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Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

A New Testament Political Theology

A New Testament Political Theology

Dave Black has some very useful comments on political activism, responding to a video by N. T. Wright, which I’ll embed here:


I appreciate this video for several items, but I even more appreciated Dave Black’s comments. I personally am politically active. I always vote. I often advocate for various causes or candidates, and in the past I have even gotten involved in political campaigns, though not recently.

One of the difficulties I think Christians have is distinguishing one’s own standards from those that should be imposed on others. In my view, the state should not be there to force the public to live according to Christian values or any other separate agenda. I think we always need to distinguish between “I like that” and “there ought to be a law.” It’s not just Christians that have trouble making that distinction.

But more importantly, in my view, I see our political approaches to problems infecting the church. If we’re law and order people in society we often lose the redemptive idea of Christianity. What is the solution to the drug problem? Is it more drug enforcement, or might it just be more reaching out to those who abuse drugs? It seems to me that as a Christian, my solution to such a problem is contained in the gospel, not in the making of laws. While laws may well be necessary, I shouldn’t let the need for such laws make me despise the violators or forget about the grace of God.

In any case, Dave’s comments resonated with me today.

Faith in the Public SquareFor a somewhat different, though not incompatible view on our involvement in politics, I want to quote from the recently released book Faith in the Public Square (Bob Cornwall). Bob is comfortable being called progressive.

I understand why some of my co-religionists have chosen to stay clear of government entanglements, though I’m not convinced that it’s possible to work for justice or work for the common good without engaging the political system in some way. It is for this reason that I have involved myself in efforts to engage elected officials in conversation and when necessary even pressuring them to do what I believe would be the right thing. Additionally, even as I recognize that political parties are not perfect instruments, I have chosen to support one of the two major parties and its candidates for office during elections. It’s not that I believe God favors one party over the other, but I do believe that one party better fits my own understanding of the common good, an understanding that
is informed by my faith.

Even as I align myself with one of America’s two political
parties and accept the realities of being a citizen of a particular
nation, I’m also cognizant that I’m called to give allegiance not to the flag or the nation for which it stands, but to God whotranscends national interests. That is, if I faithfully pray the Lord’s Prayer then I must give full and complete allegiance to God and to God’s realm. Whatever I do in the public sphere must be done in the light of that prior commitment.  Remaining faithful to one’s ultimate allegiance, while engaging the public square, is not an easy task. It requires humility and a willingness to recognize that not everyone shares my beliefs or values. My goal in engaging the public square isn’t purely religious; that is, while my goal is not to impose my faith on the populace as a whole, I am committed to being present in the public square, which involves political action. This
political action is informed by my faith. I may engage it as a private citizen, which allows more partisan engagement, or I may come to the square as part of the faith community, but in this case the engagement should be less partisan or even non-partisan (pp. 4-5).

I think this is a topic that deserves wider discussion. The consequence of simply letting things ride is that we will follow the path of least resistance, and that path will make the church reflect the culture, in which case, what value remains in the church?

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Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

I try to publish some reflections on each book that my company, Energion Publications, releases. Sometimes it takes me  few months after release, but I try to get to it sooner. Please be aware that while I will say some things I might say in a review, this is not a review, and is intended to be subjective. It’s my reflections on publishing this book, why I did it, and what I hope for it.

This week, we’re releasing Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, by Robert D. Cornwall. Bob Cornwall is actually author of two releases in close succession, the other being Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer. Note that while you will not see it in stock at on Monday, January 3, you should see it at some point during the first week of January.

Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

This book is a milestone both for Energion and for the Participatory Study Series, and it’s especially gratifying to me. When I first started the participatory series (for which this blog was named), it was a way for me to publish notes and handouts. I looked at what I was doing to provide materials for my classes, then at the costs involved in printing, and gathered the material together. I thought I could sell enough just for classes I taught to pay the expenses, and indeed I did. But I also sold quite a number more. (My study guides are to Revelation and Hebrews.)

