A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

Book Review: Unafraid

In this post, I’m reviewing the book, Unafraid. No, not the Adam Hamilton one that came out a few months back, a 2017 book fully titled: Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin L. Corey and Patrick Lawlor.

There’s something I really like about a book on theology (especially one oriented to the general public) when the best summary of the book is a verse of scripture. Here, it’s:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:16b-18.

This book is both an argument and a journey. It is an argument about how fear has distorted Christianity’s message from one of love and hope to one concerned with the avoidance of Hell, preparation for impending apocalypse and a focus on getting people to say “magic words” about their belief in Christ rather than calling people to actually follow Him. It is a journey about the personal crisis of faith that led Ben Corey away from fear-based, conservative evangelical Christianity and toward progressive love-based Christianity.

The quote from scripture above demonstrates the overarching point of both argument and journey: the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear. And, as Yoda tells us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Corey’s preaching to the choir here, so I almost put down the book when I felt I’d gotten the gist. I’ve written on this blog fairly extensively about ideas that I believed are shared with Corey: about the blessing that fear-based coercive evangelism can’t produce followers of Jesus (not directly, at least); about the backwardness of the religious right’s obsession with protecting their right to discriminate based on religion; even about the danger of prepper apocalyptic theology (albeit in a review of a video game).

Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck the book out. Not only was it a pleasant read, but I did learn a bit of history I didn’t know and the book gave me much to think about or revisit.

On the history side, Corey traces the modern, conservative strain of American evangelical Christianity and its basis in fear to John Nelson Darby, a lawyer and lay theologian (yes, the similarity here is not lost on me) in the early 19th Century. For Corey (and I think he’s likely right), Darby almost singlehandedly transformed evangelical Christianity from a positive force truly seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth (by campaigning against slavery, for worker’s rights, and other social-justice issues) to a relatively oppressive set of ideas that taught that the world was getting increasingly worse and more sinful, not better, and that hope for salvation from the damnation surely due to the world (particularly through not-very-scriptural ideas like the Rapture) could only be found through (fear-based) belief in Christ and a turning away and condemnation of the rest of the world. This apocalyptic mindset led to the idea that only “saving souls” by getting them to confess belief in Jesus mattered–there’s no need to seek justice, be a good steward to the environment, or otherwise try to make the world a better place when God’s just going to destroy it all anyway.

Though we must of course allow for variation in the beliefs of evangelical Christians as in any group of Christians, and it is not for me to say what people in that category truly have in their hearts and minds about what they believe about God, Corey’s description does tend to hit the nail on the head when I think of most of the the most-vocal evangelical Christian leaders in our day and age.

At the same time, Corey warns us about the categorization of Christianities. For Corey, when we take our identities from being “conservative” or “progressive” Christians (or even as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.), we create bastions of definition and meaning which we must then police and defend–leading to persecution of those who are not like-minded, especially when they try to claim membership in the same category as us. While categories may provide useful shorthand for understanding some of the core theology a person might have, Corey argues that it should not be used for more than that and that we need to keep our minds and hearts open to diversity of belief and the actual realities of individuals rather than using them to work out our own ideological and theological issues. He’s absolutely right about the danger here, and I myself feel a constant struggle (and failure, to be honest) not to fall into this trap.

Of course, Corey does argue for a progressive theology as a more genuine expression of love-based Christianity than conservative evangelism. As one part of the fallout from the crisis of faith that led Corey to progressive Christianity (from his conservative evangelical upbringing), Corey was fired from his position as pastor at a large church for, as he puts it, “hating guns and loving gays.”

Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the cathartic camaraderie I felt in reading it. My path to progressive Christianity was nowhere near so dramatic as Corey’s, particularly because I walked it much younger in life than he did. But the reminder that I’m not alone in having been raised on conservative Christianity (despite being raised in the Methodist church, I was raised in Houston, one of the most conservative conferences of the UMC in America. Further, those who often taught my Sunday school classes were not deeply theologically trained.

Overall, I remember being taught a version of Christianity that didn’t tolerate well the asking of questions and gave me an overall view of Christianity that nearly led me to leaving the Church permanently. It was only later, as I began to read and study on my own, that I understood that there were other interpretations of Christianity and, to my surprise, that much of Methodist doctrine matched closely with the conclusions I’d come to on my own. Now, even in the Methodist church I’m clearly on the liberal side of things–and proud of that, if I do say so myself.

