Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Get Yer Bible Here!

It is time once more for my weekly Bible giveaway. As part of the Common English Bible Blog Tour, I can award one happy reader of this blog a free paperback copy of the CEB. If you want it, just comment on this post. Give me your name and mailing address, so that I can forward them to the publisher.
I promise that I will not publish your personal information.

First reply to this post gets it. There will be another giveaway next week.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Snuggly Swaddled

 Babies like to be swaddled. Who knew?

Okay, maybe you knew, but I didn’t. I don’t have children. I have never been responsible for the care of a newborn. Swaddling, to me, is an academic subject.

Apparently wrapping babies up snugly (snuggly?) in cloths soothes them. It warms them. Maybe it reminds them of the womb. Swaddling, with due caution of course, seems to be a good thing.

Mary knew.

She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2:7 CEB)

The knowledge of swaddling must have been passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation, until it reached Mary of Nazareth. Despite the trying circumstances under which she gave birth to Jesus, Mary cared for him as best she could, swaddling him, comforting him, nourishing him, protecting him, loving him, and laying him down in a manger to sleep.

Jesus came into the world like every one of us: naked, helpless, needful of food, clothing, shelter, and love which Mary. and Joseph too I’m sure, provided.

The great scandal of the Christian faith is our proclamation that, in this tiny, dependent infant resting in a feed box, God has come to be with his people. And again, God is revealed to us in the helpless man, stripped, beaten, dying, affixed to a cross.

This is where humanity and deity, history and eternity, heaven and earth meet.

Not in great shows of power, not with muscle flexing demonstrations of might, but in a swaddled newborn our God has come to us.

Christmas blessings to you, dear reader.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Look At My Bible


For my participation in the Common English Bible Blog Tour I was given a copy of the CEB. I chose an edition that included the Apocrypha. Although the deuterocanonical books are not a part of my church's canon, I find them valuable and instructive to read. I have read the entire CEB New Testament and am now working my way though the Apocrypha. I'm in the middle of Sirach (you may call it Ecclesiasticus if you wish) at the moment.

Except for that business about DNA in 1 John 3:9, I very much like the CEB. (The CEB's translation of Wisdom of Solomon renders the same Greek word (σπέρμα "sperma") as "genetic character." This is better but still anachronistic.) The CEB is fresh, readable, and for the most part, clear.

The copy of the CEB that I was given is bound in black DecoTone (an imitation leather that I suspect is really pebble-grained vinyl. In former times it might have been called "leatherette." In other applications it might be called "pleather.") The thin pages are edged with silver. There is a sewn-in ribbon marker. Everything about this book says "Bible."

The text is set in two columns. The typeface is a readable 9 point serifed font. Headings are san serif. Footnotes are italicized.

At the back of the book there is a set of 8 color maps prepared by National Geographic. These are, honestly, some of the best looking Bible maps I've ever seen. There is, however, no index to the maps. An index would greatly improve their usefulness. (Are you listening CEB?)

The publishers of the CEB are giving away copies of the Bible through the blogs of participants in the Blog Tour. I have heard from the recipients of some of the Bibles I've given away. They tell me that the copy they received is a paperback edition which includes the 66 books of the Protestant canon (i.e. no Apocrypha). It sounds as if the typeface and page design are identical to the edition I received. Those beautiful maps are included.

If you would like to receive a free paperback copy of the CEB, just be the first to reply to this blog post. Give me your name and address. I promise I won't publish any identifying information. I need to forward your info to the publisher so that they can send you the Bible.

The image of the CEB at the top of this post was found at amazon.com.


Friday, December 16, 2011

The Sign of Immanuel


Many of the details of the story are lost to history, but this much seems clear. Around the year 732 BCE, King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Aram formed an alliance and marched against King Ahaz of Judah. In response to this threat, Ahaz, a descendant of King David, appealed for help to King Tiglath-Pilaser of Assyria.

The prophet Isaiah, a staunch supporter of the Davidic dynasty, was absolutely opposed to Ahaz’s plan to seek foreign support. The prophet confronted the King and declared that his enemies were destined to fail.

“Ask for a sign,” the prophet said.

The King piously demurred, “I will not test the Lord.” Many have questioned the sincerity of Ahaz’s piety. He never showed much attachment to the God of Israel.

“Then the Lord will give you a sign, anyway,” Isaiah replied. “An almah is pregnant...”

A what?

Almah is a Hebrew word which, according to a footnote in the Jewish Study Bible (p. 798-9) “denotes a young woman of marriageable age, whether married or unmarried, whether a virgin or not.”

There is nothing extraordinary about an almah being pregnant. But, let’s finish Isaiah’s prophesy:

The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. The LORD will bring upon you, upon your people, and upon your families days unlike any that have come since the day Ephraim broke away from Judah—the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:14b-17, CEB)

Exactly what in this constitutes the sign is not entirely clear. It may be the pregnancy, the birth, the name or the child’s diet. What is clear is that, in a few years time, the threat posed by Kings Pekah and Rezin will be gone, but Ahaz will face a greater threat, the Lord’s anger for his alliance with Assyria.

Translation is an art, not a science. If translation were a science, babelfish would work better. The fact is, a word in one language may not have an exact equivalent in another language.

The Septuagint is an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was compiled beginning in the third century BCE and ending in the second or first century BCE. When the New Testament, which was written in Greek, quotes from the Hebrew Bible, it uses the Septuagint translation.

At Isaiah 7:14, the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew word almah with the Greek parthenos. In the New Testament era parthenos definitely meant “virgin.” The Gospel of Matthew quotes the Septuagint version of this verse in reference to the birth of Jesus:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “ Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. ” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
      Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
      And they will call him, Emmanuel.
     ( Emmanuel means “ God with us. ” )
                         (Matthew 1:18-23, CEB).

Some English versions of the Bible (e.g. the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible) translate almah at Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” This makes the Hebrew Scripture accord with Matthew’s use of it. This seems to me an illegitimate translation strategy. It removes Isaiah’s prophecy from its historical context and makes it seem as if Isaiah’s oracle was only a prediction of Jesus’ miraculous birth. It is a dishonesty in the service of doctrine.

