Heart Prints

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book:  Engaging Paul:  Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians.  Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014).  The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation.  Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is.  This book will challenge that notion.  The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4:  “Text and Conversation.”

Heart-Prints and Texts

More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.

This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.

So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:

Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.

A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.

Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)

Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”

It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.

So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apart from emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.

heartprints2Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.

In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.

Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.

So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.

Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.

When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.

4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:

astronomy-astrology

Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.

Gary

Creationism vs. Evolution;
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye “The Science Guy”

I just finished watching the 2.5 hour live debate between Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Kentucky) and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye.  The question for discussion was specifically this:  “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  (http://debatelive.org/)

I came to the discussion neither “for” nor “against” anyone.  I just wanted to see how each would present his case. I have great appreciation for both men for their efforts and willingness to engage, and to the Creation Museum for making this publicly available for free.  I’ll give a short review and then some reflections.

Review of the Debate

Naturally, there were deep differences on fundamental issues—like how the same evidence is interpreted, the starting point of scientific investigation, the definition of terms, the nature of the Bible as a source book of scientific knowledge, and much more.  

Bill Nye advocated a 13.7 billion year old universe as evidenced by geology, astronomy, plate tectonics, and more.  He moved freely and easily in scientific data.  He admitted freely to not knowing what came before the big bang, or how to explain the origin of “conscience,” and he stated clearly that God could neither be proved nor disproved by scientific methods.  He never acknowledged that real scientists could also be “creationists,” and he talked several times about “here’s how we on the outside do things”—by which he meant outside of Ken Ham’s little circle of friends.  Although exceptionally fair handed in most matters, in this last respect, he was at least marginally condescending (if not more so).  However, when he talked about the “Ken Ham Model of Creation” he was attempting to specifically clarify exactly how he was defining creationism, since he had noted several times that creationists are not all cut from the same cloth.

Ken Ham advocated a 6,000 year old earth;  repeatedly disputed the accuracy of dating methods;  challenged the “faith” assumptions of secularists;  freely called upon scientific data;  represented the difference between himself and Nye as not about evidence, but about how to interpret the evidence, as a tug of war between “naturalism/Darwinism” over against the Bible;  and introduced a cadre of PhD’s in the scientific community who identify themselves as “creationists,” stating that nothing in astronomy or any other field (when properly assessed) disproves a young earth.  (It is important to note that he did not present scientific evidence that led to a young earth, but rather maintained that the available evidence cannot be indisputably interpreted against a young earth.)  He argued that the existence of logic, laws of nature, and order could only come from God, and that secular scientists stand on the shoulders of creationists.  He advocated a thoroughly literal reading of Genesis 1 as both reasonable and reliable, including seven 24 hour days, that there was no eating of meat (even by animals) prior to the flood, that death (even of the animals) was the result of human sin, that the flood was worldwide, and that all the “kinds” of animals that exist on the earth were on the ark. 

I’ve been highly selective here (necessarily so), others might choose other things.  For the most part, both men represented their point of view with grace.   I liked Nye’s enthusiasm for “the scientific search,” and Ham’s request to define terms more clearly.  I absolutely agree with Ham that secularism is clearly a “faith” (although in denial).  I also appreciate Nye’s willingness to enter into this discussion, when many secular scientists say this should not be done, since it gives the impression of credence to the views.  As time wore on, Ham talked less about science and more about the Bible, occasionally resembling a preacher delivering a sermon. 

The most flabbergasting statement (for me) was made by Ken Ham after stating that the age of the earth—as either young or old—cannot be proved using scientific methods.  The statement was: “The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins. . . . when we add up those dates [of the genealogies] we get thousands of years.”   (I’ll come back to this.)

Some Reflections

1. General Assessment

Ok, now to the question:
“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” 

Well, based on this debate alone, I would have to say no.  Absolutely not.  And the problem is that “creation” ends up getting defined just as Bill Nye says, “by the Ken Ham Model of creation,” which is an insistence on reading Genesis 1 with a particular kind of literalism.  I always enjoy listening to scientists debate scientific questions, and there was plenty of that, on one level or another.  However, as much as I appreciate Ken Ham personally and his effort (and I do), I get so completely worn out by scientists who “read the Bible (supposedly) scientifically,” as though some physicist or biologist or astronomer will know something about a 2,500 year old Hebrew text that no one else can know.

I’m not going to develop a complete argument here, I’ve covered at least some aspects of this in my book Scripture, Canon, and Inspiration where I think the real crisis among current-day Christians is:  a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the biblical documents and of the meaning and implications of “canon.”  The biggest shame in all of this ongoing debate (and it goes well beyond this one) is that highly intelligent people, highly trained in other areas, are not only continually mishandling ancient Hebrew religious texts, but then implying to parents and kids alike that “if you don’t accept this, you are actually denying God, the Bible, and homemade apple pie!”  Ham was careful to state that being a Christian was based on faith, not a position about a young earth;  even so, the “secularism vs creationism” contrast was cast in stark terms:  Ham’s creationism was presented as nothing less than the clear biblical claim. To reject this was to reject the Bible.

In contrast to this approach, many other Christians will run down all kinds of rabbit trails, like “a day equals millions of years,” and all of that stuff.  Why?  Because we are trying to salvage something:  our own faith, or the Bible itself.  We allow certain people to cast the discussions about Genesis in terms of the “science and the Bible” question, and then we get stuck in those ruts.  Then we try to rescue the Genesis text from the skeptical oblivion of the secular scientific sword (although we will say it more like:  “we show how Genesis defeats the skeptical attacks.”) 

2. A Mistake

I have a message for all Christians everywhere who are inclined to this kind of approach.  And I already know that most won’t pay any attention to this, or that I might even make some of them angry.  But here’s the message:  This is a mistake.  The whole attempt to reconcile Genesis with 21st century science is a mistake.   I kid you not, all of this plays right into the hands of the truly negative secularists (not all are negative), makes Christians look ridiculous, and sets up our kids for the biggest fall since the twin towers came down.  There are lots of reasons kids leave their faith:  and this is one of them. When they feel they got lied to, they turn exceptionally and understandably bitter.

I’m not trying to be mean or arrogant, although I will surely be accused of both.  But at this point in my life, I’m just tired of this.  Genesis 1-11 is not a 20th-21st century science book.  Period.  To use the genealogies of a 2,500 year old Hebrew document (not that we actually have a copy of Genesis that old), which was compiled from mounds of oral and written tradition, all of which grew and Ugaritic-3thrived in the atmosphere of dominant languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian—–that look more like a dropped bag of golf tees than a language—–to use the resulting ancient Hebrew written texts as a way of dating the age of the earth is breathtaking (as in gasping for air).  We can’t even date or agree upon the origins and shaping of that document, let alone the earth.

