Friday, May 29, 2020

Read this and weep

I'm still reeling from the murder of an innocent man in Minneapolis by police. Then today I read this piece in Christianity Today that he was a "man of peace." All I can say is that our culture hates people of peace and will destroy them, if possible.

I weep for what this country has become. It never was perfect, but at least once upon a time, it seemed we were trying to move in the correct direction. Now? The dollar has triumphed and hate and fear rule.

Lord, have mercy! Heal our broken land!

The rule of faith (continued)

What one sees in the rule of faith, therefore, is something of a feedback loop, what Wilken calls a reverberation of sorts and an “arc of understanding.” A community of faith, because of the faith that emerges from its experience of the divine (even if that experience, at its most direct, lies in the distant past, preserved in sacred literature), now engages in practices of faith whereby it re(de)fines both faith and practice through the course of time and in close conjunction with its central locus of revelation: in this case, its authoritative religious texts.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, 154

So how does it all work?

We have learned that we, made in the image of the triune God, are relational, loving, and covenantal. This is God’s will for us and for our behavior—a certain way of relating—while God’s ultimate plan for the universe is to gather us all up into a joyful play of communion together.

It is this divine reality and accompanying ethic that lies behind the diversity we see in the early church. Jews committed to Jesus and pagans converted to him coexisted within a common loving relational pattern that was nevertheless open to their cultural differences. The church lives out of its resurrected location, beyond many of the structures shaping our current life in the flesh. This allows God’s will to be expressed and obeyed diversely among different people. However, this is no flight from bodies. Our present bodies of flesh experience the empowerment of a resurrected mind and the pressure of a God who draws us ceaselessly into loving relationality.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 178–79

Thursday, May 28, 2020

How did he do that?

[W]e never see the importance of the Christian virtue of faithfulness more than we do in Paul’s long final imprisonment, and we never see more than here the way it is grounded in the faithfulness of Jesus himself. Paul never expected that he had to summon up this fidelity—this courage and trust and superhuman endurance—from his own meager fleshly resources. This had to be the gift of God, and all gifts of God ultimately come through Jesus, the great gift from God, and from their Spirit. We can be faithful ultimately only because he has been faithful, and yet because he has been faithful we can be faithful to an extraordinary degree. This is the final theological lesson we see figuring forth from Paul’s final biographical chapter.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 177

Yahwism and the Rule of Faith

But where did this corpus of Yahwistic texts come from? Who preserved it and so forth? Obviously and most mundanely, it was originally the people of Israel and Judah, and then, belatedly, the early Jewish and Christian communities that descended from them and composed, preserved, and transmitted the religious literature that eventually came to be recognized as the canonical writings of the OT/HB. Religious literature, however, emerges from religious experience, except in the most cynical and secular interpretations of religion. What that means is that it was Israel’s experience of the god YHWH that led to the composition, preservation, and transmission of a massive amount of literature about YHWH, which in turn helped to insure YHWH’s survival and also served to separate him from his more plodding ANE peers. Since this is mostly a historical judgment based on sociohistorical factors and the existence of certain literary realia—one that could be taken in a thin way—I wish to thicken it up a bit with some theological considerations.

I do so by appealing to the notion of “the rule of faith” (regula dei), a term used in the study of early Christianity for a statement of belief that existed in something of a symbiotic relationship with further development and practice of that belief.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, 152–53

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The power of the written word

Another major difference between YHWH and his ANE confreres is the biblical corpus, already mentioned above, which is large in size and scope. It is this corpus of sacred, authoritative literature—and one need not posit formal canonicity or an early date for canonical forms for the point to hold—that seems to have helped YHWH survive, since the other gods we know of seem to have lacked anything remotely comparable and went the way of the dodo bird as a result.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, 152

Death, be not proud!

