Archive for December, 2011
As a Christian with a Jewish father and a “Messianic” upbringing, I have struggled with the rightness of appropriating elements of Jewish culture into my own family. I don’t want to pass myself off as something that I am not. But since Jewishness is constituted by religion, culture and descent, I have at least two out of three going for me. I believe that Christians can learn quite a bit from Jewish tradition, which has wrestled for two-and-a-half millennia with the Hebrew scriptures–longer than Christians have. Furthermore, the earliest Christians were Jews and conceived of themselves as constituting a true remnant of Israel. There, of course, my Jewish friends would part ways with me–but I can learn from their way of understanding themselves as Israel.
I’m going out a limb to say that Christians can celebrate Hanukkah, too. I know it’s possible, because I do. This evening my wife, my son and I lit candles on our menorah and sang, “Ma`oz Tsur.” We don’t typically exchange gifts, but we read the Hanukkah story from the book of Maccabees and thank God for preserving the Jewish people.
So, what do Christians without ethno-cultural Jewish background need to know about Hanukkah?
Working our way backward, it’s important to note that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah:
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’” (John 10:22-24)
Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” This feast is not commanded in the (Written) Torah or mentioned specifically in the Old Testament (Tanak), because its inception is in the 160s BCE, precipitated by the Maccabean Revolt.
After the period of Persian hegemony in the Middle East–including the land of Judea (Yehud)–Alexander the Great swept over the Persian Empire, conquering as far as India. After Alexander’s premature death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his four generals. For the next two centuries, the land of Judea was alternately under the control of the Seleucid Greeks from the north (Syria) or the Ptolemaic Greeks from the south (Egypt).
These were very difficult times for the Jews in Palestine, as you can imagine. Some wanted to Hellenize (assimilate to Greek culture), while others wanted to maintain their traditional Jewish identity and religion–a perennial tension within Jewish communities. Under the control of Antiochus III (Seleucid), the Jews enjoyed a degree of self-government and religious freedom. But his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attacked Jerusalem in 167 BCE, banned traditional Jewish worship (sacrifices, Sabbath observance, circumcision), and installed the Zeus cult in the temple.
These events are described in 1 Maccabees 1. 1 Macc 2 describes the uprising of Mattathias the priest and his sons: John, Simeon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan. Even after Mattathias’ death, his sons–called the “Maccabees” after Judah’s nickname, “The Hammer”–led a successful guerrilla campaign that drove Antiochus’ generals out of Jerusalem (1 Macc 3:1-4:35).
Because the temple had been desecrated, it had to go through a process of purification. This purification included the destruction of the unclean altar and the erection of a new altar. The consequent celebration each lasted eight days:
“All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering….Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.” (1 Macc 4:55-56, 59)
According to tradition, there was only enough sacred oil to perform the purification rites for a single day, but it miraculously lasted the full eight days required. This is why Hanukkah lasts eight days. Hanukkah menorot (plural of menorah) have nine branches rather than seven (as the temple menorah did): the middle candle is lit each night and then used to light the others. This is why Hanukkah candles come in packs of 44 (2 for the first night, 3 for the second night, 4 for the third, etc.). Small gifts may be exchanged, and foods made with oil are served, particularly latkes, potato pancakes. Children play a game with a special four-sided spinning top called a dreidel.
For Jews, Hanukkah is a celebration of God’s salvation for His people–just like Purim and Pesach (from Esther and Exodus). Christians should also thank God at Hanukkah, for at least three reasons.
First, we see how God rescues those who honor him. Mattathias and his sons were inspired by zeal for God, refusing to abandon their faith and the commandments. We read in the New Testament of Jews such as these, notably Simeon who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25).
Second, we see that God is sovereign over world affairs. The book of Daniel makes veiled reference to Antiochus IV and the Maccabean Revolt (8:8-25; 11:29-39). The message is clear and consistent with that of the entire book: rulers who exalt themselves to the place of the God of Israel will be humbled and destroyed–Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, Antiochus, Caesar, or any other “divine” king.
