Growing up in evangelical America, the evils of high textual criticism of scripture were frequently referred to and dismissed in the course of bible study. The kinds of “insights” (in scare quotes) that these (probably faithless) scholars came up with nearly always served to undermine to gospel – sometimes directly by calling into question some key component of redemptive history, but often by threatening it slowly through eroding traditional confidence in the text. It was usually suspected that these high textual critics were, at worst, doing this kind of sabotage quite on purpose because they hated God. At best, they were Godly men and women who were misguided and stifled from hanging out in the academy for two long.

The prime example of textual criticism gone to seed was the work of the Jesus Seminar from the early 1990s. Their conclusion that Jesus didn’t say nearly anything attributed to him in the Gospels was truly eye-roll inducing. But does that mean every last nuts-and-bolts technique the scholars used at coming to this ridiculous conclusion was total garbage? That’s a much larger and more complicated question, but one it seems few are willing to put much effort into answering.

Later in my adult life when I encountered well-read and highly intellectual evangelicals, usually of the Reformed variety, this kind of allergy to archeological or linguistic insights into scripture persisted. Simply the idea that such-and-such a passage may have been added by an editor and not the stated author is still something to be scorned and dismissed as clearly anti-biblical and by extension, anti-Christ.

“If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”
– 1 Cor. 15:17

Paul is emphatic that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then all our faith is worthless.

BUT, what if, when the present world is all over and all mysteries are revealed, it turns out that Isaiah chapters 40-55 actually WERE written by a different prophet than the guy that wrote chapters 1-39? Is our faith worthless then? I don’t think so. What if the prologue and epilogue of Job were added later? Does that HAVE to mean they are uninspired by the Holy Spirit and clearly full of lies? I’m always hearing “no, but…” followed by some kind of flimsy slippery slope argument. Better to just not talk about that stuff. One minute you might think Paul didn’t write Hebrews and before you know it, your sleeping with copies of the The Golden Bough and the Nag Hammadi and thinking about voting for democrats.

This kind of persistent fear is obnoxious and undermines our faith rather than strengthens it. We can trust Jesus and God’s gift of scripture without resorting to this kind of dishonesty toward any kind of technique that might have been tainted by the enemy at one time or another. Those things can be redeemed too, and should be.

* Post-script disclaimer: I realize I’m conflating higher and lower textual criticism, but fearful resistance to it often conflates the two as well. Also, it is not my intention to advocate for textual criticism as a deep well of untapped insight that we should all be enthusiastic about. Though I think its utility is limited, censorship is a foolish response.

Back when I last visited Ethiopia, I asked one of the priests I met with if he had any books to recommend to understand African culture and thought better. He said that even though it was kind of old, Mbiti’s African Regions and Philosophy was probably still the best serious place to start. I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it this year.

I didn’t make a lot of notes as I went, so I’m only going to post this quote emphasizing how hypo-individualist (is that a word?) traditional African culture is, across virtually the entire southern part of the continent. It’s the opposite of America. Even in relatively modern African cities, this doesn’t pass away easily from the minds of the people. “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” is still largely the rule.

[Africans] have no creeds to recite: their creeds are within them, in their blood and in their hearts. Their beliefs about God are expressed through concrete concepts, attitudes, and acts of worship [prayers, songs, offerings]. The individual believes what others in his community believe: it is a corporate ‘Faith’. And this faith is utilitarian, not purely spiritual, it is practical and not mystical. The people respond to God in and because of particular circumstances, especially in times of need. Then they seek to obtain what He gives, be that material or spiritual; they do not search for Him as the final reward or satisfaction of the human soul or spirit. Augustine’s description of man’s soul being restless until it finds its rest in God, is something unknown in African traditional religious life. – John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, p.67

Far fewer books this year and way less blogging. Such is this season of life.

  • Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements, Mark Mullins
  • The Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki
  • Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf
  • The Golden Armband, Jeanne K. Norweb (read aloud to the kids)
  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, Rene Girard (second time)
  • Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu
  • Small Steps, Louis Sachar (read aloud to the kids)
  • Christian Brotherhood, Joseph Ratzinger
  • The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius
  • Doctors Without Borders in Ethiopia: Among the Afar, Nyla Jo Jones Hubbard
  • Confessions, Augustine (Pine-Coffin translation)
  • At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald (read aloud to the kids)
  • Inferno, Dante (Dorothy Sayers translation and notes)

The enlightenment has absolutely no use for legends. Any hint of legend is seen as an embarrassment and obviously false in every possible way. False not just as fanciful or exaggerated but in the same category as “wicked lie of the devil”. There is no distinction. There is only cold logic. If it isn’t sufficiently verifiable by scientific method or by contemporary historical research, then it is pure hot garbage, the stuff of the void.

