Friday, August 19, 2011

It's All In the Prepositions: A Book Review of With

When I read the tag line to With (Reimaging the Way You Relate To God), I knew that I wanted to read it. Jethani's premise is simple: there are five ways of relating to God--under, over, from, for, and with. These are not just Christian ways of relating to God for, as Jethani demonstrates, all religions or non-religions relate in one of these ways. He begins his book with a look at what happened with people's relationships with God "After the Fall" (ch 1). The next four chapters examine each of the other prepositions (under, over, from, and for) in detail. Then for the latter half of the book he discusses "life with God", using 1 Corinthians 13 as a model.

I liked this book and read about half of it in one sitting. Jethani does a great job of keeping his readers engaged through illustrations (literally drawings) and stories. The writing is as readable as Max Lucado or Donald Miller, but the thoughts are deeper. There were a few times that I thought he could have said what he was saying with fewer words. "Yeah, yeah. I get it already." But overall I found this book to be highly readable, learned, and useful for Christians or not-yet-Christians. If you are one of those people that is looking for a quick-fix or how-to book, this is not the book for you. With is more about changing your perseption of relating to God, than it is about how to do it. Jethani does offer some suggestions in the appendix, though, and I for one am glad I read appendix A. Overall, I give it 4 stars.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Reading Torah Can Help You See More In The Jewish Pool of Images

 Christians have a history of neglecting to read the books of the law--Torah. We use the first eleven chapters of Genesis for debate over creation and anthropology, and then perhaps enjoy the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the exodus. Then we get bogged down in formulas and lists in the second half of Exodus through the end of Deuteronomy, leaving our Western minds to check out. However, the writers of the NT quote from and allude to the first five books of the Bible so often that we will be lost as to what is really being said if we are not familiar with them as well. We will be like children watching a Disney cartoon--we get something out of it to be sure, but the parents are getting so much more.

As I was listening to the Exodus story on CD this week (incidently the Word of Promise by Thomas Nelson Publishers makes this experience very enjoyable) I caught a phrase that reminded me of something Jesus said.

14 Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.  17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.   (Luke 11:14-20, emphasis mine)
As I listened to the story of Moses confronting Pharoah, I heard this:
16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.” 17 They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats. 18 But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not.    Since the gnats were on people and animals everywhere, 19 the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said.  (Exodus 8:16-19)
Is Jesus pointing back to this story and comparing the sign demanding crowds to Pharoah's court? I have to admit that I am not finished studying this topic, but it is a good example of how this works. As we become familiar with the Bible, both Old and New testaments, we will begin to pick up on more of the interplay between them. But not only will we understand the NT better if we read and study the "Books of Moses", we will also understand more in Psalms or the prophets. For example you may be reading Psalm 67 which begins with:
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
   and make his face shine on us—
2 so that your ways may be known on earth,
   your salvation among all nations.
If you are familiar with the book of Numbers, you may recognize that  the first line of this psalm is appropriating the Aaronic Blessing:
22 The LORD said to Moses, 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:  24 “‘“The LORD bless you
   and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine on you
   and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you
   and give you peace.”’
 27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
These are just two minor examples that come to mind. There are many rich images from Torah that are picked up again and again in the NT--the call of Abraham (Gen 12), the Covenant with Abraham (Gen 15, 17), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22), I AM (Exod. 3), the parting of the Red Sea (Exod 14), Mt. Sinai and the 10 Commandments (Exod 19 & 20), the golden calf incident and the new stone tablets (Exod 32-34), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), Holiness laws (Lev. 19), Jubilee (Lev. 25), the Nazirite Vow and Aaronic Blessing (Num. 6), water from a rock (Num. 20), Balaam (Num. 22-24), the Covenant (Deut. 27-30), and much, much more.

I would encourage you to go through Stephen's address to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 and trace the Biblical stories and quotations. If necessary, reread the stories and passages he cites. Then ask yourself why he uses these and what do they mean. It is a very rich experience.

Have you noticed any images or concepts from the Torah that clarified a NT passage? If so, please share what insights you have gleaned.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Won't God Go Away?

 Last night I finished reading a new book by Alister McGrath called Why God Won't Go Away. After watching several debates between Christians and atheists on line, I was ready to learn more on the subject of the "New Atheist Movement." First, McGrath introduces the reader to how the "new" atheist movement started and what it is, giving brief but informative introductions to each of the "four horsemen." Secondly, he tackles three major challenges that new atheists pose to theists (violence, reason, and science), showing the deficiencies in these arguments. Finally, he assesses the future for the new atheist movement...and not to spoil the surprise, but the future is not "Bright."

 How can a book of this nature be a "page-turner"? I'm not really sure how McGrath pulled it off, but I could not stop reading this book. As someone who is relatively new to understanding the "New Atheist" movement and philosophical debates, I found McGrath to be a capable and entertaining guide. His prose is easy yet thought provoking. He has an excellent command of the subject matter, equally at home in science or the history of philosophy. Most importantly, I feel better equipped to discuss these issues with atheist or agnostics after having read this short volume. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to engage our culture.

