Top Ten Books

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Books 1

Something making the rounds on social media is a question about what your “top ten books” are that you have found to be the most influential. I don’t tag people to get them to compile a list of their own, but it is a good exercise. So without further ado…

1. The Bible

Easily the most influential book for me on this list has been and continues to be the Bible. I am very fond of Genesis in particular (I am writing a book on Genesis 1-11 in its Ancient Near Eastern literary and rhetorical context).

I recommend the Common English Bible Translation for a variety of reasons.

2. The Tao Te Ching

I took a World Religions course in college from Michael Lodahl which introduced me to The Tao Te Ching, and I fell in love with it. I own more than 30 different English translations (when you read it you’ll know why). This is also the shortest book on the list, as you can easily read it in much less than a day. This has always struck me as more of a philosophical text than a religious one.

3.The Tacit Dimension” by Michael Polanyi

In Seminary I was told by one of my fellow students, “What you are saying sounds a lot like Michael Polanyi.” So I obviously had to check it out. I asked Professor Truesdale for advice on which of Polanyi’s books to start with and this was the one he recommended. After having read Polanyi’s other books, I would agree with Dr. Truesdale that this is the best place to begin. If you want to understand how people learn then Polanyi is must-reading. He is like a cross between William James and Thomas S. Kuhn: he sees a lot of the same things as Kuhn, but has the positive outlook of James. It is also interesting to compare James’ concept of habit with Polanyi’s concept of indwelling.

Books 2

Speaking of William James…

4.The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy” by William James

and

5.Essays in Pragmatism” by William James

William James is my favorite philosopher. There is so much good stuff in his works. I highly recommend reading the essay, “The Will to Believe” in particular. James is great at finding common-sense solutions to intellectual problems. Can a man ever go around a squirrel if the squirrel always remains on the other side of the tree from you? The essay, “On Some Hegelisms” is also a gem. I love the metaphor of Hegel’s philosophy being like a whirlpool that can suck you down to the depths of the sea (I’m not a fan of Hegel).

6.The Portable Nietzsche” by Friedrich Nietzsche (edited by Walter Kaufmann)

I started reading Nietzsche because I wanted to know what serious atheists were saying about Christianity so that I could defend the faith. I ended up agreeing with Nietzsche a lot more than I expected to. The Portable Nietzsche contains selections from all of his writings including the entirety of a few of them like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is a good place to start if you are interested in reading Nietzsche. You see famous quotes in-context like “God is dead” and “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” (from The Gay Science and The Twilight of the Idols respectively). The latter quote is typically misquoted—it actually reads “Out of life’s school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

7.The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis

The psychological genius and imagination of Lewis is just amazing. In my opinion, The Great Divorce showcases his profound psychological insight the best. “The Screwtape Letters” is similarly full of insight. The title “The Great Divorce” is rather misleading. It is a work of fiction that tells the tale of a journey where people from Hell visit Heaven—and they have the option to stay in Heaven!

8.Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs” by James Herrick

I am a huge Sci-Fi fan, be it Babylon 5, Star Wars or the various iterations of Star Trek. Thus Herrick’s book was very helpful in illuminating many ideological presuppositions that have a significant influence on people (often without Sci-Fi fans being aware of them). This book also gave me more appreciation for C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and the unfinished work The Dark Tower).

9.Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling

After College and Seminary this was the first fiction book that really restored my love for fiction. Rowling has a fantastic imagination!

10.Love Wins” by Rob Bell

Rob Bell is able to use the Bible to question many Evangelical Protestant theological traditions that may not have as much scriptural support as Evangelicals think they do. In this case he asks some probing questions about what the point of the Christian faith really is. Can it really be reduced to a question of where you go after you die? Rob would seem to say, “no.” I would have to agree with that. It is unfortunate that most of the critics of this book get stuck on whether or not Rob Bell believes in Hell, when I’m not sure Rob really cares about whether there is or isn’t a Hell in the afterlife. I suppose what I admire most about Rob Bell is his epistemological humility and his method for communicating the Gospel. When I read him I feel like I am reading a book by someone who really cares about people and doesn’t want to tell them the answers so much as show them the way.

11? There are certainly some honorable mentions to this list. N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg have also had a significant influence on me. Reading Rachel Held Evans is like an “amen” experience. The fiction series “The Liturgical Mysteries” by Mark Schweizer is very humorous and a lot of fun!

NT Wright and Marcus Borg

So the question is now, what books or authors have influenced you?

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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What Christianity is Really All About—The World of Love

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible (CEB). For reasons as to why I use the CEB, go here.

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          What follows is an attempt to sketch out what the Christian faith is really all about in a positive manner. This is more difficult than you might think. One of the more challenging practices when you are a philosopher or theologian is making a positive statement. Pretty much everything you can say is a comment or evaluation on what has come before, a reality which doubtless gave rise to Alfred North Whitehead’s famous line, commonly paraphrased as: “All of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”[i] This is also true in Christianity as well. The beliefs we have were formulated in light of other beliefs. For example, the authors of the Bible weren’t writing in a vacuum, but were aware of the religious beliefs of their neighbors (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Canaanite, etcetera).

