29 May 2006

May 29: A Special Day

I love May 29. It gives me a chance to do the following things:

1) Go out on a real date with my Bride,
2) Recycle old jokes like "we've decided to stick it out another year" or "it sure feels like 23 years, are you sure it has only been twelve?" or "we've been married X bitter years" (12 to be exact).
3) Celebrate a wonderful marriage with the most perfect woman God could have possibly given me.

At lunch last Sabbath, Jenny was recounting one of the Newbold myths: about how her interest in me was unrequited. The kids all looked at me like "were you stupid or something?" (Ellie in particular gives me that look five times a day--as regularly as Muslim prayers.)

What could I do? I just took my palm and smacked it against my forehead three times.

Happy Anniversary, Jenny George!

25 May 2006

Water and Wine: Thoughts on John 2

Summer is almost here, but I must admit that Easter still has me in thrall. Bear with me, then, while I reflect a little longer....

A dark night, an upper room. The Son of Man slips into an anteroom before the meal arrives, carrying a wooden bucket and a ladle. He finds a tall, 30-gallon jar of water reserved especially for the ceremonial washing of the guests. He puts the bucket down, picks up the ladle. As his free hand touches the rim of the water jar, he pauses--thoughts invade his mind.

It was another anteroom, full of cleansing jars. It was a wedding, and he had been a guest. For weeks, he had been praying, pleading with God to lay out his mission before him. He had gained followers. He had felt the Spirit draw close to him, so close it was ready to pour out at any moment!

Yet this wedding--this party--seemed the wrong place to start such a mission. "They have no more wine," were words that didn't sound like marching orders. The words came from his mother after all--not God. He wasn't here to perform mere party tricks, couldn't she see that?

"My time has not yet come." They were his words--they are the words God hears almost every time he calls me, too.

Yet he followed, and his mother led him to an anteroom full of empty cleansing jars--jars that had been emptied in the cleansing of the hands and feet of the wedding guests. Suddenly, the Spirit struck: Jesus straightened, shook His head, opened his mouth and spoke the first words of Miracle: "Fill the jars with water."

A dark night, again, the flashback is finished. He fills the bucket with water and returns to the banquet room to wash his disciples' feet. He kneels before them, pouring water over their feet--water that washes away the dust of Jerusalem.

Next comes the miracle with the wine. He blesses it. "This is my blood," he tells his astonished audience, "Poured out for you for the remission of sins." His work has come full circle; His mission is nearly complete.

We cannot understand the Last Supper without a clear picture of the Wedding of Cana and those empty cleansing jars. They bookend the Gospel of John, perfectly explaining Christ's mission. For even as every observant Jew cleansed his hands and feet with water before eating, every observant Christian would cleanse his soul with wine after this night. Water cleanses the body; wine cleanses the soul. The wine is the miracle--Christ's first and his last.

Like the master of the banquet, I am amazed by this miracle--stunned, almost drunk. "You have saved the best till now," I whisper as I drink the cleansing blood, and I feel my spirit break free.

24 May 2006

Ellie's Birthday

I'm still recovering from Ellie's birthday party this past Sunday. She wanted a Red Carpet birthday theme, so we had our invitees dress up like starlets, and we even spent $8 at WalMart to cover four yards of the sidewalk with red.

I hosted the red carpet walk--at least my alter ego, Tres Gay Jay, hosted the event (2nd picture).

After we cut cake, we filmed a movie called Scheme for Hollywood. The girls pretended a Hollywood director was looking for talent in their town, so they all pretended to do silly things like cry, die, and perform a romantic scene with Owen's oversized Bob the Builder doll.

In the end, the part went to Shoeless Jo (Jonah). I worked the next two nights editing the movie--and a bonus music video--which we gave to the invitees. Now I'm ready for bed!

15 May 2006

Family Crest Update

I've gotten a little more done on our Dittes family crest. I'd like to hear some feedback on this one, so let me know what you think.

I added two points that have real significance for Jenny and me. In the background on the right is Pennard Castle, a ruin on Wales's Gower Peninsula that Jenny and I discovered on the Most Awesome Hitchhiking Trip of our Lives in April 1991. We were camping along the beach there, and we hiked up to the top of some bluffs, where we found this beautiful castle overlooking the Bristol Channel. It's ours now.

On the top left is Picket Post Mountain, which watched over our first home in Superior, Arizona. We climbed it a number of times (Ellie climbed it once in utero), and it brings back some fond memories of our early married years.

In the foreground is a pine tree from our house in Tennessee. A trail connects the foreground to the background (my obsession is finding and building trails).

