Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Genesis for Normal People (2012)

If Jesus promised blessing to those who make peace, then I hope that Jared Byas and Peter Enns are receiving plenty of it - because that is exactly what they have done in writing Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible (2012). Since the book of Genesis is central to a many contentious arguments about science, human nature, and various Christian doctrines, Genesis for Normal People is truly a work of peacemaking. Somehow I don't think that the authors' blessing is pouring down in the form of dollar bills because this eBook sells for an inexpensive $4.99 from Nevertheless, the peacemaking potential of this book is enormous and I cannot help but give my 'blessing' in the form of an enthusiastic review.

I should probably note that I went to seminary and studied the Bible, but that didn't render this book "beneath me." In fact, I learned a lot from this book and I wish I had read it during my seminary class on the Pentateuch. This book isn't just about Genesis, it also helps to understand the history of Israel more clearly. So even though Byas and Enns were writing for a "normal" audience, it's a good read for anyone hoping to understand Genesis, as well as the biblical narrative.

In Genesis for Normal People (hereafter GFNP), Byas and Enns provide a clear and concise introduction to the book Genesis; not only in content, but in how to read ancient literature. As such, the authors stress the importance of reading Genesis as an ancient story, not as a textbook. Furthermore, the reader is encouraged to read Genesis as a whole book rather than a collection of unrelated stories. Once we grasp this we are then able to understand Genesis as book #1 in a 5-part series: the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Genesis, which means "beginning," only makes sense as the beginning portion of a much larger story that is the Pentateuch. What exactly is the point of this larger story? The authors of GFNP paraphrase it like this:
"Listen up, Israel. Yahweh is the creator of the cosmos. He also redeemed you from Egypt and gave you the land of Canaan as a home. You are his people and he alone is your God, worthy of your complete devotion."
Therefore, it is imperative that we read Genesis as the beginning (or even background) to this narrative and not as anything else (a textbook, for example).

Byas and Enns also stress the important of reading Genesis in its ancient context. That means understanding: Who wrote it? When did they write it? For whom did they write it? and Why? In GFNP we learn that Genesis is an anonymous book (readers may learn why the old hypothesis that Moses wrote it is false). Instead, Genesis was authored by Israelites for Israelites probably sometime after 1000 BCE (after the first monarchy). Even though Genesis retells events that occurred as early as 2100 BCE, the stories themselves were not written down until after 1000 (probably even closer to 700BCE). Rather than leaving the reader to trust "modern scholarship," the authors of GFNP give some examples from the Genesis text itself that point to a later date (e.g. that Cain and Able offer sacrifices is anachronistic; the list of kings in Gen. 36 could only occur after 1000; and more). This is yet another strength of GFNP: the authors always give examples and evidence for their perspective.

Why is all of this date stuff important? Because it gives us an idea of how the Israelites would want to write the stories of Genesis and what kind of things might be important to them. Since the Pentateuch as we know it today did not come together until ca. 539 BCE, we must consider the historical context that influenced these stories. Specifically, the authors of GFNP explain that much of Genesis was written or re-written during the Babylonian Exile. Therefore, Genesis must be read with the Babylonian exile in mind! It is no wonder, then, that Genesis' creation account mirrors the Babylonian creation myth while also clearly making fun of the Babylonian gods (for more on this, buy and read GFNP). It is no wonder, then, that the Israelites would write a satire about Babylonian worship practices, specifically the use of a tower (for more, buy and read GFNP).

More importantly, though, the exile shaped Israel's understanding of their history and identity. Thus write the authors, "It's not hard to imagine, then, why the Israelites at this time did some soul searching. They looked back at their ancient past to make sense of the tragedy of their recent history. 'In view of all that happened, are we still God's people? Does he still care for us? How can we make sure that this doesn't happen to us again? Will we ever regain the glory of our past?' To address these very real and pressing questions, they began retelling their story - one last time. That last telling became what Christians call the Old Testament."

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Genesis reads like a story that reconnects a people to their roots. In the midst of their exile, Genesis recounts the struggle between human beings and God. The stories of Genesis are about paradise (Eden, think Canaan) and death (expulsion from Eden, think exile). And many of these stories are symbolic portrayals of "Israel miniature" (for more, get GFNP!). Yet, always, these stories recount the faithfulness of Yahweh to his people. The stories of Genesis reinforce that Yahweh is both Creator and Savior.

