Cover-to-Cover – Jeremiah (1)

Dr. Dog – Where’d All the Time Go

Taking a break today from the uber-informative top five outdoor gear essentials series to return to something that’s been neglected for quite a while.  Yes, that’s right.  The Cover-to-Cover experience is still going on.  While the summer provided all sorts of challenges to overcome, and I’ve got a good bit of make-up reading to do sometime this year, I’m still plowing ahead.

So in the four month blogging hiatus, you’ve missed out on my sage comments for nearly a third of the Bible.  Sad, I know.  Of all the books that I missed out on talking about, Isaiah is the one that I most regret skipping out on.  In many ways, Isaiah is the book on which the New Testament most heavily leans.  Anyway, all that is for another post… maybe.  Our church preached through select passages of Isaiah.  Maybe you could ask them for copies of the sermons.

At any rate, for those of you still on board with the read the Bible in a year challenge, we find ourselves in the middle of Jeremiah.  All I can say is that it is pretty depressing stuff.  If you have any experience reading through the prophets, you’ll know that judgment seems to be a pretty common theme.  So much so, that you might be led to believe that God really likes judgment.  I don’t necessarily hold to that view.  I tend to think that the judgment only magnifies his mercy and grace all the more.

However you look at it though, there was plenty enough reason for judgment.  God’s people had not only “prostituted” themselves to other Gods, they had sunk pretty low on the scale of human depravity…  again.  From the sounds of it, things had gotten pretty bad.  Widespread sexual impurity (5:7 ), human sacrifice (7:31), and injustice against the poor (5:27-28).  Honestly, stuff that was pretty deserving of judgment.  I’ll leave you to connect any of the dots to the present day.

That said, there are glimpses of hope in the first half of the book.  Including the passage in chapter 23 dealing with the  “righteous branch” that is to come.  I don’t think it is any accident that “shepherd” language is used to describe the one to come.  I seem to remember someone referring to himself as the “good shepherd.”

Also, take note of the two fig baskets of chapter 24.  There aren’t just a ton of references in the Bible to figs.  And in the gospels, there is something of a famous incident involving Jesus cursing a fig tree.  Needless to say, I think Jeremiah’s ministry plays a part in forming Jesus’ understanding of his own identity and calling.

Ok…  as noted earlier, the first half is pretty dismal.  Things start to brighten up a bit in the latter half.

Back to the Bible (pt. 2)

J. Tillman – Earthly Bodies

If you remain unconvinced that we have adopted the democratic approach to our study of the Bible, just attend most any small group “Bible study” and try this out for a change. When someone starts airing their random reflections on what a particular passage of Scripture means, and they are not quite getting it right, throw this comment into the mix, “I’m sorry that’s wrong. There is no world in which any semi-normal reading of those verses could have possibly meant what you just said. In fact, that may very well be the worst butchering of any biblical passage I’ve ever heard.” What do you think? I’m thinking you have just been de-invited from the group.

No, instead what we tell ourselves and one another is that your opinion is as valid as the next guy or gal’s. So just nod your head. Maybe look a little perplexed, and say “ok, who’s next?”

With most areas of knowledge, we recognize that some people’s opinions count more than others. If I am having a medical problem, I don’t consult with a doctor only to say, “I’m going to get a second opinion from my hairdresser and a third from my stock broker.” And yet, American evangelicalism has unknowingly propagated a way of interpreting Scripture that tacitly implies that everyone’s opinion of what the Bible says is equally valid.

There is a meaning, and (get ready for this) some readings get closer to that meaning (i.e. are more right) than others.

However, I’m not suggesting that we all climb into our little ivory towers and study the Bible. Despite what I’ve said, I really do believe we need each other to understand the Bible. Solo scriptura means “Scripture alone” not “alone with Scripture.”

It is when we are reading with others, and being taught by others, and questioned by others, and challenged by still others, that we find our horizons expanded on what the text might actually mean. Reading in community forces us to confront our own biases and warped ways of looking at reality (and the Bible). Reading in community keeps us from simply assuming that “I” will always have it right.

