I Love To Tell The Story


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Sometimes it’s how you say it. Sometimes it’s what you say.

I’m blessed to be part of an incredibly awesome Sunday School class. Our curriculum is the Bible. Period. No lesson books, no commentary, no other materials. We pick a book, and we work through it. We discuss it. It takes months. A given chapter often takes weeks. We delve deep, and you’re allowed to share your thoughts even if they aren’t the typical Sunday School answers.

I like it.

So I was excited a couple of weeks ago when we got to John 14, and to a verse I’ve been particularly intrigued by for the last few years.

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

I’d never really given a lot of thought to inflection until a few years ago. We see the written words, and our minds apply tone without us thinking about it. But, as I’ve written about before, someone was talking about Peter walking on the water, and Jesus’ reaction. “Oh ye of little faith…” And I’d always heard that with a harsh tone. And this person read it with a loving, proud, amused tone, and it changed my way of thinking.

So take that verse. “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

Over the last few years, it had become a prime example for me of the importance of tone. Say that phrase with one inflection and it means one things. Change the tone, and it means the exact opposite.

I’d always heard it growing up with the emphasis on “obey.”

It’s proof of the importance of obedience. Our works aren’t the key to salvation, but they are still paramount.

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

“You will prove that you love me by obeying my commands.”

But read it again, with the emphases on “love.”

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

“For someone who loves me, obedience becomes a natural outflow of that love, something they don’t have to worry about.”

The point becomes not that you have to obey in order to prove you love, but that if you love, obeying will be second nature. Don’t focus your energy on obedience, focus it on love.

It is, to me, an interesting idea, and so I was looking forward to having that discussion with my Sunday School class.

But in preparation, I was looking at the verse a little more closely. Different translations, of course, have different versions. Some are just wording changes — “keep” the commands instead of “obey” them. But some have a difference more important to the point I was interested in — they leave out the “you will.”

“If you love me, obey my commands.” It’s no longer a statement of fact; it’s an imperative. Very much the meaning of the first reading. If you love me, prove it.

I had a feeling it was about to get tricky. Greek grammar is a bit different than English, so I figure it’s entirely possible that either translation could be accurate. So I start digging.

What I find, though, isn’t what I expect. And it throws out all the cool stuff I thought I wanted to talk about.

It turns out, “you will” wasn’t the important distinction, really. That “keep” versus “obey” was the interesting part, after all.

On the surface, it’s just a difference in phrasing. “Keep the rules” is just a colloquialism for following them.

But Jesus wasn’t speaking English. He wasn’t saying obey; he was saying keep — take care of, preserve.

He’s going to be gone, and he knows it. He’s about to be crucified. He’s spent years sharing a message, and he’s not going to be able to anymore. What happens to his story then? What happens to his message then?

There’s no books. There’s no videos. There’s no news coverage. There’s him, and he’s about to be gone. And there’s these guys who’ve journeyed with him.

“If you truly love me,” he tells them, “preserve my instructions.” He repeats in the chapter, for his teachings and his saying. “Take care of my message.” It’s the only way it will survive. It’s the only way it will outlive him.

“If you love me, be the keepers of my story.”

And, of course, they did, and it did. They told their stories. They shared his teachings. They taught his commands. And, eventually, they wrote it all down.

For obvious reasons, I find this beautiful. It speaks to who I am. It’s what I do. I’m a keeper of stories. I love the idea of their being a divine mandate for doing that for Christ.

It’s something that’s important to him.

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

And it’s still important today as it was then.

He didn’t say, “If you’ve been with me these last few years …”

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

“If you love me…”

There’s a big world out there.

How will they know? How will they hear?

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

Vulgar Time-Traveling iPhone


twabsence

Every Sunday morning, my iPhone becomes a time machine.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about technology and scripture, about how changes in the way scripture is presented change the way we interact with it, and even how we think about it and what we get out of it.

By and large, I don’t see these things as good or bad, they simply are. If a person believes that scripture is divinely inspired, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the One doing the inspiration had the foresight to know that media would change over time and prepare for it.

(On a side note, I heard someone talk about scripture in terms of fault-tolerant transmissions. We have the technology now to beam messages to spacecraft throughout the solar system in such a way that even if there is data lost in transmission, the process compensates so that what is received is still usable. I’m inclined to think that may be a good analogy — that scripture was inspired to function properly despite human language changes, errors, and international alterations.)

