The Necessity of Reflection

There are many surprising truths I have learned in my semester of blogging—that vulnerability is powerful, that online community can be Bashawtangible and unifying, that bloggers are often on the front lines in the war against injustice and ignorance (and are sometimes the most blatant promoters of injustice and ignorance).

But the greatest thing blogging has taught me is the necessity of reflection.

Reflection is necessary for self-understanding and societal awareness—As human beings living in an age of hyper-technology, we tend to think we are more connected to people and ourselves than we have ever been. We believe that watching 24-hour news, following the latest YouTube trends, and posting our daily activities and random emotions on Facebook make us experts on people, connections, and ourselves. But, in reality, we are less aware of our own feelings and problems and blind to the needs of others because we do not take the time to think, reflect, and write. We fill our heads with the opinions of others and never stop to consider how we feel about those opinions, never process the changes in the world and the changes in our hearts. Reflection is the antidote to ignorance of self and society.

Reflection is necessary for teaching—Since I have only been a full-time professor for two-years , I am clearly not an expert educator. Every day, I make mistakes in my teaching. In academia, however, there is an unwritten rule of “fake it until you make it” (even if you never actually “make it”). We think that in order for students and other teachers to respect us and listen to us, we have be experts, to always be right, to never show weakness. And so we fake knowledge and good teaching until we forget that we are faking and begin to believe that we do know everything. And that makes it hard to know our faults, hard to listen to others, and hard to learn and grow as teachers.

Robert Frost had it right when he wrote, “I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn.” Reflecting and talking about myself and my teaching this semester (however narcissistic it may sound), opened my eyes to the areas in which I needed to grow. As I shared these areas for improvement in my blog, I was teaching others. And, beautifully and ironically, what I taught to others was always what I most needed to learn.

Reflection is necessary for faith—It is quite popular these days to talk about faith as a journey. This is far more than a trendy illustration; the idea originally comes from the Bible. In Scripture, we can follow the stories of people of faith, from Abraham to Esther and Levi to Paul, and see that faithful living requires forward movement and a purposed destination.

Faith is moving forward—moving away from the old self and its desires and moving toward the new self, the new kingdom, a new calling. And movement forward does not occur without a radical change in perspective and situation. Abraham’s faith required a geographical shift of epic proportions. Esther’s faith demanded death-defying courage and commitment. Levi’s faith forced a career transfer, from tax-collecting to disciple-making. Paul’s faith necessitated a name change and initiated one of the most significant life transformations in all of history. Faith compels us to change. But we cannot change, cannot move forward, if we do not know who we are and where we are now.

So, reflection is necessary for faith because reflection is necessary for change.

The greatest truth I have learned from blogging is that reflection is what moves us forward; it gives us the tools and time to understand ourselves and our society; it unveils our faults, our inadequacies, and our need for improvement; it forces us to not just have faith but to do faith; it motivates us to follow God’s call, to reform (re-form!) our hearts, and transform, not just our lives, but our world.

 

jgb

Top Ten ways to avoid misreading and misleading

Teaching is a difficult and risky business.Bashaw

Of course there is great joy involved in exposing students to new facts, interesting discoveries, and life-altering truths. But when all is said and done, when students leave your class armed with knowledge that may fuel their actions and guide their thoughts for years to come, the scary question lingers, “Was my teaching true?”

James is quite aware of the difficult nature of teaching when he warns in James 3:1-2:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

I imagine that James could have been thinking about his own position of leadership in the Jerusalem church, aware that he had made mistakes in his teaching and his example. Despite the wisdom he showed during the Jerusalem Council in recognizing God’s work among the Gentiles (Acts 15), he also realized his example (both the good and bad parts) affected many early Christ-followers. If he struggled with the practical acceptance of Gentiles in the church, his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem would see that and be affected.

James’ warning about the dangers of teaching is especially appropriate for those of us who teach biblical truths–the pastor in the pulpit, the Bible study leader, the Christian blogger, the Scriptures professor, or any teacher who integrates faith and biblical teaching into her discipline.

Because it is so easy for us to misread and mislead.

It happens to the best of us. All you have to do is follow the blog posts on Facebook to realize that well-meaning and well-respected teachers of the Bible regularly misrepresent what the Bible actually teaches. Dave Ramsey, the financial guru who helps Christians manage their finances, has recently been criticized because his “biblical principles” of money management contradict the biblical message about wealth and poverty. Infamous Famous pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church has ignited so many blog and article wars with his controversial teaching (especially regarding the subject of women in the Bible and the Church) that a Google search for “Mark Driscoll AND wrong” turns up over a million hits. Even teachers and pastors who have some important, helpful things to say sometimes fall into the trap of irresponsibly interpreting Scripture. And for some reason, it is the bad readings of Scripture that always seem to spread faster and farther than the accurate ones.

