12/29/13

Noah, heed the oracle: build yourself a coracle

 

Noah, heed the oracle: build yourself a coracle

James Gillespie Published: 15 December 2013

Noah’s ark in an 1860 engraving: the vessel may have been round, the book claimsNoah’s ark in an 1860 engraving: the vessel may have been round, the book claims (Getty)

A NEW book claims that Noah’s ark was round, constructed from reeds and had two decks with cabins for the animals.

In The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, Irving Finkel, an expert in deciphering the ancient cuneiform script, pieces together evidence suggesting the vessel was much different from the image we have of a traditional ship.

The evidence comes from a 3,700-year-old tablet of clay covered in cuneiform writing.

When it was deciphered by Finkel it revealed instructions for building a round coracle 65 metres in diameter with walls six metres high, and a roof. It was to be made from ropes and rushes waterproofed with bitumen, and the animals were to be loaded “two by two”.

Plans are now under way to reconstruct the circular ark for a Channel 4 documentary.

According to the translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atra-Hasis, a Sumerian king who is the Noah figure in early versions of the ark story.

“Pay heed to my advice, that you may live for ever!” he exhorts, before urging him to destroy his house and “build a boat . . . and save life!”

Finkel says in the book that he found the cuneiform tablet also has a “detailed instruction manual for building an ark”. Cuneiform is one of the earliest forms of writing and comprises a series of wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

“I worked very industriously on that inscription, wedge by cuneiform wedge,” Finkel says.

The tablet was found in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, who served in the RAF from 1945-48.

It was largely ignored until his son Douglas took it to the British Museum in 2008, where Finkel is the assistant keeper of the ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures department.

Archaeologists have long sought evidence for the story of Noah’s flood but many believe the ancient myth was simply incorporated into the Old Testament.

12/27/13

Values are the best present that a parent can give a child

Values are the best present that a parent can give a child

Ephraim Mirvis

The children’s wait is now over. The presents have been given with thought and affection.

While most are enjoying their new gifts, many who were underwhelmed by the choices made by their loved ones have rushed to offload unwanted items online, almost as soon as they received them.

Gifts are as important for the giver as they are for the receiver. The more we give of ourselves, the more our lives are enhanced and ennobled.

An ancient Jewish teaching contrasts Israel’s two landlocked seas, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The former is famous for being one of the largest sweet water lakes, while the high salinity of the latter inhibits sea-life in its waters. The River Jordan, sourced at the Banias spring at the foot of Mount Hermon, flows into the Sea of Galilee. At the southernmost point of the sea, the Jordan re-emerges and its waters reach the Dead Sea, from which there is no outlet.

The Sea of Galilee embodies generosity and giving, leading to sweet consequences. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, reminds us that talking alone will never lead to anything positive. Furthermore, the Sea of Galilee is harp-shaped (hence its name in Hebrew, Kinneret, meaning harp), representing the melodious joy associated with reciprocity. The intriguing name “Dead Sea” conveys the message that existing only to receive is not an existence at all.

In this spirit, the Hebrew for love is ahava, derived from the root hav, meaning to give. A truly enriching relationship provides life-enhancing opportunities to give and share through selfless love.

A guest in the home of Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt, the 18th-century founder of the family dynasty, once turned to his host and inquired, with much chutzpah, “How much are you worth?” In reply, Rothschild took out a ledger with the word “Charity” on it and started to tot up some figures. The surprised visitor exclaimed: “Perhaps you didn’t understand my question. I asked you what you have, not what you have given away”. Rothschild smiled and said: “I understood you perfectly well. When I die, I will leave all my material wealth behind. The only thing that I will, in truth, be able to take with me is the merit of that which I have given away. Consequently, all that I really possess is that which I give.”

One of the first references to gifts in the Bible relates to Abraham’s last will and testament. “And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the children of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts” (Genesis xxv, 5-6). These verses seemingly contradict one another. If Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac, what was left to comprise the gifts for his other children?

Abraham gave Isaac all that meant everything to him — his identity, his values and his faith. To his other children he gave material gifts. Abraham gave the rest of his progeny something to live with, while to Isaac he gave something to live for.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, endured indescribable suffering in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Reflecting on the meaning of life after his experiences in The Unheard Cry For Meaning , he says: “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

As parents we love showering presents upon our children. But the greatest gift of all is to empower our children to have meaning and fulfilment, through a life of values that transcends a hunger for materialistic gain. By endowing “everything” we have to the next generation, we will not only give them something to live for, we will also provide them with the means to thrive in all of life’s circumstances.

