Struggling with Divine Violence

November 5, 2015

Notes on How to Read the Bible and Still Be A Christian by John Dominic Crossan

Crossan ViolenceFrom ancient times until now, the deepest hopes and fears of human life have been vividly displayed and viciously fought in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. This ongoing struggle is the constant theme of the Bible and the matrix within which biblical writers described God, developed contrasting systems of governing the affairs of humankind, and portrayed conflicting visions of how ordinary people are to live out their lives. These ancient lands have taken on even greater urgency in recent decades as human power to destroy has increased, seemingly exponentially. Therefore, the urgency of determining how governments, politicians, religious leaders, business people, and ordinary people should act is becoming ever greater.

In his book How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan provides a way to understand this crisis, both in ancient times and in our own world that in so many ways differs from the historical circumstances of long ago. The book’s subtitle identifies its central theme: “Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation.”

At the center of the narrative is the contrast between two visions of how the world works: a vision of nonviolent distributive justice in which all people and creatures of the world have what they need and a vision of violent retributive justice in which power rules by command and punishment and terrible discrepancies develop between those in command and all others.

In Crossan’s reading of history, the normalcy of human civilization depends upon what he calls escalatory violence as the characteristic process by which all things in life are be ordered. This violence is understood to be justified and carried out by religious systems of thought and ritual. Historical experience makes it seem inevitable that visions of a nonviolent and peaceable kingdom are transformed by using violence to force conformity of most people to the dictates of normal civilization. Read more Struggling with Divine Violence

A new Grand Coulee Dam every 60 days!

October 14, 2015

Third in a Series of on the Rivers of the West

President Kennedy at Hanford's N Reactor

President Kennedy at Hanford’s N Reactor

On April 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford, Washington, to celebrate the dedication of the N Reactor. The ninth production reactor at Hanford and the only one of its kind in the nation, this new reactor was designed to produce plutonium for the defense industry and also to generate electricity.

President Kennedy praised the way that people along this river had changed “the entire history of the world,” especially during “the closing days of the Second World War,” a veiled reference to the bombs that had incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

While asserting that America needed to maintain its “national strength and national vigor,” he also said that “no one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries.”

When people around the world come to realize “that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary…it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law [that] it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world.”

The president then shifted to the primary topic of his address, which was to describe the way that the generation of electricity by atomic power would lead to new prosperity not only for people nearby, but also for people through the entire nation: “a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.”

Kennedy’s speech continued themes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed twenty-eight years earlier at the dedication of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead and seven years later at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam.

Roosevelt was convinced that these massive public works were unalloyed contributions to the well being of the entire nation. They constructively linked federal and local initiative, political control, and expenditure of financial resources. They transformed rivers so that they no longer ran wastefully to the ocean, but instead did useful work for the people nearby and around the nation.

President Kennedy continued these themes, displaying much the same hubris as his New Deal predecessor had manifested. Despite the fact that the actual history of western development undercut his political ideology, Kennedy spoke as though the continuation of these public works would certainly lead to a world of peace and prosperity for people everywhere.

This future was a way of life in which air conditioning and all other comforts and benefits of a comfortable life would be universally available. The achieving of these goals, Kennedy declared, would require new generating capacity—the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee dam every sixty days.

Kennedy expanded the definition of conservation. The traditional understanding was the determination to protect and not waste what nature has already given us—to “use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future.”

The “newer part of conservation [was] to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown.” To accomplish these goals, Kennedy continued, we had to do five things. (1) We had to “use hydro resources to the fullest. “Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste.” (2) We had to develop techniques for developing power from coal and oil from shale, mining and harvesting resources from the bottom of the ocean, and of using energy from the sun.

(3) Low-cost atomic power had to be developed since experts were saying that by the end of the century “half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” (4) The electric systems around the country would need to be linked. (5) We must avoid the monopolization of this capacity either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities.

The N Reactor generated power for twenty years and now is mothballed. Its successor, the Columbia Generating Station produces one-tenth of the electric produced within the State of Washington.

And who in their right mind can affirm the bankrupt visions that, to use the metaphor provided by Blaine Harden, have killed the Columbia as a river and given it a rebirth as plumbing? [A River Lost, p. 75]

Hubris at Hoover Dam

October 2, 2015
Grand Coulee Dam / Photo by Paul E. Fallon

Grand Coulee Dam During the 2015 Wild Fire Season / Photo by Paul E. Fallon

The most eloquent lines in President Roosevelt’s address at the dedication of Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead (September 30, 1935) eulogized the transformative results of these engineering achievements. Although the President had little reason to see the reverse side of this prophetic vision, his words also expressed the hubris that in ever increasing ways marks our efforts to make nature conform to our human desires.

