Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas, Palestinian Style

I was in Bethlehem a couple of years ago just after Christmas. Although it's the city of our Lord's birth, Bethlehem is a tense place, situated as it is in the West Bank, so close to Jerusalem, in the midst of seemingly unresolvable religious and political conflict. Two students and I were walking to the Church of the Nativity and a Palestinian police officer had some fun at our expense. It was nothing serious, just annoying, and we went on our way. As it turned out, the church was temporarily closed for the evening. We were pretty disappointed, as our time in Bethlehem was limited. As we stood outside the church milling around, another police officer began calling to us. He and yet another office were at the bottom of a long stone staircase leading down to the street. They were both holding automatic weapons and he was motioning to us to come down. I have to say I was getting pretty nervous. So, we got down to the bottom of the steps, not really knowing what to expect, but still having a bad taste in our mouth from our last encounter with local law enforcement. What did this police officer want? He wanted to share with us a small fire that he had built beside the sidewalk. It was really cold outside, we couldn't get into the church, and we were just standing there. So he invited us down for some conversation and warmth.

I don't know if they were Christians or Muslims, but that night, outside the Church of the Nativity, two Palestinian police officers, in spite of the fact that they were holding automatic rifles,  managed to embody the hospitality, kindness, and gentleness that followers of Christ should emulate. I don't know anything else about them except for the few basic facts we were able to exchange across our language barrier, but that night it was Christmas.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In the Incarnation....

God took on human weakness. This is a crucial aspect, though an oft-neglected one, of Christian theology. Consider the kenosis hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Christ had the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped for his own gain. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself to the point of death... even death on a cross. He is exalted by God because he humbled himself. I encourage you as you prepare your messages in this Advent and Christmas season to think about the ways in which God's voluntarily self-emptying can shape the ways in which we think about ourselves in relationship to God and other people. Christmas is not just about a virginal birth and a child in a manger, though it is also about these things. It is about the Incarnation.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Are Classical Liberalism and Postmodernity Both Oppressive?

I'm reading Rebecca Raphael's very fine book, Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature (T & T Clark, 2008). In this work, she makes a very interesting observation: “[T]he classical liberal emphasis on autonomy assumed a standard, able, adult body and said virtually nothing about the presence of disabled persons in the body politic; and postmodernism has reveled in a representational body subject to infinite choice and pleasure, as if the choices of real bodies were not constrained.” It's interesting how we assume that our efforts toward individual autonomy and liberation actually accomplish what they envision, when in fact, there are always gaps in our perspective.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A New Book on the Gospel of Mark

Fortress Press publishes the Texts @ Contexts series, the goal of which is to bring voices outside of the North American and Western European contexts more fully into conversation with biblical scholarship. The volume on Mark has come out recently, edited by Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Teresa Okure, and Daniel M. Patte. I'm not going to review the book here. I'll just offer a few thoughts and questions that I had after reading it.

One aspect that I found interesting was the book's treatment of healing and exorcism. There are three essays on these topics. People who live in non-Western contexts often understand healing and exorcism quite differently than we who live in North America and Western Europe. I found this the most interesting part of the book. I only wish there had been more on this issue and that the essays had pushed a bit harder on these points.

There's quite a bit of post-colonial scholarship in the book. This is an important part of engagement with the two-thirds world. Yet I wonder if the degree to which the concerns of post-colonial criticism are represented in this book is proportionately represented in the religious lives and experiences of Christians in these contexts. I don't know the answer... just wondering.

Christianity is spreading rapidly through the global south, a fact which represents an evangelistic, proselytizing concern on the part of these Christians. I didn't see that perspective represented in the book, though, despite the fact that there is ample material in Mark that could lead one to reflect on issues related to evangelism.