I prefer the strategy adopted by the CEB and the New Revised Standard Version (among others), translating almah as “young woman” at Isaiah 7:14 and allowing Matthew’s quote from the Septuagint to speak for itself. Matthew’s use of Old Testament prophecy has more to do with typology than prediction anyway.

Some will argue that translating almah as “young woman” undermines the doctrine of the virgin birth. It doesn’t. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both state clearly that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin. What gets undermined is a false notion of what constitutes prophesy and fulfillment in the Bible.

The picture of King Ahaz and Gandolfi's Painting of Joseph's Dream were both found at Wiki. As a participant in the CEB Blog Tour, I was given a copy of the Common English Bible, and I am able to give a copy of the CEB away each week. Watch for your opportunity to win a free paperback edition of the CEB next week.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who Wants A Bible?

As a participant in the Common English Bible "Thank You-Come Again-I Promise" Blog Tour, I can give away a copy of the CEB once each week for three months. I've been reading, and enjoying the CEB.

So, first reply to this post gets a free, handsomely bound copy of the Common English Bible.

Just say "I want it" and give me your mailing information. I promise I won't publish your address!

StoryGuy? Are you out there?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Steamrollers and DNA


The Living Bible (1971) is a paraphrase of the Christian Scriptures by Baptist preacher Ken Taylor. Taylor based his paraphrase on the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV) translation. Dynamic and highly readable, The Living Bible became a bestseller. I suspect that it has actually been read by many people who might otherwise find the Bible difficult and intimidating.

I remember, years ago, discovering an anachronism in Taylor’s text. In the forty-first chapter of Job, the Lord, speaking from a whirlwind, describes the mythical monster called Leviathan. Here is Taylor’s rendering of verse 30:

His belly is covered with scales as sharp as shards; he drags across the ground like a steamroller! 

For comparison, here is the ASV text on which Taylor based his paraphrase:

His underparts are like sharp potsherds: He spreadeth as it were a threshing-wain upon the mire.

Even though there were no steamrollers in Old Testament times, I think that Taylor’s paraphrase is an improvement on his source. What the heck is a threshing-wain anyway? Because The Living Bible is a paraphrase, Taylor’s anachronism doesn’t trouble me. I find the theological biases of The Living Bible much more bothersome than the appearance of modern heavy road construction equipment.

When I went googling to find Taylor’s steamroller reference, I stumbled across another biblical steamroller. This one is found in Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Peterson calls his work a translation because it was made from the original languages. Like The Living Bible, however, The Message is highly interpretive and idiomatic. I like it a lot, but prefer to think of it as an English paraphrase made from the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Peterson's steamroller shows up in Daniel 11:22, which describes a “contemptible” ruler, probably Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Here is Taylor’s rendering:

He'll come in like a steamroller, flattening the opposition. Even the Prince of the Covenant will be crushed.

And for comparison, here is the same verse from my go-to Bible, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

Armies shall be utterly swept away and broken before him, and the prince of the covenant as well.

Because it is the nature of a paraphrase to be vivid and interpretive, I don’t object to the steamrollers in The Living Bible and The Message.

New Rule: From now on, the appearance of a steamroller in a version of the Bible immediately qualifies that version as a paraphrase.

As a participant in the Common English Bible “Thank You-Come Again-I Promise” Blog Tour, I will soon receive a free copy of the Common English Bible (CEB). I have also been able to give away a free copy of the CEB to a reader of this blog each week for the three months of the tour. So far, I have given away 3 copies of this newly published translation. I would not take part in the blog tour if I didn’t actually like the CEB. There are translations out there that I would not help to promote.

I have been reading the New Testament in the CEB translation. I started a few weeks ago at Matthew and am now poised to begin Revelation. I have had occasional quibbles with the CEB’s translation choices, but that is par for the course. And my quibbles have only been quibbles. Overall, I have found the CEB New Testament to be a clear and lively translation from the Greek.

Last night I read the Johannine Epistles and was surprised to find an anachronism in 1 John 3:9:

Those born from God don’t practice sin because God’s DNA remains in them. They can’t sin because they are born from God.

Just to be clear, DNA was unknown in the first century when 1 John was written. DNA was not discovered until 1869, and its double helix structure was not described until 1953. DNA in this verse is a glaring anachronism.

A footnote in the CEB offers “genetic character” as an alternative to DNA.

For comparison, here is the same verse from the NRSV:

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.

The NRSV’s “seed” is a rather literal translation of the Greek word σπέρμα (sperma). This word has a range of meaning that, according to the Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon, includes “seed of plants....descendants....genetic character, nature, disposition.”

I think that 1 John is saying that Christian believers have undergone an ontological change. Their sinful nature has been replaced by God’s sinless nature. This change goes right down to their very marrow, their seed, their DNA. The CEB’s anachronistic translation brings this meaning out in a powerful and striking way. It is clearer and more vivid to a modern reader than the NRSV’s more literal “seed.”

But it is an anachronism, and probably better suited to a paraphrase than to a translation.

What do you think? Are anachronisms permissible in translations if they accurately render the meaning of the original text, or should that kind of interpretation be left to preachers and the writers of footnotes?

I am not a gambling man, but if I were, I would bet that the second edition of the Common English Bible will not include DNA in 1 John 3:9. The pictures of the steamroller and DNA were both found at wikipedia.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The CEB Doesn't Sound Biblical


One of my favorite movies of recent years was the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit. If you have seen the film, you know that the characters, all of them, have an unusual way of speaking. They don’t use contractions. Instead of “I’m” they say “I am.” Instead of “won’t” they say “will not.” This quirk of dialogue was taken over directly from the Coen Brothers’ source material: the novel True Grit by Charles Portis. It is almost as if Portis’ typewriter was missing the apostrophe key.

This curious speech pattern gives the Coen Brothers’ movie a strange quality, an alien gravity. It is almost biblical and that is appropriate in a story replete with religious themes and images.

I heard somewhere (I wish I could find a reference) that people living in Arkansas in the 1870s, the movie’s setting, actually spoke this way. They learned to read from the King James Bible and that version of Scripture stamped its mark on the patterns and cadences of their speech.

