Friday, July 30, 2010

Washington DC Thoughts

If the last post was about "I must decrease, He must increase," this post is about a town where the opposite's true, where power hangs in the sky like smog and scandal is a matter not of "if" but of "when."
Washington DC is a city of new gods. In places it's almost exactly what a Greek citizen would see in Athens, what Paul gestured to on Mars Hill. The random larger-than-life statues of liberators and generals that cars speed past all look the same except to historians. And I was wondering, now that the WWII memorial is complete, will we ever be able to build white marble monuments again, or will every new war monument have to be like the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, black and reflective?

As an aside about the WWII memorial, it is incoherent and jumbled, but I think that just makes the architecture of the moment more suitable for a truly global conflict. I don't think it throws off the emptiness of the Mall. The Mall's still really big. (Rule for DC: Always allow 15 extra minutes for walking anywhere.)

Perhaps it was the original Washington Monument on display in the Museum of American History that sums up this visit to DC. My first reaction is that it was a statue of Zeus, but when I got around to the front, it was George himself looking back at me. At first I'd had enough of all the neo-classical new empire symbolism, but then looking closer, the way he holds his lightning bolt, er, sword, stood out. The sword is backwards, Washington stepping down and handing power back to the people after two terms. I can get behind that (actually, that was my first viewpoint!).
And then there's the Lincoln memorial, perhaps the most like a Greek temple in style and form but the least like one inside. I mean on the inside walls, not the Zeus-like statue of Lincoln. On the walls are two of the most sublime collections of words in the English language: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I am going to make a tradition now, anytime I'm in DC, of stopping by the Lincoln Memorial and reading the Second Inaugural aloud (under my breath, I'm not THAT kind of tourist). It is an amazing political document and poem. As a theological document, the basic idea is the kind any follower of Jesus should adopt after immersing oneself in the Gospels. But the truly theologically amazing part of it is how it puts that solid theology into practice in few enough words to fit on a wall. Not since MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN has the writing on the wall been so significant and succinct. Everyone should read it.
So in this city of white marble and sharp-edged grassy fields trampled and wilted, there are monuments to empire, as in every empire's capital. But some of those monuments are to something more, to handing back power and to the humility of forgiving even the worst of human nature after the worst of wars. Those make me proud of my country.
[Reference song: "Our Song" by Joe Henry off the Citizens album.]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Gospel of the Second-Person Pronoun

The Gospel of John is obviously different from the Synoptic Gospels, written as if the others were already known to the reader, with long discourses and detailed dialogues. A lot of scholars of the historical Jesus variety are skeptical of John in particular as a result, but I'm reading a book by Richard Bauckham now that turns such thinking on its head. He points out that John is the only gospel that contains direct eyewitness claims by the author. It's also the only gospel with a prominent anonymous disciple, the disciple who Jesus loved, who is pretty clearly the author. One of Bauckham's claims is that the John who wrote this gospel was actually John the Elder, not John son of Zebedee, and I'll review that argument when I finish the book. But the striking thing that deserves its own blog post is Bauckham's point that, if anything, John makes more claims to eyewitness account than the supposedly more historical gospels, and beyond that, at two crucial points, the author steps out and directly addresses the reader, both at the crucifixion and near the end of the book:

34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. (John 19)

30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20)

Compare this anonymous author directly addressing the reader in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, and note how different it feels:

"Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord ... " [Raymond Brown's translation]

One of the questions is, whichever John wrote this book, why did he keep himself anonymous if speaking as an eyewitness was so important to him?

(And it was important, consider John 1: 14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." and 1 John 1:1 "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life." From a certain angle, these verses reflect a historian's and scientist's desire for touching and knowing directly. It is integral to the message of the gospel and can’t be explained as a superficial apologetic maneuver.)

The anonymity of the author seems to be the only way to show how he was there without drawing attention away from Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease,” put into action in the very writing of the gospel. At two crucial points John steps out and (still anonymously) emphasizes his role as witness – not to magnify himself as author, but to put the question to YOU, the reader. John is saying “He is why I'm doing this and you are why I’m doing this” without using the I (like I so clumsily did just now!). Maybe the pale-imitation gnostic gospels can get away with using “I” and “me,” but the author who wants to say “It’s all about Jesus, not me,” does so most effectively by avoiding the first person (except in plural at the beginning and end of John) and, sparingly but effectively, employing the second person to say, this is about you and Jesus. It’s not about me.

And now I will use the first person too much again.

It’s very easy as a blog post to put myself into it. After all, these are personal reflections, and it goes along with the genre to do so. There’s possibly nothing inherently wrong with that. I just want to note that it’s very easy to make it “all about me” and perhaps that is the greatest temptation of the author.

