This semester I am diving head first into the world of midrash. I am taking my theological talents to Virginia Theological Seminary once a week to join 17 other Episcopal seminarians and a Jewish rabbi as we explore the theological content of the rabbinic flavor.
My charcoal Yoda threatened me if I did not share my experiences in class and my own thoughts about the materials throughout the semester: “If you don’t blog about this course, I will come to your house and kick down the door. Either than, or do some very unflattering Midrash on you”.
So here we go. I make no assertions to my expertise in the midrash arena. The only thing I can promise is that I will be honest with my own reactions to texts and to the teachings of our professor.
Before I can begin to share my midrashic thoughts I think we need to address the basics.
Midrash comes from the ambiguity of the Jewish texts. It is something that occurred over time and was not a single book or commentary submitted for community review and publishing. Midrash was edited over time and worn smooth by the time and use of the community.
The purpose of midrash is to examine or seek out a deeper meaning of the text based upon the Rabbi’s agenda or what the text was actually speaking to. When biblical interpretation moved away from fundamentalism, the doors to scriptural interpretation and contextualization were thrown open.
Types of Midrash
- Halacha – the laws (to walk or go to) – Jewish law is always moving, concerning itself with creating norms and asking ‘why?’ – legalistic view
- Aggadah – the narratives, concerned with contextualizing and asking ‘how?’, creating a vision
- Examining the motivations and meaning of the Bible
- Resolve confusions
- Fill in gaps
- Expose details of scripture (ie. new values, translation, addressing value changes within society)
How to Read a Midrash
- It is critical when looking at a midrash to understand the context of the quoted or primary verse. This means that you should first read the primary verse, as well as any supplementary verse. Critically look at and examine the base text. Ask questions like, “what is the historical/language of the text?” After reading and unpacking the base text, move onto the midrash
- While reading, keep these questions in the back of your mind: what’s redundant or shocking with the text, what is being said about the character of God, what is actually happening in the text, and what context was the text written in and for?
Consider Trying to Answer These Questions
- What is the problem or question the midrash is responding to?
- How does the midrash resolve the problem or question?
- Did the midrash answer questions that you had at your initial reading? If so, what were your questions?
- Would you have resolved the problem or question differently? This is your opportunity to take ownership of the text!
While this is just a starting point for midrash, I’m sure there will be more to add throughout the semester. Midrash is an opportunity to engage Biblical texts in a way that treats them both as historic-scriptural texts and as texts that are still relevant in 2014.
When I was a kid, what I knew about undertakers was learned through the squared-circle. And even as an adult there is not much about undertakers that I could tell you about with any certainty. That changed last week when Jason and I had a chance to speak with Thomas Lynch.
Thomas Lynch is an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. In addition to his work in his families funeral home, Mr. Lynch is also an author, essayist, and poet. You can find his writing in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. He is the inspiration behind the show ‘Six Feet Under’. He has also was the subject of a PBS Frontline special.
Undertaking and funeral direction is more than just disposal of bodies for Mr. Lynch. While listening to him I was able to see that not only is Mr. Lynch caring for those who have departed this life but also does whom the departed have left behind. While caring for those who are in the midst of grief, Mr. Lynch’s calling is clear: ensure that the departed’s bodies are handled with the utmost care and respect, while at the same time seeing to it that those left behind are cared for with the same attention.
I’d be willing to bet that Mr. Lynch attends more funerals by Wednesday than I have in my entire life. Of the funerals I have attended, the majority of those services have been where the deceased has chosen to be created. Cremation seemed to me to be a very impersonal way of disposing of a body. I assumed that the dead were placed into the crematorium, the timer was set, and the staff returned later to clean up the remains. After talking with Mr. Lynch, and watching the PBS Frontline special, my thoughts on this have changed. A family can and should be just as involved with the cremation of the body of a loved one as they are when the departed is buried in the ground. Not only out of love for the individual but also respect for the body.
Mr. Lynch made it abundantly clear to me through his caring tone and even his poetry that his calling to undertaking is not one that he takes lightly, nor would he choose to do anything else. The highlight of our conversation was when Mr. Lynch read a poem for us that he has yet to publish, what a treat!
You check out the entire interview here:
A full listing of Mr. Lynch’s books can found here.
Last week we gathered again at Forge Brew Works for another installment of Pub Theology. I think we might need to come up with a new name for our group if we continue to meet in brewery instead of a pub.
