Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 9 List: My Favorite Music and Books for 2010

Why 9 and not 10? Because I'm only mildly clever (and top ten lists are way overdone).


1-"Go" by Jonsi
2-"The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire
3-"High Violet" by The National
4-"Age of Adz" by Sufjan Stevens
5-"The Daylights" by The Daylights
6-"So Runs the World Away" by Josh Ritter
7-"My Room in the Trees" by The Innocence Mission
8-"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" by Kanye West
9-"Invented" by Jimmy Eat World

1-"Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God's Future for Humanity and the Earth" by Jurgen Moltmann
2-"A New Kind of Christianity" by Brian McLaren
3-"Constructing Jesus" by Dale Allison Jr.
4-"Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?" by James DG Dunn
5-"The Nature of Love" by Thomas Jay Oord
6-"God Is Not One" by Stephen Prothero
7-"Christianity: The First 3000 Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch
8-"Making Sense of Evolution" by John F. Haught
9-"Jesus Wars" by Philip Jenkins

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Final - Pt. 5)

Although certain progressive hermeneutics of the Quran may be able to maintain a robust religious pluralism like Reza Aslan and Omid Safi do, the majority of traditional and moderate Muslims today remain concerned to preserve a stronger sense of particularity in the tradition. Still, Seyyed Hossein Nasr maintains that most Muslims in the contemporary context are quite interested in inter-religious dialogue to promote understanding between different religious faiths – though only under certain conditions. As Nasr writes, “They are interested as long as such a dialogue does not lead to that kind of ecumenism which reduces religions to the least common denominator and sacrifices Divine institutions and doctrines in the name of peace but ultimately for a banal humanism...’” Is this good enough to facilitate peace between faiths? Opinions of course vary on this, but I am convinced that it is. I do not accept the hard post-modernist assertion that to make actual metaphysical religious truth claims is to plant the seeds of religious violence. Religions as different as Islam and Christianity can coexist in a modern society and find common ground in areas of ethics and justice work. They need not surrender their central faith claims in the process.

The truth is, religions are not all the same, despite opposite affirmations of some religious leaders, mystics, and philosophers of religion. The vast majority of everyday religious persons around the world, including Muslims and Christians, care very much about the particularity of their faith. The world’s many religions offer different solutions to different problems, and the argument by some that the essentials of religion are all the same “is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue...[they] do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.” Even in our class trip to the mosque, we encountered a serious concern for the particularity of different religions from our Muslim hosts. When a member of our class asked if one could be simultaneously a Christian and a Muslim, the panel speaker politely replied that unless one were to give up the doctrine of the Trinity and the atoning death, resurrection, and divinity of Jesus, it was not possible. In no way did this seem judgmental or exclusive. It was an honest statement about differences in the beliefs of most Christians and Muslims. Despite religious differences with our Muslim hosts, this did not stop us from admiring them as sincere religious believers and respecting them as fellow human beings.

The future of Islam in Europe and America is uncertain for the time being. Islamophobia continues to be a rising problem in the West, while the sting of 9/11 has not yet ceased. Another issue worsening religious tolerance is radical atheism (the so-called “New Atheism”), which often calls for the abolishment of all religion, especially the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three traditions are indeed guilty of violence throughout their histories, and they all continue to have their share of radical extremists who pose a threat to society. Although the critiques of religion by these atheists are sometimes correct, I believe they go too far, and in the process exacerbate religious conflicts. There is much to admire about all three of these great religious traditions, as different as they are and as problematic as they can be at times. As evangelical Christianity continues to explode in the Global South and Islam grows rapidly around the world, religious leaders and intellectuals will have to work diligently to build bridges between these two Abrahamic traditions. As a Christian who experienced a radical paradigm shift in my view of Islam, having moved from fear and intolerance to genuine respect and friendship, I choose to remain optimistic about the possibility of real cooperation between the Abrahamic traditions.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Pt. 4)

Beyond the large majority of more moderate Muslims is a growing progressive Muslim movement as well. Omid Safi, a famous progressive Muslim and author, describes progressive Islam as “striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” Thinkers outside the Islamic tradition, including Latin American liberation theologians, nonviolent resistance leaders, and secular humanists also influence these progressive Muslims. Some progressive Muslims, such as the famous scholar of religion Reza Aslan, even believe that Islam is currently in the midst of a reformation towards more broadly progressive ideals, analogous to the Protestant Reformation: “…the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are already living in it.”

Similar to the way in which progressive Christians have recently emphasized the anti-imperial, egalitarian social agenda of the historical Jesus, Aslan has made strong and convincing arguments in favor of looking at the origins of Islam and the earliest stages of Muhammad’s career in this way as well. Aslan argues that Muhammad was largely reacting against the economic corruption in Mecca, as wealth had become heavily concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful families and the social egalitarian ideals of the tribes were abandoned. Muhammad’s primary concerns were to restore the tribal ethic, care for the orphans, free the slaves, and to assist those in need. Before Muhammad established a new religion, “he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.” However, even after the birth of Islam as a religion, key practices such as zakat (paying of the alms for the care and protection of the poor) and the fast of Ramadan (which involves both remembrance of the poor and the feeding of the hungry) keep social justice at the center of this tradition, whether in progressive or traditional forms. As such, Aslan makes a very strong case that Islam is rooted in strong commitments to justice.

