Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Book Review: Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Monday, December 20, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book Review: Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

by Anne Rice

★★★★

I’m trying to be fair; this really isn’t my kind of book. It’s highly speculative and it’s fiction. Then I’m reminded of the book I just published about Revelation; it, too, is fiction (well, 1/3 of it is fiction) and it, too, will surely be considered highly speculative by many. I’d like to think, however, that my book is grounded in more solid research than Rice’s; mine is, after all, hailed by other scholars as historically plausible.

Given, then, that we are discussing a purely fictional account of Jesus’ years as a child, my review must be based upon whether or not the story held my interest. It did for a time; Anne Rice is a good writer. But I have a quest to learn (I seldom read fiction), and I really felt I was learning very little, so I nearly didn’t finish the book.

I think readers who do not have a background in early Christian literature will be at a disadvantage. For example, in the story, the child Jesus sculpts a bird out of clay, then gives it life and it flies away. Um, really? But scholars will recognize the story from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which Rice latches onto and includes in her book, caring not that no historian of this gnostic gospel considers it to be true. The story is pure mythology, and not even Biblical myth.

Who, then, is the audience for this book? Not fundamentalist Christians, who will take offense at this portrayal of the Christ child. It isn’t “biblical.” Not historians, who will be unable to take it seriously. If Anne Rice is celebrating her return to Christianity with this series (the book is the first of a promised series) then it’s an odd way to start out, wouldn’t you think?

The answer, of course, is that Rice is writing mythology after the manner of Gospels; she collects stories, builds a personality for Christ as a youngster, then puts it all together in much the same way as Gospel writers did 2,000 years ago…honoring Christ not in fact, but in storytelling. And that’s why I’m writing this review today, 5 days before Christmas. Today, as I drive down the streets of Minneapolis, I see manger scenes; scenes I know to be mythic, but beautiful and inspiring none-the-less. We have taken two contradictory Gospel renditions of Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke), spliced them together, added some nice touches, and created an idyllic Christmas picture. In the same spirit of honoring Christ in myth, we can enjoy Anne Rice’s fictive “gospel”, and even give it … well, four stars.

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Revelation 13:15, Giving Breath to the Image of the Beast

Sunday, December 19, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.

Ever wonder what this verse is all about? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know for sure, since we have no record of this event happening. We do know it was a popular ruse among magicians of the first century to cause statues to talk. You may have heard how Gaius Caesar ordered a statue of Jupiter moved from Olympia to Rome, but when the workmen arrived to move it, the statue started to laugh at them.  The workmen’s scaffolding collapsed and they scattered in panic.

Simon Magus, whom many believe to have been the “false prophet” of Revelation, was known for his ability to make stone statues talk.

Early Christians throughout the Empire appeared distressed by these statues. The Christian apologist Athenagoras wrestles with this problem of pagan statues “giving oracles” and healing the sick and considers them neither tricks nor miracles but demons taking possession of the minds of the audience, persuading them with “empty visions” as if exuding from the statues.

The beast in this verse we can be fairly certain refers to Nero Caesar, and Nero seemed omnipresent with statues throughout the empire, including a 120-foot abomination even greater than Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in the book of Daniel.  But, so far as I’m aware, we have no record in history of any of Nero’s statues talking! What, exactly, does this verse in Revelation refer to?

One more mystery about the book of Revelation that we’ll probably never uncover!

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Book review: The Miracle Detective

Saturday, December 18, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Miracle Detective

by Randal Sullivan

★★★★

In the war-torn country of Yugoslavia, late 1980’s, a cluster of children (ages up through 16) began seeing the Virgin Mary and reporting her words. Medjugorje, if you’ve ever heard of the place, appeared protected from the war by the madonna.

The Miracle Detective describes Sullivan’s trip into the world of miracles and the investigation of these miracles by the Catholic church. By the end of the book, even Sullivan has been deeply affected by his brush with the supernatural, and it is this personal journal by the author that makes the book most interesting.

Nearly all the experts that researched Medjugorje and interviewed (interrogated) the children came to the same conclusion: there was no attempt to deceive, and the children truly experienced the unexplainable. Others around them could not see Mary, yet the children’s eyes moved in unison as they tracked her progress through the air; they reported the same message from heaven; and they showed no response to any pain or attention-grabbing administered by the “experts” while in their vision state. Many other visitors to this sacred site experienced supernatural healings. Surely, the madonna herself was to be found in this place!

