Sometimes Scripture is like your Facebook feed

Sorry for the delay. I had to go take a long, hot shower after that title. Let’s cut to the chase–I have a confessional booth to find.

On Sunday morning our adult Bible study is working through Joshua. We’ve reached the point in the narrative where Israel has taken possession of the land and all that remains (supposedly) is to parcel out the land to the various tribes.

Now the conquest portion of the book takes up eleven out of twenty-four chapters. But on closer inspection, the military campaign doesn’t actually begin until Joshua 6 which means that the conquest is contained in the span of six chapters and two of those chapters (7 & 9) are spent detailing failures that threaten the long-term success of the military campaign. So all told, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is relayed in the space of four action-packed chapters. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the conquest is a seamless sequence of victories–swift, thorough, and thrilling.

But is this an accurate picture?

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, we don’t just want to read Scripture; we want to read Scripture well. To that end we should remember that first impressions often fade in the light of sustained study. Second, the impressions we draw from the Bible’s story line shape our expectations for the Christian life. For example, the conquest motif in Joshua is certainly analogous to the spiritual battles God’s new covenant people must encounter before we enjoy our promised rest (2Cor 10:3-5; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10ff). But what, exactly, should we expect in our conflict? Will ours be the inexorable blitzkrieg we see in Joshua?

Not exactly. But don’t be discouraged–that wasn’t Joshua’s experience either.

Several passages tip us off to the fact that Joshua’s life didn’t consist of one thrilling victory after another, but two will suffice for our purposes:

Joshua 11:18 “Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.”

14:7, 10  “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land . . . Now behold, the LORD has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. {NAS}

Say what you will about a long time but a long time isn’t quick. [Call your local seismologist. I feel an epistemological earthquake coming on! –Shive] More specifically, Caleb’s statements in 14:7 & 10 turn the supposed Israelite blitzkrieg into a mundane five year campaign.

So the short story consisting of action-packed moments in a tightly ordered sequence actually stretches out over a span of at least five years. Additionally, when we compare the list of kings conquered in Joshua 12 with the kings previously cited in Joshua 6-11, we’re surprised to find that multiple battles occurred for which we have no record at all.

The point is that the biblical authors almost always give us the highlights rather than an exhaustive account. And highlights are, by definition, not normal. We’re not told about the hours spent returning to camp, gathering firewood, preparing food, and sharpening blades. We have no mention of sore feet and irritating co-workers. The story gives no thought to what transpired for the women and children as they waited for the men to finish the job. How did the families cope with boredom or burnt food? What happened when the kids in the next tent got too noisy? Terrible two’s anyone?

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over those details. Just like there’s nothing wrong with withholding from Facebook the details of a lunch order, traffic update, or every inconsequential thought that transverses our little synapses (seriously, people). Just the highlights will do. Just remember that no one’s life is uninterrupted highlights.

All of biblical history is written with an agenda, with a message to convey. As such, whatever doesn’t “fit the narrative” doesn’t see the page. By keeping this principle in mind we go a long way to guarding ourselves against unrealistic expectations in the Christian life. More often than not the Christian life is about meeting the seemingly uneventful with simple faithfulness with the occasional crisis and/or climax thrown in.

Not so long ago what I just described was considered “normal.” Then social media came along. Now we call it disappointing.

Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

Sometimes we are ‘hunted into the Bible’

…no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. {Psalm 119:71, NAS}

In this entry from Table Talk Martin Luther speaks of the contribution sufferings make to the study of Scripture (and prayer). Christian, your suffering is not in vain:

I, said Luther, did not learn my divinity at one only time, but I was constrained to search deeper and deeper, to which my temptations brought me; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I, said Luther, had cleaving and hanging on my neck the Pope, the Universities, all the deep-learned, and with them the devil himself; these hunted me into the Bible, where I diligently read, and thereby, God be praised, at length I attained to the true understanding of the same. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, we dream that so-and-so it must be, as the Monks and Friars in monasteries do.