And not just the “community” of the few other people who are slight variations of ourselves. If I read the Bible with people who are more or less just like me, then I shouldn’t be surprised if all that ends up happening is that we mutually affirm one another’s opinions.

The community includes people of different denominations (even non-Evangelicals). Different races. Different countries. Different time periods. Different education levels. Different ages. As a side note, this is why books are so important… it would be borderline impossible to assemble a group with that range of diversity in one room to study the Word together on a consistent basis. Plus, if it is in a book, the odds go up (sometimes only slightly) that they know what they are talking about.

I realize that this looks like I’m contradicting myself, and in some ways affirming the “we-all-have-something-to-contribute” way of thinking is maybe only a slight variation on Western society’s democratic individualism, but it is that with a twist.

What I’m advocating for is a move away from simplistic readings of Scripture that assume the “I” will always be right in my opinion. The reality is I need help to understand it, certainly from the Holy Spirit, but also from others.

If you are still reading (and that’s a big ‘if’), then I’m guessing only one half of this post resonated with you. If you liked the first half about some opinions mattering more than others, you probably need to go back and read the second half again. And vice versa, if the stuff about reading in community was more up your alley, you should go back and read the first half again. If you liked it all, then you are approaching something akin to Zen-Buddhist enlightenment.

I don’t think there is a fourth option… is there? Oh, yes. I suppose there is the possibility that you didn’t give a rip about any of it. In which case, you should probably just go back to watching re-runs of The Bachelor.

Back to the Bible (pt. 1)

AA Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose

I would have liked to return to the topic of biblical interpretation sooner, but there was this thing called “The Entire Summer” that got in the way.  So, I’m back.

That is back to the Bible.   I closed out last time with the idea that interpretation done on our own will always lead to error.  This isn’t the time or place to go into great detail about how we arrived at a place where the ideal Christian is one who reads the Bible by themselves for hours on end, but maybe the broad strokes will suffice.

I know it is hard to believe but the idea of the “self” that is separated from the rest of one’s society, clan, tribe, family, etc…  is a relatively “new” idea.  Certainly, roots of individualism can be traced back to the 14th century when a person’s capacity to think and reason for one’s self was highly esteemed and praised.  Even in Martin Luther’s famous phrase, solo Scriptura (Scripture alone), we find not only the singular importance of Scripture idealized, but it also implicitly idealizes the ability of the one who is reading the Scriptures… solo.

Well, what got started in the Europe in the 14th century certainly has reached its fullest expression in 21st century America.  The idea that the ‘self’ or ‘individual’ is the most important determinant of what is right and true simply goes unchallenged.  It is one of the givens by which we operate.  When I say it is a ‘given,’ it is just that.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident (that is… not needing any justification), that all men (we’ll assume for the moment they meant women and non-whites too, even though they probably didn’t) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

To be an American is to recognize that that the self is entitled to certain things and has the ability to secure them.  Of course, this democratic way of looking at things colors all we do.  Take for example American Idol (it all comes back to AI eventually).  Regardless of what one thought of the abilities of the contestants, skill or ability was secondary to how much people liked the contestant.  So, if one had the right look (and in our society, maybe every society, the right “look” often determines how much one “likes” someone) then he or she has a decent chance to go far.  Because in the end, it is me the individual, the solo viewer, who has the power to determine what ‘good’ is.

Stick with me, this is going somewhere.  If the individual, the solo viewer determines what talent is or isn’t.  Then it really isn’t that much of a jump to get to a place where it is the individual, the solo reader who determines what is right or true when interacting with Scripture.

to be continued…

The Bible and the Bard

Let’s see… where did we leave off? Oh yes, boring ramblings about junk no one cares about. Now that we have our topic squarely in view, let’s take another swipe at it.

The Bible… and existentialism.

In the last post, I tried to drive the point home that with most significant events in history, we don’t cheapen them by suggesting that the only value they have is our experience with that event. However, to understand what we do with the Bible, an example which shares the similarity of being written may be helpful. Nearly any writing will suffice, but we’ll compare it to a body of writing that has been studied fairly closely (like the Bible) – William Shakespeare.