I was taught long ago to avoid the use of contractions in formal writing. (Is blogging formal?) Everyday speech is another matter. I had a friend in high school who did not use contracted forms in speaking. It was, frankly, a little weird.

What I’m saying is this: English spoken today without contractions sounds biblical and odd. But that’s not right. The Bible was not written to sound odd. It was written in the everyday language of its first readers. Granted, some of the Scriptures are more formal than others, some more poetic, some more dialogic, but all of the Scriptures were intended by their writers to be read aloud and, I think, to sound right.

In ancient times all reading, even private reading, was done aloud.

The recently published Common English Bible is replete with contractions. A page from the CEB website notes:
The Common English Bible is the only translation to extensively use contractions where the text warrants an engaging conversational style (not used in divine or poetic discourse).

No translation is perfect, of course, but the CEB has much to commend it. One of the things I like about it is that it doesn’t sound strange. It reads like normal English. Dare I say that it doesn’t sound “biblical?” When read aloud, the CEB sounds right.

A sample verse from my daily Bible reading:
Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words. (1 Peter 1:8 CEB)

As a participant in the Common English Bible “Thank You-Come Again-I Promise” Blog Tour, I can give away a Bible a week for three months. First person to reply to this post gets a free copy of the CEB. Just say “I want it” and, after I reply, send me your address. I’ll forward your information to B and B Media, and they will send you your Bible.

The picture of Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin in
True Grit was borrowed from this website.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Well, Are You Jesus the Nazarene or Aren't You?


A 1631 edition of the King James Bible printed in London contained a typographical error that earned it the nickname “The Wicked Bible.” Exodus 20:14 should have read “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Instead, it said “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

The printer was heavily fined. Today, copies of the Wicked Bible are rare and valuable.

Last week I stumbled upon a similar error in an electronic version of the recently published Common English Bible. I point this out mostly because I find it amusing. I very much like both the Common English Bible and You Version, an app that makes many versions of the Bible available for no charge. I use and recommend both the CEB and You Version.

So here’s the typo:

Jesus knew everything that was to happen to him, so he went out and asked, "Who are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus the Nazarene." He said to them, "I Am." (Judas, his betrayer, was standing with them.) When he said, "I Am," they shrank back and fell to the ground. He asked them again, "Who are you looking for?" They said, "Jesus the Nazarene." "I’m not," he replied.      (John 18:4-7)

How did this happen? It seems that somehow, the words “‘I’m not,’ he replied” were misplaced from the end of John 18:17 and are actually Peter’s answer to the question “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

I have contacted You Version and have been assured that the mistake will be corrected soon.

Print copies of the CEB do not contain this typo. As part of the Common English Bible “Thank You-Come Again-I Promise” Blog Tour I can give away another free Bible. First person to reply to this post wins it.

I found the image of the infamous misprint at Wikipedia, of course. If you win the Bible, I will ask you to send me your address in a reply which I will not publish. The Bible will be sent directly from the publisher.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Common English Bible "Thank You-Come Again-I Promise" Blog Tour


As I've mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, I try to read through the Bible about once a year. I like to read different translations, so when a free-for-the-asking promotional paperback edition of the Common English Bible (CEB) New Testament was made available last year, I didn't think twice about requesting a copy. I put it on the shelf for an eventual read-through.

This year I read the Hebrew Scriptures in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. As a friend of mine says, it is refreshing to read the Old Testament in a translation that has no Christian bias. I also, for the first time, read the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish order: Torah, Prophets, Writings. It was enlightening.

When I finished the Tanakh translation, about a week ago, I picked up that free copy of the CEB New Testament. As of the moment of this writing, I have read from Matthew through the sixth chapter of John and I'm liking it. The CEB seems to be a sound, scholarly translation written in vigorous modern English.

Yesterday, I downloaded the entire CEB, including the Apocrypha, to my mobile device using the You Version app. Both the app and the CEB download are free. I've noticed a few formatting issues in the CEB text, but I expect that these will soon be resolved in an update. (You Version, are you reading this?)

At any rate, yesterday I also saw that Craig, over at his Simul Iustus et Peccator blog had joined the Common English Bible "Thank You-Come Again-I Promise" Blog Tour. I had to look into this. It seems that the CEB, as part of a fairly aggressive promotional campaign, is giving away Bibles to bloggers who join the tour.

I have to say, I don't work for the CEB or its publisher. I just genuinely like this translation. And a free Bible in A "leather-like binding" is hard to pass up. So I'm signing on. If you have a blog of your own, you can join the Blog Tour, too. Follow this link for the details.

As part of this blog tour, I can give away one copy of the CEB for every week that I participate. That means that you can win a free CEB Bible through this blog! For this week, I'll award the free Bible to the first person who replies to this post. Hit the reply button, and say you want the Bible. I will reply to your comment and ask you to send me your mailing address in another reply which I will NOT publish. I will then send your address to the CEB people and they will mail you a Bible.

I'll say more about the CEB, and give more readers a chance to win a copy, in future posts. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October 21, 2011

The followers of Baptist preacher William Miller believed that Jesus would return by March 21, 1844. When this prediction proved false, the Millerites did some quick recalculations and pinned their hopes on October 22 of that same year. It is probably a relief to you and me that this date passed without apocalyptic incident, but the Millerites came to call it “The Great Disappointment.”

A short time later Ellen G. White had a vision in which she learned that, while nothing visible had happened on October 22, 1844, something invisible had, in fact, occurred. Jesus had entered the sanctuary of the heavenly temple. On the basis of this teaching, the phoenix of Seventh Day Adventism arose from the ashes of the Millerite movement.

In 1992, Harold Camping wrote a book called 1994? in which he speculated that the Rapture might occur on September 6 of that titular year. The day, of course, came and went like any other day. Nothing visible happened. This was no problem for Camping. As Ellen White had done, Camping simply explained that something invisible had happened. The “Church Age” had ended. From that time on, salvation could not be found in the institutional churches. Instead, salvation was available only through Camping’s ministry.

