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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Anne Rice, Theologian

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. What?? you say. A book about Jesus by the author of Interview with the Vampire??? Yep, that's the Anne Rice. It seems she has returned to a long-abandoned Catholic faith, and with a vengeance. The book is well-researched and (mostly) historically accurate; I enjoyed it a lot.

The story starts, as you could deduce from the title, in Egypt where Jesus' family has fled from murderous King Herod. Jesus is I believe about eight years old, and a series of events prompt his family to move back to Nazareth. At the beginning of the story Jesus has no idea who He is or what His mission might be; he discovers and realizes it during the course of the story. Which leads to the interesting question that is central to the novel: when did Jesus figure out His true origin? Obviously infants don't have that kind of knowledge, and the Bible says that Christ "made Himself nothing and took on the nature of a servant" (my off-the-cuff paraphrase). So assuming He did not know He was the Messiah all His life, when and how did He find out?

Anne Rice did a TON of historical research for this novel. She read the canonical Bible, noncanonical books, and some that are kind of in between (such as the book of Tobit, a story from which is actually told in one scene; it is considered part of the Scripture in some but not all modern churches, but it was present in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use in Jesus' day). She found some stories from noncanonical works so fascinating that she included them in the novel; part of what prompts Mary and Joseph to move back to Nazareth is the fact that the child Jesus has "accidentally" been performing miracles, such as making a bird out of clay and then bringing it to life and killing a playmate with His words and then raising him from the dead (these events occur in the Gospel of Thomas, and the clay bird incident is also recorded in the Koran). There are some real Catholic influences, too, sometimes at the expense of common sense; Mary is presented as a virgin for her whole life except for Jesus' birth (she and Joseph never have intercourse ever, even after Jesus is born) so an elaborate backstory about the brothers and sisters of Jesus is constructed (James is a half-brother from Joseph's hypothetical previous marriage, and other "brothers and sisters" are actually cousins taken in after their parents' death). The wildest deviation from probable historical accuracy is that in the novel, it actually snows... in Israel... at Christmas (to be fair, it is presented as a miracle). But other than those quibbles, the book does a good job at presenting the way things probably were in that time period, and also does a good job at fleshing out Jesus as a human person. The story is told from His viewpoint, and He tells us what He is thinking and feeling. He tells us when he cries, and when He wants to but does not because He is being brave (remember, in the book he's a little kid). I enjoyed wondering if that was maybe the kinds of things that really went through the child Jesus' mind as He went about his daily life as a kid in the Middle East.

Oddly, I noticed a couple of grammar errors that I found jarring from a book by such a celebrated author... in Chapter 13 there is a sentence that says that something happened to "James and I" (should be "James and me" in that construction), and there is a sentence that says that ladies were "selling vegetables from their gardens that they didn't need" (they don't need the gardens? Then why do they put in so much hard work on them?) But I found the book engrossing, thought-provoking, and very interesting. Give it a chance. I know it sounds weird, but if you remember that it is a fictionalized account it is a fun read.

By the way... if you have reservations about the author's reason for writing or qualifications for presenting the details of life in the Holy Land in that period, I recommend that you read the epilogue first. It gives a lot of detail about Anne's "reconversion" and research before writing the book. If you'd like the Cliff's Notes instead, take a look at this MSNBC article.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Son In Paul

The ESV translation of Galatians 1:15-16 reads:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone... [emphasis mine]
There is a footnote on the word "to" that the Greek actually says "in" me. Since I am still reading from The Evengelical Parallel New Testament, I was able to easily check a whole bunch of translations... and the NKJV, NIV, TNIV, and HCSV all say "in." Of all of the translations in the book (NLT and The Message are not what I consider reliable to look at as "translations") only the ESV and the NCV (which is supposed to be one of the more "dynamic" translations) said "to." I can only assume that the idea is that we don't want anyone to think that Christ was in Paul even before he was a believer and was only "revealed" in him later. Seems like the translators of the other versions didn't have too much trouble with that, though. I'd say if the Greek says "in" I'd like to read "in" and settle out any Theological difficulties myself. (Although I understand that articles in Greek are pretty vague, so maybe "to" is just as valid as "in" and the other translations were simply following the traditional rendering; I'm not a Greek scholar so I don't know for positive!)

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

I Am Free

(The director of the choir at my church sends out devos written by the choir members periodically. This is a slightly edited version of the one I wrote for them.)

I Am Free

I am free to run!
I am free to dance!
I am free to live for You!
I am free!
(Jon Egan)

[Jesus said,] "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mark 10:15 ESV)

Most of you were there the first Sunday morning we sang "I Am Free." When my wife Cathy and I are at sound check, we normally leave Mikey, who is six years old, out in the pews... he's old enough to hang loose and not wander around too much (especially if we remember to bring his Game Boy Advance!) That morning Robert's wife was out there too, with their little granddaughter who is about the same age, and the two kids were playing or talking or something out there. I'll never forget what happened when the band started playing the new song. Generally at early-morning sound check I'm feeling just a LITTLE bit draggy... but I'm not six years old! When the music started thumping and we started singing, the two kids started to JUMP!

I think they jumped the whole song! Of course most of us in the choir noticed and were looking at them, mostly because it was just so cute. I was enjoying seeing them excited too, but my first inclination was to kind of discount their performance as just playing around. "They're just kids, after all," I thought. "They're not jumping because of the freedom they have in Christ... they're jumping because the music is loud and it's fun to jump. They're not really worshipping God."