Paul no longer killed for God; but he had learned that he needed to be willing to be killed for God. It is this type of leadership and this narrative that allows minority Jewish and Christian groups to continue to survive in the face of acute pressures from the powers that rule pagan-majority cultures. Church leaders must be prepared to stand firm whatever the cost inflicted on them—the story of the martyr. This is Political Survival 101. The church remembered Paul as someone who would endure prison, which meant enduring arrest, intimidation, interrogation, trial, and the threat of punishment. In so doing it was equipped to survive everything the Roman Empire, and every other empire, could fling at it.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 176–77

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Not really one of the gang

But there is also YHWH’s distinctiveness to consider. So, while YHWH is part of the gang—at least some of the time, and maybe more frequently than that—there are still moments when he is not one of the gang, or at least not only that. This judgment is no less historical than were assertions about YHWH’s similarity, since the same could be said for each and every ANE deity, at least to some degree. Each one of these gods, that is, is unique in some fashion. Marduk is not Baal, and Hathor is not Isis, and Ishtar is not Nabu—well, until they sort of are. The gods retain individuality, except when they don’t, which is what happens in certain relatively rare cases where they are collapsed into each other via a focus on just one high god in a move that is summodeistic, henotheistic, monolatrous, or monotheizing, if not fully monotheistic. Or it can happen in moments of god mergers, where formerly if not formally distinct gods are equated and identified thereafter.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 151

The proof is in the dying

This long incarceration and final execution also wrote martyrdom into the church’s definition of leadership. Paul’s faithfulness and courage must have impressed if not chastened the other leaders of the early church. He had endured a great deal and then died for his Lord—more than most of them had yet done, although several would eventually join him. Paul’s martyrdom would have sealed the sincerity and power of his mission in his own blood. Moreover, it wrote the importance of being prepared to die into the church’s leadership manual. And embracing this narrative would prove crucial to the survival of the church during the centuries that followed (and it still does). Paul, like Jesus, modeled a willingness to die on behalf of God, which meant a willingness to face down charges and trials, to endure imprisonments, and to refuse to be frightened by death, all the while eschewing the weapons of the world.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 176

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Random question

Random question: What do you make of an essay where the only references are to works written by the author of the essay?

Does that raise questions in your mind? Should it?

Friday, May 22, 2020

One of the gang?

We might begin by saying first that, while YHWH is more than just one of the gang, YHWH is nevertheless and most certainly a part of the gang, at least to some degree and to some extent. To what degree precisely and to what extent exactly will vary from scholar to scholar and will depend on the nature of the data (texts and/or artifacts) at hand, but the general point is (or should be) uncontroversial. As Patrick D. Miller rightly asserts, YHWH is the most distinctive aspect of Israelite religion. But, with this point granted, it is important to note that the deity name YHWH appears to be attested outside and earlier than both the biblical material and Israelite epigraphic remains.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 146

A block of wood, thinly sliced

It seems, then, that the words spoken in the past by God and now treasured up in a written form as Scripture, are not the words of God if they are not spoken again by God. Without the animation of the Spirit and the summons of Christ, they are just words that have been written down by human hands with pen and ink and parchment—treasured and valuable to be sure. They were the words of God, after all. However, words about God’s former wishes drawn from the handwritten texts that record them are sadly open to demonic exploitation unless God reiterates them overtly for us again. In particular, when Scripture says not to do something it makes a direct suggestion in that very moment about how to sin. The command not to covet as it is written in the Scriptures immediately suggests all sorts of sins—desire for a neighbor’s house, spouse, servants, donkey, ox, property, and much else besides.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 156

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Polemical? Maybe not

So, to take Ps 29 as an example, if Frank Moore Cross and those who have followed him are right, that psalm was originally one for a weather god who was not YHWH; for Cross, it was Balu. Now, maybe Cross and company are wrong, but assuming they are correct for the moment (even if only for sake of argument), Israelite reception of this “Baalistic” text need not be polemical in nature. The replacement of one god’s name with another’s is not polemic per se. It is, instead, a matter of reattribution or replacement, redaction or revi sion. Polemic would seem to require more than that, and perhaps a lot more: it needs explicit and contrarian tone over against another subject, which, in this particular case, is another deity. Barring that, Ps 29 looks more like a famous song that has been covered by another group on a different album from the original recording by the initial artists, rather than a protracted argument against the previous band that serves the primary if not sole function of making the new band look altogether better, completely unique, and entirely sui generis.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, pp. 144–45