The latest significant change for me is interesting because it actually mitigates the effects of one of the earlier changes. To me, one of the earliest presentation changes was the beginning of the practice of translating scripture. Now, you no longer have to speak Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the stories. The number of people who can understand scripture on their own is broadened tremendously. This is a very good thing.

That very good thing, however, comes at a cost — the reach is broadened, but shades of meaning are lost. A word might mean multiple different things, and the translator has to pick which one was intended. A word might have several shades of meaning, and the new language equivalent may not capture that texture. A word might mean one thing, but be translated as a word that has shades of meaning not intended by the original. (And that doesn’t even get into cultural differences over time.)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been discovering some of those instances where things I took for granted weren’t necessarily the case, or where there was a richness in the original I had no awareness of.

I still don’t speak the original languages, and don’t have an original text Bible anyway. And, to be honest, that first part is unlikely to ever change.

But, I do have my iPhone time machine.

I now have the ability to select any word in a passage, and see what the original-language word there was. I can read definitions for what the word meant. I can see whether it’s the same word used in another place with a similar translation.

It brings me a little bit closer to what it would have been like reading the original.

I realize there are still limitations — I’m cherry-picking the words I’m looking up, I’m still going based on someone else’s definitions, I still don’t necessarily understand the cultural context — but it’s at least helping me to think about things differently, to be aware of the richer texture.

And that, I think, is a change for the better.

… To Build Him An Arky, Arky


So on Friday, I wrote a post that alluded to Noah. And that reminded me of the Noah post I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

See, Noah is one of those Bible characters that I would love to get the chance to interview. In fact, I’d be happy with just one question. I mean, there are probably any number of people I would love to talk to, but if I got the chance to talk to Noah, I’ve had the one question I would ask picked out for a while.

That one question would involve filling in one of those details the Bible leaves out that to me would be awesome to know.

We’re introduced to Noah a little before the main ark narrative begins — we know he was, at some point in time, 500 years old, we know he had three sons, we know he “found favor in the eyes of the Lord,” and we know he “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”

So in Genesis 6:13, God shows up and tells Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.” And He goes on at some length telling how exactly to build this ark, and about the flood that’s going to come, and what Noah should put in the ark, and that sort of thing.”

And when God finishes with the instructions, we’re told, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”

And the very next verse, Genesis 7:1, says, “The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.  Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate,  and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.  Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And once again we’re told, “And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”

So then, of course, there’s a big flood, everybody dies, yadda yadda. But that’s beside the point for the moment.

I’m fascinated by a word in verse 7:1, and that word is “then.”

Because that makes it sound like, God said this, and Noah did it, and then God said that, and Noah did it. Which, I guess, is true, technically.

But in between the two “God said”s is a period that is estimated to be anywhere from 120 years on the unlikely long end to maybe about seventy on the conservative short end.

And I’ve heard any number of preachers talk about what that period must have been like for Noah, in terms of people questioning and mocking him for spending decades building this boat with nowhere to go.

What I wonder, though, is whether what the Bible tells us really was it. Did God show up one day, say “build an ark,” leave Noah to it, and then show up around a century later when it was done, and say, “OK, get ready to load up”?

I can’t imagine what that would be like. Sure, you have a word from God, and that’s a pretty good foundation to start building an ark on. But at some point, do you start to question it? Even Abraham, that paragon of faith, became dubious in less time than that. At some point, a decade or two or five, do you start asking yourself, “OK, how well do I remember what happened? Am I sure that wasn’t just a weird dream? Shouldn’t something be happening by now?” Was there ever a time that Noah kept building the ark solely because he didn’t want to admit to others that he might have been wrong about whether he should be building an ark?

On the other hand, we’re told Noah “walked faithfully with God.” Was that going on the whole time? Did God occasionally stop by and say, “Hey, man, great ark-building! Keep it up!” If so, was that, what? Every week? Every year? Every decade?

There have been times I’ve felt like I’m doing what God wants me to do. And so I do it. But, I’ll be honest, without reinforcement, I don’t think I could spend a century doing it, even if I were to live that long. I’m not sure I could spend even a decade, without reassurance that, yes, this is right. Or, really, a year.

So I would love to know — “What was God doing while you were building the ark, Noah?”

