Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What Does Your Child Believe About God?

My wife recently reminded me of something that happened while visiting with a family we know well.  I wasn't around to see this myself, but she was helping with some of the children that were present.  At one point, one of the children--not yet old enough to read--opened up a Bible, pointed to it, and said loudly, "if a man will not work, he shall not eat!" (Or, at least, he was paraphrasing that quotation, which comes from 2 Thessalonians 3:10)

So far as my wife could tell, there was no obvious context for what the child had done and said.  He was simply acting out something that he had seen.  We're not certain where he had seen this done.  It could easily have been a pastor, a parent, or perhaps some other friend from church.  Although there was indeed something stunning about the incident, we probably can't say that we're entirely surprised, either.  The sentiment contained within that Biblical passage is a very popular one with some people, and with good reason, especially in these difficult economic times.

Yet, there's something about the image of a young child quoting that particular passage, and in such a way, that I find very troubling.  Whoever had quoted that passage to (or perhaps merely in the presence of) him, it left an impression.  Is this the main thing we want our kids to know about what God thinks about people?  Sure, personal responsibility is important, but why didn't the child point to the Bible and "preach" from John 3:16, instead?

Monday, March 29, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 17-21

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 17-21.

Chapter 17

  • Verses 1-3a - Given Jesus' strong words that his followers should not cause anyone "to stumble," I find myself wondering what he means by "to stumble."  This may seem like a strange question.  Certainly a traditional (and perhaps obvious) interpretation would be that Jesus is concerned that no one would be led into sin by the actions of others.1 But in light of Jesus' words about the Pharisees and others, criticizing their single-minded devotion to the law, and moreover the way that they encouraged others to follow it without actually helping them to do so, I'm wondering if that's too simplistic.  I'm not trying to suggest that Jesus doesn't care about sin and/or following the law, but rather, I'm wondering if "stumble" might be a reference to a more general failure to follow Jesus.  I'm fairly certain that, if a person kept the law as it was written, yet convinced someone that Jesus couldn't be from God (as the Pharisees and others tried to do), Jesus would have considered this a "stumbling block" placed in front of the would-be believer.
  • Verse 17-19 - I wonder if the other nine, who failed to respond in gratitude to Jesus, retained their healing?  I wouldn't even have considered the possibility that they didn't, except for Jesus' parting words to the healed (and grateful) Samaritan, "your faith has made you well."  Did the other nine have the same faith, despite not giving thanks?  If not the same, was it sufficient nonetheless?
  • Verses 20-22 - Although the verses that follow make it clear that Jesus isn't saying that there is no "age to come," he's certainly making a case that the presence of God "in our midst" (i.e. in the present age) means that what happens here and now matters.
Chapter 18
  • Verse 8: "he will see that they will get justice, and quickly" - I imagine more than a few believers might quibble with "quickly."  Even more would do so, except for the fact that--Jesus being God and us... not being God--it is considered unseemly to voice such quibbles.  Geldenhuys points out that the word rendered "quickly" here doesn't mean "after a short time" so much as "sudden."2  That is to say, we may have to wait a while for justice, but when it comes, it will come in a flash.
  • Verses 9-14 - The praise given to the tax collector's prayer of humility (vs. the Pharisee's self-congratulatory one) is another strong aspect of Jesus' teaching that causes me to think that one's attitude toward God means more than the state of keeping the law itself.  Perhaps this is because it is only with such a humble attitude that one can understand those areas in which one still needs to improve.
  • Verses 18-30 - We've talked about this story already. I'm intrigued that the man and Jesus, as they discuss the things that need to be done to inherit eternal life, discuss items from the ten commandments (at least in this version.  "Do not defraud" is not included in this version, as in Mark, and "love your neighbor as yourself" is not here, as in Matthew).  Although it has been demonstrated that the Old Testament is filled with references teaching God cares about taking care of the poor, the idea that this might be listed among the rules that God's followers are to heed seems to catch the man completely by surprise.  Although I note that Jesus isn't just telling the man to aid the poor, but to sell all his possessions to do so, the man's response really suggests to me that the need to take care of the poor really isn't on the man's mind at all.
Chapter 19
  • Verses 1-10 - The story of Zacchaeus seems to be a very popular one with children.  I remember doing a church musical play based on this story while I was growing up.  I suppose the mental image of a short man climbing a tree to see Jesus is an evocative one.  The story is almost never told in conjunction with Holy Week (indeed, it only shows up here on the day after Palm Sunday due to a serendiptious fluke of timing).  This is despite Luke (the only gospel to tell this story) connecting the story in time to Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (commemmorated on Palm Sunday) through a couple of narrative links in verses 11 and 28.  Naturally, if one doesn't insist on the texts of the Bible being interpreted literally, this is not a problem, but given that much of the church, for a not-insignificant portion of its history, has made such an insistence,3 I'm a bit surprised that tradition doesn't connect this story to Holy Week more directly.
  • Verses 11-28 - This story is remarkably similar to the parable told in Matthew 25:14-30.  I do wonder why, in this version, Jesus tells of ten servants, even though only three servants are ever explicitly referred to as the parable unfolds.  The interjection about how the king's subject hate him (and don't want him to become king) is also interesting.
Chapter 20
  • Verse 16: "When the people heard this, they said, 'God forbid!'" - This parable appears in both Matthew and Mark, but this line is unique to Luke.  I wonder if the listeners understood that they were represented by the evil tenants in Jesus' story?
  • Verses 27-40 - All three of the synoptic gospels seem keen to note a point at which "no one dared" to ask Jesus any more questions.  Yet all three do so in different contexts.  Matthew did so in regard to a Messianic claim about David.  Mark does so after Jesus teaches about "the greatest commandment."  Luke places this assertion at the end of Jesus' discussion with the Sadducees about marriage and the resurrection.  I'm not curious about the differences, so much as why these gospel writers are so keen on saying that, at some point, people didn't "dare" to ask Jesus questions anymore (especially if they seem unsure about what point that was...).
  • Verse 41-44 - (But, again, both Mark and Luke do have the bit about David immediately after people stopped asking questions.  This can't be just a coincidence...)

Chapter 21
  • Verses 1-4 - I don't discern much new of significance vs. the version of this story in Mark, but I was intrigued to note that Geldenhuys cites another scholar to say, "according to the Jewish laws at that time it was not permissible to cast in less than two gifts."4  I don't know whether or not this is true, but it would at least explain why the widow gave two small coins.
  • Verses 5-38 - Another long section where prophecies about the Fall of Jerusalem and the End Times seem to be intermingled.  Having commented a bit on the fact that first-century Jews (and Christians) didn't really think of these as separate and distinct events, I'll leave it to others to sort that out....

1See Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951, pp.431-432, for an example of such a position.
2Geldenhuys, p.448.
3Geldenhuys, p.469, certainly makes the link: "Here, a few days before the crucifixion, we have...."
4Geldenhuys, p.521.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Transformers Feature: Generation Two Mini Vehicles

While Transformers fans are anxiously awaiting the chance to pre-register for BotCon 2010 (or, alternatively, to order one of the non-attendee sets of toys), "Generation Two" is all over the place (well, all over Transformers-related places, anyway).  In that spirit, it's time to do a bit of G2-focus over here, too.