To over-read the details of one specific story about God at work—–which nobody in any ancient society could have witnessed, and which at least resembled stories found in other cultures!—–reveals the real culprit lurking in the shadows:  a particular view of inspiration that insists that (1) God himself is giving this ancient story as an “historical account,” (2) that the historical account (being from God as it is) can reflect no cultural imperfections, limitations, misapprehensions, or inaccurate understandings of the time, (3) that the historical account is given as a scientifically factual account in such terms that no one until the 20th-21st century would quite fathom (showing the layers of hidden truth of ultimate knowledge), and (4) that all who don’t accept this particular view of inspiration and assessment of how that factual account came to us are in the dark and are somehow denying the Bible.

As a believer in God, and as one who also acknowledges the inspiration of the ancient scriptures of God, I simply must confess a near total disconnect with this view of Genesis and this view of inspiration.  As well intended as it is, it is even more unfortunate.  I also confess a disappointment that the “case for creation” offered was cast under this shadow.  My book will have to stand for stating my positions on such things as the nature of ancient documents, inspiration, and canon (and what that implies).  And so I now turn to some ancient realities of how this story was understood and explained.

3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity

The funny thing is, not even all ancient readers took Genesis 1 as literal.  First, there is a competing creation story told in Genesis 2, standing right there next to the other one,  showing that the compilers of Genesis (who brought all of the disparate materials together over time) had no problem with different versions of the story.

We can also see it at the very time of Jesus in the likes of his Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, who wrote an extended commentary on the creation:

[Moses] says that in six days the world was created, not that its maker required a length of time for his work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously. . . . Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was a need of order.
(Philo, On Creation 13, my emphasis)
 

In this way, Philo emphasized not the days or times, but “the principles of order and productivity which governed the making of it.”  (F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Philo, vol. 1, pp. 2-5).  Philo gets even more direct here:

It is quite foolish to think that the whole world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.  Why?  Because every period of time is a series of days and nights, and these can only be made such by the movement of the sun as it goes over and under the earth.  . . . When Moses says “He finished his work on the sixth day,” we must be understanding him to adduce not a quantity of days, but a perfect number, namely six, since it is the first to equal the sum of its own fractions.
                    (Leg Al 1.2, my emphasis)
__

Philo then spends pages talking of numbers, and fractions, and periods of time, and how the Deity is not delimited by any of this, and he concludes with:

There is an end, then, of the notion that the universe came into being in six days.
                   (Leg Al 1.20, my emphasis)
__

Philo does a great deal more than this, but this is enough to show that despite what others may have thought, here is at least one interpreter that calls attention to, what for him, are logical (reasonable) problems with the idea of literal days.  After great length, Philo rejects the idea altogether.

And what about the 3rd century Christian thinker and writer Origen, who said: 

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
(De Principiis IV, 16, my emphasis)
 

And then comes Augustine in the 5th century—–5th century, but almost as though just leaving the debate last night and writing this—–and this long quote is really worth reading:

[The six days]  What kind of days these were  it is extremely difficult to say or perhaps impossible for us to conceive.
(City of God, 11.6)It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.
(De Genesi ad litteram 1:19–20, Chapter 19, my emphasis)
__
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.
                    (De Genesi ad litteram 2:9, my emphasis)

There is much more, and even Jewish interpreters as late as the 12th century, like Maimonides, would warn against too literal an interpretation of the Genesis creation stories.  Certainly, many understood the days in a literal sense.  But the point is not “who is right?”  It is rather that “Bible readers have never been of one mind concerning the nature of the days of creation.”  (So says Jack Lewis after a thorough review of the topic in “The Days of Creation:  an Historical survey of Interpretation”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32(4):433-455 1989.  As with all of Lewis’ writings, this is packed with detailed information.)

The point is, even long before the rise of contemporary science (or the concerns of fundamentalist Christianity), there were, in addition to literalists on “the days,” both Jews and Christians of deep and abiding faith who understood that Genesis was about a whole lot more than some robotic recording of individual events.  And where they disagreed, the interpretations often stood side-by-side, along with others, without any felt need to necessarily eliminate them.

[Note:  although none of this came out in the Nye/Ham debate, there is a tendency by at least some creationists to note and then simply dismiss Philo, et al, as minor or perhaps too influenced by speculative Greek philosophy and numerology to pay any real attention to.   This completely misses the point.  The fact is, we’re not talking about Billy Bob, Jim Bob, and Thing-a-ma-Bob, here.  These are major thought leaders of the time.  It is clear that from a very early time there have always been interpreters who have seen the days of creation as problematic and non-literal.  These cannot be dismissed.]

As a kind of bottom line, here, it is unfortunate in the Ham/Nye debate that a defense of creation as a viable option for consideration in the 21st century was limited only to a particular kind of “creationism,” quite narrowly defined and insisted upon—–forced, even.  It would have been much better to represent creation as understood broadly by the historic Judeo-Christian world-view, even while acknowledging the breadth of opinion and the nature, scope, and limits of ancient literature—–not as “evidence,” but as a faith-system.  Since Ham continually represented the secularist position as a faith position, this would have been a stellar opportunity to compare the value of the two faith systems.

4. Genesis in Context

And so now, in the early years of the 21st century, an inordinate amount of emotional and theological baggage is attached to any and every discussion of book of Genesis.  In fact, the baggage gets far more attention than Genesis.  (Which is, of course, the nature of baggage.)  Certainly, many Christians are well beyond this.  Even so, too many Christians are much more into “defending the Bible” (almost like the crusades of the middle-ages) than they are in pursuing contextually responsible understandings. It would be far better to allow the ancient texts that we have to present their own case on their own terms.

As such, Genesis was an ancient, highly culturalized statement of faith and story (Torah) about the origins of the Jewish people, their laws, and their worship calendar.  It is important to remember that neither Genesis 1, nor the whole book of Genesis, stood on its own:  it was a part of Torah (i.e., God’s story, God’s instruction) and it existed in the service of Torah.   When we break off the prologue of the story and subject it to the invasive scrutiny of mere “historical fact” or “scientific tid bit,” we refocus the intent of the story and then gut it of its power.

Genesis was written for those who had already accepted and were following the law of Moses.  Now that statement is very important, far more important than a throw-away line.  Genesis allowed its law-following, sacrificing, Sabbath-keeping readers to see “who they were” as a people, and why they were doing (faithfully and ritually) what they were doing.  Despite whatever they might have thought about “the days of creation,” they would have instinctively understood that this story was not about the nature of the “days” in their own original “right” to be a “day,” but rather about something far more profound:  namely, what it implied about how they should be spending their own days—–a looking glass into their own identity.