In the 1994? book, Camping left himself an out. His calculations also indicated that, should the world last that long, May 21, 2011 would be a significant date. As May 21 approached we saw the billboards and caravan vehicles and media reports trumpeting Camping’s message. May 21, 2011 would be Judgment Day. “The Bible Guarantees It!” On that day the true believers would be caught up in the air to meet Jesus. Worldwide earthquakes would mark the beginning of a 6 month period of punishment, horror and tribulation. Then on October 21, the planet earth would cease to exist.

As we all by now know, no judgment took place on May 21. At least there was no visible judgment. At sfgate.com, reporter Justin Berton writes that Camping “now characterizes May 21 as a ‘tremendous event’ that unleashed a spiritual judgment day, just not the material one that he expected.”

It all sounds a little familiar.

Harold Camping is now pinning his apocalyptic hope on Friday, October 21. Quoting again from the sfgate article:
On recently recorded podcasts, Camping hedged his Oct. 21 prediction - "Probably there will be no pain suffered by anyone because of their rebellion against God" - but he maintained that, ultimately, the end is nigh.
"I really am beginning to think as I've restudied these matters that there's going to be no big display of any kind," Camping said. "The end is going to come very, very quietly."

Camping is beginning to sound a little more like T.S. Eliot than John of Patmos.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
                   --T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)

Camping will be wrong again. He will be wrong for all of the same reasons that he was wrong before. He will be wrong for the same reason that every date-setter has been wrong. The bible doesn't work the way they claim.

I plan to be here still on October 22, which, perhaps coincidentally, is the 167th anniversary of the Great Disappointment.

Illustrating this post is Albrecht Dürer's magnificent woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Last month, the Bad Theology blog chronicled some of the misguided end times speculation that centered around Rosh Hashanah. It is my sincere prayer that we will all one day give up this stupid date-setting game.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Preaching Like Matthew, or Mark...


Last month I attended the annual Professional Leaders’ Conference (PLC) of the Northern Illinois Synod. Our speaker this year was Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. As might be expected from a PhD homiletician, Dr. Long is a knowledgeable and engaging speaker.

During one of his presentations, Dr. Long said that, in today’s culture, we should preach “less like Luke and more like Matthew. You know Luke,” he said, “story, story, story, story. But Matthew is story, teaching, story, ethics....” This was an interesting point in its own right, but it sent my mind chasing down a rabbit trail.

New Testament scholars tell us that Matthew and Luke both used Mark, and a hypothetical document called “Q” as sources for their own works. It’s clear from his use of Mark that Matthew tended to follow the wording of his sources but felt free to rearrange their order. Luke, on the other hand, stuck more closely to the order of his source material, but felt free to rewrite it.

Matthew rearranges. Luke rewrites.

Matthew grouped his teaching material into five discourses interspersed among narratives. Luke incorporated the teaching material into his narrative. That’s how Dr. Long could describe Luke as “story, story, story, story” and Matthew as “story, teaching, story, ethics.”

So this set me thinking: “what would it mean to preach like Mark?” A sermon in the style of Mark’s Gospel would be short, dark, somewhat ambiguous and open-ended.

And John? A sermon in the style of John’s Gospel would be a story followed by a long discussion of its spiritual meaning.

During a break at PLC, I mentioned this to Dr. Long. He said, “Yes, and there would be poetry in a sermon in John’s style.” This made me revise my thinking about preaching like Luke. Luke also used poetry and had a rather high-falutin’ prose style.

Then I wondered “what would it be like to preach in the style of Paul’s letters?” Paul’s writings have a good deal of personal testimony. (Paul was his own favorite example). Paul was frequently blunt and occasionally crude. He had harsh words for his opponents, but was warm and personable toward his friends.

I suppose that it might also be possible to preach like the Book of Revelation, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It would only confuse and frighten people.

The painting of Martin Luther preaching was by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I don't think Martin Luther would care too much which which New Testament writer a preacher styled a sermon after, as long as the cross of Christ was proclaimed clearly.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Read the Bible from Cover to Cover


Preachers like me are always telling people to read their Bibles. Personally, I think that even non-believers should read the entire Bible, if only for the sake of cultural literacy. Of course there is a small danger that reading the Bible might make believers of them. On the other hand, there is probably an equal danger that actually reading the Bible could cause a believer to lose faith. In spite of these dangers, I would encourage everyone to read the Bible.

I personally read the Bible through about once a year.

I know that the idea of reading the entire Bible is daunting for many people. It is a thick book and parts of it are difficult. I also know that there are many people who have tried to read the Bible beginning at Genesis 1:1 and given up by the time they hit one of those long lists of “begats” (e.g. Genesis 5) or the arcane Levitical laws dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy (see Leviticus 13 and 14).

Readers should probably know that both testaments of the Bible are front loaded with good stories and get progressively weirder as they go along.

With all of that in mind, if you would like to read the Bible from cover to cover, here are some suggestions that might help you reach Revelation 22:21.

Take it in small pieces. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Reading for 15 or 20 minutes a day should easily get most readers through the entire Bible (even with the Apocrypha) in less than a year. You don’t have to be legalistic about this. It is even OK to skip a day every now and then. Just keep in mind that the way to reach any goal is by taking incremental steps.

It’s OK to skim some parts. Really, it is. Those genealogies, for instance. If it says “Joe was the father of Fred and Fred was the father of Percy and Percy was the father of Jack,” the pertinent information is “Joe...Fred...Percy...Jack.” You don’t have to read every word.

This goes for passages like Numbers 7 as well. In that chapter the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel offer identical sacrifices one after the other. This is boilerplate. The only things that change from paragraph to paragraph are the number of the day and the name of the leader. It’s OK to skim this stuff.

Use a readable translation. My friend Matt says that there are more than 500 English versions of the Bible. Some of them are easier to read than others. I like the New Revised Standard Version that we use in church but I know that there are many easier-to-read translations for example, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation, and the Common English Bible. The point is, if you find one translation difficult, there is probably another that will suit you better.

A caveat: Don’t read a paraphrase. Paraphrased Bibles like Ken Taylor’s The Living Bible and Eugene Peterson’s The Message have their place. If, however, you tell me that you have read the entire Bible from one of these paraphrases, I will snort derisively in your general direction. I’m a snob like that.

