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).

A scant few: “religion” words and passages

In the last post (“Religion?“), I tried to spotlight a line of demarcation between religion on the one hand and Christianity on the other.  I do believe there can be such a thing as true religion—i.e., a practice of religion that in some sense really is Christ-ian.  Here, I think not only of the aphoristic wordings of James 1:26-27, but of all those souls, far more devoted than I, who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.

On the other hand, I do try to pay attention to the definition of terms (see here and here for other examples) whenever anything is discussed, and I want to be clear on what I am (and am not) seeking to denigrate in these posts on “religion.”  So, toward a clearer definition—in terms of scripture—we find in one reputable English version (ESV) that the word “religion” or “religious” appears seven times:

  1. Acts 17:22
  2. Acts 25:19
  3. Acts 26:5
  4. Col 2:23
  5. James 1:26/27 (3x)

But an English word’s presence only tells us so much.  I mean, who cares what the English says unless it can be shown to be a reliable translation of the original language?  (And the ESV is certainly one of the more reliable translations available today.  I’m just making a general point here.)  We must either know something about the original or trust that the translators are handling the language correlation well.  Here, on a level that barely scratches the surface, I’ll refer to the original language….

The Greek term θρησκεία | threskeia and cognates serve as antecedents for the Acts 26, Col 2, and James instances.  In other words, the Greek antecedent is different in Acts 17 and 25.  A good hunt would eventually involve appeal to reputable lexicons to determine the range of meaning of that word in all period literature.  For purposes here, we’ll keep the definition at a “gloss” level:  it means, roughly, “religious observance.”

That is one level of investigation, but let’s dig down into another layer.  What about any other passages that began with the same Greek word but do not show up as “religion” in English?  There is only one additional instance of threskeia not translated as “religion” by the ESV:  Col 2:18, where “worship” is the English rendering.  (I think the choice of “worship” here can throw off even the most pure-spirited bloodhound on the trail of angel, religion, or worship “creatures”!)

The results of such searches may be different in other English versions.  For instance, the HCSB chooses a word other than “religion” in both of the Colossians 2 verses.  The NASB opts out of one of them.  The KJV actually skips both of them but chooses to give “religion” in two additional verses (Gal 1) in which the Greek original is different.  Consideration of all of these translations may serve either to clarify or to blur.  An illuminating sidelight here is that the KJV’s choice of “Jewish religion” for Ἰουδαϊσμός | judaismos in Galatians 1:13 and 1:14 is fairly close to current English usage, at least as I hear it.  In other words, the “Judaism” or “Jewish religion” referred to here might be a direct ancestor of some observant-but-less-than-centered manifestations of Christian religion today.

In Colossians 2:23, Paul might have been intentionally distinguishing between whatever had been genuine in Jewish religion and something false.  He might even have coined a term, because this compound word is found nowhere else in scripture:

threskeia

The Abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a/k/a “Little Kittel”) has this to say about Col 2:23:

The word ethelothreskeia . . .  seems to denote, not an affected piety, but a piety that does not keep to its true reality, to Christ, but is self-ordered.

Surely there is a distinction to be made between genuine religion and self-made (or other un-admirable types of) religion.  If I were a better person, I’d aim for stronger association with the former.  For now, I’ll have to be content with distancing myself from the latter.

Religion?

While working on another essay, I looked up a quote to make sure I was remembering it correctly, and I inadvertently found this in a collection of quotes about “clear thinking.”

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration —courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth. – H.L. Mencken (attributed)

Actually, I’d have to agree that much “religion” often rises up in postures that oppose the things Mencken listed.  And, the more I experience—either from within, or at arm’s length—of “religion,” the less interest I have in that per se.  The thing is, there is something that matters a lot more than “religion.”  (I’m trying here to be a little bold, to think clearly, and to be open, honest, and fair in pursuing true things.)

I can manage a mostly polite tolerance for religion, but I think it’s quite sad that some people think Christianity is a religion like that.¹  Authentic Christianity, I would say, is actually very supportive of the things listed as venerable in the above quotation.  When I ponder friends and acquaintances who seem to have less faith than I (or no faith at all), I sometimes wonder what they include under the “religion” umbrella.  What do they think I support or believe in or even champion?  Do they assume I’m into “religion” because I’m into the God of Abraham and and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul—along with the responsible study of the scriptures that deal with each of those and more?

Some friends might be wasting energy putting a deadbolt and bars on a door to a house that only a few would be interested in taking out a mortgage on, anyway.  That old house may not be condemned by the city, but, as it stands, it’s not a place I want to live life.  I’m not really into remodeling and “flipping” that kind of house, either.  (Now speaking non-metaphorically:  I think I’m done with house ownership and am renting!)  Thom Schultz, an astute observer, and the founder of the Christian publisher Group, has produced multiple pieces (in audio and blog format) about a Christian subset labeled “the dones.”  (He also identifies the “almost-dones.”)  I’m not sure if I quite fall in either category, but it’s worth thinking about.

I wish those who fancy themselves atheists would have come to know genuine, responsible, thoughtful Christianity and not a falsely² religious manifestation of it.  I think there would then be fewer atheists . . . and more devotion to Jesus (or at least more willing support for those of us who want to follow Him).  Real Christian religion has nothing to do with false fronts, denominationally handed-down decisions, hidden injustices, or dishonestly glossing over realities for the sake of appearance.  And of course authentic Christianity maintains an energetic interest in truth.

