Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here:  https://www.amazon.com/author/drmacdonald for epub and other formats: https://payhip.com/b/Jea4.

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

Travel plans

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

I realise I have not posted here about our travel plans for later this year. We will be visiting and teaching in (at least)1 two places:

  • View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

    View across the hills near Baguio – envy us!

    Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio Philippines. Where Barbara and I will each teach a course (OT Intro for me and Pastoral Counseling for her). I visited APTS as Menzies lecturer last year and am really looking forward to returning to a lovely place and people. Since Barbara will be going too, this time we hope to see a bit more of the northern part of the Philippines as well.

  • Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Colombo Theological Seminary, Sri Lanka. Where again both of us will teach, in my case on 1 Samuel as an introduction to reading biblical narrative texts. We’ve both visited CTS before and had a lovely holiday seeing more of the country last time. Christians in Sri Lanka (though still smarting from loss of status following the colonial period) have a special place as a religious minority that includes both ethnic groups in a strife torn land.

We will leave towards the end of July and return in late September. We have a nice family (with experience on a lifestyle block in the UK) from Bethlehem College to look after the house and animals while we are away.

  1. Teaching in Thailand is also possible. []

God and the Joys of Sex

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!

Do fiction publishers have a death wish? or Frustrated by the fetishists)

e-book
e-book

e-book

Almost all the fiction I read is now e-books, both purchased and from the lending library. They are in epub format. Neither the format nor the hardware are brilliant, but they do allow hypertext features and even web searches at a speed that is just on the happy side of totally frustrating.

Even with these technical limitations I love the ebook reader. It is light. I can vary the size of the print for lower light conditions (or where the designer has chosen – from my perspective – badly). I can carry as many spare books as I like with no extra space or weight. I can borrow a new book anytime from anywhere. However, the main reason I prefer the ebook is that marvelous ability to search for definitions (in the built-in dictionaries, a dozen or so in various languages as well as both American and English) or the web to check ideas and information of provide context. Reading fiction becomes like reading the dictionary or an encyclopedia was to my childish self.

Yet I am so often frustrated in my reading. Not by the technology (this is no “twitchy little screen” like the ones Annie Proulx feared in her famous and fatuous quote) but by the publishers. They sell me (and others, or the library) these “e-books”. They sell them often after the paper edition has already run its dash and is on the verge of being remaindered at cents to the dollar. They sell them at what looks to be a decent price (any thing over 1/3 of the paperback price seems to me reasonable in view of the savings in material production, stock storage and shipping etc.). Yet their conversion from paper codex to e-book never adds functionality. Why shouldn’t the publisher  spend a little building in links to the glossary, which historical novels often have, or other internal material that would enrich the reader’s experience?

Not only do they staunchly resist the danger of making the e-book better than its paper counterpart, but they refuse to even make them as good. Diagrams and maps are scanned at resolutions that ensure that given a normal page display will not fit neatly nor zoom easily. In this way publishers, I can only conclude, hope to persuade as many people as possible to prefer paper books for as long as possible.

Given the attitudes of the two most avid readers in the next generation of our family, both of whom love their e-readers, and given the flow of the tide of media consumption towards video and away from print, I can only assume the publishers are owned by the Hollywood studios and are set on ending their industry as early as possible!

The injustice of traditional higher education and online classes

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Blog posts get less editing and polishing than other forms of writing, I think I may have failed to make my point clearly in the preceding post. So I will make it concisely here, see the other post for background and explanations.

Many people do not suit traditional classroom based higher education. There are logistical barriers (geography, time, family) these are weighted more against women than men.

There are also personality barriers. Some learning styles are well suited to classroom learning. For aural learners (and perhaps oral ones) it is ideal. For visual learners it is less good. For kinaesthetic learners a classroom is usually a disaster. Add difficulties like ADHD into the mix and classrooms provide significant barriers for some (selected?) students. Introverts are also discriminated against in classrooms that require “participation”.

These inequalities are unjust. These inequalities are avoidable. Online education if organised well provides a more equal educational opportunity than classrooms did.

The end of Higher Education

From Shopware.de

Christopher B. Hays commented on Facebook on a post “The End of College? Not So Fast” by Donald E. Heller. These posts and the comments prompted this reflection on my own experience. The Chronicle of Higher Education post also suggested my title, which deliberately mimics, but perhaps by removing the question mark subverts theirs.

