Inexplicable courses of action

HastingsLogo.PNGIn a good-sized city, a Hastings store went out of business last year.  Inexplicably, a new store with essentially the same slate of business lines just installed a store at the same location.

Also last year, in a small town with a fairly prominent Taco John’s and two fine mid-range Mexican restaurants, a Taco Bell/KFC went out of business.  Subsequently, an entrepreneur decided to add to the somewhat lacking mix of fast-food options Taco Bell 2016.svgwith a startup burrito joint that offers mostly Mexican fare.  Later, a restaurant group inexplicably tore down a ramshackle building and broke ground to install a new Taco Bell . . . a block away from the Taco John’s and five blocks from where the last Taco Bell failed.

Both of these examples call to mind the proverbial definition of insanity—doing the same things and expecting different results.

In a new locale, tired Christians try to maintain a trusting outlook.  Almost inexplicably, they visit church after church, hoping to find a small, biblically attentive, mutuality-emphasizing, non-franchise group to work with.  Nearly every visit to an established congregation results in listlessness, discouragement, waning hope, and windless sails.  (Churchiness has a way of doing that.)  I think these folks are more idealistic and fatigued than insane, but the matter might be argued otherwise.

– B. Casey, 7/29/17

Pilgrims

Consider pilgrims, nomads, and clergypeople.

A pilgrim journeys with a destination in mind.

A nomad wanders from place to place, somewhat seasonally and/or according to the need for food.

A clergyperson is a fixture in a church institution’s office.

It seems to me that the first guy walks with some underlying purpose beyond himself, the second moves rationally for his own survival’s sake, and the third is beset by fiduciary, institutional concerns (along with whatever authentic pastoral and theological ones might be in mind).

Just as there is a difference between playing on a barnstorming baseball team and working in, say, accounting in the MLB commissioner’s office, there is a difference between a pilgrim or nomad on one hand and a clergyperson on the other.  I prefer to avoid the clergy mindset altogether, minimize the nomadic life, and try to focus on a relatively purposeful pilgrimage.  I trust that the ultimate “destination,” whatever its nature, will be amazing and so much more than anyone—biblical author or otherwise—could describe.

B. Casey, 7/31/17

Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears.  ‑ Peter (1Peter 2, NET Bible)

These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.  For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland….    ­‑ Heb 11 (NET Bible)

Horror and terror

How’s that title for an attention-getter?

Horror movies often strike me as ridiculous, and movies that are all about broad-scale terror don’t attract me all that much.  On the other hand, the dramas and suspense series I watch do involve short-lived, mostly-small-scale terrors fairly often, I’d have to say.  They say (I’m not sure who “they” are, really) that watching such things can give kids nightmares, and I worry about myself, too.  Will a diet of bad visual experiences get inside my soul?  I suppose I’ve almost assumed that watching any horrific things would make me think about horror more acutely and more often.  Now, I wonder if it’s had the opposite effect:  have the terror images almost anesthetized me, keeping me from proper wincing and fear?

Lately I’ve wondered what terror would be like if personally experienced.  What if?  And then it happened very near me.  Very recently, a small plane went down less than 10 miles from our house.  My wife brought me the news, both in the form of an image on her phone and in her eyes.  I could tell she felt it deeply, and her empathy moved me.  What was that horrific human experience like for the two who were killed?  (May God have granted that it was quick.)  One decedent was from a few hundred miles away, and one, from our little town.  People knew them and must themselves have experienced shockwaves of terror after the news broke.  The more I think about it, the more I am affected.

I’m not much on the “hellfire and brimstone” stuff that’s historically been associated with a few denominations and preaching styles.  I’m grateful never to have been subjected to regular preaching like that in the congregations with which I’ve worked.  I’ve never dug into the hell topic much but find myself leaning toward the view that God’s punishment will not be ongoing but will rather be a one-time event.  Whatever it turns out to be, it is obviously something to be avoided.  I believe it will be a terror in some sense, whether once or in perpetuity.  Otherwise, why would the inspired teachers throughout biblical history have described it in such horrific terms?

Of distance and connection: speaking transparently

Reconnecting and staying connected has always been important to me.  Long before Facebook, and even before personal computing and the WWW, I had lists of friends and contacts, not to mention an alumni directory that helped me find college friends when I traveled.  Sometimes I would try to squeeze in too many visits, but my pace has slowed over the years.  On a family trip last month, we did spend some good time with three extended family members and five sets of friends.  Each visit was rewarding and had distinct value—for instance, meeting the fiancée of a dear, longtime friend a month before their wedding.  It is enriching and energizing to talk face to face with anyone I care about.