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear someone else’s journey, to know that there are others with whom I have much in common (though I knew this already).

I think that Corey’s journey, and the arguments he makes along the way, are well worth the read.

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.

Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

One of my favorite paintings is “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte, pictured below.

TreacheryofImages

Knowing that I’m an existentialist thinker and theologian, it should be clear why. If you do not read French or are not familiar with this painting, the text translates to, “This is not a pipe.” If your kneejerk response is, “Yes it is!” let it sink in another moment. You cannot smoke tobacco from this picture on a screen (or canvas). You cannot hold it in your hand or put it to your lips. It is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. The two are neither fungible nor synonymous. If you’re working on home repairs and someone asks you for a flathead screwdriver and you give them a picture of one from a catalog, it’s not going to be a good day.

Hence the title of this post (in English: “This is not a god.”). For many fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians, the Bible is treated as if it is part of God–as if it is God. Or at least as if it should be treated as an absolute on par with God. Nowhere are the Scriptures proclaimed to be a part of the Trinity.

Theologian Karl Barth warned against making an idol of the Bible; this conflation of God and Scripture is exactly what he meant. I’ve often referenced in other posts his argument (with which I vehemently agree) that we ought to interpret all Scripture through the lens of the Living God, who is clearest to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is either a living thing or a dead thing. By way of reference, many legal jurists approach the United States Constitution as a “living document.” That is to say that, when the Supreme Court makes a new ruling of law based upon Constitutional language, it is “discovering” a new way in which an old text manages to relate to modern legal needs and issues. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of our Constitution–that despite its age it continues to apply to legal issues never foreseen by its drafters with relatively little change to its language over time. For instance, the Fourth Amendment continues to be applicable to searches conducted by cellphone intercepts and drone surveillance as it was to physical stops and searches in the 18th century.

So, when I say that the Bible is a living thing or a dead thing, I mean that either: (1) the Bible continues to be applicable to our lives in the present even though culture and society and the nature of human life has changed drastically from Biblical times (and partially because modern life and the long sweep of history have given us new lenses through which to understand the Bible); or, (2) the meaning of the Bible is not susceptible to any interpretation except that intended at the time it was first set to papyrus, vellum, parchment or whatever other medium was used to record the initial text (to the extent that we could ever hope to understand that original intent being so far removed from that time period).

Bear in mind that Jesus (described by John as the Living Word) tells us that “[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living” Matthew 22:32b.

I think, then, that we must view the Bible as a living text which we must interpret through the use of reason, our experiences and the revelation of God (which we would most likely interpret as the person of the Holy Spirit in such a case) acting upon us as we read. Admittedly, this is a patently Methodist approach (at least in terms of dogma), but I am sure that this idea is not restricted to merely one denomination–particularly because it seems to be so self-evidently truthful and there are so many intelligent theologians in other denominations (or perhaps none at all).

To do otherwise than to treat the Bible as a living text that must be interpreted–with the help of the Living Word of God in Jesus and the Spirit–devalues the profundity of the Scriptures and the ways in which disparate texts written over several centuries so often hang together so well (and, when they contradict, force us ultimately to the identity of Jesus for the answer). Thinking of the Bible as a dead, immutable thing, is in some sense a rejection of Paul’s claim that it is “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16.

And paradoxically, thinking of the Bible as simple, literal and in need of no interpretation or evaluation inherently puts it on a level with God–the only thing in all Creation that is absolute. Though he rarely does, Jesus speaks plainly when he says that he is, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This is not prescriptive language (as it is often assumed); it is descriptive language–a statement of fact. Because, as the beginning of John tells us, all things that are (that are not God) were created through Jesus as the Logos, Jesus is inherently the truth that stands behind all Creation and its meaning and purpose.

When we say things like, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” (nearly always employed as a conversation-killer after asserting a typically unquestioning and literal interpretation of Scripture), we elevate the Bible to the status of God. Never were the two intended to be equal; we should not equate one with the other. The Bible was co-created by man and by God; God is uncreated. The Bible seeks to bring the reader into relationship with God, but it is not that relationship.

