Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Disney Kisses

Took the family to see Maleficent last weekend. I know it is out a while but we just don't have the time or the desire to see all the new releases. One thing that stuck me about this movie is something my 9 year old daughter seemed to have noticed as well. She said that one thing this movie has in common with Frozen is that the kiss of true love that saves the woman does not come from a man and does not lead to marriage. It comes from a woman and does not really lead to anything other than saving the person from the immediate and mostly contrived peril associated with not being kissed.

I think that is a pretty big insight. The Theology of the Body talks about a man's love making a woman come alive. That is most obviously realized in marriage and sex and procreation. The traditional fairy tales know this. Sleeping Beauty is not must about magical kingdoms. It is about real life. Beautiful women are just so ready to become great wives and mothers but they need a man to love them. That is to love them with a romantic love that awakens their womanhood in a way a man was designed to do. Not that they will have terrible lives if they remain single but some part of them will remain asleep. 

Some spoilers below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Management

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:"Hear another parable.There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.When vintage time drew near,he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,'They will respect my son.'But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,'This is the heir.Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"They answered him,"He will put those wretched men to a wretched deathand lease his vineyard to other tenantswho will give him the produce at the proper times."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures:The stone that the builders rejectedhas become the cornerstone;by the Lord has this been done,and it is wonderful in our eyes?Therefore, I say to you,the kingdom of God will be taken away from youand given to a people that will produce its fruit."
This weeks gospel seems like it does not apply to us. I mean Jesus is pretty obviously talking to the leaders of the Old Testament covenant community, namely the priests of Israel. The Kingdom of God was going to be taken away from them and given to new leaders, namely the apostles. We know this event Jesus was warning about happened at Pentecost. So why do we care? What does the church give us this passage to focus on this week?

First of all, it shows us that there is such a thing as God-ordained leader of the New Testament covenant community. This is something that is disputed by Protestants. They see churches as merely human institutions. Anyone can start his own non-denominational church and it is all good. The notion that God has to do something major like take the Kingdom of God from one set of hands and move it to another is not really taken seriously. 

Yet Jesus took it seriously. These bad leaders continued to be the legitimate leaders even after committing some terrible sins. None of the prophets declared their leadership to be null and void. In fact, not even Jesus did so. He said it would happen soon but not yet. In fact, In Mat 23:2-3 He tells His followers to "do what they tell you but not what they do." 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Religious Extremists

St Katherine Drexel
I was talking about the saints in a prison ministry I do. We are going through Fr Barron's Catholicism series and he talks about 4 saints. St Katherine Drexel, St Therese, St Edith Stein and St Teresa of Calcutta. The discussion got on to Muslims and some of the violence that is going on in Iraq. The comparison of the two struck me. There are some important similarities and some important differences.

They are similar in the sense that they both take their religion to an extreme. These 4 women took Catholicism to an extreme. They lived it fully without compromise. They ended up in quite different places but they had that much in common. They were willing to embrace any sacrifice and face any challenge if they believed Jesus wanted them to do it.

The folks at ISIS are the same way. They take what they read in the Koran and they take what has been modeled by Mohammad during his life and they live it. They live it fully without compromise. People say this is not the "real" Islam. That is just arbitrarily defining some version of Islam as "real." If Mohammad really was a special messenger from God then what he believed is the real Islam. I don't think the folks at ISIS have got 
Mohammad wrong. If Islam is true then what ISIS is doing makes a lot of sense.

Now the difference between the two is more obvious than the similarity. That is that these 4 saints are just very beautiful people. The members of ISIS are frightening. The saints made the world a better place. Even non-Catholics have to admit this. ISIS seems to be making the world quite a bit worse. 

If a religion is true then the most radical living out of that religion should bring about a person fully alive. A human person realizing their potential and impacting the world with it. So you can look at the Catholic version of that in the saints. You can look at the Muslim version of that in ISIS. 

It becomes a matter of what you choose to believe. Do you believe in a God who wants us to serve or a God who wants us to kill? All these saints served as nuns but St Katherine and St Teresa made a special point to find the most severely disadvantaged group they could and serve them. In both cases it was a people group that contained very few Catholics. That made no difference. Their dignity was based on their humanity and not on their religion. 

ISIS is very focused on getting rid of those who are not Muslim or not Muslim enough. They serve them with papers ordering them to leave or become Muslim or die. 

