Reading the New Testament Beginning with Paul

December 8, 2017

Since I began writing blogs in April 2017 as keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com, I have published 441 columns on American religion, bicycling, and the environment. Month after month the column with the most readers is one I posted on September 6, 2013, with the title “Reading the New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.”

Borg Evolution

New Testament Books in Historical Context

I described the Bible reading program that Marcus J. Borg had recommended in his recently published book, Evolution of the Word, which was to read the New Testament in the order that the books were written rather than in the order they are arranged in the Bible. This meant starting with seven epistles by Paul before reading any of the gospels or Acts.

New insights and new questions were among the results of this different way of reading a very familiar book. Why does Paul say so little about the life and ministry of Jesus? Much of his theology was a response to specific problems that his intended readers were facing, but we face different problems. How can Paul’s theological insights and pastoral guidance be applied to our situations?

I used the New Revised Standard Version because that and its predecessor have been the translations of choice much of my adult life. Along the way, I also consulted The New Interpreter’s Study Bible and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and I occasionally used other commentaries to clarify obscure points.

Along the way, I made notes, and when I finished my reading, nearly two years after starting, my personal commentary totaled 140 manuscript pages and nearly 20,000 words. Although it has not been my intention to publish these notes, a colleague (who has seen the set on Paul but has not read them) has urged me to make them available in a more public and permanent form.

Before showing him these notes, I had begun a second reading of the New Testament in chronological order. I’m still early in the project, having read only two short epistles (1 Thessalonians and Galatians) and half of a long one (1 Corinthians). I am using the Common English Bible (CEB), which is new to me, as my primary text and referring to notes in the CEB Study Bible.

In addition, I am using N. T. Wright’s series of popular commentaries entitled Paul for Everyone. Wright provides his own translation of these texts and it is interesting to compare his effort to translate these texts so that “the words can speak not just to some people, but to everyone” with the hope of the CEB’s translators that their new translation will “speak to people of various religious convictions and different social locations.”

I am reviewing my first set of notes as I read, but I am also creating a second set. From time to time I will consolidate the two sets into one new commentary which will replace the two previously developed sets of notes.

Years ago I read a book in which the author (neither the author’s name nor the book’s title come to mind) proposed that preachers develop a series of sermons each of which proclaims the central message of an entire book of the Bible. I may not write entire sermons, but I intend to select the text and suggest the sermon’s outline for each of the New Testament books as I make my second trip through the New Testament in the order that the books were written.

How long will this process take? Just reading and making notes is moving more slowly than the first time through. Consolidating the two sets of notes and developing sermonic possibilities will increase the time even more. Early this Advent season, my working plan is to finish this second reading of Paul’s epistles by Easter and the revised commentary with sermonic notes by Pentecost.

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Wondering Around God

September 21, 2017

Two questions arise for most self-reflecting people. How did I come to be the person I now am? Have I become my real self yet? Elva Anson’s memoir, Wondering Around God (Fair Oaks, California: Emidra Publishing, 2017), is a thoughtful and candid exploration of her eighty-five years of life in which she seeks to answer these questions.

She describes her childhood and coming of age in small communities in the South San Joaquin Valley near Fresno, California. Because her father was pastor of Assembly of God churches, much of the detail in her life was shaped by religious ideas and practices—intense religious experience and the sense of the immediacy of God and Jesus; conservative, Bible-based doctrinal system; and strict rules about behavior, including a social pattern in which the father is head of the household and very much in control.

Despite a deep love for her family, Anson struggled with this system. She was fully engaged in church and public school activities, often in leadership positions, and sometimes experiencing conflict between competing systems. When she was invited to play cymbals in the school marching band, her father would not consent because his understanding of the Bible would not allow her to wear pants.

This challenge was resolved at one level when the band director decided that all the girls would wear white skirts while marching. At another level, however, the conflict remained. When she was visiting her grandpa’s farm, she was permitted to wear overalls when cleaning out the fox pens, and in the Bible men wore robes that looked like women’s clothing. How did these facts mesh with the rules her father laid down?

