Friday, December 22, 2006

Jesus, The Miracle Worker

When contemplating the life and teachings of Jesus, there is no way to ignore the many miracles he performed – even if his death and resurrection are put aside. Each Sunday the Communion/Sacrament commemorates the glorious miracle of the Atonement in our faith. Perhaps because Jesus is already seen as the Savior not as much attention is paid to the miracles during his ministry. Yet, the gospel writers all included several illustrations of his power over Satan, Nature, and even Death long before his glorious act of salvation for the human race. They were included because the miracles demonstrated more than simple awe inspiring spiritual strength. Each of them pointed to his identity and mission.

His Reputation

Before the meaning of the miracles can be discussed, it is important to note that Jesus was perhaps best known as a miracle worker almost as much as a teacher. In fact, his first notable introduction as something special came during a family wedding party where he turned water into wine. His critics pointedly questioned when and to whom he did his miracles, without denying he did them. John, independent of the other Gospels, even implied that it was the miracle of raising Lazarus that angered the Jewish leadership enough to plot against his life. A contested reference to Jesus by Josephus includes the fact of his miracles even in a stripped down "non-Christianized" version:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Strength of Jesus

This is a post written April 15, 06 that I feel would be good to reprint during the Christmas season. It has to do with how we view Jesus compared to what the scriptures say about his character.

Many people picture Jesus Christ as sitting with lambs and doting over children. His message is filled with ideas about love and acceptance of strangers. These are not bad ideas and do represent the core of his teachings. Yet, there is part of Jesus that is often overlooked in today's "free love" and "politically correct" society. He was a tough guy who wasn't afraid to speak his mind or face danger.

Not much is known about his first thirty years. What is known is that he lived a hard life filled with much hard labor. The modern English says he was a carpenter. This means he would have worked with heavy materials without the help of mechanical tools. Some question the original Greek word used for the word "carpenter" and believe he was more like a general laborer. That still doesn't take away from the fact he would have lived a hard life. Physically he wouldn't be the thin waif often pictured in artwork through the centuries.

He could also be fearless and brash. Walking on water is used to express the idea of doing the impossible. Yet, an even greater miracle is the calming of the stormy sea during a fishing trip. The manly apostles worried that the ship was going to be swallowed up by the waves. Jesus, on the other hand, stood up to nature's rage. The waters and winds became calm and they were able to safely return to land.

Love might be his principle characteristic, but he could be mean when he felt justified. His mission was almost exclusively to the Jews, and he made that clear. One time he basically called the Gentiles "dogs" who were not worthy of his attention. A woman acknowledged the humble position of her Greek heritage in the scheme of Covenant history and begged mercy. Jesus took pity on the woman and healed one of her relatives from a distance. The lesson was to be tough, but be prepared to show compassion to those who are not offended by what you see as your mission in life. On the other hand, he showed no compassion for a small fig tree that didn't bear fruit. It was shrivled to nothing. Some, who see Jesus as simply a harmless kitten, believe this is uncharacteristic of Jesus and probably didn't happen. Yet, the lesson was clear. Israel of that generation as the fig tree was ready to be destroyed. Not a very nice and loving idea.

Among the strongest pictures of Jesus was his last days on Earth as a mortal. This was best portrayed in the movie "Passion of the Christ," even if it went beyond what it probably was like. Still, with even half of that as true it would have been nearly unbearable. He was tortured, mocked, and eventually nailed to a cross and hardly spoke. The two times he came off as "wimpy" was asking his Father for a different way and crying to his Father that he was abandoned. Yet, he let go of his doubts and finished the greatest sacrifice of time and eternity.
The sacrifice of the Atonment allowed Jesus the Christ to overcame Death and Hell; no tasks for the faint of heart. John's vision of the Heavely Jesus was hardly the feminine flower of a smiling man (Revelation 19:11-16):

11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.
12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.
13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.
14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
15 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

It might be hard to know what to do with such a picture in our day when peace, love, and acceptance are the only aspects of Jesus most people consider. What can be learned is that strength, courage, and boldness are as important as compassion and charity. At times they go hand in hand when faced with the cruelty and evil of the World around us. Lets remember the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a moment of strength and courage and not fear or weakness. Too often we act like our faith is more like a shrinking violet than a tall redwood.

