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Friday, October 24, 2014

Ireland

We are returned from a week in Ireland. It was a wonderful time, highlighted by family time. I plan to share some reflections on what we experienced there, and hope this is not a "what I did on my vacation" sort of blathering. I can say that if you find yourself in a position to go, take it!

In Dublin we went to Trinity University, which houses the most elaborate of the illustrated Medieval Gospel texts: The Book of Kells.I am a University type of guy and found myself fantasizing about spending a semester there studying the history of the Celtic Church or some similar pursuit. The Book of Kells is in the old library, which was stunning in beauty. There is nothing so respectful  of books as an old library.

There is a hall which prepares one to see the actual which explains the whole process of creating the wrting materials, making books, etc. You can see the book of Kellls online here:
 http://tcld.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/book-of-kells-now-free-to-view-online/

The thing that struck me was how incredibly laborious and painstaking it must have been. They spent hour after hour slowly constructing the books and illustrating, everything by hand. I have never done anything with that level of commitment and work. It was a wonder of faith and love on display. The love of God's Word is manifest in this work. They hand wrote every Bible. Hand wrote in a long slow process of creating ink, dabbing with a pen and scratching out a letter, each letter, one by one. I pour out volumes with my computer with minimal effort. Yet without those monks and all their work we would not have Bibles today. [something I wish Bible loving Christians today would remember when they speak negatively about monasticism.] I was keenly aware of our dependence on those who have gone before us!

So things to ponder, what work of love do I perform for God each day? How am I grateful for the hard work of others? Worth thinking about....

The other thing that happened was my response to seeing the text. I had written a paper on the Book of Kells in my church history class in 1980. I was only mildly interested in it. Yet I have had a connection of sort ever since. It is funny how time spent in college does that. I was interested in seeing the book but not terribly excited until I saw it. Suddenly a wave of deep emotion hit me. I almost wept. I was surprised by the reaction. For a moment I just had a "there It is" insight. I have found that in my latter years less and less seems able to move me deeply. Perhaps the "been there done that" nature of many years? Or maybe "old, cranky, tired"? Or even "too much to do, too busy"? Whatever it is, I sometimes wonder what is wrong with me (and I find many men my age sort of ask the same thing). Anyhow, there was something sacred in the moment of seeing the book. There was a God connection, soft and quiet, but deep. And I was glad to feel it.

A reminder of sacraments; the God who comes in and through this world.
It is good to be back on the blog!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

From Him

My grandma used to make a chocolate pie and a lemon pie. It was one of the highlights of any big family meal. They were both quite good. I am a chocolate lover but I probably liked the lemon better. This did sort of confuse me as a child. One of my first forays into the paradox of life!

I do not know if that pie was the best pie in the world. I am of a mind that such a claim is probably unprovable. I have seen enough "best ever" claims to know that they seldom match up to the hype. What I know is those pies were delicious. What I also know is grandma made it. She is dead over a decade. If I could get a piece of her pie today it would be very moving emotionally. Because it is from her. I have not had contact with her in a long time.

In many ways, the Bible is like that pie. It is a wonderful work of literature. It provides great fodder for reflection. It also has a message of salvation in it.I do not know if it is the best book in the world (setting aside it is really many books). Sometimes I have found commentaries and theology books more helpful than the Biblical text. Probably because of the style of writing. Probably because I am not from the Ancient Near East so am unable to read in the actual language and context.

I do not know if the Bible is "the best literature in the world" but I do know it is precious because it is from HIM! That, in the end, is the central meaning of inspiration to me. It is from God (in and through human tools) and it is for us. It is a place where we can encounter Him (through the veil). In a sense, it lifts the veil (apocalypse=revelation=unveiling), though only a small section. We get a glimpse, an insight, into God and His mysterious plans and ways. This is why I read the Bible daily and study it for hours each week

God spoke to them long ago. Now God speaks to us, here and now. We need to listen. And listening entails the same self emptying that God's speaking entailed. It is about openness to Him.

