Sunday, May 31, 2009

Be hearers of the Word, and not readers only

I sat in the shade on a campground in Northern California last summer, talking about the Christian life with a fellow counselor. He told me some of the story of his spiritual growth, describing how establishing regular Bible reading habits had greatly strengthened his spiritual life. He said that he had come the conclusion that this was essential to spiritual growth, and even though he had heard people downplay its importance and shrug it off as legalism, he didn't see "how anyone could grow spiritually without consistent, daily Bible reading." I had a brief, existential struggle before I replied. Do I point out how silly that statement seems in historical perspective, when this idea had obviously impacted this young man's life in a dramatic and heartfelt way? After my few seconds of internal angst, I think the reply I gave was something like, "You know, personal Bible reading has had a powerful effect on my spiritual growth as well; it's such an amazing privilege to have considering that through hundreds of years of church history, the majority of believers didn't have a copy of God's Word in their own language." I hoped that this communicated support for the habits that had shaped him, while at the same time gently pointing out that even illiterate people and those who have lived in times and places where it was not practically possible for them to have and read their own copy of the Bible did manage to grow spiritually somehow.

This launched me into reflection on how I think of "consuming" and interacting with the content of Scripture as an American Evangelical - and what other ways I could effectively experience the the inspired literature that reveals God's person, plan and principles.

My profs have more than once pointed out that when the letters of the New Testament were sent to their original recipients, they would have been read aloud to the church, not photocopied and passed out to everyone, or put up on a screen. (Both Xerox and Power Point would have been anachronisms at that point and for a long time afterward.) This was also how the majority of Jews would have taken in the OT writing: hearing them read aloud by a Rabbi. Owning a scroll would be way to expensive. Thus there may be some things in the way the letters were written that come across better in hearing the letter rather than looking at it on a page. I decided to explore this in a Sunday evening service at my church. So I practiced reading Ecclesiastes, then read it aloud from my trusty old NIV to the group that had gathered that night. Then I opened it up for questions and comments. It turned out to be quite an enjoyable and edifying experience. A visitor's questions led to a discussion of the gospel, and of God's love and grace, even towards those who wandered away. Not really where you plan to go when you open up to Ecclesiastes, but sometimes good conversations begin in a very roundabout way. And we read the Word in community, with the collected insights and reflections of our local church community. This seems to me a step better than consuming a book with only my personal thoughts and reactions to the content.

A couple weeks ago my pastor mentioned that he had made arrangements with a Bible media group to get audio cd's of the Bible in MP3 format, intended for people to put on their ipods or other media players. Wycliffe has been putting these files on solar-powered or hand-cranked players to take the words of Scripture to a lot of places it's never been before in our world. In our context, this group reasons that a lot of people say they don't read their Bibles because either A)They "don't have the time" or B)They don't like to read. So why not take away these excuses? Surely, you say, someone who is truly spiritually interested doesn't need things dumbed down and made more user-friendly and convenient to make them willing to take in Scripture content. But wait...what if now they're going to hear the Word, in a way a bit more akin to the original audience, rather than read it like most post-Gutenberg Christians. Okay, we miss out on the community aspect here; you can't win 'em all. But I'm excited to offer this to sixth-graders I know who are painfully slow in their reading, but show spiritual interest and just may listen.

The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy did so much good for Christianity. When people can check the pronouncements of the church for correspondence with the teachings of Scripture, we really seem to get a lot closer to who God wants the people of God to be than when power over doctrine is solely in the hands of tradition and an educated elite. Thank God for movable type, and how it has shaped the movement of Christianity that has shaped me. And thank God for digital sound files (And even for the people who listened to the Bible on cassette tapes back in the ancient days of the '80's and '90's): may they increase our understanding and appreciation of Scripture and democratize Biblical knowledge for coming generations around the world. I'll be watching the mailbox at the church, waiting for those cd's to get here....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I secretly like the smell of cigarette smoke.