On the other hand, Aslan’s vigorous attempt to argue that Islam is rooted in firm principles of religious pluralism is certainly up for debate. While this perspective may convince some, it is a hard sell for other scholars who point out that the Quran is not clear on this issue. As Jane Dammen McAuliffe writes, “there is no single quranic attitude towards members of other religions.” Although a number of passages in the Quran do seem to provide grounds for religious pluralism, others seem to state that one is not obedient to God without explicit recognition of his messenger Muhammad (among other requirements). Although Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” and should usually be protected as minorities, they are still not of the same high status as Muslims, according to the Quran. When living in Muslim lands, they are generally considered to be second-class citizens. The attitude of the Quran towards Jews and Christians seems to fluctuate, depending on the political and social situations at the time of a passage’s composition. While the overall attitude of the Quran towards other religions seems to be essentially negative, it does not in general permit religious violence or aggression towards those of other faiths. Most exegetes throughout Muslim history have not read the text in a way that justifies forcible conversion to Islam, as they seem to have accepted the fact that many would not convert and so needed to be tolerated as religious minorities.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.3)

A massive six-year study on the views of contemporary Muslims that was conducted by the Gallup Organization after 9/11 revealed some important facts about Islam around the world today. I have found this data useful in my personal bridge-building efforts between Christians and Muslims. The information was summarized in an important book by John L. Esposito, called Who Speaks For Islam. Some of the more interesting findings included the following: first, Muslims are just as likely as Americans to morally condemn attacks on civilians. Second, Muslims who support acts of terrorism are a small minority. Third, both Americans and Muslims give the same answer to the question of what they least admire about the West: the erosion of traditional moral values. Fourth, most Muslims say that they desire a future with better jobs and security, not conflict and violent jihad, as many Americans continue to believe about Muslims. Fifth, the majority of Muslims around the world do not desire the law of the land to be exclusively directed according to Sharia law. Sixth, most Muslim women desire both equal rights and religious freedom in their societies. Finally, Muslims generally admire many of the political freedoms of Westerners, including freedom of speech.

This frequently surprising study, accounting for 90% of the global Muslim population, reveals that there is clearly a silenced majority of moderate Muslims around the world who do not fit the stereotypes of many Americans and Europeans. It is a tragedy that the voices of the moderate Muslim majority are rarely given sufficient airtime in the media to make themselves more widely known. Instead, the most popular media outlets continue to reinforce stereotypes of Muslims by showing their most terrifying side (no doubt, often with the selfish motive of driving up their ratings). Despite the fact that within hours of the attacks on 9/11, around a dozen national Muslim organizations unanimously condemned the terrorists, too many Americans continue to ask why moderate Muslims do not speak up. As Muscati argues, this is in large part because “the Muslim community is still a fairly new and comparatively small and weak voice in the American mainstream.” As such, they are frequently unable to counter the unjustified accusations made against them, which usually paints Islam with a very broad brush.

In an effort to counter the popular claims that moderate Muslims have been silent in response to 9/11 (implying their quiet support of the attacks), a Muslim website at has assembled an impressive and growing database of condemnations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Muslim groups, scholars, leaders, and ordinary persons of faith. These kinds of efforts are extremely important for at least two reasons. First, as already mentioned, because the media outlets rarely give airtime to moderate Muslim voices. Second, because whenever moderate Muslims are given a public voice, people tend to dismiss them as exceptions to the rule. The strongly held stereotype of Muslims as evil frequently “withstands all evidence to the contrary, including the simple truth that the vast majority of Muslims living in societies of their accusers are decent, law-abiding citizens.”

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.2)

Due in large part to my identity as a mainstream conservative evangelical at the time, I essentially agreed with the absolute moral dualism of then president George W. Bush: “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Unfortunately, the simplistic partitioning off of “us” against “them”, “good” versus “evil” could be easily transformed in the minds of conservative Christians like me into “Christians” against “Muslims.” My church at the time was aligned with the Religious Right and projected much of the same kind of hostile rhetoric as Franklin Graham, who once said, “Islam is a very evil religion.” As a Pentecostal, convinced that America was a Christian nation, even the kind of apocalyptic words of charismatic leader Benny Hinn would have resonated with my instinctive response to 9/11: “We are on God’s side…[this war is] between God and the devil.” Fortunately, I did not explicitly voice these kinds of radical views in my class and instead decided to take seriously the positions of my more religiously tolerant classmates. In the process, my view of religion and politics underwent dramatic shifts.

I soon found myself fascinated enough with the topic of religion after 9/11 that I changed my major from computer science to religious studies and immediately enrolled in a course on Islam. Not long after this decision, I found myself unable to remain affiliated with the form of conservative Christianity that I had long been a part of, largely due to their (often literal) demonization of religions like Islam. As I came to see, Islam is not so easily categorized as an “evil religion”, while America, though good in many ways, was not the perfect beacon of goodness, hope and truth that I had long believed it was. Through my studies, I became convicted that, as Sina Ali Muscati argues, “…the self-deception practiced since September 11th – that this is good versus evil and that our enemy is none other than the devil incarnate is little different from the propaganda espoused by Bin Laden.” As I repented of my religiously intolerant views, made friends with American Muslims, and continued to learn about religion and politics in America, I have tried to be an ally to Muslims by learning about their history and beliefs in order to build bridges between my own Christian tradition and Islam. I have discovered that although there is plenty of ambiguity in the Islamic tradition about violence and religious tolerance (just as there is in Judaism and Christianity), the majority of Muslims today interpret their faith in a more moderate fashion.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.1)

Religious scholar Stephen Prothero rightly observes that “Most Europeans and North Americans…see Islam through a veil hung over their eyes centuries ago by Christian Crusaders intent on denouncing Islam as a religion of violence, its founder, Muhammad, as a man of the sword, and its holy book, the Quran, as a text of wrath.” Confirming this statement, a major survey conducted by The Pew Forum in 2007 reveals that when Americans think of Muslims, they frequently connect them with words like “fanatic”, “violent”, “terrorism”, and “strict.” My own personal experience also confirms this unfortunate fact in our society, which has seemed to grow increasingly Islamophobic since 9/11. Recent controversies in the United States over Islam have continued to reveal an intensifying fear: the national debate over plans for a mosque in New York, the fearful public comments about Muslims made by Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and Oklahoma’s recent attempt to ban Sharia law. Similar fears are also rampant in Europe, as a growing Muslim population seems to many Europeans to point towards an Islamic takeover of European society. Because I continually find myself in conversation with people who are literally terrified of Muslims in the same way I once was as a young conservative Christian, I am committed to promoting religious intelligence and tolerance under the conviction that Islamophobia is largely rooted in ignorance and confusion.

