Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pay Dirt: My Sweet Lord!

Chocolate Jesus Show Canceled

Holy Week exhibition of a nude, anatomically correct chocolate sculpture canceled after pressure from Catholics
Associated Press

A planned Holy Week exhibition of a nude, anatomically correct chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ was canceled Friday amid a choir of complaining Catholics that included Cardinal Edward Egan.

The "My Sweet Lord" display was shut down by the hotel that houses the Lab Gallery in midtown Manhattan, said Matt Semler, the gallery's creative director. Semler said he submitted his resignation after officials at the Roger Smith Hotel shut down the show.

The six-foot sculpture was the victim of "a strong-arming from people who haven't seen the show, seen what we're doing," Semler said. "They jumped to conclusions completely contrary to our intentions."

But word of the confectionary Christ infuriated Catholics, including Egan, who described it as "a sickening display." Bill Donohue, head of the watchdog Catholic League, said it was "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.

"The hotel and the gallery were overrun Thursday with angry phone calls and e-mails about the exhibit. Semler said the calls included death threats over the work of artist Cosimo Cavallaro, who was described as disappointed by the decision to cancel the display."

In this situation, the hotel couldn't continue to be supportive because of a fear for their own safety," Semler said.The sculpture was to debut Monday evening, the day after Palm Sunday and just four days before Roman Catholics mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.

The final day of the exhibit was planned for Easter Sunday.The artwork was created from more than 200 pounds of milk chocolate, and features Christ with his arms outstretched as if on an invisible cross. Unlike the typical religious portrayal of Christ, the Cavallaro creation does not include a loincloth.

Cavallaro is best known for his quirky work with food as art: Past efforts include repainting a Manhattan hotel room in melted mozzarella, spraying five tons of pepper jack cheese on a Wyoming home, and festooning a four-poster bed with 312 pounds of processed ham.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

New Perspectives on the Prophets

Once the Pentateuch is finished, we go into Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings...all of whom narrate the history of Israel from the time of occupation of the promised land until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. During that time, Israel lived as a "tribal confederacy" with no centralized government. Then, around 1000 BCE, a monarchy was put in place with kings like Saul, David and Solomon.

When Solomon died in 922 BCE, the united kingdom split into 2 parts: Israel and Judah. Israel lasted until 722 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian kingdom. Judah lasted until 586 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian empire. Some of Judah's survivors were exiled to Babylon for about 50 years, at which time they were allowed to return to Judah to begin rebuilding their ruined country.

The "classical" prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Zechariah, Obadiah, and so on) belong to this time. These prophets are writing some 500 years after the exodus, during the time of the split of the kingdom, destruction of the kingdoms, exile and return.

How do you think of the Prophets? Likely as predictors of the Messiah - that is Jesus - right? They were sent to foretell of Jesus' coming right? Certainly that's how I first encountered them. In fact, in Halley's Bible Handbook (a best seller!) there is the somewhat familiar statement "By the time we reach the end of the Old Testament, the entire story of Christ has been pre-written and pre-figured." But as I now understand the Bible, it is clear to me that the prophets weren't foretelling Jesus' story. Instead, because the New Testament authors were Jewish and knew the Hebrew Bible well, they echoed the words of the Hebrew Bible in telling Jesus' story, in order to show continuity between Jesus and the tradition out of which they came.

If the prophets weren't foretelling Jesus' story, what were they doing? Well, if you put them in their historical context (i.e. time of the split of the kingdom, destruction of the kingdoms, exile and return), you understand that, in large part, they were indicting Judah's or Israel's enemies and pronouncing God's judgement on them. They were also masters of the symbolic act (e.g. Hosea and Isaiah naming their children to convey messages, Isaiah walking around naked for years to make a point about Judah's fate if they take certain actions, Jeremiah wearing a wooden yoke around his neck, Ezekiel essentially starving himself to demonstrate what would happen to Jerusalem in exile, etc.). In essence, they expressed a passion for social justice and had an anti-establishment message...and added warnings of consequences if the societies didn't take peace and justice seriously. Given the prophets' own statements, they claim to have been inspired by God to give these messages. That doesn't mean the words were God's, but the prophets' passionate messages came out of their "experiences" of God.

