The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Historical Fiction of Merit

posted by Ben Witherington

There is a surfeit at present of Christian fiction on the market, and not much of it is of any enduring or endearing value. Some of it even serves up the Christian equivalent of Harlequin romances, or even worse, bad theology written up as bad fiction (I am referring to the incredibly successful Left Behind series). In this set of circumstances perhaps a guide to the bemused and perplexed is in order. If one asks is there any good fiction out there which actually deals with the Biblical period or even some part of Christian history felicitously the answer is yes.

If one is into who-dunnits or sleuthing ala Sherlock Holmes two series dealing with the Biblical era stand out— the novels by Stephen Saylor about Gordianus the Finder and the novels by Lindsey Davis. Saylor actually has training in Greek and Roman classics and it shows in his novels. He has also done his homework as well about the first century B.C. and first century A.D. His novels are decidedly more high brow than those of Davis, which are often hilarious and meant more to entertain than inform. The hero of Davis’ novels is Marcus Didius Falco and sometimes he is a sleuth more on the order of Peter Sellers than Sherlock Holmes but in the end he gets his man. Davis’ novels are fun, and tred lightly when it comes to the historical substance of the period, but still she knows a good deal about the reign of Vespasian and his successors and so about the last third of the first century A.D. Her novels go down easily and do not make major historical gaffs. One could say that neither of these authors is writing Christian fiction, but it is indeed fiction of interest for Christians since it deals with the key period.

Of a whole different and more substantive ilk are the large novels of Colleen McCullough which end with the story of Julius Caesar and beginning with the origins of Rome itself. Her writing deals in depth with the rise of the Roman world, and it has been carefully cross checked by classics scholars. It has enormous indexes to deal with unfamiliar terms, customs, ideas laws, persons. These novels are veritable cornucopiae, offering all kinds of information of relevance to understanding the Biblical period, especially the NT era and what led up to it. These are certainly not Christian novels, indeed some Christians will think parts of them are naughty, but they are honest reflections and even insightful revelations about the period and peoples of the early Christians.

If Kingdom of Heaven has whetted your appetite for all things medieval, then you will find the novels of Ellis Peters and her sleuth Brother Cadfael just wonderful. Of the novels I have mentioned in this blog, Peters’ (whose real name was Edith Pargeter) have the most literary appeal and quality. They are often beautifully even elegantly written. There is in addition the fact that Peters was a Christian and so are various of her characters in the Shrewsbury monastery. You will get quite a different view of the crusades and crusaders in these novels than what you find in Ridley Scott’s movie. Highly Recommended.

A Lawyer’s View of Pentecost

posted by Ben Witherington

THE BARRISTER’S BRIEF BRIEF ON PENTECOST

The filigree flame of fire fell on the fellowship
Pursuant to the prayer and praise and paeans of the plaintiffs
Such that there was no room in the upper room,
And they fled like men fleeing a burning building.
But even the Temple courts could not contain the ebullience and effervescence
And so they were deemed drunk, tipplers before their time.
Yet all that they had imbibed was Spirit,
Which was so like fire in their bones that their wayward words
Leaked out in languages unknown to the speakers,
As if the babble of Babel had been set in reverse,
To unite a divided Empire that pretended Pax Romana.

Who knew the cost of Pentecost then or there,
Or the momentousness of the movement set in motion?
Who could have guessed the Guest who had inhabited them that day?
If possession is nine tenths of the law, then this magnificent possession
Became a magnificent obsession to lay down the Law and take up the Gospel,
And so tip the world upside down such that peace came from grace and truth,
Not law and order,
And testimony was borne not to a crime but to a crisis
Not to progress but to rescue,
Not to an Emperor, but to a Savior,
Not merely to the end of the old age,
But to the dawn of the new one.

As for me it appeared that at Golgotha,
Court was adjourned once and for all,
For the sentence had been executed,
The price paid,
And no appeals, summons, pleadings, stays or briefs
Could now change that outcome.
No de facto or de jure actions could in anyway retrieve the prior state of affairs.
But oddly with this outcome it is now the Law and all those under it
Who ever since have been on trial.

As if it were not enough that a ‘criminal’ had become King of Kings
Now on top of all else, all those who live in the Domain he has laid claim to
Are told that new occasions call for new duties,
For there is a new pact called new covenant governing the way the wheels of justice turn.
They grind slowly no longer, for they have ground to a halt until he returns.

And what interim rules he left!!— ‘no oaths’ ‘no violence’ ‘no depositions’ ‘no suits’
Only testimonies on His behalf, only confessions of his lordship, only mandates to love One and all, as if it were ‘all for one’ instead of free-for-all.
Thank goodness he did not demand we like our enemies!

Yes, of course I have perused the Deposit, the nomina sacra, the ancient words,
Fully of odd stories, ad hoc letters, rhetorical discourses, even apocalypse of sorts
I must say—it hardly reads much like lex nova, more like sage sayings, and prescient promises.
So what’s left for a lawyer to do?

Consider this my last will and testament—
I have laid down the law, and determining I have a stake in this matter, I have taken up a cross. While dying daily is painful, it beats facing the music and the musings of the messiah, when he sits on the bema seat on judgment day. I trust my day in court then will go better than his did in A.D. 30 although as it turned out, he was vindicated by a surprising reversal, ex post facto, for it appears that the Spirit was as good at revivifying bodies as inspiring proclamations at Pentecost.