“We know that, as an unregulated river,” Roosevelt told his admiring audience, “the Colorado added little of value to the region this dam serves.” But with these engineering marvels in place, “an unpeopled, forbidding desert, . . . a cactus-covered waste” will be transformed. Not only will the arid southwest be enriched, but “the national benefits which will be derived from the completion of this project will make themselves felt in every one of the forty-eight states.”

Roosevelt had held this position at least as early as 1920. While campaigning for the vice presidency that year, he had seen the Columbia River and observed that it was practically unused and that all of the territories along its banks had to be “developed by the Nation and for the Nation” (quoted by Blaine Harden in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, p. 17).

The first step in that development was the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1942. The political and engineering vision of the unalloyed benefits of transformed rivers was best expressed by Woody Guthrie in one of his his three songs about the Columbia. “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea / But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.” As historian James P. Ronda notes, the poet believed that the river had been a “wild and wasted stream” that had been tamed and made beautiful by the dams.

The idea that “the river could ramble and work at the same time,” Ronda writes, was perhaps “the most persistent illusion in river history—that the Columbia could at once be changed and yet remain the same” (Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River, p. 87).

This persistent illusion constitutes one false premise that undergirds the vision that Roosevelt and a host of others have engineered into reality. A second false premise is that the wild river had been wasted, useless, of little value to humankind.

Earlier in his essay, Ronda describes the impressive trading system that existed in the Celilo Falls–The Dalles region when early European explorers first arrived along the banks of the Columbia. At the peak trading times, “some three thousand Indians gathered for the rituals of bargain and exchange,” coming from the long reaches of the Columbia River system (p. 78).

Also writing in Great River of the West, William P. Lang reports that at Celilo Falls “native fishers had garnered one-third of their annual caloric needs from the Columbia for thousands of years.” During six seasonal runs they “had caught perhaps as much as 18 million pounds each year” (p. 160).

This rich economic and cultural history was dismissed as meaningless by Roosevelt’s and Guthrie’s assertions that prior to the dams the wild rivers had been wasted. No provision was made at Grand Coulee Dam for fish to pass through on their annual migration back to their spawning grounds, which meant that from then on all salmon runs beyond the dam were obliterated. All of this in the name of taming the river and making it productive for presumably the first time in its history, as if the previous economic and cultural history of the Columbia basin meant nothing.

Lang quotes Richard White, another historian who has written about the fate of the Columbia, that it has become a “virtual river.” Instead of free-flowing artery bearing life to all who venture forth upon it, the great river of the west has become “an organic machine.”

As a native son of the Northwest, who has also lived in the regions served by the Colorado, I must confess my complicity in the desecration of these waterways. I benefit from the prosperity of the western reaches of our nation. I revel in the abundance of electrical power. My constant use of electronic devices is part of the reason why vast data centers are arising along the Columbia, especially in The Dalles, thus mocking the history of this long-time center of native American trade and culture.

Beyond confessing our sins, personal and corporate, what more can we do? Cut back. Simplify. Drive less. Reform other patterns of life. Encourage the removal of dams. Resist further efforts to industrialize the Columbia and its tributaries.

We have to choose which icon will guide our decisions on how to live.

“The trade-off could not be more simply stated,” Lang writes. Dams have become “the contrary icon to salmon, the personification of a damaged environment and altered relationships with the river,” whereas salmon personify “the natural and spiritual river” (p. 161). Which will it be?

To access Paul E. Fallon’s blog on Grand Coulee Dam, click here.

Happy 80th Birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

September 29, 2015
San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

Thirty years ago, on September 30, 1935, a month before my fourth birthday, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) was dedicated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a dedicatory address. Although it was only 2,000 words in length, this speech celebrated the achievement involved in designing and building “the greatest dam in the world” and creating “the largest artificial lake in the world—115 miles long, holding enough water, for example, to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of ten feet.”

Scarcely a fourth of the way through this address, the President changed direction: “Beautiful and great as this structure is, it must also be considered in its relationship to the agricultural and industrial development and in its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.”