The following are quotes of interest from comments made the last time this was published:

"You are so right. One reason why I have a hard time in RS, is because of what happened when I turned 18. One of my first RS lessons I went to in my homeward was this very discussion. I mentioned that meekness is not to be equated with weakness, and that he was a very strong individual, he just knew what battles to fight, what was really important, he was no pushover. It is the same thing in today's society, thinking that the opposite of war is peace, when in reality we have to be able to fight for freedom and peace, to do anything more is to give way to those that would take our freedoms from us."
-- Tigersue

"It is a fact that Jesus is not weak physically...Although most medieval art depicts otherwise.Seriously though imagine all the beatings and the eventual suffering at Calvary...remembing that his body was mortal at that time . . .

. . . Many people are shocked when they think of Christ using perhaps a synonym for quite literally "Damn you Pharisees!" as "Wo! Ye scribes..." Just to not shock everyone too much, it is important to note that Christ is the ONLY person who actually has the authority to say this word in this sense (or true prophets speaking for him), since Judgment is given into his hands."
-- Anonymous

Saturday, December 09, 2006

(t)Cross Talk

Over the years many have questioned the Christian nature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the many different beliefs it holds from more traditional sects of the religion. Those who are most against the concept of Mormons as Christians do so with the narrowest of theological terms. As Latter-day Saints argue, we have the name of Christ in our official designation, we worship him as Son of God and Savior, and etc. Probably the most recent attack has to do with symbols, particularly the lack of the Cross. It can be confusing to those who are used to the cross symbol as a "universal" sign of Christian Faith. Why don't we use Crosses? That is an easy one to answer today, but not an easy answer for the past.

I believe, from my research, that the absents of a Cross is an "accident" of history. Not that I don't think there were deliberate reasons - as the LDS Church has been using other symbols since almost the start. The Angel Moroni seemed to have replaced the Cross as a symbol because it represented many of the key teachings of the Church. It carries the Book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in another. This represents Restoration of the Gospel, calling of the Elect, Resurrection and Judgment, and etc. The Cross did not get added to the plethora of other symbols available for iconography. One blogger speculated on its lack of use:

I think that it never became part of our own tradition for purely historical reasons (our roots in thoroughly aniconic and anti-papist evangelical Protestantism) and that the reasons now given are mostly etiology

This is something I have been thinking for a long time. The reasons for a lack of a Cross was never explained until much later in the history of the Church when the question was forced upon Mormons from outside influences. Mainly I would like to know where I can find a history of the Cross (specifically as it relates to "aniconic" and "anti-papist evangelical Protestantism"). What I have found, or not found in this case, is a nearly silent record of the subject.

There is no talk of the physical use of a cross symbol in the early Church, at least what I have read so far. It seems no one particularly thought of mentioning the lack of use as important. There was no refuting, explaining, or even discussion of the issue. From the Mormon records the exclusion seems to have just happened. The LDS tradition of symbols has carried over to today from the Puritan disdain of outward symbols as idol worship. Chapels might have one large picture, if any at all, and no other art. Very few Temples have iconographic images on the outside, and contain simple and traditional religious paintings on the inside that are mostly decoration.

It isn't that Joseph Smith didn't understand the power of the Cross, both religiously and as a sign of the Atonement. He might not have had it incorporated into the Church, but he did mention it at least once as part of the architecture of Heaven:

While we ask peace and protection for the Saints, wherever they may be, we also solicit the charity and benevolence of all the worthy of the earth, to purchase the righteous a holy home, a place of rest, and a land of peace; believing that no man who knows he has a soul will keep back his mite, but cast it in for the benefit of Zion; thus, when time is no longer, he, with all the ransomed of the Lord, may stand in the fullness of joy, and view the grand pillar of heaven, which was built by the faith and charity of the Saints, beginning at Adam, with his motto in the base, "Repent and live," surrounded with a beautiful circle sign, supported by a cross about midway up its lofty column, staring the world in letters of blood, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand;" and finished with a plain top towering up in the midst of the celestial world-around which is written by the finger of Jehovah, "Eternal Life is the greatest gift of God."

-History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edited by B. H. Roberts. 2d ed., rev. Vol. 2, Ch. 8, pg. 133. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51.