I do long for more/deeper/better friendships.  Through the years, some people have played highly significant roles in my life (and/or I in theirs) as we worked together on long-term projects, or because we were there at just the right time for each other.  In some cases, lengthy discussions about the scriptures, the church, or serious personal concerns seemed to cement our friendships.  My family and I are fulfilled in having maintained some relationship with most of the people in this picture, but where there has been this type of connection, a later sense of increasing distance can be more stark.  I can think of another group (from a dozen years prior to the above) in which one person has unilaterally and without explanation rejected the prior relationship, and there are other cold shoulders, as well.  Thoughts of that group led to thoughts of another group of eight or nine in which only three have shown any interest in building on the closeness we once had.

A couple of my friends, independently of each other, have confided to me that they value our friendship in part because they have few other friends.  I have a similar feeling.¹  I’ve had a couple of “best friends” and have been devoid that relationship “level” for a while now.  For various reasons, I have not stayed in any one place too long in recent years.  In most cases, it takes years to develop magnetic, deep friendships, whether or not they are of the “best friend” type.  If one moves away, not even Herculean efforts can keep the relationship from changing.

It’s been well said that the worst lonely feelings come in the middle of a crowd.  (Not everyone will understand that.)  I would add the modifier of all sizes to “crowds”:  physical proximity with even one other person might suggest, but does not guarantee, connection.  When the actual relationship lacks closeness, the appearance of being part of a friendship or “team” is painful.  A once-upon-a-time friend once looked at someone else and me and said “You are such a great team,” but we were actually very personally distant.  Being a part of an educational or Christian small group while feeling like an island has probably given me more emotional pain than can be imagined by those with more sanguine or phlegmatic personalities.  On the other hand, the relational ease and richness of conversation and relationship that sometimes does come in small groups (as in the one shown here) and one-on-one conversations can be incomparably rewarding.

There has been a lot of aloneness in my life . . . yes, a great deal of goodness and relational presence, but also a lot of absence² and a lot of wishing . . . a lot of wondering about connections that were, that might have been, or that might yet be.  Having a generally melancholy temperament, I over-think (brood?), and I create.³  I am not a natural smiler, so it might look like I’m unhappy when I’m just thinking deeply, pondering.

It is from these ponderings that the following passage comes.  I don’t suppose it’s really a poem; it’s more a piece of structured prose.  It is chiastically arranged, and I’ve indented to show the arrangements more clearly.  Here, a matched indent level indicates a related pair of passages, and the middle is central within the whole.  You might even read it that way, starting from the outer edges and progressing inward.  I will resist the urge to provide commentary on the piece.  On the other hand, if the chiastic arrangement is curious to you and you want to critique it or ask questions about what I have in mind or the intratextual relationships, please comment!  You and I might even enhance a connection….


I don’t like feeling alone.  For about a decade, I felt very (and increasingly) lonely, and no one seemed to understand enough to come alongside me.

On the other hand, I have often needed more alone time than I get.

Gene Edwards’s unusual book The Divine Romance paints a verbal tapestry of a pre-creation “time” in which God longed for a counterpart, an “other.”  At some point, Edwards imagines, God had a startling realization—that there could be two.

If I am in some sense made in God’s image, perhaps I experience, on some level, whatever God experienced that led Him to create humans.  Did He feel aloneness or loneliness?  I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to suggest that God “needs” people, but He certainly desires relationship.  And I, too, need connection.

James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro” literary classic God’s Trombones purports to quote God:  “I’m lonely.  I’ll make me a man.”

I tend to be both energized by, and accomplished in, alone time.

Blessedly, I have a wife and son who love me, and they encourage me.  Oddly, I still often feel alone.


¹ Grammar note:  I initially had “I feel similar” here, and that would have been technically correct.  The intransitive linking verb “feel” does not take an adverb, so it was “similar,” not “similarly.”  If I had meant to comment on my sensation of touch, i.e., how I feel a countertop surface  with my fingertips, comparing that to someone else’s feeling ability, then I would have said, “I feel similarly.”  Being technically correct is not always the best choice, so I opted for “I have a similar feeling.”  🙂

² For meditation-provoking posts based on Martin Marty’s book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, start here.

