Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rich Man and Lazarus

If you read my preview post a couple of weeks ago, you already knew this topic was coming, so I'll jump right in. Here's the structure of the post:

1) The recorded text of Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-31). It's from the New International Version's translation.

2) My old interpretation of the story

3) My new agnosticism on the story, and an alternative interpretation

The text

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

My old interpretation

I used to think this story was pretty cut and dried. Jesus was telling us that heaven and hell are real, and that we don't want to go to hell. Bad place. Burning, pain, etc...

I also had a vague idea that the rich man might represent the Jews, since he had five brothers (just like Judah in Genesis 35). But I had a hard time reconciling this harsh future outlook for the Jews with Paul's bold assertions of the fate of the Jews in Romans 11.

My journey on the interpretation

A couple of years ago I was challenged in my interpretation by some fellow Christians. They asked why I could say that this story was proof of heaven and hell. I simply answered, "they're in the story, so they must be real."

They continued in their challenge, and asked if I would use the same reasoning to assume any of the other parts of the story as absolute truth:

--Abraham is the central figure of heaven
--If my body was burning, I would, above all else, long for a drop of water on my tongue
--People who receive good things in life go to hell
--People who receive bad things in life will be comforted in heaven
--There is a chasm between heaven and hell, but both places are close enough so that the souls on either side can see each other and communicate
--Passage both ways between heaven and hell is not permitted (...why would anyone need to be explicitly stopped from leaving heaven to go to hell?)
--Moses and the prophets taught everything you need to know to avoid hell

I had to admit that I don't believe any of those things. But they're in the story. So how could I toss away all of the above illustrations while latching onto the picture of torment as an accurate portrayal of hell?

So I studied more. And more. I was stymied by this story, just as millions (billions?) have been confused by Jesus' amazing-yet-hard-to-grasp style that often used parables and symbols. There was no moral tale here, at least not that I could see on the surface. Rich guy goes to hell, poor guys goes to heaven... but no real reasons why they get those fates.

I kept thinking it had to be teaching something about eternity, because the story is set in the afterlife. But I took none of the individual story's aspects as literal, so what truth could I glean about eternity? The story doesn't even say that the two men's fates are eternal -- for all I know Abraham could swap their places tomorrow. Stymied.

I will tell you right now that I don't assume to know exactly what Jesus meant by this story. It's the last in a series of five stories/parables told by Jesus in the same sitting, so there are all kinds of contextual possibilities. More than a brain like mine can decipher with 100% confidence. That's why I used the word "agnostic" in my introduction -- I just plain don't know for sure what the moral was. But here's one possibility:

Another view

When Jesus told this story, he was either on the doorsteps to the city of Jerusalem or had already arrived. 70 years later, in the same place where he was teaching, the following would happen:

--A trench would be dug around the city's walls by Roman commander Titus and his army (a chasm?)
--A blockade would be setup, with no human traffic in or out of the city (no crossing the chasm in either direction)
--Rich people lived inside the city walls, because they could afford the real estate. Poor people lived outside the city in tents, and normally came inside the gates during the day to do business. In this case, though, the rich were locked in, with no food or water. And the poor were locked out.
--Severe thirst and starvation soon hit the trapped citizens of Jerusalem. They would literally be willing to beg for a drip of water on their tongues.
--During fighting with the Romans, the temple was eventually set on fire. Then the fire spread to the rest of the city. The screams of those inside the city could be heard beyond the trench outside. Burning torment. Communication across the chasm.

Just before the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the bible notes that the tax collectors, Pharisees and teachers of the law were listening to him. These were the rich and powerful. The people who could afford homes inside the city. The people most in need of a warning about what was to come 70 years later.

It may not the right interpretation, but I have to admit that it fits better than my old idea. What do you think?

p.s. -- I'll be visiting my parents for Christmas for the next several days, but will keep in touch through the comments section. The next post will be on "four biblical views of hell" and will be sure to stir up plenty of things in case tonight's post fell flat. :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ephesians 4:26-31: it's all Greek to me

The language history of the bible is fascinating to me. Take any parable of Jesus, for instance. He most likely told it in Aramaic. It was written down a few decades later, usually in Greek. From there it was copied around for centuries, sometimes with minor deviations. Eventually it was translated into Latin (the Vulgate) which was pretty much the flagship translation for a thousand years. While there were partial English translations dating all the way back to the 7th century A.D., only in the last few hundred years did full English translations of the bible really take off. Today there are over 50 full English translations of the bible available at most bookstores and hundreds of websites.

Thousands of men and women throughout history have made it their life's priority to translate the bible into their native language, with accuracy and relevance. It is a monumental task.

