Monthly Archives: March 2010

Immortal Like a Jellyfish?

The ancient Mesopotamian King Gilgamesh of the Epic of Gilgamesh failed in his quest to become immortal and had to accept the wall he built around his city-state Uruk as his lasting legacy. Now, scientists have discovered an animal that has apparently achieved what Gilgamesh didn’t—immortality. A species of jellyfish (turritopsis nutricula) can regenerate its body over and over, returning to its youth, maturing, and recycling again.  You can read a news story about it here.

What would it be like to live forever, not as a middle aged or elderly person, but to experience repeatedly the various stages of life? Would we eventually learn from our past mistakes and become wiser and more compassionate people like Phil Connors, the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day? Or would we simply make new mistakes, live similarly mediocre and self-focused lives?

I woundn’t mind having a Mulligan rule in life that gives me a do-over when I make mistakes. But eternal life? That’s just crazy. Or is it?

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Power in the Blood

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ (1889), oil on canvas, 35.9 x 28.9 in., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

In our Baptist churches we often sing, What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. The Baptist Faith and Message asks us to confess, “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer (IV. Salvation, emphasis added). Sacramental traditions encourage Christians to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood. Given this sanguinary emphasis, it’s surprising, if not shocking, to recall how little the Bible says about Jesus bleeding on the cross. Caroline Walker Bynum, one of my favorite medieval historians, explains:

Crucifixion is not a bloody death. As inhabitants of the ancient world knew well, the crucified die by suffocation. However painful his execution, it is unlikely that Jesus of Nazareth died from blood loss. The synoptic gospels mention literal bleeding only in connection with Christ’s sweating on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22.43-44), and even this reference to bloody sweat is missing in some early manuscripts. Only the gospel of John mentions the piercing of Jesus’ side with a lance and the subsequent outflow of blood and water; and John makes it clear that the wound came only when Jesus was already dead (John 19:34). (Wonderful Blood, 1)

Drawing on the Old Testament ideas of covenant and temple sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews says, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins]” (9:22). No doubt Jesus bled from his wounds while he was dying on the cross, but the New Testament doesn’t mention his ante-mortem bleeding. Many preachers delight in dramatizing Jesus’ torture and execution, retelling with gory imagery how a Roman soldier drove the nails into his hands and feet as they pound their fits on the pulpit. But the gospel writers themselves say very little about the physical suffering, so little that it makes you wonder whether they were interested in such details at all.

As heretical as it may sound, the “blood of Jesus” is actually a figure of speech. It’s an example of metonymy in which one thing is called by the name of another because of their close association. For example, “Washington” is often used as a kind of shorthand for the U.S. Government, as in: “Washington will send more troops to Afghanistan.” The statement is true but not literally true. (It’s not the city of Washington that is sending troops but the federal government.) Because atonement in the Old Testament was closely linked with bloody sacrifice, the phrase “blood of Jesus” began to be used for the “death of Jesus,” even though Jesus didn’t die by exsanguination. A failure to understand figurative language has led some biblical literalists to the bizarre conclusion that a vat of Jesus’ actual blood is eternally preserved in heaven, which he uses to cover sins in much the same way that the Israelites painted their doorposts with blood on the first Passover.

It is inconsistent for us to blame our Catholic friends for being overly literal in their understanding of the body and blood of Christ, then turn around and declare that the literal blood of Christ washes away our sin. I believe the death of Christ was essential to atone for my trespasses and secure my forgiveness. Because I understand what that means, I can boldly sing, There is Power in the Blood!

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Public Display of Affection

Frederick Sandys, Mary Magalene (ca. 1858-60), oil on wood panel, 13.25 x 11 in., Delaware Art Museum

In the musical My Fair Lady Eliza sings to her young suitor Freddie: Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! . . . If you’re in love, show me! In John 12:1-8, the story of Jesus’ anointing, one woman shows her love for the Savior, not with words but with an outrageous public display of affection. It is the most intimate contact between Jesus and a woman recorded in the Bible.

There are parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and (possibly) Luke 7:36-50. John is the only evangelist to identify the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Luke says it was a sinful “woman of the city”—a prostitute. Later tradition identified the fallen woman as Mary Magdalene, adding to the confusion. All three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—say the event took place in the house of a man named Simon. John agrees with Matthew and Mark (but not Luke) that it happened in Bethany. Whereas Luke associates the woman’s actions with Middle Eastern hospitality rituals (foot washing, anointing, kissing), John and the other two gospels interpret the anointing as preparation for Jesus’ burial. (John heightens the awareness of death looming nearby by having Lazarus as a silent observer.) Although some of the details differ, the stories are quite similar. There may have been two anointings, one recorded in Luke, the other in Matthew, Mark, and John.  However, it’s more likely that there was an oral tradition based on one historical event, which each evangelist used for his own rhetorical purpose.

