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Monday, July 30, 2012

Journaling and Interpretive Imagination

This summer I'm in a class for Christian Spiritual Formation. We've covered a good bit of material, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and Pierre Wolff, and I have to say, I've enjoyed it. One of the assignments (which has now been rendered optional, though I intend to do it) was to explore and practice a spiritual discipline with which I have never experimented or familiarized myself. I chose journaling. I've only been doing it for two days, and I'm not totally sure what to expect. Our professor e-mailed us this morning to tell us that this assignment was no longer a requirement, and for several reasons. The reason which stuck out in my mind most was that practicing a spiritual discipline and writing on it in a matter of a few months or weeks is highly artificial. By the time this paper will have been due, I'll only have journaled a couple of weeks, tops.

Even so, I think there is some value to beginning this discipline. It should not be a short term pursuit for the sake of a grade, and since that's no longer an issue, I feel it will be a good step toward a long-lived practice. In A. A. Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, she is kind enough to give brief summaries of what different practices entail, scriptures to consider when performing them, and potential effects of their usage. I've considered journaling before, but not as a spiritual discipline. It was an overwhelming notion for me to attempt to write out all the events of my life as they were happening. However, Calhoun's handbook details that parts of the practice include the writing of poetry, scrapbooking, recording prayers, and attempting to view your life in terms of what God is doing.

The final bit there is most intriguing to me. This journaling has the potential for attempting to find how God is working in one's life. This is not just a passive kind of, "Oh, God totally saved me from getting hit by that car, and then he gave me a cool dream about riding unicorns!" It's the opportunity for interpretive imagination.

One of the beautiful things about reading the Gospels is their use of interpretive imagination. Where Historical Jesus studies find differences in whether Jesus actually did this or that, I tend to look at the instances when the author creatively uses Old Testament texts to present a narrative about Jesus. There are many parallels between Jesus and Moses in Matthew, usage of Isaiah in Mark, retellings of stories about Elijah and Elisha in Luke, etc. The Gospel writers are excellent crafters of story, especially considering the stories' roots in Hebrew literature.

This is, I think, one of the great opportunities of journaling: I have the chance to, in writing, explore the presence of God in the comings and goings of daily life, to interpret the normal in light of the extraordinary. So let's find some extraordinary.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Research Dilemma

I don't often post about personal problems, but I've got one. I'm writing a research paper on Hebrew lament for a class on World Religions, but I'm having some problems. First of all, I have this enormous temptation to write it like an exegetical paper. However, it's not meant to be an exegesis of a biblical text. I settled on a Jewish topic, not because Judaism and Christianity are close cousins, but because I don't know a whole lot about it. The easy excuse for me here is that, by learning more about Judaism and Hebrew history/literature, I am furthering my work in biblical studies, Old Testament-style.

Here's another issue: I'm finding it difficult to prevent myself from writing for a Christian audience. I was sooo close to having a section on what Jewish lament means for modern Western Christians. But the thought occurred to me that this is not what the paper is about. If I were taking an advanced Old Testament class and chose lamentation as a genre, that would be something else. But this is for World Religions. I'm attempting to elucidate an aspect of another religion with which I am unfamiliar. But how do I do this without attempting to relate it to Christians or a Christian view of biblical studies?

I realized I have not written a research paper without a Christian purpose in about 5 years. I've written a few decent papers: Romans 12.14-21, divorce, porn and families, the Messianic Secret, Mark 5.1-20, an analysis of the growth patterns of the church I attended... every one of them had a Christian basis. Now I'm writing about Jewish literature with no Christian end-game, and I'm stumped.

*Sigh* I've got a couple weeks to figure this out, but I had better hurry. If you guys have any ideas, leave them in the comments. Here's hoping we find a solution.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rules Getting in the Way

Was not the Sabbath made for man, rather than man for the Sabbath? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Did David not eat the bread of the Presence while on the run from Saul? Did Job not question and accuse God, yet God called him alone righteous among his friends? Didn't Jesus break the rules to follow the two greatest commands of God?

These questions run through my head as I consider the possibilities for the future of our world. As I find myself more and more invested in the presence and thoughts of same-sex relationships, these are the questions which plague me. I remember the first time I heard someone speak of a Christian argument in favor of same-sex marriage, and I thought it was ludicrous. A year later I married my wife, and that concept didn't really seem to matter much. Almost a month after my marriage began I got a job, and several of my coworkers were gay. This past December, I wrote a post on the topic. And seven months after that post, I find myself taken aback by Chick-fil-A's new campaign against homosexual relationships, saying that they are taking a stand for traditional marriage, for the kind of marriage created by God. So a few more thoughts come to mind now.