If we ask, what is Christianity really all about? I would argue that in essentials it is about a proactive commitment to live as a people of God called to love God and love others, as a people called to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator, as a people called to embody this love of God as an expression of the reign and realm of God in action in the world today!

That’s it in brief, but few things this important can be stated this briefly so let me sketch this out just a bit more as my own footnote responses. The hope is that I might provoke some conversation

The Core of a Positive Faith

          In the New Testament, Jesus identifies what he believed to be the essential elements of faith in God. This is what he says…

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

In the Matthew 22:34-40 parallel Jesus also said, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” This has been and continues to be a common emphasis in both Judaism and Christianity. This emphasis is comprised of two Bible passages from the Torah that together make up the core of faith. The first is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” This passage is referred to as the “Shema” in Judaism. The second verse, is Leviticus 19:18b, which reads “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

Judaism preserved these commands as central to their religious identity. Christianity took this further by extending the religious ideal of love for God and neighbor, not just for one ethnic group, but for all of humanity. This relationship of Christianity to Judaism has been characterized by Franz Rosenzweig as akin to Judaism being like the Sun and Christianity being the rays of the Sun. A commitment to serve and care for God and others is thus central to the Christian faith, and is what I will refer to as “the core.”

Positive Faith in Action

          After Jesus’ answer regarding which commandment is the most important in the Markan passage cited above (Mark 12:28-31), the “legal expert” follows up Jesus answer in Mark 12:32-34. There is a clear allusion to Micah 6:6-8 in the legal expert’s reply. The passage culminates in verse 8 with the famous words, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice is at the center of practicing faith. In a similar fashion, the Letter of James reads, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (James 1:27). To help those in need, with an expansive idea of who our neighbor is that we are to “love as we love ourselves,” expresses the core of the Christian faith (see Luke 10:25-37 where we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s parallel to Mark 12:28-34).

While it can be conceived that the avoidance of doing harm to others may be an expression of the core, this doesn’t capture its full expression. The Golden Rule is found in many different world religious traditions, including Christianity. In many forms, the Golden Rule is phrased negatively as something like “Do not treat people in the same way you would not want to be treated.” In the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule is phrased positively, “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (see also Luke 6:31). Instead of an inwardly focused existence that avoids doing harm to others, Christianity promotes doing good to others in community.

Positive Care for Creation

          This emphasis on care for others does not end with care for our fellow human beings. The command in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 is for humanity to take charge of God’s creation. We are connected to our environment, so our actions must consider implications for others today and for our posterity. The poetic echo of creation’s goodness from the spoken word of the divine in Genesis 1 sings of the value the creaturely realm has to God. Jesus’ bodily resurrection too speaks volumes as to God’s valuation of material existence. Resurrection is not the transformation of a physical body to an immaterial higher state of the soul—it is to a transformed material bodily existence. The material world matters to God for it to be resurrected. Animals do not exist merely to be exploited, but they are a divinely given responsibility to manage. To limit ethical behavior as only relevant to the treatment of our fellow human beings is dangerous. It trains people that kindness and care are relative. It is a slippery slope that can lead to the devaluation of people either by default or design, and ignores the intrinsic worth and the goodness of all of God’s creation.

Bible Scholars have also noted that God’s good creation is designed for humanity to continue the work. Religion does not exist to stifle creativity, but to give it direction and turn it loose. Make something beautiful out of the wonderful world God has made. While this is easy to conceive as being about artistic expression, that is not its limit. There are many systems that can use some creative direction toward the goal of benefitting others. Hospitals look for ways to improve patient outcomes and employ new techniques to heal. Businesses can look for opportunities to meet human needs and adequately provide for their work force. The possibilities for creative endeavors in any field are endless.

The Positive Confession of Conviction

in God’s Redemptive Work in Christ

          So one may ask: Where do the religious claims of the Christian faith enter into the discussion? Where Jesus summed up the essence of what it means to have faith in God as an expression of love, the early church soon realized that there were aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that meant he was more than just a great rabbi or a wise teacher. They believed, as Paul wrote to fellow Christians in the city of Corinth, that “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).Acceptance of this redemptive claim was grounded in a public confession of one’s conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, makes possible the salvation of the world.

In a letter to the Christians at Rome some time around 55-57 CE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans) Paul explains how salvation is offered through the gospel of Jesus Christ. At one point, he calls to mind for the recipients of this letter the essential confession of faith that was already core to their beliefs about Jesus. Christian convictions were grounded in the actions of its followers. He writes, in Romans 10:9-10 what may be the earliest creedal confession of faith we have in Christianity:

“Because if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.”

This confession was framed for easy memorization for oral repetition (since illiteracy was common in the ancient world). To better see what is going on in these two verses it is instructive to diagram it in its chiastic structure.

A - Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord”

          B - and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead,

                    X - you will be saved.

          B’ - Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness,

A’ - and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.

I have italicized the parallelism. But what does this confession entail as belief?

