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The Problem with Bible Outlines

Revelation 1 with titlesOutlining is a valuable practice in Bible study. It can

  • Help you understand the relationship between sections of a passage
  • Direct you to the key point
  • Clarify ambiguities
  • Give you a feel for the structure of an author’s argument

Clearly some of these overlap.

One of the common practices in teaching the Bible, however, is to provide an outline. Providing such an outline can be very helpful, but we need to remember that the outline is also an interpreter’s opinion about the passage and needs to be considered critically.

An illustration of the problem here can be found in the way laws are often named. “An act to prevent crime in the county” may be optimistic or even outright misleading. Frequently it will at least be controversial. Let’s suppose that “An act to prevent gun crime” provides restrictions on gun sales and ownership. Someone’s view of how likely such a law is to be successful will impact whether they believe the title is accurate or not.

Section headings in Bibles fall into the same category. We often absorb them without thinking, and quite commonly there’s nothing wrong with them. But precisely because we don’t pay attention to them, they can subtly alter our understanding of a passage.

I recently reminded a Sunday School class of this when we concluded in our study that a passage was talking about something other than the section heading. That heading is part of the editorial activity in producing that Bible edition and not part of the original text, as are verse numbers and paragraphing.

Outlining is good, but before you settle on a particular structure, look at the material for yourself.

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Thinking, Praying, and/or Acting

Frequently when there is a crisis or any form of trouble, Christians call for prayer. These calls can take many forms. In addition, a common comment from Christians is that we will pray about a situation.

Now it’s quite possible that someone who says they will pray will limit their activities to just praying. It’s even possible that they won’t even bother with that. We are all human, and we often make insincere statements.

I think, however, that the majority both pray and also do other, concrete things. For those who have prayer as an important part of their spiritual life, it can be a critical part of action.

I discussed this with Dr. David Moffett-Moore, author of Pathways to Prayer, Life as Pilgrimage, and some other books, and I think he made these points extremely well.

It’s unfortunate that the common perception of prayer, a perception that is far too common in the church, is that prayer is primarily about getting God to do things our way, so that the test of the success of prayer is whether we get something or whether God’s (perceived) action changes. One of the primary ways in which prayer “functions” (a questionable word, but one that will have to do), is by changing us and driving our decisions and actions.

Here’s the video:

 

One can only hope …

One of my favorite TV episodes of all time is the West Wing episode In Excelsis Deo. In it, Toby Ziegler arranges a funeral for a homeless veteran of the Korean War who died of exposure. Toward the end, President Bartlet is asking Toby about his use of the president’s name to arrange it.

” … you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?” he asks.

“I can only hope,” says Toby.

Just so.

This also illustrates for me the potential power of fiction. There is no President Bartlet, nor any Toby Ziegler as White House Communications Director. They are characters in a drama. Nor is there really any Walter Huffnagel with a brother named George who is “slow.”

Yet there are thousands of Huffnagels, and many of them will not find a Toby Ziegler, no “powerful person” as Toby calls himself, to arrange something for them. There are also thousands of potential Toby Zieglers, potential moments such as the this fictional moment.

Will those people come out of the woodwork?

One can only hope …

You can watch the final portion of the show on YouTube (playback elsewhere has been disabled by the owner).

 

 

 

Detecting Plagiarism in a Fantasy Universe

In the good old days when I had time to do fantasy role-playing games, stodgy traditionalists would object that it wasn’t real. Why spend your time on something that isn’t real? This was often said by people who would spend hours watching and discussing football games with approximately the same effect on reality. But I see one great advantage to those fantasy games (and to fantasy literature, for that matter). They don’t pretend to be real.

And thus I turn to the fantasy world of modern politics, in which speeches are written by teams of people who test out turns of phrase and issues on samples of target groups, then place the text on teleprompters to be read by otherwise often incoherent people. The issues emphasized in the politicians’ campaigns are not those the politician things are important. Rather, they are what researchers have determined seem important to the public. The solutions proposed are not those that the politician believes will really work. Instead, they are those that will sound good to a particular constituency.

The controversy about Melania Trump’s speech, with its plagiarized section, bundled the problems of our modern political discourse into one small package. A speaker uses plagiarized lines put there (accidentally) by a speechwriter, and never even recognized by the person presenting the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump or his campaign, but I can easily understand how this happens. The speech writers doubtless studied speeches by first ladies and potential first ladies for material. You get scraps of this stuff all over the computer, and eventually you drop the wrong one into place. Friends forgive you. Enemies won’t, but they wouldn’t in any case, so it doesn’t matter that much. The media spends huge amounts of time discussing it. Then bloggers like me discuss the whole thing all over again.

I don’t have any idea how close this was because I didn’t listen to or read the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump; in fact, I can think of huge numbers of things that I dislike about him. This doesn’t make the list.