³ In my case, these days, creating primarily means writing.  Besides blogs, I have mounds of correspondence, some “therapeutic writing” that no one sees, a few poems, and a lot of music.  For about 20 years, I wrote songs (a handful of love songs and 100+ Christian songs); later, the musical creativity was directed more into mostly instrumental works, including compositions, transcriptions, and arrangements.  I don’t write much music of any kind anymore.  My creativity has moved more toward verbal prose, which means blogposts and the 5.5 books I have in print (Amazon Author Page), plus major contributions to 2 more books, and a few materials for teaching scripture.

Of distance and connection: prologue

I have decided not to post the first version of this post.  It dealt with connections and relationships in terms of Facebook, and it was long.  Facebook does have implications as a connective relationship “tool,” and it was of some value to me to take stock of my Facebook friends, the highly valued connections there, my perceptions of others’ use of Facebook, and more.  In the end, I have decided all that was of little value to anyone else, though, so I’m not posting the whole thing.  The excerpts below, about 1/4 of the original, can serve as a prologue to the next post that will include a relatively transparent poem.

When Facebook came on the scene, new possibilities for connection arose.  I myself was a little slow on the draw but once asked a close friend to show me the merits of FB.  Soon after, I signed up and began to use it.  I had long been one to reach out to connect and reconnect, and this was a tool that could be used toward that end.

. . .

From my vantage point, the primary reason for FB is relationships with people (not faces).  There are relationships undergirding it all.

. . .

Some share personal things, including health-related situations, and that can connect us with one another’s struggles despite physical distance.  Being a somewhat private person, I tend not to share much personal stuff very often myself, not wanting to appear to be crying for help or publicly revealing one of my many weaknesses.  I acknowledge, though, that what I might find borderline inappropriate may actually indicate strong senses of relationship for others.

. . .

Some, ostensibly the “FB introverts,” like to keep their lists relatively small, while others have thousands of “friends.”  One personal friend I was fairly close to for about a decade only uses FB for family.  Others, such as yours truly, have little to no family as FB friends.  This might seem odd to many, but less than 3% of my FB friends live within an hour of me.

. . .

Facebook cannot by itself satisfy the need for relationship; it is but a fragment of a vast matrix of varying levels of connection in today’s human existence.  Connection . . . and distance.  Yes, distance.  I can sometimes scroll through my FB feed and feel almost isolated.  I don’t have values similar to a lot of people out there—perhaps even the lion’s share of my own FB friends.  We all have some background, mutual friends, or some other connection—musical and/or Christian and/or school-related or what-have-you—but people travel their own paths. . . .

I could write of telephones and Bluetooth while traveling, of letters and e-mails, of visits and wished-for visits—and regrets about visits.  Each person has his own set of experiences, of connections, and of distance, whether they are all recognized or not.

Relationships are funny things.  Relationships can be the glue of life or a daily curse—and everything between.

~ ~ ~

Soon I’ll share a transparent quasi-poem (chiastically arranged! . . . that’s especially for the few friends with whom I’ve connected deeply around scripture).  I’ve been stressing over sharing this poem for a couple of months, and I’ve been slow to post it because of thoughts of . . . you guessed it:  relationships with others.

Mrs. Shuck and the mulberry tree

I don’t write vignettes very often, and I don’t think I’m very good at it, but maybe this little piece will interest a few folks to whom my normal fare doesn’t often appeal.

~ ~ ~

She was what you might think of as a “little old lady,” and she lived diagonally across from me, through the backyards.  I suppose she was 75 or so when I met her, and she’s presumably passed from this life.  Her first name was Pauline, but I called her “Mrs. Shuck.”  I could see Mrs. Shuck’s back porch from mine.  And I crossed paths with her over a mulberry tree in my yard.

I happened to be renting a two-story brick house from a landlord whose memory and judgment I had some reason to suspect at that point.¹  He was new at the business and didn’t know how to handle some things.  I later learned that I was probably on the upper end of his clientele, and my house, being owned by his parents, was sort of ancillary to his normal operation, so it wasn’t always on his radar.

Let’s rewind for a minute to pick up the mulberry trail. . . .  After springtime Sunday school in Wilmington, Delaware, we young kids would make our way to the little hill that bordered the property on the north.  There was less rush in life then, and families hung around longer, giving us kids plenty of time to play under the willow tree or to roll grapefruit-sized “monkey balls” down the hill.  We also picked and ate the mulberries from a tree on that hill.  Fresh berries are always good things!