To say “Jesus is Lord” would be to deny that Caesar is Lord. Confessing the lordship of Caesar is what would have been expected of all loyal subjects of the Roman Empire. A contemporary translation accounting for the political overtones might be something like “Jesus is the leader of the free world,” or “Jesus is the Commander-in-Chief,” or even “Jesus for President.” To put a positive spin on it would be to emphasize that Jesus’ way of radical love for God and neighbor is what should be followed, rather than any human political ideals. It is hard to make the claim of being a Christian believer unless you actually participate in Christian action as exemplified in love—and this is salvation to follow the way of Jesus. To merely make an acknowledgement that Jesus should be considered the ultimate religious figure in the universe doesn’t go far enough if the way of Jesus isn’t followed in practice. Further, embracing the goodness of creation, as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection, leads people to work toward justice for all of creation. It is to the resurrection and transformation of the world that the Gospel calls all people.

The World of Love [the Kingdom of God]

The World of Love

Salvation in primitive Christianity had earthly overtones. It was to a better way of living in this good creation that Jesus saves us. There is, of course, the additional belief that this better way of life on earth will one day transcend mortality. Nevertheless the focus is on this world, and not the hereafter. What is doubtless the central prayer of the Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, exemplifies this focus on the transformation of God’s creation. We pray as Jesus taught us in the developed tradition of the Lord’s Prayer (first articulated in the Didache)…

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen. (The “Ecumenical Text” from the United Methodist Hymnal #894)

With the passage of time, many terms lose their historical connotations. The term “Kingdom of God” finds meaning almost exclusively in religious contexts today, but in the First Century CE there was more to it. There are few countries in the modern world that are ruled by monarchs, but not so then. As noted above, many terms and titles for Jesus, that we today think of as honorific, had political connotations for the early church. To proclaim God’s Kingdom is to imply that there is something wrong with earthly kingdoms as they are now. This is an obvious clue as to why Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. The “Kingdom of God” would certainly have been understood as a term used in opposition to the kingdom or rule of earthly figures like Caesar. Again, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not. Given problems with the term being so far removed from its original historical context and its origin as a negative term criticizing other political realities of the ancient world, it may be helpful and instructive to find a different term to represent the Kingdom of God.

If it is God’s will that “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), then I would suggest the term: the World of Love. Justice and righteousness are roughly synonymous terms, as evidenced by the parallelism of the first half of Amos 5:24 to the second half. A Christian notion of radical equality among all persons, regardless of hierarchical distinctions like slave/free, Jew/Gentile, male/female, etc., demands working for justice. God loves all people and all creation, and the direction of scriptural salvation is toward the redemption and transformation of the world—to a World of Love.

Conclusion

          Christianity, as I hope can be seen by now, cannot be limited to knowing factual data about spiritual realities. It is more than intellectual assent to religious propositions. Humanity has a divinely given purpose. What then is Christian evangelism if not an invitation to others to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator? The goal of humanity is the embodiment of the World of Love—the Kingdom of God!

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[i] The original version is “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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Special thanks to Robert Reid and Terri Stewart for their help in editing this post prior to publication.

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

 

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So is Pope Francis a Marxist? (Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations)

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Again Pope Francis is likened to Marxists, and some of the more infamous followers of Marx, like Lenin. Apparently there is some difficulty in understanding Pope Francis’ relationship to Marxism, so I thought I would diagram it…

Pope Francis and Marxism 2

Given the pejorative connotations Marx has to many Western Capitalist Societies, it seems more likely that being labeled a Marxist is a convenient way for some people to avoid taking Pope Francis’ critique seriously.

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Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations are meant to provoke thought. They are not necessarily meant to convey the author’s actual opinion, and may be hypothetical in nature. The style is inspired by a certain oft-misunderstood European philosopher of the late 19th Century (he would have preferred to be called a European philosopher rather than a German philosopher) – “Dionysus.”

Nietzsche (by Lee Karl Palo) 001 (small)

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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The Shem Conspiracy

Shem Conspiracy

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible (CEB).

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          As a former Christian bookstore manager, there were several common requests that I would get from customers. Sometimes it would be as simple as, “I am looking for the new book by N.T. Wright (or some other prolific popular Christian author).” Other times I would get requests like, “I don’t remember the title, author, or publisher, but the cover was red and it was on spirituality.” When it came to Bibles, the most famous request about choosing an English translation was, “I want a literal translation.” I would always do my best to find a Bible translation that would work well for any given customer, but a request for the “literal” Bible translation is impossible. In that vein, I would like to discuss a couple of the issues that make the concept of literal translation something problematic at best. One of these difficulties with Bible translation is rather benign, but the other is a bit more malevolent. Both of them have to do with the translation of names.

