I interviewed Pastor Rob Strickland and his wife, Carrie, to find out about their newest venture to love others – a Trade School that PAYS its enrollees to learn job and life skills.
This Easter, the “Road to Emmaus” story from Luke chapter 24 hit me a little different. It’s the story of two disciples who unknowingly encounter the resurrected Christ. Something about the way my pastor read it, or the translation he used made me hear it in a whole new light.
With those feelings in mind, I decided to write my own “translation” of the verses. It’s a method I’ve used a bit in critical and creative writing in the past. I pretty much take a pre-existing text and change a few words to alter the whole meaning. Here though, I’ve altered much of the “original” (the NIV is an original text, right?) But my hope is not to alter the original narrative’s message, but to change it just enough to make it easier to imagine ourselves in such a scenario.
If you put my version next to the original, you’ll find the most glaring change is that I’ve replaced the physically resurrected Christ with a participatory/relational Holy Spirit – because today we often don’t realize we’re encountering Christ when we commune with others; it’s a reminder that when ‘two or more are gathered’ there is an opportunity to encounter Him.
I think the changes point toward one of the ways we can experience the resurrected Christ today, which promotes personal resurrection in this lifetime. Enjoy!
(13) Now that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven or eight miles from Jerusalem. (14) They were in a deep discussion about all the things that had happened in the past week. (15-16) As they got more and more in depth in the conversation, in a sense trying to find God’s purpose in their recent experience, they, without knowing, had created a miniature two-person church. As the Holy Spirit filled them, becoming a companion in their journey together, (17) their primary question became clear: “What are we really talking about here?” As the reality of their situation became more apparent, it stopped them in their tracks. (18) One of them, Cleopas, finally said it aloud. As he did, it was almost as if he were accusing his partner, but deep down he knew it was a rhetorical question, and meant just as much for him as the other: “Are you the only one in Jerusalem that doesn’t understand the gravity of what all this means?” (19) “All what means?” asked the other, a little confused because he was sure they were on the same page just seconds earlier. (19) Before he could continue, they both said, “About Jesus of Nazareth,” in unison. The other proceeded, recounting the events, “He was a prophet for sure. He was powerful in word and deed – before God and ALL the people. (20) But the heads of the religion we grew up with and our government, handed him over to their government knowing they would destroy him. And sure enough, they killed him in the most humiliating and disrespectful way possible.” (21) The other continued, morose, “But we had hoped that He was the One. The One who would return things to the way they were meant to be. The way they were created to be. What’s more, it’s starting to seem like a long time since all this happened – too long for anything miraculous to happen now.” But as the other continued, his voice quickened, more excited but still perplexed, as if in the deepest of thought – sensing their being on the brink of an ‘ah-ha’ moment, (22)”In addition, some of the women told us things that were too good to be true. They went to the gravesite this morning (23) but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive! (24) [As faithful as these women were, we needed to know for ourselves.] Some of our companions investigated. The gravesite was just as the women said, but our friends did not see the angels – or Jesus.”
(25) Suddenly, the the Truth struck them both like a bolt of lightening: “How foolish have we been?!?! So stupid to not see that this is what was in all the scriptures we were raised on?!? Did not the Messiah have to suffer all these things before we would recognize Him as such. Only then would He be glorified?!?” (27) They connected all the dots (jots and tittles), beginning with Moses and sweeping through the whole Old Testament, seeing how it all pointed to Jesus as the Christ.
(28) Lost in conversation, they were seemingly instantly at their physical destination, but the Holy Spirit was pushing them further spiritually. (29) They were not ready, and suppressed the Spirit, saying, “We have almost got this worked out. We essentially understand. We need to stop here.” So Christ met them were they were. (30) As they sat to eat, they gave thanks for their food, remembering what Christ commanded them. The Spirit continued to move amongst them, and it began to dawn on them that everything they had was given to them: their loss, their journey, their food, their community, their communion. (31) Then their eyes were fully opened; God was with them the whole time. In their fellowship,Christ was resurrected. But just as they began to name it, it escaped them. (32) They laughed, asking each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while we talked, as if He were there with us on the road, revealing God’s self to us through the Scriptures?”
(33) They got up and returned at once to their larger community. There, they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together (34) and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Christ was recognized by them when He broke their bread.