But what did the Church think? It’s still under investigation, 20-25 years later. As one priest explained to Sullivan, the Church does not merely test for the unexplainable; a true miracle from God must pass several tests, such as “theological correctness, usefulness to the Church, and a clear relationship between the messages the person reports and changes in the quality of their own lives.” Unquestionably, the experiences rocked the lives of these children and many others who visited (and still visit) Medjugorje, but what is the Church to think when Mary, queen of heaven, arrives with the message that we should respect all religions, even (perhaps especially) Islam?

I found the book interesting, one I’m glad I read, though it was a bit long. But, sorry, I’ve no opinion yet on the authenticity of the visions.  :)

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John 11:35, Jesus Wept

Friday, December 17, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Jesus wept.

The smallest verse in the Bible, we were taught as children. Perhaps the only verse I’m able to memorize. But what is interesting enough in this little nibble to warrant a blog post?

It’s that this verse is not the way first-century citizens thought about God.

Jesus wept as he walked toward the grave of Lazarus, the man he would raise from the dead. John’s Gospel, you will recall, is the Gospel that portrays Jesus as God. It is this Gospel, more than any other book in the Bible, that steered Christianity toward the Trinity doctrine; the understanding that, in some mysterious way, Jesus is God.

God wept.

But, you see, gods don’t weep. To the Greeks (and all of the Gospels were written in Greek and among the Greeks) the primary characteristic of God was something they called apatheia, which means total inability to feel any emotion whatsoever. This verse, one commentator of John supposes, may be the most astonishing verse in the Gospel.

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Book review: Reading Judas

Thursday, December 16, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Reading Judas

by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King

★★★★

This is a fun one. Short and sweet, Karen and Elaine share their unique interpretation of this fascinating discovery. Scholars of the gospel of Judas would never consider it mainstream Christianity … can any book who paints a Christian villian as a hero be mainstream? … and yet, there remains a lot of controversy about exactly how to classify  that ancient Gospel. Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s far from complete; and while that’s certainly not the fault of Pagels and King, it does disrupt the readability of their book when pieces of the manuscript are missing.

The subtitle of the book is “The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity.” This discussion of early Christianity is, precisely, what makes the Pagels/King book interesting. They delve into the conflict between Paul and Peter, and how later writers (such as the book of Acts) purposefully glossed over this conflict in an attempt to bring unison.

The book is in two parts: First, a discussion of the gospel and it setting, and second, an interpretation of the gospel itself with commentary. Karen King translates it herself, and their understanding is unique, quite different from other coverage of the gospel of Judas, as they are unafraid to give serious attention to alternative strands of Christianity and their meaning of the cross, the suffering of martyrs, and of Jesus’ divinity. These were important topics in the early years of Christianity, and Christians today are, for the most part, quite unaware of the divisive strands that existed in those days.

Pagels and King do present controversial views (I found myself often disagreeing), but regardless of your beliefs or opinions, this is a fascinating read about an equally fascinating topic.

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Ezekiel 18:20, Who Is Guilty?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.

Ezekiel is a favorite of few Bible readers. It certainly wasn’t mine; imagine my surprise when, researching for my book about Revelation, I discovered Revelation to be an update and rewrite of Ezekiel.

Just as we, today, routinely update and rewrite Revelation to match the beliefs of today’s Christians, so did Revelation update and rewrite Ezekiel. Our eschatological beliefs differ from John’s Revelation as severely as John’s differ from Ezekiel’s. And now, in this verse, we see how radically Ezekiel has rewritten the scriptures of his day. We read in exodus:

for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

So, which is it? Does God punish the offspring of the sinner, or is “the one who sins the one who will die?” Clearly, we prefer Ezekiel’s understanding.

What will tomorrow’s Christians believe about God’s punishment? If Christianity is going to continue evolving on its humanitarian journey, then it’s up to us to continue to grow in our understanding of God.

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Book review: The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus

Monday, December 13, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus

by Paul N. Anderson

★★★★★

A boring looking book, eh? Don’t let the blandness of the cover fool you. This skinny little book may be one of the most important theological efforts of the last five years. My next book will be about the Gospel of John, and Anderson’s book contributed significantly to my research.