So, why won't God go away? Read the book and find out.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What Is The Vine In The Jewish Pool of Images?

How do we go about examining the "images" in this pool? It's not as if there is one particular place in the Old Testament (OT) that has all the images in easy to recognize forms. Ideally, we would all be so saturated in the OT that, when the NT used such images, bells and whistles would go off in our minds. But, alas, we are too busy keeping up with our Facebook accounts, celebrity gossip, or running around with too many irons in the fire to slow down and read something as crusty and "irrelevant" as Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy...right? After all, we are a New Testament/New Covenant Church right? 

Writing to Timothy, Paul said, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16). When he wrote this there was no such thing as a New Testament. He was speaking about the Scriptures that he had grown up studying--Christians call it the Old Testament and Jews call it TaNaKh: Torah ("the Teaching" we know this as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Nevi'im ("Prophets"--Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi), and Ketavim ("Writings"--Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes [this the Latin term while the Hebrew is Qohelet], Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles. So Paul is saying that the OT is useful and important.

So, back to the original question: How do we go about examining the "images" in this pool? The answer is that we have to go about it two ways simultaneously--we have to study the OT and we have look for possible OT images/references while reading the NT. The first of these we will have to do on our own ( short cuts here). The second one we can start to look at together by examining certain passages to see what images we may find and what they may signify.

 We will start with a passage many of us know well. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says,
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned"  (Jn 15:1-6)
This image of the vine is just a standard parable right? Or could this be something more when we look at how the image of the vine is used throughout the OT?

Psalm 80: 8-16--

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
   you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
   it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
   the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea
   and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
   so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
 The boar from the forest ravages it,
   and all that move in the field feed on it.
 Turn again, O God of hosts!
    Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
 the stock that your right hand planted,
   and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
   may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
 [Here the psalmist is using the vine as a metaphor for Israel.]

The whole of Isaiah 5 depicts Israel as God's vineyard.

Jeremiah 2:20-22--

20"For long ago I broke your yoke

   and burst your bonds;
   but you said, 'I will not serve.'
Yes, on every high hill
   and under every green tree
   you bowed down like a whore.
 Yet I planted you a choice vine,
   wholly of pure seed.
 How then have you turned degenerate
   and become a wild vine?
Though you wash yourself with lye
   and use much soap,
    the stain of your guilt is still before me,

         declares the Lord GOD.

[Again the vine is being used as a symbol for the nation of Israel.]

Ezekiel 15 visualizes Jerusalem (the capital city of Israel) as a useless, dried up vine.

Though Ezekiel 17 is a parable that seems complicated and confusing, it too envisions Israel as a vine that wanders from where it's planted.

Ezekiel 19:10-14--

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard

   planted by the water,
 fruitful and full of branches
    by reason of abundant water.
Its strong stems became
   rulers’ scepters;
it towered aloft
   among the thick boughs;
it was seen in its height
   with the mass of its branches.
But the vine was plucked up in fury,
   cast down to the ground;
 the east wind dried up its fruit;
   they were stripped off and withered.
As for its strong stem,
   fire consumed it.
 Now it is planted in the wilderness,
   in a dry and thirsty land.
 And fire has gone out from the stem of its shoots,
   has consumed its fruit,
 so that there remains in it no strong stem,
   no scepter for ruling.

[This lament is directed to the princes of Israel, which means that the mother/vine is Israel...see a theme here?]

Hosea 10:1--

Israel is a luxuriant vine

   that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
    the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
   he improved his pillars.
It is evident that throughout the OT the vine is used as a symbol for Israel. Now that we see this, we can understand that Jesus is claiming to be the one true Israel. If you are skeptical about this point, Matthew 2:15 cites "Out of Egypt I called my son" to refer to Jesus while the original context of the citation, Hosea 11:1, says, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."

To understand the full implications of this we would have to examine Israel's calling and mission in the world, but we do not have time for that discussion here. N.T. Wright has provided an excellent treatment of this concept of Jesus as the true Israel in his works such as Simply Christian, The Challenge of Jesus, and The Climax of the Covenant.

If we begin to see Israel as the vine and Jesus as the one true Israel, then what new insights might this begin to yield for our study of John 15? Exactly what is Jesus saying to his disciples? And why might it matter for us today? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Is The Jewish Pool of Images?

 In the previous post I mentioned something that my New Testament professor, Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. called a "Jewish pool of images." What is a "Jewish pool of images?" you might ask. To help us understand this concept, Mulholland used a couple of pictures to demonstrate this concept with an American pool of Images, including the one on the left. Can you understand what is being said there?

This is a set of images that people in the United States can understand. An elephant represents republicans, while a donkey depicts democrats. Once we know that interpreting the cover of Time magazine becomes fairly easy.

