Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Five Novels That Best Capture the Artistic Temperament

Really? I've not read any of these books. But I must say that I'm skeptical of any discussion of "the artistic temperament," as though it described some monolithically-present characteristic.

If all artists were like Vincent van Gogh, for example, they'd all lop off a portion of their ears and off themselves. So far, no epidemic of ear-loppings and self-offings among artists has been reported. (Not to mention many more wonderful paintings.)

And if all artists were like Michelangelo, the subject of The Agony and the Ecstasy, we would have many more sculpted masterpieces in the world.

It seems to me that there are probably as many artistic temperaments as there are artists.

Partisanship Carried Way, Way Too Far

See here.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Schlesinger, Lincoln, and Preventive War

On Monday, an op-ed by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. appeared in the Washington Post. In it, Schlesinger condemned the doctrine of preemptive war--which he referred to as "preventive war"--which informed President Bush's decision to take the United States to war in Iraq and which Schlesinger points out, lays behind the President's willingness to consider war with Iran.

Writes Schlesinger:
The issue of preventive war as a presidential prerogative is hardly new. In February 1848 Rep. Abraham Lincoln explained his opposition to the Mexican War: "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure [emphasis added]. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.' "

This is precisely how George W. Bush sees his presidential prerogative: Be silent; I see it, if you don't. However, both Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, veterans of the First World War, explicitly ruled out preventive war against Joseph Stalin's attempt to dominate Europe. And in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, President Kennedy, himself a hero of the Second World War, rejected the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a preventive strike against the Soviet Union in Cuba.
The point I want to make here isn't political, but historical. Schlesinger's entire argument hinges on a statement made by Abraham Lincoln back when he served as a one-term Whig congressman from Illinois.

Any sensible person knows that there are legitimate reasons to debate the wisdom of preventive or preemptive wars. But Lincoln's may not be the best voice to invoke in such a debate.

By way of background, the Mexican War was surely one of the more sordid and less justifiable actions in our country's history. The US and Mexico had long been at odds over their boundaries. But things came to a boiling point when the newly-independent Republic of Texas was invited to apply for admission into the Union. Mexico was incensed by this action and the border disputes between the two countries heated up, focused on the Texas claim that its territory extended to the Rio Grande. Mexico said that Texas was bound on the south by the Nuences River.

James K. Polk, the Democratic President of the United States, was an ardent believer in "Manifest Destiny." So, he told General (later President) Zachary Taylor to take his troops into the area south of the Nuences claimed by Mexico.

A diplomatic impasse, provoked by intransigence on both sides, ensued. On May 9, 1846, Polk's cabinet--at this time, the US President's cabinet had much more influence than it does today--agreed with Polk's desire to seek a declaration of war against Mexico and added their weight to his recommendation.

But on May 10, it was learned that just fifteen days earlier, on April 25, a large Mexican force had crossed over the Rio Grande and assaulted a smaller US force. Eleven Americans were killed, while the rest of their number was captured, some of them being wounded. Polk took the unusual step of asking Congress not for a declaration of war, but a recognition that because Mexico had "shed blood upon the American soil," a state of war, initiated by Mexico, already existed. (This is similar to the wording of the declaration that Congress passed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Of course, in this latter case, there can be no doubt that the Japanese were the aggressors and that their attack was, as President Franklin Roosevelt characterized it, "unprovoked.") Clearly, Polk wanted to take the moral high ground in the conflict, claiming that the US was the innocent victim of Mexican aggression, that Mexican forces had invaded the United States.

The war ended in less than two years, with several of the major battles having been fought and won even before Polk's declaration was passed by Congress on May 13.

Abraham Lincoln came to Congress after the war had ended. Because it had resulted in a quick victory for the US, the war was wildly popular. But Lincoln determined, as he told his friend and law partner William Herndon, to make a name for himself by challenging the legality of the Mexican War.

Specifically, he questioned President Polk's claim that the war had begun with the shedding of blood on American soil. (Because he insisted on knowing the spot where this took place, Lincoln became known as Spotty Lincoln.) Lincoln introduced resolutions into the Congress calling for the President to explain himself and gave several speeches in which he employed uncharacteristically shrill rhetoric, a contrast to Lincoln's lifelong penchant for cool reason. The thrust of his argument was that if American blood was shed on Mexican soil, then the President's entire rationale for going to war was bogus. The United States would prove to be the aggressor. The President, Lincoln argued, did not have the right to incite war.

The result of his pressing this case was disastrous for Lincoln, though. Predictably, Democrats condemned his resolutions and his arguments. But in his home state of Illinois, where the war had been especially popular, Lincoln suffered condemnation, even from his fellow Whigs. Herndon received a rather acid letter from Lincoln, testily refuting his arguments against Lincoln's resolutions.

Lincoln, says one of his finest biographers, David Herbert Donald, felt that Herndon and other of his fellow Whigs "...failed to understand the real intent of his attack on Polk. Now that the fighting was over and the peace treaty was expected in Washington momentarily, the only purpose that Lincoln and other Whigs had for assailing the President's course in beginning the war was political. Their object was to hurt the Democrats in the next presidential election... [italics added by me]
Donald goes on to point out:
They [Lincoln and his Whig allies] were aware that this course entailed a considerable risk; attacking the President's actions in beginning the war might easily be misunderstood as opposing the war itself. Whigs with a long memory knew how dangerous this position could be. When someone asked Justin Butterfield, a leading Chicago Whig, whether he would condemn the Mexican War as he had once denounced the War of 1812, he responded, "No, indeed! I opposed one war and it ruined me. From now on I am for war, pestilence, and famine."
This was the conclusion that Lincoln seems to have reached. Donald says that Lincoln and the other young Whig congressmen with whom he was allied on this issue could avoid being labeled anti-war while working to draft the hero of the Mexican War, General Taylor, to be the Whig nominee for President. They got Taylor nominated, but Lincoln was nonetheless badly wounded politically. When he went back to Illinois after one term in Congress, something to which he had earlier agreed with several other would-be representatives from his district, he couldn't even nail down a federal job he wanted.

