Sunday, July 31, 2011

covenant: the history of a biblical idea

Maybe you noticed I've been writing a few Amazon reviews? I'm hoping my own re-thinking some important and favorite books might help reactivate this blog and reactivate my life some, too. This time it's Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (from a series, Seminar in the History of Ideas, published by Johns Hopkins Press, of the school where the concept of the history of ideas probably originated) by Delbert R. Hillers. This is the book one of my seminary professors insisted we'd need to understand because otherwise we wouldn't *get* our seminary education. I didn't reread the book (yet), but glancing through it as a critter casually noms on browse made me realize it could be fun and even enlightening to read again in detail.

Covenant book coverParticularly in the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, sometimes referred to as "Old Covenant Scriptures," throughout scripture we hear about the God who covenants, the God of covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David... the God who covenants with each one of us in baptism. On a side note, the seminary I attended most properly would be referred to as "ecumenical," and it's also one of the historic United Church of Christ seminaries. Some antecedents of today's UCC opined that God never had dealt with, interacted with humanity in any way other than by covenanting!

Author Delbert Hillers observed that [page 87] "Outside the Bible, it is in treaties that we find … a mixture of history and commands, and the present shape of the Pentateuch ultimately reflects the combination of narrative and obligation in the treaty." In school we read examples of suzerainty treaties, purportedly the model for many of the biblical texts.

Early on the author cautions, "A … difficulty with 'covenant' is that it is not necessarily one idea." [page 6] However (listen up, peeps!), on page 29 he lists the most characteristic six parts of a typical treaty: 1 preamble; 2 historical prologue; 3 stipulations; 4 provisions for deposit and public reading of the text; 5 list of divine witness to the treaty (a stone of witness often stands in just fine for the divine); 6 blessings and curses that frequently simply mirror each other.

from page 80:
Democratization of religious responsibility meant that covenant traditions were kept alive in the individual family. This is a feature so characteristic of modern Jewish life, and of Christianity as well, that it takes an effort to recall that in the ancient East much of religion was a matter of the state: the gods were the gods of the city, and specialists, the priests, saw to the "care and feeding of the gods" and preserved the liturgy and mythology of the temple.
Also, as we need constantly to be aware, in these texts and during that time there was no concept of secular in the rationalized dualistic sacred/secular dichotomy sense post-enlightenment Western people understand and almost comfortably exist within.

Central to our understanding as Christians, [page 152] is the author's citing "Deuteronomy's brand of love... [as]...the mother lode of much other influential biblical teaching about love for God." Therefore, "To love Yahweh" is linked inseparably with "to serve Him." Page 154-155: "...the covenant of obedience binding Israel, and the covenant of promise binding Yahweh, were originally two separate things, not at all easy to reconcile with one another. In Deuteronomy, however, they are combined in classic fashion, so that even if the tension is not resolved, some of the essential features of both are preserved." Briefly, the Abrahamic covenant becomes intertwined with the Sinai covenant: [Hear, O Israel,] Yahweh desired you and chose you because Yahweh loved you and because of lovingkindness for you, Yahweh redeemed you from slavery in Egypt.

I enjoyed looking through this book and would love to facilitate a maybe weekly month-or-so-long adult study class on it and related biblical covenant texts. However, although you can copies on Amazon, they are expensive!

my Amazon review - covenant: a biblical reality

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Grace Works

Grace Works, by Robert L. Millet

grace works coverRobert L. Millet is Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. Although this book isn't an official Latter-day Saint publication, it's published by Deseret Book and approaches the subject from a Mormon perspective. However, the author has read widely and includes many references to non-LDS theologians, including C.S. Lewis and Karl Barth. "After all we can do" in the kicker to the title references 2 Nephi 25:23, but doesn't quite describe the LDS or any scriptural view of God's gracious work of redemption without a tad of explanation, including 2 Nephi 10:24 "after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved." All we humans can do is "be reconciled unto God"—but even that reconciliation also is a gift of grace.

Disclaimer: including front matter, Grace Works is only 150 pages and is printed in a gracious size of graciously leaded type, so don't expect it to be completely comprehensive.

The book focuses around and keeps returning to the author's statement on page 2: "Because the Atonement is central, fundamental, and foundational, it provides meaning and purpose for every other doctrine and every covenant and ordinance. It is the lens through who we view every principle, precept, and practice in the Church." From explaining that Fall and Atonement are kind of like a "package deal," throughout the book Brother Millet provides clear explanations and relevant examples. On page 17 he lines out seven ways scripture uses the word grace: God's favor or acceptance; God's blessing; an outpouring of God's Holy Spirit or of spiritual gifts; a calling to preach the gospel; blessings associated with a person's lineage; strength to overcome and endure; that which conveys salvation and wholeness... on page 18, he tells us from a doctrinal perspective grace is God's mercy, love, condescension, lovingkindness and unmerited favor toward humanity.

Succinctly, born into the fallout of "The Fall" of humanity means "The natural man is an enemy to God in that he or she is operating on an agenda other than God's." [page 35] Natural, fallen and sinful essentially are synonyms. Grace Works is rich in teachings, explanations and especially in its reassurances that as essential as it is to keep the commandments, to love righteousness and do justice whilst walking through a broken, shattered and unreconciled world, none of that is enough because it's humanly impossible. In short, God chooses to remain with us, journey alongside us and enable redemption (salvation, wholeness, reconciliation) because even in us, incarnation, cross, Easter's empty grave and the Pentecostal reign of the Spirit remain God's work and God's glory, not ours.

At the back of the book you can find endnotes, a bibliography, a scripture index separated out into OT, NT, BoM, D&C and Pearl of Great Price along with an extremely thorough subject index.

