Eat This Book

Eugene Peterson is convinced that the “way” we read the Bible is as important as “that” we read the Bible. In Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, he argues that “Christians are to absorb, imbibe, feed on and digest Scripture.” A translator of Scripture himself, Peterson recommends a type of Bible-based prayer called lectio divina, in which the person praying meditates on a short passage of Scripture and listens for God to speak through the text, arguing throughout that the lectio divina is not a systematic way of reading, but a “developed habit of living the text in Jesus’ name.”

Because the lectio has been around for so long, there are many, like Peterson, who can explain it better than I. The next three paragraphs come from “Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear ‘with the ear of our hearts’ as St. Benedict called it. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the ‘faint murmuring sound’ which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an ‘attunement’ to the presence of God in that special part of God’s creation which is the Scriptures.

The cry of the prophets to ancient Israel was the joy-filled command to ‘Listen!’ ‘Sh’ma Israel: Hear, O Israel!’ In lectio divina we, too, heed that command and turn to the Scriptures, knowing that we must ‘hear’ – listen – to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly. In order to hear someone speaking softly we must learn to be silent. We must learn to love silence. If we are constantly speaking or if we are surrounded with noise, we cannot hear gentle sounds. The practice of lectio divina, therefore, requires that we first quiet down in order to hear God’s word to us. This is the first step of lectio divina, appropriately called lectio – reading.

The reading or listening which is the first step in lectio divina is very different from the speed reading which modern Christians apply to newspapers, books and even to the Bible. Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe. We are listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally – not loudly, but intimately. In lectio we read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God’s word for us this day.

My first exposure to the lectio came from a book titled Too Deep For Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina. Through written in 1988, this book is still in print and is available for $9.00 from Amazon. The most valuable part of this book is Part 2: “Fifty Scripture Themes For Prayer,” with a total of 500 verses on which to practice lectio divina.

These two books and the essay (linked above) are excellent companions to the new ELCA “Book of Faith” initiative. This program, developed because of a proposal by the NC Synod, is adding resources weekly. There are study guides, videos, documents, assessment tools and more.

The Book of Faith initiative “invites this whole church to become fluent in the first language of faith – the language of Scripture; and to be renewed for lives of witness and service as the Holy Spirit engages us.” I can think of no better way to do this than by: “Opening the Book of Faith”, and “Dwelling in the Word” with the lectio divina.

A Legacy of Faith

legacy of faith coverI was just handed a copy of this book by my pastor, who won’t have time to read it until after Lent. Apparently Rick Hathaway lives somewhere near me, and he came by the church and gave the pastor a copy. I’ve skimmed it and read the first two chapter just now at lunch, and it is one of those right-books-that-fell-into- my-hands-just-when-I-needed-to-read-it kind of moments.

I’ve been struggling with the concept of blessings. I’ve been praying that God make me able to be trusted with good things. Life has been a real struggle the past couple of years, not least of all on the financial front, and this book is a much needed tonic that takes “a fresh look at blessing.”

I am not and have not been looking for abundance, only “provision and preservation” (31), and I have been struggling with the theology of providence for some time. This book isn’t so much about that as it is a reworking of the concept of blessings, contra Jabez, I suppose, but he has yet to mention that particular book, and also morality, self-esteem and mentorship.

Of late I have also been praying that God’s grace be sufficient to me (2 Cor 12:9) and today’s reading in Streams in the Desert is on just that. The devotion comes from someone who had just been saying the same prayer when it it him:

In one moment the message came straight to my soul, as a rebuke for offering such a prayer as, “Lord, let Thy grace be sufficient for me”; for the answer was almost as an audible voice, “How dare you ask that which is?” God cannot make it any more sufficient than He has made it; get up and believe it, and you will find it true, because the Lord says it in the simplest way: “My grace is (not shall be or may be) sufficient for thee.”

Legacy of Faith came right on the heels of that reading today.

[more later, saved for now, back to work]

The Worlds Of Christopher Columbus

There are few historical figures as controversial as Christopher Columbus. If public debate since the five hundredth anniversary of his first voyage is an accurate indication, how one sees Columbus is not a matter of historical analysis but rather one’s personal political views.

It is already difficult enough to piece together the details of Columbus’ life given his lost original journal, the biases of early biographers, and the absence of documents, but when you interject contemporary political posturing into the historical debate, it becomes impossible. One side wants to blame Columbus for all the horrors of the modern world, and the other side wants to give Columbus the credit for all of the advances of the modern world.