Other instances of the mention of the Cross were more about observing traditions of others. There wasn't a condemnation as such as much as curiosity. In a visit to Greece as part of his trip to Palistine, Lorenzo Snow mentioned:

It is customary to make the sign of the cross in the following manner: Uniting the tips of the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, and touching alternately the forehead, navel, right breast and left breast, three times in rapid succession, whenever passing a church, seeing the cross, or hearing the name of the Savior spoken. They have a singular form for burying the dead. I witnessed the ceremony of burying two persons, who apparently had occupied respectable positions in society. The processions were preceded by boys ii, white robes, carrying a crucifix and other ecclesiastic insignia of considerable splendor, followed by priests, chanting in a low, monotonous, melancholy tone, while all hats were off and every hand was making the sign of the cross, as the solemn train was passing along the crowded thoroughfare; the corpse, with ghastly features exposed to full view in an open coffin, covered with white cloth, variously decorated; the lid of the coffin, painted with a large cross, was carried along in the procession, in an upright position. The corpse was dressed in the clothing customarily worn while living; the head partially elevated, and the hands folded in front of a picture of the Virgin, placed an his breast.

-Athens Greece description. Smith, Eliza R. Snow. Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Company, 570.

Probably the first time the question of a lack of Cross use was widely recognized was from Joseph Fielding Smith. Again, there isn't a blanket condemnation of the Cross iconography. There is a forceful rejection of its use for LDS members:

Answer: While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the Church. The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture. To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God. However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . .

. . . To many, like the writer, such a custom is repugnant and contrary to the true worship of our Redeemer. Why should we bow down before a cross or use it as a symbol? Because our Savior died on the cross, the wearing of crosses is to most Latter-day Saints in very poor taste and inconsistent to our worship. Of all the ways ever invented for taking life and the execution of individuals, among the most cruel is likely the cross. This was a favorite method among the Romans who excelled in torture. We may be definitely sure that if our Lord had been killed with a dagger or with a sword, it would have been very strange indeed if religious people of this day would have graced such a weapon by wearing it and adoring it because it was by such a means that our Lord was put to death.

-Smith, Joseph Fielding. Answers to Gospel Questions. vol. 4. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957-1966.

The current LDS Pressident, Gordon B. Hinkley, has been the most vocal in his explanation of why the Cross iconography is not used. He gave a talk on the subject when he was an Elder and then repeated the message in the Ensign when he was Prophet of the Church. The message is clear; The Cross shouldn't be an outside symbol, but an inward one:

I responded: “I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian brethren who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ.”

He then asked: “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?”

I replied that the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.

-Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Christ,” Ensign, May 1975, 92 and “The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, Apr. 2005, 3

Elder Marvin J. Ashton expressed exactly how Mormons are to use the symbol of the Cross as part of their lives. He stated:

Over the centuries, in the minds of millions of people, the cross has been recognized as a symbol of Christianity. But rather than displaying the cross, we prefer to try carrying our crosses.

The Lord’s message to us is “Take up your cross.” Take yourself the way you are, and lift yourself in the direction of the better. Regardless of where you have been, what you have done, or what you haven’t done, trust God. Believe in him. Worship him as you carry your cross with dignity and determination.

As we read in Matthew, we save our lives by losing them for the Lord’s sake. As we lose ourselves, we will find God. That is his promise, and I declare that it is true.

But what kind of cross do we each bear? What is its shape, weight, size, or dimension? The crosses we may carry are many: the cross of loneliness, the cross of physical limitations—loss of a leg, an arm, hearing, seeing, or mobility. These are obvious crosses. We see people with these crosses, and we admire their strength in carrying them with dignity. Poor health can be a cross, as can transgression, success, temptation, beauty, fame, or wealth. Financial burdens can be a cross. So can criticism or peer rejection.

-Marvin J. Ashton, “Carry Your Cross,” Ensign, Feb. 1988, 69.

Finally, if Mormons don't use the Cross as the physical symbol of Jesus and the Atonment, what do they use? Of course, baptism is the earliest symbol of the death and resurrection as it represents a new birth as members of the Church. Besides that, the most visible symbol is the Sacrement (or Communion) taken each week during Sunday services. In fact, it is the one outward symbol of Christ that there is no question Jesus initiated. Elder David B. Haight said:

Usually once a week, for a little more than an hour, we have the opportunity to attend sacrament meeting and reflect on the life of our Savior; to recall with deep gratitude and reverence His life of purity, kindness, and love; to reflect upon the great atoning sacrifice; and to partake of the broken bread, symbolic of His torn flesh, and drink of the cup, symbolic of His blood that was shed on the cross.

The Savior taught the Nephites that “I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.

“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; … that I might draw all men unto me.” (3 Ne. 27:13–14.)

As we partake of the sacrament and reflect upon His sacrifice for each of us, we make a solemn commitment to keep the commandments which He has given us, that by so doing we might always have His spirit to be with us. . .