Empowerment, unlike an unwanted gift, will never end up on eBay. As Viktor Frankl said: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

12/26/13

Book Review: ‘Jesus,’ by Jay Parini.

BOOKSHELF

Book Review: ‘Jesus,’ by Jay Parini.

Either the New Testament Gospels are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. 

By

BARTON SWAIM
Dec. 23, 2013 7:24 p.m. ET
One of the wonderful qualities of the New Testament’s four Gospels is that they force you either to embrace or reject them. You can study the Gospels as “literature” if you like, but their logic subverts any attempt to treat them as you would treat other literary texts. “Hamlet” may reach dizzying heights of sublimity and repay a lifetime of study, but it doesn’t ask for radical changes in your thought and behavior and has no power to compel them.

Three centuries of critical New Testament scholarship haven’t changed this. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, an attempt to interpret the canonical Gospel texts without reference to supernatural explanations, began with German scholarship in the 18th century, gradually took hold of universities and divinity schools elsewhere in Europe and America during the 19th century, and exploded in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. Hundreds, probably thousands, of books purporting to explain the identity and intentions of Jesus of Nazareth have been published since the “quest” began in the 1770s; and yet, despite scholars’ confident pronouncements about how Jesus went from political revolutionary or peaceable philosopher to Eternal Son of God, the Gospels’ claims about him are neither more nor less plausible than they were before.

Skeptical or “critical” New Testament scholarship begins with the assumption that the Gospels’ claims about Jesus’ miracles and divinity must be false. The denial of the supernatural isn’t a conclusion but a prior commitment. Fair enough, but it’s not obvious how these accounts came about if they were fictions. Their authors certainly didn’t believe they were fictions: Again and again they offer precise details, almost as if to encourage their original readers to verify the stories. In Mark 10, for example, Jesus didn’t simply restore sight to a blind man. He restored the sight of ” Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, ” and it happened in Jericho.

Or take the matter of “Markan priority.” If the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are collections of widely circulated myths about Jesus rather than first- or second-hand accounts, Matthew and Luke must have used the far shorter Mark as the principal source for parallel stories found in all three Synoptic Gospels. But if that’s true—and virtually all critical New Testament scholars hold that view—why do Luke and Matthew frequently use identical phrasing that Mark doesn’t use?

The point here isn’t that the Gospels must be true. It is that the Gospels offer no easy way to explain away their content. They therefore demand one of two choices. Either they relay things that Jesus actually said and did, in which case he really is who the New Testament claims he is, or they are haphazard collections of deliberately fabricated stories about a man who may have said some extraordinary things in first-century Judea but who has no more claim on your attention than Socrates.

Jesus: The Human Face of God

By Jay Parini
(New Harvest, 170 pages, $20)

C.S. Lewis, among others, made a similar argument about Jesus’ self-descriptions: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” And while that argument has often been dismissed on the grounds that it assumes all the Gospels’ quotations of Jesus to be authentic, its logic applies with equal or greater force to the four Gospel texts themselves. Either they are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. They cannot be somehow factually false but metaphorically true—the human mind rightly rejects that kind of reasoning as highfalutin cant.

This point is powerfully made by Jay Parini’s “Jesus,” although Mr. Parini didn’t intend to make that point at all.

Instead of “demythologizing” Jesus, to use the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s term, Mr. Parini sets out to “remythologize” him by reviving the sense of sacredness and “mythos” stripped from the Gospel narratives by prior scholarship. “The work of reading here . . . ,” explains Mr. Parini—a well-regarded critic and biographer—”is one of . . . finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.” Perhaps sensing a lack of clarity, he continues the explanation in an endnote: “I’m not so much contradicting Bultmann’s idea of demythologization as putting the emphasis more firmly on the balance between literal and figurative readings, while stressing the fictive aspect: the shaping spirit of the gospel narratives.”

