Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Quote for Pentecost

If a man must say that he cannot find God in the reality of his own present life, and if he would compensate for this by the thought that God is nevertheless the final cause of all that happens, then his belief in God will be a theoretical speculation or a dogma; and however great the force with which he clings to this belief, it will not be true faith, for faith can be only the recognition of the activity of God in his own life.
- R. Bultmann

The Pizza Tapes

In 1993, three musicians got together to jam for a couple of nights, playing primarily traditional folk and bluegrass songs. Fortunately, sessions were in a recording studio and were caught on tape. The sessions weren't meant for release so the artists were shocked when songs from bootlegs tapes began to circulate and gain popularity. The mystery of how the tapes became public was eventually solved. A pizza delivery boy had swiped cassette copies from the kitchen of one of the artists. The artists were David Grisman on mandolin and Tony Rice on guitar. The third musician, on guitar and doing the vocals, was the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. (the pizza boy grabbed the tapes from Garcia's kitchen)

The"pizza tapes" were finally remastered and released--and what a treat! This is what Emmylou Harris would call music of "the living room." It is music played and performed for the joy of the music. And the sound is superb. You may actually think the three are in your living room. If you have trouble thinking of Jerry Garcia doing bluegrass, stop worrying and just listen. Shady Grove, Little Sadie, and Man of Constant Sorrow are here. Amazing Grace. Yes, Jerry does gospel too. And you may have a conversion experience when you listen. Check out the cuts here.

The Flames of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:1-4

Today the Church celebrates Pentecost, when God's Spirit was poured out on believers. Luke's narrative in the opening pages of Acts, especially the dramatic chapter 2, highlights three significant aspects of the event. The gift of the Holy Spirit was:
1) promised by Jesus and was a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel
2) for all believers, regardless of gender, age, or social status
3) associated with the conversion experience of repentance and baptism

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shavuot (Weeks)

Tonight at sundown, the Jewish community begins celebration of Shavuot or Weeks. Christians know this holiday from the New Testament as Pentecost. The festival is based on Leviticus 23:15-16 and was originally celebrated as an agricultural holiday, the first fruits of the grain harvest. Its annual celebration was on the 50th day following Passover. At a very early, stage the focus of the festival shifted to the celebration of God's giving of the Law (Torah) to Moses. Evidence is available in this shift as early as the second century of the common era. This is still the focus of the Jewish celebration of Shavuot.

Of course, Christians also continue to remember the importance of this festival, but for another reason. Often referring to it as the "birthday of the church," Christian tradition, based on Acts 2, remembers the festival as the time when the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers in Jesus as Lord and Christ (Messiah). Pentecost will be celebrated in most churches this coming Sunday.

The picture file is from Wikimedia Commons - Moses with the Tablets, 1659, by Rembrandt.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paul As . . . Benefactor

Paul's mission to the Gentiles was accepted by the Jerusalem leadership with one key stipulation, that he remember the poor. Paul readily agreed and this commitment can be observed throughout his letters. The church Paul founded at Philippi appears to have given abundantly. But the church at Corinth proved a different matter. Paul spends a significant amount of time in his two extant letters to Corinth laying out a giving strategy, encouraging generosity, and reminding the Corinthians of their commitment to help the poor in Jerusalem. Ultimately Paul was successful and was able to deliver a substantial contribution to those in need in Jerusalem.

Primary Sources
Galatians 2:7-10
1 Corinthians 16:1-4
2 Corinthians 8 - 9
Romans 15:25-29

Historical Question: How did Paul physically transport the offering from Greece to Jerusalem given the dangers of traveling in the ancient world with large sums of money?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

"For us, Memorial Day is about this cemetery."

Here's a Memorial Day reflection in a few word and photos from Ree Drummond at one of my favorite sites, The Pioneer Woman Cooks.

