Christian Faith and Practice: A Response to Mudhouse Sabbath

So, that long-awaited response to Mudhouse Sabbath is finally done. I don’t expect you to read it, but I would appreciate it if you did, and especially if you engaged in some conversation about it. I would hate to spend so much time on this and not hear back from anyone about it. So yeah. Let me know.

 Christian Faith and Practice[i]

A response to Mudhouse Sabbath

 

A.J.W. Smith

Lauren Winner was sitting in a red velvet chair with a cup of hot chai one Sunday afternoon in her favorite coffee roaster—Mudhouse—when she realized that while she somewhat observed the Sabbath (Shabbat), she did not take it nearly as seriously as she did while she was still a Jew, before she converted to Christianity. Her Sabbath was peaceful, more laid back (who wouldn’t love a coffeehouse for peace and silence?), but “it wasn’t Shabbat.” Why don’t Christians take spiritual discipline as seriously as Jews? Are Christians missing the benefits Jews enjoy in their religious practices? She quotes Madeline L’Engle, a near-goddess to fans of children’s fantasy (myself included), who said spiritual discipline was like piano etudes: “you do not necessarily enjoy the etudes—you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos—but if you don’t work through the etudes you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do.”

Before we get too far, let me quickly note something about this article. It is a response to Lauren Winner’s book—it is not a review. Although I think this piece can help you understand the heart of Mudhouse, it is not an exhaustive evaluation of the book. If you want a summary of the book, I would first suggest that summaries are basically useless because if you want to know what the book says—you should read the thing so you understand the context of what is written. Second, I would point out that Amazon.com has generally reliable book reviews. All this to say, this essay is a personal application of the things I read. I rarely quote Ms. Winner directly, but the ideas and concepts of her work are throughout, with words and phrases she uses sprinkled throughout and duly noted. I think you can enjoy this without reading the book, and you can enjoy this if you have read it too. Hopefully, this makes you want to read the book yourself. But, in essence, this is a meditation on thoughts Lauren Winner has stimulated in my mind through her book. So if I raise questions and concerns, you can either ask me about them, or just read her book. It’s not long; I read it in a short plane ride.[i]

Lauren Winner is no longer Jewish, but she thinks that Christians have quite a bit to learn from her former religion. Ms. Winner was raised Jewish in the United State, but she met Jesus and converted to Christianity during college. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, she thinks that Christians have made their faith too mushy, too feely, too emotional, and suggests that we could benefit from a more disciplined, even religious (gasp!) lifestyle. Of course, she’s sure to note that “practicing spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians,” as opposed to the Jews who, according to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, are defined by Torah—Jewish law. It is “what makes a Jew a Jew.” Christians do not look to these practices for salvation, instead, these practices “teach us what it means to live as Christians…discipline is related to the word disciple.”

I think Ms. Winner is right to point out that we Christians (among whom she would include herself) could learn much from Judaism’s strict discipline. When discussing the purposes of the book in the introduction, she says as much:

This book is about the things I miss [about Judaism]…It is also about the paths to the God of Israel that both Jews and Christians travel. It is, to be blunt, about spiritual practices Jews do better. It is, to be blunter, about Christian practices that would be enriched, that would be thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism. It is ultimately about places where Christians have some things to learn.” (pp. ix of the Introduction, Mudhouse Sabbath).

And why not? If there’s one lesson contemporary Christianity could afford to learn (and we all know there’s not just one), it’s personal, regular spiritual discipline. How many times do we hear people talk about “carnal Christians” as if such a thing normal, or okay? After all, they tell us (perhaps not directly) that even a carnal Christian is still a Christian, they just won’t get as big a mansion in heaven and won’t get quite as many crowns to lay before Jesus’ feet. It represents, unfortunately, the typical American Christian— a Christian on Sundays and carnal the other six—and it seems that they are getting, quite literally, the best of both worlds. Redemptive fire insurance (because no one wants to go to Hell), and orgies of pleasure in this one.

Of course, this is extreme for most Christians. We want to live lives crucified with Christ, in newness of life, but we stay an arm’s length away from practices or rituals or liturgy because they seem too rote or mechanical to be truly Christian. We think that such things are too Lutheran, too Anglican, too Catholic, or as this book points out, too Jewish. We are terrified of that word “religion” because it has been reduced to modern shorthand for works-based justification. Pastor Mark Driscoll, a Reformed evangelical whose ministry and preaching style I greatly respect, does this often, saying religion is the sin of Pharisees, and even titling one of his messages “Why I Hate Religion.”[ii]

This kind of attitude toward religion comes from good intentions, especially in Driscoll’s case, because Protestants have been rightly trained to embrace Pauline/Lutheran justification by faith. This rich theological truth teaches that we are not save by “works of righteousness which we have done,” but by the grace and forgiveness of God, purchased by the rich and atoning blood of Jesus and applied to the sinner through faith from the Holy Spirit. We’re heard this story all our lives, we know all this, in fact you probably just skimmed over because you’ve read it, or something similar, so many times.

