Book Review: Garry Wills, What The Gospels Meant

If you are interested in a refreshingly different take on how the Gospels show us Jesus Christ, then I strongly recommend What The Gospels Meant by Garry Wills.

Wills is a political columnist whose work appears in newspapers all over the country on a syndicated basis.  He has written many books over the years, chiefly about religion, politics, and political history.  He is currently an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University.

In this book, Wills’ big idea is that though the Gospels are truthful accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Gospel writers had other priorities than the strict factual, chronological, and historical accuracy which we evangelicals so dearly cherish.  The Gospels are historical, but more in the sense that Gone With the Wind is historical than in the sense that your American history textbook is historical.  The Gospel writers did not go around digging up birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal records, etc. nor did they spend hours at the library poring over primary source documents.  Instead, their accounts arose from the unique communities of faith that each writer was a part of.  Each Gospel account was shaped by that community, the memories and recollections of Jesus that were passed on within that community, and the unique issues, concerns, and emphases of each community.

The Gospel of Mark was the first one written, about thirty years after the death of Jesus.  It was written for the encouragement of a community of believers that was beset by persecution from without and divisions within–opposition from Jewish Zealots who seized the Temple in 67 AD and drove them to the hills of Syria, and from Judaizers who sought to insist upon observance of Jewish law.  Thus the emphasis of the Gospel of Mark is upon the suffering Jesus.  If Jesus suffered so much for being who he was, then of course his followers should be expected to suffer too.

Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of believers that was centered around Antioch.  This was a well-developed center of the Christian faith during the latter part of the first century AD, one which contained a good mix of Jewish and Gentile believers.  It even had its own school of Christian training–a first-century seminary, if you will.  There is much about the Gospel of Matthew which indicates that it may have been used for teaching and learning in this environment.

Luke had a keen interest in reconciliation.  He shows us the kinder, gentler side of Jesus through his encounters with women, a very low-ranking class in first-century society, and through such moving stories as those of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  He also had a liturgical bent; the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24 follows the outline of a liturgy that was used in his community of believers.

John’s Gospel focuses on the mystical side of Christ.  From the get-go, he describes Jesus as the Word of God who has come into the world.  Wills advances a view that will probably arouse disagreement from many evangelicals–that John was probably not the author of the Gospel of John.  Instead, John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) formed a school of Christian teaching devoted to passing on what he had learned from Jesus.  The Gospel of John was written by a couple of people from within this school who were very close to John and very strongly influenced by his teachings.

Wills brings it all together by noting that we need all four Gospels.  Life would be a whole lot easier for us in the face of atheistic critiques (which are oh-so-quick to note the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts) if we had just one Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  But attempts to pick one Gospel and discard the others (such as Marcion’s second-century assertion that only the Gospel of Luke was genuine), or to combine the best parts of all four Gospels into one coherent, consistent narrative (such as Tatian’s Diatesseron), have failed to gain any traction.

There is a reason for this.  The four Gospels show us four different aspects of Jesus.  If we lacked any of them then our view of Jesus would be incomplete.  If we were to attempt to harmonize them into one consistent narrative, then the resulting view of Jesus would be incomplete.  A quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy best sums it up:  “He has always cared more for truth than consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”

We must apply this to our reading of the Gospels.  With the four Gospels we get multiple truths and multiple inconsistencies.  In order to gain a full revelation of Jesus Christ we must care more for truth than consistency; we must be willing to take the truths that all of the different Gospels show us along with the apparent inconsistencies.

What the ?@%!!!*&! Just Happened? A Look Back at 2010

With 2010 safely in the rearview mirror, I figured it would be fun for us to take a look back and see what actually happened this past year.

Does that zipper go all the way up to the top of Justin Bieber's hood? If so, then it would VERY MUCH behoove him to zip it up all the way. (I know. I'm such a hater, aren't I?)

–Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake, and American musical artists responded by doing a remake of USA For Africa’s “We Are The World” with Justin Bieber singing Lionel Richie’s part.  EPIC FAIL!!!!!!!!

