Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Genre: Ancient History / Bible Studies

Reason for reading: This year, I’m studying Jesus and the New Testament. This book was loaned to me by Elizabeth, a friend from work. It was given to her by a friend because the author was her professor.

Synopsis: In this short book, Burge guides the reader to interpret Jesus as a storyteller – a teacher who uses allegory and hyperbole to make important points within his own social context. The book is filled with beautiful pictures and several examples of Jesus’ use of hyperbole to teach an important point. Burge provides historical and cultural insight into what Jesus may have been talking about when telling his parables. 

My thoughts: I was surprised at how fun this book was. Although it’s quite short, and half of it was pictures, it made me look at Jesus from a interesting new perspective. Of course, I already knew that Jesus used parables and hyperbole to make points, but it was really interesting to read Burge’s cultural analysis of those parables. 

The story I found most enlightening was Burge’s interpretation of the fig tree incident. For those of you who don’t recall, the story is related in Mark 11:12-14, 11:20-25; and in Matthew 21:18-22. In my unromantic version, Jesus is hungry, and he sees a fig tree by the road. It’s not fig season, so the tree isn’t bearing any fruit. Jesus curses the poor tree and it withers. I’ve always disliked that story. Despite my cousin Steve’s insistence that fig trees don’t have feelings, and I shouldn’t take the story so literally, I always felt sorry for the tree. Why’d Jesus curse a tree just because it wasn’t bearing fruit in the off-season? (And, yes, Mark clearly states that it wasn’t the season for figs.) 

Burge pointed out that the fig tree represented the Jewish state and religion. Throughout the New Testament Jesus repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who made a public spectacle of themselves fasting, praying, and giving alms; but who did not keep the spirit of religion in their hearts. They prayed for the approval of the people, not for the approval of God. Thus, they were not “bearing fruit.” 

Of course, I realize that this insight about the fig tree and the Pharisees is not uniquely Burge’s – in fact I found some interesting articles on the subject after reading Burge’s book (here’s a good one). What’s important is that Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller introduced me to some interesting interpretations that I could look into in more detail later. In that way, this book was a valuable resource for me.


Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy – Enrollment!

Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy

Well, I’ve shown a terrible lack of discipline this week. Quite against the spirit of Resolution 5: Please, Just Stop! I have signed up for several Coursera MOOCs this year – Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society begins on March 10, and runs for 6 weeks. I intend to post my thoughts on this course weekly. 

a little later…
I’ve now looked over all the lecture notes for the first week and I’m so thrilled at all the wonderful supplemental reading suggestions provided by Dr. Cooperman! One reason I only rarely sign up for these Coursera classes is because I have an OCD need to read all suggested readings and totally immerse myself in a subject. And such a thing simply isn’t possible within a course’s time-frame. And then I get all nervous and shaky and feel overwhelmed. So I tend to focus on Great Courses lecture series instead, because I can go as slowly as I want. But I really love being able to interact and network with people who have similar interests (albeit different opinions) – and that’s what I love about Coursera.  

So I’ve vowed that I will simply move through this entire course and not fret about reading everything. I’ll just write down all the suggested readings, and I can get to them later during my personal studies.

Does anyone else have this tendency to get frustrated when you can’t read everything, or to over-commit to your passions and interests?

The Pastor’s Wife Wears Biker Boots, by Karla Akins


The Pastor’s Wife Wears Biker Boots, by Karla Akins

Genre: Christian Fiction / Women’s Fiction

Reason for reading: I’m leading a discussion on this book from February 24th through 28th on the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Association book club. You can join the email discussion group if you wish! Just click on the link, and subscribe to the yahoo group. There’s still plenty of time to read the book!

Synopsis: Kirstie is stressed out trying to maintain the image of the perfect pastor’s wife. She’d really just like to relax and not worry about what everyone in her congregation thinks. On top of that, she has a severely autistic son, and another rebellious teenage son – both of whom lead to a lot of sideways looks from her conservative neighbors.  When she realizes that riding a motorcycle releases her built up tension and makes her love life again, she has to deal with the prejudices of small-town gossips. 

My Thoughts: This is not the type of book that I usually read, so I was surprised when, after about 30-or-so pages, I became really attached to the characters and their issues. This was a sweet, funny book about finding friends in unexpected places, letting go of preconceived notions, forgiving those who gossip about you, and putting your family above work and social image. I got lots of good laughs over the antics of our “biker chicks.” 

