Sunday, December 18, 2005

Monasticism Anyone?

As I contemplate the problems of our culture, secular and ecclesiastical,I find myself wondering increasingly whether an answer lies in monasticism. One problem is that I am not even sure what that means. Though I am from a Catholic background, I have had no exposure to monks or monasteries. What ideas I have probably come mostly from fictional accounts, and perhaps from "How the Irish Saved civilization" and Merton's "Seven Story Mountain," both read years ago. More specifically, though this page is named after a poem named after a Protestant religious community, I know almost nothing about such communities except that they almost universally failed in one or two generations. The nearby Ephrata cloisters are a case in point. A lovely tourist attraction, but no living community. There's a Moravian girls' school in Lititz, but apparently no Moravians.

Can anyone point me to any sites or books that discuss the foundational ideas of Protestant monasticism, especially of communities that survived for some time? I have found the following sites so far, but they don't provide much detail about the foundations:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Madman with bombs

I am always puzzled when I read commentaries like this one from Charles Krauthammer. There is an almost frantic tone of issuing a wake-up call, but one has to ask, wake up to what action? So there is a mad man in charge of Iran. He's about to obtain nuclear weapons. He was democratically elected. He paints, "Israel must be obliterated" on his missiles. So what are we supposed to do about this?

He acknowledges that the chances of anything happening in the United Nations is nil. Yet we are supposed to support the United Nations, and our lack of enthusiastic participation so far, or our taking measures into our own hands when the United Nations fails to act, has been considered bad behavior. We could bomb their nuclear facilities, as is Israel's wont, or take out their president in an assassination, but these would constitute military actions and lead to a war. But war is bad. It seems to me that if we do anything except ask very nicely in the United Nations, the same commentators will take us to task for militarism or being cowboys, and will start publishing the American body count on day two.

The same issue occurs with respect to a bad conscience about our actions or inactions in Rwanda. We feel badly, and wring our hands about standing by while Rwandans killed Rwandans, but what were we supposed to have done? The United Nations acted as the United Nations always acts. Nothing else could have been realistically expected. Does anyone really think that Americans would have tolerated the sending of American troops to rescue black Rwandans? Do we think that it would have been a quick in and out operation? Really, the murderers are on the street with their machetes, and what kind of effective action could have been taken other than sending troops?

I would love to know what Charles Krauthammer thinks we should actually do about the Iranian President.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

First Impressions of "Narnia"

Remember that unlike "Lord of the Rings" these were written for children and emphasize a child's sensibilities. "Always winter but never Christmas" exemplifies this difference. What could "Christmas" possibly mean to Narnians? Nothing, but it speaks concisely to a child's heart. If you are expecting "Lord of the Rings" you will cringe when Father Christmas shows up in a sleigh with reindeer, but that is in the book. One of the lead characters is a talking beaver, after all.

All this to say, the movie is faithful to the book in both content and tone, and the depiction of atoning sacrifice is clear. Aslan does not fly (as he does in the book) which is probably a good thing. He sounds like Liam Neeson which is OK, but a less recognizable voice may have been better. The talking animals were spotty: the beavers worked, the fox and wolves not as well. This probably has as much to do with the physical structure of beaver and canine skulls and jaws as with the animators' prowess; beaver faces are more human in proportion so their mouths can more convincingly mimic human speech.

The battle scenes also work. The gore of the Middle Earth battles is absent, as it should be in a children's movie, yet the scenes are well choreographed and engaging. The final battle between Jadis and Peter is especially well done, and demonstrates the cold masterfulness of the queen.

Overall, I predict success and sequels. If anything, this movie is more faithful to Lewis' book than Jackson's to Tolkein's.

Rice on our Mid-East Policy

See here for an interesting take on our foreign policy in middle east. Comments?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Left Behind" and the problem with targums

Rev 22:18-19 NASB
(18) I testify to everyone who hears the words of the
prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues
which are written in this book;
(19) and if anyone takes away from the words
of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life
and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

This would chill me to the bone if I were an author of the "Left Behind" series. Considering the fact that those authors certainly know this verse, I must conclude that they don't consider their several-volume expansive interpretation of Revelation, Thessalonians, Daniel and Ezekiel to be an addition or subtraction to the prophecy entrusted to John and thence to us. This despite the fact that they know, or should know, that for millions of people their books, and the movies, are the only interpretation of these texts they are likely to hear. The very title of the series, "Left Behind," is a substantial addition to the account of the so-called Rapture in the letters to Thessalonica, neither of which speak of anyone being left behind at Jesus' second coming, nor shows any concern at all to describe what, exactly, happens to the unsaved at that event. They go on to add volumes of speculative detail to events that are described apocalyptically and poetically in the text delivered to us through the Apostle.

