Lent Week 5: The Bible is Human

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we have been coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we have been looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around the idea that the Bible is a diverse book, like a conversation happening across the ages as the Hebrew people interact with their past and reinterpret it to speak into their struggles to come to grips with what God is up to in their present circumstances.  God was guiding this process behind the scenes, and this is what Christians mean when they talk about the Bible as “inspired”.

But it is important to understand that God did not simply speak His words from heaven.  Many evangelicals have a view of the inspiration of Scripture that would honestly be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  The Bible is a human book, the product of centuries of people wrestling with what God was doing in their midst.  It evolved over the ages and did not reach its final form until after the Babylonian exile as priests and scribes edited it into something that would give hope to those returning from captivity as they struggled to put the pieces of their nation back together.

Enns zeroes in on Chronicles as an example of how this worked.  In our English bibles, 1-2 Chronicles comes right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at the same period of history with a slightly different emphasis.  But in the Hebrew bible, 1-2 Chronicles comes at the very end.

Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.

To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.

But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”

Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore.

Enns points to the example of Manasseh.  Manasseh was one of the worst kings Judah ever had, and from the account in 1-2 Kings it was his sins and excesses that led to the Babylonian exile.  The damage done to the kingdom during his reign was so great that even the revival and reforms that occurred under Josiah a couple of generations later could not undo it.

But in Chronicles the story of Manasseh is reimagined.  Manasseh is led into exile and returns humbled, chastened, ending his days as a repentant, restored, and righteous ruler. These details were left out of the Kings account–because it was written earlier and to answer a different set of questions.

Why is this important?  Because the story of Manasseh is, in microcosm, the story of Israel being led into exile, crying out to God in repentance, and then returning home to pick up the pieces.

The author of Chronicles wished for the exiles to learn the wisdom of repentance and seeking God in the midst of their hard circumstances.  To this end he showed that even the most wicked sinner–Manasseh–was not incapable of repentance or beyond redemption and restoration.

That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

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Lent Week 4: The Bible is Ambiguous and Diverse

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we are coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we are looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around Enns’ big idea that the Bible is designed to lead us into wisdom.  It is not intended to be a rulebook or an owner’s manual or a field guide that gives us hard and fast answers, but is instead intended to guide us in developing wisdom for the unscripted journey of faith.  In other words:

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

We also mentioned that Enns’ discussion of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom heard in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  At this point Enns takes up the ambiguous nature of the Bible.  Even sections of the Bible that we are accustomed to thinking of as clear and unambiguous, like the book of Proverbs or the Law…well, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that laws and instructions have to be interpreted and applied.  That is the task of wisdom.  Example:  When the Ten Commandments say “Honor your father and your mother”…well, how do we do that?  Turns out that the Bible’s clear and unambiguous instructions…aren’t quite so clear and unambiguous after all.

Next Enns turns to the diverse nature of the Bible.  This is a key to understanding the Bible’s teaching:

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

The Bible is “timeless”, not because it contains propositional truths that apply to all people across all ages–what we would call “timeless truths”–but because of what Enns calls its “unwavering commitment to adaptation over time”.  In other words, the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us.  By the grace of God, we get to listen in on a conversation among different peoples across different ages as they struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst and their place in His redemptive story.  Our task in reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible is to listen to what the biblical writers were saying in their own respective times and places and let it guide us in coming to grips with what God is doing in our own day and age, and our place in that story.

Lent Week 3: The Bible Leads Us to Wisdom

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Our big ideas to this point:  The Bible is not the basis of our faith; it is a collection of writings pointing to an event and a person who is the basis of our faith.  No one just picks up the Bible and reads it; instead we all come to it with our own ideas–formed by culture and tradition and prior interpretation–as to what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it.

At this point, let us turn to the question:  What is the Bible for?

In order to guide our thinking on this question, we will utilize insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Enns’ description of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom used in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  His big idea in this book, which is also the big idea for much of his other writings as well, is that the Bible is not designed to give us hard and fast answers on all subjects it addresses, but instead to lead us into wisdom.  Here are some money quotes from early in the book:

I believe that God knows best what sort of sacred writing we need. And these three characteristic ways the Bible behaves, rather than posing problems to be overcome, are telling us something about how the Bible actually works and therefore what the Bible’s true purpose is—and the need to align our expectations with it.

…Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

So what does Enns mean by wisdom and what does he mean when he says the Bible is intended to lead us into wisdom?  Another money quote:

Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.

…the Bible is a book of wisdom rather than prescripted answers, and inviting us to accept the sacred responsibility of pursuing wisdom and thereby learning to live well in God’s creation.

In other words, God is not what we would call a “helicopter parent”, giving us the Bible as a clear and exhaustive guide to every possible situation we could conceivably encounter, hovering over us at every moment to make sure that we are following its clearly and explicitly stated directions/expectations, and then rushing in to fix things so that we always stay on the right path.  If God were that kind of parent, the Bible would look and feel much different than it does.

When we are too committed to harboring and sheltering our familiar false expectations, the Bible itself has a wonderful knack of disrupting those expectations, challenging our categories, and, if need be, agitating our complacency. And the Bible does this simply by—I will say it again—being its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse self, oblivious to our expectations, so ill-suited as a field guide for faith, so reluctant to be co-opted by our questions and the agendas that drive them.

Lent Week 2: Higher Criticism and the Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

At this point it is important to note that no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Instead we come to the Bible with a certain set of assumptions and expectations conditioned by our culture and our faith communities.  Indeed, our very conception of what the Bible is and what it is supposed to do for us is shaped by centuries of interpretive tradition, including several centuries of what might be called a “critical” approach to the Bible.  Inevitably we come to higher criticism, which came about in the Enlightenment yet was rooted in Luther and Calvin and their “sola scriptura” emphasis on the Scriptures.  The mere mention of “higher criticism” gives most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies because it originated from a place of skepticism toward the authority and claims of Scripture.  Yet the critical methods which arose from higher criticism are quite useful when seeking to engage and understand Scripture.  These are:

  • Textual criticism – Gathering the ancient manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek and the other ancient languages, and comparing them side-by-side to determine the most accurate form of the text we can reconstruct.
  • Form criticism – Seeking to understand the literary form or genre of a given text and how understanding that form/genre can guide our understanding of the text in question.
  • Source criticism – Seeking to understand how/if the biblical authors used source materials and integrated those materials into the text.
  • Redaction criticism – Seeking to understand why a biblical author/editor arranged the material the way they did, and what point they wished to make by doing so.
  • Rhetorical criticism – Seeking to understand how the biblical authors used rhetorical devices to get their audience’s attention and/or persuade them.
  • Narrative/literary criticism – Analyzes stories and their elements in order to understand the impact the biblical authors wished for them to have with their readers.

Again, no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Engaging with Scripture is a matter of interpretation.  The religious traditions that appeal to the Bible all understand this, to some extent or another.

To put all of this another way, the biblical authors had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals on how things went down.  They were people who lived in ancient communities that struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst.  By the grace of God, we have the fruits of their struggles and we get to listen in on the conversations they had in the course of their struggles and let it guide us in our own struggles to understand what God is doing today in our own midst.

Lent Week 1: How We Got Our Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

In any discussion of these questions, it is best to start by considering how we got our Bible.

When one hears evangelicals talk about the Bible, one gets the impression that it basically just dropped from heaven in its present form, much like the Koran or the Book of Mormon.  The truth is, as they say, a bit more complicated.  The key point to keep in mind is that the Bible in itself is not the basis of our faith, but instead it points to a person and an event which are the basis of our faith.

It all started when Jesus rose from the dead.  People who knew Jesus and saw the Resurrection circulated their stories within the early church.  Eventually they came to the realization that the people who saw these things firsthand were starting to die off, and that Jesus (they believed he was coming back any day) was probably going to be a couple minutes.  So they sat these people down and had them write out their stories.  These stories were collected, along with letters written by key church leaders to different church communities, and after a process of winnowing that took a couple of centuries, became what we know today as the New Testament.

At the same time, Christians began to take a keen interest in the Jewish Scriptures (what we know today as the Old Testament).  They were searching for Jesus, and they found him everywhere.  Thus the Jewish Scriptures were taken and incorporated lock, stock, and barrel into our Christian Bible, becoming what we know as the Old Testament.