"Yes, but" theology

[R]eligion is alive and well in the modern church. I sometimes call religious versions of Christianity “Jesus—but” theology. Any time someone says the name Jesus, thereby referencing what he does for us, and goes on to add the little word “but,” we are most likely in the presence of Christian religion, not the gospel, and this is, as religion always is, unsettling and destructive.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 148

<idle musing> A. W. Tozer, in Pursuit of God talks about "God and" theology being the same thing. People say, "I want God and. . ." He argued (persuasively in my mind) that what they really mean is they don't want God.
</idle musing>

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Too simplistic

If the first response was overly historicized, this second one is overly apologetic—too confessional even, and to the extreme—but unnecessarily so, or perhaps better, in ways that are just too simple, especially theologically, if not also historically. To take the latter point first, there is more than sufficient historical reason to deem a number of instances in the Bible as heavily and directly dependent on ANE antecedents in an appreciative, not solely contrarian way. One simply has to admit this point, and let the comparative “team” put some points on the board, as it were. How could it be otherwise? Why shouldn’t it be otherwise? Ancient Israel was, after all, part of the ancient world and located on a prime piece of real estate: an important crossroad between the superpowers to the south, north, east, and (later) west.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 144 (emphasis original)

Why do you do it?

We do not behave in the right way because we covet or fear the final consequences of this in terms of going to heaven or being cast into hell. To behave in this way is a betrayal of our relationship with God. Reasoning in this fashion, we don’t care about God, and we don’t care about the good either. We are behaving selfishly, and if we behave correctly for this reason we still sin. We should behave in the right way because we love God and want to do what pleases him. He has shown us what the good thing to do is and we want to do the good thing to please him. Christian ethics is covenantal because it flows from personal relationships—our personal relationship with a loving God—and we must hang on to this, earnest religious ethicists notwithstanding.

In sum: to be covenantal is to be ethical in the deepest possible way. To be contractual, supposedly on ethical grounds, is to weaken ethics drastically. So I am going to stay covenantal and read Paul in that way too, not least because I think he was so ethical.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 143

Monday, May 18, 2020

But, doesn't that mean…

Many people become anxious at the thought that God might be unconditionally and permanently committed to us in love—strange but true. They worry that people will take God for a ride and misbehave. If we are permanently in God’s good books, then why would we want to do the right thing and respond to him and to others as we should, sometimes in costly actions of kindness? The concern here, in other words, is ethical. Does this understanding of God undercut ethics? Will we stop behaving well because we are under the gaze of a covenantal God? This was probably the concern that Paul’s Enemies had.

I understand these concerns, but they are the absolute opposite of the truth. A covenantal relationship exerts the strongest possible ethical pressure on its partners. Abandoning a covenant, conversely, and structuring relationships with a contract, relaxes those pressures and allows unethical behavior in all sorts of ways. It is, paradoxically, religion that is unethical!—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 141

Friday, May 15, 2020

The differences

[T]he data presently available must be reckoned with, and this includes the material from the OT, which, despite its distinction from texts recovered directly from the dirt and its more “traditioned” nature, still counts as evidence, and thus has to be taken into thorough consideration in any sort of discussion of YHWH. To put the matter mildly, the profile of YHWH found in this corpus—quite apart from its particular problems or irregularities—outpaces every other ancient Semitic god we know, in quantity alone if not also in quality. There are similarities, to be sure, among YHWH, Chemosh, Marduk, and their other divine friends, but differences are also manifest—again in quantity alone, if not also quality. Simply put, we know a whole lot more about YHWH’s “interior life” than we do about Balu’s. The differences between YHWH and the gods that are apparent at this juncture (and not only here) highlight the inadequacy of this first, overly-similar response (over-similarity), even as they also lead directly to the second unhelpful perspective.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 143

Love? Or Justice? Covenant or Contract?

