Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unfortunate Class Photo

Note the text just to the right of the instructor's head (that would be the guy in the blue vest, back row). Explanation below.

We'd been discussing the position of the opponents in the Johannine epistles, and I believe they held a docetic christology. That is, they believed Christ only "seemed" human; therefore the mortal "Jesus" could not be the "Christ." However, anyone who wants to put a cold stop to giving at Lancaster seminary might publish this!

A joyous Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Hebrews Theologically

I just submitted a review of the anthology, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009). The chapters started out as papers at the 2006 St. Andrews Conference on Scripture and Theology, the second in a series of such events. The first (2003) involved the Gospel of John, and a third (2009) Genesis.

What's special about this book -- and these conferences -- is that it puts biblical scholars in direct conversation with doctrinal theologians. I've heard, from one of the book's editors, that the conversations were sometimes contentious. But the main thing is, this book testifies to the range of ways we might engage the Bible theologically.

I like to think of it as a spectrum.
  • On one end, usually inhabited by biblical scholars, we have the inductive-thematic approach. Here we look at Hebrews with a specific question in mind (the trick is how to identify the right questions), and we sift through Hebrews for passages that relate specifically to that question. A little mixture of historical- and rhetorical-critical analysis might help, too, but basically the approach amounts to gathering the passages, interpreting them, and weighing the evidence. Richard Bauckham's essay on christology provides an example of an excellent scholar doing this sort of work.
  • Theologians might be more comfortable at the other end of the spectrum, with its more tradition-sensitive approach. Here you begin with the "rule of faith" or a doctrinal tradition, bring it to Hebrews, and see how that theological tradition enlightens the text. Bruce McCormack's essay works through key figures in Reformed christology to ask how the death of God's Son relates to God's eternal and unchanging being in Hebrews. Brilliant stuff.
Conflict. Inductive-thematic people are gonna look at the tradition-sensitive ones and say, "You don't even listen to the text; you just impose your doctrine on it. The text has no autonomy with you." In reply, the tradition-sensitive folk will say, "You're so naive, you don't realize that interpretation without presuppositions is impossible. That's why your interpretations don't speak to the life of the church."

But here's the thing. You can't find a "pure" example of either approach in this volume. Both ends of the spectrum, the open-ended curiosity and the tradition-grounded engagement, are necessary for any enlightening interpretation of the Bible. Some of the essays in the volume (John Polkinghorne's, for example), work both ways -- and with insight. That's why I recommend this book -- it demonstrates the variety of approaches to theological interpretation, but it doesn't provide a too-easy answer to our questions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Apocalyptic Preaching

For next week's class on the Book of Revelation, I've assigned a couple of essays from the excellent preaching and lectionary resource, workingpreacher.org. Both Anathea Portier-Young and I have contributed short essays on "Apocalyptic Preaching" (Thea) and "Preaching Apocalyptic Texts" (Greg). Read carefully, and you'll notice we're talking about different things.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jewish Jesus People and Paul

This post isn't for scholars so much as it is for students, pastors, and the like. In my teaching -- on campus and off -- I continue to encounter powerful negative stereotypes about Judaism and Jews, including the Jewish followers of Jesus we encounter in Paul's letters. They're historically inaccurate, insulting to Jews, and harmful to Christian faith.

Here's the stereotype. Jews were all tied up about the law. They followed it because they feared they wouldn't pass the final judgment. As a result, they followed the law out of fear rather than devotion, or (healthy) pride. They thought they were superior to the Gentile Christians.

Paul's letters do indicate that some Jewish followers of Jesus expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as part of their devotion to Jesus. We see this in Galatians, Philippians, and maybe 2 Corinthians. But that's some Jewish Jesus people; we don't know how many. And we might consider their motives.

When you read the Jewish literature of Paul's day, you see that (by and large) people observed the law because they loved it. God had given the law as part of Israel's election, and that gift ordered Israel's life. The law was a source of wisdom and guidance (Psalm 105 and 119, anyone), not a source of fear.

The law also provided identity for the Jewish people. Countless ancient ethnic groups vanished as identifiable peoples during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Jews had the law to maintain their identity. When tyrants sought to abolish ethnic distinctions, Jews lived, fought, and died for their faithfulness to the law. It wasn't out of fear. It wasn't out of rigid legalism. It was out of devotion and love.

So when some (remember: some) Jewish Jesus people wanted to continue observing the law, they were simply honoring the tradition in which Jesus himself was born. They didn't think they were "better" than Gentiles, but they did understand the Jesus movement to be a Jewish movement. So did Paul, though his understanding of what that meant led in a different direction.

Preachers, students, and (a few) colleagues, it's time to stop describing ancient Judaism as fearful, elitist, and self-righteous. Look at Paul himself: Jesus people are to remember that we depend on Judaism for our lives, we are not to judge our sisters and brothers, and -- consider how many times Paul says this -- the gospel does not abolish the law.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Hermeneutics of Passion

At the SBL Annual Meeting this past few days, I encountered phrases like "hermeneutics of welcome" and "hermeneutics of sympathy" pitched against the "hermeneutics of suspicion" other scholars supposedly hold. The thing is, no one ever names the people who hold a hermeneutics of suspicion -- probably because the charge wouldn't stick.

A word of explanation. A few decades ago Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza described a hermeneutics of suspicion as one feminist strategy for engaging the Bible (among others). She meant that feminist readers may safely assume the biblical authors downplayed the contributions of women. A hermeneutics of suspicion, then, looks for signs of women's agency and history where it's not emphasized. I've oversimplified things, but a hermeneutics of suspicion, properly speaking, is primarily a creative strategy -- not a destructive one.

Apparently some people (and I'm not naming them out of charity) feel a need to defend the Bible from its supposed attackers. They invoke "hermeneutics of welcome" or "hermeneutics of sympathy" to suggest that they're open to biblical truth -- while those who differ from them employ the more hostile "hermeneutics of suspicion." It's a specious argument, cowardly even, because it suggests that only one mode of interpretation really values the Bible.

The real truth is, relatively few interpreters set out to find negative things to say. Many more of us, however, find ourselves passionately engaged with scripture -- to the point that the Bible continually surprises us. Sometimes it says things we wish it wouldn't. Sometimes it confronts us with questions we'd never thought to ask. Sometimes signs of hope, grace, and correction leap from the page and into our hearts. Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, let's call this a hermeneutics of passion (copyright right here). What about it?

"Passion" in its truest sense means the capacity to be acted upon. I don't mean primarily the passion of desire, often eroticized (more below), but the passion of wild openness to the encounter of the text. I'm talking about a deep engagement, one in which we readers make ourselves vulnerable to the encounter. I'm talking about the possibility that we cannot predetermine interpretive outcomes. I'm talking about passion.

And yes, I'm talking about the passion of desire, eroticize it if you will. We come to the Bible from a lack, a deficit, a need. We come from a world that keeps selling us petty things all glittered up. Music overproduced. Food overportioned. Bodies over-Photoshopped. We lust for something that calls us beyond ourselves, a reality that fills us truly, a set of relationships that lead to transformation. We read passionately.

So... my resolution for today. When someone dismisses another interpretation with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" label, I'm gonna call them out as they cowards they are. It's a hermeneutics of passion, people!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SBL Time: Papers I'll Miss

For those out of the loop, SBL means the Society of Biblical Literature and its Annual Meeting, November 21-24 in New Orleans. The SBL is the world's preeminent biblical studies conference, and I suspect about 6,000 people -- way too many of them in polyester and tipping poorly -- will descend on the Crescent City this weekend.

I always look forward to SBL. Most of all, I'm anxious to reunite with old friends. Then there's meeting with editors and working groups, interesting presentations, and the famous book exhibit -- some publishers discount as deeply as 50%, though things are getting tighter every year. This year there will be a panel review of Sinners on Saturday morning, I'm meeting with a prospective editor concerning a secret project (really, it's secret), and the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section has lots of business to conduct. I've already booked up my calendar with sessions, meetings, and socializing.

But there are also the papers I'll miss.
  • For example, there's a retrospective session on Wayne Meeks' The First Urban Christians. Steve Friesen is speaking there, and I'm particularly interested in Steve's work on the economic resources of the first Christians (extremely bleak, says Steve).
  • Thomas Blanton has a paper on 2 Corinthians 3 and the New Perspective on Paul (available online -- it's a very strong paper).
  • There's a session on the value of (or otherwise) religious experience as a category for the study of early Christianity -- I'd be especially keen to hear Jim Crossley's remarks.
  • Shawn Kelley has a paper that challenges many of our cherished assumptions concerning parables.
  • There's a session on reclining (at meals) -- Jennifer Glancy has some thoughts on how early Christians reacted to this custom.
  • Paul Middleton has a paper on how Revelation's hymns relate to violence. (I've written on this myself.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death (and Paul)

I used to think -- and teach, and write (Ultimate Things, 133-34) -- that Paul changed his mind concerning what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that those who have fallen asleep will be raised and transformed upon the return of Christ. As I understood it, these early letters of Paul revealed a series of assumptions concerning afterlife hope.
  1. We are not immortal, nor do we have immortal souls.
  2. When we die, we really die. We don't go on to "a better place."
  3. Life is a gift from God, and it is embodied life. Paul believed in the resurrection of the body -- a new body, for sure -- but one continuous with the body in which we lived our lives, the same body that really, really dies.
Abe Simpson sound byte on death.

