Blog Posts

Traveling through the Text-Part 1: Mile High Bible Society

Genreally, Biblical hermeneutics is about how you read the Bible. Here I want to talk about how fast you read the Bible. Metaphorically, the mode of transportation you take determines what you see. This is the first series of posts on traveling through the text. The metaphor I am exploring here is flying. Please fasten your seat belts and put your trays and seat backs in the upright position:

A Bird’s Eye View

Recently I took a flight to see my grandfather in Alberta. My wife and kids weren’t with me, which meant I had the rare privilege of a window seat. I watched as our plane lifted off the runway and ascended, eyeing landmarks and favorite hangouts. Before long the plane was high in the sky and the sights become harder to distinguish. I no longer saw people walking their dogs and the morning traffic. Instead I saw a grid of roadways and farmland, the topography as we passed mountains and valleys. I noted significant changes in the environment. On an overcast day, all you can see out a plane window is a blanket of white; however on my plane ride I had a clear bird’s-eye view of the entire landscape below. And over everything, the vast expanse. The horizon stretching out far beyond my view in all directions.

When we were making our final descent into Calgary, I noticed the change in the land from Canadian Rockies, to the rolling foothills of Prairie Alberta. I also saw the trees. I had left behind the tall green cedars and Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest and saw bellow me sparse patches of Aspen and Spruce. Autumn had not come to my part of the world (this was late September), but here the yellowing trees checkered the landscape bellow had already greeted her arrival.

The thing about air travel is it’s fast. A distance that would be a twelve-hour drive was traversed inside of a couple of hours. A few magnificent views aside, you don’t really get in a jet plane to go see the sights, you get in a plane to get somewhere fast. And that is the gift of that mode of travel. As someone whose family is spread across the continent, I know that I would not see them much if I lived in a world without planes. But because of it, I get to connect with the people and places I love, traversing distance and time with relative ease.

How to Fly Through the Bible

So what does it mean to fly through the Bible? How is reading quickly, like looking out the airplane window?

The quickest I ever read the Bible cover to cover was two weeks. I read in every spare moment, obsessed with getting through the entire Bible, all 66 books as quickly as possible. Nobody told me I should do this, but I am glad that I did. Here are some of the things I experienced on my Biblical flight:

1. While flying, you don’t get tangled in the brush.

    When you fly to a different city, you fly over the buildings, trees, railroad tracks. Other than waiting for other planes and a place to land, all impediments are far bellow. Similarly, when I was flying through the text, I didn’t get caught up in thorny theological matters, controversies, or dead ends. I just kept reading without stopping Genealogies, details about the sacrificial system, lists didn’t entangle me. Basically I just flew over them as fast as I could (anyone who has decided to read the Bible cover to cover and got stuck and got mired down in Leviticus can see the value of pressing through!),

    Flying high and not getting caught in the brush means you keep reading no matter what. Mile High flyers don’t linger places. When I saw something interesting or questions came up, I noted them and planned to circle back to them later, but I kept reading. Of course flying above the fray meant I wasn’t reading with an eye for details. How can you see details at 23,000 feet? Yet what you do see is worth seeing. Some of what you see out the window of a plane, you won’t see any other way.

2. A bird’s-eye view reveals topographical changes

    In my flight over the Canadian Rockies I saw changes in the topography. The bare high rocks were different from where I had come from, and different from the rolling prairies where I landed. Similarly, when I flew through the Bible, I encountered various genres. The historical books, gave way to the poetry of the Psalms; The oracles of the prophets were a different terrain from gospel stories and Pauline epistles. Noticing this switch in the landscape gave me clues on what sort of place I found myself in (in the text) and what grew there. It is with a bird’s-eye view, you see the lay of the land.

3. Flying connects distant places together

    Air travel allow you to visit distant friends and relatives, return home, go to weddings and funerals or go on exotic vacations that you otherwise would not be able to go. Because of this modern technology, our world feels more connected. Closer, somehow.

    On my own flights through the Bible I have noticed the connections between different passages I wouldn’t have otherwise. Hebrews came alive to me when I just read through the Pentateuch and the prophets the week before. Flying through the Bible showed me the connections between different passages. If I hadn’t flown there, I might not have made the journey; yet having made the flight, the connections between the testaments, the covenants and distant relatives are much clearer to me. Closer, somehow.