When Hasbro first brought Transformers back from near-extinction at the end of 1992, the only toys on the shelves were repaints or redecos of toys from the original line (a few toys originally produced for the European market were already on the way, but weren't part of the first wave).  Among these were the G2 Mini Vehicles.  I've done a feature on Bumblebee already, but here is the entire set of G2 Mini Vehicles.  From left to right, this is Seaspray, Hubcap, Bumblebee, and Beachcomber done up in the vacuum-metalized paint that makes them distinct from the G1 versions.

In a broad stroke, the G2 versions kinda-sorta retain the basic colors of the G1 originals, only shinier.  Hubcap is the most blatant exception, with the original version having been yellow.  Red was actually Cliffjumper's color, and since Hubcap is a Cliffjumper remold with only a couple of subtle changes from Cliffjumper, a lot of fans think that this is G2 Cliffjumper.  But the mold is unmistakably the Hubcap version if you know what the differences are (the head is the most obvious giveaway).  Cliffjumper just can't catch a break....  Beachcomber's only really the same color if you squint, since green really is different than Beachcomber's original blue, if arguably the colors are right next to each other on the color wheel (and the original never had anything like those orange highlights!).  Further muddying the waters is the claim that some fans make about a rare "purple" variant of G2 Seaspray, but the prevailing wisdom is that this is just a result of natural differences between batches of the blue chrome, and not a true variation.

Subscribers to my Twitter account will be greeted with a new link to some G2 goodness every day for the next week or two.  Some links will be old features from this blog, while others will be new images of G2 toys not yet featured here.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Transformer Teaser: Doublespy Punch, the Dwarf

Since the people at Fun Publications have officially announced that the theme of this year's BotCon will be "Generation Two: Redux," members of the official Transformers club (often concerned that FP forgets about them in favor of convention matters) are getting anxious to know when pre-orders of the non-convention exclusives will finally begin.  I've already decided that I'm going to hold off on a full feature on the original version of the "Doublespy" toy (often referred to as Punch/Counterpunch after the names of its two robot modes) until after the new club version comes out in a few months, at which time I can compare the two.  In the meantime, a design oddity of the original toy will make for a bit of a teaser.

Punch, as you see him in the picture to the left, is not transformed according to the toy's instructions.  Basically, what you're seeing is the robot mode as the toy was designed to be transformed.  Although the toy's proportions are a bit... "off" when done this way (and a view of the robot from the side makes it look like he's standing on his knees!), this form's height is certainly in keeping with most of the Autobot cars of the first couple of years of the Transformers line.  By being shorter than Counterpunch's robot mode, the visual differences between the two modes are increased.

How can we tell that the toy was designed to be transformed this way?  Perhaps the most obvious cues are the two round nubs that are on the bottom of the black feet that are used in this robot mode.  The nubs aren't used in any of the official transformations, and would be normally expected to remain flat for purely aesthetic reasons in Counterpunch's robot mode, where they sit on top of the feet.  In this "dwarf" transformation, however, they are exactly the right height to lend support to the bottom of Punch's robot mode.

However, it seems just as clear that, by the time the stickers were designed for the figure, the decision had already been made to transform Punch in the now-traditional way, in which the legs are essentially just Counterpunch's legs seen from the other side.  I'll demonstrate this when I feature the figure more fully when the new one comes out in July or so.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 12-16

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 12-16.

Chapter 12

  • Verse 1: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" - Both Matthew and Mark include a passage where Jesus says something very like the first half of this sentence.  But whereas both of those gospels use that teaching to demonstrate an example of how the disciples get confused, Luke not only doesn't do this, but actually has Jesus explain what he means by the end of the sentence.  And that's it.  No confusion at all.  Just a quick sentence, and Luke moves on.
  • Verses 4-7 - I'm sure the close coupling of "fear him" and "don't be afraid" is no accident.
  • Verses 6-7 - I wonder if some of Jesus' message is lost on us, today.  Since we do not sell sparrows for so cheaply, do really get what it is the Jesus says when he talks about God not forgetting (even) them?
  • Verses 16-21 - I find it curious that Jesus spends so much time telling people not to worry about accumulating resources (and even, in the case of this parable, saving them for potential future use), but doesn't really get to saying what one should do with any excess resources until verse 33.
  • Verses 41-48 - Yet again, someone asks Jesus a straightforward question, which Jesus declines to give a straightforward answer to.  Why does Peter even ask the question in the first place?  
  • Verse 53 - Although Jesus refers to both men and women in this teaching, it's interesting that he only ever pits male against male and female against female.  Never male against female.  I don't know if this is significant or not.
Chapter 13
  • Verses 1-5 - I constantly find myself annoyed when certain Christian leaders look at some tragic event (the earthquake in Haiti provided at least one recent example) and suggest that the tragedy is God's judgment upon them for some sinful behavior.  It seems to me that one clear implication of this teaching is that Jesus thinks we shouldn't do that.
  • Verses 6-8 - Coming right on the heels of the previous verses, Jesus tells us we're on "borrowed time."  There is an urgency to the need to repent.1
  • Verses 20-21 - This parable is an odd one.  Generally speaking, when yeast is mentioned in the Bible (both Old and New Testament), it is a bad thing.  Usually, it refers to the contaminating effects of sin on a person or a people's life.  Here, it seems to refer to the pervasive power of God.
  • Verse 22-30 - It is teachings like this that make a "universalist" doctrine of salvation difficult (if not impossible) for me to accept, as much as I would like to believe in such a reality.  Even so, I do find myself wondering if the disciples understood what it is to be "saved" (as they ask the question of verse 23) in the same way as we understand the concept today.
  • Verses 31-35 - In a recent lecture by Fuller professor Marianne Meye Thompson (available here, go to 24:17 for the appropriate part), Thompson observes that Jesus is behaving rather the opposite of how Jonah acted in regard to his prophetic call.  While Jonah didn't want to go to assigned city, didn't want them to repent (already believing that they would, and that God would thus show them mercy), and was in fact recieved in his city by a response of repentance, Jesus is moving earnestly in the direction of Jerusalem, and longs for them to repent, yet fully expects them not to.
Chapter 14
  • Verse 1 - For all of the negative press the Pharisees get in the gospels, Jesus doesn't seem to be above eating in their homes....
  • Verses 7-11 - I may need to reassess just exactly what a "parable" is.  I've come to think of it as a story told (in the 3rd person) to illustrate a point.  However, this bit here seems to be a straightforward, 2nd-person teaching, yet the word "parable" is explicitly used to describe it.
  • Verses 15-24 - I'm starting to notice that Jesus occasionally takes statements made to him, statements that seem neither objectionable nor controversial (as in verse 15 here), and responds with a teaching that suggests that the seemingly non-controversial statement is in fact problematic.
  • Verse 24 - If the master of this story is so intent on making sure the house is full with banquet guests, why does he make the explicitly sweeping statement that "not one" of the previously invited guests would "get a taste"?  Aren't these sentiments contradictory?
Chapter 15
  • Verses 1-2 - In another lecture by Dr. Thompson (I'll link to it below, since it's most explicitly about the parable of the prodigal son), Dr. Thompson notes some things about Pharisees and "sinners" that are not necessarily obvious to us today:
    • Pharisees are lay people.  Not "church leaders" in any professional sense.  They are lay people who take a certain committment to adhere to the law, and do so not only because they have a zeal for following God (which means following the law, they especially would say), but because they believe that if the people of Israel fail to follow the law, God might do something like send them into exile again (the exile having been brought about by God as punishment for Israel's failure to follow the law).
    • "Sinners" in this context doesn't just mean "people who sin" (i.e., everyone), but rather people who seem to explicitly ignore the law, and who show no signs of turning back to God.  These people, as the Pharisees see it, pose a danger to the whole nation if other people see them and choose to follow their ways.  If Jesus, by eating with these "sinners," gives them credibility, it could pose a very grave threat indeed.
  • Verse 11-32 - Here is the link to Dr. Thompson's lecture on the prodigal son (it's about 45 minutes long).  Dr. Thompson notes that efforts to "re-name" the parable (what would you call it if you didn't already "know" it was called "the prodigal son"?) tend to emphasize either the younger (prodigal) son or the father.  "Almost no one" tries to name this parable after the older son (although the one exception she notes, that of a Lutheran from Minnesota who calls it "the lament of the responsible child" is quite amusing and appropriate).  I truly value lectures like these, especially for passages that we have heard so often that it becomes hard for us to think of them in ways that are at all "new."  I'm also particularly fond of a sermon by Rev. Tom Are, Jr., from back when I was in high school, that references this storyHere's a link to a story out of that sermon (and here's the whole thing, if you want to read it).  Perhaps they will help to look at this familiar story in a new light.
Chapter 16
  • Verses 1-9 - This is a very strange parable.  Jesus seems (on the surface) to commend a character for dishonesty.  Verse 8 (esp. "For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.") helps to explain Jesus' position somewhat.  He is not commending the dishonesty, so much as pointing out that such people are better at dealing with others (of "their own kind") than people of God often are.  Geldenhuys has an especially insightful point here: "Instead of behaving in such a manner that (members of the kingdom of light) bind others to themselves, they act so that people are unnecessarily repulsed."2  Why does this reality seem to persist, even to today?
  • Verses 19-31 - It is intriguing that the rich man is not named, yet the poor man is.  I also wonder at the poor man's name: "Lazarus."  It seems to be a coincidence that this name is shared by a friend of Jesus (in the gospel of John) that Jesus raises from the dead.3  This passage is referenced in a recent article by Christian ethicist David Gushee on the centrality of the theme of justice to biblical faith.