Interestingly, this same argument has been going on in Islam–although overtly and avowedly–since at least the 9th century. Without delving too deeply into the details and nuance (which I’m not qualified to do), the Sunni majority in Islam (to the extent that it’s fair to say that all of Sunni Islam is a monolithic construct–which is to say not very) believes that the Qu’ran is uncreated and co-eternal with God. On the other hand, Shia Islam (subject to the same caveat applicable to Sunni Islam) believes that the Qu’ran is created by God and thus subordinate. As mentioned above, I am sure that there is much nuance here with which I am woefully ignorant, but the allegory with Christian approaches to the Bible should be readily apparent.

To take us full circle in this post, we must remain cognizant that we do not confuse the depiction with the thing it represents or communicates. That is, we must remain aware that the Bible’s value comes primarily from its tendency to draw us into relationship with the Living God rather than its ability to simplify and define existential realities for us. Is there truth in the Bible? Very much. Is it always easy to get to? No; we must have faith in God to bridge the gap.

This is understandably a very uncomfortable thing–such a position necessarily introduces ambiguity and insecurity into our understanding of theological principles. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to be clear about the most important aspect of God: love. It is also clear that by the pursuit of sacrificial love we will come to better understand the Living God. And in that sense, our theological niceties are mere luxuries in the face of following Jesus; at best our doctrines and dogmas are explorations of what it means to love God and our neighbors.

At the same time, such an approach must necessarily create within us a sense of theological humility–an epistemological pessimism that should help us to avoid putting our theological convictions ahead of actually loving one another. When we see the Bible as God, or as equally positioned with God, we may use it to justify some extremely unloving behavior. Again, let us not confuse the appearance of faith, piety and love with the things themselves.

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

Pilgrimage, Day 13: Reflections

For the previous entry, click here.

Today will be the last post journaling my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tel Aviv to return home. This is an amazing place, and there’s still much more to see, but I’m ready to come home. The pace of our touring has driven me to the point of exhaustion, and my brain is supersaturated with new knowledge and ideas. Even today, a scheduled half-day on our agenda, seemed a chore.

I am sure that there will be a number of posts in the near future that are more theologically focused and that draw on the many things I’ve learned on this journey. For now, I’ll share some general reflections on the trip as a whole (after a brief run-down of the day’s sites).

We started the morning early as usual, traveling to the Mount of Olives and working our way down to the Church of All Nations (at traditional Gethsemane). Along the way, we discussed the reason for Jesus sending the disciples to fetch a donkey only when he’d already ascended the Mount of Olives and was ready to descend into Jerusalem, the course of Jesus’s movements through the Old City during Passion Week (while overlooking the city–this made things very easy to follow) and generally discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection. After lunch, we went to the Garden Tomb (very unlikely to actually have much to do with the Passion, though there’s some evidence that the stoning of Saint Steven occurred there) to celebrate Communion. While the rest of our group took the bus back to the south side of the Old City to the hotel, K and I decided to walk through the nearby Damascus Gate and through the Muslim Quarter back to the hotel (she had not yet been that way). As has been the case with all of our experiences, all of the people we met along the way were friendly and warm.

Before we left, while working on the preparatory materials, I posted about my struggle with my position on the historicity of many Biblical events. I’d like to follow up on that now.

I’ve never really doubted the historicity of Jesus Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection (though I’d still be a Christian if I did, because there is something eternally True about who Christ is and what the Incarnation means for existence and about the nature of God even if the events described did not actually happen). It’s mostly been parts of the Old Testament that I see as more metaphorical or literary than historical.

The first comment I have on the subject after my experiences here is that visiting the places I’ve now been, seeing the things that I’ve seen, and knowing the things I now know, I feel an added realism and gravity to many Biblical events–they seem less distant, abstract and simply allegorical (even if I didn’t consciously think of them as abstract or merely allegorical) than before.

