Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, new book review, Christian Science Monitor.

The lives of the very early Christians
An informed but breezy look at the myths surrounding Jesus' most influential followers.

By Jane Lampman

The title of Bart Ehrman's latest book - Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene - may prompt a smile, even from those who aren't fans of the 1960s folk trio.

But that's typical of Dr. Ehrman. The religion scholar knows how to grab the attention of an audience. So popular are his classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that The Teaching Company now sells tapes of his lecture series on early Christianity.

Of course, it's just the right moment for such a venture. The early years of Christianity are definitely "in" right now.

That's not only due to "The Da Vinci Code" or recent publication of several controversial gnostic gospels. Many Christians are focusing anew on the early centuries: Conservatives seek renewal in orthodox teachings, even as an "emerging church" movement adopts early practices such as house churches.

As an expert on writings of the first three centuries AD, Ehrman has his own passion - separating fact from fiction on the foundations of Christianity. Another of his recent books, "Misquoting Jesus," has made the New York Times bestseller list.

"Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene" explores history and the legends that developed around all three. In a breezy style, Ehrman discusses how each is depicted in the New Testament, apocryphal, gnostic, and historical writings.

His amusingly titled chapters on Peter, playing on the "Rocky" theme, sort out the influential roles of the leading disciple, including head of the Jerusalem church and first converter of Gentiles. Ehrman covers interesting tidbits such as how Peter brought his wife on his missionary trips and why he could not have been the first bishop of Rome.

He rather harps on the idea that Peter was probably illiterate and couldn't have written the books attributed to him. Yet could not a scribe have taken down his words? Luke did write the book of Acts, after all, though Ehrman presents his case that Acts isn't a historical record, but Luke's way of seeing things.

One of Ehrman's main themes is that, for the most part, writers of the various gospels - whether New Testament or gnostic - weren't presenting history as moderns would perceive it, but telling the story from their own theological perspectives or agendas.

As for Paul, Ehrman says that only seven of the 13 epistles attributed to him are indisputably his: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. The letters, Ehrman says, respond to specific needs and cannot give a full picture of Paul's teaching.

While Peter and Paul vividly inhabit the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is mentioned only once before the crucifixion. But her role as the "apostle to the apostles" is a crucial one. As the first to give the news of Jesus' resurrection, Ehrman says, she could be called the one who started Christianity. He examines biblical and gnostic gospels related to her, but finds no evidence of an intimate relationship with Jesus.

Ehrman acknowledges that thousands of converts were drawn to the faith as a result of the miracles performed, but his lengthy discussion of miracles dwells most on rather bizarre stories in non-New Testament works, such as Peter bringing a dead smoked tuna back to life and Paul baptizing a talking lion. He then asks, "Aren't all impossible stories strange, whether in the Bible or outside it?"

This book contains valuable historical scholarship. It also encourages readers to approach the Scriptures with fresh and enlightened eyes. Yet Ehrman is proof of his own theme that people tend to write from their own perspective.

Born into an Episcopalian family, the writer converted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teenager, and became a star pupil at both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. But as he delved into early writings in the original languages, he became aware of the numerous changes made to early texts over time. His belief in an inerrant Bible was eventually shattered. Today, Ehrman calls himself a "happy agnostic."

With his divorce from literalism, the author doesn't appear to have grappled much with the sense of the power of the Spirit that pervades the New Testament. He views Jesus and his three major followers as "apocalypticists" who expected the kingdom to come in the very near future and "return the earth to its original paradisiacal state." And it did not.

Despite his disbelief, he recognizes the power of Christianity in shaping Western civilization and the lives of millions. By exploring the stunning diversity of writings on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, he illustrates how fully the "greatest story ever told" captured the imagination of those in early centuries and took different forms.

The historical facts are important, he says, but so is an understanding of how people have made the Scriptures meaningful in their own lives.

• Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.

Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend
By Bart D. Ehrman
Oxford University Press285 pp., $25

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

World's Scientists against Creationism.

Published on Thursday, June 22, 2006 by the Independent / UK
World Scientists Unite to Attack Creationism
by Sarah Cassidy

The world's scientific community united yesterday to launch one of the strongest attacks yet on creationism, warning that the origins of life were being "concealed, denied or confused".

The national science academies of 67 countries warned parents and teachers to ensure that they did not undermine the teaching of evolution or allow children to be taught that the world was created in six days.

Some schools in the US hold that evolution is merely a theory while the Bible represents the literal truth. There have also been fears that these views are creeping into British schools.

The statement, which the Royal Society signed on behalf of Britain's scientists, said: "We urge decision-makers, teachers and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and foster an understanding of the science of nature. Knowledge of the natural world in which they live empowers people to meet human needs and protect the planet.

"Within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science."

The statement followed a long-running row over claims that some of Tony Blair's flagship city academies teach creationism in science lessons. Schools in the North-east backed by one academy sponsor, Sir Peter Vardy, have been accused of promoting creationism alongside evolution. The schools have denied the claims and insisted they abide by the national curriculum.