The subtraction effected by the "Left Behind" series is more subtle but even more real: the narrowing of the imagination of God's people to this single elaborate account of the end times. I have taught the Revelation to adults several times over the last years, and believe me that this series has constricted their view of the future deeply and definitively. When they read Revelation, they do not wonder what it means, they do not engage their faculties of understanding of poetry and metaphor. No, they already know what it means. They've seen it at the movies.

But here I am most interested in the question, why does God find it necessary to explicitly prohibit the addition or subtraction of words to or from his revelation? And what does he mean by addition and subtraction?

Perhaps at one level God here prohibits the addition of fake text, of additional chapters or episodes. This is, no doubt, quite important. We can't have men or women adding their own uninspired text to the body of scripture and passing it off as inspired. Why not? This may seem like a silly question but, really, why not? Is it not because we need to preserve the ability to trace the expressed thoughts back to God, who is authoritative and sovereign, or to man, who is not?

What about expansive interpretations? Do they constitute additions in the sense proscribed?

This is a more difficult question, but we can at least begin with the need to preserve the distinguishability between God's words and the interpreter's ideas. This is admittedly not always a bright, clean line. All translation involves interpretation, which of course is why we generally require our preachers to read the original languages. Idioms, especially, require interpretation from one language or culture to another. Nevertheless, translation does not generally or frequently require expansion to be faithful to the original, and a translator seeks to match form with form, content with content, and connotation with connotation. There is a general one-to-one correspondence, and in this sense a translation is not inherently an expansion.

In "Colossians Remixed," Walsh and Keesmaat offer an expansive interpretation that they consider to be a "targum" of Colossians. They explain on page 38 that this is a form of interpretation arising during the Jewish diaspora, in which the rabbis did not simply translate the text, but "would update the text, apply it to the changing context, and put it into contemporary idiom." An accompanying footnote explains that a targum "could be commentary as well as translation, and impose a comprehensive interpretation on the original Hebrew." (p. 41) It is these latter aspects that may cause targa to fall afoul of the "no additions" mandate, in my opinion.

The fundamental problem that I believe underlies God's warning is that additions are subtractions. When one "imposes" such a "comprehensive interpretation" upon the text, it certainly can and often does exclude other appropriate interpretations that the reader, especially the Spirit-enlightened reader, might otherwise bring to it. It dominates and directs the imagination. It does so, I would submit, in proportion as it is an expansion; the more extensive the examples and cultural specificities supplied by the interpreter, the more restrictive is the targum to the reader's own mind.

Writers of targums (targa?) might object that the reader knows that their targum is merely an interpretation and hence not authoritative. Perhaps. I suspect the authors of "Left Behind" offer the same defense. What, in my opinion, makes them more pernicious than straightforward commentary is that they take the same form as the underlying scripture, and thereby enter the reader's mind by the same door as the scriptures would, and gain status thereby, so to speak. I think this is dangerous ground for any teacher to tread upon.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Not much time to write this AM, but let me make a few observations about abortion and minor consent from the point of view of a physician practicing emergency medicine for 25 years.
  • Current law forbids my touching a minor even to treat her sore throat without parental consent.
  • The two exceptions are a) the existence of any medical emergency that requires action before consent can be obtained, and b) a minor who is pregnant or has been pregnant, who is considered "emancipated"
  • Though I may treat the true emergency as clinically necessary, I must also be making an effort to inform the parents, except in the case of the emancipated minor
  • I see complications of pregnancy all the time. I have never seen one that required an emergency abortion. In the first trimester, the health-threatening conditions all involve fetal demise in any case, and treatment consists of" cleaning up" after the miscarriage or tubal pregnancy. This is true in the second trimester also, where complications involve the placental apparatus for the most part, or a weak cervix, both of which primarily threaten the baby's life. In the 3rd trimester, there are conditions like pre-eclampsia that do threaten the mothers life, but these are treatable by delivery of a now-viable baby.
  • The only maternal health issue that does not involve an inevitable fetal demise is "mental health." To my mind, these are precisely the cases in which parents need to be involved.

Gotta run.