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Reading the Bible for Understanding and Not Just Information (quote)

One enemy of good reading is confusion about which mode of attention is appropriate to a given book. I am certain that this very confusion makes it almost impossible for anyone to read—genuinely to read—the Bible. In both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, narrative and other more-or-less literary forms are dominant, which seems to call for a strategy of reading for understanding similar to what one might use in an encounter with, say, Homer; but these books’ status as sacred text suggests, to many modern readers anyway, that their purpose is to provide information about God and God’s relation to human beings. “Strip-mining” the Psalms, or the Song of Solomon, or even the more elevated discourses of the Gospel of John, “for relevant content” might not seem like a promising strategy, but many generations of pastors have pushed it pretty hard, as though the Bible were no more than an awkwardly coded advice manual.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 99.

My Bible Is Crowded

Every morning after tending to the dogs and getting my coffee, I sit down for some time alone with God and the Bible. I’ve done this more years than I can count. However, I’m finding the room increasingly crowded as the years go by.

That’s how Dan Bouchelle begins an excellent reflection on the many voices that shape how we read our Bibles. Some of those voices are helpful, others less so. But all of them form an inescapable part of who we are and how we read the text.

Part of the posts focuses on how distracting those voices can be and how it seems like they just distract us from the task of hearing the simple voice of God in Scripture. But Bouchelle strikes a more encouraging note at the end. Make sure you read the whole post, but here’s another quote from the conclusion:

My Bible is crowded and if I’ve learned anything through the years it is that I can never read the Bible alone. Even when I am alone, I read my Bible in community. My Bible was preserved by others, translated by others, printed by others, interpreted and taught to me by others, and incarnated in the lives of still others. The attempt to have an exclusive encounter with God’s words is more than naïve, it is downright arrogant. Can I still hear God in all these other voices? Yes I think I can.

Check it out and spend some time reflecting on how crowded your room is when you read the Bible, and why that’s a good thing.

Forced Choices (Who is Romans 7 talking about?)

Our last Forced Choice asked you to vote on your favorite part of the NT. And I guess we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that the gospels won by a fair margin (48%). Paul made a respectable showing (33%), but couldn’t close the gap. And the rest of the NT barely got a nod. Apparently we really like Jesus around here.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a new Forced Choice, and this one comes as a special request from someone who would be interested in knowing what we think. Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7? If you don’t recall off the top of your head, this is the chapter where Paul is lamenting the power of sin in a person’s life, making them do things they don’t want to. People have long debated Paul’s meaning in this chapter and I’m sure I could include more options than these. But, for the sake of simplicity, these are your choices.

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The Canonical Books Are the “Fountains of Salvation”

Athanasius is a Father of the Church and the Doctor of Orthodoxy, or right belief. For much of his career, it must have seemed like the whole world was against him as he was exiled at least 5 times for upholding orthodoxy. Praise God that he did not waver in his faith but stood strong and helped maintain orthodox belief in the Church. He is truly a champion of the faith, and we are ever grateful for this servant and saint of God, who is celebrated on January 18.

Perhaps you already know this, but Athanasius was actually the first person to list all 66 book of the Bible as the Christian canon of literature. Below is what he wrote on the topic some 1,700 years ago:

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Walton, Longman, and Reading Gen 1-2 (regional ETS mtg)

This was my year to make arrangements for the plenary session of the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. And I decided to tap into all the recent interest surrounding how we should read the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2. So this year the plenary session will feature John Walton (Wheaton) and Tremper Longman (Westmont), both of whom take rather non-traditional approaches to the creation accounts in Genesis. I’m looking forward to both presentations and the Q&A that will follow.

Here’s the official announcement. If you live in the NW, come spend the day at Western Seminary and hear some fascinating papers. And you don’t have to be an ETS member to attend the meeting.

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Reading the Old Testament as a Hispanic (ETS/SBL papers)

I think we all recognize now that who we are shapes how we read the Bible. A white, middle-class American evangelical (me) necessarily reads the text differently than a 15-year old Arab Christian living in Syria (not me). But what exactly does this mean? How does ethnic and cultural context affect our reading? How much should it? And how much hermeneutical diversity are we willing to accept along the way?

Those are some of the questions that Daniel Carroll explored in his paper, “Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas.” And, as a Hispanic scholar, he specifically looked at the question what it looks like to read the Bible from a Hispanic diaspora perspective.