Why? Because it’s part of that fantasy land that political marketing has created for us, the media propagates for us, and we go ahead and consume, no matter how much we may say we don’t believe the media. Yes, it’s our problem. Even those who most claim that the media is biased frequently let themselves be influenced by it. What they really mean when they say they don’t believe the media, is that they don’t believe it when it contradicts their prejudices. When it supports those prejudices it’s just fine. The people who put in the dollars know how it works. There’s a whole industry (at least one) built on hating the mainstream media.

When I speak, I do so either without notes or with the minimum of notes. I have occasionally used a prepared text, but I didn’t follow it, even though I did write it. Sometimes I have notes to tell me what topics to avoid due to limited time. If a politician wants me to listen to a speech, he or she will have to work in just that way. If your text is prepared, let it be your words. In all cases, let it be your ideas expressed your way. Then I’ll listen. I’m sorry, but in my preferred fantasy universe, speech writers would be out of a job.

I know that no politician can know everything necessary to handling the issues that the president must address. Fine! Let the candidate produce the team members who would talk about those issues, and have them talk about them. “Look,” says the candidate, “I’m not an expert on the middle east, but here’s the person whose judgment I trust most.” It could be sort of like the British shadow ministers, except that it lasts just for the campaign.

In the meantime, folks, politics is a great deal like a marketing campaign for widgets, except that there is no FTC to take the politicians to court for false advertising. In that atmosphere, a couple of plagiarized paragraphs might manage to be as important as one H2O molecule in the ocean.

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

from inspiration when peopleOne of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.

Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.

When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.

You can get more complete information on the Energion.com News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.

My Mom Traveling at 98 years old!

 

Thoughts on Moving from Numbers to Deuteronomy

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’ve completed the second chapter of Deuteronomy in the CBC commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it may surprise some that I’ve felt a bit of a letdown as I moved from the variety of liturgy and laws, though interspersed with narrative, that is Numbers. It might surprise you less if you realize that my personal theology (and I think we all have one), is built on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, though not necessarily in that order. That’s the order in which I started studying the books seriously, however.

For most Christian readers of Hebrew scripture, I think that getting into Deuteronomy is a bit of a relief. Reading Genesis through the first half of Exodus goes pretty smoothly, but then one bogs down on all those details of building the sanctuary, and you get them twice: instructions and implementation. Then when you’ve worked your way through that you get to Leviticus, which contains so much liturgy, along with obscure laws on issues we generally don’t face. Numbers is a little less dismal, and then Deuteronomy starts to give us propositional theology that we can get our teeth into.

I was there before I spent serious time in Leviticus. I don’t claim expertise; that takes incredible amounts of study. But I’ve spent a great deal of time on the text. There’s a great deal that one can learn from that liturgy, including the simple fact that liturgy matters. Those of us who are not “high church” tend to think that the way in which worship is conducted isn’t very important. It’s mostly a time to accomplish our goals, often divided between “worship” (when that’s defined as musical), and “sharing the Word,” and of course those who believe one or the other is critical can have some great debates.

But we can learn a great deal from the ancient liturgy, and I think we can either increase or diminish our impact on the world around us through constructive liturgy. This is not an argument for high church liturgy. I am also not arguing that worship only takes place in worship services, much less that worship can be equated to music. All our activities should be done in worship to our creator.

But there is a time for us to act out for ourselves and for others the nature of the church as a community, and coming together at a common place and at a common time to share in activities as a community is, I think a critical part of this. Unfortunately, we have a variety of ways to avoid this. We may reject gathering together entirely. It may be a time when an ordained pastor occupies most of the time explaining to us what he believes we should believe. It may be a time to experience an emotional high as part of musical or artistic endeavors. It may be a scripted program that is ancient and could be meaningful, but is carried out by rote.

But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It can be, instead, a time when we gather together and join in activities that encourage one another and prepare us to face the world around us as effective witnesses for Jesus. I don’t think there’s a particular set of activities that make this happen. I do think it’s possible because I have seen and experienced it.

God doesn’t just communicate in one way. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear, and presents Jesus as the ultimate communication from our creator (amongst other things that reinforce that idea). The Torah (or Pentateuch) presents these different ways. We have liturgy helping to teach the people and to shape them into God’s people. We have story, showing us people experiencing God’s activity in the world, and we have theological propositions. I kind of prefer the liturgy, but that’s just me. Here we have all three demonstrated.

I think that neglecting one or the other leaves us with potentially skewed views of God. We need both the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and the God who is sorry that He created humanity (Genesis 6:6). The same God also forgives a poor Israelite who can’t even afford a bird as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:11).

So I guess I won’t be let down and instead enjoy the change!

(For studying the Bible as story, try Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure by Dr. Bruce Epperly.)