Anson’s struggles became more intense during her late teens as she focused attention on who she wanted to be. She knew that she did not want to be a missionary nor did she want to be a minister’s wife. “All of my wondering made thinking of the future confusing and difficult. “What I knew I didn’t want to be made me reluctant to try to find out what God wanted me to be” (p. 75).  Read more Wondering Around God


Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn

September 6, 2017

Fifty years ago, in August 1967, my family and I moved temporarily to Seattle. Although the political temperature was heating up all around the country, we could not have imagined the terror that would descend upon the nation during the next few months,  a period that was climaxed by the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, riots and burnings in more than a hundred American cities, and the anti-Vietnam War rage in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

By design, I spent part of my time that year working as a member of the staff of University Christian Church, presiding at worship, teaching classes, and serving as consultant to church committees. I talked with people and listened to their conversations, trying to sense the mood of congregants in one large metropolitan congregation.

Most of my time, however, was devoted to research and writing. My intention was to read in the fields of anthropology and sociology in order to broaden my understanding of the cultural function of worship and other modes of public ritual. Quickly my attention came into focus on a short list of philosophical writings.

I wanted to understand Ernst Cassirer’s writings on the philosophy of knowledge and Susanne K. Langer’s exposition of the relation of cultural forms to human feeling. These two philosophers drew upon a wide range of scientific data in order to develop their overlapping philosophies of feeling and form. Although neither of them affirmed the Christian gospel, they helped me understand religious faith and liturgical action in ways that have sustained me ever since.

I also took advantage of the year to read more broadly in a wide range of theological and cultural studies, guided in part by articles in Saturday Review which I read faithfully. I jotted down notes and reflections and incorporated some of these ideas into longer essays or presentations that I made in my work at the church and in travels around the country during the year.

During the final weeks of my research leave, I gathered these occasional writings together and edited them into a book that was published in 1969. Its title, Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn, identifies its central idea. The final paragraph gives a succinct summary of what the book contains.

In this time of violent passage various forms of the racial myth, with their intimations of the miraculous and the mysterious, have arisen to give us hope. The results—injustice, inhumanity, genocide, assassination—reveal the inadequacy of this way out of our deep anxiety.

Impotent, too, is the traditional wisdom enshrined in the liturgies of the church, for Christian worship has been demonized, transmuted from a witness against us to a means of our self-justification.

In order to lead us in creating a new society, in some time yet to come, the Christian liturgy of Word and Sacrament must be revivified, purged of its demonic traits, filled again with the qualities which it is supposed to have.

The table of contents indicates the scope of this relatively short book: Violent Passage; Ritual Becoming High Art; Feeling and Form; Liturgical Style; Guidelines for the Free Tradition; Weekend and Holy Day; How Do We Get There from Here? An Interesting Thought, but Can It Cool the Summer? The book concludes with an appendix of prayers for worship, bibliographic notes, and index.

Despite the fact that this book is grounded in events and research that took place half a century ago, it still seems relevant to church people today. It would be difficult to rewrite the book because it is so intertwined with what I was reading and experiencing in the 1960s. There are places, however, where relatively simple editing could be done that would increase its usefulness for today, and that I may decide to work at this kind of uipdating.

The book is available in a few libraries here and there. Used copies are listed by some book sellers. Let me know what you think about it.

As frontispiece, I used a statement from Philosophical Sketches by Susanne K. Langer. We are living, she wrote in 1964, in a new Middle Ages, “a time of transition from one social order to another. . .We feel ourselves swept along in a violent passage, from a world we cannot salvage to one we cannot see; and most people are afraid.” Half a century later, we seem to be living in that same world.


Especially the alto section: an Easter meditation

April 18, 2017

Choir II by Mark Tobey

My Easter reflections this year have been shaped, in part, by Landesman’s Journal: Meditations of a Forest Philosopher, a small book I bought in Patagonia, Arizona, on a bicycle tour in February of this year. The author, Leon Landesman, chose to live the later years of his life in a small cabin located in a forested region close to the Arizona-Mexico border, with only his dog and an occasional passer-by for companionship.

Earlier in his life, Landesman had received a graduate degree in philosophy, and steady reading in a wide range of philosophically oriented books continued to be central to his life. Although antagonistic toward religious belief and practice, Landesman was intellectually invested in matters related to the soul as a metaphysical reality.

In this regard, he writes, “one can only resort to the time-honored reliance on intuition—the intuition that there is a meaning to the creation and development of one’s metaphysical soul and that it does not share the fate of the body. . .But the intuition within me tells me that my soul will return to the ultimate metaphysical source from which it came and enrich its nature” (p. 24).

