Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughts on the Popol Vuh

From Wikipedia: "Against a backdrop of three stairs, a Maya ballplayer drops on his right knee to meet an exaggeratedly large ball. From a Maya Central Lowlands vase, 650 - 800 AD."
Probably the most widely-known New World creation myth is that of the K’iche’ (or Quiché) Maya of present-day Guatemala, the Popol Vuh* (“Council Book”). It’s known to us today through the work of a parish priest Francisco Ximénez, who transcribed the K’iche’ language and translated it into Spanish for preservation in 1701. There is some debate over whether or not his source was a pre-conquest document in Mayan script or the oral traditions of the K’iche’ people. There are, however, pre-conquest artwork depicting characters and events found in the Popol Vuh found on a number of documents and pottery, attesting to the age of the story.

If I were to summarize the Popol Vuh, I’d call it a sports hero drama, centered around the ancient Mesoamerican past-time of ballplaying. Like many B movies from the 1980s and 1990s, the plot consists of the “bad guy” team beating the “good guy” team, and the “good guy” team coming back for revenge. I can just imagine the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque running around with their index fingers in the air shouting, “We’re number one!”

From Wikipedia: "The oldest written account of Popol Vuh (ms c.1701 by Francisco Ximénez, O.P.)"The creation account is polytheistic and serves to establish the origins of the K’iche’ Mayan people. Unlike the God of the Bible, the K’iche’ Mayan gods undergo trial and error, creating various human-like creatures and essentially pronouncing them “not good,” (i.e., unsuitable for service to the creator deities). In the text, these mistakes provide an explanation for the existence of monkeys, but would also allow the K’iche’ Mayan to easily incorporate H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, and even Bigfoot into their myth. On the other hand, like most creation accounts, the Popol Vuh is ethnocentric rather than universal, serving to establish the origins of the K’iche’ Mayan people and verify its royal lineages of the K’iche’ Mayan. It doesn’t really allow for human existence outside of the Mayan and a perhaps a few non-Mayan nations found in Mesoamerica.

As scholars have no doubt discovered long before me, I noticed some interesting parallels between the Popol Vuh and the Bible while reading the K’iche’ Mayan account. One is the presence of a type of Eve and a type of the Virgin Mary found in the sports hero twins’ mother, Blood Moon (or Lady Blood), the virgin daughter of the lord Blood Gatherer. Like Eve, Blood Moon disobeys a higher authority by seeking fruit from a forbidden tree, and like Mary, she is impregnated by means other than natural sexual intercourse. Most importantly, also like Eve, through her comes redemption by the birth of her sons.

Two things about this redemption story contrast it with the Christian one. First, it’s the redemption of sinless (or more accurately, tricked) gods rather than sinful man. Second, although it’s an inspiring heroic tale, it doesn’t hold any special promise for mankind. However, the central point seems to correlate well with the Jewish creation account. The humans’ purpose in life is to glorify and serve the creator gods and care for the natural world in which they’re placed. And we can assume that any failure to do so would clearly not bode well for them.

*Before reading the Popol Vuh, I was only vaguely familiar with its name. I initially read Dennis Tedlock’s Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (Touchstone, 1996), but later discovered Allen Christenson’s Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), which is also available free online. The latter is supposedly considered a superior translation. Also helpful in understanding the context of the work were the animated film Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth and the Maya (1987) by Patricia Amlin (above) and video and other interactive resources from the Invitation to World Literature, Part 8: Popol Vuh, provided by the Annenberg Foundation.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on Zechariah

Detail of Zachariah: Claus Sluter, Well of Moses, 1395-1405Remember back in those Sunday School days? We kids would try to outdo each other in our Bible knowledge, chiding the ones who foolishly believed that Jesus was born in a manger and sticking up our noses at those who couldn’t pronounce Habakkuk. The subject of angels came up often enough. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Angels in the Outfield (1994) we believed were leading souls astray by equating those heavenly beings with dead people who’d gone to heaven. We’d roll our eyes and declare that angels were always men and never had wings, let alone had to earn them.

Fast forward a good fifteen years later. For some odd reason, every time I’d read through the Bible in my teens and early twenties, I hadn’t noticed the possible implications of a short passage:
Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. - Zechariah 5:9 (ESV)
A couple of years ago, when a woman at church mentioned there were no female angels, I posed the question to her: What are these creatures? She couldn’t answer. I made a suggestion.

