Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: The Manga Bible

The Manga Bible: From Genesis to RevelationThe Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation by Siku
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This treatment of the Bible and its contents is certainly different. It covers some of the major stories (and a few minor ones, too) to give the reader a sense of what is in the Bible. There are references back to the Bible sprinkled throughout so that readers who want to know more can find it.

It is an interpretation and an adaptation of the biblical text. Every page does contain numerous direct quotes from the Bible, often seen as excerpted phrases to describe what is happening in a cell.

It wasn't my style of reading and the manga (comic book) style isn't one that I really identify with, but it's possible that there is an audience for it. I'm just not sure someone who has little or no interest in Christianity picking this up, but I could be wrong.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A perspective on “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)

ἀληθεύοντες δὲ ἐν ἀγάπῃ (SBL GNT)
(alētheuontes de en agapē)

This phrase has often been used by one Christian as a hammer against another. It is the Christian equivalent of, “With all due respect…” Whenever someone is at the receiving end of this phrase, they know that what follows is usually going to be anything but loving or respectful. It is a phrase frequently used to justify condemnation and abuse.

How do some English translations render this phrase?

AMP Rather, let our lives lovingly express truth
CEB Instead, by speaking the truth with love
CEV Love should always make us tell the truth
ESV Rather, speaking the truth in love
GNT Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love
HCSB But speaking the truth in love
KJV But speaking the truth in love
NIV Instead, speaking the truth in love
NCV No! Speaking the truth with love
NET But practicing the truth in love
NLT Instead, we will speak the truth in love
RSV Rather, speaking the truth in love
YLT And, being true in love

Looking at this sampling of thirteen commonly used English translation of the Bible and how they render the opening of the Ephesians 4:15 text, we observe that the overwhelming majority render the word alētheuontes as “speaking the truth.” The strong connotation given is that toward the act of speaking, that of verbalizing words to another person. A small minority (in boldface) take an alternate view, that alētheuontes is about the act of living, about practices, and not necessarily requiring verbal proclamation.

Another potential issue with most translation involve the “the” in “the truth.” The Greek text does not contain a definite article. The AMP and YTL above provide the better translation by omitting the definite article. The problem with “the truth” is that it can lead to a view that there is a singular manifestation of truth and that it can be codified and proclaimed. It leads to division: all who believe my way are following “the truth” but I need to “speak the truth” to those who don’t see it my way.

How did the preference for translating the phrase into “speaking the truth” arise?

The immediate context (Ephesians 4:1-16) seems to provide at least one possibility. This set of verses discusses gifts of grace, spiritual gifts, and their use in “building up the body of Christ” (v.12) into unity (vv.3-6, 13). The list of specific gifts includes “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (v.11). Notice that all the gifts mentioned here are proclamation and teaching gifts. So it makes logical sense to translate alētheuontes into “speaking [the] truth.”

Verse 25 which explicitly uses the term “to speak” may have also influenced the translation of verse 15 in order to maintain consistency. But is strict consistency necessary? At least a few translations disagree.

Alētheuontes can also be translated as “teach truth,” “profess truth,” or “act truly or sincerely.” Teaching, professing, and acting does not have to involve speaking (though speaking should not be excluded completely).

The preposition en immediately before agapē is most frequently translated as “in” but can also be understood to mean “with,” “through,” and “by” – with love, through love, and by love.

There is a conjunction de following alētheuontes. This is seen as adversarial, meaning “truth-love” is in opposition to something that came before or will follow. Translators generally place this word before “truth” to contrast “truth-love” to what came before, and translate it into words such as “but,” “instead,” and “rather.” This further helps the reader place context around “speaking truth in love.”

Verse 14 reads, “So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes” (NET). This verse does not limit falsehood and deceit to merely speech, but includes activities. In contrast then, Christians are to speak, teach, and practice truth by/through/with their love (my translation of the first phrase of verse 15). When love is the rule and practice, unity in Christ will naturally follow (my paraphrase of the second half of verse 15).