Can we infer The Holy Trinity from basic logic and mathematics? I attempt to do just that in this episode, and squeak out a primary substance partially made of consciousness in the process.
(This is my first book review, so bear with me.)
I juggled a couple books at the end of 2020, and this was the most challenging, mainly for the sheer fact that I had to get past the implications of the title to even begin to hear what the author was saying – that God isn’t omnipotent.
I had been following Oord on social media for a while before taking the bait and biting into his book. He is a college professor and a Nazarene minister who has a PhD in Religion among others degrees and honors. He comes off as an earnest person who sincerely wants people to understand his view, and understand that it comes from a place of love, specifically from his understanding of God as a necessarily-loving entity. This book is a longform version of his position. It is written in a mostly conversational style that is easy to understand, and doesn’t get overly bogged down in esoteric philosophy or theology, although it easily could have.
Oord is an Open and Relational Theologian, which basically means he believes we experience/understand God through a two-way relationship with God (that’s the relational part). To put it as colloquially as I can, this relationship is what makes the world go ’round. God is present in every moment, urging us to make choices that will create the most love-filled future. God doesn’t force our hand, we have free will, and therefor the future is “open” – full of possibilities to cooperate with the loving God (or not.) [Maybe not the best description of Open and Relational theology, but it’ll have to do.]
Following from this theological stance, Oord’s major premise is that a loving God would not allow evil if God could prevent it. It is from these premises that Oord moves toward the titular conclusion – God can’t single-handedly prevent evil; physical beings must interact with God in a way that promotes good in the physical world. At the same time we cannot be said to be in a free-willed and loving relationship with God if God forces/coerces us to choose what is good/loving.
But the book’s raison d’etre is not to posit a relational theology. The author presents a variety of evidence and logic for his claim in an orderly yet compassionate, dare I say pastoral, way. Oord’s purpose lies in the book’s subtitle: “How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils.” He is attempting to formulate an answer to the question, “If God is good and loving, how can there be so much evil and bad in his creation?” In fact, it was understanding this aspect of Oord’s mission that lured me into reading it. Oord wants to give people who have experienced hurt a way to not blame God – a way to see that God is loving and does love them. He goes through great lengths to show that God wants us to be happy/experience love, but because of a complex matrix of wills, both of humans and other “creatures/entities,” evil happens.
I didn’t get the book because I needed to understand why God allowed something (bad) to happen to me. I have had a pretty good life, so run-of-the-mill Christianity works for me. But I acknowledge that this puts me in the position to be a person who is more empathetic and helpful to others. To be quite honest, for myriad reasons, I need to be better at understanding the deep pain others experience. This book gave me tools for understanding what others experience and the reasons that many who have been hurt have such a hard time with the nature of God that is commonly taught (in American Evangelicalism, and I assume elsewhere.) It gave me tools to interact with others in affirming ways.
I can’t say that I agree with all the details of Dr. Oord’s premises and conclusions in the book; I am still at odds with many of them in fact. But I fully embrace his larger mission of helping those who hurt to see God as the source of love and healing, not evil and harm.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has run out of reasonable answers to their pain and doesn’t want to the add the pain of losing fellowship with God; to anyone tired of the same old Christian clichés that are well meant but don’t always help; and to people like me who want to help others, but also don’t want to to more harm than good.
The book is full of ideas that will make one struggle with the author, but hopefully also with one’s faith in a productive way. It definitely takes an open mind to even hear what is being said, because at face value it seems counter to so much of what most of us have been taught about God’s omnipotent power.
I hope I did his arguments justice, but definitely urge you to read or listen to them for yourself. Both God Can’t and its follow up, God Can’t Q&A, (which answers some of the most asked questions the author received after publishing the first book) can be found in paperback, e-reader, and audio format.
A History (and Future) of Disbelief
Can literacy go too far? What happens when a system gets too large? What does this have to do with Singularity?
In the last post, we looked at how fluent literacy can lead to a type of authoritative rebirth that we called re+authoring. We discussed the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the a Renaissance. (The word, “renaissance,” literally means rebirth.) Marking this historic transition was the restoration of various types of literacy.
Since then, in the Western world, there has been a general increase in literacy. Paired with the ideas of the Enlightenment, naturalism and the birth of modern science, over time myriad doubts about the accuracy and viability of the Bible began to spring up, both from inside and outside the Church. (Speaking of Christianity after the Reformation, I feel like I should say “the Churches,” plural, but it just comes out awkwardly.)