What about this one? What ideas or concepts do you associate with this white haired man in a star rimmed top hat? Why is he pointing?

The concept of a pool of images need not be relegated to visuals only. For instance, what if I told you that a person I know has horns, a tail, a pitch fork, and was red? What would you think of? Would you associate that person with good qualities? Would you want to trust that person?

If you asked me what car insurance someone has and I answered with, "the one with the green lizard" would you know what I was talking about? How about if I said I was hungry and wanted to eat at the golden arches? Would you understand what I meant?
This is what we mean by a pool of images. Each culture has a common pool of images (visual/or verbal) from which to draw.
The second commandment forbid the Israelites from making graven images, so rather than becoming a visual arts culture they became a language arts culture. In the following posts, I will explore some of the images floating around in the Jewish Pool, looking at where they came from and how we can better understand the Bible by understanding its imagery.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Stir of Echoes and Allusions In Scripture

 The more I read and study the Bible, the more I realize that it is a cross-cultural experience. The Scriptures were not written by 21st century Americans. God inspired 9th Century B.C. shepherds and 6th. century B.C. prophets and 1st century A.D. extremist rabbis, etc. to write to His people at a specific time in history for a specific occasion or purpose. It is still God's word for us today, but to hear it correctly we have to remember that God was delivering a message, firstly, to Israel (OT) then to Jews/Greek-speaking people throughout the Mediterranean basin (NT). As I have said before, for 1st century Jews the Scriptures were their "pop culture." We know song lyrics, lines from literature, movie quotes, snatches of wisdom--thousands and thousands of word pictures. The people of  the Bible were the same way.
  Lately, I have been reading Richard B. Hays' Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. His purpose is specific--he examines how Paul uses Scripture in his own writings (how he quotes, alludes to, and echoes what we know as the Old Testament). It has been an interest of mine for several years to examine how the NT uses the Old. In my work with Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Acts, I found many of the OT allusions or quotes to add fascinating depth to the passage when I examined the text being quoted or alluded to in its original context. Sometimes these allusions go right over our heads because the original authors assumed that their readers would be biblically literate. Hays fascinatingly walks the reader through Romans and bits of his other letters, showing that Paul was so steeped in the words of Scripture that he would often consciously allude to an OT passage (expecting the reader to know to what he was referring) but other times he may not have been so intentional yet the concepts, stories, words, etc were rolling around in his mind and came out (an echo). A somewhat modern example of this phenomenon may be Don McLean's American Pie: the more you know about rock 'n roll history the more you can pick out allusions.
 My wife has a friend who is known for using quotes in the wrong way. One day they were discussing a complicated situation when she said, "Oh what a tangled web we weave." My wife was confused by the reference to deception and asked, "When first we practice to deceive?" The friend said, "Oh is that the rest of the phrase?" But often people may use only part of a quote or phrase to refer to the whole when they know that the other person or persons they are talking to will know the rest. The writers of the Bible often did this too. The catch is that many of us fail to understand the full meaning of what is being stated because we are not as immersed in the world of the Scriptures as we could be.
  One of the helps to this is becoming more familiar with what my NT professor, Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, called the "Jewish Pool of Images." Next time, we will begin to examine what this "Jewish Pool of Images" might be and how it may become our pool as well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Major Stumbling Blocks To the Christian Faith in the 21st Century

In a recent Church History class my professor, Dr. Ken Collins, asked us to discuss a question: In light of what you know of history and the current culture, what do you see will be the major stumbling blocks to the Christian faith in the 21st century? We split into groups of four and five and discussed the topic for half an hour. When we all came back together to share, one topic came up again and again--post-modernism.

Without having the time to go into a full description of post-modernism at this point, let me say that it is one of the premiere underlying worldviews of our day. It involves a skepticism concerning what we can know as factual or whether or not there are any truth claim (such as Christianity) that can be understood to be universal.  I believe this is a very real problem in our culture and in the world at large. I hope to write more extensively on the topic soon, but if you are someone who is reading this and wondering what in the world I am talking about, you should know that it affects you more than you know. If the old saying is true that "knowing is half the battle," then make sure to read up on the subject so that you can have some intellectual power for the coming battle.

Some of the other things listed were:
--The New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennet)

--The rapid pace of life keeping people too busy to have true fellowship and community for the Christian life.

--Lack of unity among believers

If these really are stumbling blocks for people, what can we, as Christians, do to have a learned response such issues? Besides reading I would highly encourage you to check out William Lane Craig's books or what some of his debates on Youtube, or one of my favorite intellects of our time--Ravi Zacharias. He has published numerous books on these very subjects and has two excellent podcasts: Let My People Think and Just Thinking.

Can you think of any more stumbling blocks? If so, please leave a comment.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can A Group Elevate Our Thinking?