Finally, we thank God for His preservation of the Jewish people, to whom, Paul says, “belong adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 9:4). Furthermore, the one whom Christians call ‘Christ’, the Messiah Jesus, was born a Jew only a century-and-a-half later. Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal 4:4-5). In God’s Providence, the “fullness of time” had not yet come–had Antiochus succeeded in destroying the Jewish people and religion, we would have no Messiah–and no salvation.
There’s a lot more to say on Hanukkah, of course. Two thousand years’ worth of water have passed under the bridge between Jews and Christians–and not always fresh water. But Jews and Christians have much in common, and thankfulness for Hanukkah should be one of them.
So, this holiday season, wish your Jewish friends a sincere “Happy Hanukkah” from the bottom of your heart. Remember God’s salvation of the Jews in 166 BCE–and his Salvation for all in Yeshua, his Son.
Numerous eulogies have been written in the last 48 hours for Christopher Hitchens: here and here. Perhaps most moving for me is the tribute by Douglas Wilson, Hitchens’ sparring partner, co-author and friend.
Hitchens was perhaps the most reflective and thoughtful of the New Atheists. I appreciated his essays in Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, particularly his thoughts on politics and literary criticism. One of my favorite EconTalk episodes contains his reflections on my favorite book, 1984.
Paul Ricoeur’s three-stage biblical hermeneutic begins with a period of naïve reflection, followed by a critical detour, and finally a return to a faith perspective. In my thoughtful examination of my own religious perspective on the world, Hitchens was at times a key part of my "critical detour," a challenging exercise, lifting me out of my navel-gazing stupor. I saw him speak once with Wilson at an event promoting their book, and I was impressed by their regard for each other as human beings.
As a writer, Hitchens had few peers in wit, elegance and style. His mind and pen bore unwilling, unwitting tribute to common grace, the image of the Creator reflected in the creature. It is a shame that this creature never acknowledged the Creator whose blessings he enjoyed. The world will miss you, Hitch.
Several months back I was honored by a request to write the feature story for PBU Today, the quarterly magazine of my alma mater. The article, “Unless You Have Utterly Rejected Us,” is published in the Winter 2011 edition and is available on the web here. I haven’t received my print copy of PBU Today yet, but the layout on the website is very beautiful–I’m sure Carrie Givens is behind it.
This article is based on my research on the book of Lamentations and on my recent presentation at PBU’s Agora Conference. The theme of the conference was “Heart, Soul and Mind,” and focused on the health and healing of our inner selves. In my presentation and my essay, I attempted to draw out a few things the book of Lamentations can teach us about suffering, comfort and healing.
Little did I or the editorial staff know that this article would be arriving in thousands of homes this week, a week of mourning for the PBU family. On Thursday, December 1, Dr. Samuel Hsu, Distinguished Professor of Music and Chair of Keyboard studies, was struck by a car outside his Philadelphia home and rushed to the hospital with fatal injuries. He died the next day, and services were held this week at Tenth Presbyterian Church, where he was a ruling elder.
Dr. Hsu was a pillar of PBU, perhaps the most intelligent and talented person ever associated with the school. PBU has posted many moving tributes detailing his life, his ministry, and his enduring contributions to the school here. His former student and current colleague, Kile Smith, wrote a wonderful tribute here.
I was not a music major at PBU, but I knew Dr. Hsu moderately well through his involvement with the Honors Program and through my many friends (and wife) who were music majors. He was involved in my sister’s wedding, since he was a close friend and mentor of my brother-in-law. We also had many mutual friends through Westminster, Tenth, and the PCA.
Dr. Hsu always had a kind and encouraging word for everyone. If anyone had a right to boast of intellect and ability, it would have been him–yet he perpetually reflected the humility and deference of a true servant of Christ. I remember quite a few conversations with him on the train after long days at school. We would talk about travels, friends, Scripture, philosophy, anything–then I would disembark at Jenkintown while he continued on to Center City.
As the PBU family–all of us Dr. Hsu’s children in some sense–mourns his death, we look with pain and expectation to the resurrection. Between now and then, we will miss him, and many others whom we have lost and will yet lose. Yet YHWH loses none who call upon him. He sees the suffering of his children, and hears the groaning of the broken world that he created good–and he grieves with us.