1. The Need for Multiethnic Readings of the Bible

Unsurprisingly Carroll began the paper with a brief argument of the necessity of multiethnic approaches. He pointed out that the church does not have a good track record for appreciating the value of diverse ethnic perspectives, tending instead to identify one approach as the normative one to which all others must conform.

But we live in a different world. At the very least, the rapidly changing demographics of the western world are pressing us to take ethnic perspectives more seriously. It’s one thing to view my reading of scripture as normative when everyone around me is just like me. But when I finally notice that the room is full of people very different from me, it’s harder to think that mine is the only appropriate way to do things. (Indeed, the room has always been full of people different from me, but in the past it was easier to ignore these “marginal” voices.)

And Carroll took the time to make a few comments about how this should affect ministry training. Although he doesn’t think that seminaries need to reshape the entire curriculum such that multi-ethnicity becomes the lens through which we see everything, he does think that seminaries in general need to do a far better job of training students to understand their own cultural biases and to appreciate other ethnic perspectives.

2. Methodological Suggestions for a HIspanic Diaspora Reading

In the second section, Carroll argued that a “diaspora hermeneutic” needs to read the text in ways that are “sensitive to the diaspora experience.” So a diaspora hermeneutic will look for “diaspora texts” in the Bible, those that appreciate the particular needs of dislocated peoples.

And he specifically identified five essential features of that experience and how they shape Hispanic diaspora hermeneutics:

  1. Marginality: Identify characters on the “margins” of the biblical texts.
  2. Poverty: Be aware of poverty/economic issues in the text and society.
  3. Mestizaje: Recognize the ethnically “mixed” nature of biblical characters and societies.
  4. Exile and alien: Understand how central these two themes are to the overall biblical narrative and particular stories.
  5. Solidarity: Focus on things like family and community and the shared life of the global church as the extended family of God.

He concluded this section with an appeal for “hermeneutical charity.” Diaspora readings like this will necessarily produce readings of scripture different form those commonly accepted by dominant cultural interpretations. And he specifically warns against two faulty responses to such new interpretations: exclusion and inclusion. The first is obviously problematic in that it rejects other perspectives entirely. But the latter is equally problematic (possibly even worse) in that it simply incorporates the “minority” interpretation into the already existing paradigm of the dominant culture. Rather than letting this new interpretation speak with its own voice, such an “inclusive” approach actually silences these other perspectives even while ostensibly giving them a place at the table. Neither approach is adequate. Instead, we must respond to new voices with “hospitality and engagement.”

3. Readings of the OT from the Hispanic Perspective

This final section would take far too long to summarize. Here Carroll offered specific examples of a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic at work, focusing on OT stories like Abram and Sarai, Joseph, Ruth, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

Here are two of the more interesting thoughts he shared in this section:

  • In the story of Abram and Sarai, he pointed out that Abram’s deceit was “the kind of ruse employed by the powerless.” It’s easy to criticize him from our comfortable and secure position, but Carroll argued, “If this is what you need to do to feed your family, then this is what you do. Hunger makes too much at stake for easy moral discourse, and women have the most at stake.” So he suggested that a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic helps us see that the line between “truth and trickery” is more nuanced than we often appreciate.
  • Similarly, he read the store of Ruth through the lens of immigration and cultural assimilation. He pointed out that many aspects of the Ruth narrative have to do with a person who comes from one culture to another and has to navigate the (often unfriendly) institutions and relational networks of the new culture. And he noted that the closing genealogy, far from being merely a device for connecting Ruth to the later story of David, serves as a way of demonstrating the diaspora readers that they are part of a larger narrative.

He offered similar examples from the other stories, each time showing how diaspora Hispanic interests draw insights and observations from the text that are often quite different from what we’re used to.

Thoughts

This was a fascinating paper. The first section was pretty standard fare for anyone accustomed to such appeals for multicultural readings. But I appreciated that Carroll took the time to lay out the specific hermeneutical methodology that would guide his particular approach. That is something that is not always articulated as clearly. And it raises the question of whether those of us from “dominant” cultures need to be equally clear about the cultural presuppositions driving our own exegesis – instead of simply assuming that ours is the standard and theirs is the “ethnic” perspective. And the concluding section where he actually put the methodology into practice was very helpful.