This is not very logical: I'm blogging. It is a swirling blend of experiences that involve faith, evangelism, and cigarette smoke. I make no apologies for the lack of cohesive argument. This is my blog - take it or leave it.

Respectable church people who have grown up in Christian homes don't smoke cigarettes. Neither do the elites of our culture who are convinced that they live superior, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible lives.

The times in my life when I am around smokers are generally the times when I have befriended someone who lives in a setting that's anything but Christian. When they come to church or to hang out with other Christians, they are a bit self-conscious about taking their smoke breaks. But when I visit with them and just hang out while they smoke, they tend to be pretty frank about life. This allows me to be frank about how Christ can make a difference in their lives.

The basic idea is this: if I'm around Christians all the time, I don't smell cigarette smoke that much. But when I connect with the lost and spend meaningful time with them, I frequently end up inhaling some carcinogens. You could say it's an occupational hazard of evangelism.

It puzzled me a bit when I attended a baptism service once where the presiding pastor asked for members of the congregation to give testimony about how they had seen the lives of the couple change. They had become Christians several months before, and been undergoing discipleship in the church. Several people mentioned excitedly the fact that both of the new Christians had stopped smoking. I felt awkward that this was being focused on as the fruit of their salvation. I inwardly squirmed, wishing I knew more about their lives so that I could mention some behavior actually mentioned in the Bible that had changed. Finally someone commended them for the love expressed in their family, and I felt a little better. But it seemed to me like an adventure in incidentalism (the degenerated form of the former glory of Fundamentalism.

Smoking seems to me a very foolish choice. Why kill yourself slowly and cause breathing problems? My Grandpa's slow death from lung cancer was not fun to watch. But shouldn't our focus be a little stronger on things like sexual immorality, anger issues, drunkenness, and other Biblical sins? When I have repeatedly heard people outside the church mention smoking as the sin they most need to change in their lives, I scratch my head and wonder whether this is their own assumption or one the church has communicated...

I once visited with a man who, after his release from prison, was gaining a new level of interest in spiritual things. He was between cigarettes at this point, so we were inside my house with only a faint trace of the smell. He told me a few nights before he hadn't been able to sleep, so he got up, poured a glass of wine ("just a small one"), and read 1 Peter. "Man, Nate," he exclaimed, "that book is some good s***!" Not quite the way I would have said it, but we read through the book again that night and he kept asking me to explain things to him, getting more and more excited. Then he said, "Let's go outside, I need to smoke." So the conversation moved. Somehow I felt like I was on the frontlines of ministry for life change at that moment. I'm not sure that his life changed as much as I wished. But cigarette smoke whispers to me of that moment, when this dear man was aware, if only briefly, of the power and grace of God that was available to him.

Respectable Christians don't smoke cigarettes. That's probably a good thing. But maybe sometimes they should smell like cigarette smoke.

In Romans 15:20-21, Paul says that his ambition is to preach the gospel "not where Christ has already been named,...but as it is written,
Those who have never been told of him will see,
And those who have never heard will understand."

I'm miles away from unreached people groups in the true sense of the word: cultures that have no gospel witness or knowledge of God's special revelation. But the fact is we all pass within miles, yards, or feet of people who run in entirely non-Christian circles: little sub-cultures of unreached people who need Jesus' love so much. I think of my friend Mike, who signs about the love of God to deaf teens who have no other Christian witness in their lives. I think of Kevin Klas talking after an ultimate frisbee game with the hippie college students he played with. I think of Austin and Heather knocking on their neighbors doors with homemade food in hand. I think of the middle schooler whose dad warns him not to bring home Campus Life flyers and takes him to native american spiritual ceremonies instead. People right under our noses.

Be careful, guys: when someone smokes next to you, it's like you smoking half a cigarette because of the secondhand smoke. But I think it's worth the risk. In some cases, it's the smell of effectiveness.

