Dinosaurs and the Bible

On one day every semester I allow my Introduction to New Testament and Introduction to Old Testament students to write down their most pressing questions about the Bible. I collect them and answer them to the best of my ability. Without fail, scribbled on at least a tenth of the torn, wadded-up papers I receive is the same question:

What does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

As adolescent as it sounds, it really is a good question. Behind the concern about where dinosaurs fit in the biblical thought-world are some deeper, more important questions. How do the Bible and the principles of science fit together? What is the nature of the Bible? And, perhaps the key question of all, How reliable is the Bible?”

For the last several centuries, the Protestant answer to these questions has involved the articulation of a very complicated doctrine…the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Wikipedia provides a lowest-common-denominator definition of Biblical Inerrancy when it describes the doctrine in this way:

The Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

The practical and applied meaning of biblical inerrancy actually involves a wide spectrum of definitions, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. Here is a general representation of the range of meanings for “inerrant.”

1)   On the extreme end, there are Christians who, when they say the Bible is inerrant, mean that there are no errors at all in its teaching about every area of life—from science and psychology to history and geography, and everything in between. The obvious problem with this claim is that there are proven errors in the historical and scientific details of the Bible, inconsistencies and contradictions that refute the claim that there are not biblical errors. However, to get around this problem, most strict inerrantists will qualify their definition with the claim that any apparent errors in the text must have been come by way of translation or scribal error. In the original manuscripts, or the autographs (which we do not have), they are correct.

2)   In the middle, we have limited inerrancy, which allows for factual errors in the biblical text because of the fallibility of the human authors. Many proponents of this position will maintain that Scripture is without error in what it intends to teach, which would not include matters such as science or geography

3)   Another position closely related to limited inerrancy involves another flexibly-defined term—infallibility. Although this word has as many different meanings as inerrancy, if not more, the main idea behind this claim is that the Bible’s teachings do not fail; they are infallible with regard to matters of faith, salvation, and Christian practice. According to the Presbyterian Church, “Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.” (As affirmed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June of 2001)

Even this cursory look at the doctrine of inerrancy reveals that there has been much disagreement about this term and thus, much debate about the nature of Scripture.

So, what does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

If you believe the Bible is inerrant in all it teaches, you must either go the way of creation museum people who explain that dinosaurs lived during the time of the patriarchs (perhaps the leviathan in Job was one?) and shun the archaeological discoveries of the last century. Or, you could claim that the days of creation in Genesis were not strict, 24-hour days but rather representations of longer periods.

But if you hold to limited inerrancy or infallibility, you could say that Genesis was not meant to be a scientific textbook or a literal history of the world; instead, it teaches us about having faith in the God of creation, who has made all that we see in the world.

So, what do you say? What do you think the Bible says about dinosaurs?

The Baggage We Bring to the Classroom

In my biblical interpretation class, we often talk about what we bring to the text when we read the Bible. None of us interprets Scripture in an objective or neutral way; we have pre-understandings and biases, “baggage” from our culture, family history, religious background and experiences that shape the way we interpret.

I think that we carry similar baggage when we come to the lectern. We have a complex matrix of predispositions constantly affecting what we teach, which style we use, how we communicate, and who we connect with in the classroom. In order to become a better teacher each of us has to become aware of our baggage.  As the knowledge of our inclinations grows, so also will our ability to recognize areas for improvement. With this in mind, I want to take inventory of my baggage and explore how this baggage plays out in the classroom. This exploration may feel a bit like a confessional, so I apologize in advance for the unfettered transparency that follows:

  • The sexist suitcase—I realize that in our culture and in many cultures throughout history, sexism has mainly taken the form of a preference for males coupled with a bias against females. My sexism is completely the opposite. In my family growing up, girls seemed to be valued and favored over boys. My aunts and female cousins were dominant, successful, and smart. They garnered most of the attention while my uncles and male cousins were the ones who faded into the background. Although much of my extended family is Mexican, we have been a matriarchal family for many decades, because my grandma was the head of our family. For my whole childhood, then, my family dynamics unconsciously reinforced the idea that girls were more treasured and important not just in our clan but in society. That history, coupled with the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better attitude I have held towards boys since I was young, causes me to favor female students in the classroom. I have to be aware of this when I teach so that I can balance out my tendencies with purposeful efforts to view my students equally. It is a constant battle I face.
  • The Case of the Extrovert—As an extreme “E” extrovert (ENFP on Myers-Briggs), it is difficult for me to think like an introvert. I have a tendency to favor the students who will speak up in class, assuming that they understand the most and work the hardest. However, I have learned from experience that many of my introverts will never say a word in class but will ace tests and write eloquent, thought-provoking papers. I must not let my own personality and proclivities influence the way I interact with my students. In order to fight against my wrong-headed tendency, I try to vary my teaching style and provide activities in class that cater to both introverts and extroverts. If I assign a skit to be performed in class, I will make sure that a part of the process involves behind-the-scenes work that will favor an introvert’s strengths as well. It is one step in the long process toward overcoming the personality baggage I bring to the classroom.
  • The Chaos Carry-on—I function well in chaos. I don’t know if that has to do with my large and loud family, or my preference for high-energy environments, or my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality, or the fact that I am quite far from the type-A personality. Probably all of the above. Because of this, my classes tend to be disorganized flexibly arranged, open to changes, and less structured, and sometime even cacophonous. There are advantages to this kind of class. I love to be able to tailor a class to the personalities of its students. If I have assigned reading quizzes but realize that I have students who enjoy sharing and debating, I will change the format to discussion and play to their strengths. I also believe that having too much structure and too many rubrics discourages creative thinking and imaginative work. Now, I can appreciate organization, and I recognize the value of rubrics and strict scheduling, and I even understand how some people prefer to learn in quiet, solitary settings. But that is not me. However, my type-A students tend to be frustrated with my flexibility and they do not learn well in a chaotic class. For this reason, I must strive for more organization and structure, even when it goes against my style. This is difficult for me but I know practice will make perfect.

These are the pieces of my classroom baggage that I have come to recognize in the last couple of years and that I am working on. There are many more on the baggage claim carousal that I have not recognized as mine. But I will keep searching myself and my culture and my history because I owe it to my students to recognize that baggage so that I become the best teacher I can…for all of them.

The Thinking Church

Why are so many young people in America leaving the Church? church-sign-antigay--300x210

A wide array of answers have been suggested lately. The Barna research group conducted eight national studies with teenagers, young adults, youth ministers and pastors in order to shed light on the issue. They found that young adults in the millennial generation find churches to be overprotective, shallow, antagonistic to science, inadequate in their teaching on sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly to those who doubt. Millennials themselves have expressed their own perspective, identifying the church’s hostility towards homosexuals to be the main reason that young adults leave the church (see the recent, overwhelming response to “An open letter to the church” blog post from Dannika Nash).

It is hard for those of us in the older generations to understand such harsh criticism. Sure, the church has its problems, but we have experienced it as a place of comfort and belonging, of worship and love. How can there be such a discrepancy between our experience and theirs and, more importantly, what does the younger generation need that the church is not giving them?

Several months ago,in a much-discussed CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans suggested that what millennials (herself included) need from the church is authentic worship, theological substance, an end to the culture wars, a truce between faith and science, a moratorium on divisive politics, and a challenge to live holy and sacrificial lives like Christ.

I want to suggest that all of these needs can be expressed in one foundational need: The younger generation needs a thinking church.

For most of the church’s history, the leaders of the church–pastors, priests, and other clergy–were the most educated people of their times. Even into the twentieth century, it was common for pastors to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and to have attended the most prestigious schools on earth. Today, we study the sermons and letters of preachers from the past to learn from the clarity of their thought and the beauty of their prose.

However, in the last century, key movements swept across the landscape of the church and changed it drastically. The holiness movement, the first and second Great Awakening, the growth of the charismatic church, the birth of evangelicalism, and the rise of fundamentalism all shifted the focus away from matters of the head to focus on the importance of the heart. With these movements, the church began to seek revival rather than research, to value the work of the Spirit rather than the work of the scholar, to emphasize the importance of conversion and morality over education and tradition. These were all welcome and important changes and they could have enacted a healthy balance in the church.

