Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday Fun Stuff

So, time for a new feature for the Eagle and Child. Fridays are typically my "at home" days. On Fridays, I spend less time thinking about ministry, and more on fun stuff -- so I'll share a few fun things for your edification and enjoyment:

The Greatest Show on Earth -- the 1952 academy award winning Cecil B. DeMille classic that made Charlton Heston a star. The story is clumsy, the acting overdone, and the special effects leave a lot to be desired, but somehow it all comes together to make a nice film. It's worth it to see Jimmy Stewart in the role of Buttons the clown.

Introduction to the history and culture of Ancient Egypt -- found this website as I was doing research on the History of Ancient Egypt in conjunction with the Learning Company course that Tammy and I are viewing (see yesterday's post). It's chock full of information, including transcriptions of the steles and heiroglyphs from many different eras. Some great stuff on Thutmosis III's decisive conquest at the battle of Megiddo (and we all remember that so well!)

Deal or No Deal -- I thought this would be one of the stupidist shows out there -- and it's not exactly great for creating new synaptic connections in your skull -- but it is surprisingly addictive. Howie Mandel is pretty charming in his own boyish uber-cool way. And it's given me a whole new way of interacting with my children ("Sarah Grace, eat your vegetables or you'll go to bed immediately with no dessert, Deal or No Deal?")


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Continuing Education -- A Course on Ancient Egypt

I receive a nice little budget for my continuing education – to pay for books, classes, seminars, etc. I found the Teaching Company’s programs, and thought that this would be a great way to do some continuing ed on my own time. So, I sent in an order for the 48 lecture course on the History of Ancient Egypt, taught by Bob Brier.

I thought it would be fun to go through this with Tammy (shows you what kind of strange idea of fun I have) – so in the evenings, after the kids are down, we watch a session or two. However the lecture that really caught my attention was Prof Brier's excursis on Joseph in Egypt.

Realize, I expected skepticism toward the story – I expected a debunking of the story as a myth. After all, this is a famous Egyptologist (and expert on mummification) – and there’s very little hard archaeological data for the Joseph story – no steles with Josephs name for instance.

Baird surprised me when he said that since we had no hard external evidence, we had to look at the internal evidence of the story (Genesis 37-50) – does it hang together from an Egyptologist’s point of view? And then he went through 9 items that indicate that the story “rings true” for him:

1) The name Potiphar is a true Egyptian name. Likely a variant on Pa-di-Ra (meaning “given by the Sun god”).

2) The presence of Pharoah’s magicians – the Coptic word used for magician in this passage is “Sesperonch” (the Coptic language is basically ancient Egyptian written phonetically using greek characters) – This word is ancient Egyptian: ses per ankh “scribes of the house of life” – the House of Life, according to Dr. Baird was a theological college where temple priests were trained. Thus lending credence to the magicians in Pharoah’s court.

3) Priests interpreting dreams – Egyptians believed every dream was prophetic – the real skill was interpreting them. In ancient Egypt, the priests were interpreters of dreams. You went to the temple and asked the priests to interpret. However, the priests didn’t come up with an interpretation off the top of their heads, they consulted the books of dreams. The priests cannot answer not because they were stupid or thick in the head, but they didn’t have pharoah’s dreams in the book of the dreams. Joseph’s real gift is that he can interpret dreams without consulting a book.

4) The 7 years of famine. There is evidence that such a famine happened on a stele in Sehel Island in the middle of Nile. Such a thing could happen

5) When Joseph is made vizier, he is given a signet ring, which was indeed a custom of imparting authority to ambassadors and viziers in ancient Egypt.

6) The phrase “Abrek” that was shouted to Joseph as he went past. The best bet of Egyptologists is that this is three words; ib/ab – heart, re – to. K—suffix to you. It seems to be an egyptian pharase saying “Our heart goes out to you” -- a phrase that could easily be a greeting of affection.

7) The pharaoh collects all the land – except that of the priests. This holds true as Egypt goes forward. Pharoah didn’t take priestly land, and this priestly caste ultimately came to wield more power than Pharoah.

