The Illiterate Apostles?

Saint George Preca has been likened as a succe...

The notion of apostles as “illiterate” would have been a surprise to many throughout history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NPR recently interviewed Reza Aslan, a Muslim convert to Christianity who later left the church, but never lost his fascination with Jesus. He has a new book out about Jesus called Zealot.

Overall, I found the views expressed in the interview to be much more nuanced and considered than many of those from ex-Christians who write books about Jesus. In particular, his point that Jesus was crucified for sedition is a good one, though his following point that one should focus on the death of Jesus, rather than his birth, isn’t going to cause too many waves among practicing Christians. Those “in the know” have always recognized that Easter is more important than Christmas.

This part, though, about the education of the apostles and nature of the New Testament struck me as an example of someone applying anachronistic assumptions about authorship and literacy to ancient texts.

[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman [sic]. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn’t really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn’t write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora…

Some of the apostles were fishermen, certainly. Matthew was a tax-collector, but for most of them, we simply don’t know what their professions were. (I don’t know where he gets “farmers” from – none of the apostles are ever identified as farmers.) Considering the economy of 1st century Judea, “farmer” seems like a decent enough guess for their professions. On the other hand, Jesus spends much of his ministry in cities, and we learn in Luke 8 that his disciples included several wealthy women from prominent households.

Further, as Kenneth Bailey (among others) has written, “literacy” in the ancient Middle East was quite different than the skills we think of as “literacy.” The inability to read or write should not be confused as a measure of an ancient person’s education or intelligence. In  oral cultures, the ability to remember and recite is more highly valued than in our contemporary culture. The Pharisees, for example, believed that the oral traditions transmitted alongside the written Hebrew Scriptures were indispensable for correct theology. (This oral tradition was eventually written down as part of the Talmud.) It’s virtually certain that the apostles, like many other first century Jews, had large amounts of Scripture committed to memory. The New Testament implies that they did the same with Jesus’ life and teachings. (For example, Paul uses technical language from rabbinic educational methods to describe how he was taught about the resurrection.)

As far as the fact that others wrote down the Gospels and other early Christian letters, the New Testament freely admits as much. The use of secretaries and scribes was common in the Ancient Near East; we have records of prominent politicians and scholars discussing  their reliance on literate servants.

Finally, regarding the apostles’ abilities to “espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was” – well, who could? Observing that the scribes of the New Testament were urban Hellenistic Jews doesn’t really explain anything. As I have written before, the ethical and theological content of the New Testament, written by a handful of authors from the same small circle of disciples in a very compact geographic area over a couple of decades, is unprecedented in human history. Matthew’s Beatitudes, Mark’s miracles, Luke’s parables, John’s high Christology (yet written in such simple Greek), Paul’s ethics and theology, the typological faith of the anonymous author of Hebrews, the powerful apocalyptic imagery of Revelation – is this output any less remarkable if we think the authors were Greek-speaking city dwellers?

How do we account for this sudden explosion of religious genius? It’s as if Gandhi, MLK, Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama all went to the same kindergarten.

One final thought: a book about Jesus by someone named Aslan? If this guy were an orthodox Christian, no one would believe it.

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Hey Dilbert: Don’t make fun of the unemployed.

Disclaimer: I take comic strips very seriously. Just ask my wife.

Dilbert (character)

Dilbert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fan of the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams. Last year, it provided some much needed humor during an awful work situation. But yesterday and the day before, Adams decided to turn his mockery toward the long-term unemployed. He has introduced an unnamed character who has been “out of work for such a long time.” First, he’s depicted as falling out of a chair, because he can’t figure out how it works. In the second strip, he’s told that the corporate policy manual is kept “in the cloud,” so he looks up to the sky to find it. Basically, the guy is stupid, incompetent, and ignorant of anything resembling recent technology (if “the cloud” can still be considered “recent.”)

Hilarious. Adams manages to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes about long-term unemployment through a couple of not-very-funny jokes.

Recently, I was underemployed for about six months, working part time for a former employer and doing several freelance projects to make ends meet. During this period, I met many people who had been unemployed or underemployed for far longer. Several of them had been actively searching for work for years. I met most of them at a local organization called the Job Search Focus Group, which I highly recommend for anyone in Greater Cincinnati looking for a new job.

The long-term unemployed fell into a few different groups:

  1. The largest, by far, were people in their 50s and 60s who were far OVERqualified for the positions they were applying for. They kept losing out to folks in their 20s and 30s who, because they had much less experience, were much less expensive to hire.
  2. For others, their entire industry had imploded because of structural changes in the economy. They were struggling, not to learn new skills, but to communicate how their already-polished skills transferred to other fields.
  3. Finally, there were those who had been out of the workforce because of non-job-related issues, such as taking care of their family or dealing with an illness. In a few cases, illness had left the person unable to continue in their former line of work, so they were in the midst of reinventing their entire career. It takes most of us 20 or so years to prepare for our first career, so you might see how starting a second career might take some time.

According to Adams, such people can’t even be trusted to sit in a chair.