It is also informative to recognize that by the time the classical prophets began to speak, Israel and Judah had essentially become miniature versions of the ancient domination system that had enslaved their ancestors in Egypt. The victims (the majority of the population) were Israelites, of course, but now the elites at the top were also Israelites...Egypt had been established in Israel. That is what the prophets were they believed that this could not be the will of God who had liberated Israel from similar bondage in Egypt.

It is also interesting that this whole theme is repeated through the Hebrew Bible. In I Samuel, the people ask for a king over them...the request displeases Samuel and God (their request is seen as a rejection of God's kingship). But God grants the request with a warning about what a king will do to them...essentially take their fields and flocks and make them slaves...essentially what happened!

The prophets not only indicted enemies and social injustice. They also were "energizing" figures for the Jewish people. A large part of the predestruction prophets (i.e. before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were destroyed) were indicting the actions of the day. A large part of post-destruction prophetizing (i.e. during and after the exile) was more energizing...generating hope, affirming identity and creating a picture of a new future for the Jewish people who were in exile and then (after the exile) rebuilding their nation.

So whereas you may have read passages like "Why have you forgotten us completely?...Restore us to yourselves, O Lord, that we may be restored..." as a statement for interpretation in today's world or for a projection of future events, if you re-read the prophets in their historical context, it is fascinating to see the meanings of the words in their worlds and time.

Having said all this, the message of many of the prophets words can have metaphorical meaning today - relevant to the victims and exiles of the domination systems of our time. Proclaiming that our identify, value and worth are not grounded in the culture of the day, but in God's regard. Affirming that God's character, will and justice are different from the justice of oppressive social orders. The solution for exiles is a journey of return...a way or path through the wilderness...with the destination being a return to life in God's will and presence.

(The above was heavily extracted from Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time...I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Bible)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pay Dirt: Spong on Dawkins and Harris

James Jensen from via the Internet writes:

"My name is James Jensen. I read of you through UU World and recently read Sins of Scripture (excellent book, by the way). Today I ran across an article on Wired entitled "The Church of Non-Believers." The author talks about a so-called New Atheism pioneered by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennet that is quite militant about their non-belief. They accuse moderate and liberal believers of being essentially accessories in the harm done by the fundamentalists and radicals. They make a few good arguments, essentially mentioning the fact that no politician in this country has declared himself or herself an atheist because it wouldn't be politically safe to do so. I can also sympathize with the idea that moderate and liberal believers aren't doing enough to oppose the fundamentalists, who strike me as not unlike the Nation of Islam in their approach to freedom and justice. It seems likely to me that this means there is going to be a new consciousness (as you term it) breaking through soon enough, but I am left wondering whether this will be more of a breakthrough in Christian thinking or in atheist thinking. In other words, is this the end of religion, or of atheism? What's your opinion on the matter? Personally, I am no longer sure what to believe and while I sympathize with atheism, it seems to me that without some basis in faith for proclaiming that life is not only good but right, crackpots are going to start thinking they can "fix"human nature, just like people have thought nature needs to be "fixed"and made more orderly — resulting, of course, in environmental destruction. After all, both the experience-affirming Carl Rogers and the utopian-behaviorist B. F. Skinner were chosen Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association"


Dear James,

Thank you for your letter. Religion is for many a vital and confusing subject and it justifies most of the criticism it receives. If religion were really about what the Religious Right proclaims, I would want no part of it. If my only choice was to be a Christian like the Falwells or the Robertsons, I would find atheism a compelling alternative. I believe that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are expressing exactly that.