Now, you might argue that “angel” (מַּלְאָ֖ךְ in Hebrew, ἄγγελον in the Greek LXX) is used for the messenger with whom the prophet interacts throughout the book. The beings in 5:9 are distinctly described as “women” (נָשִׁ֤ים, γυναῖκες), not “angels.” But recall that many beings we call “angels” are just as distinctly described as “men” (e.g., הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים or ἄνδρες Genesis 18:22, אִישׁ in Daniel 10:5, ἄνδρες in Acts 1:10), without “angel” used in the near vicinity or even at all. Often we read the word into the text, assuming that it’s appropriate.

Now the Jews and the Roman Catholics have organized entire hierarchies of angelic beings according to their perceived natures and roles. I have no idea where these two “women” would fit into them. What is questionable is why Christians feel so strong about there never being female-looking “angels.” The argument I remember hearing as a child was that angels had to appear as men in a patriarchal society in order to be respected. Now as an adult, I see that this fails on multiple points:

  1. Human women in positions of authority (at minimum one judge, a number of prophetesses, and a few queens) have the same problem.
  2. Strange men don’t automatically earn people’s respect just because they’re male. (Case in point: Luke 1:18).
  3. Anyone, regardless of apparent sex or gender, doing supernatural things is going to get people’s attention, including the son of a carpenter from the wrong side of the tracks.
  4. Angels obviously have different roles to play.
The final point is the most relevant here. The two “women” seen by Zechariah neither spoke to him nor, to the best of our knowledge, interacted at all with humanity. Only male-looking ones did. No socio-cultural gender boundaries had to be crossed for the beings in 5:9 to get their job done. In other words, I’m puzzled as to why Christians feel so strongly about this controversy over female-looking angels. I just can’t see how it would influence, pro or con, any doctrinal position involving women’s roles and position in the home, church, or abroad.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: Brandon Hatmaker’s ‘Barefoot Church’

Our religious culture is a consumer culture. Whether through worship services or other church activities, most Christians are spectators rather than an integral part of the action. Brandon Hatmaker, senior pastor of the Austin New Church and co-founder of Missio, wants to change all that. In Barefoot Church: Servicing the Least in a Consumer Culture (Zondervan, 2011), he reminds us that, in the words of James, pure religion requires serving the poor and oppressed, not sitting on the sidelines a few times a week expecting to be entertained. Hatmaker wants to get every member of every church involved in community service projects, which unfortunately have taken a backseat to evangelism.

There’s a backlash against this view primarily because church leaders tend to fear “social gospel,” the preaching and teaching that society can be saved through prohibition, soup kitchens, and improved sanitation, rather than through Jesus Christ. This isn’t what Hatmaker’s promoting. He’s calling Christians to return service to its rightful place beside the proclamation of the Gospel. He’s looking for barefoot Christians, those willing to give up their shoes for the homeless on the spot, regardless of whether or not there’s an opportunity to convert them.

Right now, churches direct most of their resources to “getting people in the door.” This method has failed to produce the kind of growth expected. The “unchurched” don’t have their material needs met, and the “dechurched” have left because church, as church is usually done, appears irrelevant to the real world. The solution? Hatmaker advocates a major structural overhaul. His most controversial suggestion? Canceling morning worship service once a month so that the congregation can go out and actually meet the needs of the community.

When a church’s priorities change, Hatmaker foresees real progress being made. Why obsess over attendance counts when there are orphans to adopt and sex trafficking victims to rehabilitate? And what about partnering with other organizations to give Christians an opportunity to connect with those demographics underrepresented in church, like college professors? The refusal to do so, he points out, is often connected with an unwillingness to set aside some church agenda to get a service job done. In addition, churches crave public recognition for their work, pitting them against nonprofit organizations as competition instead of allies with common goals.

I enjoyed Barefoot Church largely because it got straight to the point. Yes, there were plenty of stories to illustrate the problem at hand along with Bible verses to convince the reader of the necessity of service, but Hatmaker focuses on the logistics of getting a program set up without burning out leaders or guilt tripping members who don’t have time. One area he doesn’t touch upon nearly enough is conflict within a congregation. Breaking away from the norm will likely cause division. Hatmaker sort of assumes that his readers are working within an autocratic system in which a senior pastor can create new projects and change church structure at whim. However, those coming from situations tightly controlled by the congregation, a team of elders, or a denominational authority need more advice on how to win over others. Yes, the church should make service a priority, but for small congregations especially, everyone needs to be on board with the idea.