Economic Stress Index

I have no doubt that economic stress impacts us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This interactive Economic Stress Index from the Associated Press maps each county in the United States for unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcy. The map is colored coded so that you can see geographically the economic stress "hot spots" and stats for individual counties. (Click here)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Miracles in Acts

The Acts of the Apostles, the companion volume to The Gospel of Luke, contains numerous miracle stories. Here is a sampling:
  • The disciples speak in foreign languages they did not know. (2:1-11)
  • Cloths touched by Paul provide healing when placed on suffers. (19:11-12)
  • When Peter's shadow falls on the sick and afflicted, they are healed. (5:12-16)
  • Paul is bitten by a viper but suffers no ill effects. (28:1-6)
  • An angel delivers Peter from prison. (12:6-11)
The legendary character of the Acts miracles seems obvious. And they appear less developed than the miracles of Jesus, almost like a brief news item.

Assignment to Self: Compare the miracle stories in Acts to those of Jesus in Luke's Gospel. How are they alike? How are they different? Are they a different genre altogether?

Whatever their nature and form, these stories are tremendously valuable for what they tell us about the beliefs and experiences of the early Christians. But they not factual! This does not means that we should discount or ignore them; they are the bedrock of our faith tradition. The stories tell us who we are (as do the Jesus miracle stories). They are to be treasured, studied, and reflected on. But let us not imagine them as historical.

Pieces to a Puzzle

Duke Associate Professor Mark Goodacre has a series on the historical Jesus (click here). He likens historical Jesus research to putting together a puzzle and reminds us of the difficulty of the undertaking in three posts:
  1. What if key pieces are missing?
  2. More on missing pieces.
  3. Putting pieces in the wrong place.

From an older post in 2007, Mark offer seven answers to the question: "Why is the historical Jesus quest so hard?"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Inductive Bible Study - Acts 1

Inductive bible study is often viewed as the domain of conservative evangelicals. In my opinion, it should equally be the domain of progressive Christians. By simply using the text, you can allow students to see for themselves what the author is saying and how one text may differ from another.

Here are 12 questions from the first chapter of Acts. Try them out, use them with your own study group, or create your own. Just structure the questions so that the answer must come from the text you are studying, not from someone's personal opinion.

1. According to Luke, Jesus appeared to his disciples over what time period following his resurrection? What was the primary topic of his communication with his apostles?

2. What does Luke mean when he says Jesus was taken up into heaven?

3. How does the opening narrative in Acts modify Luke’s account of the resurrection in his gospel (volume 1of Luke/Acts)?

4. Why does Jesus command the disciples to stay in Jerusalem? How does this differ with the message given the disciples in Mark and Matthew?

5. How does Luke contrast the baptism of John with the baptism that the apostles will soon receive? How do you understand this subsequent baptism?

6. What is the key question the disciples ask Jesus? How does Jesus respond?

7. What teaching points are made by Luke in his narrative of the ascension of Jesus?

8. Who makes up the cadre of disciples that assemble together in Jerusalem following Jesus’ ascension? How many disciples are not named?

9. How is the death of Judas portrayed? How does this differ from other accounts?

10. What does the account of the death of Judas demonstrate about how the early Christians used scripture in relation to the events they experienced surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus?

11. What is the consequence of their reading of the Psalms passage for the organizational structure of the community?

12. What process is utilized in selecting a replacement for Judas? What criteria are utilized?

Prophecy - Apocalyptic

"Speaking generally, the prophets foretold the future that should arise out of the present, while the apocalyptists foretold the future that should break into the present."
- H. H. Rowley

Friday, May 22, 2009

Photographs of Faith

Can you see faith? If so, what might it look like? This is what photographer, Christopher Churchill, tries to capture in this look at America's variegated religious experience. Take a look here, but make sure you also view the entire slide presentation with audio background. It is really quite powerful.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Green Books

The Sierra Club's The Green Life blog for yesterday's Book Roundup Wednesday featured religion and the environment. To see their recommendations, click here. I especially liked the title: What Would the Buddha Recycle?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins - Mapped

Students at Kansas State have mapped out the prevalence of the Seven Deadly Sins across the United State for us.