So we must be careful teachers of Scripture. It is difficult to interpret the Bible responsibly  and faithfully but we who teach the Bible must take that task seriously and try to minimize misreading and misleading as best we can. In my ongoing quest to become a responsible interpreter and teacher of the Bible, I have learned some important lessons (mostly the hard way!) about reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible.

Here are my top ten ways to avoid misreading the Bible and misleading others:

1) Know yourself. It is important to be aware of your own biases and preconceived ideas when you interpret Scripture. Everyone comes to the Bible with prejudices, formed by nationality, economic status, ethnicity, families of origin, church tradition, experiences, etc. Being aware of these biases helps to curb assumptions and forces an interpreter to consider that his or her view may be pre-formed rather than based on Scripture.

2) Read a passage in its literary context. When someone studies a verse or a passage it is important to read the verses and paragraphs before and after that passage to understand what is going on. The best practice is to also be aware of the message of an entire book so that it is easier to understand the purpose of an individual passage in the overarching story or letter. [as a side note it is also helpful to know the genres of the Bible and read according to genre]

2) Know the history. Interpreting a passage well requires knowledge of the social and historical context in which that text was written. For example, it is important to know that Revelation was written in a first-century Greco-Roman context and that the first readers of the book were experiencing persecution and were being tempted to worship the emperor rather than God. Such information helps us make better sense of the emphasis on worshiping God, the images of judgment for persecutors, and the firm warnings to repent.

3) Be aware that  all translation involves interpretation. Most words in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Scriptures do not have exact counterparts in English. For this reason, many translations of words and concepts are close but not perfect interpretations. It is dangerous to base a belief or teaching on one word (say the word “head” in Ephesians 5:23) when our word for head in English has many connotations that the Greek did not have.

4) Recognize the distance between the world of the Bible and our world. When reading ancient literature like the Bible it is important to ask, “What did this mean to them?” and then gauge what differences exist between the world of the Bible and our world. This one of the most foundational skills required in biblical interpretation. A great resource that focuses on finding the meaning of a biblical text in “their” world before interpreting it in “our” world is Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. All biblical interpreters should read a book (or books!) on practical hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) before attempting to teach the Bible in a formal setting.

5) Know the whole story. Reading the Bible should not be like eating at a buffet. We don’t get to choose what to accept and what not to accept. The Bible is like a many-course meal, with each part served in preparation for the next. We have to read the whole story, know the whole message, in order to fully appreciate and understand the individual parts.

6) Be open to being wrong. Given that every interpreter has preconceived ideas about the Bible, and given that there is always more to learn about the history and literature of the ancient world, it is vital that we resist becoming dogmatic about our interpretations. Even the most brilliant of theologians and most devoted of pastors change their minds about Scripture as they study more and live more.

7) Read the opinions of Christians who disagree with you. There is great value in listening to and reading interpreters who differ from you. If you are an evangelical conservative, make it a practice to read the works of liberal theologians or Catholic scholars. If you are a Baptist preacher, listen to sermons from Pentecostal pastors and Episcopalian priests. If you are an egalitarian, read complementarians (no matter how angry they may make you!). If you are a Calvinist, read Arminians. Willingness to learn from others has no down side. Such practice can show you new ways to look at a passage, help you strengthen your own views, or open your mind to a new perspective or a new truth.

8) Use words like “probably” and “likely” instead of “definitely” and “without a doubt.” In light of #6 and #7, it is a good idea for teachers to keep their language open to possibility. First, it lets students know that interpreting the Bible well is a process, one that will not end until we no longer see through a glass darkly. Second, in the age of blogs and podcasts, what you teach may be on record for ever; it is always better to leave room for growth and change rather than creating a situation in which you may have to blatantly contradict yourself in ten years.

9) Read other literature. Read ancient literature and Victorian novels and contemporary fiction and poetry and essays and biographies. Read other literature because it makes you a better reader and interpreter of the Bible, which contains some of the most complex and beautiful literature in history.

10) Pray daily and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to truth. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:26, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” If the apostles, who witnessed Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, who were immersed in his teaching and love and truth, if even these were going to need the Holy Spirit to teach and remind them, don’t you think we lowly teachers of Scripture need it too?

jgb

 

 

 

Thankful

When you ask a professor to reflect on and blog about her experiences in the classroom, expect there to be a bunch of grousing about students’Bashaw laziness and lack of commitment, and some lamenting about the moral decline of civilization, as seen in the youth of America.

And maybe I have done a fair amount of complaining as I have pondered the intersection of faith, teaching, students, and society this semester.

However, as I reflect on my job as an educator-counselor-learner-mentor-pastor-motivational speaker, there is much more for which I am thankful.