All that's left is some color. I also plan to add some dogwood branches to the lower right corner--again from our home here in Tennessee. I wasn't originally planning to have a 3-D effect in the crest, but I think it's really cool. It's as if we're looking through the trees at our home, back on the great events and places that brought us together as a family.

Let me know what you think!

12 May 2006

Book Review: A New Way to Look at Someone You've Always Known

I don't remember exactly what my pastor and I were discussing that Sabbath four weeks ago in his office. I do remember looking over at his bookshelf and jumping up with a start: "You have Chilton's Rabbi Jesus!" I blurted. "Can I read it?"

I'm a big fan of Bruce Chilton, an Anglican priest and college professor. A few years ago I bought his book, Rabbi Paul, and that book has been real food (both intellectual and spiritual)--I've read it twice, and now I'm going back through it, cross-referencing the texts that he cited. It let me into Paul's writings in a number of dramatic ways: (1) providing a convincing narrative that connected his travels and his writings; (2) providing a well-researched context for the communitites in which he worked (pharisees, school of Gamaliel, Tarsus, etc.); and (3) giving unique analysis to Paul's writings.

I come from a literalistic theological background which has traditionally focused solely on scripture without getting bogged down on scholarly criticism or the social/philosophical context of the writings of the Bible. For the most part, this is a good thing. I haven't spent time wondering if the Resurrection was physical or metaphorical; I haven't tried to disprove the clear message of the Bible based on some scholar's hypotheses.

But my fascination for scholarly, Bible-related works has grown over the years. Much of what is out there, thanks to people like Crossan, Pagels, and Ehrman, is recycled 2nd-century heresies, repackaged to show "oppressed, alternate strains" of Christianity and supposedly trump the testimony of the New Testament (written within 70 years of Christ's death--and the single-most vetted book in the history of literature).

Chilton could easily be lumped together with the afore-mentioned writers. I would not call him orthodox by any means, yet his arguments are usually well-supported and enlightening. His books are worth the read, particularly if you're up to a challenge. I'll review the book based on the three points I mentioned above.

The Teaching/Travel Narrative. Traditional readings of the gospels have the birth story, the temple scene and then a big gap between Jesus at age 12 and the beginning of his ministry around his 30th year (John mentions four trips to Jerusalem, while the other three gospels mention only the final, climactic visit). Chilton gets rid of most of the gaps, starting in Jesus' adolescence, theorizing that Jesus (a mamzer rejected by the community because of his questionable parentage) went to Jerusalem around age 14, along with his devout, legitimate brother, James. He dropped away from his family in the busy streets of Jerusalem and spent the next six to eight years as a disciple of John the Baptist. Chilton shows Jesus leaving John's side just a few months prior to John's arrest and picking up disciples of his own in Galilee--per the Gospel of John.

He also stretches the traditional three years of Christ's ministry out to ten or more, including a number of years spent back at home, working as a handyman in Nazareth, and more years in Capernaum. He then sends Jesus wandering as Herod Antipas grows wary of this "new John" and pursues him throughout Galilee/Syria. The fear of arrest, the need to differentiate his mission from that of John, the great desire to see fulfilled the prophecies of Ezekiel and Zechariach--these are used to explain Jesus' motives for his travels as well as his teachings.

I find some of it persuasive--the close connection with John, the fear of Herod, the final mission to Jerusalem--but some leaps are too far for my orthodoxy. For example, he mentions the temptations of Christ as coinciding with the aftermath of the Feeding of the 5,000, rather than earlier in Christ's ministry. Also, Chilton as a secular-oriented scholar explains things like Christ's walking on water, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, as "shared visionary experiences" rather than literal ones. I'm not bound by book sales or scholarly criticism to affirm my faith in each of these.

One fascinating divergence Chilton takes is incorporating the story of Barnabas. Using tradition and some mid 2nd-century sources, he writes that Barnabus (whose family was from Cyprus) had a home in Jerusalem where Jesus might have stayed--and he may have even been the host for the Last Supper. The Bible does show that Barnabus was one of the first apostles, and that he later sold his lands and donated the proceeds to the Jesus Movement.

Context for 1st-Century Communities. Chilton's description of the temple as it appeared in Jesus' day is vivid and breathtaking in its scope. I also appreciated his explanation of Ezekiel's fiery chariot visions and how they informed both the worldview of John and Jesus. Most interesting was the dichotomy between John's practice of watery baptism and Jesus' meal-oriented sacraments--although Jesus directed his disciples to baptize, I had never before wondered why he, himself, never baptized anyone until I read this book.

