Archive for April, 2011

What do we see? The Psalms in our Worship 29

by   |  04.27.11  |  Bible, Hope, Justice

You may have seen the movie “Joyeux Noel,” about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.  Young men from Germany, Scotland, and France stop fighting for a day or two in order to sing from trench to trench and then play soccer and even celebrate mass together.  The Scots priest who led that worship service notes about it that it was a sort of altar by which even those who weren’t devout warmed themselves.  He and his men — all the men on both sides of the No Man’s Land — are later disciplined by higher-ups who find human contact across walls of hate to be bad for discipline.

The movie ends when the priest’s superior, a particularly unctuous and sanctimonious bishop, tells the new soldiers come to replace the fraternizers that they must remember that “The Germans are not like us.  They are not the children of God.”  An understandable sentiment in the heat of war, but a tragic one nonetheless.  We choose what we see, whether the face of the human being behind the mask of the enemy, or just the mask itself.  The choice is ours, and it matters.

For some reason, Psalm 37 reminds me of this movie, just a bit.  The elegant little acrostic, which works better than some do because it is more fluid, is a wisdom psalm.  It edifies its reader or singer or hearer by painting a sharp contrast between the wicked and the good.  Perhaps the text was designed to help young people remember more easily some basic moral precepts and their religious underpinnings.  Many of the lines can stand on their own, almost as proverbs do.  But together, they form a fairly comprehensive picture of well- and ill-formed human character.

The contrast between good and evil here is sharp.  The good trust God, avoid undue anger, find satisfaction even in a little, give generously and lend readily, speak about justice, and so on.  The evil do the opposite in every respect.  And the fate of each is sure.  Perhaps most striking are verses 8-11 (the he and vav verses), especially the off verses, 9 and 11. (EXPLANATION ALERT: often in Hebrew acrostics some of the verses start with the successive letters of the alphabet, aleph, bet, gimel, etc., but between each of these letter verses is a verse or two starting with some other letter but explaining the main verse that begins with the next letter in the alphabet; Lamentations 1 and 2 are good examples.  I hope this explanation is not more unclear than what it explains!)  Verse 9 says “For the evildoers will be cut off, but those trusting in Yhwh will inherit the land/earth,” while verse 11 repeats and then expands on the idea by saying, “the poor will inherit the land/earth and will delight in the abundance of peace” (Hebrew: shalom; NRSV’s “prosperity” is somewhat unfortunate as translations go).  The New Testament’s Beatitudes clearly allude to verse 11 when they say that the “meek will inherit the earth.”

The text thus claims that, while we may see the profound evil that exists in human relationships and structures, as well as in every individual, evil is not the last word.  It is possible to live as people of integrity and therefore to receive the validation of the Almighty.  That is, the Germans really are like us, caught up in sin but also susceptible to redemption.  We have before us real choices about good and evil, not merely a fated imprisonment in a world of woe.  Morality is a hopeful thing after all.

So what do you see?  The soldiers in the movie, and one may assume in the real trenches almost a century ago, learned to see in the scared young faces of the men across No Man’s Land a vision of themselves.  We are together in our sins and in our redemption.  The land’s ultimate owners will not be those who grasp it by force or deceit, but those who recognize its true lord and live as that lord made us to do.   Maybe that is the thing most worth seeing of all.

Sojourn in the Eternal City

by   |  04.19.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, Translation

Dr. Jeff W. Childers, Carmichael-Walling Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, offers some reflections on his recent trip to the Vatican Library in Rome:

Sojourn in the Eternal City

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Romipetae they called them—‘Rome-seekers:’ determined pilgrims crossing land and sea to reach the Eternal City, in hopes of receiving some benefit by visiting its holy places and communing with its sacred relics. Such a traveler was I.

Jeff in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

In April 2011 I went to Rome, seeking the relics of John Chrysostom—but not the great preacher’s old bones, entombed in the Chapel of the Choir in St. Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill. Instead, I sought a different sort of relic, yards away from the Basilica. I wanted to get closer to the Golden Voice itself, by reading the words of Chrysostom preserved in ancient manuscripts housed in the Pope’s own library.

Exterior of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of ancient Christian texts, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) reopened in September 2010 after a three-year closure for restoration work. The reopening cleared the way for me to request access to the Syriac manuscripts of Chrysostom’s works archived among the Library’s many treasures. Following on the heels of my sojourn at St. Catharine’s Monastery in February, my journey to Rome in April was the second leg of a quest to gather the surviving textual data of Chrysostom’s 5th-century Commentary on the Gospel of John in Syriac and prepare them for publication.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, still in use today but flourishing especially in Christian communities in the Middle East during the 3rd–13th centuries. Among the many Syriac texts that survive, manuscripts with the Syriac version of Chrysostom’s Commentary on John are very old but have never been edited, translated, or published. The goal of my project is to make these texts available to a wider readership, but first I must visit the various libraries where these literary relics now reside, study the manuscripts, and collect the texts. The support of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation has provided me the time and financial resources I need to make these pilgrimages.