A couple of years ago one of my friends bought me a little book call the St. Andrews Seven. It is a wonderful recounting of six students and their professor from St. Andrews in Scotland in the early 19th Century and how their interaction spurred a great initiative in Scottish missions. For me, it was a catalyst for thinking about how group interaction can elevate us to greater heights than we could ever achieve alone. 

This is a topic that is fascinating to me (and which I will be pursuing in further study in the near future). I am in the process of gathering information on several such groups and learning what we can learn from these.

My preliminary understanding of this is: a person can only think and work with information that they have encountered from 1) direct observation or 2) an outside source (such as a book, lecture or conversation with another person). Creative and dynamic ideas build in a synergistic way, therefore when several people who are passionate, creative, studious, hardworking or any other such element interact in community even greater things happen! I have actually witnessed this in my life to a degree when I interact with best students in a class, the quality of my own work goes up.

Here's another example: I hate to jog. I can't breath well. I have flat feet. And I would much rather walk at a comfortable pace.  A number of years ago, my friend Mark would get me to go jogging with him and a few friends who were all athletic. The result was that even though I would have never run 2-3 miles on my own, I was able to do it. On the other hand, get several athletic people together and they can push each other to excel to an even greater degree. Thinking is the same way. If we surround ourselves with great people on a similar mission, well can accomplish even more. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharps iron, so one man sharpens another." Let's sharpen each other and do great things for God!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Scandals From Church History

It seems that people always love a good scandal. When it happens in the church people love to point the finger at all of the hypocrisy within the church and use it as an excuse to pass judgment and avoid "organized religion" altogether. The underlying assumption is that the Bible or the Christian faith cannot be true if certain people within it or who believe in it fail to live up to God's standards. People will point to the Crusades of the Middle Ages or the Inquisition or the planting of the New World or Salem witch trials any number of points in church history where supposed Christians failed to live up to the expectations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Is this fair? I say "no" for two reasons. The first is that non-Christians display just as much hypocrisy as anyone else, so they are on no moral high ground to pass judgment. I could just as easily lump all non-Christians together and point out their flaws: murder, theft, rape, lying, stealing, etc. I could point to Stalin, Hitler, Hussein and what a wreck they made of the world. I could point to all the doctors and health care professionals that smoke, take illicit drugs, or engage medical malpractice. Does this mean that the principles of good health are wrong? Does this mean that I should stay away from anything healthy, hospitals, or doctors? You could use this logic ad infinitum. This is a move to yank the plank out of the other person's eye.Will it work? Who knows, but I always try.

The second reason I say that this accusation is unfair is that the Bible itself indicates, demonstrates, and illustrates that people within the religious community fall prey to scandals and sin like everyone else. It's not as if the Bible said that if someone assented to the right doctrines and attended church on a weekly basis that they would be perfect. The Bible is more realistic than that. It actually displays the scandals for all to read: Abraham and Hagar, Judah and Tamar, Moses repeatedly losing his temper, David and Bathsheba, the nation of Israel going into exile for breaking covenant with God, Peter denying Christ, Ananias and Sapphira, etc, etc.

So, if the Bible acknowledges that these things will happen, what are we to make of this? I say at least two things. One, all people are sinful and in radical need of the grace of God and the accountability of the community of faith. Two, there are some people within the community of faith that we call the church that are not true believers (1 Jn 2:18-20; Jude 18-19).

Do you need to feel uneasy or embarrassed next time someone tries to point to all the skeletons in the church's closet? No! The Bible never claimed that God's people wouldn't fail along they way--only that God would not. The only skeleton that matters is one that no one will find: that of Jesus of Nazareth. He is risen! He is the standard for the church and we must abide in Him, for apart from Him we can do nothing. We never said the church was perfect--only Christ Jesus. So, while the church is not free from scandal, it is better than trying to go it alone.

Monday, April 4, 2011

7 Tips For Bible Study

 Interested in getting more out of your Bible study time? Here are a few quick tips for studying your Bible and getting more out of it. There are at least 4 phases to this process: Observation, Interpretation, Evaluation,  and Application. I'm only going to talk about the first one today.

Tip 1: Get a solid literal translation such as the NASB, RSV, or ESV (or better yet learn the original languages...but this will take time).

Tip 2: Chapters and verses are not an inspired part of the text. They were added later to help us find stuff. So when you are studying, don't necessarily cut off your section at the chapter mark. Read to make sure you are including everything in the thought flow. Some markers to help with this are: change of location, change of topic, major shift of emphasis, etc.

Tip 2.5: To help with determining the boundaries, it is helpful to survey the whole book (if you have time). Break the book in the main units and sub-units. Sound not so fun? It is little difficult to learn to do this well, but it is great for learning the overall importance and flow of a book.

Tip 3: List all of the paragraphs in the section you are studying and come up with a brief 3-7 word title for each. Try to make them memorable and reflective of observations for the paragraph rather than interpretive.

