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history will teach us something…

Bloged in apprenticeship, church, primary sources by rod Sunday April 23, 2006

…if we stop asking the wrong questions.

I know that there are things that I say over and over, and that some of my rants get beat to death, but from time to time, things become clearer in my mind, or I think of a way to say something that might be clearer than before. I’m always compelled to say it again. A good while ago, I actually posted a several blogs about our failure to use primary sources. In fact, that series wasn’t the first time I’ve addressed my aggravation with that fact. At some point, I made a comment that we seem to be teaching from the gospels less and from the epistles more and more. As a result, we are viewing Paul as the interpreter of Jesus. A comment to that post asked me to unpack that statement, but as I got busy, I never returned to do that.
There have been several events in the past 2 weeks that have got my mind back in my primary sources rant, so this morning I was contemplating these events and surmising about their outcomes. In light of my comment about Paul being our interpreter of Jesus, it occurred to me that we have less trouble understanding backward interpretation from the time of Jesus. Somehow, we realize and accept that Jesus’ teaching was interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures - for us, the Old Testament. Jesus told us that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He constantly points to and quotes scripture and gives clues to how it spoke of him. John, often points out the meaning of actual events by explaining from the Old Testament, why it had to take place the way it did. Even after the resurrection (an event that should have made sense retroactively of many passages, and many of Jesus’ own words), Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus opening the meaning of the scriptures to them.
This makes sense to us, that Jesus should come along and make sense of all that had been said before concerning him. So we develop a system of retro understanding. The words and events in Jesus’ life make sense of prior history. But the truth of this is that the words and events of Jesus’ life make sense of ALL of history. Jesus is the hub around which all of history must be interpreted and by which it makes sense. Forward and back. Somehow we make errant generalizations from the knowledge that Jesus made sense of the past, so that we think the past should always be interpreted from the present. In other words, we can make sense of Jesus from what we’ve heard and said about him since. We look backward with an arrogance that we are better equipped now to understand what he was saying, rather than realize that what he was saying would better equip us to understand ourselves now. This attitude and disconnect is manifest in my previous statement of how we regard the epistles. We use Paul’s teaching to interpret Jesus rather than Jesus’ teaching to interpret Paul. Jesus has got to be regarded as the interpreter of everything taught, not only the things taught before him. We have got to ask, how are we to understand Paul, in light of what Jesus said?
A much more blatant disconnect is our ability to completely miss things that Jesus seems to have addressed, because we’ve become much more dependent upon consistent church tradition and praxis. Without knowledge of why things have been done and become custom, we run the danger of applying the practice as procedure but have no purpose in doing so. There are practices that we would defend to the death, but that have no biblical basis. We fail to realize they have no biblical basis, because it is just how we’ve always done it, and we assume that our intentions assure we’re operating biblically. Our blindness robs us of humility, and the ability to give grace and love.
We must not use church tradition and human commentary, habits and assumptions, to interpret what Jesus was teaching and doing. We must be willing to listen to him to come to evaluate and interpret what has happened, what we’ve done and who we’ve been ever since. If we were able to think this way, we would find Jesus perfectly capable of being our teacher, our instructor with ample knowledge to train us to live even today.
While today falls very short in proclaiming the ability to make sense of Jesus teaching, his teaching is ample and suited to explaining today to us.