Not only do we get skepticism and relativism from thinkers such as Hume and Kant, but we also get dog-piled by the loss of traditional authority in Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. In this same time frame, a budding new middle class was thirsty for status of any kind. This meant that ideas could spread rapidly by attaching the knowledge and understanding of such philosophies to aristocrat-like intellectual status. Further, the (semi-)dismantling of the feudal system gave many, if not most, some sense of hope for upward social mobility. As the traditional pairing of education and wealth persisted, each socially lower class reached upward, not just in the capitalist sense, but also “intellectually,” getting drunk on the trickle down of a more and more watered-down version of the newest ideas. In sequence, as a result of the spread of secular philosophy, we see a deterioration of the authority of the Church and Christian religion.
I could be wrong, but I think that each of these philosophers distanced themselves from Christianity in one way or another for the sheer fact that Christianity was failing to deliver on the goals and ideals put forth in the Gospel. I don’t think it was an impatience with the eschatological, but with the failure of the Church to exhibit, practically, the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount (among others). It’s as if these thinkers sought to scaffold the morality and metaphysics of Christianity without the mythology. For example, Nietzsche’s “Death of God” is as much a critique of the absence of activated belief and the lack of morality that logically follows, as it is a denial of an actual Being. (Tangentially, what purpose would an ubermensch serve if everyday Christians practiced the Golden Rule?)
The Two Barriers
…But I digress. When a young literate, but perhaps only semi-fluent, person who has not had their needs met by the Church reads or hears a phrase such as “God is dead,” it rings true without needing to inspect the details that lead to such a conclusion. These details were readily available to the one passing down such ideas, and because the messenger is inherently more fluent than the receiver, he/she is capable of choosing whether to re+author or re-write the text as he/she passes it down. To put it another way, the teacher always knows more than the student, therefore the teacher has the power to skew the lesson to his/her motives. This power dynamic can create a barrier to true fluency.
There seems to always be at least 2 barriers to fluent literacy: getting the illiterate literate, and finding benevolent authority for those who remain illiterate regardless of efforts to educate.
The remedy to the first issue, getting the illiterate literate, seems to be a no-brainier – education… … … But I’m just gonna leave that alone for now because of the mess that the American education system is. Maybe this isn’t even a barrier in other countries…
The second issue, which is really, ‘how do we govern the ignorant,” is even stickier. (Does a statement such as that provoke a fight in the comments section?) My original wording has my answer built in: the perpetually illiterate need a benevolent authority to guide them. The problem remains: where to find this ‘benevolent authority.’
The simple, Christian answer is, as always, Jesus! But because He is no longer physically present, finding a human proxy is quite the tall task. While no human is purely good or completely evil, the continuum of theologies developed from the mixture of re+authoring and re-writing the Gospel has divided Christianity into hundreds of denominations. The overlap and disagreement between any two could be both miniscule and infinite. Nowadays, to speak of the authority of the church could mean something different for almost everyone who speaks of it.
None the less, Christianity at least has a model for benevolent authority in its Christ. How about secularism?
How Science Will Fail.
Contemporary Science has as it’s biggest strength it’s biggest weakness: decentralization. Looking at the way that the Reformation took absolute (corrupting) power from the centralized Catholic Church’s hands, the decentralized nature of Science prevents such a circumstance from occurring in the first place. At the same time, the overwhelming project of science demands multiple authorities, each so specialized in increasingly siloed disciplines, that to make generalized practical statements, much less a coherent cosmology, is nearly impossible. Further, the limited resources for research grants has introduced capitalistic competition to the field, along with all its trappings and temptations.
All that aside, the literacy issue poses the largest threat to science as a cosmological competitor to religion. As Galileo would have it, mathematics is the language of science, and many of us do not have the ability to become literate enough in math on the scale necessary for full scientific understanding. Likewise, because of specialization, scientists from one discipline may be (are probably) only partially literate in another. A zoologist probably doesn’t fully grasp subatomic physics, and vice versa. To understand all of science, one must only understand the basics of most of it – any truly universal cosmology faces the challenge of not being an inch deep and a mile wide. So far, the solution to this problem has been to forgo a unified theory, and allow each discipline to be it’s own authority, because they seem to overlap decently. This potentially creates another problem: who gets to be the authority where disciplines overlap? What happens when two disciplines that should overlap don’t? What happens when the links in the chain of authors doesn’t hold together?