Now back to my rental house and a rejuvenated phase in my own life.  The Heartland sky was big and beautiful, and the surrounding farmland, as charming as it was productive.  I can still recall the fresh, local cucumbers from that first summer in Kansas.  And when spring kicked into gear the following year, I was delighted to find that my backyard had a mulberry tree.  What could be better than fresh, free berries?  Just like on the hill across the parking lot at Cedars!  I wasn’t exactly a kid in a candy shop, but I remember picking and eating while mowing the lawn.  I don’t think I baked a mulberry pie, but I probably put some berries in my fridge.

Enter the villainess of the story.  [Cue mock-sinister music.]  At some point I became aware that Mrs. Shuck didn’t like the mulberry tree.  She groused about the robins pooping purple on the fresh sheets she had hung on her clothesline.  Well, maybe use your dryer, I probably thought.  Sorry, but the tree is 50 feet away from your clothesline, and it’s not in your yard.  I was busy in a new teaching job, and more or less forgot about the issue, unaware that my landlord was seriously entertaining this lady’s complaints.  One afternoon when I returned from work, though, I found that the tree had been cut down!  I called to find out what was up, and the landlord confirmed that he had indeed cut the tree down in response to Mrs. Shuck’s complaint.

I was miffed.

This was before I had developed an abiding cynicism about people with clout, but really . . . who was this meddlesome woman who had the clout to get into my business and rob me of the fresh mulberries?

Within a day or two, realizing that fruit of mulberry tree was not written into my lease, I cooled down and wrote a note of forgiveness to Mrs. Shuck.  I had been mad, and I guess she knew it.  I delivered the note to her door, and she received it graciously.  She explained and apologized for the offense, and we had a little get-to-know-you chat.  She later wrote me a note of her own after attending a concert in which I performed, and she wished me well.

I vaguely remember that Mrs. Shuck was a Christian of some stripe, but I don’t remember her church affiliation.  And whether she was or wasn’t doesn’t really matter in this context.  (I’m stupid but not stupid enough to think that the Jesus-follower’s forgiveness ideal is applicable only to interactions in which both parties are Christian.  No, it’s more of a mantra—an M.O. for every interaction.)  At first, I think my forgiveness toward Mrs. Shuck was through gritted teeth, as it were.  (Remember Stephen Keaton of the old Family Ties series as he uttered the name of Mallory’s questionable boyfriend Nick?)  But at least I tried to act my way into forgiving her for robbing me of mulberries, and she appreciated it.

Now, I again have a mulberry tree in my yard—next to my driveway, in fact.  Poetic justice, you might say.  And now, my little pickup truck is almost as white as Mrs. Shuck’s sheets.  The bird poop stains on both vehicles are abhorrent little masses of disgustingness.  My neighbor acknowledges the nice shade but also wishes this tree had been cut down years ago.

Mrs. Shuck, I understand better now.  And I forgive you better now, too.

~ ~ ~

In anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”  (Matt 18:34-35, NET)

Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.  (Col 3:13, MSG)


¹ In signing the rental agreement, I had made sure the fireplace was operational and eventually bought some wood in the fall.  I checked the flue carefully, and it was open.  I started my first fire, but smoke billowed into my family room.  After throwing water on it and opening the windows, I called the landlord.  He had forgotten that the chimney had been bricked in—completely closed at the top!  A few other, minor things occurred in the first year there, indicating that my landlord was not completely on the ball, but I left on very good terms.

Effectiveness and “making a difference”

Effectiveness and “Making a difference”

Or, Ineffective Interviewers, Political Activity, and (sometimes) Prayer

On a Netflix special that consisted entirely of an interview, I heard a master interviewer¹ interviewing another interviewer-become-interviewee about a project that involved hundreds of conducted interviews.  (You might have to read that sentence again.)  Near the end, the interviewee was asked why she did it all.

“Because I believe we can make a difference.”

And then—as though she knew those words were empty, and being unaware that adding the next part would actually weaken her statement—she appended,

“I really believe that.”

No matter how much I might sympathize with her cause (and I happened to have been tipping about 72% in her direction), I didn’t “believe that” at all.  I don’t believe that her thoroughgoing efforts, her passion for the subject, or the resultant documentary about her interviews will make any noticeable difference in the reality of the situation.  They will ultimately be ineffective.

