Rick Herrick's Blog: Rethinking Christianity

June 18, 2015

A Father's Day Remembrance

I grew up in Toronto Canada. One day the fire trucks came to my house. It was every little boy’s dream. Well almost.

I was six years old. It was a late fall afternoon, and I decided to rake the leaves in the backyard. I had made the plan on the way home from school. I wanted to surprise my father. After completing the task, I decided to burn them. That’s what my father did. The problem was the leaves were in the middle of the lawn and were blowing. So I moved them against the garage, which thankfully was not attached to the house, and lit the match. Half an hour later the fire trucks arrived.

My mother quickly sent her three children to a neighbor’s house where the woman proceeded to lecture me in no uncertain terms. After the fire trucks left a garage that had burned to the ground, we were returned to our house, and my mother sent me to my room to await my father.

The wait was interminable. It seemed to go on forever as I stared at the baseball players covering the wall and the airplanes dangling from the ceiling. Finally, maybe two hours after being sent to a sanctuary that had turned into a prison, there was a gentle knock on the door. I was terrified.

The first thing my father did as he entered the room was to thank me for raking the leaves. He then told me the garage was not much of an asset to the house. We can plant a garden there next spring. What we really need is a new car, and the insurance money from the garage will cover that nicely. As he sat down on the bed and gathered me into his arms, he told me that I would be the first person to ride in the car if I promised never again to light a fire without him being present. Three weeks later he arrived home with the new car and took me out for an ice cream cone.

Thanks Dad. I sure do miss you.
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Published on June 18, 2015 18:25 Tags: christian-nonfiction

April 19, 2015

New Testament 101

Conservative Christians who support the recent spat of religious freedom laws should read the Bible. If they did, they would see Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. In acting this way, Jesus was making a significant statement in a society where self-righteous Jews hated both groups.

These Christians should spend some time thinking about Jesus’s famous parable, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). In this story, an inquiring lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying the man must keep the two great commandments to love God and neighbor. The man then follows up by asking Jesus to define what he means by neighbor. Who is my neighbor? The Good Samaritan is Jesus’s answer to that question.

The story is well known. A man is traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho who falls into the hands of brigands. The brigands rob him, beat him, and leave him by the side of the road. The first person to see the victim is a priest who passes him by. The priest is followed by a Levite, an assistant priest, who also passes him by. Both the priest and the Levite are members of the religious establishment. The victim is finally saved by a Samaritan who takes compassion on him.

What is fascinating about this story and shocking to Jews of the first century is the victim is saved by a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans. They considered them to be mortal enemies and unclean. Samaritans lived in central Palestine between Judea on the south and Galilee on the north. They accepted only the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, and worshipped Yahweh in their own temple on Mount Gerizim. It’s hard to miss the point here. This parable is a story about reconciliation and reaching out to those who are different.

If Conservative Christians read Paul’s letter to the Romans, they should read the entire letter. Yes, Paul condemns homosexuality in the first chapter. (Romans 1:27) However, if one reads further (Romans 13:11-12), Paul proclaims the Second Coming as imminent, the time is now, within Paul’s lifetime. Paul was obviously wrong in his prediction. Maybe he was wrong about homosexuality too.

For many Conservative Christians, though not all, religion is about belief. What is important is believing in correct doctrine not loving your neighbor. A religion of belief is nothing more than an ideology which bypasses the heart. It has more in common with radical Islam, another religious ideology which fails to connect with the heart, than the religion of Jesus which simply asks his followers to love God and to reach out to neighbors who are different.
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Published on April 19, 2015 13:52

February 20, 2015

The Jesus Society

There is an ugly undercurrent in the New Testament, which I have never seen anyone discuss. The Jesus movement was a small, privileged, secret society. What’s worse, this is the way God intended it to be. This disturbing picture is widespread in the New Testament.

In Mark, Jesus deliberately speaks to the crowd in parables so that his listeners won’t be able to understand his message. He later explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples when they are alone (Mark 1: 23-28, 33-34). In chapter eight, he denies the Pharisees a sign (8: 11-13), and in chapter eleven he refuses to disclose the source of his authority to the Jewish leadership (11: 27-33). The point was the Jewish leadership did not have entry into the Kingdom of God.

