The Frosty Road

Our campus verse for this year is Proverbs 3:5-6. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Always acknowledge Him and he will make your path straight.

I memorized that verse so long ago that I don’t even remember when it was. I used to have these book marks in my Bible when I was 5 or 6, and that verse was on one of them.

I used to read it when I got bored in church…

Photo Credit: cheerfulmonk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cheerfulmonk via Compfight cc

Today, for whatever reason, while thinking about that verse and what it means especially for us right now, a campus in search of a new president, I also thought of the famous Robert Frost poem.

So, while considering this verse in my new favorite translation style, the New Living Translation:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
6 Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take. (Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT)

I decided to reread one of my favorite poems…

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

All of a sudden, something (God, or the Holy Spirit, or my 6th grade Sunday School teacher) hit me!

Photo Credit: I Feel Toast via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: I Feel Toast via Compfight cc

Obviously, the two roads are the roads of good and bad… faith and sin… trusting God or trusting ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I am often sorry I can’t travel both. Try one out for a while, then rewind and do it all over again? If there weren’t any consequences? That sounds pretty nice sometimes, don’t you think?

Don’t we all most times take the road of sin for as long as we can until it grows in on us, fills up with undergrowth, and we have to turn back towards the light of God? Only to look back and realize we NEVER want to go down that road again?!

God’s road and the path to salvation are sometimes not the most popular. Here at ETBU we do a good job of making those roads seem well traveled and easy, but the truth is that they aren’t. Unfortunately, God’s road is often the road less traveled by, but as Frost says, taking that road often “makes all the difference.”

AML

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

 

 

 

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

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.

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