Years later, of course, Lincoln's career rebounded. But as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarks in her wonderful joint biography of Lincoln and his cabinet:
Both [New York pol and Lincoln secretary of State William] Seward and Lincoln agreed that "one fundamental principle of politics is to be always on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war." As, indeed, Lincoln knew from his own experience in opposing the Mexican War.
The point? Schlesinger may be right in opposing preventive or preemptive war. But he doesn't buttress his case by advancing Lincoln's ex post facto campaign against the Mexican War. Lincoln was always laudably shrewd as a politician. (It's one of the things I admire about him.) But in this instance, he was demonstrably cynical. He may not have even believed in what he was saying.

Schlesinger is surely one of our most eminent historians, although his Thousand Days puff job of John Kennedy is poor history. But in this case, he should go back to the drawing board and get his arguments from someone who has genuinely argued against preemptive war.

[This begins a new occasional series in which I look at rhetoric or ideas that are historically rooted and look at the history behind them.]

[Thanks to John Schroeder of Blogotional for linking to this post.]

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fearless Predictions and Waffling Ruminations on 2008

Hillary Clinton may make a convenient foil for Republican fundraising efforts, but she won't be the nominee of her party for President in 2008. A CNN poll, out today, shows that the New York senator's negatives are about as high as her positives. Dems will be so hungry for winning the White House next time that they simply will not cast their lot with someone seen as so polarizing. This poll demonstrates that Ms. Clinton's ship is sinking anyway. (Thanks to Andy Jackson for leading me to this story.)

The likeliest Democratic nominee in 2008, as I see it, is Mark Warner. Warner, like recent winning Democratic candidates for the White House, has been a southern governor. He's also been a successful businessperson and is comfortable talking about his faith and values. He would be formidable, capable of blunting usual Republican advantages while holding onto the Democratic base.

While John McCain must be considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination--and that CNN poll shows him having much smaller "negatives" than Clinton--he is by no means a shoo-in. Every one of the potential GOP candidates has strikes against them being successful in attaining their party's nomination:
  • McCain, third most conservative member of the Senate, is distrusted by the neo-conservatives.
  • Giuliani is way out of sync with the mainstream of his party on abortion and gay rights.
  • Allen and Brownback are likely to be seen as too conservative to win in the fall.
  • Hagel will have problems winning over the hawks because of his questioning of the current administration's war policies.
And then, there's Mitt Romney.

In 1968, his father's bid for the Republican nomination self-destructed in the snows of New Hampshire after complaining on a local radio show that the Johnson Administration had tried to subject him to a "brainwashing" on the war in Vietnam. Interestingly, the Michigan governor's Mormon religion played no role in the unraveling of his campaign.

But today's Republican Party isn't the same as its 1968 counterpart. Back then, Mormons were considered mainstays of the party. Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon luminary, had served as Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture in the 1950s.

Mormons still vote Republican. But today, the conservative Christians who would have been, by and large, in the Democratic column in '68, have shifted to the Republican Party. Therein lies a potential problem.

All mainstream Christians, even more liberal denominations like my own Lutheran, regard Mormonism as a sub-Christian cult. But for most mainstream Christians, Romney's affiliation with the group wouldn't necessarily preclude their considering him for the presidency. That may not be true for more conservative Christians. Apparently, there's an anti-Romney whispering campaign, revolving around his religion, working against the Massachusetts governor. It's difficult to tell what might become of it.

Putting Romney's religion aside for a moment, he has other credentials that would otherwise make him a formidable campaign:
  • He's been elected governor in a state considered a bastion of ultraliberalism. In essence, he's a mirror image of southern Democratic governors, the kinds of Dems who get elected president these days.
  • As the Massachusetts chief executive, he would have a real leg-up in the New Hampshire primary. The Boston TV and radio stations are seen and heard throughout NH. Massachusetts pols have always had an advantage in New Hampshire, including the successful write-in campaign for Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1964 Republican primary and on the Democratic side, names like Kennedy, Tsongas, Dukakis, and Kerry.
  • He's worked with Democrats (including Teddy Kennedy) and Republicans to get a statewide health insurance program passed.
Were it not for the wild card of Romney's religion and how people are likely to react to it, Romney might be considered second favorite after McCain.

[Thanks to Andy Jackson at for linking to this post.]

[Thanks to Memeorandum for linking to this post.]

"There are some decisions we make in life that become life-changing. Marriage. Divorce. Hair styles."

So writes Jan in another gem on her blog, TheViewfromHer.

In the end, Jan puts the whole hair thing in perspective.

But, women may not be the only ones whose hair can make or break their days. I've always been persnickety about my hair. Maybe it's because I'm so self-conscious about my physical deficiencies--a chin that leans in when it should jut out, a prominent brow ridge that puts one in mind of the Cro-magnon, complexion pocked by acne eruptions that continue to this day (and I'm 52 years old!), and bug eyes underlined by bags. Hair is the one thing about my appearance I'm able to control.