However, in Philippians 1 Paul writes that "to die is gain," since to die is "to depart and be with Christ" (1:21-24). This sounds much more like the Gospel of Luke, in which the rich man and Lazarus go on to afterlife dwelling places and Jesus says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." It seemed to me that Paul's opinion changed as time passed, as the return of Jesus tarried, and as he faced the prospect of his own death more seriously.

Here's the key: Early Jews and Christians expressed two kinds of hope concerning the afterlife, one involving death then resurrection, and the other involving an intermediate life beyond the grave but before one reaches one's final destination. The classic studies on this topic are by Richard Bauckham, in an enormously wonderful book, The Fate of the Dead; Jaime Clark-Soles, in Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament; and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. See also Oscar Cullmann's famous essay.

I've made a lot of this point in my teaching. Christians, I've argued, believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul. Our hymns and liturgies demonstrate great confusion on this point, as do some of our creeds. This is important for several reasons (and I still think it is):
  1. Resurrection means the reclamation of our bodies -- our bodies matter. Therefore, what we do in and with our bodies, and how we relate to the bodies of others, also matters.
  2. There's nothing special or immortal about us, except insofar as God graces us with life and status. Our life depends on God, now and forever.
Now I'm thinking I might be wrong about Paul. In Philippians 3:11 Paul writes in hope that he will "attain the resurrection of the dead." Could it be that for Paul (and for the author of Revelation), the idea of a temporary dwelling place and a final resurrection did not represent exclusive options? I can't get my mind around it, but the presence of both ideas in both Philippians and Revelation suggests that I may need to revise my views. How much, or in what way? I'm still sorting that out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Still Thinking about Justification: Need Feedback

I thought -- very recently -- that justification was not core to Paul's gospel. I was wrong. The actual noun, dikaiosis, is indeed rare in Paul's letters, restricted to one section of Romans in fact. But what does Paul have in mind in 1 Cor 1:30, when he calls Christ "our righteousness" if not justification? Or 2 Cor 6:7, when he mentions the "weapons of righteousness"?

Having read N. T. Wright's Justification recently, it strikes me that Paul's justification language doesn't always mean the same thing. In some prominent cases it's legal or accounting language, as in Paul's argument that Abraham was "counted" righteous on account of his faith.

But in others -- and here's the point of this post -- I think Paul means something more, something Wright perhaps minimizes. I think there are times when Paul uses justification language to point to God's act of making things right. The old-fashioned English word rectification seems to convey the idea. Look at 1 Cor 6:11 (and here I'm borrowing from Lou Martyn by way of Stephen Chester): "but you were washed, you were made holy, you were justified/rectified (fixed?) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." Here Paul is making an argument concerning how believers should live in accordance with God's work in their lives. If justification doesn't entail some measure of "fixing," then Paul isn't making sense. (So I read 2 Cor 5:21, in which Paul and his colleagues become the "righteousness of God.")

I'm just at the beginning of thinking about this, but it seems to me that Paul's justification language is very, very big -- and that it extends beyond the mere categorical notion that God declares us "justified" in God's sight to God's active work of making things right with us. (So Wright would agree -- sort of.)

In conclusion, I'm writing to invite Paul people and others to help me get my mind around this. Is "rectification" part of Paul's justification talk?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

N. T. Wright, Justification

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of N. T. Wright's hugely selling book, Justification. This book does not so much set forth Wright's views as it defends them, particularly against John Piper's The Future of Justification, which is an attack on Wright's position. Because of its defensive posture, and because Wright spends so much time engaging the debates raging (mostly) among evangelicals, the book can feel a little off-putting. Nevertheless, Wright's understanding of justification is hugely important, and mainstream Christians do well to pay attention.

The book has two main parts, an apology/argument and an exegetical section.

Wright believes that the Reformation traditions have narrowed justification to a matter of personal salvation. In Wright's view, justification is part of something much greater, God's rectification of the whole cosmos. This, Wright maintains, has been God's plan all along. It's why God called Abraham (read Gen 12:1-3), why God worked and works with Israel, and why God has worked decisively through the true Israelite, Jesus. Justification is not just about declaring individual Christians "innocent." It's not about making them righteous by imputing righteousness to them. Justification is about God vindicating the faithfulness of Jesus, which makes it possible for those who believe into Jesus to share his status and -- eventually, through the work of the Spirit, grow into righteousness themselves.

In the previous paragraph I used several related words: justification, rectifiction, and righteousness. All of these derive from common Hebrew and Greek roots, which have to do with the legal verdict that one has been declared to be in the right. (Read the parable of the widow in Luke 18:1-8.)

I happen to think Wright is powerfully correct. He points out -- and he's obviously correct about this as well -- that Jews of Jesus' day were not preoccupied with going to heaven after they died nearly as much as they were about God fixing the world and redeeming Israel. Jesus' work and teachings make sense precisely in this context, as does Paul's appeal to the "righteousness of God" -- we know God is righteous because in Christ God makes good on God's covenant with Israel.

Finally, so what? The point is that too many churches and Christians have a narrow, individualistic take on faith. The gospel is about participating in something even grander than that -- not just God's plan to fix things for me, but God's gracious inclusion of me (justification, declaring me a part) in the plan to fix the whole world.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Clue from the Bible about Interpretation

As we ask where to go for helpful models of biblical interpretation, we must consider how biblical authors performed the same task. It's not that we can always follow the same strategies: I can't imagine a responsible way for modern readers to mimic Paul's appropriation of the Sarah and Hagar cycle (Gal 4:21-31). Of course, some people do it, but I'm not buying it. Nevertheless, Paul's move persuaded some people in his cultural context, and we might attend to that.

As presented in the Synoptics, Jesus' teaching on divorce provides an interesting case (Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; see 1 Cor 7:10-16). Luke only includes one saying, whereas Matthew and Mark provide a full scene on the subject. What do we learn?

First, we're talking not about Scripture but about the appropriation of traditions going back to Jesus. Note that Mark, presumably addressing a largely Gentile audience where women could initiate divorce, envisions contexts when a woman might divorce a man. Matthew, presumably addressing Jewish followers of Jesus, does not. We may never know what Jesus himself said about divorce -- maybe he spoke to the question on multiple occasions -- but that's not the point. The point is that both Mark and Matthew appropriated traditions concerning Jesus' teachings to address their own cultural contexts.

And Paul? Paul apparently knows the same tradition. There are three steps to his argument.
  1. In 1 Cor 7:10-12 he relies upon a word from the Lord to command women not to divorce their husbands.
  2. However, admitting people will divorce anyway, he continues to rely on Jesus tradition: If a woman leaves her husband, she ought not marry someone else.
  3. Finally, in 7:13-16 Paul addresses an entirely new context. Jesus could not have been speaking to "believers" married to "unbelievers," since there were no "believers" in Jesus' own day. Paul must address the situation, but here he speaks in his own authority: "I and not the Lord."
There's sooo much more to say about these passages, and others have done so. For now, here's the point. Early Christians did not passively repeat sayings of Jesus; rather, they adapted Jesus traditions to their own cultural contexts. The Jesus tradition figures strongly in their deliberations, yet it cannot be the final word. That seems about right to me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sweet News for Sinners

In the current Christian Century Beverly Roberts Gaventa includes Sinners among her 10 recommended books in NT ("Take and Read," October 20, 2009, p. 22). I'm grateful to Professor Gaventa for such an honorable mention.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sex and Christians in the 50s

A few years ago I found myself in love with bluegrass and the blues. And while listening to Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues" (1928) I encountered these paired lines:

Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Oh, he could grind my coffee, 'cause he had a brand new grind
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long

I heard this while innocently driving along, and I said to myself -- out loud: "Damn, did she really say that?" In 1928? I suppose it had not occurred to me that people were having sex in 1928. You should see the lines about cabbage....

My introduction to Bessie Smith came back to mind the other day, when I found this book in the church library, Sex and Love in the Bible, by William Graham Cole (Association Press, 1959). All I know about Cole is that he taught at Williams College; his publications suggest that maybe he was a pastoral theologian, someone who worked on the intersection of psychology and theology.

