“It Has No Handles”: How Do You See Yourself?

A verse I am drawn to in Isaiah 45 is verse 9.  The overall idea seems to be clear:  the clay should not try to tell the potter his job or sit in judgment about what he has produced.   (Anybody with kids understands this point.)   The context of Isaiah 40-54 helps here, where there is a constant refrain

“For I, I am God, and there is no other!  I am with you!  I have made all things, and I am doing a new thing! I will help you!

In chapter 45, maybe I like the fact that there is a kind of translation problem with verse 9c, not with the words, but that it is possibly an idiom, and so what does it mean?

The Hebrew is straightforward:  “What are you making?  It [or he] has no hands.”
The Greek Isaiah adds a phrase, and changes everything to “you”, but is no clearer:  ““What are you doing, since you are not working, nor do you have hands”?

The KJV and ASV are fairly literal:

KJV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

ASV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

The NIV has the pot asking a question:

NIV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

The NET translates the idiom to “skill” and it makes perfect sense in context:

NET  Isaiah 45:9 One who argues with his creator is in grave danger, one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground! The clay should not say to the potter, “What in the world are you doing? Your work lacks skill!”

I like the NET Bible on this.  However, for personal reasons, I also like the RSV, which I did not list above.

RSV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, `What are you making’? or `Your work has no handles’?

These are several different kinds of translations, and all are legitimate.  Slightly different, yet we get the point.

So why do I like the RSV?  Because it can be understood not only as criticism of God (“you did this wrong”), but a criticism of the self (“you made me wrong, and so your work is bad”).  “It has no handles.”  Here you are looking in the mirror and you know where all the flaws are:  Your bent nose, your lips too thick or thin, your teeth are not what they used to be, your receding hairline, midriff is too . . . well, you get it.  But worse, have you ever noticed how you can look in a mirror and see all of your internal flaws as well?  You are not this or that, not good enough, smart enough, focused enough, devoted enough. You look in the mirror and you say:  “It has no handles.”  (Ok, “love handles” maybe, but don’t ruin this;  stay with me here.)

Most of the time when we look at ourselves and say “It has no handles” we think we mean, “Look how I have let God (or others or both) down.”  But deep down we are criticizing God for not doing “enough” in my case to make me like I should be.

I think it is possible to get the point that “him” (45:9-10), the “rebels” (46:8), and “stubborn-hearted” (46:12) are God’s own people who are not looking in the right places.  But it is harder to see that in not looking in the right places, in not honoring God for his work in you, in looking down on yourself . . . it is like you spending a long time with great effort trying to prepare a great meal, or paint a special picture, or make a special item to give to someone, and when you do, the first thing the person says is, “Well . . . it has no handles, does it!”

“I am God, and there is no other” is what you should see when you look in a mirror.  God has given you life and opportunity.  And God is at work, right now, in you.  Handles and all.

Gary D. Collier

[All quotes are from BibleWorks 9]

 

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.

A New New Testament

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

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

What Is This New New Testament?

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

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

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

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

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

What Does the New Canon Look Like?

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

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

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

For example, the NT now looks like this:

First Group

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

Next Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment and Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“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