The ECC, Spener, the Bible and Me.

Since moving back to the states after both getting Masters of Divinity degrees from Regent College, my wife and I have attached ourselves to an Evangelical Covenant Church. We have begun to really love the Covenant for its stances on justice, the ordination of women, its sacramental theology and the value it puts on scripture. In many ways we feel like we have found a theological home with the Covenant and we are not kicking against the goads.

Recently my wife has taken a job at our church, and though I have yet to find a ministry job anywhere, I sense that God has led us here and I am in the right spot. Late January I took a couple of classes in Chicago (hence the blog hiatus) and am still really happy with this church.

One of the things about the ECC, is they really own their Pietist heritage. The denomination grew out of a Swedish Pietist revival movement and it is pretty central to who they are as a denomination and how they understand themselves. I know that in some theological circles, Pietism is looked down upon for its navel-gazing interiority and legalism. It is true that Pietism has at times devolves into an unhealthy mysticism and legalism but at its core there was a spiritual vitality which manifested itself in graciousness and social justice. The early Pietists met in coventicles (small groups) to study the Bible; these groups themselves were not culturally monolithic but broke with social conventions and broke down socio-economic and gender barriers. Likewise many of the early Pietists were social activists and not mere mystics. This is a great heritage.

SPener Phillip Jacob Spener is credited as the founder of Pietism (though he drew on earlier spiritual writings). His Pia Desideria is the classical work of the early movement. As I have read some of the writings of the early Pietists I came across an essay by Spener titled The Necessary and Useful Reading of Holy Scripture. I went to seminary and know how to read my Bible well employing various exegetical tools (translation, word studies, discourse analysis, historical and cultural background studies, etc.), I can synthesize insights from various hermeneutics perspectives (patristic, higher criticism, feminism, post colonial, literary, structuralist, poststructuralism, etc.) but Spener doesn’t address the tools as much as he the disposition of the Bible reader. He argues that to read with understanding the following are necessary components(my paraphrase):

    1. To understand scripture we need heartfelt prayer. The act of reading and praying belong together.
    2. To understand scripture (and pray effectively) we need a repentant heart. An unrepentant heart doesn’t really want God’s will and so can’t understand scripture
    3. To understand scripture we need to take what we read and practice it. Sometimes we only understand scripture when we get it into our bones.
    4.To understand scripture we must read attentively. Spener is saying by this point that there are treasures in scripture for both the simple and the wise, but they will not show themselves to the person who is not really looking for them. If you aren’t looking you won’t really see.
    5. To understand scripture we need to listen for God’s general word and his immediate word. That is, what does this scripture say in its original context and to people across time and space and what does it say to me in my context. I find myself wanting to quibble with Spener’s language on this point, but I think his point holds true. The Spirit who inspired the text has a general meaning and ‘word for today’ for the one who reads it.

This disposition was not explicitly taught to me in seminary though I think in general my professors would affirm a prayerful,repentant, active, attentive, and discerning disposition. Okay they all would affirm that, though they might argue with Spener’s specific articulation of that. Certainly the tools of exegesis and various insights into the nature of the text help shape our understanding and these are important, but not instead of reading expecting to hear God speak.

One of the exciting things for me about church these days is I am part of a church which approaches scripture with this sort of reverence and expectancy. As we prayerfully attend to the Word, our own condition and faithfully seek to live out what we read there, God reveals himself to us.

Traveling the Text Part 3: I Went Walking

Here is part 3 of my reflections on ‘traveling the text.’ Using the metaphor of various modes of travel I have explored different ways of reading the Bible. We’ve examined flying through the text where we got a bird’s eye view of the Biblical story. And we have looked at the metaphor of driving where we talked about how we drive to get somewhere (purpose), we drive on particular roadways (read the Bible in the way its meant to be read), and obey the road signs (read in community). Now I want to talk about a whole different method of travel: Feet. This includes walking, running or hiking. Obviously all these metaphors have been plundered when talking about the Spiritual life, but I want to continue with a focus on what they can tell us, specifically, about reading the Bible

I am a father of three and that means I go on walks with my family to get them out of the house; I run to get some time alone and get some exercise(and escape my family). The thing is in the U.S. people generally don’t walk to get anywhere because it is inefficient. Kenyan womenThe statistics tell us that the average American walks less than 400 yards a day. Compare that with Kenyan women who walk, on average 8 hours a day carrying 45 lbs of water. You see, Americans don’t walk anywhere because we have to, we walk (or run) because we want to. It is something we do for leisure!