Fortunately, I've been blessed with a full head of hair, only now beginning to gray. Yet, even as a man, I've always perceived a bad hair day as an ever-present and potentially debilitating danger. The most important tool in my possession is a long blue comb. If I don't use it within minutes of emerging from the shower, a bad hair day--and lowered self-esteem--is sure to ensue.

My family has long threatened to hide or deliberately "lose" the blue comb. But I think they've taken pity on me, knowing that if they did this dastardly deed, I would, in a matter of seconds, be curled up on the floor in the fetal position.

So great is the obsession with my hair that our daughter has often told me, "You're just like Uncle Jesse," a reference to the character John Stamos played on the forgettable Full House sitcom. But I'm guilty as charged: I am obsessed with my hair.

A few years ago, I began to develop a clump--that's my barber's technical term for it--on the right side of my mane. I asked her why that was happening and she said that my hair was thinning a bit. "There isn't as much hair to support it as there was," she told me...I think with some glee, aware as she is of my hair neurosis.

After that, I began experimenting with several different hairstyles including, a few years back, a virtual buzz. My wife loved that look. But I decided later on to adopt a longer-locked coif, my hair swept back with the part shifted from its former location. It looked sort of like Martin Sheen's hair and since I always wanted to be president, that was okay with me.

But then, I did something outrageous the other day. I went to the barber and told her to give me that old buzz cut. It seemed like a good thing to do with spring on the bloom. I also felt like I was saying, "You know what? My hair isn't that important anyway."

To my suprise though, my wife, who had loved the look a few years ago, was upset with me. "Oh, well," she finally said with a laugh, "it'll grow out."

And when it does, my faithful blue comb will be at the ready.

So, Let Me Try to Understand...

One of the books I'm reading right now is The Human Story: Our History, From the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis. Davis taught History at the University of Pennsylvania for more than thirty years. I have no idea what his religion might be, if any. He certainly doesn't tip his hand in the early chapters of the book.

Last night, before I went to sleep, I read his chapter on the ancient Hebrews, who gave us the Old Testament and from whose number was born Jesus of Nazareth. Why bother devoting an entire early chapter of his book to this group of people? "Well, for reason one," Davis explains, "their story illustrates how other wandering peoples on the borders of the settled places such as Sumer, Egypt, ancient China, and the Indus valley settled down. The Hebrews' story illustrates this civilizing process. What is equally important (reason two), the religion of this group of seminomads, after they had settled down, later influenced the creeds of several billion people."

But what struck me especially was an observation Davis made after talking about God's call to a man named Abraham, then living in what is modern-day Iraq, to go to a land God would show him and to believe God's promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, becoming the ancestors of nations and a multitude of believers. Through Abraham and Sarah, a revolutionary new idea took hold, ultimately among billions of people. That idea, quite simply, is that there is but one God Who made the universe. Writes Davis:
That is how the Bible explains why the Hebrews became a people with one god. Nowhere else, so far as we can tell, were there any other monotheists. In Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had come, the Sumerians and Babylonians and Assyrians worshipped many gods. So did the Egyptians. Even Pharaoh Akhenaten, when he ordered the worship of the sun and scrapped the other gods, required that he be worshipped also, as a pharaoh-god.

Only Hebrews worshipped just one god...
And while initially the Hebrews believed that there might be other gods, their worship of just one God eventually gave way to the belief, contrary to the views of everybody else on the planet, that there really was only one God.

Now, I pose a simple question, Columbo-style: Where did this idea come from? If everybody around you superstitiously worshiped gods of fire, wind, rain, and fertility...or everyone bowed down to camels, beetles, donkeys, lions, tigers, and bears (0h, my!), then why would you suddenly start saying that, "No, there is one God Who made all these things and us"?

And why, pray tell, would you suddenly proclaim that this one God is interested in having a relationship with us--not mocking us as the numerous gods of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did, for example--and that that relationship is secured not by our acting a certain way or by doing certain things, but simply because we trust that God? (See here.)

The Bible insists that it's all because God revealed Himself to the world in this way. The Hebrews came to believe in just one God because that one God, for the sake of the whole world, revealed Himself to them.

It's a plausible explanation when you think about it, the only one that makes sense in understanding why a people so swam upstream against the settled superstitions of the ages. It has about it the whiff of truth.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 24:13-35

[For an explanation of what this is about, see here.]

The Passage:
v. 13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Verse-by-Verse Comments:
v. 13: (1) The location of Emmaus is still unknown. It's thought to have been about 6-8 miles from Jerusalem. There, excavations have found the remains of a first-century village. Apparently, the Crusaders thought this was the site of Emmaus, too. The best manuscript evidence says that Emmaus was located 60 stadia from Jerusalem. According to the New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), one stadium was 600 Roman feet; 60 stadia is about 7.5-miles.

(2) While v. 18 will give the name of one of the disciples as Cleopas, the other remains anonymous to us. Significant though, is the fact that Jesus here reveals Himself, as was true at the tomb, not to the apostles, the inner circle, but to others of His followers.

The word disciple translates the Greek New Testament word, mathetes, which means student or follower. Disciples attached themselves to teachers or rabbis, literally following them to learn.