In Matthew, the mystery of the Kingdom of heaven is given to the disciples, not the crowd. God has closed the minds of the general audience. Spiritual truth is only given to the elect (see chapter 13). At the end of his ministry, Jesus devotes all of his time with the disciples.

This same theme is prominent in John. Jesus ends his public ministry in chapter 12 (see vv. 37-50) and pledges to spend the rest of his time on earth instructing his disciples. The author of John explains the failure of Jesus to convert the Jews as a group because God prevented them from seeing and hearing (12: 40).

The most significant case of this secretiveness occurs in the resurrection stories. In these stories the resurrected Jesus meets with his disciples and a few women. That’s it. It’s one of the few aspects of these stories on which all four gospels agree.

The consequence of this secretiveness regarding the resurrection is enormous. New Testament belief posits that life in God’s kingdom was given to those who confessed Jesus as their savior. Obviously it would greatly help the chances of one coming to such a belief if he or she had met the resurrected Jesus. But God limited that meeting to a few.

Obviously a God of love would not operate in this way. If Jesus reflects this God of love, he would hide nothing. He would speak in a way that all listeners could understand, and he would welcome all honest seekers into his kingdom. A resurrected Jesus who was all about God’s love would go out of his way to meet with anyone he encountered in Jerusalem (Luke and John) or Galilee (Matthew) depending on which gospel account is correct as to where the resurrection took place.

The Jesus society illustrates once again the central focus of my writing on the New Testament. The Christian scriptures are very human writings. They are inspired like great poetry or music and yet written by human beings. The source of this creativity is a mystery. The one thing these writings do not contain is the word of God.
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Published on February 20, 2015 06:20 Tags: christian, nonfiction

February 2, 2015

The Comfortable Pew

The Comfortable Pew
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas
A Review

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine were born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau Germany. Though a gifted musician, Bonhoeffer decided at an early age he wanted to become a theologian. With that in mind, he earned his doctorate in theology from Berlin University in 1927.

As is well known, Bonhoeffer went on to become one of the great Christian theologians of the twentieth century. What is less well known is the leading role Bonhoeffer played in trying to end Nazi rule in Germany—the subject of Metaxas’s book.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Two days later Bonhoeffer spoke publicly on the radio against the Fuhrer Principle. In the address, Bonhoeffer pointed out that the authority of Hitler was self-derived, autocratic, and messianic. In contrast, a true leader derived his authority from God. As a result, such a leader knows the limits of his authority and uses that authority to serve others.

The Nazis moved quickly to destroy German society. On April 7 of 1933, they announced the Aryan Paragraph, which stated that government employees and civil servants could not be Jews. In response, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In that essay, he pointed out the Bible proclaimed Jews to be God’s chosen people. If the state does anything to endanger the Christian proclamation, Christians must stand up against it.

Although anti-Christian, Hitler condemned Christianity as nonsense, a Jewish plot, he initially sought to use the Church to achieve his goals. Along with most Church leaders, Hitler worked to recreate the German Lutheran Church along the lines of Nazi principles. The German Christians as they were called preached a Christianity that was the polar opposite of Judaism. Jesus became an anti-Semite, and the Jewish Scriptures were discarded as dirty Jewish propaganda. It was estimated that 80 to 90% of German Christians fell into this camp either because they believed the Nazi lies or because they were too afraid to take a stand.

Again, Bonhoeffer responded in writing. He published a little book on the Psalms entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible. In it he gave a passionate defense of Jewish Scripture. Christianity was unavoidably Jewish, he argued. Following the book’s publication, the Reich Writers Guild forbid him from writing.

Bonhoeffer did far more than speak out against the Nazis, however. In May of 1934 he and a small group of church leaders met to establish the Confessing Church, which strongly condemned the anti-Semitism of the Nazis as well as other “heresies” of the German Christians. In April of 1935 Bonhoeffer became head of the first and only seminary of the Confessing Church.

The Nazis cracked down on the Confessing Church in 1937. At that time the government closed down the seminary, imprisoned 800 pastors and layleaders, and required all pastors to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Soon after this crackdown, Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He was assigned the task of trying to negotiate a separate peace with the allies through his contacts with church leaders in England. For his role in the conspiracy, he was arrested and sent to Tegel military prison on April 5, 1943. Two years later he was hanged at Flossenburg, just days before the Americans liberated this notorious prison camp.

