Supportive Engagement

“Your indiscretions are worse than mine ANY DAY!”
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When Christians Simply Yell

On behalf of the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation (IABC)
The parent of Coffee With Paul  (CWP):

A chief goal of our gatherings (live or online) is to promote intelligent Christian conversation about our ancient sacred writings. We are pursuing the opportunity of an incredible, lively, open, generous, electrifying, and thoughtful atmosphere of the discussion of biblical texts, concepts, and ideas.

Unfortunately, that is a rare thing among Christians. Far too often, “Christians” won’t sit down at the same table with each other–they just yell across it at each other. Instead of setting an example for the world, they follow the pattern of political radio talk show hosts or of presidential debates—–which in recent times are national scandals, disgraceful, and a sign of baby-rattling self-centeredness on the part of all involved. So Christians end up either fighting or refusing to talk about anything important (thus creating a culture of mindlessness that  is unworthy of the name Christian).

The inability or unwillingness of Christians (often even within their own churches!) to be able to talk to each other and to challenge each other with an open spirit of grace is both longstanding and reprehensible.

What follows are the guidelines (not rules) we have in place for ourselves.  Not because we ourselves feel in any way superior to anyone else;  but only because we feel this is a far superior way.  We commend these kinds of guidelines for all kinds of Christian groups around the world.

What is “Supportive Engagement”?

“Conversation” for us implies a “give and take” among people of good conscience in an atmosphere that we call “supportive engagement.

Supportive Engagementhas two main elements which work together: (1) challenge, and (2) support.

  1. CHALLENGE: Many faith environments avoid “thinking” together because thinking promotes dissension!  However, in our groups we intentionally pursue a thinking environment in which we study together and engage each other for the sake of “iron sharpening iron.” In our group, you are free to advocate any belief or position you like; but you had better be ready to get challenged by someone. Challenge is not only acceptable, it is welcomed. Challenge does not imply being “argumentative” or “obnoxious.” Rather, “challenge” means the intelligent exploration of ideas with one another, especially when we disagree over one or more issues.
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    1. This implies that the challenger is mature enough so as to always try to show appropriate respect to the person he or she is challenging. It is never permissible for a challenger to attack, demean, or impugn the person whom the challenger is approaching. (This is not a presidential debate, and the disgraceful tactics used by childish candidates will not be tolerated here!) Any such attack will be stopped promptly in its tracks, and anyone who will not cooperate may be ushered out of the group altogether. Personal disputes do happen, and those disputes will need to be handled personally off the community discussion board–like two grown-up Christian people. This is a place for invigorating discussion. Mud slinging will not happen here. Following are some examples:
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      1. Appropriate: “I find your argument lacking coherence, especially at two points: (1) . . .”
      2. Inappropriate: “You are obviously incapable of thinking through a problem with any coherence . . .”
      3. Inappropriate: “You’re an idiot!” (Anything close to this will certainly get you called on the carpet, and it will possibly get you thrown out of the group.)
      4. Inappropriate: “You are trying to say . . .” or “You feel x . . . ” or “You think X . . .”  (Don’t tell people what they they think, feel, or are trying to do. Speak your own feelings and let others do that for themselves. This is good manners and it shows respect.”)
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    2. This also implies that the one being challenged is mature enough to know the difference between a personal attack and an appropriate challenge to a position or approach. Misunderstandings can occur, of course, even among mature participants, and sometimes confusion sets in. But being able to receive a challenge with grace is part of what we are about. As long as we keep in mind that we are challenging “issues” and not “people,” we will be able to resolve any misunderstandings and continue.
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    3. This also implies the acceptance of three basic principles of communication:
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      1. The sender always must take responsibility for what he or she says/writes. He or she must work to write/speak in such a way that deals with issues rather than personalities, always in an attempt to respect and NOT to offend another person. It is always appropriate if a sender chooses to reword a statement based on a perceived offense.
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      2. The receiver must take responsibility for how he or she decides to read/hear a statement. He or she must work to not “over-read” any received statement. The fact is, absolutely anything can be misunderstood and inadvertently twisted into something it was not intended to say (even this statement). There is clearly a point at which a sender is not responsible for how a reader may twist or distort a received message.E.g.: The statement: “Offensive comments are not allowed” can be interpreted: “You are accusing me of writing offensive comments!” But it does not even come close to saying that. To assume such a thing may be an aggressive and unwarranted reading on the reader’s part.
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      3. In all cases, it is legitimate for a receiver to ask a sender what is implied by a statement. In this environment, once the sender clarifies the intent, that is the end of the matter. Any response by anyone questioning the sincerity or honesty of a discussion partner will be regarded as a personal attack on that party (for calling that person a liar). This has no place in mature Christian discussion.
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  2. SUPPORT: No matter whether the sender and receiver end up agreeing, in this environment, they make a commitment to end up supporting each other for the sake of community harmony—–even if they disagree in good conscience. (And it is perfectly legitimate for them to state it as such.)
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    1. Appropriate: “Jo and I disagree with one another, yet I respect and laud her attempts to search the scriptures and to explain her position.”
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    2. At all times we resolve to interact with each other openly and honestly in a spirit always of Christian love. We offer support of each other despite particular disagreements over one matter or another.
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    3. We grant to each other that we are all doing the best we can do to understand the scriptures and be honest with ourselves. We grant that it is possible for intelligent people of good conscience to diligently study the Bible and then honestly arrive at different conclusions. We accept that it is NOT a requirement that everybody has to agree with each other in order to support each other.
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WHAT “SUPPORTIVE ENGAGEMENT” IS NOT:__