Jesus, by the time of His execution on the cross, no doubt had many hundreds of disciples. The apostles made up that group of people, by the time of Jesus' resurrection down to 11 in number, who were called to a special ministry by Jesus. The word apostle is a transliteration of the Greek New Testament word, apostlos. It literally means sent one. The apostles were charged with leading the Church in carrying the Good News of new life through faith in Jesus Christ to all the world.

The fact that the risen Jesus first appeared to His female disciples and now appears to these men who were followers, but not apostles, points us to the fact that there are no spiritual superstars in God's Kingdom. All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ are part of it, even if God calls them to differing functions. (First Peter 2:9-10) All believers also enjoy direct access to God and all are called to share the Gospel with the world, in their own particular ways, among their own circles of friends and acquaintances.

By the way, Paul reports that at least five-hundred of Jesus' disciples saw Him after His resurrection, each risking enmity, rejection, persecution, and death to affirm that He was risen. (See here.) (Also see here, where I discuss Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide's conclusion that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead.)

v. 14: The two are discussing Jesus' death and the report they've received of His resurrection. Like others of Jesus' followers, they had either heard first-hand or through others, the report of the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body only to be told that He had risen. Like the others, apparently, they dismissed the report as an idle tale. Now, as they walk along toward Emmaus, they evidently are trying to understand what has happened.

Of course, they might well have wondered what had become of Jesus' body. But at a deeper level, they probably wondered what had become of their hopes that Jesus was the Christ, God's anointed.

Like their fellow Jews, in spite of Old Testament prophecy, they no doubt believed the triumphalistic notions of a Messiah who would liberate Judea and establish a long reign of earthly prosperity for God's people. Jesus' submission to a cross, the most debasing and humilating form of execution ever devised, simply didn't compute for Jesus' first followers. This was the case even though He had told them many times that He would die...and then rise.

vv. 15-16: I must confess that I'm a bit confounded by these two verses or more precisely, by most interpretations of them offered by scholars.

Most say that the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus by God. They point to the passive voice in which the passage is written, the verb form indicating that the two were acted upon by someone or something.

But I find no reason to suppose that God would prevent the two disciples from recognizing Jesus only to help them to see Him later. The sight/blindness motif is particularly strong in Luke's writing (the Gospel and the book of Acts). Luke makes it clear that God's aim is always to help us see--or understand--things like Jesus' Lordship, God's acceptance of sinners by grace, that Jesus is Messiah and Savior, and so on.

My own feeling is that the thing that prevented them from recognizing the risen Jesus was their own unbelief, the same thing that initially prevented Thomas from believing that Jesus had risen in John 21.

It would make no sense for Jesus to later gently upbraid these two disciples for being "foolish" if God had enforced foolishness on them.

Indeed, it's impossible for me to imagine that God would force unbelief on any of us. God doesn't play those games. Just as He will not force any of us to believe in and follow Christ, nor would He do the opposite.

v. 17: (1) Here we have an irony in its ultimate Greek sense: One who seems not to know, who actually knows more than the ones who think they know it all. The disciples are incredulous that Jesus doesn't know about Jesus.

By the way, Shakespeare used such irony, too. His court jesters were usually smarter than the people for whom they worked, who assumed their superiority to the jesters. And one of the things that makes the comedy of Laurel and Hardy so funny is that, as I think their biographer John McCabe pointed out, you had a dumb one and a smart one who was actually dumber than the dumb one.

These comedic references are appropriate as we look at this passage. After all, what could be more hilarious than God coming into the world largely unrecognized, allowing Himself to be sacrificed for the sins of the very people who kill Him, and then, refusing to stay dead? The resurrection only proves that God knows a few more things than we do, in spite of all our pretensions to the contrary. (In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Christ-figure, Aslan, tells the children that the White Witch who had executed him in conformity with the Deep Magic was unaware of the Deeper Magic that if one who was without treachery died in the place of a traitor, "Death itself would start working backwards...")

(2) "They stood looking sad." These words confirm that the two disciples are hopeless and unwilling to believe the reports of the women from the tomb.

(3) Their sadness, Chris Haslam says, also has to do with the fact that, "Jesus has disappointed them; they expected him to deliver Israel from Roman domination, and to begin an earthly kingdom of God." They not only mourn Jesus' death, but the death of their triumphalistic aspirations.

v. 18: More irony.

vv. 19-24: (1) As NIB points out, Jesus' question is even briefer in the original Greek than it is here. "Poia?" He asks. "What things?"

(2) This brief question unleashes a torrent of words in response, 112 in the Greek.

(3) In their telling of the events of the previous three days, the two convey the same skepticism seen in v. 11.

vv. 25-27: Luke's fulfillment motif--Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy--plays out here in Jesus' response to the disciples. Throughout Luke's other book, Acts, he portrays the first-century Church proclaiming the story of redemption through Jesus Christ by telling the story of God's people, as recounted in the Old Testament. Jesus doesn't represent some break with the Jewish past; He is its fulfillment, His story the seamless continuation of God's plans for His people and for the whole human race from the beginning.

The NIB says, "The revelation of the Easter reality begins with the fulfillment of the Scriptures, just as the Gospel opened with emphasis on this theme in the first chapter."

vv. 28-32: (1) According to NIB, Jesus' apparent initial intention of walking on past the strangers' home in Emmaus comports with first-century Near-Eastern social convention. "The guest was obligated to turn down such an invitation until it was vigorously repeated (see Gen 19:2-3). Theologically, Jesus' action demonstrates that he never forces himself upon others. Faith must always be a spontaneous, voluntary response to God's grace."