I use more theological ideas to describe my stance toward reality, including death and that which comes thereafter. Landesman and I, however, have much in common in our reflections upon that which we cannot now know with certainty.

These reflections are too cerebral on Easter day when in churches everywhere the songs and ceremonies are so vibrant, so filled with new life. Christian affirmations that Jesus breaks the power of death and transforms death into a new kind of life renew our joy in living despite the inevitability of dying.

On the morning my wife of 62 years died, near three years ago, I posted a notice on our condominium door: “now singing alto in the choir of angels.” This picture language more accurately embodies the tone of my intuition about death continuing into life than do Landesman’s metaphysical words.

Early this Easter day, I remembered a print that Billie and I bought fifty years ago. Only today have I realized that it portrays that very choir in which she now sings the music of the spheres. Our family was living that year in Seattle. During the spring both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. One day we were visiting the Seattle Art Museum and found ourselves drawn to Mark Tobey’s painting, Choir II: gouache on board, 16.5 by 10.5 inches, in deep shades of maroon and gray blending into black. Long, vertical slivers of white outline an abstract design, with suggestions of Asian calligraphy.

When you look closely, the design comes into focus. Seven ranks of choristers stand almost as though each rank is superimposed upon the one beneath it. Scattered through this choir are a few members holding horns—trumpets, I suppose—but to my ear they sound like renaissance recorders made of fine wood. During the last thirty years of her life, Billie expressed the music of her soul by playing these instruments with small groups of friends, first in Indianapolis, then Phoenix, and for the final thirteen years in Vancouver, Washington.

On Easter afternoon I gathered for a festive meal with members of my family in Indianapolis. For our devotions before the feast, I revealed to them the mystery of this print that has been displayed in our family home as far back as any of them can remember. I was the one with tears and a voice breaking so that I could not speak, my grief still very strong, but everyone in the room heard the choir sing, especially the alto section.


Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Owner

February 20, 2017

By Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2003)

schafer-annaI’ve lived all my life in western and northern sections of the United States where cultural practices of white people like me have restricted people of color. Although I have been aware of discrimination because of race, it has been difficult for me to understand the harsher patterns that existed in southern states—slavery for more than a century and legal segregation for another hundred years.

A winter sojourn on Amelia Island, which is one of several barrier islands between Florida’s northeastern coast and the Atlantic Ocean, is providing the opportunity and incentive to explore several aspects of the history of slavery that is so much a part of the American story.

In 1808 the United States prohibited the importing of slaves, but in East Florida which remained under Spanish sovereignty until 1821, slaves could still be imported and sold. Because of its deep-water port, Fernandina on Amelia Island became the primary location where ships continued to bring slaves who would be smuggled into Georgia and other states where slavery was still the law of the land.

During the years when Spanish law prevailed in East Florida, two types of slavery existed in close proximity and there was an intense struggle over which would prevail. Although the Spanish three-caste system (enslaved black, free black, and white) lost to the Southern States two-caste system (enslaved black and white), the history of this struggle needs to be kept alive.

Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley was a central figure in this period of American history. She was born in Senegal in 1793 into a family of the ruling class and captured and enslaved by a rival African ethnic group in 1806. She was one of a shipload of slaves bought by an American slaver and transported to Havanna. Thirteen years of age, she was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., who was himself active in the transatlantic slave trade and a major plantation owner in Florida.

During the next five years, she gave birth to three children whom Kingsley fathered. He claimed them as his family and in 1811 granted Anna and her children their freedom. For the next thirty-seven years, Kingsley referred to her as his wife and “lived openly with her and their mixed-race children” (Schafer, p. 25). During much of this time, Kingsley also cohabited with other enslaved teenaged women, openly acknowledged their children as his own, and granted them freedom, too.

Kingsley appointed Anna as overseer of Laurel Hill, his large plantation on Fort George Island about thirty miles south of Fernandina and she directed operations during his frequent and long absences. She organized slave quarters and managed affairs in ways that were similar to those she had experienced among her own people in Senegal.

slave-quarters

After Spain ceded East Florida to the United States, the freedom and security of Kingsley’s African and mixed-race family were severely threatened. American law did not recognize their free status or their rights to inherit and own property. They constantly faced the threat of being sold again into slavery.

