Saturday, March 31, 2007

News You May Have Missed: Drive-Through Passion Scenes for the Busy Contemplative

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3/29/07:

Sandy Springs United Methodist will present drive-through Passion Scenes, 8-9 p.m. April 6 in the parking lot of the Hitson Memorial Center. Scenes will depict Christ's entry to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection. Presented by the youth ministry. The church is at . . .
What's wrong with this picture? I'm reminded of the old Keith Green lyrics: "Jesus rose from the dead, and you can't even get out of bed" - or cars, in this case.

As we enter the week leading up to Easter, it'd be nice if we all could spare more than five minutes on our way somewhere else to think about what it all means.
(And while we're at it, would anyone like to ridicule the photo at the top of this post? I can't think of anything sarcastic enough to capture my feelings adequately.)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Who Said It?

"Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths."

Who said it?
  • a. Jim Dobson

  • b. Pat Robertson

  • c. Ira Glass (atheistic Jewish host of the radio and TV shows, This American Life)

OK, the test was too easy, but the answer is still surprising. Click here for the whole interview.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

News You May Have Missed: Muslims Debate the Propriety of Wife-Beating (And a German Judge Supports It)

As you'll read below, some Muslims argue that wife-beating is an acceptable last resort, when necessary to save the marriage. A civil judge in Germany last week agreed. But other Muslims disagree and are looking for new ways to translate the "beat" word that occurs in the Quran. Just thought you might like to know what the "religion of peace" is thinking about these days. (Link to the original NY Times article is here, or you can read the reprint below.)

March 25, 2007

New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse

CHICAGO — Laleh Bakhtiar had already spent two years working on an English translation of the Koran when she came upon Chapter 4, Verse 34.
She nearly dropped the project right then.
The hotly debated verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately “beaten” — the most common translation for the Arabic word “daraba” — unless her behavior improves.
“I decided it either has to have a different meaning, or I can’t keep translating,” said Ms. Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American who adopted her father’s Islamic faith as an adult and had not dwelled on the verse before. “I couldn’t believe that God would sanction harming another human being except in war.”
Ms. Bakhtiar worked for five more years, with the translation to be published in April. But while she found a way through the problem, few verses in the Koran have generated as much debate, particularly as more Muslim women study their faith as an academic field.
“This verse became an issue of debate and controversy because of the ethics of the modern age, the universal notions of human rights,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-born law professor and Islamic scholar at the
University of California, Los Angeles.
The leader of the North American branch of a mystical Islamic order, Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, said he had been questioned about the verse in places around the world where women were struggling for greater rights, but most of all by Westerners.
Women want to be free “from some of the extreme ideology of some Muslims,” the sheik said, after delivering a sermon on the verse recently in Oakland, Calif.
[In Germany last week, a judge citing the verse caused a public outcry after she rejected the request for a fast track divorce by a Moroccan-German woman because her husband beat her. The judge, removed from the case, had written that the Koran sanctioned physical abuse.]
There are at least 20 English translations of the Koran. “Daraba” has been translated as beat, hit, strike, scourge, chastise, flog, make an example of, spank, pet, tap and even seduce.
“Spank?” exclaimed Professor Abou El Fadl, who has concluded that the verse refers to a rare public legal procedure that ended before the 10th century. “That is really kinky. That is the author fantasizing too much.”