Contemporary Christians in thrall of this sort of epistemology find scripture, especially the early chapters of Genesis to be intensely disconcerting. They smell legendary. How embarrassing! That will not do. They must be reread and conformed into something more palatable for the modern age. The days of creation must be 24 hours, or even 1440 clock-hand seconds in length. Each metaphor or piece of imagery must unlock or at least correspond to some recently articulated piece of geology or astronomy. Later books must be heavily footnoted with as much 20th century archeology as can be dug up and appropriated. Once properly modernized, we can get back to the much more important and comfortable work of expositing the Greek epistles where everything is kept either very practical or philosophical and never mythical thank you very much.

1. The Early Church was pure and unified, until Constantine nationalized Christianity. It’s all been downhill from there. We need to throw away the last 1700 years of history and get back to raw early church Christianity!

2. The Early Church was pure and unified and then things got even better as it grew into the Roman Catholic church that covered the Western world. But then some grouchy sectarian and some rotten German and English kings threw a huge monkey wrench in the whole thing with the Protestant Reformation and it’s been a mess ever since the 1500’s.

3. The Early Church quickly drifted from the true teachings of Jesus Christ and it was a mess for centuries until a super bright and prophetic teacher arose to set everyone straight! (Congratulations, you are in a cult!).

As far as I can tell though, from studying scriptures and the apostolic fathers, reality is more like this:

The Early Church was very diverse from the get-go, in language, culture, geography, and even in some finer points of theology. It also had a myriad of ongoing sin problems, which prompted many of the NT epistles, as we well know. Church leaders hashed out some of the most important theological points together, but they stayed diverse in many points of practice all over the globe, from Syria to Libya and from Rome to Ireland. They had different leadership structures, different baptism patterns, and besides being largely unified about who Jesus is, had a variety of beliefs and worship practices shaped by local culture and imagination. The well-documented medieval church in Europe tried to make itself monolithic in language and practice, but that didn’t really stick. Exploration of the rest of the earth from the 16th century onward exploded things even more and that’s where we are today.

This map roughly map shows the widely diverse geography of early church communities. Imagine the implied cultural and linguistic diversity between, and keep in mind that communication was VERY slow and leadership patterns not well established at the time. Suggesting they were unified in practice is just plain silly.

Sometimes, post-modern boogeyman Derrida asks a really good question or two:

“Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way?”
– Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, p.185-86

What would a mark be that could not be cited? What idea would be impossible to rip from it’s context? Or, conversely, what thing COULD you rip from it’s context and find that it remained intact – that it brought the kitchen sink along with it – everything you needed to keep it’s meaning alive even when transplanted?

I’m not sure, but these sound like divine things to me. Has this ever been done? Perhaps in the incarnation of Christ. Perhaps at Pentecost when everyone heard Peter speaking of Jesus in their own languages. They went back to their homes in nations all over the earth, but though they only had a little new knowledge in their head, it flourished and became something much more – colored by local languages and culture, yes – but still consistent with the origin. It’s like they carried home a seed – a haunted seed with an invisible gardener attached to it. The linguistic sign was verbal and ripped from it’s context in Jerusalem, but somehow survived the journey intact through the work of an active agent, the Holy Spirit.

I know these probably aren’t anything like the categories Derrida had in mind, but they are what I have in mind when I hear his questions and I think the Gospel is the closest thing to an answer.

It’s not often I read a book by someone on the “liberal” side of Christianity, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of Richard Beck’s blog posts in the past and I find the study (or overt ignorance) of the devil perennially fascinating so when I saw his relatively recent book Reviving Old Scratch for sale at Powell’s in Portland, I had to grab it. Here are a few passages I found of interest along with a brief notes.

Critics of spiritual warfare have got it backwards when they say that talking about demons will cause you to demonize other human beings. The truth is that it’s the exact opposite: it’s our REFUSAL to talk about demons that causes us to demonize other human beings.
The reason for this should be pretty obvious. If there isn’t a spiritual dynamic at work in the struggle, if the struggle for social justice is thoroughly disenchanted, then it’s destined to be a battle against other human beings, against Bad People – the Good People trying to wrest power away from the Bad People. When spiritual warfare loses its spiritual component our battle can’t help but become against [only] flesh and blood.

This is an especially helpful word in the era of Facebook and Twitter arguments. The more we fight each other in abstract media spaces, the more likely we are to dehumanize those we (think we) disagree with. Awareness of the devil helps keep this in check. We might also do well to see if he’s stirring up our own unholy desires.

Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual distrubances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in ourselves we are.
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.26, quoted in Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch, p.75

This reminds me of Kathleen Norris’s comments in her memoir Dakota about how when you live in a small town you have to learn to get along with all kinds of weirdos. When you live in a big city though (or on the internet), you can hang out with just a tiny subculture and seriously fool yourself into believing that you would be a nice guy around all the other people too, in theory.

The Bible is notoriously uninterested in providing us a theodicy – that is, a theological account of why evil exists. Evil is simply taken as a given – a given to be resisted. [Greg] Boyd calls this a theology of revolt. The biblical response to evil isn’t philosophical but behavioral. We might phrase it this way: The only theodicy we find in the Bible is resistance. A theology of revolt trades in philosophical bafflement for boots on the ground.

That scripture does not give us an obvious theodicy is a bit of honesty I wish more theologians would admit up front.