In John’s account Mary “took a pound of spikenard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment” (3). It was indeed an outrageous act, both culturally and economically. Respectable women did not let down their hair in public, much less rub it on men’s feet, and the cost of a pound (ca. 12 oz.) of the perfumed ointment was about the same as a year’s wages for an agricultural worker. John has Judas object to the expense, asking whether it should have been sold instead and the money used for the poor (5). Jesus justifies the woman’s act, saying she did it to prepare him for burial. The unguent used came from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayan Mountains of China, India, and Nepal. It has an earthy, organic smell. Think musk, not Chanel No. 5. According to Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Roman poet Ovid tells how the Phoenix, a mythical bird famous for its regenerative ability, piled up cinnamon, spikenard, and myrrh, then lay down upon the spice heap to die. Out of its corpse a young bird would miraculously spring forth. Thus, spikenard was associated not only with death but also new life. It was an appropriate preparation for the one who would die and rise again.

The story of Jesus’ anointing is a sensual one. Mary gets down in front of Jesus. The stone floor is cold and gritty on her hands and knees. She picks up his calloused, dusty feet and begins to caress them. She dribbles the oily perfume on them, allowing it to run down her arms and drip off her elbows. The room is filled with a strong, pungent odor. It immediately reminds those present of funerals. Everyone looks on astonished, shocked by the scene. But Jesus has a gleam in his eye. Smiling, he gazes down at Mary. She lifts her head. Their eyes meet. They look like a couple in love. And so they were. Not with a gooey, romantic kind of love, but a deep concern and affection for each other.

Unlike Mary, I tend to be reserved when it comes to showing how I feel. I don’t like to draw attention to myself or do anything to make a scene. But if you love someone, really love them, it’s bound to show. Mary’s extravagant public display of affection, the way she lavished her attention and care on Jesus, makes my half-hearted devotion pale by comparison. I can almost hear him singing, If you’re in love, show me!

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Lost and Found

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern (ca. 1635); oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 2008 annual report, “An estimated 800,000 children are reported missing every year, or more than 2,000 per day.” Although most of these are recovered quickly, many are not. If you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you know the anxiety over the thought losing a child. There’s that momentary panic when you look around you in a store and your child is nowhere to be seen. You call for them, normally at first, then louder, then frantically. Now you’re running up and down the aisles calling out your child’s name. Your heart pounds. Your mouth goes dry. The anxiety feels like someone’s choking you. Finally, your little one steps out in front of you and says, “Peek-a-boo!” You grab them up in your arms and say, as you choke back the tears, “Don’t ever do that again! You had me so worried. I thought I lost you!” Your brief terror is only a taste of the daily grief parents go through, who have lost a child, either through death or abduction.

But there are other ways children become lost. Some are lost to drugs or other addictions. Some get involved in cults. Toxic relationships take others away from their families. Parents grieve deeply when they are separated from their children, regardless of what causes it.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells the familiar story of the Prodigal Son as the last in a series of three parables about lost items: lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. It is a beautiful story of redemption and the heart of God. It shows that no matter how much you’ve blown it with God, no matter how great your sin, God still loves you and wants to receive you back into his family. However, there are some elements of the story that are often overlooked.

The story has not one but two lost sons. The older brother who refuses to celebrate his wayward brother’s return to the family is also lost. He no doubt represents the Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with known sinners (1-2). There are two ways to be lost. You can be lost and know it, like the younger son. Or you can be lost and not know it, like the older one. These two men represent two different kinds of sins—sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit. Those who indulge in sins of the flesh, like the Prodigal, often have an easier time recognizing their lost condition than those whose pet sins are sins of the spirit (pride, envy, anger, malice, etc.).

The older brother resembles many good, church-going people. Clarence Jordan made this connection in his paraphrase Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, which sets the gospel story in the racist U.S. South. Here’s how Jordan translated the first two verses of Luke 15: “Now all the ‘nigger-lovers’ and black people were gathering around him to listen. And the white church people and Sunday school teachers were raising cain, saying, ‘This fellow associates with black people and eats with them.’” Professing Christians can be lost too.

At the end of the parable the younger son is reconciled with his father, but the older one is not. He’s still outside with his arms crossed, his brow knit, refusing to go in and celebrate his brother’s homecoming. Apparently it was the party, the sound of “music and dancing,” that offended him (25). It’s one thing to receive an erring family member; it’s quite another to go all out for him. Even though his father pleads with him, the self-righteous son’s pride won’t let him be moved. We have to ask ourselves, How are we like the older brother? Are we spiritually lost, refusing to be reconciled either to God or to others? If we’re saved, are there still some lost areas in our life that need redemption?

Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth made a connection between Jesus and the Prodigal Son. In the incarnation, the Son of God also went into a far county, down into the muck and mire of humanity. Only his motive was benevolent, not selfish. Jesus came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 1:10). Once we admit we’re lost, the question is, Are we ready to be found?

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Dear Rabbi

A rabbi friend forwarded me an email about an upcoming protest at a synagogue by a hate group that calls itself a Baptist church. Below is what I wrote back to my friend.