If you've studied foreign languages, then you know that there isn't always a perfect translation for a word. Sometimes cultural concepts are buried in the word, and often those concepts get lost in translation. Today's post gives a possible example of this.

In the bible we have a copy of a letter a man named Paul wrote to a church in Ephesus. We've called the letter "Ephesians". It is a short yet deep letter full of valuable teaching to a church that was pretty solid, and wasn't facing any specific crises or issues.

To make it easier to find things in the bible, we've also assigned chapters and verses to the writings. My post today is from Ephesians chapter 4, verses 26 through 31. Paul might have called it "scroll three, lines 18 and 19".

Those verses have the word "anger" show up three times in most English translations. For example, here's what it says in the New International Version:

v. 26 -- In your anger do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.

Verse 26 implies that it's okay to be angry, just don't sin. Then it says to "not let the sun go down", or to not let the anger fester for too long. Then it says to get rid of all anger? Am I the only one confused by that? It sounds like three different things:

1) Be angry
2) Don't be angry for too long
3) Actually, just don't ever be angry

Let's try another translation. Here's the New American Standard version:

v. 26 -- Be angry, and yet do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you.

The old King James version:

v. 26 -- Be ye angry; and sin not.
v. 26 -- Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.

Most of those translations were very similar for those verses. How about The Message, a fairly new translation meant to put the bible in approachable, natural language:

v. 26 -- Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry,
v. 26 -- but don't use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don't stay angry. Don't go to bed angry.
v. 31 -- Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk.

I'll cut to the chase and tell you that if it seems like those three uses of the word "anger" are contradictory teachings, then we've missed the point. The point was written in the Greek language, to Greek readers. And while in English we usually see the same word (anger) all three times, in Greek they were three completely different words:

1) Orge (be angry) -- it can mean "a settled habit of the mind", but in this context it's not negative. It's conjugated as "orgizo", which is a permissive imperative. In other words, "Be angry" is probably a good translation, and the word here implies a righteous anger. A gut reaction to seeing evil. Do you get riled up seeing a parent abuse a child? That's orge. That's good.

2) Parorgismos (don't let the sun go down on your anger) -- irritation, bitterness or exasperation are good synonyms for this word. It's what happens when you let things fester too long. One of the main problems here is that it grows and can eventually give you a bias against whole groups of people. Example: Jenny wasn't nice to me. I didn't forgive her. I don't like Jenny. Jenny's from China. I don't like Chinese people now. I'm sure we would never judge a whole race, country, city or church based on our interaction with one person. I know I never have (blush).

3) Thumos (Get rid of all anger) -- explosive rage or revenge. This is the boiling-over type of fury often referred to as a "short fuse" or "going postal". It's not useful or beneficial. It always carries consequences to those who unleash it, and those who receive it. Not good.

So there's indeed a great teaching here from Paul. Nobody asked, but here's the Michael's Unofficial Dialect (MUD) version of the teaching:

v.26 -- Keep your anger in response to the wrong around you. Nurture it. Use it to make the world a better place.
v 26 -- Don't stay irritated at people for more than a few hours. Find a way to forgive. If you don't, your exasperations will blossom into prejudice and hate.
v. 31 -- Rage and revenge have no place in a life of grace. Stay on guard and keep them far from you.

I can also tell you that I've personally experienced all three types of anger this month. That is when the teaching truly becomes powerful -- when you can see it and apply it in your own life.

And just like that, an author who's been dead for 2,000 years reaches across time and makes me a better man. Pretty cool.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Golden Compass -- my take

Just in case you've missed out on the news, a movie called The Golden Compass opens this weekend. It is based on book one of the trilogy titled His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. And just in case you didn't get the reference (I didn't) the phrase "his dark materials" comes from a line in the old poem/story Paradise Lost by John Milton, the story of a battle raging between heaven/hell and God/Satan. Pullman's story has a similar scope, hence the reference.

Now for the good stuff:

The hubbub

I've received several forwarded emails over the past few weeks from Christians very concerned about the movie. The emails have included the following statements about Pullman and his stories:

1) Pullman is a proud atheist with an agenda to subvert spirituality with the books and movies
2) In the stories, the main characters (two kids) kill God
3) The result of God's assasination is that everyone can do as they please
4) The movie is milder than the book, all part of a ploy to get kids to eventually read the books and turn into atheists

The facts

I have read all three books of the trilogy. In a minute I'll tell you what I think about them, but for now here's my take on the accusations in the email chain:

1) Regarding Pullman's agenda, I don't know for sure. Both sides of this argument throw so many "quotes" of Pullman's around that it's tough to decipher what he really believes and what agenda he has, if he even has one. Instead of focusing on the man, the rest of this post will be about the actual books.