In the next paragraphs, Roosevelt speaks about “one of the greatest problems of law and of administration to be found in any Government,” which is “to divert and distribute the waters of an arid region, so that there shall be security of rights and efficiency of service” to all of the people who live along the full length of the river and it tributaries and depend upon this water for their livelihood and well being. The President declared that what had been achieved along the Colorado River was inspiring to the entire nation.

He illustrated his declarations by describing devastating floods that had recently swept down the wild river and the bone-dry conditions in California’s Imperial Valley that had resulted in $10,000,000 of crop losses the previous summer because of an unprecedented drought. These conditions, he said, would have been avoided had this dam and reservoir been in place.

Roosevelt applauded the role of the Federal Government throughout this project, including the expenditure of $108,000,000 to build the dam and power houses. He called attention to expenditures by states and municipalities to facilitate the distribution of water and power, including $220,000,000 raised for these purposes by municipalities in Southern California.

The President also celebrated the fact that “throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program,” in order to give relief “to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.”

Then comes another shift of emphasis. Roosevelt declares that the size of this dam and its impact ought not turn us away from the value of small projects. “Can we say that the great brick high school, costing $2,000,000, is a useful expenditure but that a little wooden school house project, costing five or ten thousand dollars, is a wasteful extravagance? Is it fair to approve a huge city boulevard and, at the same time, disapprove the improvement of a muddy farm-to-market road?”

Roosevelt is clear that in addition to the benefit of these buildings and roads, a further value is that we also “add to the wealth and assets of the Nation. These efforts meet with the approval of the people of the Nation.” He devotes a fourth of his address to detailing the economic benefits to the nation because of these investments of public, especial federal, moneys.

One of the most challenging of his statements, especially in light of political ideology and rhetoric in 2015, is that by this “great national work…we have created the necessary purchasing power to throw in the clutch to start the wheels of what we call private industry” (italics added). If only more people in the political process understood and believed this basic principle of American life!

The unsettling fact of this 80-year celebration is that the well being of the Colorado River and the future possibilities of the life that it has supported for so many years are increasingly precarious. On September 30, 2015, the eve of the anniversary day, a brief “back story” article that I read on-line reported that the water of what was once “the largest artificial lake in the world” has receded so much that St. Thomas, Nevada, a town of 500 that has been covered over by Lake Mead since 1938, is now visible again.

In their book The West Without Water published in 2013, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roan state that there is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power or useful water storage as early as 2021” (p. 196).

Happy 80th birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead! Let’s hope that you make it to 90.

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be

A Wisdom Reading of the Bible

September 1, 2015

Notes on How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

KugelHow are written documents to be understood? This question has been in my mind as far back as high school English classes when I grew impatient as teachers interpreted literature, especially poetry. They would draw out meanings that they quickly acknowledged had not been in the mind of the poets who wrote these cryptic bits of literature.

I squirmed in my seat, convinced in my own mind that what the poets intended their poetry to say was what they meant and any other imported meanings violated the integrity of poems under study. I don’t know where my commitment to the original intention came from, but it has operated with considerable strength in my various endeavors personal and professional, religious and secular.

One influence may have been ideas I learned at my church, which encouraged serious Bible study. One of the principles I learned there was that biblical texts should be studied much the same way as other ancient documents are studied. Always, readers should focus attention upon the social context when books were written and what the writers intended to say.

What I did not recognize at the time was that my teachers at church also used other practices that were similar to those in English classes, which was to discern meanings from biblical texts that the original authors had not intended.

Despite my having spent sixty years seriously trying to understand and use ancient texts, the tension between original intent and contemporary relevance is an even more challenging issue for me now than it was during my high school years. The ancient text I use most often is the Bible and here the question is: How are we to understand this ancient book as a faithful guide for people in a world far different from anything that writers of old could ever have imagined.

The tension has been increased by many of the disciplines of historical research and literary analysis that have been so prominent in western culture since the Renaissance. New understandings of antiquity and new commitments to historical and scientific principles make it increasingly difficult to determine the original form of ancient documents and the social context and original meanings of the texts, either in their original forms or in the edited versions that now are in our Bible.

During 2015, my reflections upon how to study the Bible have been challenged and enriched by a very long book published in 2007 by James L Kugel, a specialist in the Hebrew Bible who was the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003.

In the introduction to his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), Kugel describes himself as an Orthodox Jew “and as such, I am a believer in the divine inspiration of the Scripture and an inheritor of many of the traditions of ancient interpreters cited in this book, indeed, a keeper of the Jewish Sabbath, dietary laws, and all the other traditional practices of Orthodox Judaism” (45).