Mathematics is like a big building with many apartments. We have at least Arithmetic and Analysis, Algebra and Topology – and we have Geometry and Probability-Theory. Very often the tenants of these different apartments seem not to understand each other.Paul Lorenzen, “Constructive and Axiomatic Method.” Protophysics of Time: Constructive Foundation and History of Time Measurement (Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science Book 30)
Although the quote is about math, it also highlights the current problem of macro and quantum physics. The scientists understand each other, but their equations don’t – the equations that work for large objects don’t work for small objects. Currently, all attempts to create a Unified Theory have resorted to a sort of metaphysics (ahem, I’m looking at you, multi-verse). Interestingly, most people don’t recognize it as a metaphysics because the language is advanced mathematics, which is not easily comprehended. And when it get translated to literature, something gets lost in translation.
While there are numerous important and critical scientists in every field, the names we all know – Arthur Eddington, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc. – are mainly popular because of their ability to translate such math into the language of the laity. They have become the apparent authority not only for their scientific achievement, but because they are so fluent in their language that they can translate/re+author, it into another. These authors give their subject new life; in their re+authoring, their subjects are reborn.
But up to what level can we trust these authorities? If we do not, cannot, read the language of their ideological foundation, what is to stop them from misusing the trust and power we give them? Could the limited number of them precipitate into a scientific oligarchy? Can the peer review process prevent a conspiracy toward malevolent authorship?
Just as the overreach of papal power was prevented from within the church, science might just take care of itself.
The Cyborg Reformation
If human-machine integration is to truly take place – if the augmentation of humans with computers is to reach it’s full potential – then one day, our brains will be bio-digitally synchronized with the complete catalogue of scientific information.
But will we be able to glean meaning from it? Will there be any meaning left- or just information?
Just as verbal literacy led to widespread critical viewing of the Biblical text, will universal mathematical literacy promote cynicism toward the lack of a unified Science? Will there be a unified science by then? Is unification and/or computational singularity an eschatological dream?
Let’s examine the problem of cyborgism – augmentation of computers into the human animal – for just a moment. When humans have a supercomputer in/with/as their brain, everyone should be fluent enough in mathematics to translate the various math equations that explain the big bang, or Higgs Bozon Particles, or gravity, etc. Once fluent, what if we can all easily deconstruct the construct of physics, what if we can all find the inconsistencies that derail any unification theory? What if we find out the multi-verse was all just a mathematical metaphor, equational poetry for the actual physical world? What if it’s just a “play on numbers” that tricks our logic into following a valid syllogism based on false premises? What if we recognize that the numbers still don’t add up to our conscious experience?
Will the same system that created the technology create a technology that undermines that system?
You may recognize these proposed questions as slight variations of the criticism of Christianity (or any religion.) The analogy only works if one accepts math as an actual language, just as Hebrew, Greek, Latin or English are. Many people, especially mathematicians and scientists, believe that math is more than a language; they see it as the essence of reality. Some believe that we can break down the physical world to a point where only numbers would remain. To an extent, many believe that underneath everything, there is (only) math.
I disagree. I don’t believe there is an “underneath.” More precisely, I think the physical world is the underneath. Not necessarily in a fully Platonic way, but in that if physical matter is broken down, I think one will only find more physical matter. I believe that only when physical matter is added together do we get something more.
The physical must be added to in order to get a metaphysics!
‘Meta’ + ‘physics’ literally means “after the physical.” One must have a “protophysics” to be under or before the physical. But before we get too deep into a discussion about if Math is a first principle, or whether the chicken or the egg came first, let us just look at what makes a chicken come from an egg, and what makes a viable egg come from a chicken…
Here, unfortunately and for many reasons, I must leave you with a cliffhanger. First off, I’m not sure how to wrap this up quickly and neatly, if at all. Second, this is a good place to launch into a much larger discussion of emergence.