The history of the capitulation of the German Lutheran Church to the Nazis in the 1930s is reminiscent of the experience of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the American South in the 1960s. When Dr. King began his civil rights work in the South, he expected the church would be his greatest source of support. Instead he found ministers and priests to be his main opponents. Most Southern Christians defended the status quo with regard to segregation.

Dr. King came to see these churches as nothing more than social clubs, fraternities of like-minded people who joined together each Sunday to confirm their values. White Southerners, Dr. King concluded, had few black friends. As a result, they were unable to see or to experience the injustice of white racism.

Bonhoeffer explained the German situation somewhat differently. For him, it was a matter of cheap grace. God loves and forgives us no matter how we live. The Sermon on the Mount is a set of nice, impractical ideals, which has no relation to one’s salvation. The central theme of Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, ridicules this notion of cheap grace.

The problem of the comfortable pew is an important one for spiritual people interested in achieving social change. If one reads between the lines in Metaxas’s book, one possible solution becomes apparent. Childhood socialization. Bonhoeffer came from a loving family with a mother who was a devout Christian. Although the Bonhoeffers rarely went to church, Bible reading and hymn singing were an important part of their daily lives. Bonhoeffer’s mother home-schooled all of her children until they were seven or eight. Metaxas concludes that both she and her husband created a culture of selflessness within the family. Values such as generosity, serving your neighbor, respect for the opinion of others, tolerance for those who are different, and the importance of standing up for what you believe in were a constant focus in the Bonhoeffer household.

This value training worked. It influenced all of Bonhoeffer’s siblings. His twin sister Sabine married a Jew. On the day Bonhoeffer was arrested, the Gestapo also arrested his sister Christine for her anti-Nazi activities. Bonhoeffer’s older brother Klaus was hanged for his role in the plot against Hitler.

Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the story of a man’s incredible moral courage in the face of monstrous evil. The book is well researched, well written, and fast moving. Most importantly, it’s a book that all spiritual seekers can learn from.
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Published on February 02, 2015 06:20 Tags: christian, nonfction

December 12, 2014

Churches of America Standup

There’s a new threat on the climate change front, and it’s a big one. The recent midterm elections not only put Republicans in charge of the Congress, but the party of science deniers made dramatic gains at the state and local levels. This impressive victory was made possible by huge infusions of cash from oil, coal, and natural gas interests.

The problem is these interests do not donate money. They invest it. With victory in hand, they are already seeking a return on their investment. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, fossil fuel industry lobbyists are looking for ways to delay implementation of the Obama administration’s plan to place limits on coal-fired power plant emissions. Their hope is that with a Republican president in the White House in 2017 they can then reverse the policy. They are also demonizing the EPA as an out of control government agency in an attempt to weaken its authority.

How do you fight these people? Environmental groups are well aware of this new threat and will do everything in their power to combat it. But these groups need our help. The best way to defeat narrow vested interests is in the arena of public opinion. This is a difficult task, however, because public opinion is often uninformed and not much interested in national political issues.

Sadly, this dynamic defines the current climate change debate. According to recent Pew Research data (www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/c...), the American public ranks global warming as a low priority for government action. Fewer Americans (only 34%) cite global climate change as a major threat when compared to other countries in the world. Poll numbers such as these guarantee vested interests win.

But the task is not impossible. Public support for environmental initiatives is closely correlated to the health of the economy. When Americans feel good about their economic well being, they support policies to protect the environment. Recent polls indicate that a significant majority of Americans believe human economic activity is contributing to the climate change problem. Sixty-five percent of Americans favor stricter emissions on coal-fired power plants. Americans also support by large majorities the need for increased reliance on solar and wind power to generate electricity.

What the general public does not seem to understand is the urgency of the threat. Many see it as a long-term problem, which won’t significantly impact them during their lifetime. They need to understand that the negative consequences of climate change are already here. They also need to understand the economic costs of trying to safely manage the climate change challenge are far less than the costs of repairing the damage from runaway carbon dioxide emissions. Finally, they need to know that significant steps now to move away from fossil fuel powered energy is necessary if we are to have any chance of managing this challenge safely.

