12 April, 2014

Hosanna ... No wait. ... Crucify Him!

The young, Arab-American media darling seems oddly withdrawn, given the situation. He's being thrown a spontaneous ticker-tape parade in celebration of his return to New York City on Sunday, June 28th. The kid's been trending on Twitter for months, but no one guessed he'd won this kind of love. He's taken the Tea Party, the Democrats, and everyone else to the woodshed in the polls, and today's spontaneous excitement is spiking his mojo-meter through the roof. Even the main stream media loves him as a member of a trendy minority (it helps they can feature his attacks on the Tea Party every evening.) The country needs something badly, and this kid will be old enough to run for president in just 2 election cycles.

The culmination of this year's 4th of July celebration will be the fireworks display over One World Trade Center, and the kid heads there first thing the next day. On a busy Monday morning he barges in, speaking to no one, and shuts off the entire building's Internet and telephone connections. Office-drones pour out of the elevators, trying to figure out what's happening. He drives them all into the streets and forbids any commerce. For two hours, he kills the business of America's most precious skyscraper.  Erected on the foundation of the Twin Towers, One World Trade Center declares to the world how America reacts to defeat. The show must go on! But this kid stops the commerce. An odd thing indeed, for anyone angling after the presidency!

Suddenly, CNN interrupts their own coverage of the excitement with a tape of the kid - this Arab-American kid - looking up at One World Trade Center and saying, "This tower will fall in smoke and ashes. Not one twisted I-beam will remain connected to another, and I will build it again in three days." Twitter explodes in fury at this "towel-head" who thinks he might level America's tower again. Within the week, CNN is carrying images of our young hero dressed in orange, standing in front of a judge, entering no plea to charges of making terroristic threats. Seconds later, the judge reads off charges of treason.

Our young media darling's still trending, but now under hashtag #CrucifyHim.

NT Wright continues to enrich my understanding of Jesus' life. Jesus didn't cleanse the temple because a few money-changers were lining their pockets. Jesus prophetically enacted the cessation of prayer in the temple, and He emphatically declared the primary reason. The word our bibles translate, "thieves" or "robbers," is used by Josephus to describe a group of Zionist rebels against Rome.  Jesus fingered the temple as a central rallying point for the local anti-Rome movement, and prophetically enacted the emperor Titus's reaction to the inevitable rebellion Israel's narcissism and violence fostered. This makes sense of Jesus odd response to Israel's outpouring of affection in the triumphal entry. Just before He entered the temple, Jesus says:

Luke 19:41-45
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. ...

Unless I'm mistaken, this was the only political act of Jesus' life. Prior to this moment, Jesus never spoke, acted, or encouraged His disciples to consider changing any single thing about any Earthly political or religious government. He maintained He was the king of a great a kingdom in the same way I maintain the air is filled with wi-fi signals. He spoke of His kingdom as a tangible thing, but never expected for one moment Pilate would grasp what it might be. His kingdom is one of love and peace, and with His entrance into the world His kingdom began its work of eroding every other kingdom of men, of power, of bloodshed, and of greed.

This understanding of the cleansing of the temple also makes clearer sense of His crucifixion. The destruction of the temple was written deeply on every Jewish heart, even more deeply than the destruction of the Twin Towers weighs in ours. Israel heard Jesus' prophecy as a threat to repeat that violence against God's house and theirs, and they heard Him more or less correctly. They only misconstrued the means of the temple's destruction. They could only imagine Jesus was promising to raise an army of His own with which to destroy Herod's (presumably profane) temple, and raise up a new one of His own. Their calls to crucify Jesus flowed from hearts jealous for the best things they knew: for Israel, for the temple, for God.

And here's my challenge to you. If nationalism was death to Israel, can our obsession over the loss of America's Christian-ness be life to us?

Find the spiritual half of the explanation of Jesus' thoughts about the temple in this 5-minute youtube. NT Wright presents here how completely Jesus intended to replace the spiritual functions of the temple in His own body.
Wright Explains the Temple

For the second half, I need to refer you to Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus." In this 200 (small) page book, Wright summarizes several hundred (dense) pages of argument detailing how Jesus worked to persuade Israel to give up her nationalism. Israel believed with all her heart the restored temple would again receive the Shekinah glory. From Zion's hill they expected to rule all the Earth. Pages 62-67 highlight the argument I've made here.

01 March, 2014

Heretics and Heroes by Thomas Cahill

I'm so depressed.