I Went Walking

The first two modes of transformation pretty much spells out most of what it means to read responsibly with an eye to the wider context. But it is when we learn to slow down and walk through the text that we really get to know our Bibles. In The Unforseen Wilderness Wendell Berry reflects on having driven the freeway to a walking path along the Kentucky Red River Gorge:

In the middle of the afternoon I left off being busy at work, and drove through traffic to the freeway, and then for a solid hour or more I drove sixty or seventy miles an hour, hardly aware of the country I was passing through, because on the freeway one does not have to be. The landscape has been subdued so that one may drive over it at seventy miles an hour without any concession whatsoever to one’s whereabouts. One might as well be flying. Though one is in Kentucky, one is not experiencing Kentucky; one is experiencing the highway which might as well be in nearly any hill country east of the Mississippi(51-52).

My whole use of the travel metaphor in reading the Bible is predicated on the idea that the pace that you travel determines what you see. Berry is clear, unless you slow down, you can’t say you’ve actually been to a place:

The faster one goes the more strain there is on one’s sense, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over–the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything. Though the freeway passes through the heart of the forest, the motorist remains several hours’ journey by foot from what is living at the edge of the right-of-way.(52-53)

I certainly know how slowing down has caused me to see things in a new way. For several months I have lived in a small gated community in a family owned house. Over the past several years I have stayed at this house often, but never ventured into the neighborhood. As a result, I didn’t know how the roads fit together (they wind and turn in on each other) or where any of the playgrounds were. Occasionally I used to get lost driving in endless loops. Now living here, I walk and run through the neighborhood. In the spring, I saw which neighbor has the prettiest garden and which yard had the most promising fruit trees. In the late summer, I knew where the sweetest blackberries hung. My jogs explored every roadway, footpath, hill and incline nearby. I know every loop and every dead-end. It is by slowing down, I have finally entered into a place which I have visited often.

How does this relate to Bible reading? How many of us rush through our daily ‘quiet times’ with our reading plans and devotionals and never really slow down enough to see where the Spirit of God is beckoning? If we really want to enter into the land of the Bible, to know the contours of the landscape, we can’t rely on what we see from a car window or our bird’s-eye view overhead. We must discover times of leisure to slow down and really enter into the text.

…I strut my stuff…

Part of slowing down in the text is just for the fun of it. If you want to grow in your intimacy with God, I think it is essential that we learn to play in the pages of the Bible. I think it is intriguing that as Evangelicals we have lots of advice about Homer Runningreading the Bible responsibly and working through the dynamics of Biblical interpretation. We have reading plans, devotionals, commentaries, study guides. But if we are really in a personal relationship with God and the Bible is where we hear His voice speak the clearest, maybe we should find a way to enjoy it. If I spent my entire time ‘working’ on my marriage but never took the time to enjoy my wife, my marriage would be lousy. For a deepening faith, it is crucial that we make the space for play.

So what are some of the ways we can have fun in our Bible reading? Here are somethings I enjoy

1. Walk the same path you did yesterday. You really get to know a place when you travel it lots. Do you have a favorite walking path through a park or a forest? Is there some place you go, just to experience the beauty of creation? Why not do this with the Bible!?As I have read and re-read some of the Psalms, there imagery has become more vivid. By going over the text again and again, you memorize it. Despite what you remember about cramming for exams in college, memorizing can be fun. In highschool I used to quote the Song of Songs to girls at church whose hair reminded me of goats descending down mount Gilead. As an adult, I attended a Bible study where were supposed to recite a memory verse each week. I always tried to find the most outlandish one. As a result, there are a bunch of interesting verses in my head that I know just for the fun of it. When you memorize something, it becomes a part of you and you can enter into it a whole new way. Why not walk a path until you know every tree?

2. Walk where you aren’t supposed to- When you are driving your car, you are restricted to the roads, and constrained by traffic laws. When you are walking, there are much fewer constraints. Walk across the front lawn, take shortcuts and jump fences. When talking about the metaphor of driving, I talked about the need to follow directions and traffic laws. But I think there is also a place for bending rules. When I am reading the text playfully, I am less concerned with responsible interpretation, paying attention more to what a text evokes in you, more than what it says. Of course there are boundaries, pedestrians can still be hit by cars and not all trespassing is benign. But the fact remains that some of our best spiritual insights comes when we think outside the box and let our minds and hearts wander a bit while we read. Where does your reading take you?

3. Explore new ground. Sometimes when I am running, I may notice a road or path I haven’t travelled before and just decided to take it and see where I end up. Frankly the willingness to drop your plans and go a whole new direction opens you up for the joy of discovering new things. Sometimes I become goal centered in my reading plans, wanting to read through certain sections in x number of days. Reading playfully demands that I scrap thinking about reading as work, and sometimes read just for the fun of it. This can mean paying attention to what other Biblical references are referred to in the text and taking the time to follow them back (i.e. Old Testament quotations in the New), stopping reading to research different features of the Biblical landscape in commentaries, journaling wildly about the implications of what you are reading, making your own Bible puns, etc). When you are exploring new terrain, there is freedom to run off in different directions.