Translating Names in the Bible

          As it happens, the character “Shem” is a good place to start. Names in the Bible are typically transliterated as best as possible from whatever the original language was. The idea is to maintain some resemblance to the spelling and, or, pronunciation of the original biblical name. But what do you do if a name in the Bible has a translatable meaning? It is evident that many Biblical names have meaning that can be translated. Sometimes this is hinted at in English translations of the Bible. Take for example Genesis 5:28-29, “When Lamech was 182 years old, he became the father of a son and named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us relief from our hard work, from the pain in our hands, because of the fertile land that the Lord cursed.’” The verses imply that Noah’s name means something like “rest.” However, if you translate the meaning of a name, it can obscure the fact that it is a proper name. Thus it is possible to say something like “the son of Noah who is the ancestor of the Israelites is name.” That translates rather than transliterates one of the names in the sentence, but what happens when you translate all three names? “The son of rest who is the ancestor of God rules is name.” A sentence like that sounds pretty funny. Even better, the name “Shem” additionally has a range of meaning that could allow for the sentence to read as “The son of rest who is the ancestor of God rules is famous.” That can make for some pretty confusing sentence structure when it isn’t made clear that the meaning of the proper names are being translated. As can be seen, there may be some meaning that is lost without translating the names. That Noah’s major life events happen in numbers divisible by Jubilee years may be significant given that his name means “rest” (Noah becoming a father at 500, the Flood coming when Noah was 600, and how old he was when he died: 950).

Here there is no grand conspiracy on the part of Bible translators to hide truth from people who can only read the Bible in English versions. There is simply no easy way for them to make some decisions about how to render the original languages into English. A choice must be made about what to do with proper names, and it is the consensus of Bible translators that transliterating names is the best option.

That some meaning is always is lost in translation shouldn’t lead people to despair. There is plenty of good scholarship out there that can help people understand more of the meaning behind the words of the Bible. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary is a good example of one such resource. There are Bible dictionaries and various “who’s who in the Bible” books that can help with understanding the meaning and significance of many Biblical names. Aside from resources like that, what I recommend is more of an attitude of humility when reading the Bible. All too often, claims of “Biblical inerrancy” can trick people into thinking that their interpretations are without error. The previous example of the etymology of names in the Bible clearly implies that there is more going on in scripture than is obvious to a casual reading. Meaning can be a bit more complicated. Beyond the problem with names, there are also wordplays and puns in the original languages that can’t always be rendered into English. Some translators, like Everett Fox in particular, have done quite a service in this regard. In his work, Fox has attempted to convey many of those puns and “plays on words” in English (see his fantastic translation of Genesis and Exodus, for example).  Let’s look at another interesting name challenge of Bible translation.

The Shem [name] Conspiracy

          Unfortunately, there is occasionally a dark side to Bible translation. Sometimes the theological biases of the translators have overly influenced the rendering of the original languages into English. The issue of women serving in ministry is not universally agreed upon among the various Christian denominations. In this regard Romans 16:7 is a battleground. There is reference to a woman, “Junia,” who is prominent among the apostles. This is to say that she was an apostle of some significance in the early church. Could it be that women held leadership positions at that time?

Certain denominations do not ordain women, and some go so far as to not even allow a woman to publicly speak to men on religious matters. So what has been done by translators coming from that specific bias against women in ministry with a verse that reads, “Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me?” The 1984 New International Version (NIV) reads, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia, it seems, received a sex reassignment in that translation. To be fair, it isn’t the only English translation that did this, and you may wish to look up the passage in your favored Bible translation. The problem is that there isn’t credible evidence to support the reading of Junias rather than Junia (the fact that the masculine “Junias” is nowhere attested in ancient Greek sources contemporary with the New Testament is a case in point). Certainly a masculine “Junias” does not challenge denominations that do not ordain women, but the feminine “Junia” can pose such a problem.

Bible translation is an ongoing reality, and as the evidence for translating the name as “Junias” has dissolved, other tactics have been employed in the defense of the bias against women being ordained. The English Standard Version (ESV) reads, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” The maintenance of the gendered term “kinsmen” can still imply that Junia was a man, but it need not necessarily do so. Additionally the phrase “well known to” implies that Andronicus and Junia may not have been apostles at all. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) reads similarly to the ESV, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me.”

On a more positive note, the inheritors of the NIV legacy, when updating the English translation for the Today’s New International Version and later for the 2011 update of the NIV, have the text read, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” One notable feature of the revised NIV text is that the phrase “my fellow Jews” is employed, which is both inclusive and can potentially help mitigate against Christian anti-Semitism by reminding the reader that Paul was a Jew. Of course the updated NIV text also allows for the reading that Junia was in fact an apostle. Lastly, there is the Inclusive Bible, which reads, “…and to Andronicus and Junia, my kin and fellow prisoners; they are outstanding apostles, and they were in Christ even before I was.” Clearly there is no ambiguity there as to what the translators thought about how to render the passage into English.

Of course those publishing houses that produced the ESV and the HCSB translations respectively have also published study Bibles to accompany their respective scripture texts. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they spend some effort in the attempt to justify a reading that eliminates Junia’s status as an apostle (see notes to Romans 16:7 on page 2184 of the ESV Study Bible, and the notes to the same verse on page 1952 of the HCSB Study Bible respectively). If you want a more thoroughgoing examination of this issue that defends Junia’s apostleship you can check out the book, “The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia” by Rena Pederson. What all this means is that Bible translation is not free from bias, and that there are a lot of problems with producing a “literal” translation of the Bible into English.

What about Shem Himself?