Cole's was a great book. Fifty years ago he was telling the truth about the Bible, sex, and modern morals. He spelled out how "biblical family values" couldn't be found in scripture and shouldn't be imposed on modern believers. He sought to bring gospel values to bear on people's sexual lives with sensitivity and honesty. Following the common psychological wisdom of his day, he regarded homosexuality as an illness -- we know better now -- but he insisted upon treating sexual minorities with dignity and as equals. I have no doubt he'd hold a progressive position today. In short, here is a serious theological publication from fifty years ago that gets it.

Yet so many Christians these days act surprised when matters of sexuality come into our communal reflection. I recall a local denominational gathering just after the UCC had endorsed equal marriage rights for all persons. One speaker lamented that this resolution had been thrown upon us so suddenly -- as if the UCC hadn't been working on these issues for over thirty years! Not to mention the work among Presbyterians and Lutherans over almost as long a period.

Friends, it's long past time that Christians move beyond platitudes, ignorance, bigotry, and naive biblicism. Serious biblical and theological work on human sexuality has been going on for a long time. This doesn't mean we'll all agree on every point. But it does mean we'll have to be as honest with the Bible and sexuality as we've come to be with the Bible and slavery, interest, and church leadership. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, #4 on Hermeneutics

For such a short book, Steven Fowl’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture covers lots of significant – and sophisticated – territory. That’s one sign of a very good book. My earlier posts have emphasized Fowl’s account of contemporary biblical scholarship, particularly historical criticism, and its relationship to theological interpretation. In this post we’ll focus on questions of how theological interpreters find meaning in scriptural texts.

Negotiating some notoriously difficult problems, Fowl offers some terrific insights. For example, Fowl rejects the attempt to propose a grand Theory (capital T) of textual meaning. Instead, he offers a more pragmatic (and I think, reasonable) approach: rather than specifying what a text “means,” we should instead clarify what kind of meaning we’re pursuing. In his words, “what our specific interpretive aims are in particular cases” (42). And on the question of authorial intent, Fowl wisely notes that we can never know an author’s intent, which is a psychological state now lost to us. But we may advance reasonable guesses concerning an author’s “communicative intention” (46-47). Nevertheless, even that goal falls short of a “primary or determinative consideration” for theological interpretation. Sometimes texts speak to us beyond the designs envisioned by their authors, and that can be a very good – and Spirit driven – thing.

Unfortunately, this brings us to the question of how the “Old Testament” speaks to us today. Again, Fowl falls upon the notion that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. As I’ve suggested, this idea explains nothing and presents more problems than it solves. That’s the case with finding Christian meaning in the Scriptures of Israel, which are now our Scriptures as well. Obviously (I agree with Fowl here) Christians will find Christian meaning in the “Old Testament.” We and they always have.

But that’s a very different argument than saying God secretly embedded Jesus messages in, say, Isaiah, for Christians to discover later. That argument suggests at least two problematic implications. First, it’s problematic to assume that Isaiah did not speak fully and adequately to the people of Israel. And second, it portrays Israel – and Jews to this day – as people who didn’t fully “get” the message of their own Scriptures. Like so many attempts to avoid anti-Jewish sentiments, this approach just moves the problem down the line. It doesn’t solve the problem of anti-Jewish interpretation.

Finally, Fowl proposes practices and habits of theological interpretation. I’ll commend the first and third with minimal comment. Like other advocates of the “theological interpretation” movement, Fowl turns to pre-modern interpretation for insight. Fowl does not call for an uncritical appropriation of pre-modern readings but for engagement with the broad sweep of the church. Absolutely! I might add that Fowl should also consider contemporary interpretation on a global scale, which is absent from his book. Believing that much conflict occurs because Christians interpret the Bible without regard for one another, Fowl also seeks to locate interpretation in the context of ecclesial practices. Amen.

Fowl’s second proposal may find more controversy, though I’m largely sympathetic to it. Fowl recommends “figural interpretation.” I may quibble with how Fowl defines “literal” interpretation, but I think Fowl is onto something important. We scholars often ridicule and reject interpretations that use the Bible as a springboard – or a pretext – for some bizarre contemporary application. We may deride seeing the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about the journey of the soul from condemnation to salvation. However, all interpretation that finds contemporary relevance in ancient scriptures requires a leap of the imagination, some sort of figural reasoning. The point, I think, is to be honest about how we’re doing it, to engage in such interpretation in conversation with one another and the trajectories of the church, and to participate in practices of critical discernment. I’m grateful to Fowl for making me think about figural interpretation more thoroughly and for many other insights.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 3: more on historical criticism

This is the third reflection on Stephen Fowl's important little book, Theological Interpretation of Scripture -- the second on his discussion of historical criticism. My most recent reflection engaged the question of how historical criticism related to theological interpretation. This one addresses three concerns Fowl raises with respect to historical criticism.

First, Fowl maintains that the ethos of historical criticism leads to "the policing of the scholar's confessional stance" (19). Fowl raises a significant point. Many of us recall being told to distinguish between "exegesis" and "eisegesis," to resist imposing our theological presuppositions upon the biblical text. Those of us who considered literary theory, cultural studies, and hermeneutics (in the context of philosophy) learned how to question that objectivist approach; we learned that one's convictions and presuppositions are necessary not only for interpretation but for learning as well.

During the 90s in particular, many of us included confessional pieces in our scholarly work: "As a white male heterosexual from a professional class Southern revivalist background...." Such disclosure performed a valuable function, but it also had a tendency to reduce interpretation to nature and nurture. Fowl might add, we tended to emphasize demographics over faith traditions.

Thus, many of us would regard Fowl's criticism with sympathy. Indeed, theological interpretation could open its doors to acknowledge that questions of ethnicity, gender, privilege, and sexuality are as much theological concerns as are identities such as Reformed, Lutheran, or Orthodox.

At the same time, I want to hold on to an aspect of that historical critical self-policing. Impossible as objectivity is, its aim was not to eliminate theology but to clear space for conversation and imagination. In other words, the ability to withhold judgment is a hermeneutical virtue, as is the capacity to see beyond one's own frame of reference. In place of objectivity, historical criticism does allow for self-criticism and an openness to dialogue. Fowl does not acknowledge this potential, and that concerns me. How do we learn if we don't combine a chastened objectivity with a passionate engagement?

Second, Fowl maintains that historical criticism tends to elevate the historical reliability of texts above their theological significance. (That's how I understand his discussion on p. 20.) Indeed, such a problem has occurred, but I might add this: after centuries of historical analysis, it's religious conservatives who tend to be preoccupied with historical reliability. The rest of us have largely moved on.

In my view, historical questions open up lots of room for theological reflection. Our historical judgments can never determine theological truth, but they surely can enlighten theological conversation.

To take one prominent example, many interpreters of Paul are now convinced that "justification by faith" was not the core of Paul's gospel. Paul's gospel, we think, was a story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This story presupposes other stories about the God of Israel and the life of Jesus, and it creates the possibility for the church.

Yet Galatians and Romans, in particular, argue for justification by faith. And the Reformation traditions have built not only theologies but pieties upon Paul's brilliant insight. People's faith experiences now reflect the model. Are we to ditch justification by faith because of a historical insight?

Well, no. A historical approach to Paul suggests that "justification by faith" emerged as a pastoral response to conflict. When Paul addresses the question of Gentiles in the churches, he argues from justification by faith. In other words, Paul applies his gospel to the circumstances of his churches, leading to a profound theological truth. Isn't it wonderful how conflict often generates revelation? And isn't this a theological interpretation based on historical analysis?

One might add at this point that John Calvin himself was an excellent theological interpreter of Scripture who used all the tools of historical criticism at his disposal. While Calvin predated source, form, and redaction criticism, his commentaries are filled with discussions of text criticism, philological investigations, and assessments of Paul's circumstances and motives -- all aimed toward pastoral interpretation for the people of God.

Third, Fowl maintains that historical approaches led to the biblical theology movement. That movement, according to Fowl, began to systematically catalogue the diverse theological points of view of ancient Israel and the church. It emphasized historical developments and diversity at the expense of a larger, more unified view. The movement rarely developed insights that fostered love of God and love of neighbor.

The biblical theology movement has been open to many criticisms, often from within and beginning very long ago. However, I would defend one key insight of the movement. Fowl and other proponents of "theological interpretation of Scripture" tend to emphasize the unity of Scripture, whereas the biblical theology movement often underscored the Bible's theological diversity.

In my view, the church at its best has held both emphases in tension.
Tatian's Diatessaron sought to boil down the Gospels to one coherent story. But churches all over the Mediterranean celebrated four diverse Gospels. These people were not naive; they fully knew that the Gospels represented diverse, sometimes conflicting, points of view -- and they treasured that diversity above a false and imposed unity.

