__Westar Spring Meeting, March 2-5, 2005__
——- __The ?WHY? Factor:__ Is Westar with its Jesus Seminar, and others, really just blowing on old coals, as critics charge? Why not come to one or more of the semiannual meetings to find out? This week, for instance, there is progress to report on a new translation and commentary of _Acts_ and its parallel passages in the authentic writings of Paul. Why bother? We’re finding that the history of the formation of the church has been partial and inaccurate. Why might that matter? Why do people want to stay true to “traditional” Christianity when we hardly know what that really was? ——-
__Spring 2005 Workshops, Seminars and Forums__
First-timers at these meetings usually are surprised at what they find. Westar hasn’t excelled at explaining the standard format. I’ll try.
_Wednesdays and Thursdays_ are given over to all-day workshops primarily to bring the associate members up to date on current research. Often the presenter is preparing a new book, or has just published one which won’t be treated in seminary courses any time soon. These are college and graduate level workshops. Each has a beginning, full development of the subject, and question periods aimed at tying up loose ends. I call these structured learning. They are very well received.
_On Fridays and Saturdays,_ Westar moves into the kind of session that media and critics of Westar love to describe as if that’s all Westar does; it is not, and in fact the process is mystifying to people who haven’t gone through at least a bit of graduate study, or who haven’t become accustomed to professional meetings like those at the Society of Biblical Literature or the American Academy of Religion.
When a Westar committee has formulated a topic to be explored at the next semi-annual meeting, scholars are invited to submit papers; scholars of course may volunteer to present papers as well. The papers are distributed in advance to other scholar/Fellows and to those associate members who wish to buy them.
The papers are not presented at the meeting. Each writer briefly summarizes the work and then, around a large table seating 25 to 40 Fellows, discussion takes place. The pace can be fast and furious. People not already familiar with the papers can hardly gain a coherent sense of what is going on. They witness a process. Of course a great many of us have studied the papers in advance, and for us it’s possible to take notes and produce reports if we want to, as I sometimes do online.
_For many years when textual studies dominated the scene,_ the famous votes were taken. The results were reported and, when adjusted or weighted according to the practice that is fully explained in _The Five Gospels,_ the results were published.
__There seems to be a widespread sense__ that the scholars are just offering a small scattering of their opinions and then announcing their votes as though they could be scientifically projected to represent all scholars — which of course isn’t true.
What _is_ true is that in the course of most discussions, and often in the papers themselves, a survey of current scholarship across the whole biblical studies field is presented.
So the consensus vote in fact represents a decent accounting of the state of the field, as it were — not scientific, but the kind of accounting that anyone writing a scholarly book or paper must present as context if the work is to be taken seriously. Westar scholar/Fellows often assert that they find the joint exploration of a serious matter, in Westar, to be exactly what they entered scholarship for.
_Wednesday, March 2,_ Nigel Leaves, Warden and Dean of Studies at John Wollaston Anglican Theological College, Perth, Western Australia, will offer five hours on “The God Problem — Options for making sense of Christianity.” He hopes to make a case for moving from the strictures of organized religion into grassroots spirituality.
That evening, Jerry Stinson, senior minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ, Long Beach, California, will lecture on “True to the Legacy of the Historical Jesus,” which is how he ministers. He wonders if it’s possible for mainline Christian congregations to organize themselves around six progressive faith characteristics. I think he’s not given to abstractions. Our youth group visited his church one Easter Sunday and came away saying that Stinson said from the pulpit, “Jesus is not God!”
They were amazed. I’m amazed that so many are shocked by such an assertion.
_Thursday, March 3,_ Paul Alan Laughlin, professor and former chair of the religion department at Otterbein College, offers five hours on “Getting Oriented to Enlighten the Christian Faith.” The pun indicates his intention to explore the promise, for us, of mystical strains of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. This workshop is a preview of a new book he will release this year, _Getting Oriented._ His 2000 book, _Remedial Christianity,_ has been well received in mainstream churches that have managed to hear about it, and it could use a lot more publicity if still in print. I love it.
A Thursday evening lecture by David Galston, covers “The Historical Jesus, the Postmodern, and the Church.” If Westar has somehow tried to create a post-modern Jesus as some critics claim, they miss the point, Galston says: postmodernity is not an historical period but a way to interpret history. Postmodern hermeneutics can help us understand the time of Jesus and our own time in relation to that. Galston from 2002 to 2004 hosted a Canadian radio program, “Honestly the Bible.”
_Friday morning_ the scholars discuss “Tradition and Faith in the New Age,” convening again as the Jesus Seminar that afternoon for “Conversations with Don Cupitt on Non-religion.” Cupitt is the founder of the international movement, Sea of Faith.
Friday evening the Church Leaders’ Forum considers moral issues in the aftermath of 9/11.
_Saturday morning and early afternoon_ are to be given to the Paul Seminar meeting jointly with the Acts Seminar.
This convergence has been found necessary because of the way these two sources from which Christians have thought they got a history of the early Christian movement(s) are discovered to throw little historical light as they adopt different viewpoints and disagree on facts.
Westar consenses that much more valuable light than has previously been seen can be shone on earliest Christianity by admitting that 80 percent of the New Testament in fact reflects that early history, not the words and work of Jesus but rather the tactics that later disciples used to make it appear that Jesus was addressing their later time, when he was not.
The gospels and epistles when critically studied reflect the post-Jesus struggles of people who were endangering their very lives by trying to follow Jesus, so they often imagined him as dealing with problems that hadn’t yet arisen in his time.
_An Associates’ Forum_ follows later on Saturday. The meetings end with a traditional banquet Saturday night, where everybody with hair lets it down and the less hirsute loosen up considerably, too, after four intensive days on the boundaries of faith. _Bob Cramer._