Archive for March 19th, 2008

Book Review: Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, O.P.

Jesus Before Christianity (1976, 2001) by Albert Nolan, O.P. is a book which removes the lens of Christianity from looking at the historical Jesus, and provides the context for the times in which Jesus lived, walked the Earth, and taught His people. Interestingly, Nolan minimizes Jesus’ supernatural acts and even his divinity, but in a way that more greatly emphasizes the radicalness of the Way He taught. Thus our faith in Jesus as son of God is increased by knowing Him as Jesus the human being. Nolan points how that Jesus never proclaimed his authority nor stated that he was divine and did not even defend himself in his trial, all of which teach us something important about the nature of Jesus.

Nolan pictures Jesus as a prophet for a coming of calamity (conquest by the Romans that would come around 70 AD), who wanted not to lead a military revolt but to protect Israel by having the people change themselves. He showed care for the poor and oppressed at a time when they were though to be beyond saving, and taught healing and forgiveness. The “Kingdom” (a word that in the original Greek refers to both a domain and to the quality of royal power and is not gender specific) of God is discussed thoroughly over several chapters, outlining a very real vision Jesus had for His people on this Earth. Nolan also dissects the confrontation that Christ had with the Jewish and Roman leaders that lead to His execution.

I found this a very interesting and enlightening study of the life of the historical Jesus. It’s a short but dense book, which probably is worth reading again.  Hopefully the passages below will illustrate the quality of this book better than my summary above:

Miracles are often thought of, both by those who believe in them and by those who do not, as events, or purported events, that contradict the laws of nature and that therefore cannot be explained by science or reason. But this is not at all what the Bible means by a miracle, as any biblical scholar will tell you. “The laws of nature” is a modern scientific concept. The Bible knows nothing of about nature, let alone the laws of nature. The world is God’s creation and whatever happens in the world ordinary or extraordinary, is part of God’s providence. The Bible does not divide events into natural or supernatural. God is on one way or another behind all events.

A miracle in the Bible is an unusual event which has been understood as an unusual act of God, a mighty work. Certain acts of God are called miracles or wonders because of their ability to astonish and surprise us. Thus creation is a miracle, grace is a miracle, the growth of an enormous mustard tree from a tiny seed is a miracle, the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the kingdom of God will be a miracle. The world is full of miracles for those who have eyes to see them. If we are no longer able to wonder and marvel except when the so-called laws of nature are broken, then we must be in a sorry state. — p. 41

Jesus’ love for the poor and the oppressed was not an exclusive love; it was an indication of the fact that what he valued was humanity not status and prestige. The poor and oppressed had nothing to reccomend them except their humanity and sufferings. Jesus was also concerned about the middle and upper classes — not because they were especially important but because they too were people. He wanted them to strip themselves of their false values, of their wealth and prestige, in order to become real people. Jesus wished to replace the “worldly” value of prestige by the “godly” value of people as people. — p. 70

The leaders and scholars of Jesus’ time had first enslaved themselves to the law. This not only enhanced their prestige in society, it also gave them a sense of security. We fear the responsibility of being free. It is often easier to let others make the decisions or to rely upon the letter of the law. Some people want to be slaves.

After enslaving themselves tot the letter of the law, such people always go on to deny freedom to others. They will not rest until they have imposed the same oppressive burdens upon everyone (Mt 23:4, 15). It is always the poor and the oppressed who suffer most when the law is used in this manner.

Jesus wanted to liberate everyone from the law — from all laws. But this could not be achieved by abolishing or changing the law. He had to dethrone the law. He had to ensure that the law would be our servant and not our master (Mk 2:27-28). We must therefore take responsibility for our servant, the law, and use it to serve the needs of humankind. This is quite different from licentiousness or lawlessness or irresponsible permissiveness. Jesus relativized the law so that its true purpose might be achieved. — p. 87-88