1See Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951, p. 372.
2Geldenhuys, p. 416.
3Geldenhuys suggests, on p. 428, that the name Lazarus, which is a Greek form of a Hebrew name meaning "God has helped," is a name that "occurred frequently." I note that in the Bible itself, it only ever occurs in this passage and of Jesus' friend in the gospel of John.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Car Failures and Responding to Difficulties

Earlier this week, my car suddenly decided to die just after I crossed an intersection on my way to enjoy my lunch hour. Thankfully, I was on a portion of road that had room to pull off to the side, so I did so and immediately called AAA. They towed the car to the mechanic I've used for many years now (Hrant, who I recommend to anyone in the Pasadena area), and my wife got me back to work (after grabbing a quick hamburger.  I was supposed to be eating, after all!).  By the time my work day was over, the car was repaired and ready to be picked up.

Although I really didn't need the extra expense right now (seriously, it's a bad time for this!), I found myself reflecting on how "well" things worked out.  I was able to get out of the way of any traffic that might have been blocked by my stalled vehicle.  I had my cell phone with me, and have long ago learned the value of keeping a current AAA account for such emergencies.  I was within easy towing distance of the mechanic I would have used anyway.  My wife was nearby, and so was able to get to me at about the same time as the tow truck, as well as to get me back to pick up the car when it was ready later that same day.  There's never a good time for this kind of thing to go wrong, but it could easily have been worse.

At the same time, I find myself annoyed at "it could have been worse" attitudes right now.  There's a sense in which I feel like it diminishes the real problems that people have.  If a person loses a loved one to death, for example, the last thing they want to hear is "well, at least you have (insert other person's name here)."  LOTS of people say this kind of thing, and it's just really, really, hurtful to the person who's grieving.  Of course, a fixable car malfunction is nothing on par with the death of a human being, and I don't mean to suggest that it is.  But where does one draw the line?  At some point, keeping a positive attitude and "looking at the bright side" is a very healthy thing to do, and we can all use that reminder from time to time.  But pain, suffering, and stress are very real, and we do ourselves no favors by ignoring them.  In this current example of impromptu car repair, I now don't have a sizeable chunk of change that I expected to have, and which I will need to have to pay other expenses I already know are coming down the pike.  I'll have to figure out some other way of dealing with that when those expenses come up, and I'm really not sure how that's going to happen right now.

The other thing I fully expect to hear in a time like this is "trust God."  Again, this is good advice, but I'm also reminded of many dear Christian friends who, I feel, have been burned by "trusting" God in less-than-helpful ways.  Many of you will probably know the story of a person who is threatened by a flood.  Managing to reach a semblance of "higher ground," he turns down several chances at survival by "human" means (a rowboat, a speedboat, and a helicopter, in at least one version) out of his conviction that God would save him.  When the ground eventually proves insufficient, the man drowns, and upon seeing God in heaven, he asks why God failed to rescue him.  God's obvious reply: "I sent a rowboat, a speedboat, and a helicopter.  What were you waiting for?"

My point in retelling that story is by no means to suggest that trusting God is a bad thing.  Indeed, it's perhaps the most important thing we can do in all of our life situations.  But we still need to have open eyes and minds to seeing the ways in which God will come to our aid.  We also need to actually ask for help.  Both via prayer (which, itself, is an act of trust) and by asking the people in our lives for the help we need.

I confess to often being a bit embarrassed when it comes to asking for help, but am grateful for the assistance I have gotten in the past when I have done so (in particular, my parents helped me out of a pretty serious situation a year ago, which they will remember if/when they read this).  If I know you personally, and you are in a position to help, I hope that I will overcome my embarrassment and ask for such help as I may need in the future.  In the meantime, I will ask that, if you enjoy this blog, you might consider one of the revenue streams I have in place here.  Perhaps you can use ad space, available in the banner at the top or one of the three "square" ads on the right-hand side bar.  Perhaps you might be interested in the modern English "Women's Speaking Justified" book I completed last year.  Both paperback and e-book versions are available.  Maybe signing up for a Big Crumbs account (where you get a portion of your purchase back from online purchases and support this site at the same time) is more viable for you.  There's no obligation, of course, but anything is appreciated.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Weekly Twittercast: "You Bet Your Life"

Game shows have been a part of American culture for a rather long time.  Thanks to the fact that so many older programs, especially those made for radio before the 1970's, have fallen into the Public Domain, it is relatively easy to enjoy some of these pieces of game show history even today.

