Monday, March 31, 2008

News You May Have Missed: Oh, those silly, ignorant, myth-making Bible fabricators . . . Oops, never mind.

So far, only the British media have picked up on this story. So you heard it here first (maybe).

It appears a Sumerian astronomer in 3123 B.C. may have recorded the event that destryed Sodom with fire and brimstone (and no, it's not April Fool's): It may have been hot gas blowback from an asteroid that crashed in Austria.

Here's the article in the Times of London, a longer version in The Register, and a third version in the Daily Mail.
I love it when news stories such as this show up. True, they don't prove anything. They could be wrong. And I don't need them to validate my faith. But it's nice to see some evidence in the secular press every now and then that maybe the Bible isn't as fanciful as some claim.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Vignettes from a Voyage

I haven't said much about my trip to Europe. Now that I've been back for more than two weeks, I guess I'm overdue.

I plan to do several posts. For this one, here are some random impressions, thoughts, and tidbits.

  • Number of times I felt endangered on the trip: 2. Once, when riding the MARTA subway train from my house to the Atlanta airport; the other time, when riding it home from the airport. Budapest and Vienna both are very safe cities, even at night, and even when you're alone. The worst hooliganism I saw in two weeks was a high school kid slapping his hand on a subway car window in order to scare a passenger inside. Contrast that with Atlanta, where passengers are threatening fistfights with each other (really).

  • Number of dirty toilets I encountered on the trip: Zero, unless you count the Atlanta airport. It didn't matter whether I was in airports, restaurants, museums, or cafes, I never had to deal with a dirty toilet or a seat that someone had peed on. It was bizarre.

  • Number of waiters who introduced themselves ("Hello, I'm Adolf and I'll be your waiter today!"), and number who came by every 10 minutes to ask, "Is everything OK?": Zero. The Austrians and Hungarians have a different view of service. Shortly after you come in (and seat yourself), the waiter approaches your table and asks what you'd like to order. He then brings your food and leaves you alone. When you're ready to pay, you catch his eye (it's not usually hard), he comes to the table, you pay, and you're out of there in 30 seconds. No faux friendships, no sucking up, but no neglect, either. They seem to realize you're there to eat, read, and converse with whoever came in with you; you're not there to be entertained by the staff. Although waiters in Vienna (especially in cafes) can be arrogant, even disdainful, I like this form of service better than ours.

  • Number of people in Budapest you can stare at: Almost zero. Particularly because I was alone, I did a lot of people-watching on this trip. But I found that's a difficult proposition in Budapest. It seems that the residents of this city have very active eyes, so if you're looking at them, they'll figure it out in about 2 seconds.

  • When I would like to move back to Vienna: Never. More about that later, perhaps.

Photos: Cafe Diglas (top) and Cafe Sacher (bottom), both in Vienna

Monday, March 24, 2008

Reclaiming the Baby From the Bathwater

The following thoughts are not theologically rigorous. They are more along the lines of sentiment. But I don't think they're baseless . . .

I think the Reformation was a necessary corrective to a church that had become wacked out and blatantly corrupt. I also think the Reformation was an over-corrective and we need to reclaim a few things.

In our aversion to legalism, we've made everything optional. Reformed churches, curiously, maintain the primacy of the Sabbath even while insisiting there is no sacred-secular divide in life. But aside from that exception, days, feasts, and observances are optional. So, too often, is discipleship to the Master Whom we profess.

The Passion week and Easter weekend that just passed have left me thinking that we could use a few "Holy Days of Obligation" in our evangelical churches.

No Christian holy day is more important than Easter. True, Christmas is essential, because if Jesus hadn't been born, then nothing that followed could have happened. But why was He born? He was born to die. And the Passion Week is our time to reflect more deeply on these truths and mourn our sin more fully and, on Sunday, rejoice more truly.

I was surprised this year at the number of friends I have - friends whose walk with God I respect - who treated Easter weekend as just another weekend. Concerts, dates, dinners, even skipping church(!).

