Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: His Story

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 255p.

His StoryMurphy-O’Connor reconstructs the outline of Paul’s life and work using his letters rather than the account Luke offers in Acts. Large portions of the book are conjectural, and M-O has no qualms about telling the reader what was “logical” or “necessary” for Paul to have done. He also works within a “Great-Man” historical frame in which Paul seems to steer history, directing characters here and there as if they had no interests or projects of their own. By over-playing Paul’s missionary ambition (as an obsession from the moment of his conversion) and his ability to direct and control those loyal to him, M-O actually ends up underplaying Paul’s remarkable accomplishments. Largely a popular text, the book relies on the arguments and dating set forth in the author’s 1996 text, Paul: A Critical Life and makes no case for the dating or authenticity of letters. Nevertheless, the book provides a helpful narrative framework for Paul’s life, brings flesh and blood to his personality by setting his whole story down in a single account, and provides (as must be stressed) one possible account of Paul’s motives and thoughts over the course of his life.  M-O’s “common-sense” approach to Paul’s thoughts and feelings takes quite a bit of artistic license. 

[The blog has been languishing a bit as of late and so I’ve been thinking of different ways to use this space. Short reviews of books that I am reading (for class or otherwise) may feature more prominently here in the future. I don’t intend to bore the few people who read this by devoting entirely to my academic work, but realistically it will get more attention if it is more fully integrated.]

ecological thinking :: the basileia of God

The Greek word basileia underlies the “kingdom” of “kingdom of God” in English translations of the New Testament. The word can, and has, be translated by a range of terms, from “reign” to “empire” to “regime” and more.

I’m wondering what would shift in our thinking about the human relationship with creation (or conversely, what might shift in our thinking of the human relationship with God) if we began to use another term, already theologically freighted, namely “Dominion.”

“Dominion” is, of course, the English word most frequently used to translate the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:28, and is a familiar term in Christian circles. It is also a pejoratively loaded term in ecological circles because it is (mis)taken to imply that humanity has a God-given right to do whatever the hell they want with God’s green earth, because it’s all here to serve us human-beans anyway. Some of us are convinced that human beings belong in both ecologically-minded circles and Christian circles, and are trying to wrestle out the best way to think about these things.

If Jesus’ ministry is to announce and inaugurate the dominion of God, setting prisoners free, restoring sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, what does that imply for our “dominion” on the planet? What do “dominion” and “love” have in common?

reading together :: lectionary

Coming to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer better and better this year through my thesis, two of his personal habits have impressed me. The first is the correspondence which he maintained with friends and family. He must have written at least a letter a day, if not more. For all the ease of “getting in touch” through technology these days, I’m not actually sure that we do it more (or more substantially!) than when it was more difficult. 

The second, related habit is his daily reading of Scripture. Not the reading in itself, but the mode of his reading.  Bonhoeffer used, along with many of his friends, family, and colleagues, a daily lectionary. This meant that on any given day, he and many of the people he knew would be reflecting on the same passages. This is reflected in many of his letters from prison, as he speaks to Eberhard Bethge about something he noticed in the day’s passage. 

I’ve been using a daily lectionary now for almost a year, there is much to commend about the practice.

  • The readings “fit” into the ecclesial year, so that the reading is appropriate for the season.
  • I am not left to design my own reading agenda, so I read passages that I might not come to otherwise. 
  • I am not reading alone, but with any number of other church-folk who read the same passage.  

In ecumenical spirit, I have been using the daily lectionary available on the PCUSA’s page. But I did a bit of work to clean it up and put it into a Word document, so I thought I would make that available for anyone who wants to join me in the practice.  

Download the document Here.

Achan’s stones [part three] :: the unity of revelation

It has been a while, but I am slowly thinking about revelation, divine speech in Scripture, and holy violence by attempting to read Joshua 7, the story of the execution of Achan and his family with a theological lens. Part One and Part Two lie a few weeks back in the queue.

The problem that a text like Joshua 7 presents can be expressed as the tension between three generally heartfelt convictions—a solution wrought by denying any of these beliefs raises bigger problems than are solved. Yet avoiding the conclusion that God commands murder seems to necessitate fudging one of these somewhere:

1. The unity of canonical revelation: “Isn’t the Bible God’s Word? Then why does this passage say that God wants sinners dead, while this other passage says that he loves the whole world?”