I am reminded of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Ironically the way the phrase “speaking the truth in love” is often used within Christian circles today is the exact opposite of what was intended by the author of Ephesians. Instead of mutual respect and honor, with and in love, the phrase is used in a “my way or the highway” kind of self-aggrandizing attitude against others. Instead of bringing together, the phrase too often divides.

May we today begin to recover the original intents of the phrase.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Another Look at the Upper Room—Part 4—What Is Glory?

What images come to your mind when you hear the phrase "God's glory?" Power, might, majesty? Maybe it's more literal: brightness, shining, blinding light?


John 13:31-32 records Jesus' words:


31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once." (ESV)


This is the prelude to Jesus giving the command to his disciples -- gathered in the Upper Room -- to love one another, and by doing so to reveal to the world that they are his disciples. From this a conclusion can be inferred that God's glory and love are somehow related. The narrative surrounding these verses provide the rest of the context that we need to determine "God's glory" of which Jesus speaks here.


First I find the double occurrence of the phrase "truly, truly" within this section to function as sort of bookends: one at the beginning and one at the end. The first text deals with Jesus' knowledge of Judas. The latter text, with Jesus' knowledge of Peter. The first is betrayal, the second is denial; but for the purposes of this text, the actions should be seen as equivalent -- a failure to keep trust in Jesus' way of doing things.


The reader of the story, of course, would only find this out about Peter at the end of the narrative. In the first part of the Upper Room story, Jesus loves and serves Peter. In the second part, Jesus loves and serves Judas. Both will turn their backs on him, and he knows it, but that knowledge doesn't change his attitude nor actions toward them.


In verse 27 we find the words, "Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him." Judas takes Communion. He takes the Bread of Life. But in him this morsel has a different effect than is expected. Instead of giving life, it ultimately takes life. What are we to do with this text?


First, it speaks out against ritual having any kind of saving grace. If participation conferred any kind of salvation, receiving bread directly from Jesus' hand ought to have been it. But we are clearly told that was not the case. Rather, it had the exact opposite effect.


That brings us to the second point to consider. The gospel writer of John speaks quite a bit about judgment, but does not spell out exactly what that looks like. Readers are left to their own preconceived ideas, perhaps based on other parts of the Bible. I believe verse 27 illustrates that kind of judgment that is spoken of in John. It is not about Jesus or God coming down in might, power and authority to condemn and punish, but rather, judgment is about a decision for or against the "way of love" that Jesus trail-blazed. For Judas, taking in (a metaphorical consumption of the bread) Jesus' acts of love in the Upper Room resulted in his rendering judgment against Jesus. Thus the gospel author writes, "So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night" (verse 30). Jesus did not cast Judas out into the night. Jesus did not judge. Judas cast himself out. Judas judged himself.


It is after Judas leave the room that Jesus speaks of his glory. The Jews, including the disciples, expected the power and might kind of glory. It's the kind of glory that people today often want to see from God. We want a God who will use force to overcome evil, to forcibly bring about righteousness and justice. This picture of God infects how we relate to others socially, religiously, and politically.


The message of Jesus in the Upper Room remains just as undesired and unheard today as it was then. God's glory, made flesh in Jesus, is not about power, might, force, coercion, but about a kind of love that is "weak" according to the world's standards. Jesus tries to redefine "glory" for his disciples. He tells them that God's glory is found in self-sacrifice, in serving one's enemies, and in treating even the very ones who would murder you as human beings worthy of respect. God's glory is found in the kind of love that sees the good in every being, in hoping for redemption of even those that might appear beyond redemption, and acting in ways that will bring about redemption. God's glory is found in the kind of love that respects the freedom of all to reject love.


Jesus tells his disciples that "they cannot come" (verse 33). This is often interpreted as pointing to Jesus' ascension and the inability for his disciples to go to heaven with Jesus at the present time. But I believe it is pointing to the "way of love". I think this is the better interpretation because of 13:7 where we find, "Afterward you will understand", and 13:36, "You will follow afterward." In the washing of feet Jesus was attempting to demonstrate the way of love. In his explanation immediately afterwards, he was trying to explain love. In this current part of the chapter, Jesus explicitly instructs on the way of love. I also believe this is the basis for 14:6, "I am the way." It is not Jesus, the historical person, who is the way, but his nature that is "the way." After declaring, "I am the way," Jesus explains his oneness with the Father as the way. Then Philip asks to be shown the Father. In response Jesus points to his actions as revealing the Father.