The next posts will begin a sort of typological cosmology that I am still working out. It will try to explain how singularity is synonymous with non-being, while at the same time claiming that a trinity (the Trinity) is the bare minimum for existence – an existence that goes from zero to infinity instantly. For now, a respite…
“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind. “Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it. Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord . But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.”Proverbs 8:22-36 NIV
The Epilogue to my discussion of literacy as a source of power. Its probably more sci-fi prophesy than theology or Christian ministry…
If we are not fluent, we are illiterate.
The last post left us with the nearly helpless idea that when we are illiterate (which we mostly are), we must rely on authority to enlighten us. Simultaneously, we must also be weary of authority, because whether in science or religion, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
A major source of power comes from being fluent in an system in which others are not.
Our resolution was to become literate, so that we may not be reliant on authorities, but instead, authors in our own right. This can be a daunting task that goes in a few directions; we will follow what we can.
Christian Authorship Among Mixed Means
Unlike the meaning embedded in Medieval stained glass imagery, the equations of theoretical physics cannot be fully fleshed-out to us by reading aloud from the author/authority’s work. Although some see math as the truly catholic, ahem, universal language, the fact is that most are ignorant of its higher forms – calculus, non-Euclidean geometry, etc. For many, an advanced mathematical model is codified in a foreign language. Therefore, whether written or spoken, it may not be comprehended by one who is unlearned in such mathematics. In this case, fluency and literacy are one and the same.
Wait! Can’t something similar be said of Christianity? I would posit that one could be taught all the words in the New Testament, but not really know what it means to be Christian – to inhabit the being of one who follows Christ – because the epistemology and the ontology of the Christian rest in praxis 👀👀👀. More plainly, the foundational truth of Christian-being can only be arrived at through action. I know many a Pauline disciple are shouting, “You just need faith to be Christian!” Sure, but how do we know one has faith? Through their actions. As the apostle James famously puts it, faith without works is dead. Or, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer puts it in chapter two of Discipleship, faith and obedience arise and act simultaneously; “Faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”
Of course, to know how to act like Christ, we must learn about Him. This is one place where the verbally illiterate has the advantage over the mathematically illiterate – the former can listen to the Bible being read in his/her language of fluency and begin to grasp its message. Conversely, advanced math is equally opaque whether spoken or written. (I will not address translation concerns here, instead only deal with interpretation, as translation is a type of interpretation.) Ultimately, and with reference to the first Pentacost after the resurrection (Acts 2:1-13) where the language barrier was miraculously dissolved in the dissemination of the Gospel, I believe that the Holy Spirit is expected to translate to the faithful reader/listener. I’m not sure the same can be said for calculus. Is there a holy spirit of calculus?
The fact remains: there are many different interpretations of every Bible verse. So, we should take a minute to examine hermeneutics – the task of interpreting.
Contemporary hermeneutics is often overlayed onto literary semiotics (the study of the basic elements of language/writing). Without getting stuck in the weeds too much, we will quickly look at the ideas of a philosopher from the 20th century, Roland Barthes.
One of Barthes’ most famous ideas is presented in his essay “The Death of the Author.” Jumping right to the punchline, Barthes asserts that every time a text is read, it is (re)authored by the reader. In his view, through the act of interpreting the meaning of a text, it is authored as much by the reader as its writer. The essay includes a criticism of dogmatic interpretation of texts, including the Bible. Barthes claims one of his purposes as being the liberation of the activity of interpretation, noting that to do so might be considered counter-theological because “to refuse to arrest¹ meaning is finally to refuse God…” The implications appear counter to religion, but can also be utilized in understanding the democratization of Biblical authority.
For Barthes, authorship (thus authority) is decentralized.
In arguing this, he accidentally gives proof to the Pentacostal activation of the text. As we read the Bible, we interpret it. Thus, it is revealed to us. When I say read, I mean READ the Bible – not just eyeballing the words, wondering if it’s been long enough since we’ve last checked our social media, or scanning for something that we already know and that agrees with our agenda – I mean when we read-read; when we look up the words we don’t know, check the concordances, read and reread until we inhabit the words the way The Word desires to inhabit us. When we read this way, we can expect the Holy Spirit to reveal what the tongues on fire are saying to us. When we read on this level, in a sense, we are (re)+authoring the text. We are becoming an authority on it.
Here, we find ourselves in the greatest danger.
It is at this point, when we begin to feel like we are gaining authority on the Bible, we should take a step back and learn a lesson from Science.