So many Christians want to argue about "Truth" with those who do not believe what they want them to believe. They make claims about the Bible which seem to be more focused on arguing than reading and listening. They are more intent on fighting about evolution than entering into the texts of Genesis 1 & 2 and asking, "What is God telling me here?"

The Bible is inspired, it is filled with God's Spirit. God talks to us in a special way through the Bible. For that reason it is true and trustworthy. Words like inerrant and perfect confuse me. They seem to be categorically inappropriate. By that I mean, they are focused in the wrong direction. God is God. He creates. He saves. He communicates with His people.If Christians spent more time listening with humble and obedient hearts there would be less need to fight about the Bible. Unbelievers would see the power of the Word of God at work. That would be more effective evangelism than any battles about inerrancy.

The Bible is precious because it is from Him. That is enough for me.
I am taking a two week sabbatical from the blog. I intend to write again then.
God bless

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bible 10: Just Read it!

These last nine posts have attempted to draw us into the Bible from a different perspective. I have not and do not deny Divine Authorship. I call it "The Word of the Lord" and "The Word of God," and why wouldn't I;  the church has always held that it is so. That is 'the faith' of those who trust in Jesus. However, I have provided reasons for looking at Scripture as fully human as well as fully Divine. If it is God's Word, it is still human words. The ultimate Source is mediated through human authors, conveyed in human thoughts, and written in human language. Having intensely immersed myself in these words for almost forty years I have found them to be amazingly godly and frustratingly human many times. The words cannot simply be read from a contemporary, simplistic, literal stand point. The truth is, much of what is written there is symbolic, most of it has layers of depth, and while all of it can be applied to our current situation, none of it is contemporary: It is ancient. Ancient words, from a middle eastern world or Grecco-Roman, which does not share the same beliefs, values, and mindset as our own...

It is that self-centeredness, that arrogant belief that OUR way is the only way to look at the world, which makes Bible reading dangerous. We ignore or twist passages which are concerned about things about which we do not care.We assume what is "the plain meaning" to us is actually what the authors (and Author) intended. And as I have seen in myself and others a million times, we often cannot read the actual text because we already think we know what it says and what it means.Our minds made up, we just plow through grabbing the ideas which fit our preconceived beliefs.

So is this a recipe for despair? It may sound like it, but actually I find it an invitation to love. Real love conquers romantic love by actually engaging the other person. It corrects the false "projections" by real encounter.All of us project what we want (or need, or fear, or etc) upon others. No way to avoid it. But we can make progress to learning the truth.

I think the New Testament is over-read by Christians. It is taken out of context, which is the Jewish Bible. Study the Jewish Scripture first--remember this is the Bible Jesus used to explain Himself to the apostles. I suggest read some psalms every day. Every day. And read from the other books. Perhaps start with Genesis and Isaiah. Each day read a chapter of each. For the more ambitious read several chapters. After becoming familiar with The Book, then you are ready to read some on the ancient world. Who were the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians? What was Israel doing and when was it doing it? There are commentaries which have articles about such things.Read them. Now when you return to the Bible you are prepared to read it and understand. You can read a book with a good commentary and gain insight into what was going on. I assure  you, no matter how deep you dig, there is always more treasure to be mined!

Sounds like work, doesn't it? As a kid I spent hours doing baseball statistics and reading articles about players. I loved baseball so it was a labor of love. I enjoyed it... I daresay, if we love God, then the enterprise of trying to hear Him speak in Scripture (instead of twisting His word to fit our context) will not be too difficult. We will encounter His true word. His authoritative communication. His dependable revelation. His life giving gift of Himself. So start reading, today!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bible 9: Language Limits

When I lived in Belgium, many years ago in seminary, we had a television with a few stations on it. Belgium is a bilingual nation (French and Flemish/Dutch). One of the rules there was a program was aired in the original language (there were tensions between the two groups) so American programs would appear in English, with subtitles. When an American show was airing, if you got there early, a French or Flemish show would be on. As we sat watching it, the experience was so similar and familiar, except, of course, we did not understand what they were saying. One day my buddy Ray said, "You just feel like if you listened harder you could understand." I knew what he meant. But no matter how hard we listened, it made no difference. If you do not speak Flemish, paying attention does not help.

