The news has not been good lately. A brief scan across the global landscape reveals a pattern of suffering and madness. No need for me to detail it for you: beheadings, cease-fires that fail to cease the firing, refugees on treks from ruin to possible survival; all these tucked in amongst the routine mishaps, misadventures, and misfortunes that befall vast numbers of our fellow human beings on a regular basis.

And yet: I read

  • of a man who was given some sort of artificial eye so that he was able to see for the first time in decades
  • of a young man fitted with a bionic hand
  • of conjoined twins surgically separated
  • of an astonishing rescue of a woman from a mud pit by a passing stranger who then simply vanished.

And all these I read about just yesterday …. on a single random day.

Does the good balance out the bad? I am not making this naïve suggestion. But equally, I am not going to embrace the bleak perspective that the bad blocks out the good. Thus, we can ask, what is going on?

Pondering this I stumbled across this piece.  It describes “pabasa,” a Philippine epic poem. Here is what the piece says:

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines describes the pabasa as “an epic poem in stanzas of five lines of eight syllables.” Apparently, it was originally intended by the Church as an instrument for evangelization. Thus, the Spanish friars used it as a means to indoctrinate the faithful in the early years of Christianity in the Philippines.

The book used for the pabasa is titled “Pasyong Mahal,” with the cross-carrying Nazarene on its cover, implying that it is about Christ’s passion. A scrutiny of its contents, however, would reveal that it is not just about the passion, that in fact the subject matter of the pabasa is the whole history of salvation from the creation of the world to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection from the dead.

The book is written in the old but beautiful, rhythmic Tagalog. And though pabasa literally means “reading,” it is not read but traditionally chanted or sung a cappella in a mellow, slow and monotonous tone that reminds one of the haunting lamentations of old provincial folk at the death of a family member. The whole pabasa is also customarily done without interruption from the beginning until the whole book is finished.

Depending on the organizer or host, a pabasa is done any day between the first Sunday of Lent and Good Friday. It is commonly carried out in village chapels or houses before a makeshift altar adorned with pictures and statues of saints and of the suffering Christ.

I offer this lengthy quotation because you, probably never having heard of pabasa, might be interested in it for its own sake, but more especially to draw our attention to one key point which goes to our issue in this post, the clash between good and evil.

One of the great weaknesses amongst the Christian faithful, in my opinion, is the prevalence of snippetology. A snippetologist is someone who knows only little bits of the Bible and biblical faith. (I perhaps have written before about this in these posts!) The snippets tend to be remembered best as “favorite passages,” tales, stories, and sayings that soothe and re-enforce and avoid challenging and disturbing. The snippets remain in some sort of suspended isolation from one another, never falling into an overall pattern, a cohesive narrative, a whole which exists apart from the fragile memory or the compelling preferences of the individual snippetologist. Given this abhorrence, did you notice the key about the pabasa?

(T)he subject matter of the pabasa is the whole history of salvation from the creation of the world to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection from the dead …. The whole pabasa is also customarily done without interruption from the beginning until the whole book is finished.

This is the opposite of snippetology. It banishes passage favoritism and embraces an holistic approach that demands that we attend to the biblical reality that in all of life, across its moral spectrum, in the depths and on the heights, on the stage of life’s bright lights and in the darkest valleys of the shadows of death, God is there and there God is up to something.

More than that: it demands that we admit that what God is up to is battle; there is a cosmic war going on and God is not hiding on which side he and his people stand. God is for good against evil; life against death; love against hate.

This is no snippet. This is the big picture; this is the whole story.

Biblical ?

Can I relate the following three news bits from yesterday? Bear with me.

First, check out this verdict on or description of the weather conditions in Boston. Let me say, that having lived many years some time ago both in Ottawa and Montreal I know what real winter is all about. Both those cities are at the open end of a devilish geographical funnel for Arctic weather known coyly as the Laurentian shield. Winter, real winter, routinely pours down that funnel with brutal conditions. And yet, what has been going on in Boston is awful. The interior of the city has ground to a halt. It is going to cost local business millions in lost revenue. The day-to-day ordinary living of Bostonians has been thrown into “get by” mode.

But … why describe it as “biblical?”  Oh yes, the ten plagues of Egypt and all that. I know. And the cataclysmic “end of the world”, the apocalypse … (provided you read all that planetary and cosmic gobbledygook into those otherwise poetic texts struggling to make sense of the brutality of the Roman Empire.) The truth is that this theme, life-as-disaster-zone, is so thoroughly unbiblical it is breathtaking. Such exceptional times are always regarded “biblically” as summons to a radical, moral, and political re-orientation of present priorities. That tone is entirely missing from the piece.

