Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hail to the Skins!

A long suffering DC sports fan is very happy tonight! Onward to Seattle! Go Skins! The city you represent is very proud of you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

An Expression of Thanks

It snowed here yesterday and last night. The usual traffic paralysis set in, and it took me nearly 2 hours to go 9 miles to work yesterday morning. Such circumstances are rarely conducive to feeling thankful for much of anything. But as I saw snow crews working the streets late into the night, I was once again reminded of the many everyday people who do the heavy lifting that allow white collar folks like me to do what I do. So today I give thanks to:

1) Firefighters who save homes, protect forests, and risk their lives each time they go out.

2) Snow removal crews who keep crazy hours during snow season to keep roads clear not only so that people can get to work, but also so that people can get to hospitals, airports, and vulnerable loved ones. Imagine the chaos of the pre-snow grocery store rush multiplied by 6 or 7, and that's what we would have if snow crews weren't doing their job.

3) Power company employees, who likewise keep crazy hours in the aftermath of violent storms that knock out power on a wide scale. Particularly in winter, when having to sleep in a house without power on a bitterly cold night can be life threatening, crews who subject themselves to the cold so that we might have warmth often become the most important people on earth.

4) Cleaning crews, who clean offices, homes, and high-rises. The bathrooms we use are useable because of them. Office building lobbys are safe from people slipping on water and salt because of them. Children who get their hands and mouths into everything aren't constantly sick in part because of the job cleaning crews do. Try living in a place that is dirty, scummy, and clearly not sanitary to get a sense of what life would be like without these people.

5) Our military, especially those stationed overseas. Regardless of how one feels about war in general or any war in particular, we should all be able to appreciate the immense sacrifice that comes from being separated from home and family for long periods of time doing difficult duty. Military personnel who don't get to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with their families, who have to miss the birth of their child, or are unable to be present during a family crisis at home pay an enormous price in wearing the uniform and going wherever their commander tells them to go.

6) Taxi and tow truck drivers, who get us from place to place when we are separated from our normal modes of transportation. Believe me, there is no greater sight when you're sitting at an airport at 3am than an available taxi cab. And there is no greater sight when you are stranded somewhere than a tow truck that can assist you.

7) School bus drivers, who put up with an unbelievable amount of crap everyday in order to get kids to school. Think about it - driving a bus as the only adult with 30-50 often unruly kids behind you to get them to school safely where they might learn the kind of skills they need to have a bright future. Is that worthy of thanks? You betcha.

8) Postal workers, who deliver the mail. Some of the most important things we ever experience are directly linked to the mail. College acceptance letters, wedding invitations, baby announcements, and assorted other vital paperwork all bring our postal worker into the loop of our lives. Even in our day of internet banking and online e-cards, it is still the case that the mail is critically important in our day to day lives.

This is my 'thinking out loud' list, though I'm sure it's very incomplete. It's also worth remembering that many folks who perform these jobs are working class folks and immigrants who don't live nearly as well off as most of us do. Though my thanks to them is very inadequate, I offer it to them in high gratitude for all they do.

What other folks are worthy of thanks that work thankless jobs?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Early Church as Conspiracy

Before we leave the topic of conspiracy alone for a while, it's worth taking some time to see one particular way the postmodern metanarrative of conspiracy has invaded the field of biblical scholarship.

Traditionally, it was thought that in the early church, heresy arose out of a milieu of theological orthodoxy, such that orthodoxy was fairly established and quantifiable against various strands of heresy. Then Walter Bauer came along at the turn of the 20th century and argued that the early church dynamic was actually reversed from the traditional understanding. Bauer argued (almost exclusively from historical theory) that in fact, heresy predated orthodoxy in the early church, and that what we now know as Christian orthodoxy was something that was developed as a political power play to defeat and drive out the dissenters. Bauer's thesis has been enormously influential up to the present day. It was based on Bauer's rubric that Harnack could argue that the Christian canon as we know it today was not something that was largely agreed upon by the early church very early on, but was a later response of desperation to the threat of Marcion, the great heretic of the early church (notice how heresy precedes orthodoxy in this theory). And even though Bauer's theory has been systematically discredited in numerous articles and book contributions over the years, and even though Harnack's theory of canon development has also been eroded by more solid patristic and manuscript investigation, the average Christian can still go to any Barnes & Noble and find books that see the early church through various strains of conspiracy.