Tip 4: See if you can lump any of these paragraphs into larger units, then give these a brief descriptive title.

Tip 5: Look for word or concept recurrences. These can be very useful. (Note: If you are working with a translation, sometimes the translator will translate the same Hebrew or Greek word a few different ways, depending on the nuances they are trying to highlight. The best way of finding all the occurrences of a word in your passage is with a concordance that indicates what the original word is.) Don't look for recurrences of common words like "the" or "an", as these will probably not shed a lot of insight into your interpretation.

Tip 6: Note structural relationships. Some of these can be tricky to learn (I will do a more in depth treatment on these at a later time) but the common ones can be quite easy to spot. I will emphasize 4 here.
Contrast: differences that are emphasized by the author. Key words to look for: But, however.
Comparison:  the association of things in which the likeness is emphasized. Key words: Like, As.
Causation: Something that moves from cause to effect. Key words: Therefore, Consequently.
Substantiation: Something that moves from the effect to the cause. Key words: For, Because, Since

Tip 7: For each observation you make, ask three types of questions. Definitional: What? (What is the meaning of this relationship? What are all the factors that play into it? Etc) How? (How does this causation advance Paul's argument in this passage? Etc.) Rational: Why? (Why does the psalmist contrast righteous and the wicked in this particular way? Etc). Implicational: This is really an interpretive question, so it is best to keep it simple--"Implications?"

These 7 tips are merely the start to better observation. The longer you spend in observation, the less time you will have to spend in interpretation, or the following steps.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Kissing Through A Veil--Thoughts On Learning Biblical Languages

 Recently, I was sitting in Starbucks, trying to study, when a man sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. Incidently, if you are an introvert and looking for a good way to witness, go to Starbucks with an interesting Christian book or your Bible and try to be left alone--they will come to you. After several minutes, he asked me if I had taken Hebrew. I told him that I had taken two semesters and unfortunately still wasn't very good at it. He then asked me if I truly saw it as beneficial outside of it being an interesting academic exercise? I replied that I did because it opened up incite into hebraic thought. I wish I would have been more articulate. I wish I had been more prepared. But looking back on my conversation I have more to say.

Jewish poet, Haim Nachman Bialik wrote that,"Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil." This is true. As I have worked on learning the original languages, the more I realize that no one translation has it all. If you do not feel called to learn Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew, you should at least be reading several reputable translations. It all goes back to the idea that translation is interpretation to a degree. There are some instances where the syntax of a passage or the endings to certain words require a translator to untangle something in an interpretive way. Sometimes a word does not appear in the original language, but to make sense in English translators have to supply a word. Or sometimes a word can me several different things. An example of how this plays out can be seen in the work of Richard B. Hays who has proposed a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou ("faith(fulness) of Christ") rather than "faith in Christ."
All of this to say: I don't believe that you have to be able to read the original languages to understand the Bible, but I do think that it is better to be able to read the Bible in its original languages. Kissing through a veil is better than no kiss at all, but if you can lift that veil it will be better!
It boils down to this: the Bible was not originally written in English, the world of the Bible was not 21st century American or anywhere else. So reading the Bible is somewhat of a cross-cultural experience. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit does not speak through the words of the Scripture directly to us in many ways or that the Bible does not speak universally in many ways. He can and does. Thank God! But the scandal of the particular is that the prophets, psalmist, apostles, etc. wrote their songs, books, and letters to certain people for a specific purpose and it is all too easy to impose our interests and purposes on the text. This topic is larger than mere linguistics but if we can lower one barrier to clearer understanding, shouldn't we try?
In the process of trying to track down my quote, I came across this interview with N.T. Wright, a theologian I had the privilege of meeting on one occasion. He speaks to some of these issues and some others. I felt it was well worth including here. Please share your thoughts.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

12 Books You Need In Your Library

If you are interested in any of my recommendations for growing the Christian intellect, here is a short list of books that I have found useful.

1. The Bible--in various translations...or original languages if you can (North American christians are in severe need of Biblical literacy. We should know the Word of God more than we know the Thursday night tv schedule.)

Helps For Studying the Bible

2. Bible Study That Works, by David L. Thompson
3. Living By the Book, by Howard G. Hindricks and William D. Hindricks

Helps For Thinking

4. Habits of the Mind, James W. Sire
5. The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet

Helps For Apologetics/Theology

6. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
7. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
8. The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer
9. 3 Vol. Systematic Theology, Thomas Oden (These three volumes have now been condensed into one volume under the title: Classic Christianity)

Helps For Church History

11. The Story of Christianity Vol. 1 & 2, Justo L. Gonzalez

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How to Expand Your Mind While Not Floating Off Into Outer Space

 In the last post, I quickly realized that I was rapidly losing space in which to discuss the original reason for bringing up the topic. Perhaps part one did not scratch your particular itch (and for that matter, perhaps this one will not either), but, in any case, all I can do is write about the things that occur to me. Incidentally, feel free to leave comments below: questions, concerns, future topics of discussion, etc.