Seriously, there are many good, readable translations of the Bible. There is no need to resort to a paraphrase. The time to read a paraphrase is after you’ve read a good translation.

Get some help.  A good study Bible can be a big aid to understanding the Bible. Introductions to the individual books of the Bible will set them in their historical context and make their message clearer. Footnotes help to clarify obscure passages. I still recommend Augsburg Fortress’s Lutheran StudyBible

You don’t have to read it in order. If the idea of reading four Gospels in a row doesn’t thrill you, break them up with other books of the Bible. There are many Bible reading plans available that might be helpful.

Do whatever it takes. When I read difficult portions of any text, I sometimes find that it helps if I read out loud. I don’t know why. I just know that it aids my understanding. If you find that standing on your head and whistling show tunes helps you read, then stand on your head and whistle show tunes.

Finally, enjoy it. Reading the Bible can be both pleasurable and rewarding. If you think it will be a chore, then it probably will. If you go into it with a positive attitude, you may find that reading the Bible is a lot of fun.

Martin Luther read through the Bible twice each year, probably including the Apocrypha, and probably in Latin, if not Hebrew and Greek. Martin Luther makes me feel like a piker, but then again, he didn’t have the internet to distract him. The painting of the woman reading a Bible is by 17th c. Dutch painter Gerrit Dou.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Get Behind Me, Satan


In church yesterday our Gospel text was Matthew 16:21–28, the passage in which Jesus says to his disciple Peter “Get behind me, Satan.”

The situation is this: Jesus has just told the disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. Peter rebukes Jesus, “This must never happen to you.” In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter.

As recently as verse 18, Jesus had praised Peter as the “rock” on which he will build the church. Now, because Peter has expressed a vision contrary to God’s, and perhaps because this vision is genuinely tempting, Jesus calls Peter “Satan”--the adversary and tempter.

It’s a strange expression, “Get behind me, Satan.” I know at least three jokes built on the phrase. I guess I have always thought it was an idiom meaning something like “Get away from me,” or “Get out of my sight.”

Working with the text last week, I found something in it that I’d never seen before. In the Greek New Testament, Jesus says,

“Ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ.”

I will transliterate that “hUpage opiso mou, Satana” and translate it roughly, “Go behind me, Satan.”

It’s that second Greek word “opiso” that I’m concerned with. It means “behind” in a spatial sense. And it occurs again in the very next verse, where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In Greek it looks like this:

“Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.”

Do you see our little friend opiso in there? (I know, it's hard to miss since I bolded it).  A very literal translation would be “If anyone wishes to come behind me, let him take up his cross and follow me.”

Do you see what is going on here? In verse 23, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me.” In verse 24, he tells those who wish “to come behind” him that they must take up their crosses. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” he was telling Peter that, as a disciple, he needed to get back in line, following behind Jesus.

Peter is called “Satan” in this passage because he would lead Jesus into a way of human glorification through power. Jesus rejects that way in favor of a way of giving and self-sacrifice and calls his disciples to follow.

The masculine gender in my literal translation of Matthew 16:24 reflects the original Greek in which masculine pronouns (“he,” “him” and “his”) were used generically. I believe that Jesus’ words apply to women as well as men. Scripture quotations other than my own rough translations are from the
New Revised Standard Version. The Greek was copied and pasted from the Society for Biblical Literature Greek New Testament. Most English translations obscure, perhaps of necessity, the repeated use of “opiso.” Scott Hilburn's Argyle Sweater cartoon may be blasphemous, but it makes the fourth "Get behind me, Satan" joke that I know, and it nicely illustrates the subtitle of this post. I found it here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If the Bible Is Not Inerrant


I began a recent post on this blog with these words:

“Some people read the Bible as if it were one thing: a single book by one Author expressing a single point of view in one voice, God’s.”

I’m still not sure that I punctuated that sentence correctly, but I think it says what I mean: the Bible is not what some people claim that it is.

If I’m right (and I think I am), if the Bible is not one thing, if it is not what the Fundamentalists and literalists and biblicists and inerrantists claim, if it is not the direct words (plural) of God, if it is not a single book, if it is not the work of a single Author (written with or without the help of ghost writers), if it does not speak in a single voice, if it is not a rule book or a road map or a verse mine for proof texts, if it is not in every instance factual in matters of history and science...

If the Bible is none of these things, then what is it?

I believe that the Bible is both more complex and more wonderful than a doctrine of inerrancy suggests.

The Bible is a collection of books containing many kinds of literature: history, myth, poetry, prayer, prophecy, historical romance, fable, parable, allegory, apocalypse, epistle, etc.

The Bible was written by (not just through or in the voice of) unique, inspired people of faith who, like Ezra and Isaiah, sometimes disagree with one another, and who nonetheless bear witness to God.

The many works that make up the Bible are united under the umbrella of a great meta-narrative, a story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise. It is the story of the Creator God who seeks reconciliation with alienated humanity--God who reaches out through patriarchs and their fractious progeny, through a chosen and sometimes disobedient nation, through a Christ who came out of that nation--a holy, human, crucified Messiah--and through his clay-footed followers.

The Bible is a library in leather covers, a collection of treasures in clay vessels, a symbol pointing beyond itself to a greater reality, a delightful, maddening, difficult, joyful, fearful and sometimes contradictory love letter. It is the question to all of your answers about God.

The Bible is, as Martin Luther said, “the cradle of the Christ.” It is the word (singular) of God and a witness to the Word (singular, cap) of God. It contains the knowledge sufficient for salvation.

The Bible is an invitation to take part in a conversation, an invitation to wrestle with the Lord, an invitation to find your place in the story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise.

And need I say that the Bible is even more than that?

Punctuation is a pesky thing when one is deliberately writing run-on sentences. I purloined the picture of the scroll from this website dedicated to short mystery stories.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Good Stuff to Read


If I am about anything, it is the proposition that you do not have to shut off your brain to be a Christian. You do not need to ignore the plain evidence in front of your eyes to be a faithful follower of Christ. You do not need to swallow intellectual camels and strain at doctrinal gnats. You don’t, in other words, have to buy into a doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Of course, the biblical inerrantists will tell you otherwise. If, however, you find the idea that the Bible contains neither errors of fact nor contradictions untenable, then you can still be a Christian--my kind of Christian.