It is at this point that Jesus gives his disciples the roadmap to his kingdom.


34 "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."


Jesus continues,


35 "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


I think we need to read this in conjunction with verse 20,


"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."


Taken together verses 20 and 35 speak of how Jesus' authority will be manifest in his disciples. It is not about power or might, or about force and coercion. Jesus' authority is found in how his disciples look after one another, how they handle differences, in how they respond to difficulties, trials, and even betrayals.


At the end of the Upper Room narrative Peter once more takes center stage.


36 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered him, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward."


This has usually been taken to mean that Peter cannot follow Jesus to the cross at this time, but he will end his life in that manner. That works, but Jesus has been speaking metaphorically throughout this story. Why suddenly switch to historical literalism now? I think Jesus' statement can be seen as saying to Peter (though he doesn't understand it), "You don't yet understand the path of self-sacrificing love. You will even reject it for the moment. But (unlike Judas) you will discover that the glory of God is found in this path, and you will come to embrace it."


Peter is thinking in literal terms and objects to Jesus' statement.


37 Peter said to him, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." 38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times."


Why can't Peter follow now? Because he doesn't yet get that Jesus' glory is about self-sacrificing love. Peter's concept of "glory" is the same as Judas' - power that will forcibly work its purposes. There is no doubt Peter is willing to die for Jesus (c.f., 18:10). As long as it appears Jesus will be victorious as Peter imagines it, Peter will stick with Jesus to the end. But as soon as Jesus makes it clear that his way is not the way of forcible strength, Peter loses faith in Jesus' mission and loses his motivation to die for Jesus. The twist of this chapter is that all throughout, Peter has been depicted as zealous and strong for Jesus, but in the end it is revealed Jesus knows Peter will respond much like Judas, to the readers' surprise.


If God fails to meet your expectations and desires of Jesus as a conquering king, will you still trust and follow him?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

When the offense is against the marginalized

The speed and reach of communications is vastly different today than it was in the first century C.E. Opinions voiced circle the globe in a matter of seconds. The default assumption needs to change from “everything is private” to “everything is potentially public.”

When controversy arises within the Christian community it is known publicly almost instantly. This would not have been the case even a couple of decades ago. Opinions and voices, pro and con, quickly fly in all directions.

Then a well meaning Christian raises his hand and suggests, “Why are you fighting publicly? Shouldn’t this be a private matter? Shouldn’t we follow Matthew 18 and resolve this amongst those concerned?”

That is all and well, but the question I believe needs to be asked is, “Does Matthew 18 apply to all situations involving Christian conflict, and more importantly, does it apply to this specific case?” Perhaps Matthew 18 describes the ideal situation in which only a few people, perhaps just the one who is offended and her sole offender, are involved. Then there is the massively large, grey area between the strictly private offense and intentional, explicit, public offense.

As a counterexample to Matthew 18 I point to Paul’s public denunciation and shaming of Peter, described in Galatians 2:11-14. Likely, Peter’s actions were not intentional, but it was most certainly explicit and public in shaming the Gentiles believers at Antioch. The offender, Peter, was in a position of power and authority over the offended. He also belonged to the group which tended to believe that they were spiritually superior (e.g., circumcision) to the offended. It is in this context that Paul “opposed him [Peter] to his face.”

When the marginalized, the weak, and the oppressed are sinned against and shamed publicly by the more powerful and privileged, by those who claim to be “more right,” others within the community who see this happening have the responsibility to public denounce the offense and call out the offender to account, publicly.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Another Look at the Upper Room—Part 3—Washing Feet

In Part 2 we examined the Lucan parable of the serving master. We identified some of the parallels it has with the story of the Upper Room found in John 13. As we return to the Upper Room I think it is important to keep in mind the unprecedented nature of Jesus' actions. In the modern society, as much as there are divisions of wealth, privilege and status, it is not altogether astonishing when we hear of people high in human-based hierarchies to serve those lower in rank; we expect a type of human equality at some level. Not so in the time and place where Jesus walked. Kenneth Bailey writes, "I know of no incident in contemporary life or in story out of the past in the Middle East where such an incredible reversal of status appears." (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 373) Where appearances counted for everything in order to maintain status and honor, Jesus' actions could be interpreted to bring shame not only to himself but also to his disciples - his community - whom he served.