All in all, despite the fact that I have some concerns, this is a helpful read. If you want think through the ways in which our cultural contexts shape our readings of the biblical texts, this book will prove a helpful resource.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Post SBL thoughts

Well, I didn't find any good bbq in downtown Atlanta (though I can't say that I tried very hard). I ran into a lot of old friends, though, which was nice.

The only program unit sessions that I went to were the three sessions of the Disability Studies and Healthcare in the Bible and Near East unit. There were some very fine papers presented in this session and I took a lot of notes, trying to nail down as many references as possible. The work being done in this unit is really innovative and interesting. It relates to many other areas of biblical scholarship. I can only see interest growing in the topics addressed by this group in coming years.

I think that an area that needs more attention has to do with intellectual disability and the Bible. I'm not sure how to get at this, though, because the category is so foreign to the biblical writers. Lots to think about....

Unfortunately, all the other program unit sessions that I wanted to go to (and there were several) were at the same time as the disability studies sessions, or they were on Monday or Tuesday (and I left Monday at lunchtime).

On Friday night of the conference I had the opportunity to hear N. T. Wright give a lecture called "The Kingdom and the Cross." It was typical N. T. Wright: eloquent, theologically interesting, and thought provoking. Yet the highlight of the evening, in my opinion, was the respondent, Michael Bird of Crossway College (Australia). Bird's response was not only pointed and well informed, but engaging, humorous, and well delivered. Though relatively young, Bird is certainly making a name for himself in the field.

On Sunday night, the Association of Theological Schools honored Dr. Kathleen O'Connor of Columbia Theological Seminary for her work in theological education. O'Connor gave an outstanding address on the vocation of the theological educator and the need to listen to voices speaking from a variety of contexts as we engage the Bible in the classroom.

Every time I attend SBL I'm more keenly aware of how much I have to learn. Then again, I suppose that's at least part of the point. Complacency is the enemy of good scholarship.

Friday, November 19, 2010


I'm off to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta today. This is always a really beneficial conference. For me personally, the sections on the Bible and disability and social-scientific criticism of the NT are very important. Add in the lecture by N. T. Wright tonight, numerous receptions, and a chance to catch up with some old friends, and it should be an enjoyable weekend. Plus, there's nothing like southern barbeque!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mark's Counterculture

Last week I was reading through the proofs of an article that I've written and will come out later this year. The article compares the ancient novel The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Coming back to this text, it struck me again just how deeply countercultural Mark is. Read through this text carefully. Spend time in it. And think through the challenges that Jesus offers in this story. I think of the words of Jesus' followers in John: "This teaching is hard." This especially the case Mark 8, 9, and 10. Hard stuff.

Friday, October 8, 2010

When Biblical Scholarship Gets Weird

The Son of a Dead Sea Scrolls expert was convicted of fraud related to the supposed plagiarism of his father's work. Check out the New York Times article on the conviction.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A very interesting religious figure

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is one of the more interesting figures in public religious discourse today. He'll be a Stillwater UMC near Dayton, Ohio, on December 1 at 7:00 p.m. to speak on the topic "Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." If you can make it, I'd love to see you there.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Honor Among Christians

Well, at long last, it's out. Honor Among Christians is my take on the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark. I'm trying to answer the question, "How would ancient Mediterranean people have heard these stories in Mark in which Jesus attempts to conceal his deeds and identity?"
In 1901 William Wrede wrote a book that we call in English The Messianic Secret. Since that time, the language of "secrecy" has done a lot of heavy lifting in Markan scholarship. Ancient people, however, understood secrecy rather differently than we do. They also understood issues such as fame, power, great deeds, and prestige differently than we do. More specifically, such issues were governed by the values of honor and shame. My goal in this book is to examine the passages associated with the messianic secret in light of these ancient Mediterranean values.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Buddy Walk

My family and I participated in the Dayton area 2010 Buddy Walk yesterday. The Buddy Walk is an event that occurs all over the country to raise awareness and promote inclusion of people with Down Syndrome. There were several folks from the UTS community there who are not directly affected by DS but who came in support of the event and cause. It was a great event, and if you want to learn more about it, click here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Disabled God

This work began as Nancy Eiesland's master's thesis, but eventually became a classic work in the area of theology and disability. At less than 120 pages of text, it functions essentially as a programmatic call to rethink assumptions, practices, and theological models that are harmful to persons with disabilities. The actual constructive theological proposal is very brief, but the issues that Eiesland raises continue to give rise to other important theological reflection and proposals.