2. The unity and faithfulness of the God revealed. “God doesn’t do violence…does he? Does God change drastically in history? Why does he seem bloodthirsty here?”

3. The unity of our own reason and ethics. “Murder is categorically wrong, no matter what…right? Can God simply change the rules on us?”

I’ll try them on one at a time…
Continue reading “Achan’s stones [part three] :: the unity of revelation”

achan’s stones :: [part two]

The last post on this theme circuitously raised a thorny question about Scripture and God’s speech. Achan and his kin are put to death, seemingly at God’s command, and the execution seems to placate God’s anger. The blood of the offending man and his family satisfies God’s demand for retribution after his command was broken. This post and the next set out most of the escape routes that I can think of—and offer reasons why they create more problems than they avoid.

Anyone who wants to take the text seriously is faced with the problem: God speaks to Joshua to command the execution of Achan and his family. The last post questioned whether Achan was the sole culprit in all Israel (and thus the justice of his execution); but even if he was, the execution of his family seems barbaric. Does God command murder?

Modus operandi for most of us is to simply ignore these jarring and violent texts and focus on more straightforwardly edifying passages. On the whole, I am not sure that this is a bad thing; it is less than wise to quote Joshua 7 in an attempt to build up the church’s faith. But the existence of these texts subverts my desire to speak of the whole bible as the word of God—it makes me uncomfortable. Whether we ignore these texts or not, the picture of God that they present lurks in the dark cellar of faith—and we worry that he may come up into the light. For many, the problem remains whether or not it is faced explicitly.
Continue reading “achan’s stones :: [part two]”

did god really say? :: from adam’s apple to achan’s stones [part one]

Forbidden Fruit The serpent’s first question to Eve is an attempt to get under her skin, fomenting second thoughts about God’s gift and command. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The serpent calls the content of God’s speech into question by twisting the command and putting a harsher edict in its place. Eve is sharp enough to set that twisted serpent straight–for the most part. “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say…”

The story is centered on controversy among God’s creatures as to what God actually said, and what was meant when he said it. The snake and the human bring different versions of God’s command–and different gods. The god of the serpent is a restrictive fellow who hoards all the garden’s fruit to himself (even though there is plenty to go around) and threatens transgressors with death (even though he doesn’t really mean it). Adam and Eve have another God’s breath in their veins; they know his generosity and his character, but in their naivete they act on the serpent’s sermon and fall into the serpent’s world. Adam and Eve claim the fruit for themselves, and awake to find themselves shamefully bent. This story is our story.

This post, however, is not about Adam and Eve per se. I want to look at a few other Old Testament representations of God’s speech, and eventually raise a few questions about the nature of revelation, inspiration, and our relationship to scripture.
Continue reading “did god really say? :: from adam’s apple to achan’s stones [part one]”

nature and civilization :: of dirt and dangerous divisions

Scraped together out of dirt, humanity is creation rearranged. Our atoms are interchangable with those of birds, bees, monkeys and mollusks. Theologically, no less than biologically or chemically, humanity is continuous with creation. Whatever is going on in the show here, humanity is a part of the scenery.

Some complexity is introduced when God leans down to breathe into the muddled mud-ling he’s put together. Dirt that shows something about God, “images” Him. Humanity has a unique role on the planet we are a part of.

Somewhere along the line, we became civilized. This is mostly measured by the fact that we are no longer dependent on nature in our day to day lives. Signs of civilization include the light bulbs that enable us to read late into the night (a much more convenient form of light than fire…), and the fact that we can live in rediculously uninhabitable places like Antarctica or Alberta. If you are a human being reading this, give your self a pat on the back–you are civilized!

As wealthy Westerners, it is tempting to interpret this functional impervious-ness from “nature” as independence, as a mark of real distinction between us and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. I will be the last one to deride technology and all the benefits of human creativity. That said, independence from nature is a destructive myth, dangerous both ecologically and theologically. Our “civilization” fuels this myth and enables a noxious self-misunderstanding. Continue reading “nature and civilization :: of dirt and dangerous divisions”