Usually during Pub Theology the conversation is driven by the gathered group but this time we changed things up. We invited Dr. Kendall Soulen to join us.
Dr. Soulen is a member of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Besides being interested in ‘all things theological’ and an avid fan of Karl Barth (which promtley resulted in a man-crush from Jason), he is an old-time banjo and fiddle player. His most recent books are The Divine Name(s) and the Holy trinity: Distinguishing the Voices (2011), and Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 4th edition (2011).
Jason and I (mostly Jason) lead the group through a series of questions that were specifically tailored to Kendall’s expertise. Our conversation covered everything from biblical curse words to Jewish Christian relations with some Karl Barth sprinkled in as well.
Photo Credit: Terri Phillips
My biggest take away from the evening was Kendall’s remark that “I don’t know” is an acceptable theological response. It has been my experience that pastors and especially seminary students feel the need to always have an answer. This has been my experience in youth ministry where teenagers can ask questions that blindside you and you quickly stumble for a response. To hear a professor and distinguished theologian say that “I don’t know” is an acceptable response (except on a Credo paper) was reassuring and validating.
Podcasts like this will become a regular thing and have taken on the title of “The Tamed Cynic Podcast“. I am doing these podcasts with my mentor as part of learning goals for an internship I am currently a part of at Aldersgate, in connection with my work at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Be sure to subscribe by using the tab to the right for future podcasts! In the coming weeks we have Tripp Fuller, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Lynch, David Bentley Hart, Megan Rohrer, and many many more.
Thank you again to Forge Brew Works for graciously opening their doors and welcoming us with an awesome venue to meet in and great beer to drink!
Sunday morning I led (or attempted to) a group of high school juniors and seniors through a rocky discussion on death and heaven. Lucky for me the Tamed Cynic showed up (better late than never) to help steer the conversation in a direction that would not only teach our group the basics of Christian resurrection theology but also keep me from becoming a heretic, and having a bunch of angry parents filling my inbox with angry emails.
This week I sat through a lecture on resurrection given by Kendall Soulen at WTS. Each week he wows and baffles our class with #zesty theological goodness. I wish I had sat through this lecture before gearing up for the Sunday morning lesson I botched.
I’m not going to attempt to recreate Kendall’s lecture here but I do want to share a few points that I would have liked to have shared with my catechism students during the botched lesson:
1. What resurrection IS and what it IS NOT
Resurrection IS NOT immortality for the soul ~ our bodies are so tightly intertwined with our souls that when the body dies the soul cannot exist without the body; this reflects the view of the Old Testament authors and is the background for which the New Testament begins to take shape.
Resurrection IS NOT the same as resuscitation ~ resuscitation is a temporary relief from death; a temporary victory. A perfect Biblical example of this is the raising of Lazarus. Eventually Lazarus would die again.
2. The story of the New Testament IS a story of resurrection ~ Christ being raised from the dead and into eternal life can be contrasted by Lazarus who was raised into a mortal life. All of Christ was raised into eternal life.
Christ IS the first fruits through His resurrection ~ Dr. Soulen used this analogy to describe the first fruits: The frost of death’s winter has a grip on most but in one place the ice has melted away. The sprouting of new life gives hope that spring is coming.”2. A better response to their questions regarding what happens between death and the general resurrection.Of the three views on this interim state I would have presented the “Soul Sleep” and “Cloud of Witnesses” views and briefly touched on Purgatory. The two popular views have been validated by respected theologians. Here are some brief (very brief) definitions:
- “Soul Sleep” – the soul is not dead; the soul is in a state of rest and sleep, and not self-awareness. God has not forgotten the dead, they are dormant with God for the purposes of new life. NT Wright argues that this is most consistent with scripture
- “Cloud of Witnesses” – the dead are awake and continue to have solidarity with the church. They are conscious but not having to work out their salvation like is the case with Purgatory. The final judgement occurs at the general resurrection. John Wesley, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine were all supporters of this view
3. Finally, I would have discussed with my students how the resurrection influences and shapes our reading of scripture. We have the opportunity of knowing the ending to the story before we read the whole story. Just think of knowing that Snape was protecting Harry Potter because of Snape’s love for Lilly Potter and NOT filled with hatred and resentment for Harry. The resurrection shapes and answers the central question of the New Testament; who is this Jesus character. The resurrection makes the entire story of Jesus’ clear.
I will share these thoughts with my catechism class. Knowing the ending of the story always makes the beginning middle and end more clear.