Who would weep for Babylon? A heck a lot of our heroes.

Regarding Revelation 17:19:
The oppressive and exploitative aspects of Babylon are highlighted by who mourns for Babylon when she falls. Who weeps for Babylon? The kings and the merchants because they “grew rich” form Babylon’s economic and political exploitation of the world (Revelation 18:3, 11-13).

Some healthy push back to contemporary talk of sexual “consent”:

The Bible has always linked sex to covenant rather than consent because the writers of the Bible understood that sex is political, relational, and social. Consent is contractual, two isolated individuals negotiating and then reaching an agreement about a sexual transaction. Consent is the child of capitalism. Covenant, by contrast, is a promise to care for and protect, tonight, and more importantly, tomorrow. The problem with consent is that while we might voluntarily agree to a sexual transaction, and this does protect us from rape and abuse, we might be radically unprepared for how the experience will leave each of us exposed, vulnerable, and needy in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Covenant is the promise to care about these exposures, vulnerabilities, and needs.

Some nice analogies here:

“Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
There is is, the whole vision of spiritual warfare, the apocalyptic and tactical elements of our theology of revolt. In Jesus the kingdom of God has apocalyptically invaded the world, and as this is an invasion of love it’s a tactical engagement. Love is guerilla warfare. A great campaign of sabotage.

Finally here, Beck (quoting Wright) notices the curious modern tendency to speak of impersonal powers even while technically denying their existence.

The modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach… does justice to reality… Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do.
You might have though the history of the twentieth century would provide plenty of examples of this [i.e., a dark force taking over people, movements, and countries], but many still choose to resist the conclusion – despite the increasing use in public life of the language of “force” (economic “forces,” political “forces”, peer “pressure,” and so on).

I finally got around to reading The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter. I’d seen the book recommended in various circles for the past decade. I enjoyed reading it as I do most things related to the history of the Celtic church. What the heck IS the “Celtic way of evangelism” though according to Hunter? Well, it mostly boils down to some variation of “friendship evangelism”. Sounds great on paper, but unfortunately I’d already had my own extended first-hand experience with the methodology and it wasn’t exactly positive.

I experienced a great deal of “friendship” Evangelism first-hand in college and I can’t put it any softer than to say it was false friendship. I was invited over for dinner, movies, games, out for coffee, etc. four to five times a week my entire first year of college. It was great! Enter second year. Where did all the friends go? Surprise! They no longer have time for you. They are courting the next crop of freshman. You are a sophomore now. Now it’s YOUR job to be the false friend and get another round of misfits to show up at church on Sunday. Congratulations! You’ve graduated from receiving to giving. Now, you’re on your own to build your own friendships on the side among the other people that are busy pretending to be friends with the new kids. Do it together and you might make some real friends by accident along the way. Or not.

Some might argue that what I experienced was just “friendship evangelism” poorly executed, but I think it was executed well. I think the underlying idea was broken. I think it was broken in a variety of ways, but for now I’ll just suggest one key way in which I think it probably differed greatly from whatever Columba and his monks did in west Scotland all those years ago. I think it has to do with time and expectations. We live in a frantic and fast-paced age. A college town full of transitory young people is especially so. Few people are settling down. They are just passing through. Evangelism in this context is amped up on urgency like someone who slammed far too many Red Bulls. Everything had to happen in less than 9 months or it would seemingly fail and these high-energy middle-class 18-year-old college kids would slip through the cracks! But Colomba lived in and around Iona for well over 30 years. He built slow gardens, slow houses, slow friendships and slow institutions. If he built any trust at all with his pagan neighbors (and he obviously did!) it must have been over the course of many years as they farmed and raised their families.

Modern Western economics and living condition expectations make virtually everything about how Columcille did things a complete non-starter. Health care? Forget it. Building a monastery on some nice land nobody was using? Uhhh. Raising a family? Maybe out of a VW van. Nope. This is Christianity for the poor. We are gluttonously rich and want everything yesterday or at the latest by this time next year. Let’s not fool ourselves! We wouldn’t want any part in this old, slow way.

I wondered aloud what St. Columbcille would do today if his coracle had landed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest in 2018. My wife brilliantly suggested that perhaps he would have opened a taco truck. I think she could be right. And the taco truck would be known not for handing out tacky gospel tracts with the food, but for being run by really kind people who made especially delicious tacos.

I few months ago, I visited a retro video game convention in Portland with my oldest son. It was a lot of fun and seeing this canvas (which I loved) caused me to reflect on why I enjoyed it so much.

One of the things I find consistently funny is making fun of computers. I love how old computers allow us to do this while new ones, somehow, do not. They are too proud. The old computers were proud too, but also completely ridiculous. In hindsight, their shoddiness or tackiness is blaring and obvious.

I think our current technology is not different, yet we talk about it as if it were the fruit of the gods. Scan any recent headlines regarding Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber, VR, AI, for examples. We take them so seriously but are many of these things any less dumb than the Power Glove or some ill-conceived and buggy Atari game from the early 1980s? I think in thirty years we’ll be able to say they were the same sort of thing.