          I chose to call this phenomena of Bible translation, like the Junia/Junias controversy already discussed, “the Shem conspiracy” largely due to the fact that the name “Shem” means “name.” There is also something of a Bible translation “conspiracy” with regard to Shem himself. In this case there is uncertainty as to the birth order of Noah’s sons. When you compare the numbers with what the Genesis texts say about the relationship of the brothers there is ambiguity. Some translators and commentators have attempted to resolve this discrepancy in the Hebrew text, but this stretches the evidence farther than the text warrants. We simply don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but it isn’t a matter of any significance for either Jewish or Christian faith. Better to leave the issue open in the hope that perhaps there is another Cairo Geniza or Qumran type of discovery waiting that may perhaps be able to shed more light on the subject, than attempt to arbitrarily resolve the contradictory information.

In Conclusion

          As Biblical scholarship is continually advancing and the needs of the church are ever evolving, there will always be a need for new Bible translations. They will never be perfect, and disciplines like textual criticism engage with variant readings of the original language texts themselves. When I was a Christian bookstore manager, I recommended Bible translations to people based on their backgrounds. If someone identified themselves as Southern Baptist I’d recommend the HCSB, and if someone identified as a Mainline Protestant I’d recommend the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the CEB. If you want to be more aware of “conspiracies” like the one above, it would be a good idea to own more than one Bible translation, and even better if you own study Bibles in those versions (see below for some recommendations). If you are really a “glutton for punishment” you can wade through many of agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman’s works (like him or not, he knows his stuff). Personally, I primarily use and wholeheartedly endorse the Common English Bible because I believe it best reflects the two important values of meeting the needs of the church today and utilizing the latest scholarship that has achieved a broad amount of acceptance.

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Study Bible Recommendations

CEB – The CEB Study Bible

NRSV – There are a few good NRSV Study Bibles…

-        The New Interpreter’s Study Bible

-        The New Oxford Annotated Bible

-        The HarperCollins Study Bible

NIV – Unfortunately the TNIV and the 1984 NIV Study Bibles are out-of-print, but you may be able to pick them up on the secondary market (at a Half-Price Books bookstore, for example)

-        The NIV Study Bible (this one has the 2011 update text)

ESV – The ESV Study Bible

HCSB – The HCSB Study Bible

The Message by Eugene PetersonThe Message Study Bible

The New Living Translation (NLT) – The NLT Study Bible

By Biblical scholarship standards, the King James Version is obsolete and the language is archaic, so purchasing a study Bible in that translation or the New King James Version is a waste of time if you ask me. It is worth having a copy of the King James Version text in your library though. Other translations are generally not popular enough to make a study Bible recommendation worthwhile in my opinion.

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Jesus Never Said Anything About That

Jesus Talkin' - I Never Said Anything About That

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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          A common refrain I hear coming from the progressive side of the debate on full LGBTQ inclusion/condemnation of homosexual practice is that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. This is very often used as evidence, even considered strong evidence by some, that Jesus would have supported the progressive position. Many memes on social media use it, and it frequently comes up in the rhetoric. That said, I thought I would critically examine the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.

Perhaps the first point that ought to be mentioned before exploring the claim in detail is that it is, at the most basic level, an argument from silence (which is a logical fallacy). At this point the debate about the efficacy of the claim is over. That it qualifies as an argument from silence should give people caution about using the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. What could it mean if the claim were taken seriously?

A basic question to ask is about the nature of the documents that provide us with any information about the historical Jesus. As any scholar involved with reconstructing the historical Jesus will tell you, the best sources are still the Gospels you find in the Bible (take agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, for example). The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not exhaustive accounts of Jesus’ life, which is even noted in John 21:25. So, as the argument from silence implies, it could be that Jesus talked about homosexuality, but it simply wasn’t recorded in any of the Gospels.

None of the Gospels (canonical or otherwise) are what any contemporary historian would consider an unbiased account of the life of Jesus. They were all written for communities of faith, and so the material contained in them was presumably thought to be useful for those communities. It is likely that Luke, for example, is written to Gentile “god-fearers” to demonstrate that they can become part of the Christian movement—that Christianity is not an exclusively Jewish religion. The author of Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience to convince them that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. While the authors of both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a basic outline, they added other material for their own particular agendas (as well as incorporating some type of “Q” source). Thus it is possible that the Gospel writers may have been aware of Jesus having spoken on the topic of homosexuality, but that it simply didn’t fit with what they wanted to say in their literary constructions of Jesus.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Jesus never spoke about homosexual practice. First it should be noted that Jesus was an observant Jew. That is all the more clear in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls which provide ample evidence as to the diversity of opinion among different Jewish sects of the Second Temple period as to Torah observance (see 4QMMT, for example). Thus while Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath on occasion, his response is typically to define and defend his understanding of the Sabbath, not to marginalize Sabbath observance as unimportant. In this light, it becomes clear that the Levitical prohibitions against homosexual practice would not have likely needed comment by Jesus’ to his predominantly Jewish audience. This would be contrasted with Paul, who is speaking to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians (doubtless why the subject comes up in Romans 1:26-27). Seen in this light, Jesus lack of comment on the subject doesn’t necessarily favor the progressive position.