P.S. Hatmaker also has written the Barefoot Church Primer: An 8-week Guide to Serving through Community to help churches get started.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review of James S. Woodroof’s “Famous Sayings of Jesus”

One thing I enjoyed about attending the 2012 Pepperdine Bible Lectures was getting the opportunity to chat with the authors. James S. Woodroof, a nice-looking elderly man from Tennessee, had come out of retirement to write a little devotional titled Famous Sayings of Jesus: Timeless Teachings for Today (2012) and was marketing it as a resource for children’s Bible classes. I picked up a copy and, recently, finished reading it.

The book is really two bound together, one on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12) and one on the parables. In the first, Woodroof’s stated goal is to present the well-known “Blessed are the…” verses in what he calls “relationship language,” in effect translating Christ’s statements into easy-to-digest instruction for how believers are to interact with others. For example, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7) becomes a lesson on being willing to forgive others. “Blessed are the persecuted” (v.10) becomes a lesson on tolerating unjust treatment. These might seem straightforward, but as I thought about it, my Sunday School teachers never really explained what it meant to be “poor in spirit” (v.3), one who “mourns” (v.4), or “meek” (v.5) in such a way that left me as a child with a clear understanding of what God expected of me. Woodroof turns the oft-confusing passages into lessons on humility, confession, and putting others first over our personal “rights.”

Despite the topic’s apparent suitability for children, the book’s target demographic seems to be older readers, who’d better relate to the author’s personal stories and World War II illustrations. I was surprised not to find a single example taken from Old and New Testament stories. (Maybe one sneaked by me, but I doubt it.)

In part two, Woodroof appeals to his readers to reconsider the role of grace in Jesus’ parables. I’m not read up on the controversy over grace within the Churches of Christ – I was raised Christian Church, and we talked about grace – so I had some difficulty following the author’s very sketchy discussion on the topic. His goal is to convince Christians to pay more attention to the themes and structure found in the parables, not defend his own views, but a footnote directing the reader to other books on the subject would’ve been helpful.

All in all, I wish the second part on parables had been fleshed out more. The unified book is an illusion, and the smaller-than-average margins, making it difficult to read, are a testimony that each part could’ve been published on its own. Add the crowded look, inconsistent formatting, and typos, and the book seems like a rush job. Few will probably read it, which is unfortunate because there are some real gems inside.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Thoughts on Judges

Tel Dan-Israeli Gate (Wikipedia)
One of the saddest stories in the Book of Judges is the account of the Danite conquest of Laish. When the Israelite tribes were assigned their respective territories under Joshua, the people of Dan received the central coastal area, including the city of Joppa (Joshua 19:40-46). Unfortunately, the Danites lost their inheritance to the Amorites (Judges 1:34-36). Rather than fight for their God-given land, the Danites decided to claim other land, and in time another god, as their own (Judges 18, cf. Joshua 19:47).

The city of Laish, or Leshem, was far north in the mountains of Lebanon, at the Aramean border. In other words, it lay beyond the designated Canaanite lands that God had handed over to the Israelites. Its people are thought to have been Phoenician because of the apparent cultural and political ties with Sidon (Judges 18:7, 28). No mention is made of their sins. Instead the Bible refers to them as “quiet and unsuspecting,” isolated from the corruption around them (Judges 18:7). The Danites seized the opportunity to slaughter them and take their land (Judges 18:27-28, cf. Joshua 19:47).

In defense of the people of Dan, they did believe that they had the blessing of their Lord, as conveyed through an impostor priest (Judges 18:1-10). However, upon discovering their error, they should’ve sought to correct it, as the Mosaic Law prescribes in various case laws dealing with accidents and unintentional sin. Instead they set up a rival god, in defiance of the primary commandment, presumably one that was more lenient about killing innocent people and stealing their property.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the Danites’ atrocities. God’s people can be lured into a false sense of entitlement. This was true for King David when he called for Bathsheba, ignoring laws against adultery and coveting thy neighbor’s wife (2 Samuel 11). This was true for King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who justified coveting, baring false testimony, murder, and stealing (1 Kings 21). This has been true for Christians who for centuries have made excuses for warring against, killing, plundering, and raping both their brethren and unbelievers, all the while claiming that they’re just taking what they deserve. And the contemporary political scene reeks with those seeking more and more ways to legally confiscate others’ property and procure taxpayer funds for pork barrel projects.

When Christians get an inflated view of their own importance, many don’t have the slightest feeling of apprehension when it comes to stepping on other people’s toes. Life becomes a zero-sum game, and obviously God’s chosen feel that they must do whatever it takes to come out on top. Too bad being a servant to others rarely comes to mind.