For sure I'd like more emphasis on the inter-responsibility of community and individual, more explicit mention of our gospel call to help enact justice, healing and liberation to all creation and every segment of society, but what's already there on the pages of Grace Works works well for me and after all, it's barely 150 pages! With Robert Millet's broadly and ecumenically Christian worldview that's anything but exclusively Latter-day Saint, I'll give it a 5-star recommend.

my Amazon review: God's work, God's glory

Friday, July 29, 2011

either/or aka decisions 5

Today Sharon hosts a Friday 5 topic related to an ongoing reality in everyone's life, decisions 5. Part of her intro reads,
Today we play off of one of my favorite and most memorable Friday Fives to blog from: Decisions, Decisions posted by Songbird last July 23. How do you decide? Check out the following pairs and tell which one of each appeals to you most:
1) Sunrise or Sunset—I'm a classic early riser, and love to be up before first light. On the other hand, sunsets can be lovely, esp in the Southwestern USA. Flying Southwest, "The Socialist Airline" into Tucson into the sunset is an unmatchable experience, esp given that Tucson is an astronomical Dark-Sky place. Short answer? Sunrise!

2) To the Mountains or To the Beach—I'm one of those people who likes to know the ocean is nearby, even if I don't go there very often. I spent a summer at Tanglewood in the Berkshires, part of the ancient, venerable, Appalachian Mountain range and I've lived in the Internountain West, with the Wasatch range (a little further east there's a Sawatch range) of the Rocky Mountains always within hailing range. The fabled seven canyons of Salt Lake City were a fabulous place to drive up and down on a free day or slow going afternoon, sometimes to hike, too.

3) Coffee or Tea—neither one hot, both/and iced or chilled... but Tea more often than not.

4) Advent or Lent—equal parts repentance, apocalyptic and hope. I particularly love the Advent lections and hymns, though Christmas Eve and Day always have been difficult times for me. Lent, too, though—first counting the days until Easter Vigil, and then lovin' the Great 50 Days. It's all good and necessary as in sensory word, sacrament, music, visuals and even *other* we recapitulate and relive the history of salvation... short answer on this one? Advent!

5) "Raindrops on Roses" or "Whiskers on Kittens"—although I loathe, detest, despise and abhor The Sound of Music (seems as if people either love it or hate it; there's no neutral ground). I am such a cat-a-holic, and as much as I love flowers, nature and the environment, teh kitttehs win on this one!

BONUS: Tell more about one of the pairs. Why did you choose it? Difficult or easy choice? A story from your own experience?

In the interest of actually posting a semi-finished Friday 5 this week, I'm in major decision time and mode and again I find myself needing to make major life decision all alone, with no one who knows me or my history remotely within reach. Just saying'... so how do I decide? A little prayer, a little time, a backward glance at my own history, a forward look into possibilities and a huge trusting leap! Thanks, Sharon!

Friday, July 01, 2011

wayback 5...

...about the way we blogged: wayback days 5

This time instead of answering Kathryn's suggested questions, I'll write a few paragraphs. Cyber eons ago in July 2002 I made my blogging debut on blogger, which (to my knowledge) along with diaryland and pitas was the only available platform. I'd just finished a year-long Community Economic Development certificate program that hadn't led to the hoped-for employment, so I decided to chill some for the summer as I expected to do the usual rounds of meet 'n' greets and related continuing ed in the fall as a way to connect with potential employers and clients. Before I'd returned to this part of the world sometimes called "Paradise," life had happened and kept on happening with unexpected outcomes; for a while it was adventuresome and almost fun. Even the plasma center, day labor hangout and less-than-minimum wage gigs hadn't discouraged me much, since trials by fire and trials by ongoing disappointments are part of the journey, right? But those weeks that started out like another adventure turned into months, into years and now it's almost two decades, close to twenty years without community, without the mirror of the other to tell me how I'm doing, without places, situations and spaces to which I've become attached and to which I could uniquely contribute.

Leading up to starting my own blog spot, when I got online in the late 1990s I'd gradually gotten involved in an early iteration of the United Church of Christ forums and was delighted to return to more formal theological thinking and writing. I'd also (delightfully, of course!) discovered my opinions were valued and often sought-after! In some of my seminary classes I'd emerged as the class theologian but the years of loneliness and disappointment had polished my theological perspective and insight (in ways only too much loneliness and too many disappointments can).

I've been in social, personal, financial, professional, everything survival mode for most of these too many years. Although I still check the Friday 5 topic almost every week and start a Friday 5 post just about every week, I rarely publish them. A couple months back, when that day's host Singing Owl visited my blog, she commented, "You want to be known and you want to be useful." I unpublished the post and likely won't delete it, but she's mostly correct in that I want a community that seeks to know me and I want to be not only useful but exploited. Do I walk in and announce to everyone within earshot that I am no threat to anyone? That I don't want the pastor's or the church musician's job?

In his "Rollin' Home," songwriter Eric Andersen explains,
Truth, with all its far out schemes,
Lets time decide what it should mean;
It's not the time but just the dreams that die.
There's probably no such situation as zero theological context, but I'm so close to zero I have nothing to blog about. I haven't been teaching, preaching or socializing and long ago stopped trying to bribe people to spend time or have lunch with me. If and when I can find that elusive place of embrace, I expect to begin blogging at least a few times a month—I like developing ideas and seeing the results on the screen! People can start walking on their own quite easily, but I need someone to help me stand and take my first new steps. I also realize there are a lot of non-church places I could look and many many (many) non-church events I could attend, either or both of which likely would result in opps and friendships, but I barely can stand, let alone walk to get there.