There was a significant amount of evolution over the first couple of centuries of church history as it went from the Jewish Scriptures plus other writings to the Bible we currently have today.  There were animated discussions and debates about which belonged and which did not.  It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the present New Testament canon was codified.

When we see the origins of the Bible in this light, it leads us away from seeing it as a holy book which magically dropped from heaven in its present form, to something more akin to the book we actually have.  We recognize the Bible as divinely inspired, yet at the same time it is a very human book and its humanness shows through all over the place.  We will take a more in-depth look at this in weeks to come.

Ash Wednesday: What Is the Bible?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey. Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead. Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance. Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks.  This year we will be coming around two questions:  What is the Bible?  And what is the Bible for?  The big idea that we will be fleshing out over the coming weeks is that the Bible is not the book we want or expect, but it is the book we need.  It does not spoonfeed us easy answers to every question we could think to ask, but instead gives us the tools to develop wisdom as we engage it and wrestle with it.

Advent Week 4: Prayer

We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

We have been going through through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on prayer.

Williams leads off with the observation that growing in prayer is not about developing a set of spiritual skills that operate in only one area of your life.  Instead it is about growing into the kind of humanity that Christ demonstrates for us.  Christian theology began as people realized that because of Christ we could talk to God in a different way; if that is true then there must be things we ought to be saying and believing about Christ.  The essence of prayer is letting Jesus pray in you.

From there Williams unpacks what three of the earliest Christian theologians had to say about prayer.  He starts with Origen, who lived in the third century AD and whose book on prayer is the first truly systematic treatment of the subject by a Christian.  One of the big questions Origen attempts to engage with is, “If God already knows what you are going to ask then why bother to pray?”.  His answer is as good as any that have come since:  God already knows what you are going to say, sure, but God has decided to let your prayer be part of the process of bringing about whatever he intends to do.  Origen also engages at length with the Lord’s Prayer, and one of his big ideas is the spirit of adoption we have received.  Because of this we address God not as someone far off but as one who is close to us.

Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard.  On the contrary:  God has decided to be an intimate friend and he has decided to make us part of his family, and we always pray on that basis.

Next Williams turns to Gregory of Nyssa, who came about a century after Origen.  Gregory of Nyssa builds on much of what Origen has to say and takes it in some different directions as well.  One of his big ideas is that prayer is all about healing relationships; if people prayed seriously they would be reconciled.

You could sum up what Gregory says about the Lord’s Prayer simply by saying, ‘Prayer heals relations.’  Prayer is about reconciliation, justice, and how it changes your attitude to other people and the world.  Prayer is not a narrowly private activity; it is about your belonging in the body of Christ, and in the family of humanity.  If you understand what is going on when you pray, then the world changes.  And if in prayer you are gradually becoming attuned to the will and purpose of God, then the divine power that comes into you is bound to find its outlet in this healing of relations.  That is not to say that you pray in order to be a nicer person, or so that justice and reconciliation will happen.  You pray because Christ is in you.  And if that is really happening, then the sort of things you can expect to see developing around you are justice and reconciliation.

Finally Williams turns to the monk John Cassian, who lived around the fifth century AD.  Cassian traveled from Russia to Egypt to be a monk.  In Egypt he met some of the greatest monastic teachers of that era, and his work provides a summary of their teaching.  Cassian’s big idea is that prayer takes for granted that you are already working on your self-awareness and everything else on the practical side of things.  It takes for granted that you have already cleared your mind of anxieties and distractions before you begin to pray.  When Cassian reflects on the Lord’s Prayer he begins with the idea that we are adopted children, which is one of Origen’s emphases.  Like Gregory of Nyssa, whose emphasis was on prayer as healing relationships, he notes the seriousness of asking God to forgive you as you have forgiven others.  He also takes a crack at one of the most frequently asked questions concerning prayer:  what does it mean to pray “Lead us not into temptation”?  Cassian’s answer is that people are tempted all the time but being “led into temptation” is like being dropped right into the middle of it with no tools to face it and no way out–that is what we pray to be defended from.

Prayer, more and more, is not something we do, but what we are letting God do in us.  And when that happens, it is not surprising that we get a bit wobbly and our emotions become a bit tempestuous, and we become baffled and depressed as well.  So don’t panic!  For when those disturbances are going on, it is very likely that God is beginning to settle down more deeply in you.