POV convo.

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“Context is Everything,” he says.

“Yeah, but isn’t the POV a huge part of context?” I ask.


“Point of View wingnut,” I said. “What about that?”

“Oh, I dunno. I’m just reading your t-shirt.”

“Well,” I say (looking down at my coffee-stained t-shirt), “It looks to me like the Modern and Postmodern Church is suffering, at the core, from a hermeneutical crisis. At the core of that crisis, behind the lack of good mechanics, is a core error: It is a Christocentric universe, not an Anthropocentric one.”

“I bet you can’t get that on a t-shirt,” he says snidely.

“No, er…well, yes. Very small type, like 6 point,” I say. Then I can’t seem to resist a re-launch: “This is one more great reason for a Christocentric emphasis. It keeps God as central and yet He is with us in our humanity,” I said.

“And I am supposed to care about this?” he says.

“Anything’s possible,” I say standng up to get refills. “Want a scone?”

WrotelogoLuke, the author of both the Gospel and “The Acts of the Apostles” was both an historian and a physician.  In fact one of the reasons the two are separated is probably because each was originally about the size of one large scroll.  Our modern translations are good but are often unable to convey the rich fabric of Middle Eastern culture that makes up the backdrop for the parables and actual events of Jesus’ life in First Century Palestine.

It is unfortunate that we do not have more experts in this field but I will be drawing from all of the best sources that I am aware of including one of my personal mentors, the Rev. Darrell Johnson, former Professor of Homiletics at Regent Seminary in Vancouver British Columbia, and the scholarly works of Dr. Kenneth Bailey, Alfred Edershiem,  and a host of biblical and Greek commentaries on the Gospel of Luke.

This class is meant to adventure back in time to join Dr. Luke through a number of crucial parables and vivid encounters between Jesus and people that he wanted us to have. It was Dr. Luke’s belief that these parables and stories of Jesus could change our entire perception of God and therefore the world and ourselves.

Class One: Luke 15 – The Compassionate Father  part 1 (known in the West as “The Prodigal Son”)

Class Two: Luke 15 – The Compassionate Father  part 2 (known in the West as “The Prodigal Son”)

Class Three: Luke 7 – The Woman with the Alabaster Vial  (with Middle Eastern meal)  

Class Four: Luke 10 – The Good Samaritan

Class Five: Luke 9 – The Would-Be Disciples Along the Road

Class Six: Luke 9 – The Transfiguration of Jesus (The Glory of Christ)

CB022240When I wrote the previous article on reading and studying the Bible as “Splashing or Scuba” I left off at an intermediary state: “skin-diving”. From there came the nationwide news story of “Conservapedia.com” and their attempt to rewrite the Bible thousands of years later from a biased point of view and from the 1611 KJV.

That was an example of attempting to scuba-dive with no tank, regulator, BCD, octopus, and certainly no depth computer.

So, in fact, we were able to see, in the previous article how not to do it, and in the meantime some of the serious work that needs to be done if you want to go deeper in scripture.

I did a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Colossians which I am preparing for free download here at The Grand Book. It is incomplete (it ends at 4:6, but attempts to hit the meatier parts of this profound Christocentric letter).

It took me at least 6 months to write it, mostly because I had to do all of the work myself, which could be tedious. But  hey, try reading seven commentaries on one book (in detail), then doing the additional Greek word study when necessary. Then you have to type it all up (this included my creating my own Greek character font for my Mac…and NO, the “symbol” font will not work).

BCDI’ll stop whining. Point is, you at your church or small group have a tremendous opportunity.

Without trying to be critical, have you often found small groups to deal in a general, even cursory way with passages in question?

I have been to many small groups, and the idea is necessary because churches need “Church beyond Church”. So we have small group Bible studies, but are we really studying? Are we really exploring the texts of God’s Word, or are we answering pre-canned questions looking for the “right” answer, or afraid of speaking the wrong one?

Admittedly, I am not the norm. I was built to both teach and to go deep. This is not required of everyone by ANY stretch of the imagination. But wouldn’t you like to have other biblical images and passages that you understood come to mind as your preacher or pastor delivered their message on Sunday mornings or at a weekly study?

