Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Biblical Archaeology Helpful to Faith?

When I was living with my grandpa, one of our monthly traditions was to go to a local meeting of the Biblical Archaeology Society. I long have had interest in archaeological findings, as I think it provides a richness and context to a variety of historical narratives. So getting the opportunity to review Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament's Most Infamous City was exciting.

Drs. Steven Collins and Latayne C. Scott explore the story of how Collins sought a new location for Sodom and his argument for Tall el-Hammam as the site of biblical Sodom. I found myself regularly tuning out of the first part of the book, detailing some of the historical arguments. While I've listened to many of narrator Sean Runnette's audiobooks, there was a lack of passion to hold interest in more nuanced intellectual arguments (and people who know me know I love those discussions :) ). It felt more like he was truly just reading a paper he knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I'm discovering a lot of Christian nonfiction narration is like that...

The explanations as to why Tall el-Hammam made sense as biblical Sodom was where more of my interest re-arose. Hearing about the historical context and how archaeology can help us better interpret the Bible is helpful.

I also really appreciated how Collins ended his book addressing the various critiques of his work. Some arguments center around whether a biblical Sodom ever truly existed while others debate biblical interpretation. Collins' biblical interpretation centers around a theory of true narrative representation. While I won't claim to fully understand this approach, I think it makes a few too many assumptions demanding the historicity of the biblical texts. I see it being driven more from a perspective of people's faith needing the Bible to be historically true than honestly approaching the texts and how they were meant to be read.

This doesn't mean they are not historically true. I don't see any need for the story of Sodom to be historically true. However, I think those who deny archaeological data supporting biblical Sodom's historicity due to their interpretations of the Bible aren't being fair or honest, either. While I am most definitely not even a novice or amateur at reviewing archaeological material, Collins' arguments make sense to me. His willingness to engage in debate and address disagreement lends credibility. He does seem to want to be academically honest with himself and others.

However, at the end of the day, does it matter whether Tall el-Hammam is biblical Sodom or not? Whether biblical Sodom was historically real or not? The latter may impact some people's respect of Genesis, but I think there's problems with that approach. I'm not sure identifying the physical location and archaeological remains of biblical Sodom really adds much to our understanding of the biblical world or narrative. Other archaeological sites can provide clarity, especially to more important narratives (yes, I'm saying the Sodom narrative is not one of the most critical). Some stories really can be elucidated more by archaeological evidence. But I'm not sure what the value added is to the Sodom narrative beyond it being it being interesting...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Against the Death Penalty

Earlier this month, Al Mohler wrote an editorial on CNN's Belief Blog about why Christians should support the death penalty. There were so many things wrong with this article that I was going to write some of my reactions. Thankfully, Roger Olson (who has FAR more followers than I do) wrote an excellent piece noting the many inaccuracies in Mohler's regularly flawed "logic."

One of my big areas of interest is in transformation and motivation (both of particular interest to both theology and psychology). I'll reiterate what Olson said in response to Mohler: the death penalty does NOT act as a deterrent. While many Christians may say it is a deterrent for them, they also probably wouldn't ever engage in the kind of crimes that would get the death penalty anyway. So who is it really a deterrent for?

This gets into a larger discussion of motivation. Many people (especially fundamentalist Christians) advocate for aversive punishment. While that may work for people who normally follow rules anyway, it's not terribly effective for those who are not necessarily automatically compliant. I would put the death penalty as an aversive punishment. And people who commit crimes to earn the death penalty are likely not terribly compliant. So we need to figure out a different approach.

Hint: Reinforcing desired behavior is the most effective approach for all people. But that means we have to approach people with grace, and why would Christians want to do that?!

This, then, also gets into the idea of transformation and redemption, absolutely central concepts to the Gospel and for me, a much more compelling reason to oppose capital punishment. If central to our faith is the idea that anybody can be redeemed (and ultimately at any time), then we need to give that opportunity. By killing someone, we are essentially stating that there is no hope for this individual. Is that our right? Should we really remove the ability of God to touch this person's life? Or some good to come through this individual? There's plenty of biblical stories about such redemption, transformation, and God using evil for good...

But Mohler and others argue that some people deserve death. We can get into long and drawn-out arguments over who can decide who deserves death. But let's suspend that. Let's assume some individuals do deserve death (frankly, hearing just a synopsis of the crimes the Oklahoma individuals have been convicted of gives me a gut reaction of them deserving death) AND that there is no doubt of guilt. Particularly for those who believe in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (which Mohler avows), then we all deserve death. Yet because of Christ's sacrifice, we are spared.

If God will grant a pardon from death, why shouldn't we do so, even if death is deserved?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Does the Building Matter?

Last week, I asked, "Does Dress Matter?" in regards to how we dress at church. This week, I want to look at the relevance of our buildings that (supposedly) inspire worship. Many readers know I was heavily involved in the Crystal Cathedral Ministries. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and got married on the campus (plus the last Star Trek movie was filmed there, which is awesome! :) ). But it was also regularly criticized for its opulence (okay, the women's bathroom was definitely extreme). Recently, there was an interesting post from a former critic of the building, recognizing some potential benefits of the architecture.

Yes, a lot of hungry people could have been fed with the money from building the Cathedral (and many other buildings worldwide). But how much have such buildings inspired people spiritually (and subsequently resulting in financial donations)? We'll probably never know for sure. However, I can say that these buildings have definitely inspired me over the years and helped keep me focused on the priorities of faith. This can seem ironic since the building can seem so superficial and in contrast to last week's post. But one of the things I loved about the grounds was how they emphasized a connection with nature, being able to see God all around us. The Chapel in the Sky was one of my favorite places, being able to see the surrounding community for miles, reminding me of the importance of touching all of these lives.

Extending one of the arguments from last week about the importance of making worship time different, I think the building really can do that. I've been part of congregations whose buildings are clearly churches, with stained glass windows and history built in, and those whose buildings were warehouses and looked more like theaters. I can't really imagine going back to the latter option. Part of it is in the style of worship that is too performance-driven for me now. But the other part is that those types don't feel like anything special or different. Walking into the Crystal Cathedral feels special. Walking into my current congregation's building feels special. It helps put me into a different mindset. There's a reason the Temple was to be created a certain way with increasing reverence for the increasing sanctity of the divisions, culminating in the Holy of Holies.

But I would resort back to my recommendation from last week. How about we create buildings that are meaningful to our own worship? After all, even buildings are simply social constructions (literally and figuratively). Just like dress, we shouldn't obtain a building to build our egos, but rather reorient ourselves to the reason we're worshipping.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).