Month: October 2015

the absenteeness is not the point

I was struck by James McGrath’s being struck¹ by Allan Bevere’s treatment on God as absentee landlord. Part of what struck me about the whole thing was that Bevere only mentioned the idea in passing (and really as a follow-up point to his overall case), yet McGrath snatches up that passing comment and makes a rather definitive (albeit brief) statement about it: you’re wrong, Bevere; God is an absentee landlord, and the Jesus says so. And by doing this (i.e. contradicting Bevere’s comment), McGrath, in effect, undermines the overall point that Bevere was trying to make, which was: in spite of our perceptions and experience, God is near, God is listening, and God answers. Absentee landlords don’t do those things.

But the other part of what struck me was McGrath’s support for his counterargument: “that very image of God [as an absentee landlord] appears in one of Jesus’ parables”. Seriously? We’re going to make definitive theological statements from extremely limited data? Aside from Matt 21.33-40–the parable McGrath has in view–we might be able to rope in Matt 25.14-30 and… oh, wait; that’s really all we have. And we’re going to make definitive theological statements because of an interpretative decision about a parable? Especially when the absence of the landlord is not even the primary focus?² C’mon; we have to do better than that. And are we to ignore the fact that the parable describes the landlord as essentially going on vacation and returning; he’s not skipping town and hiding out because he’s a deadbeat, a swindler, anti-social, pick-your-pejorative-description. And are we going to ignore the fact that the same emphasis appears in the only other parable that somewhat suggests an absentee landlord: the dude goes away on a trip, but he comes back. And let’s not overlook the fact that the other parables about a landlord/landowner show him as not absent.³

Sure, McGrath (rightly) points out that “Absentee landlords have been hated by ordinary people down the ages” and admits that he’s been wanting “to do a study of the negative images of God and the kingdom of God in parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels”. But my two basic questions would be:

  1. Are the two parables in question truly presenting God as an absentee landlord–i.e. the kind that are timelessly hated–or are they focusing on something else, thus making the absentee dilemma a moo point?
  2. Similarly, are the other parables truly presenting “negative images of God and the kingdom of God” or are they merely using the dramatic to make a point–you know, like parables do–or are the parables only being perceived as negative because their contents and meaning are misunderstood?

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¹ Apologies for the ads and occasional delays in page-loading. It is a Patheos site.
² Umm, hello: the bit found vv34-39 is far more problematic than a landlord being temporarily absent. In other words, the primary issue in the parable is not the (temporary) absence of the landlord; it’s the evilness and wickedness enacted by the hired workers while the landlord is away on vacation.
³ And please, for the love of bacon, do not come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, this discrepancy in the portrayals of God as landlord raises serious questions and doubts about both the reliability/authenticity of the accounts and the theological message being advocated.” Crap! It’s a parable.

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ignorance is bliss

Two days ago, on the Facebook, I linked this always pleasant bit of information: we dodge extinction because a huge asteroid will sail right past us on Halloween. (And by “right past us” I mean, c. 300k miles). What gave me a slight chuckle was the article’s admission that this asteroid was just discovered, as in: “Oh crap, there it is; and it’s coming fast.” No time to rustle up some guys from an oil rig, train them in space flight, launch them into space, blah, blah, blah. Nope. This cosmic beanbag is almost here. It also gave me a chuckle because the story reminded me of something I read from Bill Bryson, who always gives me a chuckle.

After supplying a useful analogy for the sheer number of asteroids and the Earth’s interaction with them, Bryson writes:

As Steven Ostro of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has put it, “Suppose that there was a button you could push and you could light up all the Earth-crossing asteroids larger than about ten metres, there would be over a hundred million of these objects in the sky.” In short, you would see not a couple of thousand distant twinkling stars, but millions upon millions upon millions of nearer, randomly moving objects–“all of which are capable of colliding with the Earth and all of which are moving on slightly different courses through the sky at different rates. It would be deeply unnerving.” Well, be unnerved, because it is there. We just can’t see it.”

–Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), 171

A few pages later, Bryson unfolds the really good news:

I asked [Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke] how much warning we would receive if a similar hunk of rock [i.e. the one that caused the Chicxulub crater] were coming towards us today. “Oh, probably none,” said Anderson breezily. “It wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up and that wouldn’t happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. You’re talking about something moving many tens of times faster than the fastest bullet. Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that’s by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.”

–Bryson, 179

The next three pages are fairly detailed educated guesses as to what would happen next. It ain’t pretty. Happy weekend, everybody.