Now, back to where I was originally trying to take the discussion of the two types of knowing.  The simple fact is that the intellect--the life of the mind--involves more that just reading and writing and listening to lectures. It involves anything that makes a person think in a conscious way. Plato said that, "A life unexamined is not worth living." There are ways to examine one's life...not all of them involve books.

I say this as someone who is a struggling bibliophile. However, I think it is important for us to realize that many of the things we do, see, experience in life contribute to our knowledge and experience. So, if you are reading the 23rd Psalm, you could run to the commentaries to learn the deeper meanings of the text...or you could run to the pasture and spend some time with sheep. Both are beneficial and both types of learning should be held in balance in the Christian life. How often, though, do we examine our experiential knowledge? Do we reflect on our day and what we have learned? Do we write down the lessons we feel that God is teaching us?

The reason I bring this up is that some people think that being a Christian "intellectual" means someone who has read every book out there and is in 7 Bible studies a week but is otherwise a useless member of society and the "real world." However, look at the apostle Paul--a brilliant intellect in the Kingdom. Paul studied, to be sure, but he also reflected on what God was doing in his life and ministry. He drew on his life experiences to build powerful metaphors and illustrations in his letters. He traveled, prayed, debated, preached, and wrote.

Let us not become poor students of the world around us and the experiences to which God directs us. Experiential knowledge is an important part of the Christian mind. For a clear example of this, read Psalm 73 and notice what happens in verse 17.  Then, if you don't have one, find something you can call a journal and start knowing your own life in a deeper and richer way.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Types of Knowing And Why You Need Both

One of the dangers of focusing a blog on the "Christian Intellect" is that people will assume that I am, in some way, spurring people to  "ivory tower" scholasticism or a new generation of monks. That is to misunderstand what I mean by intellect.

There are two types of knowledge: 

1. Cerebral knowledge--typically learned through secondary sources like books. This is where we know things like philosophy, theoretic structures, history outside of our life time, etc. 

2. Experiential knowledge. For instance, you may read a book that informs you that many people think chocolate tastes delicious, and, therefore at some level, you know that chocolate is sweet (or bitter depending on how it's made) and wonderful. However, it is a different type of knowing to actually go to the store, buy a Lindt or Godiva chocolate bar (I mean...if you've never eaten chocolate before, you may as well go big) and eat it for yourself.

This understanding of knowledge is consistent with Biblical Christianity. " You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19). There is a difference between knowing facts about Jesus the Messiah, the Father, the Holy Spirit, or even the Church and between experiencing them in a real way for ourselves.

 The problem, as I see it, is that many Christians have a hard time balancing the two types of knowing. At many points, certain traditions have emphasized one to the neglect of the other. Orthodoxy ("Right belief") takes precedence over Orthopraxy ("Right practice"), or vice versa. While this is not the place for a discussion on the balance between faith and deeds per se, there is a certain strong link between the two ideas.

What I am talking about is what theologians and philosophers call "epistomology"--the study of belief/knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we acquire knowledge? These are the questions of epistomology. Everyone has their own theory of epistomology whether they use that terminology or not, or whether they have thought about it in explicit terms or not. We all have some idea of the subject.

 I am particularly interested in the importance of the balance of study and experience.  Let me use a concrete example from my own struggles in this area. It is easy to read the Bible, secondary literature, or even listen to sermons on the subject of loving neighbor through helping the poor. I can know all kind of verses on the subject. I can know theories and statistics. I can even know what other people are doing in this area and how it is working or failing for them. However, I know love of neighbor at a deeper level when I actually do it for myself. This fact has led many churches to scrap the emphasis on study in favor of mobilizing their people to acts of service. 

You may have heard someone say at some point: "We don't need another sermon on...we just need to get out there and do it." There is some truth in that, but by and large the church in America is not overly academic or overly studied. The danger I see in this over-reaction is that people receive a new epistomology from the Church that emphasizes action to the detriment of learning and reflection. It is the equivalent of going into a medical school and saying, "The important thing about medicine is that you get in there and treat patients, operate, prescribe medications, etc. So quit studying this stuff and just get in that hospital and start working."

How many of us would want to be patients in that place? Some of my doctor friends could tell you, that after years in the field of medicine, they still have to study the secondary literature and go to conferences. 

Both careful study of the Bible and reflective engagement with the world are important for our knowledge of life in Christ. We need to have careful balance in this area. In part two, I will reflect on how study can illuminate experience and vice versa, but in the mean time it may be helpful for us all to reflect on an area in which we need to learn better balance between study and experience.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Are We Engaging Our Imagination When Reading the Bible?

Recently, I have been reading and rereading the book of Ezekiel for a class on Inductive method of Bible study (IBS)...yes, I know. It is a running joke amongst students as well. But what strikes me is how cinematic Ezekiel's prophesies are--how R rated they are. These passages are meant to engage the imagination!

