Posts Tagged ‘biblical studies’

Koipaint1 (2)

Being Koi, Oil on canvas. Christopher MacDonald.

As the class winds down it seems I am getting to learn, or at least hone some skills in my Gospels class. 

Our professor had prepared a long document outlining the differences in content between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark an Luke) and John’s Gospel. It was a pretty good general list, and probably the thing I took issue with was just a part of some list he inherited (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt). 

My purpose in repeating my reply is simply to educate you about so-called “double stories” in the Gospels and the sort of (in my view) less than sensical assumptions some “scholars” can make which defy common sense, the texts and clear reason.  

In this case it has to do with the two miraculous “fish stories” of Luke 5 and John 21 where nets are cast over the side of the boat and a huge haul of fish is drawn in. Luke’s account takes place at Gennesaret on the first day that James, John and Peter become disciples, the nets tear and it is after Jesus does some teaching from the boat. Only Peter is in the boat with Peter – who essentially freaks out.  In John’s acount, it is after the resurrection when the boys have become men and been with Jesus for years. These men (seven of them) have been out all night fishing on the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee), when they obey a stranger (they do not know it is Jesus) the nets fill but do not rip. Peter has the presence of mind to throw on his outer garment before throwing himself into the sea, but the others (including James and John) come along with the fish and they then have the world’s quietest big fishing haul breakfast. 

Now some scholars would have you believe that these two stories are the same event.

It gets worse – they have tenure.

So I am “calling them out.”

Having spent a great deal of time in John 21 for my final assignment I am very familiar with the story of the miraculous catch of fish both from that chapter and from Luke 5 (4-11).

and keep insisting, contrary to the real possibility over a few years time – that Jesus may have given a hundred such sermons (heck, there may have been a “sermon in the ravine” Think of the acoustics!

I appreciate the hard work our teacher put in preparing this list of distinctions between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel. I want to add before I comment on the two miracle fish stories that:

  1. I have never felt any need or desire to reconcile or harmonize Gospel accounts or “smooth off the edges” of supposed contradictions one way or the other. I simply don’t care. There is never any real fallout of any real import and the long debates about inerrancy/infallibility etc..have always seemed to me a great away to avoid either real work in the texts, or actual service in the field. What a waste of time. It bored me at 19; it super bores me at 59. (And for those who feel like “well there is a contradiction so I don’t have to believe the Bible. Good. Don’t. Now, moving on…”
  2. Just because two things are vaguely similar on the surface does not mean they are the same event.

On point two this is especially pertinent when it comes to men and women with no imagination at all, for they cannot imagine that Jesus, for example, having given a sermon on the “mount,” might also give a very similar one on a “plain.” Now you would think they might have a clue as some of the content is different as well as some of the demeanor. But no, they do not make this possible connection at all – at least not many of them – and keep insisting, contrary to the real possibility over a few years time – that Jesus may have given a hundred such sermons (heck, there may have been a “sermon in the ravine” Think of the acoustics!)

And so we come to our fish story, where the fishermen, after a night of getting “skunked” simply obey the stranger on the beach (that is odd) and don’t get upset when he asks about their fishing in a less than diplomatic way (“Caught any fish boys?” is one possible translation) but they just do it. And then when the fish swell the net John is the first to realize – then Peter.

Is it possible that it is because it has happened before — say the first day they became disciples— these two?

The differences in the story are not just when they occur. Naw…It is ALL different…contexts, nets ripping, not ripping (and that being called into attention), two different responses by Peter…one with others…the other with Peter alone…two different locales. I mean, seriously, other than fish and nets what is the same?

So I would be happy to sign off on an obvious “same” story just slotted in a different place if there was evidence and a good reason to suppose that was so. But to do it here is to take away from the meaning and depth of both stories and minimize them both.

map_002It’s poor attention to detail and basically – sooner or later – insists that you subsume one story into the other. Why? Is there any good reason for this?

I’ll buy into each Gospel writer picking and choosing what they want for their own theological ends – quite comfy with that. But that is not the same as grabbing a story and re-engineering it. And that is always the underlying aspertion. No one actually comes out and SAYS this – but it is there.

Well I am calling that stuff out.

If anything it seems evident that every embarrassing detail has been left in, as well as no few incidental ones which seemingly have no purpose at all.