Ms. Bakhtiar, who is 68 and has a doctorate in educational psychology, set out to translate the Koran because she found the existing version inaccessible for Westerners. Many Jewish and Christian names, for example, have been Arabized, so Moses and Jesus appear in the English version of the Koran as Musa and Issa.
When she reached the problematic verse, Ms. Bakhtiar spent the next three months on “daraba.” She does not speak Arabic, but she learned to read the holy texts in Arabic while studying and working as a translator in Iran in the 1970s and ’80s.
Her eureka moment came on roughly her 10th reading of the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, a 3,064-page volume from the 19th century, she said. Among the six pages of definitions for “daraba” was “to go away.”
“I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, that is what the prophet meant,’ ” said Ms. Bakhtiar, speaking in the offices of Kazi Publications in Chicago, a mail-order house for Islamic books that is publishing her translation. “When the prophet had difficulty with his wives, what did he do? He didn’t beat anybody, so why would any Muslim do what the prophet did not?”
She thinks the “beat” translation contradicts another verse, which states that if a woman wants a divorce, she should not be mistreated. Given the option of staying in the marriage and being beaten, or divorcing, women would obviously leave, she said.
There have been similar interpretations, but none have been incorporated into a translation. Debates over translations of the Koran — considered God’s eternal words — revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar. Critics fault Ms. Bakhtiar on both scores.
Ms. Bakhtiar said she expected opposition, not least because she is not an Islamic scholar. Men in the Muslim world, she said, will also oppose the idea of an American, especially a woman, reinterpreting the prevailing translation.
“They feel the onslaught of the West against their religious values, and they fear losing their whole suit of armor,” she said. “But women need to know that there is an alternative.”
Religious scholars outline several main threads in the translation of “daraba.”
Conservative scholars suggest the verse has to be taken at face value, with important reservations.
They consider that the Koran holds that force is an acceptable last resort to preserve important institutions, including marriages and nations. Some scholars have accused some Muslims of trying to make the verse palatable to the West.
“I am not apologetic about why the Koran says this,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Islamic scholar who teaches at
George Washington University. The Bible, he noted, addresses stoning people to death.
Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose writings underpin the extremism of groups like
Al Qaeda, published extensive commentaries about the Koran before he was hanged in 1966.
Islamic tradition states that Muhammad never hit his 11 wives, and Mr. Qutb considered a man striking his wife as the last measure to save a marriage. He cited the prophet’s horror at the practice by quoting one of his sayings: “Do not beat your wife like you beat your camel, for you will be flogging her early in the day and taking her to bed at night.”
The verse 4:34, with its three-step program, is often called a reform over the violent practices of seventh century Arabia, when the Koran was revealed. The verse was not a license for battery, scholars say, with other interpretations defining the heaviest instrument a man might employ as a twig commonly used as a toothbrush.
Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Islamic scholar who serves as Egypt’s grand mufti, said Koranic verses must be viewed through the prism of the era.
The advice “is always broad in order to be relevant to different cultures and in different times,” he said through a spokesman in an e-mail message. “In our modern context, hitting one’s wife is totally inappropriate as society deems it hateful and it will only serve to sow more discord.”
A caller on a television program in Egypt recently asked the mufti if he should stop sleeping with his wife if she was causing discord, the spokesman said. The mufti replied that the measures in the verse were meant to bring harmony, not to exact revenge.
More liberal commentators, particularly women, say the usual interpretation reflects the patriarchal practices of the Arabian peninsula.
This school holds that the sacred texts have become encrusted with medieval traditions that need to be scraped off like a layer of barnacles. Some Saudi women have been trying to do this by emphasizing the public role played by Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives, while the Asma Society gathered Muslim women from around the world in New York last fall to explore the establishment of a female council to interpret Islamic law.
Some analysts hold that the verse cannot be rendered meaningfully into English because it reflects social and legal practices of Muhammad’s time.
“The whole idea is not to punish her,” said Ingrid Mattson, an expert in early Islamic history at the Hartford Seminary and the first woman to be president of the Islamic Society of North America. “It is like a fear of sexual impropriety, that the husband takes these steps to try to bring their relationship to where it is supposed to be. I think it is a physical gesture of displeasure.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Noted & Quoted: Crucifixion (Easter is Coming)

"It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was 'a humble carpenter' that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer;' that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a 'humble carpenter,' the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Herr Bach !

Mustn't let the day pass without recognizing that today is J.S. Bach's 322nd birthday. Although I consider my musical tastes to be eclectic, I freely profess that no composer has given me more joy than has Bach.

If you check my "Now Listening To" link off to the right, you'll see that I'm working my way through the 155-CD collection of the complete works of Bach. Although I've been a fan of his music ever since high school, it's amazing how much of what he wrote I've never heard before. On the radio, and even in concerts, you tend to get just the "Top 40." But listening through these discs, I realize how incredibly varied Bach's music really is. This guy was no Vivaldi, recycling the same themes over and over again until everything sounded more or less the same. Rather, he seems to have employed every musical device at the disposal of a Baroque musician - instrumentation, orchestration, styles, etc.

Listening through these 155 CDs reminds me of reading the Bible for the first time. Surprises and pleasures around every turn - and yes, every now and then a boring part or two. But overall, Wow. And I just can't get through these fast enough.