  • I am thankful that God has allowed me to work in a career that demands constant learning, that challenges me to get better and know more every day;
  • I am thankful for the privilege and challenge of teaching the Bible, in its messiness and glory, and for the opportunity to communicate my love for Scripture with my students.
  • I am thankful for daily deadlines (and I also curse this!), that I must keep on top of things and strive for excellence not just for my own improvement but for the education of others.
  • I am thankful for the constant interaction with young people, which forces me to learn how to tweet, compels me to learn new colloquialisms (that’s ill!), and keeps me in touch with the challenges and contributions of this up-and-coming generation.
  • I am thankful for flexibility of my classroom, that my teaching need not fit into a rubric or someone else’s expectation. I can lecture or use pod casts or facilitate discussion or show youtube clips or encourage journaling or sing songs or have confession time, depending on what best communicates a particular subject to my students at a particular time.
  • I am thankful for the teamwork involved in a university setting, that professors and administrators and maintenance crew and IT and cafeteria workers and student workers and resident directors all work together for one noble goal–to provide the best education for our students.
  • And I am thankful for my students: students who are trusting enough to listen and learn, who are brave enough to show vulnerability in the classroom, who are caring enough to support their peers in their needs, who are committed enough to be leaders even in their young age, who are strong enough to overcome all the challenges they face in their personal and private lives in order to remain committed to education and to their faith in the midst of a distracting, discouraging, sometimes dream-crushing world.

For all these things, and all these people, I am truly thankful.

jgb

And the walls came tumbling down…

Something extraordinary happened yesterday in my Biblical Interpretation class. Yes, this is the same class I went all she-hulk on last month (see self worth image psalmWhen Empathy Backfires…).

We had recently returned from a chapel service focused on transparency and confession. Several of my Religion students had given short testimonies during the service and had laid bare their souls, recounting their sordid stories and sins, their insecurities and their struggles. They then challenged the chapel attenders to do the same thing, writing their sins and insecurities on themselves with markers as a physical act of confession and honesty.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking and I wanted to make sure that the moment for openness and learning did not pass us by.

self worth image orange guySo instead of lecturing on the grammatical-structural relationships in biblical prose, I asked the students in my class to share the words they had written on their arms. And I went first.

After I explained my struggle with the sinful attitude of selfishness, I confessed that my biggest recurring insecurity is that I feel “other” as a woman called to and gifted for pastoral ministry in a culture that only affirms the pastoral position for men, a fact that continues to ignite resentment and bitterness in my heart toward the church.

And then they shared. In front of their peers, they talked about their feelings of inadequacy, they revealed dark parts of their pasts, and they confessed sins and weaknesses that usually remain  hidden in the locked parts of our souls. They praised God for the healing and deliverance they had experienced in some areas while also recognizing the work that still had to be done. They were raw and real and honest and vulnerable and so incredibly brave that it took my breath away.

It made me think of Jericho.

In Joshua 6, we read the story of the fledgling Israelites who, after having crossed into the land God had promised Abraham generations before, came upon the strong-walled city of Jericho, the first major barrier between them and God’s promise. God gave Joshua and the people detailed instructions that included marching around the walls, blowing trumpets, and shouting in success over the Lord’s promised victory.

We tend to emphasize the great faith that Joshua and the priests and soldiers showed and we celebrate their obedience to God in the face of impossible odds. But we sometimes forget that in order to obey, these Israelites had to be shockingly brave and illogically vulnerable.self worth image

For seven days they marched outside the heavily fortified city, aware that at any moment arrows could fly over the walls to pierce through their bodies and tear away their hopes of entering the promised land. Yet they continued to put themselves in that vulnerable position, with no rocks or walls to hide behind, in order to breach the walls that God told them they would destroy.

Yesterday, my students were as brave and as vulnerable as those Israelites outside Jericho. They put their hearts in the line of fire, exposing parts of themselves to potential arrows of judgment and ridicule and rejection. They did this because they knew they could only experience victory over their sins and their insecurities if they exposed them.

And in the wake of their vulnerability and brave shouts of confession, the walls came tumbling down.

The walls of pain, protection, and pride that guarded their hearts from the world. The walls of denial, competition, and fear that prevent true community among peers. The walls of decorum, distance, and doubt that serve to separate teacher from student. These all started to fall and I realized that I had much to learn from these millenials, these students who both exasperate and inspire me.

Yesterday, my students taught me that true community cannot exist without healing, that healing cannot begin without trust, and that trust can only be earned through vulnerability. They taught me that the toughest battles are not fought with weapons and strategy but with trust and transparency. They taught me that as a community of faith we have many more walls to tear down before we enter the promised land, that kingdom that God has promised us of love and healing, of unity and rest.

jgb

The Bible: it’s not what you think it is

It’s quiz time again. I promise this one is easier than the Shakespeare quiz from the Reading the Bible as Literature post.Bashaw

Identify the type of literature from which each of the following are excerpted:

1) Pierce squash 5 to 6 times with tip of a sharp knife.  Place on a paper towel in microwave oven; microwave at High for 10 minutes or until soft, rotating once.  Let stand until cool enough to handle.  Cut in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds.  Scrape strands of squash with a fork into a bowl.  Keep warm.