~ ~ ~

More than one Facebook friend believes the current U.S. presidency (or another one—it really doesn’t matter which) has a chance of making a positive difference.  Many also feel otherwise.  Whatever their vantage points, they all really seem to “believe that.”  I’m not necessarily able to discern these matters very well, but I myself haven’t observed much presidential effectiveness.  I suppose several presidents of yesteryear could be said to have been effective in one or more ways.  I’m not about to sing “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” here, but it does seem that there’s a slim current-era likelihood of much good effect from major political figures in this country.  I highly doubt that petitions, bills, resolutions, and documentaries (no matter how interesting and on-point) will ultimately be effective.  Political gangings-up, whether by the liberal-biased media or the conservative-biased evangelicals, aren’t going to be too effective in working good, either.  None of it will make much difference, or if it does, it will be short-lived.

~ ~ ~

My wife notes that certain consumer product markets have changed in good ways in the last decade, based primarily on the demand side.  Non-GMO-label products have proliferated, and artificial coloring has disappeared from many items, for instance.  While regulations have not followed suit, i.e., government lags reality, some health advocates and activities have arguably made a difference.

~ ~ ~

James said the prayer of a righteous man is effectual.  (OK, I don’t actually know the words James used, or whether they were first penned in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek, but “effectual” in the KJV is a richer word than “effective.”  I can do without the subsequent “availeth much.”)  Most people I know would say “prayer makes a difference,” but I have for years preferred to put the emphasis on God, not on the activity or the words of prayer per se.  Prayer is not some elixir or magical incantation that is effective in itself.  No, it is the One prayers are directed to that must make them “effectual.”  My own “prayer life” (a Christianese phrase not found in scripture) was once in a time of relative plenty, but it is now in a time of famine.  The prayers I’ve eked out in recent months/years haven’t seemed very effectual.  They just haven’t made a difference.  Not so far, anyway.  That is discouraging.

~ ~ ~

My dad recently wrote me a personal reflection about a prayer in his own life.  His words were transparent, humble, and rich in personal history, and he experienced the “effectualness” of his own prayer.  I am grateful for him and his experience, and I am also envious.  May I be simultaneously encouraged for him and discouraged for myself?

~ ~ ~

A couple weeks later, I participated in a small group study of the last part of James chapter 5.  That passage of text has some interesting translation-interpretation issues (e.g., healing/saving, the connection with anointing, righteous/just, and others).  Beyond those matters (which do intrigue me), I keyed in early on the word “anoint” and began to wonder about possible allusions here to King David’s sin (2Samuel 11).  Could it be that this entire, concluding section of James’s epistle was intended to lead the predominantly Jewish audience to hark back to times of old?  Below, I have divided James 5:13-20 into three sections and made a few observations on the right.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.  

This section can be taken as relating to emotional and spiritual health as well as physical.  See especially v16 which may be connecting the two.  There may be dual “healings” here (v15, v16)—both spiritual and physical.

17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest. This section provides a clear, emphatic example of the effectiveness of praying.  Here, it is physical, but the earlier part of the Elijah story (1Kings 18) dramatically connected both the spiritual and the physical.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

 

Elijah and David would have been quite familiar to James’s audience.

It is really only the anointing in v14 above that caused me to recall and look up David’s repentance story.  If my hunch is correct that there might be an echo here of Nathan and David, the import of 5:13-20 could be to say to the Jewish audience, “Pray for one another’s deep needs.  Remember:  praying was effective in Elijah’s case and also in David’s.  The physical side may or may not be changed, but the spiritual will be.”  

In any event, the praying James is encouraging focuses on spiritual results.  

Doubtless, Jewish believers in the middle of the first century CE would have known well the story of David and Bathsheba, even though it was 1,000 years in the past.  Perhaps when reading James’s suggestion of anointing the (spiritually?) sick one with oil, the Jewish reader would have called to mind more than one anointing in their history, including David’s anointing of himself, connected with his own spiritual healing, as recorded in 2Samuel 12:20.  The appeal to Elijah is inserted as a central testimony to God’s responsive action, and then the curious James 5:19-20 concludes the letter.

So, what to make of verses 19-20?  If—and I do say if—I’m onto something with this recall of King David, then verses 19-20 could be alluding, in rabbinic remez² fashion, to the work of the prophet Nathan.  In other words, the ideas of (1) turning a sinner from his ways and (2) the resultant covering or cancelling of sins could have led a Jewish Christian to remember that Nathan effectively spoke a message from God for the sake of a sinner.