You’re never quite sure what Mr. Parini thinks. The book is structured along the lines of the Gospels themselves—birth, ministry, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, passion, crucifixion, resurrection—as if Mr. Parini accepts the essential veracity of the story they tell. Frequently he relays supernatural events as if they happened: the transfiguration, the temptations in the desert. But then he falls back on naturalistic explanations of the miracles: “I have no doubt that faith can boost one’s immune system and that its emotional balm has healing effects.” Again, the author frequently relays Jesus’ words as if their authenticity were undisputed, but then calls Herod’s slaughter of male children “mythical” and supposes Jesus’ birthplace was Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, as Matthew and Luke have it.

Mr. Parini is more sure of what he doesn’t believe than what he does believe. What he doesn’t believe, as he says on six or seven occasions, is anything associated with “fundamentalism.” But he seems to have only the loosest grasp of the term’s meaning: The Princeton theologians Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge weren’t fundamentalists, as Mr. Parini breezily claims, and fundamentalists themselves wouldn’t insist, as he says they do, that faith in Jesus is mere mental assent to a literal resurrection.

But the real trouble with Mr. Parini’s stance isn’t so much its incoherence as its banality. It’s the same with all attempts to make religion palatable to the learned. Rather than accepting its authority or ditching it altogether, the urge is to weaken its demands and make its doctrines vague or optional. The result is usually an agreeable but boring philosophy that anyone can adopt and no one would die for. “The Way of Jesus . . . ,” Mr. Parini writes, “involves self-denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks that lie before us. This is true discipleship.”

If that’s all Jesus came here to tell us, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

12/26/13

Biblical films’ Hollywood comeback

Biblical films’ Hollywood comeback

Superheroes are being elbowed out by Noah and Mary as Hollywood makes 2014 year of the biblical epic

Superheroes are being elbowed out by Noah and Mary as Hollywood makes 2014 year of the biblical epic

Mary Mother of Christ, whose title character will be played by Odeya Rush Photo: Rex Features
Nick Allen

By , Los Angeles

3:41PM GMT 25 Dec 2013

 The saint-like image of a hooded woman looms out from the movie poster, her arms outstretched as a divine light bursts from the sky. A message written above is simple and unambiguous: “You Will Believe.”

So goes the promotional campaign for the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster Mary Mother of Christ. “It is a part of Mary, Joseph and Jesus’s life that has not been shown on the big screen before,” reads a synopsis. “Under the reign of terror of Herod the Great and, against all odds, they survive as young parents in one of the most treacherous times in history.” It promises “faith-based high action drama” − and there is no room in the audience for doubting Thomases.

Mary Mother of Christ, whose title character will be played by Odeya Rush, a 16-year-old Israeli-born actress, is one of a series of unashamedly Christian biblical epics due to appear next year, marking an unprecedented overture by Hollywood to America’s evangelical heartland.

Studio executives who have spent the past few years releasing superhero and zombie films have, it seems, had an epiphany. Now their new best friends are evangelical pastors whose endorsements they actively seek, even inviting them on to sets during production. Pastors in turn play clips from films of which they approve to 10,000-strong congregations on 40ft wide movie screens.

Larry Ross, who has handled publicity for Christian groups and leaders including Rick Warren and Billy Graham, said “no pastor goes to seminary in order to market movies” but if the movie “proves edifying to their congregation, if it builds their faith”, they would recommend it.

In March audiences will be treated to Noah, a $150million special effects-laden extravaganza, in which Russell Crowe will build an ark and rescue mankind from the Great Flood. Harry Potter actress Emma Watson will play his adopted daughter, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is portraying Methuselah. The ark was built on Long Island, New York.

Noah will be followed by Sir Ridley Scott’s Exodus, in which Christian Bale, as Moses, will part the Red Sea. Scenes from ancient Egypt have been reconstructed in southern Spain, with Bale wielding a bow and arrow and Sigourney Weaver playing the Pharaoh’s wife. Scott has described the film, in a less than godly phrase, as “F—— huge”.

Another movie of Moses’s life called Gods and Kings is also planned. Steven Spielberg was due to make it but has been replaced by Ang Lee, who won the Best Director Oscar this year for Life of Pi. Meanwhile, Son of God will tell the story of Jesus’s life, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado in the lead role. Will Smith is said to be planning a film based on the story of Cain and Abel, and Brad Pitt is rumoured to be playing Pontius Pilate in a separate project. There will also be Resurrection, in which a Roman soldier is sent to investigate Christ’s death. It has been likened to “Gladiator, with a mystery bent”.

Phil Cooke, a film-maker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood’s epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins. “What’s happened is they’ve understood it’s very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real serious market,” he said.

