The Book of Lead

The Christian Science Monitor and other news sources are carrying stories about the alleged discovery of ancient Christian texts recently in Jordan. The Monitor seems to want to believe, but goes for journalistic balance:

Written on lead in Hebrew and Aramaic, the secretly coded books — or codices — were hidden for centuries in a remote Jordanian cave until a traveling Bedouin found them some five years ago, according to a statement released last week by British Egyptologist David Elkington. Depictions of crosses on the lead-bound leaves, coupled with metallurgical analysis, suggest to Mr. Elkington that these might be early Christian texts that pre-date even some letters in the New Testament.

Others aren’t so sure. All evidence to date suggests Christians didn’t use the cross as a symbol until the 4th century, according to Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. The use of codices also dates to a later period, he said, and metal analysis has yielded no precise dating in this case.

Oh, by the way, reputable scholars can’t study the codices, because they are allegedly in the possession of an Israeli Bedouin, oh and they’re written in a code that no one can understand — but they must be Christian because of the illustrations, which are of menorahs and crosses (and no, I’m not making this up).

One reputable scholar, April DeConick, offers lots of reasons for doubt on her blog (along with links to lots of other scholarly blogs). Wikipedia, on the other hand, appears even less skeptical than the Monitor, with a brand-spanking-new, gosh-wow entry on “Jordan Lead Codices” that sounds as though Elkington himself wrote it.

I’m just trying to avoid the obvious jokes about weighty reading.

Peter J. Gomes is dead

Peter J. Gomes, minister at Memorial Church of Harvard University, died Monday, February 28. New York Times obituary here, and Harvard Gazette obituary here.

Gomes is probably best known in popular culture for coming as gay in 1991. It was much more difficult to come out as a gay man twenty years ago; and Gomes was then identified with conservative politics (he gave the benediction at one of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations) which in those days must have made it even more difficult to come out.

But when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who had the reputation of being one of our living American preachers. I never heard him preach in person, but I heard him on the radio, and he really was fabulous — a gorgeous voice under perfect control, backed up by a sharp intellect.

When I think of Gomes, I also think of his Cape Verdean background. His father was born in the tiny African nation of Cape Verde, and came to the United States to work in the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts. This is an unusual family history for an African American: a family that chose to emigrate, rather than being enslaved and forced to go America.

And finally, when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who can be considered a religious liberal. In his books, Gomes presented contemporary Biblical scholarship to a popular audience, and sometimes it feels as though he takes great joy in puncturing the pretensions of Biblical literalists:

Jesus came preaching — we are told this in all the Gospels — but nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity. It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian, that he did not know “our” Bible, and that what he preached was substantially at odds with his biblical culture, and with ours as well. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 2007, p. 14.

I get the distinct impression that Gomes took just a little bit of pleasure in shocking “some Christians” who weren’t smart enough to know that Jesus was not a Christian. Even though I felt Gomes could be a little bit pompous in his writing, I like him for taking that little bit of pleasure in shocking the literalists.

Tibetan monks in Palo Alto

We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:

Here’s a close-up:

Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.

Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”

Important religion news

Amy sent along a link to a news story that is of great importance to anyone involved with religion: Report: Majority Of Money Donated At Church Doesn’t Make It To God.

A source within the financial department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) said that her department has been aware of this situation for some time. “We have known for some time that the IRS has been investigating where church donations actually go,” said the source. “Fortunately, with our congregational polity, we have long counseled Unitarian Universalist congregations to retain all their revenues for use in their own congregation, with the exception of expenditures on social justice, and dues paid to the UUA and districts.” The source, who asked to remain anonymous because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, added, “We feel that most Unitarian Universalist congregations have nothing to fear from the ongoing IRS investigation.”

However, there’s potentially serious news for Unitarian Universalism at the end of this article. Virginia Raeburn, a spokesperson for God LLC, stated that God “may be forced to shutter a number of under-performing religions.” It is widely rumored that God LLC is taking a hard look at Unitarian Universalism because the religion has so few members. However, Professor John Quackenbush at Starr King School for the Ministry, an expert on God LLC, stated he believes the real reason is that Unitarian Universalist congregations send too little money to God. “My analysis has God LLC cutting all formal ties with Unitarian Universalism within a year,” said Quackenbush. “They can put up with the humanists and atheists, but the lack of revenue puts God LLC in an awkward position.”

Klamath Falls UU church building burns

The building of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Klamath County burned on Tuesday. When firefighters arrived on the scene, the building, which was located at 9669 Hwy 140 East, Klamath Falls, Oregon, was fully engulfed by flames. Firefighters were forced to let the fire burn itself out, and the building is a total loss. Photographs of the fire and a brief news story are on television station KDRV’s Web site. A later news story from KDRV states that the cause of the fire was accidental, and the building, valued $142,000 with contents valued at $20,000, was a total loss. As of 20 hours ago, the fire was still smoldering in places. According to the fellowship’s Web site, this Sunday’s service will be held at Fourth and Pine in Klamath Falls. [Update: news stories have been taken down.]

The fellowship is quite small, reporting 20 members (up from 17 members a decade ago). It was organized in 1957 at the height of the fellowship movement, and affiliated with the American Unitarian Association in 1960. The wood frame building, formerly Pine Grove School, was over a hundred years old.

Thanks to Jack O. for the tip.