Because, to be honest, it would make me feel a little bit better knowing that there was the occasional encouragement.

Though I still doubt it was as often as I would want it to be.

The 100-Word Word


Being a former newspaperman, I love following the Overheard In The Newsroom blog.

I was amused by this recent entry:

Reporter: “My story is already over 700 words and I still have a second soldier to interview.”

Editor: “You act like I can’t edit. I could edit the Bible down to 100 words.”

But then it made me start thinking. What if I did have to present the entire story of the Bible in 100 words? What would I say?

And the thing that fascinated me was, I wonder how intensely personal an exercise it would be. How much would me 100-word Bible be just that — mine? How different would somebody else’s look?

So I thought I would take a stab at it. But what I would really love is for other people to do the same. How much to they differ? What do we each take away from what we read? I suspect it would demonstrate just what an incredibly personal love letter to each of us His Word is.

And the truth is, if I were to do this as an ongoing project — if I were to, say, do this again a year from now, and two, and so on, how much would my own version change. How much is this version different from what I would have written five years ago?

Here’s my very poor attempt at it:

In the beginning was a Father, who created children He loved very much. His children were headstrong, and ignored what He tried to tell them, hurting themselves in the process. He watched patiently as they ignored Him and made mistakes — always trying to help, always weeping to see them turn their backs on Him and to see them hurt. Eventually the children made such a mess of things that a price had to be paid, a price higher than the Father wanted His children to suffer. So He came to Earth, suffered and died, to save His beloved children.

What would yours say?

Bible 2.0 — Scripture and Technology



Want proof times are changing? A boy recently told me he couldn’t read scripture because his phone was dead.
–@RickAtchley


The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

Image via Wikipedia

How is technology changing the way you relate to your Bible?

Two feet from where I’m sitting right now, I have a copy of the Holy Bible. It’s a nice copy, too, NIV, red leather bound with gold printing. Nothing too fancy — my good Bibles are in places I use them more — but functional nonetheless.

I rarely use it.

Instead, I’m far more likely to leave it on the shelf and access the Bible electronically. Google makes it easy to either look up a particular passage I know the address for, or to search for a verse if I can’t remember where it’s found. It’s easier and more convenient than pulling the print version of the shelf.

I’ve sat in my Bible study group with my Bible in my lap, reading scripture on my iPhone. At times, I’ve got both going at the same time; my Bible open to the chapter we’re reading, my iPhone searching for passages elsewhere I think relate, flipping between translations to make sure the connotation is what I’m looking for.

And I want more. I want to be able to read a verse, look up what a word is in Greek, and determine if it’s the same word used elsewhere all from my phone, and then read commentary on the verse to see how it lines up with what I just read. I want to click on a verse in Matthew, and find the corresponding passages in the other Gospels. I want to read an epistle, and go immediately to what Paul says about the same subject in other letters.

I suspect the Bible is undergoing a major evolutionary change today. It’s not the first time. In fact, the “Bible 2.0” title I used for this post is somewhat misleading; in terms of user interface upgrades, the Bible would be on at least version four already. Translations, the printing press, and separation into chapters and verses all change the way people read and use the Bible.

In fact, all those things change the way people think about the Bible. It’s hard today to really comprehend the idea of a Bible without chapter and verse distinctions. It’s very natural to us to pull one verse out of a passage and use it separately, as if, because it has its own address, it’s a self-contained entity. I’ve been working for the last couple of years to break myself out of that mindset — to focus more on the narrative than the excerpt, to never take a verse, regardless of where I see it, as many anything until I’ve read the context that it’s in.

Electronic versions of the Bible have the potential to make that challenge much easier or much harder. On the one hand, it’s now easier than ever to pull verses out of context and deal with them individually. I can e-mail or tweet a verse by itself with just a few keystrokes, and broadcast it without its context. Never has it been easier to share scripture out of context than it is today.

On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to deal with the Bible as a whole. Right or wrong, you can Google the Bible now, finding things in it that you might otherwise have missed. It’s easier now to look at the microcosm of a verse, but it’s also easier to look at the macrocosm of the Bible as a whole. It’s easier than ever to take the whole Bible with you wherever you are.

The Bible is changing. And while that may sound sacrilegious; it’s still within spec. This change, like translations and like the printing press, was anticipated by God when He inspired scripture to begin with.

