A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

New Testament

Moses Bigger than Jesus? Let the Action Figures Decide

In his book America’s Prophet:  Moses and the American Story, Bruce Feiler makes a bold claim: “Moses is bigger than Jesus.”

Feiler’s argument is about the relative influence of these two great figures on the North American psyche.  But there’s another way to evaluate the powers of these men: by comparing their action figures.

First, there’s Moses.

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Moses’ stats on the back of the box list his accomplishments, as well as the powers of his weapon, the staff.

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Moses is Liberator, Prophet, Lawgiver, Historian. His weapon does incredible things.

Then, there’s Jesus.

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The description on the back of his box is more measured.

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Jesus comes with no weapons but he with signs of his miracles–loaves and fishes and a wine jug–as well as a backdrop.

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Jesus also has glow-in-the-dark hands, which didn’t show up well in my photography.

Based on their action figures, I’m not sure who wins.

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Unlike Moses, Jesus doesn’t get weapons, but then again he doesn’t need them to work his miracles.  Moses’ staff has special powers, but Jesus himself has special powers. Moses is listed with more superlatives, but more religions seem to have opinions about Jesus (though they seem only to agree that “Jesus was an extraordinary man”).

To settle this, I thought about bringing in the Pope Pius action figure that belongs to my colleague, but I thought that would be rigging the fight.

 

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Trying to Understand a Ripped Jesus

I’ve never thought of Jesus as meek and mild, but I also never imagined Jesus the way I saw him depicted on a billboard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a few years ago.

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Ever since I saw this billboard, I’ve been curious about its origin, whether it’s unique or part of a genre, etc.

But I’ve never taken up the task of researching it.  So instead I’m asking folks around the world.  Have you ever seen billboards or other public depictions of Jesus like this? Know anything about its origin?  Those of you who’ve been to Myrtle Beach lately, is it still there?  Do you know who paid for its display?

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NT Podcasts

Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Duke University, has developed a New Testament podcast.  He describes it as “condensed content from an academic perspective for everyone interested in historical approaches to the New Testament.

Check it out.


Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.

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In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.


The Shack and the Book of Job

My main complaint about The Shack is that it isn’t very interesting as a story. The book starts out well enough, with an interesting (if disturbing) plot, and I find myself wanting to know what has happened to Missy, the main character’s daughter.  I am ready for characters to be developed, details to be filled in, the mystery to be solved.  I am ready for something to happen. 

But The Shack quickly abandons plot for the sake of dialogue–really alternating monologues– about theology.  Speeches about the nature of the Trinity, the fairness of God, and the tragedies caused by freewill go on and on, with Missy’s fate remembered only occasionally.  At the very end of The Shack, we get a little action.   But not much.

To be fair, I have to make the same critique of the book of Job. 

Job starts out with an interesting (if disturbing) story about a man whose life is tormented by the death of his children and the ruination of his health.  All this takes place, readers learn, because of  what’s transpiring in another realm.  God is allowing The Adversary (not really Satan in the full sense) to orchestrate Job’s suffering not in order to teach him anything (since Job has no knowledge of what’s going on) but in order to prove a point with The Adversary. 

Two chapters into the book of Job, the plot evaporates and alternating monologues begin. One of Job’s friends talk.  Job talks. Another friend talks.  Job talks. And on and on.  The maddening cycle of speeches only ends when God gives the final monologue, the “speech from the whirlwind” in chs. 38-41 that confronts Job with rapid-fire rhetorical questions.  As in The Shack, the speeches address God’s fairness and whether bad things really do happen to good people.  Only at the very end of Job does the plot return.  Job’s life begins again.  He has new children.

For a long time, scholarly interpreters have treated the book as the result of pious editing.  The speeches are so harsh–these interpreters believe–so borderline heretical, that a folktale was added to soften its edges.  The bitter filling of Job might be more palatable if sandwiched between two slices of a bland tale about a patient sufferer.