2)  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…

3) Hope” is the thing with feathers -

      That perches in the soul -

      And sings the tune without the words -

     And never stops – at all –

4) Oeuvre — (noun) The total output of a writer or artist (or a substantial part of it). Synonyms: body of work. Usage: The musicologist studied the entire Wagnerian oeuvre.

I assume it was fairly simple to identify the kind of writing each of these represents, even if you were not familiar with the exact work.  Cookbooks, novels, poetry, and dictionary entries represent just a small portion of the many kinds, or genres, of writing we encounter every day.

We are socially conditioned and taught in school to read each of these genres of literature differently. Each genre has its own set of rules and expectations to which we adapt when reading.

In a cookbook, we expect measurement short hand like tsp. and we anticipate direct and terse descriptions.

In a novel, we unconsciously translate metaphors and other figures of speech and we are trained to notice plot, characterization, and irony.

In a poem, we look for rhyme and rhythm and meter we often enounter purposeful brevity.

In a dictionary article, we read bare facts, synonyms and antonyms, and do not read expecting to be moved emotionally or challenged ethically.

As 21st century readers we have become experts in interpreting a wide variety of genres with their separate rules and expectations.

If that is the case, then why do 21st century readers tend to read and interpret the Bible without distinguishing between the various genres found within it?

I think it is because we have been neither socially conditioned nor taught in our churches to read the Bible for what it is–a collection of many types of genres, each with their own rules and expectations.

For example:

Genesis is an ancient narrative that makes use of several sub-genres such as genealogy, mythology (before you stone me, note that mythology need not imply fiction or falsehood!), and short story (Joseph’s narrative is one of the earliest examples of a well-crafted short story)

Exodus is a mixture of the genres of law, narrative, and poetry

Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job are wisdom literature fused with bits of poetry and song

The rest of the Old Testament is an amalgamation of prophecy, history, and narrative

The New Testament includes the diverse genres of gospel (which is a unique genre in literary history), epistle, homily, and apocalyptic literature.

Sadly, though, when the typical Christian sits down to read the Bible or hears it read in church, he or she has no clue what genre they are reading, much less which rules or expectations to apply in interpreting it. We display more literary intelligence while reading a cookbook with all its specialty terms and abbreviations, than we show when reading the word of God, the collection of books we claim as authoritative in the life of the Church.

Donald Miller, in a recent blog post, describes our contemporary misuse and misreading of the Bible in this way:

“Imagine reading a newspaper article from a century ago, bound with a series of love letters and the score of a musical and then trying to interpret that compilation as a comprehensive guide for living life, studying science and establishing a democracy. That’s what we tend to do with scripture but that’s not what God intended for the book.”

Miller gets to the heart of the matter—we are not reading the Bible for what it is. Instead, we cram this multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-voice symphony of writings into whatever little box gives us the most peace of mind.

  • Those who want to live their lives (or want others to live their lives) adhering to a strict, black-and-white set of do’s and don’ts…read the Bible as a rule book, ignoring the rich stories depicting the complicated relationship between God and humanity.
  • Those who would like to experience clarity in the practical, everyday matters of life…read the Bible as a self-help book or a how-to manual, ignoring the fact that the Bible does not address every problem known to humanity and is not designed to be handy guide to life.
  • Those who would like to have univocal answers to every theological question we ask today… read the Bible as a propositional treatise that lays out a philosophy of Christianity, ignoring the fact that very few of the biblical authors intended to explicate theology and those that did wrote to a particular audience at a particular time addressing their particular problems.
  • Those who want to feel warm fuzzies about God and people and the church…read it like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book, searching for nuggets of “feel good” wisdom and ignoring the laments and clear promises of persecution in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles.

The Bible is not any of these things we make it out to be. It is something wholly other, something we do not expect it to be, something we could never dream up on our own. It is so complex and so diverse that it can speak to people living in any time in history and any place in this world. It is a messy, human-narrated, human-tarnished, living, God-breathed, God-designed, masterpiece of mismatched literature.

And until we learn to read it for what it is, learn recognize the variety of genres and know what rules and expectations to have for each, we will continue to miss the prismatic beauty of its truth.

jgb

Darkness into Light

Warning: The following post may contain material of a sensitive nature. But please read and discuss it anyway.

I haven’t visited a Halloween costume shop in a while but my boys wanted to dress up like Star Wars characters for our church’s Trunk or Treat this year, so we paid a visit to a local Halloween store.

I have to say I was surprised and appalled by the merchandise we found there and I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination.