You Bet Your Life was a game show that was more about the "show" than the "game" part.  Premiering on radio in 1947, and eventually being broadcast on both radio and television in 1950 (indeed, the very same episodes aired in both media, thanks to the simple format), the show starred movie legend Groucho Marx.  Groucho had a skill for improvisation that was unmatched, and many of the Marx brothers most famous comedies were largely ad-libbed.  This skill was put to good use on You Bet Your Life, which featured Groucho and three pairs of contestants in each show.  The contestants were often (but not always) selected from the studio audience, and often were not people who knew each other, but who fit "categories" requested by the producers.  One pair, for example, featured a "hobo" alongside a "job analyst."  Groucho and the couple would chat for a few minutes, before eventually playing the perfunctory game, whereby the contestants would answer a series of questions, betting a portion of their existing winnings (starting with $20, at least in the earliest episodes) to try to accumulate the highest total at the end of four questions.  The couple with the highest total then attempted to answer a single question at the end of the show for an escalating jackpot (starting at $1000).

A highlight of the show was the "secret word."  Always a very common word, the idea was that if the couple should say the word during the course of their conversation with Groucho at any point during the episode, they would win an additional cash prize of $100 (I can't tell that this ever changed).

Although cash prizes were given away, there was no mistaking that this show was really about the humor that would come from Groucho's conversations with the contestants.  For example, while interviewing a couple that had been married for 50 years, Groucho and the husband (obviously retired at 77 years old) had this exchange:
Groucho: "What sort of work do you do now?"
Mr. Thacker: "I don't work."
Groucho: "You're a bum?"
Other game shows have been known as much for the humor they generated as they have been for big cash prizes.  The 1970's classic Match Game, for example, would never have been a hit if not for the antics of the celebrities and the double-entendre jokes (mild by modern standards.  In fact, this is why some suggest that the show couldn't work today.  I disagree, but do feel that the more recent attempts to revive Match Game didn't understand that there is a boundary between what's funny what's going too far into the risque) often tossed in.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've started something of an experiment with my Twitter account.  Every Monday night, at 8:00 pm (Eastern Daylight Time, 5:00 pm Pacific), I am posting an MP3 link to the episode of You Bet Your Life that originally aired exactly 60 years previously.  A "Twittercast," if you will.  I am already prepared with "anniversary" episodes for the next month or so, but of course I may not have existing episodes to do this indefinitely (at least, not while retaining the "60th anniversary" element).  Still, I think that this is could be an interesting experiment in reliving a moment of broadcast history.  If you'd like to keep up-to-date when a new 60th anniversary episode of You Bet Your Life is made available, feel free to subscribe to my Twitter account @NicodemusLegend.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 7-11

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 7-11.

Chapter 7

  • Verses 4-6a - This passage particularly troubles me.  If we were to see this kind of thing being written today, it would as if the people were telling Jesus that he should help someone because he's patriotic and has contributed a lot to the church.  And Jesus seems to be persuaded by this argument!  More often than not, we try to argue against this kind of thing in our churches (we'll get back to this idea fairly explicitly when we start getting into the epistles).  This interpretation of "favor for the wealthy" is diminished somewhat when we add in the fact that the centurion is an outsider... a non-Jew.  Both Matthew and Mark made it fairly clear that Jesus limited the bulk of his ministry to the people of Israel, and even told his disciples not to go to the Gentiles.  Luke, a Gentile himself, not only doesn't retain the same focus on this reality that the others do (he doesn't explicitly contradict it), but goes out of his way to demonstrate when Jesus did help non-Jews.  That's what's happening here.
  • Verses 11-17 - I'm a little surprised that we don't hear this particular story of Jesus raising a dead man more often (I hear about Lazarus all the time).  I suppose it's because only Luke records it.1
  • Verse 16 - I should probably spend some time sometime working through what a "prophet" was understood to be.  Here, people affirm Jesus as a "prophet" not because of anything he's said, but because of the miracle of raising a dead person.
  • Verse 18-35 - We've read another account of this basic story already, whereby John the Baptizer sends followers to ask if Jesus really is the expected Messiah.  I kind of feel sorry for John.  Whatever else is true, it seems that Jesus is not what John was expecting, and now that John is in prison (as Matthew tells us), he no doubt knows his own ability to bring the Jewish people the word of God is nearing an end.  He could have used a bit of affirmation.  But although Jesus does send John's disciples with reassurance that Jesus is indeed "the one who was to come," he waits until after John's disciples had left to tell the assembled people how important John was.  Why couldn't Jesus have said this while John's disciples were still present, so they could pass that word of affirmation on, as well?
  • Verse 39 - On the surface, Simon the Pharisee seems to think Jesus isn't a prophet because Jesus doesn't know something about the woman (a prophet apparently being someone who knows things via supernatural knowledge, another reason I should get into the definitions of "prophet" more someday).  Perhaps.  But, leaving aside Jesus' rebuke in the following verses, I wonder why Simon doesn't dispute Jesus as a prophet on the basis of his allowing her to approach him in this intimate way, all by itself.  I mean, don't the actions speak for themselves (that is, to suggest that she is a "sinner")?  Of course, given Jesus' rebuke, perhaps they don't, or at least shouldn't.
Chapter 8
  • Verses 1-4 - Luke goes to special lengths to highlight a few women who followed Jesus.  Surely, these were not merely traditional women of the time, since at least some of them had resources with which to support Jesus all on their own.  Geldenhuys further notes that "nowhere in the four Gospels is mention made of any women who were hostile to Jesus."2
  • Much of the rest of this chapter is told in other gospels (and much of that, I've already commented on, in fact).  Some of the ways in which Luke tells the same stories differently are noteworthy, but rather than go into detail here, I'll leave this as an invitation to discuss such variations in the comments.
Chapter 9
  • Verses 7-9 - When both Matthew and Mark reported about Herod (Antipas') opinion about Jesus re: John the Baptist, both suggested that Herod thought that Jesus was John raised from the dead (I'm not sure how this would work, given that both Jesus and John lived concurrently).  Luke doesn't suggest this, but rather has the idea of Jesus as a resuscitated John come strictly out of the mouths of others.
  • Verses 37-42 - This is another story that both Matthew and Mark have covered already, and which I have commented on. What intrigues me about Luke's account is that, while Matthew and Mark both give (different!) reasons why the disciples were unable to cast out the demon, Luke doesn't address this issue at all.  He merely has Jesus express frustration before taking care of the problem, and then the story moves on.
  • Verse 55 - I'm not surprised that Jesus rebuked disciples for suggesting that they should "call fire down from heaven to destroy (the Samaritans)"--even granting that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along at all--but I'd like to have seen a few more details of this story.  What did Jesus actually tell them?
Chapter 10
  • Verse 1 - There is some dispute as to whether Jesus appointed 70 or 72 people to go on this enterprise.  Since this story isn't related in one of the other gospels, they can't help us here.  It seems clear that the number (whatever it is) is important, or else Luke wouldn't have shared it with us.  Geldenhuys suggests that the number probably refers to Numbers chapter 11, wherein Moses appoints a number of elders... but even there, either 70 or 72 is a possible reading.3
  • Verses 25-37 - Most Christians know this story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  If someone talks about a "Samaritan" today, a lot of people immediately think about this story, and thus reason that a "Samaritan" is a person who does good deeds.  This isn't what "Samaritan" means, and it's really important that this misconception be cleared up.  A "Samaritan" was a member of an ethnic group (cousins to the Jews) that lived in their own territory north of Jerusalem.  I mentioned already that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along.  Geldenhuys goes so far as to say that they were "arch-enemies."4  Perhaps it wouldn't be too far off base if we were to tell a story about a person who was mugged, and who was passed by a pastor and a businessman, and only a Muslim cleric stopped to help the person.  Who was a neighbor to that person?
  • Verses 38-42 - Once again, we see an example of a woman praised for doing something non-traditional.

