December 17, 2014
The Christmas story always bothered me.
It just never made sense. No, not the virgin birth. Not the angels singing to shepherds. Not the star in the sky. Not the wise men.
No, it was the part about there being no room in the inn. It never made sense. Middle Eastern hospitality is legendary. Strangers, travelers, those in need--you can count on the deeply ingrained culture of showing generosity and graciousness to those who need a meal or a warm bed.
Enter Ken Bailey and chapter one of Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The Greek word usually translated as "inn" is better rendered as "guest room" as the NIV does.
Middle Eastern peasant homes were one large room though sometimes a guest room or mother-in-law room was attached. But since there was no room in the guest room, the owners of the house did the only sensible thing--they welcomed Mary and Joseph into the main house.
The main room of the house was typically divided with a smaller ground floor level and a larger level raised a couple feet. Peasants would bring their animals into the lower level of the house at night for two reasons--to keep the animals safe from thieves and to provide warmth for the family sleeping on the upper level when it was cold.
Cut into the floor of the upper level where it meets the lower level was (wait for it) a manger. A place for hay to feed the animals.
Some years ago as I was explaining this to a friend at church, her eyes got huge. "That's the kind of house I grew up in!" Her family had been missionaries among peasants in Syria. You can still find such homes there today.
If you are looking for a Christmas play that accurately reflects what really happened that night in Bethlehem, Bailey's Open Hearts in Bethlehem is the perfect option. It transforms a story of "no room in the inn" to one of wondrous welcome and generosity.
December 2, 2014
Consistently when I have taught the Gospel of Mark to college students over the last ten years, the "Aha" reaction comes when I ask them to look up Old Testament passages related to a puzzling verse.
Why does Mark describe what John the Baptist eats and wears but not anyone else? Not Peter. Not Pilate. Not even Jesus.
When Jesus is walking on the water, why does Mark say Jesus intends to pass by the disciples struggling to row against the wind? Doesn't he see them? Doesn't he care?
The answer to these and other odd passages in Mark are often found by going back to the Old Testament. Richard B. Hays explores the foundational importance of the Old Testament in his striking new book, Reading Backwards. For all four gospel writers, their "symbolic world was shaped by the Old Testament," and unless we see that, we fail to see what they are talking about.
After a preface and introductory chapter which explain what he calls figural reading, Hays looks at how way each gospel writer makes use of the Old Testament. Rather than trying to survey the whole of each gospel, Hays focuses on one particular aspect--how each, in different ways, utilizes the Old Testament to express how they see Jesus being identified with the God of Israel.
Mark, says Hays, is not interested in prooftexting predictions of Jesus from the Old Testament. He emphasizes the veiled, half-hidden suggestions that Jesus is the Lord who forgives sins, who controls the seas and shepherds Israel.
In Matthew Jesus is the divine presence taking the place of Temple and Torah who is to be worshiped. Luke offers a thick, textual narrative world which welcomes the arrival of the Lord of the new exodus who redeems Israel.
Hays thus exposes the false dichotomy between the low Christology of three synoptic gospels and the high Christology of John who presents Jesus as the eternal Word (and Wisdom), the Good Shepherd and Bread from Heaven.
The Old Testament unfortunately remains a closed book for many Christians. Hays helps us see that without the Old Testament, the New also remains closed.
November 17, 2014
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by David Haddon has sold millions of copies, and is now a Broadway play. The book takes us into the mind of Christopher, a high-functioning autistic fifteen-year-old in contemporary Britain. Inside that mind, behavior that seems so odd if not down-right crazy actually begins to make sense.Continue reading "The Curious Incident"
October 16, 2014
September 15, 2014
Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) in his typically understated yet gripping style, interweaves two stories in his book Under the Banner of Heaven: the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter by Mormon fundamentalists, and the origins and early history of Mormonism itself. It is a chilling and fascinating book that has stuck with me for several reasons. First, it opens up a lot of helpful background about Joseph Smith and the reality behind the polygamous communities popularized in the TV show Big Love.Second, it made me, as a person of faith, think seriously about the dynamics of any kind of fundamentalism.Continue reading "Under the Banner of Heaven"
May 14, 2014
When I was young, a movie was based on a novel, a lecture was based on research and a joke was based on current events. But now movies are based off novels, lectures are based off research and jokes are based off current events.Continue reading "Based on Past Experience"