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a sign of Jonah

Bloged in apprenticeship, primary sources by rod Wednesday March 8, 2006

At the end of January, when the controversy over “End of the Spear” was rippling the evangelical community, I found myself on the way home from church stewing over some things I’d recently read. In a quiet moment, coming down Broad River Road, it struck me that these people at whom I was so angry were sincere. They too, were angry at what they sincerely believed to be wrong. So much of the information they’d gathered to form their opinions was false, but they sincerely believed that they were speaking out about what God wanted them to speak on. They mocked passions and prayers of Christian brothers who desired to reach out and show love, but they believed they were speaking the truth in righteousness.
This occurred to me because I’d been thinking about Jonah. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because the people there were so far gone. He would be mocked, possibly physically harmed, who knows? But it was assured that he’d go and suffer all this and be run out of town by an unchanged, mocking people. So much trouble, unfruitful, in his mind, they were beyond the grace of God. He could just go to Tarshish and no doubt do the “Lord’s work” there. He’d be doing what he was supposed to do, and perhaps these people would respond. He could even tell them about how evil the people of Nineveh were.
So there I was, with a slightly more understanding, tolerant and less angry feeling about the folks, a bit of insight into their passion. But at the same time, I was consciously bewildered that though I’d found a connection to their misguided convictions and those of Jonah, they had learned absolutely nothing from Jonah’s story, that taught them about God’s grace and ability to work the seemingly impossible.

Several weeks later, I’d pretty much weaned myself from the need to visit those blogs, and find who or what was receiving their scathing criticism. But one night, recently I was browsing and couldn’t stay away. Lo and behold, the object of the wrath was the movie “Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.” I HAD to read. Basically the post was simply a reference to an article by another writer who was warning of all the loose treatment of scripture, the liberties taken with the script, the irreverence, the humor juxtaposed with the dealing with sin, etc. These are all legitimate concerns, but evidently didn’t make for a long enough diatribe.
In order to pit the seriousness of taking a animated treatment of the story, Jesus was quoted to establish Jonah as a prophet of God, and a symbol of Jesus own atoning act. This seemed to be noted so that it would be obvious that Jonah, once spewed from the fish, behaved in heart and action according to God’s will. The movie however, depicted Jonah at the end, sitting on a hill, sulking at their repentance, waiting to watch God drop the bomb on Nineveh. The movie showed him as an immature, selfish, self-righteous grump, when Jesus had called him a “prophet of God”. Sheesh.
When I read this, I was reminded of all my rants about primary sources, especially our dependence on oral tradition. It seemed obvious to me that the writer of this critical theological review of an animated children’s movie had NOT read the book of Jonah, on which it was based. She obviously didn’t understand the significance of the movie character, Khalil, a worm.
Sure we don’t find him sitting up there sulking in our Sunday School versions from when we were children. That doesn’t make for an inspiring lesson in changed hearts, and obedience. The book of Jonah, in fact doesn’t exhibit a prophet restored with a changed, merciful,understanding heart. The changed and forgiven are the Ninevites. The suffering and prideful is Jonah – at the END of the story. How many 1st graders know about the plant sent to shade Jonah even in his sinful, selfish sulking? How many know about the worm sent to kill the plant that was giving him shade?
I don’t see this “liberal” movie tainting scripture as the problem. I see the story tweaked beyond its meaning in Sunday School, rendering adults unable to recognize the real story when it’s presented even in cartoon form.

In reality, Jonah had been severely let down. Everything he understood about righteousness, justice, God’s wrath and sovereignty, divine cause and effect, the deadly wages of sin, had all been dashed by the one thing he didn’t seem to understand – God’s mercy. Surely, also, Jonah had to now realize that the Ninevites were loved just as much as he was. Although he’d done right, followed God, kept himself clean (to the point of not wanting to even be around those Ninevites), Nineveh was being treated with favor just like he was. He obviously didn’t see the severity of his immediately prior disobedience though he’d spent 3 days in death’s belly and had been spared.

Of course I’m speaking of these things out of selfishness, I want to use this illustration as evidence of our reliance on oral tradition and secondary sources rather than reading and mining, and devour the text ourselves. But Jonah, is a fine topic to discuss because we seem to have missed the point from our big fish story. Yes it is about forgiveness and changed hearts. But it was the Ninevites that illustrate this. It is about failure to see God’s mercy and grace though confronted with over and over, and THEN actually to be offended by God’s mercy bestowed on someone else, while it is also being poured all over me.