What would Jesus have said about the subject? From ancient documents it is fairly certain that there was no concept that people could be in a loving mutual same-sex relationship. Generally homosexual practice was seen in terms of power, which was one participant having power over the other. In the Gentile world of the Roman Empire it was not entirely uncommon for an older man to take a boy to have sexual relations with. Given that context it should come as no surprise that the early Christians did not approve of such practices. It wouldn’t be out of character if Jesus too condemned practices like that, especially as he was known for valuing children (Jesus in Mark 9:42 prescribes some pretty severe consequences for the misleading of children).

One text that has been used to condemn homosexual practice is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-28). It may be overlooked that the Gospels record Jesus referencing the story. How does Jesus interpret and make use of the story? Jesus relates the cause for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as having to do with a lack of hospitality toward visitors (see Matthew 10:5-15 and its parallel in Luke 10:1-12). Most Bible scholars today would agree with Jesus’ interpretation of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as it is recounted in Genesis 19:1-28. However in Ezekiel 16:49 the reason for the destruction is spelled out in some detail. Nevertheless it is striking that it was not uncommon to discuss inappropriate sexual relations as a cause for the destruction of Sodom, and yet Jesus is not ever recorded as making that connection. The passages in question are Jude 1:7 and 2 Peter 2:4-10a (it should be noted that the sexual sin being attributed as the cause for the destruction of Sodom in both passages has to do with sexual relations between humans and angels rather than homosexual relations—see also Genesis 6:1-4 and the Book of Jubilees in this regard).

Hypothetically, if Jesus had encountered a same-sex couple in a mutually loving and egalitarian relationship, how would he react? A point often noted by both traditionalists as well as progressives is that Jesus was well known for hanging out with people on the margins of society. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, and healed people whose ailments prevented them from full participation in the life of the community. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us with a determination as to whether Jesus would have condemned homosexual practice or not, but that he didn’t let anything get in the way of having social relations with any person. Jesus is recorded as telling people not to sin anymore, the most famous example being perhaps John 8:1-11. Thus the question becomes whether or not Jesus would see homosexual practice as sin, and not whether he would reject anyone defined as a “sinner,” etcetera.

So what can we now say about the significance of the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality? The odds that Jesus, being a faithful Jew, would take a radical stand contrary to the Levitical prohibition against homosexual practice are not good, particularly given the normative means for the expression of same-sex relations in the First Century. But then the question is raised as to whether it is a fair comparison to liken First Century homosexual practices to those we see today of loving and committed same-sex couples. It is the view of this author that there is no resemblance between the contexts for homosexual relations in the first century and the context today. In the end, the fact that Jesus is never recorded as saying the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with his own [Jesus’] teachings isn’t helpful to the debate. Hopefully by this point you can see that the real issue is whether the few condemnations of ancient understandings of homosexual practice can be considered as relevant to the contemporary reality of the LGBTQ community.

It was also recently pointed out to me that it can seem strange for traditionalists to make the condemnation of homosexual practice so important an issue despite the fact that the subject doesn’t appear to be worthy of note by Jesus. At least in some cases, part of the point progressives make in the statement that Jesus never said anything about homosexual practice is just to question how important the topic really is. As has been demonstrated, that claim isn’t helpful to debating the subject, but it has been occasionally used as if it was. The issue isn’t about faithfulness to scripture or Biblical obedience, as all Christians read and interpret the Bible, rather it is about the difficult and messy task of how best to make God’s Word relevant to the world of today.

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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The Secret of Babylon 5

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo – Babylon 5 and all its related characters are © Warner Bros.

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FRIENDLY WARNING: If you haven’t seen the television show Babylon 5, the following contains spoilers.

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This is a departure from the normal subject matter on this blog. As a Christian I enjoy science fiction, as well as reading different perspectives, including those of prominent atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche. J. Michael Straczynski has a great line in Babylon 5 that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”

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Art by Lee Karl Palo

Friedrich Nietzsche – art by Lee Karl Palo

What has the 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to do with a 20th Century television show Babylon 5? With the vast majority of television shows largely being the product of teams of writers, the idea that there could be a significant hidden theme in any TV series seems unlikely. However, in the case of Babylon 5, the show’s creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 out of 110 episodes (including all of seasons three and four). At the very least that opens up the possibility that there could be such a theme. I first discovered the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Babylon 5 during the original airing of the show in the 1990s, specifically during the end of the third season, in the episode Z’ha’dum.

First it is important to state that I am in no way trying to diminish the originality of Straczynski’s Babylon 5. Nietzsche himself said that you repay a teacher badly if you only ever remain a student (see the end of the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, specifically section 3 of “On The Gift-Giving Virtue”). Nietzsche expected his sympathetic readers to critically engage with his thought and go their own way. It is my contention that J. Michael Straczynski has been influenced by Nietzsche, but there is much more to Babylon 5 than that.