“For years Hollywood bent over backwards to reach special interest groups, be it feminists or environmentalists. It has finally realised that there are 91  million evangelical Christians in America.”

For their part, studio executives have taken something of a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring big box office receipts.

That faith is based in no small part on the success of The Bible, a television mini-series shown on the History channel earlier this year, which averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America’s most watched cable show of 2013.

“It made the Bible cool to talk about again,” said Mr Cooke. “The separation of church and state in America is so strong that people had become afraid to talk about God, at work or at school. Suddenly, these Bible stories were water cooler conversation again.”

Since the days of epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments more than half a century ago, Hollywood and America’s Christian areas have rarely seen eye to eye. A low point was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured sex scenes, and flopped after Roman Catholics led a boycott.

But in 2004 Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ achieved great commercial success, thanks partly to the endorsement of prominent Christians such as Rev Billy Graham. Since then, studios including Warner Bros, Sony and Fox have nurtured faith-based audiences. They have created “faith” divisions and employed Bible scholars to check scripts. “Mega-church” pastors have been invited to preview films months before their release.

Websites have also been created for pastors to download trailers to show during sermons. The push includes promoting films with Christian groups globally, particularly in South America and Africa.

However, that audience is knowledgeable about the subject matter and Hollywood is wrestling with questions of dramatic licence. One of next year’s epics has already run into controversy. Test screenings for Noah with a Christian audience in Arizona, and a Jewish audience in New York, reportedly produced troubling results. It has been suggested that the film shows Noah as an early opponent of climate change. Its director, Darren Aronofsky, has called him the “first environmentalist”.

Brian Godawa, a screenwriter, claimed to have read an early version of the script and said it portrayed a scenario in which the Great Flood was caused by man’s “disrespect” for the environment. Paramount, the studio behind Noah, remains adamant that it will sail on to success.

Whatever happens, Noah will have the same advantage for studios as the other biblical epics. Unlike movies based on superheroes, or the latest literary sensation such as Fifty Shades of Grey, the studios will not have to pay millions of dollars in copyright and licensing fees. The stories in the Bible are free to use.

12/26/13

Atheists, Work With Us for Peace, Pope Says on Christmas

The New York Times

 


December 25, 2013

Atheists, Work With Us for Peace, Pope Says on Christmas

By REUTERS

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis, celebrating his first Christmas as Roman Catholic leader, on Wednesday called on atheists to unite with believers of all religions and work for “a homemade peace” that can spread across the world.

Speaking to about 70,000 people from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the same spot where he emerged to the world as pope when he was elected on March 13, Francis also made another appeal for the environment to be saved from “human greed and rapacity”.

The leader of the 1.2 billion-member Church wove his first “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and world) message around the theme of peace.

“Peace is a daily commitment. It is a homemade peace,” he said.

He said that people of other religions were also praying for peace, and – departing from his prepared text – he urged atheists to join forces with believers.

“I invite even non-believers to desire peace. (Join us) with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace,” he said, drawing sustained applause from the crowd.

Francis’s reaching out to atheists and people of other religions is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.

He called for “social harmony in South Sudan, where current tensions have already caused numerous victims and are threatening peaceful coexistence in that young state”.

Thousands are believed to have died in violence divided along ethnic lines between the Nuer and Dinka tribes in the country, which seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war.

The pontiff also called for dialogue to end the conflicts in Syria, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, and prayed for a “favorable outcome” to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Wars shatter and hurt so many lives!” he said, saying their most vulnerable victims were children, elderly, battered women and the sick.

PERSONAL PEACEMAKERS

The thread running through the message was that individuals had a role in promoting peace, either with their neighbor or between nations.

The message of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was directed at “every man or woman who keeps watch through the night, who hopes for a better world, who cares for others while humbly seeking to do his or her duty,” he said.

“God is peace: let us ask him to help us to be peacemakers each day, in our life, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world,” he said.

Pilgrims came from all over the world for Christmas at the Vatican and some said it was because they felt Francis had brought a breath of fresh air to the Church.

“(He) is bringing a new era into the Church, a Church that is focusing much more on the poor and that is more austere, more lively,” said Dolores Di Benedetto, who came from the pope’s homeland, Argentina, to attend Christmas Eve Mass.