primary sources 4.0: oral tradition

Bloged in apprenticeship, primary sources by rod Wednesday March 1, 2006

A short while ago, I wrote a series about our failure to garner the information that shapes our beliefs, convictions, apprenticeship, and formation from primary sources. As an illustration, I mentioned having spoken with my class about The Da Vinci Code, and as expected, found that everyone knew much about the book, but few had actually read it. I was reminded of all this more recently when End of the Spear received so much harsh criticism, and the criticism spilled over to the individuals who were part of the story or the making of the movie. I read post after post of repeated slander, hatred, accusations, but little of it was based in truth or knowledge. I commented on one to point out that it was far from the truth, but was censored and banned from commenting at all. Of course, later, some of these folks were confronted with the truth and felt compelled to apologize for their knee-jerk reactions that weren’t founded in knowledge. The folks who repeated their falsehoods, however, just seemed to avoid the subject altogether, and go on to some other third-hand subject to spew venom about.
Still more recently, the original illustration I used with the Da Vinci Code was refreshed in my mind by an article in last week’s New Yorker. The article is about Mary Magdalene. In order to give a bit of a background for the article as to how the Magdalene has become who she has become, the author Joan Accocella, spends some time explaining the oral tradition that spawned the written accounts in the Gospels. She also points out that after the accounts were set to paper, the oral tradition and the adding to the story never really stopped. She uses Magdalene as the example and explains that although she is mentioned only a few times (though her role is great), we certainly know an inordinate amount about her. This is precisely because most of what we think we know, we’ve made up. During the past 1500 years, much of the addition to the recorded information appears to have been intentional, to create a Biblical disciple that would suit our political needs.

Any of my students can tell you that one of my most frequented rants is that we spin our wheels discussing and attempting to implement spiritual formation methods, while we dreadfully neglect teaching the teaching of Jesus from the pulpit. We do a ton of teaching other peoples’ teaching about Jesus. And of course, this teaching about Jesus is arrived at by great study and contemplation by others, but it is manmade and in many instances, conjecture.
In his brand new book, “Eat This Book”, Peterson agrees with my years-old rant. He says that renewed interest in spiritual formation has not brought us more interested in the text necessary for shaping the souls. Likewise, only care about the text leaves no souls to whom it can be applied. Has the bible become a source for information on what to believe, but completely unhelpful in showing how to let our beliefs change our lives? We study the scripture for theology and doctrine and for discipleship, we conjecture what would Jesus do? What would jesus eat?
But when is the last time we actually, read and contemplated what is actually there and why it is actually there? I was telling Allison about the Acocella article and ended up reading some of it to her. We both sat at the kitchen table and looked up the passages that include Mary Magdalene. Of course I didn’t expect to find most of the stuff that people are now claiming about her, but I was amazed at how little is actually there, and at what assumptions I’ve added to the text based on what other people ponder and wonder about.
I was angered by reading about how, in a mostly illiterate culture, things were added to the story that served the purposes of those in power. I thought more about how livid the Christian community was when the Da Vinci Code was published. In no time, there were numerous books debunking the premise. Numerous editions of the Gnostic Gospels were published, and countered with books debunking them. Mary Magdalene became a star again, in much the way she was in the 15th century when she became a character that could inspire a book like the Da Vinci Code.
Then I thought about how much we add today. The biblical record is still just as much an oral tradition as it ever was. We extract verses and portions of verses and implant them in other contexts, and slap it all onto a powerpoint slide. We have Magi and animals at the nativity, we have… It is actually difficult to pick up the text, read it for yourself and notice what is there. We still add, even in our reading, what we assumed was there but isn’t. We don’t notice much of what IS there, because we’ve so many aurally gained notions that we no longer know how to read to learn.

primary sources 3.0

Bloged in apprenticeship, church, primary sources by rod Tuesday November 22, 2005

What if we were to start from scratch? What if we admit that we know next to nothing, realize that most of what we know, we’ve made up ourselves, take a good hard look at what we’ve been given and start all over? What would starting over look like? What would Christianity look like if only the gospel were taken to a tribal culture and received?
No cultural bias, no procedures, no prejudices.
Do we believe that it is possible to be a Jesus follower outside our cultural frame of reference? Does the gospel really play without three songs and a sermon? Is it possible to worship without a Wesley hymn, or a Chris Tomlin song?
What if a people were given the gospel, untainted and were to express their belief and embrace of it entirely within their own context?