It was not until I studied Islam in college that I began to see beyond the popular portrayals of Muslims in the media. Although I do not think Islam can be simply described as a “religion of peace”, I do believe that most Muslims in the world today are genuinely peaceful with strong commitments to justice. As such, my main goal for this essay is to highlight some of the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam as they relate to most Muslim’s commitments to justice and religious tolerance today. I will initially approach this through reflections on my own personal experiences as they relate to these issues. It is mainly because I can relate to those who are fearful of Islam that I feel a responsibility to help them see the larger truth of this religion as it exists in the present context.

In some ways, this final essay on Islam in a post-9/11 world is my most important of the semester. In part, this is because my entire undergraduate education was fueled by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 – which also led me to study religion as a graduate student at CST. It was during my first semester in college that Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing the conversation about religion in America – and around the world – forever. Recalling the disturbing and immediate impact of these events, Diana Eck writes, “Within hours, an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began – from low-level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls to arson, beatings and murders.” Because I was in a philosophy course at the time, I was able to wrestle with the events of 9/11 in an academic environment and have my false assumptions about Muslims sufficiently challenged.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.2 of 2)

As for the conquest narratives of Canaan by the early Israelites, these too are called into question by modern historians and archaeologists. First of all, it seems clear to most scholars that Israelites were always Canaanites. There is basic continuity between their cultures for centuries in the archaeological record. The traditional notion that they came from outside of Canaan and conquered it is heavily challenged by at least two other theories. First, Israel may have been ex-urbanite Canaanite revolutionaries who got fed up with their overlords who were serving the Egyptian empire and oppressing the lower class. Second, Israel may have originated as semi-nomadic desert nomads who settled in the highlands of Canaan, became agriculturalists, grew in population, developed a distinct culture, and spread out to the low -lying areas of Canaan. Once they entered the rest of Canaan, they would have possibly both peacefully and forcefully infused Canaanite identity and culture with Israelite identity and culture. Either way, it seems clear that Israel did not come forcefully (for the most part) from outside of Canaan in conquest of the land.

The second blow to the conquests come mainly from the results of Kathleen Kenyon, a British archaeologist in the 1950s. She re-excavated at Jericho and concluded that at the time of the supposed conquests, the city was insignificant and did not even have a wall. Thus, the stories of conquest at Jericho seem like later inventions of the "D" source. Furthermore, very few sites in Canaan show any signs of massive conquest for the time period. The final blow to the conquests comes from within the bible itself. Even after Israel supposedly wiped out the occupants of the land, the biblical narrative says that "the Canaanites were still in the land."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.1 of 2)

Modern archaeologists are quick to point out that no evidence exists for a mass exodus of people from Egypt around the purported time of the biblical event (c. 1200 BCE). Although this has difficult consequences for a traditional reading of the bible, the evidence seems hard to argue with. If over 600,000 persons made an exit from Egypt around this period, surely we would have found traces of it.

An important consideration here is the Merneptah Stele, an archaeological artifact that dates to around the period of when the Exodus was to have occurred. It has the first mention of the name "Israel" in history. A linguistic study shows that this mention links them not as an independent nation, but as a people group already living in the land of Canaan. We will discuss the various theories of how Israel over time emerged in Canaan as a distinct culture. But it's important to note that they almost certainly did not enter from outside by conquest as the biblical narrative suggests.

In one ancient reference in the Armanah Letters (another important archeological artifact), there is a mention of some people called "apiru" who are causing problems for the leaders in Canaan. This same title is given to some people in the archaeological record in Egypt, where "apiru" apparently also existed concurrently. Because of the Egyptian mention of "apiru", some scholars have wanted to claim "apiru" are really the Hebrew people pre-Exodus (get it? "apiru" rhymes with Hebrew).
Scholars have concluded however that these "apiru" are only references to lower-class trouble makers, not specifically the Hebrew people. The "apiru" were simply rebels who were giving the Egyptian and Canaanite leaders a headache. However, some of these "apiru" in Egypt might have had a very small exodus, joined the Israelites already in the Canaanite central highlands, and brought their story of liberation from the Egyptian empire. Either way, the biblical story of a mass Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE is a later creation of Israelite writers. It is a myth to explain the origin of Israelite identity - YHWH delivered them from bondage, led them to the promised land in Canaan, and helped them wipe out the Canaanites. None of this happened in history as the bible narrates it, scholars now assert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.3 of 3)

One area of common ground between the three major branches of Judaism already discussed is in their observance of certain sacred events and holidays. The weekly Shabbat service (or the Sabbath) is a time of rest that recalls both God’s resting on the seventh day of creation and Israel’s liberation from slavery. How each branch practices this event varies considerably, with the Orthodox observing the day of rest much more strictly than either Conservative or Reform Jews do. Beyond this weekly event, there are many holy days in Judaism, of which the most widely observed is Passover. This is a day for Jews to remember the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites were freed from slavery. Passover is named after the story of when the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites before the Exodus. Jewish families share in a sacred meal called the Seder, where they talk, sing, rejoice in freedom, and remember their past. As Jacob Neusner points out, contemporary Jews also connect Passover to individual experience in the present, and more particularly, the modern experience of remembering the Holocaust: “Passover is popular now because it speaks to a generation that knows what the Gentiles can do…” Once again, this illustrates the way the Holocaust has brought diverse Jews together by remembering a shared history of suffering and a constant struggle for survival. The impact of the Holocaust on modern Judaism is so intense that some theologians have seen it as a distinct religious phenomenon, calling it “Holocaustology.”