Speaking a few weeks ago with a friend who is working on his doctoral dissertation, had a chance to think through many of the factors that have contributed to my successful completion of a master’s thesis. I don’t mean to brag–no one is more surprised than I am–but I completed a 51,000-word thesis in less than 7 months of writing.
My hope is that some of these ideas will be helpful to fellow students working on theses or dissertations.
1. In the time/planning/scheduling realm…
- I made a general plan for my chapters, and scheduled them at intervals so as to complete a first draft of the completed project three weeks before the deadline to defend and graduate. My advisor wanted to see the chapters as I wrote them, and he has been wonderful in providing feedback, encouragement and further research avenues.
- I made a target page count, higher than final target of approximately 100-120 1.5-spaced pages (40,000-50,000 words), in order to account for final editing. Then I scheduled these pages per week, about 5-6 pages (2000-2400 words).
- I made a chart for hours spent reading/writing. My goal was to spend 2.5 hrs reading and 7.5 writing every week. This was a reasonable target for me, since I work full time and do ministry. I thought about it this way: two hours after work each weekday, plus a lunch hour, plus a long Tuesday evening while Corrie teaches lessons, adds up to 17.5 hours. I was certain that I could make 10 of those hours productive, and then my weekends and other evenings would be free for my family.
- I chose my own schedule as 7:00-3:30, so I was finishing my research by 5:30 and usually home by 5:45. Early on, I tried to get up early and do research before work, but that does not work for me. My job requires so little thought and gives me so little stress that I’m usually ready and rarin’ to go by 3:30. During work I’ll often listen to the texts I’ll be studying, or lectures on the texts/topics. Afternoon works for me, but it might not be for everyone.
- Once I’d written my target amount for the week, I’d enjoy myself. I would sometimes work extra and get ahead if I felt inspired, but I try to make sure to rest and reward myself. I read economics for fun; I played with Daniel, played in the band, watched football, etc.
2. In the academic/intellectual/creative realm…
- Besides a chapter schedule, I made a list of propositions and structured my argument. I had four main chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion, but I wrote out 11 propositions and listed them briefly in my introduction. Some propositions were so well-established in the literature that I would simply need to summarize and apply that literature. Other propositions I had to prove by my own research in the original texts. Structuring the argument gave me direction, and each chapter contributed (more or less) to prove one or several of my propositions, building upon the other chapters/propositions.
- I kept writing, even through the fog. The foggiest times were when I would start afresh at the beginning of a chapter cycle (6 weeks). I found it difficult at first to remember and creatively activate the kernel of thought from which I had intended the chapter to sprout. The best way to work through it, I found, is to trust my grand plan (affirmed by my advisor), put my head down, and write through it. The fragments began to come together by the second week each time around, and by the sixth week I was finishing off a chapter of 8,000-11,000 words.
3. In the practical, hour-to-hour, Sitzfleisch realm…
- I found I can’t spend long hours working–two or three (max) hours at a time is best. One could perhaps do two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, but whenever I had a larger chunk of time, I had to make a plan for those hours, or else I would end up stretching out a two-hour goal into five hours.
- I didn’t spend long hours in the library; I tend to go on research bunny trails, which are deadly. I used JSTOR and Google Books to read and preview articles and chapters to make my library time short and productive. Without those online tools, and easy access to Westminster’s library, this would have taken much longer to complete.
- I found a quiet, consistent, non-fun place I can study, and I pretty much just go there. For me it was at the office; I cannot study/write at home. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop to get out of the house, but it becomes inconvenient if I need a lot of books–I keep most of them at the office.
- Two or three days out of seven, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to complete the thesis, or I would hit a creative wall. I would simply tell myself, “You can do it,” and push on through those days. One of the books I read on thesis-writing put it this way: think of all the people who are smarter than you who don’t have a doctorate, and then think of all the people not as smart as you who do have doctorates. There are plenty of each; the difference is perseverance. The thesis doesn’t have to be perfectly publishable, just passable.
I hope my experiences proves to be helpful for you. If you’ve completed a long project, perhaps you’d share what sorts of things kept you on track.