resurrection

'Zealot:' How Reza Aslan Constructed a False Jesus

Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).

I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.

His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:

[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)

The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.

Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.

The Forgiving Corpse: A Parable

Big Lights Big City promotional poster
Big Lights Big City promotional poster

How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.

Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!

Sermon On Why Hope and Vapid Optimism Are Not The Same Thing

Bird tattoos come to life, Marianne D / Shutterstock.com
Bird tattoos come to life, Marianne D / Shutterstock.com

… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

-Romans 5

As many of you know, I have a regular spiritual practice of warning people that I will disappoint them. A couple times a year, we host a Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints brunch for newcomers. Everyone goes around the room saying what drew them to this community or what keeps them here. They usually say it’s a comfortable place where they can just be who they are or they love the singing or the community. One time someone said that their mom was Catholic and their dad was atheist and that this church kinda felt like a combo of the two. And while I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what that meant, I thought it was awesome. 

Well, I usually am the last to speak at these events and when I do and I always say how great it is to hear all of that, but that I need them to hear something. And that is that this church will disappoint you. Or I will fail to meet your expectations, or I’ll say something stupid and hurt your feelings. It’s not a matter of if it’s when. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.

'Greater Works Than Mine'

THE SAGA OF Elijah that we are following in 1 and 2 Kings culminates in a poignant parting as the prophet prepares to be taken up into heaven. His disciple, Elisha, makes a final all-or-nothing request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah states a condition for the fulfillment of Elisha’s prayer: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2:10). It is as if Elisha has to look unblinkingly into the reality of their separation. If he is to inherit the prophetic mantle and spirit of his teacher, he must claim the vocation in its entirety. He is now to be the prophet.

The story is an uncanny pointer to the truth that John the Evangelist highlights in Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you ...” (16:7). John even echoes the “double spirit” theme in 14:12, when he has Jesus assure us that our prophetic endeavors will be more abundant and powerful than Jesus’ own!

The season following Pentecost helps us realize that we are the prophets now, vested with the mandate and endowed with the gifts for enacting the good news of liberation.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ JUNE 2 ]
A Climate of Relativism
1 Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

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Everyday Moments of Resurrection

Pentecost illustration, Molodec / Shutterstock.com
Pentecost illustration, Molodec / Shutterstock.com

We tend to consider the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Pentecost in two ways primarily. We see them as history, stories about things that happened a long time ago. Or we consider them through theologies about what they mean for us after we die.

Yet, there is a deeper reality to all of them. The cross, the empty tomb, the moment of divine inspiration are repeated every day and everywhere. They’re ongoing and participatory.

Many experience those moments of inspiration each day. They’re moved to help someone who is hurting, inspired to care for those who are struggling, emboldened to try to change their world in some way. They sense something divine in the small moments of life. They stand up for anyone who is being treated as less than an equal child of God. They see love at work all around them.

Spirit-filled moments happen every day.

Jesus Resurrected and 'The Undocumented'

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.
Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.

The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco,  who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death he has to find the body.

The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.

In the film, Marcos won’t believe his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe unless he can see.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and what Thomas says about needing to see the body reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe.

On Scripture: Why Our Bodies Matter

Composition of the human body, malinx / Shutterstock.com
Composition of the human body, malinx / Shutterstock.com

Immediately following the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope came the predictable speculation. From the United States and other wealthy nations, folks wondered what the new Pope would say about issues related to gender and human sexuality. What about birth control, homosexuality, and women’s leadership in the church? Did the new Pope really support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Argentina, as some reported? Others, including many from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia responded to Pope Francis’ commitment to a simple lifestyle and his commitment to economic justice. While some fretted about his relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, most have been impressed with his social witness. In one of his first public acts, Pope Francis entered a youth detention center in Rome and washed the feet of young offenders.

Lots of observers might wonder, “Why is the church expending so much energy on controversial social issues? Shouldn’t the church focus on spiritual matters rather than concerns of the flesh? Why does the church need to meddle in matters that lie beyond its purview?”

The Easter stories offer a direct answer. Whether we agree with the Pope or not, Christians care about human bodies. The resurrection story implies that bodies matter. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely a spiritual thing – the apparition of his ghost, or his ongoing spiritual influence. The Gospels all insist that the resurrection includes Jesus’ body.

The Garden Outside Pleasantville

Via Wikimedia Commons
Water tower located in Pleasantville, Iowa. By Ashton B Crew for Photo taken for www.randomiowa.com. Via Wikimedia Commons

In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden … out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve — you, me, all of us — on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.

Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong. But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here, outside the Garden, it’s rough sometimes.

Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 4)

Faith and doubt,  iQoncept / Shutterstock.com
Faith and doubt, iQoncept / Shutterstock.com

(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

Tripp Hudgins always gets me thinking. He is right that Rob’s chapter “Open” in What We Talk About When We Talk About God is about science and religion but that it’s also not about science and religion. This is the longest chapter of the book, and it’s full of scientific information that points to the mystery of the material world. What’s the point? As Tripp states, Rob is “asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for curiosity.”

That’s the point of the next chapter, too. Titled “Both,” in this chapter Rob points out a major problem we have with “God-talk.” That problem is language. Tripp set me up for this at the end of his post by asking, “Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.”

When I was in seminary I learned about apophatic theology, or negative theology. It tries to define God by what God is not. A 9th century apophatic theologian named John Scottus Eriugena asserted, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally, God is not because He transcends being.”

On Scripture: How Long Does Darkness Last?

Darkness illustration, imy / Shutterstock.com
Darkness illustration, imy / Shutterstock.com

For the sake of the world, we should all be feminists. And given what we know about the role of independent, empowered women in the community of disciples, for the sake world, we might be “Christians.”

Raymond Brown, the late, great scholar of John, writes: “In this Gospel, where light and darkness play such a role, darkness lasts until someone believes in the risen Jesus.”  

Therefore no darkness, no heartbreak, no grief, no injustice can long stand where the Risen Christ is proclaimed. Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  The light shines in the darknessa and the darkness does not — cannot — will not overcome the light. 

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