First of all, did God create marriage? For those who hold a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11, the obvious answer is yes. But I'm not one of those people. Even if those eleven chapters are ignored in terms of historical validity, it seems a common thought that marriage is a big deal in the Bible. But what do we mean when we say "traditional marriage"? The assumption is one man and one woman, but how is that the tradition? Abraham's wife was his half-sister, and also took his wife's servant to give him a son; Jacob had two wives and two maidservants mother his children; Samson couldn't stay with one woman long enough for it to have mattered much to him; David had multiple wives and concubines, but counted his love for Jonathan as greater than any of those (though this is not explicitly a romantic type of love as far as I am aware); Solomon, the wisest man ever according to God, had multiple wives as well (and any man with a single wife knows that's crazy!); Hosea's wife was a prostitute who kept leaving him for other men; Jesus is not described as having had attraction for one gender or the other, and as far as we know, was always single.

The only people for whom the current vision of "traditional marriage" seems to have mattered were elders/presbyters and deacons/ministers/servants of the Christian congregations (1 Timothy 3, esp. vv. 1-13). Even then it does not seem that every single criterion in the list of elder and deacon qualifications could possibly be fulfilled simultaneously, so should we think that all of them apply every single time? Maybe, maybe not.

A thought to be considered, which I first read from James McGrath's post and I suggest reading, is whether it is good for people of different sexualities to be alone. The people who are fighting hardest for marriage are not heterosexual couples. When Christian divorce rates are likely as high as the secular, are we really fighting for traditional marriage? Are we fighting for anything?

And so I ask: when it comes to certain topics like same-sex marriage, could it be that we are enforcing rules over and above the basic command to love each other? I once read that anti-LBGT Christians whose children come out of the closet have a choice: to hate their children or to alter their theology. Once I had friends who were Christian and gay, I had a choice to make, and I chose the latter. I also once heard that the love of God is the most powerful thing in the universe. If this is our driving force, will we break rules like Jesus did?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Spiritual Discipline

This is a modified version of a discussion forum in the online class I'm currently taking, Christian Spiritual Formation. I like to think I've learned a little in the last couple months, but here are some of the thoughts I've come to recently.
The initial question was this: "What relationship exists among human effort, human responsibility, divine sovereignty and grace?" And here was my response, as well as some afterthoughts in response to statements made by my peers.
As far as I can tell, I might be the youngest person in this class. As such, I may also be the least disciplined, having had the least amount of time to develop discipline. But as I reach the conclusion of the first year of my marriage, I find more and more reason to be disciplined: disciplined to do the dishes; to fold the laundry; to find a new job; to do my homework; to kiss my wife goodnight every night.

But how much does my discipline have to do with my spirituality? My initial reaction is to say, “Well, a lot!” But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that my focus is “me.” Do I have a responsibility to be disciplined? Perhaps. Does God have an obligation to reign in the life of the believer, to pour rain on the just and the unjust? I suspect only the obligation God places upon himself.

When I consider the possible relationship “among human effort, human responsibility, divine sovereignty and grace,” I immediately go to read Titus. Growing up, the only thing I remember ever hearing from Titus was the leadership quality list in ch. 1 for the election of elders (on the rare occasion that my native congregation elected them). What I had never heard, however, was what followed soon afterward. It was not until my junior year of my undergraduate study when I heard in particular Titus 2.11-14:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our greatGod and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

A few points in this text were highlighted: God’s grace trains us, teaches us to say, “no.” We are not left to learn to do so on our own. Redemption and purification are not immediate, but a process. I don’t remember anything from my time before college when I was told that my relationship with God was not entirely up to me. I was given a highly self-centered, self-governed, individualistic vision of spirituality, and this minuscule passage blew that away. But as I sat in a lecture in the middle of an on-campus youth ministry conference, I was told something different: “You don’t have to do this alone. You needn’t carry this all upon yourself. It’s okay to be fragile and weak, for what else are you apart from God? But God will make you strong, and he’s working on it. God is working on you, and he’s not done yet.”