If God relates to us conditionally, through a contract, in a religious way, then God no longer loves us. We must be talking about another sort of God. Certainly we are not talking about the God who is definitively revealed by Jesus.

Love is not conditional. We have just seen this when we talked about healthy families and deep friendships. Love is irrevocable. It is unconditional. It never gives up, never lets go. If we introduce conditions into our relationships with people then we only love them if they fulfill those conditions. If they break those conditions we stop loving them. If God only loves us when we fulfill certain conditions then God has to be conditioned into loving us, and this is quite a limited situation. God’s fundamental attitude toward us—to which he will immediately return if the right conditions are not fulfilled—is something different from love, and is presumably just. This is, moreover, how God relates to most people since most people in history have not been members of the church. Now justice is okay, but it can be very harsh, and it certainly isn’t love; and love based on the fulfillment of certain conditions isn’t love either. I am not a husband or a parent who loves his family because my spouse and my children fulfill certain conditions. Our relationships are not based on contracts or justice. My family can do nothing to break this relationship. It is a covenant, not a contract, and God is just the same. Love is higher than justice as the heavens are higher than the earth.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 140–41

<idle musing>
It boils down to this: Is love an attribute of God? Or is love who God is in essence? If an attribute, then God isn't love; God chooses to love some and not others. If that is true, then god is capricious and not worthy of love. Such a god is worthy of fear and probably worship, but not love.

Personally, I believe the scriptures teach that God is love. It is who God is, not a mere attribute like justice or power.

Just an
</idle musing>

Thursday, May 14, 2020

An inadequate response

The first inadequate response is to posit YHWH as just one of the ANE “gang,” no more and no less. In this perspective, YHWH looks like “Chemosh and Com- pany” (and vice versa) simply because he is, like them, a deity from ancient southwestern Asia, and that’s just the way things were back then and over there. Strong and extensive family resemblances between the various Semitic gods exist, therefore, because these deities are of a piece geographically and chronologically, at the very least, in the same way that Norse gods or Greek gods are of a piece and, as such, not of a piece with the other types or with the Semitic variety. We can, of course, parse the gang out more finely: YHWH is not just Semitic, he is southern Levantine and also strongly northwest Semitic. And so it is that he looks a whole lot like Ugaritic Ilu and Balu, but also like Moabite Chemosh and Edomite Qaus, and maybe Ammonite Milkom to boot. Insofar as YHWH controls the storm, he favors that specific branch of the divine family tree, which includes Balu but also others, especially as one moves further north into Hatti and eastward into Mesopotamia. Insofar as YHWH is sometimes said to come from desert climes, he reveals his relationship to other family members; as a god of the mountains, he favors still others. Maybe even YHWH’s seriously depopulated pantheon—the fact that he often appears to be an austere bachelor mountain god—is further evidence of his affinity to certain regional subgroups.—Brent A. Strawn in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, pp. 141–42

<idle musing>
As he said, an inadequate response. I would say a lazy response—and reductive. But, in the early part of the 20th century that type of research was rampant via the history of religions approach. The approach has merit, but at that time some of the caveats we now have weren't in place. For an example, read James Frazer's Golden Bough. It's great fun to read—as long as you realize that a serious reductionism is going on. The same with most of Joseph Campbell's stuff, and to a large extent Mircea Eliade, as well. Fun stuff to read and provocative thinking. But usually wrong.

Just an
</idle musing&gr;

It's covenant, dummy!

It follows from this that God’s relationship with us is unbreakable. Because God loves us this much, God will never let us go. If we think of a healthy family that is loving and committed——and I realize that many people, sadly, do not come from families like this——we can see that the parents are irrevocably committed to their children. Their relationships with their children are covenantal. They are unbreakable. Damageable, yes. Frequently bruised and hurt, yes. But breakable, no. These parents can never rescind being parents. They are parents forever. Their children will always be their children, and vice versa. I am the parent of two children and will never not be their parent. Never. Are they perfect? No. Are our relationships free from difficulty, hurt, and disappointment? No. Am I committed to them permanently and irrevocably? Of course I am. This will never change. These sorts of covenantal relationships—of utter loving commitment—lie at the heart of all healthy relating. They do not have to spring only from families. Paul had no spouse or children but he had friends who would die for him and he for them. Covenantal families and friendships foster all true human flourishing.