But as is common with the human practice of religion, we went too far. Churches that emphasized the Holy Spirit became suspicious of seminary and theological education. Churches that valued the Scriptures above all else began to exalt the Bible to a place of idolatry, worshipping the literal words of its pages rather than the living message it conveyed. Churches that centered their services on fear-inducing sermons of the hellfire and brimstone type started to lose the practices of reflective worship and repentant prayer, of intellectual inquiry and cultural engagement.

And so the scales tipped. Suddenly, churches were not encouraging Christians to be educated and articulate, to study science and literature and art along with Scripture, or to search for deep, thoughtful answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, churches began to discourage difficult questions and academic interaction with the world. They felt challenged by—and consequently became hostile to—new ideas, new technology, and new ways of thinking, speaking, and ministering. The chasm I described in my earlier posts began to grow–that chasm between the intellectual pursuit of God exemplified by the pastors of the 19th and 20th century (also by Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17!) and the religious practice of the 21st century church characterized by fear of scholarship and distrust of the academy.

When the younger generation looks at the church of today, they realize that as the church, we might feel passionately, protest loudly, and correct indiscriminately, but we do not think deeply. And at the end of the day, our young people need A THINKING CHURCH.

A THINKING CHURCH would be able to converse with the fields of science and literature and business and  education, to find truth in them and speak truth to them as well;

A THINKING CHURCH would interact with culture and the arts, infusing more creativity in its worship and more cultural relevance in its message medium;

A THINKING CHURCH would train its people in apologetics, the art of defending the faith with articulation and compassion;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to talk with people who are from different backgrounds—whether different religions or cultures—to  learn from other beliefs while remaining firm in the tenets of their own faith;

A THINKING CHURCH would be eager to discuss answers to the difficult theological questions that many millennials ask, like:

  • How does the message of the Bible fit with the principles of science?
  • How can so many Christians read the Bible and come up with different interpretations?
  • How can I love my neighbor (who may have different beliefs from me) while remaining strong in the ethical teachings of Scripture?
  • How can a sovereign God of love allow so much evil in this world?;

A THINKING CHURCH would be prepared to offer compassion and support to those who doubt, who find themselves stuck at the uncomfortable intersection of faith and reason;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to change, ready to grow, and open to admitting when they were wrong.

Critical Thinking at Church picWhat the millennials really need is for the church of history, with its intellectual prowess and curiosity about the world, to meet the churches of today, with their passion for Scripture and ethics and service and Spirit. They need to see the body of Christ, in action, engaging soul and heart and strength and mind in order to change the world with the love of God.

Are we, as the church of today, ready to become the thinking church that our young people so desperately need and, if so, how do we do it?

The Chasm, part 2: The People of the Chasm

In my last post, I lamented the wide chasm that separates the church and the “academy” (biblical scholars and their scholarship), a separation I have noticed since the beginning of my theological education and that I am consistently reminded of as I teach New Testament to college students in the Bible belt. In an attempt to transform my fruitless complaints into conversation, I want to use my next couple of posts delve deeper into the chasm and discuss the people who contribute to the chasm, the problems or symptoms that result from the chasm, and the possible solutions we can work toward to eliminate the chasm.

The People of the Chasm:

Are you kidding me?

Group #1: “PLAIN SENSE” CHRISTIANS

These are the devout believers in local churches who can quote Bible verses (out of context), list the books of the New Testament in order, and proof-text better than an inspirational greeting card company. Although many in this group truly desire to understand what the Bible says, they know (or care) little about the literary themes and historical contexts of the Bible, the major doctrines of Christianity, the principles behind responsible biblical interpretation, or even the overarching “big story” the Scriptures are telling. Often, individuals in this group become confident that their interpretation is the only right interpretation of scripture, that their reading, the “literal” or “plain sense” reading, is the only way to read the Bible. This group is suspicious and even fearful of theological education, telling young ministers things like, “Don’t go off to seminary unless you want to lose your faith!,” or, “You do not need anything but a Bible and the Spirit to interpret God’s Word.” Of course, I affirm that the Holy Spirit can speak to any reader of Scripture, regardless of their education or background; however, we all need to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is sometimes a hard task and we would all do it better if we did it as a well-equipped, well-informed body of Christ rather than individuals who confuse Bible knowledge with Bible understanding. When we fail to grasp the complex beauty and depth of the biblical literature, reducing it instead to folksy advice and empty platitudes, the true message of Gospel can be obscured or misapplied in a way that hurts others.

