Wednesday, April 16, 2014

That's not in the Bible?! Re-Reading Three Stories You Thought You Knew

We are all products of our environment.  Families, friends, neighborhoods, religious fellowships, and media influence us in more ways than we can possibly understand.

One small but telling example of this is in the way many people (including Christians) remember Bible stories.  We would all like to believe that our knowledge of the Bible or any other religious text is based on things we have actually read, understood, and filed away.  But oftentimes, the stories we remember come from a host of influences, and are different from what the text actually says.  Here are three surprising examples of Bible-story elements which you might have had wrong all this time:

1. Noah was not Mocked by Anyone while Building the Ark
Thanks to Darren Aronofsky's recent movie Noah, the great biblical shipbuilder is back in the news.  Many Christians have gotten upset about all of the artistic liberties that Aronofsky has taken with the text.  What many Bible-readers don't realize is that they themselves have often taken liberties with the text, including one common story element - the presence of mockers while Noah built the ark.  Go read Genesis, chapters 6-7.  You won't find any mention of anyone saying anything to Noah during the time he was building.  Might there have been mockers?  Likely.  But the text doesn't directly support it.

P.S. - The text also says that there were more than 2 of many animals, including 14 of many kinds of livestock and birds.

2. There were no Wise Men or Magi at the Manger
Despite what every nativity scene in the whole world depicts, there were no magi/wise men at the manger the night Jesus was born.  Shepherds, yes.  Angels, yes.  Cows, probably.  But Magi - nope.  Matthew 2 says:

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem...wise men from the east came...and behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced...and going into the house they saw the child."

By the time the Magi show up, Mary and Joseph had apparently had enough time to move out of the manger and find a more suitable temporary living space in a small house or dwelling.  If you consider that later in Matthew 2, Herod decides to kill all baby boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, it is possible that the Magi may not have arrived until Jesus was a toddler.

P.S. - The Bible never says that there were 3 Magi.  It mentions three gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - but never says how many Magi.

3. Jesus did Not Enter Jerusalem During his "Triumphal Entry"
You know the story about how on the Sunday before Passover, Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem riding a donkey, and the people cried "Hosanna!" and they laid palm branches and cloaks at his feet.  Well, the part about him entering Jerusalem didn't actually happen.  In Luke 19, we find Jesus telling his disciples to acquire a donkey and colt from the village of Bethphage, outside of Jerusalem.  When the people greet him as he rides, he is near Bethphage, or on a small country road around there.  Then, he approaches Jerusalem and weeps over it from afar.  THEN, he enters Jerusalem and goes directly to the temple, where he proceeds to clean house.  The "triumphal entry" was actually quite humble, and was more of an approach than an entry into Jerusalem.

P.S. - You might hear on Easter morning that the same people who cried "Hosanna!" the Sunday before Passover were crying "Crucify him!" before the end of the week.   It's a common sermon example of how human hearts can be fickle (which is true!).  But, because these two events happened in different places, it's very unlikely that there were any people (outside of Jesus and the disciples traveling with him) who were in both places at all, much less likely that the same people changed their minds on something so crucial, so quickly.

What can we learn from realizing that we've had stories wrong all our lives, stories which we thought we had all right?  I know what I have learned - that I can always stand to give my Bible another reading, another careful, focused, and close reading.  As we prepare for Easter, the highest Christian holiday of all, we could use a little bit less of our own concoctions, and a little bit more of what the Bible actually feeds us.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What to Read for Holy Week

This year, for Lent, I've been taking the advice of one of our other TTC writers and, instead of giving something up, I've added devotional readings. Like Renea, I've added children's readings from the charming and talented Sally Lloyd-Jones. I've been adding a chapter a day throughout Lent from her Jesus Storybook Bible to my morning routine.

If you're looking for something to do to remember Holy Week this week and if you love beautiful, simple storytelling, or if you have children and would like to find something the whole family can participate in, readings from this book are a great idea. If you started today and wanted one reading through Good Friday, you would start with the story of the prodigal son and end with the crucifixion. Then, you could take a break on Saturday and pick up the readings on Easter morning with the story of Christ's resurrection. A word of warning to purists: this book is more storybook than Bible, but that's why I love it so much. Lloyd-Jones's whimsical writing brings back my childhood delight and wonder at the Big Story of Christianity and helps me to see my faith from new perspectives and from old perspectives I thought I had lost. And if you're looking for a Christianity 101 primer, this isn't a bad place to begin, both for children and grown-ups.