Indeed almost all of my learning through two undergraduate degrees was obtained outside the classrooms. Though admittedly some came with the help of friends who were capable of taking notes, much much more came from voracious reading and frequent arguments on buses and over coffee or beer. Please do not underestimate my comparatives here, I will rephrase it to make the point. Almost all my undergraduate learning came from materials and experiences outside the class room. Almost NONE came from classroom learning.

  1. Indeed ADHD seems to have a strong inherited component. []

Theological snobbery

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper

I caught myself in some theological snobbery yesterday.

We had a promo for Blello.tv (which looks to be a fine resource for children) and in the course of it they took the account of Jeremiah’s call and applied it to everyone.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me. (Jer 1:5a-b)

“This is God’s word for you.” They said. And, of course it is not. The remainder of the verse makes that quite clear.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
    I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1 :5)

It was God’s word for Jeremiah, not for you. Just as that lovely promise in Jer 29:11, or the horrible one in Jer 18:11, do not necessarily both apply to us, nor can we pick and choose!

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)

Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. (Jer 18:11a)

In each case we have to look at the circumstances of Judah and at our own situation and actions to see if either might apply.

So <INSERT horrid and raucuous grinding noise> fail!

 

Except… setting aside Jeremiah’s particular and peculiar calling (as “prophet to the nations”) the passage affirms that God’s call on Jeremiah’s life predates his birth and conception. If that call is timed like this what about your calling and mine?

“Ah,” say the clever and theologically trained wise ones, “but Jeremiah is special, and his calling is special. What applies to Jeremiah does not apply to you. God isn’t calling you to be a prophet to the nations. QED!”

But are the theologically trained wise ones right?

After all it is a key feature of Old Testament narrative that all the great heroes are portrayed “warts and all”, not one is presented as a super-human like the heroes of almost very national story as taught to children in schools. Thus it seems that after all this claim by Jeremiah might be your claim and mine…

Review of the Logos edition of Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (Lexham Bible Guide, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

LogosWarning

LexhamCoverThe series of which this “volume” is a part has an ambitious but mixed goal:

The series is designed to be a research tool. Each guide presents a wide range of interpretive issues raised by Bible scholars. These resources meet the needs of those studying the Bible in academic settings, but the broad scope of coverage also makes them useful for preaching preparation. 1

In fact, limitations of referencing (almost?) only works available in the Logos system limits it’s usefulness for scholarship, and so the work is in some ways better suited to the practical needs of a pastor or other seriously minded Bible reader.

Integration of the text with the Logos library system is of course a great strength of such this type of electronic publication, but there are times when the implementation of this integration serves Logos’ commercial ends better than it serves the user. For example when I read: “Mathews uses the analogy of a stained glass window to describe the literary complexity of Gen 1–11…” The name “Matthews” is, as one would expect in an electronic text, a hyperlink. If the user already owns the cited work by Mathews in Logos format, then I assume2 they are taken to the reference. If one does not own the work in Logos format one is offered the chance to buy it. However, if one does not already own the Logos edition, the link to the Logos sales site does inform the user what work is being referred to, enabling a search on a local library catalogue, Worldcat or Google Books.

There is however a welcome but odd inconsistency, when the references are to further reading suggestions offered as bullet points rather than inline citations, they do give at least the title of the work, without need to access the Logos.com website.3

Hypertext links also provide convenient popup explanations of technical terms, enhancing further the educative possibilities of the text, and making it accessible to a wider range of “lay” readers. They also enable jump navigation within the text, and this is enhanced by a preview popup showing the beginning of the text of the section to which the link leads.

The work offers a neat clear and concise overview of (almost always, but not exclusively, Evangelical) scholarship on the issues and passages treated. This is a superb resource to begin studying a passage or topic, Mangum et al. Offer clear concise summaries of important issues that will be really useful to any pastor or amateur biblical scholar. They are also potentially really useful to students and their teachers, though this usefulness would be enhanced by referencing that included some mention of work not published in Logos format..

Within the limits of works published in Logos format (I have yet to find any reference to other work) these summaries and the suggested readings are very useful. The restriction of the references to the Logosworld generates the restriction noted above to predominantly only Evangelical scholarship, and very predominantly American scholars4 This parochialism is sad!