–BP spilled some oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

–A census was taken, and it was found that the state of Michigan actually lost a few people.

Remember this guy? Well now he's right back in the old neighborhood.

–Ted Haggard started a new church at his home, then had a huge skinny dipping party at his pool.

This is where Damon Evans got caught with those red female undergarments in his lap.

–UGA athletic director Damon Evans got crunk in the ATL, then got caught with a pair of red panties in his lap.  He is no longer the athletic director at UGA.

Hey Brett, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

–Brett Favre retired from football.  No, really.  I’m not kidding.  Just like the last time he retired.  And the time before that.  And the time before…you get the idea.

–Brett Favre sent naughty pictures of himself to a sideline reporter for the New York Jets.  She then gave him her new cell phone number, with instructions to pass it on to Rex Ryan.

–Ben Roethlisberger got crunk in Milledgeville, GA, and Zach Mettenberger got crunk in Remerton, GA.  I did not know where either of those places are, let alone that it was possible to do anything to get yourself in trouble in either place.  I wonder what it would be like to get Damon Evans and these two together for a wild night of carousing?  Who would be the wing man?

–Michael Vick said he wants a dog.  No, seriously.  Not sure I’m ready to think about this just yet.  Can we start off by letting him have a copy of that painting with the poker-playing dogs and see how that goes?

Oversigning: Very Bad

Alabama's Nick Saban has become the poster child for the practice of "oversigning".

We are now in the heart of college football recruiting season, which is always a weird time of year because the practice of obsessing over where some 18-year-old decides to go to college…well…IT’S JUST WEIRD, PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But there is one thing that is becoming a significant issue lately.  It is the practice of “oversigning”.

Ole Miss's Houston Nutt also has some creative ways of making the numbers work.

Every year, each college football team is allowed to extend scholarships to up to 25 players and have a maximum of 85 players in total who are on scholarship at any given time.

In theory, what happens is that a coach will sign only the number of players required to bring his team up to the 85-player limit.  If that number is greater than 25, then he will only sign 25.

This doesn’t always happen in reality.  Some coaches will sign more than the number required to bring their team up to 85 players on scholarship, as long as they sign 25 or less in any given year.  For instance, a coach may sign 21 players when he only has space to sign 14.

When this happens, it is called “oversigning”.

Why do some coaches oversign?

Because life happens.  Some players don’t qualify academically.  Some get hurt and lose a year or two or have to quit football altogether.  Some transfer to other schools.  Some declare for the NFL draft a year early.  Oversigning provides a margin of safety in the event that any of these things happens.

This is a numbers game.  A coach who signs 6 more players than he has scholarship space for is betting that he is going to lose 6 players between signing day and the start of fall practice.

So what if that doesn’t happen?

Ah, there’s the tricky part.  Coaches who oversign have come up with some quite creative ways to finesse the numbers so that everything works out by the start of fall practice.  Some kids are sent away to prep school or junior college.  Some are asked to not enroll until the next January, so that they will count against next year’s numbers and not this year’s.  And some are pressured into transferring to other schools by being told that they will not get significant playing time.

The problem is that in this day and age, oversigning has evolved into more than just a means to provide a safety margin against the inevitable losses that result from unexpected transfers or early defections to the NFL or failure to qualify academically.  Nowadays, many coaches, sad to say, are using oversigning as insurance so that they can run off kids who turn out to be not quite as good as expected.

Nick Saban of Alabama has become the poster child for this practice.  A Wall Street Journal article from back in September quotes three former Alabama players who took medical scholarships (thereby ending their football careers) but felt pressured to do so.  All of them said that they believe Alabama uses this practice to clear roster space for better players.

The website has become something of a clearinghouse on this issue.  They track schools’ commitments vs. available spots.  Currently Alabama and Ole Miss are tied for the lead nationally at plus-10 (that’s 10 more commitments than available spots), followed by LSU at plus-9 and Arkansas at plus-8.

This isn’t happening everywhere.  Georgia’s Mark Richt does not engage in the practice of oversigning.  Neither does Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech.