But religion isn’t a bad word at all. Some say that they don’t use the word “religion” because they want to make a meaningful impact on our world, not just sit in their studies or bedrooms memorizing scripture, reciting prayers, pondering theology or fasting. That’s all just religion. I want to do something that matters, they say. Semantically, “religion” isn’t quite the catchphrase we generally assume it to be. Most think of the Pharisees’ overly ritualistic lives as the typical Biblical definition of the word, but there are a couple things wrong with this.

First, the Pharisees aren’t the bad guys we make it out to be. The Pharisees were the good Bible teachers of their day, the literalists trained in conservative seminaries. Even their rules were not thought to be legalistic, just safe. This sounds no different than the fundamentalist communities we grew up in. The Pharisee’s religion was not all bad, they just took it too far at times, and worst of all, rejected Jesus in favor of it. Anything that someone holds on to in Jesus’ stead is probably being misused. So if this is true, religion for the Pharisees is hardly evil, just overextended. They try to make it do too much.[iii] Second, James points out that such misuse is not the full meaning of the word, as he defines religion as visiting orphans and widows in affliction. He calls such acts “religion pure and undefiled pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27).

The religion is “pure”, implying that it can be defiled or corrupted. Without going into too much detail on a subject you all understand, there is a delicate balance between the next chapter of James (the one that says “faith without works is dead”) and Ephesians 2, the one we all memorize in Awana (“for by grace you have been saved…not of works”). The only way to reconcile these two passages while remaining true to their respective contexts is to say that works (which includes, but is certainly not limited to, rituals, practices, liturgy, spiritual discipline, etc.) do not save—grace through faith does that—but our faith is empty and meaningless without them. Works are the outworkings of our faith. To borrow an oft-used but accurate phrase, good things we do and worshipful things we do for God are not faith through works, but faith that works. I think this includes how we choose to worship God, and rituals and spiritual discipline are solid, reliable ways to stay true to the Lord. I hope to demonstrate this through the following points—to show how our faith can be enriched by adopting Jewish ideas, not the practices themselves which ignore the true Messiah, but the concepts and reasons behind the practices. I think this can make our Christianity, as Lauren Winner put it, “thicker and more vibrant” and eventually lead to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Isn’t liturgy just something Catholics do?

Over break, I met with my former teacher and (not former) friend Chris Pluger. We met at Stony Creek Roasters in Cedarville, and as I drank my Columbian Roast we chatted about Holy Communion, literature, the church, theology (per usual) and Israel, among other things. One of the things we discussed was liturgy and Christian discipline. I think we talked about it when he was telling me about Mudhouse, but I don’t remember for sure. One of the things we noticed was that some form of liturgy exists even in non-liturgical churches. Everyone lives by pattern, that’s how we’re wired. We have our routine, and we stick to it. We all struggle with intentional habits, but the unintentional ones are the easiest to start and the hardest to break.

Think about it. What do you do when you get up in the morning? Invariably, you take a shower, always putting the shampoo in first—lather, rinse, repeat—then the conditioner, then you soap up your body, rinse off, use face wash if you have it. Turn off the shower, towel down, choose clothes to wear—taking great care to make sure they match—get a bowl of cereal for breakfast, fill your bowl halfway (give or take) with 2% milk and eat while you read the newspaper, do your devotions, or catch up on some studying for that really hard class. And it’s definitely 2% milk. Always 2%.