That is the issue with communication. The "Speaker" has to speak in a way that the "Hearer" can understand. A typical 3 year old is not gong to understand Algebra. If the finest Algebra teacher on the planet said, "I am good at this, I can do it!" I think the result would be the same. A smart three year old is learning addition and subtraction. It is the nature of things.

So when the ETERNAL God decides to communicate with us, His chosen mode is to 'dumb it down' to a level we can get. He uses words. He does not directly and immediately communicate. Rather, His communication is MEDIATED through words. As we saw yesterday, words are a limited and imprecise mode of communication. Words need to be interpreted. Words can only do so much....

We do not taken God seriously enough when we talk about the Bible. We minimize Him in an effort to praise His word. We would do better, I think, to ponder the mystery. What must God "leave behind" as He squeezes His perfection into this little vehicle called "language"? And what demands of language limit that communication? One I can think of is 'tense'--we speak of past, present, future (and don't forget present perfect, pluperfect and all sorts of other delightful designations). Yet is God time-bound? NO! So language as we know it CANNOT communicate God's situation. Period.We use our language as best we can (by stringing together words designating time with "and") but that does not really do it. Which is okay.  We live in time. We think in terms of past or present. Not having a tense which means both at the same time is one of our language limits.

Now all this to say that we probably get all we can handle of God's communication in words. After all, language is part of our world. But we need a spirit of worship and a deeper sense of awe at God's greatness and sublimity. And too often we fail to recognize that language is insufficient to fully and perfectly contain God's communication (that it is in fact something which requires that  He empties Himself and through which He conveys only a small part of Himself and His message). Language is not perfect, not the way God is...

God is talking to us, after all. He uses the tools we work with in communication, like language, and our tools are limited and imperfect. Which means we need to now consider what words best describe God's Truth?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bible 8: the problem with words

Words are limited. It is the nature of a word. When we say, "words fail me" we do not mean that our vocabulary is too small, or that we are not efficient at creating sentences. What we mean is that words are limited. For example, the word "awesome" is popularly used to describe lots of things. "This cake is awesome!" we might say. However, when we talk about a rocket ship taking off to the moon and say, "it was awesome" or as we peer into the Grand Canyon and say, "it was awesome" we mean something deeper than it was on par with some tasty chocolate cake. And when we talk about the birth of our child and say, "it was awesome"---well anyone who has had the experience knows that the word awesome is true, but it cannot convey the full impact.

In a sense, words are like photographs. They do not convey the experience, they try to describe it. I have snapped countless photos from mountains or bays and when you look at the flat photo it just does not, can not, give someone the same feeling that standing there and gazing at the real thing does. It isn't because we are bad photographers, it is because a photograph (even a video) cannot fully capture the event..

"Words fail"; it is there nature. So words, which are too small to contain us and our communication, certainly are not infinite enough to hold and convey God. Period. To say that they can is to say God is less amazing then much of His creation. So God's Self communication through words (even The Word, The Bible) is always limited by the limitations of words.

One huge problem for words is that they are not self explaining. Words can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. Written words are even more prone to that as they do not have any of the non-verbal cues which are so vital in communication. "God is Love" for example, is really true, but probably the way most contemporary Christians is very different from what the word meant to Jesus and His disciples. Most Americans find Middle Easterners a bit strange and difficult to understand, right? (and they have the same experience of us)  And most contemporary folks find ancient folks a bit strange and hard to understand. Words like family, love, salvation, sin have different connotations and denotations in our society among us. In fact, defining terms is considered one of the steps in any discussion. So saying that the Word of God is infallible, without error, and perfect may be true, but it also means you have to understand what the Word of God is saying; and the "plain meaning" of Scripture today is the plain meaning for a white middle aged middle class American man, or a black teenaged inner city girl, or a college aged, second generation Asian girl, etc. etc. We just think we know what things mean and they don't.