That said, I’m not sure that my overall position on historicity has changed. One reason for this my fundamental approach to scripture. As I’ve said before, I follow Barth in seeing the person of Jesus as the essential revelation of Christianity, the lens through which anything else in our faith must be viewed. This causes some immediate conundrums (conundra?) that must be resolved in reading the Old Testament, which will discuss momentarily. Secondly, I tend to see a greater emphasis on the human side of scripture than to look for a heavier divine hand in the text’s creation. This is a fundamental point on which I disagree with Dr. Beck, who by my understanding (based on hearing him speak for two weeks and fully admitting that I might have misunderstood, so if you’re interest in his ideas, I recommend skipping my opinion and going direct to the source) favors a reading of scripture that emphasizes God’s direct hand in the events described, sees a greater level of divine guidance in the writing of scripture than I, and looks more to divine providence in the outcomes of events described than I tend to attribute to them. Before I give an example of our differences, I would like to reaffirm that Dr. Beck makes some very strong arguments for his position that are well worth considering whether you end up agreeing with all of them or not–certainly you’ll find some that make perfect sense. His books are readily found on Amazon under “John A. Beck.”

By way of illustration, let’s look at the Book of Joshua–something we were confronted with in our visit to Jericho yesterday. When considering Joshua, Jack tends to take the position that the story as written follows–at least in the fundamentals–actual historical events. He is careful to look at the archeological and scientific evidence very objectively, I think, but (as is mine), his fundamental conclusions are influenced by his starting theology (as all interpretive acts are).

From the get-go, I am admittedly biased against the Book of Joshua. It is a book of the Bible in which God apparently condones killing and the removal of people from ancestral lands by force. This does not comport with my understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and therefore does not comport with my understanding of the Triune God. As such, I am inclined to believe that much of the “God told us to take this land from the Canaanites” reflects the broader theology about how gods worked at the time.

There is, however, a hitch to this. In Joshua 5:13-15 (an amazingly tightly written piece of scripture, I might add), before the siege of Jericho, Joshua encounters an angel who describes himself (itself?) as “the commander of the army of the Lord.” The angel is holding out a sword to Joshua, drawing on the ancient Egyptian motif of the “presentation of the sword” in which a deity presents the leader of an army with his sword as an endorsement of and prediction of victory for an upcoming battle, an example of which can be seen at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (there relating to victory over the mysterious “Sea Peoples”). But when Joshua asks whose side the angel is one, the angel simply says, “No.” This is typically translated as “neither,” but the simple negative is more accurate. When we look at the pieces together–that the angel, not Joshua, is the commander of the army of the Lord, that the angel (and therefore God) is not on either side of the battle and that the fall of Jericho initially occurs without bloodshed (for God causes the wall of the city to fall without an assault), we see something pointing toward the message of Jesus: God’s victories are not achieved through the perpetration of violence. And then the next sentence, in echo of similar statements made about the Moabite god Chemosh, the Joshua tells his men that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (through complete destruction, returning us to a narrative that runs counter to the teachings and example of the Messiah. (Thanks is owed to Dr. John Harmon for pointing out to me this passage in Joshua and the ancient Egyptian practice it plays off of).

If the archeology were heavily in favor of the Joshua narrative, I admit that I would have to incorporate the likely historicity of Joshua into my theology, however much might have to change to do so. Currently, it is not. At Tel Es-Sultan, there is not sufficient evidence of the events described in the Bible ever having occurred, though Kathleen Kenyon’s modification of some of her early analysis leaves the possibility open. The next city Joshua attacks, Ai, also remains problematic historically and archeologically. The very name “Ai” means “the ruin;” thus the site of the city is most likely Et-Tell (Khirbet Haijah), whose name means the same thing.

The archeology at Ai shows that the city was occupied starting around 3100 BCE that was violently destroyed around 2400 BCE. Those Biblical chronologies offered by scholars who affirm the historicity of the conquest of Joshua place the conquest sometime after 1445 BCE and probably around 1400 BCE. Et-Tell was not resettled until Iron Age 1 (roughly 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE) and, even then, was probably settled peacefully. There are some scholarly opinions that the Biblical story has confused the conquering of Bethel with Ai; the two cities are only about 3 km apart. This is possible, but the uncertain archeology is further troubled by the fact that the beginning of the Book of Judges gives a different story about the Jews coming into Canaan.

The beginning of Judges, following on the heels of the Book of Joshua, describes a more gradual settling of Canaan by the Jews (lead by Caleb, as the book opens with the phrase “After the death of Joshua…”). Here, the Jews make incremental gains against the indigenous peoples, first settling the Negev Desert and only later capturing the hill country of Judah. Jerusalem is the first named city to be captured by the Jews, and though Jericho is mentioned (it is the “City of Palms” in Judges 1:16), it follows upon the mention of a gift of springs by Caleb to Aksah and Othniel. The spring at Jericho may be the link between paragraphs.