With a better understanding of the perspective of the ancient Israelites, Byas and Enns expound all 50 chapters of Genesis. The authors break down their mini commentary into the "accounts" of Genesis. These are the 10 sections of Genesis that begin with "This is the account of..." (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 26:1; 37:2).  These introductions help give the book its structure and provide the framework for GFNP's commentary, which is able to cover every major account in Genesis. By following this structure the authors of GFNP present Genesis' accounts as one flowing story that leads up to the Hebrew people's enslavement in Egypt (beginning in book #2, Exodus). Thus, anyone looking to understand Genesis as a whole book need look no further than GFNP.

Honestly, this was one of the most pleasurable books that I've read in a while. I literally LOL-ed my way through it, which is why it is such a powerful resource for peacemaking. The authors are both scholarly and pastoral, with an added (and much needed) sense of humor. This approach relieves a hell of a lot of pressure for those who take these complicated, ancient texts seriously. It is much easier to learn new perspectives when the your teachers are humble, humorous, and genuine. This is the feel that I got from Byas and Enns while reading and I am the better for it. Not only do I give Genesis for Normal People my enthusiastic endorsement here, I will be writing a post or two about some classic Genesis stories that will further endorse this little eBook gem. So check back for upcoming posts about Genesis.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Kiss Your Wishful Image Goodbye...

"On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it.

But God's grace quickly frustrates all such dreams[!]. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.

By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and to abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture. For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth. 

Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp the promise that is given to it." 

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 35

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Let Us Commence...

I graduate from seminary in two days. Really I've already graduated because I completed my academic requirements (and paid my student bills!) back in December. But, I must admit, sliding my final paper under a professor's door was an anticlimactic way to finish my graduate education. I actually remember that Wednesday morning in December: nobody was around to see me slide the paper into the black hole and afterward there was nothing but lifeless silence. "Well shit," I thought, "I guess I'm done." You know how they say the world won't end with a big bang but a whimper? That's how I felt.  Like ..............?..........umm............ k.

Fortunately I get to experience the closure of graduation and, more importantly, reminisce with dear friends. On that note, here's a little slice of an Anne Lamott commencement speech:

"Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to live it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find the truth about who you are."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Homo Religiosus

"Yet my study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art. This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces; these early faiths expressed wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world. 

Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to. Like any other human activity, religion cab be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity. Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have yet to see how it will work. It is also true to say that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated. Humanism is itself a religion without God - not all religions, of course, are theistic. Our ethical secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding faith in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by more conventional religions."

- Karen Armstrong, A History of God

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hungry for Games: What The Hunger Games Reveals about Our Lust for Entertainment

Last week I saw The Hunger Games and I was quite unimpressed (my 5-point critique is at the end of this post). Nevertheless, I can see why the film has generated so much buzz and support.  Suzanne Collins' brainchild is a brilliant concept that makes for a wildly entertaining story. It's no wonder that adolescents and adults are devouring these books and spending millions at the box office. This saga even has it's own Wiki.

But one week after seeing the movie I find myself a bit unsettled by something that this movie suggests about my own culture.  While The Hunger Games depicts a dictatorial government (the "Capitol") as the narrative's antagonist, the entire plot could not exist without the underlying assistance of a populace that revels entertainment. It is this hidden leitmotif in The Hunger Games that has me feeling quite disturbed about my own culture.

Like many dystopian movies, the obvious enemy in the Games is the government, those evil [white] men with all the power. The film makes it painfully obvious that "Big Brother" is behind all of this terror and I assume that most audiences - myself included - walk away thinking that Katniss' final foe is the Capitol. Fair enough.

But what about the fans? What about all those wealthy citizens who care more about being entertained than the well being of others? There is plenty in the film that suggests that they are truly responsible for the hunger games. They are the ones who create an ethos of entertainment that has a life of its own. Here's a few examples:

  • When the "tributes" arrive to the Capitol they are greeted by the cheers of eager fans.
  • Katniss is told that her best way to survive is to get sponsors: wealthy fans who contribute money to the best and most entertaining "tributes."
  • The 24 "tributes" are made over and outfitted to fabricate dramatic characters for a more entertaining show. 
  • The Hunger Games TV show host spins information and charms the audiences to maximize amusement.
  • There is a scene in which the president of the Capitol states that he could easily kill off 24 people every year, but the Hunger Games are more manipulative.
  • In the end, Katniss' own freedom is still controlled by the entertainment industry/sponsors; she must continue to play a character for the fans. 

What makes the Games not only possible but culturally functional? It is not the dictatorship, it is the populace that lusts after entertainment no matter the cost. Indeed, The Hunger Games is disturbing on many levels.

Which is why I became so unsettled lately. You see, a few days after seeing the film I saw on the news that Floyd Mayweather Jr. had just won the Middleweight boxing title. In front of a star-studded audience, including Justin Beaver (sp?) and Mariah Carey, he beat Miguel Cotto, earning $32 million. Now that the fight's over Mayweather is scheduled to begin his 90-day jail sentence for attacking his ex-girlfriend in front of her two children. No big deal. After all, he is a great boxer.