I admit that I hardly spent the entire weekend, myself, in prayer, meditation, and fasting. I was on a plane returning from a business trip when my church held its Maundy Thursday service, I spent Good Friday working, and the omelette I cooked up on Saturday was absolutely incredible. But I did set aside time Friday night to attend a presentation (recitation) of the Gospel of John as a way to focus more intently on the person of Christ. At home and driving, I sought out music throughout the weekend that related to the Passion. And on Sunday morning I went to the Episcopal Cathedral for my high church fix before heading off to my own church to celebrate with my friends (surprisingly, the two services were much more congruent - the liturgy, the creed, even the sermons - than I would have expected from such different churches).

I say all this not to hold myself up as a paradigm. Rather, I'm simply trying to express my belief that this last week (my Catholic friends would say 40 days) is not just another week to be punctuated with better-than-usual music on Sunday. It is the ground of our existence, the sine qua non of our faith, and something deserving of intense focus.
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15.17,19,20).
Isn't that worthy of some extra attention?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rice for Easter

Apropos my Friday post about Anne Rice and her Jesus books, here's part of an essay she contributed that same day to OnFaith, a joint website of the Washington Post and Newsweek. If you prefer, you can read the entire essay here. Happy Easter:

Anne Rice
My Trust in My Lord

Look: I believe in Him. It’s that simple and that complex. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the God Man who came to earth, born as a tiny baby and then lived over thirty years in our midst. I believe in what we celebrate this week: the scandal of the cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. My belief is total. And I know that I cannot convince anyone of it by reason, anymore than an atheist can convince me, by reason, that there is no God.

A long life of historical study and biblical research led me to my belief, and when faith returned to me, the return was total. It transformed my existence completely; it changed the direction of the journey I was traveling through the world. Within a few years of my return to Christ, I dedicated my work to Him, vowing to write for Him and Him alone. My study of Scripture deepened; my study of New Testament scholarship became a daily commitment. My prayers and my meditation were centered on Christ.

And my writing for Him became a vocation that eclipsed my profession as a writer that had existed before.

Why did faith come back to me? I don’t claim to know the answer. But what I want to talk about right now is trust. Faith for me was intimately involved with love for God and trust in Him, and that trust in Him was as transformative as the love.

Right now as I write this, our nation seems to be in some sort of religious delirium. Anti-God books dominate the bestseller lists; people claim to deconstruct the Son of Man with facile historical treatments of what we know and don’t know about Jesus Christ who lived in First Century Judea. Candidates for public office have to declare their faith on television. Christians quarrel with one another publicly about the message of Christ.

Before my consecration to Christ, I became familiar with a whole range of arguments against the Savior to whom I committed my life. In the end I didn’t find the skeptics particularly convincing, while at the same time the power of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John swept me off my feet.

And above all, when I began to talk to Jesus Christ again it was with trust.

On the afternoon in 1998 when faith returned, I experienced a sense of the limitless power and majesty of God that left me convinced that He knew all the answers to the theological and sociological questions that had tormented me for years. I saw, in one enduring moment, that the God who could make the Double Helix and the snow flake, the God who could make the Black holes in space, and the lilies of the field, could do absolutely anything and must know everything --- even why good people suffer, why genocide and war plague our planet, and why Christians have lost, in America and in other lands, so much credibility as people who know how to love. I felt a trust in this all-knowing God; I felt a sudden release of all my doubts. Indeed, my questions became petty in the face of the greatness I beheld. I felt a deep and irreversible assurance that God knew and understood every single moment of every life that had ever been lived, or would be lived on Earth. I saw the universe as an immense and intricate tapestry, and I perceived that the Maker of the tapestry saw interwoven in that tapestry all our experiences in a way that we could not hope, on this Earth, to understand.