I met Richard Dawkins when I did some lectures at New College, Oxford University, several years ago. Just that day I had been reading Dawkins' book, "The Selfish Gene" at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I found it fascinating. It was even more fascinating to discover that we were seated that night side by side at the High Table. I found the man personable and charming. Every theologian in England wants to debate him. Few come out unscathed. There is much irrationality in our God thinking and Dawkins loves to point it out. Does that mean that there is no reality in the human search for God? I do not think so. Does it mean that human definitions of God are always doomed to die? Because they are human creation I am convinced that they will. The God Richard Dawkins rejects is the one I also reject. What is in doubt is whether the God to whom I am drawn is real, whether the human yeaning for the 'Transcendent,' the 'Other' is real and whether Richard Dawkins' search for truth and my search for God are in fact the same search, but by different names. That is not so easy to answer.

I have never met Sam Harris. I have read him, read reviews about him and watched him at great length talk about his book and answer questions on C-Span. I think his work has articulated what many people feel. It is difficult for religious people to admit they might be wrong so when Sam Harris points out the flaws he finds in religious understanding, he elicits great hostility. Religious threat always produces religious anger. I found him to be dead set against the abuses he observes in Christianity. He sees no alternative to those abuses than to attack and rid the world of Christianity. I think a better alternative is to attack and to rid the world of that abusive Christianity, which suggests that ultimate truth has been captured in creedal forms, that God is an angry parent figure in the sky who wants to punish us but relents and punishes the Divine Son instead, and that followers of Jesus have the right to hate anyone who disagrees with them. I have no need or respect for such a religious system or for that abusive deity. That is also not the God that I believe I engage as a Christian when I worship.
So I welcome the Dawkins, the Harrises and the Dennets of the world and believe the Christian Church must be willing to listen to them, to hear their criticisms and to respond to them with the respect that their criticisms deserve. When we do that, I believe we will discover that Christianity can still be a vital and alive force in the 21st century.

My best,
John Shelby Spong

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pay Dirt: Churches are Behind "American Idol"

Churches Often the First Stage for 'Idol' Contestants
By Adelle M. Banks and Sally York Religion News Service

When LaKisha Jones belted out a song from the movie "Dreamgirls" in her debut on this season of "American Idol," the Michigan church that helped nurture her soulful sound was rooting her on.

The musical careers of Jones and some other "Idol" contestants -- past and present -- were birthed in churches across the country, settings where many singers perform each Sunday to a not-so-nationwide audience.

"Years and years of singing in church and never making a living off of something that I love to do," said Jones, a 27-year-old bank teller, summing up her musical career in a videotaped interview aired on the Fox talent show. "And now to have the opportunity ... it's a good feeling."

Churches, especially African-American churches, have often been the training ground for artists who make it to America's most prominent stages. As artists move from sacred to secular realms, their ministers of music and church choirs -- as well as supportive parishioners -- are cheering them on.

Members of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Jones' hometown of Flint, Mich., are busting with pride over the singer, whose powerful voice once belonged to their Voices of Mount Zion adult choir. Jones now lives at Fort Meade, Md.

"She's always been our `American Idol,"' said Cassandra Ellison, a Voices member for 13 years. "She was always the one who stood out."

At a recent Sunday morning service, Jones' mother, Beverly Jefferson, said "LaKisha would like to thank everybody for their support and votes" in the popular televised competition.

The connections between contestants and church don't surprise Christian music experts like Teresa Hairston, founder of Gospel Today magazine.

"There are so many people that have started in gospel, famous people like Elvis Presley, Al Green and Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight," she said in an interview as she kicked off her Gospel Heritage Foundation's recent "Praise & Worship Conference" in Washington. "So many people who came from the church."

When opera singer Denyce Graves spearheaded a CD project in 2003, "Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration," the first requirement for the featured singers was that they had grown up in church. Patti LaBelle, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and Graves herself all fit that bill.

When artists move on from the church, music ministers hope their faith remains with the fame.

Minister Ternae Jordan Jr., a worship leader at Mount Canaan Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., once sang backup for gospel artists with current "Idol" contestant Melinda Doolittle.

"Though she's doing the majority of everything in the secular realm, in the secular field, right now, she's bringing the cross over instead of crossing over," said Jordan, who attended the Praise & Worship Conference.