Reading Room, BAV

The restored BAV is a lovely place to work, providing a marvelous environment in which to meditate on the eloquent words of the Golden Mouth as he explicates scripture. ‘Great is the profit from the divine scriptures and unending help comes from them,’ opens one of his homilies partly preserved in the manuscript Vatican Syriac 253, ‘for the divine sayings are a treasury of all sorts of medicines.’ As Chrysostom goes on to examine the account of the paralytic’s healing in John 5, he celebrates the beauty of the passage and administers its pastoral benefits to his audience—including one late-comer, a 21st-century researcher from the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University.

Leaf from 6th-7th century Syriac manuscript of Chrysostom

Chrysostom’s exegeses and preaching are marked by his devotion to Christ’s example, by passionate indictment against those who abuse authority, whether political or ecclesiastical, and by a relentless insistence that wealth pleases God only to the extent that it is used to relieve suffering and restore peace. At his affluent church in Constantinople, the capital of the emerging Byzantine Empire, these themes caused trouble for John among the rich and powerful. Largely due to his fiery preaching, he was banished from the pulpit, dying in exile as he journeyed to far-off Georgia in 407. He certainly never traveled to Rome—at least, not until manuscripts bearing his words made their way to the city, words destined to long outlive the deeds of his persecutors.

More than the remains of his mortal body, carried to Rome after Crusaders pinched them from Constantinople in 1204, I find the manuscript relics of Chrysostom’s teaching better preserve the force of his passion. He deserves the widest possible audience. Soon I hope to be able to expand his hearing by making available these remarkable texts in their Syriac version.

Jeff and his wife Linda tour Ancient Rome

Reporter News- “New version of the Bible has Abilene ministers, scholars talking”

by   |  04.11.11  |  Uncategorized

A quote from the (April 7th) Abilene Reporter News article:

The challenge of any translation of the Bible — or any other book — is figuring out how to handle gender, said Dr. Mark W. Hamilton, professor of Old Testament and associate dean of Abilene Christian University’s graduate school of theology.

Hebrew has nouns that can be both masculine and feminine, he said, and Greek has “those two plus neuter,” he said.

“English of course does not mark nouns by gender, so already we have an issue,” Hamilton said.

For biblical translators, rendering language about human beings is a bit easier than translating language explicitly about God, Hamilton said.

“The ancient writers rarely intended to distinguish genders when it came to moral injunctions, etc., and they explicitly state that all humans are made in God’s image,” he said. To Hamilton, that makes it both sensible and even necessary to translate certain terms previously translated as “men” as “people,” or “brothers” as “brothers and sisters.”

GST Talent Show

by   |  04.08.11  |  Uncategorized

The Psalms in our Worship 28

by   |  04.06.11  |  Uncategorized

Evil is an odd word.  It often gets used for all sorts of things we dislike, though I would like to reserve it for truly horrific violations of human dignity (bombing civilians or using food as a weapon or depriving the poor of the medical care others receive).  Some things truly are evil, and we need to name them.  You can’t adhere to the good unless you know and avoid the evil.

How do we know which things are evil?  Psalm 36 takes on that question.  It describes itself as an “oracle” (Hebrew: ne’um; v. 1), a label that usually shows up in the books of the prophets.  (Many translations obscure the Hebrew word here.)  Perhaps we should think of it more as a meditation of a prophetic kind.  In any case, the psalmist paints a sharp contrast between the person whose mind focuses only on evil and the God who focuses only on the good.

In a text reminiscent of such intense moral reflections as Job 29-31 or even the Sermon on the Mount, the psalmist speaks of one about whom it can be said

There is no dread of God before his eyes, for he uses his eyes to divide up things for himself [i.e., is always calculating  personal gain] to find his iniquity in hatred.  The words of his mouth are folly and contentiousness.  He quits thinking about the good.  He thinks about folly when he lies down, he stands in the not-good way.  He does not reject evil.

The business of lying and standing reminds one a bit of Psalm 1, and this psalm illustrates what the earlier one means by the “wicked.”  There is a human character that is so self-absorbed that it can only focus on its own good.  Such a focus leads to the destruction of social bonds, the crushing of the vulnerable, and soon even the destruction of the soul of the wicked person himself or herself.  Sometimes we can repent of such an approach to life, but sometimes we become enmeshed in it that repentance becomes a practical impossibility.

Now the contrast.  Unlike other psalms, this one does not appeal to an ideal human type (often embodied in the composer himself!) but to God.  First come several images of permanence and knowability.  Yhwh’s “steadfast love” is in the heavens, righteousness is like the lofty mountains (Hebrew: har’re-El or “mountains of God”), judgment is like the great abyss etc.  Not only is God’s loyalty to human beings unshakeable, it is known by everybody.  And it is comprehensive, for “you save human and beast.”  In the astonishing moral world of God, even animals can expect deliverance from their foes, at least in appropriate ways!

The most influential verse is perhaps v. 9: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light, we see light.”  That line has graced the seal of Columbia University for over 200 years, for example.  But the verse’s influence probably comes from its elegant way of saying two important things.  (1) God brings life to all things, not just in the sense of originating everything, but in the sense of giving everything purpose and meaning in relationship to everything else.  And (2) God sends illumination to human beings so that we can understand those purposes and the providential care behind them.  Because God gives light, we can distinguish between good and evil, not just as a disembodied set of principles, but as expressions of these very same relationships.  And the ability to make such  a distinction is the necessary precondition of our acting in favor of one and not the other.  In God’s light, we see light.  And it is beautiful.