This just adds to my laundry list of why modern scholarship is out of touch in many regards: no imagination or common sense.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

"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.

Read Full Post »

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?)

Read Full Post »

The term “hermeneutic” can seem outrageously technical and foreboding. It isn’t really. Look at the guy in this video confronted with a “book”.

I felt this exact way back in the 90s when someone explained something called “e-mail” to me. I couldn’t make sense of it at first. I understood saving a file and sending a disk in the mail. THAT was “e-mail” to me. Now I give it no thought except “Geez…I think I should have spell-checked that first before I sent it to 30 people.”

Same with Biblical interpretation. It is just learning the tools of how to read and study the Bible.

Still, as we study, we do well todo so with patience and good humor.

Read Full Post »

Original blog post in full context with all text (I cut it down some)


Mr. Burch is obviously very smart, articulate and cares about the health and well-being of people and the Church. This is no way an adversarial thing. My son just sent me the article and asked what I thought of it.

Mr. Burch’s statement are in quotes.


“As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.”

First, Burch notes Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as evaluated by Tim Keller. Both are worth reading, but even Keller seems to miss the lynchpin that ties every issue of decline to every other one: the Hermenutical imperative which has been ignored, lost or violently pitched overboard.

Or rather he does not name it. He does, as usual, deal with it himself. My issue there is that we need a lot of smart believers who can do this routinely and not just a few “Super Pastors” like Johnson, Driscoll and Keller to be lonely voices.

But let me simplify by going step by step with a critique.

“The factual discrepancies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.”

I have been hearing about these massive “discrepancies” (contradictions) for 30 years, and it is at the core of this article to the extent that it is the very table the cards are to be placed on to build the presentation. Such blatant discrepancies may exist, but in the three decades I have asked people to simply “name three” , no one ever has. In fact, I find that even in reading of scripture, potential discrepancies come more as gilded-edged invitations to dig in far deeper and really do the exegetical work.

Discussion of any potential discrepancy is a very good thing.

Be forewarned however. The Bible is predominantly a Middle Eastern book, and will not easily be fully read with one strictly Greek dualistic pair of glasses. The Greek “glasses” may be helpful in close readings, but are often myopic and unable to deal with nearsightedness. Other lenses are needed for the wider and farther views.
Most of this is just common sense. But every culture, or set of cultures, has its blind spots to common sense.

Our current ecological crisis on every level is the result of a horrible epistemology. And I would argue that current debates about homosexual marriage are not more or less misguided biblically than the “role” oriented model of the last few hundred years in Western culture where men most assuredly do NOT love their wives as “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.”

What could be more ironic? Oh yeah…or lust for money and power and ignoring the poor. Need I continue?

“Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.”

To this I reiterate something I said in another context today “How am I to answer ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ if I am unmarried?”

And on what basis is rationality unassailable? I see God saying (once) come let us reason together” but nowhere in New Testament literature do I see the preeminence of Reason. Isn’t it really just a reaction to the Enlightenent where humanity, in it’s arrogance (for it issued in the bloodiest Century EVER when it deified Reason) decides it has the right to place “God in the Dock” (on trial). How is humanity able to gain the superior position to judge a God who flatly declares His ways and thoughts are different frm ours and it is ours that are wanting?

It’s not like we were not warned. Also, context again being “everything” as the Bible presents (big picture) a giant rescue operation does it really matter what color your lifeboat is?

And what of the simple “Observer Effect” (not to be confused with Heisenberg’s somewhat related but different “Uncertainty Principle”) where the very act of observation has been shown to change the results of the of the last 50 years how to READ? This would seem to relate quite easily to the subject at hand.

“To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

They may or may not. But how are they able to organize the lower from the higher ordered concerns without having popular culture or personal agendas immediately overlay and reinterpret the biblical texts themselves? It is each document or “book” that is self-organizing when it comes to lower and high-ordered concerns.

Example: the person who “needs” the Bible to be a science textbook has simply missed the point and setup an artificial criteria. The point is how does it present itself? Should we expect Luke to be good on the “facts”? Yes. Why? Because he states plainly to Theophilus that this is his intention.

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has little concern for historical flow as compared with Luke’s Gospel; but that is because it reveals itself primarily as a “book of signs”. People complain needlessly that the Gopel writers were theological in what they picked what to include and what was left out.

My answer is “So?”