For your consideration, here are some recent posts from other blogs refuting the doctrine of inerrancy. 

First, the estimable Dr. David Lose gives “Four Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally.” Among them is number 3:

“Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally.
We tend to think of anything that is labeled "conservative" as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church's brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion....”

Read all four reasons here.  

Next up, and somewhat heavier reading, is Dr. Tim Henderson’s three-part review of Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. I don’t have a pull quote, but part one of the series can be found here, part two here and part three here.

Peter Rollins has a pointed essay on “How to Cut Up the Bible Without Anyone Noticing.” He says:

“For large numbers of churchgoers it is presented as a clean, coherent and cohesive text, an image that we tend to adopt for ourselves. Then, depending upon what we think the message of the text is, we simply refuse to see anything that might contradict our reading. We thus treat those parts of the text that might contradict our interpretation as taboo. In other words we see them without acknowledging them, we look at them in much the same way as a cow gazes at a passing car. When we are confronted with the broken nature of the text and the way in which we have repressed some parts of it at the expense of others we can often be shocked.”

Read it all here. (A tip of the blogger’s bonnet to both Rachel Held Evans and James McGrath for pointing this post out).

And finally, Dr. James McGrath gives us his take on “Brickical Literalism.”

“Fortunately for most Biblical literalists, they are persuaded that the text can’t possibly mean something that they don’t want to believe to be the case. And that’s why, in practice, there are no true Biblical literalists. But an exploration of what consistent Biblical literalism might look like makes clear why there shouldn’t be any Biblical literalists, and why we are perhaps fortunate that there really aren’t any.”

The whole article can be found here.

I hope, in the next few days, to write a post considering the question: "If the Bible is not inerrant, what is it?"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Theological Smackdown


Some people read the Bible as if it were one thing: a single book by one Author expressing a single point of view in one voice, God’s. Frankly, I don’t get it. Even a cursory glance between the covers of a Bible is enough to see that it is not a single book. The Bible is a collection of books written by a number of different people.

A slightly deeper look reveals that the Bible does not speak in a single voice. There are some portions that claim to be the direct words of God; “Thus says the Lord,” is a favorite expression of the Hebrew prophets. Other parts of the Bible tell stories about God and humans: stories in which God is a character. Still other parts of the Bible are clearly human words directed toward God; think of the many prayers in the book of Psalms.

Digging deeper still, we find that the biblical writers sometimes had different views of God. Their views are not always easy to reconcile. I don’t think that they were ever meant to be reconciled.

I have quoted Marcus Borg’s distinction between the “Word (singular) of God” and the “words (plural) of God” before. I think it is useful. The Bible, as the word of God, reveals God to us. Only portions of Scripture purport to be the direct words of God.

At my pastor’s text study this week, we discussed Isaiah 56:4–7.

“For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join
themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him,
   to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
   these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
   their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
   will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah is saying that eunuchs and foreigners, people excluded by the Law of Moses, will be welcome to worship in the Lord’s temple. Isaiah has an expansive, inclusive vision of God and of God’s people.

Scholars tell us that this passage from Isaiah was written after the people of Judah had returned from their exile in Babylon. This was the time when the city of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord were being rebuilt. It was also the time that the priest Ezra was promoting a vision very different from Isaiah’s.

Ezra had a narrow, exclusivist vision of a pure nation. In the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra, we are told that the Samaritans were not allowed to help the returned exiles in the work of rebuilding the temple. In chapter 10, Ezra orders the men of Judah who had married foreign women to send their wives and children away.

Isaiah’s inclusivity and Ezra’s exclusivity are both biblical.

It is interesting to me that these two visions, one inclusive and one exclusive, still play out among God’s people. As an example, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been shaken by controversies concerning the ordination of partnered homosexuals. The inclusivists sing “all are welcome, all are welcome” while the exlcusivists denounce partnered homosexuals as immoral and unworthy to serve in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Both sides can claim biblical warrant to justify their position.

I suppose that the question we must ask is, “Who’s right?” Who has the correct understanding of God’s word (singular) and God’s will? Is God an inclusivist or an exclusivist?

In the end, I suspect that our answers will tell us more about ourselves than about God.

Isaiah 56:4-7 was quoted from the New Revised Standard Version. Wiki was the source of the picture of Isaiah from Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Joel is Giving Away a Book

I hope to win it but you can enter the giveaway, too. Just go here and post a comment.

If I win, I'll read the book and pass it along.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Good Read

I've made my case, off and on, against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Today, John Petty blogged Ten Reasons Why Literalism Makes No Sense. Here is his tenth reason:

Tenth, one of the biggest problems with inerrancy is that it gives too much support to hierarchical authority.  The Bible is a complex book.  Sometimes it seems contradictory.  Sometimes it seems abstruse and esoteric.  Sometimes it seems conflicted.  Fundamentalist interpreters claim to understand it all, which gives the interpreters themselves an aura of inerrancy. 

The preceding nine reasons are equally cogent. Read them all here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Biggest Dandelion in the World


When I started this blog, I deliberately chose not to use it to post my sermons. That has never been its purpose in my mind. Today I had to cancel church because of a vicious storm that knocked out power and phone service and toppled a tree across a road that I have to travel to get from home to church. What follows is a part of the sermon I would have preached this morning. I post it only because a friend requested that I do so. First the relevant passage of Scripture:

[Jesus} put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

It may have been the largest dandelion in the world. If it wasn’t, you couldn’t prove it by me because it was certainly the biggest dandelion that I’ve ever seen. And it was growing in my backyard right next to the air conditioner.

It was massive. The leaves were about 2 feet long and 8 or maybe 10 inches across at the widest point.

We have one of those two-pronged weed pullers on about a 4 foot handle. It’s good for uprooting regular dandelions without bending over. We tried it on the giant mutant dandelion and the tool began to bend!

So I got out the garden spade and started to dig it out. I got about 6 inches down before I broke the root. I’m not kidding when I say that it looked like a tree root. It was almost an inch in diameter. I have no idea how deep it actually went.