When I teach my introductory course, "Jesus and the Gospels," a basic learning goal is for students to appreciate the distinctive voice of each of the Gospels. Yes, that goal complicates naive faith. But for those who have ears to hear, such sensitivity plays the Gospels in stereo and enriches the spirit.

With respect to historical criticism and biblical theology, Fowl raises significant issues that merit discussion. In general, however, he understates the contributions of historical approaches to theological interpretation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

BibleWorks 8.0 -- biblical studies software

Even though I'm a technical reader of the Bible, I'm not a strong user of technology in biblical studies. Just the same, I'm writing to review BibleWorks 8.0, by far the leading biblical studies software for the PC platform.

At $349.00 for the "full" version (and by "full," I mean entry-level), it ain't cheap. Yet BibleWorks offers stuff that's hard to find anywhere else. In the long run, it's a bargain. You get many, many modern translations of the Bible, including all of the most influential ones that are under copyright (NRSV, NIV, TNIV, Tanak) and translations in a wealth of modern languages. You get the standard critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts -- though the apparata for these are not available. Several helpful Greek and Hebrew grammars and lexica are available -- though the HALOT and BGAD cost lots extra.

Here's the BW intro page that guides you through the basic features.
  • If you want to read the Bible in multiple versions and ancient languages, comparing versions side by side,...
  • If you want to search the Bible for words, phrases, and words in proximity to one another, whether in a modern language or in Hebrew/Greek,...
  • If you want to consult seriously helpful lexical and grammatical helps online, plus some valuable (if dated) dictionaries -- without purchasing a whole shelf of books,...
then BibleWorks is for you. In the long run it saves you lots of money by bringing multiple translations, Hebrew and Greek texts, and reference tools all to your fingertips. You won't have the "standard" academic lexica or the textual apparata for the Hebrew and Greek texts without spending extra, but you'll have more than enough to start on basic research. The package includes helpful tutorials for both basic and advanced features; the website features such an addition.

Thanks to Jim Barr of BibleWorks for my (invaluable) review copy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 2 on Historical Criticism

Chapter Two of Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture sets "theological interpretation" (in quotes, because I'm characterizing Fowl's view of it) in conversation with historical criticism, the biblical theology movement, how Christians read the "Old Testament," and theories of hermeneutics and textual meaning. Fowl acknowledges the legitimacy of each of these concerns, averring that they all "look different" in the light of theological interpretation. For now, I'd like to engage the question of historical criticism.

When I completed graduate studies I would not have characterized myself as a historical critic. I would have said something to the effect that I was interested in the interpretation of biblical texts, particularly from literary and cultural perspectives. Nevertheless, almost every instance of biblical interpretation involves some historical component.

My courses often begin with a simple exercise. I divide students into groups, assign a passage of scripture, and ask them to draw up a list of questions that they'd like to pose to that passage. I insist that they hold off from determining what the passage "means"; just develop a list of questions, please. Every time, I observe that most of the questions are basically historical, primarily involving issues of translation or cultural context. I take this to mean that modern and postmodern persons are strongly historically conscious: they intuitively apply historical categories to the interpretation of ancient texts.

Fowl argues historical criticism of the Bible tends to grant "priority" to historical concerns over theological ones. Recognizing that Christian interpreters have always honored questions of history and context, Fowl's concern lies in the aims of interpretation and in the outcomes of a modernist, historicist approach to the world. In addition to the question of "priority," Fowl advances three main critiques of historical criticism.

First, "priority." What is "priority"? By priority do we mean that historical concerns are more important than theological ones, that they're an end in themselves? Or do we mean that historical concerns ought to be addressed prior to a full theological reading?

Granted, some interpreters don't care about theology at all -- or they don't care about Christian theology. For them, Scripture is an interesting cultural phenomenon, worthy of research in its own right. That's a perfectly legitimate aim, but it's almost entirely irrelevant to the question of theological interpretation. I might add that nearly all biblical scholars enjoy the purely intellectual curiosity of our work. That's also valuable, but it's not what we're talking about here.

However, most biblical scholars would insist that professional biblical interpreters should be competent in the broad range of biblical scholarship. That includes historical criticism, and in that sense historical criticism is prior to a finished interpretation. Many Scripture scholars pursue our vocation for theological and spiritual reasons. For us, historical criticism stands in the service of theological interpretation -- but it is a necessary component of the whole process.

We acknowledge that historical analysis is not necessary for theological interpretation. Through the centuries countless Christians have interpreted the Bible -- and with insight! -- apart from theological categories. But for those of us who have the ability to pursue historical questions, historical criticism is a necessary dimension of theological interpretation. I think Fowl has failed to assess the question of priority adequately, even as he raises the larger issue of the aims of interpretation. In other words, for many of us historical criticism is theological, and theological interpretation necessarily historical.

That's enough for now. I'll address Fowl's three criticisms in a later post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Neglected Passage #1: Romans 16:1-23

My first genuine leather-bound Bible goes back to 1981 or 1982, high school in my case. I read it all the way through a couple of times, highlighter in hand. It's not hard to see where my devotional energy clustered in those days: the Gospel of John is pretty much Technicolor, as is Romans. It's no coincidence that these two New Testament books have influenced Protestant theology -- and piety -- more than any others.

Working from my office now, I can't pull down that old Bible, but I bet Romans 16 didn't get much highlighter ink. It includes a list of greetings and commendations to the church in Rome and from the churches around Corinth. Biblical scholars had tended to overlook the passage too. Indeed, it used to be "common knowledge" that Romans originally ended at 15:33, with chapter 16 tacked on. You can still buy introductions to the book of Romans that fail to discuss chapter 16 in any level of detail.

However, Wayne Meek's classic book, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, marked a sea change. Attempting to sketch a portrait of those first urban communities, Meeks revealed that "throwaway" passages like the beginnings and endings of Paul's letters provide a gold mine of information concerning Christian origins. Feminist theologians have also turned to these passages for fascinating data.

Just three items here.

Women. Contrary to what used to be common knowledge, women figured as leaders and equals in Paul's ministry. While Paul mentions more men than women, his references to women simply assume their authority and contribution to the movement. Phoebe is a deacon, the only deacon mentioned by name in the New Testament. It appears that Phoebe is carrying the letter to Rome, and that Paul authorizes her to request whatever she needs from the church there. Junia is an apostle -- well, she became an apostle in 1989, when translators acknowledged the overwhelming evidence that this apostle was the woman Junia and not the man Junias! With the famous missionary pair Prisca and Aquila, Paul mentions the woman first, which strongly suggests that she was the more prominent of the two (see a similar pattern in Acts). Paul never argues for the authority of these women, as if they needed his permission; he simply assumes it.

Status. Meeks' study extends well beyond Romans, but the references to Gaius and Erastus suggest that the churches included persons of fairly high status. Gaius owns a house big enough for the "whole church" to gather in, while Erastus is the city treasurer. Then we note how Phoebe has been a benefactor (sponsor or patron) to Paul's ministry, while Prisca and Aquila, now resettled in Rome, host a church in their home. (Perhaps Rome had enough Christians to require several congregations.)

Priority. Sometimes people credit (or blame) Paul for "inventing" Christianity. Frankly, that's a stupid notion, which can be easily disproved, but smart people still say it. But notice the reference to Andronicus and Junia, who "were in Christ before I was." Paul did not found the church in Rome. In fact, he'd never visited it. He knew quite a few believers who had preceded him in the faith. We might do better to think of Paul as a partner in ministry rather than as the founder of it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture entry 1

When you encounter the phrase "the theological interpretation of Scripture," you might think nothing of it. After all, isn't most biblical interpretation theological? That is, doesn't most biblical interpretation occur among people and communities of faith, in an effort to find inspiration, understanding, guidance, comfort, you name it? Obviously, there are other ways to read the Bible, including reading the Bible for pure intellectual interest, but who would doubt that most of the Bible reading being done in the world is profoundly "theological"?

Nevertheless, the past couple of decades have witnessed the emergence of a movement calling itself "the theological interpretation of Scripture." It's a broad movement, and I hesitate to offer a list of its key proponents. Nevertheless, as Stephen E. Fowl points out, it is a movement, complete with sections of academic societies, major publication series and reference books, an academic journal, and so on.

What marks "the theological interpretation of Scripture," then, isn't that it's theological; rather, the movement is defined by its self-consciousness as an intellectual, largely academic, movement and by its particular take on what is -- and isn't -- proper theological interpretation. Fowl attempts to present the broad contours of the movement, with an emphasis on his particular point of view. That's entirely appropriate, and I think her performs this valuable task admirably.