Human effort and responsibility have their place, but only if that place is found in the folds of “the grace of God [that] appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” only happen when grace is our teacher, and we sit at the feet of the Lord. This thing called spiritual discipline is as much God’s responsibility as it is ours, which may be one of the most comforting things I have ever heard.
(Responsive thoughts)
It seems to be a recurring theme throughout biblical literature that God is the main player. For suffering, Job, Paul, even Jesus look to God. If the Bible is not, as I grew up thinking, a how-to-get-saved manual, but a story about God, then why not apply the same concept to spiritual discipline? It is far too easy to make this about myself, much like marriage. Just because I'm good at Greek and somehow scraped an A in Hebrew doesn't mean I'm disciplined, but that I did something I enjoyed (for the most part, anyway). I can recognize that marriage takes discipline just as a five-year-old can tell that a comic book takes skill to draw. He knows it's cool and awesome looking, but can also discern that it is something he cannot do (at least, not yet anyway). You can try to become as good as that artist, but imagine it's more about the artist than yourself. It's not even about the comic book, and that's something I think we miss a lot too! I don't think I can overemphasize how important God is to the process of spiritual discipline; without the artist whom we ought to emulate, what's the point in learning to draw?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Redemptive Ambiguity: Mark 6.11

Yesterday morning at church, the daily reading was from Mark 6.7-17, the sending out of the Twelve and the beginning of Herod's path to beheading John the Baptist. Since I had a Greek New Testament with me (which I kind of always have with me), I thought I'd check it out. And I found something interesting. Here's the phrase I'm working on from v. 11: "ἐκπορευόμενοι ἐκεῖθεν ἐκτινάξατε τὸν χοῦν τὸν ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν ὑμῶν εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς."

The usual way of translating the last few words is, "in witness against them." Now here's the thing. That last word there, αὐτοῖς (autois), is a form of the word "he, she, it" (as a pronoun) or "self" (as an adjective). The particular form it takes is called a dative, which is usually an indirect object.

An indirect object kind of receives the action from a verb, but also kind of doesn't. If someone says, "I threw him the ball," what was thrown? One would hope the ball was being thrown, and the person was just catching it, right? Technically, this sentence is a bit ambiguous; it's not perfectly clear what is being thrown. But if we rearrange the sentence a bit and add a preposition, it clears right up: "I threw the ball to him." Now we know we're not throwing him, but the ball. The αὐτοῖς from above would be "to them, for them, with them," etc. It's an indirect object.

So here's my question: why is this often translated as "against them"? Given the context, this witness deals with hospitality, which is a big deal to Jews. In Genesis 18, Abraham is spending time with God, but apparently blows him off to take care of complete strangers. It has been said that the primary sin of Sodom was inhospitality, which was also the final straw. It was mostly inhospitable to treat strangers in such a way, rather than sexual sin (see also Judges 19, which seems like a retelling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). So when Jesus sends out the Twelve, they are to rely on the hospitality of others.

There is no reason αὐτοῖς cannot be "against them," given the context of Jewish hospitality traditions and the grammatical category of a dative of disadvantage (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 142-144). If someone asks something of you, you give it to them. This likely extends to visitors making use of your home. Thus it makes sense that the testimony, the witness presented with reference to its receiver (its indirect object, as it were) be a negative witness, a "witness against them." If they are in a cultural norm of hospitality, and they withhold that, that puts them in the seat of the defendant, the prosecuted, the hot seat that no one wants.

But what if the naked dative, this standalone indirect object word, is intentionally ambiguous? If it were absolutely to be translated "against them," there are words which could indicate that. Sometimes εἰς, which does in fact precede the αὐτοῖς, can mean "against." However, it seems to be paired with μαρτύριον (marturion; witness, testimony). So can the same preposition be applied to two different words in a sentence and take on two different meanings? Probably not. It seems most likely that αὐτοῖς is in fact a naked dative.

Let's then assume this dative does stand by itself. Could an alternate translation be "to them"? What if the Twelve are not just testifying "against them," against the inhospitable people, but are also witnessing "to them"? Is there even the slightest chance that this could be an offering of redemption?
In Matthew 5.38-39, turning the other cheek is introduced to the reader. This is a beautiful act of redemption which doesn't really seem like one to Westerners. To "turn the other cheek" in our culture means simply to ignore given abuse. But let's view it like first-century Jews for a moment. If you slap someone, you do it with the back of your hand. This is seriously offensive to the person being backhanded. If that person turns his other cheek, however, then the hand that just did the slapping cannot reach the cheek he slapped. The palm of the hand can reach that side of the face, but the back can't. If you place the palm of your hand on their face, you are forgiving them and yourself. If you turn your cheek, you give the slapper the opportunity to regain some of his humanity, to act as God would have him act, with "mercy, not sacrifice," with forgiveness in the face of wrath, with a new beginning despite destruction and chaos.

So what if this witness, this testimony, is an act of redemption? What if the ambiguity of the dative is intentional, so that it can be "against" and "to/for" at the same time? Can this judgment against them be also a testimony to them, an opportunity for them to regain some of their humanity? I think it can.