Deflated ballons

The juxtaposition of two totally unrelated stories from today’s news is irresistible.

First, out of Saudi Arabia comes this. A Shiite cleric had been earlier arrested for delivering sermons deemed unacceptable to the government, although his followers assert he never in such sermons explicitly urged them to violence.

Second, out of Houston, Texas comes this. The City of Houston has demanded that sermon copies which are deemed to have  possibly violated new city ordinances be handed over by the preachers.

These stories are far from parallel or even equal in seriousness. Together, however, they illustrate an intriguing point:

sermons, not all but some for sure, can and probably should challenge, upset, and threaten governing authorities.

It seems to me that this follows not so much from an examination of the content of any one or group of sermons, be they Christian or Muslim or Jewish or of any other faith’s proclaimers, so much as from an understanding of their form. Sermons are not intended to be editorial opinions or even aesthetically pleasing essays, witty and pithy insights for a lazy afternoon. However  poorly constructed, lazily prepared, and haphazardly delivered, sermons are intended to be the proclamation of the Word of God; a message, that is to say, from the Wholly Other, from the-that-which-is-not-the-world. Since governments see themselves, and alas are all too often fawningly and mistakenly identified, as masters of the world and its affairs, a message from that which is, by definition, beyond the control of governmental power, even at its most ambitious, is bound to prick the bubble of self-importance and indeed to deflate it.

What a pathetic sight a deflated balloon is. Laughable really.  

Bible 018: Jesus saves 1

In preparing some material for a class on Jesus’ role in Salvation History I got engaged in what biblical scholars call a “word study.”  I was curious to discover the incident rate and locations of New Testament occurrences of the Greek words for salvation, sōteria, and savior, sōter. The results are revealing. Here they are, in summary:

Sōteria 46 times in the NT;  1 [Mark 16: 20 “disputed the longer ending”]; 11 from Luke [6 in his Gospel, of which 5 are Jewish quotations; 5 in Acts]; 1 in John, the quotation of the Samaritan woman [referencing the Taheb]; 17 from Paul; 7 from Hebrews; 5 from Peter;  1 from Jude, and 3 from Revelation

Sōter 24 times in the NT; 4 in Luke [2 in the Gospel and 2 in Acts]; 1 in John, the Samaritan villagers react [as above?]; 12 in Paul (10 in the Pastorals); 5 in 2 Peter; 1 in 1 John and 1 in Jude

Based on some premises widely accepted in the world of New Testament scholarship (that Luke was part of Paul’s circle and also that he wrote Acts; that there is an intimate authorship connection between 2 Peter and Jude; that the foundational premises of and the standard solution to the Synoptic Problem are generally correct; that Hebrews is of Hellenistic origin; that some otherwise unknown “John” is the author both of the fourth Gospel and the first letter and a disciple of his the author of Revelation and that the Johannine material is amongst the latest in the New Testament) some revealing observations can be made.

Of the 70 total occurrences:

1) only 11 total of the 70 occur in the entire body of the four Gospels

2) of these 11 only 3 occur in the non-Pauline Gospels and of these the 1 in Mark is widely disputed as authentic to the original version of the Gospel and the other 2 in John quote Samaritans who are clearly referring to their highly particular version of the Messiah notion, namely their belief in the Taheb, a word meaning “restorer” or “rescuer”, i.e. “savior”

3) the person of Jesus is titled “savior” only 2 times in the entire body of the four Gospels, both by Luke, in the Infancy narratives

4) the work of Jesus is described as “salvation” only 6 times in the entire body of the four Gospels, all by Luke, of which only 1 is not a direct quotation, either from the Old Testament or John the Baptist. But this unique 1 is found on the lips of Jesus.

Some tentative conclusions based on these observations:

a) the rarity of the salvation descriptors for the person and work of Jesus (the two classical subcategories of Christology) is astonishing given the fact that his name (Yeshua) means “Ya saves.”

b) the popularity of salvation descriptors in Christology and ecclesiology increases with the deepening of the roots of the Gospel in Greco-Roman culture via the work, missionary and intellectual, of Paul and Pauline disciples

Thus two questions:

1) Does Greco-Roman salvation vocabulary “translate” some other category found in Jewish theology?

2) What does the 1 unique exception (the use of salvation vocabulary by Jesus himself) in Luke 19: 9 & 10, as conclusion of the Zacchaeus story, teach us about the later use, spread, and eventual domination of this vocabulary in the Christian community to capture Christological distinctives?

Stay tuned.

Going viral

Heart ache. Worry. Disgust. Fury. Bewilderment. Pity. Frustration.

These are only some of the words I can use to describe my reaction to all the horrid mess going on in and around Kobani, Syria. Note that I say “all” the horrid mess. That is intentional so as to include the knock-on messes, on the streets of European cities and within Turkey.