Although Judaism has always emphasized the importance of questioning, arguing, and wrestling with God (the name “Israel” suggests the action of “struggling with God”), Jews have rarely engaged so deeply in this activity as much as they have since the Holocaust. As Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes, “[The Holocaust] remains an event far surpassing all previous history of suffering, an event of an unspeakable suffering of the people of the Jews which cannot be ‘understood’ theoretically.” As a young freshman in college, I encountered this Jewish struggle first-hand and it has had a lasting impact on my own Christian theology. I enrolled in a philosophy course that was taught by a Jewish Rabbi, who I discovered late in the semester was also an atheist. I remember the shock I felt when he explained how his reflection on the Holocaust caused him to lose his faith in God. Though he still valued the Jewish tradition, he could no longer believe in God because of the theological problem of suffering. “Where was the God of the Hebrew Bible, the active God of history, when a third of the world’s Jews were murdered? If God once chose Israel as his people, acting in history on their behalf, he has since lost interest in such matters – and I have lost interest in him,” my professor said to the class.

Moving ahead to my senior year in college, I enrolled in a class on the Jewish mystical tradition that was taught by another Jewish Rabbi. Though she was still a theist, she had embraced Isaac Luria’s mystical notion of zimzum and given up on divine omnipotence in her struggle earlier in life for an adequate theology after Auschwitz. The combined impact of these two Jewish Rabbis on my own faith has caused me to take the problem of suffering much more seriously than before. Despite the objections of Hans Kung, I have taken Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s idea of ‘the crucified God’ who suffers with the victims of oppression very seriously. Moltmann developed this theology from theological considerations after the Holocaust. Additionally, the way that John Cobb’s process theology discusses the problem of suffering has also been a fruitful tool in my theological reflections – though I by no means feel as though I have “resolved” the problem of suffering for myself.

Though my Christian faith is continually enriched by studying all the world’s religions, no tradition other than my own has influenced me as much as Judaism. In addition to hearing Jewish voices struggling with theodicy, other aspects of the tradition have also provoked my thinking. Some of these challenges have come about as I have gained a new awareness of the history of ancient Israel while trying to see the Hebrew Bible through a Jewish lens, not just a Christian one. In college, I found inspiration in Jewish mystics like Isaac Luria and the philosopher Moses Maimonides. I have also had opportunities to participate in Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue, where I admired their passionate, honest, and open-ended style of wrestling with the Torah, as well as their deep sense of community. Many Christians, such as myself, have recently gained an appreciation for the Jewish emphasis on practice over dogma, reflecting a deep concern for transforming life here-and-now. Judaism continues to fascinate me in so many ways, regularly challenging me from a different context to rethink my assumptions about theology, culture, and history.

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.2 of 3)

Just as defining Judaism as an ethnicity is nearly impossible, the religious ingredient of Judaism can be difficult to pin down. Perhaps the most logical place to begin an attempt to understand Judaism is through a historical perspective. As Huston Smith points out, “To the Jews, history was of towering significance,” in part because of the value generally placed on human social action and God’s action within history. For most of Jewish history, pivotal events such as the Exodus, where God liberated the Israelites from oppression, as well as the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, have usually been understood to be historical – and deeply meaningful as such. The future is also of great importance, as traditional Jews wait on the Messiah figure. But even amongst today’s more liberal Jews who reject the historical factuality of much of the Torah, there is still a great importance placed on remembering the history of the Jewish people – a history of survival against oppression and genocide, as well as a deep concern for embodied, human action in history. The guiding narrative of “exile and return” may be seen as mythological, but it remains central for liberal Jews. A historical perspective of Judaism reveals a complex early history that develops into a tradition that is diverse enough to contain a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal Jewish views.

The historical roots of Judaism, going back to ancient Israel, reveal a process of evolution towards the Judaism of today. Just as Christianity evolved out of the 1st century CE to become increasingly diverse, so a diverse Judaism evolved out of the 1st millennium BCE. While it is true that the core of Jewish theology is monotheism (reflected by the Shema), the ancient Israelites, in whom contemporary Judaism is rooted in, evolved from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism over the course of many centuries. The sacred Torah itself reveals this process of theological evolution. Even after becoming firmly monotheistic around the time of the Hebrew prophets, the Jewish community evolved significantly and split into different groups in the post-exilic period.

Within this long process of development, what we know as Judaism today is rooted in rabbinic Judaism, which began developing in the exilic and post-exilic period between 586 BCE and 70 CE when the tradition slowly moved from being centered on Temple sacrifice to sacred texts. In the 2nd century BCE, there were splits within the Jewish community that resulted in three different sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. While these sects represented a minority of the Jewish community at the time, the Pharisees were responsible for the development of rabbinic Judaism. In the six centuries that followed the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70CE until the completion of the Talmud, a Judaism of the dual-Torah (one written, one oral) developed through the work of many Jewish rabbis. The Talmud alone is testament to the diversity that is Judaism, which is essentially a collection of rabbinic opinions and fights over interpretations of a variety of things, including Jewish law.