Giacchino Sabello, an Italian, said he wanted to get a first-hand look at the new pope: “I thought it would be very nice to hear the words of this pope close up and to see how the people are overwhelmed by him.”

In his speech, Francis asked God to “look upon the many children who are kidnapped, wounded and killed in armed conflicts, and all those who are robbed of their childhood and forced to become soldiers”.

He also called for a “dignified life” for migrants, praying tragedies such as one in which hundreds died in a shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa are never repeated, and made a particular appeal against human trafficking, which he called a “crime against humanity”.

(Editing by Pravin Char)

12/20/13

The Incarnation is the thawing of our wintry world

The Incarnation is the thawing of our wintry world

Narnia: In , Lewis made a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas”
Kobal Collection
  • Narnia: In , Lewis made a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas” Kobal Collection
Alister McGrath
Updated 1 minute ago

The incarnation tries to put into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world, to bring us to a better place

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of the Christian faith. But why remember such an event? There seems to be a disconnection between the singular life of Jesus of Nazareth and the universal relevance of God. What has someone who lived long, long ago got to do with us today? Or with God?

That was the question that troubled C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) in 1931. After a period as an atheist, Lewis had recently returned to belief in God. God, he concluded, offered a way of making sense of the world and of human experience, which appealed to both his reason and imagination. But Jesus of Nazareth did not seem to fit into this scheme of things. He seemed superfluous. Why did belief in God have anything to do with him?

It’s a question that many asked before Lewis, and continue to ask today. Fifty years after his death in 1963, Lewis’s answer remains important. After a long conversation with his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien in September 1931, Lewis began to realise that Christianity was not primarily a set of ideas about God and the world. It was about a story — a “grand narrative”, which both captured the imagination, and opened up new ways of thinking. The Creeds arose from reflection on this true and trustworthy story, which centred and focused on Jesus of Nazareth. When rightly understood, the imaginatively compelling story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was about God entering the world, in order to redeem it.

Lewis explored this theme in a remarkable sermon that he preached in a London church during the Second World War. He had learnt how to dive in 1930. Although he initially saw this simply as an enjoyable, exhilarating experience, Lewis began to realise its potential as an analogy for what he was coming to see as a core theme of the Christian faith — the incarnation.

Lewis invited his audience to imagine a diver plunging into the water to retrieve a precious object. As he goes deeper, the water changes from “warm and sunlit” to “pitch black” and “freezing”. Then, his “lungs almost bursting”, he goes down into the “mud and slime”, before finally heading back up to the surface, triumphantly bearing the lost object. God “descended into his own universe, and rose again, bringing human nature up with him”.

For Lewis, the doctrine of the incarnation shows us that God dived into our world, and came up again, bearing the redeemed creation. The exertion, even danger, faced by the diver is a mark of the value of what has fallen through deep water into the mud. Lewis invites us to think of a diving God, who plunges into a dark and distant world, to bring us home to where we really belong, and really matter.

Our culture loosely speaks of “celebrating Christmas”, yet too easily misses its real point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis spoke of a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas”. The incarnation tries to put into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world, to bring us to a better place. Instead of passively accepting a hopeless end, we are invited to celebrate an endless hope.

The Christian church recalls this great theme every year at Christmas. Its liturgy and carols set out a powerful vision of a God who enters the world in humility, which is embraced by the imagination as much as it is analysed by reason. In marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, we might well reflect on his emphasis on the “imaginative embrace” of faith. The theme of the incarnation is impoverished if it is reduced to a mere piece of cold and clinical theological logic.

The haunting Christmas story can resonate with our deepest intuitions about life, above all, our sense that there is something immensely important beyond the borders of our experience. It has the capacity to change utterly the way in which we see ourselves, the world, and God. Lewis would urge us to trust the deepest intuitions of our hearts, and see where they lead us.

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, and author of C. S. Lewis — A Life (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013, £9.99)

12/3/13

Fox News’ Highly Reluctant Jesus Follower

Of all people surprised that I became an evangelical Christian, I’m the most surprised.

Kirsten Powers

[ posted 10/22/2013 2:21PM ]

PHOTO BY SCOTT SUCHMAN

Just seven years ago, if someone had told me that I’d be writing for Christianity Todaymagazine about how I came to believe in God, I would have laughed out loud. If there was one thing in which I was completely secure, it was that I would never adhere to any religion—especially to evangelical Christianity, which I held in particular contempt.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church in Alaska, but my belief was superficial and flimsy. It was borrowed from my archaeologist father, who was so brilliant he taught himself to speak and read Russian. When I encountered doubt, I would fall back on the fact that he believed.