The book consists of front matter, 689 pages of text divided into thirty-six chapters, and end matter. In Chapter 1, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” Kugel gives a brief history of two modes of biblical interpretation: the ancient way that has been most fully expressed in the pattern developed by Rabbinic Judaism in the latter centuries BCE; and the pattern developed by biblical scholars, primarily in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s. He explains why he gives greater value to the traditional mode of understanding and encourages his readers to follow this example.

Most of the book consists of short chapters in which Kugel presents the biblical narrative beginning with “The Creation of the World—and of Adam and Eve,” and concluding with “Daniel the Interpreter.” For the most part, chapters consists of a brief summary of one portion of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic interpretation (which he refers to as the “Oral Torah”), the alternative understanding developed by modern biblical scholarship, and an affirmation of why the rabbinic interpretation is more useful to Jews and Christians.

After reading the first half of the book, I became impatient to find out how Kugel concludes his narrative. Skipping the second half, I read the concluding chapter and then wrote a preliminary account of the book. To read the resulting 25-page paper, click “A Wisdom Reading of the Bible.”

Can a “very old” cyclist keep riding the open road?

August 20, 2015
Interurban Trail

The Interurban Bike Trail on the West Valley Highway

With Amtrak’s help, I took my bicycle to Seattle for a family visit to be followed with my first road trip of the summer: 180 miles back to Vancouver, following the route taken every year by thousands of cyclists doing the STP (Seattle to Portland) ride.

Years ago I rode STP in its one-day version, but my plan this year was to do it in three 60-mile segments with overnights in Yelm and Castle Rock. My mileage for the summer is down and at age 83 my daily mileage capability is lower than it used to be.

If I am to believe an Associated Press article that I read in The Seattle Times, however, age may be an even larger factor than I had realized. Both the article and my own sense of things make we ask how much longer octogenarians can keep riding the open road.

The article reports that older Americans continue to buy and drive cars and motorcycles. It refers to “the very old,” implying that 84 (which I’ll soon be) is the significant birthday.

Talking with my daughter, I acknowledged an unexpected level of anxiety, which she shared as we discussed the route the bike map recommended for cycling through South Seattle. After we drove the route, however, our anxieties eased.

The adequacy of the route was confirmed the next morning when I headed south from her home on Beacon Hill. From a cyclist’s point of view, road conditions and traffic on East Marginal Way past Boeing Field were OK.

In past years I have followed Interurban Avenue and West Valley Highway, the arterials through Tukwilla, Kent, Auburn, Algona, and Pacific, continuing on to Puyallup. This year, however, I planned to try the Interurban Trail that parallels most of this route. On the bike map, it looked straight as a string and therefore seemed worth a try even though STP stays on the arterial.

Green River near Kent

Green River near Kent

Misreading the map, I left the highway a few miles before I should have and meandered along the Green River Trail. At Fort Dent Park, I came to the trail I wanted, and for the next 14.8 miles I sailed along an absolutely flat, broad, blacktopped trail with BNSF freight tracks on both sides and Puget Sound Energy power lines overhead on steel utility poles that marched south for miles.

After coffee with a friend in Kent, I continued on the trail completely satisfied with this alternative way of traveling south from Seattle. Occasional gaps offered views of Mt. Rainier, and drainage ditches provided greenery and habitat for birds despite the extreme drought the Northwest is experiencing.

Researching this route since coming home, I discovered that the right of way follows a trolley line between Tacoma and Seattle that ran from 1902 until 1928. A major reason why the trail is so satisfactory for cyclists is that it bypasses sprawling commercial and light industrial areas in Tukwila and Kent while providing access to employers and shopping malls.

Because I was trusting my memory after leaving the trail, I had to follow hunches as I worked my way through Puyallup and Spanaway. Although my instincts kept me on course, I realized that I need a compass and a better electronic guide than my smart phone to research maps while on the road. Maybe it’s time to buy an iPad Mini.

The final segment of the day’s ride was along SR 507 from Spanaway to Yelm. It’s a straight, flat, well-surfaced highway that travels along the backside of Joint-Base Lewis-McChord. Because the road is a commuter route for people working at the joint base or Olympia, the 4:00 o’clock traffic was constant. Although I was getting tired, my legs still felt strong and I continued forward to my night’s lodging in Yelm.