It is one thing to acknowledge that “war is hell” for those in uniform. It is an altogether different thing to acknowledge and see that hell coming to the innocent, those who are “caught up” in the mess, to use the phraseology of the news media, a phrase which somehow seems to create distance between us, the witnesses, and them, the victims.

But, there really is no distance. YouTube and Twitter have blown that distance away.

Yesterday, as the bombs fell on Kobani, I watched a Twitter account from a witness on a hill outside the city, describing each explosion and providing pictures. It was “real time” horror.

YouTube has shown spontaneous gun battles from the streets of Turkish cities between civilians caught up in the emotional turmoil to the extent of being willing to shoot and kill other civilians with whom they disagree.

I do not choose to emphasize some of the more horrific images that are available on the internet.

Informed comment on the ideology of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh or on the internal politics or statesmanship of Turkey is beyond me. The policies of the USA, current and leading up to this point over the past several years, are both baffling and also beyond my ability to excuse.

But, prompted by the YouTube videos and Twitter account strings, one oddly discordant and self-contradictory thought does occur to me..

There is an element of ours becoming a “selfie culture.” Our ever-present cell phone cameras allow us to capture any and every moment of our lives and post them. This very act of posting on the internet is itself a powerful force, an alluring, if utterly deceiving, siren call to fame. It was Andy Warhol, I think, who intoned in the mid-1960’s that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”  Nowadays the time for fame has been compressed. You may get noticed for fifteen seconds, if you are lucky! But, I can keep taking selfies, keep posting to Twitter and YouTube. My life can be a movie. I can be a star. A celebrity. Famous.

So, there’s a demonstration outside. A political protest. Quick, grab my camera … my ever-ready and oh-so-excellent-GoPro … and my gun and …… Lights! Camera! Action! Guess what? I am Dirty Harry. Punk, you just made my day, and I got it all on video.

But, however much the allure, the deception is even more powerful. There simply is so much stuff out there. Such a constant flow. The competition for attention is enormous.

How is a really successful video described. “It has gone viral.” That’s right. Viral! Since when have viruses ever been a good thing?

And yet ….. (I told you my thought was discordant and self-contradictory) …

Much of the stuff we are getting from Twitter and YouTube out of Syria and elsewhere right now will not be found anywhere else. For whatever reason it is the freelance journalist or Dirty Harry wannabes who are bringing the world these images.  And that informing of the globe has got to be a good thing.

I have on my desk a book. It comes from the pre-Twitter/YouTube/computer/internet age. It was published in 1936. It’s entitled The Yellow Spot with the following subtitle: The Extermination of the Jews in Germany, the first complete documentary study. It has pages of pictures and charts, first hand eye-witness accounts, and dire warnings of what lies ahead.


It was sent to public officials across Europe and the then free world. Pleading for help.

I bought my copy in the late 1960’s in a Glasgow second-hand bookstore. I found it fallen down behind a row of dust-laden books of Old Testament theology. Inside was a letter to “Councillor Greenhill” of the Glasgow City Council. It was his copy. The book was a paperback and I could easily tell …. it had never been opened.

The message of The Yellow Spot, delivered in 1936, had not gone viral.

Two bits of good news

Two quick off-beat notes from the weekend’s news. You might have overlooked them.

Researchers at Princeton University have discovered the Majorana Fermion particle. No, they really have! You can read about it here. Perhaps, like me, you did not know anyone was looking for it because you, like me, had never heard about it. It seems the Majorana Fermion particle possesses the characteristics both of matter and antimatter.

Now, I have always been led to think that when matter meets antimatter the result is mutual, simultaneous destruction. Not so, it would seem. This is big news, I suppose for the cosmos, but is also big news for computing. This newly discovered particle holds the promise of allowing quantum computers to have one and zero represented by the same “thing” at the “same time” and thus producing potentially far more powerful computing.

And that, we are told, will be  …. “a good thing.”

I guess so.

Secondly, at Ohio State University, scientists have managed to produce “a patent-pending hybrid device that combines a solar cell with a rechargeable battery for the first time.” (See here.) This seems straightforward enough, but the secret to it is the odd chemistry between light and oxygen. The report puts it this way: “Basically, it’s a breathing battery. It breathes in air when it discharges, and breathes out when it charges.”

I don’t understand any of this chemistry, really, but the facts that this new batt holds the promise of using solar energy, is constantly renewable, and thereby indicates a 25% reduction in energy consumption through batteries have got to amount to a “good thing.”

I know so.

There is good news out there if you dig deep enough.

Passing show

A few minutes’ walk from where I live is one of the main intersections of our small town. (It is officially a “city” but with a population of less than 4,000 I have never quite understood that. Something about status, I suspect. Oh…. and money!) It is always a busy crossing. The northwest corner has a gas station on one side and perpendicular to it (around the corner, as it were) was a local salon which had evolved into a diner-tavern-sports bar. Not very attractive, it was the kind of place that guys in flannel shirts and dungarees would hang out in, joined by the local softball team for a post-game bite and brew, and local families could be found there. Its value was what went on inside, not outward appearance. It had been owned and operated for many decades by one family.