Make no mistake. This is a Christian issue. The Bible calls on us to take care of the earth. This issue is about serving neighbors now and those who will follow us in the future. It’s about where the heart is. It’s about individuals standing up and acting in terms of their higher interests.

Churches have an important role to play in this effort. Grass roots movements need moral energy which sermons can provide. Churches can also offer their facilities for educational meetings featuring local scientists and economists who are well versed on the different threats posed by climate change. Christians need to become convinced that every person has a moral responsibility to make a difference on this issue.

The World Council of Churches has taken a strong stand in defense of the climate since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992. They have called on all Christians to speak out and act in ways that support the health of the planet. In addition, many religious communities have issued statements in defense of the climate—the United Church of Christ, Union Theological Seminary, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Vatican. Denominations of all stripes have followed suit including many Evangelical congregations, although the issue remains divisive within their community.

The point, however, is that the current political situation demands that much more be done. I often think church leaders underestimate the potential of church members to respond positively to political direction. Most Christians I know attend a church because Christianity represents for them all that is beautiful, good, and loving in the world. They are both looking for and open to these general impulses being defined. Because of the imminent nature of the climate change threat, churches have a crucial role to play linking the spiritual values of their members to this issue.

There are many important issues of concern to spiritual progressives. Recent grand jury decisions involving white police officers shooting unarmed black men have pointed out very significant problems in the criminal justice system. The global economic system has been punishing to middle class Americans. And then there are always the issues of global military spending and military violence. What makes climate change different is that the carbon we emit into the atmosphere today will be with us for 1,000 years. There is no forgiveness on this issue. There is no second chance. We must band together now to stop the fossil fuel interests from ruining the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Unless the general public becomes involved in a massive and sustained way, the oil and coal interests will win.
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Published on December 12, 2014 08:03 Tags: christian, nonfiction