8) Mummies of Jacob – The Biblical text says they were embalmed 40 days but the mourning lasts a total of 70 days. Brier here rests on his expertise – a major part of the embalming process did take 40 days, but the whole process took 70.

Now Brier doesn’t say that this proves the story is true – just that it has the ring of truth from an Egyptologist’s ears. Whoever told the story really knew Egypt, he says. Even so, that’s a really great statement when we consider the naysayers who want to dismiss the Biblical stories as myth!

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Microlending -- helping the poorest of the poor

A faithful reader of the Eagle and Child recently invited me to sign on to the One Campaign. This campaign, endorsed by Bono, Bob Geldof, and other stars aims to relieve third world debt and allieve the conditions of immense poverty found in those regions of the world. The plan has its critics, however, who believe that however well intentioned, the proposals would mainly benefit the corrupt governments that enjoy great priviledge at the expense of the starving masses.

I have great empathy for the desire to help the poor – that, after all, is a running theme in scripture (which I've been preaching on for four weeks now). “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27). God even connects his own glory and might with a specific concern for the weak and the poor: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Notice also, God encourages the Israelites to identify with the weak, the stranger in the land because they once were strangers and aliens. God’s concern for the poor and weak and defenseless is rife throughout the scriptures (Ps 68:4-6, Ps 146 as examples)

One of the key measures of spiritual health and vitality for ancient Israel was the care for widows, orphans and the aliens in the land, and God executed judgment when they failed to show concern for the poor and weak “God presides in the great assembly, he gives judgment among the ‘gods’: ‘How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:1-4). God also makes promises regarding the poor “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.” (Proverbs 19:17)

So the question is how do we faithfully live this calling out? If there are concerns with large top-down approaches like the One campaign, how can Christians speak to world poverty. One solution might be to invest in microlending (see example here). Microlending is a relatively new trend that focuses on giving small loans to small entrepreneurs in developing economies. For instance, on the streets of a third world country, there is a woman who makes her living selling produce – but her cart needs repairs, and if it were twice the size, she’d be able to sell more and actually begin to make a profit. Let’s say she can accomplish this for $40. This is a sum far too small for banks, so she turns to predatory lenders – loan sharks. And then all her profit goes not to the benefit of her family, but to the comfort of the lender. She is roughly shoved back down into poverty, even though she’s working hard to do things right. Now consider if there were an institution that made those small loans, charging reasonable interest – a bank that extends micro-loans. Now the woman would have the dignity of paying back the money – it’s not a handout. But she also lives without the fear of having her arms broken if she doesn’t make exorbitant payment. This is the concept of microlending.

And it’s at work all over the world. It seems to be changing lives and reshaping the way that poverty is addressed. Rather than throwing billions of dollars at the elite power brokers who oppress the citizens of third world nations, these microlending outfits go straight to the people who need the help. It’s a fascinating concept, though it has received its fair share of criticism.

Interestingly, Christians are not missing this opportunity to help. Presbyweb pointed me to a link from the Christian Science Monitor talking about microlending as ministry. I also discovered on Presbyweb that the Presbyterian Foundation has been investing in Oikocredit, a World Council of Churches founded microlending organization. It seems that God’s people are finally getting on board.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Augustine rediscovered

I'm slogging my way through City of God -- many reasons behind this. In part, I believe that a lot of the gobbledygook that floats about as Christian teaching is easily countered when we have a rich vibrant connection to the past -- I believe in giving our predecessors in the faith a voice in the conversation.