  1. They would have seen that creation negated polytheism (the worship of many gods) and destroyed henotheism (the worship of one of many gods);
  2. They would have seen that their law was deeply rooted in and a part of  the cosmos—–the sun, moon, and stars (i.e., the Jewish calendar).  It is right there in the text of Gen 1:14:  “and let them indicate festivals, days and years” (NJB).  The concern here is not how long the day is, the concern is the function of celestial lights for setting fire to and illuminating  (and regulating) the worship and daily life!  It is all about the worship calendar!  So then every time they participated in a feast day event, each and every time they consulted the festal calendar, they were participating in the intent of God from creation.
  3. They would have seen that the significance of the 6 days was for pointing to the 7th day:  an “aha!” moment that their “keeping the Sabbath” was a God-thing, not just an expedience or an arbitrary happenstance.  (This is exactly the interpretation given to the days of Genesis 1 by the ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13:16: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.”  The days serve a functional purpose for the people reading about them.  The problem in Luke is not the understanding of the purpose of the days, but in turning such an understanding against the healing purposes Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.)

The creation story of Genesis 1 is about wedding the people of God to the law of God.

Genesis 1-11 is about YHWH God, his people, and how they started to become a nation.  And in such a context, ancient readers would have stood in bewilderment at the mention of millions of years, of competing timelines, of young-earth/old-earth, or the evaluation of scientific data.  Introducing such subjects into this sacred context would have been like wearing halloween masks at the Lord’s Supper table.  They would be foreign, intrusive, and inappropriate.

The idea that ancient texts can only be understood in so-called “factual or literal” terms, read in the context of a 20th century theo-scientism (else they are of no abiding value), is a fabrication of 20th century theological apologetics bleeding over into our current time.  Such concerns are not borne-out in ancient readings of those texts.  It very well may satisfy the agenda of some external theological positions today, about what the scriptures must be, but it does not best account for the nature of the ancient texts as we have received them. 

My Dream

Sometimes when I am sitting quietly, I am overcome by a dream (surely an hallucination), that I am certain will never come entirely true. Namely, that more scientists who are Christian and who want to explain technical aspects of biblical texts, would come to see the great benefit and even necessity of working more closely with a wide range of biblical scholars on the nature of ancient religious texts and how to handle them.  When scientists of any stripe bring their considerable knowledge to the Bible and then merely accept a pre-critical reading of the Bible into which they can infuse their scientific beliefs, damage is done—–every time.  The key, here, is a wide range of biblical scholars as opposed to just a few scholars who happen to agree.

In my dream, this would result in more careful attention to ancient texts.  A return to pre-critical readings of the Bible (as was demonstrated in this debate by Ken Ham) as a basis for dialogue with current day science is a recipe for disaster.  The point is not that biblical scholars know everything (hardly).  The point is simply that the more care given to ancient biblical texts as religious texts, not as science text books,  the better off we all are, including all of our kids.

There will certainly always be disagreement about every subject, including this one.  Not all biblical scholars will agree in their fields any more than all scientists do in theirs.  But I would rather deal with an ancient text on its own (as it lays there looking back) with concerns about contextual function and fit, for narrative flow, of plot and character, of implied author and implied readers, of forms and redaction by ancient editors or ancient sources, and most especially of the tracing of theological uses of story and text through the ages—–I would rather deal with all of that (for at least it is focusing on what is actually going on with a text) than enduring even one more barrage of intrusive comments about how Genesis 1 is explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the reading of ancient texts. 

Like I said, it’s a dream.   

Gary D. Collier

PS:  Do I accept the validity of creation?  of the Bible?  of “inspiration”?   I certainly do, if the texts are allowed to be the texts of ancient Jewish and Christian “coming-of-age and identity” they were intended to be, texts brought together in faith, by people of faith, in search of a conversation with God.  But not at all in the sense of those who would dip them in the rich, dark chocolate of 20th century theo-scientism.  Count me, in the case of such ideas, as a committed non-believer.

PPS:  I wanted to offer a more supportive review of Ken Ham’s position, as I understood it.  Surely he is a believer and one who takes action, and for both, he is to be highly commended.  I trust he will know that nothing here is intended personally.  I have great respect for what he is attempting to do, even if I cannot be a “partner in crime” with him.

Conversational Bible Study–A Personal Journey

Behind Coffee With Paul stands the notion of conversational Bible study.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about this.  It is just different from what most people do, and it takes a bit of getting used to.  It is all about good Bible study habits.  However, it is approached in a very personal way.  So, this is not weird or some “new alien system” to be forced on Bible study. It is rather good, solid Bible study practice from a perspective of a “live conversation.”  In this post, I want to explore the origins of this concept just a bit in my own transformation.

I have been trained in (and have taught for years) numerous highly technical biblical studies research and study skills.  And I appreciate all of them.  I am not here to denigrate them on any level or to report that I encountered a bright light that showed me the folly of academic study.  Quite the contrary.  For me, the academic studies were a great source of light and they remain so. In fact, one of my goals is to help all kinds of people to be able to tap into such things, even if they themselves are not scholars and don’t want to be.

And yet, a key for me was when I started viewing even my academic study time as a live conversation with the ancient author (no matter who the author was).  At that point, as far as reading the Bible is concerned, several things started happening. 

