Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tuesday Tidbit: the power of language

"Languages are ways of 'naming' the world. We cannot enter much at all into another culture unless we learn its language, its ways of naming things and activities. One reason many of today's Americans find it hard to understand and related to other cultures and nations is that we insist everyone speak English and we fail to learn other languages. It is extremely difficult to learn another language—and it is incredibly rewarding as our eyes are opened to other people and cultures with their distinctive sensibilities and sensitivities. Learning to speak someone's name with respect is the beginning of communication and relationship. Learning languages is a fruition of this same attitude, a practice of this essential principle."

-David Gill, Doing Right: Practicing Ethical Principles, 138 (emphasis mine)

This is one reason we've encouraged Eliana (age 11) to learn Spanish. She spends 40 minutes in the morning before school, three days a week, using Rosetta Stone. She's been doing it for 3 years already. I think it's paying off. Some of her very best friends at school, six years in a row, have been girls from other cultures (Cuba, India, Ethiopia, Hawaii, Italy, Indonesia, the Philippines). When they do something she doesn't understand, she doesn't get mad at them. She comes to me and asks, "Mom, is there something I should know about ______ culture that would make her do ______?"

Music to my ears.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

John Piper on interracial marriage

John Piper and I don't always see eye to eye. But I, like many others, have learned a lot from him, and I'm grateful for his ministry. His has, time after time, pointed the church to the vision of God's Glory.

Today I simply want to share a link to a wonderful chapel message he gave at Wheaton on October 3rd on interracial marriage. Piper was honest about his own racism while he was an undergraduate student at Wheaton, and during his growing-up years in the 50s and 60s. But his story includes several key moments where that racism was challenged. Now he insists that the Bible does not condemn interracial marriage, and neither should we. In his words:

"Our oneness in Christ is profound and transforms racial barriers into blessings."

"Few things - I think - are more beautiful than when a Christian couple across racial lines, overcomes every racial prejudice, every ethnic slur, every gospel-contradicting fear, and then display in a marriage the covenant-keeping commitment and love of Christ for his church. That's what marriage is for."

"Marriage is mainly displaying to the world the covenant keeping love of God between Christ and this church and this church and Christ (Ephesians 5). Dream that dream, and it will profoundly affect whom you marry."

"Christians are people who move towards justice, who move towards beauty. They don't move towards security at every point."

"Don't underestimate the challenges of marriage. . . .When it comes to interracial marriage, celebrate the beauty of it."

In the end, Piper called interracial marriage "good for the church, good for the world, and good for the glory of God."

Amen to that!

Friday, October 26, 2012

on the place of intuition in biblical studies

John Barton's Reading the Old Testament is beautifully honest, carefully worded, and lucidly written. I wish I had read it years ago. His aim is to show that no one method in biblical studies can trump all the rest. Like an experienced tour guide, he leads students beyond the first impressions of youthful naiveté to forgotten hallways and shadowy basements of biblical criticism, showing tunnels that lead from one edifice to another as well as places where the foundations have cracked or shifted over time. Barton’s analysis is sometimes surprising and often uncomfortable, but his overall thesis is persuasive.

Barton has the courage to say what scarcely sounds "academic" enough to make it in the scholarly world: Bible reading is intuitive. Some intuitions, of course, are better shaped to handle the biblical text than others. A "perceptive reader" has what it takes.

"The primary thesis [of this book] is that much harm has been done in biblical studies by insisting that there is, somewhere, a 'correct' method which, if only we could find it, would unlock the mysteries of the text. . . . Instead, I propose that we should see each of our 'methods' as a codification of intuitions about the text which may occur to intelligent readers" (5).

So, in essence, that's what we spend a lifetime doing—shaping our intuitions so they can guide us more reliably in our reading of sacred Scripture. I will never get tired of doing it. What rich rewards await the patient and perceptive reader!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tuesday Tidbit: identifying spiritual handicaps

"We have replaced
repentance with blessing,
discipleship with joy,
servanthood with power,
vulnerability with predictability,
and seeking with success.
Our spiritual handicap is that we are empty
when we think we are full."

-Charles Ringma, Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen, reflection 94

Friday, October 19, 2012

my basket of questions

By the time you read this I will have had my last PhD seminar meeting on Old Testament Ethics with Dr. Block, in which we faced one of the toughest issues in the whole Bible: God's command for Israel to exterminate the Canaanites. It's a dark part of biblical history, and one that is very difficult to reconcile with the LOVE of God and His desire for His people to bless all nations. One of the books we read in preparation for class is Christopher J. H. Wright's the God i Don't Understand: reflections on Tough Questions of faith. Wright's blend of authenticity and faith is truly refreshing. Look at how he starts one of his chapters:

"In chapter 4 we looked at some common approaches to the problem of the conquest of Canaan, but we found that none of them is really satisfactory. What are we to say then? Is there any 'solution'?"