John 13 begins:


13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (ESV)


In John the phrase "to depart out of this world" includes Jesus' passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In other words I see this verse as setting the theme for the rest of this gospel account. And what is the theme? It is the second half, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." The stories, the prayers, the instructions - all can be seen as different ways in which Jesus "loved them to the end." The washing of feet and breaking of bread are merely two of the examples of Jesus' love.


I also want to pause to examine the word translated as "to the end." This comes from telos which has the connotations of fulfillment and completion. What John is telling his readers is not only that Jesus loved his disciples to the end of his time here on earth, but he fulfilled all that love means and completed the demonstration of love.


In present day use, love often has much to do with feelings: romantic, filial, brotherly/sisterly, kindness. Even when the term is expanded beyond feelings, it often stops at "being nice to one another." The examples that Jesus gives, as John describes them in chapter 13ff is much more than just being nice, even to one's enemies. I can "be nice" to people I don't like because it's what I'm supposed to do and in the hopes that they will eventually go away and leave me alone. But that isn't love. Love is genuine concern for the well-being of others, even for people who I don't like and who might turn around and betray me and stab me in the back. And not just concern, but actions that genuinely improve the lot of the other.


I read the next four verses as a summary of the Upper Room story:


13:2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.


Verse 2 reveals a critical piece of information for the readers. Jesus already knows who will betray him (c.f., verse 11). Why Judas betrays Jesus is not made clear, but given the cultural norms of honor and shame, I concur with other scholars who conclude that Judas became disillusioned with Jesus because he refused to act the expected part of the Messiah. What would transpire in the next few minutes would cement his betrayal. But that knowledge does not change Jesus' actions. His kingdom is not based on position and power, but on love and service, even if that means one of his own will betray him.


Verse 3 gives the readers reasons why Jesus could ignore status, honor, and shame originating from men. Jesus knew the hearts of men but he also knew something far greater - his belonging to God and all belonging to him. A single betrayal would not break the community and fellowship he has with his Father and with "his own."


Jesus is setting up a different kind of community - not one based on status or honor, but on love and service. So Jesus rises from his place, sets aside his cumbersome outer garments, girds his loose-fitting undergarment with a towel around his waist and gets ready to go to work. He fills a basin and goes to the first disciple and begins washing his feet.


As noted earlier, an act like this is unprecedented. There is nothing like it in the disciples' memory. Perhaps later, with clearer thought, they will be reminded of the Lucan parable. Their first thought is astonishment which quickly gives way to horror. More than one probably is trying to figure a way to stop Jesus. He is the master so he, theoretically, is allowed to do anything to them. But this? They could protest, but that would shame Jesus, even more than he is doing to himself. So they keep silent.


Until Jesus gets to Peter. Quite likely to be about midway around the table.


Jesus must be stopped. Peter indirectly protests by asking Jesus a question, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" (v6) Maybe Jesus will take the hint and at least pass him by and stop this whole business. Both can still save face.


But Jesus will not be deterred. Jesus tries to allow Peter the choice to continue with the washing. "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." (v7)


Peter think Jesus didn't get the hint. He must resort to open and direct protest. "You shall never wash my feet!" (v8) There, what needs to be said has been said. There is no ambiguity; no question. His position is firm. The Greek is even more emphatic: "You will never wash my feet forever."


Jesus' reply to Peter is just as emphatic. "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." (v8)


Peter doesn't understand what is happening, but there is one thing he cannot fathom: to be separated from Jesus when his kingdom is inaugurated. That's what he hears Jesus saying. Peter becomes emphatic in the exact opposite position now. "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" (v9)


13:10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”


At this point we can begin to discover the significance and meaning of the washing of feet. Some opinions see the washing of feet as a disgusting act that requires abject humility. In this line of thought the streets of Jerusalem were filthy with dirt, mud, and animal droppings. To wash feet was a physically disgusting task; therefore, only slaves at the lowest rung of the social ladder would perform it. For Jesus to do that was to do a truly disgusting task and likewise his disciples ought to be willing to do the most menial and disgusting tasks. It's a line of thought that seems to make sense and is quite pious.