Let me use a silly example. I bought an old Volkswagen bug. It’s a 1969 classic and beat up in some ways. The windshield wipers don’t work (which is lots of fun this time of year!) the sunroof leaks water (talk about full immersion…this is not sprinkling after a good Arkansas rain), and up until recently the hood and right front fender looked like that part of the ship in Aliens that is all corroded and looks half eaten. The carburetor in back sometimes spurts/leak gas. I keep a fire extinguisher in the passenger side of the car.

Now where would I be without a toolkit, or just standard American sockets instead of metrics?

But what if two friends from the local “Bug Club” come over with their ramps, their tool boxes, a fresh look and some experience? We can talk about the best way to really handle the “issues” at hand and think and work things through. It is also a lot more fun!

So my suggestion, along those same lines, is not that you have a master teacher (unless your pastor or biblical education teacher) but rather a facilitator who feels so led and who knows how to keep things moving and let everyone speak and be heard.  Then comes a simple, yet radical idea.

Scuba-Diving-Courses What about assigning a commentary each to people in your small group. For those more academically inclined it could be an English translation of a Greek commentary for the passage in question.

This is not as hard as it sounds. A Young Life leader taught me (a high school C- student) how to do this at age 19. So, let’s say one member shells out $25 for the complete four volume hardbound set of Vincent’s commentaries. That’s a start.

The group decides to study, say Colossians.  It is small, and written to mostly uneducated Gentiles living in what is now Turkey (Asia Minor). It shouldn’t be too hard. Next you ask your pastor or a good teacher what good commentaries are available on Colossians?

ten_plagues_puppetsSadly, these books will NOT be available at your local Christian bookstore, or very rarely. Instead, however you mtestamintsay yet be able to get either these “testamints”  ; or the Ten Plague finger puppets. Hours of fun, but they will not help you make friends or help your kids (or adults) understand the Bible (but you will have the fresh scent of mint on your breath).

So you will have to go to Amazon or CBD.com. Even at CBD you may find it hard to actually find the commentaries (it was not always so). But they are there. For individual commentaries I suggest Amazon. They may be able to get you a very affordable used copy of an important one.

Let’s say there are ten people in your small group, which means 7-8 show up (this is very good) weekly. They are more apt to show up and simply DVR or TIVO House, or Lost, or CSI whatever if they actually have something ahead of time to share. (Note: I am not being cynical. I would show up to, but would DVR  some of those programs, especially Fringe or Fast Forward) . They may also invite friends, as a small group with coffee and snacks is a lot less intimidating than church may sometimes be at first.

N.T. Wright on Colossians and Philemon

N.T. Wright on Colossians and Philemon

Divide them up as you wish, or trade off every once and awhile since you are studying the same passage together ahead of time before you meet.

For Colossians, I would get a number of commentaries: N.T. Wright’s book ($12), and F.F. Bruce’s commentary (pricey at $30 but anything by Bruce is nearly priceless). The Bruce book will be the most detailed, but still accessible (give it to a nerd like myself).

If all this seems a bit over-intellectual (I could barely write an English sentence at 19), then also add these: Max Lucado’s commentary, or  J.B. Lightfoot’s commentary updated by J.I. Packer (this may be a bit heady too, but if you can figure out Facebook apps, you can get this).

I would steer you away from good books by good men like Bill Hybels and John MacArthur because they are both somewhat “pre-processed” and that misses the whole point. Who wants to see snapshots of someone else’s scuba dive when they can dive in themselves?

No, you want to study personally, then come together to discuss what you have learned, what questions you have , and share personal reflections that relate.

51nCQ9Q9guL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_But also, a good devotional book like Sam Storms Hope of Glory, may really add a whole new devotional angle on Colossians. You may find (if someone plays music) that one or two of these reflections  take the study and frame them more personally, naturally leading to worship. Or, perhaps someone, has been assigned to find a song to play from a  CD that covers some of the issues of the passage.  Be open to letting people’s natural and spiritual giftedness come out in this!

C.S. Lewis one commented that every good piece of theology should also lead into worship.

batfish-and-scuba-divers-1Other suggestions. Create a Facebook fan page where each of you can blog in relevant passages from what you are reading ahead of time. The  key to this is to explore the depths of God’s Word together and enjoy that exploration together.  Add what you like. Journal individually, or not.

If you hit a problem or an argument breaks out about a passage talk with your pastor (though those who scuba together are taught over and over to protect and look after each other!). You can even write the author (in the age of email this is not always impossible).