Most of Adams’ humor is directed toward people in power, such as managers and CEOs, toward annoying office habits that all of us encounter (and have been guilt of), or towards absurd figures like talking animals who want to take over the world. Here, Adams has chosen to laugh at someone facing an extremely difficult personal transition, one which our society regards as shameful, and emphasize that his shame is deserved because he is too stupid to hold down a job.

Adams began Dilbert while working at Pacific Bell in the 80s and early 90s, and he’s had a long relationship with United Media. Telecom and journalism have both been through major upheavals since the 1980s. How many people has Adams worked with who have faced long-term unemployment?

You might reply that Dilbert is a comic strip and that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I’m not so sure about that latter part. One of the strengths of humor is its ability to “speak truth to power.” Dilbert’s caricatures of clueless manager and selfish CEOs have resonated with millions because those are the people with the power. Posting a Dilbert comic on your office cubicle is a small, harmless way to coping with the absurdities of American office life. Humor exposes truths that are too difficult to talk about with a straight face.

In this case, instead of “speaking truth to power,” Adams has chosen to “speak mockery to the powerless.” And that’s not funny.

Hymns for Good Friday

Last year, our family joined a church that observes the church calendar and uses traditional liturgy in its worship. During Advent, I was able to contribute a new hymn to the church’s worship, and tonight, during our Tenebrae service, we’ll be singing two of the Good Friday hymns I wrote for my master’s thesis. You can download the full set here.

Early in the service, the congregation will sing “The Second Word: The Song of the Thief.” The hymns follow the story of the crucifixion, and several of them are written from the perspective of one or more of the participants. In this case, it is the thief on the cross next to Jesus, who is struggling to understand how Jesus can promise him Paradise while dying on the cross. Continue reading

How to Research a Nonprofit During Your Job Search

research

Research: the job seeker’s best friend!

For several years, I led the nonprofit ethics program of the Cincinnati Better Business Bureau, where my job involved close examinations of nonprofit financial statements, annual reports, and fundraising materials, to evaluate whether local charities met national standards of accountability. If you’re considering a position at a nonprofit, here are some key documents and resources to include in your research, especially if you’re applying for a leadership role.

Note: These are primarily resources for researching 501(c)(3) organizations, which are the most common and most widely recognized type of nonprofit. Other groups, such as political, labor, or trade associations, will have some of these documents available. For churches, synagogues, mosques, and some religiously affiliated organizations, you’ll need to rely on their internal documents if you want to do this kind of research.

Annual Reports

Most established nonprofits put together an annual report of some kind. It might be nothing more than a special issue of their donor newsletter, or it could be 64-page glossy magazine expensively designed and produced. The annual report is often available on the organization’s website or by asking for a copy.[1] The annual report, if it’s done well, will contain several key pieces of information that will greatly help you in your research: Continue reading

Fasting from Snark

The cover of the poem The Hunting of the Snark

The cover of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark

This past weekend, I attended a Via de Christo men’s retreat near Seymour, Indiana. This is the Lutheran version of the Cursillo 3-day retreat that originated in Spain among Catholics in the 1940s and has since spread around the world.

My sponsor, Greg Geiser, asked me to leave my phone at home for the weekend, so that I would be able to focus more easily on the retreat, rather than spending my free time checking email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., etc. This request became easier to obey when I dropped my iPhone in the church parking lot and shattered the screen a few days before the retreat. We were also asked to put away our watches for the weekend, to help us focus on each moment as it came and rely on the retreat staff for our schedule, instead of anticipating the next meal or tracking how long an activity was taking. So, for a period of about 84 hours, I didn’t have any means of telling the time or checking in with my usual media feeds.

Two observations stuck with me from this experience of leaving my phone at home.

I too often use social media to “check out” of my immediate location. Throughout the retreat, there were several period of down time — waiting in line for meals, waiting for the next activity to start, walking from one building to another — when I was tempted to pull out my phone and check Twitter or Google Reader. Then I remembered that I didn’t have my phone. Instead, I had to be present wherever I happened to be. This led to several conversations that I would not have otherwise had, as well as a beautiful early morning view of snow falling on a lake that I would have missed completely if I were laying in bed reading Twitter.

Social media fuels my natural snarkiness and allows me to indulge in dehumanizing sarcasm. The men at the retreat were, in many ways, a microcosm of the church, comprising a wide range of education and income levels, as well as a few with rather “unique” theological perspectives. I wish I was more mature than this, but several times a sarcastic thought crossed my mind. Without Facebook or Twitter to record my passive-aggressive sarcasm, though, my sarcasm had nowhere to bloom, and the thought was killed on the vine. As the weekend went on, I found the sarcastic coming less and less often, and the other men became brothers in Christ to me, rather than punchlines to a joke. (Well, most of them did, anyway.)

Upon returning to the real world, I’ve been less tempted to use social media to distance myself from my surroundings or depersonalize other people. As the residual effects of the retreat fade, here’s hoping that this weekend marked a change in my relationship with technology.