The great thing about the resurrection is that it’s not the ending of the story. The resurrection offers new life with God, and Christ is the first fruits of the new life that is to come. The soul is a seed that must be cultivated a cared for so that we too are able to join Christ as sown seeds in the new creation.
Working at a Methodist church and attending a Methodist seminary it is often easy to become focused on the work of John Wesley and ignore or forget about the Protestant Reformers who laid the ground work for Wesley.
Take Martin Luther for instance. He nailed his letter to the door of the cathedral and the rest is history. Aside from that and the events that transpired afterwards, I have to admit that I know little about Luther outside of the reformation. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see an article published in Relevant Magazine titled, “Martin Luther Was A Craft Brewer”.
I won’t post the whole article here. So head over to Relevant Magazine and check it out. But I do want to highlight one section on it:
He enjoyed good beer.
Luther wrote about beer in several of his letters, at one point writing to tell his wife how much he missed the beer they brewed at home. “I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife … you would do well to send me over my whole cellar of wine and a bottle of thy beer.”
I enjoy good beer too. My wife would back me in saying it’s not that I love it so much I cannot function with out it. What I love about beer is the fact that I can make it myself. I can take the raw ingredients and through some boiling of water and the patience of fermentation, I can create something that not only do I enjoy but others can enjoy as well. I guess that is why I was so excited to see that Luther, the nailing papers on the door of the church reformer, was a brewer too.
Head over the Relevant and read the rest of the article.
Last week Jason invited me to join him in a conversation with Bishop William Willimon. Bishop Willimon served for 8 years as a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama, and now serves a church in Durham, NC and teaches at the Duke Divinity School.
Bishop Willimon is not only one of the most important voices within the United Methodist Church, he is also one of the most important voices in Christianity today.
While I was extremely nervous to be speaking with someone like Bishop Willimon, I found him to be down to earth and willing to have a conversation about not only missional theology (my favorite part of our conversation) as well as deficiencies in the seminary systems ability to prepare clergy for the leadership roles they are assuming.
His voice is one that is not rooted in pious theological jargon. His willingness to use everyday language (like the 4 letter ones I use daily) made me feel very comfortable talking to him and allowed me to lower my guard and relax a bit.
Much to my surprise, I found out that Bishop Willimon has spent time with a few of my favorite authors during his time preparing the Animate: Faith/Bible series.
You can listen to the audio from our time with Bishop Willimon below:
At the end of March Bishop Willimon will be at Aldersgate to preach on Sunday morning and will be available for conversation afterwards with a luncheon.
For a list of Bishop Willimon’s books click here.
You can also follow his blog here.
Be on the lookout over the coming weeks as I join the Tamed Cynic podcast and give HBC a run for their money!
I am organizing a Pub Theology group in the Alexandria/Kingstowne/Lorton area. We currently meet on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at Forge Brew Works in Lorton. So far the group has ben comprised of people from our congregation, Wesley students, and folks who frequent Forge.
I am often asked, “why pub theology?” by people who have never heard of or think that the last place Christians should be hanging out is in a bar, pub, or brewery.
Take this exchange for example:
Mike: What’s the inspiration for this? Some people have problems putting beer and Bibles in the same room (or the same life!), but I think there’s room to walk.
Me: Conversations we have over beer and food are different from those we have sitting in a class room or in a conference room at a church. The idea here is to stimulate conversation about topics most people may not think about having (or are taboo) to have while sharing a beer.
While I would argue that I adequately answered Mike’s question, I have to say that each time I am asked this question I shake my head a bit. If this was “Church-Classroom Theology” instead of “Pub Theology” no one would bat an eyelash. But because we are gathering in a place where beer is served (and made for that matter) there are some people who don’t understand.
I think that pub theology has it place within the theological arena. By gathering outside of the church two things are happening: we are taking the mission of the church outside the walls of the church, and meeting people on their turf.
Karl Barth, I think, said it best, ”Conversation takes place when one party has something new and interesting to say to the other. Only then is conversation an event. One must say something engaging and original, something with the element of mystery. The Church must sound strange to the world if it is not to be dull…”
If we want to continue to be dull or irrelevant in the community let’s continue to ignore the conversations people want to have and instead spoon-feed them what we think they want to hear. Pub theology is exactly what Barth is talking about. A conversation, where each party has and is expected to add something interesting to the event. Whether you are a seminary student, seasoned pastor, or Joe-blow off the street you have something to add to our conversation.
Today is Valentine’s Day.