Doolittle, who attends the same Nashville, Tenn., church as gospel artist CeCe Winans and sang backup on one of her CDs, talked about her faith in a "Fast Facts" feature on the "American Idol" Web site.

Her personal goals, she said, were to "represent Christ well and do everything 150 percent."

Demetrus Stewart, president of the PureSprings Gospel Label that features Winans and other artists, said the style of many black churches gives singers the ability to do the musical runs and note-stretching that bring audiences to their feet. It's the kind of sound that differentiates R&B from pop, she said, and urban gospel from contemporary Christian music. "You've got to be able to, in the words of our slang, throw down," said Stewart, who is African-American.

Sam Patton, a music director at New United Church in Chattanooga, said music ministers like himself generally use their "picky" techniques to help a corps of volunteers create a grand choir sound. But, on occasion, they may discover a potential recording artist. He's currently helping a budding artist cut her first album.

Patton said the range of church music -- including elements of jazz and R&B, country and classical -- helps prepare artists, such as former "Idol" celebrities Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino, for musical careers.

"It's easier for them because they have sung so many different styles in church," said Patton, who also was at the Washington conference. "With praise and worship evolving like it is, you have to be versatile."

Sometimes that versatility leads to appearances at talent shows, either secular, like "Idol," or religious. Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Gospel Music Channel have produced Christian talent competitions. Current "Idol" contestant Jordin Sparks placed second in the Gospel Music Association's "Music in the Rockies" competition in 2005.

"The 'American Idol' syndrome is even spilling over in the church so there are several within the Christian gospel community," Stewart said.

But for some churchgoers -- including members of Jones' Flint congregation -- the "Idol" stage seems particularly attractive, in part because one of their own is there.

"When I'm 16, I'm going to try out," said Ariele Hayman, a 13-year-old member of the same youth choir that once included Jones.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Plowing through the Pentateuch

The "beginning of the world" (i.e. creation) stories take up the first 11 chapters of Genesis. After that and until the end of Deuteronomy, is the story of the "beginning of Israel" as a nation and a people: the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the covenant and giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (all 613 of them - including ethical, ritual, civil and criminal laws which functioned as both constitutional and statutory law for Israel - and by grounding them in the nation's sacred origins, they gave the laws sacred status), and the journey through the wilderness to the border of the promised land.

Historically, the Jewish exodus likely happened in the 13th century BCE. But many scholars think the completed Pentateuch narrative was not likely written until around the Jewish exile in Babylon in the 500s BCE and perhaps as late as the 400s BCE. There are also questions about whether Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his 12 sons really existed or if they are legendary personifications of tribal groups. Whether historically accurate or not, the question we should consider is why Israel told these stories and why they told them the way they did.

The overarching theme throughout the Pentateuch is "promise and fulfillment". God promises Abraham that he will make of him a great nation. The rest of the story of the Pentateuch is the story of fulfillment of this promise. In summary, the key stories of the Pentateuch include:
  • Abraham, Sarah and their sons, including Jacob
  • Jacob's son Joseph (and his brothers)
  • Israel's exodus from slavery in Egypt (Moses' call, the plagues, the liberation and parting of the sea)
  • Sinai and the covenant (59 chapters in all by the way!) - note that most scholars believe that the laws were drawn from many different periods in Israel's history and were accumulated over a period of centuries; and also that the laws reflect Israel's origins in Egypt as a radically oppressed and marginalized people, with the laws being written to prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel
  • Journey through the wilderness (with the Pentateuch ending with Deuteronomy - essentially a series of speeches by Moses just before they cross the Jordan, with the speeches basically being a summary of the law - hence "Deuteronomy" which means "second law")

In summary, the Pentateuch story is Israel's decisive "identity story" - the most important story they knew that shaped their understanding of the divine-human relationship, their identity, their life together as a community and their vision of the character of God.