John’s Gospel differs so significantly from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) that the question arises often between scholars: Do we trust John, or the other three? In one simple example, the Synoptics present a one-year ministry of Jesus, whereas John indicates at least a three-year ministry. But since John’s Gospel reads so mystically (a more acceptable word may be “spiritually”), and since he seems outnumbered 3-to-1, most scholars through the centuries have given it little weight. It gets relegated to the pulpit as the “fourth Gospel,” as if it didn’t deserve a name.

Recent archaeological discoveries, however, have proven John’s Gospel spot-on in a number of its claims. John is also the one Gospel that claims to be an eye-witness account. Anderson jumps on the bandwagon of recent scholarship and presents his argument that this Gospel is equally historically accurate, and as important to understanding the life of Jesus, as the Synoptics. And, of course, I believe he is right.

The casual reader may find little to hold their interest in this book, but the scholar and the pastor cannot afford to be without it.

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Matthew 10:28, Fear Not Those Who Kill the Body

Sunday, December 12, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

What do you think about this verse? Kill the soul?? Most people are taught in church that the soul is eternal, and even ungodly men live forever … albeit in hell instead of heaven.

Actually, controversy raged in the early church about the unsaved. Are they tortured forever in the fire (Jude) or merely killed by it? (2 Peter, which appears to be a rewrite and update of Jude). Paul taught that the godly would live forever while the ungodly die; the end. “The wages of sin is death.” This would be known centuries later as the “annihilation theory.”

Revelation appears to agree with Matthew that the fires of “hell” are temporary. (Don’t get me started on the differences between Sheol, the Hebrew dwelling place of the dead, and Hades, the Greek place of punishment for naughty fellas, and how the two merged into the Christian concept of hell.) The beast, the false prophet, and the dragon all appear to be tortured eternally in Revelation, but not any of the rest of humanity. (this is the position I argue for in my book, Revelation: The Way it Happened.)

What do you think?

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Book review: The Birth of Christianity

Saturday, December 11, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Birth of Christianity

by John Dominic Crossan

★★★★

I’ve read many of Crossan’s books, and although they can be dry, they do always provide something to sink your teeth into. He seems to write two kinds of books: Long, scholarly tomes, and short, interesting summaries. The Birth of Christianity is (unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon your purpose for reading) of the former type.

Crossan attempts in this book to initiate more scholarly research into the early years of Christianity, by which he means those years after Christ died but before the Gospels were published. Years 30-70 AD. His ideas are controversial–hey, every publication by every liberal Christian will be controversial–but they are well documented. In my opinion, too well documented. I don’t think Crossan needs 641 pages to explain and support his research. He delves deeply, for example into the topic “memory and orality,” to bolster his opinion about how poorly our memories operate and thus how unreliable oral transmission is.

Nevertheless, Crossan’s picture of early Christianity and particularly his long discussion of various types of eschatology (apocalyptic, ascetical, ethical) are important to the understanding of the Jesus movement of the first century. He explains how different communities of Christians could share different eschatological ideas–and you don’t have to think of eschatology as the end of the universe, but merely the end of an age and the dawning of a new kind of life–and develop very different brands of Christianity. Crossan traces the emphasis of early Christian communities into two traditions: Jesus’ “life” and “death.” The moral teachings of Jesus and the passion-resurrection tradition. Both, Crossan insists, are very early traditions; for example, he discusses the Common Meal Tradition. Is it a giving-sharing experience, or a eucharistic experience? From this merger of traditions grew the latter church.

I definitely recommend reading The Birth of Christianity and I think it will be an important foundation for continuing research into this era. I would  not, however, insist that the casual read the entire book cover to cover. Perhaps he will one day publish an abbreviated version. :)

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Acts 10:38, The Dubious Disciple’s Beginnings

Thursday, December 9, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Maybe I should begin my new blog with what may be my favorite verse in the Bible:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, for God was with him. – Acts 10:38

An inspiring verse regardless of your concept of God, your experience with the Spirit, and what you think about that evil fella we call the devil. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a Jesus we can all appreciate and seek to emulate.

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