You can continue the comparison but the answer seems so obvious to me that it is not needed. Catholicism is just very beautiful and Islam has a real ugly side. Both become more obvious when they religions are pushed to an extreme. So we should be thankful for the saints. In some way we can be thankful for religious extremists in other faiths as well. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Do Nothing Out of Selfishness

I would like to focus on the second reading for this Sunday's mass. This is a famous passage from Philippians 2:
Brothers and sisters:If there is any encouragement in Christ,any solace in love,any participation in the Spirit,any compassion and mercy,complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,united in heart, thinking one thing.Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,each looking out not for his own interests,but also for those of others.
Have in you the same attitudethat is also in Christ Jesus,Who, though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godsomething to be grasped.Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the namewhich is above every name,that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.
Paul talks about the first response to Christ's love and mercy is unity. Even if you have a little encouragement in Christ is a little participation in the Spirit. If you have experienced Jesus in any meaningful way then your desire should be to connect with others who have done so. That is a very human thing. If we like a football team we want to talk with other who like the same team. People who read books often join a book club so they can talk about the books they like. People who experience God should be like that to.

We often don't get that in a typical parish. We should be talking about our experience of God. What happens? Often we go to mass and ignore each other. When we do talk we often talk about the weather or politics or anything other than faith. Our experience of Jesus is supposed to be what unites us and binds us as a community. Why are we afraid to talk about it?

The second key to unity is humility. Once you have something that brings you together then you want to avoid the things that pull you apart. Most of them are rooted in pride. We are all different. That is a great thing. Yet if we are all trying show we are a bit bit better than the next man then we are going to be in trouble. So Paul says go the other way. Humbly regard others as more important than yourself. So simply yet so hard to do. 

Then Paul looks at the humility of Jesus.  It is interesting that when Paul talks about Jesus' humility what results is one of the strongest statements of the glory of Christ. Jesus' willingness to humble Himself and even die does not make people think less of Him. Quite the opposite. His humility causes Him to be lifted up and glorified even more than before.

That is often the case. People who blow their own horn tend not to be the ones who are highly thought of. People who quietly make sacrifices do get noticed. Yet that should not be the reason we do it. That would just be an indirect way of blowing our own horn. We can go there so easily. You do something and nobody seems to notice so you just mention it once or twice. Find somebody else who is laboring behind the scenes and mention them once or twice. That builds up the parish community. 

An interesting side note is that this passage is one of the earliest and strongest displays of a high Christology in the early church. Not necessarily saying Jesus is God but talking about Jesus in a way that nobody talked about mere human beings. Philippians was likely written in the 50's ( not the 1950's, the 50's). So we are talking about 20-25 years after the crucifixion.

It is important because many modern scholars say the early church made up the story of the resurrection. Yet if you have a crucifixion and no resurrection then how do you get Jesus being talked about in such a glorified way? What makes it more difficult to explain is that Paul seems to be quoting an early hymn. That means it is not a new teaching. 

So when did this idea develop? Every knee bending before Jesus and every tongue confessing Him as Lord. Secular people need Jesus to be someone who taught some interesting stuff and was crucified and that is it. No resurrection, no miracles and no divinity claims. So how does anyone get from a nice teacher who was unjustly killed to such and exalted status in the space of a few decades? This is a question Pope Benedict raised in his first Jesus of Nazareth book. If you dismiss the supernatural from the Jesus story then there is no reason this should happen. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

God And Fair Wages

Jesus told his disciples this parable:“The kingdom of heaven is like a landownerwho went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock,the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,and I will give you what is just.’So they went off. And he went out again around noon,and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock,the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,beginning with the last and ending with the first.’When those who had started about five o’clock came,each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,‘These last ones worked only one hour,and you have made them equal to us,who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’He said to one of them in reply,‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This week's reading is a rather strange parable. Jesus is trying to tell us that normal rules of work and reward don't really apply in the Kingdom of God. We all receive the reward of heaven. Is that fair? No. It is far better than we deserve. We need to focus on that. What we should not focus on is what other people get. They will seem to get a better deal than you. So what? 

Now some commentators point out that those who didn't get work until later in the day would have been under a lot of stress. People lived on what they made. If they didn't get a days pay they would not be able to buy a day's food. Many would have expected their families to go hungry right up until the time they opened their pay packet. 

That correlates well with many of our little jealousies. We assume those who have lived outside the rules of Christian morality have had it easy. That they must have a better life than we have obeying the church and serving the church. Quite the opposite. They can pursue pleasure but without purpose. Does that lead to true joy? No. We can serve God and help God change this world for the better. That is deeply satisfying even if we give up a lot. Sometimes precisely because we gave up a lot. 