4. Flying gives us a look at the big picture

    Just like the view from the plane reviews the vast expanse, so a flight through the text reveals the big picture. By starting at creation and making the journey with God’s people from there to new creation, I got a sense of the whole story. The horizon extends far beyond our view in every direction; I only saw this when I flew through the Bible without getting lost in the details.

So I commend flying through the text as one way of reading the Bible. Care to join the Mile High Bible Club? Tell me your thoughts.

Walter Wink’s Hermeneutic

I picked up this slim volume at a used bookstore in Bellingham only to discover the book in its entirety is available for free online at religion-online.org. Here is the link: http://www.religion-online.org/showbook….
Wink-Bible

I have appreciated Wink’s critique of the institution and powers over the years and since I have an interest in hermeneutics and what the Bible means I happily scooped this up to see what Wink would contribute to this discussion. Bearing in mind that this book is almost 40 years old, I expected it to be someone dated and not up to speed on the various directions the discussion has gone. This is true, but in a lot of ways Wink was a shaper of the dialogue.

Wink begins this book with an assertion that the Historical Critical Method is bankrupt. By this he doesn’t mean that is of no value, but he proposes new management, allowing it to serve a different end. he sees as problematic the fact that Biblical criticism ignored the intention of texts,retreated to the false consciousness of objectivism, only asks questions which its discipline (and disciples) can answer, has been cut off from the wider community, and harkens back to polemical context which no longer exists.

On each of these points, Wink’s critique seems to be incisive, though he does seems to speak of “biblical criticism” in absolute terms which goes beyond warrant with particular practitioners (a face he will circle back to in conclusion when he addresses the academic guild as ‘a power’ that scholars have to oppose).

Wink proposes an alternative paradigm, which owes something to Ricouer’s naivety, suspicion, second-naivety. Wink’s schema is as follows:

1. Fusion
N(1) negation of the fusion through suspicion of the object
2. Distance
N(2) Negation of the negation through suspicion of the subject
3. Communion (p.19-20)

Phase 1 involves moving beyond the unity of western culture and traditions and the Bible to the objectification of the text. It is here that Biblical criticism does its work of getting us behind creedal statements and dogma, so that we can examine the text dispassionately and discover what it really meant.

Phase 2 involves applying our critical lens to ourselves where we confront ‘our own emotional predisposition not to be unsettled, our easy acquiescence to contemporary questions, languages and perspectives.(34)”

Phase 3 involves bringing these two phases into critical dialectic to discover what the biblical world in its particularity has to say to our human condition. The end result which Wink envisions is a sort of post-critical reading of scripture which transforms individuals and their communities.

In order to accomplish this Wink draws on the insights of psychotherapy and a sociological and ideological lens to help us identify the places in which the Bible confronts us and our world.

What I appreciated most about this book was Wink’s critique of where Biblical criticism has brought us. As mentioned above, he does cast this critique in absolute terms. This means his claims are exaggerated in some quarters, but he names issues that every Biblical scholar of faith must wrestle with.

In his positive program, he correctly addresses the two horizons of interpretation: text and reader (here given the names of object and subject, respectively). Where I am uneasy with Wink’s program is that he seems to critique the tradition, more than his own starting point. Wink is a theologically liberal New Testament scholar who taught at Union. He expects human transformation in the text. He does not necessarily expect to encounter God. Traditional beliefs about God are redefined in psychological and sociological terms (Wink buys in to Bultmann’s demythologizing program after all). In one fascinating account of a group bible study session, the Holy Spirit is redefined as ‘life-transformative process’ (59).

This antithesis to the tradition and traditional theology is exasperated by the fact that Wink fails to recapture a theology of church. It is true that he wants to bring his training in Biblical criticism back into the service of the church, but he doesn’t advocate reading the Bible by the rule of faith. He wants to get behind doctrinal and creedal statements and not impose them on the Biblical account. In a sense, this is a guild concern. Biblical studies exists to study the Bible not theologize, but the theological tradition does frame our understanding of texts and shouldn’t be so easily cast aside.

Still Wink is insightful about how the Biblical text can challenge individuals, social and political institutions. I would be pleased if more Biblical scholars of whatever theological bent were as committed to listening to the personal and structural implications when we allow ourselves to be encountered by the Biblical text.

Absolute meh.

I chose this book on Booksneeze.com to review because: a) I like the topic and b) it had received a couple of bad reviews by people who thought it was too academic for them. I figured I would try my hand at reviewing it, and give the book a fair shake.