While certainly impacting people in different ways, Shakespeare isn’t (I think) subjected to the sort of sloppy thinking that permeates much biblical interpretation.  I suppose there are people who would say something like, “To me, Romeo and Juliet is a strong indictment of Western society’s commitment to capitalism.” But someone would likely (and rightly) respond, “How nice that it means that to you, but what you have shared really doesn’t have anything at all to do with the play Mr. Shakespeare wrote.” Only after one has demonstrated any sort of familiarity with the actual plot and characters and conflict and so on can one begin to spout off in some intelligible manner concerning what it meant to him or her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would want to affirm that the Bible (and Shakespeare) impacts us in different ways. Certain stories are going to connect with us in ways that others don’t. Some Psalms may speak to us more depending on our circumstances. If one is currently experiencing division within their church, then certain words of Paul out of First Corinthians are going to be more poignant than others. I get all that.

But regardless of what we might be facing or feeling, the text in its original context doesn’t have more than one meaning, any more than Shakespeare’s famous “a rose by any other name” means something other than a thing or person retains its essential qualities regardless of what it is called.

In some ways, Shakespeare is a horrible example.  He was something of a master of the double entendre.  Even the line quoted above may been a jab at a rival theater in town by that name.  But when dual meanings are present, it seems exceedingly likely that he meant both.  One might speculate and argue the various options of what the text meant, but the author meant to communicate something.

And so it is with the Word.  It was spoken into real situations. Real people’s lives were impacted. Real events took place, and the words of Scripture both record and even interpret the significance of those events. We aren’t free to just make up our own interpretations based on “our experience” with the text. To do so flattens out the text and undermines the relevance it would have had in its time. And when we remove the historical particularity from God’s Word in order to make it ‘timeless’, we also unknowingly undermine its relevance for our own time and place in history.

The real problem is that we too often find our own reason, our ability to read, and our impressions from the Holy Spirit, as our only guides in interpretation.  This approach is going to be problematic no matter how well intentioned. People can be really serious about reading and interpreting the Bible (or Shakespeare), but if one does all their interpretation in a vacuum, they will not only be serious… but seriously wrong.

Next up… the third and (hopefully) final installment of the Bible and existentialism.

silly philosophers

Ok.  I know that you have all been waiting on the edge of your seats for my post on existential readings of the Bible.  I thought that the delay would only heighten the sense of anticipation.

I don’t pretend to have even a working knowledge of existentialism.  I read the Wikipedia article here, but didn’t understand it.  So, here’s my ever so learned understanding of what it is.  Existentialism is a philosophical outlook in which an event (person, text, situation, and so on) doesn’t necessarily have value or importance in and of itself.  Or put in slightly different terms, an event doesn’t have a significance or meaning of its own.  What matters is one’s experience with that event.  We bring meaning to it through our experience of it.

For example, this week I had the opportunity to visit The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (now that’s a mouthful).  It was a great opportunity to visit and learn and ponder and mourn.  It is something of an understatement to say that I admire those nine students who pushed through every imaginable obstacle in order to attend Central High.  But of course, they were doing more than simply exercising a right to attend the school of their choice; they were standing up to injustice and oppression in all its brutal ugliness.  At times, I had to remind myself, “they were only high school students!”

Ok, now a strict existentialist would say that historic event doesn’t hold significance in and of itself, what matters is my own experience in the engaging of that little slice of history.  My feelings of pride or shame (funny that I could feel both) are what give that event meaning.  I don’t have direct access to the event – I didn’t live it – and therefore the only possible significance it can have for me is the meaning that I invest in it.

I know…  your eyes are starting to roll back into your head.  Or maybe you are thinking, “that’s preposterous!” Of course, the event has significance in and of itself.  Who would think even for a minute that the only meaning it has is the one I bring to it?  It is an insult to every person who lived through that deluge of hatred to suggest that the only meaning it has is the one that the observer brings to it.  No, it was a real event in history.  The facts matter.  Each detail is significant in and of itself.  And we can only come to understand it by going back in time (so to speak) and placing ourselves as best we possibly can in their shoes.  To see their lives.  Understand the culture of racism at the time.  Think their thoughts after them, and as best we can to identify with what they went through.

