Friday, March 28, 2008

Four Easy Steps to Becoming a Bad Teacher

On March 13, 1809, Alexander Campbell—that great religious reformer of the nineteenth century—wrote in his diary,

A man may enter a garden for three purposes: First, to learn the art of gardening; second, for pleasure; third, to gather fruit. So may a man read the Bible for three things: First, to learn to read it or dispute about it; second, to read the historical parts for pleasure; third, to gather fruit; this last is the true way.

Campbell realized that anytime a person reads the Bible, he starts out with certain intentions. Some people, he says, are most likely to read the Bible when they’re trying to prove a point or win an argument. Other people might read stories from the Bible, but only because they like fine literature. There is a third alternative. Campbell calls it “the true way,” the way of gathering fruit. The image of gathering fruit suggests a kind of Bible study where the student takes away something that is truly from God, naturally good, something healthy that can be shared with others. How different that is from what Paul speaks against in 1 Timothy 1:3-11:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work—which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. 8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (New International Version)

Paul begins by urging Timothy to deal with “certain men,” teachers in the church who clearly don’t follow the true way. They teach “false doctrines” and must be stopped. As he continues, Paul identifies where these misguided people had gone wrong. Consider his description as four easy steps to becoming a bad teacher:

1. Go beyond the clear teaching of the Word.

According to verse 4, the misguided teachers were devoted to “myths and endless genealogies.” In the New Testament “myth” refers to an untrue story, a fiction quite different from the factual truth of the gospel. As the Apostle Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). It is likely that in the context of 1 Timothy 1, the myths began with the genealogies of the Old Testament. But from there they were turned into fanciful stories, nothing more than mere speculation. Moses told the ancient Israelites, “Do not add to what I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). Bad teachers disregard that principle.

2. Be satisfied with little more than a lively discussion.

Many of today’s political talk shows are nothing more than shouting matches that resolve nothing. That sort of program would have appealed to the “teachers” Paul speaks against in 1 Timothy 1. They promoted “controversies” and reveled in “meaningless talk.” While it’s true that dialogue can lead to real learning, it is not enough for a Bible teacher to ask a provocative question and set off a discussion. That’s because not every discussion promotes “God’s work” (verse 4). Bad teachers ignore that distinction.

3. Focus on yourself.

In verse 7, Paul implies that Timothy’s opponents were driven by the wrong motive. They wanted to be recognized as “teachers of the law.” Because of their selfishness, they failed to lift up Christ. Healthy teaching springs from a simple desire to tell others about the grace and demands of God. So often, the root of false teaching is an evil heart. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Bad teachers rarely doubt their sincerity. It never occurs to them that they might be the wolves.

4. Don’t study.

In verse 7, Paul levels a sharp accusation against the would-be teachers: they “do not understand what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Every generation has its “teachers” who disregard the discipline of study and pass off their unsupported opinions as the truth. Without bothering to master even the basics of a subject, they attempt to instruct others. When this problem enters the church it always detracts from the gospel and results in spiritual decay. William Barclay wrote, “It may well be that the Christian cause has suffered more from ignorant dogmatism than anything else.” A teacher must first spend the time and effort to learn and to clarify his own thinking. Bad teachers can’t be bothered with that.

Turning from the negative to the positive, notice two simple characteristics of healthy, sound teaching identified in 1 Timothy 1:

1. Its goal is to further God’s plan.

This means that the true goal of Bible study is to identify the will of God for our lives. Sound teaching is teaching that reveals the central messages of Scripture and that encourages hearers to obey the Lord. Those who want to teach the Bible must convey the whole counsel of God and in everything give the first place to Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28; Colossians 1:18).

2. It results in love.

Sound teaching promotes “love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (verse 5). Wherever the Good News about Jesus is taught and received, it changes lives from the inside out, producing love for God and love for other people.
  • Jesus himself said that of all the commandments the greatest are these: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31).
  • He taught that his disciples would be known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35).
  • To the Ephesians Paul wrote, "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us" (5:2).
  • In Colossians 3:14, he said that love is the great virtue “which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
Christians must avoid the mistakes of the misleading teachers. The best way to do that is to promote healthy teaching. As we do that, God will by his word in our hearts cause us to grow in love, to reflect both his truth and his goodness.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Michele's Much Better!

It's been a while since I asked for your prayers for my wife. She had what they call a procedure and what I call ear surgery back on March 7th. For several long days after the surgery--and I mean LONG--it seemed like she had no hearing on that side at all. I was "concerned" to say the least.

More recently, though, the packing inside her ear has been taken out. Even before that, a little bit of her hearing had started to come back. That was the biggest relief to me because then I was assured that she wouldn't be deaf on that side. Of course, removal of the packing improved things a bit more. And now, although not perfect, Michele's hearing in the critical ear has greatly improved.

We're relieved, thankful for your prayers, and grateful to God for this mercy in our lives.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Culture of the King James Bible

While on vacation, I'm reading In the World But Not of It: One Family's Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America, by Brett Grainger. It's a blend of memoir and religious history.

Grainger's well-written memories don't exactly match my own. He grew up in a family who were staunch members of the Plymouth Brethren. (These were F. F. Bruce's people. Their eschatology is dispensational premillennialist. Is this why Bruce, a first-rate New Testament scholar and prolific writer, never did a commentary on the Book of Revelation?) Anyway, here's a taste from one of the more memorable passages in Grainger's book:

However lowly they might be in the eyes of the world, the Brethren had one critical advantage: the King James Bible. When believers gathered to share the Word, they left behind the tedium and disappointment of daily life and became heirs of a great cultural legacy. Their imagination was immersed in Scripture. The hero epics of Genesis, the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the promises of Revelation, the psychology of the Psalms--by turns, hopeful and embittered, imprecatory and magnanimous--lent their hardscrabble lives a beauty and grace they might otherwise have lacked. The Bible compensated for their unpolished manners. It was more important to them than their cheap suits and unfashionable dresses.

