Monthly Archives: February 2014

Were You Made for Greatness or for God?

One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s most often quoted lines is this:

 “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” (Sources: 1 2 3)

It’s a good line, but did he ever really say it? Well, I’ve been doing some digging to try and track down this line (Others have tried too). To me, it looks like he never actually said it. However, he said a couple things that were close. In a visit with German pilgrims in the first month of his pontificate, back in April, 2005, Benedict said:

“Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” Source

The original German reads,

“Wer Bequemlichkeit will, der ist bei ihm allerdings an der falschen Adresse. Aber er zeigt uns den Weg zum Großen, zum Guten, zum richtigen Menschenleben.”

The main difference here is that Benedict is saying that he’s saying that Jesus is showing the way to great things, away from the false temptations of comfort. Here the focus is on Him, not on us.

This next quote, from the same speech is the closest thing:

 “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”

Original German: “Bequem sind die Wege des Herrn nicht, aber wir sind ja auch nicht für die Bequemlichkeit, sondern für das Große, für das Gute geschaffen.

The first key word in the German is “Bequemlichkeit,” which can be translated as “convenience, comfort, ease.” The second key word is “Große,” which is hard to translate. It is a substantival adjective in the neuter singular, so we could translate we were made “for the great, for the good.” The Vatican translators opted for “great things.” Since translation is always an art including interpretation, we could even render it “you were made to do great things.” It seems to me that the “famous quote” is really an alternate translation/expansion/interpretation of this last example.

But wait! Maybe Benedict said something somewhere else that sounds like his famous quote, non-quote. In fact, he did. In his Encylical, Spe Salvi, he says, “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched” (sec. 33). Here the official Latin reads, “magnam realitatem,” which could more literally be rendered “a great reality.”

What’s the point of all this translational nit-picking?

The point is that when we read, especially when we read something authoritative, it is very easy for us to import our pre-conceived notions into what we’re reading. Benedict’s point is simple enough—that a life of ease and convenience, a selfish life of me-pleasing, is not what God has for us. Instead, God offers something so much better—something great, in fact. But he is not saying that we were all made to be rich, famous, powerful and “great” in a worldly sense–as would be suggested from a typical use of “greatness.” In fact, notice that in each of the quotes, Benedict is pointing not to human attributes (like “being great”), but to the destiny to which God invites us, the magnam realitatem, He Himself. The great thing we’re made for is God.

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Dumping and the Internet

Dumping is a big problem—and not just Joe Schmo junking an old water heater in the ditch by the side of the road. Dumping is a practice that some international firms engage in to destroy competition. Say, you have a widget company in Peru that makes the SuperWidget3000, which retails for $400. Then a big Korean company comes in to Peru with a product that does basically the same thing as the SuperWidget3000, but they sell it for $20. They import gazillions of their clone product, undercut you on price by 95% and, of course, drive you out of business. Then after your company is dead and gone, the Korean company can jack the price up to $600, making more money per item than you ever did, but you’re not around anymore to cause any headaches for them. It’s an effective, but ruthless, practice. Now there are many laws and international agreements to prevent dumping.

The same kind of phenomenon can happen when big-hearted, rich countries decide to send “free” food to a third-world country to alleviate hunger. The main problem with this practice is that it destroys the agrarian economy in the country it is seeking to aid. Most third world places look more like the United States did 100 years ago, where the vast majority of people make their living farming. If you swoop in with free food, you might temporarily alleviate some folks, but you ruin their economic interaction with one another. After their farms and ranches fail, being undercut by Big Free Food from Mr. Nice Guy, what will happen? Food prices can skyrocket and no one has a good working farm to supply the need, or the people can become dependent on Big Free. It’s the same as a big company “dumping” their cheap product to drive somebody out of business, albeit without the malicious intent.

So what about the Internet?

To me, the Internet has become a “dumping” ground for the good hearted. It must stem from the same impulse that leads to dumping free food in a poor country. What exactly do I mean? Well, the most obvious examples are in the public domain arena, where kind-hearted people have uploaded billions of pages of public domain information for all our eyeballs to consume—Google Books, Archive.org, Hathi Trust Digital Library. There are also free, public domain, audiobooks at Librivox.org and free art in the Wikimedia Commons. There is free music and free video at YouTube. The Internet is full of free everything. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and use this content just as much (if not more) as the next guy.