This was not a joyful moment for me. It wasn’t an easy moment. It was an admission that I loved and believed in God, and that my old atheism was a fa├žade. I knew it was going to be difficult to return to the Maker, to give over my life to Him, and become a member of a huge quarreling religion that had broken into many denominations and factions and cults worldwide. But I knew that the Lord was going to help me with this return to Him. I trusted that He would help me. And that trust is what under girds my faith to this day.
. . . .
As we experience Easter week, we celebrate the crucifixion that changed the world. We celebrate the Resurrection that sent Christ’s apostles throughout the Roman Empire to declare the Good News. We celebrate one of the greatest love stories the world has ever known: that of a God who would come down here to live and breathe with us in a human body, who would experience human death for us, and then rise to remind us that He was, and is, both Human and Divine. We celebrate the greatest inversion the world has ever recorded: that of the Maker dying on a Roman cross.

Let us celebrate as well that throughout this troubled world in which we live, billions believe in this 2,000-year-old love story and in this great inversion -- and billions seek to trust the Maker to bring us to one another in love as He brings us to Himself.

Anne Rice is the best-selling author of 27 books, including "The Vampire Chronicles" and "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good. Friday.

I got back from my vacation 10 days ago, but a three-day business trip and other stuff going on have made the catching-up process a bit slow. I'm almost there.

Today is Good Friday. I have nothing brilliant to say about it, but there are plenty of others who do. I plan to "celebrate" tonight by attending a (verbatim) presentation of the Gospel of John.

Today is also J.S. Bach's birthday. If you didn't get a chance to read my December post about how Bach masterfully fuses Christmas and Good Friday in one grand choral movement, you can do so here.

Finally for today, a book recommendation.

I had always thought of Anne Rice as the odd lady who wrote vampire stories and lived in a haunted-looking house in New Orleans. I listened to one of her vampire books on tape several years ago, after which I had no desire to listen to (or read) anything more by her.

In 1998, Anne Rice returned to the Catholic Church, in which she was raised but left at age 18, and she subsequently dedicated her life to the Lord and to writing only for Him. Out of that have come, so far, two novels about Jesus, one in 2005 and the other this year. After I encounted a positive review or two of this year's release, I decided to pick up the "series." And I'm glad I did.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is written as if Jesus, Himself, is telling the story of His childhood from age 7 to 8. I doubt that any human could ever write an "autobiography" of Jesus that gets everything right, but Rice has crafted a compelling treatment. She has done her research, and better than anything else I've read, she conveys a feel for what normal, daily life was like in those times. I found the book worshipful but not pretentious, and consistently emotionally moving. I can't tell you how many times I teared up or even had to stop reading so I could ponder the wonderful insights.

This book reminds me of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Both are "supposals," asking what things might have been like. Lewis puts it this way: "What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?" Rice explains what she's doing as follows:

This book seeks to present a realistic fictional portrait of Our Lord in Time. It is rooted in the faith that the Creator of the Universe became human in the person of Jesus Christ and "dwelt among us." The magnificent mystery of the Incarnation is accepted and affirmed as fact. Scripture is the inspiration for the emotions and powers of the Child Jesus as they were envisioned here. History as well as the gospels is the source for this picture of a world in which Our Lord might have lived, as a little boy, in war and in peace, from day to day.

Another way in which Christ the Lord and Narnia are similar is that (for me at least) both present engaging stories that sneak up on you and whack you upside the head - emotionally, that is. Often in Narnia, for example, I'm overwhelmed by the insight into God's character as revealed in the Aslan character. In Out of Egypt, I was often struck by the immediacy of Scripture in the lives of the characters - the beauty or urgency of the Psalms, the humor of Jonah, the declarations of God's presence with His people. I saw with new eyes the challenges Joseph and Mary would have faced raising the child Jesus. And more.

A roommate I had a long time ago used to ask often, "When did Jesus know He was God?" In this book, Rice begins to posit a plausible answer.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt may not be great literature, as literature professors define it. Some of the sentences are clunky or needlessly cryptic. It's not Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. But for me, it is the best kind of literature: something that teaches me, that leads me to God, and makes me want to know Him better and worship Him more purely.