Of course you can write me as well. But I prefer you first do it in your small group under your pastor’s care and encouragement. I can guarantee, that as long as you keep a humble and teachable attitude, your pastor and others will be delights, no…inspired by your studies as a group.

You will experience real connection with what you are studying and will find you are thinking about it throughout the week. I believe this is part of God’s intention in protecting and providing the Word to you and I.

As always, please leave comments and questions. If you feel you want to do this and want further advice you, or your pastor can email me and thereby get my phone number.

I am in the Greater Little Rock area to assist. Why? It’s what I do.

Splashing or Scuba?

"The Trinity Being Koi" oil on canvas (20"x30") Christopher MacDonald

“The Trinity Being Koi” oil on canvas (20″x30″) Christopher MacDonald

I was starting to find ways of making my long commentary on the book of Colossians available for free download here. Upon looking at it more carefully (I wrote it years ago) I realized it might be a bit frightening if it was thought that serious study of a biblical text was that lengthy.

It isn’t, or does not need to be. I wrote it as a teacher, poet and wanted to exhaust myself on the project.

The reality is the books of the Old and New Testament are amazing in that they are available enough for the youngest child to splash around in safely; yet of you wish to go deeper you can choose, skin-diving, scuba-diving, or nitrous-oxide mixture deep sea diving and never touch bottom.

It is unlike any other collection of writings I know of in this way. Even now, reviewing just the first few verses of Colossians, I see whole areas still wide open to explore.

Does that mean I do not have a basic and clear understanding of those verses now? No. I do. Does it mean that you by yourself or with a few friends could not also quickly come to that same basic and clear understanding? No. You can and if you want to, I will do my best to help you load up a simple toolbox to do just that (I know, I am mixing metaphors…sorry).

childwadingSplashing about

When kids get out in the water they love just splashing around, feeling the water… playing. Sometimes we can make study or reading of the Bible more complex than it really is. It’s unique qualities allow for both. This little video is not about the Bible, but it is about how the “learned” with their massive assumptions can often miss the simple points that a child can grasp.

Of course, it helps if that child is Albert Einstein, but still.

I do not think this little video is saying much about God’s existence. Rather it deals with, to some extend, the problem of God and evil.

Point here is that for adults a good translation (most are) of the Bible and perhaps a Bible Dictionary, can be enough to simple reading. The Bible dictionary will help answer some technical or cultural questions about things we know little about.

Having a Bible with extra wide margins can be good to write down questions or reflections.

Thomas MacDonnald skin diving in Maui

Thomas MacDonnald skin diving in Maui


For anyone who regularly skin dives you have,  just by the equipment you have purchased or rented (biofins, a good mask, snorkel)  oriented yourself to go beneath the surface. As you float ot the top look down and breathing through your snorkel you have plenty of time to decide what you want to explore and estimate your best route there.  Your fins will allow for faster propulsion for greater depth, and your mask will allow for superior visibility. And, you can go down as many times as you like (within reason. Your only drawback is not being able to stay down for a much longer time for more detailed examination.

This would be akin to having a good commentary on the book in question. Each will have advantages. Some best on language, others on culture. Then there are those who have taken the time to topographically map the whole of the Pauline corpus (all of Paul’s writings) for a grander view of major themes. This can be as simple as looking at all of Paul’s opening “salutations” and what they mean, or were meant to mean.  Or maybe something as advanced as looking up all the passages where Paul talks about “life in Christ“.

Remember you have the advantage of having all of these letters, (or most, we know one of Paul’s to the Corinthians got lost because he mentions it). While it is true that the letters to Colossae, Philemon and Ephesians probably made the “rounds to several townships” those who had Colossians in their possessions had no idea of what Paul had written Rome.

You do.

All for know. Part two later. Let me just say, both of the above are great (splashing and skin-diving). I am not suggesting everyone become a Bible scholar. And your pastors have been trained to deal with deeper issues (they have scuba equipment for your benefit).

What I am suggesting is that you have many options open to you. If someone gives you an interpretation of a passage or passages that seem bogus, they may well be. In the book of Acts the church members of Berea were called “more noble” because  they compared what itinerant teachers were passing off as truth. questioning (respectfully) is a very good thing.

My last though this morning is about how we often do “Bible study”. I think I have a new model, or if not new, perhaps a very old one that should be revisited.