Think about the many uses of this tool. You can plan a fine-dining vacation (see Gluttony), select a financial planner (see Greed), or just hang out (see Sloth).

To find an area of like-minded sinners, click here. To see each of the sins mapped click on the right or left portion of the map or the heading.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Experiential Religion and Ethics

I would like to pull a couple of ideas together based on several of the previous posts. The first observation is that the early Christian communities, whether Jewish or Hellenistic, practiced a form of experiential religion. That is they were Christians who believed they were led by God's Spirit because they experienced God's presence in a variety of ways, including baptism, the Lord's Supper, prophecy, speaking in tongues, etc. And these various communities were tied together with a common devotion to Jesus.

Second, much of the attention of the leadership of these early Christian communities was given to instruction in right living. Pick your New Testament book, and it will be filled with encouragement and instruction on how to live out one's faith, how to follow Jesus. One of the earliest names for the Jesus movement was the Way.

How much of the agenda of modern, progressive Christianity includes creating more ways for members to experience God (instead of just being taught about God)? Can it be done without devolving into hyper-spiritualism and charismatic anti-intellectualism? And can progressive Christianity build on its strength of promoting social justice and inclusiveness to better help members develop a more "devout and holy life" that includes ethical reflection and personal decision making?

What venues do you have to experience God? How does your church help you to make ethical decisions?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Do Frequent Churchgoers Support Torture?

The Pew Research Center has presented some evidence that indicates that frequent churchgoers are more likely to justify the use of torture. And white evangelical Protestants as a sub-group are more likely to offer some support for the torture of suspected terrorists. See the graphic and discussion at the Boston Globe's Articles of Faith Blog by Michael Paulson.

How would your faith community respond to this issue?

The Death Penalty Around the World

A graphic at Good illustrates where the death penalty is utilized world-wide. The United States is one of 59 countries that executes criminals on a regular basis. We join the company of China, India, and most Middle Eastern counties who still employ the ultimate penalty. To view, click here.

The Holy Spirit in Acts

A statistical analysis of the "spirit" language in The Acts of the Apostles confirms what a close reading of the book suggests--the pervasiveness presence of the Holy Spirit in the narrative. Some scholars suggest that a better title for the book would indeed be The Acts of the Holy Spirit. See the chart that Felix Just has created for a look at what the numbers indicate. Note the predominance of spirit language in Luke, especially Acts. This suggests that the religion of Luke and the churches he knew was highly experiential.

Angels and Demons

Beware the evil Illuminati. Yes, it's Angels and Demons weekend. Tom Hanks, as Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, is back in action with another Dan Brown thriller that will probably do big bucks business.

For an illuminating and lighthearted look at the real Illuminati, listen to this NPR Morning Edition Report.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Virgin Lips Movement

The Nashville Tennessean blog reports on a movement among young conservative Christians called by some the Virgin Lips Movement. The idea is to abstain from a first kiss until one's wedding. The young woman mentioned in the article, Katy Kruger, is a member of the Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood.

Paul's Two Mothers

Michael Bird, a young Australian evangelical, has a solid post at Euangelion on two lines of thought on the origins of Paul's theology: 1) mission and 2) apocalyptic. If you haven't visited this blog site, check it out periodically.

Paul As . . . Missionary to Non-Jews

To understand Paul, you have to understand his overriding sense of mission to non-Jews (Gentiles). Based on his visionary experiences, Paul believed that God had called him to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles. It appears that Paul also believed that when he was able to bring Gentile believers to faith in Christ that his would lead his own faith-community, Judaism, to become believers.

Primary Evidence:
Romans 15:14-19
Romans 1:5, 13-15
Galatians 1:15-16; 2:1-3
Romans 11:11-12, 25-27

Secondary Evidence:
Acts 9:15; 26:16-18

Monday, May 11, 2009

With A Little Faith

We have much to learn from God's creatures great and small.