However, the Word is from God, and that makes it special. He speaks to us in and through the Word. But we have to do hard work to figure out what He is saying. We have to be open to the Holy Spirit to hear what He is saying. We have to want to hear what He is saying. We have to repent to hear what He is saying.... Well, it is just not simple or easy.

Is the Bible trustworthy? Yes, but the reader isn't. And therein lies the rest of the story

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bible 7: God's breath and human authors

 So far we have had a strong understanding of "inspiration." It is a fair question to ask, does the Bible clearly state that the words of the Bible have been dictated by God? To say it is authoritative can mean that, but is that the only possible way of understanding the word?

Remember, human beings are also "god-breathed" creations. [cf. Genesis] There the breath of God made them 'living souls'--the Hebrew root means hungry.  Humans are the image and likeness of God, so they certainly have divine qualities, yet, they are not inerrant nor are they infallible and perfect, in spite of participating in some way in that Divine Nature. [side note, human nature has to be inherently open to the divine in a unique way, or else God the Son could not have become human.!]
I had never thought about any of this until I started this series and began searching for place where "God-breathed" occurs in the Bible . As I looked for God breathing I immediately realized the creation story was the starting place. So my question is, theological predisposition aside, is it clear that the creation of humans and God's breath has nothing to inform us regarding God's breath and Scripture?

In the end, a high view of human authorship can also be Biblical. I do not think that the Bible portrays humans as puppets. One of the earliest Bible references to "human" (Adam) indicates that God gave 'man/adam/human dominion. Let that soak in a moment; dominion means lordship... Human freedom is the basis of human responsibility and accountability. From the first humans are independent agents with which God interacts. He may speak to them (like with Adam, Eve and Cain) but be ignored. He may also influence (harden Pharaoh’s heart). He may reveal something  (Isaiah in heaven), communicate in vision (write what you see) or say something with word (Thus says the Lord) or through events (Exodus at Sea, blatant vs. Joseph saga, subtle). [side note, the Hebrew word dabar can mean 'word' or 'thing'; in Biblical language there is a much thinner line dividing the concept than in English!] Intervention can have a controlling influence (God calls Moses) but then be negotiated (God uses Aaron at Moses insistence). The “wrestling” God (with Abraham verbally over Sodom;with Jacob literally at the river, but figuratively his whole life). The Bible does not provide one clear and obvious picture/image/model/paradigm of how God and human interact. So there are various beliefs (based on assumptions beforehand):
§  Human freedom is independent of God so He must work with it and around it. The Prince of this world is the devil, not God. Humans have dominion. God is the source of creation but He immediately ‘leaves the scene.’ God is all knowing and powerful so when He intervenes He “finds a way,” but it is in dialogue with human freedom.
§  Human Freedom exists, but the human person can be, as St. Paul says, a co-worker (synergism) with God. What is possible in all times and places is especially true of Scripture (unclear is it difference in degree or kind?). This means God works “best” with those who are open to Him. IN this view, the authors of Scripture were men (women?) who were open to God and were tools at His disposal.
§  Human freedom exists but is not a barrier to God, He can control humans through their free will. Here we have double causality which gives us a way out of the dilemma, but is difficult to imagine... It emphasizes mystery. God talk is always analogical (!) so even if we cannot understand how this works, we do know that it is how things work.
§  Free Will does not exist, God controls everything. God did it. Humans are puppets. [this view makes no sense to me]
o   As we ponder the process (and take a non-magical approach to God&humans writing the bible), perhaps all written sources must also be "controlled" by God through the oral stage and each written stage. So Holy Spirit was “breathing” for a long time (up to hundreds of years) in lots of people and events. This material could have functioned temporarily as “Authoritative” or “Sacred Writ” at various times. One example, the “Law” found in the Temple in Josiah’s day, (which some think is the basis of Deuteronomy and most think was not the whole Torah), or (theoretical) earlier versions of the writings (some think they see two sources in Genesis or Northern/Southern versions of salvation history with different emphasis), or “the preaching and teaching of the apostles” which is later written in the Gospel (so Paul says “this is from the Lord” about the Last Supper or divorce long before any written Gospel).    
We tend to forget about the early Christians who predate the Bible.  We tend to think of ourselves and our times. Yet how was God talking to those who go before us, many times martyrs, who were also His people. As I have pondered these people for the last four decades, more and more I find myself envisioning the ongoing interaction of God with His people, the process of inspiration, as being richer and fuller than 'the book in my hand.'