At the same time, there are some things about the "theological interpretation" movement that I'd like to challenge in the interest of promoting a broader and more inclusive approach to theological interpretation (without quotes). I'll offer my thoughts as responses to Fowl, which is particularly convenient. I have read other "theological interpretation" advocates, but not enough to to comment on the movement with authority.

Fowl advocates "Christian interpretation of Scripture as a type of theology" (xiv), and I agree. In the church we interpret Scripture as one practice -- among others -- by which we grow in grace. This does not establish a hierarchy of academic disciplines, as if "theology" were prior to biblical interpretation or history, but it does situate biblical interpretation within the flow of Christian life and community. Amen.

I might add here that for years I've wondered if "biblical scholars" -- that is, people like myself with PhDs in biblical studies from research universities -- were the best people to teach Bible in seminaries. Almost every Christian community has decided that is the case, but why trust secular universities with the task of training these people? What if churches and seminaries developed their own criteria for training instructors in biblical interpretation? What would that look like? (I might note here that there are very few seminary jobs in biblical studies, so such programs would necessarily be small.)

Fowl's basic emphasis in chapter 1 is to establish an understanding of Scripture is that Scripture is a primary means by which God has chosen to reveal God's self to humankind. In chapter 2 Fowl suggests that theological interpretation should be guided by two principles, "ever deeper communion with God and neighbor" (taken from the Great Commandment) and the ancient "rule of faith" (to which Augustine appealed, and which may be summarized in the creed).

I have no real disagreement with Fowl on these two accounts. If we take the Bible as a gift from God, and if our faith calls us to pursue love of God and neighbor, then it's entirely appropriate to seek communion with God and greater love through our engagement with Scripture. But what implications does Fowl draw from these principles?

For one thing, Fowl maintains that "Scripture reveals all that believers need to sustain a life of growing communion with God and each other" (10). I'm a familiar claim; many have claimed that Scripture is "sufficient" for the life of faith. One might be picky and suggest that we believers could also benefit from other sources of insight, but let's go with a more narrow take on Fowl's claim. Surely the basics of our lives may find grounding in Scripture.

But. What Fowl doesn't do -- and what other "theological interpretation" advocates rarely do -- is acknowledge that the Bible also sets up some problems for us. Fowl recognizes that the Bible is a human document and that it's grounded in its own cultural contexts. But how do we engage Judges on genocide, Revelation on the desire for vengeance, Matthew and John on "the Jews," the pseudo-Paulines on the subordination of women and slaves? By what criteria do we respond to these issues?

Like Fowl, Augustine would have invoked the "rule of faith." By that, Augustine meant (as best I understand him) that when the plain meaning of Scripture doesn't promote love, we should look for other levels of meaning. That is, "the" meaning of Scripture does not always relate to its plain meaning.

Well, we're modern people, and that's not good enough. Problematic as it is, "plain meaning" and the historical use (and abuse) of Scripture matter to us. I would pose this hard question to Fowl. Why is it the case that his works cited includes (by my count) exactly one woman and (so far as I'm aware) no modern people of color? Do "theological interpretation" sessions at academic meetings draw significantly from underrepresented groups? Perhaps the failure to address "problematic" dimensions of Scripture has something to do with the composition of the "theological interpretation" movement, as both symptom and cause?

Next time I'll reflect on how theological interpretation and historical approaches to scripture relate to one another. That'll keep us in chapter 2.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming Soon: Stephen E. Fowl on Theological Interpretation of Scripture

We're near the end of our series on neglected passages, and I'd like to invite readers to check out an important new book: Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade, 2009). Checking in at just 75 pages, plus back matter, and $13.00, this little book would be great for discussion groups, pastors, and seminarians. The folks at Cascade/Wipf & Stock were kind enough to forward a review copy, and I'll be engaging it chapter by chapter over the coming weeks. So if you'd like to read along, please do so!

I'm only a little way into the book, but here's my hunch. My overall disposition toward Fowl's work is overwhelmingly positive, but my replies will emphasize points of divergence, critique, and refinement -- all aimed toward expanding the category of theological interpretation and inviting others to participate.

Beyond Fowl's book, I've also committed to review BibleWorks 8.0 (at a basic user level, not a technical level) and N. T. Wright's Justification.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Neglected Passages #2: Revelation 5:1-13

If we're gonna talk about neglected passages, pretty much anything in Revelation would do, apart from 666 and Armageddon. Revelation 5:1-13 offers one of the most captivating image plays in all of the Bible, and it's often -- and unfortunately overlooked. This passage is key to understanding Revelation as a whole.

The setup is this. John has ascended into heaven, where "the one seated upon the throne" -- that's God in apocalyptic literature -- holds a sealed scroll. As we'll soon find out, the scroll will relate the unfolding of human history; its contents pretty much amount to the rest of the book of Revelation. John "weeps bitterly" because no one is able -- or worthy -- to unseal the scroll.

Then one of the heavenly elders speaks up: the Lion of Judah has conquered, qualifying him to open the seals. Good news! A fierce lion to take up the cause! Up to this point Revelation has been all about conquest, enduring the forces of evil despite the churches' evident weakness, despite persecution. What these vulnerable little communities of Jesus followers need is a lion. The Lion is worthy....

So John looks for the Lion, and you know what? There ain't no Lion. No Lion ever appears in Revelation. In its place stands a Lamb "standing as if it had been slaughtered." The Lamb is worthy to unseal the scrolls because the through its death it has redeemed a people. Through its faithful witness (1:5), the Lamb has demonstrated its worth.

Throughout the rest of Revelation, we'll see the Lamb. No Lion, but the Lamb. The point? In the face of overwhelming imperial pressure ("Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?" 13:4), in the face of ostracism and persecution, God rules not by Lion Power but by Lamb Power. Faithful witness, endurance, boundless love. Those win the day. Lamb Power, not Lion Power.

How I wish communities of faith would soak this in.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Neglected Passages #3: Paul's Gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

Early one semester I thought I was posing a rhetorical question, the kind you throw into a lecture to set up another point: What was Paul's gospel? Immediately a hand shot up from the back left of the classroom, so I called upon the student. "Justification by grace through faith!"

This interchange created an awkward moment for me. Clearly this student had been formed by the dominant church tradition on the interpretation of Paul, a venerable heritage that goes back through Calvin and Luther even to Augustine. However, like most interpreters of Paul I don't think that's the answer to the question. Even more important, I think the question is more important than most of our attempts to answer it. I try to avoid undermining students in front of their peers, but this student's direct answer required something. I think I said, "That's one of the most popular answers to this question. At the same time, we have an entire semester to pursue the question itself. Let's see how things go."

If any passage in the Pauline letters "gives away" Paul's gospel, it's probably 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Paul's gospel was his proclamation of what God has done in Christ. First Thessalonians is probably the oldest of Paul's letters available to us, and the first half of the book is devoted to reminiscences of Paul's first encounters in Thessalonica. In other words, in 1 Thessalonians we have our earliest record of what Paul's ministry was about, albeit through Paul's skilled rhetorical handiwork.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the reputation they earned during his visit: "how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming" (1:9b-10).

This looks very much like a summary of Paul's core message. It is essentially a story, not a doctrinal formulation, and it features four parts.
  1. The God of Israel has broken into history, inviting Gentiles into God's people. (Paul is clearly talking about Gentiles, who turn from idols to serve a living and true God. That's how a Jew would have referred to Gentile converts.)
  2. God's intervention comes in the person of Jesus Christ.
  3. God has raised God's Son from the dead.
  4. Those who await Christ's return will be delivered from end-time calamity. (Whether "the wrath that is coming" refers to end-time chaos, a final judgment, or both, I'm not sure.)
Liturgical churches recite a version of this proclamation every time they take the Lord's Supper: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." It's essentially a rehearsal of the Jesus story, presupposing the memory of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and return.

Why do I suggest this proclamation is close to Paul's gospel, rather than the familiar "justification by grace through faith"? All of Paul's letters feature the same gospel story, but only some emphasize salvation by grace through faith. Among the seven "undisputed" letters of Paul, those all scholars affirm as coming from the apostle himself, only two really articulate the "justification by grace through faith" formula. Both of them, Galatians and Romans, address the problem of how Jews and Gentiles could live together in the church. (Though probably not written by Paul, Ephesians features the same concerns: salvation [rather than justification] by grace through faith, combined with the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles.)

It seems that "justification by grace through faith" emerged not out of Paul's core gospel proclamation but from a pastoral concern: how Jews and Gentiles could live together as one body. That's not to deny justification's importance. It's critical to both theology and piety. Sometimes pastoral crises, even conflicts, generate the most important insights.