Yet despite the connection it does not seem Jesus really makes this point. Jesus is more emphasizing that God gives generously and you should never complain when God is generous with someone else. He rewards one person's efforts with great results and the next person who seems to try even harder end up frustrated. This is going to happen. 

The trouble is we don't grasp the difference between living by grace and living by works. We still think that our success is going to be tied to our effort. We know we get more than we deserve yet we think comparisons should still hold. That God will somehow bless us more if we do more. That is not the way it works. We don't serve God more because God will make it worth our while. We serve God with everything we have because God has already blessed us beyond all measure. If God raises someone else up then we thank Him for that rather than being envious. 

We are always going to be hugely in God's debt. No work we could ever do can change that. Yet we just can't give it up. We can't stop imagining that we are earning God's favor. We can't stop looking at other people and comparing. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fighting Evil vs Living Love

Thinking a bit about the difference between fighting evil and doing good. Doing good is the goal. We need to live a life of love and help others to do so as well. Fighting evil is a means toward that end. Sometime we can get focused on the fight and lose track of the reason for the fight. It is like a political revolution that has a good and just cause but morphs into a terrorist group anyway. The fight becomes what defines them rather than what they are fighting for. 

Christians can live like that. We become so focused on fighting evil in our personal life and/or fighting evil in society that we can forget what is supposed to define us. We can like the fight. We can obey the rules and feel pretty good about it. We can argue about politics or about morality and get wrapped up in that. These are good things to do but there should not be what defines us. 

John 13:34-35 says:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
How are Christians defined in today's society? By going to church. When people talk about Christians they typically use that as a definition. If you go to church at least once a month you are considered Christian. Again, it is a good thing to do. Christians should go to church. Yet that is not what we are supposed to be known for. 

This kind of talk is often used by liberal Christians to argue that we should not talk about social issues and instead just affirm people and maybe help the poor. The trouble is that would not lead anyone to think you are a Christian. Lots of secular people are very affirming and have compassion for the poor. Some atheists argue that you can do this better if you don't connect yourself with any religious teachings. So this can't be the love that will let people know you are a disciple of Jesus. There must be something more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Enough Suffering

This Sunday is the feast of the exultation of the cross. The first reading is a rather interesting story from Numbers 21 that Jesus actually references just prior to him saying those famous words that are recorded in John 3:16
With their patience worn out by the journey,the people complained against God and Moses,“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,where there is no food or water?We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,which bit the people so that many of them died.Then the people came to Moses and said,“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
What happens is quite interesting. The people are in the dessert. They are hungry and thirsty. They are complaining. What does God do? He makes their suffering worse. He sends snakes that bite the people and many die. 

It seems strange yet when I think about it it rings true with me. Little sufferings can damage my spiritual life. I can complain. I can get impatient. I can lose my joy. I can really start to resent God. Big sufferings have a different effect. I tend to cry to God in my pain and embrace Him. I find peace in prayer. It ends up making me spiritually stronger.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Scholars And The Historical Jesus

I watched this video on the historical Jesus at the suggestion of an atheist commenter on Strange Notions. It is very good.  He explains well how scholars think when they approach the question of what in the gospels is historical. He says they use the same method with other historical writing. He is sort of right. I think the basic method is the same but the level it is being used at is different.

The Method

The two main methods he lists are:
  1.  Multiple Attestation. This just means other sources give the same information and there is reason to believe they were not all copied from the same source. Essentially it lines up with other documents we trust. 
  2. Dissimilarity. This asks whether the document is agenda driven. Will the author accurately relate facts that don't fit his agenda? Often historical documents sing the praises of a political or military leader and overstate his greatness. Claiming his good deeds were better than they actually were and ignoring or even denying his less noble deeds. Documents like that have little historical value. What historians look for is authors who are honest about the facts. If the author was not honest would this be the sort of fiction he would write?
He gives the example of Socrates. We don't have any direct evidence he existed. We know what we know about him because his followers wrote about him. The most famous of those followers is Plato. Plato is an author they trust. What he says often lines up with other sources when it can be checked. You don't expect 100% agreement but large agreement. Then you look at how Plato handles things about Socrates he does not agree with. Does he play it straight or does he sugar coat things?

These same tests are applied to the New Testament but it seems they are applied at a much lower level. He gives the example of the sign above Jesus when He was crucified. It said "King of the Jews." He sees multiple attestations because John mentions it as well as the synoptic gospels. He sees dissimilarity because King of the Jews was not a title Christians typically applied to Jesus. So it passes his tests.