It’s not just the gospel of John. The other gospels are third person, and most of the stories in the Bible are third person. Off the top of my head, I think of prominent first-person usage (outside of quoted dialogue) in poetry (the Psalms, the Song of Solomon), and in the letters (Paul’s and others’, although I’ll have to think about 1-3 John in this light and the beginning of Revelation). First person is OK, but sometimes there’s a point to be made by avoiding it.

It looks like John did just that, and very effectively so. It’s all about Jesus, not John. “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fruit MRI

So simple yet so amazing. This site posts the results of what happens when fruits are put into an MRI. The resulting animations are flat slices through the middle of the fruits, as if you have Superman's X-ray vision at a produce stand. Check it out!

Thanks to Francis Lam for the heads up.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Fabricating Jesus

Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans is an interesting book that tries to take on too much. Evans is a Biblical scholar who tries to counter the recent scholarship of the "alternate gospels" variety. This is the first time I've seen The Gospel of Thomas, Peter, Mary, and others in one place, side-by-side, and it was good to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. The book is written well, it's just trying to do too much at once. The arguments against specific scholars or ideas come down to a page or two, usually, and although I think Evans is usually right, there's no way to be sure other than to decide which way your trust goes. I'd say read this book for a good systematic example of how scholarship can be skeptical, just of the novel theories rather than the orthodox ones, but the topic's just too big for this book to convince you if you're doubtful about where Evans is coming from.

(Interesting PS: What do we do WHEN a topic gets to big for one person, or at least one book, to handle? How do we have a fair debate in that case?)

Let me reiterate: I think Evans is right. It's just that I think he's right from what others have written more than what's in this particular book.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: Moving Pictures

This graphic novel by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen is a diverting hour. It's about a Canadian woman working as a Louvre curator in WWII France and a German she meets. It works well as a graphic novel. There are some great snippets of dialogue and nice visual transitions in some points, and I like it when the medium is used for an understated story like this. However, I can't help but feel like it doesn't quite come together because in some parts it's too understated. Still worth a check-out from the library.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Power of Entropy

Fascinating article at the New York Times about a physicist who claims gravity doesn't exist. Ok, that's really just the sensational way to put it in a headline. What he really seems to be saying is that gravity is really entropy dressed up in a particular way, in a sense, that entropy is the fundamental force of which gravity is a manifestation.

The newspaper-article level is about the level at which I can understand this, or understand enough to know I don't understand it. It's not a mathematically rigorous theory, which bugs me. But there's one reason I'm interested. According to my recent reading including RJP Williams, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy!) drives the development of life of earth. If I am intrigued by that idea, I'm also open to the idea that entropy drives gravity as well.

Here's my question: how does "spreading out" bring things together? Isn't gravity "negative entropy"?

Obviously this is still on the level of physics, but when it can be discussed on the level of physical chemistry I could be very interested. I may start poking around the literature on this.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an incredible, intense book. It's the story of the 1893 Chicago "World's Fair" (the actual name's too long!), which survives today only as the Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, and of a serial murderer who built a hotel to help him kill unattached women who came to the fair. Seattle author Erik Larson balances the two stories effectively; whenever the "building the fair" story gets too political or frustrating, the author shifts his focus to the Jack-the-Ripper hotelier down the street. Larson's also a master at witholding just enough information that you're guessing what happens next or what the significance of this or that detail is. As a result, you have a history book that reads like a thriller, combining Chicago, one of my favorite cities, with elements of building a giant theme park a century before EPCOT, a criminal mastermind who eludes the law, the giant engineering project that was the largest building in the country plus the original Ferris Wheel, the politics of Gilded-Age Chicago, appearances by everyone from Buffalo Bill Cody to Mark Twain, and the literally diabolical architecture of the serial killer's hotel.

You have to pinch yourself every few pages to remind yourself that this really happened. You couldn't make this stuff up. The serial killer is truly frightening and if you're bothered by real crime novels, YOU WILL BE BOTHERED by this.

On a side note, I really wonder what is the point of the cultural fascination with the serial killer. When you look close enough at one to figure out how he ticks, you find a blank abyss looking back at you. You find evil. For all this book's detail, I still don't feel like I know what made the killer tick, why he did things, expect perhaps as a very base form of idolatry. It didn't provide many new insights on evil, except to remind that it is very, very real.

The shortcoming of this book is that, at 400 pages, it still feels short. Larson wrote it just right, but I want to know more about what it was like at the fair. More pictures, more on the exhibits!

If you can take the description of pure evil, this book has unique rewards and the Museum of Science and Industry will never look the same to me again.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Book Review: Raven's Ladder

Book 3 of 4 in The Auralia Thread is good. Really good. The one thing about Book 2 is that you could sort of expect a lot of what would happen, because that's what happens when you deal with an archtypical story like beauty and the beast. Raven's Ladder, on the other hand, has surprises and twists that I'd love to talk about but instead want people to discover them on their own. I am really looking forward to Book 4, which I know Jeffrey is writing right now.