(2) Opinion is divided on whether the meal that is shared here is the Eucharist, Holy Communion. I don't think it necessarily needs to have been. In three of the four epiphanies cited in my first pass at this lesson, recognition of God or of an angel happens over a meal. Luke has a big meal motif in his telling of Jesus' story, the sharing and fellowship at the table being a place of intimacy, hospitality, and openness to God.

(3) What I do think is happening here is that at the moment the two disciples were open to showing this stranger hospitality, they saw Christ.

(4) When one takes the various resurrection accounts from the four Gospels together, we get a picture of Jesus as both material and immaterial. He is no longer bound by space and time, though He voluntarily accepted these limitations before His death. In His resurrected being, Jesus, I think, points to two important realities:
  • His ability to be with us and to intercede for us in the counsels of heaven wherever we are, whenever we are.
  • What we will be like in our resurrected form. Eternity isn't, as C.S. Lewis points out, life forever--although that's not a bad way of expressing what it is. Eternity really is the "eternal now." That's the time dimension all who believe in Jesus will inhabit with God. An analogous spatial dimension will also be ours, what we might call the "eternal here."
(5) NIB suggests that in v. 29, Jesus models the ministry He commends to His followers in Luke 10:7 and 9:4.

v. 33: (1) Although it was already late and it was dangerous to travel outside the walls of a city at night, Cleopas and the other disciple trek back to Jerusalem. They're excited!

(2) In this passage, we see another motif of Luke's: Once a person has seen Jesus or understood Who He is, that good news isn't to be kept to one's self. It needs to be shared. In the book of Acts, chapter 9, the former persecutor of the Church, a guy who would come to be called Paul, immediately began telling others about Christ. When is the right time for a Christian to begin sharing Christ with others? Right away! Sure, new believers may get some things wrong. (So do old believers.) But how can one possibly not tell others about the Savior Who died and rose so that all who sin can be reconciled with God and live with Him in eternity?

v. 34: When they get back to the other disciples, they're told what they already know, that Jesus has risen from the dead. The report that Simon (Peter) saw the risen Jesus is consistent with what Paul writes in First Corinthians 15:3-5. (Note: Cephas is the Latin version of the Greek name, Petros, transliterated from the Greek as Peter.)

v. 35: This is when the two tell the others that they too, have seen the risen Jesus, and recognized Him in their fellowship over the meal.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Is It Strange That Tony Snow is Taking a Pay Cut?

This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, host Renee Montagne pointed out to the radio network's White House reporter, Davide Greene, that as pundit Tony Snow takes the job of press secretary for President Bush, he'll also be taking a pay cut. What, Montagne asked understandably enough, is "the upside" for Snow?

Greene's response though, wasn't quite so understandable to me. He said that one might consider what Snow is doing to be akin to a high-powered executive taking a lower-paying CEO position in a floundering company. The implication: Snow's motivation for becoming press secretary is to prop up a President who, the poll numbers do indicate, is less popular and trusted with the American people than he ever has been.

No doubt the challenge of that appeals to Snow. But I think that there's a more basic reason, one that goes beyond Snow's conservatism and his past ties to the Bush family and to new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten.

Simply put, the reason Tony Snow is willing to take a pay cut in order to take the thankless job of presidential press secretary is that he loves his country.

Millions of people across the country can identify with that motive, no matter how old school it may be deemed. And they're willing to make sacrifices, big and small, for the sake of America.

It's true of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives; of people who are grateful for the reality of America and people who believe in the promise of America; and of people who favor the war in Iraq and those who are opposed love their country.

These millions won't find love for country a strange motive for Tony Snow to take a job that entails a pay cut.

In fact, they would likely agree with pundit Joe Klein, author of the new Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, that one of the major failings of the current President Bush is that in the wake of the September 11 attacks, with the country in a desperate war against forces bent on destroying America, the President didn't tap into the love we have for our country to ask for sacrifices from us.

I always remember the story of how President Lyndon Johnson convinced Chief Justice Earl Warren to head the commission that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. Warren was reluctant. He was old and had a busy enough schedule at the Supreme Court. But in one of his patented wooing sessions, Johnson told Warren that he had once seen an old photograph of Warren, wearing the uniform of his country as a young soldier. "Your country needs you now," Johnson told the chief justice. Warren took the job.

This love of country exists among all sorts of people around America. And it's one of the things that makes this country special. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, it seems that every house and public building sprouted an American flag. I asked several exchange students of my kids' acquaintance--from places like Indonesia and Germany--if all this American patriotism made them feel uncomfortable. "No," was their universal response, "we wish there were more patriotism like it in our countries."

We all know the deficiencies of a "my country, right or wrong" approach. Blind allegiance to one's country can lead to gas chambers and holocausts. But patriotism to a country that believes in freedom and mutual responsibility and in righting its own wrongs after honest self-appraisal, is a good thing.

It's just possible that Tony Snow believes that in helping change the direction of the Bush Administration, he'll be serving his country. I think that most of us would be willing to take a pay cut if we thought we could give back to a country that has given so much to us. We all would consider that a decided up-side.

[Thanks to both Hugh Hewitt and Rick Moore for linking to this post.]

[Thanks also to Real Clear Politics for linking to this piece.]

[Further thanks go to Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In Israel and a few other places in the world today, it has been Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As a Christian, and most especially as a Lutheran, I think it's important to remember the Holocaust. After all, the atrocities of the Holocaust were initiated in a nation that considered itself Christian, where Lutheranism was and is the official state religion.