The Speeches in Acts

Luke gives evidence of being an ancient historian of the first rank. So let's consider Luke's likely methodology by looking at the words of the Greek historian Thucydides, arguably the greatest of the ancient historians, in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.22.1).

"As to the speeches which were made either before or during the war, it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words. I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to give general import of what was actually said."

Here are two interpretative considerations for the speeches in Acts. They are:
  1. Luke's own composition
  2. Summaries (read out loud Peter's speech in Acts 2 and time yourself)
All the speeches in Acts tell us a great deal about Luke and in turn about the church of his day. And as James Dunn also reminds us: " Luke has been able to draw on and incorporate tradition" and that in Luke's judgment the tradition is representative of each individual speech maker's viewpoint.

This is of course different than assuming we are reading a verbatim report of what was actually said by any of Luke's apostolic speakers.

7 - A More Perfect Number

5 books about Paul just won't do. It has to be seven.

Previously, I recommended Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders. So that moves yesterday's post to six.

And then there is perhaps my all time favorite: The Gospel According to Paul by A. M. Hunter. It is now out of print, but still a model of concise writing that organizes Paul's thought into easy to understand categories. You can still find copies at used book stores and among the used offerings at Amazon. This really is a great little book and rounds out our list of resource books on Paul to a more perfect seven.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Jewish Scholar's Take on Paul

I have been helped a great deal by Jewish scholars who study the New Testament. Here in Kansas City is a Jewish scholar who has a number of books and articles that provide insight and a different perspective on the Apostle Paul.

The scholar is Mark D. Nanos. Here is his website, and it has a number of helpful and challenging articles on Paul. Visit by clicking here.

Green Burials in Lawrence

Have you ever thought about an earth friendly burial? Such burials are more eco-friendly than cremation and cost 25 - 75% less than traditional burial methods.

Lawrence, Kansas may be the first municipal cemetery in the country to offer green burials.

For a video and KMBC story on green burials at Lawrence, Kansas' Oak Hills Cemetery, click here.

Resources on Paul

If you asked me today what five books about Paul that should be in your personal library, here's what I would say, in no particular order:
  1. The Theology of Paul the Apostle - James D. G. Dunn
  2. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters - Ralph P. Martin ed.
  3. Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People - E. P. Sanders
  4. Paul the Convert - Alan Segal
  5. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free - F. F. Bruce
But check back with me tomorrow, the list might change.

Paul and Sexual Ethics

Our adult education class this morning discussed 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter, Paul is much concerned about sexual immorality, specifically a man living with his father's wife (step-mother). Paul's directive is for the Corinthians to remove the individual from their fellowship in hopes that he will see the error of his way. Paul appears to have in mind Leviticus 18:7-8 as a scriptural basis for his displeasure.

We used the Corinthian passage as a springboard to ask: How do progressive Christians go about developing an ethic of sexuality that makes sense and, more importantly,that goes beyond a "proof texting" approach to issues of human sexuality.

Think of cases that you know about in your congregation, such as: 1) a college student who engages in casual sex; 2) a young couple who is not ready for marriage but decides to live together; 3) a long-term, committed lesbian relationship, 4) a widow and widower in their 70s who find pleasure in each other sexually but do plan to marry because of objections by children on both sides of the family.

Are all these examples of what Paul calls "porneia" (fornication/sexual immorality)?

On what basis would you make your decision?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stop Worshiping Christ

The title by Robin Meyers immediately grabs you: Saving Jesus From the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.

You can almost guess the cast of characters who are going to be on back cover with recommendation blurbs. And sure enough, John Shelby Spong is there. But then you look closer and praise for the book comes from Bill Moyers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Diana Butler Bass, and, last but not least, Fred B. Craddock. Now you do not often see these names together.

Raised in the non-instrument Church of Christ but a UCC minister for over 20 years, the author has an agenda, but it is not, he says, "one more attempt to prove why it is wrong to be a fundamentalist."

