Saturday, October 22, 2011

Clash of Titus and the Cretans

After filing yesterday's blog post, I received a "Happy Birthday" phone call from none other than missionary Paul Barner. It's his school, Barner Learning Center, that Diane supported so enthusiastically and that many people have contributed school supplies and vitamins, which Joe and I have shipped to Paul in the Philippines. Due to a computer glitch he thought yesterday was my physical birthday (Oct. 17), but in fact it was my spiritual birthday (Oct. 21, 1973). We learned that we each had met Christ in the early 1970's under the ministry of a visiting evangelist (in my case, John DeBrynne of "Songtime"). Thank you God for electing me - the only election that really counts, quite a bit more important than being a Cambridge Justice of the Peace!

Yet with Election comes responsibility. The joy of Election Night gives way to the realization that the burdens of service can be as heavy and thankless as they are important. “Whoever would be first among you, he must be your servant.” As always Jesus leads the way in sacrificial servanthood, - glory and praise be to his name! - not "only" in example but in real-time co-labor through His Word and Spirit. So the job is only as heavy and thankless as I allow my flesh to make it. This is as true for the Philipino missionary as it is for the American public affairs consultant.

And even more true of Titus. This brother got all the dirty jobs. Who gets dragged before the all-Jewish Jerusalem Council as Paul’s token Gentile believer? Titus. (But at least he doesn’t have to get circumcised!) Who has to bring Paul's second, critical letter to the crazy Corinthians,and make sure his commands are followed? Titus. Who gets sent to reform the Cretans, described by Paul as “always liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons”? Titus.

In his harsh criticism, Paul notes he is jus’ sayin’ what “one of their own poets” has already said of the Cretans, residents of the fourth-largest island in the Mediterranean. There is a fascinating back story here that reveals Paul’s familiarity with Greek literature and philosophy.  Epimenides was a semi-legendary sixth century BC Cretan poet and seer credited with the spiritual cleansing of Athens. In a poem in defense of Zeus, he wrote these lines:

 They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

Hmmm…. A god who was supposed dead in a tomb, but who lives forevermore? And if that last line sounds familiar – it appears in Acts 17:28, where Paul quotes it to the Athenians! To the Greeks, I am a Greek…..

 P.S. – surprisingly the modern day epithet “cretin” does not derive from Paul’s critical assessment of the average cretan. If anything the cretans seem to have the last laugh on Paul, as even Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia traced the root of “cretin” to “Christian”. However, the preferred derivation comes from an obscure dialect of the French Alps, to describe a person with a particular, extreme, and possibly inbred, physical and mental deformity. See below from an online etymological dictionary: 

1779, from Fr. crétin (18c.), from Alpine dialect crestin, "a dwarfed and deformed idiot" of a type formerly found in families in the Alpine lands, a condition caused by a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones, from V.L. *christianus "a Christian," a generic term for "anyone," but often with a sense of "poor fellow." Related: Cretinism (1801).

Oh and finally – the fact that Epimenides was a Cretan calling all Cretans liars has been played with by philosophers and other variations of sophists for hundreds of years, to wit: If a Cretan calls all Cretans liars, is he telling the truth? To this day, online philosophers are discussing Bertrand Russell’s invocation of the Epimenides Paradox, the inspiration of Paul, and making statements like “If he states all cretans are liars, he may be telling the truth about cretans, yet lying about himself being a liar. The true statement would be ‘all cretans except me are liars.’ By leaving out the latter, he lies while subsequently justifying it.” I remember a Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk saved the Enterprise by telling a super-powered, super-smart, but socially naive robot, “I lie all the time.” The poor robot’s brain exploded.

No doubt Paul, who knew Epimenides better than either Captain Kirk or Bertrand Russell, would have said something like what he told Titus in chapter three: “avoid foolish controversies and arguments, because they are unprofitable and useless.”

Bless the Cretans, Cretins, Crestins, and Christians, God bless us every one! Tomorrow maybe I will get to what Paul tells Titus to tell the Cretans, and how it may apply to this Cantabridgian and sometimes lazy, gluttonous, lying, enjoyer of unprofitable, useless, foolish arguments.

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