In order to secure their safety, Kingsley bought large holdings in the Republic of Haiti, then a free black country, and in 1836 moved his large and complex family moved to this safe location. In 1843, Kingsley died in New York at the age of seventy-eight. Anna was fifty. Three years later, she decided to return to Florida where her husband had retained large holdings.

As struggles over slavery, states rights, and southern sovereignty continued, her life became more difficult. Until her death in 1870, she was surrounded by her large, mixed race family and lived as a free woman. The war had wiped out her holdings and she “resided with one of her daughters, bereft of resources save a loving family” (Schafer, p. 111). She is buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Cemetery in the Jacksonville suburb Arlington.

One of Anna’s great grand-daughters married A. L. Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and of American Beach on Amelia Island, a community where African Americans in the segregated South would have access to the beach.

The history of this era is complex, and an impressive body of scholarly literature is emerging to help us understand it. I am grateful for the slender biography of Anna Kingsley that historian Daniel L. Schafer has written. In easily understood language he describes the slavery patterns already existing in Africa, outlines the transatlantic slave trade, explains the economic and political conflicts in the United States that led to the Civil War, and pieces together the life story of Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.

His narrative is only 131 pages long, followed by another twenty pages of notes, bibliography, and index.  Schafer’s exhaustive, scholarly research is clear, but because his focus is the life story of a remarkable woman, the book is alive and deeply moving. In 2013 he published a much longer, more technical biography, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. and the Atlantic Slave Trade (University Press of Florida, 2013).


Bicycling on Amelia Island: the Franklintown church and cemetery

February 10, 2017

a1a

Florida’s North Coast Highway A1A is one of the nation’s most scenic roads. As it runs through the southern half of Amelia Island, in the northeastern tip of the state, it has much to offer a contemplative cyclotourist. The two-lane highway has well-marked bike lanes, in addition to a bike trail for recreational cyclists. Up-scale residential communities and resorts flourish on both sides of the highway, but the roadway itself is tree-lined, protected from the wind, and restful.

This little stretch of coastal highway also provides the opportunity to delve into the continuing interaction of race, religion, and money in the development of American culture. Part of that story is kept alive by Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street just west of A1A and four miles north of the bridge over Nassau Sound.

The story begins in 1790 when the Robert Harrison family came to the southern tip of Amelia Island and in 1796 received a 600-acre land grant from the Spanish government. Two related families acquired neighboring grants. Each plantation owned slaves, as many as one hundred, to raise crops of rice, cattle, corn, and sea island cotton.

In his 1939 account of old families and plantations of Nassau County, recorded in the WPA Federal Writers’ Program, J. J. G. Cooper wrote that the Harrison plantation had a machine that separated the seed from cotton. His presumption, based on what people told him, was that the planters had learned about this machine from Eli Whitney who had travelled on nearby Cumberland Island in 1790 or 1792.

At the time of the Civil War, the Harrison plantation had grown to 1,000 acres. Union army soldiers swept through the region in 1862, freeing the slaves, but the Harrison family deeded small tracts on the southern edge of the plantation to slaves who remained loyal to the family. Others moved a little to the north and established the community of Franklintown.

frank-placque

In 1880 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Fernandina Beach, the town on the northern part of Amelia Island, organized Franklintown Chapel. Eight years later, Gabriel Means, an ex-slave and Union army soldier, and his wife Edith Drummond Means donated land to the church. In 1892 a small frame building was constructed. In 1949, it was demolished because of highway A1A construction and a new frame church was built.

In 1935 a small group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established American Beach, a residential community with beach access. Their purpose was to provide a place on the ocean for African Americans who could not enjoy public beaches in the segregated south. It was just north of Franklintown and for the next thirty years these two communities lived side by side.