This statement is certainly true of apocalyptic literature but I believe it is true for much of the rest of the Bible, as well. Since the Israelites had a prohibition against graven images, words took on the role of creating pictures and stirring emotions in the mind of the reader. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we struggle with the Bible today. Our culture is saturated with imagery and we require more prompting to draw rich and colorful landscapes in our imaginations.

Rather than offer up a bunch of my own opinions on our modern culture and the waning imagination (perhaps I will write about that some time in the future), I would rather ask some questions--questions that I have been asking myself lately. 

1. Am I taking sufficient time to engage my imagination in the Bible when I read?

2.What are these characters or writers feeling? What would it be like to be in their shoes? (For example, when reading Psalm 10, do we allow ourselves to become the Psalmist and follow him on his emotional/spiritual journey throughout the psalm?)

3.What descriptive words are being used? And how are the various descriptions working together to build a visual set? (For an example of this read Jeremiah 4:23-27 then leave a comment below about what comes to mind for you.)

4. Am I taking time to visualize what is being said?

5. Will historical, geographical, cultural, etymological study help me here?

These are just a few questions that we could all ask. The important thing to understand here is that the Bible is more than a mere collection of facts, laws, and moral guidelines--most of the Bible is story! Genesis, Exodus, parts of Leviticus, parts of Numbers, parts of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Song of Solomon, the Prophets (if you look at the broad scope), the Gospels and Acts (that's 1/2 the NT right there), and even Revelation are stories (true stories!) with plots and characters, heart aches and joys, fears and courage. Even Paul's letters have stories embedded within them, as scholars like Richard B. Hays has pointed out.

As Christians, we have to understand that the Bible is not just some repository of commands and solutions for our own personal lives, it is an Epic story of God's redemptive plan. It is time that we quit using the Bible like a fortune cookie "verse of the day" (though individual verses can provide us with strength and encouragement). We need to unlock our poetic souls and live and breathe the story. As we engage our minds in study, let us not forget to engage our imaginations (guided by the text and the Spirit of God), stepping beyond analytical reasoning to the let the Word engage our very souls.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Joe Christian and the "Full Brain Syndrome"

Imagine with me that you are at a ball game for a moment. It could be basketball, baseball, or football (or for all you Majority World people out there: Soccer ). You are sitting in the stands cheering as your team scores points and the person seated next to you is cheering as well. You turn to them and mention one of the players and they say, "Who is that?"
"Oh, I thought you were a _________ fan, too."
"I am. I have been for ten years."
"Oh, then you must have started watching when ___________was coaching?"
"Um, yeah, I guess."
"I thought you said you have been a fan for ten years?"
"Oh yes, just love it! It's the best thing in the world."
"Ok...well...then tell me about it."
"Well, those guys there are supposed to get that ball there, and there is running involved and they score points. It's just great!"

You scratch your head because this person claims to have been a fan of this team for 10 years and they have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the game.
"So, if you are such a huge fan, why don't you know anything about the team or the game after 10 years? I could understand if you just started getting into this sport, but you've been into it for a while."
"All that stuff is over my head. All I need to know is what team I'm rooting for. I tried learning stats and the history of the program, but I just couldn't get into it. Made my head hurt."

What would you think if you came across someone like this? Would you take them seriously?
What if someone approached you at work and said, "So, you're a Christian right?"
"Uh, yes."
"How long?"
"Um. Ten years."
"Great! I've been wanting to know what Christians believe, can you tell me?"
This is a question we all need to ask ourselves, and none of us can ever say that we have arrived at the end. There is always more to know. The question is one of motive. Are we complacent in our limited knowledge? Are we comfortable with knowing the bare basics of the Christian faith? Are we too busy with other things to ask serious questions about our faith and then go looking for answers?

Recently, my friend Alan told me that he was filming a game between two rival football teams. While the home team was in the locker room, the coach asked the players why they couldn't always play the way they were that night. They were motivated to play their best because of the long history of the rivalry, but when they would play other teams they would not try as hard.
The point is: we all give our best to the things that are important to us.
How important is Christ in our lives?
The apostle Peter exhorts the Church: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." (1 Peter 3:15). We need to be prepared, and to do this we need to prepare. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent with the little knowledge that we have, but rather we need to seek to grow in the knowledge of the Messiah Jesus.

Perhaps you are pushing forward on your journey, and are actively in the game. You are stretching your mind to know more and more. Awesome! Then it is time to encourage others to do the same because there are too many Christians out there with "full brain syndrome"--they have stopped learning because it seemed like too much. We all have to start somewhere. Stretching/growing hurts. It's not easy. But like they say, "No pain. No gain."

"Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Monday, February 14, 2011

"The Metamorphosis--Why Gregor Samsa Became a Roach and So Can You"

Perhaps you remember the story of Gregor Samsa. One morning he wakes up to discover that he has become a giant vermin (this often gets translated as "roach"), only he doesn't seem very surprised--a little embarrassed, but not surprised. Kafka never says why Gregor turned into a giant vermin--only that he does. The point seems to be that Gregor merely becomes outwardly what he truly was all along. As the proverb goes: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7 KJV).

So, if we are what we eat, and thoughts are the food of the mind, then we become what we think. It truly is an easy equation with a difficult solution: if we claim Jesus the Messiah as our Lord (ruler) and Savior, then we have signed up to follow Him and be transformed into His likeness. If so, then we need to eat food (think thoughts) that will be transformational for that life in Christ. Romans 12:2 states: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (NIV). The Koine Greek word for "transformed" here is "metamorphoo." Look familiar?

Often we think of transformation as instantaneous, but a look at the life of C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, or any number of people throughout history will show that transformation often takes place thought at a time. Also, Paul's exhortation requires action on the part of his hearers. He does not say, "Sit back a wait. God will unilaterally transform your mind." He gives a negative command (Do not be conformed) and gives a contrasting exhortation (Be transformed). This is action that takes work over a period of time.

So, what are the different things that influence our thoughts? People at work, friends, family, radio, internet, T.V., books, magazines, etc. How mindful are we about the quality of information we are getting? 

Recently, I had to do a project in which I had to pick an hour time slot for 4 to 5 viewing sessions of T.V. and catalog the images that were being conveyed as I flipped through channels. First of all, I was amazed at the sheer amount of images and messages that assault our minds in just one hour of T.V.! Second of all, I was surprised at how certain norms and agendas were being reinforced or promoted. I encourage you to keep a pad of paper on your coffee table and write down notes on the images you see during programing. What is being said about women, men, different races, needs, wants, politics, religion? What keeps recurring? What is being left out? We can do this type of evaluation with everything from billboards to radio.

There is no doubt that we are being shaped. The question is: WHO is shaping us?

One day we may wake up to find that we look more and more like Jesus Christ...or we may wake up to find out that we have turned into a giant roach like Gregor. We need to be mindful of what we're eating/thinking. Maureen brought up a powerful verse in the discussion of my last post, and with that I will leave you: 2 Corinthians 10:5 "We pull down every proud obstacle that is raised against the knowledge of God; we take every thought captive and make it obey Christ" (Good News Bible).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"A Penny For Your Thoughts"

People do not say this little phrase much any more. There may be a few reasons for this. For one, we so rarely have to guess what someone is thinking these days, because they will tell you every little thought that runs through their head and/or every minute detail of their private life with or without your solicitation. Secondly, in this tough economy the value of most thoughts are hardly worth the penny. So, what are our thoughts worth, and how can we know?

In Ernest Dimnet's classic work The Art of Thinking, he dedicates a whole chapter to estimating thoughts. He writes that, "Introspection can be supplemented and controlled by two sources of information which we can hardly hold in suspicion: our private letters (now we might say our emails, texts, and Facebook posts), and above all our talk...What are we hearing ourselves say? Are we satisfied with merely speaking the exterior or interior cinema?...In the same way, are not our letter full of small talk and cheap details...If so, we cannot help escaping the self-pronounced verdict: ORDINARY" (p.26).

I believe he raises some excellent points. As Christians are we conforming our minds to Christ or the world's philosophies? We can take a mental inventory very easily: read through our emails, Facebook comments, text messages, journals (if we have any), and notice what we write about. We can also listen to the things we talk about with friends, family, and acquaintances. Are we discussing anything that we would want others to remember us for? Will our words benefit future generations? Or are they just ordinary (if not silly or crass) thoughts about our likes, dislikes, worries, appetites, etc?

It is surprising how many of the Proverbs discuss the relationship between our words and our thoughts. 

"When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech." (10:19)

"One who is clever conceals knowledge, but the mind of a fool broadcasts folly." (12:23) 

"Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not find knowledge." (14:7) 

"The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly." (15:2) 

"The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly." (15:14) 

These are just a sampling, but they convey my point adequately. According to the Scriptures, the quality of a person's thoughts--and even their true character--can be judged be what they say.

I am going to be honest and say that this scares me. I often catch myself saying utter nonsense for the sake of a laugh...or just for no reason at all. This is a good indicator of my heart and my thoughts. In Luke 6:43-45, Jesus puts it this way: "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the the abundance of 
the heart that the mouth speaks."

So if we see bad fruit in the words we write and hear bad fruit in the words we say, then how do we begin the change? How do we become more Christianly Intellectual? That will be the topic of the next post, entitled "The Metamorphosis--Why Gregor Samsa Became a Roach and So Can You". In the mean time, take some time to evaluate the quality or the nature of your thoughts by thinking through what you talk about and what you write. You may be just as convicted as me and discover that most of your thoughts aren't worth a penny.