These “Gospels” are meant to be good news…to be evangelistic to various audiences. And so they are.

The young Church is epistolary at it’s core. We have simply made the Modernist/Fundamentalist mistake of trying to codify letters to specific groups of people. or a person (like Philemon) in some sort of universal way…to impose this on the texts which invite no such thing.

This codification, which often does violence to the texts, also gives the illusion of universal application. We know that in some of Paul’s letters he himself makes distinctions between things of higher importance and others of lower (to the extent that he says “I’m not commanding it, just suggesting”).

We have to also ask ourselves why some themes are in most every book and others not at all. Is the issue of women in leadership meant to be universal or if there just a real problem in Ephesus in the court of Diana? If it it universal then why are their women leaders in the early Church that work alongside Paul?

A higher concern would be anything scripture talk about at great length; and a lower one those things scantly mentioned. The homosexual question so enraged in our culture is of little biblical concern. In areas where polygamy was practiced Paul simply says that those in leadership should have one wife; for those who drink? That they should not be addicted.

The concerns of scripture are far deeper and lively? Who will be Lord of your life? How will you deal with the poor, the widow and the orphan? Can you “set apart” Christ as the focal point of your life and actions or will you evade simply pleasing Him on a daily basis?

What is your ambition today?

“Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most are of the time.”

I am also a former journalist. I do not see or share his concern yet. It is an “old wives tale?” for if anything is uncanny it is how “Unity within Diversity” is experientially more real in Scripture than occurs anywhere else I can think of.

And it tells us, or individual books do, what is important or not. Remember, the Bible is primarily a “subversive” collection that challenges every human culture and epistemology in any historic time and place.

Thus, for example, John is vehement (big picture item) about the beginnings of the Gnostic heresy of “Docetism” that denied Jesus was physical at all. He also mentions in the third letter than he prefers to talk about things face to face rather than in writing. It is not difficult to weight which is more important even if most Christians at the time had no idea what the Docetists taught. They certainly had no idea that over 2,000 later variations on Gnosticism would be so abundant.

“I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.”

If what he is saying is true this is understandable, yet not insurmountable. I remember once friend Rich said to me with concern “Bacdon, I’m just afraid you are no longer a ‘man of the Book’ ” to which I said “The Book doesn’t tell me to be a ‘Man of the Book’ It tells me to be a ‘Man of God’ “.

If it turns out there are discrepancies…of what order and import if Christ is risen from the dead and the Center of life right now?

Again note that “apologetics” is not very present in the New Testament. At best, the prophecies the Gospel writers point to Messiahship; the author of Hebrews goes a lot farther in teaching using typology. Yet if you want to get a strong solid picture of what the Big Ticket items are, reading Hebrews 1; Colossians 1; and John 1. Three distinct points of view.

“Many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”

And how does one get better information than these eyewitnesses (or those who received information from them) as an English-speaking American postmodern skeptic 2,000 years after the fact? Why would I accept the culture-bound skepticism of my generation over the testimony of 1st Century Middle Eastern eyewitnesses who both spoke the language (Aramaic) and were able to write in the “lingua Franca” of het day?

I mean, really?

Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?

I would say that listening to current day Fundamentalists or Liberals is a lot like trying to get straight news from either MSNBC or Fox News.

“Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?”

Is he joking? Is this ironic?

“God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?”

If some facts do not line up as reported by different sources from different cities for different audiences with different intents that does not equal a lack of truthfulness. The author of this article may have been a journalist as I was myself, but the authors of the N.T. books (for example) are under now such social contract to deliver the daily news.

“Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.”

This is the best part of the article for he is right. It is just plain dumb what Funda-gelicals and the mainline churches have been doing for the last half a century or more. By insisting on being anthropocentric; commodity/consumer-oriented, ignoring deeper biblical answers on currently hot topics like sexuality and by not seeing themselves as essentially counter-culture (or as Peter Berger entitles one book “For the World; Against the World.”)

“Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.

I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.”

This is patently poor thinking. Having undermined scripture (without a single example) he now wants to base the Nicene Creed on it? Then he says that a Bible-study industry cannot reasonably supported by these same documents? What Bible-study industry?

Christian bookstores now stay open not by selling serious theological or exegetical works to believers who want to study scripture…especially difficult passages that require more depth of inquiry. No. These stores contain long series of End Times books (with four more coming even though the end is next week), self-help books, and a host of popular texts on how to succeed as a “Christian” that may not only be unbiblical, they may even be directly contrary. Then there is the “Jesus Junk”.