Then I began thinking about the Flyers vs. Penguins hockey play-offs and how disturbed I was by the fighting (the hyperlink is to an article titled "Violence Sells"). I don't like fighting in hockey to begin with, but when I saw young boys alongside adult role models banging their hands on the glass while grown men acted like utter savages on ice, I had reached my limit.

Then I began thinking about the TV shows that entertain us by exploiting insecure people... (The Swan  [a plastic surgery competition], The Anna Nicole Smith Show, Jersey Shore).

Then I began thinking about all the talk shows that entertain us by mocking traumatic situations in other people's lives... (Jerry Springer, Maury, and others)

Then I began thinking about the way the PORN industry entertains us while killing women physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

Then I began thinking about the video games that entertain us by allowing players to kill Arab terrorists.

Then I began thinking about the music videos that entertain us while dehumanizing women.

Then I stopped.

And I thought: You know, The Hunger Games isn't all that different from my own culture. Sure, we don't have anything like the murderous Hunger Games, but our entertainment isn't exactly life-giving either. In the end, what's the difference?


1) Jennifer Lawrence is GREAT. 
2) The rest of the actors are not. 
3) The camera work is annoying at best; nauseating at worst (no, seriously, it shakes around even when people are just talking. why? I don't know.) 
4) The narrative can be told in literally 4 minutes. The rest is like what happens when a 9th-grader turns a paragraph into a 10-page paper. The film is 2 HOURS & 22 MINUTES.
5) I basically felt like this would be a GREAT book to read - very exciting and fun - but it was not adapted to screen very well IMHO.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


With three female-authored books under my belt, I'm moving onto round 2 in Project 28, the year of reading female authors. The first is A History of God by Karen Armstrong. The second is Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. I'm pretty excited for both of these. I'll try to post quotations from these two works.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Mom Umbrella"

This photo was in the Scholastic News that I worked through with a class of first graders today. It reminded me of Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." Luke 13:34

This imagery always grips my heart. The love of God envelops us like a mother hen gathers her baby chicks. Amen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

REVIEW: Resurrection Psychology by Margaret G. Alter

Rather than taking an academic "psychology of religion" approach that would begin with data on human behavior and psychology, Margaret Alter takes what she calls a more "foolish" approach: she is willing to take the gospel stories at face value and build a psychology of human personality based on the teachings and life of Jesus. In Resurrection Psychology (1994) Alter reflects on the significance of Jesus' life and teachings while also observing how they align or diverge from "currently accepted theories of psychology."

In short, Alter asserts that Jesus reveals what it means to be a human being. She unpacks this assertion throughout the book by referring to Gospel stories, modern psychology, and real life anecdotes from her experience as a therapist. In my opinion, this is ultimately the strength of the book: Alter weaves together many genres - from scientific data to biblical exegesis to anecdotes, while writing from multiple perspectives as professor of psychology, therapist, and follower of Jesus. One may read this book as an academic and find lots of substance. Or, one may read this book as a "lay person" and simply enjoy Alter's insight on being human. The achievement of this book is that it reads as both. 

Alter's thesis is founded on two basic assumptions that "underlie Jesus' understanding of human beings" (xix).  "First, Jesus assumes the presence of a God of the universe, one who is in love with humanity and remains intensely interested and available. Second, Jesus assumes that all human beings are burdened with a need for forgiveness." (xix)  Alter argues that Jesus' assumption is not just a religious hypothesis, but is actually a universal human experience that can be supported by modern psychology.

While Jesus offered forgiveness of "sin," psychologically speaking Alter explains that sin is manifest universally in shame.  Shame is not about "what we've done but who we are," (9). Unfortunately, Western culture has largely done away with shame as an acknowledged and natural part of life; it now exists in the hidden depths of our human brokenness. 

Psychological research, however, shows that shame is natural to human development and is characterized by our desire to be 'more' than we truly are (i.e. the experience of inadequacy). Part of being human, therefore, is the experience of shame. Alter observes that Jesus offers forgiveness to pretty much everyone he encounters, and he does this in two ways: 1) by receiving those who are burdened by shame; and 2) by awakening those who deny their shame through self-righteousness.  Jesus reveals that, while shame is part of the universal human condition, the experience of forgiveness is also requisite for being human.

