Traveling the Text Part 2: The Daily Commute

Last month I began a series of posts on reading the Bible through the lens of various travel metaphors. You can read about Part 1here. I talked about the metaphor of flight and how, the advantages is that it enables you to make connections over long distances, you wouldn’t otherwise, and gives you a bird’s eye view of the big picture.

Fair enough, but flying over a place and seeing it from a plane window is different from going there. Unless you slow down and enter a place, you can’t say to have been there. Before our travels in the text grind to a halt (SPOILER: this is where I am heading) I wanted to look at another fast (though not nearly as fast) method of traveling the text: driving. This is the mode of travel that most of us use to get where we are going, most of the time. We drive to work in the morning, or catch a bus or train, in which case we are driven by someone else). We also use our cars to visit friends and family, take road trips, go to the grocery store and countless other ways in our day to day life. It used to be people drove for pleasure but now concerns about the impact of fossil fuel, and more pragmatically the cost, restricts how much we do that, unless our driving serves some other end. So without further ado let me offer some reflections on driving through the text:

  • Following a route or a map: Driving the text is what most of us do when we use a daily reading plan, lectionary or study guide in our engagement with scripture. There is a similarity here with the way drivers will consult maps, mapquest or their GPS to find the best route to take. Regardless of whether such tools are at your disposal, like most drivers your routes are constricted by the necessity of roadways (most of us can’t go offroading, and ditches and rails prevent our attempts).

    So it is for most of us, when we seek to travel the text in our daily lives. We have set routes laid out for us, or open to us as we seek to engage God’s word. This might be a personal rule of a chapter a day, a plan to read through the Bible in a year, daily readings from a devotional, or in-depth studies of a book of the Bible.Presently I am doing a through-the Bible plan which has me reading portions of the Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms each day. Probably when I am finished this plan, I will go back to reading daily lectionary readings because I am craving a slightly slower reading pace. Using these guides are helpful if we want to travel the text well and get to our desired destination. This brings me to my second point.

  • People drive to get somewhere: This is true whether we are talking about getting to work each day, going to the grocery store or going home for the holidays. Most of the time, when people get behind the wheel of their car, they are trying to reach some sort of destination. At the very least, they are trying to get away from where they are!

    Reading the Bible is similarly a goal-oriented undertaking. We read for understanding. We read to know God better. We read to hear His voice. We read for transformation. Yes there are distractions that can cause us to break-down enroute, but reading with a purpose does help you get what you want out of it. I know I have read through the gospels with a green pen in hand underlining Jesus’s actions (as per a Dallas Willard suggestion), have tried to suss out the Spirit’s quiet role in different passages and have read hoping to hear God’s guidance. Does this mean every time I pick up a Bible I get what I want from the text? Nope, sometimes my daily readings don’t seem to address me or I don’t know what to do with them. However, I have found creating space through the practice of regular reading, allows God to show himself afresh to me. Thus having the purpose of regular communion with God in my daily reading takes me somewhere, even if I do not immediately see the fruits of such actions.

  • You must obey the rules of the road: If you do not yield, stop, merge, go the right direction in your automobile, you are going to die and it will likely really hurt. Road signs are placed there to help us navigate traffic, pay attention to other drivers and get us going in one piece.

    When we read the Bible, likewise we are constrained in our reading by paying attention to the road signs along the way. Your NIV Bible with the Faux pink leather did not fall into your hands for you to read into its pages anything you like. Rather it came from centuries of scholarship, translation, unearthed manuscripts and the churches theological reflection. Taking texts out of context and disregarding the ways in which they have been understood by readers for centuries, is to fail to properly read the road signs. At the very least, proceed with caution.

    So what are these road signs? For me, it means when I come to what seems like a new spiritual insight in the text, I ask myself, ‘how have others understood this text?’ This sends me to commentaries, theologians, church fathers, trusted mentors. I use their words as signs to see if I’m on the right track. Does that mean that I can’t be right while everyone else is wrong? Probably not, but I don’t think its likely. Paying attention to road signs means reading in community and it guards you from driving over a cliff

  • When you drive long distances you have to plan your stops
  • This point is more for the ‘road trip’ study of scripture than a daily commute. When you travel somewhere by car, you stop to see the sights, eat lunch, get gas. On a recent trip to Spokane, I found myself on a stretch of highway which was pretty barren. My gas gauge indicated I had slightly less than a quarter tank, and we began scanning maps to see where the best place to stop was, because if we didn’t stop in the right place at the right time, we could not keep going.

    So here is how I relate this to Bible reading. I know my Bible well enough to know where the beautiful vistas and challenging words are. I also know what sections cause me to feel dry (i.e. lists of buidling materials in Exodus, lists of names in Chronicles). If I hit those sections and run out of gas, I know its likely I won’t keep reading. So I have learned to plan it so when I hit a difficult and barren stretch of road, I can keep driving, making stop offs at places which are more breathtaking and nourishing. Here again a reading plan helps. If you are using a lectionary.