If this is news to you, stop reading this and go buy your spouse some flowers and chocolates.
If you are like me then you feel like every year Valentine’s Day sneaks up you. It’s like the date changes every year or something. But luckily there is expedited shipping and online retailers who specialize in my particular circumstance.
I could buy Allison a beautiful necklace or a piece of art from an up and coming artist, but what my valentine wants more than anything is for me (and our) communication skills to be kicked up a notch.
I have select ADD, as in I select what I want to listen and not listen to. If I am not interested or become distracted by a shinny object I immediately check out. In turn, my dear loving wife becomes irritated and proceeds to a) get pissed, or b) get pissed and let me know she’s pissed.
If there is one thing I have learned in the four years we have been married, its that communication can make or break a marriage (or any relationship for that matter). Communication, believe it or not guys, is more important than sex in a marriage. You can have the greatest sex life in the world, but if you and your spouse are unable to communicate on the other side of the covers you are on a rocky road, and in my experience that relationship is doomed.
So instead of convenience store chocolates (which reminds me I need to stop on at 7-11 on the way home), Hallmark cards, and fancy jewelry this Valentine’s Day consider talking (and LISTENING) to your spouse. I know that in my house that would go farther than any over-priced heart shaped candy or a Dr. Seuss inspired greeting card.
At the beginning of December the Huffington Post featured an article on the 12 dangers of Christmas. The article focused on fire safety during the holiday season. They covered everything from your Christmas tree drying out and catching the drapes on fire to burning down your home while preparing your roast beast.
The article got me thinking, what if there were other dangers during Christmas? What if, aside from falling off your roof while working on your light display and over roasting your chestnuts, there were hidden dangers during the season of advent that most of us overlook.
Over the next 15 days I am going to share my 12 dangers of Christmas. So here we go,
#1 – Ignoring the Little Things
This year Christmas is a little bit more special for Allison and I. This is Camden’s first Christmas and just like all of the other firsts in his life, I want to remember them all. From the first time he grabbed my finger in the hospital a few hours after he was born to the first time he peed on Allison and I laughed hysterically, I want to remember those moments.
There are a lot of things that my family does around Christmas that generates memories: bake cookies, eat too much dinner too quickly, and heated games of monopoly. For the past few years though, with the addition of 2 nephews and now a son, it is the little things that I want to take in this year.
Before, I would rip through presents like I was going after and world record. Now, I could sit for an hour and watch Camden try to eat his way through the multi-colored wrapping paper. Everyone told me before Camden was born that the time would fly, and that there would be too many moments to remember. So this year, I am going to take in the little moments. Those are the moments I will cherish this Christmas.
For God to take on human flesh, and to come into the world as an infant with parents who would raise and teach him, I wonder what the little things were that Mary and Joseph experienced. I wonder what the little milestones were in Jesus’ life that cause His parents to stop and take it in.
What are the little moments that you are most looking forward to this Christmas?
Tonight churches around the world will be packed to the gills with worshipers who have come to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Family and friends, neighbors and strangers will all file into church sanctuaries, fellowship halls, fire stations, and schools to worship. Tonight will be the second busiest day of the year for most churches, and this means that with an overflow of visitors churches will be rolling out the red carpet for their guests.
The problem comes when the “regulars” get their panties in a twist because there are fewer parking spaces, few seats, and more people to navigate around.
Check out this quote from the Examiner:
“A regular churchgoer in a Richmond church said this about people who attend church twice a year:“Call me a little selfish, but it kind of bothered me that I had difficulty finding a parking spot and a seat. It’s a little irritating when this is not a problem any other Sunday, and these ‘Twice-a-year Churchgoers’ come in and take over…”
Many of us welcome house guests and family each Christmas that we only see once or twice a year. Would we treat those guests the same way the Richmond churchgoer quoted by the Examiner might?
Tonight is an opportunity to not only celebrate the birth of Christ, but also an opportunity to welcome the stranger.
Check out the rest of the Examiner quote:
“…I finally did come to the conclusion that I really don’t mind. It won’t kill me to be a little inconvenienced. They can have the seats and the parking spaces.”
“No matter why people come to church on
Easter Sunday Christmas Eve, let’s welcome them with opened arms. Let’s show them the love of God in abundance that will last until they return whether it is on Christmas Day Easter or sooner!”
So as you are gathering for a candlelit silent night remember that when we welcome the stranger we are actually welcoming Christ Himself.
You can read the entire Examiner article here.