Happy Holy Week.

Friday, April 11, 2014

It's Poetry Month! But, I Don't Like Poetry. Except This One Time...

So, this is National Poetry month. Big deal. Since I don't get worked up about poems you may as well tell me that I should spend April celebrating table settings or squirrel noises. But there is one poem I know that I think about all the time. Nearly every day, in fact.

It was a poem my mother read to me when I was young. I was trying to play a video game when she came into my room, grabbed a volume from the bookshelf (our house was covered in books), and said she wanted to read one of her favorites to me. I tried not to roll my eyes. A poem? Seriously? It was like being Fred Savage in The Princess Bride when Colombo walks in and says he's going to read a book. "Is this a kissing poem?" I might have asked.

It was The Fool's Prayer, by Edward Rowland Sill, and it was everything that I expected it to be - sentimental and metered, filled with words I didn't understand like "knave," and "balsam." It tells the story of a jester who is asked to say a prayer before the king and the royal court. The jester (who must hide his grimness behind a fake, painted-on smile) prays for humility despite his faults, repeating "Lord be merciful to me, a fool." The king, who had been prepared to mock his jester's words, is so moved that he recites the same prayer.

Booooring. I was trying to beat The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or something equally important, so I obviously didn't have time for poems. And why didn't the poet just start with the last four or five lines and make it shorter? Was it really necessary to write an entire page full of rhymes? Why should I spend my spare time unraveling knotted phrases or counting syllables? Besides, simple prose could accomplish the same thing as this poem in the space of a Post-It note! (Yes, English majors, I'm one of Those people. Also, I am realizing that I was a big jerk when I was a teenager. Sorry, Mom!)

Being a teen, I didn't want to understand this poem in the pursuit of some sort of enlightenment, because I was already an invincible genius, wise beyond my years and perfect in every way. But something about the poem's phrasing, the metrical rhymes, and its repetitions caused The Fool's Prayer to cling to the edges of my mind. Though I dismissed it in a moment of youthful arrogance, the poem didn't dismiss me. It was still there, lurking about my thoughts and taunting me with it's lesson.

Even though I'm 32, I still enjoy pretending that I'm wise even though I'm not. "I sure was dumb ten years ago," I might say to a co-worker, but in the back of my mind I'm certain that when I'm 42 I'll be saying the same thing. There has been some progress in my life; I no longer think of myself as an invincible genius, but as an absent-minded bumbler who can't find his car in the parking lot. Also, I had to look up the spelling of "genius" five minutes ago. (That really happened. I tried "geneous" and "genious" before giving up. If the NSA ever confiscates my Google searches they'll only find an endless list of misspelled words.) Like everyone else, I think I'm a decent person, but I've proven to be more selfish than caring plenty of times. I've been guilty of hatred and pettiness while claiming to decry those things.

When faced with my shortcomings I become aware of a familiar, unrelenting refrain crying out from my memory to teach me the old lesson. The Fool's Prayer might not be great poetry by academic standards - I wouldn't know - but it's a good one in my book. In dark times the poem's refrain will pierce through the haze of self-doubt and loathing, leading me down a well-worn path where I whisper a comforting liturgy: "Lord be merciful to me, a fool."

...But for our blunders -- oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!"
The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
"Be merciful to me, a fool!" 

(Read the whole thing, here.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Holy Week Links

Every year at this time I ponder how little we emphasis Easter compared to most of our other holidays when Easter is in fact the only reason Christianity exists.  The Easter season should bring depths of reflection and joy to every Christian.  Hopefully these links will help inspire you towards those goals, and if you aren't a Christian give you an understanding of what this all means to Christians.

Background: A Primer on the Christian Calendar
This article from explains all the different days and times associated with Easter.  I grew up not celebrating many of these days, just Palm Sunday and Easter. Click this link to find out all the details.

Devotionals: Holy Week Devotionals
Check out these Holy Week devotionals from Willow Creek from 2013.  It will give you something to read through this upcoming week. Click this link to get started.

Talk: The Meaning of Easter
In this short talk N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, reflects on Easter.  I find it inspirational.

Song: How Deep the Father's Love for Us
This is one of my favorite songs and always reminds me of Easter and the resurrection.

Stuart Townend talks about writing this song in the video below:

You can listen to the song here:

Skit: Good Friday Video
A video from the Skit Guys that really 'brings to life' the hours before Christ's death.  Check their site for more Holy Week related videos also.