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.