How did such a nation countenance the madness of Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust?

Of course, one can point to the fact that Martin Luther, the founder of the Christian reform movement that bears his name, was antisemitic himself. In this, he reflected both the attitudes of many in fifteenth and sixteenth century Germany and the prevailing attitude within the Roman Catholic Church from which he broke. The Roman Church for centuries, in spite of the Biblical witness, which says that the sins of the whole human race put Jesus on the cross, claimed that Jesus' fellow Jews were responsible for His execution. Luther apparently believed this. (I am pleased that at the 1993 Churchwide Assembly, my Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, repented for and repudiated Luther's antisemitic writings. I was doubly pleased to have been a voting member of that assembly.)

Nonetheless, the simple answer to the question of how Germany or any other nation can countenance genocide is that every human being is born into the common condition of sin, alienation from God. We inherit this alienation from our parents. In Psalm 51, King David, a man after God's own heart, confesses that he was a sinner from his mother's womb.

Without daily submission to the God we know in Jesus Christ, we will surely cave into the acts that flow from the condition of sin. We will act inhumanely toward others and render ourselves something less than human beings created in the image of God. We will do things that are less than noble or loving. (Something which all of us can attest happens from personal experience. At least I can.)

Remembering the Holocaust reminds us of the inhumanity and the sin of which we all are capable and calls us to turn from sin, surrender to Christ, and ask God to imbue us with the power to live the life of love for Him and love for neighbor to which every human being is called.

Is It Possible for Us to Go Back to the Future?

As Los Angeles, that mass of exurban concrete, prepares to create a downtown avenue along Grand Avenue, Jane Jacobs, a thinker who envisioned happily conflated urban environments, has died. Writes the New York Times in its obituary:
In her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs's enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities. At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.
In spite of my living in an exurban area--brought here sixteen years ago by my denomination to start a new congregation where people were coming to live, I embrace Jacobs's vision. Triggered initially by the post-World War Two deterioration of core city infrastructure, the emergence of a baby-booming middle class who thought that bigger was better, and the flight of whites away from blacks then beginning to populate the industrial North, our metropolitan areas have become often depressing concrete landscapes. Like locusts we eat, discard, and abandon central cities and succeeding ring communities, gobbling up farmland and small communities along the way, leaving in our wake empty buildings, pawn shops, and check-cashing salons.

The whole exurbanizing process, of course, is highly dependent on the internal combustion engine. But with newer communities composed of ever-larger houses being built all the time, commutes of an hour or more per day are becoming commonplace for many workers.

The result of all this, of course, is a technologically-enabled privatism that I'm convinced leads to the destruction of community and all the benefits that accrue from people living, working, playing, worshiping, and entertaining together.

Today, President Bush delivered a major speech with proposals on how to break America's dependence on oil. Whether the proposals are worthy or not, I leave to others to discuss. But surely one way our petroleum addiction can be ended is if we embrace Jacobs's vision of moving back into our cities together, curbing our need for more and more fuel.

A whole lot of other costs might be reduced as well.

But more than that, I think that our souls would be enriched. Imagine what it might be like if we all used sidewalks to go to parks by foot, meeting our neighbors along the way, passing the local school, slipping into the local theater for a movie or trekking to the stadium for a baseball game, dropping by the deli to pick up cold cuts for our packed lunches which we would enjoy either at home as telecommuters or at our offices, also within walking distance. On the weekends, we could ride to the country reclaimed for farming and conservancies.

Gertrude Stein once said derisively of Oakland, California, "There is no there there." Unfortunately, that's true of most of the places where we Americans live these days. But if we began to pursue Jacobs's ambitious, back-to-the-future vision, that wouldn't have to be the case.

[Here is a link to the Washington Post's informative obituary.]

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 24:13-35

[Each week, I share some insights from my study of the Bible passage around which our congregation's weekend worship celebrations will be built. They're presented with the hope that they'll help people prepare for worship and get more out of the whole experience. Because we usually build our worship around the appointed lectionary for Lutherans, which is similar to the lesson plans used by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, United Church of Christ, and others, folks from other churches may find these notes helpful.]

The Bible Lesson: Luke 24:13-35
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

General Comments
1. This is the most extensive account of one of Jesus' resurrection appearances that we have in the New Testament. Mark 16 appears to contain a conflated version of the incident.

2. Seeing/not seeing is a motif in Luke's two New Testament books, Luke and Acts. We find it in this passage. Of course, more is meant by seeing than physical sight. It stands for perception, understanding the reason for faith in Jesus Christ. The two disciples we meet here initially fail to see that: (a) the traveler they meet is the risen Jesus; (b) the fulfillment of both Jesus' promises and Old Testament prophecy about Him. But they move from blindness to sightedness.

(The first verse of Amazing Grace is a direct representation of the theology of Luke:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.)

3. The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) likens this passage to other Biblical incidents in which human beings unknowingly encounter heavenly ones, be they angels or God Himself. In most of them, fellowship around a meal is involved:
a. Hebrews 13:2 recalls Genesis 18 in which Abraham and Sarah entertain God, initially not recognizing Him.
b. In God's call of Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses at first doesn't know that he's talking with God.
c. In Judges 6:11-24, Gideon doesn't know that he's talking to an angel until they eat together. (By the way, like the incident in Genesis 18, this takes place under an oak.
d. In Judges 13, Samson's father, Manoah, doesn't initially recognize an angel. He asks for an opportunity to server dinner to the angel.
4. Joseph Fitzmyer divides this incident into four parts (according to NIB):
  • the meeting (vv.13-16)
  • the conversation en route (vv. 17-27)
  • the Emmaus meal (vv. 28-32)
  • the return to Jerusalem (vv.33-35)
5. This incident, along with the entire twenty-fourth chapter of Luke, takes place on the first Easter Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead. It was, according to Luke, a busy day!