  1. The most noticeable thing was that the distance between the Bible and me began to melt away.  Despite that many people think “academic approaches” to the Bible are the great Satan of the church, the problem is not academics.  The problem was mere perspective in the use of such sound study tools.
  2. So, as I came closer, I then began see that I was not having just one conversation (just “my God and I,” you know, of pop-Christian lore);  I was rather in a room where God wanted me to personally meet some people like myself.  They were so important to him, that he wanted me to meet each one of them, one at a time.  But this next thing bowled me over—he also wanted them to meet me!  The idea that God loved me as much as Paul, and that he wanted the two of us to meet, was an exhilarating thing for me.    
  3. And so once I met Paul and Matthew and John and the others (and all that goes with that)—all individually—and once I began to listen to each one on his own, carefully and in private, I could see why they sometimes did not get along so well.  (And they did not!  They did not always see eye to eye, and that does not come out simply in a story where Paul tattles on Peter.)  But then I began to see that the more I depreciated their differences, and the more I closed my eyes to them and stopped up my ears, the more I washed out what distinguished them from each other, the more I felt like I had to “make them all say the same thing” even when they did not, and also the more I treated them as if they did not themselves really do anything, it was only God doing it (and so he could only speak with one voice)—the more I did those things, the more I was not listening to any of them, and the more I was, in actuality, depreciating God himself, robbing him of his ability to say to them:  “well done, you are a good and faithful servant.”  Not listening to the variety of voices means I was not listening to God.  I was, instead, listening to other more contemporary voices.
  4. And then my kids came along.  Nine of them altogether—hers, mine, and ours—and I saw so very clearly that trying to treat them “all the same” was not only a dumb idea but impossible, because they were all so very different.  Actually, if I were to have tried to pass a rule that in every situation every child gets equal say, that I would have diminished every child in untold ways.  Actually what was needed were many private conversations in which one child is allowed to express himself or herself.  Only then are group conversations able to work.
  5. And so I began to see that these multiple conversations I was having with the various biblical authors could not be—must not be—regulated or forced to conform either to what another one said, and especially not to standard church or pop-Christian doctrine—not ever. The authors must always be allowed to speak for themselves, despite what (at least some of not many of) the late-great-planet-preachers were saying every Sunday. 
  6. Now of course, it is true that group conversations can be useful and beneficial.  It can be a good thing to compare what these authors might say to each other.  But never until they have been allowed to fully express themselves first and until we are prepared to respect their individual integrity.  Of course, this is hardly the path most taken.  For what is almost universally taught is to drag them all onto the witness stand and make them speak in language that is foreign to them, answering questions they did not address, and then to add up what we make them say into a new and unnatural conglomeration, and then to force that horrific new hodgepodge onto the whole, so that whatever one says, they all must mean.  This is truly the ultimate disrespect we pay to biblical authors—when we make them all say the same things in the service of what we already believe.
  7. I came to see that conversations had to be real and genuine, and that I had to be willing to allow them to say what was on their minds.  

And in doing all of this, something marvelous happens:  the pressure to make everything “fit” vanishes into thin air. For me, this was transformational, and this is why I wrote Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration:  Faith in Pursuit of Conversation——to say that Christians don’t have to close their eyes when reading the scriptures.

In the end, allowing these authors to say what they say is a show of respect, not only to them, but to God who wants you to meet them, each one individually. 

 

Stress, Horoscopes, and the Evils of Bible Reading

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young woman about the fact that she was a Gemini, and she was explaining to me what all of that meant for how she dealt with the stresses of  life day to day.  This was a not a “die-hard” astrologer, or someone that anyone would consider to be avid about such things, it was just a low-key conversation.  And it caught my attention because I noticed that the way she described using a horoscope was strangely like the way people often read the Bible.   

Now I’m not concerned, here, about the evils of horoscopes.  I’m talking, instead, about the evils of Bible reading. 

In the CWP Inner Circle Bible study program, we are today nearly half-way through our study of 123John and I have a number of things swimming around in my head about life, stress, frustration, time, Bible study, and the “who cares” of it all. 

We all know that stress is nothing new.  However, when we are in the middle of increasingly stressful jobs or family situations or eerie economic times or upsetting social and political unrest or personal burnout or failing personal health (or all of it at once), all we really want to do is find a solution for it all, a way through it or out of it.  Over time, not a whole lot else matters. 

 So, in the face of such things, what difference does focused Bible study make?  Who cares about “contextual” anything?  Who has time for extended jaunts into the black forest of overdone detail?  I mean, what difference does it make whether 1John was written to people being influenced by Gnostic-like thinking?  Who cares if some of them were buying into a philosophy that said Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, or that he didn’t really die, or that sin is nothing to be concerned about;  a teaching that focused, instead, on highly spiritual principles like “the more we know of the secret mysteries of God, the more we live in the light, and the less all the physical or religious stuff matters”?  So what?

Hmm.  You know, come to think of it, this might even appeal to us!  If we are so overwhelmed at work or by health or with family that we can’t see our a way out of the current mess (or dilemma or whatever we call it), we might be subtly, if not incredibly, open to a mysterious secret of God rushing in from out of nowhere to “get us out of this mess.”  Of course, we don’t call this “salvation” or “forgiveness” or any other overly religious sounding word—we already know we’ve “been saved,” so that’s not the issue;  what we need is real here-and-now deliverance from what is right in front of us.  We want out!

So, with that very real concern weighing over us, pushing our heads down so that we can’t see two feet in front of us, when we as harried bearers of the name of Christ do read a Bible text, we read it eagerly, selfishly, demandingly, having no time for any original intent or contextual consideration, but requiring instead an immediate pay off—“How will this help me now?”  And if we can’t see it immediately, if we don’t feel the weight lessen right now, then we just don’t have time for it.

I don’t intend to say this gently.  This kind of mindless, spineless reading of the Bible is its own proof of why contextual, responsible Bible study is needed, especially by the people who just don’t have time for it.  This in no way de-contextualizes your own pain or horrid circumstances;  it does not deny the reality of suffering or frustration or anger or even abuse by others.  In fact, it does just the opposite.  It honors and respects your pain and it says this:

If you want to deal with the realities of the things overwhelming you, if you really want a way out, you must face it contextually in your own life (i.e., directly, squarely, completely), and not just hurriedly, demandingly, and selfishly, with wishful thinking.  When you read the Bible only for fast, unconsidered answers, you are not looking for God or for what he has to say;  you are looking for a favorable horoscope—–or perhaps for a genie.

If you really want help from the Bible, you should understand this point:  just as your life has a context with many ebbs and flows and complexities, so does the Bible.  Don’t expect cheap, off the top, “magical” approaches to the Bible to offer lasting aid for your real-life situations.  Instead, engaging in sustained, careful, contextual readings of the Bible will help to arm you for all kinds of situations you might face.  

If you want your daily horoscope, read the newspaper—–and don’t expect much.  But when you pick up your Bible, come ready for a real conversation.

Happiness

Today (September 24, 2013) is the 37th anniversary of the death of my daughter, Stacie Michelle.  And in memory of her (this will not be so much about her as in memory of her), I want to write a few words, in general, about happiness.  Some of this will be personal.

At the time of this writing, CWP Classroom is in the 2nd session of a class on “The Pursuit of Happiness” led by Oscar Miles. Like many others, I think about this topic from time to time (or just maybe every day) not because I am feeling “lost”, but because in addition to dealing with my own struggles, I also deal (like you do) with many people who wrestle with all kinds of stuff: family, friends, work, relationships, money, loss, hardship, and on and on.  So, it is a topic never far from the surface.

Now it is often the case that when Christian teachers speak of this topic, it gets so overlaid with biblistic syrup and ridicule for any human feelings that it just makes me sick. It almost comes out that to be truly happy, you can’t have any human feelings or longings at all. I’m proud to say that Oscar is not taking this approach in his class. (I also emphasize that in what I say now, these are my opinions and may not represent the feelings of anyone else.)