How to Have a Cellphone and still remain a Christian

posted by Ben Witherington

Cellphones are ubiquitous now, spreading like Kudzu throughout the land. And unfortunately it plays right into and exacerbates the inherent narcissicism or self-centeredness of our culture. We have people having private phone conversations in planes, elevators, in class (!),during worship services, and in a host of other inappropriate places. They don’t seem to care. Everyone loves to get mail, and everyone loves to be called, and that takes precedent over all else, including civility, and being considerate of others. In light of this blight on the land, I offer a few non-negotiable rules Christians should live by when it comes to cellphones lest they violate their Christian witness and certain minor commandments like “Each should look not to your own interests, but rather the interests of others. Have the same mind in yourself that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.4-5).

I offer here the 10 commandments of cellphone use!

1) Under no circumstances except an actual and extreme emergency should you ever drive a car and talk on a handheld cellphone. This is incredibly dangerous and has already cost many people their lives. Just ask your insurance agent. There are reasons why whole states are banning this self-centered and dangerous activity.

2) Let private phone conversations be private. Don’t have them in a public place. Place your phone on vibrate, and unless you are expecting an urgent call, do not answer it during: 1) another conversation with a live person; 2) another conversation with someone on a phone; 3) during a public event like a class or a worship service.

3) Turn off the cellphone unless you are in a place and at a time where it is appropriate to have a private chat. This means no cellphones on in concerts, movies, lectures, etc. You get the picture.

4) Stop wasting time and money on frivilous phone calls, sending useless pictures etc. This is bad stewardship of your money. I do not say there is never a time to use it in these ways (e.g. on a birthday to send a picture or a special message) but it should be a special occasion.

5) A cellphone, except when you are in an emergency stranded because your car died or the like is a luxury item, not a necessity. This being so, you should treat it like other luxury items. It should not become a way of life for you or your children. If you are using only a cellphone to do all your calling, then use it like a phone with a land line except in emergencies. Don’t use it as an excuse to make unnecessary phone calls from anywhere anytime just because you can. That’s pure narcissism and is hardly a Christian practice.

6) Don’t buy a lot of useless or unnecessary extra features or package items in your cellphone plan. This is just a gimmick to get you to spend more money.

7) Stop checking your messages incessantly. This is obsessive compulsive behavior, and it prevents you from spending time with others, focusing on your current tasks etc.

8) In general don’t use your cellphone to send messages. Take the time to write a proper note via email or snail mail, unless there is some good reason to send someone a brief note.

9) You are not so desperate that you need to watch TV on your cellphone. The picture is absurdly small, hurting your vision.

10) Too much use of your cellphone is actually a health risk because of the shortwave frequencies. Do without your cellphone except when you actually need to make a call.

Kingdom of Heaven

posted by Ben Witherington

Ridley Scott’s beautifully filmed anti-war war movie is now out in the theaters, and it is thought provoking in so many ways. The story is grounded reasonably well in history telling the story of the hiatus between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades when Saladin’s forces surrounded the Holy Land and there was an uneasy peace with a leper king Baldwin, a Christian ruler in Jerusalem. The peace was preserved through tolerance and allowing persons of all monotheistic faiths who have a stake in Jerusalem to have free access to the city to live, and work and pray.

The film is laden with ironies of various sorts not the least of which is the portray of both Moslems and Christians fervently shouting and believing that it was God’s will that they murder the infidels on the other side, only to discover that in fact God thwarted both sides’ efforts from time to time.

The film is called Kingdom of Heaven and Jerusalem is seen as it’s epicenter, which is the ultimate irony since it is the site of so much unheavenly plotting, treachery, immorality, and murder, but then such is the very nature of war.

Scott intends to force the audience to realize the inherent contradictions involves in fighting for the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom Jesus said would be established by love, even love of enemies, by turning the other check, and by refusing to retaliate when harmed. It is a Kingdom worth living and dying for, but its very nature is violated by killing for it.

It is not a surprise that Orlando Bloom, who plays the role of Balian the central character in the movie (a blacksmith become knight on crusade), becomes agnostic in the face of the machinations that go on in the name of God, both on the Christian and Moslem side of the ledger. Yet the leper King Baldwin is a wise King and there are reminders along the way in his life and in the lives of others of real Christian values such as goodness and kindness, even to one’s enemies, and holiness, and always being prepared to tell the truth. In the end Balian resolves to defend the people of Jerusalem but not the bricks and mortar.

This is a wonderfully thought provoking movie for people of all faiths and no faith, and it raises the question once more whether Christian crusades can be holy wars any more than Moslem jihads. Or is it in fact the case that there are no just wars, only wars that seem more and less justifiable to us, more and less injust to human beings who have an infinite capacity for self-justification and protecting their own turf? Scott’s movie throws down the gauntlet in a way his earlier effort in Gladiator does not, forcing us to realize both the limitations and the great cost of violating one of the fundamental Biblical commandments recognized and accepted by all three monotheistic religions— Thou shalt not murder.

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