See? Pattern. Routine. The same thing every time, with minor variations. Our churches are the same way. The same song-style every morning, the same music pastor, the same “good morning and welcome to ______ Church. Could you please fill out the information card if you’re a visitor? I know there are some of you out there…” The choir sings, then the pastor’s 50-minute sermon with shiny powerpoint, invitation to follow.[iv]

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, but this is a sort of liturgy. It’s a routine, performed roughly the same every week. I’ve heard people criticize traditional liturgy for several reasons. They say liturgical prayers, which are written-out and designed, aren’t good enough because they don’t come from the heart. Now, I have no problem with extemporaneous praying—I think it has its place—but have you ever encountered a situation in your life when you wanted to pray and articulate your feelings, but for whatever reason (relationship trouble, financial trouble, academic trouble, you just lost your job, whatever—essentially human weakness and effects of sin) you had no words to say? Your heart was full, but your mind was empty. This happens to me all the time. It happens to Lauren Winner too, and that’s why she values her Jewish prayer book, even though she’s a Christian. It gives her the words to pray when she can’t conjure them up herself. This is why some people use the Psalms to pray. Deeper, richer prayers come from the page into our hearts, and we give them to God.

I was a senior in high school when I was first introduced to the Valley of Vision. The book is a collection of Puritan prayers, laden with theological truth and practical application within that doctrinal framework. They are uniquely Christian, penned by giants of the faith like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and David Brainard. When I first started reading it, I fell in love with the theological language of the prayers, which have titles like “God The All,” “God Enjoyed,” “Christ Alone,” “Spiritus Sanctus,” and “God All-Sufficient.” Since then, while the doctrine is still just as true, it has given me an opportunity for beneficial Christian meditation for my spirit while providing theological boundaries for my mind. It’s become a source of spiritual vitality within the walls of sound Biblical truth. It’s not a replacement of the Bible. The Scriptures are still the living, inspired word of God—and no other Christian books or creeds or documents can provide that. But reading the Valley of Vision, even a “liturgical”, meditative recitation can make a Christian’s spiritual life more vibrant and full and rich.[v]

Critics of liturgy say that it will make our faith dull, boring or religious. But aren’t there always times in our lives when we don’t feel like worshipping or praying or singing praise? Aren’t there times when those spontaneous prayers we love just don’t flow? Liturgical, pre-written prayers composed by more eloquent people can be the crutch we use to get back on our feet when we are in spiritual need. It is also important to remember that we shouldn’t dismiss an idea altogether simply because it can be misapplied or wrongly practiced. This is a fallacy committed all-too often by Christians of every category.  

The Jews are sensitive about this issue, probably because people outside their tradition (such as, say, evangelicals) condemn the Jewish way of Halakha—what Rabbi Donin, whose book I am reading for a class, defines as the application and implementation of the mitzvot (Jewish commandments), or as he puts it, the “concretization” of Torah. It’s the religious, works-driven part of their faith, a kind of spiritual obligation. Critics of Jewish practice say that such structure will drain their worship of heartfelt faith and feeling, make it automatous and empty. Donin responds by writing “because and act may be taken to an undesirable extreme does not justify its abrogation [cancellation].” A careless overstatement of this lifestyle makes Christians miss an opportunity for a richer spiritual life. As a side note, I would argue that Christians have even more reason for a disciplined, intentional spiritual life than the Jews. While Jews ultimately live their spiritual lives as efforts to achieve salvation, Christians would live such disciplined lives as an act of gratitude for what Jesus achieved in our salvation. As for an even deeper point in support of pre-written prayers, Jesus himself wrote them, including the most famous prayer in history—which he offered as the model for all Christian prayers: “Our Father who is in heaven, hollowed be your Name.”

Another excuse for avoiding liturgy is that it’s too difficult to memorize and while this may be true, it is just another facet of the complex idea of Christian discipline. Perhaps memorization is another thing we can do to learn to live a more sacramental, devoted life. Perhaps good memorization is good for our spiritual lives (Awana can’t be that worthless, after all). Finally, I’ve often heard people complain that liturgy is too repetitive. I have a hard time understanding this argument. Have you ever sung “I’m Trading My Sorrows” or “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” (which they can, apparently)?

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord, Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord, Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen.

I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forevermore.

Yeah, those look pretty ridiculous written out. If we’re going to use repetition anyway, why not use songs and hymns that have theological depth and meaning, not to mention words that have been spoken by two-thousand years’ worth of Christians?

There are still a few Protestant denominations which practice liturgy in their services, but it is disappearing very quickly. Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominationalists (whatever that means) don’t use it at all. Anglicans and Episcopalians still do, but most evangelicals consider them too theologically liberal.[vi] The Reformed have their own kind of liturgy, but Lutherans are probably (and correct me if I’m wrong, Chris) the most conservative denomination that still uses liturgy.[vii] Perhaps we Baptists have skipped over to praise songs, hand-raising worship time and innovative preaching styles a bit too quickly. I’m not just talking about music, but I have cited music as an example to help illustrate my point. We sing cutting-edge praise choruses with repeated bridges while our hymnbooks gather dust in the shelves behind the pews. Why not sing songs, composed by our theological ancestors, that have stood the test of time, instead of new tunes written by what’s-his-name-just a few years ago?