The NCAA has rules that govern the process of recruiting, but there are loopholes.  This is one.  Coaches who are motivated by money and the desire to win at any cost will eagerly take advantage of it.

There are ways that the NCAA can close this loophole.  Make the 85-scholarship limit a hard limit.  Eliminate the practice of “gray-shirting”–encouraging a player who signs in February to not enroll until next January just so that the numbers work.  And eliminate the requirement that players who transfer to another school sit out a year.

The practice of oversigning has evolved into a serious blight upon the sport of college football.  The NCAA desperately needs to do something about it.

Damaris Zehner: The Forgotten Deadly Sin

Those of you who have read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity are no doubt familiar with his illustration of the pork-chop strip tease.  This is one of the more memorable images in the book, and I am sure that it has stuck with many of you.  It occurs in the chapter on “Sexual Morality”, and its point is to illustrate that perversions of other human appetites are quite rare in comparison to perversions of the sexual appetite.  It goes as follows:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body.  Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined, and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much; but not terrifically too much.  One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten.  The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. . . .

Or take it another way.  You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage.  Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?  . . .

Here is the third point.  You find very few people who want to eat things that really are not food or to do other things with food instead of eating it.  In other words, perversions of the food appetite are rare.

Lewis wrote this back in the 1940s.  Much has changed since then.  It is still true that humanity’s sexual appetite has gone badly wrong, just as much so now as then, if not more so.  But with regard to food, the culture has changed dramatically in the past half-century in ways that Lewis could never have conceived.  Obesity has increased dramatically, especially among younger people.  As obesity has increased, so have a whole host of unsavory health issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.  Portion sizes at restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, have increased dramatically.  It is now routine for people to carry large amounts of food or drink around with them during the day, something unheard of fifty years ago.  Even the idea of a pork-chop strip tease is not as laughable nowadays here in America as it would have been back in Lewis’s day.

Read what Damaris Zehner at has to say about how the culture of food has changed since Lewis’s day.

Les Miserables 60: The Ambush

Today, it is time to address a shortcoming of Victor Hugo’s writing, one which many critics have noted, not just myself.  That is, his rather heavy reliance upon coincidence as a device to move the plot forward.

Now, this is not just a Victor Hugo problem.  This is something which is common to many Romantic writers of the early to mid 19th century.  Alexandre Dumas, one of the leading Romantic writers of this period, uses coincidence quite frequently in his writing.  In The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, how else do you explain the fact that three mutual acquaintances from the same suburb of the same fishing town in southern France all make it big and wind up in Paris at the same time?  And how else do you explain how, when Dantes was placed in prison at the Chateau d’If, his cellmate JUST HAPPENED to be a priest who could help him escape, place a massive fortune at his disposal, and give him the education he would need to use it well?

Up to this point in the story, we have seen a number of coincidences:

–Marius and the Thenardiers wind up, not just in the exact same part of Paris, on the exact same street, but as next-door neighbors in the exact same apartment building.

–Moreover, this is the exact same building where, some eight years before, Jean Valjean and Cosette stayed.

–Javert JUST HAPPENED to be in the police station nearest the Gorbeau House, on duty at the exact time when Marius came to report the Thenardiers’ planned ambush of Valjean.

–Valjean JUST HAPPENED to be in the habit of attending Mass at the church of Saint-Jaques-du-Haut-Pas, which was near the Gorbeau House.

–Eight years ago, Javert JUST HAPPENED to be in Paris and in the neighborhood when Valjean and Cosette were staying at Gorbeau, and to catch enough of a glimpse of Valjean to put himself on the trail.

–That fateful night, there JUST HAPPENED to be a convent in Valjean’s path, on the opposite side of the very same wall that Valjean chose to scale in his desperation.

–Moreover, that convent JUST HAPPENED to be the exact same convent where, as mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, he had had Fauchelevent installed as gardener.