WWJD? In a Christian bookstore more than likely overturn the tables and get out the whip.

“I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.”

Okay. Cherry-picking.

“What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.”

I agree that trying to take smaller statements and making all things “equal” (which clearly are not) is nonsensical. It ignores 1) the largest picture of the whole of Scripture; then each Testament; then the books themselves and who they are written to. Some things are obviously universal and large; others immediate and localized. Then there is everything in-between. This is why we study.

But, I suppose a bit like biology, only by doing the detail work can the larger issues be addressed.

“The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable.”

Patently false. And it is “Textual Criticism”. It is hard to argue with a position that assumes it has a table to build on and not just air.

In an attempt at fairness, I will (upon completing this) go and find some popular attempts to show major discrepancies in he Bible. Should it turn out they are significant then we will go from there. Personally? I do not really care for reasons I may share later. But it’s worth looking into.

“So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.”

I’ve been through this personally many times. When “lower-order” concerns are addressed with a professor they become enraged. Why? I do not know for sure. I do find it curious that they so often hire someone to teach the Bible a literature on a campus who so obviously despises it. Would you hire someone to teach Shakespeare who thought him a talentless fraud?

A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.

Having examined neither. For all the talk, I feel I live in the most biblically illiterate of times in human history. A peasant working the fields in 17th Century England knew far more about the Bible than most Christians with a Ph.D. in some other field. It’s category mixing again. I can say something similar: “A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed watching rugby matches because they were not interested in learning the rules.”

Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.

Burch’s set of criteria has neither been named nor examples given. I go back to my “wifeless” question.

And, if those discrepancies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and linguistic understanding to keep straight?
I answered this above. I have taught college students how to do basic work in thetexts in a weekend. It is not rocket science. We just need some help with time, language and culture. Burch makes it soundlike everyone must become a high tech auto mechanic. I reality a short lesson on how to replace spark plugs and wires goes most of the way.

Instead of this we pack everyone on a bus for a benign wine and cheese tour because it keeps the numbers up.

Read Full Post »

luke_7Or, “The Prostitute Who Loved Jesus”.

It is a moving scene in  Jesus of Nazareth when Mary Magdalene (in the biblical story we do not know who the woman is) comes to Jesus and breaks the alabaster vial of perfume and anoints his feet.

Of all the “Jesus” movies I think this one the best (Zeffirelli’s). I mean it is really impossible for any actor to portray Jesus. He’s just too big. And if you play him very human (Like DeFoe in The last Temptation of Christ, Jesus comes off as a sniveling loser) or very Divine (like Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth where he comes off like he is untouched and sort of hovering above everything like a Dyson vacuum cleaner in a white robe strangely detached). Other depictions are no better. They each catch a “side” of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, but seem to be missing other crucial aspects (perhaps that is why there are four Gospels. though three of them are very much alike).

Well I was asked to actually preach two Sundays in a row at a church that had lost it’s pastor. I had not preached in, well a very long time. I am a writer and teacher, not a preacher. But I agreed. They gave me two passages. One was Luke 7, the other one I have repressed because I did a horrible job the following week (which is why I am back to writing and teaching).

There really is nothing like being given 30 minutes to preach a passage from the Bible and just blowing it.  As I left the building (quickly) I looked at the Wademan and he murmured “you sucked dude.”


Anyway, the week before I did not suck but it was not because of my speaking ability. It  was the text and how it had come alive for me and would for others.

I’ll walk you through this process  because it is instructive.

I read the passage a number of times to get a general sense. I made note of questions I had about the dinner in question. What would they have probably served? Who would have sat where? What customs would be observed? Why does Luke note it is an “alabaster vial” and what kind of perfumes did they have and use? Why was the prostitute allowed in? Did she know others in the room? What was Simon’s motive in inviting Jesus? Etc.

Basically, I wanted to be inside the room and SEE it happening very much like a forensics expert tries to piece together the events of a crime or incident. I started to ask forensic questions just like Goren does on Law & Order CI or Grissom does in CSI. What does the physical evidence in the room tell us about the events?