In the light of this it is tragic to see how often people alter these arrangements and claim that personal flourishing must take an altogether different form. When this happens we are no longer teaching the gospel at all. The gospel has been altered into something we can call religion. But how exactly do we transform the gospel into religion? It’s very easy. We insert conditions. This move transforms unconditional familial relationships of love into conditional and legal relationships of limited obligation. The covenantal forms of the gospel are replaced by the contractual forms of religion. It’s a small step for a religious person but a giant leap backwards for humankind.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 139–40

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Amazing Love! How Can It Be?

Paul’s gospel proclaimed a God who is for us. He was for us before we were for him. He reached out to us while we were still estranged, hostile, and sinful, going to extraordinary lengths to draw us back. The Father and the Spirit offered up their only beloved Son to die for us. The Son accepted the will of the Father and the Spirit and obeyed this fate, becoming one with us and dying for us. This tells us that God loves us, and loves us before he does or is anything else. God is love all the way across and all the way down. This is the extraordinary and highly counterintuitive message of texts like Romans 5:5–6 and 8, although we have seen how it permeates almost everything else that Paul says elsewhere in his letters.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 139

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

What does leadership look like?

Paul deepens his important account of what a Christian leader should look like in 2 Corinthians. Christian leaders don’t look like much to the outsider, and they shouldn’t. They are meant to get alongside people, no matter how humble, so they need to abandon most cultural markers of leadership that are based on status and capital. We must learn to radically reevaluate authentic Christian leadership in terms of Jesus. But we learn two further highly significant things from 2 Corinthians about the Christian city: about how it handles money, within an economy of generosity and giving; and how it handles disputes, with a process of restorative justice.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 123

Monday, May 11, 2020

Scarcity? Not so much

A great deal of modern society is premised on a false sense of scarcity. The wealthiest society in human history—the USA—is obsessed with how much it still needs! This mentality leads us to accuse God of failing to show up when our expressed needs are not met. How many of our prayers are requests to God to give us something that is ultimately about money? Our expressed needs, which may be little more than thinly disguised cultural expectations, may need to be reeducated by a community that is generous but also trusting and simple. Grounded in the lives of those living on the outside, Paul has a firm grip on the frivolities of life and on what he really needs. As he says famously in Philippians 4:11b—13:
I am not saying this because I am in need,
for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need,
and I know what it is to have plenty.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,
whether well fed or hungry,
whether living in plenty or in want.
I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
I suspect that our modern culture desperately needs leaders that are similarly grounded.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 119&ndash20

Friday, May 08, 2020

Memorize these verses, please!

Isaiah 8:11 The LORD spoke to me, taking hold of me and warning me not to walk in the way of this people: 12 Don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear, and don’t be terrified. 13 It is the LORD of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe. (CEB, emphasis added)

<idle musing>
Please people, use some common sense. Don't believe everything you read on Facebook/Twitter/YouTube. Experts aren't out to get you! If you are grounded in Jesus, it wouldn't matter if they were!

Memorize these verses and recite them to yourself every time you run across the latest conspiracy theory. Remind yourself that God is in charge, not the person(s) supposedly behind the latest theory to trend on your social media feed.

Oh, and spending more time reading scripture than reading your Facebook feed might be helpful to your spiritual state, too.
</idle musing>

YHWH and ethics

Third, while the Mesha Inscription has little to say about the ethical lives of nations, persons, and even Chemosh—except for its condemnation of Omri and Israel for oppressing Moab—the HB is rich with commentary about the morality of people and deity. It is only YHWH who is righteous and holy. The moral lives of nations and even exemplary individuals are frail, even tending to lurch aside into faithlessness. The HB shows little reticence in condemning even great kings for their missteps—worship of foreign gods, military alliances with other kings, and oppression of their own subjects. Yet, in the mystery of God’s sovereignty and grace there is the desire to restore Israel in holiness and righteousness and even use them to bless all nations.—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, 137