At least three-fourths of the Halloween costumes they sold were for women, which seemed strange to me at first. But about 90% of those women’s costumes were more appropriate for strip club attire than for public display. Every costume seemed designed to be slutty sexy, from the more obvious ones like Nurse Knock-out or Sexy Lioness, to the absurd ones like Sexy Robin (who knew Batman’s sidekick could be seductive?) and Sexy Chucky (yes, that is the murderous doll turned femme fatale–see image). These costumes were not only being purchased by adults, but by teenagers, young adults, and even pre-teens.

Whatever happened to the days when we dressed up like princesses, fairies, angels, or Little Bo Peep? When did dress-up become less about putting on a persona and more about taking off our clothes?

I have been thinking about it and researching it and I have come to the conclusion that these hyper-sexual Halloween costumes are one of many side effects of the culture of pornography that is surreptitiously invading our society.

The porn industry, which is a 15-billion dollar a year industry in America, obviously glorifies many evils–commercialized sex, lust, greed, exploitation, and self-gratification. But the subtle evils it propagates are far more dangerous than we realize.

Dr. Annette Lynch, professor of textiles and Apparel and author of Porn Chic, recognizes the insidious influence of pornography on fashion, especially costumes.  She writes this about teen and tween attire:

“When a little girl shops for a Halloween costume, she is bombarded with choices and poses that flirt with and attract sexual attention, teaching her to self-objectify and court the male gaze in advance of the blossoming of her own sexuality… what is most damaging is the normalization of this patterned response, with girls taught to shop, dress and behave while imagining the response of a male audience… this patterned response to these messages become ingrained and natural to these girls, who then carry the patterns into adulthood.”

So girls who have not even viewed pornography are “patterned” to dress for men, specifically men who are porn users, without even knowing it. The porn look is so ingrained in the media and culture of our country that it does not need to be overt to affect change in all segments of society.

Jessica Bennett, in “The Pornification of America,” wakes us up to the overwhelming impact the porn industry is making on our everyday lives.

“In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn’t take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms.”

When we weren’t looking, the subculture of pornography, which claims to affect only workers and users in that industry, became part of our mainstream culture, affecting everyone from fashion designers to pop stars (do I even have to put a link to a Miley Cyrus’ example?) to young girls shopping for Halloween costumes.

How did our society succumb so easily to such a destructive problem?

Robert Jenson, a professor of journalism who wrote a book on the porn industry in America, believes that the popularity of pornography in our country “is a reminder that, for all the progress of contemporary social movements, we still live in a world structured by patriarchy, white supremacy and a corporate capitalism that is predatory by nature. Pornography is consistently cruel and degrading to women, overtly racist and fueled by the ideology that money matters more than people.” (from an online interview)

So, it is not that pornography has corrupted our moral, just, and equality-driven society (read with sarcasm) but vice versa—the deep-seated, and often downplayed, American obsession with power, sex, and money has produced our current porn culture.

We got ourselves in this mess, but how do we get out?

We could push for more legislation against the porn industry, for more oversight and higher levels of censorship, but many Americans would cry, “First Amendment Violation!” and anyway, the porn industry has well-paid lobbyists and spin doctors to halt change on that front.

We could sit around and complain about the problem on blogs and social media, blaming Hollywood or the fashion or music industry. Oh wait, we already do that and it is certainly not working.

Or, we as the body of Christ can stand up and attack the problem at its root.

Because the root of every evil associated with pornography, from greed to lust to infidelity to exploitation, is the same. The problem is the darkness that we humans carry around inside us. The only way to fight the darkness is with the light. And when we hide the deeds of darkness, and the dismiss the effects of that darkness, we will slowly become overwhelmed by darkness instead of the light.

And the Word, the Gospel of John tells us, was not overcome by darkness but overcame darkness with light.

So we need to bring the deeds of darkness into light.

We need to talk about this uncomfortable, shameful problem in our churches and in our homes and in our schools and on our blogs.

We need to love and support those who are in bondage to all kinds of addiction, especially sexual addiction and pornography.

We need to talk to our children openly–about the gift of sex within marriage, the perils of internet pornography, and the lies society spreads about freedom and the body.

We also must ensure girls and women that they are loved for who they are and who Christ is making them to be, not for what they wear or how they look. We need to teach them to live to please God and not the opposite sex.

We need to address the issues of self-worth and self-respect and self-control. Every day. In every venue. Until people start to listen.

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead,and Christ will shine on you.’” (Ephesians 5:8-13)

jgb

What my wrongs (and N.T. Wright) taught me this week

There are weeks when I feel particularly inadequate as a teacher.Bashaw

This week, I attempted to teach the entire book of Romans to my NT Intro students in a 45-minute lecture. I stood in front of my students, some of them Bible-idolizing and some of them Bible-illiterate, and I tried to walk that fine line between teaching and preaching, between information and emotion. I gave the most pertinent background information and I highlighted Romans’ literary features. Then, we discussed the terms and imagery that Paul uses to explain salvation, and I pleaded with them to understand that salvation was more like a process than a one-time decision, that sin was serious and that Christ’s sacrifice was miraculous.