The Bible

The biblical documents we have were not written for this reason—-to show us the route to happiness. Certainly, various ones talk about love, joy, peace, etc., but these are by-products (results, outcomes) of life in the spirit. Blessed are the people who follow Jesus, and numerous other important things, but again, the issue is not “how to attain happiness”; the topic is nearly always discipleship, service, or some other lofty goal. Now in the Hebrew scriptures, we do find the ideal of every Jewish male: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree—-and drinking water from his own well” (texts like these talk about this on one level or another 1 Ki. 4:25; 2 Ki. 18:31; Isa. 34:4; Isa. 36:16; Jer. 8:13; Joel 1:7, 12; Joel 2:22; Mic. 4:4; Hag. 2:19; Zech. 3:10), but nearly all of these are wrapped up in obedience to God and keeping the covenant. Ecclesiastes uses the topic of “purpose” to talk about fearing God. The proverbs say that true wisdom is the fear of God. And on this goes.

The Bible is not about how to attain happiness. Actually, sometimes it is a call to what appears to be the opposite: suffering, sacrifice, hardship, and more. Happiness is not the immediate goal. People like C. S. Lewis have long pointed out that maybe God is not particularly focused on human happiness:

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ( C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

What It Feels Like

Ok, if I take the above seriously, then it is just fine to ask, “What does it feel like: ‘Under your vine, under your fig tree, and drinking water from your own well?'” They all knew what that meant; and they all wanted it.

I can tell you what it doesn’t feel like: nails through your feet. Jesus knew this and he said, “I don’t want to do this!” I know this too, because as a kid I rammed two prongs of a pitchfork through my foot—-all the way through. That is not happiness. Learning obedience through what we suffer (for the Lord) is fine; it may lead to ultimate happiness, that is wonderful. We might count it all joy to suffer for the name of Christ. But we know this: suffering and happiness are two different things. Otherwise, they would not be juxtaposed the way they are.

So what does “it” feel like, happiness? (So I’m getting to the personal part.) This is what happiness feels like to me. It is not just one thing, it is many things on many levels, and at many, many different times. And they are not all of the same kind. They are also not that untypical of others.

Happiness is the memory I have of getting off the elevator and hearing (with 5 other people) a high pitched screech of a newborn child that made all of us laugh and say “pity the parents of THAT child.” And then I held little Julie Carol in my arms.

And my son, Craig. Just knowing that he was healthy and safe, when just a year before, in the same hospital, we held little Stacie knowing she would not live.

And later my grandchildren.

It is also (on a very different kind of level) when I am walking neck-deep in a Greek text of the NT or OT. Some people scoff at this. What it tells me is, they just don’t get it. They have no idea what is going on down there and so they laugh at what they don’t understand. But for me, I can get lost there, surrounded by a beauty that cannot be described, only experienced. It is many other things, too, unspoken here.

Sharing Myself

But I will go one more step, this one off the deep end. For the truth, you see, is that I have been divorced twice and married three times, and I have wonderful memories from all three marriages.  I also have very sad memories.  So there is a very deep and rubbed-raw part of me that not only wants to believe happiness is possible, but even more deeply than before to experience it. (Divorce is not just some “thing” you go through, it can rip your insides out and lay you out like raw meat.) Now although many people will say “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me,” nobody courts, loves, and marries with the idea, “Hey one day we get to learn how to hate each other and tear each other apart—-including our kids, families, and friends—-in divorce court!! It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to ya! So, let’s get married, what do you say?”

Ok, there are crazy people in the world, but most sane people do not want to go through that kind of hell. What they want is a peaceful, supportive, loving, exciting, and fulfilling relationship—-where they can bless someone else, and be blessed; fill and be filled; love and be loved. In the spirit and in the flesh, on shallow and deep levels. And all by a real, live, human being, right now and right here. We might experience that, we might not, but there is nothing at all wrong with wanting it.

“What does happiness feel like?” Well, I DO know. For me.  I have felt it in all three of my marriages, and for the past 14 years have been blessed to live in a nearly continual state of it.  This is not “Pollyanna talk” and I am not bragging about anything, since I have no room to brag about anything.  I am praising God for blessings.

And so, I’m going to share something with you that you’ll either understand, or you will think is silly or foolish. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. I’m not trying to please, impress, or convert you. I’m trying to share just a little bit of something with you. Here it is.

In 1985, a movie came out with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (her last movie, she drowned before it was completed). This PG-rated science-fiction love story, Brainstorm, is about a scientific breakthrough in which something like a small headset can be worn that will record your thoughts and feelings. In this story, these two are married, but barely, and are headed for a divorce; they’ve sold the house already, won’t talk much, are “seeing” other people already, and so on. When I watched the movie the first time, I knew what was going to happen: like always, the movie was going to show why divorce was just fine and natural, and that free love was also a cool thing.

But I was wrong about that. Because through an unexpected event with that neural recording device, the husband was jolted when he not only got to see, but to feel what she felt about him. This is what most husbands and wives don’t do: listen, see, feel. They just expect. So, having seen up close what his wife thought of him, the husband makes a tape of himself—-who he really is, what he really feels—-and he shares the tape with his wife. What happens next is one of my all-time favorite scenes from any movie.  Because it shows what can happen when two people get inside of each others’ heads and feel what the other feels.

So here is that scene. For me, this is a tiny sliver of what happiness feels like. Is it more than this? Of course it is. But there is nothing wrong with feeling even a sliver of happiness.  It begins as all seems lost, and the wife is at home alone, starting to pack things up.  When it shows her later playing the piano, she is recording her “self” for him.

I love you Stacie Michelle.  And we all still remember.

b. September 17, 1976

d. September 24, 1976

 

YHWH Loves Me This I Know

Talking a bit autobiographically, here . . . I want to comment on how Christians read OT law and how this relates to contextual understanding when reading the ancient scriptures.  

So, I’ll begin with an illustration:  how I have tended to view the innumerable laws of the United States.  (This is not a political statement or anything like a sophisticated view of American law.  It is simpy an illustration.)

Throughout my life, I have seen both major and minor parts of federal, state, and local laws applied for both good and ill, and unfortunately as instruments of force and suppression.  I have been both grateful for “the rule of law” and deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the farce of a good deal of it.   But whatever I have seen of such laws, and however annoyed I have been by the “practice of law,” and whatever else I have thought about them, I have tended to see the ideal of American law through the lens of statements like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-– etc.

And:  
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . . We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. . . . But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. . . . It is rather for us to . . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The point of this is that laws exist within larger contexts within which those laws are intended to be understood and applied. (Whether they actually are or not is another matter.)   And those contexts can affect the way the laws are evaluated, implemented, applied, and even discussed.  Naturally, this is much more involved than I have presented it.