It was a real event.  It has a significance all its own.  Our lives are enriched by doing the hard, hard work of making ourselves familiar with everything about it.  Not just the surface details, but really digging into the history of what happened there.

And now…  I have lost track.
Am I talking about The Little Rock Nine?
Or the Bible?
Or both.

Stay tuned for further adventures in “Existentialism and the Bible.”

not easy

Laziness…  not a nice word.  So very negative.  I think “lack of motivation” has a kinder, gentler ring to it.  Either way, both describe modern man’s approach to the Bible.  We don’t mine the deep riches of the Word, because we don’t want to do the hard work of understanding it.

Hard work?  I hear all the time from students and adults alike that they have such a hard time knowing what the Bible is talking about.  Which I find difficult to believe.   Most Bible’s I pick up are in English.  And while the Bible writers weren’t all literary geniuses, they were at least able to construct sentences.  They even make Bibles for every possible reading ability.  I’m not exactly sure what level the NIV weighs in at, but it has to be somewhere around the 8th grade.  If they could just do Cliff Notes, or comic book, or put it on DVD…  oh wait, I guess that’s been done.

I think the real problem is that we want our religion to be simple, easy to understand, not requiring much mental energy to really grasp.  There is even a (semi-)theological reason for seeing Christianity as being simple.  If Christianity is anything, it is universal – meaning it is available to all.  Regardless of ethnicity, wealth, gender, education, social class…  therefore, if it is going to be universally accessible, it must be necessarily simple.

The pressure to make issues of faith simple is considerable.  More and more, people in the pews want simple and practical answers that they can walk home and put into practice that day with guaranteed results.  So it seems that all the time there is someone who is trying to reduce Christianity to its lowest common denominator.  What is the one thing that will insure that my life with God works out ok?

You know like, “love God, love others.”  What else do we need to know?

If that’s all we needed to know, then why don’t we tear the page out that has that verse on it (chances are it won’t spill over onto the next page), and then cut out the other words on the page…  don’t want to be bothered by a WHOLE page of words.  Maybe even paste it to an index card and laminate it.  In fact, that’s a great idea!  “All you need to know from the Bible on one handy index card.”  I could sell them for a buck fifty in Christian bookstores nation-wide (even internationally…  it can’t be too difficult to translate one verse).  Even better, a nice font, cheesy graphic,  charge two whole dollars.  I’m guessing that I would retire a bazillionaire within a year.  Who in the world needs to bother with the other 783,133 words in that big giant book we call the Bible?

Here’s a news flash…  Yes, the Bible is long, dense, complicated, and hard to understand.  And so is life.  If we are going to have a faith that actually addresses all the bewildering twists and turns of life (and death, and eternity) then I would fully expect the book that explains that faith and the God of it to be (at least) as complex.

Set the sound bites and simplistic reductions to the side.  Grab a Bible.  Possibly even a Bible dictionary or commentary (crazy, I know).  And dig deep into this book that we say (once again…  at least explicitly) are the very word’s of God Himself.

But who has time for all that…  American Idol is on in two hours!!!

so many words

The first obstacle I mentioned for our rightly understanding the Bible isn’t so much a problem with how we read the Scriptures, but with how we view them.  Most Christians would turn to words that have been historically used to affirm a high-view of the Bible’s unique authority in matters of faith and life.  Words like… inerrant, infallible, inspired, or God-breathed. I would draw  on one or two of these fitting adjectives myself.  The problem isn’t with what we say we believe about the Bible, but rather that our attitudes and actions betray that we hold an implicitly low-view of the Word.