Was Columbus a hero or a villain? One can not even begin to answer that question without an understanding of Columbus’ historical period. That is probably why William and Carla Phillips title their book The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. It is as much a biography of an age as it is of a man with Columbus being really just a case study of the age.

The Phillips never come out and directly answer the question as to Columbus’ status as a hero or villain. However, after reading the book, one gets the sense that if they were asked directly they would reply that he was neither; he was human with both strengths and weaknesses, and as such he was neither a mythic hero nor an evil villain.

Columbus had perseverance, but he was stubborn. Unlike the mythic Columbus the human Columbus was not the first to conceive of reaching the East from the West, nor was he the only one to believe the Earth was round- most people did. However, as the Phillips write he “was the first, not to conceive the plan, but to persevere until he found backing for it” (p.104).

Perseverance in Columbus sometimes went too far, though, and it turned into stubbornness. This hurt him at times and was almost fatal at others. For example, Columbus was convinced that Asia was closer than it was. Even when more educated geographers disagreed, he stubbornly refused to change his view; this could have been fatal. If there had been no land between Europe and Asia, Columbus and his crew would have died. It was his error that inspired him to proceed with his plan (p.100).

This error also demonstrates another of Columbus’ flaws- his lack of judgment. This lack of judgment shows itself in several ways. One example was when Columbus was faced with the rebellion led by Roldan. In settling with Roldan, Columbus granted the labor services of chiefs to his men. This far exceeded his authority to grant land grants according to merit (p.223).

This is also connected to Columbus’ lack of judgment with slavery. He consistently displeased the crown by taking slaves or proposing to take them and sell them. This contributed to his fall from grace as it angered Queen Isabella (p. 239).

Columbus may have lacked judgment at times, but the other side of that coin is he was intelligent. He was not intelligent like Thomas Jefferson, though, more like Abraham Lincoln in that he learned what he needed to know in order to do what he dreamed of doing. Psychologists today recognize several different types of intelligence: abstract, rhythmic, artistic, mechanical, physical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. It seems that Columbus was at least intelligent mechanically, physically, and interpersonally.

That he had interpersonal intelligence leads directly to another pair of Columbus’ traits; he was a good salesman but overly ambitious. That he was a good salesman seems obvious. He convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to back him and to continue to back him. He was also able to convince many ordinary men (not fleeing criminals) to sail with him, and he was able to sell the idea of developing the New World, although not always honestly, but more on that later.

Also the way he used the eclipse to gain the cooperation of the Jamaicans can best be described by a word associated with salesmen (and politicians if there is a difference), and that is slick. On the other hand he hungered for wealth and status. The Phillips suggest it was this drive that prevented him from writing about his early life as his family was of humble origin (p.87). It also kept him from marrying Beatriz and thereby legitimizing his son Hernando.

It was this drive that acted as a catalyst for one of Columbus’ most serious flaws- his deceitfulness, of himself and others. He constantly mislead the crown as to the resources and profitability of the New World. The Phillips describe one of his letters as “a tissue of exaggerations, misconceptions, and outright lies” (p. 185). He played up all the good and downplayed the bad (accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative as the old Johnny Mercer song goes).

He used evidence to suit his purposes, and if there was no evidence, he made it up. It was this deceit combined with his ambition that caused him to set up unfulfillable expectations that eventually caused him a great deal of trouble.

The Phillips’ view of Columbus can be summed up by saying that Columbus was a good sailor (sailsman if you will pardon the pun) but a terrible administrator. All of the traits that made him a good explorer (perseverance, intelligence, salesmanship, optimism, and religious belief) made him a bad administrator (poor judgment, stubborn, egotistical, deceitful and ambitious).

The Phillips write that “when reality intervened, Columbus needed the practical skills of a manager and administrator; not only did he lack those skills, but he seemed to lack the temperament to develop them” (p.186). They also, after giving a list of Columbus’ strengths, write that “Columbus was always more interested in continued exploration than in the humdrum satisfactions of careful administration, and the new tasks constituted a challenge that he was unwilling or unable to meet”(p.194).

The Phillips’ account of Columbus is not like most of the information I have read about him. They do not try to use historical evidence to shore up their own ideological view. Instead they try to see Columbus and his times as clearly as possible as he and they really were.

It is hard to disagree with them. I found it interesting that while they discussed slavery and disease they only discussed it as it occurred at a particular time without trying to make any broad generalizations about it. Why? Because it is pointless and misguided.

No one can take the blame or the credit for all that has been laid at Columbus’ feet, and rather than credit or blame one man, it is much more interesting and exciting to try to see the big picture of the times and how so many advances seemed to converge at the same time to facilitate Columbus’ voyages. It’s like trying to put together a difficult jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture.