Christianity is all about giving

A community of mutual commitment and kindness should be a community that gives to its members generously and shares its resources happily. One person enjoys largesse at a given moment. He ought to help others who at that same moment are in need. Hence the wealthy Corinthians should give to their poor community members and to the poor in the community at Jerusalem. This is not a law or even a fixed pattern. It’s an interpersonal dynamic that adjusts as circumstances adjust, bearing in mind that the resources to give are ultimately supplied by God. God is fundamentally a giving God who gives of himself and continues to give. Jesus is a gift, freely given and immeasurably enriching. The economy of the Christian community and its handling of money is all about giving, and about this sort of giving.

As usual, it’s so very simple and so very hard.

I imagine that Christian communities through the ages have done what the Corinthians did, generating a hundred and one different reasons to avoid this economy of free, generous giving to all, with the ultimate end of equality. But there is no escape. A Christian economy, for the soundest theological reasons, is redistributive. It is this because it values its members, and their bodies, and so gives, and does so as God has given to us—freely, extravagantly, and without conditions.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 119

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Past? Future? Nah! Just the present

Second, the Mesha Inscription describes the relationship between Moab and Chemosh only in the most immediate terms: the reign of Mesha and perhaps his father. The HB, though, repeatedly directs the reader’s attention to the past, when God made promises to earlier generations, delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery, and forgave transgressions. Current events appear only as a point in the stream that continues into God’s future.—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 137

Corinth? US? What's the difference?

Converts tend to bring their prejudices straight into the church, leaving them behind only slowly after a long period of teaching and adjustment. If they do not abandon these cultural values—perhaps because the wrong leaders are modeling the wrong things for them—they will horribly misunderstand who should be leading them. In local cultural terms, Christian leaders look like nothing, and if they are authentic Christian leaders that is just what they should look like. They abandon pagan markers of leadership, which are invariably tied to some ascent to fame, status, and fortune. Fake Christian leaders, however, will probably look and sound great and will appeal to any converts who have not had their values reshaped. In so doing they will nevertheless betray the true nature of Christian leadership. This was the main battle that Paul was fighting at Corinth.

It is possible to evaluate Christian leaders in the suffering and the costliness they endure. A Christian leader must evidence faithfulness. She must walk obediently in the footsteps of the one who endured homelessness, rejection, and a shameful death. Christian leaders evidence grace under pressure. These are the markers of authenticity, and the church went on to map them in stories of martyrs.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 117

<idle musing>
Wow! He pegged all the celebrity preachers/prosperity preachers there, didn't he? Everything they model is the exact opposite of Christlikeness. But they sure do appeal to the US cultural norms! They check all the boxes for worldly status and prestige. A bit short on humility, though, wouldn't you say?
</idle musing>

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Flat Chemosh

First, the portrayal of Chemosh in the Mesha Inscription emerges as one-dimensional and superficial. Chemosh is primarily a god present in time of war, enabling either an aggressive Israel to oppress Moab or a resurgent Moab to drive out her enemies. There is no explanation given for Chemosh’s anger or for his reversal. Nothing is said about the deity’s character or the reason for his disposition toward Moab. He is a cipher and may have been viewed as arbitrary and been feared more than loved. His relationship with Moab was driven by the rational exchange of favors between god and devotee. While the HB presents YHWH as also capable of great violence, Israel’s God is characterized by justice, faithfulness, and compassion. This God sought not just the respect of Israel but also her love, exclusive devotion, and understanding.—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 137

Real Christian leadership

Paul articulated the heart of this type of leadership in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 when he spoke of Jesus being crucified especially for the poor and the marginalized within humanity. In the same way, authentic Christian leaders reach alongside those whom society is uninterested in. They abandon their own cultural capital, if they have any, and live alongside those whom God has called into their community. This is how Christian communities are supposed to be established. It becomes increasingly apparent in 2 Corinthians that the way Christian leaders act externally, when communities are being founded, is also the way they need to act internally once those communities—along with all their awkward differences——are up and running. When missionaries reach out to others in friendship, bridging into awkward spaces, they get alongside people. Paul is now applying that approach internally, to the Corinthians. This approach can lead a community forward, despite its differences, and hold it together as it navigates the unsettling impact of the Spirit on its cultural forms. The leadership modeled in the cross applies everywhere. But this sort of leadership makes genuine Christian leaders vulnerable, which is probably why so many people avoid it.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 116