  1. It is not “agreeing to disagree.” The latter is where all tend to believe whatever we want without any need to discuss or support it.
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  2. It is not any kind of formal debate. (We are not a debating society!)
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  3. It is not a Sunday school class, a counseling session, or a feel-good session where participants tiptoe around each other so that no one will “feel any challenge.” This is honest discussion where we do not wear our feelings on our sleeves and where we support the other in challenging us. There is no promise, here, that you won’t get your feelings hurt! It depends on where you wear your feelings and what you decide to do about it that is important.
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SUMMARY: We advocate an incredible discussion environment! “Supportive Engagement” is just that: Engagement! It refers to an active and willing challenge to one another to sharpen each other. Such an approach is only possible among mature Christian adults who can and do distinguish between (1) intelligent, pointed, and direct challenge (as an actual goal), as opposed to (2) personal attacks, dismissals, or name calling (as is found in presidential debates, a thing of disgrace to everyone and which brings shame to a nation). Christians are to walk by a different set of principles.

Again, these are not rules, but guiding ideas that flow from a principle desire for something better than what the popular political arena offers. What we follow here is a kind of mindset that asks:  “What can we do to engender valuable conversation? How can we help create that and pursue that?”

I do not suggest that this is a perfect outline;  I do suggest that this kind of approach can work. As always, it depends on the people involved.

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

 

A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

Theological Tartar

This is more of a personal posting.  This morning I received an email from someone I’ve never met in reply to my recent post on aliens.  However, this letter then turns to a question of a more personal search for truth.  So, I want to share this letter verbatim without the name of the person who wrote it.  If he or she wishes to “own” the letter, that is up to that person.  The idea of “theological tartar” to describe traditional religious baggage will show up at the very end of my reply.

The Letter

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Monday, August 4, 2014 10:01 AM
To: garydcollier@coffeewithpaul.com
Subject: RE: Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

Good morning Gary,

Thanks so much for sharing this article. I have not seen the complete email from Mr. Ham. But I would venture to say that it possibly falls into the same category as many other so called Christian viewpoints (i.e. does more harm than good). It is very frustrating when someone tries to speak for all “Bible believing Christians”. Unfortunately it tends only to give more ammo against what I believe is the very logical argument for the truth of the Bible and the case for God & Jesus specifically. Once again, I appreciate you passing your thoughts along.

On a separate subject… I am curious where your thinking falls, with respect to many of the opinions of men such as Edward Fudge and Al Maxey? The more I read of their published writings (emails, etc..), the more I tend to lean towards their understanding and opinions on several subjects just as Hell, Grace, Diversity of the believers, etc…Unfortunately, the Independent Christian church where we attend, does not seem to have the same opinions on some of these subjects (Hell specifically). I was raised conservative church of Christ, and my spouse was raised southern Baptist. So we come from a very “works based”, law keeping, background. But once I started reading many of the writings of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Cecil Hook, I started questioning my stance on many topics.