Group #2: OUT-OF-TOUCH INTELLECTUALS:

These are the well-educated Bible scholars who have studied the Scriptures for decades, have a good grasp of its background and content, and have the skills necessary to do responsible biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this group spends little time teaching people in the churches what they know, instead choosing to write specialist books on specialist topics with specialist vocabulary that no one in a typical church would ever want to read, even if they could. This group is on the other side of the chasm from group #1, although occasionally a few of its members will lay bricks to start the bridge to the other side (the scholar-pastors).

Bible Scholars

Group #3: PROBLEMATIC PASTORS

These are the pastors, both educated and uneducated, who do not take the time to prepare themselves and their people for the challenge of reading and applying the Bible. Pastors could be the largest part of the construction crew to build a bridge over the chasm, but many instead contribute to it. Some do not realize how much time it takes to study and compose a biblically-sound sermon. Some cannot accept that although the Spirit does speak, hearing the Spirit well takes time, thought, and preparation. Some were not properly trained in biblical interpretation, so may need to humble themselves and seek more education. Whatever the problem might be, it is not a solely personal problem because it affects the people in the church who trust and rely on the exegesis and wisdom of their preachers. Although it is true that pastoring is a hard, time-consuming job with high demands, it must be so because the people in group #1 need to be guided to participate in the chasm solution instead of being part of the problem. We who are pastors and teachers must strive for excellence because people depend on us.

OTHER GROUPS?

Have I missed any groups that contribute to the chasm? I would like to hear from you. Leave a Comment.

NEXT WEEK…the problems the chasm creates in our church and society.

The Chasm

bridge over chasm

I admit I am nervous every time a new semester starts and I get up in front of a room of college students (many of whom have been in church their whole lives), and proceed to teach them the Bible. To calm myself, I remember the advice that seasoned professors have given me over and over:

“Oh, don’t worry! Just remember that you know so much more than they do!”

This is true.  Sometimes I take great solace and even pleasure in that fact.

But should I really be pleased that college students living in the Bible belt, raised in the church, who have heard sermon after sermon and studied Scripture in Sunday school and in their quiet times and in their youth groups, still know so little about reading and interpreting the Bible?

No. I should be shocked and saddened.

I give a “what you know” quiz on the first day of Introduction to the New Testament. These questions only cover basic content, order, and historical background, nothing analytical or interpretive. My students fail miserably. Take the quiz yourself as see how you fare:

1. How many books are in the New Testament?

2. Who wrote the book of Acts?

3. Around what year was the first NT book probably written? If you don’t know a year, give a decade or even a century.

4. Which Gospel was probably written first?

5. What was Paul’s name when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus?

6. Who ruled Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?

7. In the New Testament, which book comes after Jude?

Invariably, question number 5 yields the most right answers. Why? Saul/Paul is a popular topic in Sunday School literature, repeated at least every year if not more often. The next two questions that students tend to answer correctly are #1 and #7. These are both bits of information a child would learn in Bible Drill but have little to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible.

Only a handful of students ever answer the four remaining questions right, the ones that concern the background, context, and authors of the New Testament. Tragically, without the knowledge of issues such as these, right and responsible interpretation of the Bible remains difficult and out of our grasp.

After all, how would we know to read Acts as the second part of the Gospel of Luke if we did not know that Luke wrote it? We would not know to look for similar themes and emphases and patterns that unlock many important undercurrents. Such ignorance does a great disservice to our interpretation and application of the story of the early church.