I was a little concerned at the beginning of the book when the subject of autism was first brought up: Kirstie called it an “ugly disease” and her “enemy.” It is possible that some people will find this portrayal of autism to be offensive. However, I was glad to see Kirstie grow throughout the rest of the book. As she released her woes on the road, Kirstie became less depressed and was better able to cope with the difficulties of autism. Hidden here is a fantastic message that we can not give fully to loved ones unless we take care of ourselves too. 

I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but I have to say that the ending of the book was not only the most exciting part, it was the funniest as well. Wow. Way to pack it in at the end! 🙂 Fantastic finish. 

How do we know about Jesus?

As I pointed out in my New Years Resolutions, this year I have decided to explore my relationship with Jesus. Who is Jesus, and what does he mean to me? This has always been a sticky question that I avoided. My first book in my quest is: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. Borg is a liberal Jesus historian and Wright a conservative one. The book is a set of essays which outlines an ongoing discussion that these two friends have continued for years. 

In the introduction, they list three target audiences: first, they hope that this book will be of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

“We both believe strongly that what we say about Jesus and the Christian life belongs, not in a private world, inaccessible and incomprehensible except ‘from faith to faith,’ but in the public world of historical and cross-cultural study, in the contemporary world as well as the church.”


Second, they hope that this book will provide new insight into a debate that has become gridlocked among Christians – liberal vs. conservatives.

Third, they hope that their book will speak to people who want to better understand how different visions of Jesus translate into Christian life. This, I suppose, is why I bought the book originally – though the academic arguments will probably be of more interest to me. 🙂

In their first section, they ask the question: How do we know about Jesus? In their separate essays, Borg and Wright point out the difficulties of deciphering the historical data about Jesus. They agree that everybody’s interpretation of history is viewed through the lens of their own perception or worldview. Borg describes four lenses through which he views Jesus: 

  1. Gospels are history remembered as well as history metaphorized
  2. Jesus was a Jewish figure teaching and acting within Judaism
  3. Jesus’ legacy was developed by the community of early Christians
  4. Jesus’ legacy was developed by a variety of modern forms of Christianity, as well as other religions.
Borg and Wright agree that modern secular culture, which believes that the universe can be studied, understood, and described by natural laws, can be used as a weapon against faith. Borg says that it is easy to lose sight of the divine Jesus when you have a strongly secular worldview. Wright points out that with a secular worldview, you are focused on data and theories. Both scientists and historians ask the questions: 

Does the theory make sense of the available data? Does it have the appropriate simplicity? Does it shed lights on other areas of research? 

History differs from science in that there are no agreed-on criteria for what counts as “making sense” and “simplicity.” Therefore, it is very hard to for Jesus historians to come up with any consensus. 

Both Wright and Borg focus on the difficulty of working out the historical evidence of Jesus and the gospels. Borg thinks it is necessary to see and appreciate both the historical Jesus and the spiritual one, lest you lose sight of Jesus altogether. These two entities are not the same – the first is an actual man who was once alive, the second is a concept that has influenced spirituality for thousands of years. 

“When we emphasize his divinity at the expense of his humanity, we lose track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.” 


On the other hand, Borg believes that if you emphasize only historical fact and what Jesus meant in his own time to his own people, you lose sight of how strongly his message has influenced today’s culture, and what he means to us today. 

In contrast, Wright says that he doesn’t think the early Christians made a distinction between the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus, so why should he? He feels that these “two versions” of Jesus are one and the same, and that whenever he reads literature about the historical Jesus, it reinforces his faith in the spiritual Jesus. 

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Borg on this subject. I think that he nailed my problem directly on the head: all my life I’ve tried to combine the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus into one entity. Thus, my faith and my secular worldview were battling for prominence in my perception of Jesus, and I lost sight of Him altogether. If I can separate the two entities in my head, I will be able to appreciate both the wisdom of the historical man and the divine love of the Christ Jesus. 

Doubt

Jonah and the “great fish” on the South doorway of Dom Saint Peter
Image source: Wikipedia

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the story of Jonah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to prophesy against their wickedness. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He was afraid to prophesy in a foreign land full of wicked people who hated Hebrews. Plus, he didn’t want God to show mercy to his enemies. So he ran. But he couldn’t escape God, who in His Great Wisdom made a whale swallow Jonah until Jonah was able to see the error of his ways and continue more willingly on God’s path.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jonah recently. So I was surprised when a coworker jokingly compared ringing at the registers of our bookstore as her “Nineveh.” She added “but if God told me to go to Nineveh, I would go.” I half jokingly answered “then perhaps you haven’t found your Nineveh yet.” (She looked a bit taken aback. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.)