(P.S. How could you not love a guy who wrote a 30-minute piece about coffee?)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Augustine On: Why Apologetics Can Never Be Enough

"From my own experience I knew that there was nothing strange in the fact that a man who finds bread agreeable to the taste when he is well finds it hard to eat when he is sick, and that light is hateful to sore eyes, although we welcome it when our sight is hale and clear. In the same way the wicked find your justice disagreeable, just as they find vipers and worms unpleasant."

(Confessions, VII.16)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let My People Vote

Dear [Georgia State] Senator -

Although I do not live in your District, I’m writing to express my support for the Sunday alcohol sales bill that will be coming before the Senate Rules Committee on which you sit.

I consider myself an evangelical Christian. In fact, I am a “ruling elder” in an Atlanta-area megachurch that teaches the full inspiration of the Bible, the absolute authority of Christ, and the bad news that some people are going to end up in Hell.

Nevertheless, I do not appreciate other evangelical Christians who have loudly protested in this debate that there is something inherently sinful about alcohol sales on the Sabbath. They do not speak for me, and their arguments are nonsensical, I’m sorry to say. To wit:

  • The Bible does not condemn alcohol use, simply its misuse. Alcohol is, in fact, expected for certain religious rituals and recommended for certain health ailments.

  • My evangelical brothers and sisters who support the alcohol ban mistakenly think their personal conviction not to drink is somehow a command of God applicable to all people.

  • These people inconsistently extend that conviction when they imply that Monday-Saturday sales are OK, but Sunday sales are not. What basis other than opinion do they have for this position?

  • Those same brothers and sisters also inconsistently apply their Sabbath convictions to the question of retail channels. If they are going to oppose Sunday sales in grocery stores, they should also oppose Sunday sales in every commercial establishment.

I do believe morality should be legislated; for example, we have a law against murder. But this is not an issue of morality, but rather of preference. As such, the citizens of each community ought to be able to vote on their preferences. It would be unconscionable for the Rules Committee to decide otherwise by failing to advance the bill.

I ask you to eschew politics (in the cynical sense of the word) and, instead, to do the politic thing (in the best sense of the word). Please let the people vote.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Good Film

From 1979-1982, in the years between college and graduate school, I worked in Eastern Europe. This was back in the day when these countries were Communist and when America's biggest adversary was the Soviet Union and the countries under its domination. Although I was in almost all of the Soviet Bloc countries, my focus was on East Germany and Poland. So I spent a lot of time in East Germany, which the Germans called the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and the English speakers called the GDR (German Democratic Republic). It was another world. Except for maybe North Korea and a couple of the "-stan" countries in Central Asia, there's nothing like it today.

With the possible exception of the Soviets' KGB, and most likely not even excepting them, the DDR operated the most effective secret police system in the world. It was called the Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit, but everyone referred to it as Stasi. In this country of 16 million, there were 91,000 Stasi employees and 300,000 informers. That works out to 1 out of every 41 citizens. To give you a sense of what that means, that ratio would yield 100,000 people in Atlanta who were spying on you, or 100 people in my church of 4,000, or 4 people in my Sunday School class of 150. And yes, there were informers in churches, including pastors and bishops in the main church denomination (the Lutherans).
When "The Wall" fell in 1989, the Stasi shredded documents as quickly as they could. Before they were stopped, they had accumulated 16,000 bags of confetti. The German government is now reassembling those shreddings. Of what didn't get shredded, there are 138 km (81 miles) of documents in the archives; add in microfilm and the like and the grand total is 172 km (107 miles). That is not a typo. That means, roughly, that everyone in the country had a file that was, on average, half an inch thick. Nearly 100 pages. Of course, some files were much thicker than that. I wonder how thick mine is.

This year's Academy Award winner for best foreign language film is The Lives of Others (or, in German, Das Leben des Anderen). It's the story of a Stasi officer and the artists' community he spies on. If you liked Helen Mirren's acting in The Queen, you'll like Ulrich Muehe's acting in this film. It's a study of a person, how he starts committed to and believing one thing, and how he has to grapple with those beliefs. This actor communicates more with his face than most can manage with a torrent of words. The rest of the cast is almost equally good. But beyond the acting, the film is fascinating for how it captures the mood of the DDR and the methods of the Stasi during this time (1984, 2 years after I left and 5 years before The Wall fell). Some of it was even filmed in the old Stasi headquarters, which I visited a few years ago.