Of all the stages of contemporary scientific endeavor, possibly the most critical phase for confirming a finding is peer review. Peer review means that when a new discovery is made, other scientists in the same field, with the same or higher credentials, check the work for soundness and validity.
Returning to our look at Christianity amongst the low literacy rates in the Middle Ages, we can see how important peer review is in keeping (Biblical) authority in check. Namely, when no one could put review the church, the church made it’s own rules of the Biblical texts.
In the centuries following Roman Emperor Constantine’s appropriation of Christianity, (making it the official religion of the western world,) the Church expanded greatly in every way. Across this time, we see a direct correlation between the church’s temporal distance from the resurrection of Christ, and the theologically-promoted physical distance between Heaven and Earth, as evinced by a change in the locus of authority. In this process, as the church became more powerful, the source of its authority shifted. This movement could be described as going from the Word of God to the word of Rome vis-a-vis the Papacy. More concisely, the Church’s authority transformed into power. We will now look at how early Christian peer-review was lost, and how that translated into power becoming centralized.
Authority vs. Power
The Epistles of the New Testament are letters written to churches, presumably passed between local congregations and read aloud to each. Based on my reading of the Epistles, when I think of the first and second century churches, they seem like places where people learned about Christ and how God had already forgiven their sins through Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Church’s mission seemed to be letting people know this good news and asking them to turn from their flesh-ly ways to build a more heavenly community of forgiveness here, on Earth, in preparation for the new Heaven and Earth to come.
It was the responsibility of the hearers to live out, in their communities, the gospel they heard described, therefore, taking part in the authorship of the good news to their community. I would call this benevolent authoring, or as a noun, benevolent authority. Benevolent authoring has no relationship to literacy, because it’s goal is irrelevant to language, it’s aim is action.
Jesus, himself the Benevolent Authority, re+authored the Bible of his time by living out it’s truths. In His own words, He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. He fulfilled it by putting all of its teaching into meaningful action. By contrast, the Pharisees lived by the Law, they did not live out the Law; they lived beside the Law, not through it; they may have best memorized and obeyed the Law, but did not know how to Live, because of the Law.
We are called to be Christ-like, to re+author the word daily, not only by reading it or memorizing it, not just by living in it, but also by living it out. Here’s a quick scriptural example from Matthew:
In Matthew 3:2 (ESV), we see John the Baptist preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” After His baptism by John, and testing in the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Christ does such a good job of this that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29 ESV) It was as if Jesus had not simply read the Law and the Prophets, but written it himself! He subsequently “called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” and instructed them to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 10:1 and 7 ESV).
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It’s almost like John the Baptist wrote it, Jesus lived it, and the disciples copied it. But because of the way each participated in it, they all shared in its authorship. They each had authority.¹
This next point is crucially important:
To author a text is to give birth to it; to re+author a text it’s to give it new life. Jesus was the word made flesh – the living word – he was the meaningful activation of the text. His murder was an attempt by power-seeking authorities to fix the meaning of the Word¹, but his resurrection was a radical re+authoring of the Word. Likewise, if we live out – re+author – Christ’s example, we will be re-born (born again), and share in His resurrection. This is a call to action, not to speaking. We are to re+author, not re-write.
To continually re+author the gospel in this way is to continually re-surrect (rise again) the Christ. In the same way Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, we are involved in the resurrection of Him when we live as he lived. But, we can only know how to live because Jesus first lived. This is how we keep the Kingdom of heaven at hand!
… … …
In contrast, I understand the Church of the Middle Ages as promoting a Heaven that was NOT at hand. The church acted like an earthly kingdom whose mission was to constantly remind people that they needed God’s forgiveness and let them know where and how to earn it. The responsibility of the people was to rid themselves of sin, and because the logic was that Heaven (and God and Jesus) was far away from Earth, the responsibility of the clergy was to act as intermediaries between man and God. In order to perpetuate its power, the Church had to regulate the maintenance of the salvation of its parishioners. In turn, in order to ensure one’s own salvation, the status quo of papal hegemony had to be maintained.
This positioning gave the papal hierarchy absolute power, including authority to interpret, to re-write the Law as they saw fit. I call this power authoring. Power authoring has a direct relationship to literacy in that the powerful need those who are overpowered to be illiterate in the language of the Law so that the rules always work in the powerful’s favor. In contrast to the benevolence of re+authoring, power authoring is malevolent re-writing.