I made a valiant effort but at the end of the class, I still felt like a failure.

How can I sufficiently describe some of the most complex theological concepts in the Bible when I myself still fluctuate on the particulars? How does justification work? Is salvation a past action or a future action or both? Is “once saved always saved” even a biblical principle? What does sanctification look like in the life of the believer?

Isn’t a Bible professor supposed to know the answers to all these questions BEFORE she attempts to teach them to her students? Fail, fail, fail.

Then, for my New Testament Theology class, we read the script of a brilliantly crafted lecture by scholar and bishop, N.T. Wright (“Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the life of the church?”). In it, Wright presents one of the most eloquent and comprehensive analyses of Pauline thought I had ever read. There is a beauty and clarity of thought in his words, in the simple yet profound truth that he declares. I had to wipe the tears from eyes more than once while I read (Who would have thought that Pauline theology could bring anyone to tears?). I was in awe of him, in awe that someone could not only understand Paul so thoroughly, but could teach the core of his message with such precision and depth.

And it struck me that Wright’s lecture affected me in the way it did because it did not just teach me truth; it demonstrated a truth. N.T. Wright has been studying the Bible, teaching, pastoring (is bishoping a word?), and lecturing for more years than I have been alive.  He did not have such a clear understanding of the intricacies of Scripture twenty years ago. It was a process. Much like sanctification.

Sanctification is the process by which a believer becomes more and more like Christ. We tend to assume this refers to an ethical or moral change, but I think it is more than that. As we study and read and live and love, the Holy Spirit does not just help us grow in character. We also grow in knowledge and understanding of God and Scripture.

If a solid and deep understanding of the Bible and its theology comes only after the long process of learning and teaching, of articulating and correcting, then I have awhile before I will be confident in my knowledge and certain in my theology. And that is how it should be.

I will probably never understand the Bible the way N.T. Wright does. However, I understand more every day.  I am still in the process of sanctification—a sanctification of mind, heart, and life. And although I do not have perfect understanding, I praise God that I have enough understanding  to teach others…others who are just starting the process of sanctification or have yet to begin.

When Empathy Backfires

I almost never get angry in the classroom.Bashaw

I place a high value on empathy and understanding, so in most stress-inducing situations involving students, I make myself stop and consider perspective of the student. For example, if a student has forgotten to do his journal assignment three classes in a row, I tell myself, “Perhaps this was a difficult week for him.” Or if someone makes a belligerent comment towards me in class, I reassure myself, saying, “Perhaps her family environment has developed this trait in her but she means no harm.”

But yesterday, the classroom empathy that I take great pride in, finally (and with finality!) failed me. I experienced a boiling fury—the kind that starts as bubbling acid in your belly, spreads like poison through your shaking limbs, and results in a red-faced, hyperventilating eruption—and I almost spewed fire and sulfur (of the Sodom and Gomorrah type) all over my Biblical Interpretation students.

she-hulk08pic2Roughly two-thirds of my class had not done their reading OR their homework!!! The reading schedule was on the syllabus and I had even reminded them of the details of the assignment during our previous class meeting. And yet, thirteen of my (Religion!) students showed up completely unprepared for class. I was shocked and hurt and angry and I wondered, “What went wrong?”

It was then the great spirit of empathy I had patiently practiced, which usually resulted in a renewal of hope and optimism in my heart, showed me that last thing I thought it would…reality.

As I stared into the eyes of my slacking students, I felt what they felt. They did not do their work because they knew, from their former experience with me, that I would allow them to turn in their work late, even very late, with only a 10-point penalty. And they had decided that the lack of preparation was worth the penalty.

I realized in that moment that empathy in the classroom is not always a good thing.

I went to sleep that night with a clawing feeling in my stomach. I had always thought that mercy and empathy were the twin pillars that made me who I was as a person and a teacher. And I liked those characteristics in me. Those were pillars I constructed to emulate Jesus’ life and characteristics. But it seemed that those pillars were crumbling at the cracks and I did not understand why.

Then today God showed up to spackle and buttress my pillars.

As is often the case, God encouraged me in a mundane, unexpected moment. In preparation for another class, I watched a short video by Daniel Goleman about leadership and the three kinds of empathy. A good leader, he explains, practices all three kinds of empathy:

1) cognitive empathy—the ability to see things from another person’s perspective

2) emotional empathy—the ability to feel another person’s feelings

3) empathic concern—the ability to help another person to do better and be better

And it became clear what was wrong with my empathy.

I  had been passionately practicing the first two kinds of empathy, seeing the perspectives of my students and feeling what they felt, but I had not begun to help them to be better or do better in my class. I was not showing the third kind of empathy, empathic concern. My “merciful” policy about late work and my deep “understanding” of extenuating circumstances had worked to my students’ detriment.

