Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

My New Book: The River of Life

Monday, September 15, 2014 in Book Excerpt | 2 comments

My New Book: The River of Life

My latest book has been published by Energion Publications, and copies are on their way to me from the printer! Anyone who would like review copies should contact me or Henry Neufeld at Energion.

This book is less scholarly than my previous books, much more personal and much shorter. It is an easy read, helping readers to understand the focus and beliefs of liberal Christians. Here’s a sneak preview of the opening paragraphs:

*********

I am an agnostic Christian.

For the sake of full disclosure, perhaps I should define what I mean by agnostic. I believe in God; I just don’t think we know squat about him. I sense that we are linked by something mysterious, that we are more than matter. I am not agnostic in general, I am merely agnostic toward the Christian depiction of God, or any other personal god, feeling that inadequate evidence exists for one caricature to rise above the rest. Arguing about whether it is Shiva or Allah who is the Truth is a little like bickering over the color of Cinderella’s eyes. Yet I believe, because I have both seen and felt God. I have sat in the churches of various denominations and seen strong people reduced to emotional puddles and then lifted into radiance. I have seen kidneys given to complete strangers. I marvel at Mother Teresa’s mission of kindness in the name of God, though she herself felt estranged from the God of her church.

I am a Christian in search of God. Christian, because Jesus is my inspiration and Christianity is my heritage.

Life is a mystery. How do we explain our universe, life’s origins, and human consciousness? In the Christian Trinity, we have the Son (the mystery of incarnation, or God-in-us); we have the Father (the mystery of our creation and creator); and we have the Spirit (that “something mysterious,” the wave of meaning and purpose which links us). All three are astounding, beautiful, awesome. We Christians tend to combine these three mysteries into one, and then personify their union, though we have no evidential reason for doing so. Nevertheless, I am happy uniting all three under the heading of God so that a common ground exists for discussion.

I am also a liberal Christian, living in a conservative world. Most of my family and friends are conservative Christians. Conservatives consider apostolic tradition of utmost importance, meaning they seek to emulate the first-century church as best they know how. This is a noble goal, but it can lead to stringent intolerance for diluted beliefs. It’s the right way or the highway. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, find the creedal requirements which develop from such strictness stifling and contrary to observation and experience. We see God in many people and places, not just in Christian circles. This can lead liberals to a violent condemnation of narrow doctrine. Intolerance is intolerable.

And round and round we go. As a liberal Christian, I have both stooped to verbal aggression and felt the sting of attack. Both sides care so dang much that we can’t help squabbling, but this hardly puts a good face on Christianity. If the two sides could merely take one step backward, digging back to the Jesus we both adore, perhaps there could be a unity of purpose. Even though there can never be agreement about religious belief, the Kingdom could nevertheless advance. That is my hope in writing this book.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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John 21:11 Why 153 Fish?

Sunday, September 14, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

John 21:11 Why 153 Fish?

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

//Most of you know this story, how the disciples, disheartened after the death of Jesus, decide to go fishing. They have no luck at all. But suddenly a mysterious stranger appears (it’s Jesus, of course) and tells them to cast out one more time. They do, and net 153 fish.

Numbers are significant in the Bible. So what does the number 153 signify? Are we really supposed to believe that somebody sat down and counted all the fish, then recorded the number for preservation in our Bible? Or is the author of John’s Gospel telling us something meaningful … something that, probably, no contemporary reader, distanced by nearly two millennia from the readers this gospel was written for, can ever make sense of?

Some time ago, I posted a few guesses about the meaning of this number. At the time, I wrote this: “Add up all the integers from 1 to 17, and you get 153. Does that shed any light on the puzzle? Hmmm, probably not.”

Well, maybe it DOES mean something. The twelve loaves and five fishes of Jesus’ miracle feeding are highly significant numbers. And twelve plus five equals seventeen, the magic number we started with. This sort of numerology is common in the Bible.

But what is the ancients’ fascination with numbers in the first place? We’ll probably never know.