Liturgy helps provide a rhythm to our worship, a regular heartbeat to our church services (both in the present and with the past) and our personal devotions. It can get us into a habit of praying, reciting scripture, and living out Paul’s command to be living sacrifices to God.

Living and looking like a Christian

As Ms. Winner points out, Christians are missing out. These disciplines, and others, could help us live much more vibrant, meaningful Christian lives if we apply them properly. Imagine what a better view of the Sabbath (Shabbat) could give us—it’s not merely a rest day, or a day to indulge ourselves with, as she says, an extra-long bubble bath or another cup of coffee. It is a day truly holy—literally “set apart”—when we are to settle down and focus on God, both “giving a gift to God and imitating him.” The Jews do this better than we do. That’s just a fact. Think about all the Pharisee’s Shabbat laws—you’ve heard them because you’ve gone to church—or the modern Jewish laws. You can’t make a spark (which means start a fire, turn on any electronic device, start a car, etc.) or do any work or engrave anything (so no writing). The fact that Jews are so much better at observing this is to our shame, I think. Of course, none of this should be viewed as necessary for salvation. Jesus made that very clear. But shouldn’t we Christians observe and celebrate Shabbat better? How much more reason do we have to celebrate Shabbat, in light of the resurrected Christ?

How would our Christian lives be enriched by a more intentional—dare I say sacramental—view of hospitality, prayer, mourning, or fasting? Maybe we should make a more dedicated effort to place signs and reminders of our faith—like the Jewish mezuzah—on ourselves and our houses as reminders of our faith. Perhaps it would help us live more like Jesus if we did things to remind ourselves of our identity as not only followers of Christ, but also part of the world-wide, historical religious movement of Christianity, therefore uniting us with every other follower of Jesus in the world.[viii] Why don’t we put a cross—the most horrible symbol of punishment and death turned into the most glorious symbol of redemption and forgiveness—on our doors or lockers or jewelry? Why are we so afraid to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus to everyone we meet? And if you don’t want to use the cross because of its secularization (and I think that’s a legitimate reason), why not use a fish, or a chi-rho, or a framed copy of the Apostles Creed to hang on your wall? Not only should we do these things to remind ourselves of our faith, but also to inform others of it too. On the Apostles Creed—imagine how cool it would be for everyone to walk into your house and read not only “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord” but also “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” That is so awesomely specific that I think it might offend just about every group that isn’t Christian.

The point is that Lauren Winner thinks, and I agree with her, that Christians would benefit from a consistent, intentional, ritualistic perspective on their faith. In an age when Christian beliefs have been replaced with Christian ethics—when we need both—and Christian liturgy has been abandoned altogether because it’s too rote and mystical, perhaps a little discipline could go a long way. If we think of it biblically, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Afterword

            I am the first to admit that I have mostly neglected spiritual discipline in my own life. It’s not easy to embrace such an idea. We are so concerned with our Christian liberty and freedom that we tend to recoil from rituals. This is a Western/American mindset, and though it’s certainly not bad in itself, we need to work to see our faith without the lenses of our culture.[ix] I’m still in the process of implementing spiritual discipline in my own life, and it’s a difficult process. But I think, at the very least, it’s worth considering. Our Christian lives are, in large part, not what they should be. Perhaps engaging in a disciplined lifestyle would benefit us as it benefits the Jews. It cannot provide salvation—absolutely not—but it can help us live more appreciatively and more deliberately in the shadow of the cross.

            The subtitle of Mudhouse is “An invitation to Spiritual Discipline.” That is exactly what this essay is as well. Come walk with me through this new territory, a different and sometimes uncomfortable new land of Christian living. But though the work may be hard and sometimes seemingly needless and worthless, in the end, I believe it can reap deeper, richer meaning. Not for eternity, but for today. Though the etudes may not be fun, perhaps one day we can play sonatas together, and make sweet and pleasant music for our Father.

 


[i] I am not a fast reader by any stretch of the imagination. So this really isn’t that amazing. If I can read a book in a short plane ride—especially one as small as this (156 small pages)—you definitely can too.