The Problem 

Plato and Socrates
The interesting thing he does not comment on is the smallness of the detail. This is one verse. When analyzing Plato they decide on a much higher level whether to trust him. They apply the same tests but to a much larger block of writing. Not every single line of Plato's writing has multiple attestations. Not every single line contains dissimilarity. The ones that do lend credibility to the ones that don't. If Plato is honest and accurate then we tend to trust him even when he is the only source of some information. Why can't we do that for John?

The effect that this method has on historians is that they can't conclude anything about the New Testament that is favorable to Christianity. One of their tests is dissimilarity. When applied at a very detailed level we can see that if the fact under consideration is not in contradiction with Christian tradition in some way it will fail this test. So their method boils down to accepting as fact anything that is embarrassing or hard to explain for Christians and rejecting as fiction anything that affirms or supports Christianity.

So when someone says, "No serious historian believes this actually happened" you need to understand that they can't believe it. It is a meaningless statement. Their method does not allow them to believe anything that puts Christianity in a good light. So their conclusion is predetermined. They are begging the question.

The method of dissimilarity is a good one when used properly. Christians use it. They point out that the gospel authors included facts about Jesus that don't seem to fit their story. There are many hard sayings of Jesus that the gospel writers could have left out. The only reason to include them is because He actually said it. Yet they go beyond that and argue that if the gospel writers can be trusted on the hard sayings they can be trusted on everything. If you don't take this step then dissimilarity can only arrive at a negative answer.

Trusting The Gospels As A Whole

One response I expect scholars would make is that the gospels can't be trusted as a whole. They disagree with each other. He give a couple of examples of this disagreement in the video. He talks about the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and he talks about the trial of Jesus in Mark and John. In both cases he does not really demonstrate a contradiction. What he shows is that one account includes many details that another account does not.  That is not the same thing. Different gospels include or exclude different details for many reasons. One writer might have access to information another did not.

He dismisses attempts to harmonize the infancy narratives but it is just not that hard. It could be that Matthew went to Bethlehem to get information about the birth of Jesus. Luke interviewed Mary and went to the home town of Elizabeth and Zachariah. Joseph was obviously from Bethlehem because he was sent back there to be counted. Luke tells us Mary was from Nazareth. Joseph was there to and might have had plans to stay if it was not for the census. People tend to remember why someone left their town but not so much why they came back. That is natural. Of course they came back, we are such nice folks who would not come back here!

It all reads quite naturally. Bethlehem remembers the angel visitation of Joseph because he lived there. They obviously remembered the killing of the children and the arrival of the Magi. Mary remembered her angel visitation and the birth of John the Baptist. She would remember the shepherds and the presentation at the temple. It is hard to see any great contradictions.

The trial of Jesus is even easier. He asks how anyone would know what was said. John wrote later. More data might have been available later. It is interesting that he does not think of the most obvious eye witness. That is Jesus Himself. If He did rise from the dead He could have told John the story. That possibility seems so far removed from his mind that it is not even brought up to be dismissed. The presupposition that the gospels are false is just so deeply ingrained in his subconscious that his mind cannot go there.

The Real Problem

It is interesting in that bringing up a couple of the allegedly most obvious contradictions he fails to show an actual contradiction. Is this really the reason he can't take the gospels seriously? I doubt it. The elephant in the room is the supernatural. Is it really that implausible that one writer misses a few details the other includes? If there were no supernatural claims in the gospels then there would be a lot less skepticism. There is a lot for a historian to like. Lots of names of people and places. Documents that were highly respected by the Christian community very early.

The miracle stories are the real show-stopper. If you don't want to accept that they might be true then you have to twist your whole analysis around to explain how they got in there. There is not just one or two. There are many. Including the climax of the gospels, the resurrection. How did they get there? How did the gospels get so widely accepted by early Christians if they contained so many false stories? We have writings from these church leaders vigorously fighting heresies like Gnosticism. Yet they accepted such a wide collection of incredible stories without controversy? Not just one Christian community but many in different parts of the empire. They could fight about what was the right day to celebrate Easter yet they were fed one bogus miracle story after another and nobody said a word.

The point is the historical analysis gets radically off track if you exclude the supernatural based on your own personal philosophy. That is what modern scholarship does. They immediately assume none of the source documents are even close to trustworthy. They all contain miracles. Yet you want to say something. So you trust one verse and ignore the next one.

The honest historians will say they have no idea about Jesus. They have no idea how the New Testament came to be written. They have no idea where the early church got its faith from. There simply is no natural explanation that makes sense and we are unwilling to consider supernatural explanations. That would be honest. They don't want to go there. So they chop up the documents and say we can believe a verse here or there.