So that is my illustration.  Now to the OT: 

As I was growing up, I was taught (not lightly) how the OT was legalism, death, and rigidity.  The OT was law, the NT was grace.   The OT was mainly do’s and don’ts.  But in the NT, Jesus “did away with the law.”  I was taught that people under the law were “checklist” people, ticking off their daily responsibilities without concern for things like faith, grace, love, justice, and the like. I was also taught that their sins were not really forgiven, but rolled forward to Christ.  We needed to read the OT because the NT said so, but it was in essence a dead book.

As I grew older, and as I started actually reading the OT for its own sake, I began to see that the people who had taught me such trivial nonsense about the OT and such absolute rubbish about it, were not evil people, but they were, nonetheless, seriously wrong, to the point of delusion.  They themselves had been taught this garbage and they were only trying to pass it along to me, dutifully and in love. Which they did.

As I continued reading for myself, I began to see how the wonder of God’s love and grace permeates the OT, and that the law its very “do and don’t” self is wrapped in that love, and grace, and care, and “tender mercy” (which I later would discover meant “covenant loyalty, love, and faithfulness”).  Certainly, the style of writing or the manner of presentation did not always sound like the warm caresses of my mom’s hand, but sometimes more like the footsteps of my angry dad—yet through it all, it became clear to me that (just as I knew that both my mom and dad loved me dearly) there was one underlying message from every part of every OT text if I actually would read them within their own contexts:

Yahweh loves me, this I know,
For the scriptures tell me so
Ten commandments, hand of God,
Desert water, budding rod,
Land of promise, stumbling stone,
Yahweh is our God alone!   (gdc)

I also began to see (more than I wanted) behind the curtain of the “wizards” of Sunday madness, that despite all of the hallowed talk to the contrary, that there are just as many do’s and don’ts in historic Christianity as there ever were in the OT.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, all we did was trade one law system for another, and we blamed it on the cross, and we called it “grace.”  

In our CWP weekly “live” online Bible study classes,  we are just coming to the end of a summer-long study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  And in that letter, Paul uses the ancient scriptures themselves to show that righteousness is not joined at the hip to the law, not dependent on it—that even the ancient scriptures show this;  that faith always was what God wanted, whether under the law or before it, and that while righteous living could describe people under the law, it was not because of that law, or any other law,  that they or anyone else could ever be righteous.  

It is easier to focus on the “do’s and don’ts” than the promises that attend them.

Gary

Book Review: Introduction to Biblical Studies (by Steve Moyise)

I was delighted to receive in the mail today the book entitled Introduction to Biblical Studies by Steve Moyise (professor of biblical studies at the University of Chichester, UK).  This is the third edition (2013), but I will simply treat it as a new book for those who have never heard of it before.  This book is written for non-specialists, an introduction for general readers that summarizes the study of the Bible among scholars.  It is a wonderful overview being only 152 pages before about 25 pages of appendices.

This is an excellent introduction to the topic for people who have never before surveyed this area.  There are nine chapters including:

  1. God in the Bible
  2. Historical approaches: the search for sources
  3. Historical approaches: the search for context
  4. Historical approaches the search for intentions
  5. Historical approaches: the text of the Bible
  6. Literary approaches: how do texts affect readers?
  7. The role of readers: gender, ethnicity and social location
  8. The role of readers: reading against the grain
  9. Theological approaches

Moyise writes so that anyone can understand.  Although he could certainly be criticized for leaving vast amounts of material unrehearsed, his intent is to give a survey of Biblical studies among scholars from the vantage point of someone in a U2 spy plane at the height of about 70,000 feet.  In that respect this is an excellent introduction.

The advantage of such a book it is in bringing perspective.  This can help someone, for example, who has been introduced to a number of Biblical scholars (say, through commentaries or the like), but do not understand how they fit into the larger picture of Biblical scholarship.  It can help such readers to make sense out of the lay of the land.  It can also help readers who have never been exposed to this discipline, and who may only have read the Bible through their church traditions or personal habits.  Such a book can help to make people aware of larger issues in reading sacred literature.

On the other hand, reading this book will not give anyone a new skill.  For example, you will read about redaction criticism, or form criticism, or historical criticism, or feminist readings of scripture, but you will not become proficient in any sense in any of these disciplines.  This could of course simply add to the confusion of some readers who may feel overwhelmed by the variety of types of reading found among Biblical scholars, and no doubt some already entrenched readers might simply dismiss such a variety in favor of the simpler approach that they have either been taught or have practiced most of their lives.  However, the purpose of the book is actually to help those people to be able to broaden their understanding and to make sense out of such a variety.  In effect, it should say to them:  “You are not the only one who reads the Bible;  there is a vast community of people doing that, some of whom have spent their lives in doing so.  It will help you if you read in conversation with such people.”  

In each of the chapters, Moyise briefly lays out the parameters of the issues involved, and he talks about those parameters from the standpoint both of conservative scholars and those not so conservative.  He makes an attempt to be as objective as possible in the presentation without showing particular favoritism.  He not only offers summaries of such approaches, but he also gives specific examples to illustrate his points.  Most of the examples he chooses are exceptionally well laid out, and they go a long way for illustrating the point he is trying to make.  He does not hide from controversial issues, nor does he try to force them.

For example on page 57 he states:

The disappointing conclusion is that apart from the early letters of Paul (49-55 CE) and perhaps the Gospels of Mark (65-68 CE) and John (c. 95 CE), there is very little consensus concerning the rest of the New Testament.  In general, scholars tend to be either “early daters” or “late daters”, though some are content to outline the main options without coming down on a particular side.

He then offers a brief summary of the dating of New Testament documents showing the variety side-by-side in a helpful chart.  If nothing else, this should say to readers that we are probably wise in guarding against being too dogmatic about such things.

Moyise deals with both Old Testament and New Testament topics, and he gives illustrations from both.  Although he is certainly interested in showing a variety of scholarship that exists, he is careful to illustrate his points by using specific texts and shows the implications of interpretation rather than simply trying to champion one scholar over another.  In other words, this is more about understanding the Bible that it is making sure you know who’s who in scholarship.

The last several chapters of the book deal specifically with readers and understanding processes.  The chapter titles show the topics, but one example will be given for interpreting the letters of Paul.  I offer this because at the time of this writing in our Coffee with Paul studies we are working through the letter of Galatians.  So this is appropriate to our discussions. 