According to the website of this 7,000 town, its name is derived from the Coast Salish Native American language word “shelm,” which means “land of the dancing spirits,” from the shimmering mirage from heat rising from the summer prairie floor.

My room at the Hotel Prairie was one of the nicest I’ve ever enjoyed. My 65 miles for the day was my longest ride since early March. My average speed for the day was within my current range, and the day’s ride encouraged me to believe that even the “very old,” can keep on riding the open road.

Mt Rainier seen from Yelm, Washington

Mt Rainier seen from Yelm, Washington

Meeting Jesus at the Communion Table

August 19, 2015

The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table, by Robert D. Cornwall (Gonzales, FL: Energion Publications, 2014)

cornwall-eucharist 1This 34-page essay concerning the central act of Christian worship is volume 10 in a series the publisher describes as Topical Line Drives. They are designed “to demonstrate a point of scholarship or survey a topic directly, clearly, and quickly.”

Cornwall’s focus is stated in his subtitle: “Encounters with Jesus at the Table.” He develops this aspect of eucharistic worship by tracing the historical trajectory of two doctrines: sacrifice, how the Eucharist helps set things right with God; and real presence, how the Eucharist connects us with Jesus.

In the first chapter, he points to the Passover roots of Christian worship at the table and the biblical imagery of Jesus as “the perfect Lamb of God who has been sacrificed for us” (9). He notes other ideas in the biblical accounts: eschatological images, communal meal, and sign of unity. The reference in 1 Corinthians 11 to “discerning the body,” which has been used to “support the idea the idea of Christ’s real presence in the elements,” Cornwall notes, “more likely refers to the presence of Christ in the community itself” (11).

The second chapter summarizes post-apostolic developments. Cornwall cites theologians over an extended period of time, including Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Augustine, Radbertus, Peter Lombard, and Aquinas. The purpose of this brief survey is to trace the gradually increasing complexity of theological interpretations of how Christ is present in the Eucharist. He concludes the discussion with a brief summary of the developed doctrines.

“The emphasis on Christ’s real presence, as defined by the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice led to the church taking the step of worshiping the host. If the host (bread) had truly become the divine body of Christ, then it, like Christ, ought to be worshiped. Thus the host was elevated and worshiped. Just being in the presence of the host was sufficient to cleanse one from one’s sins. This meant the actual communion became unnecessary. In the host the person of Christ became tangible to the medieval masses” (20).

This summary of the development of eucharistic theology explains why Cornwall’s treatment of the Protestant Reformation begins with the debate between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, more than a decade after Luther’s initial posting of the 95 Theses protesting abuses in church practice and theology.

Luther affirmed the symbolic nature of the bread and wine but he also believed that “the symbol contained that which it symbolized. In contrast, Zwingli believed that “the Eucharist served to remind Christians of the event of the cross…Therefore, one eats and drinks the elements of the Supper as a sign of thanksgiving for a work of grace already completed by the Spirit” (22–23).

Omitting Calvin’s participation in defining eucharistic theology, Cornwall turns to Cranmer and the English Reformation. Cranmer did not hold that Christ is corporeally present in the eucharistic elements, but he did not agree with Zwingli’s teaching that they were “bare elements or tokens. Instead, he taught that God was present and working in the Eucharistic moment, bringing the fruit of grace to the participants in the Eucharistic service, as long as they received the elements by faith” (25).

In his discussion of ecumenical conversations in our own time, Cornwall calls attention to the renewed emphasis upon thanksgiving and the diminished emphasis upon sacrificial imagery and violence. He disapproves of the continuing separation of Christians into ecclesial communities that limit access to the table, and he affirms the movement toward agreements of full communion new occurring.

The “concluding thoughts” of this essay encourage contemporary Christians to learn from one another across ecclesial and theological lines. The Eucharist could become a bridge to unity rather than a barrier that keeps churches separated. He encourages churches to move toward weekly celebrations even though that may not be their current practice.

Although Cornwall offers a few hints about ceremony, ritual, and cultural aspects of eucharistic worship, these aspects of the topic are largely overlooked. Little is said or implied about the way that the Eucharist has entered into the politics of church and state. The emergence of broad types—Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, etc.—is left untouched as are discussions about uses of vernacular languages in worship. It is true, of course, that a “topical line drive” has to move is a highly disciplined way, and this the author does.

Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy Michigan and earned a PhD degree in historical theology. His blog can be accessed at


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