Context, Culture and Conjecture

Context, Culture and Conjecture

As we begin to dive into the Book of the Revelation at Bedford Road Baptist Church, it is important that we be honest about this particular portion of Scripture. There is a great deal that we do not know about this book, and there is nothing even approximating a scholarly agreement on how to interpret it. While we have every confidence that the original audience received the book with comprehension, the fact is that much of the context is lost to us.

We simply do not know what life was like for the Christians of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) at the end of the first century CE when the book was written. While some secular history exists from the time, it documents the lives of the Roman elites; and the division between the upper and lower classes in the Roman world was so enormous as to make them two distinct cultures. Asia Minor, composed of largely autonomous Greek metropolitan areas with only light Roman oversight, would have likewise been very different from the rest of the empire.

When we try to find sources for the everyday life of these Christians, they are few and far between. Books like Didache give us insight into their worship, and other sources like the letters of Pliny and Trajan, show the Roman attitude toward the Christian communities; but overall, their everyday life is a mystery to us. Even Paul’s epistles are decades earlier and deal mostly with doctrinal issues.

Reading the Revelation means that we must, to some extent, conjecture what the original audience was like. We simply do not know anything beyond generalities. Since, like any book, the Revelation was written for that audience, we are somewhat at a loss. We may base our conjecture about their context on valid research and scholarly pursuit; but that still does not change the fact that sometimes, we just have to draw some lines where there are no dots and assume some things.

It is not wrong to make assumptions. Sometimes, they are all we have. We must be cautious, however, not to treat assumptions the same way we treat evidence. Nowhere is that more evident in the Scriptures than in the Revelation.

More poor exegesis has been based on assumptions about the context of passages in the Revelation than probably another book in the Bible. Any interpreter should pad statements about possible interpretations with honest self-examination. Often, when I comment on things in the Revelation, I say things like:

  • It appears to be…
  • If what we know is correct, then…
  • Our perspective is so different than theirs that…
  • By the context, we can guess/propose that…

These statements are not cop-outs or poor scholarship. They are honesty. We really do not know, and while the broadest sense of the Revelation can be clearly understood, details are often obscure.

If you need any further proof of this, just consider how little we understand about the material culture of the Revelation. Words like jasper (ἵασπις) and sardine/carnelion (σάρδιον) are just transliterated from Greek (Rev 4:2). There is absolutely no indication of what they actually are. It was simply assumed that the readers knew. What is more, the Greek word for jasper is itself transliterated from Hebrew! That is just stones. Imagine the issues with more complex ideas.

What did it mean for the original audience to read about receiving “white garments” (στολή λευκή)? Plenty of commentators have made connections to it lots of Old Testament literature, but what if there was some kind of context for the everyday culture? Did people in places like Sardis have a practice that included the receipt of a white garment (Rev 3:4)? Why is the returning army also dressed in white (Rev 19:11)? We just don’t know. We can conjecture; but there is no reason to be sure.

All of this is to say that we need to be cautious. When you read a commentary or hear a sermon, test the sources of anything that is stated definitively. Often, when I question thise kinds of things, I discover that statements are not based on any kind of substantial source but on a conjecture that is treated as fact. We cannot err in not trusting the simplest, most literal readings of things; but we also should not err in believing that anything a “scholar” says is so is actually so. This is doubly true about a book that has been misinterpreted and twisted as thoroughly and as often as the Revelation.

So, what are some guidelines for reading this sometimes confusing book?

  1. Internal context is often the best interpreter of difficult things. If you encounter something that seems odd, mark it or write it down. Step back and ask, “What is the context of this?” What is the greater narrative that this concept or image is couched in? Difficult ideas or words can often be understood within the flow of their greater context. Go back and read, asking how this idea or image connects to the bigger things going on.
  2. Only seldom do odd things determine meaning of clear things. The weirdness is secondary to the clear concepts. Often, people invert the priority of these two. Do not get bogged down in minutiae or speculation.
  3. The original context is the original context. This is somewhat unique to the Revelation, but when interpreters try to turn visions into something they are not, they get weird. When John see “locusts” (ἀκρίς), John saw locusts. He did not see Apache helicopters. He is writing in language people could understand then. We might not get all the nuances, but the obvious answer is usually the best.

Jesus Freak – 20 Years Later

Jesus Freak – 20 Years Later

The summer of 1996 was a peculiar time for me. For the first time in my life, I started to take my faith seriously and really ask whether I would stick with the Christian thing or move on to something else. I had spent the spring working like a dog at both college and work (I went full-time at a mutual fund company that spring), trying to get over a particularly difficult breakup, and attempting to sort out my various feelings about my life up to that point.

Music has always been the vocabulary of my life’s journey and in the preceding year, I had spent a lot of money on music. The early 90’s were a great time for music, sort of the last gasp before the digital revolution of the internet transformed the music world. I had all kinds of music – from Spanish guitar to emo metal to pop to country to classical. I even owned a couple of rap albums, although it has never been my kind of music.

Then, in the summer of 1996, I picked up one of my first “Christian” albums. It was DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” which had been released the previous November. I picked it up pretty much at random although it had been recommended to me by a friend. I had heard that beside being done by “Christian” artists, it was just a good album. Up to this point, my experience with Christian music had been mostly in the realm of Southern Gospel – not a genre known for innovation or lyrical depth.

(For those who don’t know anything about DC Talk, they were a pop-rap trio formed by three classmates at Liberty University in 1987. I knew a little about them because the “rap kids” in college listened to them; but like I said, rap was not my thing.)

DC Talk’s previous album, “Free at Last” had done remarkably well for a pop rap album, but Michael Tait wanted to do something else for the next album. The three developed a genre-defying fusion of the grunge rock style and rap that allowed them to innovate on multiple levels. The lyrical depth of the songs they created for “Jesus Freak” was unprecedented in popular Christian music at that time. In many ways, it shadowed the work of Rich Mullins who had taken his own spiritual struggles and placed them in the lyrics of his music. Tracks like “What If I Stumble?”, “In the Light”, “Mind’s Eye” and “What Have We Become?” asked questions about struggles of faith while “Colored People” and “Mrs. Morgan” celebrated diversity with a knowing smile and a joke.

The album got fairly wide exposure in even the “secular” world, debuting at #16 in the Billboard 200 and eventually going double platinum. DC Talk got a big contract from Virgin Records, but their follow-up album, “Supernatural,” had disappointing sales and the group went on a hiatus shortly thereafter.

For me, the album was tranformative. Here I was an unintentionally rebellious preacher’s kid with real questions about my faith; but I was surrounded by Christians who gave cliched answers that simply did not work. I had dived head first into all kinds of bad habits and lifestyle choices looking for what I could not find; and yet I knew that Christ was calling me back to himself.

When I first heard it, all I could say was that “Jesus Freak” was one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. I do not say this lightly. For me, it opened all kinds of musical and spiritual doors I did not know I had shut. Here were three guys who had reinvented themselves to tell the Jesus story to an entirely different group of people. They were honest. Their music was rocking. I listened to it every day for over a month. I had the cassette for my car and the CD for my room. I memorized lyrics, reciting them to myself. I tried to play the songs.

All of this was the beginning of a spiritual awaken for me. When I got back to school, I met my future wife and she introduced me to Rich Mullins. Then, I stumbled on Michael Card. The two of them could not be more different from DC Talk, and yet they were so honest and so real.

When I listen to tracks from DC Talk now, I am no longer as drawn to them. In a sense, I have outgrown most of the music on the album. It has a nostalgic draw for me, and I turn it on every once in awhile and rock out to it. It also has tremendous spiritual significance for me because it (and Petra Praise II, but that’s another story) was instrumental in righting the ship of my life and drawing me back to Christ.

So, 20 years ago I got this album (I’m not sure what day); and I have DC Talk to thank for being God’s instrument for me at the time. Some of you might say, “How could God use a rock band?” My answer is: He used Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and Cyrus the Persian to do his work. Why couldn’t he use a rock band?

 

OzLand and Faith

OzLand and Faith

When you get most of your television viewing through services like Netflix and Amazon Video, you watch things that you would not normally think about watching. The independent film OzLand is one of those things. I have actually enjoyed many of the independent science fiction films I have watched on Amazon, such as the curious but engaging films of Jamin Winans, of which Ink is the best.

Released in 2015, OzLand is a very small film with a cast of two: Glenn Payne as an intelligent, resourceful older character named Emri and Zack Ratkovich as his young, less intelligent companion Leif. The two men are found wandering a deserted wasteland that is supposed to be Kansas. An unexplained apocalyptic event has wiped out every other human being and most of the animal life, and the two are apparently the only people left. Before Emri’s father died, he taught Emri hunting and survival skills. Leif’s mother taught her young son how  to read. When she died, Leif went for help and wandered aimlessly until he encountered Emri.

Leif finds a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in a schoolhouse and over the course of the film, he sees a number of things (the crucified and now mummified body of a terrorist he mistakes for a scarecrow, a carnival poster which depicts a lion and midgets, and a robot which is left wandering the wilderness trying to help its long since dead family) that confirm that Oz depicts reality. Meanwhile Emri is disappointed time and time again, resolving to “just survive” and getting increasingly frustrated with Leif’s beliefs in Oz.

The film’s climax struggles with the attitudes of those who do not believe (Emri) and those who have embraced a faith which they hold to be true based on experience (Leif). It is a curious exploration of the dialogue, even if it is clear in the narrative that Leif’s faith is misplaced.

What I found interesting about the engagement of the two character was that each wanted the other to believe as he did. This brought about a tension because Leif cannot understand why Emri will not embrace his belief in OzLand while Emri cannot see why Leif is incapable of letting go of his “fantasy.” Although not articulated as such, Emri sees Leif’s beliefs as being confirmed because Leif wants to believe them, crediting coincidence with ontological significance.

The ending of the movie appears to side with Emri, almost shaking its head at Leif and his beliefs even as Emri embraces that Leif’s beliefs are part of who he is. The difficulty of the discourse is left somewhat unresolved.

As a pastor, I watched this movie asking whether the average person could perceive the underlying struggle in the narrative. Although clearly framed from an agnostic/atheistic view that borders on nihilism, it offers a perspective on faith that many believers do not really understand. They’ve never really thought about how peculiar their faith might look to someone who sees much more important matters pressing in on them. If nothing else, this movie should prompt some intellectual questions and discussions.

EDIT (8/13/2016): Michael Williams, the writer and director of OzLand contacted me via Twitter (so cool!) to let me know that he is a Christian, writing from a Christian perspective. That makes Emri’s character that much more interesting, because Williams wrote him so well and Payne portrayed the character’s beliefs so strongly. I am very curious to sit down and watch the film with some of my non-Christian friends to see what they think of it.

Learning from Experience

This old man must still train and train.

– Morihei Ueshiba, shortly before his death

Aikido is learned by experience or taitoku (体得). Teaching was often done through challenge, offering something incomprehensible and then providing the means by which one can experiment and learn to understand through experience.

Aikido evolved from the jujutsu of medieval Japan, filtered through the rapid changes that nation experienced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This method of teaching was part of this culture. It was accepted by the Founder’s (Morihei Ueshiba) students and their students because it was how things were done. 

There was no exposition or explanation. One was presented with movement and told to repeat it. Most of the early aikidoka trained daily for hours. It was expected that one would commit his life to the study of aikido. Thousands upon thousands of repetitions of waza and randori instilled principles that could not be articulated.

In Zen Buddhism, a monk is often given a koan (公案) or riddle to meditate upon, and it is the basis of learning. Think of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “take the pebble from my hand.” The purpose of the koan is to test perception and progress. The potential monk cannot simply look up the answer. He must look into the question, look into himself and comprehend the koan based on understanding rather than instruction. The answer exists beyond the question.

When I started Aikido, I thought that if I had a manual or a handout or a Youtube video, I would be able to do anything in the curriculum. I was willing to buy the DVD’s, if that would cut down the amount of class time I needed. I could not have been more incorrect. Aikido is “felt,” not explained. It is the meeting of bodies with momentum in space, but those bodies are so articulated and varied that any explanation deals with only a single scenario of an infinite spectrum of possibilities. 

Good Aikido is physiological calculus. Solutions are constantly evolving. No amount of information is enough. 

Great Aikido is unconscious physiological calculus. The body acts and reacts because that is what it does. It is truly subconscious, rising naturally from the neutral mind. It is innate and undefined. It simply is.

The great paradox of Aikido is that we learn things so we can forget them. We do the same waza thousands of times and discover that we will never exactly replicate that waza. New “techniques” are born every time we engage in randori. 

It helps me to think of Aikido like the way I speak, whether it is in a conversation or from the platform during worship. I have poured literally tens of thousands of hours of my life into studying the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the languages, the cultures, the philosophical and religious ideas. When I speak on a Sunday or when I answer a question someone throws at me, the words come from somewhere else. I am the agent of expression; and it is totally “me” who is speaking but there is simply no way I could consciously do the spontaneous speaking I do; and there is no way to teach it either, except through repetition and devotion.

Someone once asked me how you overcome barriers to public speaking. Just keep doing it. Fail repeatedly and spectacularly. Eventually, it will become natural. Then, it will become innate. Then, it will become something else entirely. There simply is no substitute for repetition – fail or succeed. Do. Do. Do.

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

One of the distinct deficits in seminary training has long been the methodology employed in teaching the Biblical languages. Introductory materials are numerous, but advanced studies often rely heavily upon resources that are either out of reach for the average student or are inadequate for the task by virtue of their simplicity. In reality, most seminary students who take Biblical languages rarely use what they have learned.

Greek is not a complex language, but it can be intimidating. There are a couple reasons for this. Since modern Greek bears only a passing resemblance to the koine used by the New Testament authors, the student has to learn how to read without any real auditory interaction with the language. Also, since the New Testament does not record normal, conversational language, what the student is exposed to is sometimes awkward, advanced syntax. Consider if someone were attempting to learn English by reading Herman Melville or J.R.R. Tolkien. Certainly, they could get something of the language from their study but it would not reflect the language as it was spoken by people. It would reflect the structure they observed on the page. Constructing a grammar from works of literature would be equally daunting.

When I took intermediate Greek, our professor used Daniel Wallace’s The Basics of New Testament Syntax. This is an abridgement of the much more extensive Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics which Wallace had prepared in response to requests from professors who claimed the larger work was too difficult. Only one week into the course, I ordered a copy of Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics because I found the smaller book to be completely useless. Overall, the issue was not the abridgement. At times, Wallace seemed to make grammatical or syntactic distinctions which meant little to nothing and in at least one instance, I believed were completely unfounded. (Incidentally, our professor agreed.) In his efforts to be exhaustive, I get the impression that he manufactures concepts and obfuscates simplicity with complex, multi-syllabic terms that are not really necessary.

IMG_3264Over the years, I have accumulated a number of Greek and Hebrew grammars. A good Hebrew grammar is hard to come by, but Greek grammars abound. Wallace’s is the standard intermediate text, although Dana and Mantey’s A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament was the standard for decades. In fact, Wallace relies on them at certain points. These grammars handle the basic elements of the language well, but when dealing with advanced material, the impression I get is that they devolve into academic exercises rather than true language learning. I keep buying grammars in the hope of finding “the one” that does not fall into this trap and deals with intermediate Greek study clearly and concisely.

 

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek is an intermediate Greek grammar composed by three eminent scholars at Southern Baptist seminaries: Andreas J. Köstenberger and Benjamin L. Merkle of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Robert L. Plummer of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The authors’ intent was to create a readable grammar, a resource which students could journey through rather than simply taking notes and acquiring information in preparation for testing (p. 2).

The structure of Going Deeper is similar to other intermediate grammars. The authors deal with the noun (ch. 2-4) and verb systems (ch. 6-11), as well as the articles (ch. 5) and other parts of speech (ch. 12). One area which sets Going Deeper above other grammars is the time spent on both textual criticism (ch. 1) and discourse analysis (ch. 13). These are two key components of a well-rounded study of the language, and they are also areas in which practical aspects of nuance can be examined.

Textual Criticism

Going Deeper does not have an in-depth exploration of textual criticism, which is understandable given the breadth of the subject.The section is not over-simplified, although it does deal with quite a bit of material. The basic elements of why certain readings are preferred is in keeping with other mainline works on the subject. It is not an original perspective as much as an amalgamation of existing materials, chiefly The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrmann. It was good to read an updated perspective on the Nestle-Aland 28/UBS 5 text as well as an introduction to other eclectic text editions such as the SBLGNT, the ECM and the IGNTP (pp. 32-33). The authors are quick to note that their brief summary only touches the basics of textual criticism. Unfortunately, many seminaries do not have courses on textual criticism, which leaves the student only with the limited knowledge acquired in an intermediate Greek course and perhaps their New Testament survey or hermeneutics courses. (I know the seminary I attended did not have a course on textual criticism.)

Discourse Analysis

It is in the consideration of discourse analysis that Going Deeper does more than most grammars. It is the first time that I have seen a discussion of this important approach to the text in an intermediate grammar. At its course, discourse analysis looks for meaning in  communicative acts rather than sentences or words. Therefore, it requires what I would call a “grey reading,” not deciding on the meaning of a passage until the whole thing is in view. Certainly, you need to diagram and comprehend sentences as grammatical units; but those units fit within something bigger – the discourse. The section is small, but at least it is there.

The Didactic Method

Unlike other grammars, Going Deeper engages the student in more than simply reading and translating. Every chapter begins with a challenging text and ends with a few (probably too few) exercises to drive the ideas home. What Going Deeper lacks is a workbook or guided reader of the New Testament to accompany it. The more exposure the student gets to the text in situ, the more apparent the principles and concepts will be for them.

Conclusion

While Going Deeper is not a perfect textbook and lacks some of the resources of other textbooks which serve as the core of a comprehensive course, it is an excellent textbook. It deals with the matters all grammars must deal with, but it does so in a readable, accessible way. It will take some more perusal and checking to form a final opinion, but I am impressed at first reading.

 

Fingers in Ears, Mud in Eyes and Jesus Talking to Trees

Fingers in Ears, Mud in Eyes and Jesus Talking to Trees

For many Christians, faith is a safe and comfortable little thing they keep in their pockets in case they need it. They go to church regularly. They may even work at the local soup kitchen during the holidays or teach a Sunday School class. It is relatively easy to call yourself a Christian; and because we respect the rights of individuals to define their own path, who are we to say that that is not enough?

But then we read the Gospels, and we see Jesus sticking his fingers in people’s ears (Mark 7:31-37), rubbing mud in people’s eyes (John 9:1-7) and having conversations with fig trees (Mark 11:12-14). He does not fit in any of our boxes, does not conform to our safe version of faith. He is downright weird sometimes.

If your version of Jesus is flat and sanitized that you have never considered how absolutely ridiculous these things are, then I hate to tell you this, but your faith is dormant and dying. Your Jesus is not the astonishingly, absurdly bizarre person the Gospels depict for us.

It is true.

Jesus was an outrageous, frustrating person. He did shockingly weird things which should catch our attention and knock us back. Jesus is unsettling. He is disruptive and troubling. Most of all, he is dangerous to our way of life, our easy religion.

I am endlessly fascinated by Jesus, not just because of his divinity (which is another subject altogether) but also because of his pure, unrelenting humanity. His compassion, his devotion to others, his intense faith – these things worked their way out of his soul and into the experience of those who knew him.

If there is one desire I have as a Christian, it is that I want to be astonished by Jesus, living on the edge of the inconceivable. I’d rather know him in all his ridiculousness than be happily ignorant and religious.

I don’t want a modernist, rational, santized Jesus who is stripped of his absurdity.

What drives our faith should not be what is easily understood but what is not. It is the mystery, the unsolvable and irresolvable that makes faith an adventure.

You can listen to a recent sermon on this topic by clicking the button below.

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Some Thoughts on Institutions and Intimacy

Some Thoughts on Institutions and Intimacy

There is something about institutions that Westerners in general and Americans in specific find comforting. While simultaneously bemoaning the death of the intimacy and connection of the Mom and Pop stores on Main Street, Americans overwhelmingly shop at big box stores and in online stores like Amazon because they offer both convenience and value. The big box stores are falling one by one, but online retailers are booming.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, Amazon reported $35.7 billion in sales. That was an increase of over $6 billion from 4Q2014. They doubled their net profits from $214 million in 2014 to $482 million in 2015. If anyone wonders about the ubiquity of the service, just consider that Amazon has 304 million active customers. That is a global customer base nearly the size of the United States. And that is just one of the big retailers. Apple generated twice the revenue that Amazon did.

These are extraordinary numbers which show just how pervasive “big” retailers are. I grumble about not having the personal touches as much as anyone else does. I recently bought a new guitar, a significant investment. The sales person I worked with could not have been less interested in my questions. He saw only the hefty commission check he would collect at the end of the week. Part of my longed to be able to purchase my instrument from a local shop – but none of the handful of local shops deal in the brand I wanted nor could they have possibly matched the price point I found.

Mom and Pop stores still exist, and if they are able to keep costs down, they can even thrive. Small businesses like restaurants and specialty stores still manage to stay above water, thanks largely to working with distributors and vendors who utilize better infrastructure for inventory management and staffing. They can survive, but there is no doubt that institutions are ruling the retail sphere right now.

The same thing can be said for the Church. Institutional Christianity, whether in the form of aggressive denominational structures or independent megachurches, are dominating the Christian world. While many of the people who participate in megachurch environments express a desire for intimacy, the truth is that this has to be manufactured in an institutional setting (Hinkly 2006). It rarely occurs organically. When you are pressing hundred or thousands of people together for a worship gathering, one cannot expect to develop lasting relationships. There is no sense of “we always sit next to Bill and Mary” or “see you after service.” Things are programmed and planned, orchestrated for a single purpose.

Therefore, megachurches have to engineer community. It does not happen organically. One might threfore eventually find some kind of relational connection through a small group or fellowship event; but the truth is that there is little room for “accidental” connections because things are institutionalized. This is the price of thinking big.

Extraordinarily, although megachurches seem to be on the rise in America, the average size of congregations is actually falling (Chaves and Anderson 2014). The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has not changed significantly in the past twenty years, and yet megachurches keep springing up everywhere. How can this data be reconciled? The truth is that institutional Christianity threatens smaller congregations, and the growth seen in the institutional congregations is not equal to the shrinkage of smaller congregations. In other words, megachurches have actually had a net negative effect on the state of Christianity.

Why then do they continue to gain popularity? At least a part of the reason is the same as the reliance upon big box stores and now online retailers. There is a comfort in an institutional provider. Megachurches present a brand, a recognizable and reliable identity. You can “trust” them to handle things correctly. The relational sacrifice is a minor one. What is more, the removal of intimacy is something of a self-preserving act. If one does not have to engage others intimately, then one does not take a risk on those relationships.

For me, the whole institutional thing holds little attraction anymore when it comes to the church. I have no problem with it as a retail model, I suppose, since I spend a lot of money on Amazon; but that is very different from a spiritual community. Can we really afford to put so much energy and money into creating institutions which service a “religious need” but do so at the cost of the real foundation of Christian fellowship – intimate relationships?

I am musing aloud at this point, without any real intent to the whole chain of thought, so if you’re a big church person, don’t get mad at me. It just seems like many of Paul’s letters address issues that came about as churches got too big to manage – leaders without accountability, abusive elitists who exalted status above charity, pseudo-religious leaders who offered alternative gospels that were more individualistic and self-serving. So many of the challenges facing the modern church seem to stem from a desire to “be bigger” at the cost of organic relationships and intimacy.

Sources

Chaves, Mark and Shawna L. Anderson. “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Survey.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53, no. 4 (December 2014): 676-686.

Hinkle, Bart. “Small Town Religion: How Megachurches Create Micro-intimacy.” The American Enterprise 17, no. 4 (May 2006): 28-32.