Within the story, Egypt and Pharoah are an archetype of the preindustrial agrarian empire - the most widespread way of organizing human society at the time. In such a society, roughly two-thirds of the annual production of wealth (mostly from agriculture produced by the peasants) ended up in the hands of the ruling elites. They acquired the wealth through taxation on agricultural production and direct ownership of agricultural land (with peasants working as share-croppers, day-labourers or slaves). The consequences for peasant existence were dire: unremitting labour, borderline nourishment, high infant mortality rates, and radically lower life expectancies. In addition to this economic exploitation, such societies were also known for political oppression (i.e. ordinary people had no voice in the structuring of society) and religious legitimation (i.e. the religion of the elites affirmed that the structures of society were ordained by God).

This was the world of Egypt and the world that Moses knew. The Pentateuch is Israel's story of radical protest against and liberation from such a world...and it affirms that radical criticism of and liberation from such societies is the will of God. The exodus story is about the creation of a world marked by freedom, social justice and shalom (well-being, peace and wholeness). The story is not just political though; it is also about God as God is the central reality of the story and God's covenant with Israel.

In summary, the Pentateuch is not about social justice without God; equally, it is not about God without social justice. The story thus brings together two areas of life that we tend to separate: religious passion and social justice.

And, as noted earlier, the story is also framed by the theme of "promise and fulfillment". It is interesting to note that this theme was strikingly relevant to the situation of the Jewish people in the exilic and postexilic periods - the years when the Pentateuch was composed in its final and present form (remember...when the Pentateuch was written, Israel had been conquered again, greatly reduced in numbers and exiled by another imperial power). So the promise of God that they would be "a great nation" seemed profoundly threatened again, as did their very existence. In this setting, they remembered and celebrated the promise given to their ancestors, the stories of Israel's liberation from a previous imperial power, and the gift of a new land and a new life.

Finally, for Christian readers today (and in all times) the theme of promise and fulfillment is relevant. As such, the story of the Pentateuch can be read metaphorically today with the key message being: in spite of life's threats and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, when birth and rebirth seem impossible, when powers of empires seem to rule the in a manner that mirrors God's nature will enable us to make it through.

Personally, I think this is a much better and more reasonable take on the Pentateuch (as opposed to some Christians trying to take the Pentateuch and apply, in today's world, a set of ancient laws that were developed several thousand years ago for use within a developing nation after escaping slavery and oppression).

(For more on this - and most of the above - see Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Revisiting the Creation Stories

"In the beginning...". That's how we think of the creation story right? Well, would you be surprised if I highlighted that there are two stories of creation in the Bible itself? The first is found in Genesis 1:1 to 2:3; the second from Genesis 2:4 to the end of chapter 3.

In the first, God creates the universe in 6 days and rests on the 7th day. It takes us through each of the 6 days in succession. In the second, the focus is on the creation of humankind...not on the creation of the world. In the first, humankind is created last (after everything else) whereas in the second, humankind is created first (before vegetation and animals). In the first, humans as male and female are created simultaneously, while in the second, man comes first, with woman coming later.

From a historical perspective:

  • It is believed that the first creation story was written in the 500s BCE, during or shortly after the Jewish exile into Babylon. During this time, one of the distinctive practices of the Jews was observance of the sabbath. Some would argue that the writing of the first creation story with six days was done primarily to emphasize the importance of the sabbath as something that God also observes. It has also been argued that part of the purpose of the creation story was to assert that the God of Israel is the creator of heaven and earth and proclaiming the lordship of Israel's God over the lordship of Babylon and its gods (with whom the Jews were obviously not very happy at that point in time!).
  • The historical understanding of the universe is also interesting to note in the context of the creation stories. Ancient Israelites thought of the earth as the centre of the universe. Above the earth was the "dome of the sky" with water being above the dome (hence the falling of rain and snow). Thus, the description of creation (e.g. separating the waters so that dry land is below the sky, etc.) reflects their understanding of the nature of the universe.
  • Finally, the historical language used in the creation stories is interesting to understand. In the second creation story, Adam and Eve are the first humans. Adam comes from the Hebrew word adham which means "humankind" (coming from the Hebrew word adhamah meaning "ground" or "dust"). Thus, the story is not about a particular man but of "everyone". Similarly, Eve means "mother of all living".