Leaning on my father’s faith got me through high school. But by college it wasn’t enough, especially because as I grew older he began to confide in me his own doubts. What little faith I had couldn’t withstand this revelation. From my early 20s on, I would waver between atheism and agnosticism, never coming close to considering that God could be real.

After college I worked as an appointee in the Clinton administration from 1992 to 1998. The White House surrounded me with intellectual people who, if they had any deep faith in God, never expressed it. Later, when I moved to New York, where I worked in Democratic politics, my world became aggressively secular. Everyone I knew was politically left-leaning, and my group of friends was overwhelmingly atheist.

I sometimes hear Christians talk about how terrible life must be for atheists. But our lives were not terrible. Life actually seemed pretty wonderful, filled with opportunity and good conversation and privilege. I know now that it was not as wonderful as it could have been. But you don’t know what you don’t know. How could I have missed something I didn’t think existed?

Very Open-Minded

To the extent that I encountered Christians, it was in the news cycle. And inevitably they were saying something about gay people or feminists. I didn’t feel I was missing much. So when I began dating a man who was into Jesus, I was not looking for God. In fact, the week before I met him, a friend had asked me if I had any deal breakers in dating. My response: “Just nobody who is religious.”

A few months into our relationship, my boyfriend called to say he had something important to talk to me about. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my West Village apartment when he said, “Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?” My stomach sank. I started to panic. Oh no, was my first thought. He’s crazy.

When I answered no, he asked, “Do you think you could ever believe it?” He explained that he was at a point in life when he wanted to get married and felt that I could be that person, but he couldn’t marry a non-Christian. I said I didn’t want to mislead him—that I would never believe in Jesus.

Then he said the magic words for a liberal: “Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?” Well, of course. “I’m very open-minded!” Even though I wasn’t at all. I derided Christians as anti-intellectual bigots who were too weak to face the reality that there is no rhyme or reason to the world. I had found this man’s church attendance an oddity to overlook, not a point in his favor.

As he talked, I grew conflicted. On the one hand, I was creeped out. On the other hand, I had enormous respect for him. He is smart, educated, and intellectually curious. I remember thinking,What if this is true, and I’m not even willing to consider it?

A few weeks later I went to church with him. I was so clueless about Christianity that I didn’t know that some Presbyterians were evangelicals. So when we arrived at the Upper East Side service of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I was shocked and repelled by what I saw. I was used to the high-church liturgy of my youth. We were meeting in an auditorium with a band playing what I later learned was “praise music.” I thought, How am I going to tell him I can never come back?

But then the pastor preached. I was fascinated. I had never heard a pastor talk about the things he did. Tim Keller’s sermon was intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy. I decided to come back to hear him again. Soon, hearing Keller speak on Sunday became the highlight of my week. I thought of it as just an interesting lecture—not really church. I just tolerated the rest of it in order to hear him. Any person who is familiar with Keller’s preaching knows that he usually brings Jesus in at the end of the sermon to tie his points together. For the first few months, I left feeling frustrated: Why did he have to ruin a perfectly good talk with this Jesus nonsense?

Each week, Keller made the case for Christianity. He also made the case against atheism and agnosticism. He expertly exposed the intellectual weaknesses of a purely secular worldview. I came to realize that even if Christianity wasn’t the real thing, neither was atheism.

I began to read the Bible. My boyfriend would pray with me for God to reveal himself to me. After about eight months of going to hear Keller, I concluded that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity. But I didn’t feel any connection to God, and frankly, I was fine with that. I continued to think that people who talked of hearing from God or experiencing God were either delusional or lying. In my most generous moments, I allowed that they were just imagining things that made them feel good.

Then one night in 2006, on a trip to Taiwan, I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, “Here I am.” It felt so real. I didn’t know what to make of it. I called my boyfriend, but before I had time to tell him about it, he told me he had been praying the night before and felt we were supposed to break up. So we did. Honestly, while I was upset, I was more traumatized by Jesus visiting me.

Completely True

I tried to write off the experience as misfiring synapses, but I couldn’t shake it. When I returned to New York a few days later, I was lost. I suddenly felt God everywhere and it was terrifying. More important, it was unwelcome. It felt like an invasion. I started to fear I was going crazy.

