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

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

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.

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.

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.   

“I Seem to Be Struggling with Bible Study”

Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration book that deserves more than a “comment” status.  It is from Lynette—someone I’ve never met.  I have come to know her, though, through this Bible study program.  She has an eagerness that is contagious, and an openness and transparency that is commendable. I’m sharing this because I think some others might identify with her.

Here’s what she wrote (the bold sections were made bold by me):

Let me just say for someone that was raised in the church, I still feel very “new” to all of this. I love the church that I’ve found, my children love it and the pastor and his family are amazing! I however still seem to be struggling with bible study and I have absolutely no idea why. I did read the book, and I got really confused, and scared-no idea why. I gave it to my pastor, he is almost done with it and we will be getting together to discuss and I’m very much looking forward to it. I honestly wouldn’t even stress about those that are being so negative, they are that way only because they don’t know and they are lacking in faith, I don’t know, I don’t understand; however, I have faith and something tells me that what you are saying makes sense! So keep going! I will figure it out I promise, some days I’m just slow out of the gates! As I read the book, at times I did seem to feel like I was understanding, and then the next day I was lost (could be the fibro fog thing honestly) I enjoyed every minute of it, the amount of passion you put into your work does not go unnoticed! I look forward to learning more! I know that I don’t know that Bible as well as I would like, and I crave the knowledge it has to offer and look forward to learning and sharing everything that I can.

I want to thank L. for being so up-front and honest!  Struggling is not a sin;   it is rather a sign of a spirit that wants to know and grow.  It does not mean she will end up agreeing with me.  It means she is thinking.  

L’s admission of being confused and scared will be enough for some to say,”See, look what you are doing to people of faith!”  (I’ve already heard it.)  My reply is simple: Educating people of faith is not something I’m ashamed of.  I would think that being people of faith means that we are also people concerned about truth. And being concerned about truth, we are not afraid to be challenged, or to think seriously about the book we call the most important book in the history of the world.

I am right now having another conversation with a friend about this book:  he is attempting to help me see weaknesses in my argument.   I am grateful for his energy.  I will not quote him directly, but he says (in effect) that the inerrancy of the original autographs is obviously a construct that we have come up with, not specifically stated in the Bible;  but that it is a reasonable construct (he affirms).

When I heard this, I was genuinely nonplussed.  I said in response:

This is almost funny.  Here I am trying to say, ‘Let’s be biblical in our views of the Bible,’  and you are saying that the Bible is not sufficient for that!  Who has the higher view of the Bible?

We are not content with what the Bible does and does not specifically claim.  It is not enough for us.  We have to “fill in the blanks.” We have to sugar-coat it and theologize about it and make up things about it that it does not claim for itself.  Then we teach it to all of our people.  We even require it!  And then we get mad when somebody blows the whistle on us for doing it.

Let us put it this way:  If faith is based on fantasy, or has to be propped up by it, then how is this not another Santa Claus story?

Challenging current theories about the Bible is not the same as attacking the Bible.  Asking people to think about what they believe is not an act of faithlessness.  It is rather not only an act of faith, but an obligation of faith.

I want to thank Lynette for being brave enough to state the truth.  And it is to her, and and any who may feel like her, that I close this piece with what I consider to be a statement of resounding faith and love for the ancient scriptures.  It actually is found in the CWP statement of faith:  it was written before the book was written, and it remains unchanged to this day.  Here is but a piece of it:

This is a faith-based academic effort asserting that the canon of the ancient scriptures is an act of faith in search of a conversation with God. As such, it deserves our very best efforts as we engage both heart (the discipline of faith) and mind (the discipline of academic rigor) in pursuit of a conversation with God.  Not only should the canon be offered words of great respect (as it often is), but it should be pursued with responsibility and integrity (which it often is not). It is not enough that Christians claim a “high view of the scriptures” or “academic excellence,” they must act upon such things or the claims mean nothing. We approach the ancient scriptures energetically.  They are not, however, the object of our worship, but witnesses to the Lord who is. 

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

Just What Am I Trying to Prove?

If you really want to know the deep dark secret is of “what I’m trying to prove,” I’m gonna tell you.  In this post.  So get your cameras ready.

There is no question about it:  most people who sign up for my “40 Things” Bible class start wondering where in the world I’m going after about lesson 3.  I raise the question of “What is a canon?”  and I eventually get to the question, “Just whose idea is canon?”  People who start out excited, sometimes get scared, or angry, or concerned–and they quit. And they don’t ever get to the really good stuff–which is after lesson 10.  But 1-10 is foundational and must be covered—–up front.  I hide nothing from you.

Nobody wants to be misled.  I don’t, and I know you don’t.  That is why learning to search, to question, to evaluate, and to face tough topics is such an important thing for Christians to do. And that is why I put the controversial stuff right up front.  If you’re willing to think with me, we might just all learn something together.

But when somebody joins this group and writes to me demanding to know the gritty details of just what I’m up to, what church I go to, what I really believe:  I won’t tell them anything. I’ve already been more transparent on my websites about such things than anybody reading the websites.  Some people want to know ahead of time whether I pass inspection.  So let’s answer that:  if you have to ask, then I likely don’t.  So, you can either leave—or you could just listen for a while and evaluate what is being said.

That’s something that many Christians are not very good at:  evaluating ideas on the basis of the worth of the ideas.

I have been asked what new church I’m trying to start?  What crazy cult do I hail from or am I instigating?  One person said “I thought you were a crazy atheist just trying to get attention.”  Well, I hate to disappoint, but I don’t make or drink  Kool Aid—in fact, I don’t even drink coffee!  (which is actually funny).  I have no interest whatsoever in starting a new church.  That would be like having another kid to raise–and after nine of those I’m quite happy not to do that any more.  (I love all my kids!  And I don’t want any more.)