Just the same, Paul's gospel proclamation was probably a story about Jesus Christ and how God has broken into history to create a renewed people. Paul may have told the story in diverse ways in diverse contexts. Surely he applied it with flexibility. But his core message was a story about God and Jesus Christ.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Follow-Up: Teaching the Bible

I posted the previous topic both here and on Facebook, soliciting comments from lots of diverse people. The basic questions were, for Bible profs, How does your classroom teaching compare with what you received as an undergraduate or (if applicable) seminarian?, and for non-profs, Looking back at your education, how do you wish you'd been taught?

What kind of feedback came in? My post is a little long, but the major conclusions are at the bottom of this post. Pat McCullough also posted a thoughtful reply on his own blog.

Among the professors, comments included the following (I'll include a note about how widely shared the senitment was.)
  • Several of us have moved away from teaching students "stuff they should know" to helping them grow develop their skills and confidence as interpreters in their own right. Students are still encouraged to consult other voices and opinions, but the mode of teaching emphasizes the process of discovery rather than a passive reception of information.
  • Textbooks received some interest. One instructor assigns multiple textbooks, so that no one voice dominates the class. (I've done that in a variety of ways in most of my intro courses.) Another uses a course pack or online files. (Yep. Me, too.)
  • Several of us raised questions of ethics, politics, and identity. Most who so commented are persons of color. (I also share this concern, though I'm never satisfied with my own work here.)
  • A couple of people commented on the prospects and perils of integrating technology with pedagogy. (Yep. Uh-huh.)
  • A few of us require significant exegesis projects that come in multiple stages. (I call this an "interpretive essay.")
  • One person moved away from trying to cover the canon to helping students engage a set of themes. I think this decision has to do with achieving depth of engagement and cultivating the students' own interpretive voices, over against a relatively shallow "survey" of the canon.
  • One person mentioned critical pedagogy (hooks, Brookfield, Vella). I think I'll work with Broofield's Critical Incident Questionnaire this semester. This practice also includes a measure of self-disclosure on the part of the instructor.
  • One respondent prefers small class sizes.
  • One respondent engaged the question of sensitivity in dealing with topics that will challenge students' faith.
  • One respondent emphasized the instructor's continuing growth and engagement with the material. (I never use the same syllabus twice, though certain parts have lasted 10 years.)
From seminary graduates several comments came in.
  • Especially important was helping students cultivate their own interpretive practices rather than be passive recipients of wisdom. Both groups shared this cluster.
  • One respondent emphasized relevance for ministry, how to take biblical studies out into the parish and the world.
  • One respondent desired more contemporary modes of interpretation (not just the historical critical approaches I received in seminary).
  • One respondent emphasized the personal engagement of the instructor as a key element in their effectiveness.
  • What about diversity in the faculty? One Latina, Laura Cardena (thanks for permission), noted that she had never studied from a Latino/Latina professor. Another (white male) would prefer more theological and methodological diversity from faculty in his education.
  • Clearly, the strongest point of emphasis involved educating people to perform their own interpretive work (in conversation with other readers, of course), rather than educating people to remember a bunch of stuff.
  • Diverse questions of diversity (I meant to write that) come in with an emphasis: diverse opinions, diverse traditions, diverse methods, diverse theological sensibilities, diverse identities, you name it.
  • The role and investment of the instructor figured prominently in the conversation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hey, NT Profs: A Question for You

Having returned from both Thailand and Alabama, both of which require visas, I'll be returning to the neglected passages list before long. For now, though, I'd like to follow up on a discussion I had with a friend. He related something he recently learned that he does not remember from seminary, and I replied.

There's a huge gap between what I learned in seminary and how I teach today.

Thus, my question to other biblical studies instructors: How does your classroom teaching compare with what you received as an undergraduate or (if applicable) seminarian?

If you don't teach, a different question: Looking back at your education, how do you wish you'd been taught?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thailand photos up on Facebook

Friends, I hope to report further on the Thailand trip, but that'll take awhile to compose. In the meantime, I've posted about 140 pictures on my Facebook page if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Home from Chiang Mai

Nothing to post for now, as I feel like I've been hit by a truck. That, and the 20 hours of flying left me with swollen ankles. But glad to be home, and soon to see my kiddies.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity

This is the first book review I'll be doing for The Ooze Viral Blog. The Ooze is a online resource for the emergent movement, and they've initiated this program to get book reviews of significant books out to catch the public attention. I'm grateful for a copy of Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), which I've been reading on my Thailand trip. Here's an Ooze video of an interview with the author.

What kind of book is this? (I'll indicate below that I think the title is misleading.) It isn't a typical church history, a record of doctrinal disputes, church councils, popes, and the like. Rather, two things really mark what Bass is about here.
  1. It's a book about practices. The author is a leading voice in the ongoing movement to define Christianity in terms of practicing the faith rather than doctrinal correctness. While Bass takes a chronological approach, her emphasis lies on how Christians have lived their faith: caring for the sick, creating songs, praying the rosary, and so forth.
  2. It's inspirational. By "inspirational," I mean that at times readers will feel inspired to follow the examples Bass provides. I also means that Bass intends to inspire. Almost every section begins with a vignette from contemporary life.
I'm grateful for this book, and I can readily imagine its use in local communities of faith. It's a valuable, insightful, distinctive book. Our churches are starving for a sense of their own heritage, and Bass provides a fresh menu for that hunger.

At the same time, I'm getting a little tired of books that have misleading or spectacular titles. A People's History suggests that the book will devote itself to the little people. And the subtitle, The Other Side of the Story suggests a book that counters the dominant narrative by taking the side of the little people over against the big people. (Bass cites Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which does precisely that, as an inspiration.) But for every discussion of caring for the sick or Perpetua's martyrdom, we encounter the familiar "big" names: Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Calvin. Things grow more populist as we enter the modern age because more sources are available to Bass. I think she intends to do what the title suggests, but the book isn't quite the "alternative" its title suggests.

Perhaps a different title would make the point? Something along the lines of Living the Faith: A History of Christian Practice? Any suggestion from me will sound a little hokey. What I'm saying is, people could easily pick up this book expecting to find a liberationist or counter-cultural narrative. Just the same, this is a valuable, inspirational, relevant history, one that will help ordinary Christians discover their heritage in empowering ways.

An additional thought. The arrangement of People's History revolves around a couple of dozen Christian practices. Study groups might use this format for an extended engagement with the book, which would profitably take several months.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Chiang Mai 23 July 2009

Internet access has been spotty lately, but a couple of highlights from the trip so far....

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on Elephant Day. That included hand feeding the elephants; an elephant show that included how elephants perform labor, how elephants relate to their trainers, and even elephant painting (no kidding, with a brush and with precision); an elephant ride through forest and river; and a raft ride down the river. Huge fun. One of our hosts, the fabulous Dada, taught us "Chang, Chang, Chang," the traditional children's song about elephants.

Yesterday was an extremely full day. We received a tour of Payap University, our host institution, complete with a presentation by the president. Payap is a private Christian university, and its primary aim is to educate whole people.

We also enjoyed a presentation by Laurie Maund. Laurie is an Australian Buddhist who has lived and studied in Thailand for almost 40 years. He's developed innovative international work with Buddhist monks throughout South Asia to address the HIV/AIDS crisis. Their distinctive Buddhist approach has even been welcomed in closed societies like Vietnam and Burma. Laurie really connected with our kids with the work he does to organize novice monks, basically high school age books, to work as peer educators and mentors for other youth.

Finally we experienced Monk Chat with Phra (meaning Monk) Saneh at the Buddhist university here. Phra Saneh explained how Buddhism frees people to be happy, in large part by clearing their minds and simplifying their lives. For example, he asked why we wear shoes. To protect our feet. Well, if shoes are to protect our feet, why do we need more than one pair? Why suffer over shoes? Phra Saneh also provided a powerful experience with meditation. Some of the students found themselves experiencing a profound new level of peacefulness. I bet I'll set lots of us, myself included, using our meditation beads on the flight home.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Greetings from Chiang Mai

Our group arrived early Saturday morning, and we've settled into things at Payap University and its Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace. We've enjoyed a Thai cultural show, with traditional food, dance and other performances, visited church, toured the Sunday street market, and slipped into a couple of wats (or temples). And we've found a rhythm. While still not sleeping through the night, I did go for an early run this morning.

Our hosts are amazing people. Having made the trip in 2008, I've found real joy in reuniting with John Butt (Rhodes class of 1960), the founder of the IRCP, and Mark Tamthai, now its director, along with their staff.

Today we begin "work" -- a couple of class sessions this morning, followed by a tour of Doi Suthep, a famous mountain temple this afternoon. The temple features twelve scenese from the life of the Buddha, and John Butt shines in using that series to introduce Buddhism through the Buddha's life. Should be a great day!