If you'd like to join me, give "Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World," a read. It's hard to imagine how Mr. Cahill can traverse 500 years of European humanity in 300 pages, but he covers it well. And it's not pretty.

European history is a greased pig of a thing in my mind. Just the time I think I've got the connections, there's some underlying cause I've never imagined or some critical connection I've forgotten over the years. (e.g. Did you know the indulgences Luther condemned were funding the works of Michelangelo, whom we all love and admire?) Cahill spends 290 pages connecting art, religion, and atrocity in compelling ways. I love any book that ties things together, making them easier both to understand and to remember. He starts the book memorably by isolating the European slaughter of millions during the conquest of the new world. It doesn't integrate well, but it's stunning nonetheless. His view of Europe's actions is unrepentently, gloriously, depressingly unforgiving.

After putting the new world in his rear-view mirror, Cahill's portrayal of the expansion of human self-understanding as expressed in Renaissance art is intriguing, and even thrilling. I've long understood there are artists I should admire, and could even recite some of the reasons why. Cahill brilliantly captures the growth of self-realization, of what it means to "be." I'd admired Botticelli's work, for example, but Cahill shows me why it was ground-breaking and how I see all people more completely for Botticelli having painted them the way he did. Cahill's exploration of the growing of the human self-concept alone is worth the price of the book.

But, silly me, I bought the book mostly to get a historian's take on the Reformation.

Cahill does not disappoint, unless you're hoping to read about some good thing that may have come to humanity out of Christianity's most famous upheaval. Cahill continues to describe the evolution of ideas as they pass from thinker to thinker. (Erasmus starts at Thomas a Kempis and adds linguistics. Luther starts at Erasmus and adds grace. Zwingli starts at Luther and clarity, and so on.) Calvin gets a thorough treatment and we go up through the kings of England, Elizabeth, and beyond. He does an especially helpful job with Catholicism's delayed and ineffectual response. When Cahill's done, you've seen the whole sweep of Reformation and Counter-Reformation with all its glories and warts. And its blood.

The contrast between the two stories interleaved within this single binding is unspoken, unavoidable, and striking. By the last page, Cahill's shown how the Renaissance ennobled, enlightened, and expanded the worth of mankind. His Reformation disgusts. It killed many, divided all, ennobled none. The neurotic grasping of his sad Martin Luther may have been brave and helpful, but Luther's message of freedom was only narrowly applicable to legalistic obsessives in the first place and in the end was taken up by those kings Europe most able to use it to entrench and establish their political power. Christian disagreement has always existed, but the Reformation became a historical watershed only because the powerful embraced it as a tool. The Renaissance told humanity how beautiful it could be. The Reformation demonstrated how ugly it already was.

Cahill doesn't wrap his story so tightly and conclusively as I've done here. He guides the reader to some conclusions, while leaving others to their own discretion. You're getting my gut feel upon putting the book down. He's comfortable placing the good side of the Reformers on display where he can find it, and he concludes the book with a recital of some positive things he sees Christianity bringing to the world. I cannot, however, reach any other assessment of the tapestry he's woven. The Reformation was a gut-wrenchingly terrible thing.

I only wish my heart could rise to the Reformers', my brothers', defense.

Cahill is substantially correct.

If Jesus is not risen from the dead, we are of all men most miserable, indeed. And yet, Jesus is risen from the dead. The history of bloodshed attending one of our proudest moments, the Reformation, is a stain on our name and attached to His. It was not to foment, spawn, and feed wars Jesus suffered and died. It's incumbent on us to learn from the evil Cahill details so coherently.

In the year 1550, with the Reformation birthing its most powerful changes, is it possible there were Christians humbly loving other Christians in countless communities of Italy, Germany, England, and France? Is it possible lowly Catholic and Protestant people were clothing the naked and building each other up in Christ on both sides of the theological divide? And that God was genuinely displeased with the murders my heroes caused? The Catholics are wrong about countless critical things, but does knowing that make "me" right?

Knowledge breeds narcissism, and narcissism stops at nothing. The heart of Christianity is not in the fire of revival, nor in the whirlwind of media, nor in the earthquake of Reformation, but in the still, small love of community. We need each other and Jesus more than anything the Earthly empire of Christianity can do for us.