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John :42-44, The Earliest Christian Church, part IV of IV

Saturday, September 13, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

John :42-44, The Earliest Christian Church, part IV of IV

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on my own initiative, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

//Continuing yesterday’s topic of similarities between the Ebionites, that first Christian church stemming from Jerusalem, and the Johannine writings, we now come to a crucial parallel. It’s this matter of supposed anti-Semitism. Today’s words condemning the Jews are placed by John on the tongue of none other than Jesus. Did Jesus really speak such damning words to the Jews? I don’t know. In today’s verse, he tells them that they follow the devil, not God; that their father is the devil, not God. But this friction between the Jews and the Christians in the first century was felt in both directions.

You may be familiar with the famous “twelfth benediction,” recited in Jewish synagogues to curse Christians. It is thought to have been placed in the common prayer in about 80 A.D. These “Christians” who were cursed by the prayer were probably Jewish Christians, considered by practicing Jews to be a heretical subgroup of Judaism. Epiphanius writes that the Jews curse the “Nazoreans” three times a day. (Early Christians were known as Nazarites.) Jerome indicates that it is the Ebionites whom the Jews are cursing.

Does it not make sense, then, that the Christian sect most likely to condemn their opponents, the Jews, would be the Ebionites? And which gospel most strongly condemns the Jews? The fourth one. This friction between traditional Jews and apostate Christian Jews is strongly reflected in the gospel of John, where Jesus roundly condemns “the Jews,” saying they never knew the real Father. And this is hardly the only passage in John’s Gospel condemning the Jews.

Jesus, of course, was a Jew; John was a Jew; all of the apostles were Jews. Yet Jesus condemns the Jews. It’s clear that he was speaking not of a race of people, among whom he would be counted, but of his religious opponents. Opponents of the early church, the Ebionites.

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John 8:28, The Earliest Christian Church, Part III of IV

Friday, September 12, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

John 8:28, The Earliest Christian Church, Part III of IV

Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

//Yesterday, I promised to bring up some similarities I’ve noticed between Johannine Christians and the Ebionites, that early Jewish Christian sect that I believe stems from the first church in Jerusalem. Here are some that come to mind; if you can think of more, please let me know!

- John’s emphasis, in both the Gospel and Revelation, is Jerusalem. (Contrast this to the other three Gospels, where Jesus spends all of his time in Galilee before making that one fateful trip to the big city.) The Ebionites (being Jewish Christians) revered Jerusalem as God’s city, and continued to pray toward Jerusalem.

- John’s Gospel emphasizes community, a close-knit segregated brotherhood. The Ebionites lived communally and seemed to draw away from other groups, including other Christian groups.

- John’s concept of the pre-existent Christ (see today’s verse above as an example) matches Ebionite doctrine. They saw Jesus as a true prophet who had repeatedly appeared throughout history. Jesus’ first appearance was in Adam.

- The Ebionites understood the resurrection to be a spiritual event, not bodily resurrection. If you set aside the final chapter of John’s Gospel, which surely is an add-on, then John also describes the resurrection as spiritual.

Curiously, in many ways the gospel considered to be of highest Christology (John) aligns with the thinking of the very first Christian church, often described as a low Christology!

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Galatian 2:9, The Earliest Christian Church, Part II of IV

Thursday, September 11, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Galatian 2:9, The Earliest Christian Church, Part II of IV

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.

//According to Paul, the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem church were James (the brother of Jesus), Peter (known as Cephas), and John. James appears to have been the church leader at the time of Paul’s writing. The followers of these three “pillars” appear to have introduced distinct flavors of Jesus-worship, while still retaining their Jewishness. James, for example, favored a down-to-earth, practical approach to Christian practice (if the epistle attributed to James is any indication), and this fits the Ebionite philosophy we discussed yesterday very well. Indeed, the Ebionites held James in very high regard.

So these three pillars provide three different flavors of early Christianity. They seem also to represent three different locations: Jerusalem (James), Rome (Peter) and Ephesus in Asia Minor (John). Yet I have noticed in my studies some very curious commonalities between two of these groups: the Ebionites (James’s group) and the Johannine community, and I don’t quite know what to make of them. If the Ebionites are our best representatives of the earliest form of Christianity, might they have influenced Johannine theology too in some manner? If scholars are correct that Jewish Christians outnumbered gentiles in the Johannine community of Asia Minor, were these perhaps Jews that were displaced from Jerusalem by the war or 70 AD?