If we truly believed that the God of the universe who holds all things in his hands reveals himself in the words of sacred Scripture, then it stands to reason we would make it one of our highest priorities to know these words.  And not just with the sort of passing familiarity that might characterize any number of human relationships known simply as “acquaintances,” but with the sort of intimacy that one might have with a closest confidant, mate, or dear friend.  If, in fact, God has chosen to reveal himself in Christ, and if that Christ is first and foremost encountered in the pages of Scripture, then in our reading of the Word, we are confronted with the person and character of God Himself.

In case one thinks I am exaggerating the importance of the Scriptures for the life of the Christian, imagine for a moment how limited our knowledge would be of the Triune God without it.

We would have no history of God’s saving activity with the Israelites, God’s chosen community.  No millenia spanning perspective of the ills of the world, human brokenness, and God’s desire to make right all that has gone wrong.  No record of the promises (covenants) to restore humanity through Abraham’s Seed.  No strong condemnation of society’s tendency to use and abuse power at the expense of the least empowered.  No clear boundaries set for what constitutes an appropriate way of life for His image bearers.  No record of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  No understanding of the significance of the life and work the Christ.  No account of the sending of the Spirit to create and indwell the Church.  No Paul.  No peek into the future (limited as it is) in which Christ returns to usher in the age eternal.

Please understand, I’m not succumbing to what many have called bibliolatry (Worship of the Bible).  I am well aware that it is the God whom the Bible reveals that we worship, and that there are tendencies within certain streams of Christian tradition to elevate the status of the Scriptures precariously close to idol-like positions.  What I am saying is that without the Bible, we have no real knowledge of who this God we worship actually is.  We are entirely dependent on the Scriptures to know with any precision the nature and person of God.  It is through the Scriptures alone that we see God’s activity and faithfulness throughout history.

And yet, borne out of our common humanity is a certain loathing for God’s Word that makes seeking God in the Scriptures feel more like drudgery than delight.  Instead of approaching the Scriptures with a sense of wonder and awe, we find ourselves either indifferent toward or bored with this book that we say (at least with out mouths) is the authoritative Word of God Himself.  All in all, it is our implicitly low estimation of the Scriptures that devalues not only the way in which God has chosen to make himself known, but also the One who has graciously done so.


I realize it has been a shockingly long time since I last posted, and I have a number of excuses for that being the case.  I am keenly aware that none of them hold any water.  And even if they did, my vast readership isn’t mildly interested in my petty excuses.  Suffice it to say, I’m back for a bit.

Last week, I had the great privilege of attending a conference at my favorite institute for graduate-level theological studies.  My cohort in ministry accompanied me to the conference and you can read all about his take on things here.  I think I can summarize my own take-away from the conference in a single sentence:  Let the Text speak for itself.

Now that statement is LOADED, and one might mistakenly think that I’m advocating for a simplistic reading of the Bible.  I’m not.  In fact, far from it; even the opposite.

When I say, the text should be allowed to speak for itself, I’m saying that we should work hard (and it is hard work) to understand what the Bible is actually saying.  And in doing this several problems get in the way of our being able to do that.

1)  low view of Scripture
2)  laziness
3)  existentialism
4)  agenda
5)  culture
6)  conditioned readings

Unfortunately, none of these topics were directly addressed at the conference.  If they had been, then I might actually have something helpful to share here.  Instead, you’ll have to decipher the semi-coherent ramblings of an incompetent mind.

Nevertheless, these are all problems in how we approach the Bible that I’ve known about for some time and I’m going to wax barely-literate on each in turn.  I realize that all of the above issues are hopelessly intertwined with one another, but in the interest of clarity I’ll be addressing them as if they were distinct factors.

So for the next few weeks, you’ll probably find yourself in one of two boats – either ‘mildly interested’ or ‘intensely bored’.  Either way, I’m mainly doing this as a discipline for myself.  I find that ideas tend to crystallize better in my own mind when I am forced to organize my thoughts in print.

But returning to the conference for a moment, it was the impetus for this extended reflection and I deeply appreciated their efforts made in calling pastors to preach the Word faithfully.  Those leading the conference were characteristically thoughtful and engaging.  If my teaching ministry can incorporate even one or two of the principles put forth there, it will have been time well spent.

solo deo gloria