If I told you that I broke the shovel, well, then I’d be exaggerating. Or, if I said that there were birds nesting in this dandelion, then I’d be exaggerating too. But it is no exaggeration to say that it was the biggest dandelion I’ve ever seen, maybe the biggest in the world.

So, how would you feel about it if I told you that the Kingdom of God is like that giant dandelion? What if I said that where God holds dominion, it is like the biggest dandelion in the world?

I suppose it might depend on how you feel about dandelions. Do you think they’re pretty? Do you like dandelion green salads? (You could have fed a family of five on this one). Or do you like dandelion wine?

Or, do you, like most of us, think that dandelions are noxious weeds? That they need to be rooted out or they will take over our lawns?

* * *

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed and, yes, Jesus was exaggerating when he said that it is the smallest of all the seeds. He was also exaggerating when he said that it grew into a tree and birds could nest in its branches. Mustard seeds are small and they grow into a substantial shrub, but still, Jesus was exaggerating.

And if his point was that the God’s dominion starts small and grows big then he made his point. But using mustard as a parable for the Kingdom is something like comparing God’s reign and rule to a giant dandelion.

On the one hand, mustard is useful. It can be used to season food. It can be used medicinally. (You’ve heard of mustard plaster, right?)  But on the other hand, mustard grows like a weed in Palestine. It has to be rooted out of wheat fields and barley fields. It has to be pulled up or it will take over your garden.

So when he compared the Kingdom to mustard, well, Jesus was saying that God’s dominion is like a lowly, humble, even noxious plant...which God makes good of. Perhaps Jesus was even saying that the Kingdom of God is made up of lowly, humble, and even noxious people...whom God makes good of.

* * *

And Jesus told another parable. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like yeast. A woman added a lump of it to three measures of flour. By one estimate that’s enough flour to make 100 loaves of bread.

Now I don’t know about you, but I think of yeast as a good thing. Last night I made a pizza on the grill and the crust was all crispy and bubbly and good because I put a packet of yeast in three cups of flour.

But if Jesus meant that yeast is a good thing in this parable, it is the only place in Scripture that I know of where yeast is considered good. Usually it’s a negative thing.

Campus pastor Scott Alan reinterprets the parable of the yeast this way:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a bad apple that a woman took and mixed in with three bushels of apples until all of them were spoiled.”

In other words, all of these parables are telling us that God’s Kingdom comes into this world in surprising, unexpected, humble, maybe even noxious ways. The Kingdom does not come in glory. The King does not come riding on a white charger or sitting on a golden throne.

The King comes humble and riding on a donkey. The King comes nailed to a cross, dying between two thieves.

The Kingdom comes by means of a cross. And just like yeast leavening 3 measures of flour, or mustard growing wild in the fields, or a giant dandelion taking over my backyard...the cross changes everything.

The Scripture quotation is from the New Revised Standard Version. The image of the dandelion came from this website.  Some of the thinking that went into this sermon was inspired by, or perhaps stolen from Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman’s commentary at the always excellent Working Preacher website.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Confession, a Thank You Note...


Last June, voting members at the Northern Illinois Synod’s Annual Assembly were given a gift, a book titled The Word of Jesus. It is a beautifully made little hardcover book with a dust jacket and a sewn-in ribbon marker. The pages are heavy slick stock. The book contains 60 quotations of Jesus’ words from the Gospels illustrated with 33 lovely photographs. It was compiled by Douglas Koons and Gideon Devanasen. I had the pleasure of meeting Pastor Devanasen once when he visited the United States. At that time he was bishop of the Arcot Lutheran Church in India. The Arcot Lutheran Church has a companion synod relationship with the Northern Illinois Synod.

A charming and intelligent man, Bishop Devaesan had a stroke in 2008 and had to resign  his position with the church. The book was, apparently, a project that he and Douglas Koons undertook while the Bishop was making recovery.

Which brings me to my confession: When I picked up my copy of The Word of Jesus, I thought, “This is an extravagant gift” and it crossed my mind that the Arcot Lutheran should be receiving gifts from us, not giving them.

As soon as I thought it, I realized I was wrong. I like to think I’m an enlightened guy, but my own thoughts convicted me of a certain bigotry, an unwarranted assumption of cultural superiority.

This stuff runs deep in us.

So to my note of thanks: I used The Word of Jesus as bedtime devotional reading for about two weeks, contemplating the quotations, getting lost in the photographs and praying that Jesus’ words might take flesh in my own life. I am grateful for this generous gift from the Arcot Lutheran Church. I intend to write thank you notes both to our companion synod and to Douglas Koons.

I won’t mention, but I am no less grateful for, the gift of having my eyes opened to the deep-seated flaw in my character, my assumption of cultural superiority.

And the statement of faith: At the end of the book there are two sections of “Commentary,” one by Douglas Koons and the other by Gideon Davenasen. This quote from Koons’s commentary struck me as particularly trenchant and insightful:

“Faith is a surrendering of ourselves unto God as God has surrendered unto us in Jesus Christ. It is not about sets of belief systems created by various Christian communitines that must be seen as correct ways to think of Jesus. For there is no idea or creed, doctrine or theology that can adequately express the grace that is faith. When we are scattered, disbelieving and distracted by all of life’s intensity, God is present in our lives. As there is light even in the shadows of the earth, God’s grace is present in our doubt. An early follower of Jesus was a man named Paul. In one of his letters to the disciples at Corinth he writes, ‘For now we see though a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but t hen shall I know even as I also am known.”

The illustration accompanying this post is a page from The Word of Jesus. The image was found at the publisher's website, here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did Abraham Lie?


I recently finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town. In it she relates the story of her crisis of faith. Raised with the certainty of a Bible Belt Fundamentalist and trained to defend biblical inerrancy, she came to question the doctrines she held dear. In the process, she grew into a new faith, one that embraces ambiguity and mystery. If this sounds the least bit interesting to you, I can recommend the book.

There may be a certain irony here, or it may just be a testament to my eclectic reading habits, but the same shipment that brought me Rachel Held Evan’s book also contained my copy of the Apologetics Study Bible. The notes to this Bible harmonize discrepancies  among the various writings of Scripture and provide allegedly logical reasons to believe. For example, there are footnotes to Matthew 27 and Acts 1 that give a familiar explanation for the differing accounts of Judas’ death.