2) The kids don't kill God. In book three (The Amber Spyglass) there is an epic battle involving all types of physical and spiritual (yes, spiritual) creatures. There is one old and decrepit spirit called "The Authority" who happens to be the one worshiped in the main protagonist's world (there are multiple parallel universes in the stories). He is attacked by evil flying creatures and eventually is so weakened that the wind causes him to dissipate and vanish. But not at the hands of the kids -- they actually tried to help. And the spirit is very clearly stated to not be the creator of the universes, although he is called "ancient of days" once.
It must also be said that this is a tiny little section of the book. You can choose to believe whether that was done to be sneaky, or done because it just isn't an important part of the story. But "The Authority" takes up less than two of the trilogy's 900 pages.

3) I'm pretty sure everybody does as they please already. Most religions believe free will exists, even if they exercise it differently.

4) I personally have no problem with my kids reading the trilogy when they get older. It opens up all kinds of fascinating theological discussions. But that's me. Other parents get to choose how they want to approach it.

My approach

I won't pretend that anybody's perspective is the definitive and final one, even mine. Books and their interpretation are subjective. I once heard a quote that "we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Can't remember who said it, though (please tell me in the comments section, if you know).

So I can't tell you what the books really mean, or whether they should be read and considered, or boycotted and burned. But I can tell you what they meant to me, and what my interpretation reveals about who I am. And that is a useful exercise.

My short (and non-spoiler) book review

I liked the trilogy a lot -- you already knew that. So I'll just give an overview of what I liked:

-- The protagonists turn out to be selfless and brave. They are true heroes.

-- The villains (led by the protagonist girl's parents) are painted in a very negative light. And they meet a beautiful and fitting end that shows there is no soul who is 100% evil. One villain even paraphrases the teachings of Jesus as she prepares for death, and contemplates the mystery of how love penetrated even her own dark heart.

-- The characters (physical and spiritual) and settings (across multiple universes) are varied and exciting. Old stuffy boarding houses, snowy mountain ranges, wild alien worlds and even the heavens themselves... the stories weave through all of them.

-- There are talking, intelligent bears in the books. And they wear armor, make swords and fight. There are multiple scenes with talking warrior bears. Enough said.

What I learned about myself

Again, my perspective of the books is subjective, and it reveals as much about me as it does about the books. For instance:

-- I don't easily get defensive about my faith. The book's fatal end for "The Authority" was such a transparent and petty jab at religion, and such a small part of the book's plot, that it rolled off me with no impact. I looked at the book as a whole and saw a sweeping story that included dozens of spiritual characters, so to me the books weren't atheistic at all. But even if they were intended to be atheistic, that doesn't bother or offend me.

-- I'm an atheist/agnostic sympathizer. While I believe in a higher power, I readily admit that I cannot prove one exists. That's why it's called faith. And my nature just isn't overly critical of people who don't believe in something invisible. I get where they're coming from, and am always interested in hearing their story about how they find purpose in life, if they do.

-- I love freedom. My interpretation of the books was not that they vilified religion in general, but that they vilified tyranny. Tyranny can be displayed by lots of power sources -- political, financial, corporate, social and yes, religious. When religious leaders teach that people should love and serve each other, then I don't think Pullman has an issue with it. When religious leaders use their influence to gain wealth, judge others and squash the diversity of life by insisiting on a homogenous population, I think Pullman gets ticked. As do I.

So in the end, I saw the trilogy as a sweeping fantasy with lots of insights into moral issues (good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny) and the structure of existence (parallel universes). In my opinion, if someone was going to write a book about atheism, they wouldn't include dozens of angels and demons as characters.

But again, that tells you more about me than it does about the books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What's ahead, and Christmas faves

I haven't written about spirituality or religion much lately. That's gonna change -- prepare yourselves! :) Here's a look at some things I'll be posting here over the next couple of weeks. The rest of this post will be lists of my favorite Christmas songs and movies.

What's ahead

1. The Golden Compass -- my take (I've actually read, and loved, the whole series that's now causing such a stir in the Christian community)

2. Ephesians 4 -- anger, and how English bible translations sometimes miss the boat

3. 2 Peter 1 -- character-building as systemic improvement, and Eastern vs. Western modes of thought

4. Rich man and Lazarus -- possible alternative meanings of the story often used as proof of hell

5. Hell -- an overview of four totally different Christian perspectives, each with biblical support

6. True North -- a proposed metaphor for world religions and the search for peace

My style in all the above articles will be my usual introspective stuff. I'm no good at hardcore theological treatises -- they always come off as defensive and bitter when I try to write them. So I'll just give my own opinion, and my own story, on each of the above topics and maybe we can grow closer as you find your own way to connect to it.

Favorite Christmas Songs

Not very many of the "classics" here:

1. O Holy Night by David Phelps (posted here by my sister-in-law) -- an incredible live performance of a great song. We have it on CD and on DVD and even my kids love it.