- David B. Haight, “The Sacrament,” Ensign, May 1983, 12.

It isn't that Mormons are fearful of the Cross or should be against anyone who uses it for religious devotion. Obviously, some LDS leaders have expressed serious reservations as to its iconographic meaning. What has happened is that the leadership of the Church have tried to internalize the Cross as a personal approach to the struggles of life. Historically there isn't a view of the physical Cross either positive or negative, so much as simply a lack of attention to that particular "logo" with so many other choices. That means that, not taking into account cultural norms, a Cross isn't against LDS belief or possible expression. Still, there are serious statements of concern over what it represents or how other symbols might be better reminders of faith. As with other things, even CTR rings, we must be careful drawing the line between symbol and idol.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The New Jesus for Mormons

Many years ago before my mission, as a teenager contemplating going, I read four "The Missionary Reference Library" books. Although they increased my understanding and spiritual maturity, only one of them had a concrete lasting impact as a text. That would be "Jesus The Christ" by James E. Talmage. I latched on to what he was doing as much as what he was saying. His work forever changed the way I studied Jesus Christ and his life and teachings.

One of the important things he did was research both the theological and historical narrative of Jesus' mission. The book is specifically a theological treatise exploring the traditional LDS Scriptures and religious implications. Beyond that he adds information about 1st Century history and culture. This helps bring Jesus into context instead of allowing for a completely de-centralized amorphous figure. Of course, there were two major problems with his integration. Much of the sources used were already outdated even during his time. Those that he did use were of a particular viewpoint that didn't engage in other studies (even ones that wouldn't be harmful to his own thesis). Still, no other major LDS work on Jesus before or after the book followed his example. Even the multi-volume Bruce R. McConkie tome was a wordy re-hash more than imitation.

What I did learn was to go beyond the mere text of the Bible (gospels in particular) and explore other avenues of research. This might sound counter-intuitive from the purpose of "Jesus The Christ," but I became interested in the Jesus of history. What I found was that, outside of the LDS Church, there were many people who were equally interested. The problem was that most of them didn't believe in the Jesus of Faith. It became frustrating for me to discover so many new ways of understanding the life of the Savior, only to have those same writers dismiss things I find most dear and important. A part of me wanted to glean what I could from them and then fill in my religious understandings where they departed. Strangly enough, I found that I could.

Another blog discusses Timothy Johnson's book The Real Jesus, and the line between faith and history. There is a quote that Dave presents as a question:

Christians direct their faith not to this historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between that Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ's power in the present. Christian faith is not directed to a human construction about the past; that would be a form of idolatry. Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (p. 142-43)

Despite my agreement with Johnson's critique of "Historical Jesus" researchers, I have serious issues with his final opinion. To me this is equally problematic if taken to its logical conclusion. Even if it is true that our Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is ultimately beyond time and history, it still has much of its roots in history. As was paraphrased, "On this view, history becomes the written record we make (selective, based on available evidence rather than an omnipotent knowledge of all past events), not the underlying events themselves." Knowing this, all Scripture is related to history and you must understand that history in order to interpret the text as intended. Perhaps this is what Joseph Smith meant when he said he believed the Bible as written by the original authors. Not that the authentic autograph text was best, but that the intended meanings of the authors was closest to the truth. And that is tied to the cultural and historical backgrounds behind their words.

The first post I did, before getting completely involved writing on the blog, was a critique of a book criticism. It still represents my feelings on the issue:

Deep down I suppose that the biography of Jesus Christ I have been wanting to write -- or at least read about -- is a believer's version of the several anti-divinity histor-biographies. The only person of that kind I have been able to find is [N.T. Wright] who looks at the Divine Christ with an understanding of the historical periods. Instead I am stuck with having to read doubters who have studied Jewish/Christian connections, or believers who reject the whole idea of the connection between them.

With some surprise, I am finding small lists of people are taking this position seriously inside the LDS community. There are a select few authors now introducing years of worthwhile reading to Scripture study. Similar to myself, they aren't caught up in the so-called dichotomy of faith and history as inseperable. Rather, they find it more illuminating than scandalous. The work of Talmage is starting to come full circle once again; returning and even going beyond what his classic book started.

There is still, however, a concern that the history will take over the theology. At least one reviewer seemed happy that there was less quotes from General Authorities (can't remember where I found it). Going that direction would be a disaster and make what I consider a positive step rather pointless. Of all the Christian denominations, Mormonism is most able to accept the possibility that history and faith can work together. There are several reasons for this, but that would be separate discussions.