It can also be so with the Jesus-follower in the new age, when he, too, will speak for God to a sibling who is sinning.  A few people have attempted such a “turning” effort with me; their concerns were well-intended and appreciated but not entirely on point.  I’ve probably needed it a lot more at other times, and I’ve neglected doing the same for others way, way too much.  Maybe I just didn’t believe it would make a difference.  And that is on me.

B. Casey, 5/2/17 – 5/27/17


¹ I know of only a few who could rightly wear the label “master interviewer,” but I’m sure there are many others who just aren’t known to me.  Barbara Walters has been known as a master interviewer, but the interviewer in this case was Oprah Winfrey.  I myself would like to interview Oprah to ask if her parents didn’t look up how to spell “Orpah” before naming her.  And then I would like to discuss the biblical account of Orpah, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz with her.  Somehow I think Oprah probably already knows of the story, but we could discuss it with some depth, and I imagine she would be intrigued by the details of the Hebrew narrative.

² Remez is briefly explained here (“Remez is one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he quoted scripture, which is a teaching method by which the teacher quotes a verse from the Bible but the point he is making is from the verses surrounding the one he quoted”) and also here, and here.

He’s 8 today

My first blogpost was a year prior to our son Jedd’s birth, and I began blogging in earnest when he was born.  I’ve noted a few other numeric milestones on this blog but semi-intentionally passed by post #1500 recently.  Jedd’s 8th birthday, a milestone for him and for us, seems a good time to document a bit of his life on this blog. . . .

~ ~ ~

No one set Jedd’s alarm on Sunday night, so I woke him up on Monday morning. Three days before his birthday, I told him he was officially 7-point-99 years old!  He is a morning person, and he smiled right away.

Jedd has had more than his share of sniffles this year but is generally a healthy kid and hasn’t been to the doctor since he was two or three.  He is a little shorter than average (like Karly) and has a sweet spirit (like Karly).  He likes all people (even more than Karly) and has friends of various ages—including adults.  He actually asked me two days ago about planning a “date” to Pizza Hut with a little girlfriend, but we’re passing that by for now.  Jedd’s first friends in western NY were mostly college students, and that doubtless contributed to his strong vocabulary, communication skills, and love of people.  Due in part to interim faculty positions I’ve held, Jedd has lived in five states already and has traveled in 22.  He has seen the Gulf of Mexico, and he has breathed thin air at 12,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies and felt a “polar bear wind” in Wyoming.  He’s traveled through Bald Knob and Bennington, Corpus  Christi and Cookeville.  He has lived in Allegany County and Atchison and has seen Anderson and the Atlantic Ocean.

He thinks his 2nd grade year has been his best ever.  He reads at a level that can make it problematic to find reading material that’s challenging but age-appropriate, and I think he reads aloud better than some 5th or 6th graders.  He seems to understand arithmetic “strategies” quickly.  He likes surprises and says “Oh, yay” when I offer him just about anything, including going exploring on a country highway, running out to a store, or giving him a pop quiz on math while we drive.  “I love questions,” he says.

Jedd has played baseball, basketball, and soccer on organized teams.  Of the three, he is best at baseball (starting his 2nd year now) and seems to like it the best, too.  He has learned some things on piano, thanks to my mother, and I should probably be capitalizing on his interest in piano and brass instruments soon.  Within the previous two or three days, he had expressed his typical enthusiasm for multiple things, including pizza, Bible history, digging holes, earthworms, baseball, and pretending to set up a store to sell rocks (testing for any meteorites first), and practicing solfège syllables.  An older friend who’s known him about 1/3 of his life once took Jedd fishing, and just last week, he went again and won a fishing rod.  He still loves trains and construction vehicles, just as he did when he was two (although Thomas has been out for several years).  He points out cool-looking classic cars as quickly as we do.  He loves animals, but it takes him a minute to get used to jumpy, intrusive dogs (since he was bitten once).  He plays free games on our tablet and watches sitcom reruns on Netflix, but he likes playing outside even more.  He rides his bike and his scooter, and he loves my motorcycle.  He likes to build forts with cushions and chairs and blocks and sheets, installing temporary lighting so he can read in there.  A clip-on reading light for his bed was quite possibly his most used gift ever.