Chapter 11
  • Verse 5-13 - I find it intriguing that Jesus would encourage people to pray using illustrations such as these.  For example, who would suggest that God is like a tired friend who only reluctantly responds to a request so he can go back to sleep?  The point, of course, is that Jesus is encouraging people not only to pray, but to do so persistently.  I wonder how many people, even today--even people who know better--fail to pray for their own needs....  I know that many Christians have a mind-set that suggests that it is "selfish" to pray for one's self, and therefore only pray for the needs of others.  Whatever Jesus might teach about prayers for others, I'd certainly suggest that the teachings of these verses indicate that it is more than permissible to pray for one's own needs.
  • Verses 24-26 - Geldenhuys suggests that these verses teach that it is impossible to be spiritually neutral.  A person will either have evil spirits, or the Spirit of God.5  This may well be the case, but I would submit I don't see it as explicit in this passage.  (On the other hand, I certainly have no better interpretation, and so would lean toward agreement, except perhaps to suggest that I don't know anyone who seems to be wholly "evil" or wholly "Spirit-led."  Most people seem to demonstrate signs of both states at one point or another.)
  • Verses 39-41 - Matthew shared a similar teaching about cleaning only the outside of a cup, but I'm intrigued that Luke specifies a particular way to "clean the inside," specifically, giving to the poor.
  • Verse 42: "without leaving the former undone" - Jesus isn't telling the Pharisees to abandon the Old Testament laws (in this case, regarding tithing), but he's clearly saying that other things are just as (if not more!--as in Matthew) important.
  • Verse 46: "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them." - I just think this verse should be emphasized more.

1In Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951, p. 222, the author remarks that the fact that only Luke records this tale has caused some scholars to doubt its historicity. I'm not entirely clear on why the singular mention in the gospels should be cited as a reason. Rather than simply defending the tale's historicity, I'd have liked to see some engagement with what the "other" scholars think is wrong, since I'm just not seeing the problem, as it stands.
2Geldenhuys, p. 239.
3Geldenhuys, p. 303.  Geldenhuys suggests that Eldad and Medad may be counted in addition to the "seventy" mentioned in Numbers, thus making a reading of 72, possible.
4Geldenhuys, p. 311.
5Geldenhuys, pp. 330-331.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Community for Dummies

Not that long ago, yellow "Dummies" books were all the rage.  I had in mind to write a parody of such a book for Fuller back when I was a student.  One of the hot topics on campus then (perhaps it still is among students now?) was "community."  So, why not do a "Community for Dummies"?  Here's a sampling:

Lesson 1: Get Out of the House!

This may seem an obvious point to many, but the fact is that it is impossible to have community when there are no other people present. Just sitting at home by yourself is a sure-fire way NOT to build community. While it is true that the internet is a valuable tool that can be used to communicate with people while sitting at your computer in your underwear, it is not intended to be a substitute for actually going outside and meeting people face-to-face (but please put some clothes on first!).

Lesson 2: Say "Hi!"

OK. So you’ve made the step of placing yourself in an environment where there are people around. Now, initiate contact! Walk up to someone and introduce yourself. Please remember that this is NOT an internet chat room anymore! Telling someone you meet face-to-face "Hi! I’m ‘’" will not leave a favorable impression on the person you wish to build community with. Try using your real name. Trust us, it works!

Lesson 3: The Art of Conversation at Fuller

What classes are you taking? I worship Satan.
How did you come to Fuller? Ministry is for losers.
What is your call? I think God is a figment of your imagination.

However, it should be noted that even these "DON’Ts" can have positive community building results, because people will be so concerned for your spiritual welfare that they will constantly pray for you and spend time with you to help you "see the light." The important thing is that you actually do have conversations.

Perhaps it's just as well that I never got around to writing any more....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Project Brain Drain

In the mid-1980's, "Choose Your Own Adventure"-type books were particularly popular.  I have to say "-type," because "Choose Your Own Adventure" was actually the name of a particular series published during that era by Bantam Books, but there were quite a few competing publishers out there trying to get in on the popularity of the genre.  Some of those competing publishers sought to couple their efforts with some popular children's franchise or another, and thus Ballantine published a number of Transformers-themed books in their "Find Your Fate Junior" line.  Project Brain Drain is one of these.

Whereas a "true" Choose Your Own Adventure book was generally told from a second-person perspective, suggesting that the reader was actively participating in the story (consistent with the idea that the reader would make choices about how the story would progress, the main gimmick of the genre, and how it takes its name), Project Brain Drain starts out as a typical third-person narrative. While Sparkplug Witwicky is working on "a new high-tech radio system," he accidentally intercepts a Decepticon transmission revealing a plot to steal human mental energy.  The reader is then asked to choose what course of action Sparkplug should take:
If you think Sparkplug should immediately set out for Metroplex, turn to page 7. 

If you think Sparkplug should try to contact the Autobots with his radio set, turn to page 10.
The reader does not always follow Sparkplug.  Depending on the course of the story, the reader may start to follow another character, like Bumblebee or Ultra Magnus.  The story can end any of a number of different ways, contingent upon the choices the reader makes.  The Autobots might either save the day, or the Decepticons could successfully steal the mental energy of unsuspecting humans, simultaneously granting the Decepticons a new power supply while turning the unfortunate humans into morons.

The artwork inside largely copies the packaging art of the toys themselves, rather than the better-known animation models.  This means that the characters usually look a lot more like their toys than they do on the cartoon.  Although this does make for some rather stiff and unnatural poses, I'm actually kind of impressed that the artists managed to use these images in ways that actually more or less fit the story they're trying to tell.