[ii]I realize that I’m playing with fire here by mentioning Mark Driscoll, as he tends to be a pretty polarizing figure in evangelical circles. While I understand your apprehension, there is no question that he is an influential figure in both theological and ecclesiastical (church-related) contexts, so his views on this issue are important. This also shows you readers that though I respect Driscoll, I can be critical of him. I can not only thoughtfully analyze how he does his ministry, but also of his most redeeming quality—his preaching. A balanced, thoughtful essay on Mark Driscoll is in the works right now; I hope to have it finished by sometime in mid-April.

[iii] Much like their use of the Law (Torah), which Paul points out in the book of Romans.

[iv] I designed this particular section around my church, but I’m sure your churches do similar things in similar ways. And I’m sure they do it basically the same way every time, which is the point.

[v] As great as reading Valley of Vision is, it’s even better when you listen to it read by Max Mclean, a member of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and owner of the most amazing set of pipes I’m aware of—outside James Earl Jones, perhaps. It’s worth a listen.

[vi] This is generally true, but Lauren Winner attends an Episcopalian Church in North Carolina. I’m not sure if she would necessarily consider herself an Episcopalian, but it’s still interesting.

[vii] This is the second time Chris Pluger has made it into this article. I guess this is what happens when you suggest good books to friends.

[viii] This is something that really annoys me. Why are so many Christians so unwilling to align themselves with all the other Christians? I know they aren’t all perfect, but neither are you so get over it.

[ix] This can never fully happen, of course. But we can try as hard as we can, and with the Spirit’s help, maybe we can begin to achieve it. 

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Time Flying

I realize that I’m breaking some kind of rule by posting twice in one day, but that’s okay. I think I’m losing a reader base because I’m not writing more often, so hopefully next time most of you think “oh yeah, Andrew’s Israel blog, let’s see if he’s posted again,” you’ll be pleasantly surprised. 

The truth is, I’m having trouble embracing this whole blogging thing. I’m used to trying to make everything that I write really good, or at least kind of good. Blogging is more off-the-cuff, much more spontaneous than planned or thought-through. My last post was kind of an attempt to land in both lanes. I tried to make it sound like stream of consciousness without the typical conversational tone. Sorry if it didn’t work for you. And I’m deeply sorry I haven’t made good on my promise to post often. 
So I looked at the schedule today and realized that we’re more than halfway through February. Which, by extension, means that the semester is almost over. You might think that sounds ridiculous and it sort of is, but bear with me. 
We have the rest of this week, which includes a Shephelah/Philistia Field Study (the coastal plain of Israel, west of the hill country toward the Meditteranean Sea), Shabbat on Friday night and Saturday morning, then an overnight field trip to En Gedi (on the western shore of the Dead Sea) for History of Ancient Israel and a hike through the Ascent of Ziz (from En Gedi north toward Jerusalem) on Sunday. Side note, sorry, it’s really hard to use some of these terms, because I have to define them all for you who are not in Land and Bible class with me. Which would be none of you. These site names and route titles are kind of just something you have to know for the class. Sort of like saying “SSC” or “DMC” or “The Rock” back at the ‘Ville. Yeah, just think of it that way.
Anyway, after En Gedi, there’s a week of class followed by a week-long trip through Negev (southern Israel, the Mosean wilderness, Red Sea, Masada, that kind of stuff). Then we have three weeks of class, followed by our week-long Galilee trip. This all brings us through March. We have a week of classes after that, then a week for Travel Study break (Egypt!), a week of class after that, finals, then I come home.
So yeah. I need to really take advantage of the time. 

Thoughts from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

At its core, the idea of one man killing another is among the vilest sins. Conceptually, it seems to be the most unnatural of acts, but ever since Cain raised his hand against his brother Abel, it is something that has come all too naturally to all too many.

There are times when we are reminded of the horror of one person killing another—when the familiar, stale idea of murder is colored, when the grim reality of the worst that man is capable of is brought to our doorstep and we can do nothing but face it for what it is. Sadly, many become victims of this disgusting thing, and sometimes—even more tragically—it happens on the largest of scales. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is a heartbreaking reminder of one of the worst atrocities in human history. It is a memorial to the black hole left in the world after the cruel and merciless murder of over six million Jews because of the hatred and racism of the German Nazis during World War II.

Although the scale of the Holocaust brings it more attention, it is also a difficult number to comprehend. As an American student studying in Israel, I had learned about what had happened during the Holocaust in my childhood. I knew the history. My head was full; I knew the numbers, the stories, the knowledge, the facts. But I didn’t know what it meant. I knew the facts, but I didn’t know how personal they were. I knew the numbers, but I didn’t have a frame of reference. I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of the horror. I still don’t. I believe I never will. I can’t.

