Thursday, January 13, 2022

Thoughts on Advanced Old Age and the Bible

Once I was as quick as foxes on a hill, but in recent days rising is more difficult and walking sluggish and slower. Through the years the weight of gravity seems to have increased. The distance between think and speak is longer and words are sometimes lost or misstated. Memory comes back more slowly. There is always a brief nap after lunch in order to still my brain and restore my balance. Hearing once keen and clear, in recent days is muted and garbled by static. Sight has dimmed and must be aided by mechanical devices. Dizziness and imbalance put me always on the cusp of falling. Stepladders, I once mounted with alacrity and intrepidity, I now completely avoid. Pains persist in almost every joint. A dwindling stamina affects what I can plan for each day. Not anything in my body works as well as once it did, and some things do not work at all. Age is not just a number. It is the body’s acquiescence to one law of the universe—obsolescence.

My enforced isolation because of advanced age, health circumstances, and especially the pandemic has introduced into my life a kind of near-bearable monotony, even though the range of different things to be managed these days brings with them a kind of diversity. I find that I do not miss extensive engagement with the world; it distracts me from other things more compelling. Truth be told, the world is too much with us. I do miss, however, intelligent communication with colleagues on subjects of common interest. A little of what I need I meet through my blogging essays. But what I really want to do is to go back in time and do it all over again and this time to do it well. Alas, however, there are no do-overs in life!

William Wordsworth has a poem entitled, “The World is Too Much with Us.” As I read the poet, human beings have surrendered their engagement with the natural order of things for the machinations of a modern industrial world; the present age, one might say. We are so preoccupied with the necessities of surviving in such a world that we seldom pause to see the beauty and wonders of the natural world. The poet imagines renouncing faith and returning to an ancient Pagan world where human life was more in tune with the natural order of things and imagination added a certain spice to existence. There is a kind of world-weariness to the poem and a sense of loss that makes him “forlorn.” But sitting here today, January 1, 2022, I understand the poet’s frustration and loss caused by a necessary world-engagement. So might I, in some sheltered carrel, retreat into my mind from world engagement to imagine other worlds aborning.

Can a person of faith, no matter how eroded, find any consolation and solace in advanced old age from the ancient writings of the Judeo-Christian faiths? The answer is “perhaps.”

            To everything there is a season, as one biblical writer puts it (Eccl 3:1-8) and as the musical group, the Birds, have suggested most recently (in “Turn, Turn, Turn”), no doubt drawing on Ecclesiastes. The nostalgic mementos that we gather through life mark our inevitable “turns” into the other seasons of our lives. No matter how much we may wish to remain at one stage, the turns are inevitable. The early Christian writer, Paul, left behind two pearls of wisdom for those of us who have arrived at the season of advanced old age: on one occasion he opined: “I have learned, in whatever state I am to be content” (Phil 4:11-13 RSV). Sounds like cogent advice for those of us finding ourselves in that most difficult and inevitable season of life, if we are lucky enough to reach it. Nevertheless, he might have been led to that view because he thought the world was going to end in his lifetime (1 Cor 7:25-31). Hence, his advice to all those in the Jesus gatherings was remain as you are (1 Cor 7:17-24). In other words, learn to live with your situation; it will be for only a short period.

            The astute reader of 1 Cor 7:17-24 should by now have discovered his second pearl of wisdom: “were you a slave when called [into faith]? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Where slavery is concerned, Paul willingly violates his own rule of “remain as you are” (1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24). The principle involved in both statements appears to be the following: learn to live with your situation, unless you can change it (italics mine). This principle applied to those of us caught in the final season of life is this: “Cope with it, unless you can change the situation to your benefit in some way.”

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*My thanks to Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth for a few of their poetic phrases I have adapted for this essay.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

What is ‘the Gospel’?

Inadvertently, I stumbled across an interesting question while researching the words "gospel" (or "good news"; in Greek, euaggelion) and "preach the gospel" (or "proclaim good news"; in Greek, euaggeliz┼Ź). The words do not appear that many times in the New Testament and virtually all the time they are used without any description of the content of the word. There is only one passage I know where the content of the word "gospel" is explained:

Now I would remind you, brethren, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

This is the content of the gospel Paul preached and is the only explanation of gospel, of which I am aware, in the earliest texts of the early Christian movement. Nevertheless, it should not be read as the meaning of the word gospel in all early texts. It is specifically Paul's gospel (Rom 16:25; Gal 1:11). It was not the only gospel being preached in the earliest period, as Paul makes quite clear (Gal 1:6-9; 2 Cor 11:4-6, 13-14). What should we think about the content of the gospel being preached in the communities represented by the Deutero-Pauline Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians), the Pastoral Letters (1, 2 Timothy, and Titus), and the rest of the New Testament?

Paul's gospel is mythical in content, meaning at the very least it deals with stories about Gods and supernatural persons.* In Paul's description above the only historical event that can be verified is that Jesus died. Another item (that he was buried) could have been verified had one been present at the time. The rest of the statement evokes a kind of "salvation history" (Heilsgeschichte), which some theologians postulate as "an account of God's saving acts in human history"; these acts of God, however, can only be seen through the eyes of faith; they are not verifiable as historical events.

In the rest of the New Testament and certain later texts one finds hints that others are quite likely preaching a gospel different from what Paul preached. For example, Mark 1:14 has Jesus preaching the gospel of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (1:15; 1 Clem 14:23). If this latter statement is the content of what Jesus preached, the founder of what later became the Christian movement preached a gospel different from what Paul preached. Luke describes Paul preaching a gospel about the grace of God, something that Paul did not mentioned as part of his gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5). The writer in Colossians preaches a gospel about hope (1:5-6; 1:23), something else that Paul does not mention in 1 Cor 15:1-5. The gospel preached by the author of the Didache contained specific instructions about ethical behavior, prayers, and almsgiving, which Paul does not include in his explanation of the content of the gospel in 1 Cor 5:1-5. One cannot assume that Paul's statement of the content of what was being preached is what all writers of the New Testament would affirm.

What do you consider "good news"? Personally, I like to think of the gospel as the life-changing grace of a benevolent God, who gives freely to all (Matt 5:45). Such a gospel is what brings hope in the face of the absolute certainty of death.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Myth as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary is "a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular ideas concerning natural or historical phenomena. It is properly distinguished from allegory and legend, which imply a nucleus of fact."