The Transformers featured in Project Brain Drain are predominately toys released in 1986, the same year the book was published.  These are characters that first appeared in the cartoon continuity in Transformers: The Movie, which also came out that year.  While the movie set the general tone for these characters to reside in the then-reasonably-distant future of the year 2005, this story seems to take place in the then-present day, highlighting the fact that it doesn't really fit into any of the better-known continuities.  This, of course, should surprise no one.  Indeed, most such works (and I also include coloring books and other similar items) can't easily be made to fit into an existing continuity, and I really don't suggest trying (although some fans consider this to be a fun challenge, I expect that there are better ways to use one's time).  It's really better to just look at this story as its own, mildly offbeat, entity.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 2-6

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 2-6.  By way of apology, I should note that I was recently informed that Fuller professor Joel B. Green has an excellent commentary on Luke, in the same commentary series (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) as the one I'm actually using.1  Unfortunately, having procured the majority of my commentary library while I was still a student (before Dr. Green came to Fuller), I did not learn of this until I had already chosen the commentary I would use for the Luke portion of this feature.  It is my desire to highlight Fuller professors wherever possible, and so I wanted to at least mention Dr. Green's commentary here, and provide a link through The Gospel of Luke, (NICNT), by Joel B. Green.

Chapter 2

  • Verses 1 and 2 - Luke is going to some lengths to establish a timeline for the birth of Jesus, mentioning known (especially to his original readers, who would be likely to remember these events either on their own, or through their parents and grandparents having talked about them) historical events and figures. 
  • Verse 5: "Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." - A nicely subtle reference to something that almost certainly would have been scandalous if we hadn't already read of the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy in the previous chapter.  Yet, I have to say, the way in which Mary is introduced here seems strangely detached from the fact that we've read about her already.  Almost as though Luke hadn't mentioned her before.
  • Verse 24 - This particular sacrifice is indeed mentioned in the Law of Moses.  Specifically, Leviticus 12:8, which further tells us that this is the sacrifice to be given by those too poor to offer the otherwise-sanctioned sacrifice.
  • Verses 25-35 - We don't know anything about Simeon outside of this passage.  I wonder what he was like, and why God specifically blessed him with the knowledge that he would see Jesus.  I imagine that Mary and Joseph considered it an honor to witness Simeon's prophecy--at least until that last bit, a prophecy which promised pain in addition to the message of God's salvation.  I wonder how they responded to the combination.
  • Verses 36-38 - Anna almost comes off as an afterthought.  She is given a much shorter passage than Simeon, and indeed we're not given the actual words that she spoke concerning Jesus, as we were with Simeon.  Yet, the fact that she's mentioned at all is surely a sign of the importance with which Luke viewed this incident.  I'm curious if Luke intends for us to take the numbers of Anna's life literally here.  If she was a widow for an additional 84 years after the 7 years in which she was married, that's already 91 years without even accounting for her unmarried life.  Even given the reality that women married very young in this era, this easily puts the woman at over 100 years old at the time of this incident.  This is by no means impossible, but it's an advanced age even in our own era, let alone in the first century.  Couple all this with the importance of the numbers given in Hebrew numerology (7 is a number indicating wholeness, and even 84 would be 7 x 12, a number easily identified with the tribes of Israel... and later with Jesus' disciples), and it's easy enough to imagine that Luke may have had a non-literal interpretation in mind.  I can't say with certainty one way or another, though.
  • Verses 41-52 - An utterly unique story within the gospels.  The only story of Jesus' childhood and what kind of a son to his earthly parents he was.  Why does Luke include it, especially given that no one else (among works included in the canon of Scripture, that is) wrote anything similar?
Chapter 3
  • Verses 1-2 - More historical reference-dropping.
  • Verse 7 - Luke is strangely less specific than Matthew as to the targets of John's epithet, "You brood of vipers!" Matthew spelled out Pharisees and Sadducees as the vipers, whereas Luke just writes about the "crowd."2
  • Verse 16 - In all of our gospel readings re: John the Baptizer so far, I'm struck at John's reference to Jesus as more "powerful" than he.  We're never really shown any examples of John as having "power," per se.  Why not speak more about Jesus as "worthy" (which we certainly do also get)?
  • Verse 23 - Luke tells us that Jesus was 30 when he started his ministry.  We don't get this information from any other New Testament source.3
  • Verses 23-38 - I think this genealogy is even more boring than Matthew's.  At least Matthew puts a few breaks in his genealogy to make important points.  The two genealogies, of course, have significant differences.  Geldenhuys seems to be of the opinion that these differences are explained by this being Mary's lineage rather than Joseph's,4 although I find this to be a very unnatural reading of the text.  It certainly doesn't explain why Luke should explicitly say that Heli is Jospeh's father rather than Mary's, as is required by Geldenhuys' hypothesis.  (One could make an argument that Joseph became Heli's son by his marriage to Mary, but this is not explicitly stated in Geldenhuys' commentary at this point.) 
Chapter 4
  • Verses 22-30 - I'm missing something.  We move from people "speaking well" of Jesus in verse 22 to Jesus saying openly provocative (one might even say "rude") things to those who were just "speaking well" of him in the next verses.  Indeed, the people are so insenced that they aim to throw him off a cliff pretty quickly.  Other gospels have included sections that indicate the lack of faith of people in Jesus' hometown, but this section seems to be more emphatic than those.  Besides the attempted mob murder, Jesus demonstrates how other godly leaders have had the same problem.  
  • Verses 29-30 - One is left wondering how Jesus moved from being taken to the cliff in verse 29 to just walking through the crowd to safety in verse 30.  As Luke writes it, it just "happens," but this would be considered a fairly large logical gap in almost any work of modern literature.
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-11 - We finally get to the call of Simon Peter to be an apostle.  I find it interesting that, in this version, Jesus doesn't simply call (and Simon simply follows), but that this call is predecated by Jesus helping Simon to catch a lot of fish.  I'm intrigued, though, that even before we see that Simon will follow Jesus, he calls Jesus "Master."  Perhaps Simon knows Jesus by reputation already?  Simon let Jesus into his boat (from which Jesus is said to have taught the crowds) before we see that they've spoken to each other, so some pre-existing relationship seems reasonable.  Geldenhuys notes that only Luke uses the word translated here as "Master," whereas other writers might have uses "Rabbi,"5 which would certainly be an appropriate form of address to a person who had just been teaching.
  • Verse 39: "And none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for you say, 'The old is better.'" - The other gospels have included the teaching about wine and wineskins, but only Luke adds this bit about preferring old wine to new wine, which seems not entirely connected.  Indeed, it seems a straightforward observation that could be made by almost anyone who drinks wine (I confess, I am not such a person).  What is Jesus'/Luke's point in adding it?