If you like quality films that allow you to think and keep you intrigued, see this film. Yes, it's in German with subtitles, but don't let that stop you. Trust me, it's fine, and after the first 5 or 10 minutes, you'll forget you're reading. The Lives of Others is showing in 2 theatres in Atlanta. How easy it'll be to find in your own city, I don't know, though the theatre was surprisingly full when I saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon. If the theatre doesn't work for you, there's always the DVD, which I'm guessing will be out soon. A word of advice, though: try not to learn too much about the plot details before you go; you'll enjoy the little surprises more that way.

See this film. Marvel at the acting. Hang with the story. And thank God we don't live in a society like that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A View From the Other Side

I just discovered this guy. If you're a "person of faith," as I am, you may enjoy this atheist's perspective. He visited 30+ services at 10-15 churches and wrote a book about his experiences. Check out his posting called "20 Things That Christians Do in Church That Annoy Me." Do you see youself in any of them? You may also want to read "10 Things That Christians Are Better at Than Atheists."

If you want to know a bit more about his background, there's an interview with

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Surgery Today

Today I had outpatient surgery on my elbow. As many of you know, I broke it in October 2005 while hiking in Death Valley, California. The repair job involved a metal plate and 5 screws, all of which I had removed today. You need only ask, and I'll be happy to show them to you.

I guess the Emory surgeon must be good, because I haven't had much pain today. But I do have to keep my arm dry for 3 days. In two weeks, I'll have the staples removed, so if seeing my loose screws wasn't enough for you, I can then show you my scar, too.

In any case, I wrote up the story of my astonishing day in Death Valley and its immediate aftermath. I challenge any theologian to tell me what the heck was going on. But you don't have to be a theologian to enjoy a laugh or two at my expense. Click here if you'd like to go to my website and read Stumbling Through the Valley of Death.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Pet Peeves

(I’ll get back to Augustine soon.)

Last night I was at a meeting where some of us were invited to share our pet peeves. Quite a few had to do with traffic, in particular slow drivers who hog the left lane. Then there was, “People stepping on my heels,” “People leaning on my office chair in order to look at my computer screen,” and a husband who chews ice incessantly. I wasn’t one of those selected to share, which is just as well; out of my long, long list, I’d have trouble figuring out my "favorite."

Interestingly, no one was peeved at himself (“I hate it when I …”). We give ourselves a lot more grace than we give others, don’t we? Also interestingly, no one was peeved at a thing; rather, everyone was peeved at the actions of other people.

I’ve been thinking about that meeting ever since, and asking myself the question, Why do things peeve us?

I think it’s because our peeves come from a desire for perfection. We want things to be right in this world. People should act as they should act. They should be thoughtful, competent, kind, and selfless. All the time. Without fail. They should be like Jesus.

Would Jesus come to the office and trim his nails? Would he hold a conference call from his cubicle with the speaker at maximum volume and him bellowing loudly enough to be heard in the next continent even without the phone? Would he walk away from his cube and leave his cellphone behind so that it could ring with some annoying praise chorus for a full minute while he wasn’t there to answer it? Would he stand in somebody else’s cube and keep that person from working while he prattled on for 20 minutes about the plumbing problems in his basement restroom at home?

Of course he wouldn’t. So why do our coworkers do it? And why do people drive slowly in the fast lane and chew ice when they know it bothers us, and leave the toilet seat up when it should be down, and, and … ?

There’s a simple answer: because they’re not Jesus. Heck, they’re not even pre-fall Adam (or Eve). Nor are we, by the way. And as long as we live in this world there will be peeves, and pet peeves, because we are fallen people living among fallen people.

And thank God for those peeves, for peeves tell us that this world is not our home. They remind us that we are created to be something much better, greater, and nobler than what we are now. That our current state is not our intended state, and for those of us who belong to Christ, that our current state is not our final state. The day will come when there’s nothing left to be peeved at.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5.6, emphasis added)

Friday, March 2, 2007

Arnold On: Augustine

Have any of you read Augustine's Confessions? If so, maybe you can tell me why Books I-X are so good and XI-XIV are so boring. For the first 70% of the book, I was asking myself why I waited so long to read this masterpiece - and now, in the last 30%, I'm asking, "Will it never end?" Am I just in a bad mood, or something?