There are four houses and each of the books so far has focused on one of them: this one focuses on House Bel Amica (which has some uncanny resemblances to Seattle itself). Before we had glimpsed some of the belief-system of this house and it struck me as absurd yet appropriate, a social critique on a level you don't ever find in this genre. Now that we see all the aspects of House Bel Amica, the people in charge have become quite a bit scarier. There's one particular dark scene ("Auralia's Followers") that takes the experience to a whole new level. The amazing thing is with all this going on, the people of Bel Amica are never exactly demonized, they remain tangible and nuanced throughout. Now, as for those mysterious string-pullers and scientists in charge ... well, we're just starting to see what kind of no good they're up to.

More than anything, I like what Jeffrey does with the expectations of the reader in this one, and that's why it's so hard to write about, because if I tell you your expectations will be challenged and possibly overturned, you'll be wondering how. One thing I can tell you: you'll be kicking yourself for not catching the clues. And that's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jonah and Creation

Jonah is famous for running the other way when God tells him to go to Ninevah. (He's also a famous bit of fish food but that's another post for another day.) One of the things I realized when reading Frank Spina's The Faith of the Outsider is that Jonah only turns back to the right direction after he makes a basic theological connection, possibly for the first time. The key is the act of running away. We know it's laughable to try to run from YHWH by getting on a ship, but in the context, it's a very reasonable move to make to get away from garden-variety gods. You don't like what the god of Israel says? Get away from Israel. Problem solved, right?

Jonah's problem is his picture of YHWH is too typical; he thinks that by getting outside of YHWH's jurisdiction he can dodge the sentence. Since he's asleep when the storm comes, we get to see him the moment that he realizes that YHWH is still there (even in international waters). What does he say?

“I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.

I think that Jonah realizes at just this point that the message he's been preaching all his life is true. As a prophet of YHWH he undoubtedly teaches that YHWH made everything. At this moment he unpacks that abstract theology to find the practical upshot inside: if YHWH made everything, he is in charge of everything too, and he is everywhere. And it's kind of stupid to try to get away from the creator of everything on a little ship.

At this moment we see Jonah make the move from creation to omnipresence (and omnipotence). He moves to a position of absurd trust, telling the sailors to toss him overboard, which seems like a death sentence. Who knows whether he expects to be saved or not at this point? He trusts that God made the sea, certainly, and he probably just wants to get away from the sailors so they aren't collateral damage when he's taken out. I have to wonder if there's a glimmer of possibility in his mind, if he's wondering whether he'll be saved to fulfill his calling somehow. One thing's for sure -- I'll bet he doesn't expect a fish. (No one expects a fish. Or a talking donkey. But again, that's another story.)

This practical change of direction is what a doctrine of creation is for. Not to prove God's existence by prefiguring a physical correlate of the ancient Hebrew story, but to provide a foundation from which the rest of theology logically follows, from the "omni" words all the way to the specific person of the Messiah. Not to give you something to argue about while others yawn -- something to make you realize that you're wasting your time if you try to run away from YHWH's call. This YHWH is no provincial god. The proof that he is creator of all is not buried in the rocks, it's evident in the events of your life, through which he will pursue you until you make the choice to trust that He will save you, whatever your circumstances.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Book Review: The Faith of the Outsider

One of my colleagues, Frank Spina, wrote this book and I got a copy free by attending a workshop a week ago. I only had to read the first two chapters, but I kept going, because what I found was original analysis that brought new light to old stories, with a common theme: how many times in the Bible God brings an "outsider" in and an "insider" out. The outsiders are Esau, Tamar, Rahab, the sailors and the Assyrians (in Jonah), Naaman, Ruth, and the woman at the well. In each instance I learned something new and illuminating, especially when I thought I already knew the story. This is what scholarship is for -- and what a Sabbath is for, in fact, this kind of accessible study that subverts some of the things you thought you knew, and in the end, supports the important things.

The treatment of Rahab in particular, when contrasted with the insider Achan, helps the whole book of Joshua to make sense to me. It's all too easy to caricature Joshua as a military, genocidal book, when the focus on Rahab and Achan shows that Israel isn't about race or ethnicity. Spina brought Joshua back to me. (By the way, his Weter Lecture from a few years back is an excellent and absorbing treatment of "the war of the concubine" at the end of Judges. Most people don't even know about that story because it's one of the darkest in the canon. But Spina shows what that story does in his talk.)

I'm genuinely surprised to see some bad reviews for this book out there, like on the Publisher's Weekly blurb. It is so obviously a good book to me that all I can say is, those reviewers must've had some bone to pick. Most of the reviews are good, and most of the reviews are right.