Then my former student, Geoffrey Lentz, now a minister at First United Methodist Church in Pensacola suggested adding a study guide to the book of Luke. As a publisher, this meant some considerable changes. I’d put the whole series on the back burner. I was much more interested in publishing things written by others than my own work. But after some thought Geoffrey signed a contract and duly produced the study guide to Luke.

While Geoffrey followed the outlines of the method I had created and written about on the web, he also added some nuances, especially in terms of making the study guides reflect the emphasis on prayer. If anyone compares one of my guides to his, they will note that while I emphasize prayer while talking about the method, I don’t do as much to make it part of the structure of each lesson. Geoffrey also added a certain amount of art and iconography, amongst other things.

To summarize, I was much happier with his study guide than I was with my own, and I invited Geoffrey to join me in writing a basic guide to the method used in the series. I’d had a manuscript gathering the cyber equivalent of dust for a couple of years, so I dusted it off, and sent it to Geoffrey. We passed it back and forth several times, added many pages of his work, deleted some of mine, and I think the results were good. The book is Learning and Living Scripture: An Introduction to the Participatory Study Method.

The foundation was laid to make this a real series, with the vision of making guides that will help individuals, but especially small study groups dig into the Bible and study it for themselves, while at the same time not studying it in isolation.

Besides Ephesians, there are currently two other study guides in progress, and we’re looking for more authors who would like to write one of these guides. The method gives considerable leeway for individual approaches, while setting broad boundaries in terms of the level and the overall approach. (If you’re interested in writing a guide contact me,

Bob Cornwall has taken hold of the vision of the series and produced a study guide that is thoughtful and challenging. He’s set a new high standard for what this series should produce. I hope some time to revise my two guides, and I’m planning on borrowing ideas from him (as well as from Geoffrey) when I do so.

Bob’s study guide plows head-on into the major issues raised by Ephesians, not in a destructive way, but in an open and honest approach that will allow groups to discuss and come to their own conclusions about many of the issues in the book. What about submission, gender roles, spiritual warfare, the demonic realm, and authorities in the heavens? They’re all here, and you’ll have a chance to think seriously about them and share.

One of the great distinctive features Bob has added is a historical reflection with each lesson. I wanted this series to emphasize looking at the history of interpretation, i.e. not seeing the community in which one studies as just contemporary Christians, but rather as those who have read, interpreted, and applied the book since it was written. These historical reflections are an extraordinarily effective approach to accomplishing this goal.

There is always a struggle in a study guide to decide what is included. Huge amounts of material ends up cut, either due to space, or because you don’t want to overburden or distract students who may be studying a book for the first time. In his introductions, Bob has chosen carefully and introduced issues that are profitable and more importantly that will tend to help build dialog.

One of the elements of the participatory study method is sharing, by which we mean not just (or even primarily) telling other people what you learn, but also listening to the community of faith and to others throughout history. If you are going to conduct dialog across various denominational and theological lines, you have to know what the issues are. A good example of this is the issue of pseudonymity. Was Paul the author, and if he was not, does it matter? Many church members are not aware of the alternatives on this issue. Bob gives them a good introduction. Whatever you believe regarding this issue, it’s a good idea to be aware of the possibilities.

This guide shares with the other guides good exercises and challenging thought questions. I think it’s “further reading” section is again exceptionally good.

I hope many church education coordinators and other leaders and teachers in the church will give strong consideration to using this guide in their teaching. I’m gratified and blessed that Bob Cornwall has been willing to offer his expertise to this series, and I am excited about seeing new volumes as they develop.

I should write one final general note about the series. This isn’t your “Bible in five minutes a day” series. Members of the class need to commit to reading the material in the guide and the scriptures for each lesson. It is also useful if they study the questions and are prepared to discuss. These questions are not designed for a quick sharing of existing opinions; they’re designed to challenge your existing opinions. I hope that you’ll come away from sharing with a group using these questions and reflections better informed, and better able to express and support your understanding.