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the similarities I’ve noticed between Ebionites and the Christians of Asia Minor.

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Acts 4:32-35: The Earliest Christian Church, Part I of IV

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Acts 4:32-35: The Earliest Christian Church, Part I of IV

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

//In my books about John’s Gospel and Revelation, the main character, Matthew, flees Jerusalem as a baby in his father’s arms before it is attacked by the Romans in 70 CE. They travel through Pella–the location where it is said Jerusalem Christians escaped–and continue on in time to Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). This fictional journey is not coincidental, though I never did find opportunity in my books to explain why I crafted it this way.

You may recognize Ephesus in Christian tradition as the home of John the Apostle, where he wrote his Gospel. A short distance from there, on the island of Patmos, John presumably wrote the book of Revelation. Ephesus was chosen as the background for my books for this reason.

On the other hand, the “Pella tradition” of Jewish Christians escaping the war is equally intriguing. It seems quite possible that this escape story is more than myth, and that many of Jerusalem’s Christians did indeed locate there. A sect of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites soon clustered nearby, and in my research, it seems very likely that the Ebionites are the descendants of the Jerusalem church. The Hebrew name ebionim means “the poor,” and relates to the time when early Christians were sharing all their possessions and giving what they could to the apostles (see today’s verse).

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Book review: The Bible Tells Me So

Tuesday, September 9, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Bible Tells Me So

by Peter Enns

★★★★★

Fantastic book! If you’ve ever wondered how to read the Bible like Jesus, here’s your answer in a fun, easy-to-read publication. Peter Enns takes you on a walk through the Bible, pointing out how impossible it is to read it as either a history book or a rulebook. Eventually, he winds up in the New Testament giving examples of how Jesus himself interpreted scripture in his day … the Jewish way, which emphasized creative engagement with the scriptures.

Says Peter, “I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it.” So, he gives you lots to question. By the time you finish, you’ll be overloaded with practical examples from scripture itself on how to transform the Bible from a stale instruction manual into living, growing Word, able to stretch across the centuries.

Peter’s discussion about the evil of the conquest of Canaan is enlightening. Did God really tell Israel to slaughter every man, woman and child in their way? Or did the Bible’s storytellers–who were tribal, and who connected with God in their day as a tribal warrior God, much differently than we relate to Him today–simply assume that’s what any proper God would want? The answer may be moot: archaeologists are certain no such conquest, such as described in the Bible, really happened. So now what are we supposed to make of the Bible?

Can we trust God enough to let the Bible be what it is?

Peter’s writing style is conversational and … oh, he’s going to kill me for saying this … sort of cute. But don’t let this fool you into thinking his research isn’t scholarly, or that it won’t resurrect new passion within you for the Bible. I absolutely loved this one.

HarperOne, © 2014, 262 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06227202-7

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Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

Sunday, September 7, 2014 in Book Excerpt | 0 comments

Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

“Isn’t that Jesus?”

“Where?”

“There.” The man pointed. “At the back of the synagogue. Standing at the head of that band of strangers.”

“I see him.” The president smiled, an old man, shoulders bowed and smallish, face crafted over the years into wrinkly, gentle jolliness. “Yes, it’s Jesus, son of Joseph! Let’s ask him to be our reader today.”

The Teacher, noting the conversation at the front of the synagogue, stepped forward without waiting for an invitation. He expected this, the appropriate honor for his visit back to his tiny homeland of Nazareth, and he had prepared carefully. The chosen topic today was in the writings of Isaiah. But as the president handed him an open scroll for reading, he immediately unrolled it to another location.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” Jesus began, his voice low but authoritative.

Taken aback, the old synagogue leader stepped up to the podium, pointing at the scroll. This was not the appointed reading!

Jesus held up a hand, palm out, and the smaller man paused. Jesus’ voice grew louder as he continued to read. “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind!”