If you accomplish the task of completing a historical jigsaw puzzle, it’s much more rewarding and information yielding than just asserting a position because it supports your personal political agenda. The Phillips put together a good puzzle, and I think they hit the nail on the head.

Columbus was like most people. He had strengths and weaknesses, and when he was doing a job that utilized his gifts he did a good job, but when he attempted to do the things he had no aptitude for, he failed miserably.

Sinning Against Our Brothers (Late Commentary on Da Vinci)

When I first heard about The Da Vinci Code, I said “That’s a straight-up rip-off of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”  It’s not a new idea or a very original one; it’s just plotted differently.  If you can’t succeed with “history” or literature (The Last Temptation of Christ) then pop culture is where you sow your seeds.  And the crop has been bumper, indeed!

At first, I thought that only people not very familiar with the Bible or Christian history and theology would be “troubled” by it, except for the honest and decent members of Opus Die, a very good organization, and the only reason I didn’t want to see the movie was that I want to financially support a movie that slanders my Lord and directly implies that the entire foundation of my faith–the Divinity of Christ and His death and resurrection– is a sham.  That’s still a good reason, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

It makes of it merely a personal financial decision without seeing the dimensions of knowledge formation or responsibility to my brothers and sisters in Christ.  In recent conversations with Christians who’ve seen the movie, when I related the above argument to them, they, and others have said the same in print, replied that it was merely fiction, a novel, and good entertainment at that, nothing more, nothing to kick up a fuss over.

And Mein Kampf was “just a book,” right?  Few things force me to sit down and think through my positions like the claim that entertainment is merely entertainment.  It’s not mere fiction.  Ideas have consequences, a concept few in the West believe anymore.  Memes  (( “a theoretical concept introduced in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, [which] refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice, idea or concept, which one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind” )) get generated, seeds get planted and harvest are sowed, either for God or the Enemy.

It’s not the Christian I worry about here (I’ll get to them below); it’s the non-Christian.  Imagine a kid growing up in a non-Christian home, daily inundated with the ideas presented incessantly that Christianity is either a sham or a force of evil in the world or both.  The ideas are planted day after day year after year and that person isn’t exposed to any alternative.  When he or she gets older, the beliefs are hardened into clichés requiring no thought.  A worker in God’s vineyard sows seeds, but they are immediately chocked out by weeds.

We all “know” things that aren’t so.  Just look at the urban legends in e-mails. The entire premise behind advertising is that it influences.  Last year a study conducted by the University of Connecticut and published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that there was a 1% increase in the number of drinks consumed per month for each additional alcohol advertisement seen by teens.

The Prevention Research Center tells us that “”Young people have well developed beliefs about alcohol, even before they have experience with drinking.  Although parents, peers, and other environmental influences are important in shaping these beliefs, and ultimately drinking behaviors, alcohol advertising may also be a source through which children and adolescents learn about alcohol.”

“Young people have well developed beliefs…before they have experience,” that quote is true and telling.  It’s why our Scripture commands us: “teach [God’s law] to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut 11:19) The “meme” that orthodox Christianity is both a sham and an evil is ubiquitous these days. Combine it with the belief in mere entertainment and the belief that ideas don’t have consequences and the result is toxic.

When little or no attention or credit is given to the positive role Christianity has played in the development of the institutions and practices of a free society, when what little is written (like Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadance) is read by few, and mostly by those who already agree, when ideas go unchallenged, when the topics of greatest concern are gas prices or access to cheap broadband, then the enemy slips in “like a thief in the night.”

If something as banal as advertising wields influence, how much more so does fiction?  Fiction has been used for centuries to powerfully convey serious ideas (“If you prick us will we not bleed?”).  In fact, for those who don’t believe, the Bible itself is considered fiction.  Consider Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found where he argues that Job is part of wisdom literature in the same vein as Shapespeare and Homer.

There’s a  Revlon ad showing the back of a topless woman in bed, being photographed by the man in her bed, with the voice-over saying, “If you convince her the pictures are only for your personal collection, you’re a Mitchum man.”   Is that “just a commercial” or is it demeaning to women because it presents them as mere sex objects to be manipulated and lied to for a man’s pleasure?  Is the rap song that chants “face down, @ up, that’s the way I like to f__k” just entertainment, or has the whole hip-hop culture contributed to the sexualization of our children?  Is Mapplethorpe’s “Piss Christ” just art?  Is “Debbie Does Everyone and His Brother and Sister” just a movie?

