vis Christmas leads to trivializing the sacred, and usually by the same crowd of critics.

The most frequent response among evangelicals has, historically, been to “domesticate” Halloween by keeping observance of it in the home on the one hand and to limit the activity to more of a celebration of autumn, change of season, and the beginning of harvest. Jack o Lantern’s are welcome, as long as they aren’t too scary looking (or gross, or completely inappropriate…). Churches, and now schools, sponsor costumed Harvest Festivals, complete with bonfires and cookouts, games, and, of course, candy.

I love this, because it’s so ironic, because this taming and domestication of Halloween (especially by Christians and churches concerned with the “playing with evil” and the emphasis on death, the grotesque, the monstrous, and the demonic) is a return to the origins of Halloween in the Celtic festival of Samhain. We don’t know much about Samhain; in fact, we know a lot less than many Halloween fanatics think we know. Certainly it is very old, and likely pre-dates Christianity; at the very least it pre-dates Christian missionary activity to Celtic peoples in Europe (who were not only located in Ireland). What we know comes from much later Irish sagas and legends that were not written until the 9th -12th centuries, many hundreds of years after the arrival of missionaries such as St. Patrick (5th century). By the time they were written, the Church was well-aware of the festival and did everything it could to figure out a way to incorporate it into its own calendar of liturgical feast days, starting with the Feast of All Saints on November 1, then All Souls’ Day on November 2. In Middle English, “All Saints” translated into “All Hallows”, which still means “sanctified” or “holy,” and the evening before became “All Hallow’s Even, or “Hallowe’en,” corresponding exactly with the celebration of ancient Samhain.

So much for the church’s efforts there; but what did Samhain entail, and what carryovers are there now in today’s “domestication” of Halloween? Samhain was the first day of the new year in the Celtic calendar and was the first day of winter, marking the end of the farmer’s year. Everything had to be harvested, stored, and eaten, and it was a time for partying and big bonfires. It was also the beginning of the darkest season of the year, and when vegetation dies. In the Irish sagas, everything revolved around Samhain; wars fought, journeys started, and heroes are born. We find in the sagas tales of heros going door-to-door, begging for treats and food on Samhain, an ancestor of our own trick-or-treating tradition. It is also on Samhain that the doors of the underworld are open, just as it they are now for horror flicks at the theatres. In another saga, a race of supernatural creatures demand tribute from the new harvest from humans on Samhain, who leave out food at the entrance to their homes by hanging the harvest on the doors, thresholds, and crossings for their supernatural overlords.

What about dear old Jack? Jack was a blacksmith who, the story goes, was too evil to get into heaven but too smart to remain in hell; he tricks the devil into kicking him out of hell, and on his way out the door, grabs a handful of burning coal (or straw, according to various traditions) and puts it into the pumpkin he’s been eating, using this as his lantern as he wanders the world between the world above and the underworld, and on Samhain’s Eve, when all the doors are open, he comes and goes at will.

Anyhow. I could go all Bakhtin here and go into the importance of masquerading, transitional spaces, and carnivale and so forth, which is so important as well. I’m happy to do so in the comments, if there are any. But I just wanted to point out that the Samhainophobia that is now part of the Halloween experience has ironically led to a return to Halloween’s pagan origins more than it has “tamed” or even “Christianized” the holiday. So go out and enjoy it tonight!