November 15, 2014

The Limits of Religious Belief

I am one of the few people I know who looks forward to visits from religious proselytizers. Over the years I have had relationships with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and several Evangelical Christians. From these encounters, I have learned a great deal about religion.
Without question, my most important relationship was with two women from the Sparkling Creek Missionary Baptist Church—a fictional name I have borrowed from my novel, A Week in October. I want to assure you, however, the only thing fictional about this story is the name of the church.
Lyn and I moved to the mountains of North Carolina with our three children thirty years ago. I was on sabbatical leave from my university. It was my ambition to write a book on United States foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. It was her ambition to become a ski patroller. Two months into our stay, we decided to abandon our jobs and make the move permanent. If you have ever experienced a fall in the North Carolina mountains, you would understand why.
In any event, not long after arriving there, a small truck turned onto the gravel driveway that led to the log cabin we were renting. Moments later two women in their late fifties or early sixties knocked on our door, Bibles in hand. I welcomed Edith and Ethel into our home, which began a relationship that lasted for two years. They came every Wednesday morning at nine. We all looked forward to the meetings. There were times when I served them lunch.
Things were a little tense in the beginning, however. What initially took place was a contest of wills. They tried to convince me the Bible was the inerrant word of God while I rather forcefully suggested otherwise. Over time our positions softened as we became good friends, and we began to seek mutual understanding rather than doctrinal one-upmanship.
Our relationship entered a new phase that first winter. With Lyn and the kids off skiing on Sundays, I was free to attend their church. The highlight of my attendance came at my first revival. As I left our cabin on a Wednesday night toward the end of March, I was psyched. For a religious scientist, this was the Super Bowl.
The little church was packed, and I was fortunate my friends saved me a seat. We chatted happily until a hush came over the congregation as two ministers entered the sanctuary through the side door—Reverend Belcher, the pastor of the church, and Dr. Nathan Paxton, the visiting revivalist.
The service began rather traditionally with a hymn, selected scripture readings, and a prayer. In fact, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting so much more from my first revival, and it soon came with Dr. Paxton’s sermon. It was one of the best performances in public speaking I have ever witnessed. His voice oscillated from tones that were barely audible with people sitting on the edges of their seats straining to hear every word, to shouts that were menacing and rather scary. Guilt was floating all over the room. People were in tears. My judgmental mind was running in overdrive.
After the sermon, came the testimonials. They started slowly too. The first came from a young girl, maybe ten or eleven, who confessed to stealing gum from a local general store. Of course, Jesus came into her life, she was “born again,” forgiven, and Dr. Paxton blessed her. Three or four others followed with similar stories and outcomes. Then a hush fell over the congregation for a second time when a young man in his late twenties came forward.
The young man was obviously very nervous, and it was impossible for me to understand his confession. Sensing his distress, his pregnant wife joined him at the front of the church and took his hand. This enabled him to begin again, and to confess an affair that had lasted for nearly a year and had recently ended when Jesus came into his life. I was touched by the beaming support of the pregnant wife, and the courage of the man in making such a public confession.
Then an amazing thing happened. People spontaneously rose from their seats, some to give the couple a standing ovation, others to move toward the front of the church to hug them. It was a love stampede even I was caught up in. People all over the church were hugging each other and reaching out to the young couple. Love and forgiveness replaced all that guilt. It was palpable. It touched me deeply.
There is no question something profoundly real happened in the Sparkling Creek Missionary Baptist Church that evening. Love somehow graces the world in which we live. Because it is so different from anything commonly associated with human nature, many people claim it comes from God. I am one of those claimants. And yet revelation from God is an encounter that has no verbal content. It inspires awe and wonder. It creates a sense of deep peace and love. It has the power to transform personality, and yet it has no relation to doctrine. In no way did it prove what so many in that church believed that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin, and raised back to life three days after dying on a cross.
The question of religious doctrine reminds me of the wonderful Hindu parable of three wise men seeking answers about God. In their quest, while blindfolded, they encounter an elephant. One of the men reaches out to the elephant and grabs his leg. “Aha, this is God,” the wise man says. Another grabs his trunk while a third finds the elephant’s torso. Both men come to a similar conclusion that they too have found God. If the three men write about their experience and most people who have such experiences do, they will be creating religious doctrine.
The real love and forgiveness encountered in that church that evening in no way proves Christian doctrine as I suggest above. Its creators were blind men reaching out to an elephant. What happened was members of the congregation reached out in love and forgiveness to the young man who had cheated on his wife. In taking that step, they were moving away from ego, which enabled them to enter the kingdom of God, the realm of deep love that is part of the created universe.
This love graces every religious tradition—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism to name a few. But it doesn’t define or prove the doctrine associated with a particular tradition. Religious doctrine of all stripes is created by human beings, which means it is not related in any way to Truth with a capital T.
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Published on November 15, 2014 07:28 Tags: christian, nonfiction

November 7, 2014

A Lesson from Tibet

This May my wife and I will travel to Tibet. For me, it’s a dream come true. Tibetan Buddhism has a special place in my heart.

The recent history of Chinese atrocities is troublesome, however. For years I have said I would never travel there until the Chinese leave. Why the change? I have decided that if the Dalai Lama can forgive the Chinese I can too.

The Chinese not only occupy the country, but they have tried to systematically destroy Tibetan culture. The pressure during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was particularly intense. 1.2 million Tibetans were killed, 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, sacred texts and religious artifacts were burned or otherwise decimated.

And yet the Dalai Lama forgives the Chinese. Why? How? The answer to the first question is his religion teaches forgiveness. The answer to the second question is that he spends four hours a day meditating on compassion.
While it is always difficult evaluating Tibetan history because the country has been closed to the Western world for much of its existence, we know a lot about the exile community in Dharamsala India. The Dalai Lama was forced into exile there in 1959. Since then he has established a society and a political system based on the Buddhist teachings on compassion, nonviolence, economic and social justice, and environmental stewardship.

The application of these spiritual values to real world political and social problems is impressive. No Christian society has a comparable record in operationalizing similar teachings of Jesus from such places as the Sermon on the Mount. People interested in living religious values can learn from Tibet.

The key lesson is that Tibetan Buddhism focuses on the problem of ego. Tibetan Buddhist practice is designed to quiet the mind and to focus it away from self-centered concerns. The goal is to train the mind to see the world from a different perspective, a perspective that focuses on the needs of others, away from the individual self. The problem is that fear, anger, prejudice, and/or grasping focus the mind on self-centered concerns. Spiritual practice helps us uncover the depths of our psychological wounds. Without doing this disciplined work, these hurts contaminate our unconscious life and prevent us from serving others.