"Rather, it is a word on behalf of those who have walked away from the church because they recognize intellectual dishonesty as the original sin of orthodoxy." It is also "a call to reconsider what it means to follow Jesus, instead of arguing over things that the church has insisted we must all believe about Christ. Doctrines divide by nature. Discipleship brings us together."

You might want to put this on your Amazon Wish List.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Paul As . . . Tradent

Paul is sometimes pictured as a "loose canon" who fashions Christianity into his own idiosyncratic vision. This seems at odds with the evidence that Paul was a tradent, receiving and passing on the traditions that he received from the early Palestinian community. Several lines of evidence can be offered:
1. The tradition of the resurrection appearances of Jesus - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. This suggests to me that the gospel narratives offer up a tradition that was not available to Paul and that may have developed subsequent to his writing. In short, Paul is not editing the gospel accounts of women being the first witnesses to the resurrection.
2. The tradition of the institution of the Lord's Supper - 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. As in the previous passage, Paul uses the language of receiving and passing on of oral tradition. Here the tradition goes all the way back to Jesus and does not refer to mystic visions/revelations (see earlier post on Paul as mystic.)
3. Use of the maranatha prayer - 1 Corinthians 16:22. Without explanation to the Corinthians, he uses liturgical language of the Aramaic speaking Jerusalem community.

In brief, Paul uses historical and worship traditions that derive from the early Jerusalem community. He will be at odds with elements of that church on inclusion of Gentiles and the role of the law in the non-Jewish faith communities he planted. But he seems at one with Jerusalem on historical and worship traditions and devotion to Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

And the Winner Is . . .

For Best Song of the Day (for capturing the festive spirit of Cinco De Mayo, Memphis culture, and Elvis - all in one song) the winner is: Jimmy Buffett - Cinco De Mayo in Memphis.

Happy Cinco De Mayo.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Progressive Christianity

Please check out this four minute clip on Progressive Christianity from the Living the Questions folks that James McGrath has posted from YouTube. It is a concise summary of an alternative approach to Christianity that is distinct from much that often gathers media attention.

How to Find a Great Biblioblog

There is an amazing variety of biblical scholars and students blogging daily on subjects ranging from Hebrew poetry to non-canonical gospels. With just a few clicks, you can find any number of sites worthy of following on a daily/weekly basis. Here how you do it.
  1. Check a few of my favorite links here at revJohn.
  2. Go to and note the listing provided there of sites geared to biblical studies.
  3. Visit one of the monthly Carnivals that summarizes what's going on in the blogosphere. Here's the link to Biblical Studies Carnival 41 hosted by James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix.
  4. See who's hot and who's not at the monthly Biblioblog Top 50.

Happy exploring. Let me know which sites captured your attention.

Where's the Beef - Part 2

So what can you do if your church's adult education program is lacking in substance? Here's a few steps on how to get "the beef" you need.
  1. Share with your elders or adult education minister your disappointment with course offerings.
  2. Be prepared to make specific recommendations on what courses/subjects would be helpful for your (the congregation's) spiritual development.
  3. If your church does not have the resources to provide intellectually rigorous and meaningful classes, be proactive and utilize online resources. Take a Yale University online Old Testament course or go to Phil Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean site and listen to one of his podcast series.
  4. Check out the offerings of the Learning Company and see if one of their religion courses might prove helpful.
  5. Identify a substantial theological/biblical studies book and systematically work through the text over several weeks. See if others will do the reading along with you.
  6. Find a biblioblog that deals with subjects you are interested in and follow/dialog with the posts.
  7. Continue to visit revJohn.

Where's the Beef

I am of the opinion that what passes for Sunday morning adult education in many congregations is sadly lacking in substance. Paul upbraids the Corinthians that he had to feed them with milk because they were not ready for solid food. What about adult learners who are ready for solid teaching but are offered pap?

I call on the words of Clara Peller to challenge the fluff and demand substance in Christian adult education.