A murmur rustled through the crowd, perhaps two hundred people. They knew the rumors, how Jesus forsook the heritage of his father and turned from carpentry to healing. But those were merely stories that found their way from the Sea of Galilee. The man had never returned here to display his talents. The last news heard in Nazareth was that Jesus had taken up with a man called the Baptizer.

“To release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!” Jesus continued.

“The Lord’s favor?” a man in front sputtered. “This is not the year of the Jubilee.”

Jesus rerolled the scroll and handed it back to the president, the chosen passage still unread. In a gentler voice, he proclaimed, “Today is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” Then he stepped down from the small platform and strode to the back of the synagogue.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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Mark 6:22-24, Who Wanted John the Baptist Dead?

Friday, September 5, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Mark 6:22-24, Who Wanted John the Baptist Dead?

And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.

//You’ve been reading the account of John the Baptist’s death in the book of Mark. John at this time was bound in prison, at the request of Herodias. In Mark’s story, Herodias wanted to kill John but could not because Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a just man.”

But when Matthew tells the story, it has a different flavor. It isn’t Herodias who wants John dead, it is Herod. Herod doesn’t fear John, he fears the multitude who consider John a prophet. Thus it’s Herod who fears to kill John, not Herodias.

Herod, in Matthew’s gospel, is a villain from the beginning. You may know the story of Herod sentencing all the young children to death, in hopes of killing the baby Jesus. That comes from Matthew. So when Matthew copies Mark’s story of Herod beheading John, he makes Herod one of the bad guys.

But the rewrite is awkward; it doesn’t really work. Herodias asks for the head of John the Baptist, and King Herod commands it, but the story goes on:

And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. –Matthew 14:9

This is copied from the gospel of Mark, but here Herod’s grief over John’s death makes no sense. After all, it was Herod who wanted John put to death according to Matthew (verse 14:5)!

This is an example of what Bible scholars call editorial fatigue, and it’s one bit of evidence that Matthew copied from Mark, not vice versa. Matthew copied the story and put his own spin on it, but botched the retelling by not being careful enough to edit out all the details that don’t fit the retelling.

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Book review: That Old Devil Called God Again

Thursday, September 4, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: That Old Devil Called God Again

by Archbishop Jonathan Blake

★★★

For an author who writes that he “intends [his] book to be positive and enlightening,” this book is disturbingly negative. Its raw, take-no-prisoners tone dares you to knock the chip off Jonathan Blake’s shoulder.

Blake is the Archbishop who isn’t. He escaped from the Anglican Church and says he holds on to the title of Archbishop  “only to provide a platform to ridicule its pretentiousness and to lay siege to the power systems it has spawned.”

So you aren’t going to get any inspirational Christian instruction in this book. What you’ll get is a tirade against the “plastic, manipulated and processed Jesus of Christianity.” Blake is more interested in the real Jesus, a man who succumbed to the same sort of irrational religious thinking that has blighted civilization throughout the ages, but whose intentions were at least good.

Now, the Bible isn’t all bad, Blake insists. It might be worthwhile to extract the few decent parts of the Bible and preserve them, alongside a few nourishing morsels from other religions as well, so as to write a new holy book. But I don’t think Blake is holding his breath for this to happen.

In the mean time, religion has to go. It may seem innocent on the surface, but it isn’t. Religion stunts our growth or, worse, herds us back into infantile rhythms. The teaching of religion should be replaced by anthropology, psychology and sociology. We must protect young minds from being hijacked by religious thinking.

God has to go, too. It is only when we stop believing in God and stop thinking about God and stop praying to God and stop worshipping God and stop having anything to do with God or giving any thought to God that we can be true.

Near the end of the book Blake finally works his way back around to Jesus, who, though his misguided plan of self-sacrifice turned out to be a colossal mistake, still promoted a way of love. Blake grasps and endorses love as the meaning of life, and insists that when we outgrow religion, love will come easier.

In the end, Blake may be more right than wrong, but his tone and lack of supporting references (“evidence suggests” and “studies show” a lot of things in this book) left me shrugging my shoulders.

Christian Alternative Books, © 2014, 249 pages

ISBN: 978-1-78279-538-4

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