Except that it isn't entirely accurate. Many excellent commentaries today make it a point to note that the streets of Jerusalem weren't filthy and disgusting in the matter described above. Especially for Passover, the high Sabbath of the Jewish year. Sure, feet would get dusty, but truly dirty in a disgusting way? No.


In fact the Greek text of verse 10 does not contain the phrase, "does not need to wash, except for his feet." In other words, the significance of Jesus washing the feet is not about washing the feet. The service is not in how disgusting or menial the task is. Many commentaries note that the disciples would have come to the Upper Room only after properly bathing to cleanse themselves to be ritually purified to celebrate Passover. There was no essential need for the disciples' feet to be washed. It was, however, an expected gesture of hospitality (c.f., Luke 7:44). And all except Judas were already spiritually clean, whether or not their feet were washed (particularly if Peter was seated about halfway around the table, half the disciples' feet wouldn't be washed). The washing isn't representative of some type of cleansing of sins after initial conversion. (Don't laugh or roll your eyes. In my childhood, I recall being taught that the ritual of washing feet was a kind of "mini-baptism" whereby sins committed after baptism and after the last feet washing would be washed away with this most recent washing. So to skip the ritual--very, very bad and dangerous for one's eternity.)


It isn't the washing that is significant, but what this act means. The act isn't a mere act of humility or service, though we shouldn't dismiss those application. I see something much more revolutionary and one that Christians and our churches need reminding. Jesus explains his actions over the course of the next verses.


After washing Peter's feet, Jesus continues with the rest of the disciples. With the washing complete, Jesus removes the towel girding his undergarment, places his outer garment back on himself, and returns to his place at the table.


13:12b … he said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another 's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, 'He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me. ' 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."


And some of us get hung up on verses 13-14, reading them as a command to literally wash one another's feet.


Surrounding this command is teachings, not specifically about humility or service, or of sin and salvation, but of hierarchy, positions, and responsibilities. In the middle of all this is another reminder of Judas and his problem.


The crux of the mystery of meaning of the washing of feet is around Judas and Peter. The entire social fabric of the time was built around hierarchies of privilege, power, roles, wealth, and position. Permeating the hierarchies was the concept of honor and shame. Appearances mattered. A lot. More than a lot.


As I wrote toward the beginning, Jesus' actions in the Upper Room destroyed all of that. Jesus was telling his disciples that hierarchies and the game of shame and honor meant nothing in his kingdom. In Jesus' kingdom all will belong to God and God will belong to all. No one will have "more of God" and God will not favor one person over another. Appearances don't matter. Position, wealth, birthright… all of that goes away.


Peter may not have understood it at this time, but his heart and mind was malleable to begin learning the lesson. So Jesus could declare Peter clean.


Judas, unfortunately, was hardened in his tradition. Judas was not clean and could not be cleansed, because he would not let go of the cultural and religious traditions that taught something different about God than what Jesus was demonstrating.


All the disciples wanted a God who would come in power to change the world by force. Peter represents the eleven who were open to at least contemplating a God who failed to meet that expectation. Judas could not even imagine a God who would not force his ways, however righteous, onto people.


We become like the God we picture an think about. If our image of God is one who employs power to subdue and control, we will feel justified in forcing our ways on others. If instead our image is of one who would allow himself to be betrayed, reviled, despised, tortured, and killed, we will never collaborate with the powers of manipulation and coercion; the end will never justify wrong means.


Jesus' command is not to literally wash one another's feet, but for his people to continue the work he started of destroying hierarchies and systems that keep people enslaved to one another--both the controllers and those who would submit for promises of power and status; or submitting through appeals to tradition, propriety, shame, and guilt.


To wash one another's feet means the destruction of systems of oppression that prevent people from becoming the human beings that God has made each of us to be.