I didn’t know what to do, so I spoke with writer Eric Metaxas, whom I had met through my boyfriend and who had talked with me quite a bit about God. “You need to be in a Bible study,” he said. “And Kathy Keller’s Bible study is the one you need to be in.” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I was desperate. My whole world was imploding. How was I going to tell my family or friends about what had happened? Nobody would understand. I didn’t understand. (It says a lot about the family in which I grew up that one of my most pressing concerns was that Christians would try to turn me into a Republican.)

I remember walking into the Bible study. I had a knot in my stomach. In my mind, only weirdoes and zealots went to Bible studies. I don’t remember what was said that day. All I know is that when I left, everything had changed. I’ll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, “It’s true. It’s completely true.” The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy.

The horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian crept back in almost immediately. I spent the next few months doing my best to wrestle away from God. It was pointless. Everywhere I turned, there he was. Slowly there was less fear and more joy. The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me—whether I liked it or not.

Kirsten Powers is a contributor to USA Today and a columnist for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She is a Democratic commentator at Fox News.

12/3/13

New discovery fills gap in ancient Jerusalem history

By Megan Gannon

Digging History

LiveScience
  • hasmonean-walls

    Archaeologists think construction on this ancient building started in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period. (ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

Archaeologists have discovered the first ruins of a building from the Hasmonean period in Jerusalem, filling a gap in the ancient city’s history, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced.

The building’s remains were uncovered during an extensive dig at the Givati Parking Lot, located in Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhood, the City of David. Excavations over several years at the site have turned up some remarkable finds, including a building from the Second Temple period that may have belonged to Queen Helene, a trove of coins from the Byzantine period, and recently, a 1,700-year-old curse tablet in the ruins of a Roman mansion.

Despite extensive excavations in Jerusalem, IAA archaeologists Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said there has been an absence of buildings from the Hasmonean period in the city’s archaeological record. Simon Maccabeus founded the Hasmonean dynasty in 140 B.C. This group ruled Judea until 37 B.C., when Herod the Great came into power. [In Photos: The Controversial ‘Tomb of Herod the Great’]

“Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence,” excavators Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said in a statement. “The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression.”

Flavius Josephus recounted Jewish history and the Jewish revolt against the Romans in his first century A.D. books “The Jewish War” and “Antiquities of the Jews.” Some archaeologists have used his texts to guide their work and interpretations. For example, excavators who recently found cooking pots and a lamp in an underground chamber in Jerusalem think these objects could be material evidence of Josephus’ account of famine during the Roman siege of the city.

IAA officials said the Hasmonean building has only come to light in recent months, adding that the structure boasts quite impressive dimensions. It rises 13 feet (4 meters) and covers 688 square feet (64 square meters) with limestone walls more than 3 feet (1 m) thick.

Inside, the excavators found pottery and coins, the latter of which helped them determine the age of the building. IAA researchers think construction on the building began in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period, when the most significant changes were made inside the structure.

12/3/13

Parashat Miketz: Faith and humility

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
11/28/2013 21:39

This utterance of Joseph’s expresses great pride in Jewish faith, standing tall without taking personal ramifications into consideration.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
In this week’s parasha, Miketz, we read about the sudden upheaval in Joseph’s life.

After spending 12 years in an Egyptian prison following a mean-spirited libel, he is suddenly released and taken for a respectable haircut, dressed in new clothes and brought before the king of Egypt, Pharaoh.

What caused this sudden change? Pharaoh dreamed a strange dream and searched for an interpretation. After despairing from the Egyptian dream-solvers, one of his ministers tells him about a Hebrew slave thrown in Egyptian prison, with well-known dream interpretation expertise. Pharaoh commands to bring Joseph to him immediately, whereupon he asks him to explain his dream.

Let’s imagine this exciting scene. In ancient Egypt, a foreign slave is a person lacking minimal rights. A slave accused of betraying his master is the last person to have any chance of ever being released from prison and seeing the light of day. And here, the inconceivable occurs and Joseph stands before the legendary King Pharaoh as a completely free man.

Joseph could not have had a better opportunity to be set free. It would have been natural to expect him to demonstrate his talents and wisdom before Pharaoh, at least during this rare opportunity. But Joseph reacts to Pharaoh differently than expected: “And Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh” (Breishit 41, 16).