Bono on the Psalms

In 1999, Penguin publishing asked Irish rocker, and lead man for U2, Bono to write the introduction to a new collection of the Psalms from the King James Bible. Just as surprisingly, Bono accepted the assignment with zeal and really managed as a poet and writer himself to nail it pretty good. The book is available from Amazon and other places.


The entire text:

Explaining faith is impossible…Vision over visibility … Instinct over intellect … A songwriter plays a chord with the faith that he will hear the next one in his head.

One of the writers of the psalms was a musician, a harp-player whose talents were required at ‘the palace’ as the only medicine that would still the demons of the moody and insecure King Saul of Israel; a thought that still inspires, if not quite explaining Marilyn singing for Kennedy, or the Spice Girls in the court of Prince Charles…

At age 12, I was a fan of David, he felt familiar … like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious and he was a star. A dramatic character, because before David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting, this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm – a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God – ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?’ (Psalm 22).

I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls ‘There’s a hellhound on my trail’ or Van Morrison sings ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’. Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in ‘Justice Blues’: ‘I cried Lord my father, Lord eh Kingdom come. Send me back my woman, then thy will be done’. Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backslidin’ music; but by its very opposition, flattered the subject of its perfect cousin Gospel.

Abandonment, displacement, is the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. ‘How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?’ (Psalm 89) or ‘Answer me when I call’ (Psalm 5).

Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but I wasn’t sure about the tunes – with the exception of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Steve Wonder – when I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for … my ‘soul’ I guess.

Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiental sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way into my spirit was a combination of words and music. As a result the Book of Psalms always felt open to me and led me to the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon the book of John… My religion could not be fiction but it had to transcend facts. It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual …

My mother was Protestant, my father Catholic; anywhere other than Ireland that would be unremarkable. The ‘Prods’ at that time had the better tunes and the Catholics had the better stage-gear. My mate Gavin Friday used to say: ‘Roman Catholicism is the Glamrock of religion’ with its candles and psychedelic colours … Cardinal blues, scarlets and purples, smoke bombs of incense and the ring of the little bell. The Prods were better at the bigger bells, they could afford them. In Ireland wealth and Protestantism went together; to have either, was to have collaborated with the enemy, i.e. Britain. This did not fly in our house.

After going to Mass at the top of the hill, in Finglas on the north side of Dublin, my father waited outside the little Church of Ireland chapel at the bottom of the hill, where my mother had brought her two sons …

I kept myself awake thinking of the clergyman’s daughter and let my eyes dive into the cinema of the stained glass. These Christian artisans had invented the movies … light projected through colour to tell their story. In the ’70s the story was ‘the Troubles’ and the Troubles came through the stained glass; with rocks thrown more in mischief than in anger, but the message was the same; the country was to be divided along sectarian lines. I had a foot in both camps, so my Goliath became religion itself; I began to see religion as the perversion of faith. As to the five smooth stones for the sling … I began to see God everywhere else. In girls, fun, music, justice but still – despite the lofty King James translation – the Scriptures.

I loved these stories for the basest reasons, not just the New Testament with its mind-altering concept that God might reveal himself as a baby born in straw poverty – but even the Old Testament. These were action movies, with some hardcore men and women … the car chases, the casualties, the blood and guts; there was very little kissing.

David was a star, the Elvis of the bible, if we can believe the chiseling of Michelangelo (check the face – but I still can’t figure out this most famous Jew’s foreskin). And unusually for such a ‘rock star’, with his lust for power, lust for women, lust for life, he had the humility of one who knew his gift worked harder than he ever would. He even danced naked in front of his troops … the biblical equivalent of the royal walkabout. David was definitely more performance artist than politician.

Anyway, I stopped going to churches and got myself into a different kind of religion. Don’t laugh, that’s what being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is, not pseudo-religion either … Show-business is Shamanism: Music is Worship; whether it’s worship of women or their designer, the world or its destroyer, whether it comes from that ancient place we call soul or simply the spinal cortex, whether the prayers are on fire with a dumb rage or dove-like desire … the smoke goes upwards … to God or something you replace God with … usually yourself.

Years ago, lost for words and forty minutes of recording time left before the end of our studio time, we were still looking for a song to close our third album, War. We wanted to put something explicitly spiritual on the record to balance the politics and the romance of it; like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye would. We thought about the psalms … ‘Psalm 40’ … There was some squirming. We were a very ‘white’ rock group, and such plundering of the scriptures was taboo for a white rock group unless it was in the ‘service of Satan’. Or worse, Goth.