It's a mental equivalent of double chocolate cake with cream cheese icing -- rich and deservedly slow going. I'm in book 5 now, where Augustine begins to work out some of the differences between fatalism and God's sovereignty. Smack in the middle of this heady theological disputation is this wonderful spouting forth of praise of God's work of creation and providence -- just thought I'd share with you (read slowly and let each phrase linger in your mind for a bit):

“Therefore God supreme and true, with His Word and Holy Spirit (which three are one), one God omnipotent, creator and maker of every soul and of every body; by whose gift all are happy who are happy through verity and not through vanity; who made man a rational animal consisting of soul and body, who, when he sinned, neither permitted him to go unpunished, nor left him without mercy; who has given to the good and to the evil, being in common with stones, vegetable life in common with trees, sensuous life in common with brutes, intellectual life in common with angels alone; from whom is every mode, every species, every order; from whom are measure, number, weight; from whom is everything which has an existence in nature, of whatever kind it be, and of whatever value; from whom are the seeds of forms and the forms of seeds, and the motion of seeds and forms; who gave also to flesh its origin, beauty, health, reproductive fecundity, disposition of members, and the salutary concord of its parts; who also to the irrational soul has given memory, sense, appetite, but to the rational soul, in addition to these, has given intelligence and will; who has not left, not even to speak of heaven and earth, angels and men, but not even the entrails of the smallest and most contemptable animal or the feather of a bird, or the little flower of a plant, or the leaf of a tree, without an harmony, and, as it were, a mutual peace among all its parts; — that God can never be believed to have left the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes, outside of the laws of His providence.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 27, 2006

Imago Dei vs Original Sin

I’ve been working through a sermon series exploring a theology of service. In the first sermon, I laid the foundation using the doctrine of humanity made in the image of God. Looking at Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, I explored how all humans, regardless of status or position or physical capacity, are made in the image of God – as bearers of the divine image, they are due honor and respect.

And then, in the following week, I was approached by several people in our congregation with questions: what do we do about people who are so totally given over to evil – how do we deal with the effects of the fall on the image of God – is the imago dei lost?

Calvin goes to great pains to point out that the main expression of the divine image lies in the human soul – though he doesn’t confine it to that: “And although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.” (Institutes Vol 1, Ch 15, part 3). But then Calvin goes on to say that the image of God is not destroyed, but it is very corrupted by the fall “Therefore, even though we grant that God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in him, yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity.” (Vol 1, Ch 15, Part 4). Thus, the image is not lost by the fall – but it is in need of redemption. Calvin posits that we can know about the nature of the image of God by considering the nature of what Christ does for us in redemption.

So what’s the point? Well simply this – humans continue to carry the dignity of the divine image, but we also suffer under the depravity of corruption from the fall. This means not that we lose the excellencies of creativity and thought and relational ability. It means that we are bent away from using the excellencies of our gifts for God’s greater glory – rather we use them for our own satisfaction, aggrandizement, and comfort. Indeed, we are so adept at self-deception that we can use all God’s good gifts for our own ends, but still convince ourselves that we’re doing good.

Now what to do with those who have so given themselves over to sin that they don’t care about the harm they create in the course of their lives – how does the doctrine of the imago dei operate with these folks? First of all, it makes their condemnation all the greater – as they disrespect the imago dei that others carry, they bring greater condemnation upon themselves. Secondly, it moves us to weep – for we have to protect the weak against such predators. We need to shut away those who are bent on causing harm and destruction. (an aside, we don’t do this as individuals – God has given to the state the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-5) for this purpose). Our natural response to such aggression is wrath, but then after punishment has been executed, I suggest that we mourn what that an image bearer has so disregarded the divine image within.

I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts on this one.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Dog at Midnight -- post two

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been reading through The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. Though I thought it was a fine case for the innate dignity of all human beings, regardless of disability, there is one aspect that sullied my enjoyment of the book.

The author takes great pains to have the narrator, Christopher, debunk religion. For instance, when talking about his mother’s supposed death, Christopher says “…when Mother died she didn’t’ go to heaven because heaven doesn’t exist.” (32) – and the author shows an exchange between Christopher and Rev. Peters – in which Peters comes off as something of a dunce.

This scene is a little jarring, and it gives us a bit of a taste of Christopher’s character: his bluntness and his inability to accept mystery. In many ways, this is good character development and shouldn’t be too offensive to Christians.

