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In first century Judaism, there were many views concerning what happened to people after they died. Following a very venerable tradition, some said that death was the end, that the dead simply returned to the dust of the earth from which they came. Others maintained that the righteous dead would rise at the close of the age. Still others thought that the souls of the just went to live with God after the demise of their bodies. There were even some who believed in a kind of reincarnation.

What is particularly fascinating about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is that none of these familiar frameworks of understanding is invoked. The first witnesses maintain that the same Jesus who had been brutally and unmistakably put to death and buried was, through the power of God, alive again. He was not vaguely “with God,” nor had his soul escaped from his body; nor had he risen in a purely symbolic or metaphorical sense. He, Jeshoua from Nazareth, the friend whom they knew, was alive again. What was expected for all the righteous dead at the end of time had happened, in time, to this one particular man, to this Jesus. It was the very novelty of the event that gave such energy and verve to the first Christian proclamation. On practically every page of the New Testament, we find a grab-you-by-the-lapels quality, for the early Christians were not trading in bland spiritual abstractions or moral bromides. They were trying to tell the whole world that something so new and astounding had happened that nothing would ever again be the same.
Posted: 4/17/2014 9:01:39 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


Well, it’s Easter time, and that means that the mainstream media and publishing houses can be counted upon to issue de-bunking attacks on orthodox Christianity. The best-publicized of these is Bart Ehrman’s latest book How Jesus Became God. Many by now know at least the outlines of Ehrman’s biography: once a devout Bible-believing evangelical Christian, trained at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham, he saw the light and became an agnostic scholar and is now on a mission to undermine the fundamental assumptions of Christianity. In this most recent tome, Ehrman lays out what is actually a very old thesis, going back at least to the 18th century and repeated ad nauseam in skeptical circles ever since, namely, that Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher who never claimed to be divine and whose “resurrection” was in fact an invention of his disciples who experienced hallucinations of their master after his death. Of course Ehrman, like so many of his skeptical colleagues across the centuries, breathlessly presents this thesis as though he has made a brilliant discovery. But basically, it’s the same old story. When I was a teenager, I read British Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot, which lays out the same narrative, and just a few months ago, I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which pursues a very similar line, and I’m sure next Christmas or Easter I will read still another iteration of the theory.
Posted: 4/15/2014 11:18:12 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic re-telling of the story of Noah has certainly stirred people up.  While quite a few reviewers, both religious and non-religious, have given the film high marks, many Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, have registered a far less than enthusiastic reaction.  One prominent Catholic bloggerand movie reviewer opined that “Noah” is “embarrassingly awful” and “the stupidest film in years.”  Most of the religious critics have complained that the film plays fast and loose with the Genesis account, adding all sorts of distracting and fantastic elements to the well-known story.  In the midst of all of this—and no doubt in part because of it—“Noah” took in $44 million on its opening weekend.
 
“Noah” is best interpreted, I think, as a modern cinematic midrash on the Biblical tale.  The midrashim—extremely popular in ancient Israel—were imaginative elaborations of the often spare Scriptural narratives.  They typically explored the psychological motivations of the major players in the stories and added creative plot lines, new characters, etc.  In the midrashic manner, Aronofsky’s film presents any number of extra-Biblical elements, including a conversation between Noah and his grandfather Methuselah, an army of angry men eager to force their way onto the ark, a kind of incense that lulls the animals to sleep on the ship, and most famously (or infamously), a race of fallen angels who have become incarnate as stone monsters.  These latter characters are not really as fantastic or arbitrary as they might seem at first blush.  Genesis tells us that the Noah story unfolds during the time of the Nephilim, a term that literally means “the fallen” and that is usually rendered as “giants.”  Moreover, in the extra-Biblical book of Enoch, the Nephilim are called “the watchers,” a usage reflected in the great hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.”  In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the stone giants are referred to by the same name.
Posted: 4/1/2014 9:19:30 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


Seth MacFarlane, well known atheist and cartoonist, is the executive producer of the remake of “Cosmos,” which recently made its national debut. The first episode featured, along with the science, an animated feature dealing with the sixteenth century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by Church officials. A brooding statue of Bruno stands today in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on the very spot where the unfortunate friar was put to death. In MacFarlane’s cartoon, Bruno is portrayed as a hero of modern science, and church officials are, without exception, depicted as wild-eyed fanatics and unthinking dogmatists. As I watched this piece, all I could think was...here we go again. Avatars of the modern ideology feel obligated to tell their great foundation myth over and over, and central to that narrative is that both the physical sciences and liberal political arrangements emerged only after a long twilight struggle against the reactionary forces of religion, especially the Catholic religion. Like the effigies brought out to be burned on Guy Fawkes Day, the bugbear of intolerant and violent Catholicism has to be exposed to ridicule on a regular basis.
Posted: 3/18/2014 5:07:54 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


The first reading for Mass on the first Sunday of Lent this year, taken from Genesis 3, deals with the creation of human beings and their subsequent fall from friendship with God. Like a baseball coach who compels even his veterans to re-learn the basics of the game every spring, the Church invites us, during the spring training of Lent, to re-visit the spiritual fundamentals. And they are on no clearer display than in this great archetypal story.

We hear that “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” The God of the Bible never despises matter, for he created it, and everything that he made is good. Our bodies are indeed made from the earth, from the lowly stuff of atoms, molecules, and minerals. It is of singular importance to realize that sin is not a function of matter, not the consequence of our embodied nature. God exults in our physicality, and so should we. But we are more than mere matter, for God blew into us a life akin to his own and ordered to him: minds that seek absolute truth, and wills that desire goodness itself, and souls that will not rest until they come into the presence of the fullness of beauty. The tragedy of the secularist ideology is that it denies this properly spiritual dimension of human existence, reducing everything in us to matter alone and construing the deepest aspirations of the heart as psychological quirks or wish-fulfilling delusions. Thomas Aquinas said that the human being is a sort of microcosm, for he contains within himself both the physical and the spiritual. To know and honor both dimensions of our humanity is the path of joyful integration; to overstress one or the other is, concomitantly, a principle source of mischief.
Posted: 3/3/2014 2:36:50 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


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