One problem you can encounter in literature, film, and television is reading all kinds of meaning into a work that was never intended (see this article, for example). Is it reasonable to assume that J. Michael Straczynski may have been influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche? Straczynski studied philosophy at San Diego State University, graduating with a minor in the subject. He has also made it public knowledge that he is an atheist (see the “Back Page” article in the September 1998 issue of the Official Babylon 5 Magazine for his thoughts on being an atheist and writing about religion). It can easily be argued that Nietzsche is one of the most significant atheist philosophers of all time. Of course that doesn’t guarantee that J. Michael Straczynski is familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy, only that it is plausible.

The September 1998 issue of the Official Babylon 5 Magazine

The September 1998 issue of the Official Babylon 5 Magazine

One other problem should be mentioned. Friedrich Nietzsche is easily one of the most misunderstood philosophers of all time. Walter Kaufmann wrote the book, “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” at least in part to counteract many of the mistaken notions about Nietzsche in the English speaking world. In science-fiction television Nietzsche has been overtly referred to in “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.” Unfortunately, Andromeda perpetuates many myths and misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The best way to understand Nietzsche would be to read his works. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is one of his most important works, and is highly recommended. I would also suggest checking out “Ecce Homo” as it is kind of a “special features” book where Nietzsche talks about his process of writing his various other books, and offers plenty of additional insights into those books. Additionally, the Teaching Company offers a series of lectures entitled The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by two distinguished Nietzsche scholars Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Higgins that provide a great introduction to Nietzsche’s works while avoiding many of the common myths and misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Lastly, I am not proposing a one-to-one correspondence between themes and concepts in Nietzsche’s philosophy and those of Babylon 5. I intend to sketch out some Nietzschean themes in Babylon 5, but there could easily be more or less than what I will be discussing below. The best solution is for you to investigate these proposed similarities for yourself, to see how they resemble Nietzsche’s thought, and the way J. Michael Straczynski has developed those themes in his own creative directions.

Nietzschean Themes in Babylon 5

          The central conflict of Babylon 5 is how the younger races (including humanity) get caught up in the polarizing conflict between two ancient alien races, the Vorlons and the Shadows. The Shadows represent an extreme morality of growth through chaos and conflict, which parallels Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian. By contrast, the Vorlons represent an extreme morality of order and obedience, which parallels Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian. Another way of looking at the conflict between the ideologies of the Shadows and the Vorlons is to describe it as the conflict of doing and being. The Shadows ask a question that promotes thought about doing: “What do you want?” To the Vorlons, the question to ask is one promoting thought about being: “Who are you?”

The character of Zarathustra was borrowed by Nietzsche from the historical founder of Zoroastrianism, which need to be differentiated from each other. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a fictional character modeled loosely on the historical Zarathustra. In Babylon 5 the character who best represents Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the ancient alien Lorien. Lorien is the oldest immortal sentient being in the universe. Superficially, both characters, Lorien and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, have spent a long time in caves pondering philosophical themes. What makes the connection solid between Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Lorien is how the characters are related to a common theme. Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo (“Why I am a Destiny” section 3), reveals what he meant by using Zarathustra as a protagonist. The Zarathustra of history understood the world to be a conflict between the supernatural forces of good and the supernatural forces of evil. To Nietzsche it would make sense for Zarathustra to be the one to spot his own error of a supernatural moral order of things. Straczynski has the character of Lorien, who was the first to take on the role of shepherding younger alien races, repudiate what has become of the two ancient races (the Vorlons and the Shadows) who later took up that cause.

The character of John Sheridan is the primary hero of the story in Babylon 5, though he isn’t introduced until the second season. Sheridan replaces the initial hero Jeffrey Sinclair. However, an interesting development in the episode “War Without End Part 2” has the characters of John Sheridan, Jeffrey Sinclair, and Delenn said to be “The One” in a type of trinity. The characters are also related to each other. Jeffrey Sinclair is the ancestor of Delenn, Sinclair having travelled back in time at the conclusion of “War Without End Part 2.” Later on in the series John Sheridan gets married to Delenn.

John Sheridan has the task of resolving the conflict between the ideologies of the Vorlons and the Shadows. Sheridan goes to Z’ha’dum, the homeworld of the Shadows, to confront them. At Z’ha’dum he is told by those working with the Shadows the nature of their ideological conflict with the Vorlons, and asked to join them. He refuses in dramatic fashion, but in a surprising turn of events he is rescued by Lorien. Sheridan is changed by his encounter with Lorien, and he becomes the Nietzschean overman (also known as “superman,” or “übermensch”). In Nietzsche’s philosophy it is his Zarathustra who introduces the concept of the overman.

At this point, there is a problem with variant understandings of just what Nietzsche meant by “overman.” Unfortunately, many people understand the overman as a ruthless figure that will stop at nothing to achieve his or her ends. Straczynski has even given expression to this common misunderstanding of the overman in the episode “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” where a future holographic recreation of John Sheridan is reprogrammed to be such a ruthless figure (see also J. Michael Straczynski’s commentary track to the episode on the DVD release). To Nietzsche, the overman can go beyond simplistic notions of morality, “good” and “evil,” and make the difficult choices that need to be made. In this vein, after the Shadow War is over, John Sheridan makes choices outside of the either/or options the Vorlons and Shadows had presented. A prime example is with Sheridan’s choice to sacrifice telepaths that were surgically altered by the Shadows. Since the telepaths in question are not able to be restored to health, and they were programmed to merge with spacecraft machinery, Sheridan uses them to disable a fleet of ships. The sacrifice of the telepaths saves the lives of thousands of people.