I think we all have a personal Nineveh (even those of us who are agnostic or atheist). Some of us have more Nineveh than others. Recently, I have found a Nineveh. It’s a personal issue, and I don’t think the details matter for this post…but the basic idea is this: I have a series of choices that I feel God has encouraged me to make. I don’t like those choices, because I’m very much afraid of getting hurt. After much prayer, I decided to go ahead and have faith and make the plunge. It backfired in my face, I got hurt, I hurt someone else, and it all seems to be spiraling downhill from here. 

I am faced with two interpretations: I can assume that I foolishly mislead myself with wrong expectations; or I can have faith that God led me down this path, that He had a reason to do so, and that some good will come of it.

Neither interpretation is inherently wrong as a Christian. Lots of people mislead themselves into thinking they’re doing what God wants them to do when they’re really doing what they want to do. Easy mistake to make. And with this interpretation, I can safely backpedal out of the situation I’ve created and abandon the path that I’d foolishly chosen. (Yeah, it leaves a mess behind, but …. woops! my bad!) Unfortunately, losing faith in myself isn’t too healthy. If I choose this interpretation, then I need to believe that I don’t really know when God is calling me and when He’s not. Because I was pretty darn certain He was calling. And if that wasn’t God calling me, then I’m probably a little crazy and certainly can never have faith in my interpretation of God’s call again. So it seems like a good choice, as long as I’m ok with losing faith in myself and in God. 

The second interpretation is more scary. It means I have to continue on the path I’d chosen, having faith that I was, indeed, hearing God’s call, and that if He got me into this mess, something good must come of it. 

I haven’t yet chosen which of these interpretations to make, and am fluctuating a lot lately. But my instinct tells me that as a Christian I ought to believe that God was calling me, and that he’s still calling me to follow that path. The path to Nineveh. Where I really, really, really don’t want to go.

And while I wallow in self-doubt, as well as religious doubt,  let’s not forget that Jesus asked God to take away the burden of His chosen path: “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36 NIV, see also Luke 22:42). Let’s not forget one of Jesus’ last statements on the cross: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Mathew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. He was quoting Psalm 22.).

Jesus, that miraculous man who is loved by millions of people even 2000 years after his death, also had a path he didn’t want to follow. He also had his moments of doubt. Doubt is human. None of us should ever forget this fact when we are struggling with our own doubts. We need to always remember that we are human. That doubt is natural. 

Always accept that you are human – that even Jesus doubted – and forgive yourself for your weaknesses. That is the best way to restore your faith. 

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

Written by Thomas E. Woods, Narrated by Barrett Whitener

Reason for Reading: I have an interest in Church history and history of religion. 

Review
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is an apologetics treatise about how the Catholic Church contributed to the development of science, philosophy, art, and culture. For someone who has not read a lot of books on the subject – who wishes to be disabused of the belief that the Catholic Church shunned science and tried to halt the progression of culture – this book is an excellent introduction. It covers a wide variety of topics in a superficial survey of how the Church changed and promoted civilization. On the other hand, if you’re like myself and are well-read on the subject, this book lacks depth. Although there was a wide variety of information discussed, there was very little that it discussed in greater detail than I already knew. Therefore, I would highly recommend this text to someone who’d like an introduction to the topic – it’s well-written, well-researched, and interesting. But if you’re looking for depth and detail, this may be worth just a quick read. 

This audiobook was well-narrated by Barrett Whitener. No complaints there! 🙂

The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 153: The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis

Reason for Reading: Fifth Book (publication order) of the Chronicles of Narnia

Review*****

Shasta grew up as practically a slave to his “father,” until he meet a talking horse. Bree (the horse) has been kidnapped from Narnia, a foreign land that Shasta has never heard of. Bree is convinced that Shasta, too, has been taken from Narnia. They escape together, and have many adventures on the way to Narnia. This book takes place during the original reign of High King Peter and his brother and sisters. It was a delightful little book, and complements the Narnia series quite well. I DID have a good laugh at the rather xenophobic treatment of Archenland–most people from this land were portrayed as corrupt, degenerate, and evil. By the way they dressed and some of their habits, Lewis clearly meant for Archenland to be similar to the Orient. This snafu made me chuckle a little bit, since I took into consideration the age in which Lewis was writing…and that he was writing about a fantasy land. In the end, I enjoyed this book just as much as the other books in the series. It is fun, cute, and a delight to read.