6. This passage combines two other common motifs in Luke's Gospel: the journey and the meal.

All of Luke's grand inclusion from 9:51 to 19:28 talks about Jesus' purposeful journey to Jerusalem, for example.

An amazing number of significant things happen over meals in Luke's Gospel. It's a time of hospitality and fellowship.

I hope to post detailed verse-by-verse comments on this passage later in the week.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Two Interesting Perspectives from the Middle East on the Egyptian Bombings

First from Amman, Jordan.

Next from Egypt itself.

Hamas Gets Shrewd

Or so it would seem.

Yesterday, with the release of a new statement by Osama bin-Laden, Hamas said that there was a gulf between the al-Qaeda leader's philosophy and theirs. (Although, they accorded him the somewhat jarring honorific, "Sheik bin-Laden" in their statement. The title is usually given to a religious official or to the exalted leader of an Arab family or village.)

Now, in the wake of the three explosions in Egypt, Hamas has been quick to denounce the acts of terrorism, likely resulting in the deaths of many foreign tourists:
The Hamas government said those who carried out the attacks were guilty of a "criminal act which flouts our religion, shakes Palestinian national security and works against Arab interests."
That's fairly emphatic language, indicative that Hamas may be ready to soften its hardline position on the existence of Israel and accomplish what the late Yasser Arafat was unable to pull off, the establishment of Palestinian sovereignty.

Hamas is in a good position to do this, analogous to that of Richard Nixon toward the People's Republic of China during his time as President. When Nixon, the hardline anti-Communist, announced that he was going to visit Communist China, a nation with which this country didn't even have formal diplomatic ties at the time, the announcement was hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike.

No Democrat could have pulled off Nixon's diplomatic initiative, simply because the Dems were regarded as "soft on Communism," and hence, apt to "give away the store" in any negotiations with the Beijing regime. Nixon, by contrast, was seen as a guy who would not cave into the Chinese government. Liberal supporters of rapprochement with China could do nothing but applaud Nixon; Republicans trusted him in spite of their suspicions regarding the Maoists.

Among the Palestinians, Hamas is the hardline faction. This frees them to be more conciliatory toward Israel and the West. They appear to be shrewdly, if slowly, exploiting that freedom, with eyes toward full Palestinian nationhood.

[Here is a piece I posted on the explosions that occurred in Egypt last year, analyzed from a religious perspective.]

Sunday, April 23, 2006

O'Connor and Romer Involved in Worthy Effort to Strengthen America

Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and one-time Colorado Governor Roy Romer are co-chairing a national effort to reverse a long-time national slide toward civic ignorance.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is encouraging what, from the beginning of the country's life deemed an essential element in the success of America: an informed public, educated in the functioning of America's constitutional system.

The founders understood that rule by, for, and of the people would quickly degenerate into mobocracy if the people had no understanding of government. Soon after the United States won its independence from England, legislation establishing the Northwest Territory (and detailing how states could be carved from the region) acknowledged the necessity of civic education by providing for the establishment of public schools.

Today, there is so much emphasis on Math and Science that citizenship education is given little attention. The results are predictable: low voter participation, particularly among young people; an alarming ignorance of our Constitution and history; and I would add, a susceptibility to demagoguery and sound-bite electioneering.

Already, according to Washington Post columnist David Broder, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is meeting with some success:
Coalitions have been formed to promote the cause in at least 18 states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, has agreed to test students on their civic knowledge every four years instead of every eight.
Broder adds:
The challenge [the campaign seeks to address] is heightened by the influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, into this country. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has added an amendment to the stalled immigration reform bill creating a fund and incentives for preparing those recent arrivals for the duties and privileges of citizenship. But obviously, with voting participation as low as it is -- especially among young people -- many native-born Americans also need training in civics.
I wish this campaign well. So far as I'm concerned, civic education is at least as important as education in Math and Science and the Arts.

If you go to the campaign's web site, you'll find ways for individuals and communities to get involved.

The Sermon That Wasn't

[This message wasn't given...although it was. I originally thought that I would be preaching at just one of our weekend worship celebrations at Friendship Church, Amelia, Ohio. The Sunday celebration was given over, I knew, to a fine workshop called Finding Your Passions, conducted by one of our members.

[I did something I have probably only done five times in the twenty-two years I've been a pastor: I revised an old message, one from three years ago. It was revised and ready to be shared when I was reminded that, in fact, the workshop would be presented at the Saturday celebration as well.]

[So, here it is, the sermon that was in a pre-revised form in 2003 and wasn't in its revised form.]

John 20:19-31

When I was a young man the thing that kept me from following Christ was the Easter story: the Church’s insistent proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead. I couldn’t believe and I couldn’t understand how any rational human being could believe, that Jesus had been resurrected.

After attending worship at what would eventually become my home congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Columbus, with my wife, I started to investigate, reading a number of books that presented evidence to convince readers rationally that Jesus had risen from the dead. Today, you can find lots of books like that. Many of them are very good. But it was my experience that for every piece of evidence one could present supporting Jesus’ resurrection, there was a counter-argument just as compelling.