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bible 6: More on Authors

   So last week we looked at actual authors of individual books. We identified two ways of envisioning inspiration, in both of them, the Spirit has a very high degree of control over every word (even every letter). The sole focus, though, is on the (final) written text. Is that all there is to inspiration?

3. A third approach broadens and deepens the meaning of 'inspiration' of the individual Biblical book to include far more. Certainly, somebody sat down one day and “finished” our existing text at the end of a process. [A letter may have taken days or weeks or months to compile, other works, especially historical ones, cover centuries.] The final edition is the end of a long process “guided” by God Who is the Ultimate Source and The Author. (Guided could mean totally controlled/”dictated” by Holy Spirit through a human—or—more subtly influenced by Holy Spirit with (a) human(s);and everything in between)
o   Authorship in this case, however, includes God’s controlling presence in events, memory and oral transmission and retransmission of narratives about those events (including reshaping oral tradition in light of ongoing events), written sources (collected sayings or shorter versions). [By analogy it is like what we mean that God created us; a human being from fertilized egg to adult; actively dictating each step; each step having import and value to those who are present at the time.]
§  What happened (events) matters as it is revelatory about God’s real activity. Insight into how He works with us. “Revelation” is (sometimes) the actual event and not just the narrative. [is the written Exodus account really more important than the miracle of the exodus from Egypt?]
§  As different texts were written at different times, words had different meanings. The name of God's people changed (Hebrews, Israelites, Jews). Israel was the nation before the Civil War and the Northern Kingdom afterwards. Satan (the word means "The Adversary") developed over time; in Job he is Heaven's prosecuting attorney, by Jesus' day he is the devil. Gehenna, a valley where child sacrifice took place in Kings, is later a garbage dump, and in Jesus' day an image of Hell—abode of dead and later place of torment for evil dead. The afterlife and resurrection are central in the New Testament, but in the more ancient Old Testament do not occur (which is why conservative, Bible believing Jews like the Sadducees did not believe in it). The Bible itself makes reference to cities which change names and various places/things "which are still there to this day", reflecting different times and settings.
§  The Acts of Apostles indicate some Christians did not know about baptism in Jesus name, but only John's baptism of repentance. They did not know about the Holy Spirit. One can assume that every community had its own, limited materials and  datum of faith. They also had perspectives. Jewish priests in Judah see the Temple differently than northerners. Prophetic voices compete with pro-monarch groups. Wisdom literature, prophetic literature and apocalyptic literature overlap, but one must admit that they have different modes of communication and different agendas to emphasize (partly because of their audiences and context) 
 Historical context matters because what God said “then and there” to “them” must be understood in order to faithfully “interpret” Word of God for “here and now.” (use of analogy, metaphor, simile, etc.; for example texts on Jewish circumcision might be ‘interpreted’ in today’s church as ‘baptism.’) There is a “context” for the Word which must also be considered (as well as a timeless aspect). This is a basis for particular approaches to interpretation.
IN conclusion, something to ponder is the work of the Spirit/Breath/Wind of God (inspiration) in all events, especially the billions of moving parts which came together to produce the Bible.