Six million. The population of my hometown is 65,000. In America, we remember the most destructive conflict in our history, the Civil War, which claimed the lives of 613,000 people. That still doesn’t approach the magnitude of the Holocaust. Any context I have falls dramatically short of giving me a proper perspective. Only the Hall of Names could come close to bringing the reality of that number to life. A circular platform sits in the middle of a giant room, and shelves surround the platform. Binders are stacked on the shelves, thousands of binders, each binder containing thousands of names. Each name is a Jewish person killed in the Holocaust. Each person is a story. Each story represents the tragic destruction of a life, a story abruptly ended, a candle extinguished. Currently, they have collected over three million names for the database, just over half of all Jews who were killed. The binders bring a sliver of that harsh reality to focus. Where before, the magnitude was too large, too colossal to grasp, this helps clarify it. Of course, I can never comprehend the true scale, and although this doesn’t get my arms completely around this monolithic reality, it at least helps me find the corners and edges.

But the idea that resonated with me the most was the empty shelves, the spaces without binders, the names we don’t have, the stories we don’t know. Almost three million people, whose names we will never learn, whose stories we will never hear, whose sacrifices we will never understand. We will never know many of them—no trace is left, entire families murdered. The darkness of the empty shelves is its own kind of tribute to them. To the Unknown. The Nazis succeeded in their goal to wipe them off the history of the earth, but they ultimately failed, because we remember them still.

In circumstances like these, it is natural for one to ask questions. How is such brutality possible? How is man capable of such horrible things? Such things happen when man unlocks the worst of his depravity, when he convinces himself that those he is killing are not worth being kept alive. It happens when man reduces another man to less than human, when they make them “varmint,” as Hitler said, “who need to be destroyed.” It happens when Christian Wirth, an SS senior officer, so deludes his perception of people that he looks down at a pile of corpses in the Treblinka death camp during the Final Solution and asks, “What shall we do with all this garbage?” Such self-deception is the only way man can be capable of such acts. Such hatred is the only thing powerful enough to drive men to want to destroy everything about what they consider to be an inferior race.

But despite the darkness that closed in around them, many Jews found hope. They found solace and meaning deep inside the blackness of Nazi camps. They found a shelter in their art. One Holocaust survivor said that “one’s longing for art, for music, for literature increases when one is miserable.” Many Jews turned to their creativity as a retreat, a “haven from the reality surrounding them.” It was something the Nazis couldn’t take from them. There were poets such as Abramek Koplowitz and Wladyslaw Szengal, who depicted the horrors they experienced for posterity. There were artists like Felix Nassbaum, Jacob Lifschitz, Esther Lurie and Josef Schlesinger, who drew the faces of Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, preserving their history. There were young writers like Petr Ginz, a fourteen year-old killed in 1944, who left behind stories, poems, articles, and paintings, depicting his “rich and singular inner world, his dreams and hopes.” And there were people who kept diaries, like Dawid Sierakowiak and Anne Frank, who recorded their experiences in ways that break our hearts. We are saddened when we wish such bright lives had not ended so soon, but we cling to what they gave to us, and what it gave to them.

In his grim depiction of life in Auschwitz in the book Night, Elie Wiesel describes the power of art and the resiliency of man in the darkest of times. As living men were piled on one another in Gleiwitz, as they struggled to survive the cold dark night, Wiesel heard a fellow, dying Jew playing a violin. Wiesel says it was as though the man’s “soul was in the bow,” like he was playing as if he would never play again. He beautifully played a concerto by Beethoven—a German—in defiance to the Nazis, and he played it in the darkness of a Holocaust night to an “audience of dead and dying men.”

Despite their efforts, despite their most determined hatred and most fanatical killing, the Nazis were wrong. They claimed that the Jews were a lesser seed, an obstacle on the road to Aryan domination, incapable of creativity and positive contribution to the world. But they were wrong. Not only were they wrong, they failed. Six million Jews live in the land of Israel today, and that doesn’t include the many more scattered all over the globe.

The message of Yad Vashem is not only a one of sadness and death, it is also one of hope. We remember the pain and the murder; the scope of human depravity and the danger that comes when it is fully realized. But we also remember the fortitude of those Jews who survived and live on, and the faithfulness of the God who preserved them.