primary sources 2.0

Bloged in apprenticeship, church, primary sources by rod Monday November 21, 2005

Recently I was pointing out to my class our problem with the avoidance of primary documents. I asked the class how many of them had read, The Da Vinci Code. Two students raised their hands. I asked how many knew what the book was about. Nearly the whole class raised their hands. I realized that this was a greater analogy than I’d anticipated, because I could make two points from two points of view.
The first point is that everyone knew quite a bit about the book, AND had opinions about it, without having read it. So I made my point about primary sources. All opinions had been formed from others’ remarks and comments, and even those tended to have been aimed at portions of the book, or certain claims that the book made.
The second point was about the book itself, which cites as proof of claims, the art and activities of Leonardo da Vinci, as if da Vinci, 1400 years after the time of Christ, could be the definitive answer to controversial theories surrounding the characters in the story. I pointed out that the book has “canonized” da Vinci’s beliefs, and cites them as proof, just as we canonize the traditions, practices and methodologies, that have developed over the course of a few centuries, and are not so separated in time from da Vinci’s. So basically, in the context of the book, we’ve got third hand information arguing against third hand information.
We are notorious for this. We live third-hand in our understanding of the scriptures, in our understanding of contemporary culture, in our understanding of other Christian denominations, in our understanding of other religions, in our understanding of other individuals. We have taken the concept of gossip and applied it how we relate to the world. We easily cite someone’s written debunking of a book, but have never read the debunked book. We know what “those people” believe, because someone who believes like us told us. We have training retreats, strategy huddles, information seminars – to tell us who our neighbors are, what their interests are, etc., when all this information is available first hand from our neighbors. I can quote contemporary authors’ biblical commentary and never be questioned, but if I quote biblical concepts, I’m asked to back up my argument with scripture. We don’t recognize it. The bible itself sounds foreign to us. Especially in context.
We are a vicarious religion. We study vicariously, we socialize vicariously, we minister vicariously, we preach vicariously, we worship vicariously.
That’s how I feel. But someone may have already told you that.

primary sources 1.0

Bloged in apprenticeship, church, primary sources by rod Sunday November 20, 2005

We’ve all heard the analogy of many pianos all tuned to a single source. As a by-product all the instruments are in tune one with another. I like this analogy, because I know the devastating results of tuning any other way. So why do we tune in other ways? Why have we thought it sufficient to tune each piano to the one beside it, so that any error along the way gets compounded in each subsequent instrument?
A popular way to tune the guitar is by using the harmonic at the 5th fret as the pitch by which to tune the harmonic at the 7th on the next higher string. This method is acoustically perfect and easy to hear, but our tuning system is not based on an acoustically perfect model. We use a system called equal temperament, meaning that most notes are adjusted a bit out-of-tune, so that we end up with equal intervals across the scale. By tuning the guitar in the method described above, the first string tuned will be 2 cents off from equal tempered tuning. Each string will be 2 cents off from the preceding string, but 4 cents off from the one before that. Each string adds its 2 cent error to the already existing difference between the preceding strings.
Maybe analogies are not what are needed here. Shouldn’t we be able to look back and see that as we’ve tuned each of our strings to the immediately preceding string, that we’ve unquestioningly depended upon the accuracy of that string – so much so, that we will cite it’s frequency as proof that we’re in tune. At each step along the way, each tuning uses as its argument, the presumed accuracy of the ones before it, but it seems not to be noticed that they are all not tuned to one another, the errors seem to be random, and the discordant discrepancies seem to be ignored.
In Christendom, we have canonized commentaries and interpretations, mandates, resolutions, etc., as the basis of our doctrine as if they were to be included in the inerrant, God-breathed canon of Holy Scripture. We are so much quicker to quote Calvin or Luther, or Darby than we are to grapple over the primary sources of the Gospel. We verbally live and breathe by the doctrine of sola scriptura, but in practice, opt for decisions, resolutions, and interpretations made by historical religious figures. A way of discipleship that they, themselves were trying to reform.

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