I was frustrated, though, that he said nothing about the giant in the room: How do we determine if a particular reading is or isn’t legitimate? Once we’ve acknowledged that different cultures read the text through different lenses and generate different interpretations, are we simply left with one big mass of difference? We are still reading the same text, so shouldn’t there be some way of navigating the difference? The German Christians of the mid-twentieth century also had a particular way of reading scripture. And I’m sure we’d all way to say “Nein!” to that cultural reading. But how do we do that without “exclusion” or “inclusion”? Unfortunately, Carroll’s paper didn’t touch on this question even briefly. (Of course, it was late on Friday night. So it’s entirely possible that I just missed it.)

My Little Ponies of the Apocalypse (revisited)

Famine Pony. War Pony. Pestilence Pony. And, most importantly, Death Pony. I’m teaching a class on Revelation 6 for my high school group on Sunday, which means I get to talk about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, I will almost certainly introduce the lesson with this fabulous little video. I’ve posted this before, but I thought it was worth reposting in honor of the upcoming lesson.

Make sure you catch Death Pony. That’s my favorite.

Forced Choices: OT Genre

In last week’s Forced Choice, Eastern Orthodoxy seriously trounced Catholicism with nearly two-thirds of the votes (64%). I may write a post sometime on why I think that is, but now it’s time to move on.

So, this week we’re going to jump back into the Bible and look at the major OT genres. As always, use whatever criteria you want to make your selection (e.g. you think one is more important, more fun to read, more interesting to study, whatever). And, you don’t have to leave a comment explaining your choice, but feel free to if you’d like.

(See poll in sidebar.)

An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar.

[This is a guest review from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar by Ben Witherington (Zondervan, 2011)
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What does it take to be a biblical scholar, teacher, or serious student of the Bible? Ben Witherington addresses this question in his latest book, Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. He answers the question by sharing part of his own story of how he became one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, publishing nearly 40 books to date. The reader is invited in, as Witherington opens his heart; even sharing his own poetic reflections to express the sounds of his soul. The book is a very easy read; even accessible to the budding bible student in high school.

He addresses a topic which one will undoubtedly face as a Christian. Is critical thinking at odds with biblical faith? Many Christians choose ignorance; however, he shows us that “critical thinking is not only not at odds with biblical faith, it is required.” Throughout the book the motto of Anselm resounds, “Faith seeking understanding.” Not that one understands in order to believe, but that one value reason to help understand what is believed.

For the M.Div. and Th.M. student there stands great practical advice: how to choose a school for your PhD; how to get a job; the importance of singular focus; counting the costs and not just financially; tidbits on the art of rhetoric; importance of reading classical literature; importance of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, English, French, and German languages; why one should avoid ad hominem argumentation; the fact that only 10% of biblical scholars end up teaching in their dissertation area; and an amazing ego-shattering “illustrated guide to a PhD.”

One will find that there are certain aspects of this book which are perhaps dated, even though it was published in the year 2011. For instance, Witherington is opposed to Kindle usage, doesn’t allow students to use computers during lecture, still types with 2 fingers, and speaks about a typewriter ball, which most everyone under 30 years old has never have heard of. These dated aspects do not detract from the flow of the book; they are more humorous than anything.

The main disappointment I had in this book was the breadth of target audience. The title makes one think that it is intended for M.Div. and Th.M. students; however, the book is actually intended for lay persons, students, and biblical scholars, which is a very broad audience. Graduate students already pursuing biblical studies do not need entire chapters devoted to biblical context, the importance of original languages, OT/NT, Ancient Near East history, etc. Much of the book was an exhortation to study and read everything possible if it has anything to do with the Bible.

Because the book is an easy read I would recommend it to anyone who is considering a vocation in biblical scholarship. It will either scare away or encourage one into the world of biblical scholarship, as the mental, spiritual, physical, and economic costs associated can be quite intimidating. It will only take a few hours to read; don’t bother taking detailed notes as this book is not intended for study. Rather, it is simply the tale of a biblical scholar. And as said before, one must read this book simply to see the “illustrated guide to a PhD,” it is the sort of illustration which one will remember and use throughout the rest of one’s life.

[Many thanks to Zondervan for generously providing us with a review copy of Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar.]

Forced Choices: the Gospels

Last week’s forced choice pit J. R. R. Tolkien against C. S. Lewis. And, although Tolkien led big at the beginning, Lewis slowly caught up, before pulling ahead for good late in the week. So, after one week, the tally stands at Lewis 55% and Tolkien 45%.

Since we’ve been talking about Matthew a lot this week, I thought it would be appropriate for today’s Forced Choice to focus on the Gospels. So, make your choice. Which Gospel do you like better? Feel free to make a comment explaining your choice, but you don’t have to.


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