I didn’t like it much either. But I really tried.

I commend the author for writing a book on love where he attempts to engage a wide range of worldviews, and present a compelling vision of who Jesus is. Willroth engages Christians, Jews and Muslims, and welcomes agnostics and atheists to the table to consider his theme. As such he makes use of Christian and Jewish scripture, the Koran, as well as scientific and psychological knowledge. I think this does give this book worth for attempting dialogue, joint inquiry in apologetics a mission.

Jesus is love absolute and the way we meet him is by humbling ourselves. Willroth runs through many great theological truths from the creation account in Genesis, to the consummation in revelation. While I may quibble with him in places, in the main, he is accurate in his depiction of Jesus

However, Willroth’s prose lacks a certain winsomeness. To make his case he sometimes resorts to a barrage of quotations, some of them quite lengthy, A number of the chapters end with greek and hebrew words listed with long lists of Bible verses for those wanting to conduct their own word studies. At some points I felt like I was reading raw research for a book; other points I felt I was reading a text that had not been adequately edited. Perhaps this is the pitfall of the self-published. It is hard to read.

How to handle a heart attack?

Enemies
In Enemies or the Heart, Andy Stanley argues that the problems that bubble up in life (i.e. job loss, divorce, broken relationships) are result of our failure to address the destructive forces in our heart. These forces poison our lives and set us up for crisis. It is failure to deal with the enemies of the heart that cause some people to lose there faith. So what are these enemies of the heart?

Ostensibly, Stanley suggests four attitudes are experienced as deep debts in the heart: Guilt, Anger, Greed, Jealousy. Guilt is the belief that “I owe you;” we’ve done something wrong for which we feel we need to atone for.

Anger on the other hand say, “you owe me.” You did something wrong and I hold it against you.

Greed says, “I owe me.” I am going to store up what I can for myself.

Jealousy says “God owes me” as we reflect upon the inequity between our life and someone else (who is better than us).

Stanley says every wound we carry can be traced back to one of these four. So what are the remedies for these ailments?

Guilt is overcome by confession. Stanley stresses public confession as necessary to break the cycle of shame guilt puts us in. Anger is overcome as we learn forgiveness. This involves knowing who wronged us, what they did, what they deserve and our choosing to let go of it. Greed is overcome as we stop hoarding and develop the habit of generosity. Jealousy is beaten when we learn to celebrate those around us.

Andy Stanley has written a good book. It is accessible, warm, humorous and insightful. What I didn’t like about this book wasn’t what it said, but how it was framed. Stanley offers his advice to us so that we could avoid wounding, be whole and have the best life, including best spiritual life we can. Not that this is wrong, but I wonder about the wisdom of commending holy living (a phrase which doesn’t appear in his book) for what it does for you. Why should we avoid guilt, anger, greed, jealousy? So that we are happier and healthier? Why should we confess, forgive, give generously and celebrate others? So that we have better lives? Yes but more.

What happens when holiness doesn’t make your life better? You confess and people judge you. You forgive and get hurt again. You give generously and are taken advantage of. You celebrate others and they use you. Well, there is something more to a holy life besides what it does for you. Sometimes all you get out of it, is that you know you are pleasing God. Holiness is not always instrumental and shouldn’t be treated that way.

But this demurral aside, I thought this book was worth reading and certainly touches on some pretty big issues that every Christian (and non-Christian) needs to wrestle with if they are to grow in their walk with God.

I received a copy for review from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this fair and incredibly honest review.

Grace is the Name of a Girl

Thanks to Booksneeze.com I received a copy of Larry Taunton’s new book “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief”The Grace Effect

Christian Apologist Larry Taunton, founder of the Fixed Point Foundation has debated with atheists about the value of religion, and Christianity in particular. In fact this book begins with Taunton hashing it out with Christopher Hitchens over dinner. He challenges Hitchens that Christianity answers the problem of evil better than Atheism. He then goes on to talk about the idea of common grace, the idea that when a significant Christian presence infiltrates a culture it brings benefits to the whole society.

The rest of the book is a reflection on this theme through the medium of autobiography. Taunton tells the story of he and his family travelling to the Ukraine to adopt Sasha. Larry’s wife and sons had met her on a short-term mission the year before, fell in love and felt God calling them to adopt her. But as they do they come face to face with the horrors of the orphanage system in the Ukraine and government corruption. They are repeatedly stalled and asked for bribes (gifts). It is clear that the system and government is not
acting in the best interest of Sasha (unlike the Americans when their turn comes). Taunton interprets this as evidence that the Ukraine, nurtured as a secularist state under communism, is inadequate in its moral formation. It has no concept or understanding of grace.