All that said… I guess my main questions are… Do you have an opinion on these men and their writings? And, where do you worship (collectively) at on a regular basis?

Thanks so much for your time and help.

My reply:

Hi, I appreciate your email very much.

My background is also fairly conservative Church of Christ. My first college was Freed Hardeman, which was much more conservative then (late 60’s) than now. I’m actually very grateful for my conservative grounding even though my attitude, demeanor, and focus have changed quite a bit over the years. I am currently attending a local small community church (I live in a small town 50 miles west of Indianapolis), and the only Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are either hard line conservative and don’t want me there or too far for me to drive to economically. The funny thing is, the preacher of the church I attend is a young earther (!), but insists that I teach the Sunday school class and has me preach whenever he is away, and he never tries to put stipulations on anything I would say. I think he appreciates my focus on the scriptures, and certainly he is a good friend. Like any church this one has many good people of various backgrounds and leanings.

I consider Edward Fudge a personal friend, and also appreciate the work of such men as those you mention. I would not say I am a student of any of them (I’m simply not an avid reader of any of them, not that I’m opposed to them), but that is not due to any dissatisfaction so much as my attentions are simply in other places. I agree with Edward that traditional views of hell (prominent everywhere in evangelical circles) is overdone and problematic. I have actually never stated my own views on this topic anywhere, and will not do so here. But I will say that they (my views) are friendly to the efforts of Edward and others, even if they differ on some points as well.

What I love to this day about my upbringing is the emphasis I received on the love and respect for biblical text and about taking it above and beyond any attitude or teaching or tradition I have available to me. If I have a central “heartbeat,” this is it: the love and respect for the ancient scriptures above other forms of Christian focus. (Certainly, not in any Pharisaical sense.)  That is why in every single one of our Coffee With Paul activities (online or “live” or in writing) we emphasize responsible, contextual, and conversational readings of the scriptures. Now this sounds nice and friendly, but the truth is, when we actually do this, that kind of reading of the scriptures itself exposes all of the hardened tartar on our theological teeth.

Again, I thank you for your letter, and I hope I have addressed your questions.

Many blessings,

Gary

______________________

Gary D. Collier
CWP Classroom
http://CoffeeWithPaul.com

Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

“Thus Bible-believing Christians don’t (or can’t) accept the belief there are aliens on other planets.”

Ken Ham, Creation Museum (email I received today)

I don’t know Ken Ham personally and would not make personal comments in any case.  My response, here, is purely about the position taken and the way it was presented.  And I couldn’t decide whether to speak softly, using the back door, or more directly.  So here goes.

The quote above, including the entire letter that was sent, is just embarrassing nonsense.  (I kinda decided against the back door).  What he believes about aliens, or what you believe, is a personal issue.  But look at the law that just got passed for all “Bible-believing Christians.”

. . . Christians don’t (or can’t) accept . . .

It is ludicrous and has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible. Actually, all of the existing “Christian” Bibles (Protestant, Catholic, and more)  are collections of ancient documents which speak to an ancient faith:  a faith that is still valid and viable. It contains wisdom and direction and story and many other things.  But it is not a science book and Bible-believing Christians are free to think for themselves despite such narrow-minded pontifications.  Even on the off chance he meant that “some Christians feel compelled/are not personally able to accept,” it is horribly stated.

Believe in aliens, don’t believe.  Who cares!  But leave the Bible out of this conversation.  The Bible does not address this issue on any level.  This approach has skeptics howling.  And I don’t blame them.  It is nothing but farcical ignorance.

It sounds exactly like the end of the 19th century when preachers and some Greek teachers were claiming that NT Greek was “Holy Spirit” Greek, a special language made by God for writing the NT.  Uhh . . .  oh yes, well . . . then somebody found the Greek papyri proving conclusively that NT Greek was written in Koine (common) Greek, a form of Hellenistic Greek.  Imagine that.  Ancient Christian documents written in common, everyday language.

Truth is, I really like the following commercial.  It is not only a class act, it is far more truthful and appealing than anything (so far) that I’ve seen from the would-be spokesman for all of Christianity:

There is not one thing about this video that requires atheism (which is not mentioned until the final 2 seconds).  One could debate whether “knowledge” and “the power of  logic” are the pristine power for the salvation of the world that is rather naively presented.  Somehow, I think maybe love, and respect, and honor, and ethics, and morality, and guarded ambition, and intelligent conversation somehow belong in this mix:  but it is a 1 minute video and does a great job of stating itself.