But Victor Hugo had one redeeming virtue in his use of coincidence, which is that most of his coincidences were believable.  For instance, it is believable that Valjean, Marius, and the Thenardiers could all wind up staying in the same apartment building.  Marius, a college student trying to live on a student budget, would have been attracted to Gorbeau by the cheap rent.  Valjean, a convict trying to elude Javert’s relentless pursuit, would have been attracted by the solitude and anonymity offered by this building at the remotest end of the Boulevard de l’Hopital.  The Thenardiers, seeking a cheap place to live and operate their criminal enterprises without police scrutiny, would have been attracted to it for the same reasons.

My Rebuttal to Fran Tarkenton

A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a radio interview that distinguished Georgia standout Fran Tarkenton did with Atlanta sports talk radio station 680 The Fan, in which Tarkenton excoriated Mark Richt and suggested that the Georgia football program was in deep trouble.  I also ran copious quotes from that interview.

Lest anyone think that my running copious quotes from that interview is an unqualified endorsement of Tarkenton’s opinion, let me state that it is not.  As proof, let me offer this:

I agree with Tarkenton that Georgia’s program is in very sad shape right now, and that much has to change in order for Georgia to get better.  But towards the end of the interview, Tarkenton offers this gem:

Right now our program has had three years of regression, and I don’t see any way this thing is going to get out of the ditch. When I read comments like [Richt’s] … we’re putting spin on everything. In the meantime Alabama and Auburn and Tennessee are working and kicking our butts and recruiting people and getting coaches that have spread offenses.

As if the problems at Georgia right now can be traced back (at least in part) to the fact that we do not run a spread offense.

That is not the case.  The problems at Georgia right now do not have anything to do with offensive or defensive schemes, or who is calling the plays.

Ultimately, the biggest problems at Georgia right now are about the identity of the program.  What sort of team are we going to see on any given Saturday?  Are we going to see a team that is consistently well-prepared, that plays with a strong sense of urgency and a high level of intensity?  A team that, when it gets smacked, rises up and hits back harder?  A team that gets the tough yards when they need to be gotten and makes the big plays when they need to be made?  A team that finishes out close games, that can hold a lead in the fourth quarter or come from behind in the fourth quarter?

All of these issues point inexorably to the tone of the program that is set by the head coach.  Mark Richt has not set a very good tone for the program in recent years.  The changes that he spoke of at the end-of-season press conference are very small changes, but if they help Mark Richt to set a better tone for the program going forward, then these small changes will go a long way.

That is why I remain optimistic, albeit very guardedly so, regarding Mark Richt’s remarks at the end-of-season press conference.

Fran Tarkenton: Mark Richt Needs to Go

It’s one thing when a young punk blogger like yours truly goes on record as saying that there needs to be a change of leadership in the football program at Georgia.  But when one of said program’s most distinguished alumni comes out and publicly says the same thing, that is a game changer.

Last week I offered guarded support to Mark Richt after his end-of-season press conference, in which he made statements suggesting that too much of his time had been taken up with non-football matters and that adjustments were being made to ensure that that would not happen again.  Mark Richt will bear the ultimate responsibility for how his team does on Saturday, so anything that enables him to spend more time in a hands-on capacity setting his players up for success on Saturday is a good thing.

Fran Tarkenton takes an exceedingly contrary view.  In an interview that he did last week at local radio station 680 The Fan, he castigates Mark Richt and suggests quite strongly that the Georgia football program is in need of new leadership.  Here are some choice quotes:

On the Mark Richt press conference:

I think that what’s happened in the last week at Georgia has been the most disturbing time that I have seen at Georgia football in a long time….People don’t want to look at reality.  They don’t want to look at the signs.  There are always signs out there that show us that we’ve got pending disaster…

And then I read this quote…where Mark Richt says “I have been freed from some administrative duties to spend more time on football”…He said the moves give him more time to study the game of football and be an expert and be on the cutting edge.  What has he been doing for nine years?  I have never heard any college or high school or professional coach [say] that [he] was not able to spend enough time on football…It sounds like a cop-out.  It sounds like “I’m not going to take responsibility.”