Mt. of Olives, Bethlehem, Herodium

On Thursday, we did our second field study of the year, as we toured the western, southwestern, and southeastern approaches to the city of Jerusalem. We started the day on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and read from several passages that occurred there or near there. In II Samuel 15:23, 30, it is recorded that David evacuated Jerusalem heading east toward the wilderness, weeping and walking barefoot over the Mount of Olives. Bethany, which is about two miles east of Jerusalem, is on the other side—the eastern side—of the Mount of Olives, and was the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha during the time of Jesus in the gospels. Bethany is where Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus’ Triumphal Entry as recorded in Matt. 21 and Lk. 19, and brought him over Bethphage over the Mount of Olives. Jesus wept when he saw the city, because he was broken-hearted for Jerusalem. In Matt. 26, Lk. 22, Jn. 18, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. He was betrayed there by Judas and began the day of his crucifixion and death. Following his resurrection and several post-resurrection appearances, Christ ascended to heaven  and the angels prophesied a return similar to his ascension.

            After our visit to the Mount of Olives, we drove into Palestinian territory on our way to Bethlehem, the site of the birthplace of Christ. This site can first be seen in the Old Testament story of Ruth, as it serves for the setting for the book. It is also the childhood home of David and the location of his anointing by Samuel. It is also possible that the Old Testament figures of Joab, Abishai, and Ashalel were also from Bethlehem (II Samuel 2:32). Micah, from the Sephelah, prophesied that the Messiah, the ruler of Israel, would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-2).  Jesus is born in Bethlehem Luke 2:1-2, and the angels announce his nativity to shepherds in nearby fields. Visiting Bethlehem was quite interesting. It was ironic that in the city of David, the place where Jesus the Messiah was born, there was a religion that rejects every divine attribute of that Messiah and has reduced his ministry as nothing more than a preview of the much greater prophet Muhammad. The early church father Jerome put together the Vulgate in Bethlehem, lived there much of his later life and died there. I got to look through his study in the basement of the Catholic Church of the Nativity a little bit, and it was pretty cool. 

            The fortress of Herodium was next, and it was one of the neatest places we have visited so far. Herod built a giant fortress into a mountain, and treated it as a kind of resort for him and visitors. We could see a giant swimming pool outside, along with a plain where a stadium may have once entertained guests. Herod had to build a system of cisterns beneath the fortress to support the people who lived there, and we walked through those for a while. We even sang songs to praise the true King of Kings deep in the fortress of a power-hungry king. This may have been one of the coolest places we’ve been to. 

            We studied the most common western routes into Jerusalem on our Benjamin field study, the two routes from the Aijalon Valley—the Beth Horon Ridge Route and the Kiriat Jaarim Ridge Route. However, the Valley of Rephaim is also a common route into the city as well, and it was our final stop of the day. The valley is recorded several times in the biblical narrative. First, the Husan Ridge Route south of the Rephaim would have been the fastest and  most convenient route for David to take Bethlehem to the Israelite camp in the Elah Valley, which is where he fought Goliath as recorded in I Sam. 17. David’s attack on Jerusalem from Hebron found in II Samuel 5:6-10 would have come from the south, and so they likely would have used the Husan Ridge Route also. There is also the story of Jehsaphat here, on the En-Gedi/Tekoa route route and the ascent of Ziz. Tekoa is also the hometown of the prophet Amos (Amos 1:1).

Pictures coming soon. I promise to blog more often.

 

Benjamin Field Study

Okay, so I’m pretty busy. I wrote this report for class and decided to just throw it on here. Sorry I don’t have time to explain the names and places, but I though maybe you could learn something from reading this. 

We started out the day looking at the Aijalon Valley, looking west over the Coastal Plain toward the Mediterranean Sea. It was a great opportunity to get a good view over this part of the country. Following our visit to Aijalon, we got on the bus and drove past the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Emmaus Nicopolis. According to the records of Jewish historian Josephus, this Emmaus was the administrative center for the Romans during the time of New Testament. The fifth Roman legion was here, and controlled the routes connecting Jerusalem to the coastal cities like Joppa, modern day Tel Aviv. Some say this is the location of the story in the gospel of Luke chapter 24 when Jesus walks with the two men on the road to Emmaus and reveals himself to them after his resurrection. It likely isn’t, because the biblical account clearly says that Emmaus was a village, while this Emmaus was a large city. Also, the Bible passage says that the Emmaus in Luke 24 was just 7 miles from the city, while this one is about 20 miles. Emmaus was a common name for a town, for it means “spring” and could be applied to any city with a spring of some kind.