‘Psalm 40’ is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love replace the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfil them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.

’40’ became the closing song at U2 shows and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape t-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from ‘Psalm 6’: “‘How long’ (to sing this song)”. I had thought of it as a nagging question – pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. How long … hunger? How long … hatred? How long until creation grows up at the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalising of such questions could bring such comfort; to me too.

But to get back to David, it is not clear how many, if any, of these psalms David or his son Solomon really wrote. Some scholars suggest the royals never dampened their nibs and that there was a host of Holy Ghost writers … Who cares? I didn’t buy Leiber and Stoller … they were just his songwriters … I bought Elvis.

There are other excellent books on the Psalms. I  would point out the one by Walter Brueggemann (anything by Brueggemann is good..just a bit “thick, if you get my drift). Also several books are on “praying the Psalms” including a hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) expert  James Sire. These type of books point out the direct usefulness of the Psalms because the Psalms are filled not only with praises, but often bitter complaints, questioning, laments…the sort of prayers that often people are afraid to pray to God, but obviously need not be.

But nobody nails the collection of Psalms like Bono. David was the first “Elvis” and his reasoning is air-tight. He also  manages to deftly, but directly answer the question “head knowledge” versus experience of God.  The one can impress a friend over espresso, but only the latter can comfort your soul when you feel genuinely lost.

Next time you wish to rail at God, pick up the Psalms and find a good one. Whether the Psalmist is King David, or an anonymous writer…the language, anguish, anger, sadness, confusion, etc are things everyone can relate to. It will give you boldness in your prayers (hey…God knows anyway, right?)

Lost in Translation

Lost_in_Translation_posterThe Old and New Testaments come to us in translation. We are not only separated from the original copies (not the original “autographs” which we do not have)  by their original languages (earliest manuscripts in Hebrew and Greek); but also by culture and time.

My favorite saying is “Context is Everything”. And it is in so many aspects of life, but no less shwne it comes to the Bible. Read blandly from an English tranlation as if it was written yesterday in Akron Ohio and mistakes are going to be made upon reading.

Still, no series of books (66 in the Old and New Testaments) have ever received the time, attention and thorough scholarship that these have been given for thousands of years. And most of the fruit of such work is readily available in English. Your pastor may have taken three semesters of Greek in seminary, but you, all by your lonesome, have equal access to get to the heart of any text!

How? We will show you how over the next few months as we layout simple methods for approaching difficult passages or fulfilling your desire to go deeper (my personal favorites are the “difficult” passages that are either highly offensive, or grossly misused by others).

But in the meantime it is good to have a solid translation of the Bible handy. As with all translations, the tension is between accuracy and readability. Every language has it’s own way of ordering words and a strict word-for-word translation of the Greek texts of the New Testament are not very readable at all (they do serve an important purpose in study though).

On the far end are Bible “paraphrases” where those knowledgeable in study have “summarized” passages in a very common ways. “The Living Bible” or “The Message” are two good examples. Others have been done for more immediate  concerns (sometimes with humorous results”. I can remember a paraphrase of the New Testament that came out in the late 60s called Letters to Street Christians where such paraphrases came out “and don’t be going and ball’n your neighbor’s wife!”

Don’t yell at me. That was the actual translation, and a fairly accurate rendition if you were in Berkeley the late 1960s or early ’70s.

streetSo my suggestion is a translation somewhere in between. Something that is somewhat verbatim, yet also readable. Most bible scholars and pastors seem to agree that the NIV (New International Version) and the NASB “New American Stand Bible” are both somewhere in the middle. Both accurate, both readable. But there are plenty of other translations just  as good. And here is the important fact…we are talking readability. Any of the major translations are really just fine.

Even the King James Bible (written in 1611) is both accurate…just a tad less readable for us modern fork. But you are not going to see different meaning to these passages. In this sense there are not “different Bibles”, but different translations like any book that finds it’s way from one language to another in a variety of publications (I like the Dutton version of Pascal’s Pensees. The Penguin edition is stiff and well, “penguin-ish” But both are still accurate translations. Just the Dutton version has more of the poetry of the French language (and it has a foreward by T.S. Eliot)