We are of course interested in his spiritual development (and are not contributing directly to it as much as we should).  He has always loved going to various Bible classes and “children’s worship” times in various churches.  We feel it is good for him to be part of “Christian family” experiences, including various small group Bible studies and informal talks.  A few times in the last couple of years, we have included him unobtrusively in communion observances although he has not made a profession of faith or been immersed.  We had some matzah in the house recently, and it was he who wanted to use them in reenacting the “Last Supper,” so we did just that.  He also expressed a prolonged interest in watching a video we have of Matthew’s gospel.  Jedd has assimilated a lot of facts and has a great deal of acquaintance with the Bible (and has three Bibles of his own).  We are working on his memorizing half a verse in Greek to “perform” for his school’s talent show next week, and he commented recently that some of his neighborhood friends believe in God but that’s about as far as it goes.  He feels some personal sadness when he does wrong, and that could be the most important thing in this sphere at this point in his life.

Tonight we are surprising Jedd with a trip to the KC Royals game with a friend from school.  In about a week we will head out to see his nonagenarian great-grandmother in DE, and she’ll be thrilled to see him, watch TV and walk with him, and see him throw a baseball.  He has another summer treat coming right after that.  It is time for a new bike, but we’ll hold off on that for a couple more months.

I hope you’ve enjoyed some tidbits just 1% as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.  Jedd is a neat kid.  His first name, by the way, comes from Jedidiah (“beloved of the Lord”), which was another given name of King Solomon.  His middle name is a form of his paternal grandfather’s name, Gerald. (Jedd is the only one to carry the family surname.)

Happy birthday, Jedd Garrett Casey.

Karly, Jedd, and Brian, May 19, in the hospital
3 Generations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Lennon, religion, and (re)viewing with less obstruction

I recently subscribed to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  This is not a “classical music” enterprise but is rather a sort of clearinghouse for academic research and reviews of recent works about aspects of the first Classical Period (i.e., the one associated with Ancient Greece).  Big mistake, though, to sign up for this thing.  I am feeling really stupid now, plus, I feel the need to buy another book or seven.  Below are a couple titles that caught my eye.  These are available for review, but I am NOT applying for that job (!) as I am completely unqualified.

Bakker, Egbert (ed.). Authorship and Greek Song:  Authority, Authenticity, and Performance.  Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, 3.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. x, 295 p. $132.00. ISBN 9789004339699.

Baron, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin.  Imagine No Religion:  How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 325 p. $35.00. ISBN 9780823271207.

The first title interests me on the Greek language, general literary, and music fronts, but I’m not about to pay $132 for it.  Apparently there are two earlier volumes in this series, but the audience for this kind of thing is surely relatively small.

The second title, referring as it does to the now-famous John Lennon song, says a lot in and of itself.  I immediately resort to my melancholy inner world, thinking if only people could differentiate between realities of the biblical cultures and times on the one hand and modern constructs and human superimpositions on the other!  I’m no disciple of Lennon, but “religion” chafes me, too, and I so wish that it hadn’t gotten in the way.  People might otherwise be able to see Jesus and His way, unobstructed; and not as many people would have drifted from some essential truths they learned early in life.

Echoing the Lennon lyric, I too imagine no religion, and it’s not so easy, no matter how hard I try.  Often I think thoughts like if only. . . .  Moving toward deeper, more visible substance, I appeal to a subsequent entry from the same journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.02, which reviews Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  Since one of Hurtado’s chief areas for exploration is Roman-era adherence to cults, his take on the existence and nature of “religion” in the ancient world is of great interest.

Hurtado stresses that Christianity did not fit “what ‘religion’ was for people then,” and was accordingly dismissed as a superstitio (p. 2).  It was the distinctive features of Christianity that account for its successes and not Constantine’s embrace.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

The technical Latin “superstitio” does not hide the essence above.  (It’s usually all about context.)  The terms “religion” and “religious” can be used with various shades of meaning, for different purposes.  Personally, I rarely use either term positively, but I recognize that “religious” can be somewhat positive or neutral in the hands of others.  Above, in a scholarly context, the inquiry is valid, regardless of the terminology.  We basically know what is being discussed when “religion” is the topic, whether the period in question is antiquity or the present.