Joseph does not take the credit for himself, nor does he boast about his wisdom and special abilities. He quickly points out to Pharaoh that nothing he has is from himself, and that all his wisdom is a gift from God.

Moreover, when Potiphar, Joseph’s Egyptian master, notices his incredible success, Joseph does not take credit for it in order to attain a more respectable status in his master’s house, but “he remains fluent in the name of God” and attributes all his success to the divine assistance he is privileged to receive. Even in a strange land, in exile, in the depths of slavery – Joseph understands that God is with him, protecting him and helping him.

This utterance of Joseph’s expresses great pride in Jewish faith, standing tall without taking personal ramifications into consideration.

But it also expresses powerful humility, modesty that is expressed in the declaration, “Nothing I have is mine; It is all a gift from God!” But more than anything, this utterance is a risk.

Can we even comprehend the level of risk Joseph is taking by saying this? Pharaoh, a pagan idol worshiper who does not recognize the God of Abraham, could easily send him back to prison, at best, or have him hung, at worst.

What these words of Joseph’s reveal is his courageous stand, which typifies the Jewish nation throughout the generations. Facing dangers or threats, Jews have always stood bravely and declared their faith in God and in the values of morality, justice and honesty that the Torah has bequeathed to us.

Calculations of gain or loss lose their value when Joseph faces the opportunity to declare his faith. Joseph is aware of what he could gain if Pharaoh is impressed with his wisdom.

He is also aware of what he could lose if Pharaoh is not amazed by him. But Joseph chooses the brave path, the path of heroes.

And he does not lose! Pharaoh accepts his advice and appoints him to the most respected job in Egypt: the viceroy to the king! It is human nature to be amazed by someone who does not take credit for his abilities and special talents, but is humble and leaves the credit to whoever gave him the wisdom: God.

A person like that elicits wonder from those in his environment, who respond the way Pharaoh responded to Yosef: “There is no one as understanding and wise as you.”

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

12/3/13

Book News: Ancient Texts From Vatican And Bodleian Libraries Digitized

Book News: Ancient Texts From Vatican And Bodleian Libraries Digitized

by ANNALISA QUINN

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

An illustration from The Reginensis Graecus 1, a 10th century Greek Bible that is among the texts included in the digitization project.

Bodleian Libraries and Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

  • A Gutenberg Bible from 1455, an autographed and annotated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and the oldest surviving Hebrew codex are among the ancient texts included in a new digitization project by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. The project, funded by a $3.2 million grant from the Polonsky Foundation, will make a number of “Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and incunabula, or 15th-century printed books” available for free viewing by the public. According to the project’s website, “these groups have been chosen for their scholarly importance and for the strength of their collections in both libraries, and they will include both religious and secular texts.” In an essay, the scholar Malachi Beit-Arié called the project a “unique cultural and scholarly enterprise which will provide students, scholars and the general public with easy access to these rich hidden treasures.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in a video interview that the collection is “something that inspires worship,” adding that upon seeing the texts, “there is just a lifting of the spirits.”
  • In an interview, the crime novelist Ian Rankin tells The Telegraph that it took “a good 12-14 years, and many books” before his writing began to pay.
  • Much more lucrative, apparently, is a gig overseeing Apple’s compliance with punishment after losing its e-book antitrust case in July. In a court filing last week, Apple complained that its court-appointed monitor, Michael Bromwich, charges $1,100 an hour, in addition to a 15 percent administrative fee. Apple also complained that “Mr. Bromwich has already shown a proclivity to leap far beyond his mandate, and now this Court proposes amendments that would give him power to interview Apple personnel ex parte, something he will no doubt be quick to exploit.” Bromwich was asked to monitor Apple after the company was found to have colluded with publishers to fix ebook prices. In a letter to Apple quoted by All Things Digital, Bromwich complained in turn of a “surprising and disappointing lack of communication from Apple.”
  • The mythographer, novelist and historian Marina Warner writes about sea monsters and “the monstrous imagination,” which she says “revels in excess and assemblage; tricephalous and multilimbed, with arthropod and reptilian features such as ruffs, tusks, fangs, tentacles, and jaws, many of these primordial monsters are hybrids defying nature. They belong to dark places, those underworlds under land and sea — volcanoes, ocean abysses — because they embody our lack of understanding, and mirror it in their savagery and disorderly, heterogeneous asymmetries of shape.”