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why I spent the money on the Apologetics Study Bible. Curiosity is part of the answer. I generally feel that apologetics, as it is presented in this Study Bible (and as Rachel Held Evans was taught it) is a waste of time. But, I once heard someone say “I want to understand my opponent’s view well enough to teach it.” So, that is the rest of the answer. I may not agree, but I want to understand.

On Monday, I was reading chapter 22 of Genesis which tells the fascinating, horrifying, difficult and ultimately important story that the Jews call the ‘Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In this tale, God asks Abraham to offer his beloved only son, Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham then travels with Isaac, two servants and a donkey to a remote place. Abraham leaves the servants at a certain place saying,

"Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you." (Gen. 22:5 HCSB)

Abraham and Isaac go a little farther. Abraham builds an altar, places wood upon it, ties Isaac up hand and foot, and raises the knife to kill him. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord stops Abraham from killing his son and God provides a ram for the sacrifice.
A footnote in the Apologetics Study Bible raised (and answered) a question that had not occurred to me: Did Abraham lie? The note in question reads:

“22:2,5 Since God wanted Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (v. 2) some have charged that Abraham lied in telling his servants, ‘The boy and I will ... come back to you.’ (v.5). However Hebrews 11:17, 19 clarifies that Abraham’s response to God’s test of his faith was to believe that, if necessary, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead.” (Apologetics Study Bible, p. 37)

And in fact, that is what the book of Hebrews says. Reading the New Testament backwards into the Hebrew Bible is a suspect strategy, but, in this case, if one wishes to defend Abraham against the charge of lying, it may be effective.

Interestingly, the Jewish Study Bible offers a similar explanation (which I have bolded below) of Abraham’s apparent lie as one possibility among others:

“5. Abraham may be concealing the truth from his servants (lest they prevent him from carrying out God’s will), from Isaac (lest he flee) and from himself (lest the frank acknowledgment of his real intention cause his resolve to break). Alternately, he may be expressing his profound trust in God’s promise, casting his faith and hope as a prediction.” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 46).

I like to think that I am a careful reader. Still, it never occurred to me to question whether Abraham lied to his servants. I simply assumed that he did. After all, he had a track record as a liar. In Genesis 12, Abraham (then known as Abram) tells the King of Egypt that  his wife Sarah (called Sarai at this point) is actually his sister. In chapter 20, Abraham tries the same stunt with King Abimelech of Gerar. Abraham “was practiced at the art of deception” as Mick Jagger sang.

For about 10 years of my ministry, I served as chaplain to a home for troubled children. We had 60 kids in residence, most of them adjudicated to us by the courts, and all of them from dysfunctional homes. As I told the stories of the Patriarchs to these children, I realized just how messed up the home lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. These were not paragons of virtue. They were fallible, sinful and all-too-human. They could (and did) lie, cheat and steal. And I love them the more for it, because I too am fallible, sinful and human. The kids at the home related to the Patriarchs and their families in very real and profound ways.

I understand the temptation to sanitize the character of Abraham. Who wants to believe that God would choose a liar to be the recipient of promises and to become the “father of nations?” But God did not choose Abraham because Abraham was better than anyone else. God chose Abraham for God’s own reasons. Perhaps it was for Abraham’s outrageous faithfulness, which included a willingness to sacrifice even his beloved only son. It certainly wasn’t becausw he always told the truth.

You may reduce the Patriarchs to Sunday School flannel-graph cut-outs or make plastic action figures of them. Me? I’ll take my treasures in earthen vessels. I like my Patriarchs with the bark still on them.

The Scripture quotation is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible because that is the translation used in the Apologetics Study Bible. The Mick Jagger quote is from the Rolling Stone’s 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I took Chagall's painting of the 'Akedah from this website. I loves me some Chagall.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Nod To Ekklesia


A friend who calls himself “The Classicist” left a comment on my last post. He wrote:

“I like your nod Εκκλεσια [sic] there at the end!”

While the comment is perfectly transparent to me, I’m sure that most of my readers will find it impossibly cryptic. Allow me to clarify. 

Eκκλησία (which I will hereafter transliterate into English as “Ekklesia”) is a Greek New Testament reading group which meets weekly at Augustana College, Rock Island during the school year. The group is comprised of instructors from the Classics and Religion departments, students, clergy and various other members of the community. The group is interdisciplinary and interdenominational. Through the years, the membership has included inerrantists and agnostics and people in the middle, like me.
We have read the Johannine literature, the book of Philippians, the Q parallels from Mathew and Luke, and most recently, in a departure from the New Testament, the early Christian book called the Didache. In the fall, we plan to begin reading the Acts of the Apostles.

Our procedure is this: We take turns reading a sentence or so from the text in Greek. The reader then translates the sentence. Next we discuss it, paying attention to grammar, textual variants, and, of course, the meaning of the text. Some members of the group do not read Greek, but come for the discussions.

The group is neither as dull nor as disputatious as you might imagine. In fact, we laugh a lot. The subtitle of this post is a pun that Ekklesia has chuckled over. The Greek word μαργαρίτας (which is transliterated “margaritas”) means “pearls.” The word is found in Matthew 7:6, where Jesus says, “do not throw your pearls before swine.” I like to translate it as “Don’t give margaritas to pigs.”
Okay. Reading that over I realize that it is Greek nerd humor. What can I say? It makes me laugh.
Ekklesia has come to be an important part of my life. So much so that I drive 140 miles round trip each week to attend.
Last year, one of the students, a politically conservative non-Greek reader from an inerrantist tradition, had other obligations that kept her from attending for a school term. When she came back, she told me that she had missed the group. She said, “I really didn’t do anything spiritual last term.” I would not have expected her to use the word “spiritual” to describe Ekklesia, but it is spiritual.

 The word “Ekklesia” means something like “assembly.” It is usually translated into English as “church.” My friend the Classicist has his own blog called Penned House, in which he discusses another of our common interests, pens and inks. Read it here. I borrowed the picture of the drunk pig from Linzi at deviantart.com. To see it in its original context, click here.