Exhortation Does Not Interrupt Exposition

On page 238 of his NTL commentary on Hebrews Luke Timothy Johnson uses the word “interrupt” to describe the transition between exposition and exhortation starting in Hebrews 5:11. In a way I’m nitpicking here, and because I am, I must also note that overall I find Johnson’s commentary nearly the most useful I’ve read, and if I were just talking about theological reflection, I would call it the best.

I have a couple of objections to use of the word “interrupt,” however. First, it seems to me that calling the transition an interruption divides the text without consideration for the author’s purpose in writing. There is no exposition here which stands alone, and which can then optionally be applied to the hearers via an exhortation. Rather, the intention is exhortation and the exposition underlies the exhortation and is illustrated and illuminated by the nature of that exhortation.

Second, the exhortations also help raise questions for the further exposition that follows. In the case in question (Hebrews 5:11-6:12), the question of the faithfulness and reliability of God is raised, which will be answered in Hebrews 6:13ff. This is also the critical question of the entire book. God has provided the final High Priest (logically and temporally), who will offer the final sacrifice, and will provide the way back to the presence of God. Since this is all final, human beings are presented with this final choice, in the view of our author. If you reject this, what means can God provide for you?

Without exhortation, the exposition would be dry, pointless, and incomplete. The exhortation is an integral part of developing the topic.

I emphasize this because of some of my experience in studying Pauline epistles in college and graduate school. We would make it through the theological exposition in the beginning of the book, but when we got to the practical admonitions, those were treated as something of an afterthought by Paul. “Here’s your theology of salvation, and oh, by the way, there are a few things it would be a good idea to do …”

But for Paul those admonitions grow out of the theology he has presented. The practical elements are not appendices to letters that are otherwise theological treatises. It would be better to call the theological exposition introductory matter to the practical sections. Perhaps this explains why Galatians and Romans seem to get so much more treatment from a theological viewpoint than 1 & 2 Corinthians.

Sometimes I think the worst thing about biblical scholarship is that it is carried out by biblical scholars. Their interest is in extracting theological propositions and historical data. The writers, especially Paul, are writing pastorally. The two don’t always work well together.

At least that is the view from someone who took Romans (through chapter 8!) and Galatians (through chapter 4!) in school. As far as I could tell, the professors were happy with that.

Hebrews 4:12 – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ

What a mess my office is!

What a mess my office is!

I want to make a short comment on this, and the use of λόγος again in 4:13. I’m not going to go through all the arguments. I’ve just re-read David L. Allen (New American Commentary), Luke Timothy Johnson (NTL), James Moffatt (ICC), and Craig R. Koester (Anchor Bible), and the combined number of references and arguments is really quite astonishing and excellent.

They differ on the referent of ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. There are good arguments for using this as the “personified word,” and for not reading it as a reference to Jesus, but again, as I have time and again over the years, I end up disagreeing. I think this forms an excellent tie back to the prologue, which clearly outlines a high Christology. Now we have definitely been reading arguments taken from the written word, and references to spoken word (Hebrews 2:1-4). But the prologue points us to Jesus as God’s ultimate communication with humanity.

This, in turn, points us to Hebrew 4:14-16, which summarizes one side of the coin of the high priesthood of Jesus. Here we are told, based on the arguments of chapters 2 & 3, that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. He is our brother (2:11). This will be brought together with the other side of the coin in Hebrews 7:26-28, which tells us that his brotherhood with us does not diminish his status in all ways with God. But right here it’s the one who is our brother, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, who is the one to whom we must give account.

And there you can see how I think λόγος should be rendered at the end of verse 13. I think we do have a play on words, but we should also look beyond a gloss or even a simple dictionary definition, and note that Jesus is giving an account to us of God, while we give an account of ourselves to God. Except not so much. Because we have such a high priest who is able to take us all the way in to the throne of grace.

This doesn’t take the written word of God, nor the word of God spoken by the prophets or apostles out of the equation. Wherever God’s word is, it is “alive and active,” but its ultimate representation is in the person of Jesus. To the question, “Is this the written word of the prophets or is it Jesus?” I’m saying “yes.” But mostly Jesus, because that’s where our author is pointing us everywhere.

Jesus does not replace the written word. Rather he completes it. The New Testament doesn’t supersede the Old. It builds on it. If you’ve read Hebrews thus far, getting to the end of Chapter 4, you’ve experienced the work of someone whose respect for the Hebrew Scriptures is very great and shows clearly through. One should remember this when one gets to passages that talk about something old vanishing, such as Hebrews 8:13. The very foundation of his argument is not vanishing.

He’s going to make the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest (and we see functions of that priest in 12-13, God->Us, Us->God), that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, and subtly, by the texts used in making those cases, he will let us know that Jesus is the perfect King.

Yep! I read Hebrews 4:12-13 Christologically.