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.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Importance of Being Intellectually Earnest

Hello and welcome to The Christian Intellect,

There are many reasons why I think a blog like this is necessary. The first is that while there are many blogs that specialize in certain foci (i.e. philosophy, theology, history, random pastoral thoughts, or even Biblical studies) I am looking to create place in which all these topics are fair game, but more importantly I am looking to create a place where we can all learn how to think--no matter what the topic is. 

Secondly, there are many Christians out there (perhaps you are one) who suffer from the lowered standards of most of our evangelical churches. Here, I hope to promote thinking in many areas where the average church attender may be anemic and provide resources to boost the intellect. I do not claim to be an expert by any means, but I am a Christian who is hungry to know more about God, His Word, and the world He created. Our Western culture is saturated with under-achievement and anti-intellectualism. We have become more concerned with celebrity gossip than with world affairs...let alone reading the Bible.

What does it mean to be a Christian intellectual? Does it imply someone who sits quietly in an arm chair studying while the world goes slowly to hell in a hand-basket? I have recently heard some voices from mainstream Christianity that implied that study and thinking is over-rated and that what the church really needs to be about is service. "Just get out there and serve others and people will be drawn to Jesus." This sounds good. It sounds right. It appeals to our sense of American initiative: "Don't just stand there--do something!"

Unfortunately, many people do not see the danger in this polarized focus on service. Here is the danger as I see it:
Many of our churches today are "seeker-sensitive" in nature. They are doctrine and Scripture light and heavy on the emotional/aestetic qualities, such as lighting, music, trendy graphics, etc. In some of the churches I have attended over the years, people would come forward to be baptized, they would be asked to repeat a brief confessional ("I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I except Him as my Savior.")--then they were a "Christian" that the church was ready to send off to serve in the community. What is worse is that I saw many of the people disappear from the church soon after, only to hear that they were living immoral lives, into drugs and alcohol, or any number of sinful behaviors. Here is not the place for a discussion on conversion, but it is my introduction into the importance of learning and study in the course of discipleship. If we, as Christians, do not stay connected to the vine in all aspects of our life, we will wither.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength (Lk 10:27). But what does it mean to love God with our mind? What we learn and know about God matters! God wants the whole package. God uses learning, especially through His Word, to transform us (Romans 12:2).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,
knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted
with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through
faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable
for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:14-16
It is my hope and prayer that we may build a community that will spur each other on to growing as Christian thinkers.