So what God taught me this week was that being an truly empathetic teacher means being an abler for my students…not an enabler. May God give me the strength to do just that.

A Woman Called to Ministry

As a child, I sat in the pew of a typical Southern Baptist church, hearing strong male voices reading the Scripture, leading the hymns, preaching the Word.  As a teenager, I began to notice that those male voices were never broken by lighter female intonations, that the godly women who taught me in Sunday School never prayed, much less preached, in the vast holiness of the sanctuary.  I began to look around me and realize that everyone looked alike; the black children with whom I went to school never darkened the doors of our church.  I did not understand then why my church seemed so segregated, so exclusionary.  After going to seminary and hearing similar testimonies of the Southern Baptist students around me helped me realize that my church was not the only institution holding desperately to the patriarchy of the past, living out the perfect fifties sitcom within its hallowed walls.  Yet I still could not figure out why, when the world around them had changed and grown, progressing ahead of much of the oppression of the past, so many churches had remained frozen in a time when white men ruled society, government, and especially church.

Having been reared in a loving, Christian home, I came to know Christ at an early age, earlier even than seems possible to me now.  I heard about Jesus from my kindergarten Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Foster. She talked about Jesus’ love and about the sin of humanity and though I probably did not understand everything she told me, I remember feeling both gratitude for God’s love and remorse at being a sinner. I have a clear memory of kneeling by my bed one night—I could not have been more than five years old—and crying, asking Jesus to forgive me. It is actually the first clear memory I have from my childhood. As I look back on it now I understand how remarkable it was that God reached out and showed me love as a small child and that I embraced that love even before I could read the Bible. I consider it an immeasurable blessing that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Since I grew up in an army family, we moved several times before settling in Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world. It was there that I made my faith in God public, during Vacation Bible School at Memorial Baptist Church of Killeen, TX, and I was baptized at that church in 1987 at the age of ten. Church was always a part of my life, so much so that I often tell people that the church raised me. I have always loved hearing and reading Bible stories, even as a teenager, and the Baptist churches that I attended in adolescence helped plant in me a love for the teachings of the Bible and a desire to know more and understand more about God.  I think I always felt a persistent tug toward ministry in the church. When I led Bible study groups and went on Mission trips during high school I sensed that God had gifted me in the areas of teaching and ministry. However, because the Southern Baptist tradition does not embrace the equal gifting of men and women, I never knew exactly where I would fit in ministry. The options that were open to me—children’s ministry or missions work—never clicked as the calling God had for me.

In college, I began to feel that God was leading me to study the Bible in a more formal way; I thought that God was calling me to go to seminary. Some of my fellow students at our Christian college heard that I was considering going to seminary, and they decided it was their duty to remind me that seminary was a place to train pastors, and since women could not be pastors, there was no reason for me to go. It is difficult to point to the most significant spiritual event in my life, because my life has been a continuous series of spiritual events through which God has slowly and adeptly molded me, but I think that the moment I was told that God did not want me to be a minister was a huge moment for me. I heard the words and I understood how the men who spoke them could read the Bible that way, but I sensed something was wrong with their interpretation of the Scriptures. I was sure that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and called me into the ministry and was prodding me to go to seminary and even though that calling did not seem to be compatible with what Scripture said, I was going to follow the Spirit and work out what the Bible said about that along the way.

In seminary, I began to read the Bible for the overarching story that it told about God and humanity. I learned that the way I had been taught to read the Bible—merely picking out verses here and there and piecing them together into an unorganized system of belief—did a great disservice to the message of the Bible. There was a bigger idea behind the stories and principles of the Bible that was greater than the sum of their varied parts. God loves us. We live in rebellion. God sent Jesus to bring us into a close, communicative relationship with the Triune God. God has gifted people for many different works of love and service. The Holy Spirit helps us learn about those gifts. And finally, God calls the most unlikely people. Regardless of whether Paul said women should not have authority over men or should keep silent, the bigger message of the Bible was that in Christ, there is no male or female, and God used women to do all kinds of ministry during Jesus’ life on earth and in the earliest years of the Christian church.  I knew that God wanted to use me to do whatever it was that the Holy Spirit led me to do. And though I was scared because I knew it would not be easy, I was ready to go where the Spirit led and do what God would call me to do.

God revealed the call on my life slowly but purposefully. The people who had the most influence on my spiritual journey were my religion professors.  Though I learned much from the ministers under whom I grew up, the Christians who truly modeled a servant lifestyle and the sacrifice and love of Christ were my professors.  They gave tirelessly of themselves in order to teach others how to interpret and appreciate the Bible then, in their spare time, they prayed, comforted, and encouraged their students in all of their life challenges. It is their influence that awakened in me the desire to teach and preach.  My worldview was shaped because of how they taught me to read the Bible.  I have come to understand through their instruction that the Christianity that Jesus initiated is a lifestyle of love and sacrifice, not a list of rules that exclude people who do not follow them from the kingdom. Now I believe God wants me to do for others as my professors did for me…teach people how to read and interpret the Bible so that they can carry out the purposes of God in this world faithfully and completely.