<idle musing>
Two things: 1. "authentic Christian leaders reach alongside those whom society is uninterested in"
and 2. "this sort of leadership makes genuine Christian leaders vulnerable, which is probably why so many people avoid it."

Correct on both counts. Ouch! North American Christianity stands condemned on both counts.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Chemosh vs. YHWH

The similarities between the Mesha Inscription and the HB that began this essay have been confirmed by our MFT [Moral Foundations Theory] analysis: the religious practices of Moab were consonant in many respects with those of ancient Israel. Surely, this facilitated the ease with which Israelites adopted the worship of Chemosh and other foreign gods and initiated marriage and political relations with non-Yahwists in the Iron Age. The prevailing voice of the HB, though, harshly condemned these engagements with Israel’s neighbors (Neh 13:23–27; 2 Kgs 16; Isa 7). Although all six moral foundations appear in the Mesha Inscription and the HB, loyalty/ betrayal and sanctity/degradation are more important in the HB, and there are striking differences in the ways that the MI and HB employ the foundations.—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, p. 136

Six million dollar man

The manipulation of beings in the spiritual realm had rules. It was all about power. The gods were the most powerful beings, but there were legions of other spirits and influences, and this explains why Paul became famous indirectly when this exorcism went wrong. The demon the Jewish magicians were trying to cast out was so strong that he overcame seven grown men. When he said “I know Jesus and I know Paul,” he was saying in spirit-talk that he respected Jesus and Paul. The word in Greek suggests that he “acknowledges” Jesus. He was admitting that if Paul had been present, commanding him in the name of Jesus to leave, he would have had to go. But the group of seven magicians lacked the power to get him to do anything. That an enormously powerful demon capable of beating seven men, speaking from the spirit world, had acknowledged the authority of Jesus and of his servant, Paul, did not just impress a great mass of Ephesians; it struck fear into them. Huge numbers converted. Then another interesting thing happened.

The Ephesians brought their magic scrolls and spells and burned them in a great bonfire in the street (Acts 19:17-19). Acts suggests that the pile of material might have cost, in today’s terms, as much as six million dollars. (It was fifty thousand times the daily wage of a skilled laborer.) Even if the author is exaggerating a little, this is a huge sum of money being incinerated. Paul had made an impact! Try to imagine something similar happening in your town one day. The main street would be closed as six million dollars’ worth of porn videos, computer games, and insurance policies went up in smoke. That would make CNN. The bonfire also tells us something interesting about the things Paul was preaching.

The Ephesians were burning their magical scrolls because they no longer needed them. They were now being protected from demons and curses by the God revealed in Jesus for free. He was clearly an extremely powerful God who could shield them from any spiritual aggressors.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 113

Monday, May 04, 2020

What is this holiness?

[W]hile the motif of holiness may be found widely in ANE religions in religious-cultic settings, it appears with distinctive wrinkles in the HB (see Exod 34:11–17; 2 Kgs 21:4–9), where God is the source of holiness (“the holy one of Israel”; 2 Kgs 19:22) and calls Israel to be holy (Lev 11:44). God’s holiness is concentrated in the temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial system (see Lev 1–7) but also extends throughout the land of Israel, and so it is important that God’s commandments be observed throughout the land (Lev 18:1–5, 24–30): the people were not only to eschew idolatry but also to honor parents, observe religious festivals that bound the community together, provide for the poor, and so on (Lev 19:3–37).—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, pp. 135–36

It's really simple, if you're willing to die to self!