Taunton paints the Ukraine as a place where darkness reigns and is reflective on what it means to take Sasha from there and bring her to America, a place formed by Christian conviction (even in its secular expression). This story is rather heartwarming and it is hard not to feel this father’s anger at the injustice his adopted daughter had to endure and his joy at the knowledge that he brought her into a better life, where she receives appropriate care from family, the medical community, and society at large.

When this book ends, Taunton is again eating dinner with Christopher Hitchens where he observes Hitchens observing Sasha and reflects on how the life of his daughter testifies to the reality of grace.

I remain critical of his characterization of Ukrainian society. He includes a brief history of Russia’s (and the Ukraine’s) conversion to Orthodoxy, and implies that their version of the Christian story is empty of grace. Add to this decades of communist indoctrination about the absence of God and you have a spiritually impoverished society and a bunch of scoundrels. This is no doubt true and his experience seems to warrant some of these conclusions, but he unfairly absolutizes these statements. So when he contrasts corrupt Ukraine with good Christian America, he comes off sounding a tad nationalistic. There are certainly other reasons for corruption besides secularism. The economics of enforced redistribution under communism probably encouraged baseline corruption from the citizenry on the basis of personal survival. I am no atheist, but I just not sure that Taunton has made his case that ‘atheism’ is to blame for all that ails the fallen Communist Regimes. He may be partially right, but I don’t think it is as simple as he makes it out to be.

I do agree with Taunton’s central premise: that the Christian heritage in America has impacted wider society for the common good. I am not sure that he would convince the skeptical through his tale, but it is coherent to those of us who share his faith. And it is impossible to read this book and not love Sasha!

Getting Intimate with the Almighty

I first came across a book by Greg Paul several years ago. I was new to urban ministry and the stories, people and insights of Greg Paul’s God in the Alley were well worth it, though frequently heartbreaking.

This book was different. It was not about justice and while a few of the stories were about sanctuary and the neighborhood his church is in, this was much more personal. He told the stories of his relationship with his parents, his children, people he was privileged to walk along side. He told the story of God’s relationship with us. The stories of Greg and the people he loves dovetail with God’s story and he sees in them the God he loves and who loves him even more passionately.

Greg Paul uses the framework of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation to tell God’s story (a helpful framework given to him by Rod Wilson of Regent College). At each point, Greg’s life and metaphors converge to tell the story of God’s love. We are created by a loving God. God looks on our sinfulness not with anger and judgmentalism, but with sadness of seeing the pain we are in. God in Christ is our great redeemer. The God of love holds our future.

I would suggest reading this book slowly and devotionally. As someone with ‘pastor eyes’ reading this, I love how Greg Paul is able to share how biography intersects theology. The truth of Grace is not a doctrine, but a lived reality. We all need to know this more.

Can you Dig it? A review of Joshua Harris’s Dug Down Deep

I am not a big fan of Joshua Harris. I haven’t read his book on dating (more accurately not dating) or anything he’s written on relationships and marriage. I did read his book on the Church (“Stop Dating the Churc”h re-titled as “Why Church Matters”). I found it mediocre and insensitive to where people are coming from when they are ambivalent to church. I also found him theologically narrow.

So I was surprised that Harris’s book on doctrine and theology was something I actually enjoyed. In this book, Harris describes his ‘conversion’ to the sort of Christian who cared about doctrine. Then he reviews various different doctrines, in sort of an autobiographical survey of systematic theology. This is really what makes this book work. The theological weight of this book is rather light, though he does point readers to deeper places (and Wayne Grudem). What you get instead is Harris’s wrestling with doctrine and the story of why he thinks certain truths matter. This is autobiography as theology which endears it to me, even if I do not sign off on all of Harris’s generally reformed model of the faith.

I think doctrine matters and this is a passionate defense. More than that, Harris comes across as likable. His last chapter about ‘humble orthodoxy’ is the best part of the book. Harris is not arguing for a narrow and intolerant orthodoxy; rather he is arguing that Christians hold on to truth without compromising. This doesn’t mean they need to be judgmental and narrow-minded. Point well taken.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review