On changing the strength and conditioning coach:

Today, the strength and conditioning coach is as important as the offensive and defensive coordinators.  Every person, every scout, all the combine people that train and work out all the college athletes, have told me for the last five-six years that Georgia football players are not in anywhere near the condition that the rest of the players from all the other schools [are in]….They said they rank dead last.  Why couldn’t this coach recognize that before now, before disaster happens?

On Mark Richt’s faith:

He is a wonderful guy.  He’s a good Christian guy.  He wants to be a missionary, goes on mission trips.  That’s a wonderful thing.  But do you know the religion of Nick Saban?  Gus Malzahn?  Or Chip Kelly, playing for the national championship?  I don’t think we care what their religion is.  That’s their business.  But we hire them to be football coaches.  If we are going to hire a religious instructor, let’s go to the Candler School of Theology…and get some of their people to come coach our football team.

On the state of Georgia’s recruiting:

We’re going to lose the elite players this year. We haven’t in the past — we’ve gotten the elite player. We either didn’t choose right or we didn’t coach right, because we didn’t have success.

Right now our program has had three years of regression, and I don’t see any way this thing is going to get out of the ditch. When I read comments like [Richt’s] … we’re putting spin on everything. In the meantime Alabama and Auburn and Tennessee are working and kicking our butts and recruiting people and getting coaches that have spread offenses. I mean, can you imagine? We scored two field goals against Central Florida.

In closing, does Mark Richt need to go?

I think Greg McGarity has got to look at this awfully hard.  I think the signs are that we have a program that’s in big trouble.

Take a listen to the Fran Tarkenton interview, if you have not done so already.

Comments, anyone?

Now Playing at Life in Mordor: Mark Richt and the Evangelical Theology of Vocation

Because I am all about shameless self-promotion, I will not hesitate to avail myself of the opportunity to mention my latest post over at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike Frizzell where I have the opportunity to appear regularly as a guest contributor.

The post is entitled “Mark Richt and the Evangelical Theology of Vocation“.  In it, I note that embattled Georgia coach Mark Richt is an evangelical who has gotten significant props from the evangelical segment of Georgia’s fan base for his vocal profession of faith, active church involvement, and mission trips every summer.  I play off comments about Richt’s expression of faith made by former Georgia standout Fran Tarkenton in a radio interview last week (look for the link and copious quotes from that interview here in a couple of days) to the effect that Richt’s job is to be a football coach, not a missionary or religious instructor.  I tie this in to Luther’s theology of vocation and ask:  Could we as evangelicals accept coaches like Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, and Chip Kelly, who are singlemindedly devoted to football, if they were to claim to be evangelical?  Is it possible that all those mission trips might actually be a hindrance to Mark Richt fulfilling the vocation which God has called him to (during this present season of life, at least)?

“Left Behind” Theology Has Consequences

Today I wish to make a statement about the premillennial dispensationalist theology (a la Left Behind) that is rife in certain quarters of evangelicalism.  Most Biblical scholars have been moving away from this view in recent years, but alas, the train has already left the station.  Because policy makers in the US and in Israel and others who are concerned about the state of Israel have jumped on board with this “Left Behind” theology and are using it to guide their thinking and decisions.

Let me direct your attention to an op-ed piece that just dropped last week.  I will give it to you straight up, and then check back in afterward with some commentary from yours truly.

IN CRITICAL times such as this, run-of-the mill diplomacy just won’t do. Generating a few press releases, writing a couple of op-eds and mobilizing Jewish organizations won’t be enough to turn the tide that is heading straight for our shores.

Instead, we need to reach deep into our arsenal and harness one of the most powerful, and underutilized, weapons at our disposal: faith-based diplomacy. For far too long, we have relied solely on military, geopolitical and historical arguments when making our case abroad.

Hesitant or even ashamed to invoke our biblical right to this land, many of our spokesmen and diplomats have failed to deploy the moral and theological arguments which are the underpinning of our very presence here.

And just look where that has gotten us.