Chapter 6
  • Verse 17-49 - A lot of this passage resembles parts of Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount."  So much so that, despite the fact that Luke describes these teachings as being taught while Jesus is standing "on a level place," many scholars consider this a different account of the same incident within Jesus' ministry.6
  • Verses 27-36 - I am particularly struck by the observation that "even sinners" do some of the good things that Jesus is encouraging his followers not to be too proud about.  I was listening to a sermon yesterday (here's a link to the MP3 of that sermon) where the pastor observed that a recent Barna survey suggested that most people don't think that Christians and non-Christians are all that different from each other.  Moreover, if people were asked to describe how Christians are different, Christians were described as "judgmental" (among other similarly non-flattering sentiments).  Although the pastor made this observation in connection to a reading from Philippians, it seems to me that he might just as well have been reading this passage, at least in this respect.  Christians do not (and have never had, if Jesus' words here are any indication) have a monopoly on moral behavior.  Indeed, at least as far as this passage is concerned, Jesus isn't emphasizing that Christians should be more moral than non-Christians, but that we should be more generous.  I can't say, if I were asked to describe how Christians are different from non-believers in today's world, that I would say that Christians are particularly generous.  Clearly, we've failed on this point.
  • Verse 46-49 - This is pretty much the same story as the house built upon sand from the end of Matthew chapter 7, yet without the sand.  That little difference probably explains why I tend to hear that version taught more than this one.

1Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951 (FYI, this edition was definitely published later than 1990, but for some reason the publication date of this edition is not mentioned in the text).
2See Geldenhuys, p. 138.
3Geldenhuys, p. 150.
4See Geldenhuys, pp. 151-152.
5Geldenhuys, p. 184.
6In fact, Geldenhuys is so concerned to explain away any seeming inconsistencies that he even titles his chapter on this section (found on pages 207-218) "The Sermon on the Mount."

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Friday, March 05, 2010

International Women's Day - Writing Women Back into History

International Women's Day technically falls on March 8th (as it does every year), but since Mondays are already dedicated to my "New Testament in a Year" series, I'm going to go ahead and post my two cents today.  I figure that since the United States actually dedicates the entire month of March to "Women's History Month," I'm probably on safe ground.

The theme for Women's History Month this year is "Writing Women Back into History."  More often than not, the important contributions of women to the world have been either ignored, or given a rather cursory mention (perhaps as a footnote to the contribution of the woman's more famous husband?).  When and where we are aware of these contributions, it is important to help other people be aware of them, as well.  In this way, young girls may grow up recognizing that they, too, have the potential to do great things.  That's why I've taken on projects like the updated language version of Margaret Fell's Women's Speaking Justified.  The original work is in the public domain, and I'm fully sympathetic with anyone who would rather slog through the 17th century English than pay money for something that is available for free.  My main concern is that people be made aware that works like these are out there--that advocating for women in the church didn't start with the suffragettes and the women's liberation movement.

Of the various sometimes-controversial issues that Christians often engage in on theological grounds, the one that I've tried hardest to be up front and unapologetic for is my belief that women have just as much right to hold church office as men do, and I trust that a search through old blog posts--to say nothing of my promoting Fell's work--will bear that out.  On the other hand, I feel that I have to acknowledge that, as a man, I may not fully grasp how this issue impacts women, however sympathetic I may be.  I live in a society (to say nothing of my faith) that still grants men certain privileges it denies women, and I have benefited from that prejudice in ways that I don't fully realize.  I want to be careful not to say that "I understand" beyond what I truly do understand.

Still, it is my belief that, if only because of that existing cultural prejudice, it is important for sympathetic men to join their voices with those of concerned women in advocating for change.  So, although I certainly want women to help spread the word, I have a particular challenge to offer my male readers.  Would you please join me in doing our part to inform people of the contributions of women to the unfolding of our shared history?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Action Figures by Galoob

Back in 1988, the Star Trek franchise was being reborn.  Star Trek: The Next Generation had just premiered on the airwaves the previous Fall, and opinions on whether or not it was still a worthy addition to the Star Trek franchise were still widely divided.  The fact is that whether or not this new modernized version of Trek would succeed was very much an open question in these early years.  As such, the introduction of a toy line by Galoob dedicated to the new series was a significant risk.  Seen in this light, the fact that the line failed may come as less of a surprise than it might if one only considers the success that future Trek endeavors have had (of course, this apparently does not include the toy line dedicated to the movie that came out last summer.  That line is warming shelves so badly that Playmates isn't even going to bother to release the second wave so that the courageous few who actually have been trying to complete the "bridge" and "transporter room" sets will now never be able to do so, but I digress...).

The initial line of figures consisted of six members of the crew of the new U.S.S. Enterprise: (from left to right) Yar, Worf, Riker, Picard, LaForge, and Data (don't ask me why Counselor Troi and Doctor Crusher were never included.  A Wesley Crusher figure was advertised for a later wave, but never actually released).  It's pretty obvious that these figures all represent the characters as seen in the first year of the show.  Of the six characters depicted, only two of them looked more or less the same when the second season started (and one of the others was already dead by then!  Worst mistake of Denise Crosby's career, no doubt...).  All come with phasers molded into their hands.  They also came with tricorders that one basically had to strap around the entire forearm to get them to "hold" (atop the clenched fist of the other hand).  I've long since lost those.

For some reason, the Tasha Yar figure was pretty hard to find back when the line first came out (it might have been due to the character's death, but I honestly don't know this to be the case), and I ended up paying a ridiculously high price to get it about a year after I got the others.  Prices have since evened out quite a bit.  A series of alien figures was also released, but I never did actually see any of those in stores, and the prices they have always commanded on the secondary market have been too high for me to even consider bothering.  The Data figure, I'm told, has been released in a number of different variations (the face is apparently colored differently on each), and opinions differ as to whether one variation is worth more than another.  Here's mine, but I'm not looking to sell it, so it doesn't really matter.

I did manage to pick up the shuttlecraft accessory at one point. A "Ferengi Marauder" was also released, but never having bought a Ferengi figure, I didn't see much point in getting that.  Like the figures, this shuttlecraft uses a design that was more or less abandoned by the television show after the first season.  If memory serves, the blue of the warp engines was added with a blue paint marker.  The toy originally came with badly-applied stickers.  I'm not a big fan of the paint applications I made to my toys when I was a kid, but I still think it worked pretty well, here.

The shuttlecraft was advertised as being able to fit six figures, but I find that only works if you toss four of the figures in back without regard to having any place to go.  Yeah, they fit, but they wouldn't be at all comfortable if they were really people in there, and not just plastic toys!  Then there's the issue of the fact that the shuttlecraft controls are too high up in front for the characters to use them... to say nothing of the molded phaser that prohibits plausible navigation....

Yeah, I've seen better toys.  I keep these mostly as an interesting slice of history.  By the time Galoob lost the license to do Star Trek figures and Playmates picked them up, the television show had moved on significantly enough that the designs of most of those figures clearly depicted the characters at a different point in their careers (they did go back and do a few "first season" types, including a Yar figure, though).  And even besides that fact, only one set can ever be the "first," and when it comes to Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is that set.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 13-16 and Luke 1

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Mark, chapters 13 through 16 and Luke, chapter 1.