Despite its inherent diversity, what made the basic form of rabbinic Judaism last through the 19th century was largely an ability to address urgent questions of politics. With the more recent emergence of the nation-state in a capitalistic context, new Judaisms were born out of traditional rabbinic Judaism that were all in conflict in various ways with parts of the traditional Judaism of the dual-Torah. From the 19th century down to the present 21st century, contemporary Judaism includes multiple branches that differ significantly in their understanding of the tradition, though all are basically united with varying degrees of respect for the Torah. Beyond this shared respect for their sacred text, the similarities between the various Judaisms largely break down. Here we can compare three important branches.

The first significant subset of contemporary Judaism is the more traditional Orthodox branch. They maintain strict observance of the commandments (or mitzvot) in the Torah, expect a literal return of the Messiah, and only ordain male rabbis. Even the Orthodox branch then splits off into other versions of Judaism, including Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Hasidism. The second major branch of Judaism is the liberal Reform branch which accounts for a majority of American Jews. Reform Judaism emphasizes the social justice element of the Hebrew prophets, understands the Torah to be much less authoritative than the Orthodox, and ordains female rabbis. They are very open to the results of modern science, embrace historical-critical studies of the Torah, and reject the literal expectation for a Messiah figure. The third major subset of contemporary Judaism is the Conservative branch, the moderate path of contemporary Judaism. They join the Reform branch in their openness to modern thought and the ordination of female rabbis, but their observance of the law (which respects both the ethical and ritual as halakha) is closer to the Orthodox branch. Beyond these three major branches are many other versions of the Jewish religion, including mystical and more humanistic branches.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.1)

Amongst the world’s major enduring religions, Judaism is easily the smallest with only 14 million adherents worldwide. At the same time, they are unquestionably one of the most important influences in the history of Western culture. Historian Thomas Cahill boldly proclaims that in the West, “The Jews started it all…without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.” It has also been frequently noted that some of the most significant figures in the West have been Jewish: Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Mel Brooks, and Stephen Spielberg. In North America alone, Jews have a huge influence in politics and business that far outweighs their numbers, which makes up less than 2% of the overall population. What is often underappreciated (especially by Christians), is how Judaism provided much of the theological tools for the development of both Christianity and Islam – the world’s two largest religions. One may justifiably ask: where would the world be without the many “gifts of the Jews?” As a Christian who has been fortunate enough to be brought up with a partial understanding of the invaluable contributions of Judaism, I have always felt a strong sense of reverence for this faith, but also a sense of shame for the way in which my religious ancestors have treated them. With this in mind, I will explain my understanding of Judaism as both an ethnicity and a religion, as well as highlighting how I believe Judaism contributes to and challenges my own Christian context.

In the academic study of religion, few traditions are as difficult to categorize as Judaism. The complex relationship between ethnicity and religion in Judaism is usually considered to be the first major challenge in understanding this great faith. Throughout most of their history, ethnicity and religion in Judaism were essentially inseparable from one another. However, as religion scholar Catherine Albanese explains, post-Enlightenment modernity brought about a division between “Jewishness, an ethnic and cultural identity, from Judaism, a religion.” This is not to imply that Judaism was one monolithic entity until modernity – indeed, there have always been many Judaisms – but that with the arrival of modernity, the question of who qualifies as a Jew was significantly heightened. This question only became more challenging to answer with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which highlighted a third category of nationality in Jewish identity that had been minimized for centuries. The state of Israel has even gotten involved in the debate over who is technically Jewish by siding with the Orthodox branch of the faith. It can be observed that in every period of Jewish history, ethnicity, religion, and nationality provide the basic ingredients for Jewish identity. It must therefore be recognized that what Judaism means in a given context depends greatly on the order of priority given to these three ingredients.

An important question one must ask in regards to these three ingredients is what is meant by Jewish ethnicity when there seems to be such ethnic diversity amongst Jews. While distinct Jewish ethnic groups certainly exist in the sense of common ancestry (Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, African Jews, etc.), some scholars argue that Jewish ethnic identity should be focused more on a shared sense of community. Community life is reinforced through rituals and holidays for the observant, while the long history of Jewish suffering and oppression has developed an even wider umbrella to unite the Jewish community, both observant and unobservant. Tragic events such as the pogroms in medieval times, and especially the Holocaust of the 20th century, have promoted an important sense of Jewish community, particularly in the present context. In addition to a shared memory of the Holocaust, the majority of modern Jews unite around the state of Israel, further reinforcing a sense of Jewish communal identity.

Jews sometimes seem to share common patterns of living that distinguish them as a unique community – but is this just a stereotype or is it verifiable data? Some sociologists have pointed out that Jews often live together in neighborhoods and frequently share particular kinds of occupations. But even this observation does not do justice to the incredible diversity of the Jewish community. As Jacob Neusner argues, Jews “do not share a common set of ethnic or social or economic or political traits…” So who is a Jew then? On this issue, there seem to be as many opinions as there are Jews. Perhaps all the impartial observer can say is that a Jew is whoever claims to be one, and at least in the contemporary context, this also generally involves a great concern for the memory of the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Whatever brings this diverse group of people together under one big tent, it seems clear that this varies throughout history. While religion may have been at the center of Jewish identity for most of their history, it is certainly not the most important ingredient today. Within the contemporary context from a scholarly perspective, it may be stated that while not all ethnic Jews are religious Jews, all religious Jews are automatically considered ethnic Jews (when ethnicity is broadly understood as communal identity).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Irenaeus against Gnosticism

The first four centuries of Christianity were filled with heated debates about how to think of Jesus’ relationship to God. Although the most important of these Christological debates occurred in the 4th and 5th centuries at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, many earlier controversies led up to these more decisive councils. Perhaps the most well known of these controversies occurred in the 2nd century when various Gnostic sects began challenging the teachings of the proto-orthodox Christian church. Most of these Gnostics held to a Docetic Christology, which denies the humanity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection. The influential Bishop Irenaeus saw the inherent danger that these ideas posed to the Christian church and wrote a series of books called “Against Heresies” that challenged the entire Gnostic system of belief. Of particular interest to Irenaeus was to refute Gnostic Docetism and assert a doctrine of the Incarnation grounded in an understanding of recapitulation – the “summing up” or “making new” of creation through Jesus. With the doctrine of recapitulation, Irenaeus embraces the entire Old Testament by tying the Incarnation to the narrative history of Israel. Unlike the competing Greek-influenced Gnostic ideas, recapitulation is in impressive continuity with the creation-affirming covenantal Judaism of Jesus and therefore maintains a strong sense of ethical grounding for present material existence.