Then Christopher takes a potshot at the supernatural – talking about the Cottingly Fairies hoax. He brings up Occam’s Razor – the principle of reasoning that says “No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.” At this point, he’s using this principle to debunk weird Victorian spiritualism – however, Occam’s Razor is sometimes used by atheists to dismiss Christianity as wishful thinking. (parenthetically, the problem with Occam’s razor is that the definition is so wide you could drive a division of Panzers through it and still have room for Hannibals pachyderms. “absolutely necessary” is way subjective. And, as the narrator points out earlier in the book, science keeps discovering new species and creatures that they never realized could exist – things that are not absolutely necessary, but exist nonetheless. Even so, the narrator holds to Occam’s razor as irrefutably true. )

And then there’s Christopher’s explanation of how the mind works: “….Also people think they’re not computers because they have feelings and computers don’t have feelings. But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry.”(119) Christopher posits that people are basically complicated machines. Another jab at theism – one that’s not entirely necessary to the story, but again helpful for character development.

Then, there’s this random chapter that has absolutely no connetion to any of the surrounding narrative – it is Christopher’s excursis on why people are silly to believe that God created humans. He ends by saying “….people who believe in God think God has put human beings on earth because they think human beings are the best animal, but human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo, like we put chimpanzees and gorillas into a zoo. Or human beings will all catch a disease and die out or they will make too much pollution and kill themselves, and then there will only be insects in the world and they will be the best animal.” (165). Here, the author has gone past character development – this seems just to be a potshot. By this point, it feels like the author is pushing a point.

This may seem like quibbling until we understand that author Mark Haddon is an avowed atheist. In an April 11, 2004 Interview with the Guardian on Writing Haddon says this:

I've recently returned from a publicity tour of Italy. You get asked different questions in Italy. One which cropped up several times was: 'Christopher is an atheist. Are you?'
I am. But I am atheist in a very religious mould. I'm always asking myself the big questions. Where did we come from? Is there a meaning to all of this? I read the King James Bible, as all English writers should. And when I find myself in church, I edit the hymns as I sing them, like President Clinton giving evidence to Kenneth Starr about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, just to make sure I'm not technically lying - 'All things bright and beautiful, the hmmm hmmm made them all.'

Religion provides believers with two contradictory things. It gives them answers. And it celebrates mystery. It reminds them that they are a vanishingly small part of a vast cosmos. And it shows them how they are intimately connected to every part of it.
Science and literature do this for me. They give me answers. And they ask me questions I will never be able to answer.

This is the nearest I come to what other people might call a religious experience.
First, when I'm trying to get my head round string theory or the evolution of the human eye. Second, when I open a book and find myself sliding effortlessly into the mind of someone who lived on the far side of the world and died long before I was born.”

So Haddon is an atheist, but an atheist who is alive to mystery and transcendence. This explains why after going a little over the top trying to have Christopher debunk religion, Haddon undermines Christopher’s perception of reality in a serious way. Christopher’s favorite dream is one in which most everyone in the world dies and he’s left mostly alone to go to the store and get his favorite foods and enjoy the ocean – he goes into stores and takes what he wants – and he’s left alone and he’s happy. He has no conception of how all the things he wants are produced for him by all these people who bother him. He has no idea about how much trouble his father goes through to create a stable environment for him. He has no clue about the price his mother pays for leaving everything in London to return with him to Swindon and live. Haddon makes it clear that this boy is very difficult to live with and has no concept of consideration for others. His ideal world cannot sustain itself.

So Haddon is no propagandist here – but he does let his worldview shape the narrative in a way that some Christians might wince. I encourage them to work with the discomfort. Consider it a small taste of identifying with the struggles of the caregivers. Realize that by a purely naturalistic worldview, people like Christopher should be eugenically eliminated from humanity – however the Christian worldview that posits that all human beings have dignity shows that there is value in the energy that we put into care and concern and growth and development of people like Christopher, even when they cant appreciate or understand it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Off the Shelf: The Curious Incident of the Dog At Midnight

As mentioned in my last post, I'm going to take a deeper look at this book which has been chosen for the On The Same Page, Cincinnati project for 2006.

Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager, discovers a murder: his neighbor's dog skewered with a gardening fork. The police, the neighbor and his father all assume Christopher is to blame. Thus, Christopher determines that he must solve the mystery, just like his favorite detective, Shelock Holmes. Along the way, he uncovers secrets about his fractured family. The reader is sucked into this mystery because the entire book is narrated in Christopher's voice. He sees things that we might not see, and he's oblivious to things that are painfully obvious to us -- and we readers must sort out what is actually going on.

This book will take several posts to process. The first and most obvious theme is the dignity of the narrator. In an interview with, author Mark Haddon says "Here's a character whom if you met him in real life you'd never, ever get inside his head. Yet something magical happens when you write a novel about him. You slip inside his head, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world." Haddon writes with empathy for Chris -- there is little lecturing or posturing here. He doesn't shake the finger saying "You should feel for autistic folks!"

Instead, he writes the story straight -- doing his best to be true to the glorious insights and maddening insensitivities that come through Christopher's voice. Many of the characters treat Christopher as a lunatic: one sequence describes Christopher's train trip from his home town to London. Along the way, fellow passengers insult, sneer, and shy away from his curious and at times frightening behavior. We, the readers, see inside his head, and we gain empathy. We see his mind capable of great mathematical calculations and original observations. We see his capacity for affection, despite his inability to understand the concept of love.

What we really see is the innate dignity of humanity. All humans are born bearing the imago Dei, the image of God. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). God doesn't reserve this dignity for only the healthy or functional nor is it set aside as the domain of the attractive or wealthy. God has not given this dignity as the province of a particular ethnicity. God has given dignity as a gracious gift to ALL humans , even those whom we would label as disabled or dysfunctional.

"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." The creation of humanity entails a unique kind of glory and honor. And this honor is due to those who are Autistic, Downs Syndome, Lou Gerhigs disease, and any other form of disability. As a hospital chaplain, I was at times called to neonatal intensive care -- there I saw children born with horrible disabilities who would not survive more than a few weeks. I saw a mother of a child born without a recognizable face -- and she cradled this child in her arms and gave it what love it's short life would have. That motherly instinct to give affecion is but another response to the dignity that every human being carries.

In a world that marginalizes and ignores people like Christopher, we as Christians are called to bring honor to them as best we can. Some have been gifted with more patience and capacity for dealing with the unique challenges that come from disabled folks. But all of us are to recognize that they are bearers of the image of God. Haddon's book is a stirring reminder of this deep foundational truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On the same page

One of the great things that Cincinnati has is our Public Library -- easily the best library system I've seen yet. Among the reasons I like the Library is the annual community reading project: On the Same Page. The idea is this -- once a year, a team picks a book that they will encourage the whole city to read. Then they will provide discussion resources and interesting venues through which the community can come together and talk. It's a great exercise in community building that has been done quite successfully in other cities.

By now, you know my bias toward having Christians engage in the community in winsome and positive ways -- and this is one of those great opportunities. We are being invited to read and respond and engage in the community -- it doesn't get any easier than this. What a great chance to read, reflect through a theological lens, and then engage with the watching world.

This requires preparation -- reading the material, interacting with the discussion questions, and thinking theologically (not just what does the book say about faith - but what does the story show about the great themes of sin, redemption, dignity and depravity, hope, and the eternal -- all these themes point striaght to the gospel).

Of course engaging also requires listening -- not just waiting to make your case, but truly listening and getting inside the worldview of the others who are speaking. If their approach is different from yours, you don't have to refute their perspective, simply say "well, I come from a different perspective...." No one can argue with that.

Over the next few posts, I'll try to take you through my experience with this year's On the Same Page book: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. I'd be very interested in comments from those of you who have read the book or participated in On the Same Page in the past.

Soli Deo Gloria