But…I worry. I worry that writers, editors, artists, voice actors, and other people involved in producing this kind of content are losing their jobs left and right. Publishers and bookstores are closing, consolidating, and filing for bankruptcy (Harcourt, Cengage, Borders, etc.). Amazon is underpricing the ebook and book market. People who used to be able to make a living producing books, music, and other media for us to enjoy are finding themselves undercut by Big Free. Right now is the good part of the cycle, where the Consumer gets to enjoy cheap and free with no consequences. But what happens when Google decides that after 10 years of losing money, YouTube is no longer worth it and they just shut it down, erasing millions upon millions of videos? What happens, when the Internet Archive folds for financial reasons, but your local library has jettisoned all of its old, public domain books, in favor of new computer consoles where anybody can access that information for free? What about when Google decides to charge a monthly fee for access to Google Books?

I like a dynamic market. I like change. But I am concerned that the Internet has become a dumping ground, in the bad sense. The world of Big Free might not be free after all. Centralization of information means that information can be controlled, manipulated, or even deleted, permanently. The decentralized care of information, in thousands of libraries, homes, schools, bookstores, seems a better path to me, one not so easily destroyed by the decision of an executive or the economic pressures of the day. Perhaps there is a way to decentralize the Internet and its world of Free. Maybe that’s how all of our out-of-work writers and editors could find their way. It’s a thought.

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Did the Wave Offering Make the Sign of the Cross?

Wave offerings are prescribed in the Old Testament several times–mainly in Leviticus and Numbers. Normally, the OT sacrificial system leads people to tears of boredom, but something caught my eye in reading about this in Allen P. Ross’s book, Holiness to the Lord. He describes the wave offering ritual thusly:

The wave offering (tenupa) was placed in the offerer’s hands, and then the priest placed his hands beneath those of the offerer, moving them upward and downward, forward and backward, thereby symbolizing the consecration of the gift of God in the sight of all. (p. 192)

Sounds interesting, but what is even more amazing is what he suggests in a footnote:

[R.K.] Harrison ([Leviticus: Introduction and Commentary, IVP 1980] 83) observes the description and interpretation of this ritual and notes that the motion was in the shape of a cross. If this is right, then it is a symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ.

Interestingly, there is no description of the ritual in the biblical text and some commentators, like Jacob Milgrom, have rejected the wave offering as a “fiction.” Harrison’s description is rooted in later Jewish rabbinic sources. So this may remain a mystery, but if the description of the ritual is accurate, it reminds me of a Catholic priest making the sign of the cross over the gifts on the altar before the sacrifice of the Mass is made. Perhaps this act is foreshadowed by the ancient Israelite wave offering.

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Open Access Biblical Studies Courses

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Image by Elliot Lepers

A couple years ago, Sebastian Thrun, a robotics professor at Stanford started the first MOOC (massively open online course). Since that time, open access education has spread broad and wide, with major universities publishing whole courses to the internet for free. While there are pros and cons to any move like this, I think on the whole that open access education is a great thing for the public. It gives people access to great teachers and great learning for free. It might be bad for the guild of teachers and professors who could find themselves out of a job, as the more famous folks soak up the students for free online. We’ll see what happens.

In this setting, I have found a few open access biblical studies courses worth looking at. Hopefully, over time, many more of these courses will be out there. But for now, there are a few interesting ones:

This is not to say that I agree with everything in these courses, but I think they show how powerful MOOC technology can be. I also don’t know what the viewership or subscriber numbers are. These offer good examples of where education for Bible students may be headed.

I am very curious as to how all this will develop, as I’ve written before, but I’m not the only one. Bernard Bull posted an interesting piece on this same topic recently. To me, the “narrowness” of any perspective, whether religious or secular, will be deeply challenged by the new MOOC era. In any class now, a student can Google everything the teacher says, check facts on Wikipedia and now even watch other professors teach the same material. The personal relationship of trust with a teacher that we are accustomed to is going to change in unexpected ways. I still believe teachers will be essential, but I think their role will change from being a source of content, to being a source of guidance.

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