Irenaeus initially hints at his formulation of recapitulation in the first book of “Against Heresies.” This explanation comes in 10.1 as he is unpacking the orthodox faith that he argues was given to the apostles by Jesus himself and accurately passed down to the bishops. He asserts that the Holy Spirit inspired the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament to predict not only the first coming of Jesus, but his second coming in order “…to ‘recapitulate all things’ (Eph. 1.10) and raise up all flesh of the human race.” While this orthodox understanding of the still-future and complete recapitulation of all things in Jesus explicitly affirms the value of physical flesh, the Docetic Christology of the Gnostics implicitly denies the value of physical flesh by claiming that Jesus only appeared to be physical, and therefore the “resurrection” is only a metaphor for attainment of spiritual Gnosis. Irenaeus thus explains that the Gnostics believe that “the prison is the body”, and some of them go so far as to assert that in order for the soul to permanently escape into eternal bliss, they must not only learn secret Gnosis, but they must also live in every possible way. Indeed, Irenaeus charges these Gnostics with relativism when he claims, “Good and evil, they say, are merely matters of opinion.”

The finer details of the doctrine of recapitulation begin to come into focus in the third book of “Against Heresies” when Irenaeus somewhat creatively relates it to God’s covenants with Israel. While the apostle Paul understood Jesus fulfilling a single older covenant that God made with Israel, Irenaeus sees Jesus as fulfilling three other historical covenants made with Adam, Noah, and Moses. Although this interpretation is motivated by a polemic against the Gnostic gospels, the theological point is clear: the Incarnation in some way climatically summarizes and completes the previous covenants, thereby uniting creation with God. If God’s purposes were truly progressively working themselves out through the nation of Israel, then Jesus, who was believed to have been predicted all throughout the Old Testament, is the one who brings God’s covenantal purposes to completion. This covenantal interpretation of Jesus shows Irenaeus’ commitment to retaining continuity with the creation-affirming Judaism of Jesus. On the Gnostic reading of the Old Testament, they often assert that a lesser god speaks through the patriarchs and prophets rather than the one true God. The higher, more powerful God is not involved in history for the Gnostics, and an imperfect lower god created the world. Christ came into the world in order to save humanity from ignorance through the impartation of secret Gnosis. As Irenaeus forcefully argues, this reading of the Old Testament is both selective in its scope and degrading to material existence.

As he slowly becomes more explicit about his doctrine of Incarnation in book three, Irenaeus first critiques the Gnostics by showing how they fragment Jesus into separate emanated substances: Christ, Only-Begotten, Word, and Savior. For the Gnostics then, Jesus is ultimately only divine and only appeared to be physical. This Gnostic “Christ from above” will not suffice for Irenaeus, so he attempts to make the case for a more earthy Jesus, calling him “Emmanuel who is from the Virgin, who ate butter and honey” and adding that “Paul knew no Christ but the one who suffered and was buried and rose again, who was born, whom he called ‘man’.” For Irenaeus, Jesus was both God and human, and to subtract from either of these would eliminate the power of the intermingling of the divine and physical substances. Although the later church councils would eventually clarify the philosophical categories, it seems clear that for Irenaeus all things in heaven and earth are recapitulated by the intermingling of divine and physical substances in the person of Jesus.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (BIBLIOGRAPHY)

The posts took up 5 parts, so scroll through the last week to find parts 1-5. I can't get my footnotes to show on the blog, but here is my bibliography.

Allison, Dale C. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Fortress, 1998.

Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus. New York: T&T Clark, 2005.

Allison, Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

Bokser, Ben Zion. The Jewish Mystical Tradition. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1993.

Borg, Marcus and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York:
HarperOne, 1999.

Collins, Adela Yarbro and John J. Collins. King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine,
Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,

Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination. New York: The Crossroad Publishing
Company, 1984.

Dunn, James D.G. The Evidence For Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Interrupted. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Meir, John P. A Marginal Jew, Vol. II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles. New York:
Double Day, 1994.

Miller, Robert J. The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2001.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press,

Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. UK: Fortress Press, 1985.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1973.

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 5)

In agreement with Marcus Borg, Jesus was an inspired wisdom teacher and social prophet, and not all he said and did should be discounted as apocalyptic angst. He was a compassionate friend of the poor and outcast, a moral genius, as well as a subversive enemy of empire. He insisted that the kingdom was now partially present in his ministry – but he was not intent on establishing a utopian society. He believed that only God could truly bend the world back to justice. To prepare for the coming fullness of the future kingdom, Jesus was not only calling for repentance, but he was teaching subversive strategies to his community for resisting exploitative economics and Roman imperialism through nonviolent means that would avoid needlessly bringing down Rome's wrath. His motivation was the coming kingdom of God, and he hoped that by promoting subversive survival tactics his community could get the word out more effectively in the short time they had left. Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way one hopes.