Chilton is an astute observer of the political dynamics of 1st-century Galilee and Judeah, tracing Pilate's vacillations back to a Roman political scandal involving his mentor, Sejanus, and explaining how the forces of Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod united against Christ after his cleansing of the temple. He spends six pages reflecting on the duties of a 1st-century handyman. My orthodox sensibilities were offended, however, by his repeated use of the term "illiterate peasant" to describe my Savior. Personally, I see it as a derogatory term--I think there are ample mentions of Christ reading or quoting scripture in the gospels--but he may have intended it more to reflect historical/class details than prejudice.

Finally, Chilton is able to give unique analysis to Christ's teachings. The most fascinating was in the dichotomy with John's message. Jesus believed that the Spirit of God was available to everyone at any time--not necessarily through baptism but through remembrance and thanks, best typified by the way Christ remembered his heavenly Father at meal times. (Chilton focuses a lot on Christ and food--even speculating that at the end of his stay in Capernaum, just before Herod's pursuit, Jesus had developed a paunch.) To me, this was the revolutionary idea of Christ's work. The Kingdom of God was a community of believers--one very effectively set up by Christ.

I also appreciated the discussion of the Ezekiel and Zechariah texts--two books that I haven't studied sufficiently before. Ezekiel speaks of envisioning a flaming chariot (the throne of God), and Chilton writes that this vision was ever before Jesus, fueling his mission. Jesus' gift to his disciples, then, was the incorporation of this vision within them--along with others, as I have mentioned above.

Finally, the Zechariah prophecies that showed a cleansed temple at which the world would worship helped to explain the impetus for Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem, his dramatic demonstration in the temple, and his combative demeanor with the pharisees he debated there.

There are really two kinds of narratives for the life of Jesus: those where he walks among men, and those where his feet barely touch the ground because of his godliness. Rabbi Jesus belongs among the former type: every idea may not please the orthodox among us, but the view will give us a compelling portrait of the man we know as the Son of God.

06 May 2006

Da Vinci Code: Ignore the Hype and Enjoy

I'm trying to get a book published. Last week, I got a very constructive "no thanks" letter back from an editor at Penguin Books, and I've decided to rewrite key sections of The Sandal on the Obelisk to ramp up the action and make the conflict clearer.

Of course, if I wanted to be published that badly, I would put Da Vinci or Opus Dei in the title. Then it would get plenty of attention! It's amazing to me how easily our country's polarized Culture of Outrage can be perverted to sell books and movie tickets. There is much money to be made--hey folks, how about cutting this aspiring author in on the racket?

I read The Da Vinci Code about a year ago. I loved it. It was a thriller that I just couldn't put down from Chapter Two onward. It begins with a spectacular murder in the Louvre. Three sets of people focus on the crime: the granddaughter of the murdered man, who, with the help of an American scholar, races through France and Britain to unravel the secrets of her lineage; the French police, who believe the aforementioned pair are responsible for the murder; and a reclusive English baron who is on his own search for the Holy Grail.

There are so many clues, so many excellent plot twists, your head is spinning and spinning until the end. I must say that I thought the end was disappointing. Brown fumbles the romantic element of the story and the discovery of the Holy Grail...well, it can't live up to the hype.

Speaking of hype, the Culture of Outrage" has really bought into the hype, driving sales of the book to 30 million (most of any novel, ever). Why the hype? Well, one of the plot elements is that Sophie (the granddaughter) is a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (whose womb, according to Brown, is the real Holy Grail--can you understand the letdown, now?).

To me, these are plot twists, just like other thrillers I've read revealed the location of Hitler's secret child, the passcode to the secret Enigma machine, or evidence of a conspiracy by the FBI to assassinate JFK.

I am a devout Christian, but I don't believe in the holiness of a Grail or in the survival of any clay cup used at the Last Supper. I am mildly offended by allusions to a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary, but Christ's virginity isn't exactly a cornerstone of my theology. What is the big deal? If a thriller about the Holy Grail is enough to make a Christian lose their faith in Christ's holiness, then by the same logic, a ghost story would be enough to make them lose belief in the Resurrection.

No, it's the usual suspects at work again in our Culture of Outrage. Just like Mel Gibson tweaked the usual suspects (Jews and secularists) to drive movie sales of The Passion of the Christ to over $300 million; Brown and movie director Ron Howard are tweaking the usual suspects (Christian fundamentalists) to drive controversy and sell books & movie tickets.

Will I see the film? Probably not. As a rule, I ignore overhyped movies. The only movies I see nowadays are kid flicks anyway. I've read the book--and I enjoyed it--and that's why I shared this with you.