Based on the reviewer’s assessment, it appears that Hurtado, when speaking of the early centuries after Jesus Christ, differentiates between “religion” on the one hand and superstitions that did not have the hallmarks of established religion on the other.  It further appears the author’s use of “religion” in this context is neutral or negative, that is, that he is asserting a distinctive place for Christianity precisely because it did not look like “religion”—and because it had uniquely compelling aspects that drew new adherents.  Hurtado himself, I might add, has taken some exception (here) to the reviewer’s characterization of his major thrusts.  I found the objection a bit overwrought, perhaps owing to how each scholar sees the single word “burden.”  Kloppenborg had commented, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” and Hurtado demurred, “I state no such intention in the book.”  For my part, I suspect Kloppenborg wasn’t speaking of intent at all; a “burden” would be a theme that a book “carries,” regardless of any explicit purpose or stated intention, wouldn’t it?  At any rate, Hurtado clearly bristled a bit, but he did appreciate the tone of the review.

One of Hurtado’s motifs (note that I call these neither “burdens” nor “intents,” and I’m not even specifically referring to the one book here!) is the “bookishness” of early Christianity:  there is more evidence of writing and documentation than with other groups of the same era.  (I assume this is the case regardless of whether a group was more a “religion” or a “superstitio.”)  Kloppenborg finds that Hurtado  describes “Christ groups” as “adopting reading practices and embedding quotations of other literature in their works, making appeals to literate media recursively present.”  This is truly an important feature of Christianity . . . and, I might add, it goes to my aversion to the “Christian” (please read the adjective advisedly there) religion of Medieval times.  When believers are, by and large, neither readers nor writers, they are sorely limited in their “religion.”  It is with good reason that Medieval times were known for a long while as the Dark Ages.  Sight was limited by lack of literature and literacy.

So what is “religion,” really, and isn’t it a good thing in the Bible?  There is that verse in James that says “pure and undefiled religion is to to take care of widows and orphans,” right?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly it is true that taking care of widows and orphans is a good thing and is presented positively by James, echoing a Hebrew prophecy or two . . . but the use of the English word “religion” is a now mixed bag with a whole lot of rot in it.  Without further comment, I will close with a meaty paragraph that gets into this area.

A second methodological issue lurking in the book concerns the tendency to treat emergent Christianity as distinctive in contrast to polis religion. On this showing, Christianity was distinctive and indeed unique in its creation of a transethnic, translocal, elective “religion,” not controlled by or aligned with the interests of the propertied class. This binary, however, neglects the many instances of what might be termed elective cults that were variously related to the civic center and which in varying degrees were curious (but harmless), exotic, transgressive, or horrific. Some reverenced deities not part of the civic pantheon but, like the cult of Silvanus or Mithras, were scarcely treated as deviant.7  Others—Isis at certain periods, for example—were treated as deviant and suppressed. Participation in many such cults crossed ethnic, gender, and social class boundaries and some, Mithraism for example, imposed strict ethical requirements and produced a transformation in one’s lifestyle that was, in Roger Beck’s estimation, a “conversion.” 8  To acknowledge such a shift from cults predominantly of the polis-type to the development of elective cults in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial periods complicates Hurtado’s narrative of Christianity as the major innovation in the “religious” landscape of antiquity.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg


7.   John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. Judith M Lieu, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; Greg Woolf, “Isis and the Evolution of Religions,” in Power, Politics, and the Cults of Isis, ed. Laurent Bricault and Miguel J. Versluys (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 62–92.
8.   Roger Beck, “On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for the Propagation of the Mysteries,” in Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, ed. Leif E. Vaage, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 18 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006), 175–94.

Hurtado on origins

I regularly read a couple of academically oriented biblical studies blogs.   I should read more, but time and energy have their constraints.  One of the ones I read is by Larry Hurtado, a first-rate scholar, relatively recently retired from the University of Edinburgh.  His blog would not always be attractive to the masses since it focuses on academic research and chronicles his own contributions and exposures along with those of significant others.  However, as I said, his work is of high repute, and from time to time there is something that I wish every thoughtful person would read.

There have been quite a few posts about interviews and podcasts related to his 2016 book Destroyer of the gods (sic)m but this write-up on the intended audience(s) of the book will bring good summary, thought-provoking insights into aspects of Christian origins.  The nascent Christian movement (1st century CE) ought to be impressive to anyone of sound mind.

To give a taste to those who opt out of clicking into the full post, here are the final words, a quote that leads Hurtado’s book:

“Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people . . . Yet something more than mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history.  Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings.”  (The Origins of Christian Morality:  The First Two Centuries, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 1).