There was great sadness when, two weeks ago, the family announced that they had sold the tavern to the company that runs the gas station. Their plans were to tear down and upgrade the station, demolish the tavern, and put up a modern convenience store.

On Monday of this week a huge chain link fence was put up; on Tuesday the two buildings were reduced to piles of rubble, and by yesterday afternoon all that remained was a clear concrete slab. Folks had been standing around, quietly watching and also taking videos with tablets and smartphones. Some were crying.

I mention this in order to make three simple observations and ask a question.

One, so much of our public architecture is engineered for short-term use. Aesthetic value is in short supply. It is a here-today-gone-tomorrow environment. So many buildings are just elaborate cardboard boxes. Just drive along your local strip and look at what you pass. Will those structures be there 100 years from now? 50? 10?

But, if everything is merely a passing show, where can I find the foundation of where I am?

Two, it is so easy to throw away a cardboard box. But impermanent disposability has a devastating knock-on consequence. We live without the presence of the past. When you live without the presence of the past you are almost certain to wander aimlessly. It is hard to know where you really are or where to go when you have no clue where you have come from.

If everything is merely a passing show, where can I find the foundation of where I am? 

Three. what saves America itself from this cardboard box fate? There is much going on in our common life to suggest that its past significance has been shoved into some dark corner along with life’s discarded trinkets that no longer amuse. After all, our creed seems to be that only if it’s fun is it important. Where does a nation take shelter from the storms that buffet it, if all around the old structures, the ones that last and endure, cannot be found? A cardboard box culture won’t cut it.

If everything is merely a passing show, where can I find the foundation of where I am?

Leadership and such

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has arrived in the United States. And how! Last night at Madison Square Garden in New York City he was the center of a $1.5 million rock-concert style event celebrating India. He roundly told the sold-out crowd:

Some say, this is India’s century. India has the potential … The time has come. India is the world’s youngest country and its most ancient culture.    

I am not sure exactly what he meant by “youngest country” nor the total significance of reminding us of its “ancient culture” in the context of his hope that the coming century would be India’s. After all he is a politician and we know how politicians of all stripes are given to loose disconnections between words and meaning.

Speaking of which President Obama mentioned on US television yesterday that the strength of ISIS had been “underestimated” by his government and that the capacity of the Iraqi army to fight “misjudged.” I suppose this is as close as we are going to get to him apologizing both for his earlier dismissal of ISIS’ fighting force as “the JV team” and also for his policy of withdrawing all US forces from Iraq without, as he was advised, leaving a residual force of American ground troops behind.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergie Lavrov, involved in the disastrous Hillary Clinton “re-set button kerfuffle” in 2009, has announced that it is time for another attempt at resetting US Russian relations. Further, he is of the view that US strategy against ISIS (in its infancy after all) needs a total revamp.

Meanwhile huge pro-democracy demonstrations are taking place in Hong Kong and stubbornly refusing to dissipate under intense police pressure.

Oh, there is a new president in Afghanistan. After months of political fighting following the vote, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on Monday, replacing Hamid Karzai. I wonder how that will turn out. Didn’t the Taliban behead 15 people there just last week?

Ah leadership.

 Speaking of which, at Gleneagles, Scotland the US lost in the Ryder Cup to Europe ….  again. Superstar Phil Mickelson chose the post-match team press conference as an appropriate venue to rip into the leadership style and philosophy (maybe even competence) of non-playing team captain, Tom Watson, who was sitting down the table from him. Awkward to say the least. Mickelson seems to believe that leaders make a team. Odd: the US players on the course were whipped by the players of the other team.

Blip as blob

Sometime coincidence is just too odd.

For example, read this.

Get it? A potential security alert was caused by a “butter-fly shaped blob” which showed up as an unaccounted “blip on radar.” (Yes, yes: it struck me too: when is a blob a blip?) On examination the blob turned out to be a hoard (millions or billions) of migrating monarch butterflies.

Swarm theory is all the rage just now. It seems to teach that a swarm (of ants, say) takes on a purposeful identity the potential of which transcends the sum of the individual parts’ (apostrophe intended and significant!) This purposeful identity, amongst those who (individually) write about swarm theory is referred to as “swarm intelligence.” The most excited amongst them apply this to computers. A swarm of computers will possess, the theory goes, almost unlimited intelligence.

This leads me to ask a question of the monarch butterflies and their radar-detected blip

Do they fly in a butterfly-shaped blob with intention, as a joke?

Why not fly in the shape, say, of a shark, or an arrow, or an ICBM?

If only they could spell.

I wonder what the computers will do.