            The Beth-Horon Ridge Route was the next stop, the site of the miracle of the sun standing still over Gibeon with the moon over the Aijalon Valley as recorded in Joshua 10. In the Joshua account, Amorites fled down the Beth-Horon Ridge Route and were pursued by Joshua’s men. While they ran, the Lord struck them with hail stones, killing many. The account even says that more people were killed by the hailstones of the Lord than by any of the swords of Joshua’s men. The Beth-Horon was used often throughout military history as well, such as a route used by the Philistines to flee Israelite armies, a fortification to protect Solomon’s kingdom, and a route used by armies like the Egyptians and Greeks in antiquity and British soldiers in the early 20th Century. The next stop was the Nebi Samwil, the traditional location of Samuel’s tomb, though it definitely isn’t. It is possibly the “high place of Gibeon” where Solomon asked for wisdom in 2 Chronicles 1:1-13 or 1 Kings 3:3-15.

            After visiting Nebi Samwel, we drove north to Gibeah of Saul, and stood in the ruins of a Jordanian palace from the 1960’s and read from Judges 19:10-16. This passage helps biblical scholars identify Gibeah and Ramah as part of the road of the Patriarchs. We also read in I Samuel 15:34 that Saul made Gibeah the capital of his monarchy.  We went to Geba-Michmash next, the place of “The Pass” and the Wadi Suwenit dividing the two cities north to south. We read from I Samuel 13:16-14:23, where Jonathon crawls from Geba to Mickmash, across two cliffs to battle with twenty Philistines.

            After driving through the Judean Wilderness, we went to the city of Jericho, where an archeological till marks where the ancient city from the time of Joshua and before once stood. We read from Joshua 6, the story of when the city was destroyed by the Lord, and shouted at the part when the Israelites are supposed to shout. 

Thoughts on Bombs and History

I woke up this morning at ten o’clock because I didn’t have an early class. On my way to 10:30 Land and the Bible, I heard several booms that seemed to come from sort of far away. They were loud enough for me to know that they were actually loud, but muffled enough for me to know that they were at least 35 or so miles away. I didn’t really think much about it; I figured it was just construction or something. But in History of Ancient Israel, Abner told us that those booms we heard were actually Israeli bombs being dropped on Gaza by Israeli planes breaking the sound barrier over the Moshav. I heard the planes the rest of the day, though the bombs subsided.

I thought it was really cool because I was experiencing history firsthand. I told this to my mother in a Skype chat, and she replied, not surprisingly “forgive me if I don’t agree.” I guess a lot of people back home might be concerned for me, but I kind of wish the Israelis would bomb a little more so I could hear it a bit better, or bomb on a clear night so maybe I could see the flickering lights on the dark blue evening horizon. That makes me think of one of my favorite novels, actually. Indulge me if you would.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is about a man and his son making their way south through post-apocalyptic America. It’s one of those books you have to read once for the plot and a second time to really appreciate the beautiful writing style—admirably artistic with chilling, terse Hemingway-like minimalism. At one point the father has a flashback to when the world is being scorched by fire and all that is blue and green is turned to black and grey (I kind of think that America is destroyed by a nuclear holocaust in the book, but the nature of it doesn’t really matter to the story. In fact, the mysteriousness of the book is enriched by the unknown calamity that leaves the once-proud America in ashes). Anyway, he stands on his back porch and watches the distant cities burn. I don’t know if at the time he was thinking about the history of the moment—he was more likely thinking about his wife and the child she was about to deliver—but I guess I’m just trying really hard to make that little note about The Road relevant to the rest of this post.

I’ve got nothing.

I thought about it a lot too. If I had the book with me maybe I could have come up with something. I just wanted to use that little excuse to talk about a novel I love. How about another cool picture to reward you for reading that completely unrelated section?

So, for those of you who are worried for me, consider this: Yad Hashmonah (our “campus”) is 40-something miles away from Gaza. Hamas only has missiles that reach 20-something miles. That’s roughly half the required distance. Which means that even if they tried their darndest to bomb Yad-Hashmonah, the missiles would barely get halfway. Of course, I guess they could get bigger missiles from a large Islamic group (not Iran though, because one is Sunni and the other is Shiite and they hate each other and would never help the other). Then they could reach Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv and force the Israeli government to shut down David Ben-Gurion International Airport—the only international airport in Israel—and therefore trap me in a war-torn country within range of missiles stockpiled by crazy Muslims who hate Jews and hate Americans while living on a Moshav that has a lot of both.

At least I’d be experiencing history, yeah?

 

NOTE: All that I said at the end was with tongue firmly planted in cheek. That is not likely to happen, at least not in the next four months. So chill. I’m fine.