I guess repentance, an authentic biblical theme, doesn’t sell newspapers.

Second, following the terrorist activities in Copenhagen the other day folks responded across the globe in a variety of ways. Maybe the sickest, if not the most horrific, was in France.  “Some Jews were shot up in their synagogue in Copenhagen: I know, let’s desecrate Jewish graves here in town.”

The insanity we are witnessing around the world takes many forms. This type of manifestation of irrational thuggery is symptomatic of  a culture for which “God is dead” is welcome, even celebrated, news.

Perhaps we do well do remember the Bible. Folly is not being in error about natural laws, or the application of common sense. It describes folly this way: “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”

Lastly, and unspeakably, the beheading of 21 Egyptians on a Mediterranean beach in Libya for the simple reason that they were Christians. The ISIS executioners shouted out that this ought to be a warning to “the nation of the Cross,” i.e. to all Christians.

Have you been told the “war on Christianity” is either not true, a fiction of the paranoid, or even perhaps that it is a good thing?

Like repentance and unlike blizzards, persecution is certainly biblical.


Katie Perry has announced that before her recent Super Bowl performance God spoke to her. You can read all about it here.

Seeing this headlined, I scanned the short piece to see what he had said. After all, he must have a lot on his mind these days. Don’t you think?

So, I was a bit taken aback to read:

(R)ight before the Super Bowl’s half-time show: “I was praying and I got a word from God and he says, ‘You got this and I got you.”

This was later re-enforced as indeed a divine message. She went on:

(When I was on) top of the lion and a random guy looked at me with a headset that I’d never communicated with before, he looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘You got this.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s God confirming I can do this!’

Let this be clear: I am not in any way doubting Perry’s experience, nor even raising a theological objection. After all, the eternity of God’s being entails his capacity for immediacy with all at all times. So, theological theory allows for his being concerned about Perry’s half-time performance.  Indeed, this divine “capacity for immediacy” is the theological ground for intercessory prayer in general. Not only that, by speaking about it openly she is witnessing in a simple and yet effective way.

In short, my instinctive reaction to this piece was all wrong.


To do or not to do. Is that the question?

Depending on your outlook, President Obama caused either an outrage or a minor kerfuffle the other day in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, D.C.  He suggested that critics of his failure rigorously and specifically to identify current global terrorism as “Islamic” or “Muslim” or “rooted in Islam” should “get off their high horse.” Turns out this high horse is, according to the President, the sad Christian history of violence and inhumane wickedness as manifested in the “Crusades” the “Inquisition” and in “Jim Crow racism.”

Others have commented on the appropriateness of the National Prayer Breakfast for this point to be made, while others have labelled his comments as “banal … offensive … insulting… and wrong.” I leave readers of this post to make their own judgments about all that or even about the validity of the comparison or assertion of moral equivalence the President seemed to be making. I want to make another point.

For the sake of what follows I set aside the claims of some who even yet assert that the President is not a Christian, but secretly a Muslim. That bizarre conclusion is not needed thoroughly to place and thus understand his comments the other day. All that is required is a serious and thorough understanding of the Christian theological developments of the middle decades of the twentieth century and their lingering and controlling influence on American Christianity still.  I will summarize while acknowledging that, like all summaries, this is crude even while accurate.

The nineteenth century closed with the apparent triumph of liberal theological thinking. At the center was human need for meaning and clustered around this point were various avenues to fulfillment each filled with vehicles of human endeavor. There was much optimism as progress to destinations of blissful accomplishment was promised to be waiting at the end of each avenue. Not all were taken with this view of theological purpose and ranted and raved (think of Barth) against it. Two world wars with their suffering, death, and destruction on a scale never before witnessed in history threw this cheery picture into wild distorted confusion. Yet during the 1950’s, in the immediate aftermath of war and with an explosive birthrate, churches were bursting at the seams. A “social gospel” poured forth from pulpits and the masses who attended church on Sunday returned to the new suburbs convinced that “something should be done and the church was doing it,” the ecclesiology of Ozzie and Harriet, naïve, smug, and proud. Confessions of sin in public worship tended to mention social, communal, and environmental issues to the exclusion of the agonies of personal wrong-doing. This notion of faith (the exaggeration of St. James over St. Paul) proclaimed through acts more than in words was captured perfectly in a Presbyterian Confession of faith, referred to somewhat clumsily as C-67, the “Confession of 1967,” more in tune, literally, with Heinz sloganizing than the creedal tradition of the “one., holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” It was, after all, the era of Madison Avenue’s rise to its now prominently dominating position in American self-understanding. As Timothy Stanley puts it in a piece from CNN, dubbing this type of Christianity “modernist”:

By acknowledging what we don’t know about God and focusing upon improving our human relationships here on Earth, says the modernist Christian, we become fuller human beings and fuller Christians. Perhaps we can be redeemed through social action, while our understanding of the truth begins by acknowledging that we weren’t born with ownership of it.

Stanley adds:

Back in 2004, State Sen. Obama explained, “I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.”

So much for fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) a slogan which for centuries the best of theologians (Anselm and Augustine both, each of whom represents a major pole of the entire Christian tradition, as theologians know well) have adopted as their motivation. Alas, understanding, if it is to be understood, demands verbal expression. Not exclusive of action, of course, but neither replaced by it.

The final stage of this modernist Christianity is the agreement that the culture sets the agenda for the faith, that its (the culture’s) current pressures and insights are more than normative for revamping whatever the alleged “Word of God” may be or may have been up to this point. This is perfectly obvious, for example, in many recently past and current church debates. Examples are the debates about abortion, the now passé ordination of women, the debate not about secular gay rights, but about whether the churches should perform gay wedding ceremonies. These debates take place, please note, in the churches and for the churches but are controlled by and framed in the cultural norms of the day. All this is a mere illustration of a trend, you understand. (As I have mentioned in these posts before, social activism as the essence of the Gospel is only one of three prominent trends in the contemporary church. It proclaims salvation by what I do and what I do is most clearly manifested in how I vote. The other two are first, biblical literalism which proclaims that I am saved by what the Bible says and the Bible says what I, selectively, say it says, and second, emotive Gnosticism which proclaims that I am saved by what I know and I know only what I feel.)

The trend, Stanley’s “modernist Christianity,” has emptied the mainline pews, encouraged the advance of secularism in the population at large, and hastened the advent of what many refer to as “the naked public square,” the place of discourse on common community concerns where religious spokesmen are expected to shut-up, i.e. to get off their high horse.

To object (out loud, in words, that is) to this trend in any of its three prominent forms is, of course, to open oneself to being accused of sitting on a high horse.

Indeed: mount up. That high horse is called the “Vincentian Canon”:

“Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (That which is to be believed is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all).

Whose is vengeance?

Yesterday ISIS released a video of the alleged burning alive of Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh. (There are some expert video analysts who are stating that the act may have happened weeks ago.)  The video itself runs for some 22 minutes or so, the majority of that time involving a detailed reconstruction, with Lt. Kasabeh’s voice and image, of his bombing run on ISIS targets which resulted in the deaths of civilians, some of whom were children, shown also. In other words, the highly produced video, whatever its other aims, served as an argument: vengeance is justified; what is happening in this video is an eye-for-an-eye.

Vengeance has dominated the Jordanian response. King Abdullah, in Washington at the time of the video’s release, flew home announcing a swift and destructive response, characterized later by military officials as “earth shattering.” Late last night two ISIS prisoners held on death row in Jordan were executed. Lt. Kasabeh’s father has called for the total wiping out of ISIS, that what is at stake is the “blood of Jordan itself.” (Meantime, by the way, the UAE has quietly announced that it will be stopping it air raids on ISIS until the US sharpens its search and rescue operations and recommits to them in some way.)

Vengeance, of course, is an understandable response to such a horrific act. “Pay-back” is emotionally satisfying. Alas, it is not always effective. It is feud fuel; the Hatfield and McCoy mutual slaughter is never ending if one killing justifies a vengeful response killing which justifies another and so on ad infinitum. Vengeance is in essence machismo rampant and impotent simultaneously. Militarily it is a flailing about; momentarily satisfying but futile in the long term. What did executing those two prisoners in Jordan last night accomplish in terms of “paying back” the perpetrators of Lt. Kasabeh’s burning?

I am, of course, not seeking in any way to excuse the killing of Lt. Kasabeh, let alone in such a barbaric manner. My intent is to focus on the response to it. Vengeance is, I am arguing, a shallow and strategically hollow response which will do little to defeat ISIS. And that, defeating the foe, should be the sole strategic aim which governs all else. That and that alone will satisfy. Flat declarations of outrage and that “”whatever ideology they are operating out of is bankrupt” do nothing to hasten that defeat. Hot air, worse than cries for vengeance, cannot mask inaction.