Nancy Eiesland died at age 44 from cancer. One wonders how her work would have continued to evolve over another, say, thirty years of writing and reflection. Nevertheless, she has left us this very important work which has become essential reading for all who care about the relationship between people with disabilities, God, and the church.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New book on Bible and disability

Some time ago, I read Amos Yong's book, Theology and Down Syndrome. As noted in one of the posts below, I found this book extremely helpful. Recently, Prof. Yong was kind enough to send me a manuscript of his forthcoming book, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision for the People of God. Eerdmans is the publisher, and it's projected for fall 2011. This is a very insightful book. I especially valued Yong's reflections on Paul's theological treatment of weakness and strength. While Theology and Down Syndrome is a fairly technical volume, this work is more accessible, and a bit less formal in style. If you have an interest in disability studies, especially as they relate to the Bible, keep an eye out for this book.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Should we preach on Mark's longer ending?

After reading James Sanders' Torah and Canon, I made my way through its brief companion and sequel, Canon and Community. Sanders holds that historical critics, whether they meant to or not, have effectively "de-canonized" parts of the Bible. If some part of the Bible is deemed to be an interpolation, spurious, or somehow later than the larger literary unit in which it is contained, it is seen as having less authority, or perhaps simply less usefulness within the community of faith, than other parts of the Bible. Therefore, we might see letters of disputed Pauline authorship, such as Ephesians, as having less value or authority than those of undisputed authorship, such as 1 Corinthians. Or, to use a much smaller literary unit, we might question the value of Mark 16:9-20, which is almost universally believed to be a later addition to the original ending of Mark at 16:8. If vv. 9-2o weren't part of the original witness of the evangelist, should they have the same functions and value as those parts that are believed to be original (whatever "original" might mean in this context)? Sanders' answer is, basially, "Of course." Canon is always the product of a process, and the addition of these verses is simply a reflection of the church's process of canonization. It was not simply the original witness that was canonized, but a larger literary product that includes these additional verses. Insofar as they remain part of the life and witness of the community of faith, then they continue to function as canon. But when we remove them from our corporate life and witness, then we have functionally, if not formally, de-canonized them, and therefore we deprive ourselves of the full range of the church's scripture.
Very interesting stuff. Sanders' work has shown me that I have a lot to learn about these kinds of issues.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Masterpiece

I read James Sanders' Torah and Canon during my first year of PhD work, but I don't think I really appreciated it in the manner which it deserves. Recently, I reread it in my research on canon, and I'm very glad I did. Sanders demonstrates various ways in which Israel's scriptures functioned in the lives of its historic communities in a variety of periods. Put differently, we explore in this book the ways in which scripture formed a people, sustained them in exile, called them to repentance, and gave them a story by which to live. Sanders' control of the material is impressive, to say the least. There are, by the way, many ways in which Sanders' arguments apply to the life of the church today.
This book was originally published in 1972, and so some of the source-critical ideas he works with may be a bit dated. The style is accessible, not bogged down with jargon or encumbered with technical issues.
A classic in the field of canonical criticism, this work will benefit any who wish to think through the ways in which the Bible can function within our communities of faith, or those who simply wish to learn more about Israel's scriptures, which of course Christians later adopted.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The New Testament as Canon