In 1972 a company based on Hilton Head Island bought much of Franklintown and took the initial steps to establish an elaborate ocean-fronting resort and luxury condominiums. The church had to move and was relocated on Lewis Street, near A1A in the northern portion of American Beach. A new brick chapel was constructed and the 1949 frame building was relocated to the new site and serves as the church’s fellowship hall. I am puzzled by the sign posted on this building that refers to the Franklintown Episcopal Methodist Church, which reverses the order of Methodist and Episcopal from the normal title used through history by Methodists in this country.

cem-2I have not yet learned the earlier location of this church, but I have found the original Franklintown cemetery, which is located in Plantation Point, a gated community just south of Lewis Street. On a cul-de-sac of $500,000 homes, there is one vacant lot that provides access to the cemetery. Most of the graves are unmarked, but the purpose of this tiny tract of land is made clear by those that are still identified. I was especially moved by the grave of Ola A. Williams, September 12, 1879 — August 15, 1991.

In her book The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Annette McCollough Myers describes challenges facing American Beach (and Franklintown) because of the influx of wealthy people, most of them white and from other parts of the nation. The people I see while cycling through Franklintown are just like me, white and alien to the territory. Realty reports online describe Franklintown as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.

Perhaps because of the wealth, there also is despair. I talked briefly with one old African American man sitting in the shade near a convenience grocery on A1A, within sight of the church. He sat with his back to the road, staring at the ground, munching on chips from a ripped open bag. His speech was difficult to understand, but over and over again he repeated this simple refrain: “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill myself.”

Myers, Annette McCollough. The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Second Edition (Jacksonville, FL: High-Pitched Hum Publications, 2011). This book describes the history of American Beach from the 1980s through the early 2000s.


Using the church to reform society

January 27, 2017

Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City, by Paul Moore (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)

moore-paulSoon after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, leaders of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis averted a crisis over race and religion.  I learned about this congregational case study from a sermon preached in January, 2017, by Stephen Carlsen, the current dean and rector, and read the full detail in the memoir of Paul Moore who had been the Cathedral’s dean and rector at that time. Although it happened sixty years ago, this episode in church politics continues to be instructive for people interested in the relationship of race and religion in America.

Moore was born into a wealthy New York family in 1919, reared in luxury, and educated at prestigious St. Paul’s School. This school, Moore writes, “instilled faith in a god who looked favorably on gentlemen and demanded no shift in social values from the status quo. . .This religion had a touch of Calvinism to it, a tendency to believe that worldly success and position were blessings given to those who deserved them.” People so blessed “were obliged, in return, to give service and leadership to your community and be a steward of the wealth you had inherited or earned because of your advantages.” They were taught to give generously to their communities and the institutions that helped the poor. “Social change to eliminate poverty, however, was thought to be dangerously liberal.” You could give money to a settlement house for black people but efforts to break the color barrier in your neighborhood would probably lead to your being criticized or ostracized (27).

After graduation from Yale and heroic service in the Marines during World War II, Moore experienced a deepening of his faith and enrolled in General Theological Seminary in New York City to prepare for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. While in seminary, he and some of his classmates ministered among poor people, many of them people of color, in neighborhoods close to the campus. Following graduation, he and three or four others were appointed to a long-established but declining Episcopal church in Jersey City located in a neighborhood with many poor people who were struggling to survive. Some of them were drawn to the church which found new strength.

In 1958 Moore moved to Indianapolis to serve as dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle, succeeding John Craine who had been elected bishop coadjutor of the diocese. The Moore family, including seven children (two more were born later) moved into the house provided by the church, “a large, pretentious neo-Tudor mansion, set back from the still-fashionable Washington Boulevard by a well-tended lawn and shade trees.” The children attended public schools, including Shortridge High School where my children were  students more than a decade later. Moore describes Indianapolis as patriotic and its people as “polite, but not overly friendly.” Heeding Bishop Craine’s advice, he decided “to take it easy with the congregation. I realized most of them were conservative—socially, liturgically, and politically. In Jersey City, the more radical your views and actions, the better the people liked it. The opposite was true in Indianapolis” (141–3).

Christ Church had about seven hundred members, but only two were black, the principal of the segregated black high school and his wife. One of the cathedral clergy befriended three black children who attended its Sunday School and the 9:00 o’clock service with “the younger, more liberal families” (151). They asked to be baptized; in keeping with the church’s established practice, the baptisms took place at the 11:00 o’clock service. At least twenty black adults were gathered around the font. About a month later, the vestry, the congregation’s governing body, set up a retreat with their pastor. He soon discovered that the purpose was to register their discontent that “these nigras” had been there and to insist that this practice should not continue. Read more: using-the-church-to-reform-society