I have no animus here, but I can not now or ever accept the argument that something which presents thoughts, concepts, ideas, theories, opinions, beliefs, practices, and moods is just entertainment.

The Eight would have made a better movie.  It was a better book.  The reason The Da Vinci Code was made into a movie was it had an easily recognizable and ready to use “controversy” to generate sales.  I am disappointed that so many people protesting the movie do not see that they are being used.  Hollywood loves a good controversy, making money by manipulating people go see it just to check out what all the fuss is about, but I also respect those challenging the movie for drawing a line and standing athwart cultural trends and yelling “Stop!”

Many of them  have presented thoughtful, well-reasoned challenges to The Da Vinci Code.  I think they’re worth reading, especially if you think that ideas are not at stake here.  In contrast, on the movies side you have unreflective, trite, voices like Ron Howard’s, who pulled out the classic cliche: “If they don’t want to see it, don’t go.”

Let me try that argument on a few other propositions.  If you don’t like smoking in a restaurant, don’t go to that restaurant.  There are others.  If you don’t like the fact that this business will not sell to blacks, don’t shop there.  There are other places.  Let the market work it out.  If you believe the ideas matter then you can’t just shrug it off and ignore it.

I don’t believe in banning (“All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful”), but I do believe in boycotts.  The protest of Da Vinci is illuminating in the wake of the violent reactions by Muslims to the Dutch cartoonist last year.  One again, as from earliest times, Christians are using peaceful, civic means to protest something that is way more demeaning to Christ then those cartoons were to Mohammad.

What troubles me most is the lack of goodwill between Christians.  On the one hand you have the Ban Its (BIs), and on the other hand the It’s Just Entertainmenters (IJEs).  In the media the IJEs are acting as if the BIs are just illiterate, fundamentalist, uncultured bumpkins.

Paul’s teaching on food offered to idols is very analogous here.  We are free to eat what we want, but if it offends our brother we are to abstain, lest we cause our brother to stumble.  (1 Cor 8, and 10:23-33).  If the consciences of literally tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters worldwide are offended by this movie, I will not be a source of their stumbling.  Rather than being united in Christian teachings about relationship even when we disagree about theology, we present a fractured and fragmented face to the world.

I humbly and sincerely think that if this particular entertainment is a stumbling block to so many in our Body, that we should be united against it for that reason; instead, most of those who disagree with them unite with the secularist.

Of Mice and Men: The Death of the American Dream

Steinbeck was a Depression novelist, and he saw it as his duty to “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it.”   He does so in Of Mice and Men  which portrays the corruption of the American dream during the 1930’s.

I have always thought Steinbeck tried to portray the American Dream simply as having something one could call one’s own, especially land.  In talking to Candy, in the book, Crooks says, “Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much.  Jus’ som’thin’ that was his.  Som’thin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it.”

One can see this Dream thought out American literature.  Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s term ‘property’ for the phrase “Pursuit of happiness” is an early example.  Jefferson broadened Locke’s idea, but Jefferson once wrote that land “is the focus in which [people] keep alive that sacred fire which otherwise might expire from the face of the Earth.”  He was an agrarian who saw people who owned and labored on their own land as God’s chosen people.

One can trace this dream forward to Thoreau.  Although he did not own Walden Pond he went there for two years to live off the land.  The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau all believed the Oversoul linked men to nature.  Property has always been seen as a sacred right in American history and it is encoded into the Constitution.

It is this same dream that is held by Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men.  It becomes the dream of everyone they tell.  When George and Lenny were talking about their dream place “Old Candy turned slowly over.  His eyes wide open.”  Candy’s dog had just been shot and he was upset, but when George dreamed out loud Candy wanted a part of it, if only vicariously through their eyes.

They all just wanted to have their “own place where [they] belonged.”  Crooks tells them that “If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing- just his keep, why I’d come an lend a hand.”

In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck shows how this dream was corrupted and destroyed by the Great Depression.  It was during the Depression that America ran out of land.  Franklin Roosevelt wrote regarding an earlier mild depression that “Traditionally, when a depression came a new section of land was opened up in the West and even our temporary misfortune served our Manifest destiny.  At the very worst there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving West.”

This was no longer possible because all the land was opened up and settled.  Jefferson, as early as 1795 predicted that Americans would eventually run out of land and have to come up with other means of making a living.

America had been spoiled by prosperity.   Walt Whitman wrote that “Long, to long America, Travelling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only.”  He recognized that America would not always prosper.  Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, described American economic life at the turn of the century as a carriage.  This carriage was pulled by the mass of humanity, driven by hunger, and the wealthy few rode on top.