To believe in God is to believe that goodness is more powerful than evil and truth is stronger than falsehood. To believe in God is to believe than in the end goodness and truth will triumph over evil and falsehood and that God will conquer Satan. Anyone who thinks that evil will have the last word or that good and evil have a fifty-fifty chance is an atheist. There is a power for good in the world, a power that manifests itself in the deepest drives and forces in people and in nature, a power that in the last analysis is irresistible. If Jesus had not believed that, he would have nothing at all to say. – p. 102-103

To save one’s life means to hold onto it, to love it and be attached to it and therefore to fear death. To lose one’s life is to let go of it, to be detached from it and therefore to be willing to die. The paradox is that the person who fears death is already dead, whereas the person who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live. A life that is genuine and worthwhile is only possible once one is willing to die. — p. 139

Book Review: Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints by Thomas J. Craughwell

Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints (2006) by Thomas J. Craughwell is a collection of short essays of Saints who lived rather unsaintly lives. Usually this was before their conversion, of course, but sometimes even after turning their lives to God we see that even the saints are all too human. In fact, Craughwell believes that St. Olaf (patron of one of a parish I worshiped at in Virginia) would not be canonized under today’s rules of sainthood.

This is illustrative to the rest of us ordinary folk in that 1) it’s never too late to turn to God, and 2) while we strive for perfection we’re still human and won’t achieve it. So buck up and do your best like the good people in this book.

The book includes some of my favorite saints, with their sin listed after their name in the chapter heading such as:

I also learned about some interesting saints I was not aware of in the stories of St. Mary of Egypt who after living a life of sexual adventure moved to the desert where she was a hermit for decades and Venerable Matt Talbot, the patron of recovering alcoholics.

Book Review: Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality

Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality (2006) by Lawrence D. Hart refers in the title to the paradox within each of us that we can be drawn to violence and hatred or to the peace and grace of God. The basic question of the book is whether or not a Christian can support war and the simple answer is no. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the ways in which the United States government has interfered militarily in the affairs of other countries for corporations and aims of empire. A central chapter reviews the War in Iraq and how a Christian could not support it as a Holy War.

The author also challenges the hypothetical dilemma asked of pacifists of what they would do should their own loved ones be under attack by a violent intruder. Drawing heavily on an earlier work What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question by John Howard Yoder, Hart shows that there really are many more options than kill or be killed, and that it’s also irrelevant to the question of supporting or opposing a national war effort. Living the Gospel allows for transformative powers both individually and socially.

From my perspective, reading this book was like Hart preaching to the choir. Sadly, I also felt that the many American’s, even Christians, who justify our country’s use of warfare would not be swayed.

Dale Brown has suggested that the holy wars of Hebrew Scriptures are to be understood as miracle stories. Decisive victories against incredible odds were meant to teach people to rely on God rather than on their own military strength. If the entire Old Testament Story of Gideon is read in this light, which seems to be the obvious way to read it, then there is very little support to be found for trust inn nuclear arsenals, military technology that shocks and terrorizes, unproven trillion-dollar defense shields, or for relying on a superpower status that will never end.

It is also possible that the holy war tradition in Scripture is to be understood as a concession by God, so that holy wars represent no God’s original intention but a kind of divine concession. When the people of Israel demand a king, God warns them that if they choose a king an oppressive military complex will dominate their lives [in 1 Samuel 8:7-22]. — p. 52-53

“Contemplation,” therefore, measures what is high above and what is below together. The earthly temple in Jerusalem is built according to the heavenly vision (Exodus 25:8-9). The vision from above determines the course of action below. There are those who say that contemplation is a long, loving look at God, and they are absolutely correct. It is that sustained gaze at God that leads to wisdom of heart, to a conscience of compassion — the mystical knowledge of God’s dream that we are to help make real in our own personal and public situation.

So the unifying theme of this book is the Christian conscience — a conscience that compels all who have heard the transcendent voice of God to do their best to love as God loves, to champion the cause of the poor and vulnerable, to pursue peace, to overcome evil with good, to insist on integrity and truth, and to vigorously oppose injustice and violence. Anne Lamott’s summary interpretation of the teaching of Jesus succinctly describes this idea: “The point is not to hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless.” — p. 140

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