11 January, 2014

Bodily Exercise Profiteth

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. 1 Tim 4:8 (KJV)

“Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” 1 Tim 4:8 (NLT)

I've dedicated an average of 30 minutes a day for the last 2+ years to the first physical training program I've done since the Army. My inner Damentalist scold (Christian Fundamentalist - minus the Fun) reminds me daily this theft of 200 hours a year from God and myself, stolen from my poverty only to feed my pride, is shameful. In fact, to this day I hide my training like a literature professor hides his Louis L'Amour collection. But, like that professor, I keep doing it.

"Hello. My name is Kevin Knox and I do physical training."

But the faux-Training Anonymous introduction is not quite right, because I'm only writing this to persuade you to train physically, too. I should say something more like, "Psst. Hey, Buddy! Wanna score some pushups? I can hook you up right over here. The  price is right."

I'm probably the only guy I know who avoided exercise because of this verse. On the other hand, somehow, I'm also the only guy I know not currently avoiding exercise! So far as I can tell, everyone else is avoiding it like fermented beet juice. Really, most people avoid exercise for normal, rational reasons: it hurts, it sucks up time better spent not hurting, and all it does is enable them to do more things that also hurt. Most people are already physically able to do all the stuff they really like doing (like watching football players hurt themselves for money) so exercise is a clear and present negative with no positives - at all.

Of course, there is the weight/health thing, but let's ignore that. Everyone thinks they should exercise so they can be thinner. The doctors all say if we're sexier, I mean "thinner", we'll live longer and be able to do all the stuff we want to do. Our TVs, jobs, insurance companies, billboards, radios, Internet pop-up ads, and one of our Facebook friends who just lost 8 pounds all remind us the doctor said it, too. But weight-loss is a crock. I'll get this out of the way quick, losing a single pound of fat by exercise hurts too much for too long to survive as a real option. It works for a couple hormonally blessed people who see tangible results, and it works in short bursts for some unmarried people, but for purposes of this discussion we can profitably toss weight loss out the window. Weight loss persuades few to add physical training to their lives.

What persuaded me?

For me it was tennis. After all these years, I'm still addicted to losing tennis matches, but my knees were tiring of the whole affair. Unable to walk up stairs or crawl into bed like a bipedal primate, I was confronted with an ugly choice. I could start reminiscing at age 47 about my glory days on a tennis court, or start doing squats like a second religion. I chose the latter, and within a couple months I could walk like a created being again. After a year I'd forgotten what it was like to fear stairwells.

The decision was almost magical.

If, on October 1, 2011, I'd been able to pray a quick prayer and live for one day with the knees I have now, I'd have broken down in tears, praised the Divine Healer, and remembered that day for the rest of my life. The healing came, just not overnight. It wasn't magical in practice, but looking back it still feels that way. In practice, I did squats two days a week and went through three kinds of pain. Warmup hurt because the tendons didn't want to play along. Exercise hurt because my muscles didn't want to play along. Recovery hurt because I'm not 25 any more. But when my knees started working again, I was hooked.

I set a goal of 11 pullups. I had no idea what kind of goal that was, but I set it and started the process. Two years in, I'm only up to three, and  I could already do one when I started. Two years is a long, long time to spend getting from 1 pullup to 3. I responded to that frustration in several different ways. Impatience made me unhappy. Intensity led me to injure myself. Doubt was the most profitable. Doubt got my creative juices flowing and drove me to try some of the stuff that's working now.

So, what did I learn by all those pullups? I learned there's technique to the pullup. It doesn't look like it, but poor technique will stall progress and/or lead to injury. There's an obvious need for strength, but I also learned there's a need for coordination. Lastly, I learned the pullup is not the goal! The pullup is a gateway to a whole collection of skills that require real balance in addition to the technique, strength and coordination the pullup builds. There's so much more to this stuff than I ever knew.

The simple process of setting a goal and chasing it taught me about assessing and making honest allowance for my abilities. It taught me to accept what is, rather than demand what I imagine. Training means demanding improvement of myself, but injury is not an improvement, so I learned to slow down. Learning to require of myself what I can deliver, not what some book or video says I can deliver, is the greatest lesson my training program's given me to date.

Now let me remind you of the second half of this post's verse.

"... but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come."

Godliness is hard, too, and I'm learning it's hard in more ways than I could possibly have guessed. Godliness is not just resisting temptation. There are parallels in godliness to the balance, technique, coordination, and strength in physical training. Holiness, relationship, expectation, and good works all work together to achieve the goal of godliness.

It's an odd thing to say, but physical training is opening doors to godliness I never knew existed. And my knees don't hurt any more.