If taken to be historical, Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” may have been a real cry of anguish that came when he realized that the imminent arrival of the kingdom would not come before his death. He died in confusion, and the disciples were left to figure out what to do next. After Jesus’ followers came to believe that God had raised him from the dead ahead of the general resurrection, they reinterpreted the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. Jesus, having been raised from the dead as the first fruits of the eschaton’s general resurrection, must be much more than the future Messiah of the age to come – he must also be the angelic Son of Man. Jesus was now up in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, preparing to return within a generation to usher in the kingdom and judge the world. The end had already begun, and the disciples believed they were entrusted with the job of spreading Jesus’ message in the last days before he returned on the clouds of heaven.

In the end, the mystical Jesus is the apocalyptic Jesus. His proclamation that the end was not only near, but that it would come within a generation was obviously off by at least two thousand years. Even so, his apocalypticism was a powerful framework provided by his religion at the time to express a legitimate dissatisfaction with the cruel injustices of human life. If read mythologically like Genesis 1-3, the eschatology of Jesus still has transcendent power. It forces many of us to hope, along with Jesus, that his intuitions were basically right: there is something more beyond ordinary existence, and that it ultimately bends toward justice. To affirm the resurrection is to affirm that Jesus was ultimately right about the justice of God, even if his timeframe was off and his vision of how justice would be enacted required ancient Jewish mythology to express. To affirm the incarnation is (at minimum) to affirm that Jesus is the ultimate moral exemplar, the ultimate revelation of God in a human life. To affirm ourselves as followers of this 1st century Jewish man is to align ourselves with his cause, adopt his hope, and live out the radically subversive kingdom of God in the present. Jesus passionately protested against the evil he saw in the world and proclaimed that liberation was at hand from the evil of empire and death itself – the ultimate injustice that the resurrection dealt a devastating blow to. Like many before and many since, Jesus responded to the problem of evil in the best way he knew how, and his deep longing for radical justice is something we all should deeply resonate with. Dale Allison affirms the hope of cosmic liberation as he writes, “…Jesus had it right: he so thirsted for justice on such a grand scale that he had to embrace his tradition’s belief in the transcendence of history and death. He may have been mistaken, but he wasn’t wrong.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 4)

Aside from a vast amount of evidence in the synoptics, E.P. Sanders argues that Jesus should be seen as an apocalypticist for three primary reasons. First, Jesus predicted the imminent destruction and replacement of the temple by God. This notion is clearly derived from apocalyptic literature. Second, Jesus significantly chose twelve disciples as future leaders over the restored twelve tribes of Israel. This is in apocalyptic literature as well, and a later Jewish messiah named Sabbatai Sevi does a similar thing, choosing twelve rabbinic scholars as leaders over a future restored Israel. Lastly, Jesus was mentored by John the Baptist and immediately followed by the early Christians like Peter and Paul, all of whom were Jewish apocalypticists.

It is a stretch of the imagination to believe that Jesus did not share the worldview of his mentor John and his later followers whom he had taught. Still, many scholars attempt to deconstruct the apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who are otherwise quite brilliant scholars, have been the most persistent in this deconstruction. Their solution is to essentially cut out large portions of the synoptics, claim that they are the product of later Christian imagination, and thereby forge a more convenient non-apocalyptic Jesus. Unfortunately, this solution beggars belief and seems to be a misuse of historical critical methods.

Another solution comes from scholars like N.T. Wright, who try to make the case that apocalyptic language is primarily metaphorical. Wright would even have us believe that Jesus was actually predicting the destruction of the temple in 70CE in the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic as other modern scholars including Ehrman, Allison, Fredriksen, and Sanders all convincingly insist. Allison explains, “Most eschatological language…has a literal referent…and a symbolic dimension…when the Jesus tradition envisions the Son of man coming on the clouds or foretells the general resurrection, we should…think of the redeemer literally flying upon the clouds and of the redeemed literally coming forth from their graves – and also of all that those events represent – the vindication of Jesus, the triumph of believers, the judgment of the wicked, the fulfillment of prophecy…That many Jews took their eschatology more or less literally seemingly follows from their struggles with unfulfilled prophecy.”

Some scholars will always resist and reinterpret, but the best evidence seems to continue to point toward an apocalyptic Jesus who believed he had been called by God to spread the gospel of imminent liberation for those on the bottom of society and the warning of judgment to those on top. God was literally about to overthrow the forces of evil, raise the dead, send the Son of Man to judge the world, replace the temple, and rule his eternal kingdom through the Messiah Jesus as earthly king, and the twelve disciples as rulers over the tribes of Israel.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 3)

Scholars have vigorously debated the eschatology of Jesus since Schweitzer threw down the apocalyptic gauntlet. One of the most prominent modern defenders of Schweitzer’s basic apocalyptic theory is Bart Ehrman, who explains it as follows: “Jews who subscribed to this worldview maintained that God had revealed to them the future course of events, in which he was soon to overthrow the forces of evil and establish his Kingdom.” Against the claims of Marcus Borg, Jesus seems to have interpreted his mystical experiences as revelatory prophetic knowledge of the eschaton, not just as sacred ecstasy. Sidney Spencer’s explanation of prophetic mysticism seems to fit Jewish apocalypticists: “…if the prophet’s union with the divine is a functional union, if (as he believes) he is made one with God as his messenger for a particular end, his experience has nonetheless an essentially mystical quality.” Though they may not fit traditional Jewish mystical categories, apocalyptic prophets like Jesus are nonetheless Jewish mystics.

