Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Jesus Meant according to Gary Wills

A good review of Gary Wills' book, What Jesus Meant, by Stephen Prothero is in Book World of the Washington Post May 28-June 3rd 2006. Julian and I went along to a lunch at NYPL last April at which Gary Wills spoke on his book and fielded questions from a packed auditorium.

According to Wills, Jesus was not a social reformer. His kingdom "is not of this world." Jesus came "to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father." In the reign of heaven, "love is everything." But this love "is not a dreamy, sentimental, gushy thing. It is radical love, exigent, searing, terrifying." Yet it would appear to be domesticated love without teeth since it is apolitical and pacific. How can Jesus or followers of Jesus speak truth to power about civil rights or slavery?

Wills' has been accused of having Anglican sympathies by his fellow Roman Catholics especially in light of his earlier book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit? In What Jesus Meant, Wills opines that Jesus meant for women to be ordained, for clergy to be married, and he recognizes that in Jesus' time there was no hierarchy--no priests, bishops and certainly no Pope. Doubtless, Wills is reinscribing separation of church and state. Jesus isn't a Democrat or a conservative Republican.

The trouble with this approach is that it makes no sense of the ways in which Christians (including those on the right and left today) have understood Jesus to speak truth to power. It makes no sense of the context of nonviolent retaliation as Matthew describes it on Jesus' lips in the Sermon on the Mount. Further, the context of Jesus' death makes no sense unless he is seen as a political threat as Mark's gospel makes clear in its account of the crucifixion. The most that can be said about Wills' book is that it shows that contemporary Roman Catholic interpretations of Jesus by Republicans are by no means monolithic.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Summer Greek 2006

This summer, at the request of a student (and keeping in mind others who have wanted to take Greek but found it impossible after they missed it in their first year), I agreed to undertake a distance learning Introduction to Greek course for 2 credits.

Using ivisit, an audio video chat program
, students can participate live by logging in or access the recorded files of each chapter at their leisure. We have just finished prepositions. Its a fascinating learning experience :)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

DaVinci Code Movie Review

Having been taken by the New York Post to see the movie in the company of other religious types (a Sister of Mercy, a Roman Catholic Priest and a person on the street), here's my review. Its affected by several conversations with other people who saw it on opening day.

The movie has a breathless quality as we follow Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audry Tatou) from the Louvre to the French residence of Sir Leigh Teabing (Sir Ian McKellan) to an airport in Kent, to London and Westminister Abbey (actually Lincoln Cathedral) and finally to Rossyln Chapel just south of Edinburgh.

Flashbacks show Langdon (a professor of symbology?) lecturing on symbols at Harvard, doing a book signing for a book on feminine symbols, and almost drowning in a well as a child. Sophie's own trauma of the car crash that claimed the lives of her entire family including her brother fail to show in what ritual she saw her grandfather take part. We do see unexplained masked figures in a circle. There are flashbacks to the Council of Nicea (looking like an agitated question time in the House of Commons) and people killing each other from the early days of Christianity.

As anyone who has read the book knows, Langdon and Neveu race across Europe in the company of Teabing (a grail fanatic) to interpret codes left for them in various places by Sophie's grandfather having to do with a secret kept alive by members of the Priory of Sion, namely, that Jesus' bloodline, established through Mary Magdalene (the holy grail), lives in their descendent, Sophie herself. They are chased by a Parisian chief of police, an albino monk and a secret Roman Catholic enclave of Bishops, all members of Opus Dei, who torture and kill or simply shoot at any who might stop them from preventing the disclosure of this secret. We see the monk's murder of a sister at the church of Saint-Sulpice because she attempts to contact members of the Priory during his visit to the church. We see his self-flagellation and use of the celice on more than one occasion. Teabing murders his former butler. In the end, the chief of police realizes that he has been lied to and used by one of the Bishops and he turns on his former allies, freeing Langdon and Sophie for their last journey to Rosslyn.

Sr. D'Arienza (in the NY Post) noted the film's unrelieved brutality and compared it to "The Passion of the Christ" in this regard. I agree. Teabing, the chief of police, the monk, and Bishops of Opus Dei (how they are described in the film) are fanatics whether religious or not. Early Christianity is described as a series of power struggles and wars mirrored in the present. Mary Magdalene escapes from the crucifixion scene and flees to France to preserve her life and child. Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu look askance at the brutality on both sides.

I would like to think that religious traditions are open to intelligent debate and discussion about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and human sexuality but the only Christians in the movie are religious fanatics.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scarlet Tanager in Central Park

Today's early birdwalk included sighting of a scarlet tanager (picture courtesy of Wild Bird Gallery) distinguished not only by its color but also location at the very top of a tall tree. Shortly afterward a red tailed hawk flew overhead which explains the tanager's hasty departure. Our group saw warblers including a Cape May warbler, Magnolia, Black and White, Yellow rumped, Chestnut sided warblers and also an American Redstart. Our guide saw an Indigo Bunting along with several warblers but I confess I did not. Sigh.

Some consensus exists among bird watchers that numbers are generally down this year, alas.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Visit to Princeton

On Friday I went to Princeton to see the Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel, Tom Breidenthal who used to teach at GTS. He's been Dean for five years and is thriving. After lunch, we were able to visit the University Chapel and walk part way down the nave although the Westminster Choir College of Rider University commencement was getting underway. Designed by Ralph Adams Cram in a style of Gothic revival, it is about as big as an abbey and very imposing.

Its good to get out of the city!