The question is about the interpretation of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 4:5 (which talk about justification by faith), as contrasted with statements by Paul found in Romans 2:6, 7, and 13 (which connect “righteousness” with “doers of the law”).  About this Moyise states on p 116:

Generally speaking, protestant have taken Galatians 2:16/Romans 4:5 as expressing what Paul “really” means and have attempted to explain (away) passages like Romans 2.  But taking the lead from [E. P.] Sanders, scholars from the so-called “new perspective” have tried to integrate them.  The most important point is that Paul’s “faith and works” contrast is only prominent in Galatians and Romans, where the issue under discussion is whether gentile Christians are obliged to take up the Jewish law.  Paul is not accusing his ancestral faith of legalism.  He is attacking Christians who are trying to force the Gentile converts to take up the law.  Even Peter appears to be implicated in this.

This is not presented as the one true and final answer on the topic, but as how Sanders and others in the “new perspective on Paul” address the topic.  Moyise is very consistent in providing a fair summary of the parameters of such discussions.

I highly recommend this book for all readers who would like to have a better perspective of how their commentaries and Bible translations might fit into the larger discussion of how the Bible is being approached by Biblical scholars.  Even more than that, I recommend this book as a way for readers to expand their own horizons to see Biblical scholars as conversation partners in the quest that we all have for understanding the Bible.  This is not simply an academic verses a practical approach to the Bible.  This is really about how we understand the Bible and how we should go about reading the Bible and applying it to our situations today.  Realizing that Biblical scholars can be used as conversation partners can help all of us to think through issues that affect the way we read and apply the Bibles to our everyday lives. 

The bottom line is, this is a very practical book and I highly recommend it.   

A New New Testament

Did you know that the NT now begins, not with the Gospel of Matthew, but with “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  What, you say, is the “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  Well, it is described this way:

A short and heretofore almost completely unknown prayer from the earliest eras of Christianity, it acts as a surprising and tender spiritual invocation for all the ANNT collection of traditional and unfamiliar documents. Its only copy exists and was discovered in the Nag Hammadi collection.

What Is This New New Testament?

ANNTBeginning March 2013, a new book on the NT canon has hit the shelves.  Only this is not about the NT canon, this is presented as a new NT canon. 

The book is called A New New Testament and is put together by Dr. Hal Tausig and 18 other teachers and religious leaders (both men and women) from the US.  They have  designated themselves as “The Council for A New New Testament.”  You can see a very nicely done video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SsDXHOzDHVI

So the NT now begins with a 4th A.D. century document from Nag Hammadi which few Christians ever did see, and no Christians have seen for about 1600 years or so.  At least, that is the idea here.

Now, for those who may not know or remember, Nag Hammadi is a spot on the Nile River in Africa where a small number of books (13 codices with 50 documents or texts) were found in 1945 dating from about the 4th century (A.D.)  They are a marvelous find of Christian documents mostly identified as Gnostic in philosophical orientation.  Christian Gnosticism was essentially run out of existence by the 4th century (except in underground movements), and had been the subject of ridicule since at least the 2nd century.  Naturally, as one might expect, there is a lot of speculation and argument over the dating of some of the documents included from the Nag Hammadi group.  For example, some like to date the Gospel of Thomas from as early as A.D. 35 or so!  Of course, this is hotly disputed.

What Does the New Canon Look Like?

Now, back to this New New Testament which is being presented as a new NT canon.  This book includes all of the current NT documents and the following additional books, although not in this order:

  1. The Gospel of Thomas
  2. The Gospel of Mary
  3. The Gospel of Truth
  4. The Odes of Solomon I
  5. The Odes of Solomon II
  6. The Odes of Solomon III
  7. The Odes of Solomon IV
  8. The Prayer of Thanksgiving.
  9. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
  10. The Acts of Paul and Thecla
  11. The Letter of Peter to Philip
  12. The Secret Revelation of John

Several of these are from the Nag Hammadi library mentioned above.  But these documents are not just “tacked on,” as if you can read these too, if you like—these are interspersed with the other NT documents.  So, it is unmistakable that this book is intended to be a replacement for the current NT canon.  Or, at the very least, it is attempting to grab people by the shoulders and shake the time out of them (while slapping them in the face) saying something like:  “The NT is not what you think it is!”  Or “Look what has been hidden from us!”

For example, the NT now looks like this:

First Group

  1. Prayer of Thanksgiving
  2. Gospel of Thomas
  3. Gospel of Matthew
  4. Gospel of Mark
  5. Gospel of Luke
  6. Acts of Apostles

Next Group

  1. The First book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. The Thunder: Perfect Mind
  3. Gospel of John
  4. Gospel of Mary
  5. Gospel of Truth

Paul’s letters are divided by those considered  (Group 3) “authentic” letters (Romans, 1-2Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1Thessalonians, Philemon), and (Group 4) those considered “in the tradition of Paul” (all the rest).  Group 3 is headed by “The Prayer of the Apostle Paul;”  Group 4 looks like this:

  1. The Second Book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. Ephesians
  3. Acts of Paul and Thecla
  4. Colossians
  5. etc.

This continues with other documents until following the the book of Revelation is the new last book in the New New Testament, which is now “The Secret Revelation of John”  (another book from Nag Hammadi).  

You get the idea.  To see the whole thing, go to Amazon.com   and click on “Look Inside” at the table of contents. 

At the end of the book, a little less than a hundred pages is given to the background of this book, providing some of the backstory and assessments of the documents added. 

Assessment and Response

One could spend hundreds of pages responding, evaluating the documents chosen, looking at the members of “The Council,” and so forth.  But that is not what I will do.

First, for the record, I want to state that I certainly don’t accept this as a NT canon that I feel any obligation to.  (You might not care, but some people will ask me, so I’m stating it up front.)  It is not that I feel they have committed any sin in offering such a thing—–even though this is not quite the process of canonization from the start.  Originally, canon grew out of use, acceptance as authority, and later was recognized as in use by churches all over the place.  “Canon” was more the end result of usage, rather than a list pushed on the church by any council or collection of councils.   This attempt seems rather the latter, and more likely an attempt to pry (by force) the topic open on a popular level.

Second, it certainly does not contain anything new, even though that is the way it is being presented.  It is only new to anyone who is not aware of the discoveries and debates in biblical scholarship since 1945 or so. And in that respect, it could be debated for ever just what books were not included, as well as what were included.  Certainly it is “new” considering the whole ongoing history of canon discussion, but it is still a bit disingenuous to refer to these books as “new.”

Third, this is not really a “canon” of anyone at this point, except perhaps for the people who put it together, and for the many who will jump on board for the newness of it.  It will most likely get a lot of attention, if for no other reason than it is a direct challenge to the current NT canon—–but more, to the widespread notions (and on a popular level, unexamined notions) about canon.  Again, this is an attempt to force open the question.