    What do you think? How else do we drive the text?

    holy spirit in the Hebrew Tradition: a book review and reflection

    Breath of Life CoverAs a somewhat disgruntled (wounded) charismatic and committed evangelical, I am always searching for an intelligible depiction of life in the Spirit; however I have never read a book exploring the Spirit of God in the Judaic tradition (despite having an M.Div with an emphasis in the Old Testament). Rabbi Rachel Timoner does a fine job of illuminating the role of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Rabbinical tradition. She writes of the Spirit in hopes to speak meaningfully to both Jews and Christians. Certainly as a Christian I affirm the Trinity and have a different list of religious authorities to appeal to than Timoner does; still there is much here that is fruitful for Christians to grasp and grapple with if we are to do justice to our shared scriptures and lay hold of the gift of God’s spirit (through out this review I will try to respect Timoner’s lowercase usage of spirit to denote it as God’s possession rather than triune person; that I believe more in this regard, does not mean I don’t respect her integrity to her tradition and think that it has something to teach us).

    Timoner received her B.A. from Yale University, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, has won several awards, is an advocate of justice and the Assistant Rabbi at Leo Boeck Temple in L.A. She grew up as a synagogue-drop-out with no particular interest in God or religion. That was until she began to pay attention to life and had the growing sense of the transcendent, a reality she names as God. The Hebrew words for spirit, ruach and neshamah, name God’s immanence and transcendence. Timoner traces the role of the spirit of God through the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition exploring three themes which correspond to the parts of this book: Creation, Revelation & Redemption. Rachel Timoner

    Creation
    The Hebrew Bible begins with ‘the spirit’ hovering over the waters breathing life into the cosmos. Humanity is enlivened by the ‘Breath of life-nishmat chayim. Our life is sustained by the spirit of God. Timoner’s picture of sustaining power of God’s spirit giving us life, underscores the relationship between God’s spirit (breath) and our own. I think any pneumatology which strives to be Biblical should start here.

    Revelation
    As protestant, I am comfortable talking about specific and general revelation. General revelation, is God’s self revealing through creation. Specific revelation is God’s historic self-revelation through scripture (and as a Christian I think ultimately revelation through Jesus). What Timoner does with the term revelation does not fit into the neat boxes of my protestant systematic theology. She uses the examples of the spirit’s revelation in the Hebrew scriptures, but she uses these evocatively to speak of a universal outpouring of God’s Spirit. Thus she points out the gift of the spirit to enable leaders, artists, the wise and courageous and the eloquent; yet the spirit of God is also what is given to each of us in all walks of life. It is God’s gift of the spirit which helps us clarify our life’s calling. Because ultimately the gift of the spirit of God is given in the context of covenant, a special relationship where we live out God’s purposes for the world.

    Again there is little I would disagree with here. I would personally push for more clarification on the nature of covenant than Timoner offers (i.e. obligations and conditions, how you enter covenant with God, who is excluded). But certainly seeing all of our lives, our gifts, talents, insights, proclivities as gift from God seems good and right. Timoner insists that God gives gifts and has an agenda in the world in which we are called to participate. I would not want to say less than this. Her attentiveness to the gift of the spirit takes aim at the practical Deism of our age.

    Redemption

    In exploring this theme, Timoner has a rich heritage to draw upon. Of course the story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for God’s rescue. But there are also the prophets that talk about redemption, restoration, reviving dry bones and re-dedication. It is the spirit of God issues in an age which is characterized by where God’s people live out God’s redemption for all of humanity. This means advocating for the redemption of the poor and marginalized. The Spirit that creates, sustains, gives and guides directs us to treat our fellow humans with justice and love.

    Here is another point where I think Christians can learn from this very Jewish reading of the new age of the Spirit. Sometimes Christians use the same prophets Timoner used to speak of redemption as though they were fulfilled with Jesus and the New Testament (i.e. Redemption, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh). The Judaic tradition is a living tradition which holds the same texts sacred; they long for their fulfillment in the same way that we Christians long for God’s kingdom to come in fullness. That our approaches are necessarily different doesn’t obscure the common ground. Jews and Christians both draw on the resources of God’s spirit as we seek to live out God’s redeeming presence in the world.

    So I really liked this book and found it helpful. Admittedly it harder reading as a Christian because it draws on a number of sources which are not as readily familiar. Yet it talks of the God of the Hebrew scripture with wonder and reverence and illuminates aspects of the holy spirit (our Holy Spirit) which should help us to understand more fully.

    Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of Breath of Life in exchange for this review

    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.

    Readings- By Czeslaw Milosz

    Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter. New York: Ecco Press, 1978, 10.

    Readings

    You asked me what is the good of Reading the Gospels in Greek.
    I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
    Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
    And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
    We discover the true dignity of speech.
    Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
    No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of Caesars
    On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
    Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
    And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
    Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
    Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
    Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
    There are plenty of persons whom the text calls
    Diamonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
    Or, if you prefer, bedeviled (as for the “possessed”
    It’s no more than the whim of a dictionary).
    Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
    Were not considered signs of talent.
    The demonized had no access to print or screens,
    Rarely engaging in arts or literature.
    But the Gospel parallel remains in force:
    That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
    Which exasperated by the sudden clash
    Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
    Jump into the water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
    And thus on every page a persistent reader
    Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
    In a world which one day will come to its end.