So, where does peer review come in for either of these situations?
In the early church, there were many disciples/apostles and followers who had first-hand encounters with Jesus. Therefore, the news being spread could always be fact-checked. I have heard contemporary apologists claim that the obligation to factual accuracy in the story of Jesus and His teaching was critical in the foundation and growth of the early church. So much so, that we can see evidence of this in the disputes between Paul, Peter, and others over theology in the Epistles.
Alternately, by the middle ages, the Bible, prayer, and liturgy were the only available re-sources for learning about Jesus. There were no verifiable first-hand encounters with Jesus. As discussed, Bibles were scarcely available, so instruction on how to pray, source material for liturgy – anything found in the Bible – was restricted to those who had access to a Bible and were fluent in it’s language. More often than not, the people in such position were also under the influence of power, and the Empire.
But toward the end of the Medieval Period, there was a rise in literacy. In fact, many would argue that literacy is one of the main things that ushered in its end.
Where did the end of the church’s power come from? Within.
Inside the Church was the humble, devout, monastic order. These copiers of the Biblical text were often highly literate. But, apparently, reading the same Book repeatedly was a little boring to some of them, and there began a bit of an underground book exchange. According to Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve, the desired texts were often the old Greek classics, as well as other pagan or secular texts. These same texts were also sought after by the growing wealthy, literate class outside of the clergy. Here we see the rise in the literacy (fluency) of ideas that were outside that “arrested meaning” found in the orthodox ideology which was sanctioned by (papal) authority.
By the turn of the 16th century, the ideas of the Ancient Greeks and Romans had worked their way back into the minds of the literate world. Paired with an ever growing and ever more apparent corruption within the church, the Humanist idea of individual agency likely helped open the mind (and heart) of Reformation hero, Martin Luther. His critical (re)reading of the Bible and his courageous peer review of Papal procedure led him to see – to re+authorize, if you will – the Biblical truth that the relationship one has to God through faith in Christ is constitutional to salvation, not payment of indulgences or other such works.
Already in full use by Luther’s time, the invention of the Guttenberg press also helped catapult literacy by lowering the production time and cost of printed materials, increasing their availability for private consumption.
I noted in the previous post that very few fully literate adults have the ability to read the Bible and fully comprehend it. Escaping the question of whether anyone fully understands it, I wholly believe that it was not meant to be understood in isolation, but that reading the text together in a group gets us closer to comprehension than any individual exegesis could. If this is true, then an increase in literate individuals could have strengthened, and been strengthened by, a kind of collective fluency.
Clearly though, Luther accelerated the democratization of literacy by translating the Bible from Latin to the common German language. The ‘Luther Bible’ more readily allowed the laity to read for themselves the promise of the gospel.
Quite literally, Luther’s re+authoring of the Bible helped suture the wound between the medieval church and the resurrection, in a sense narrowing the gap between Heaven and Earth. Once again, the Kingdom was near.
To be continued…
It seems to be our nature to want fixed, unchanging meaning; a God we could pinpoint would seem to help us grasp our present reality. But the Bible itself reminds us that life cannot be grasped, it is like smoke or vapor. To attempt to hold it is vanity. Its meaning always escapes, we are told by the teacher in Ecclesiastes. Keeping this in mind, for a text, any text, to ‘live’ it must continually be read anew, re+authored. Like the spirit, or breath, of God hovering over Creation in Genesis, it should always posses a vaporous quality. To lock down the message leads to litigiousness, and to overemphasize the Law makes us miss the One who came to fulfill it.
Read the Bible. Study it. Read it with others. But don’t choke the Life out of it! Re+authorize the Word by faithfully acting on peer-reviewed understanding. Perhaps in this way, we can stay mindful that the Kingdom is, indeed, at hand.
1. According to Mark 1:14, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
A way of understanding our relationship to Christ, by viewing Jesus as the living word. This is the middle episode, connection the Medieval Church (last episode) to the future of Science (next episode).
The first of a three-part series looking at how literacy influenced Christianity’s past, and will affect the future of science.
Finishing up the pilot program.
NOTE: I am not condoning communism. I am not condoning capitalism. I am condoning that we should, “conduct [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (Philippians 1:27)