This assumption is central to Jesus' (and Alter's) approach to human personality and Alter never veers too far from this foundational assumption. Most of the book explores the human desire for certainty, safety, and security in the face of uncertainty, finitude, and morality. Thus, the centrality of forgiveness cannot be overstated.  It is forgiveness that allows human beings to embrace inadequacy, error, wounds and scars. Ultimately, this is what makes a "resurrection psychology" possible: "When the worst that life might deal us can be so transformed, we encounter a 'resurrection psychology.' Our confidence lies not in preventing anything bad from happening to us, nor in seeking perfect healing of our psychological wounds, but rather our confidence lies in the transforming power of God promised to us through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ," (170).

If this book interests you at all, I highly recommend it. Here is my "sound bite" summary of Alter's 10 chapters.

1. The Centrality of Forgiveness - To be human is to carry shame and a deep need for forgiveness.

2. The Necessity of the Law - To be human is to live within limitations and expectations (i.e. accept our finitude).

3. An Answer for Perfectionism - Perfectionistic striving is a natural human neurosis because it is our attempt to feel completely safe. But God's fidelity to humankind gives us the courage to be ourselves.

4. The Holiness of Being Human - Jesus reveals holiness in the midst of human finitude and brokenness. Alter argues that we are holy precisely by gift of creation, God's choosing, the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. (61)

5. The Function of Responsibility - Being human means taking responsibility for ourselves and responding to others as we are able ("response-ability"). Human responsibility should empower others.

6. The Danger of Certainty - To be human is to thirst for control, especially by way of belief systems.  Jesus reveals that even belief systems are subject to uncertainty.

7. A Vocation of Concern - To be human is to embrace the world's suffering.

8. A Place for the Prophetic - To be human is to listen to that voice deep down within us that screams for justice and love. Many of our problems originate in our ignoring this piece of our humanity.

9. An Approach to Evil - To be human is to acknowledge the omnipresence of "evil" in each and every one of us through our attempts to be in control.

10. The Significance of Scars - Despite our rage that bad things should not happen, to be human is to live with scars and know that our scars make us credible agents for healing and redemption in the world.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Slavery Footprint

This is my slavery footprint. It shows the number of slave workers that support my lifestyle. Based upon the details of my life, I have approximately 35 slaves indirectly serving me. These include both adults and adolescents from all over the world. Here are a couple details that the survey offers.

  • China - Coal mines, brick kilns and factories in the poorest regions of China operate illegally, using much of China's estimated 150 million internal migrants as slaves. Raw materials from slavery include: Acrylic, Cashmere, Coal, Cotton, Gold, Graphite, Leather, Limestone, Linen, Mercury, Nylon, Pearl, Quartz, Silicon, Silk, Silver, Tin, Tungsten, Wool, Pig Iron, Lead, Lithium, Polyester

  • Zambia - Zambian women and children are exploited in the country's domestic, agricultural and textile sectors while men are forced to work in mines and on construction sites. Raw materials from slavery include: Cobalt, Cotton, Emerald.


Find out the truth about your lifestyle at SLAVERYFOOTPRINT.ORG

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Think You Know Culture?

So, you think you know how to observe and interpret culture? You think you're a budding anthropologist? Then check out this little exercise. It is a helpful, interactive parable that teaches would-be culture critics an important lesson about evaluating other cultures.

Your task is to discover the pattern in the following numbers. I'll provide three examples. Ready?

4, 8, 9
7, 14, 15
12, 24, 25

OK. Did you notice a pattern? If you guessed "N, 2N, +1" then you are correct. That is, you take the number, multiply by two, and then add one. This is a correct pattern. You must feel pretty smart. If you were an anthropologist you could spread the news that the culture you observed has a "N, 2N, +1" pattern. Maybe you'd even receive scholarly acclaim. Woo!

But hold on just a minute. The pattern that you observed is actually not correct of this culture. While it may be a correct pattern to you, it is not to the culture you are observing. In fact, the only real pattern in this culture is that numbers ascend rather than descend. That's it. Had you been able to observe more numbers, you might have noticed that 5,8,11 also fits this "culture." *

The simple anthropology lesson is that this is often how we interpret other cultures when we're intentionally observing and looking for trends. Our intelligence often gets the best of us and yields false positives. Sometimes we see things about other cultures just because we want to see them, but not because they're true. But with something as complex as human culture, we must be patient and thorough before drawing conclusions.

Try this little exercise out on your friends or your class, it's sure to generate a great discussion.  

*When doing this exercise live rather than in writing you may take the opportunity to invite participants to also guess what patterns will NOT work. By learning to look for both answers and non-answers, we can learn more about a culture's patterns. Thus, a participant who believe the pattern is "N, 2N, +1" might suggest that 4,5,6 is a non-answer, but it is, in fact, a viable answer. This teaches us to look for negatives as well as positives.