The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true enough; but God grant me the grace that I may catch hold on the right use thereof; for when Satan disputeth with me in this sort, namely, whether God be gracious unto me or no? then I must not meet him with this text: “Whoso loveth God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength, the same shall inherit the kingdom of God;” for then the devil presently objecteth, and hitteth me in the teeth, and saith, “Thou hast not loved God, with all thy heart,” etc., which, indeed, is true, and my own conscience therein, witnesseth against me; but at such a time I must arm myself and encounter him with this text, namely: “That Jesus Christ died for me, and through him I have a gracious God and Father; Christ hath made an atonement for me,” as St. Paul saith, “He is of God given unto us for wisdom, for righteousness, for holiness, and for redemption.”

Tyrants, sectaries, seducers, and heretics do nothing else but drive us into the Bible, to make us read more diligently therein, and with more fervency to sharpen our prayers.

What hinders us is not aesthetics

Distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

bible-app-by-olive-tree-63513202684_2All snark aside, those looking for a mature reflection on the market milieu of the ESV Reader’s Bible would do well to read this piece by J. Mark Bertrand.

Bertrand’s hope is that the ubiquity of hypertext has created a demand for a purified text. With so much reading tethered to the internet and all the linked distractions that come with it, we may now be ready for books that are “really good for nothing but reading”:

We long for a deeply immersive experience, something so thick and involved that we can’t be easily pulled away. The fear is that all the choices and features and options we’ve given ourselves, though they seemed good at the time, have now become barriers, fatally distracting us from the one thing that matters most. We fiddle with fonts and margins, we zip back and forth through cross-references, always hovering on a busy surface, clicking and tapping, in danger of forgetting there is anything underneath. Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can’t stay under long enough anymore.

Breadth of features kills the depth of experience. By trying to do everything, we neglect what really matters. In the case of word processors, that’s writing. In the case of Bibles, it’s to take and read.

Meh.

I get what Bertrand is driving at and I agree to a point, but distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

Somewhere in our house we have Hillary Clinton’s autobiography (don’t judge, it was a gag gift). I think the book has been in our house for almost a year now and at no time do I ever remember thinking I’d give the old girl a read if only the font was a Trinité No. 2 type set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. In a ranking desired experiences, becoming immersed in Living History falls somewhere between shopping with the girls and having my ankles gnawed on by a herd of rabid ferrets. The fact of the matter is that no amount of artistry or beautification will draw me to that book.

Maybe today’s pearl divers lack the capacity to go deep. I suspect that many of us just lack the compulsion.

 

Irreverent musings: 6-volume Bible

The new ESV Reader’s Bible is for everyone. It invokes status. It’s a symbol. It’s sophisticated. It’s a sophisticated status symbol.

esv-reader_6volOn Friday Crossway makes available the ESV Reader’s Bible in six volumes (E-6). If you count yourself among the sanctified bibliophiles you have undoubtedly discovered a righteous desire to acquire the set simply for the joy of reading.

But what about the average Christian who, for reasons beyond their control, find they lack the holy aspiration to plunk down $300+ for a literary work they already own in a convenient single volume edition?

Perhaps you should consider these more pedestrian reasons for acquiring E-6:

1. Read without bias and/or thought. At some point chapter-verse divisions, cross-references, brackets, and differing type settings just becomes too much–two millennia of biblical study notwithstanding. The E-6 signifies (without the arrogant assertion) that you no longer need to stand on the shoulders of those who came before. More to the point, it’s far better to read Scripture like you read the Harry Potter series–as a blank slate with with no help. At the end of the day the cluttered Bibles don’t account for the fact that we’re just smarter and more capable than our Christian forebears. Google it.

2. Solitude is underrated. The ubiquity of interwebs and social platforms is crowding out solitude and quiet reflection. The good news is that without chapter/verse divisions the E-6 makes reading in community (i.e. in a noisy crowd) virtually impossible. We all know the nerve-wrecking effort it takes to follow along while someone reads from the NIV or worse (The Message). Now try to do that without the aid of chapter-verse notations. Get the picture? You needed to spend more time alone with God anyway.

3. No more note taking. Let’s be honest. The reason most of us make notes in our Bibles is because we know that that’s what serious Christians are supposed to do. But with E-6, a clean page is no longer an indictment of your spirituality. For a moderate price you can move from sophomoric to sophisticated.