Reading the Bible as Literature

photo (2)I have an exercise for all of you today. Read the following quotes from Shakespeare and try to determine what the phrase means in the play, using your memory of the literary context. I tried to pick plays that have been made into movies so even if you have not read them, you may be familiar with the context.

 “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

                                                                          From Hamlet (V, i, 203-204)

“Then must you speak
Of One that lov’d not wisely but too well.”

                                                                          From Othello (V, ii, 343-344)

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

                                                                          From Macbeth (V, i, 38)

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”

                                                                          From Romeo and Juliet (III, i, 141)

If you were familiar with even a few of these quotes, you probably realized that the literary context is a vital key for determining what the phrase means. In the Othello quote, you may be able to ascertain that the speaker had trouble in his love life, but without the full story, you miss the anguish and irony in the statement Othello makes before he kills himself in guilt because he has suffocated his innocent wife Desdemona. We lose much of the artistry and significance of the lines without a clear idea of the overarching story and context.

The same is true of reading the Bible without paying attention to the literary context.

In the last 30 years, many Bible scholars have begun to realize the value of applying the principles and  methods typically used on literature to the study of the Bible. It makes sense that the Bible, which is a collection of various types of literature, should be studied as literature. There is much to gain from this enterprise. Literary criticism of the Bible (or studying the Bible as literature) makes many positive contributions to our understanding of the biblical text:

  •  Literary criticism takes seriously the narrative qualities of the biblical literature, which is especially helpful in the Gospels because each author narrates the life of Jesus using  various literary styles and unique story-telling techniques.
  • Literary criticism pays attention to the author and audience of each book, which help us to better appreciate the writer’s message and the situation of the first recipients. For example, when reading Philippians, it is important to note the tone that Paul uses because it alerts us to the strong, long-standing relationship he has enjoyed with that church and further deepens our understanding of his message to them.
  • Literary criticism appreciates the creativity and skill of the human author. As Christians, we recognize the divine and human authorship of the Bible. As a rule, we tend to emphasize the divine part of the authorship (“What is God saying?”) and ignore the human part (“How is the author saying this?). But the fact is that God chose some very talented communicators to pen the Scriptures and when we appreciate the artistry of an author, we can discover new and exciting dimensions to the biblical narrative. How many of us notice that Matthew brilliantly structures his Gospel in five sections in order to make a connection between Jesus’ teaching and the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch)? Only those who pay attention to that literary technique.
  • Literary criticism emphasizes the importance of reading a book as a whole unit rather than dissecting it into pieces. Understanding the themes, plot, characters, and structure of a book highlights an author’s overarching message, which is key to understanding the separate parts! In the church, however, we tend to miss the themes and structure of a book because we like to rip Bible verses out of their context. How many plaques have you seen with verses like, “For I know the plans I have for you…” and “I can do all things through Christ…”? We love our biblical sound bites! However, we are in great danger of biblical misinterpretation when we divorce a verse from the paragraph it appears in or the book in which it is found.

Clearly, studying the Bible as literature can introduce a world of new meaning and application into our study of the Bible. But recognizing this fact is only the first step. In order to begin practicing literary criticism, we have to dust off skills we learned in high school English. Here are a few of my own practical strategies that may help you start reading the Bible as literature:

1. Keep the themes of the book in mind when studying a passage (for example, as you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that he uses the themes of light/darkness, life/death, belief/unbelief, and blindness/seeing)

2. Look at people in the story as characters, formed and described with a purpose (one good place to start is to look at the disciples in the Gospel of Mark—how does the author describe them?)

3. Pay attention to the immediate and overall context of a passage— What comes before? What comes after? Where does it fit in the larger context of the book?

4. Put yourself in the place of the first-century reader and try to notice devices like conflict, irony, and point of view.

5. Look for symbols, patterns, and references to culture or other literature of the time (this is called intertextuality)

My challenge for you is to read a passage of Scripture this week and try to read it using  some of the strategies I described above. For some, this will be difficult because it is not how many of us were taught to read the Bible. For others, who enjoy literature and have practiced this on Shakespeare or American novels, it will be easier. But try it and let me know how it goes.

If you are interested in reading more about literary criticism, here are some good sources:

Mark Allan Powell. What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Joel B. Green, ed. Hearing the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995

David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, eds. Interpreting the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

David Rhoads and Donald Michie. Mark as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

R. Alan Culpepper. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Jack Dean Kingsbury. Matthew as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: a literary interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.