Yet something led me to trust not only that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but also to trust Him as my Lord and God and Savior. That “something” came in all the people whose lives I had seen changed when they followed Jesus Christ:
  • The person who wrestled with mental illness for decades and finally found peace and purpose for life in the arms of Christ.
  • The elderly paint contractor who cared for his ill wife for years and provided that care with cheerfulness.
  • The reluctant congregational president who, when forced to make almost impossible decisions, forged ahead with a love and passion that one would have hardly expected to see in someone who seemed so ordinary.
  • The parents of high school classmates who knew what a loser I had been but still accepted me, encouraged me, and to this day, remain my loving boosters.
What led me to believe in the risen Jesus was all the people I saw who lived with Him in the center of their lives.

If Jesus was alive in them, I concluded, He must really be alive!

Pinchas Lapide is a Jewish scholar who studies the New Testament, the portion of the Bible which Jews reject because it affirms Jesus’ resurrection and that Jesus is the Savior of the world. But Lapide, after extensive study, concludes that God the Father really did raise Jesus from the dead. Listen to what he writes in his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective:
When this scared, frightened band of the apostles which was just about to throw away everything in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when these peasants, shepherds, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master and then failed Him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.
What ultimately convinced this Jewish scholar that Jesus really rose from the dead was that he observed the risen Jesus living in the people who first claimed they’d seen Jesus resurrected from the dead. He believes in Jesus’ resurrection because of the way the lives of Jesus’ followers—ordinary women and men—changed after the first Easter morning.

Have you seen the risen Jesus living and active in ordinary people?

Are people able to see the risen Jesus in you and me?

As we begin our ‘Drive to Five,’ seeking to grow to five-hundred baptized members of Friendship by Easter, 2007, we must remember that will only happen if people see the risen Jesus living in us!

There are times when we can feel confused and upset by the seeming absence of God from our lives. We wonder, “If Jesus is risen and living, why has this happened in my life? Or, why has tragedy befallen someone we care about?” We must remember in times like these that this world is imperfect. Horrible things happen. But if we open our eyes, we can also see that the risen Jesus is alive and at work in the lives of people who follow Him.

This past week, I met here with the priest of a local Roman Catholic parish. I have to tell you that I wondered what a priest would think of our building facility and our multi-use sanctuary. But he stood and gazed around this place for a long time. Finally, quietly, he said, “What a warm and inviting space, a very human space, and that’s good!”

When I shared that incident with some of our servanthood team members this past Wednesday evening, one of them said, “But I don’t think it’s just the building that does that. I think that it’s the way we live in it and the way we worship in it. People feel that when they come here.”

I agree. It’s like a deeply committed Christian woman from another congregation has told me: “When I walk into that building on Sunday mornings, surrounded by all those believing people of Friendship, I can see Jesus’ presence in the center of the place.”

When people see the risen Jesus living in His followers, they believe in the resurrection!

Hector Vasquez is a Lutheran pastor who once lived and worked as a missionary in Guatemala. There, he says, he and his wife Mirtha “learned an important lesson—the success of any church is not dependent on great decisions or great wisdom, it depends on the ability and knowledge of [God’s] Holy Spirit [working in] each one of us.”

According to Vasquez, early one morning, he found a group of people standing outside his home. They represented several indigenous communities where he and his wife were starting to do community service work. These people had a request: “They said, ‘Pastor Hector, our communities sent us so that we can ask you to send us pastors and teachers to teach us and our children. We know that what you do is good and, therefore, what you believe must also be good.’”

The Church is the family of the risen Jesus. When we let the risen Jesus be our Lord and God, the whole world sees Him!

When we allow Him to unleash His passionate love in us, we see Him too! "Love God and love neighbor" are more than mottos stitched on a pillow somewhere; they are our way of life when the risen Jesus takes up residence in our lives!

“Linking hands with God and neighbor" needs to be more than our congreational motto; it needs to describe the way we live.

And our mission statement--Friendship Church is a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitan Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Jesus Christ!--must become more than mere words to us.

I don’t understand how Jesus’ once-dead tissue and organs were brought back to life on the first Easter Sunday. And it’s only natural for us to wonder how and even if, it all can be possible. That’s certainly how Thomas, one of Jesus’ first followers felt.

According to our Bible lesson for this morning, the risen Jesus had made several appearances to His followers. They had excitedly shared their news with other followers who hadn’t yet seen Him. One of those who hadn’t yet seen Jesus was Thomas.

“Unless I’m able to see Jesus and touch the scars left behind by His crucifixion and by the sword that pierced His side, I’m not buying this whole story,” Thomas tells the others. On the Sunday following Easter, Thomas got the shock of his life. Gathered in a locked room, probably listening disbelievingly to his fellow Jesus-followers yammer on about how they had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas looked up and there stood Jesus. Thomas fell down on his face, worshiping Jesus, calling Him, “My Lord and my God.” And then Jesus told Thomas:
“Have you believed Me because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus is risen from the dead whether we see Him or not.

Jesus is with and is blessing those who follow Him whether they can point to Him or not.

Whether they know it or not, the people of today's world world are desperate for the hope that only the risen Jesus can give. When in our everyday lives, you and I let Jesus take control of who we are, what we do, and what we say, both we and the world around us see the risen Jesus. Then, like Thomas, people will feel compelled to worship at Jesus’ feet and like him and us, to call Jesus, “Lord and God.”