"I have wrestled with this problem for many years as a teacher of the Old Testament, and I am coming to the view that no such 'solution' will be forthcoming. There is something about this part of our Bible that I have to include in my basket of things I don't understand about God and his ways." (page 86, emphasis mine)

Wright goes on to offer three helpful frameworks for understanding the slaughter of the Canaanites. His explanation is the best I've read on the subject. But he offers more than answers. He models a life of faith in scholarship—a life of faith seeking understanding. Wright is committed to the God of the Bible and to the truth of the Bible, but he doesn't insist on having everything wrapped up in tidy little boxes. God is not tidy like that. He is awe-some and mighty, and he doesn't fit in anybody's box.

And so, instead of a box, Wright has a basket. In his basket are all the things he wants to ask God about someday. These things have the potential to derail his faith. They have done so for many others. But Wright refuses to let gaps in his understanding prevent him from surrendering to the God whose ways are beyond ours. This does not make his Christianity into a blind leap, though. Yes, there are gaps, but Wright chooses to stake his faith on what he does know about God—His unbounded love for us, His victory over sin and death, and the hope of His coming to make all things right again

I have a basket, too—a place for questions I can't wait to ask Jesus in person someday. The more I study, the more my basket fills up. Where did Satan come from? How are we supposed to read Genesis 1? Why didn't the Old Testament outlaw slavery? What did Paul really mean in 1 Timothy 2:12? What's the deal with head coverings? Who wrote the Pentateuch . . . and when? Why is the Song of Songs in the Bible? Is Job a true story or an epic poem? Is Jonah a true story or a parable? How extensive was the flood? Can a true believer reject the faith? If God can bring healing, why doesn't he? What about those who die without hearing about Jesus? I carry these questions and many more in my basket. But none of these questions changes the fact that I've been transformed by the love of God, poured out through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus, on my behalf. I've learned to live without certainty in some areas because God's grace is sure.

How about you? Is your faith stalled by questions you cannot answer? I think Wright wants us to go forward with what we know of God, and hold our questions in a basket. These questions are important, and they should not simply be abandoned, but some of them may turn out to be unanswerable on this side of eternity. Our finite minds can only grasp so much. It would be a pity to insist on complete knowledge, when we aren't wired to be able to handle it all anyway.

So we bring our questions along for the ride. Perhaps the answers will become clear over time, and perhaps not, but either way we will not miss out on the adventure of faith.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tuesday Tips: So you wanna learn Aramaic?

Daniel 3:17–18
"If our God to whom we pay reverence exists, he is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and he will deliver us from your hand, O king. And if not, let it be known to you, O King, that to your gods we will not pay reverence and we will not pay homage to the golden image that you have set up."
                           -Daniel 3:17–18 (my translation)

I have always loved these verses. I love the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed Nego in the face of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Even under a tremendous amount of social and political pressure, and at the risk of their very lives, they refuse to bow to the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected. They are not certain that God will deliver them. But they are certain that he can. And that is enough for them. Their fear of Him outstrips their fear of any human king and his pagan gods.

Though I've known this story for most of my life, this evening I read it for the first time . . . in Aramaic. Did you know that about 10 chapters of the Old Testament were first written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew? I've wanted to learn Aramaic for several years now, and thanks to some great resources, I'm studying it on my own this semester.

If you've studied Hebrew, then adding Aramaic is no big deal. You, too, can learn Aramaic from the comfort of your own home. Here are some helpful tools:

1. Miles Van Pelt's Basics of Biblical Aramaic. It's the only book you need. It contains a complete grammar of the language, a full lexicon of all the Aramaic words occurring in the Bible, and the complete biblical Aramaic text double-spaced so you can practice translating it. Amazon has it for only $33. (And no, I'm not getting paid to tell you this.) The grammar is divided into 22 lessons, so at one lesson a day, you can finish "learning" the language in less than a month. Then you can work your way through the biblical text in another month, translating about 10 verses each day (268 verses in all). You don't need more than this, but here are a few more things that I've found helpful:

2. Aramaic flash cards on BibleWorks. With the flash card feature you can isolate just the Aramaic words and practice them. Once you mark a word as "learned" it won't ask you again. You can sort words alphabetically or by number of occurrences, so that you can just work on the most common words.

3. Listen to the Aramaic biblical text being read online or download it for free. Follow along to train yourself to read well.