That’s not the way I read the book of Job.  I think the book’s prologue and epilogue make its theology more rather than less disturbing.  If you take the prologue seriously, human suffering has nothing to do with human action:  Job’s life is determined by actors of whom he remains unaware and not by what he thinks, feels, or does.  If you keep the prologue in mind when you listen to God’s Great Speech, then the divine one isn’t telling the whole truth.  God talks at length about controlling the world but never mentions the real cause of Job’s suffering.  The narrator may let the reader know that the struggle between God and The Adversary started everything, but the divine one doesn’t let Job in on the secret.

The Shack offers readers a much more comfortable theology than the book of Job does.  In The Shack, God is tirelessly kind and nurturing and always wants the best for humans. Bad things only happen because people do bad things.  There’s nothing scary about God.  Such is not the picture of God in the book of Job.  There are lots of ways to understand God’s speech in chs. 38-41,  but almost all point to the complex and unknowable nature of God.

Many Christians distance themselves from Job’s picture of God:  to them, it represents “the Old Testament God,” one far inferior to the God of love that Jesus preached. They believe Jesus came to reveal God as comforting and easily-accessible, like Papa in The Shack.

But I do not dismiss Job as an old or inferior way of thinking.  I don’t claim to know the full truth about God, but I have listened to enough people who claim to have experienced the dark side of divine sovereignty to know that Job speaks to their experience. I have heard this testimony especially from people whose children have died:  they testify that reading Job is more helpful in a time of breath-choking pain than hearing simplistic explanations  about why people suffer. 

I read Job as human testimony to pain and to the experience of divine absence. I’m glad it’s in the Bible, even if I wish there were more plot and less talking.  I wish The Shack had more plot, too, but mostly I wish it witnessed to a more complex view of God.

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Holocaust Remembrance and Easter

April 21, 2009, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Hebrew Yom haShoah.   A time to remember the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi Germany, the day is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed around the world.

For Christians, the contrast between Yom haShoah and Easter (observed just a week and a half before) is stark.  The beauty of Easter–the lily, the butterfly, the chorus of alleluias-is assaulted with images of emaciated children, piles of bodies, and smoke rising from the crematoria.

 

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But the Christian Easter needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.   It serves as a reminder that theology can kill as well as bring life. In the history of Jewish-Christian interaction, more pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence have taken place during Holy Week than during any other time of the year. Throughout history, the claim that Jews are Christkillers has fueled not only anti-Jewish sentiment but also anti-Jewish violence.  Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest weaves a compelling story of how this happened in the past.  A quick look at neo-Nazi websites confirms that it does the same in our own time.

Problematically, Christian anti-Judaism finds its roots in the Bible itself.  In Matthew’s passion narrative (ch 27), the Jews are reported to have willingly accepted the guilt for Jesus’ death-for themselves and for their children. In Matthew, Pilate, the only one with the legal authority to sanction a crucifixion, tries but fails to talk any angry mob out of sending Jesus to his death.  The same Pilate that Luke describes as “mingling the blood of Galileans with sacrifices” and who other sources describe as brutally squashing any rebellion, is described by Matthew as so afraid of the crowd that he relinquishes his power and washes his hands of responsibility.

Some scholars attempt to take away the scandal of Matthew’s account by setting it in the context of 1st century Christian attempts to avoid the wrath of Rome. They see in Matthew the beginning of a trend toward shifting blame from the Romans to the Jews.  They remind us that the gospel writers had political as well as religious motives, and that biblical language about the Jews (as well as about everything else) reflects as much the concerns of later Christian communities as those of the time of Jesus.

But understanding Matthew historically doesn’t the power of its words away.  Rather, it calls interpreters to take responsibility for the implications of the texts they read.  For Christians, it calls for taking ownership of the power of our texts and for finding new energy and new energies for eradicating hate.   Good beginning reading includes Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide and Clark Williamson’s Has God Rejected His People?

One complication of attention to the Holocaust is that it has made it difficult for many Jews and Christians to question the policies of the state of Israel or to acknowledge the claims of Palestinians.  Marc Ellis’ Unholy Alliance traces this problem within Judaism, and Palestinian authors talk about the problem as well, such as Mitri Raheb.

In my judgement, combating anti-Judaism doesn’t demand uncritical support of the state of Israel or denying the claims of Palestinians.  Rather, the goal is to counteract hate wherever it is found.

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