A byproduct of this limitation is scholarship that is also very predominantly male and white. Since women and non-Caucasian scholars are more likely to have significant work in journals and less likely to have breached the portals of book length works with publishers who make their list available in Logos format.

On the other hand, the fact that such a useful compendium can be offered despite this restriction of horizon to Logosworld is a tribute to the extent (if not always variety) of that world today. Logos is not yet a universal biblical studies library, but it is far closer than one might have expected only a few years ago.

A student today will need to seriously consider whether to accept the limitations of horizon imposed by the choice of Logos as their exclusive supplier, wholeheartedly making Logos their library system, or on the other hand if financial constraints or a desire to be open to a wider world of scholarship will severely limit the usefulness of a work such as this. I wonder how long it is before Logos offers a subscription service modeled on Amazon’s “Prime”?5

Without such a service, or without the financial resources to pay to own an extensive private Logos library, users are given a glimpse of the world of American Evangelical scholarship, but taking a closer look is made difficult by the exclusively in house referencing.

In short this work highlights the huge usefulness and potential of the Logos system (for those rich enough, and selfish enough, to be willing to spend enough on a library devoted to their private use). It also highlights the exclusive nature of this system by making the use of external resources (in an institutional or public library, or on Google books, for example) more difficult even than it would be in an obsolescent print codex.

  1. Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (, Lexham Bible GuideBellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). []
  2. I have yet to find a reference to a work that I spotted as being included in my Gold collection, or among the other works and texts I have bought. So I could not check this assumption. []
  3. A one step rather than a two step process. []
  4. The JPS series, and the out of copyright ICC commentaries, along with some classic works like Gunkel and Westermann provide welcome exceptions. []
  5. If such a service were cheap enough it could provide mean someone could use the Lexham guide to the full without being restricted to only purchasing biblical studies works in Logos format. []

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel

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For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Mourning Ba’al and 1 Kings 18

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons
Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

A post at Carpe Scriptura 1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls”  highlights a problem for online biblical studies, there are no easily available translations of the Ugaritic narrative texts. The texts themselves can be downloaded in PDF Ugaritic Data Bank. The Text1 is available on Academia.edu, but as far as I can see no English translations are.(If you know of a source please let me know!)

So as background to my podcast comments on Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Ba’al in Humour in the Bible 11: 1 Kings: In an idol moment I offer this extract from Smith’s translation of the section KTU 1.5 l.8 to KTU 1.6 l.10a 2

Messengers announce the death of Ba’al

“We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth;
Dead is Mightiest Baal,
Perished the Prince. Lord of the Earth.”
Then Beneficent El the Benign
Descends from his seat. sits on the footstool,
[And] from the footstool. sits on the earth.
He pours dirt on his head for mourning,
Dust on his crown for lamenting;
For clothing he puts on sack-cloth.
With a stone he scrapes his skin,
Double-slits with a blade.
He cuts cheeks and chin,
Furrows the length of his am
He plows his chest like a garden,
Like a valley he furrows the back.
He raises his voice and cries;
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Dagan! What of the multitudes?
After Baal I will descend to Hell.”
Then Anat goes about hunting,
In every mountain in the heart of the earth,
In every hill [in the he]art of the fields.
She comes to the pleas[ant land of] the outback.
To the beautiful field of [the Realm] of Death;
She com[es] upon Baal
[For clothing] she puts on sack[cloth,]

The text continues on Sixth Tablet after the superscription in Column 1

With a stone she scrapes her skin.
Double-[sl]its [with a blade]
She cuts cheeks and chin,
[Furrows] the length of her arm.
She plows her chest like a garden.
Like a valley she furrows her back:
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Daganl What of the multitudes?
After Baal we will descend to Hell.”
To her descends the Divine Lamp, Shapsh,
As she weeps her fill,
Drinks her tears like wine.

  1.  Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, José-Angel Zamora, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Ugaritic Data Bank The Texts. Madrid: Instituto de Filologia, CSIC, 2003. []
  2. Smith, Mark S., and Simon B. Parker. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. [Atlanta, Ga.]: Scholars Press, 1997, 149-151. []