I've been reading in the field of canonical criticism lately. When one begins to research in this area, Brevard Childs and James Sanders are at the top of the reading list. There are a number of other fine scholars who have done work in this field, however. One fine book that I recommend is by Robert Wall and Eugene Lemcio. It is called "The New Testament as Canon: A Reader in Canonical Criticism." Wall and Lemcio are both New Testament professors at Seattle Pacific University, a school affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. Their work in canonical criticism takes the Bible as the book of living, breathing communities, communities that are trying to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Biblical interpretation has often been separated from the life of faith, but the approach in this book sees in the Bible myriad voices that often stand in tension with one another, informing communities of faith in a variety of ways. The tensions between these voices are resolved, they hold, not by creating a "canon within the canon" or simply rejecting one voice in favor of another, but by working through the implications of each within the life of a faithful community. For pastors who have academic interests, this would be a very useful book.

I think that canonical criticism could be a very fine method for working through issues related to the Bible and disability. We have in the Bible texts that one would not think of as helpful for people with disabilities. Likewise, there are texts that people of faith who have disabilities may find hopeful, liberating, and saving. There are tensions in the Bible around these topics, tensions that we need to work through not simply abstractly as scholars, but also as communities of faith who come to know God through scripture.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Upcoming lectures at UTS

We have some very nice lectures coming up at United in spring 2011. On March 27-28 we will have the first of what is planned to be an ongoing church renewal conference called "Light the Fire!" and the keynote speaker will be Leonard Sweet. We'll also have Walter Brueggemann later that spring--May 11, to be exact--as our speaker for the Heck Lectures . This series generally involves two lectures and a panel discussion. (I would provide a link to a website on Brueggemann, but there are so many it's hard to choose one.) If you think you'll be in the Dayton area on these dates, I hope you'll take the opportunity to hear one or both of these very fine lecturers. Let us know you're coming, though, by registering in advance.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Messianic Secret

In 1901, William Wrede publish a book that we call in English The Messianic Secret. He called attention to passages, particularly in Mark, in which Jesus tried to conceal his deeds and identity, or in other ways tried to escape the public eye. Wrede's book was very controversial in its own time, and the passages to which he called attention continue to be the subject of debate even today. These passages, or some combination of them, are generally thought to represent a more or less unified theme in Mark called the "messianic secret."
I have a new book on the messianic secret coming out in October of this year. Actually, to say that the book is about the messianic secret is a bit misleading, because part of what I'm arguing is that the term "messianic secret" is not culturally appropriate for first-century Mediterranean people. The texts associated with this motif are really about honor and shame. It's been a fascinating topic to research and about which to write. If you want to check out the book, click on this link.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Theology and Down Syndrome

I really benefitted from reading Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Baylor University Press, 2007, 425 pp.). Amos Yong is a very fine scholar who draws upon a wide range of theological traditions in this text. Much of the book is about disability theory and disability theology in a broad sense, rather than about DS specifically, though intellectual disability is the subject of a fair amount of the analysis. I did not find the discussion of disability in various world religions germane to the overall discussion, though other readers might find it more edifying. In Part 3 of the book Yong works through several theological loci—creation, providence, anthropology, ecclesiology, and soteriology. These discussions are rich and insightful. I found his work on soteriology fascinating. This is no light read. It is a fairly technical volume, though accessible to the non-specialist. I highly recommend this book for anyone who feels that the church should attend more fully to issues of disability.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

N. T. Wright Retiring as Bishop of Durham

This comes as quite a surprise, at least to me. N. T. Wright has decided to step down from one of the most influential posts in the Anglican Church. You can read the article here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Wesleyan Perspective on the Bible?

Ever since the WTS meeting, the theme of which was "The Future of Scripture," I've been ruminating....

Is there a particularly Wesleyan take on the Bible? Wesley was, for the most part, what we would consider today a "biblical literalist." He called himself a "man of one book." Of course, there's nothing especially unique about that. He was, in that sense, a product of the Reformation.

Many would dispute, however, that Wesley was indeed a man of one book. Ever since Outler we've had this "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" that has been thought to reflect a Wesleyan use of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In that sense, Wesley was a good Anglican in the tradition of Richard Hooker, although he seems to have added experience to the mix. That's not all that unique, either.

I think that, rather than seeking a Wesleyan understanding of scripture, it is more fruitful to identify ways in which scripture informs life lived with particular Wesleyan emphases, such as personal holiness and sanctification, social holiness, the work of the Holy Spirit, and assurance. This type of approach seems to be borne out in the Wesley Study Bible, which is a nice volume if you haven't picked one up.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sometimes it's just too easy....

Glenn Beck has recently advised Christians that, if their churches preach "social justice," they should simply leave them, since "social justice" is a code word for Communism or Nazism.

(scratching my head....)

Apart from the obvious problems with his reading of the gospels, how can the same word refer to both Communism and Nazism?

I could go on, but, why?

You can check out the story here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wesleyan Theological Society

Last weekend Jason Vickers and I traveled to the annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society at Azusa Pacific University. The theme was "The Future of Scripture," and the keynote speakers were William J. Abraham and Richard Hays. Abraham and Hays had a very fine dialogue about the nature and function of scripture. The conference was well worth going to.

At this conference, we talked a great deal about the viability of the principle of sola scriptura. In my own paper, I argued that sola scriptura does not reflect the use of scripture in in the first four centuries of the church when the New Testament canon was being formed. Rather, during this period the relationship between scripture and tradition was dialectical, each helping to shape the other. Scripture was never meant to do all of the theological "heavy lifting" for us. Further, sola scriptura unnecessarily limits the theological resources available to us through the Christian tradition.

I was surprised to find that many people agreed with this claim, though at least one person found it highly objectionable. I do think, though, that it's time for a renewed conversation about this issue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bible and Disability

I had a good meeting with folks from the East Ohio Conference on the Bible and disability. There were a few people from the East Ohio Conference task force on disability in attendance. The discussion was rich and edifying, and it also impressed upon me the need for ongoing education and research on this topic. If you're interested in exploring this issue, a good place to start is with the book This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, edited by Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sola Scriptura

I'm delivering a paper at the annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society in three weeks, and a good part of my paper involves the doctrine of sola scriptura. I am expanding on the idea developed in the book Canonical Theism that sola scriptura is an unreasonable conception of scripture. The problem that I'm runnign into as I learn about this doctrine is that sola scriptura is a very fluid term, meaning different things withing different communities. It can mean that scripture is the only proper source and norm for the formation of doctrine. Or it can mean that, while the creeds of the church are true, scripture, when read properly, leads us to understand the faith in the manner of these creeds. The creeds are therefore summaries of the proper reading of scripture. Or it can mean that scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Or it can mean other things. This, gentle reader, is the problem. It's hard to argue about a concept with no stable definition.

Around the same time, I am also speaking at the East Ohio Conference UTS alum gathering on the topic of the Bible and disability. I have been learning about this topic for a while now, but I have not spoken on it before. Given this, you may be asking, "Why are you blogging right now, rather than working on these two projects, the deadlines of which are quickly approaching?" The answer is: I really don't know. Perhaps this is a form of avoidance behavior.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bible Translations

Ever wonder what the differences are between various translations of the Bible? The Society of Biblical Literature has a web page that offers some info on these, along with articles about the topic of Bible translation. Click here to get to the site.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Strong Message to our Denominational Leaders

Press Release from United Theological Seminary,
Dayton, Ohio, North America
January 27, 2010

Dr. Wendy Deichmann Edwards, a United Methodist elder currently serving as President of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, stated that she was shocked to learn that an agency of The United Methodist Church knowingly plans to release a seriously misleading, damaging statement regarding United Theological Seminary later today. The seminary president said the forthcoming statement is not supported by the findings of the independent financial consultant recently hired by the denomination’s own Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and it contradicts the solid affirmation of the fiscal management of the school by both regional (Higher Learning Commission) and international (Association of Theological Schools) accrediting bodies. “I find it unconscionable that brothers and sisters in Christ would knowingly promulgate inaccurate and damaging claims—this will hurt the Church and its witness as much as it will hurt the seminary,” she stated.