Eastern spiritual practices are not about belief or theology. Any religious tradition can adopt them. Christians are inspired by the teachings of Jesus, but have been given no direction on how to live them. The time has come for the Christian church to take on the problem of ego. There is no other way for its members to live the teachings of Jesus. The success of the Tibetan community in exile proves it.
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Published on November 07, 2014 05:40 Tags: christian, nonfiction

February 17, 2014

A Beautiful Mind

One of my favorite books is A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., the mathematical genius and inventor of the theory of rational behavior. The fields of economics and game theory were fundamentally changed because of his work.

Sadly, underneath the brilliant surface of his life, chaos reined. Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age thirty. According to Nash, there were two voices in his head, both equally valid: the voice of reason and the voice of aliens.

The voice of aliens produced persistent, scary, debilitating delusions. At one point he saw men at MIT running around in red neckties signaling him. He came to see himself as a religious prophet of great importance with an alternating sense of megalomania and impotence. This voice was extremely disturbing, creating within him a sense of apathy, persecution, and social isolation.

To cope with the problem, he tried psychotherapy. He was hospitalized six times, often involuntarily. He received all sorts of drug treatments, shock therapy, and insulin coma therapy where he was placed in an insulin induced coma. Nash described this last treatment as torture.

None of these therapeutic approaches worked. The voice of aliens was sometimes temporarily reduced, but it kept coming back. This horrible disease ruined his career and marriage.

But there is a happy ending to the story. In 1970, Alicia, his divorced wife, took him back. Because stress often triggers schizophrenic attacks, she offered him a normal life in the academic community of Princeton University, which was relatively stress free. Nash did the rest. Over the years he had come to understand the processes of the disease, which enabled him to recognize the voice of aliens and to reject it. He decided not to listen to this disturbing voice in his head. It was a constant policing operation. His mind was beautiful because he was able to will his own recovery.

I love this book because Nash’s story is my story. I too am a prisoner of two voices in my head—a voice of love and goodness and a voice of ego focused self-centeredness. My goal in life has been to live the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The problem is my ego focused voice has often gotten in the way.

I have tried prayer. I have asked God to quiet this voice, but it hasn’t worked. You would think that this would be the type of prayer God would answer. I’m not asking to be rich, but to live more like his son. But God has not listened, and I have stopped praying. I have also tried meditation with similar results.

There is also a nicer ending to this story. Like Nash, through a constant focus on the problem, I have come to recognize and understand how ego operates in my life. Inspired by the great mathematician, I’m learning to ignore and reject it. It’s a constant policing operation that I sometimes don’t win.
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Published on February 17, 2014 14:10 Tags: christian, nonfiction

February 1, 2014

The Son of Man

There is no consistent view in the New Testament as to who Jesus was. He is referred to by many titles—teacher, prophet, Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God—to name a few. The most interesting and important title given to Jesus was Son of Man. The four gospels refer to Jesus as Son of Man eighty-one times, the most frequent title given him by far.

The title Son of Man comes from the Jewish apocalyptic literature (end of the world stuff) from the second and first centuries before the common era. The most important sources are Daniel (chapter 7: 1-14), 1 Enoch, and 1V Ezra. Taking a composite picture from these sources, the Son of Man is described as a transcendent, pre-existent, heavenly being who will come to earth as judge and play an important role in the end of times drama. He will bring salvation to the righteous by gathering them and taking them to heaven. The wicked will perish. According to most accounts, this Son of Man will come from the clouds of heaven. In a few places in this literature, he emerges from the depths of the ocean.

Not only is the Son of Man the most frequently used title for Jesus in the New Testament, it is the only one that comes directly from his mouth. Jesus claims to be the Son of Man. The other titles are attributed to him by his close followers and the people he encounters among the general public.

Many scholars argue that the early church began to think of Jesus as the Son of Man after the resurrection. In this interpretation, the early church came to believe that after dying on the cross Jesus ascended to heaven where he came to sit on a throne at God’s right hand. In the very near future, Jesus was expected to return to earth as the Son of Man to punish the wicked and to take the righteous to heaven.