I said earlier that the title “Bible 2.0” wasn’t entirely accurate. But it’s not entirely inaccurate either. This may not be a second iteration of the Bible, but it is the Bible in a Web 2.0 world. It’s the Bible in a world that’s interactive, that’s accessible, that’s peer-to-peer, that’s dynamic. We live in a world where the published world is no longer dead, but living, growing, interacting information. The Bible has always been a living book. Technology is finally catching up with it.

What does that mean for you? How does technology change the way you read the Bible? What electronic tools do you use to interface with it? What would you like technology to allow you to do? How does technology change the way you share scripture? How does technology change the way you share God?

Welcome to the Golden Age of Heresy


Rob Bell in the "Love Wins" trailer

OK, for those not in the sorts of circles to know this, I’ll summarize.

There’s this guy, Rob Bell. He’s a preacher. And he’s written books with hip-sounding names like Velvet Elvisand Sex Godand Drops Like Stars.

I’ve read Velvet Elvis. I own others, but haven’t read them yet. I’ve also seen some of his video stuff.

So he’s got a new book coming out, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

He made a video trailer for his new book. In the video, he questions whether Gandhi’s in hell.

This has made many people upset.

These upset people have tweeted and blogged a lot about being upset.

People were upset because saying that Gandhi might not be in hell is heresy.

And heresy, they say, is bad.

Saying that Gandhi might not be in hell, they say, means that Bell may not be a real Christian.

“Farewell, Rob Bell,” they say.

For those people, things are just going to get worse.

Welcome to the Golden Age of heresy.

Everything I’ve heard about the book, including watching the video, makes me think it probably is, in fact, heresy.

And, personally, as much as it sucks, I think believing Gandhi is not in hell is a dubious belief, Christianity-wise.

But I’m not upset about Rob Bell saying it.

See, people use the word “heresy” like it’s a bad thing.

Me, I believe heresy is going to save the church.

Some people would say it has before. Ironically, some of those are the same people condemning Rob Bell for heresy.

All heresy is, is saying that you believe something outside the mainstream orthodoxy.

Sometimes heretics are the people who twist religion to fit their own purposes. I’d agree that sort of heresy is a bad thing.

Sometimes, however, heretics are the people who stand up and say that mainstream orthodoxy is wrong, that it’s the result of someone twisting religion to fit their own purposes. I’d say that sort of heresy is a good thing.

If you believe that the elements of communion do not literally transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ, thank a heretic. John Wycliffe died for that belief.

If you believe that the Earth orbits the sun, instead of vice versa, thank a heretic. Galileo was threatened with death for this belief.

Heresy is how the church matures, how it evolves, how it grows, how it rights itself when it is wrong.

It can also be how the church goes wrong in the first place.

How do we decide which a given heresy is? By listening to it. By evaluating it. By comparing it to scripture. By praying about it.

The same way we evaluate any new belief we’re exposed to.

So why do we live in fear of heresy?

Because we’re told to.

Because heresy is a threat to those in power in the church. Church leaders are only church leaders to people who believe the things they’re teaching. If people read Rob Bell’s book and think about it and evaluate it and compare it to scripture and pray about it and end up deciding it has merit, some church leaders will lose followers. They will lose power. They will lose influence. They will lose books sales and tithe money.

Those people don’t want you to read and evaluate the book. They want to stop you from hearing what it has to say. They want to dismiss it as heresy. They want to dismiss Bell as un-Christian.

Five hundred years ago, reformer John Calvin said of heretic Michael Servetus, “If he comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight.” Servetus was the originator of the now not-uncommon doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” or the “perseverance of the saints.”  Seven years later, Calvin testified against Servetus in a trial that resulted in Servetus being burned alive at the stake for heresy.

We live now in a different world. Today, John Piper, perhaps Calvin’s best-known modern follower, tweets to his hundred thousand followers, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Today’s established leaders have new tools for silencing those who would share ideas.

Unfortunately for them, we are entering a new Golden Age of heresy.

We are living in an age where heretics can be heard like never before. They can tweet. They can write blogs. They can write books. Their ideas can spread. And those who agree with them can say so. Just like those who don’t.

Like never before, Christians have the freedom to explore new ideas. They have the freedom to evaluate their beliefs for themselves. They have the ability to explore the scripture for themselves, aided by vast resources from generations of experts. They have literally volumes written by competing schools of thought to peruse and compare.

You don’t have to take John Piper’s word on Rob Bell. You can read his book yourself. You can read Piper’s books. You can — you must — read what scripture says about both of their arguments. And you can decide.

Until I can read the book, I won’t know for sure what Bell says in it.

From what I’ve seen so far, it flies in the face of beliefs I consider important.

What I have seen, I would call heresy.

It’s not uncommon for me to read books with heretical viewpoints and consider them without merit.

It’s also not uncommon for me to read books with more orthodox viewpoints and consider them without merit.

I can’t guarantee what I’ll think of Bell’s book. But I’ll be interested to see what it says.

You don’t have to agree with Bell. You don’t have to read his book. But you also don’t have to dismiss him because someone says to. The choice is yours.

The days of silencing heretics are over.

Review: John Piper’s “Spectacular Sins”


“I guess you had to be there.”

I’ve heard a lot about preacher and theologian John Piper. I’ve read some quotes that I thought were inspired. I’ve heard people talk about things he’s taught, which seemed to be a mixed bag.

To be perfectly honest, for that reason, I was reluctant to delve much deeper, to listen to sermons or read his books. To me, there are few things worse that can happen to a church than to allow a cult of personality to form around its preacher, and there are few things worse to happen to a Christian than to become part of a cult of personality around a teacher. When people answer theological questions not with “here’s what scripture says” but with “here’s what Piper says,” that frightens me, and it’s happened to me all to frequently recently. To paraphrase Paul, “When one says, ‘I am of Piper’ and another, ‘I am of Wright,’ are you not carnal?”

I say that not to be critical, though, but rather for two reasons. One, to explain my biases at the outset of this review, and, two, to say that because of all that discussion and devotion, I had certain expectations going into it when my Bible study group decided to study Piper’s Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ.  Surely this was going to be brilliant and inspired and informative. Surely this would let me see what it was that inspired that sort of interest and loyalty.  Like I said, guess you had to be there.

The problem that I had with “Spectacular Sins” is that it’s just a sloppy book.

I agree with Piper on some things. I disagree with him on some. There were many things in this book that, superficially, sounded like things I would agree with. None of them were particularly groundbreaking or made me think about things in new ways, but they still seemed to be good points.

The problem is, I’m not entirely sure; the logic in his arguments was so flimsy that I really didn’t have enough to judge their merits. The first three chapters of the book contained so many unsupported suppositions that the entire book collapsed for me from their flimsy support. Piper groups things like crimes and natural disasters together as “evil” with no explanation why. He essentially argues that someone doing something unpopular or with bad consequences is sin, even if it’s God’s will, with no evidence that this is the case. He takes examples of places in scripture where, he says,  “sin” is “caused” by God and applies those universally, with no acknowledgment or discussion of the examples that don’t say that.

(And, leaving this particular text for a moment, this doesn’t seem to be the only time Piper has done this. During the study, another participant, attempting to clarify Piper’s stance, referred me to an essay Piper had written in which he argues that God does everything for His glory, citing a handful of passages in scripture that say God did something to make His glory known [an important distinction from saying He did it for his glory, but that’s beside the point], ignoring all of the other reasons God did things throughout the rest of scripture. This same pick-and-choose approach could be used, for example, to focus only on times God did things regretfully to paint Him as depressed and petulant. That same approach basically is used by many Christians who paint God as angry and judgmental, and it’s just as wrong for Piper to do it as it is for them.)

And I was left wondering why. From all accounts, Piper is an intelligent enough man that he should see the holes in faulty logic. Does he simply take his beliefs so much for granted that he doesn’t realize there’s a need to support them? Is he trying to shortcut to a bigger focus and not realizing that he’s shortchanging the conclusion as a result? Does he believe that a bit of slight-of-hand is justified in convincing people of his views? Is he just an ingrained part of the preacher culture in which Christians are encouraged to take the word of professionals instead of figuring things out themselves? Again, I say this not to be critical of Piper but of the book; its flaws were so distracting that questions like these, not about the subject matter were the main ones I came out of it with.

As for Piper himself, I’ve already bought some more of his books, and I would love to discover that Spectacular Sins was just one bad experience.

Save your ten bucks, here’s all you need to know from the book, and the one point Piper did make convincingly — Some times God does good things when bad things happen.