In the Scripture verses just before the one I quoted above, it tells the familiar story about children wanting to come touch Jesus and His disciples trying to shoo them off. My ESV says that Jesus became "indignant." Mikey's NIrV translation says that Jesus was ANGRY! I think Jesus was also a little "indignant" that Sunday morning at my snotty judgment of the two kids' jumping, too, because the Holy Spirit instantly reminded me that Jesus said we are to come to Him as a little child. Right in front of me I was seeing an example of how a little child comes; they don't understand everything all the time, but they are always ready for a celebration! So what if they weren't thinking of the Scriptural basis of the song... so what if they weren't praying under their breath... so what if they weren't even thinking about the words at all. The song is about FREEDOM! Those kids knew where they were. They knew they were in church and not on a playground. They weren't jumping all around and running around out of just adrenaline. Those two kids know what worship means, and in their little kid way, they were participating. Come to Him like a little child!

That's why every time we sing "I Am Free" now, I have to jump. How could I not? I keep thinking about those little children, coming to worship-time not out of intellect, but just celebrating the freedom they know they have to jump for Jesus if they want to. Now I'm not at all implying that it's wrong to be thinking about something from the Word, or something we know about God, or just thinking about Jesus as we worship. That's exactly the right thing to do. We were taught us in our recent choir workshop that worship comes from your heart, from the inside and not from what is going on on the outside. But if you have the Lord Jesus in your heart already, it's also not wrong to celebrate because the music is fun and God loves it LOUD! Why do you think He has TRUMPETS in Heaven?? What part of "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" do we not understand? "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." Using your mind is correct. AND using your heart is correct. AND using your soul is correct. But don't forget that sometimes, it's time to love the Lord with ALL YOUR STRENGTH!

You are free to DANCE! And you are free to RUN!

Monday, August 7, 2006

You Can't Beat The Classics

Lately I've been doing my Bible reading from a copy of The Evengelical Parallel New Testament that I borrowed from the library. The layout of the book is really pretty informative for someone who, like me, has read up a bit on the whole literal vs. dynamig translation method debate; the two translations on the far left, the NKJV and the ESV, are the most "literal" translations (close to word-for-word from the originals). The others (NIV and HCSB, TNIV and NCV, NLT and The Message) are arranged that way so that the most "dynamic" of the translations (actually both paraphrases) are on the far right, and the four in between are roughly arranged in sequence from most literal to most dynamic.

Anyway, today I ran across a "classic" example for literal translation advocates: 2 Corinthians 5:21. That link is to a page that displays the renderings from the first five translations in the book: NKJV, ESV, NIV, HCSV, TNIV. They all say something to the effect that Jesus was made "to be" sin, so that we could "become the righteousness of God." Interestingly, when I glanced over at the NCV version of the verse, I had no longer "become" the righteousness of God, but was simply "made righteous." Likewise with the NLT and The Message. Maybe to some people that's a minor, hair-splitting change, but Theologically it's a big difference whether Jesus took a mud-bath in our sin and then he said we were OK, or whether he became the sin and we became the righteousness. Actually, I guess you could say it's the difference in old covenant covering with animal blood vs. new covenant cleansing with Jesus' blood.

I notice that The Good News translation is even worse... in that one Jesus just shares our sin with us, and we get to share God's righteousness with Him. Like he gave us a piece of his Snickers. ARGH!

(Notice that in this case, two of the translations that are often considered dynamic-equivalent "offenders" - the NIV and TNIV - came out with the more literal version of the verse. Fear of what the TNIV update of the NIV would mistranslate was a big part of the reason why the ESV and HCSB were created in the first place!)

"You are the same, You never change..."

How could it possibly be that God never changes, when there are actually areas in Scripture where it is said that He changed his mind about something when approached in prayer? (Genesis 18:20-26 and Exodus 32:7-14, for example) Sunday evening we were singing a song in church about how God never changes, and I was wondering how that could be and how Jesus could have been "slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8 in many translations; ESV renders it differently), and a theory came to me.

A CAT scan is made up of a series of 2-dimensional cross-sections (x-rays) of whatever is being scanned (usually a human). Imagine for a second that there was a being that existed in only two dimensions. His experience of what a human being is would likely be something like one cross-section from a CAT scan. Now remember that God exists in all of time at once, but we humans only perceive a single point in time at once. Maybe the reason we perceive what seems like "changes" in God is that we can only see one snapshot of the CAT scan at once. As we travel through time, we come to different parts of the landscape of what God is. It's like our 2-dimensional guy is traveling slowly across someone's body, just like the CT machine. The body may be lying perfectly still, not moving or changing in position at all, but in the perception of the 2D man, the body looks like a circle which slowly expands and then contracts in size (the head), then an oval (the shoulders), and so on, ending in two circles (the legs) and then two ovals (the feet). The body is not changing at all in ultimate reality, but the way the 2D man experiences it change dramatically.

The analogy breaks down at several points (for example, the body in the CAT scan analogy is inert, and God is characterized in the Bible as very active), but I think it's conceptually useful. We just have to remember that there is far more to God than our human brains are likely to be able to totally comprehend this side of Heaven (maybe even on that side!)