Exhibit One: The Perfume

I went to the local Junior College library and looked up every book I could find on ancient perfume bottles and perfumes. I learned that  unlike our modern perfumes, these perfumes lost their scent very quickly. They were most often herbs ground up in oil and sealed in a vial of alabaster with wax or other substances that would effectively seal the scent from the air.

One such alabaster vial, a sealed vial, was recovered from the area of the Dead Sea. Now if that alabaster vial had been filled with Brut cologne, seal or no seal, 2,000 years later it would still be potent. In this case, though sealed, there was no scent. That a major difference.

So a vial of perfume in the First Century might last a few weeks if properly cared for, and would be very expensive.

What was it used for?  As we know, this woman (from the text) was a prostitute. It would seem logical that it was used not as much to allure men as to simply mask the smell of other men and sex.  Keep that in mind.

389px-Meal_house_simon_pharisee_xil2_hiExhibit Two: The table setting

Further research, not from Bible commentaries (though they are invaluable), but simple historical information on Middle Eastern customs for dinner gatherings revealed even more. Simon, as a Pharisee would be a man of some means and a layout of the typical eating or dining room was described and illustrated in a way that makes the picture here (to the left) patently absurd.

First, they “reclined at table” meaning they lay down low on pillows with a low table. If you have not been to an authentic Persian restaurant GO! It is so much fun and you lay on pillows and eat all the food with your hands with ritual rosewater washings  in between courses. [note: In San Francisco, no place is better than El Mansour at 33rd and Clement].

You eat at long tables about two feet above the floor.  This is why, in the Bible it often says they were “reclining at table”.

I learned that there would most probably be three tables: the head table nearest the kitchen for fastest service; a second running longways to the side, then a third table at the far end facing the head table. The primary guests would be at table one; the next most important at the side table and the least important (if any) at the far table.

We can assume from Jesus’ own words in verses 44-46 where he notes that upon entering Simon the Pharisee’s house he was not (as a Rabbi) afforded the customary washings, a kiss of greeting, an anointing of oil upon the head, all of which would be common custom and a sign of respect and welcome to an invited Rabbi.

Jesus Himself notes that he has been “dissed”. Given such, which table do you think Jesus was instructed to recline at? While it cannot be proven, we can infer with some confidence that Jesus would be at the third table farthest from the host, yet still facing him as he reclined for the meal.

Read the passage again placing yourself in the room. The smell of the food, candles, loud talking, Jesus being “dealt with” like a curiosity and not an honored guest.

Christ-in-the-House-of-Simon-the-Pharisee,-c.1656Exhibit Three: The location of the Woman

If Jesus is reclining at any of the tables, the woman is behind him, breaking the seal of  the  alabaster vial and pouring out the precious perfume on Jesus’ feet then letting her hair down she cleaned His feet with her tears and with her own long hair.

Note, she is behind him and farthest away from Simon the Pharisee.

This painting is not as bad as the previous one (where you expect George Washington to walk in and sit down). It’s just that it gives Jesus way too much prominence. That and  he is at the head table (on the left). Think of a darker more spread out scene with Simon and friends at the big left ended table, the center table longer and Jesus at the far end table with the woman behind him in somewhat darkness.

All the evidence from this time period paints such a forensic picture and not a romanticized or spiritualized one.

4 b&wsmExhibit Four: The scandalous actions of the woman.

In Middle Eastern culture, for a woman to let down her hair was the equivalent of her exposing her breasts.

We know that her reputation was well noted (v. 39) in town. It is not a stretch (I think) that some of the guests at the table that night had also been guests are her place of business.

Thus, her anointing the feet of Jesus may have seemed odd to them, but her letting down her hair would indicate a desire to be sexual with the Rabbi whether true or not. Thus Simon reasons within his own mind “If Jesus were a prophet he would know that the woman touching him is a sinner!”

Well there you have it except perhaps the menu. I did some research and actually once taught this passage by preparing a simple Middle Eastern dinner of spicy lentil soup over fresh spinach, fruits, bowls of nuts and wine. The participants lay on pillows and ate with their hands. I’m not sure how helpful it was, but it did make for a more enjoyable “Bible study”?

Now that you have some of the forensic evidence and background, I want to switch over to SPOKE. The Grand Book is about learning how to study the Bible. Hopefully some of this has been helpful. SPOKE is for what Jesus actually does and seeing that in an intimate way. If you care to come along you may be as surprised as I was after I gathered all this forensic “data”.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »