Craziness & Romance in the Bible

9780825425561I have read three previous entires in the Kregel Exegetical Library, and have come away edified by any of them. Each is written by a scholar of the highest integrity, and deals openly with problematic passages. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth does not disappoint. Dr. Robert Chisholm, a regular Biblical commentator for most folks who have taken a Hebrew class, handles some of the strangest passages in the Old Testament narrative in a clear, effective manner. If you are looking for a book that will help unravel some of the violence and bizarre events of Israel’s early days, then this is a good place to start.

A prime example comes from the section on Jephthah’s foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40). A number of explanations for understanding this passage have been explored over the years (Wikipedia even has a section dedicated to it), but consensus is rare. Chisholm dedicates 17 pages to the issue, and alternates being exposition in the main body of the text, and extensive footnotes about various views. Though Chisholm does not convince me of his own view, that Jephthah does in fact offer a human sacrifice to Yahweh, he is cautious in dismissing opposing perspectives and provides ample space for those views to be considered by the reader.  This kind of writing is typical of the entire work, and made reading it an exercise in humility and conversation.

Of course, the extensive footnoting method used by Chisholm might be daunting to some, particularly the laity. But it is most definitely worth it to sift through those lengthy academic ramblings in order to find a beautiful gem of wisdom that adds to one’s understanding of the Biblical story.

It is also worth noting that Chisholm treats the book of Ruth as part of the story told in Judges, rather than a one shot episode of the coming kingdom through David. Chisholm is careful not to throw arbitrary labels at Ruth, chastising the myriad of scholars who has sought to impose their own perspective on the book, rather than letting it speak for itself. Though his treatment of the book is brief, Chisholm offers a balanced, reverent account of one of the most overlooked books in the Bible.

This has been my favorite of the Kregel Exegetical commentaries thus far, and has definitely whetted my appetite for more.

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Studying the Greek Gods

This post originally appeared on the Trinitas Christian School blog.

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In his book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken asks a simple but provocative question: “Why do people hang paintings on walls?” There is of course the straightforward response: “because they enjoy said paintings.” But there is another level to the response worth considering, and its implications ripple out beyond the singular notion of picture hanging. Creative expressions have been how humanity thought and considered the reality around it for all recorded history. We don’t write or tell stories or sing just because we enjoy it; we also do these things because we must.

How does this fit into the Christian life? For starters, the Bible is chock full of stories, and not all them seem pristine on the surface. The Christian Scriptures affirm the idea that we are a people in need of creative expression, with complex heroes like Samson and theologically rich poetry like the Psalms. The Christian, then, engages with the artistic world every time he or she opens their Bible, and this exercise helps the believer interact with opposing worldviews as well. We read the literature of other cultures and eras, mining for gold or dropping lead lines into the water, always expecting to find something of value.

Though the Christian has much to reject in the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, there are also things worth a closer examination. Is there significance to Pandora’s perseveration of Hope that the Christian can understand? Do we weep with Helios when Phaethon is struck down due to his impudence and inexperience? Are we sometimes rattled by the idea that life is out of our control, like Achilles or Oedipus? The Greek myths are not only good stories (though they are that), for they contain in them a way of understanding the world that should and can be reckoned with by any thoughtful Christian.

As we head into Zeus’ Family Reunion at Trinitas this week, we consider the truth and beauty found in the archives of the Greek imagination. Join us as we try to explore these stories together. Perhaps there are still depths to be mined, still deep waters to be sounded. And when it is all said and done, you’ll have a new mosaic to hang on your wall.

The Right Questions for “The Force Awakens”

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-still-10Every quarter, our students are invited to participate in our Classic Film Society. We gather, eat popcorn, watch movies, and then spend time discussing the ways these films wrestle with the Gospel, even if they do it inadvertently. This is more than just an excuse to watch good movies, because movies are one of the primary way our culture searches for the Gospel. Directors aren’t necessarily looking to imbed the content of Christianity in their film, but they cannot escape the shape of Christianity.[1] Films made in the past demonstrate this, as do those that continue to come to a theater near you.

And this is one of the beauties of our Classic Film Society: what we do connects with current movies as well. In fact, it’s probably most helpful to understand the word classic like this: “Here is the body of work which sets the standard for all subsequent achievement.”[2] If the box office numbers are any indication, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will set the standard for years to come. So does Episode VII wrestle with the Gospel? I think it does, by dealing with specific elements of the Gospel shape found in so much of our world’s media.

For instance, the universe Star Wars inhabits is a moral one, dealing with good and evil.[3] There is a clear villain (Kylo Ren) and a clear hero (Rey). There is transformation, as Finn becomes less of a selfish character, and even risks his life to save someone else (not once, but twice). And all of this surfaces in the midst of a story that often advocates “balance.” But make no mistake, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is dark. Even the cinematography embodies this concept, with the light being extinguished at the pivotal moment of choosing the light or the darkness.

These ideas provide excellent conversation starters. For instance, if this morality is driven by feelings, how are viewers to understand the problems that so often arise from characters pursing their feelings? A Jedi must feel the force, but must also avoid attachment. Is it because our feelings are so often wrong (Jer. 17:9)? And if feelings are to be the guide to the Force, as Obi-wan instructs Luke in Episode IV, what happens when a character feels the draw of the dark side? The questions abound, and the answers aren’t always airtight, but these are the kinds of things that Christians should think about when engaging with contemporary film. The Force Awakens should be a segue to a bigger conversation about Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Just like those we have at Classic Film Society.

[1] If you’re interested in reading more about this idea, Gavin Ortlund has a nice introduction here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-ways-movies-are-searching-for-the-gospel.

[2] This definition comes from J. Budziszewski, a professor of law at UT Austin (http://undergroundthomist.org/classical).

[3] I have explored this before, particularly in relation to the Lord of the Rings movies (http://humanepursuits.com/a-world-where-feelings-are-king/).

History, Exegesis, & Hebrew

When I think about books of 9780825425592the Bible that automatically engage my imagination and senses, I & II Chronicles does not immediately jump to mind. Eugene H. Merrill’s commentary does not change that, but it does offer a thorough perspective with loads to appreciate. Another addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library, a series I have explored previously, Merrill’s work is expansive.

Merrill reminded me that these books are more than mere history, serving as “a theological or ‘sacred’ history, recounting not only Israel’s past, but in a truncated sense a history of the world since Adam,” (pg. 22). And this is the lens that Merrill proposes to understand the book and its place in the Christian tradition. Merrill deals honestly and forthrightly with issues of chronology and source material, but offers a traditional, orthodox perspective that is edifying.

A highlight of the commentary, for me, was the “Theology” sections at the end of each chapter. After a thorough analysis of the Hebrew for a given portion, Merrill sets aside space to wrestle with the implications of such linguistics. It is these sections that helped the book to be more than a bland exegetical book on a standard historical work. Merrill ties everything together in these sections, making the exegesis practical and pertinent.

Still, the book is not as cumbersome as other commentaries. It’s 640 pages do justice to the topic at hand, and would serve and pastor or student of the Bible well when digging deep into the historical part of the Old Testament. Kregel has produced excellent commentaries in this Exegetical series, and Merrill’s contribution is no exception.

When Religion Looks Like Tires

the-ancient-path-talbotThe postmodern world is a confusing one. What are all these narratives people keep blathering on about? What does “power is knowledge” mean? For most folks, this flabbergasting effect creates a strain that results in doubt; doubt of all shapes and sizes and creeds. And for some, this leads to the past. How did people get on way back when? Its not a new question, although there may be a renewed interest in it of late. Enter John Michael Talbot’s The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.

Talbot’s book is a biographical account of his journey towards Catholicism, primarily through is own study of the earliest Church Fathers like Cyprian and Tertullian. It is a winsome story, that treads many of the paths familiar to modern evangelicals. References to characters like Francis Schaffer and Talbot’s time at L’Abri brim with all the ecumenical flavor one should expect from such a book. After all its in the title: we need old lessons. This postmodern world needs an old faith. The aimless 60s and 70s gave us revolution…but unto what? Talbot asserts that it was in Church Fathers (and subsequently older Christian manifestations like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) that the solution to his angst was solved.

There are commendable aspects of Talbot’s book, but they are outweighed by the hackneyed concept. A story of how someone swam the Tiber? Been done (and then some). How many times can the same path be retread? In this regard, I’d even say the title is misleading. It is not a theological discourse on the Church Fathers, but rather a personal testimony about why you should get familiar with them. If one is looking a for a devotional book, or a study guide, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And all of this seems like so much white noise after the recent Pew Research study that demonstrated far fewer evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox branches than previously believed. Talbot’s efforts to point Christians back to ancient sources in Church history is a good goal, but I don’t think necessitates the kind of conversion-esque approach that his story lays out.

In the end, The Ancient Path is an interesting biographical journey told in a friendly prose. But that is about as far as it goes.

The Grade School Years (A Guest Post)

(Another guest post from my beautiful bride. Enjoy!)

Every stage of life comes with pros and cons, and it is always nice to have people in your life who have been there. Erin MacPherson shares her stories and advice in such a way that her work brings glory to God while edifying her sisters in Christ. She also uses the personal experiences of others to shed light on areas of parenting that can be difficult or troublesome.

I was very apprehensive about reading The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years. The cover itself led me to believe I would not get anything out of the book because it is written to “send your kid off into the Big Wide World,” and we plan on homeschooling. Opening the book, skimming the chapter titles and reading the first chapter really had me thinking my assumption was correct, but I continued reading and before I knew it, the book was done.

The easy read gave insight on all types of schooling. It gave ideas and guidance on dealing with almost everything kid-related, and while almost all of it applies to sending your child to a physical school, it can be applied to co-op groups, play dates and any interaction your child may have. MacPherson also addresses the ever-growing educational pressure for our children to succeed according to society’s standards and offers advice for how to deal with that stress.

My favorite part of the book was how the Bible is referenced. MacPherson uses scripture throughout her work to reiterate her ideas and advice. She addresses children’s faith and kindness, discipline and (perhaps most importantly) creating a vision for your family. If your destination is determined by what path you are on, the developing a family vision is one of the most fundamental things that you can ever do.

Overall, MacPherson is very real in her writing. She attempts to connect with her readers in a genuine way, and I think she typically succeeds. With two of her Christian Mama entries now completed, I can say that this book will quickly be shared and recommended to friends.

Radical in the Truest Sense

Much has been said of David Platt over the last few years. Pastors have preached his message from Radical, and his follow up book Radical Together has generated a bit of a stir in the professional pastor world. As if that wasn’t enough for a mild-mannered expositor from Alabama, he recently launched the Multiply Movement which combines the efforts of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love with Platt’s message.

Since both Platt and Chan have received quite a bit of attention I don’t care to linger too long on the story of how Platt came to discover the radical idea, and how it has affected his church community (my favorite is when Christian bloggers accuse them of promoting a “works based” faith despite James admonition “Without actions, faith is useless. By itself, it’s as good as dead.”). Instead, I just want to say a few words about Multnomah’s The Radical Question and A Radical Idea.

Not a new book of any sense, this “two-books-in-one” item is roughly 100 pages of simple yet challenging stuff. The main themes of both of Platt’s larger works have been boiled down into a concise message. “Is Jesus worth your radical devotion?” Platt’s question lingers throughout the first 50 pages as he recounts stories that both embarrass and glorify the Christian Church, all the while consulting the Word of God in his analysis of the average American Christian. The second section of the book ponders that mystical concept of “a priesthood of believers.” He stakes his claim that all Christians should make disciples, and challenges the professionals (like pastors and church administrators) to equip the average person sitting in the stadium seating (or the pew, you get the idea) to be a part of God’s purposes in the places where they work and live and play.

Let me tell you a little about the word radical. It comes from the late 14th century and typically meant “of or having roots,” which was derived from the Latin word radix or “root.” By the 1650’s the meaning had shifted to incorporate the idea of “going to the origin, or essentials.” It was not until the 1920s that the meaning of “unconventional” arose, and this eventually transformed into the 1970s surfer slang meaning “at the limits of control,” (you can double check me here). In particular, I like how Noah Webster defined the word: “Pertaining to the root or origin; original; fundamental; as a radical truth or error; a radical evil; a radical difference of opinions or systems.”

I think it is in this Websterian sense (and that of the oldest uses of the word) that Platt is using the word. If his ideas are “unconventional” to Christians, it is only because they have bought into the wrong conventions (which is of course the occasion of the work).

Platt’s works are a necessary thing right now for American Christianity. While I would typically advocate for reading his longer, more comprehensive works, this little gem is a wonderful introduction. Maybe you’re not sure you buy into all this “leaving everything for Jesus” thing? This is a good place to start. Perhaps you think Christianity is archaic and too stuck in the culture? Platt has an answer for that in his tiny tome. In truth, this is an ideal primer for anyone who thinks their faith is lacking, or knows someone who may need that extra push to get off the bench of God’s purposes and into the game.

Give it a look, or give it to a friend. It will be money well spent.

Culture Wars Do Not Equal Culture Making

I have at least one more post in the works about The Dark Knight Rises, but I’m going to take a break from Batman for a minute to address something that’s currently pressing on my mind.

The whole concept of “culture wars” is something that bothers me. In Strachan’s article (who I admire greatly), he rightly points out that Christians are called to stand for the Kingdom. But I struggle to identify how arguing with Americans who are not Christians equals standing up for God’s righteousness? It’s not that I don’t empathize with those who are concerned that America will go the way of Rome, which fell apart largely due to a cultural collapse, but I don’t think that’s synonymous with building God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Kingdom starts with the Church, of that I am more and more convinced. The folks with the Barna Group or Willow Creek all suggest that the Church (ecumenically speaking) is not what it is supposed to be. How can Christians honestly rebuke a culture that doesn’t follow God’s standards when we don’t follow those same standards?*

I cannot stress enough how important I think it is for the Church to look to its own house first. James K.A. Smith refers to culture-making, and I think this is more appropriate to the overall discussion:

Culture-making –– unfolding the latent possibilities that have been unfolded into creation –– is a vocation given to us as image bearers of God. Just as the Fall means not that we stop desiring but rather that our desire becomes disordered, so too sin does not mean that we stop being culture makers; rather, it means that we do this poorly, sinfully, unjustly, (p. 178; Desiring the Kingdom, 2009)

I think what Smith is ultimately getting at is simple: we don’t change our culture by boycotting, or supporting, financial institutions. We change our culture by coming together to be made unified in Christ, to be filled with the Spirit, to confess our failures before God and repent. Once we do those things, then we go out and live as Christians (i.e. those who look like Christ). It revolutionized the Roman Empire. And it can work again.

This may sound idealistic, or maybe even heretical to some (that accusation seems quite popular these days), but I absolutely think the Church will remain culturally inept until the Bride of Christ returns to her Groom. After all, the seven letters weren’t addressed to seven nations; they were addressed to the Church. The only way to effect real change is to start with the House of God. We will go much farther with a full cup.

21 Days of the Voice

I spent the last 21 days working through a reading plan found here. Similar to other reading plans, such as this one or one found in the Book of Common Prayer, selections of Scripture are presented in a connected fashion helping the reader to engage with the Word of God. This is especially helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to start in this great big book called the Bible, and to people like me as well, who are in need of something outside of the standard mold.voice_full

The Voice is something different. To clarify, it is not, however, something new. Translations have abounded for the last century, and there have been abundant translations prior to the Bible wars of the 20th century. Thomas Nelson’s newest rendering of the Bible is truly something to invest your time and money in (but if money is tight, you can read it for free online). David Capes, one of the main scholars who worked on The Voice, spends a good amount of time blogging about how this Bible came about. In order for me to explain why this 21-day journey was so wonderful, allow me to share a little of Capes’ perspective:

I remember a conversation I had with a friend years ago.  He was lamenting the fact that modern Bible translations like the New King James Version and the New American Standard Version had dropped words like “Thee,” “Thou,” “Thine,” “art” (as in the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . “) and “hast.”  These words were typical of the 16th and 17th centuries but have long since fallen out of use with most English-speaking people…Modern translations, he felt, had left behind the formal language of heaven (God’s language) preferring instead the mundane language of “this world.” The translation he loved sounded more “spiritual” to him than the newer ones, so he was against them, pure and simple.  Like many people, my friend had a deep emotional connection with the King James Version of the Bible based on all the years he spent in church and Sunday School…Translation is not about exchanging this Greek word for that English word or this Hebrew word for that English word.  Translation is not that easy. It involves knowing both the source and target languages well enough to be able to move back-and-forth between them.  It entails an understanding of culture—then and now—and recognizing how language is one of the key vehicles of culture.  Translation, I have come to understand, is not a science; it is an art…I’d be disappointed to learn that my friend had lost his deep, emotional connection with the KJV.  The KJV is a great, historic translation, even if it is no longer in our language.

One of the reasons I think The Voice resonates so clearly with me is the viewpoint that helped shape it. This new translation isn’t trying to be new; it’s trying to be true in a culture that has indoor plumbing and air conditioning units outside. But more than that: it is once again trying to put the Word of God into the language of the common people. This is why William Tyndale was burned at the stake, and why John Wycliffe was removed from his tomb in order to have his body destroyed. So Capes is in good company (not to mention he is occasionally called a heretic, just like Wycliffe and Tyndale before him).

That’s why the reading plans available at The Voice’s website are so wonderful. The 21 Day plan, which I completed today, immerses you in the text and guides you towards connecting the dots of God’s grand story. I’ve read the Bible before, from front to back, multiple times. And I love my New American Standard Bible (even if it is falling apart). But revisiting familiar passages in a refreshing language can breathe new life into what has become routine or mundane.

“What?! Reading Scripture is mundane? You pagan!” If that’s what you think of me, my apologies for falling short of your standard. But I’m being honest. Sometimes, I know the next word before it comes, and truthfully that can make me apathetic when reading. I become overly comfortable, and I parrot Scripture rather than absorbing it and applying it accordingly. The Voice has raised the banner for me again, inviting me to treat Scripture as something fresh.

Of course one day, I’ll acclimatize to this version too. I’m not advocating a “new = better” sort of equation where I change translations every couple of years so I don’t get “bored.” That misses the point entirely. Reading through this translation of the Bible over the last three weeks has reminded me of something: I love reading God’s Word. There used to be a time when I would just pick it up at any time of day and read. I treated it like a letter from a friend, and read it over any time I wanted to connect with my friend or be comforted by their sage advice. But after years of reading, and educating myself into certain habits of reading, the Bible had become less of a letter and more of a textbook. It’s not that God didn’t still speak to me through His Word, but I had to listen much harder to get past my questions about ancient culture and Greek idioms. But no more.

Whether I will permanently adopt The Voice as my new “letter” remains to be seen. The red, worn leather back NASB sitting upstairs holds a special place in my heart. But The Voice has reminded me why my heart inclines to my old Bible. And for that awakening, I will be grateful in the years to come.

A Dark Knight? Or A Bright Hope?

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In light of recent events, I hesitate to write about Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in the Dark Knight Trilogy. I by no means desire to trivialize the tragic loss of life that took place in Aurora. Nor do I wish to politicize something for my own ends. There is a better way to approach this whole thing, and its not being kept a secret. But I’m not interested in rehashing something someone else said (better than I could have, at that). Rather, I’d like to briefly explain why The Dark Knight Rises is easily my favorite movie now, and why that matters.

I’ll avoid serious spoilers of this latest film, but I have to revisit Nolan’s previous installments to show you the bigger picture. Read with caution though, minor spoilers will be necessary throughout.

Each of Nolan’s films has a theme. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear. In The Dark Knight, the theme is chaos. What both films thematically have in common is their treatment of truth, which is arguably the underlying theme of the entire trilogy.

To summarize, Batman Begins treats truth as malleable, especially in light of the positive and negative effects of fear upon the human condition. Think of Batman’s use of theatricality and deception. He deceives to help, and in the process alienates those closest to him (starting with Rachel Dawes, and slowly doing the same to Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth by the end of everything). His deception is seen as a necessity by all, but understood to be temporary. Of course, this changes dramatically with the entrance of the Joker in The Dark Knight, as chaos turns this deception on its head and exposes the ugliness inside of people. It would seem, at the close of the second film, that for every time trust and hope are rewarded, they are also overwhelmed by the continued need for deception instead of truth. Nolan paints this ominous picture so well that the closing lines of film sound so true that we forget what is happening:

Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

Despite knowing that something is wrong with this idea, you buy into it because the fear and the chaos have simply overwhelmed you. What other recourse is there?

But in reality, this is a setup. Every bit of it. Because, the truth is this: fear and chaos cannot rule. Humanity, as Nolan demonstrates, needs to have hope. Which is where the third film turns everything around. Hope is the theme of The Dark Knight Rises, and for the first time in Gotham City, truth is the vehicle of that hope.

For whatever short comings you may find in the film, like Batman not being enough of a “detective,” or whatever, I urge you not to miss the point of this film. What sets this movie apart from every superhero film before it (and probably after it) is its message. Even in the face of tragedy, there must be hope. While Bane would use that to destroy, turning ordinary individuals’ hope into a weapon of violence and selfishness, Batman and his friends will have no part of it.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make? “Its just a movie,” you might say. “It doesn’t change the real life tragedy that is overshadowing this weekend.” I disagree. And so does Paul:

Since we have been acquitted and made right through faith, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King. Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory. And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love. – Romans 5:1-5

I’m not saying Nolan intentionally represented the Christian concept of hope in his comic book movie (he may have, I ultimately don’t know). But accidentally or not, its there. I cannot think of the movie from last night without hearing Paul’s words echo in my ears, reminding me that all Truth is God’s Truth, and as such it is not malleable nor deceptive. It is pure and righteous, as I believe the actions of the heroes in this film are as well. The Gospel is imbedded in this movie. For what greater hope is there than the resurrection of Christ?

You’re welcome to take issue with my interpretation. It doesn’t bother me. I simply ask that you think about it. Consider what I’ve suggested as the foundation of this film and ask yourself, “could this be true?” Then you too might find yourself on the path to rise out of the darkness.