Snowmageddon …. again

There were vehicle curfews; they had to be off the streets by 9 PM.

Grocery stores were emptied. “Everybody is buying bread, milk, and eggs.” What’s that about? One wag suggested French toast is apocalyptic food.

Generators were primed and gasoline containers full.

The mayor of New York had spoken of “the storm of a life-time.” He had ordered his road maintenance crews to be alert and “not be cheapskates” in their plowing or application of salt. He solemnly warned the public that not obeying his curfew orders would be “to commit a crime.” Gasp!

Here is a short summary of all the dire warnings. Note especially Mayor Bill de Blasio’s profound utterance, “People have to make smart decisions from this point on.”

But, him? Not so much. For, oops. The meteorologists had got it wrong. The Big Apple was spared.  It turns out the storm missed NYC. Boston and points north got hammered, a bit. But, not the NYC area.

Weather forecasting is not my concern. It is not just a science, but also a mysterious art. Those folks do not read tea-leaves, but not far from it. What they do read is a mess of data which has to be interpreted.

There’s the rub.

Anyone involved in any discipline the essence of which is interpretation (reading the Bible, say, or the Quran, or the US Constitution) knows how deeply influenced the results are by the guiding principles and even, to be frank, the presuppositions if not outright prejudices of the interpreter.

No surprise here is allowed in a post-Einstein world. Relativity teaches that the observer in some central way creates what is observed.

And so it is worth noting that we are surrounded by interpretation voices. Every pundit, talking head, op ed writer, and even (alas) journalist, pours forth as “the-way-things-are” what in truth is “the-way-I-think-things-are” or, worse, “the-way-I-think-things-should-be.” The danger in this reality of so much contemporary discourse, let me be clear (to quote President Obama, who rarely is,) is not the voice, but the ear; not the speaker, but the listener.

Mayor de Blasio (and many others) heard the opinions of the weather forecasters, took it as predetermined fact, and caused if not panic at least a wild over-reaction.

To be fair to him and the others, of course, requires that we admit that only now do we know that it was an over-reaction. Had they not done what they did and said what they said and had the storm been what is was feared it would be, they would face excoriation this morning.

My focus in this post is, thus, not on them, the speakers of doom and gloom, but the hearers, us. And I am not interested in criticizing the responses either. My interest is on pointing out a phenomenon that worries me. Let’s call it apocalyptic fascination.

Not every challenge, not every obstacle, not every trial and tribulation, need signal the end of the world as we know it. After all, part of the world as we know it is our own courage, our own resilience, our capacity to discern and our determination to take difficulty in stride, to fight and overcome, to maintain and preserve, to face up to life when it is tough and to prevail.

The apocalypse? Balderdash.

Gospel news

A small article today has huge implications for biblical scholarship. Here’s the gist:

As per some experts, a recently found small papyrus fragment that contains a text from the Book of Mark could be the earliest copy of a Christian gospel. The fragment is believed to be written during the first century, before the year 90….Experts said that the gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that would have had been used to make a mummy mask. According to them, although most of the mummies that have been discovered till now had worn masks made of gold, but ordinary people of that time wore mask made of papyrus, glue and paint.

Two preliminary conclusions are being made, which further research will need to confirm:

(a) if indeed written before 90 AD, then the text of the Gospel itself must date from several decades earlier:

(b) its use as a mummy mask for a “common Egyptian” would indicate the wide circulation of the Gospel amongst “ordinary people” at an extremely early date, i.e. a date very near the time of Jesus’ life.

Whether all this indicates an Egyptian location (some Christian community) for the original production of Mark remains to be seen. If so, it would contradict the commonly held view amongst scholars that Mark originated in Rome. This in turn would raise doubts about the scholarly consensus concerning the geographical origination of the other gospels.

The dating is not too startling. For over a century New Testament scholarship has concluded that Mark’s is the earliest Gospel, written sometime between 50 and 60 AD. This new discovery could well push that date back, however, much closer to 40, a mere ten years after the death of Jesus. As already mentioned, more work needs to be done.

More such fragments have been discovered, but yet to be publicized. What will be fascinating to learn is whether the evidence is only of Mark. Discovery of similar fragments from one or more of the other Gospels would explode the commonly accepted model of the Synoptic Problem and its solution.

Stay tuned.