Millet’s Calf, a Newborn Jesus, and God of Earth

Maybe it’s the way the light falls, illuminating the bed of straw like some upside-down and disheveled halo, all gold and shimmery, on which the baby lies – a baby cow, in this case. Or maybe it’s the calf’s beatific face, alert and looking straight out at us from the center of the canvas. I suspect part of it is the posture of the farmer and of his field hand, heads bent, and the care with which they carry the newborn toward the stone cottage (a human home, no doubt about that) and the little girls waiting there. Surely the mother has something to do with it — a spine-startling cow with skinny legs and modest udder, her head titled just so, her muzzle bumping the calf’s rear with that same attention to even the humblest body parts that a baby unashamedly demands. I don’t know why the woman is the only one with her mouth open – singing, speaking, calling, assuring…?Millet Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields

Holiday Bible Surprises

Some things one might expect to find in the Bible aren’t there at all; while sometimes what we do find is downright surprising. Take Hanukkah, for instance — not there! Ironically, not in the Jewish bible, but it is in the Orthodox Christian bible (in part — 1 Maccabees, if you’re looking). Meanwhile, the Christian Christmas stories don’t all jibe, and they include some surprises of their own.

Second Coming, all the time?

What if Jesus has already come back or is even coming back all the time? That the first generation of Jesus’ followers expected the Parousia or “second coming” during their own lifetimes is certain. They were sure, based on Jesus’ teachings and their own, first-hand knowledge of him that it would happen. At least that’s how the Bible represents it. (That it didn’t happen as predicted makes its presence in the Bible even more striking. After all, why retain traditions of misunderstanding, even of failure? — another topic for musing…) And the business of waiting for Jesus’ return is still big business. Witness the most recent hubbub promoted by Harold Camping of Family Radio. Many Christians have a penchant for the sentimental — wishing to recreate biblical places and events in order to feel closer to Jesus, to God. I get it. But I wonder: if Jesus is God — a basic tenet of the three-in-one Christian faith, then what’s to say that God must be limited to popular ideas of what Jesus’ return would look like… what Jesus himself would look like? What if Jesus’ return is happening all the time, in forms far different from traditional expectations including that of a bearded man in flowing robes who causes some kind of revolution? What if Jesus’ second coming doesn’t actually involve a human being at all? What if it’s always been happening?

Jesus and Groundhog Day

            I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.”

Where Islam and Christianity Meet

The furor over mosque-building in Manhattan and Koran-burning in Florida reminds us that like it or not, religious differences continue to challenge civic peace. A new book, The Tenth Parallel, by journalist Eliza Griswold narrates her experiences on the 10th parallel, 700 miles north of the equator. This line of latitude runs through territories where about 60% of the world’s Christians and more than 50% of the world’s Muslims live. Griswold traveled this line for seven years, investigating religious relationships in Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  Much of the conflict, Griswold notes, has “largely to do with population growth… [and the forms of these religions that are growing the fastest]… tend to be the most radical…” It’s a sobering assessment, but Griswold’s perspective isn’t completely negative.  She observes that religious institutions sometimes provide necessary, basic care when states cannot and often promote a morality of care. You can read an interview with Griswold by Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe here.

“Enough” and Challenging the Bible in The Christian Century

If you have a chance to check out the Sept. 21 issue of the Christian Century, I hope you’ll have a look at my “Living by the Word” essays. Ironically, one of them pushes the idea of “living by the Word” to include actually challenging that Word. The other concerns a particular word that I’d like to see more of these days — “enough.” I also composed more personal companion pieces for the “Century Blog.” One describes my great Aunt Esther, who definitely had enough, despite giving everything away. The other meditates on challenging authority, even when that authority is God. I hope you’ll have a look. And if you have a chance, do let me know what you think.

A Gospel Easter

This essay first appeared in the Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star on April 4, 2010.  

Of all the Christian holidays, it’s Christmas that gets the most attention. And can you blame us for that? Light and life in the dead of winter, gifts galore, and cookies to boot — no wonder it’s a favorite. Yet Easter is the most important Christian holiday and was celebrated long before Christmas became what it is today. We can be comfortable with Christmas, its jollity and twinkling beauty, the stable, newborn, and serene mother. Easter, on the other hand, is different and a bit unsettling. For one thing, it is preceded by a gruesome, torturous death by crucifixion. What’s more, it’s based on an utterly unnatural event — the coming back to life again of a definitely dead man. Let’s face it, being born is nothing special. We’ve all done it, and in every case at least one person was on hand to witness the occasion. But resurrection?… 

Palm Sunday confusion?

Today, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday — the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem to great “Hosanna!” acclaim. But just exactly how did he do it? The stories disagree in a puzzling way… unless you know something about the conventions of biblical Hebrew and that the New Testament writers (Matthew, especially) often looked to the Old Testament, for ways to understand Jesus. 

The Bible and Sherlock Holmes

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to bring a notebook with me to “Sherlock Holmes.” I should know better — that the Bible shows up everywhere. This movie was no exception. A fun flick — a little cerebral, lots of action, and a sobering reminder that what may seem to be convincing magic is sophisticated manipulation of the physical world. (And its seductive agent may be a malicious liar.) The movie has several biblical references that I just can’t remember in detail. In addition to the evil Blackwood’s overt associations with Jesus (busting out of his tomb after 3 days, eucharist-like ritual, and address as “Lord”), was it Revelation 1:18 that Blackwood cites? (And does the movie make the common mistake of identifying the book as “Revelations,” with an “s” on the end?) Also, I remember being startled to see several Hebrew Bible/Old Testament references in the iconography of Blackwood’s estate. For example, was it an altar or a kind of throne-like structure that was flanked by golden winged creatures (like descriptions of the biblical ark of the covenant… which serves in the temple as a kind of divine ottoman)? And what’s with the Hebrew shin, lamed, mem, vav, tav writing underneath some structure (again, was it a different scene with Blackwood on a throne)? In the Hebrew Bible that word appears as such as a proper name. It also appears as a word modifying “stones” in a couple of references to building an altar of “unhewn” stones (so translated because the word is based on the root shin, lamed, mem which can mean “whole”; that’s where the word shalom “peace” comes from, too). I still don’t quite “get” why it would be in that scene, though, unless it’s meant to mark an altar where a sacrifice would be perfomed (as in Deut 27:6 and Josh 8:31). Whatever the case, does this association of Hebrew with the occult have anti-Semitic implications? While I don’t think that that the movie is anti-Jewish (after all, the guy manipulating these symbols and appealing to New Testament texts is obviously mis-directed… to say the least), such associations can be problematic, given the long Christian suspicion of Jewish rituals and traditions. Overall, the movie was good, entertaining fun and gives astute viewers some intriguing things to think about. 

To Have or Have Not

I’m talking about money. Money money money… and the Christian soul. Of course the relationship between religion and material wealth isn’t one that only Christians debate, but  the “prosperity gospel” has gained lots of converts over the past several years. And with the recent financial crisis, its basis and wisdom has gained new critics. Of course, folks from both sides — those who think that God wants you to have lots of stuff and more; and those who maintain that God promises abundant life precisely in the ABSENCE of such material riches — find justification in the Bible. I took a look at the most influential texts for a chapter on controversial issues in my forthcoming Bible Babel. Lately, Christians have also sought straightforward financial advice from their authoritative text. For a few fine discussions on the topic, check out Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic Monthly piece, this recent article by Jay Lindsay that circulated through the Associated Press, and this Christmas essay for CNN by John Blake. What do you think, and why do you think people read so differently? Is there finally any consistency or possibility for agreement at the heart of the issue? What IS the heart of the issue?