So what is the secret that I’m hiding?  What am I not telling you?

The truth is–and I hope you’re ready for this–the honest truth is . . . I just want to help people study the Bible better.  I’m not so much after what you believe, that is between you and God.  I’m more concerned to challenge you about how you get there (present tense).  Are you going to a church?  Good.  Keep going!  I’m not in competition with any church, any school, any website, or any group that meets anywhere.  I simply want to help people around the world study the Bible better!   That’s my dirty little secret!  (Isn’t that scary?)  As a matter of fact, I’m not only not a threat to anyone, I’m trying to be a “conversation partner” to any serious searcher.

And by the way, if you read my book (Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration) I am NOT attacking the Bible!  If that is what you think, you are not really reading it!  I definitely do challenge what a lot of people think about the Bible, but that is a far cry from attacking the Bible!  As a matter of fact, I am (and my book is) a strong advocate of the inspiration of the ancient scriptures.  Although I refuse to blame God for any particular Christian canon (and I believe that you should refuse to do that too), I strongly advocate that God can work through any of those Christian canons to the glory of Jesus as Lord.  And that (Jesus as KURIOS:  LORD) is the central issue.

Ok, now you know my secret.  I believe that Jesus is LORD.  It once was a mystery, hidden.  But now you know.

Gary

Reading Responsibly

Since I talk a lot about being “responsible readers” of the scriptures, someone recently asked this:

What is it to be a responsible reader of anything? And why is that so important when reading the Bible?

Here is my reply: To be a responsible reader of anything is to read “with respect” (i.e., giving respect to) what I’m reading and not to abuse it. It is possible to abuse anything we read. For example:

  1. When I read my mother’s letters, I don’t read them as I would a newspaper article or a debt collector, even if she is reporting to me about the death of a neighbor or asking me to pay her back the money I borrowed from her. She is my mother, and that weighs heavily on me as I read. But I don’t use her 2 paragraphs of concern for my sister to drive a wedge between my mother and my sister. That would be to use the letter for a purpose it was not intended. That would be irresponsible.
  2. If I am reading poetry, I read it in light of the conventions of poetry, depending on what kind of poetry: English literature? Hebrew Wisdom? But I don’t read poetry as if it were law or history, even if knowing the historical context of the poem or the poet might give me insight.
  3. A Gospel is not the same as a letter; apocalyptic literature (as in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation) is not the same as legal literature, nor allegory, etc. Reading these forms of literature without even noticing the difference often leads to some form of abuse.
  4. Talking about “the Bible” as though it is a single book with a single message often leads to abuse. The Bible is actually made up of collections of material gathered from over a thousand years or so. Also, there are many overlapping messages with many, and sometimes varied, specific nuances.

Does this mean that you have to be a scholar to read the Bible? Heaven forbid!

My mother was not a scholar: but she was a hungry student of the Bible and a searcher. Did all of this searching make a difference in her life: how she acted, what she believed, how she treated people? Uh . . . yes. Was she an arrogant, abusive Bible thumper? Hardly! Did she have any of those people as her teachers? You bet she did, but she knew the difference between what they were and what the texts she was reading were calling for. Can a person without “formal training” in the Bible gain value from reading the Bible not knowing any technicalities? Of course, just like an untrained person — with effort and patience — can replace a bathroom floor, plumbing and all (that would be me!). However, we should not be satisfied to live in ignorance. The more we learn about what it is we’re trying to do, the more it can help. To be unwilling to learn and to be insistent upon reading only through our own unevaluated context is to be irresponsible.

Giving respect to Paul as an ancient author, for example 1 Corinthians, means we will at least try to read by sitting in his chair before we’re willing to jump to our own conclusions. For example, we will read what he says about homosexuality or marriage or spiritual gifts or women against the backdrop of his own times and contexts without frothing at the mouth because we may disagree (from our own perspective). Was Paul a bigot or sexist? By 21st century American standards, yes. But then by his standards, most current-day American Christians are ignorant heathens. And when compared to the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo (who died about the time Paul started writing), and many other ancient writers on women, Paul can be seen as both moderate and as sowing the seeds for liberation of women.

Now here’s the point: As people, we are not naturally responsible readers. We have to be taught. No matter what the subject. The reason is that reading is a very complicated subject. And whether people like to hear this or not, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply “doing what it says.”

The trouble is, when readers don’t care about any of this — and that is precisely what predominates in churches across the country (even though there are exceptions) — this is irresponsible. It undermines the pursuit and existence of genuine Christianity.

Let’s put it this way: countless biblical texts themselves urge, over and over again, familiarity with the scriptures:

    1. “On God’s law he meditates day and night;”
    2. “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law;”
    3. “Attach them as frontlets for your eyes, put them on door posts, teach them to your children;”
    4. “Go on to maturity, get past the basics;” and
    5. “Jesus opened their minds to the law, the prophets, and the psalms.”

And on it goes.

I don’t mention these things to point out some kind of “command,” as though we have to read scripture because scripture says so. Instead, the point is that from the beginnings, Christianity was very much rooted in written text. So, in Christian terms, the written texts that form the basis of faith are replete with urging to know scripture.

For Christians to tout the Bible as the most important book in the world and then to be aware of it only in vague, generalized, mushy evangelical terms, or not even to care, is irresponsible! Some one can certainly come to faith in Christ having never read a single word. Certainly there are many experiences outside of the written word that can be had that are both valuable and necessary for a person of faith. However, in ancient Christian terms, followers of Christ will not be satisfied living a life apart from scripture. They’ll naturally seek to become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes. Readers of written texts. A genuine life of faith and a life in the Holy Spirit will always lead into a life in scripture. Stated another way, the Holy Spirit of God will never lead one away from the Word of God.