Academics in the US have voiced concern over similar theories being taught in American schools. Scientists also fear the spread of a theory known as "intelligent design". This suggests that species are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and must therefore be the product of a "designer".

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: "There is controversy in some parts of the world about the teaching of evolution to pupils and students, so this is a timely statement that makes clear the views of the scientific community. I hope this statement will help those who are attempting to uphold the rights of young people to have access to accurate scientific knowledge about the origins and evolution of life on Earth."

It has been revealed that creationism is being included in the science curricula of a growing number of UK universities. Leeds University plans to incorporate one or two compulsory lectures on creationism and intelligent design into its second-year course for zoology and genetics undergraduates next Christmas, according to The Times Higher Education Supplement. At Leicester University, academics discuss creationism and intelligent design with third-year genetics undergraduates for about 20 minutes in lectures.

In both cases, lecturers argue that the controversial theories will presented as fallacies irreconcilable with scientific evidence. But the fact that these "alternatives" to evolution have been proposed for formal discussion in lectures at all has sparked concern among British scientists.

A THES investigation has also discovered there are at least 14 academics in science departments who consider themselves creationists. They believe all kinds of life were designed rather than evolved. Several others are proponents of intelligent design, which rejects evolution.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Using the supposed supremacy of one faith view to drive wedges among American Voters.: Gay Marriage by Bush and G.O.P.

Dobbs: Gay marriage amendment sheer nonsense
By Lou Dobbs

Editor's note: Lou Dobbs' commentary appears every Wednesday on CNN.com.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- President Bush this week urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, at a time when the United States faces some of the greatest challenges in our nation's history.

So, logically, what could possibly better ensure the prosperous and bright future of working men and women and their families than for the Senate to work on a constitutional amendment that is guaranteed to fail?

It's clear that cynical, patronizing White House political strategists are trying to rally a conservative base that they believe is more base than conservative. They're wrong on all counts.

We're fighting a war against radical Islamist terrorists with ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're drowning in debt from our growing record trade and budget deficits and we're watching our public education system fail a generation of students. Congress has yet to act on an effective solution to our illegal immigration crisis as millions of illegal aliens flood our borders every year, and our nation's borders and ports are still woefully insecure, four and a half years after the September 11 attacks.

I believe most Americans are far more concerned about their declining real wages and the lack of real creation of quality jobs than the insulting insertion of wedge issues into the national dialogue and political agenda.

But President Bush and the Senate have decided they should take up a constitutional ban of gay marriage. Polls tell us most of us oppose gay marriage. Those same polls are also shouting to our elected representatives in Washington that we want real leadership and real solutions to real problems.

The president and the Senate's Republican leadership are now claiming that an amendment to our Constitution is necessary to save the American family. No matter how you feel about the issue, and many of us feel deeply, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is utter and complete nonsense. It's an insult to the intelligence of every voter, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

The president and the Senate are focusing on one of the few reasons that has not been proven to cause divorce. They instead should look to financial hardships, and the lack of communication about family finances. The median family income is stagnating while gasoline costs and higher interest rates are eating up the family budget.

Nor is the Senate looking at the national tragedy of out-of-wedlock births: In seven states, more than 40 percent of our children are born out of wedlock. Nationally, more than one out of three of our children are born to unmarried parents.

Both political parties love to excite and enliven their so-called "bases" by focusing on wedge issues like gay marriage, abortion, gun control, school prayer and flag burning. Both the Republicans and Democrats raise these issues to distract and divert public attention from the pressing issues that affect our way of life and our nation's future.

Are these wedge issues really how Congress should be spending its time, especially given how little time politicians spend in Washington, D.C., these days? I'd rather see our 535 elected representatives and this president use their time to combat poverty, fix our crumbling schools, secure our broken borders and ports and hold employers accountable for hiring illegal aliens. And like millions of Americans, I am desperate for a resolution to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How can we tolerate elected officials who press wedge issues when 37 million people in the United States live in poverty, one in every eight Americans? Almost 18 percent of children under the age of 18 live in poverty -- 13 million children.

Nearly 46 million people live without health insurance, about 16 percent of the population, a number that has risen by 6 million since 2000. More than one in 10 children are uninsured, and one-quarter of people with incomes below $25,000 also lack any health insurance.

College costs are skyrocketing. There's been a 40 percent jump (inflation-adjusted) in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities over the past five years, according to the College Board. The costs for brand-name prescription drugs have also increased twice as fast as the rate of inflation. In fact, over the past six years, the average rise in the price of brand-name drugs is 40 percent, according to the AARP.

But while these increases in the price of the basics make it harder for hard-working men and women to make ends meet, the president and Congress would rather drive wedge issues than work toward real solutions.

I wonder if the president's political advisers know just how ill-advised and smarmy this wedge issue looks to the millions of us who want solutions to the critical, urgent problems facing this nation. Worse, I wonder if they even care.

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