4. A relevant faith. Ex-nihilo creation. The Israelite exodus from Egypt. Holy wars. A plethora of historically unverified characters & events. Who needs those albatrosses tethered to an otherwise respectable faith? With E-6 you now have the option of minimizing the baggage and making it all about Jesus. Just brand yourself a vol-5 Christian™ and the embarrassments just fade away. Sure, the Jesus in vol 5 affirms all the myths, barbarisms, and bigotries of the previous four volumes (see esp 1-2) but for some reason that doesn’t seem to matter. Christianity’s critics are sure to find your faith much more plausible if you keep the focus on biblical accounts of virgin birth, miraculous healing, apocalyptic preaching, exclusive truth, and a dead man coming back to life before floating up to heaven.

In short, the new ESV Reader’s Bible is for everyone. It invokes status. It’s a  symbol. It’s sophisticated. It’s a sophisticated status symbol.

 

 

Judas & Peter

Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of Judas & Peter.

Recently heard someone present Judas & Peter as two disciples with a shared experience but different outcomes. Both men walked with Jesus, both men turned on Jesus, & both men expressed remorse; but whereas Judas hung himself, Peter was restored and became a prominent leader.

What accounts for the different results? On this telling, it was that Judas never returned to his fellow disciples while Peter never left. The difference was community.

True, Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of these two men.

There’s no need for psychoanalysis when Scripture details the difference between the two.

Concerning Judas:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?”

John 13:18  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

John 17:12  “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

Concerning Peter:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Look to the text.

(S)elected reflections on Romans 9

Unconditional election seems to be the most straightforward interpretation but also the hardest one to come to grips with.

…for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.”

For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.”  So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. {Rom 9:11-12, 15-16; NAS}

Some brief thoughts after spending 4-5 weeks teaching Romans 9.

  1. This passage should be taught in a spirit of grace & humility.
  2. Unconditional election seems to be the most straightforward interpretation but also the hardest one to come to grips with.
  3. After acknowledging how utterly sinful and rebellious we are (Rom 1-3) it’s curious that so many of us consider free will to be an advantage for salvation.
  4. God is too often conceived of as cold & indifferent in this passage. Having been on both sides of the lectern, that has as much to do with shallow teaching as anything else.
  5. The implications in this passage will always be acutely felt by Christian parents.
  6. Paul gives us this passage to affirm God’s faithfulness & mercy but our initial impressions seem to run the other way.
  7. A true grasp of unconditional election is not without sorrow.

Chrysostom on Romans 8:31

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? {Rom 8:31, NAS}

Yet those that be against us, so far are they from thwarting us at all, that even without their will they become to us the causes of crowns, and procurers of countless blessings, in that God’s wisdom turneth their plots unto our salvation and glory. See how really no one is against us! -John Chrysostom (c. 349-407)

Not even Common Core is this incomprehensible

if 1T = condemnation, then ∞T = justification?!?

A drive-by posting…

I don’t know if it’s possible to be awestruck and incredulous at the same time. While studying Romans 5:12-21 I became increasingly impressed by the notion that the payment we earn with Adam (i.e. sin & death) is less than(!) the gift we receive through Christ (i.e. righteousness & life). Or, to paraphrase Paul, the (undeserved) gift is much more than the (just) penalty. I deserve judgment but I receive much more grace. I deserve death but am given much more life. As total as death’s reign was over me, much more is my new reign in life through Christ.

But the irrational lopsidedness of this arrangement really smacks you in the face with v16:

The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.

So if 1T = condemnation, then ∞T = justification?!? That kind of math makes Common Core look logical. Cranfield sums it up well:

That one single misdeed should be answered by judgment, this is perfectly understandable: that the accumulated sins and guilt of all the ages should be answered by God’s free gift, this is the miracle of miracles, utterly beyond human comprehension.

Inspiration, inerrancy, & Paris

The subjects of inspiration & inerrancy have been running through my mind lately. {“Well, at least they have plenty of space to roam.” –Shive}

Let’s say I was persuaded that the Bible is not fully inspired/inerrant because some passages, especially in the OT, run contrary to the Christian love ethic (see Psalm 109:6ff or 137:9). Consequently, some passages shouldn’t guide or inform the Christian life.

Then I see ISIS wreaking havoc in the Middle East and now in Paris. When innocents are being murdered can I pray for retributive justice on ISIS? Can I take my cue from Jesus’ teaching in Luke 18:7-8 and from John’s vision in Rev 6:10, or were they being too Old Testamenty in those passages?

How is one to know what he can & can’t pray?