As for me, I go one God further than either atheism or Hamite Christianity (which are curiously mirror images of each other).   I don’t rely on magic or mysticism or think that once we all get logical that our problems will all melt away.  And I sure don’t think that bending the Bible around to my beliefs is any more helpful than bending science, or logic, or knowledge around.   I don’t hide behind a made-up view of the Bible to protect me, and I absolutely don’t worry that some (Christians or Atheists) doubt me:  I just let ’em.  I think for myself while respecting the visions and strivings of many, many others in many, many disciplines.

All of this said, when the above video commercial is contrasted with the Ken Ham approach (which is then labeled “Bible-believing Christianity”), I’ll choose the video in a cold minute.

I’m a thinker, set free by Jesus Christ;  never was nor will be a descendant of Ham.

Gary D. Collier

[I repeat:  this is not a personal comment.  This is, however, a clear, focused, and intended rejection of the position that was offered.]

PROBE—–Conversation with the Bible

There are many ways or “systems” to help you read the Bible.  All can be useful if you actually use them.  Too often, Bible readers just skim the top and do what they’ve always done.

If you want to read through the Bible in a year or six months or three weeks, you can find schedules to do that. Far too often these have you jumping hopscotch style all over the place.  Frankly, this is madness.  In the long run, it destroys any contextual awareness of the documents being read.   There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in a year;  but if that’s what you want to do, respect the documents as you read:  read them contextually, beginning to end, without jumping around.

A More Excellent Way

To be a good Bible reader, you don’t have to read the whole Bible every year. In fact, most of the time, it is better to slow down and focus on particular documents for that year—–to read deeply, carefully, and closely.

PROBE is an excellent way to do this.  It takes the best of the Bible reading concerns and puts them into an easy to remember, step-by-step (5 steps) approach so that you don’t forget anything.  It simply encourages good reading habits.  PROBE is an acronym (see below).

I’ll use an example to illustrate.  Jude is an excellent letter to practice PROBE.  Each day you read with a different agenda in mind:

Step 1: Monday:  Pre-read and Preview the text, surveying it.

You skim through it, trying to pick up some highlights.  You take a few notes.  And you pray about it all, of course (as with every reading).

Step 2: Tuesday:  Read and Recap the text in your own words:  just you and this text.

a. You read the whole text through, beginning to end.  As much as possible, in one sitting.  (For Jude, this is easy.)  This is where you read the text multiple times and in multiple translations.  At this point, you ALWAYS stay within this one document, not allowing your reading of it to be contaminated by other texts or ideas.

b. When you finish reading, you recap.  By recap I mean you actually try to provide a “summary” in your own words of what this text says.

Step 3: Wednesday:  Observe the text:  Turn your reading into a conversation with the author.

a. Taking notes, Asking questions, Challenging the Author, Going back and re-reading the text to find answers.

b. You might do word studies here, using resources like Young’s Analytical Concordance, or better, Bible Software (like BibleWorks, Logos, or Lumina) to help you examine the text. (Just stay away from commentaries.  That’s next step.)

c. Also, how is this text related to other texts outside of this one?  If it quotes other texts, read those too.  Not just single verses, but whole contexts.

Step 4:  Thursday:  Brainstorm:  Now, and only now, you’re ready to talk to others.

This is where you invite others to the table: Bible commentators, encyclopedias, and dictionaries;  or friends, or a preacher or teacher.  Just don’t start here! (That is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, starting here.)   Now that you’ve done your own reading work, you can converse with others.   Only now, you invite them as conversation partners.

Step 5:  Friday:  Engage:  Here you focus on “what difference all of this makes for my life!”

What can I do today that will put into practice what I have learned from this document.

This might take hours, days, or weeks to do this.  And Jude is a very good document to practice this with because it is so short.  Even so, this is appropriate for every document (book, letter, Psalm, etc.) of the Bible.

Not New

This PROBE idea is not a new thing:  it is actually the best of Bible reading practices brought into one place—an easy, step-by-step approach that helps you cover all the bases in the most helpful order.  It is reading with a goal in mind:  to put into practice what you read in conversation.

Here is again. . .PROBE_2014_07-30

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

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.

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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