In a follow-up post, I’ll share a few tidbits about “religion” words/passages in the Bible.   (Spoiler alert:  there aren’t many.)


¹ I realize here that there’s religion and there’s religion (and maybe religion, too, on top of those!).  In other words, what is called religion on TV might not be religion in the mind of a given individual . . . and real religion might be something yet different from either of the others.

² I specify “falsely religious” because there can be such a thing as true religion.  Here, I think not only of the pat saying found in James 1:26-27, but of those souls who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.

 

Whatchacallit

I admit a general hangup with labeling, but I often think it does matter whatchacallit.  Sometimes, it matters a lot.

If it’s unimaginative, chaotic, seemingly unending noise and you call it “music,” you’re either less than fully educated or artless (or a punk).

If it’s persons doing jobs, and you call it “human resources,” the persons involved may feel de-humanized, as though they are now just one step up (or down!) from technological resources.

If it’s charitable giving and you call it “tithing” in this age, I’ll resist your assumptions and will be able to make a strong case.

According to some estimations, if it’s youth ministry and you’ve been calling it “student ministry,” a whole generation of young people might have been lulled into feeling that developing Christianity was just another class to sit through as a “student.”

It seems to me that this assessment is somewhat on target but overstated.  As an educator, I am compelled first to advocate the better sides of teaching and student-ing.  It’s certainly not inherently negative to be called, or thought of as, a student.  Yet the reality that many young people live in their schools is not entirely positive, and I acknowledge the likely negative association with being a student in a desk-chair, listening to a typical teacher drone on un-enthusiastically and periodically giving assignments and saying “be quiet” and grading papers.

When the business world rejected the label “personnel” and moved toward “human resources,” I imagine it sounded more “human” to some.  I’d say they weren’t too attentive to the second half of the term, “resources,” which also comes into play with reams of paper, reference materials, computers and other machines, and other non-human stuff.

Similarly, when some people rejected “youth ministry,” I imagine they were trying to avoid a negative connotation of ministry to the youthful, i.e., to those “younger than the adults and therefore not of full-fledged importance.”  I was there in one church when this labeling change occurred, and I’d say it was almost universally seen as either neutral or positive, but I’m not sure the label made any ultimate difference.  Aside:  any full understanding of “disciple” involves the idea of being a student/learner who follows, and perhaps that idea was involved in the original labeling “student ministry.”  Surely at least that much can be seen as a positive.

A change in terminology can be helpful or neutral or negative.  Perhaps it is time to change again, in one or more of the above cases.

For more on the possible fallout of calling it “student ministry” for the last generation or so, see this post by Thom Schultz of Group Publishing:

The Day That Disabled Our Youth Ministry

I suspect that the negative import of the label “student ministry”—certainly more a neutral factor than an inherently positive one, even when it was first suggested—has been overestimated.   Surely it’s the total picture of church experience, not a simple label for the “youth group,” that has led to decreasing numbers of real believers and disciples among the so-called “millennials.” 

Younger (and older) people have left and are leaving for many different reasons.

More important than “family”

Maybe you have heard someone say something to the effect that “there’s nothing more important than family.”  Maybe that line comes when someone must set priorities . . . or maybe a family member is going through trying times, and everyone is thinking about family loyalty.  Priorities and loyalties are good, yet family will let you down sometimes, so there is another side of this coin.

I’m actually not sure I know what a close earthly family looks like.  Last week, some correspondence from a friend got me thinking about non-family family. . . .

First—aunt who?

My wife’s extended family has a proclivity for calling everyone “aunt this” and “uncle that,” but I didn’t grow up in that familial climate.  There were on the other hand two very special people in our lives that my sisters and I grew up calling “Uncle Paul and Aunt Doris,” and when Aunt Doris died a couple years ago, it felt like a family event even though we haven’t lived in the same locality for 30+ years.  In more recent years, we have three times visited UP and AD and their daughter.  They are still “family” to us.

I’m now wondering whether we should encourage our son to call a few very special people “Uncle ___ and Aunt ___”  Based on facets of certain long-term friendships, e.g., with the friend who wrote, this “familializing” might or might not be expected.  Whereas some of our “blood” extended family really isn’t anymore,¹ some dear friends have proven to be more like family than most family, if you know what I mean.

Secondthe mortgage company was down wid dat

Once upon a time, when applying for a mortgage, I wanted to keep the payment lower, so I was looking for some additional down payment money—a “gift” that I would repay anyway.  The rule was that any such money had to be a gift from family, or it would be considered a debt, changing the debt coverage ratio.  In my case, the only viable blood-family source of funds was unwilling, so I asked some spiritual siblings, and they were willing.  The mortgage company had probably never before encountered someone like me who would go to some length to help myself financially without lying about it.  They went for it when they heard my biblically based explanation of how I viewed that Christian relationship as more significant than physical family.

Third:  those Mennonites “get it”

Another friend recently commented on my account of a visit with some Mennonites, explaining why nuclear families do not sit together “at church” in many Anabaptist traditions:

Another possible reason (as I’ve heard from some people) is to separate families.  In a church setting, families sitting together may create unnecessary barriers or distinctions between groups, when we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  The church family is higher than the nuclear family.  That isn’t to say the nuclear family is bad, just of lesser importance when compared to the bride of Christ.

I thought that wonderful explanation was worthy of repeating here.


¹ I’m not happy about the choices a few extended family members have made—or about the relational distance on several main branches of our family tree.  It’s the way things are, though, and I’ve mostly moved on.