What about being aware of the time and historical context during which the epistles and Gospels were written? The language, customs, religious practices, political structures, and societal norms of the biblical times are foreign to those of us living in 21st century America. If we did not know that the New Testament authors wrote in the first century, in a world ruled by the Romans but heavily influence by the Greeks, surrounded by Jewish and pagan religious traditions, how could we ever decipher its images and symbols, the turns of phrases or the metaphors employed? We couldn’t.

So when I grade my students’ quizzes on the first day of class, I am staring into a great, yawning chasm. It is a chasm that represents the great distance between what Christians should know about the Bible and what they actually know. It is a chasm that represents the insurmountable division between the academy (religion scholars who have the training to read the Bible well but do not pass that knowledge to the people in the pew) and the clergy (pastors and teachers in the church who have not been trained to interpret the Bible in its context but still pass on their interpretations as truth). It is a chasm that separates dangerous and irresponsible interpretations based on intuition (such as those that fuel Westboro Baptist Church or result in snake-bitten believers) from edifying and responsible interpretations based on solid hermeneutics.

It is a chasm I am working to bridge when I teach my students all the things they did not learn in church. It is a chasm I hope my students will help bridge when they go on to teach what they have learned in their churches. It is a chasm that I hope, one day, with many of us in the church and the academy working together, will be bridged once and for all.

Answers to the quiz: 1) 27; 2) Luke; 3) I would accept any date around 45-55 AD or just the first century AD; 4) Mark; 5) Saul; 6) The Roman Empire; 7) Revelation
 

Who I am: teacher, learner, pastor, mom

photo (2)The first thing you need to know about me is that I am not your typical Religion professor.

I do not scratch my beard thoughtfully as I discuss soteriology with my esteemed colleagues. In fact, I do not have a beard and I hope I never will.

I do not sport a tweed jacket, well-worn, with patches on the elbow and thick, tortoise-shell glasses. Usually, I rock (what I like to think are) trendy, youngish-looking dresses and contact lenses.

I do not spend hours in the library, pouring over dusty theology books, and meticulously planning my contribution to academia. I actually prefer to read vampire novels and Entertainment Weekly magazine (because, after all, knowing about pop culture helps me make a contribution to my student’s lives, right?)

In short, I have little in common with the stereotype of a Bible professor.

Who I am is a wife and mother of three young boys who sometimes has to clean up kid vomit on her way out the door to her 8:00 class (thankfully, this week my husband finished the clean-up so I would not be late!).

Who I am is an ordained, female Baptist pastor, which in this neck of the woods is an anomaly (anathema?) and some would even say an oxymoron. [sidenote: I may be oxymoronic in many ways but being a Baptist woman in ministry is not one of them! This subject will crop up in later blog posts, I assure you]

Who I am is an interpreter (and lover!) of the Bible who learns as much from her students as she teaches. I am the same kind of teacher as I am a learner—I prefer creative projects and group discussion instead of lecture soliloquies and structured outlines. I believe active and creative participation in the classroom implants seeds of knowledge into students (or maybe I should call them learners?) that will take root and grow rather than bounce off hard ground.

Who I am is a fledgling professor who wants to become better at teaching the Bible effectively and intentionally, with passion and grace.

Since I have been a student for four times (!!!) as long as I have been a teacher, much of what I know about teaching I learned from my amazing professors (shout out to Dr. Rosalie Beck and Dr. Roger Olson!). What these teachers have modeled for me is that the strength of a teacher’s character is as important as the strength of a teacher’s content.

With this in mind, I offer a prayer we teachers can pray as we begin a new year:

Lord, help me to be humble, so my teaching will be malleable;
Lord, help me to be creative, so my teaching will be memorable;
Lord, help me to be purposeful, so my teaching will be meaningful; and,
Lord, help me to be transparent, so my teaching will be a message. AMEN

In this blog, I will be recounting the ins and outs (and ups and downs!) of teaching the Bible to the millennial generation in this place God has placed me…East Texas. I hope you can learn from my troubles and my triumphs and I invite you to leave comments along the way so I can learn from yours.