I secretly like it...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pet peeves about theology textbooks/commentaries:

1. Untranslated German.

Just because I know Greek or Hebrew, that doesn't mean I also know German.

2. Endnotes instead of footnotes.

Why are you making me flip so many pages? If it's worth noting, it's worth noting at the relevant place in the book, not hundreds of pages away.

3. Transliteration instead of Greek or Hebrew letters.

If I know the language, transliteration is an unnecessary nuisance. If I don't know it, does it really add to my understanding to say the sounds that the word makes?

4. Transliterations and Greek or Hebrew letters.

The above, plus this objection: If I know the language, why do I want to read the word three times?

Can anybody identify with these? Do you want to add to the list?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Problem with Bible Verses

Bible reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The funny thing is, it’s hard for me to imagine a Bible without chapter and verse numbers marked into it. Why is this funny? Because these divisions were only added in the 1500’s. Think about it: for about 75 percent of church history (not to mention a few thousand years of Israelite dealings with the Old Testament before that), people didn’t look up Bible verses.
Bible study is made so much easier by having numbers to communicate exactly where in the text you are referring to. In fact, it seems that it makes reading portions in community much easier, since it helps everyone get on the same page (metaphorically speaking, since invariably people will have different editions, translations and study Bibles that make the page number that contains the text different). But I think there are some potential hazards to the way it makes us think about the Bible. Avoiding hazards begins by becoming aware of them, so here I go:
Dividing the text into verses makes it easier for us to think of the Bible as a bunch of little pieces to be pulled out and used independently. Thus we get athlete’s devotionals and business motivation seminars claiming that Philippians 4:13 gives the power to win championships and build Fortune 500 companies, when actually, if we read carefully around it, we find an example not of accomplishing great changes in our circumstances that bring money and fame, but of having joy and contentment in any situation. But in light of the current economic situation, we wouldn’t want to do away with this mindset, because then the companies that sell verse-a-day calendars would go out of business and jobs would be lost, and those people would have to be reeducated for green-collar industries... I’m still waiting for the Bible verse Demotivators calendar to come out, with verses like James 4:9 on every page. Somebody should make one, with big pictures of hilariously tragic incidents: I’d buy it and give it to Dr. Vreeland to put in his office.
Lest we think that the problems that comes with picking out individual verses occur only among the lowly common-folk (tongue-in-cheek) of Christianity, let’s talk about systematic theology for a moment. My peers in the Donald Miller-Rob Bell-Brian McClaren generation seem to love throwing mud at the whole idea of doing systematics. And they have some very good criticisms. Sometimes theologians take neat logical systems and nicely organized charts, pick some verses that fit into them, publish it as truth, and hold tenaciously to it as the truth. The verses are selected apart from their context, obscuring tension, paradox and uncertainty. And using professional words doesn’t make this any better than the verse-a-day calendars.
But can we please remember that systematics being done poorly sometimes doesn’t mean systematics should be done away with? Systematic theology allows us to ask the questions our culture is asking, and seek what light the Bible sheds on these topics. It is part of the process of contextualization. The thing I like least about systematic theology is how much work it takes to do it right. Grappling with the author’s intent in a passage’s meaning, developing a Biblical theology of that author’s writings, then looking for how those teachings fit consistently into a framework that helps us live our lives well and make sense of the world around us is a lot of work. But if we never go through the whole process, do we have anything more than just some interesting literature and sermons intended for audiences that lived centuries ago. And without thinking about coherency, we can teach exactly opposite things that make our worldview unintelligible and unlivable. (Not paradoxes, but contradictions)
I don’t want to only go as far as detailed exegetical analysis and never think about how the message of the Word transforms my life. And I don’t want to look at the Bible based on a system of ideas that only sees the pieces of it affirm the way I already view the world. But I want careful interpretation of each text that takes into account how the message of that text contributes to a cohesive view of life. I want a Biblically-derived system that teaches me how to approach my life and look at the world.
I need to read the Bible, not just verses.