The agency reportedly held a meeting last week and discussed accusations concerning the seminary without inviting a representative of the seminary to be present or even informing the seminary it was a subject of debate. Then, after making this incredible decision, advised the seminary of the matter less than 48 hours before the scheduled announcement. There is no way to stop this unfortunate action once it has been approved by the denomination’s University Senate, Deichmann Edwards was told Tuesday by denominational officials. The best she or even a bishop can do is to submit a request for reconsideration within 90 days after the fact and the President confirmed her intention to file for a retraction and public apology to the seminary. More information will be provided in an Open Letter to be posted on the seminary’s website,, later today.

When questioned why a church agency would ignore the findings of authoritative accrediting bodies and of a credible consultant of its own choosing, and act in ways that would undermine the wellbeing of the seminary and the Church, Deichmann Edwards said it is difficult not to wonder whether there is another agenda at work. In a similar way, she pointed out, for many years United was pressured by the denomination to merge with another school against the seminary’s own best judgment and against the advice of highly qualified, professional consultants hired by the Church itself. She admitted it would be hard to conclude there was no conflict of interest involved in the genesis of the harmful statement by a denominational Commission composed primarily of CEOs from institutions that stand to gain financially if United’s growing strength and good reputation is compromised. The seminary president hopes it is not too late to stem the tide of a culture of divisiveness, scarcity and decline within The United Methodist Church. “God isn’t finished with us yet,” she stated, “because the Holy Spirit is always working and there is a whole world out there waiting to hear Good News.”

United Theological Seminary, founded in 1871 by the United Brethren in Christ Church, is one of thirteen theological schools in the USA now affiliated with The United Methodist Church. In the past several years, the school has built a growing network of support among vibrant congregations both small and large, along with bishops and other church leaders who want to revitalize the Church, make disciples of Jesus Christ and change the world. Along these same lines, United has embraced an educational emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing the Church for the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. The school continues longstanding emphases in biblical and academic study, spiritual formation, personal and social holiness, and the use of technology in education and ministry, now most evident in the increasing number of online learning opportunities for students. United’s new enrollment and financial gift receipts have increased dramatically during the past two years, part of a remarkable institutional turnaround that offers hope for the Church and other institutions committed to spiritual growth and renewal, according to President Deichmann Edwards. “This is not about us or what we are doing,” she asserted, “it is about what God is doing to bring hope and new life to people and we are just blessed to be a part of it.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Craig Evans at UTS

Noted New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans will speak at United on April 14th for the annual J. Arthur Heck Lectures. His topic is "Jesus Outside the Bible." He will discuss not only non-canonical texts, but sources such as Suetonius and Josephus that mention Jesus.
Dr. Evans is a prolific author and a highly respected scholar of the New Testament. I have heard him lecture, and he is very engaging. I strongly encourage all who are able to attend this event, which will conisist of two lectures and a panel discussion. To learn more about these lectures, click here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A new Bible website

The Society of Biblical Literature is planning to start a new website about the Bible, one intended not primarily for Bible scholars, but for the general public. They are seeking input about the kinds of things that would make such a website helpful and effective in accomplishing its goals. If you'd like to chime in, click here. I know the people putting this together would appreciate your input.

I've moved

Well, something had to give. In fact, several things had to give, and one of them was my blogging. I was finishing up a book manuscript for Fortress Press. The book is called Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the So-Called Messianic Secret. Hopefully it will be out later this year. If I can just sell as many copies as Rick Warren did with The Purpose-Driven Life, I'll be feeling pretty good.

So, I'm blogging again, much to the great relief of my millions of readers worldwide.