2. Joy to the World by Steve Morse (guitar instrumental on this CD) -- amazingly written and layered, this guitarist creates several new riffs that are still recognizable as the melody of the old song

3. The Chipmunk Song -- my brother and I listened to this record every Christmas at our grandparents' house. Listening to it today still brings back good memories:

4. Here Comes Santa Claus by Elvis Presley -- what a fun version

5. All I want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey -- go ahead, make fun of me. I can take it. I like the song.

6. Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby -- fun song, and one of Samantha's favorites for three straight holiday seasons. Also appears in one of my favorite movies in the next list below.

Favorite Christmas Movies

1. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation -- undeniably genius.

2. Home Alone -- hilarious and original, it came out right before my teen years when I was old enough to know more about Christmas, but young enough to still enjoy the purity of magic unique to this time of year.

3. Scrooged -- are you sensing a comedic theme here?

4. Ghostbusters II -- perhaps not a great movie, but it brings back great memories. I watched this on video as a teenager at our house, with all four of my grandparents there along with my parents and brother. It was Christmas Eve. I laid on the floor in front of the TV (my favorite spot) and it was just the eight of us enjoying each other's company. A great moment for me, and seeing bits of the movie always take me back there.

5. A Christmas Story -- excellent picture of a generation before my time, with themes and scenes that transcend any generational gap.

6. Ernest Saves Christmas -- silly fun.

7. Die Hard -- sometimes guys just need to see stuff get blowed up real good.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Exhibits A through C

Visual proof of the aforementioned behemoth. The free Ikea tree:

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Tis the season to be jorry

Three stories of holiday preparation:

#1 -- Tree time

Two weeks ago we bought Samantha a new bed for her birthday. Got it at Ikea. They gave us a coupon to get a free Christmas tree after December 1, so we went on Saturday to pick it up.

All the trees were bound in twine and sitting on pallets and the employees told me to simply pick one out and take it. None were labeled or anything, and they assured me that every tree was in the 7 to 9 foot range. Sounded kinda big, but hey, it was free! I picked a tree, put it in the van and we took it home.

When we cut the twine it unleashed a fury of lush, thick, long branches in every direction. This tree is big. Our biggest ever by far. I think it's on steroids. There could be a wild animal, nest or school bus hiding in there and we'd never know it.

The free tree has now cost us $10 in a new strand of 300 lights we added, because our old three strands only covered half the monster. It may cost us more money in additional ornaments, for the same reason. It's a big purty tree, though, I have to admit. It looks great as it devours most of our den.

#2 -- Toddler carols
Jack has already gotten into the Christmas spirit. Yesterday he came up to me singing,

~"Jinger bells, jinger bells, jinger aww de wayyy!!"~

It tickled something in the back of my mind... Christmas carols with an inability to pronunciate the letter "L" in words....

Then it came to me.

#3 -- Complexes

We were talking about getting presents and stuff at the dinner table, and Samantha said she was so happy to get the movie Ratatouille for her birthday. She asked me which movie was my favorite. I answered:

"It's called The Matrix. It's my favorite because it teaches that there's lot of stuff happening in our world that we can't even see. Stuff on the inside of us, that connects us. Also, the boy in the movie falls in love with a woman with dark hair. A strong, dark-haired woman. Just like mommy. And everybody wears cool clothes."

Samantha nodded her head in the way that means, "Interesting, but not really, and way too much information. You should have stopped at 'it's my favorite'."

Jamie then said that "daddy has a savior complex, and the boy in the movie saves everybody, so daddy likes it."

I started to object, but then realized that two other fave movies are Dark City and Gladiator. And then there's Star Wars. Crap. She's right.

I tried to scapegoat..."Well, most guys have a savior complex. And all Christians do. So it's natural to any Christian guy."

I don't think she bought it. When she said the words "savior complex", I somehow recalled one of my childhood fantasies. I remember a moment in fourth grade when we had a prank phone call to the school about a bomb threat. It was a joke, but we had to be sure, so all the students were evacuated and sat on the asphalt basketball court for an hour while the school was searched for explosives.

At that moment, I wondered what it would be like if our school was really in trouble. Like under attack by crazy gunmen. I pictured myself in a black ninja outfit, taking them out one by one and then stripping off my mask, revealing my identity and earning a big kiss from Lisa, the hottest girl in the class.

I felt like an idiot as I remembered that fantasy that my super ninja powers saved the school, but then I realized I'm not alone. My favorite movies, all with the savior narrative, were all blockbuster hits. Comic books and the show Heroes continue to thrive. So tons of people, and possibly every man alive, shares my idiocy.

So there.