4. Reading well involves finding ways to internalize what you are reading Using the text to inspire your creativity One way of slowing down and having fun with the text is doing something creative. This can be art, a poem, a song, etc. Once I lead a bible study where I read a narrative I had written on the passage and then had everyone re-read the passage to see where my story got it wrong. Another time, I assigned characters from a Bible story to people in a group and had them retell the story from that perspective. By finding ways to be creative, we each internalized the text in new ways. My friend Randall writes a haiku based on the lectionary text (read them at Lectionary Haiku). This is his playful way of internalizing what he’s reading. What is yours?

…I don’t even know why

I grew up in an Evangelical culture where there were Bible trivia games, songs sung, discussion about Biblical characters, art and poetry produced, kids crafts, etc. None of these things involve work but through them I know my Bible and my God just a little bit better. In his book on the nature of play, aptly titled Play, Stuart Brown says “Play Activities don’t seem to have any survival value. The don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake. That’s why some people think of it as a waste of time. (17)” The fact is the ‘aimlessness’ of play makes it play. If you attach too firm of a of a goal to it, it ceases to be play(or only play?). This is one of the chief differences between ‘driving through the text’ and ‘walking through it,’ remember in today’s western culture, we drive to get places, we walk because we want to.

This does not mean that ‘play’ in the text does nothing. In fact it is in the playful appropriation of the text that we begin to really know and understand the Spirit who inspired these pages. Brown goes on his book to explore how play teaches both animals and people crucial skills and ways of navigating their social environment. The thing is, working on the text tackles an issue directly. Play is about indirection. You play in the Bible because it’s fun; through your play the Spirit is at work, beckoning, shaping, re-shaping. When you read for the fun of it, God plays too.

Text Critical Extravaganza: A Book Review of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament

Revisiting

In his scholarly tome, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and his more popular treatment, Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman has argued that the Biblical text that we have is deeply mired by tampering of scholars for theological reasons. In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic and Apocryphal Evidence, the inaugural volume of the Text and Canon of the New Testament Series (from Kregel Publications), Dan Wallace has edited a volume which takes Ehrman to task. Wallace’s introductory chapter, is an expansion of a paper he delivered in 2008 as part a dialogue with Ehrman over the Corruption of the New Testament. The subsequent chapters are each written by former academic interns and ThM students of his at Dallas Theological Seminary. Individually, each essay presents a strong case; cumulatively they systematically demolish Ehrman’s arguments. For the most part, the author’s are judicious in their analysis (I only can think of one or two places which felt like over reaching to me) and each chapter evidences copious research. While the authors are all theologically conservative and take issue with many of Ehrman’s claims, this book is not a smear-campaign either. They respect Ehrman’s scholarship and confirm his findings where they feel it’s warranted, but it is clear that they find his premise wanting.

In Chapter 1, Dan Wallace presents a brief, accessible apologetic for the reliability of the New Testament, taking specific aim at Ehrman’s arguments. Next Philip Miller examines Ehrman’s methodology and reveals that Ehrman is committed to the premise that the least orthodox readings are closer to the original text, regardless of whether the textual evidence and scholarly consensus supports him. These two chapters provide a more general overview of the issue. Matthew Morgan and Adam Messer provide a more detailed account by each examining a specific text which are asserted to be ‘corrupt’ by Ehrman and others (John 1.1c and Matthew 24:36, respectively). They each demonstrate the spurious nature of Ehrman’s claims Tim Ricchuiti examines the text-critical transmission of Thomas showcasing where theological interests effected the transmission of that text in line with the theology of the Nag Hammadi writings. In the final chapter, Brian Wright examines the textual evidence for the equation of Jesus as God in the New Testament. Wright demonstrates that such claims are not a result of corruption, but are original to the first century Christian community.

This book is written for a scholarly rather than popular level (and is endorsed by an impressive stream of theological conservative scholars). Certainly students engaged in Biblical studies or textual criticism would benefit from reading this book. Yet, this book is also of value beyond the walls of academia. Giving the ubiquity of Bart Ehrman on college campuses, the New York Times best sellers list, and numerous television appearances, serious engagement with ideas is a necessary apologetic task. A book I read by Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, recommended Misquoting Jesus because of the way it undermines Christian truth claims and casts doubt on the reliability of the Bible. This book reveals the places where Ehrman’s assertions do not stand up to examination. Some of this book, will be too technical for popular consumption, but the book would make a good addition to a pastoral library and Dan Wallace’s and Philip Miller’s essays certainly are accessible to an educated layperson. I think the arguments in this book will remain significant for the Evangelical community at large.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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?

    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.