The fact is that our largest, best-organized and most powerful friends – namely US Evangelical Christians – stand by us not because of some UN resolution from 1947, but because of what God promised Abraham more than 3,700 years ago. And that is why we need to start quoting Genesis far more often than the League of Nations or the Balfour Declaration.

. . . And that is why it is all the more essential to be cultivating faith-based Christian support, both in the US and elsewhere. Because unlike fair-weather friends, whose backing depends on fluid and constantly-shifting political or economic interests, Bible-believing Christians stand with us out of solid belief. Their friendship is like steel – highly durable and resistant to breakage.

Thankfully, various Jewish and Christian groups are stepping in where the government has failed to act. The Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, for example, is building an extensive network of international parliamentary caucuses which mobilize support and coordinate various pro-Israel activities. From the US to Japan to the European Union, it has forged sister caucuses around the world.

Christian organizations in America are also leading the charge. Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel has built a nationwide grassroots movement that reaches more people and decision-makers than any communiqué from the Foreign Ministry ever did.

[In subsequent paragraphs, the writer mentions other Christian groups that support Israel in the way he is suggesting—the Christian Broadcasting Network, Rev. Robert Stearns of Eagles’ Wings, the International Christian Embassy, Bridges for Peace and Christian Friends of Israel, Christians for Israel International and their paper, Israel and Christians Today.]

. . . Now more than ever, we need to rally our “Christian base” in America and elsewhere. A few simple steps, such as organizing a Prime Minister’s Conference for Christian Leadership, developing the equivalent of a Birthright program for young churchgoers and establishing “Israel prayer battalions” would serve to reinforce this critical bond.

We should also appoint a roving ambassador whose responsibility would be to fortify and strengthen relations with Christians in America. This should not be an honorary title, but a position with real substance and meaning, manned by a person of faith and not just another political appointee.

With the world increasingly breathing down our neck, it is time that we embrace faith-based diplomacy, and not shy away from it in the heat of debate. As proud Jews who have returned to our land by divine right, we need not be embarrassed to assert our claim to our patrimony by relying on the Book of Books.

Nor should we fear that in doing so, we will stand alone. As recent years have shown, there will be millions of Christians ready to stand with us.

The writer of this piece is Michael Freund.  He wrote this for the Jerusalem Post, in a column entitled “Fundamentally Freund”.  In case you haven’t gathered, Freund is a Jew who is very strongly concerned about Israel in its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians, and who wishes to enlist the support of evangelical Christians in this struggle.

Freund seems to believe that this support is automatic–that if Israel seeks to make a case for complete and uncontested possession of the land on the basis of Genesis, then evangelicals will automatically fall in behind them in support.  And many evangelicals will, because of the “Left Behind” theology that is prevalent in many quarters of evangelicalism.  To put it simply and bluntly, many evangelicals believe that certain things have to happen before Christ will return, and that by engineering certain geopolitical outcomes concerning Israel we can hasten the return of Christ.

Whoops…forgot to tell you about the Antichrist.  He’s coming before Christ returns and he will inflict untold amounts of suffering upon the vast majority of the human race.  But that’s OK, because the Rapture will happen long before the Antichrist shows up on the scene and all the true believers (who are the only people who mean anything to God anyway) will be safely out of harm’s way.  Read the Left Behind books (or better yet just read the synopsis on Wikipedia) and it will tell you all you need to know.

Doesn’t this bother you, people?

Personally I think that the idea of unqualified, unquestioning support for Israel regardless of the consequences for others who are involved in this conflict will only push us into a state of all-out war in the Middle East.  This is scary, and we don’t need to go there.

But let’s not even talk about that.  There is an even larger–much larger–issue at play here:  the idea that the Church is nothing more than a pawn that can be used by certain people in the world to achieve the geopolitical outcomes that they wish to achieve.  And beyond that, the idea that the Church can be used by anyone who has an agenda that they wish to accomplish–even when that agenda has nothing whatsoever to do with advancing the message of humanity’s reconciliation with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Doesn’t that bother you, people?