Luke 5

Bible study this morning: Jesus get into Peter's boat and teaches crowds from around Capernaum. When he is finished speaking, he turns to Peter and says, "Put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch."

Peter answers, "Master, we've woirked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets" (Luke 5.4-5). Peter goes out to deep water, and the catch is so great that it almost sinks his boat. He calls for help and James & John come to help.

It's a wonderful story--and a wonderful allegory for this season between Easter and Pentecost. Jesus' message had been proclaimed and sealed with His blood. It was at Pentecost that Peter finally overcame his fears and went out into the "deep water," far outside his comfort zone in Galilee. It was at Pentecost that Peter became a "fisher of men."

And the catch! Thousands upon thousands upon thousands! It took help from the SS John, the SS James, the SS Paul, and it continues to pour in through the efforts of believers today.

03 May 2006

Modern War or Ancient?

This is a short post. I spent the morning grading papers. One of the questions about Kipling's ballad, "Danny Deever," asked about the time period in which the title character lived.

One answer: "The Evolutionary War."

01 May 2006

I-65 Live with Owen Mike

The older my kids get the more I see them passing developmental milestones that I remember passing. Ellie’s first day on crutches last month took me back to the two weeks I flailed around on crutches after a particularly nasty bike wreck.

Owen’s reading has caught up with some of my memories, too. Of course, the first book I remember reading was a book about Jairus’ daughter, while Owen’s choice of books tends more towards encyclopedias. He’s got me there, definitely.

Recently, Owen has taken to reading street signs whenever we drive somewhere. “Speed Limit 45, Dad,” he chirps from his place in the middle section of the minivan. “Are you going 45?” Now he has figured out how to read the speedometer, so it often sounds more like this: “Dad, you’re going too fast. The speed limit is 35. Slow down!”

The first weekend in March our family shook off some winter weariness by taking a road trip. The road trip is an essential and unique aspect of American culture—a time when the family gathers together, shares experiences, and has some bonding time. In other countries families do this at meal times, but here in the States, we strap on the seat belts and burn a few gallons of Saudi Arabia’s finest.

The whole togetherness thing didn’t happen right away. Ellie buried her nose in a book in the back seat, and Jonah perched the portable DVD player on his lap and watched “Jay-Jay the Jet Plane.” Owen began a play-by-play, sign-by-sign routine that would last the whole two-hour trip.

As we approached the on-ramp, Owen noted, “Interstate 65 that-a-way.” He paused. “Yield,” he intoned deeply.

Our minivan bounced through the hills of southern Kentucky. “Road construction 1500 feet,” he announced as we passed an orange sign. He took a quick breath and added, “Road construction 1000 feet, [another quick breath] Road construction 500 feet.”

Exit signs showed what a good reader Owen has become. “Mumfordville,” “Bonnieville,” and “Lietchfield” rolled out of his mouth without a hitch. Mile markers became chances to practice his knowledge of numbers. Owen, who can read his numbers up to 99, got the chance to practice the higher numbers. “Mile one-one-seven,” he said.

“One hundred seventeen,” I corrected him. Owen refused to take the bait. He looked at me for a second. “That’s right,” he grinned. Quickly he turned his face away and announced, “Mile one-one-eight!”

He even found ways to read signs that didn’t say anything. Again and again he would say, “Bumble-bee sign!” I couldn’t tell what he was talking about until we passed a bridge. At the sight of the diagonal yellow-and-black striped sign, he said it again: “Large Bumblebee Sign!”

“Narrow road,” I instructed. “It means the road narrows.”

Owen didn’t think much of my reading ability. “It’s a Bumblebee Sign, Dad,” he said with a tone of disparagement in his voice.

We were driving through a construction zone just north of Bowling Green, Kentucky, when the whole speed limit thing came up again. “Speed limit 55,” he proclaimed. I admit I wasn’t paying much attention—I was trying to listen to a book Jenny was reading to me.

A few minutes later, he said it a little louder, “Speed limit 55!” I looked in the rearview mirror. I could see him looking past my shoulder at the speedometer. “Dad!” he said, “You’re going too fast!”

“It’s OK,” I tried to reassure him. “You can drive a little faster than the speed limit here.”

“You’re going 65 and the speed limit says 55!”

“OK, fine.” I let my foot off the gas pedal as we reached the crest of a hill. I looked back at Owen. He was still scrutinizing the speedometer, but he was silent. As the van careened down the other side of the hill at exactly 55 miles per hour, I spotted the front end of a police car peering around a corner. I was safe, and I had a five-year-old to thank for it.