Other Nietzschean Themes?

          The main story of Babylon 5 revolves around the conflict with, and eventual rejection of, the extreme moralities of the Vorlons and the Shadows. Those two ancient Apollonian and Dionysian alien races are accompanied with angelic and demonic imagery in Babylon 5. Their rejection may also represent Nietzsche’s “death of God” (see The Gay Science Section 125 “The Madman”). The name “Babylon 5” is reminiscent of the influence the ancient Israelite Exile in Babylon had on its religious thought. Though still maintaining its uncompromising monotheism, Judaism would absorb some of the dualistic notions from Zoroastrianism such as angels, demons, and a Devil. Is the name “Babylon 5” an echo of Zoroastrian notions of good versus evil that Nietzsche has his Zarathustra reject?

Time travel is a staple of much of science-fiction. In the first season of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski has the episode “Babylon Squared” tell part of a time-travel story that is concluded in the episodes “War Without End Part One” and “War Without End Part Two” in the third season. Is this story a subtle nod to Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence? Jeffrey Sinclair discovers that he travelled back in time and became the Minbari religious leader Valen. In a sense he lives his life in a type of eternal recurrence, embracing the reality of forever choosing to make the same decisions.

Conclusion

          So what is one to make of these parallels? It is possible that any fan may find more meaning and see more influences than the author intended. That may be the case here. Being a fan of both Nietzsche and Babylon 5, I see many more subtle Nietzschean themes than I have discussed here. So it makes sense that I would be open to seeing Nietzschean themes on occasion.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in a style that explored a lot of different issues, even taking some positions he didn’t necessarily agree with. Science fiction lends itself to exploring a wide variety of issues and positions, something that Babylon 5 did very well. Nietzsche was an atheist who had read the Bible, and knew it fairly well, even to the point of being familiar with some of the then current Biblical scholarship. Straczynski too is an atheist who has read the Bible. Nietzsche loved the Greek classics, and Straczynski has been influenced by them as well. In conclusion, I would say that if the parallels between Nietzsche’s thought and Babylon 5 are of my imagining, I would recommend reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche to J. Michael Straczynski, as I think he would certainly enjoy them (I am a former bookstore manager after all).

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If you are interested in reading Friedrich Nietzsche, but don’t know where to begin, here are some suggestions. First, it would be best to approach Nietzsche’s works with a good guide. I wholeheartedly recommend Walter Kaufmann’s book (already mentioned) Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Even today Walter Kaufmann’s translations of Nietzsche’s works are pretty standard, and he has added footnotes in many places to help with some of the more obscure references Nietzsche makes (often contemporary cultural references). Additionally, the translations of R.J. Hollingdale are great. Also mentioned above, the Teaching Company series of lectures entitled The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Higgins provide a great introduction to Nietzsche’s works. Nietzsche’s style will put off some readers, but it is worth the effort in many places, and I have found it very rewarding.

Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist

Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist

The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Prayer on the Occasion of Fred Phelps’ Imminent Demise

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

Cement

          Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, appears to be dying. It is often a struggle to know what to do or how to feel regarding the imminent demise of a person who has caused so much pain. As a Christian, I know God desires reconciliation and repentance, but the hurt is great. It is toward persons like this that I pray like the Psalmists.

Feelings need to find a positive means of expression, and imprecatory prayer provides a way to this. For those unfamiliar with the term, imprecatory prayer is another way to describe the spiritual practice of cursing. It is better to express our anger and outrage to God than to take action contrary to the will of God. Unfortunately many churches today tend to avoid talking about how to deal with “negative” emotions. Lectionary selections from the Psalms generally avoid the imprecatory prayers scattered among them. There are some good reasons for this, but the subject shouldn’t be avoided altogether.

How do I do practice imprecatory prayer? I start by recognizing the will of God. As I mentioned above, God desires reconciliation and repentance. God loves everyone. That people act in ways that hurt others grieves the heart of God. There is such a thing as righteous anger though. The difficulty is in how to combine God’s love with our anger in one prayer.

Here are a few helpful images from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

-        Christian baptism represents the death of the old sinful self.

-        The wages sin pays is death (Romans 6:23).

-        The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will to be done.

-        Revenge is God’s domain (see Romans 12:19, which quotes Deuteronomy 32:35).

These points can be combined together as follows:

God, you know my hurt and anger toward Fred Phelps. I know that you love Fred Phelps and desire his repentance—that he should renounce his evil actions (his sin), and practice them no more. I ask that you bring his evil actions to an end. God, hasten the death of his sinful self or hasten his physical death, so as to put a stop to his evil actions. God grant me the peace to accept your will in all situations. I release my desire for revenge to you. Open my heart so that if he repents of his sin I may only see the new creation you have wrought in him instead of the person who has caused so much pain. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, I too will affirm “not my will but yours be done.” Amen.

Cement

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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