Jefferson again sounds prophetic when he wrote that manufacturers (later industrialists) were “panders of vice , and the instrument by which the liberties of a country are overturned.”  All this isn’t to say that capitalism is bad, but people were being made industrial surfs at the same time the land was drying up, and they had to, as Jefferson said, because they had eat.

It was a high time for some, the Charlies, Lorraines and Duncans of Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” who rode drunk on tricycles in the streets and threw hundred dollar bills to band players, but when the stock market crashed all the personal wealth and corporations crashed and so did the nation’s economy.  Without land, the people forced into industrial work had no jobs, no money and no way to get “a little piece of land.”

Steinbeck portrays all of this in Of Mice and Men.  He portrays it by letting the dream come within the men’s grasp and then it gets destroyed.  Steinbeck writes “They fell into silence.  They looked at one another, amazed.  This thing they had never really believed in was coming true.”

Even Crooks who says “I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for land, but ever’ time a whore house or a blackjack game took what it takes” became convinced.  It was right there in their hands.

When Curly’s wife is found dead, the first concern of Candy and George is the dream.  Candy asks George if they can still get their place and George answers “I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.”

In a way when George shoots Lenny he is killing his dream and realizing that life will always be the way it is for men like him.  For Lenny the dream never died, but it was an illusion he couldn’t see.  Steinbeck seems to be saying that unless one can adapt to the reality that the American dream had become an illusion he will die like Lenny.

Becket; or For the Honor of God

There are some who believe that history is history and fiction is fiction and they should never mingle.  Those who think this way see no place for historical novels and movies, and they limit themselves by thinking this way.  Why?  Because good historical fiction can illuminate an age or a person in ways that are inaccessible to an historian who is strictly bound to historical evidence.  The movie “Becket” is one of the best examples of this argument.

Despite the fact that it sometimes distorts historical evidence (e.g. it makes Thomas Becket a Saxon), “Becket”, because it is fiction, can delve deeper into the possible nature of the rift between Henry II and Thomas Becket.  It seems clear, even from a brief study of the Becket affair, that Henry and Becket’s dispute was more personal in nature than one can find in the historical evidence.

This seems to be the case simply because the issues that Becket and Henry quarreled over had been argued over before, and would be argued over again throughout English history, without the drastic consequences that occurred on December 29, 1170.  But what were the personal elements to the Becket/Henry dispute?  Where historians can only speculate, the movie “Becket” asserts three motives: love, jealousy, and honor.

At first, Henry loves Becket like a brother, but the love becomes stained by jealousy and bitterness.  He is jealous that Becket can do everything from hunting to riding better than he can.  However, there is something much deeper here.  Henry is bitter that  Becket does not love him.

Oh, Becket is loyal to his duty, but duty without love is but a hollow shell of hypocrisy, and Henry knows this.  That is why he is always testing Becket’s devotion like the time he insists on taking Becket’s female friend, Gwendolyn, away from him.  (This is another example of fiction, but the movie uses it to make a point about Becket’s absence of any sense of honor prior to his appointment as Archbishop.)  Henry’s jealousy only increases when Gwendolyn commits suicide rather than stay with him.

As far as honor goes, Becket, in the movie, has none until he is appointed Archbishop.  His loyalty switches from the chancellery to the church as easily as a chameleon changes colors.  He also has no sense of honor when it comes to his friends (e.g. Gwendolyn mentioned above).  Also, and this is why the movie portrays Becket as Saxon, he has no sense of national honor.  He betrays his Saxon brothers by serving a Norman king, and this is why the Saxon monk tries to kill him in the movie.

When Becket finally does find his honor, Henry, his love almost completely replaced with jealousy, feels betrayed and becomes enraged.  To think that Becket finally found his honor and it was not the king’s honor but God’s is more than Henry can stand.  His jealousy and anger eventually take complete control; he subtly orders Becket killed; immediately his love reasserts itself; he repents, but it is to late.  Becket is murdered.

Love, jealousy, and honor, then, are the three personal reasons that the movie Becket offers to explain why the Becket controversy developed as it did.  It enhances this view by not going into any great detail with historical events such as the Constitutions of Clarendon or the criminious clergy.  To the movie these are just side issues- the context within which the personal drama is acted out.

In conclusion, by doing what historians can not do, that is, offering an  interpretation that is intuitive but not verifiable, “Becket,” adds to one’s understanding of a complex and fascinating period of history.