Chapter 13

  • When reading through Chapter 24 of Matthew, I commented on how, to those in the first century, the idea of the "End Times" and the concept of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem were really not seen as two separate or distinct ideas.  I think that point bears repeating here, since the comment the disciples make in verse 1 (apparently in awe of the temple and its surroundings), Jesus' comment that follows, and the disciples' subsequent question in verse 4--all apparently about the temple--otherwise seem entirely disconnected from Jesus' response starting in verse 5 that seems to have little to do with the temple, but everything to do with the End.
  • Verse 14: "let the reader understand" - this is a rather remarkable interjection into Jesus' comments, coming right after a reference to the book of Daniel.  One explanation I have heard to explain these words reflects on the fact that, when the gospels were first circulating, they were not generally read by individual Christians as Bibles are often read today, but were in fact read publicly during early Christian worship gatherings.  The instruction to understand would therefore be an alert to the person reading the text aloud so that he would give the words spoken the proper inflection and/or emphasis.  Hooker does not mention this theory at all, but rather notes a couple of alternative theories.  One is that the instruction to understand is instead a signal that "Mark has deliberately obscured a straightforward historical prediction... because of the dangerous political situation" at the time of his writing.1  This is actually not Hooker's own understanding of the text.  Rather, she suggests that Mark himself believed that the destruction of the temple (already having occurred in the very recent past as she sees it)2 was "both the fulfilment of Daniel's prophecy, and also the sign of the arrival of the last things," and thus Mark is warning his readers of the tribulations soon to come.3  If Hooker's interpretation is correct, what implication would this have for us today, knowing that the end did not actually occur on the heels of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70?
  • Verse 32: "nor the Son" - I've already commented on this back in Matthew, so I'm just going to link back to that... 
Chapter 14
  • Verse 3-9 - This story of a woman anointing Jesus (or something like it) shows up in all four gospels.  Matthew's version is quite similar (though not identical).  Luke's version is different enough that it's entirely possible that it refers to a separate (if similar) incident.  John's has several similarities (it also takes place in Bethany, for example) but enough differences (John uses Lazarus' home instead of Simon the Leper's, and the number of days before Passover is changed to six from two) to cause difficulty.4  Shall we consider the possibility of yet another distinct (but similar) incident (making at least three), or do we explain away the differences as some kind of error on the part of one or more of the writers?  Obviously, the presuppositions one makes about what kind of a book the Bible is come to play here.
  • Verse 31 - Lest we be too hard on Peter, I'm quick to note that Mark tells us that "all the others said the same."
  • Verses 51-52 - These two verses seem to come out of nowhere.  Why include them?  One common explanation is that the person described here is none other than Mark himself.  Besides the problem that this "can only be speculation,"5 it would be worth noting that, if true, Mark clearly doesn't mind portraying himself in an embarrassing light.
  • Verses 61: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" - the audio version I listened to asked this question with a kind of awe, as though the high priest asking the question was just on the verge of realizing the truth.  Given the response in verses 63-64, I don't think this is how the question would have been asked.  Rather, I have in mind that the high priest, recognizing the kind of language being used about Jesus elsewhere, was asking the question in a manner more as if to say "Do you dare to make this claim about yourself?" 
Chapter 15
  • Jesus meets Pilate, is rejected by the people, is crucified and buried, all in this chapter.
Chapter 16
  • Verse 8 - The earliest and most reliable manuscripts end the gospel at this point, and it is a common consensus that this is where Mark was originally meant to end.  This is a rather odd ending, to be sure.  No one has actually seen the risen Jesus, and the people who have been told that Jesus has been raised are last seen running from the tomb afraid, and saying nothing to anyone!  It is therefore perhaps easy to imagine why later Christians wrote an addition to the end of the gospel.  However, this leaves Christians (especially those who believe in the inerrancy of the original manuscripts) a difficult choice.  Do we reject the verses of Mark which follow as being "uninspired" (they're almost certainly absent from those "original manuscripts"), or do we consider the verses inspired at least in part as a result of the Christian tradition which not only created them, but which has also maintained and preserved them over the centuries?
  • Verses 9-20 - Although almost certainly written later than the rest of the gospel, these verses are known to have existed at least as early as AD 140,6 and thus are still from a very early period of Christian tradition.
  • Verse 12: "Jesus appeared in a different form" - OK, I can't resist the suggestion that Jesus was a Transformer! ;)  But, seriously, I find this point remarkable.  What was Jesus doing?  Did the risen Jesus actually look different to each person or group of people he appeared to?  It would certainly explain why some failed to recognize him (as attested in other gospels).
Chapter 1
  • Verses 1-4 - Luke starts out a bit differently than the other gospels.  From the outset, Luke makes it clear that he knows that other people have already written about the topic he's about to write about.  Luke also suggests that he's undertaking what today might be understood as an academic enterprise.  He's researched his material.  Finally, this is the only gospel that is apparently being written to and/or for a specific audience.  Since anyone who's studied Greek can quickly parse "Theophilus" as meaning "God lover," I hesitate to say that this is the person's actual name.  But I won't pretend to know Greek names at this point.7
  • Verses 5-25 - Luke gets into his narrative by detailing the pre-birth story of, not Jesus, but John the Baptizer.  We don't even meet Jesus' earthly parents for a bit, yet.  I find it remarkable that all of the Gospels seem to consider John such an important person.  Yet, when it comes down to it, we know remarkably little about him.  A lot of what we do know comes from this chapter.
  • Verses 18 vs. verse 34 - I think it's remarkable that both Zechariah and Mary have questions about the possibility of the births they are both about to witness/participate in.  Yet Zechariah's question, "How can I be sure of this?", is met with a rebuke (not to mention his subsequent inability to speak until John's birth) while Mary's very similar-sounding question, "How will this be?", is not treated so negatively.  While I've heard many suggest that Zechariah's question reflects a state of disbelief, while Mary's does not (she is simply curious about the process), I hesitate to say that this is borne out by the text itself.  Rather, the explanation sounds to me like an effort to reconcile an apparent difficulty with the fact that two similar questions got such different responses.  That doesn't make such an explanation necessarily wrong, but I want to be careful not to attribute to the text things that may not actually be there.
  • Verse 26 - I also think it's remarkable that it's apparently the very same angel that appears to both people.  We don't get names for angels all that often, so the fact that Gabriel is so explicitly mentioned here seems important.
  • Verses 43-56 and 67-79 - Two songs of praise in the first chapter!  John's not sparing us the details when he tells this story!
  • Verse 61 - As the only one among my siblings to not have a name that one of my relatives had first, I'm probably not unbiased, but if all children must been given names that relatives have already had, where do new names come from in the first place?

1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. p. 314.
2See Hooker, p. 8.
3Hooker, p. 315.
4These and other variations are described in Hooker, p. 327.  Hooker also notes that none of the gospels identifies the woman anointing Jesus as Mary Magdalene.  That tradition apparently arose in the fourth century.
5Hooker, p. 352.
6See Hooker, p. 389.
7As with Matthew and Mark, I have already chosen a commentary to use for my notes on Luke. However, as I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, I have inadvertently left that commentary at my office in Pasadena rather than take it home with me, so I'll have to wait until next week to refer to that.

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