These scholars further contend that the Christ of faith ( Son of Man) has little or nothing in common with the Jesus of history. The Jesus of history as seen in the parables and his teachings preached the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. This kingdom was on earth and for Jews. Jesus never travels to Gentile areas in the gospel accounts. Jesus as Son of Man preaches about a kingdom in heaven for all people. The central focus of the Jesus of history was God’s kingdom. The central focus of the Son of Man was Jesus describing himself.

In addition, there is the problem of worldview. The Son of Man myth assumes a three-tiered universe with a flat earth, a hell below, and a heaven above as a physical place. In this heaven, God sits on a throne as a divine being with personal characteristics. When he dies on the cross, Jesus physically travels through space to join this God in heaven.

If you believe all that, there is still the problem of the imminent expectation. The gospel accounts expect the Son of Man to return to earth in the first century. There are not even hints in the New Testament that the return of Jesus as the Son of Man might be delayed into the indefinite future.

Because of the problems discussed above, I prefer the Jesus of history to the Jesus as Son of Man. The Jesus of history talks about what it means to live in God’s kingdom. This kingdom is any place where God rules with the result that the defining characteristic is love. It’s a place where neighbors serve neighbors, where people forgive and show mercy, where resources are shared, and where enemies are reconciled. It’s a kingdom that humans create whenever they commit themselves to live in this way. It’s a kingdom I want to work for and a place where I’d like to live.
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Published on February 01, 2014 06:58 Tags: christian, nonfiction

January 15, 2014

The Oral Tradition

You cannot understand the writing of the New Testament without taking into consideration the first Jewish/Roman war that spanned the years 66 to 73 CE. This was an earth-shaking event. In 70, Jerusalem was burned and the Temple destroyed. One million Jews were killed according to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, as a result of the war, one hundred thousand Jews were enslaved, and the vast majority of those who survived, fled.

Most of the historical data pertaining to Jesus was lost or destroyed as a consequence of this war. The gospels of the Nazarenes, Hebrews, and Ebionites disappeared. These gospels were written in Palestine where the events took place and were much earlier than the New Testament gospels. As a result of these historical factors, all the stories about Jesus in the New Testament come to us from the oral tradition, a tradition that both survived the war and the move from Palestine to the Hellenistic world. I learned important lessons about the oral tradition from an usual set of experiences.

I was a member of a fraternity forty-five years ago. It was one of the highlights of my college experience. Ten years ago I went to a college reunion, my first since graduating, and we told stories. The religious scientist in me perked up instantly.

I remembered some of the stories differently from my friends. Oftentimes, we remembered the punch line, but some of the details had been lost over time. To relate a seamless story, the lost details were invented. Old friends not present at the reunion were described in legendary terms. I was one of the worst offenders.

Memory is a fascinating thing. First, we remember what we want to remember. Second, we remember the gist of a story, the general outline, but not the precise details. Story telling weaves together fact, fantasy, and imagination.

The gospels are based on an oral tradition passed down among the followers of Jesus for forty years. What is amazing is the number of stories that have survived. Jesus obviously made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. And yet these stories were told and retold by human beings for forty years. After the stories were told and retold, they were placed into a gospel by an editor, a flesh and blood human being with definite ideas about who Jesus was.

Compare the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew (22:1-14) and Luke (14: 15-24). The point of the story is the same: God has given up on the Jews and the kingdom will be for Gentiles. But note that many of the details are different. The excuses made by the invited guests are different in each story. The voice of the editor is also inserted. Matthew’s gospel is concerned with obedience to religious law as a condition of entering the kingdom. Matthew concludes the story with, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Luke’s gospel focuses on the poor, the downtrodden, the crippled, and the blind. These are the new guests invited to the banquet.

The stories that find their way into the New Testament gospels did not come from written sources, but were passed along over a forty-year period by word of mouth. It was a huge telephone game. So much information was unfortunately distorted in this very human process, so much historical data was lost. As a result, the gospels cannot be viewed as historical biographies, but rather as ,
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Published on January 15, 2014 04:55 Tags: christian, nonfiction

Rethinking Christianity

Rick Herrick
Rethinking Christianity is a blog about love. For many, Christianity is a religion defined by correct belief. I hope through this blog to encourage "believers" to rethink that stance.
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