Monday, July 13, 2009

NTGeeks on Hiatus?

I'll be participating in a youth study trip to Thailand beginning this week and through most of the rest of July. As a result, I may not be posting until early August, depending on opportunity. Go with blessing!

And by the way, the trip is part of Lancaster Seminary's Leadership Now. If you know any promising young people, especially around 14-16, take a look at our Summer Leadership Academy for 2010.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Alan Segal on the Afterlife

My students often express surprise when I tell them that the "immortality of the soul" is not properly a Christian doctrine. That's not exactly true, especially when we count liturgy (and not only classical creeds) as an index of Christian doctrine, but it's true enough to get them thinking.

They're also surprised when I mention that it's a "new" idea in the time of Jesus.

Just this week I came across a contribution on the topic by Alan Segal on Loren Rosson's blog. I admire Alan a great deal. He is the author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. If you're interested, take a moment to read Alan's entry. Then if you're really interested, go ahead and buy the book.

For an alternative take on the history of resurrection hope in Israel, see Jon D. Levenson's Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fabian Udoh on the Unrighteous Manager in Luke 16:1-8

The current Journal of Biblical Literature features an impressive article by Fabian Udoh, "The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 [13])," JBL 128 (2009): 311-35. I've only enjoyed Fabian's company once, but the next time I see him, I'll be intimidated. This article is grounded in a super-impressive body of research into slavery in ancient Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world. The article raises a major question for me (the last sentence of this post), and I'd be grateful for comments that help me understand the problem.

More to the point, the parable of the Dishonest Manager is among the most challenging passages in the New Testament. The problem? What are we to make of a parable in which the hero is also a scoundrel? As C. H. Dodd famously observed, it looks as if even the author of Luke struggled with this one, tacking on multiple -- and conflicting -- "sermon notes" to the end of the story.

(Other tough passages include Matthew 19:12 [what does Jesus have in mind?], 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 [what on earth is Paul trying to say?] and Romans 13:1-7 [given what Paul says elsewhere, why would he say this?].)

Fabian is making me think about this parable differently. He brings forth massive evidence that agricultural managers (oikonomoi) were nearly always slaves in the ancient world. Thus, the manager is also a slave -- or possibly, a freedperson (a manumitted slave). When the master threatens to remove the manager from his position, the threat implies the possibility of demotion to deadly manual labor: "I'm not strong enough to dig," the manager reflects.

I would assign this essay to students just for the wealth of information on slavery in the ancient world. Unfortunately, the essay is pretty technical.

Anyway, in Udoh's reading the slave remains dishonest throughout the story. And it's that behavior that (Udoh says we'll never know the basis for this) he wins the master's approval: he acts "prudently" in his own interests.

But Fabian's reading hits a snag. If the manager is indeed a slave -- and Fabian's historical evidence is compelling -- why does he think (a) that he might be forced to beg and (b) that he might receive a welcome from the master's debtors? A slave will not have to beg, and free people will not accept someone else's slave into their homes.

At this point Fabian backs up a little and says, Maybe the manager is a freedperson. Unfortunately, the article devotes little space to the condition of freedpersons in the ancient world (see the brief discussion on 333-34). We should avoid the hasty assumption that a freedperson would have been "free" in a modern sense, as in without obligation to the master. In a footnote on pp. 324-25, Udoh gives the impression that the distinction between slave and freedman is immaterial to this question, since even the freedman manager would be acting in a servile role. (On p. 333 n. 128 he calls the distinction "insignificant.") It seems to me, however, that the distinction is very important for understanding the manager's deliberations and actions. So my question: Would the options presenting a freedperson differ significantly from those of a slave in the ancient world?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Neglected Passages #4: Mark 15:21

This one will slide a little toward the devotional end. Once in class I was reading through Mark's passion narrative aloud -- what is it about reading aloud rather than just with my eyes? -- when I bumped against Mark 15:21. This little verse, which I'd never noticed before, made me pause. I was too choked up to go on.

The verse reads, "And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene as he was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross."

"The father of Alexander and Rufus." Every once in awhile, a biblical passage offers just a little window into history. You can imagine Mark's first audience (audiences?) hearing this verse performed, with people looking around the room at one another. Alexander and Rufus? Really? Perhaps Alexander and Rufus were even in the room at the moment.

At a minimum, the author of Mark expects the audience to know who Alexander and Rufus were. That's all we know. Beyond that, one wonders what effect carrying the cross had on Simon, such that his two sons were prominent believers a generation later. And beyond that, one wonders so much more....

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Facing the Giants Review

Thanks to my amazing daughter Emily, who loves God from her heart and suggested we watch Facing the Giants together. The movie touched her, and I'll devote a few lines to my thoughts. I'll also try to avoid spoilers, though the movie can be pretty predictable.

Quick synopsis: A football coach at a little Christian school struggles with common life issues and with football. His faith and the faith of others play a huge role in the outcome.

Now, the good stuff. From time to time I found myself deeply moved, moved to weeping, by this film. Why? I wondered. I don't know.
  • I watched with my two daughters, and I deeply desire that they participate in the kinds of profound faith experiences that sustained me in high school.
  • The movie took me back to tender places in my high school years, especially in integrating faith with football and the rest of life. I could quickly relate to how renewed (or new) faith could change a kid's whole outlook on life. My Christian peers played a huge role in my life then, and I could strongly relate to how faith actually contributed to my finding the best in myself as an athlete. We shouldn't mock that part of the movie.
  • Some of the plot devices, including kids and their parents, were genuinely moving.

Theologically, the movie maintains that faith makes an impact on your life in positive ways. You see your relationships differently. You find a different meaning in your ordinary responsibilities. You find spiritual empowerment for the most important things you face. You see the good things that come to you as blessings. Prayer matters -- and so do people who pray. In many ways, this film hit those topics at just the right note.

With this movie, my evangelical piety shares a longing for revival. I really long for and pray for spiritual awakening.

I'll add that I wish mainline Christian kids had the same language I had as an evangelical youth for understanding how faith relates to our identity and our lifestyles. We're working on that in Lancaster Seminary's Leadership Now program, but I wish that. (For a critical reflection on that same ethos, see below.)

Technically, I generally dislike football films because the football action is so unrealistic. The football action in this cheaply produced movie is fairly impressive.

The movie also has significant theological shortcomings, and they need reflection.

  • The main thing is that the movie suggests that faith solves all of life's problems. Money, personal matters, football, you name it. Loving Jesus might help a football player (or team) play with passion and courage. It won't take a cruddy team and turn them into all-stars. The movie nods toward the outlook that living faithfully might not lead to success, but the whole plot undermines a healthier outlook.
  • Faith in this movie is still too small. Our little Christian academy has one black coach, complete with weak racial humor. It apparently includes an African American player -- we know this not because he ever speaks but because he appears in a game scene. In other words, faith is all about personal issues and one to one relationships. It doesn't bear on the social realities that so shape our lives. Why is it, by the way, that Southern Christian schools are so white? (And why were so many of them founded just when public schools integrated?)
  • The movie is socially conservative to a fault. The coach and his wife have money problems and no kids. So why does this talented woman keep just a part-time job that makes almost no difference in their financial picture? (I have a sneaking hunch.) Several times the movie insists that following Jesus means submitting to authority. I'm all for that, but you know what? Sometimes authorities, even parents, are unjust and abusive. It's not sufficient to tell somebody to obey authority and leave it at that.
  • I just don't share the theology that God determines everything that happens. This movie assumes that theology. If I win a football game, I thank God for the experience and the ability -- but I would never interpret the win as God's will. Even back in the day, we knew better than that.

Bottom line? I was genuinely touched by this movie. My daughter was inspired. It raises important questions. I just have some serious reservations too.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neglected Passages #5: Romans 15:30-32, Prayer, Providence, and Fate

Romans 15:30-32 is one of those "throwaway" sections, but it opens the way to pressing questions concerning prayer, providence, and fate.

Clearly Paul is wrapping up the epistle, and he's finding ways to pull things together. In fact, most scholars used to believe that the original version of Romans ended with 15:33. It certainly looks like a conclusion: "The God of peace be will you all. Amen." Most scholars no longer believe Romans 16 is a later addition to the epistle, but that doesn't change the fact that Paul is bringing it to a close here.

In 15:30-32 Paul asks the Romans to pray on his behalf, that his trip to Jerusalem will go safely, that his collection for the poor will please the Jerusalem church, and that he will be able to visit Rome after his Jerusalem trip. We often forget that at its heart Romans is not a doctrinal treatise but a pastoral fundraising letter. Paul wants to visit so that he can use Rome as an operational base for a mission to Spain (15:23-24), just as Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus have supported his work in the past. (Take a look at these cities on a map, and you'll see the pattern of aggressive territorial expansion.)

In the light of Romans' high-flying rhetoric and its unrivaled doctrinal influence, such a meek pastoral conclusion hardly commands our attention. However, let's look at that prayer more closely. It involves three basic petitions: (1) that Paul will escape harm, (2) that the church in Jerusalem will approve of his collection, and (3) that he'll be able to complete his mission by means of a journey to Rome. How well was that prayer "answered"?

(1) Most historians believe that Paul's journey to Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for him. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, and because he "appealed to Caesar" he was taken to Rome in Roman custody. Most traditions have it that Paul died during his imprisonment in Rome. So Paul did not escape harm.

(2) We'll assume that the Jerusalem church gladly accepted the offering, though quite a few historians discern a great deal of tension upon Paul's arrival. (Acts 21:17-26 provides a notoriously difficult account of Paul's visit with James.) We'll give the prayer the benefit of the doubt, and judge that Paul's offering was acceptable.

(3) If Paul made it to Rome and carried on a mission there, he did so as a prisoner. Acts records such a ministry on Paul's behalf. Again, as Acts has it, Paul continued a robust ministry as a prisoner (28:30-31). So, Paul never uses Rome as a base for a mission to Spain, but he does carry on his mission in Rome.

Though every historical judgment in this post is open to challenge, I'll resist the temptation to turn this post into a research article. The point is: Paul's prayer met its fulfillment only partially and ironically.

What does this mean theologically? I don't have an answer for how prayer works, but Paul's prayer is suggestive. Prayer aligns us with the will of God, but it also opens up our lives to God's work. It does not seem that God micromanages the universe, but neither is God's will thwarted by the vagaries of fate. Paul may not have received the answer to prayer that he desired, but without a doubt he did wind up preaching the gospel in Rome.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Neglected Passages #6: The Scope of the Canon (Jude 9-10, 14-15)

If we're gonna talk about neglected passages, we might easily discuss the entire Epistle of Jude. I can't recall ever hearing a sermon from it. To be honest, Jude is largely an ad hominem attack on a competing group of Christian teachers. The epistle does exhort its audience to consider those tempted by false teaching, offering mercy and salvation to those -- even as one despises their "defilement" (vv. 22-23, with a major text critical problem). As William Brosend, II, notes, Jude insists upon eschatological hope and demonstrates that the character of believers, especially religious leaders, is an essential part of their message.

Jude also contains a clue about the nature and development of the canon. Verses 8-9 refer to the archangel Gabriel "contending with the devil" (RSV) over the body of Moses. We also find this story in the Testament of Moses, a Jewish pseudpigraphal work of the period. The tradition may have reached Jude through by another road; my point is that Jude relies on extracanonical traditions for this information.

Even more striking are verses 14-15, in which Jude quotes the great Jewish apocalypse 1 Enoch (1:9), attributing the quote to Enoch's prophecy. Clearly, Jude employs 1 Enoch as scripture. By the way, 1 Enoch stands in the canon of the Ethiopic Church.

Jude's allusion to the Testament of Moses and its quotation of 1 Enoch have implications for how we understand the canon. Our canon (the Bible) is the result of use by Jew and Christians. (For its part, Jude didn't receive particularly widespread acceptance for quite a long time and was often disputed.) It didn't fall out of heaven. A group of bishops didn't conduct a secret vote in a smoke-filled room. It wasn't the result of a consensus. However we understand the role of the Holy Spirit in this process, our Bible comes to us because our ancestors in the faith read, shared, copied, and treasured these books. They used them to find guidance, insight, and inspiration.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

David deSilva on Revelation

I've been teaching a (very rewarding) week-long course, "Preaching Paul," for Lancaster Seminary's summer academy. Have to admit, I'm behind on the Overlooked Passages series. Over the weekend, I hope.

In the meantime, I just got my hard copy of David A. deSilva's major study of Seeing Things God's Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (Westminster John Knox). I've been looking forward to this. We're doing a panel review of this book in the SBL's Rhetoric and the New Testament Section this fall in New Orleans. I'd already worked through the book as one of those invited to compose blurb's for the book's promotion.

Since this book often levels substantial criticisms of my own work, I won't use this space for rebuttal. I will, however, promote the book. It's by far the most thorough rhetorical study of Revelation to date. That means, David's aim is to show how John, Revelation's author, sought to move his audience to see the world -- and live in it -- in a new way. Accessibly written, though thoroughly engaged with scholarship, this book represents a major contribution to the study of Revelation. Highly insightful, highly recommended.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mark Goodacre is podcasting on the NT (thanks, Julia)

Mark, who teaches at Duke and is probably the leading Web presence among NT scholars, now has podcasts. Interesting little snippets, two now available.

Thanks to Julia O'Brien for calling my attention to this.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

BibleWorks 8.0

Just received a review copy of BibleWorks 8, the leading biblical text software for PC users. I'll spend several weeks playing with it before I post a review. For now, I'll simply say that it looks very much like BibleWorks 7, with lots -- and lots -- of additional versions of primary texts (Pseudepigrapha, early Christian writings) and lexical aids. The scrolling function for finding the verse you're looking for is much improved.

I'm not an "advanced" user, who does sophisticated grammatical searches, so I'm not the best technical reviewer. But if you want to work with the original languages, this package offers a lot of help.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Neglected Passages #7: Looking Out for the Dead

Thanks to Sally Stewart for the suggestion. We're talking about four passages that discuss early Christian concern for the dead: 1 Corinthians 15:29;1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:6; and Revelation 20:13.

Here's 1 Corinthians 15:29, as translated by Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 760-61).
  • Now, if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
According to Fee, Paul's reference here is part of an ad hominem argument. He knows that some of the Corinthians are in fact undergoing vicarious baptism on behalf of dead persons, he rejects that belief outright, and he uses that practice against them in his argument for a future resurrection of the saints (763-67). Fee's argument rests on the assumption that Paul could not have approved of vicarious baptism, since Paul understands salvation as coming by grace through faith. That is, Paul believed salvation involved the faith of a believer, something one cannot offer on behalf of another person.

Fee's argument makes sense to me, but we should add a couple of qualifications. First, Paul does not explicitly reject vicarious baptism for the dead; we must infer his condemnation of the practice on the basis of more general considerations. Second, it appears some of the Corinthians were engaged in such a practice. Given the widespread concern for the fate of the dead in ancient Judiasm and Christianity (not to mention ancient Mediterranean religion generally), how do we know the Corinthians were an isolated case?

Let's consider a possibly relevant text from the early second century, the Apocalypse of Peter (as cited and translated by Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 232).
  • Then I will grant to my called and elect one whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment. And I will give them [i.e. those for whom the elect pray a fine baptism in salvation from the Acherousian Lake. (14:1)
Does the Apocalypse of Peter envision deceased Christians praying on behalf of the damned, resulting in their post-mortem baptism? Bauckham isn't sure, but he "wonders" about how Apocalypse of Peter 14:1 might relate to 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Now what about 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6? These passages surely lie beneath the clause in the Apostles' Creed: "he descended into hell." Eugene Boring helpfully summarizes the most common views of this passage (1 Peter, 136-37).
  • The passage teaches that between his death and resurrection, Jesus preached to the lost souls in the world of the dead, giving them a "second chance" at salvation. Origen advocated this view.
  • Augustine taught that the preexistent Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to the wicked generation destroyed in the flood. This is what 1 Peter 4:6 indicates, referring to their "spiritually dead" state.
  • The passage alludes to the "Watchers," the angelic beings who ravished mortal women. First Enoch and Jubilees, extremely popular Jewish texts of the period, understand Genesis 6:1-4 as teaching that angels ("Watchers") sinned by taking mortal women for themselves and through that act corrupted humankind. As a result, the Watchers are bound and imprisoned. Our passage refers to "the spirits in prison" who "did not obey . . . in the days of Noah."
The simplest solution is to believe that both 3:18-22 and 4:6 refer to the same idea, that the dead who preceded the time of Jesus received an opportunity to hear the gospel from him. (Boring does not share this view.) However, the references to "spirits in prison" and "the days of Noah" strongly suggest that the 3:18-22 relates to angelic and spiritual beings while 4:6 relates to mortals.

Finally, Revelation 20:13 is part of a description of the great judgment. Here we find that "the sea gave up the dead in it, and death and hades gave up the dead in them." The concept of the underworld giving up the dead to face judgment may seem familiar to us, but why the sea? As Bauckham points out, many people in the ancient world were concerned about how our bodies relate to the afterlife. If I lose a limb, do I get it back in the resurrection? Here, the question involves those who die at sea. Never properly buried, how do they face the resurrection? The answer: in the end, even the sea gives back its dead. (See pp. 269-89 in The Fate of the Dead.)