Whether it's Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels, or Bart Ehrman, a conspiratorial picture of the early church has become the accepted paradigm of interpretation in many quarters. While their pet theories and emphases differ (Ehrman has actually been quite vociferous in his objection to Brown's work), they all share some overriding convictions about the supposedly sinister nature of the early church. Key to all of them is the idea that at the beginning of the Christian movement, there was a tolerance of considerable diversity of belief on basic doctrinal questions that was subsequently muzzled by an institutional hierarchy bent on coercively enforcing doctrinal conformance with what was in their best interests politically and ecclesiastically. From reading these authors, one gets the vision of a once free and tolerant exchange of good-willed people being eradicated by an ominous ecclesiastical force seeking to consolidate its power and gain total control over the emerging Christian movement by defeating all potential threats. Put simply, Christian orthodoxy is the byproduct of a conspiracy. What each of these authors advocate, among other things, is that orthodoxy is only one legitimate form of Christianity, and we owe it to ourselves to rediscover and fully appreciate the other (more) legitimate forms that were suppressed by the early church through a conspiracy. For all three authors, one way to do this is to reopen the canon and not only add other 'early' writings that were supposedly wrongly suppressed, but also remove certain writings currently in the canon that are either supposedly corrupted or too situational to be anything other than dangerous when considered canonical. A conspiracy metanarrative can take us a long way if we accept its presuppositions. But should we?

As folks like Bock have pointed out, it is quite depressing that modern scholars like Pagels and Ehrman continue to feed from the thoroughly discredited trough of Bauer to get to their own starting points. Part of why Bauer's theory, and all subsequent theories that are built on his work, don't hold water is that they are almost entirely speculative and carry precious little in the way of hard evidence to back them up. Bauer built his theory on historical abstractions that have been proven to be wrong more than once. Brown, Pagels, and Ehrman have all uncritically capitulated to the spirit of the age and imported it back onto the 1st century rather than doing any hard testing of the legitimacy of such an approach. And most important of all, the conspiracy rubric doesn't pass the test of Scripture:

Acts 2.42 - the early Christians devoted themselves to "the apostles teachings".

1 Cor 15 - Paul says he's passing on the heart of gospel teaching that he himself received, presumably from the apostles since he mentions several of them by name.

Jude 4 talks about the need to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.

2 Tim 1 - Paul urges Timothy to hold fast to the "pattern of sound teaching" that Paul had imparted to him.

1 John 2.24 - what the audience has "heard from the beginning" is to remain in them.

1 John 3.11/2 John 1.5-6 - the command to love one another has been in force "from the beginning".

This is just a sampling of texts that strongly imply if not declare outright that there was a body of teaching in place very early on that was commonly agreed upon in relative unity. Even Peter, whose relationship with Paul was once strained (Gal 2) regarded Paul's writings as "Scripture" (2 Peter 3). While it is clear that the early church was plagued with a variety of doctrinal challenges, we do not find a collegial "let's all get along and affirm each other's beliefs even though we can't agree on much" attitude that Pagels and Ehrman insist was the early church social grid prior to some grand (though conveniently undocumented) ecclesiastical crackdown. In Paul's first canonical letter, he doesn't treat the Judaizers as sincere Christians who have an equally legitimate expression of the faith. To the contrary, he regards them as propagating a different religion (Gal 1.7) that has bewitched the church (3.1), and that they should emasculate themselves as a result (5.12). The apostles drew very clear and sometimes very public distinctions between orthodoxy and its varied competitors. Such distinctions were not first introduced through some later elaborate institutional bulwark that sought to crack down on the kind of doctrinal diversity that had previously been allowable.

The NT presents to us a doctrinal core that was understood very early on, and honestly portrays the struggles to uphold it. Pagels and Ehrman, in attempting to blame a big bad amorphous ecclesial magisterium caricature for the orthodoxy they don't like, have simply masked the fact that their real problem is with the apostles themselves as well as with Jesus who likewise drew sharp distinctions between himself and other supposedly faithful religious expressions of his day. They have imported a disdain for exclusivity and well defined normative truth into their analysis and have created an early church conspiracy backed up more by banal quotes like "History is written by the winners" than by actual research into the patristic and early Mediterranean encyclopedia.

This is how the postmodern metanarrative of conspiracy is put to work in religious studies today. As Christians, we have to be mindful of how scholars of all stripes import their metanarratives and worldview imperatives onto the biblical text and surrounding 1st century social world and force it to fit. Put simply, we are well advised to be skeptical of the modern skeptic and align ourselves with Jude in contending for the faith once delivered to the saints.