4. Check out the treasure trove of resources for learning Aramaic here, on a website designed by a friend of mine.

Now I can read the whole Bible in its original languages. Hurrah!

Friday, October 12, 2012

why "tell me the story"?

If you sit down and read documents from the ancient Near East (I realize very few of you have actually done this . . . but stay with me), it doesn't take long to notice the difference between the vast majority of ancient writing and the Bible:

The Bible is full of stories. Lifelike stories. Stories about real people, warts and all, who muddle about trying to listen to God and obey him. But most of all, stories about God's great acts in history.

Why tell all these stories?

Not for entertainment. Not as "royal records" (the documents that served that function in ancient Israel have been lost). No, what we have to understand about the ancient world is how historical narratives functioned. You see, the one place we have this type of "historical narrative" in other ancient Near Eastern cultures is in treaties. In a covenant between two parties, "the past was recounted for the specific purpose of instilling a sense of gratitude as the foundation and ground for future obedience" (from George Mendenhall's article on "Covenant" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary). If a king asks someone to swear loyalty to him, he first recounts all the generous things he has done to benefit the other party.

The stories of God's great acts in history are told for a reason.

They show us who HE is, and why He deserves Israel's highest praise and deepest devotion. This is why the Ten Commandments begin with a statement that changes everything: "I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt." That story-in-a-nutshell stands as a potent reminder that God asks nothing of his people without first giving them everything. His "laws" do not enslave. If he had meant for Israel to be slaves he would have left them in Egypt. Instead he set them free. And in their freedom he painted a portrait of what life-in-freedom-with-Yahweh looks like—a life free from enslavement to other gods and their every whim, a life free from worry about whose they are (they belong to Him and bear His name!), a life free from worry about possessions (they rest in His provision), free from disrespect, free from worry about premature death, the lure of a neighbor's advances, a ruined reputation, or the loss of what is rightfully theirs. (See Lochman's book for a beautiful exposition along these lines.)

But wait. The Ten Commandments are not designed to protect our own freedoms. If we read them carefully, we see they are designed to protect the rights and freedoms of our neighbors. As Daniel Block has often said, they function like the 'Bill of Rights' except that they are the 'Bill of Someone Else's Rights.'

Because of what God has done to set us free, we are to live in such a way that others can be free. Again and again, the stories remind us that freedom is a gift, a fragile gift, and that we best protect it by living life God's way. That's why we need someone to tell us the stories.

And that's why the stories are told.

The author of Hebrews, whoever it was, gets that. He (or she!) spends a great deal of time recounting the Old Testament stories as a reminder of what God has done, and what that means for believers in Jesus. Just as God set the Israelites free from Egyptian bondage, so he has set us free from bondage to fear and death. That freedom ought to transform everything, because that's what stories do. They tell us how it is. And who we are.

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. ... Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience." (Hebrews 2:14–15; 4:11 NET)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tuesday Tidbit: on going to earth when we die

From Christopher H. J. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God:

"The consistent biblical hope, from Genesis to Revelation is that God should do something with the earth so that we can once again dwell upon it in 'rest', in sabbath peace, with him. The Bible speaks predominantly of the need for God to come here, not of the wish for us to go somewhere else. This earth is to be the place of God's judgment, and also the place of God's saving power" (154).

Are you going to heaven earth when you die?

Friday, October 5, 2012

when life gives you trouble

Joseph Blenkinsopp (A History of Prophecy in Israel) thinks "the book of Micah presents the reader with a degree of difficulty disproportionate to its length" (91).

Some lives are like that, too. More than their fair share of trouble. One thing after another.

If that's you, I pray that this week you'll sense the presence of God with you in the midst of life's mess. He does not always arrange things so that life is comfortable and trouble-free. Larry Crabb would say it's because God has bigger things in mind for us than comfort. He wants us to learn to depend on him moment by moment. 

That's the nice thing about difficulty (if there is a nice thing)—it reminds us that we are not invincible, and that we can't make it on our own. As we recognize our own limitations, his power rushes into the void and we have the great gift of knowing him more. It isn't quite that simple in real life. Sometimes we cannot feel his presence and we have to go on trusting him, longing for him, in the darkness. But even that longing is a gift, because it means we are facing the right direction.

If you're facing disproportionate difficulties today, sink your soul into the presence of God. He is all you need.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tuesday Tidbit: tell me who I am

Joel Green, in his book, Practicing Theological Interpretation, says this:

"if this letter [James] is to serve as Scripture for us, then we will allow it to tell us who we are" (18).

What would happen if we let the Bible tell us who we are?