However, having said all of that my main response is rather this way:  Instead of just rejecting and reacting against such a move (which most evangelical and conservative Christians surely will), Christians ought to—instead—take this as one more of an unending number of reasons why Christians of all stripes need to become conversant with the full range of discussion on what scripture is, what canon is, and what inspiration means.  It is not acceptable for Christians to merely bury their heads in the sand and yelp against such new books.  Nor is it acceptable for church leaders to hide such things from their members, as though they are innocent little children who have no ability to think.  “Protecting” our people from such things and not helping them to think through such issues, or even just showing them only one side of the argument, is not only cowardly, it is honestly just a dumb idea! 

Walking people through such current concerns and discussions does not mean dusting off old notes from 30 or 40 years ago and “reminding oneself” of how we know what should be in the NT and what should not be.  The landscape has changed so much from then to now that Christian readers need to start over and get up to speed on what is being said and why. 

The issues are clear:  Christians need to be actively discussing the nature of scripture, canon, and inspiration.  Not just what the so-called “rules” are for “which books should be included and which should be left out, but beyond that to the very nature of  what we call the most important book in the history of the world.  This is not just about what you yourself accept privately;  this is about what we as believers are presenting to the world! And if we continue allowing ourselves and our memberships to look like buffoons on this and related topics, we won’t have anything to present to anybody.  And we shouldn’t!

Gary D. Collier
author of Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration   (May 2012)

 

Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

The CWP Inner Circle is a very exciting group of Bible students from around the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world, that loves serious Bible study. It is an “open” group, meaning that it is possible in this group to have open conversation about a broad range of ideas without fear of getting ostracized for floating the idea.  However, rather than being an “anything goes” group, it is given to the up-close evaluation of ideas against the context of a serious study of the scriptures.

I taught biblical languages and literature in University and Seminary settings for years (from Fuller Seminary in California, to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and to Martin University in Indianapolis), and to be quite honest, this online group (The Inner Circle) of housewives, factory workers, professionals, retired people, lawyers, doctors, and preachers is as capable and engaging as any seminary class I’ve ever had, and at least as energetic, if not more.  It is a marvelous experience, surpassing any Bible class experience I’ve ever found in any church, since most people in a church don’t care about the Bible much anyway. 

For the past several months we have been looking at 1Thessalonians in detail:  English text and Greek text (for those who want that).  And during the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the different ways that many people understand the topics of the Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

Now, if you’ve been around any time at all, you know that Christians are all over the map on these topics.  Not only do they vary widely, they come across as hating each other over these topics.  It is shameful, really how much bickering and controversy exists over such things.  Our group–made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and “persuasions” have taken a very different tack.  We decided to see if we could actually be Christians in the process of the pursuit of such ideas.

The diversity of thought of this group has been superseded only by the the charity of mind. And what I share now in the rest of this article is not only my opinion, it is my evangelistic urging on this topic. 

A Blur of “Right Ways”

There are some things we learn from our ancient and precious scriptures (which have been handed down to us) that are fairly straightforward.  E.g., God is love.  We exist in, with, and by love.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated.  And more.

There are other things not quite so straightforward.  Historically, many Christians of many backgrounds want to find all the right answers.  Once found, since they are “right”, we then want to insist on them for all. 

On the study of “The Apocalypse of John” (the book of Revelation), 2000 years of Christian history has given us 4 or 5 major competing ways of approaching the book which end in vastly different results.  Such as . . .

  1. Literal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Past
  4. Futuristic
  5. Bla bla bla

And each of these has been split into multiple and competing groups (and they all argue with each other interminably).

Christians then see this and feel like they need to figure out “which one is right?”  As you know, I’m all for deep and detailed study.  The reason is, you get blessed along the way with many things you did not otherwise expect.  Growth is a marvelous thing!  I urge detailed study!

But on this topic, you don’t have to study this for years to figure out that just maybe there is no “one right” solution to “what exactly did/does/will Revelation mean.”   Once you see that all of these very bright people who love the Lord cannot even agree whether the stuff has already happened or not, or when, or how  . . . I just start laughing about it.  I think we’ve had enough history, now, to show us that we are not going to figure all of this out.  What makes us think that we are going to come up with the “one right answer” when nobody has been able to do that for thousands of years (or, more accurately, when so many competing and contradictory groups already have the one right answer, and they all so markedly disagree with each other)?

A Sharper Focus

I think all of the debate is useful and interesting and worth our time.   I also think that, kept in perspective, it can be useful to us.  But in the end, on the topic of the coming of Jesus, the Day of the Lord, the “end of time”, the real meaning of Revelation, and other such things, we should be asking an additional question that we sometimes just entirely overlook. 

  1. We are trained to ask:  “What is the correct answer here?  What did it really mean? Am I believing correctly?”  That can be Ok.  Absolutely, let’s ask these questions.
  2. But maybe we should ask these more often:  “How did this teaching function in the life of early Christians and churches?  Why was it taught, and what outcome was wanted?” 

I think this is especially helpful on the topic we are talking about for this reason:  Consider any approach to Revelation (etc) above—–Past, Present, Future:  all of them!—–and here is the end result: 

We win! So, live up to it!    

In every case in our ancient scriptures, when these things are discussed, they are always discussed as related to the context needed—to help people live and grow.  They are never discussed as individual pieces of a big puzzle, nor are they intended to be “partial revelations” of a larger whole.  They are discussions of the topic within contexts to encourage people to live lives for God.  And when you strip away the context and cram the various naked things into a single puzzle, they don’t exactly fit and they look a lot different.  Why can’t we be satisfied with leaving them where we found them:  in context!  Why do we need a so-called “big picture”? 

A Christmas tree might look beautiful in my home, but it looks a whole lot different (and much more inviting) on the mountainside next to the blue lake from which I cut it down.

I urge all to adopt an attitude of openness and diligence to the ideas of others–especially on this extremely broad-ranged topic.  But we do not need to get tripped up into thinking that these ideas, in the end, are the point of the texts we have.  Let me state it this way:  if you have believed all your life that the “end of time” means the stars literally must fall from the sky, and you die before that happens, what difference will it make?  And if you believe that the Parousia already happened in 70 AD, and he ends up coming tomorrow—are you going to argue about it?  The main question for every position that anyone is taking should be “what difference is this making for how I live now?” 

These are exciting topics—(I sincerely mean that).  I have my opinions about how to best approach all of the texts on this topic.  But the really exciting part is that we win.  And question I have to answer next is:  Since that is true, how do I live now?

Gary D. Collier
Coffee with Paul Classroom
http://www.coffeewithpaul.com