Current archeology sees the Israelites beginning to define themselves as a people relatively peacefully within Canaan and then eventually absorbing the Canaanites. Overall, though, the proper historical understanding of the Book of Joshua and the description of the Israelite conquering of Canaan is–while highly questionable–unresolved. Thus, it remains open to interpretation.

As mentioned, above, starting from different theological positions–each resulting from a prioritization of certain aspects of God over others–different results may be reached by reasonable people.

And so, I remain skeptical as to the historicity of certain events described in the Old Testament, though I do believe that the events described by the Bible do more accurately reflect historical events from the time of David onward.

I am completely convinced by Dr. Beck that an understanding of the geography of the Bible provides an invaluable interpretive tool in pursuing the meaning of any particular piece of scripture–regardless of historicity. Here, I continue to have some issues that I have not settled on an answer to, yet.

Why is the geography of the Bible so important. I don’t think that this is a mere artifact of the human influence on the writing of scripture–too often do the geographic details tie events together in ways that add to narrative complexity and create new skeins of interrelatedness for such a simple answer to be sufficient, I think. As I’ve said in other posts, I often find the “poetic” truth of the Bible to be one of its most convincing and convicting aspects–the geography of the Holy Land adds to the depth of this poetry in ways I cannot ignore.

As I noted earlier in this journey, standing in places where Jesus stood (or at least very nearby) and seeing the sites of many Biblical events (most of which I believe are historical, some of which I carry my doubts about) added a gravity and sense of realism (not historical but existentially tangible) to my relationship with Biblical events that lacked before I came here. That alone was worth the trip. The tools taught by Dr. Beck also would have been sufficient in isolation to make the travel well worth it. Being here has undoubtedly changed me, but I have yet to discover all the subtle ways that it has.

I also commented on previous entries how unsettled I have been by the conflict that bubbles in this land, occasionally erupting to the surface like some angry volcano. I still cannot say that I understand the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic, but I must admit that, by knee-jerk reaction, this trip has given me far more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis. But that must remain a personal observation–I remain too out of my depth to attempt any objective evaluation or to offer any solution. The current sociopolitical climate does, however, accentuate the need for Jesus in our lives to draw us away from conflict and toward love and mutual respect.

I feel that I must end this post with thanks to Dr. Jack Beck. It has been a true pleasure to hear him teach and preach and to be in fellowship with him these past two weeks. His passion is infectious, his faith inspiring, his knowledge daunting.

Pilgrimage, Day 12: The Lost

For the previous entry, click here.

Today, we had the good fortune (or perhaps divine grace) to travel parts of the West Bank that are often inaccessible to Westerners for security concerns. Specifically, we were able to travel in and through the area around Nablus, a city where bullet holes in many buildings, the proximity of aggressive Israeli settlements and the presence of Palestinian banners of a distinctly militant nature are a constant reminder of the tension in the region that regularly spills into violence. The most experienced of our group members who travel frequently in Israel said they had not been able to visit the region for the past several years (not that there was constant violence, but the timing never worked out).

That’s a shame, because the modern city of Nablus (from Greek Neopolis) contains several essential Old and New Testament sites. First among these is the town of Shechem. Shechem makes an early appearance in Scripture: in Genesis 12:6, God appears to Abram and told Abram that his children would be given that land, confirming God’s first covenant with Abram. In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord there.

Jacob builds his well in Israel at Sychar, only a stone’s throw away from the site of Shechem. To this we’ll return for the most important episode that takes place here.

Later, in Joshua 24, Joshua assembles the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The split between Israel to the north and Judah to the south also occurs at Shechem, when the Israelites rebel against Rehoboam after he listens to his friends instead of his elders.

Before we discuss Shechem’s most important event, we need to understand something about the Samaritans. Fortunately, we were able to do just that today.

Although the Samaritans appear frequently in the New Testament, only about 840 of them remain today. Where do they come from, and why is there so much animosity between them and the Jews in the Gospels?