First, Paul’s ethic of Christian love was deeply countercultural and highly demanding. Homogeneous and idealized communities mask how tough it is to practice this kindness and consideration across social divisions where it needs to bridge and heal and not merely to fit into a group that already gets along quite well. Corinth exposes this countercultural challenge.

Second, it is clear that local Christian leadership is critical to this process, and this leadership has to be formed on Christ’s leadership, modeled by Paul and his students. Conventional assessments of value must be abandoned. Conventional competitive relations must be repented of. This recalibration of what an authentic leader looks like is so important to the health of the community and so difficult. Every community has elites, and invariably throughout history those elites have contested for status in terms of conventional markers. Paul is challenging the Corinthians and us to do things very differently. The deeply countercultural challenge of Christian behavior is exposed by Corinth here again, and it reveals as no other community does the need for good leaders if a diverse Christian community is to move forward.

Third, we learn that intellectualism—in the form of aggressive theologcal and ethical judgments that are separated from right relating and from the right depth in the Jewish tradition—is damaging. It creates further differences that become places of further tension, dispute, and conflict. Christian thinking must not be separated from (other) Christian acting in relation to other Christians. Neither must it be separated from a broader and richer account of the community rooted in Judaism. Above all, it must not suppose that our bodies do not matter! We act through our bodies, so everything they do is important.

In sum, the Christian way is fairly simple in theory. It asks all its followers to be kind and considerate toward one another. It asks its leaders to be sensitive to “the least of these,” if necessary, living alongside them. But this is incredibly demanding in practice. These are deeply countercultural dynamics. If they are to take root, above all they require leaders, and the right sort of leadership. Christian leaders must help their communities to navigate their current locations ethically with due depth, sensitivity, and courage.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 10

Friday, May 01, 2020

Moral Foundation

[B]oth the Mesha Inscription and the HB assign great importance to the moral foundation of authority, although the latter assigns greater authority to deity and highlights the potential for kings to subvert obedience to God.—M. Patrick Graham in Divine Doppelgängers: YHWH’s Ancient Look-Alikes, 134

Leading by whose standards?

Paul points out at the beginning of 1 Corinthians at length—returning to the theme at many later points in the rest of the letter——that this is a fundamental betrayal of Christian community [competing for status based on the values of culture]. Christians are to love, support, and encourage one another, not compete with one another; and their leaders are to follow in the footsteps of the crucified Christ. The leader who reaches down to live alongside people, and who values and engages with the poor and the marginalized, is the true Christian leader. This is the “appearance” that matters.

We learn a lot from this Corinthian debacle. In small, relatively homogeneous communities like Philippi, Thessalonica, and Colossae, Paul’s ethic didn’t have to deal with the tensions created by deep social divisions. (This is one of the benefits of “homophily,” as the sociologists put it.) At Thessalonica he had to deal with things like lazy community members. In a larger, more diverse church like Corinth, Paul’s ethic of kindness faced much tougher challenges. It had to overcome deep divisions of race, class, and gender present within the fabric of the community. However, it is at this exact moment that we see both the importance of Christian leadership and its true nature. Christian leaders can manage and heal these divisions, provided they act appropriately. They are to humble themselves and to bridge existing social chasms of race, class, and gender, thereby drawing the community together behind them. But this type of leadership is deeply countercultural. It is hard even to recognize, while cultural accounts of leadership in terms of status, wealth, and influence directly undermine this authentic account. Such are the challenges of true Christian leadership, and the impossibility of true Christian community without it!—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 99

<idle musing>
Ain't that the truth! Let's highlight this set of sentences:

Christian leaders can manage and heal these divisions, provided they act appropriately. They are to humble themselves and to bridge existing social chasms of race, class, and gender, thereby drawing the community together behind them. But this type of leadership is deeply countercultural. It is hard even to recognize, while cultural accounts of leadership in terms of status, wealth, and influence directly undermine this authentic account.
That's the heart of it. Jesus showed us how, by emptying himself; he calls us to do the same. And lest you think it's too difficult to accomplish, he gave us the Holy Spirit to accomplish it in us. We only need to surrender. "Only" is the difficult part, isn't it?
</idle musing>