The Free Alaa Petition

Its easy to sign the Free Alaa petition--just click here. If anyone wants to know more about Alaa and who he is, Wikipedia has an article.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Spring Migration in Central Park

Today, Spring migration was evident in Central Park when we took our guided bird watching walk through the ramble from 7-9am. We saw a Northern Parula, a Chestnut-sided warbler, a Magnolia Warbler (most beautiful), a Black-and-White Warbler , a Yellow-Rumped warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a Black-Throated Blue Warbler, a Green Warbler, a Wilson's Warbler, a Tree swallow, a Northern Water Thrush, a Hermit Thrush, a Swamp sparrow, an Oven bird, a redstart, and a vireo. The piece de resistance was a sighting at Belvedere Castle atop the flag pole of a female red-tailed hawk, possibly Lola!

On our way home, a charming man turned towards us as we went by saying, "Look! A Tennessee Warbler!" If we'd stayed, we would have seen even more.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Price of Liberty

Alaa Abd El-Fataah, Egyptian blogger, and others were arrested on Sunday May 7th in Cairo during a protest to support the Judiciary's branch fight for independence (I quote from Sandmonkey). A call has gone out from Sandmonkey to protest a number of detainees by way of emails. Similar protests have been successful in the past by way of getting detainees released.

State Department contact information:

US Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Main Switchboard: 202-647-4000

URL to send email:

Site with information on contacting your congressional representatives (in
the US):

The contact information for the Egyptian embassy is below:
The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Ct. NW
Washington DC 20008
Phone (202) 895 5400
Fax (202) 244 5131
(202) 244 4319

This is a copy of my letter:-
Dear Sir/Madam,

I write regarding the reports that Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah was arrested at a demonstration in Cairo on May 7th, 2006. I understand that he and other protesters were demonstrating peacefully to support the Judiciary's struggle for independence.

Allegations in these reports are alarming. I am a professor at an Episcopal seminary in the USA and an American Citizen. My doctorate from Harvard University Divinity School was on two Coptic Gnostic texts and my research into Christian Origins includes teaching the Coptic langauge and past visits to Egypt. In light of your recent actions however, I will not visit your country and in addition I will warn my colleagues, students, friends, and blog-readers to stay away.

I urge you to release Alaa Abd El-Fatah immediately, along with the other activists arrested with him and to drop charges against them, by means of which you show respect for his right to protest.

Sincerely yours,
Deirdre Good
Professor of New Testament
General Theological Seminary

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dependency on God

Once in a subway a friend of mine sat next to a woman with a young child. The woman was reading a bible. The young child tugged fruitlessly at her mother for attention: "Mummy, Mummy..." The mother finally turned to her child and said, "Be quiet! I'm reading my bible."

Has anyone ever had the sense when talking to certain kinds of religious people that God is in the room much in the same way that a bottle is the the room when you converse with an alcoholic? How do we guard against a commitment to God that becomes substance abuse?

Use of God to avoid personal relationships would seem to be an exploiting of religion. When people put God in place of kindness and generosity, are they not making an idol of God?

Grey's Anatomy on Sunday night had an example of this. A husband is unwilling to limit his child breeding acitivities with a fecund wife who has already been hospitalized twice for exhaustion and who has now entered the hospital for a cesarean section delivery of their 7th child. The wife persuades the ob-gyn to tie her tubes during the c-section but to do it in a way that will not show up on insurance records so that her husband cannot fault her. She insists that he will not participate in her plan and that he will reproach her on the evidence of his past behavior. The husband learns what has happened and proposes to sue the hospital.

The husband places his relationship to God ahead of his wife and family. The wife places her relationship with her husband ahead of her own integrity. She jeopardizes the livelihood and ability of a doctor (her gynecologist) to serve a whole host of other women. The husband's selfish concern for his own salvation is placed ahead of any other consideration: the health and well-being of his wife and her ability to care for their children, the ability of the hospital to serve others, the costs incurred by any suit that he might bring against the hospital etc. All in the name of God...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Success and Failure

Today's New York Times has a fascinating article interviewing Henry Petroski, an engineer. "Failure is central to engineering," he is quoted as saying. "Successful engineering is about understanding how things break or fail." His first book was a catalog of calamity entitled "To Engineer is Human." He preaches a gospel of failure in talks and publications in which he offers lessons such as "success masks failure." The more successful something is the more we are confident in it, preferring to ignore tiny defects that may indeed indicate far more severe problems.

Anything I have published has been far better for critiques. There's also a more important point: the notion that success lies in failure. Wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers puts it this way:

One day the devil appeared as an angel of light to a monk in his cell. "I am not worthy to receive an angel of light" said the monk. And the devil departed, overcome by the monk's humility.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Weekend Retreat at Shrinemont

Spent the weekend giving five talks on the New Testament resurrection accounts at a weekend retreat for women of the parish of Holy Comforter, Vienna, Virginia at the Diocesan Retreat Center called Shrinemont. It was planned and implemented by women of the parish so we were in good hands: time for liturgy, eucharist, reflection, activities, socializing and rest. (Thank you Eleanor for the picture; thanks to everyone for making the event memorable).

My approach is simple: what about each of the resurrection accounts is consonant with the gospel, epistle or text in which the account emerges? The method indicates distinctions and emphases. Where it breaks down, e.g. in Paul or John's gospel with the appearance of Jesus to Mary in the garden, Pauline or Johannine themes are evident (interior revelation; seeing/perceiving, touching and hearing the voice of the shepherd) even if Mary appears only at the cross. Unless of course one understands Jesus' mother to be the recipient of the resurrection appearance in John 20. Paul's silence after the revelation of Jesus "en emoi" i.e. "to or in me" (Gal 1) is striking.

That said, I am taking Monday off (as working clergy tend to do)...Happy May Day!

Podcast Conversations with contributors to Borderlands of Theological Education

 Just thrilled that our podcast conversations with contributors to Borderlands of Theological Education are available here: https://podcast...