Jewish apocalypticism came into existence only about 150 years before Jesus. Apocalyptic theology is distinctly Jewish, and was derived from contemporary sacred and popular texts of the time. The Hebrew Bible supplied the notion of God’s kingly rule, with the book of Daniel supplying apocalyptic imagery, such as bodily resurrection, an eschatological judge (“Son of Man”), and cosmic dualism. Other apocalyptic literature, such as 1 Enoch and the Temple Scroll present the notions of a supernatural Messiah (by equating him with the Son of Man), placing one’s faith in the Messiah, and the imminent destruction and replacement of the temple. The Testament of Moses and the Psalms of Solomon reveal beliefs in catastrophes leading up to the eschaton, permanent reversals of fortunes, a final defeat of the Devil, and God’s re-establishment of the tribes of Israel in an eternal earthly kingdom through a Messiah. Along with Jesus, other ancient Jews such as Theudus, The Egyptian, Jesus son of Ananias, and John the Baptist all formulated a common apocalyptic theology derived from the available Jewish literature. They all preached repentance in the face of imminent catastrophe, judgment, and cosmic restoration. In the words of Jesus, "…there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” and similarly, “this generation shall not pass away until all is fulfilled.” Jesus believed the kingdom was just around the corner, and that individuals either stood with God or the Devil.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 2)

Important for a plausible historical reconstruction of the mystical Jesus is his immediate Jewish context. Geza Vermes attempted to keep the mystical Jesus in context by pointing out the tradition of charismatic Judaism in the first-century. Like Jesus, charismatic Jews (Hasidim) were known for their performance of healings and exorcisms. This is historically quite certain according to Vermes, and we should interpret the Hasidim in mystical terms: “That a distinctive trend of charismatic Judaism existed during the last couple of centuries of the Second Temple is undeniable…their supernatural powers were attributed to their immediate relation to God.”

According to Vermes, other roughly contemporary charismatic Galilean Jews such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina Ben Dosa were known for healings and exorcisms. The problem with this parallel is that our sources for both figures are much later than our sources for Jesus – in the case of Honi, they are written in the Mishna some 200 years after he lived. John Meir suggests that the most we can say about Honi and Hanina is that they were Jews living around the time of Jesus who were known for having their prayers answered in astonishing ways. Meir also argues that the nature of their recorded miracles is different than that of Jesus’ miracles, and whether they were Galilean is highly questionable. On the other hand, Josephus wrote a first-century eyewitness account of a famous Jewish exorcist named Eleazar, offering some support to Vermes’ intuitions. Still, what we have are historical parallels for Jewish wonderworkers in the time of Jesus, not a precise fit with charismatic Judaism.

There is something more distinctive in the synoptic portrayal of Jesus, without perfect parallel in contemporary pagan or Jewish literature. Meir claims that Jesus was not just another Jewish wonderworker on good terms with God, but also a “preacher and teller of parables…an authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality…[and] a proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God.” That the message of Jesus was eschatological should not be minimized, for it has great explanatory power for other aspects of his life and teachings, such as his miracles and exorcisms.

E.P. Sanders notes that the synoptics all portray the significance of the miracles and exorcisms as pointing toward the ‘age to come’, that God had literally begun his battle with evil in the miracles of Jesus. Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles seem to be oriented in this way, though his disciples are portrayed as unconvinced until they had come to believe in his resurrection. Ultimately, Jesus’ miracles mainly stood out as peculiar from other Jewish wonderworkers because of how he interpreted them himself. Jesus was motivated not just by compassion for those he was healing, but by his eschatological convictions. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus’ eschatological convictions can be accurately framed by Jewish apocalypticism.

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet

Here I will begin a series of posts of my short essay on the apocalyptic Jesus. I think I will break the posts into four or five parts. Enjoy, think, and decide for yourself whether I am right or not. These issues are far from conclusive, although many scholars side with the basic views about to be expressed in this series. The apocalyptic view is not popular in the pew, but I feel that it is the most honest historical analysis of Jesus.

Whether you are liberal or conservative, I highly recommend reading Marcus Borg and NT Wright's book "The Meaning of Jesus" for two different views than what I will be expressing here. While I deeply appreciate both of these fine scholars, I am less convinced by their views on the eschatology of Jesus anymore. Both take the evidence of the text further than it should be allowed to go (I will address this in a final post later). To my scholarly friends, this is not a comprehensive treatment of the difficult issues at play here. It is meant as a very brief overview of an enormous topic. I will post a bibliography soon enough, although the footnotes will not be included in this post.


The quest for the historical Jesus is one of the great fascinations of our time. Most forcefully beginning with Albert Schweitzer around the turn of the 19th century, the quest has now taken dozens of different turns. Within all of the different theories of the historical Jesus set fourth – whether rabbi, Cynic, sage, or prophet – there are two qualities that seem to run through all but the most skeptical portrayals of him: first, Jesus was a second-temple Palestinian Jew from Galilee; second, he had immediate experiences of the divine that shaped his life. As such, the Jesus of history is at least in some sense participating within the broader tradition of mystical Judaism – but how did he interpret his mystical experiences for his life and mission? Recent scholarly analyses of history, as well as Jewish and Christian texts have yielded possible answers to this question.

Scholar Marcus Borg has helpfully outlined five aspects of Jesus’ identity: healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, movement founder, and Spirit person. The first four of these categories are self-explanatory, while “Spirit person” implies that Jesus was a mystic. According to Borg, “Jesus was one for whom God was an experiential reality…[his] experience of God was foundational for the rest of what he was.” This is illustrated by Jesus’ dramatic mystical experiences in Mark 1:10-13: “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” Here we have a mystical vision and then a traditional vision quest, both of which are seen as the events where Jesus received his divine calling. Additionally, Mark highlights Jesus continually being “led by the Spirit.” In short, we get a strong historical impression of a mystical Jesus, guided in thought and action by the Spirit.