Dear Rabbi,

It was with much sadness I read the email you forwarded about an extremist Baptist group that plans to engage in an anti-Jewish protest outside a synagogue. This group, from what I understand, is radically anti-homosexual and usually targets venues where homosexuality is promoted or tolerated. I did not know, but am not surprised, that they are also anti-Jewish. Please understand that Baptist churches are autonomous. One Baptist church has no control over another, and even Baptist organizations and umbrella groups cannot tell an individual congregation what to do. The most they can do to discipline a congregation is to withdraw fellowship. Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka describes itself as an “Old School Primitive Baptist Church.” It is not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, USA, or any of the other major Baptist organizations.

Groups like Westboro Baptist Church do not reflect the tradition of those early Baptists who stood boldly for freedom and toleration, like Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and organizer of the first Baptist church in America. He was not only one of the first Americans to advocate freedom of religion, but he also stood for the abolition of slavery and equal treatment of Native Americans. Or take Baptist preacher John Leland, for example, who was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for religious liberty. He worked with his friend James Madison to get Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Freedom Act passed in the Virginia state assembly in 1786. Not only did he advocate religious liberty, he also opposed slavery on moral grounds. You may also be aware that at the time Baptists founded Brown University (as the College of Rhode Island) it was the first institution of higher education to admit people regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs.

I know it may sound a little defensive to rehearse some of the Baptist roots of toleration, but I need to remind myself that those modern-day Baptist who specialize in hate speech do not reflect the mild and godly heritage of our tradition, which was founded by many victims of persecution and intolerance.

While I support the free speech rights of those who protest peacefully, I apologize to you and all those of your faith tradition who are being targeted by people who call themselves Baptists. It is a shameful thing.

Peacefully,

J. Travis Moger

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When Tragedy Strikes

Jane Fulton Alt, Blue Cup (2005), archival inkjet print, 14 x 21 inches

How do we make sense of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile? It’s not easy. When tragedy strikes, we’re often tempted to blame the victims. (If they had only built better buildings!) We do the same with ourselves. Even if we know we’re not being punished for our sins, it sometimes feels that way. Others blithely shrug off such troublesome questions as, Why do bad things happen to good people? Or they find comfort in simplistic answers that assure us everything is as it should be and that God’s plan makes it necessary for some innocent people to suffer.

The French enlightenment thinker Voltaire wrote his irreverent and satirical novel Candide to poke fun at overly optimistic philosophers like Gottfried Leibniz, who claimed that everything happens for the best and that, even with all its problems, this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire recalled the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which between thirty and forty thousand died. The death toll was made worse by the fact that the earthquake struck on November 1, All Saints’ Day, when devout people were gathered in old church buildings for worship. We call earthquakes and other natural disasters “acts of God.” If they are indeed acts of God, then how do we explain why God would act in such a malevolent way? It’s not easy.

It’s not easy to explain because this discussion is part of one of the oldest and trickiest challenges to monotheism called “the problem of evil.” Simply put, If God is both all powerful and perfectly good, then why is there pain and suffering in the world? Job wrestled with the problem of evil. He even got an audience with the Most High. What he didn’t get was an answer to his question, Why? Maybe there is no good answer. Perhaps we’re not capable of understanding, so God sidesteps the issue, just as many parents do when small children ask, Where do babies come from?

In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus deals with the problem of evil, only he doesn’t answer the why question either. There’s no parallel passage in the other gospels. The other evangelists may have thought this lesson too difficult and decided to leave it out. In any case, Jesus used two examples to address the issue. One was a natural evil, a random accident, the other an intentional act of injustice caused by sinful human choices. I’ll let you read the passage to learn what happened. The point is that Jesus used well-known tragedies as an object lesson to call people to repentance. He turned a matter of speculative theology into a practical one.

Jesus wasn’t interested in explaining why bad things happen, though he clearly said they’re not punishments for the victims’ sins (3-4). He wanted to answer a different question, What do you do when tragedy strikes? He taught us to use these events as reminders that we need to align our lives more closely with God. So how do we do that?

Repent. That’s what Jesus says to do. According to an article by David R. Blumenthal, the rabbinic understanding of repentance (teshuvá in Hebrew)—and let’s not forget Jesus was a rabbi—requires five elements: recognition of one’s sins, remorse, desisting from sin, restitution where possible, and confession. Forgiveness is understood in levels. “Forgoing the other’s indebtedness” (mechilá) is the most basic, but it requires genuine repentance on the part of the offender. “Forgiveness” (selichá) is a further step, which requires understanding of and empathy for the guilty party. The highest order of forgiveness is “atonement” (kappará) or “purification” (tahorá), which involves “a total wiping away of all sinfullness.” This only God can do.

I don’t know why earthquakes hit Haiti and Chile. I can’t understand why Job had to suffer either. In fact, there’s so much pain and suffering in the world, it’s tempting to say there is no God. In this topsy-turvy world over which we have no control, perhaps the best we can do is to make things right with those we have hurt and to draw near to the God who suffers too.

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