When the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they did not take all of the Jews; some remained in the land of Israel. This caused a fundamental rift between those who went into captivity and those who did not. First, let us remember that in the 6th century, deities were largely thought of as localized. Those who remained in the land assumed that Yahweh remained with them and that the captive Israelites had been removed from God’s presence. Following the vision of Ezekiel (and the maintenance of their Israelite heritage during the captivity), the captive Israelites tended to see God as leaving Israel and traveling with them, leaving behind the land. The extent to which either group realized that God could be in both places simultaneously is unclear.

The return of the captive Israelites brought the brewing conflict to a head. In addition to this theological dispute, the two groups conflicted over the ownership of the land, as captive families returned to find ancestral lands occupied. Further, the captive Israelites distrusted the native Israelites for intermarrying with other local peoples who were pagan; they believed that such associated diluted the purity (of thought if not ethnically) of the natives. For their part, the natives asserted that the captivity had corrupted the Israelites who left by exposing them to Babylonian religion and culture. Both parties believed (and continue to believe) that they are the “true” Israelites and that the other group has been corrupted away from true faith.

When the returning captives began to rebuild the Temple, they refused to allow the native Israelites to take part. Correspondingly, the nascent Samaritans moved their site of worship to Mt. Gerizim, claiming that it was the original place Joshua had determined the Temple should be upon coming into the land. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Mt. Gerizim overlooks Shechem. The area became known as Samaria.

Not only did we visit Mt. Gerizim this morning (where the ruins of a Byzantine church stand over the likely location of the Samaritan Temple (which was destroyed by the Hasmonean rulers), but we were able to enter into the current Samaritan worship space (and outdoor Temple in Nablus) and to converse with a Samaritan whose father is the second-highest priest in the religion.

There are “Five Ones” that define Samaritan belief. One God; one book (the Pentateuch); one prophet (Moses); one Temple (Mt. Gerizim); one afterlife (resurrection and paradise).

It was into this land, at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, that Jesus came. John 4:4 states that Jesus had to go through Samaria (he is going back to Galilee from Jerusalem). Geographically, this is patently untrue–it would have been easier and faster for Jesus either travel west to the “International” or “Coastal” highway along Israel’s coastal plain or to travel east from Jerusalem to the “King’s Highway” in the Transjordan Highlands. He goes north along the “ridge route” through Samaria for some other purpose. Resting at Jacob’s Well, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. After a bit of rather confrontational interaction (she is surprised that a Jew would talk to her at all and is therefore suspicious), the woman believes Jesus to be a prophet and tests him by asking whether the Temple or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship. Jesus answers by telling her, “Woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come (emphasis mine) when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).

Sarcastically, the woman responds by saying that the Messiah is coming and will explain everything. Jesus responds by telling her that he is the Messiah. He has gone specifically to that well for that woman in particular and to show that his salvation (while it may come from the Jews) is not only for the Jews. The only other time that Jesus states specifically that he is the Messiah is to Peter near Caesarea Philippi–once for the Jews, and once for the Gentiles (at least as Jews would have considered the Samaritans). This mirrors the “feeding of the thousands” stories, where one feeding miracle is done for Gentiles and one for the Jews.

At the site of Jacob’s Well, I decided not to drink the water from the well. On the one hand, I was turned off by how commercial the site seemed (you could drink from the well for free, but you had to pay if you wanted to take some of the water with you). On the other hand, I believe Jesus when he told the Samaritan woman that “he who drinks from this (Jacob’s) well will be thirsty again, but he who drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” The well, then, seemed unnecessary.

After lunch, we visited Tel es-Sultan, the site of the earliest Jericho settlement. Dr. Beck shared some interesting insights with us (as he shared most of the information above with us), but I remain unconvinced about the historicity of the Joshua narrative. I’ll discuss why sometime soon.

We ended the afternoon in the Judean wilderness, getting a feel for the desolation meant in the wilderness stories in the New Testament. This terrain is different from the wasteland closer to the Jordan Rift Valley. We reviewed the story of the Good Samaritan and Psalm 23 before having some individual quiet time. Powerful stuff.

All along the way today, my heart broke for some of the living conditions of the Palestinian people. The factional strife, arguments over the rightful ownership of the land, and willingness to resort to violence to achieve some abstract ideological victory remains strong in this land, in some way unchanged since Jesus’s day.

Thank God for our Savior.

For the next entry, click here.

Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

For the previous entry, click here.

Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

For the next entry, click here.

Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

For the previous entry, click here.

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

For the next entry, click here.