From a metaphorical viewpoint:

  • A key point being made in the creation stories is that God is the source of everything that is. One person noted "The only literal statement in Genesis 1 is 'God created the heavens and the earth'".
  • Secondly, humans are the climax of creation but at the same time "dust creatures". That is, we are small, we are finite, we are mortal - yet, there is something different about us (e.g. greater consciousness than any species we know of).
  • Another key point is that the world is the good creation of a good God. All that is, is good.
  • Having said that, something has happened - though the world is beautiful, something is not right; we live in a world of hard labour, suffering, pain, violence and fragmentation.

On this last point, what went wrong (often referred to as the fall or the original sin)? There are different viewpoints including:

  1. Human disobedience (this is the most common and simplist view within fundamentalist Christianity)
  2. Human pride and self-centeredness
  3. Living the agenda of others
  4. The inevitability of self-consciousness

These various understandings can be combined. For example, the birth of consciousness in all of us as we move from infants to adults typically leads to pride and being centered in one's self. At the same time, the process of socialization leads to internalizing and living in accord with the agendas of others, including parents, culture and religion.

Given this combination of historical and metaphorical views, I can see the creation stories as profoundly true - not literally or factually, but in the truth of the stories' central claims. Borg says it like this: "This" - the universe and we - is not self-caused, but grounded in the sacred. "This" is utterly remarkable and wondrous, a mystery beyond words that evokes wonder, awe and praise. We begin our lives "in paradise", but we all experience explusion into a world of exile, anxiety, self-preoccupation, bondage and conflict. And yes, also a world of goodness and beauty: it is the creation of God. But it is a world in which something is awry.

The rest of the Bible is to a large extent the story of this state of affairs: the human predicament and its solution. Our lives "east of Eden" are marked by exile, and we need to return and reconnect; by bondage, and we need liberation; by blindness and deafness, and we need wholeness; by violence and conflict, and we need to learn justice and peace; by self- and other-centeredness, and we need to centre in God. Such are the central claims of Israel's stories of human beginnings.

A new way to look at the creation stories don't you think?

(Again, lots of credit to Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time for the bulk of this blog)

A New Way of Reading/Seeing the Bible

Before getting into the content of the Bible itself, a short blog entry on a new way of reading/seeing the Bible (most of this blog entry are taken from Marcus Borg's book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time).
There are two sides of the debate of how to read/see the Bible, specifically with regards to the Bible's origin, authority and interpretation:
  1. Fundamentalist and many conservative evangelical Christians - see the Bible's origin as coming from God and as a divine product. It is God's truth...and as a result, it is authoritative. They read the Bible literally - often referred to as "conscious literalists" (i.e. aware of problems posed by a literal reading but insist upon it nevertheless).
  2. Moderate-to-liberal Christians - see the Bible as a human product - a human response to God. As such, it does not express the authoritative will of God - so we need to decide on the relevance of the "wisdom" for our time. They are strongly convinced that many parts of the Bible cannot be taken literally. They also see the Bible as "sacred" for Christians in that it is a foundational document for our religion with which we should be in continuing dialogue.

This second group typically take a "historical-metaphorical" approach to reading the Bible. By historical, the question is "What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?". By metaphorical, the question is "What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?" With this view, the Bible is seen as a combination of history and metaphor. That is, some events in the Bible really happened. At the same time, there are "metaphorical narratives" in which an event that happened (or may have happened) is given a metaphorical meaning; or events are not based on a particular historical event, but which instead are purely metaphorical or symbolic.

To take this approach to reading the Bible, you need to move from precritical naivete to postcritical naivete. Precritical naivete is an early childhood state in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true. In this state, Christians simply hear the stories of the Bible as true stories. Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true - that is, you can accept that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.

The remaining blog entries in this Bible Exploration series attempt to adopt a postcritical naivete viewpoint and a historical-metaphorical approach to reading the Bible and understanding its meaning for Christians.