When believers spoke with one another, the King James was their lingua franca. They used words long vanished from common speech: yea and nay and verily and whosoever, thee and thou and thine. They called one another brother and sister, as Paul had done in his epistles. Outside in the world, such antiquated habits would have sounded silly or affected. But on Sunday morning, when the plumber with a harelip stood and prayed over bread and wine in seventeenth-century English, it seemed as though he had found his mother tongue.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Pepe's Pizza But Not in New Haven

Last night was fun. Michele and I and three of our kids met up with some friends from here and ate some of the world's best pizza at the new Pepe's in Manchester, CT.

Now, anyone who knows Connecticut knows that Frank Pepe's, the home of the original American pizza (or, apizza) is in New Haven, not Manchester. The old place on Wooster Street in New Haven is still there, just like the sky hasn't fallen. But now, Pepe's has a new location. It's just across from the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester. This new place is especially great for book lovers, because when you park near the Barnes and Noble in the mall, the pizzeria is just across the street.

But someone might wonder: Is the pizza just as good? Our waiter explained to us that when Pepe's decided to branch out, they actually shut down the brick oven on Wooster Street, let it cool for a day, and then sent a guy in to take pictures, measurements, etc. so they could replicate it. The oven in Manchester certainly looks like the one on Wooster Street. And I have to say I think the pizza is just as good.

However, the new location is so upscale, suburban-ish. At Manchester, you lose something of the experience because you don't get the local color of Wooster Street. Not to mention that in New Haven, if the line at Pepe's is too long, you can always go down the street to Sally's (which a lot of folks say is even better.) Plus, at the old place, after pizza you can go over to Libby's Italian Pastry Shop for something sweet. (Their Italian ice is highly recommended).

You can read about Wooster Street pizza here. And if you haven't been to that old neighborhood in New Haven for something to eat, put the trip on your bucket list.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekend Wanderings

This is spring break week for us. On Saturday, we were supposed to have flown from Amarillo to Hartford. Connecticut is home to family and friends.

All flights were to have taken from about noon to 10:30 p.m. But one of the Southwest planes at Amarillo was down. So we didn't make it to Dallas in time to catch the connecting flight.

We wound up spending five hours at Dallas Love Field. From there we flew to Houston so we could catch the first plane out of Texas the next morning. We landed in Houston at 9, got in bed at ten, woke to the alarm at 4:30, to catch a flight at 6:00.

So we made it to Connecticut by noon Sunday, tired and unchurched. But we're here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

No "Soul" in the Psalms?

"He restoreth my soul" --King James Version

"My life He brings back" -- translation by Robert Alter

In Alter's new translation of the Book of Psalms, he avoids using the word "soul." Referring to the King James wording in Psalm 63:1--"my soul thirsteth for thee"--he explains:

The King James Version, and most modern translations in its footsteps, has the "soul" thirsting for God, but this is almost certainly a mistake. The Hebrew word nefesh means "life breath" and, by extension, "life" or "essential being." But by metonymy, it is also a term for the throat (the passage through which the breath travels) or, sometimes, for the neck. (pp. xxvii-xxviii).

A few pages after that, Alter says more about how he understands the word nefesh and why he translates it as he does:

Nefesh, as I observed above, has a core meaning of "life-breath," but the Vulgate generally rendered it as anima, and that in turn predisposed the King James translators to represent it as "soul." It covers so many different meanings that it is impossible to translate in all contexts with the same English equivalent, something I attempt to do with all the Hebrew terms that will allow it. The possessive "my nefesh" is often chiefly an intensive form of the first-person-singular pronoun and, given the lack of any analogous term in English, is usually rendered here simply as "I." When nefesh is the object of a verb such as "to save," the reasonable English translation is "life." Because it is the very breath that quickens a person with life, it sometimes carries the sense of "essential being," and in these cases it is usually rendered here as "being." I am aware that "my being" is more awkward than "my soul," but "soul" strongly suggests a body-soul split--with implications of an afterlife--that is alien to the Hebrew Bible and to Psalms in particular. (There are indications of a Hades-like underworld, Sheol, a shadowy realm of nonbeing into which the dead descend, but this remains far from the distinct afterworld of later Judaism and Christianity.) As such, "soul" is a word that has to be avoided if we are not to get a misleading idea of what the psalmists are saying. (pp. xxxii-xxxiii).

A few reactions, observations:

1. You don't have to read Hebrew to get a taste for what Alter is talking about. English-only readers can take a Young's Analytical Concordance and look up the word "soul." Then, looking at the Old Testament occurrences, read some of the passages where the original Hebrew word is nefesh. See if, in all of those instances, the words "breath" or "life" or, occasionally, "throat" or "neck" would make sense. I know, a possible substitute word does not establish the meaning of a word in the original. It's just that, without Hebrew, this is the best way to get a feel for the question of what nefesh means.

2. It's interesting how students of Hebrew can learn that their vocabulary word nefesh means something like "life" or "breath" etc., but then, when translating one of the biblical psalms, revert to the word "soul." I point this out as an example of how not even study of the original languages of the Bible will move us away from our cherished understandings of certain passages. In spite of the many references to what the Bible says "in the original," traditional English translations of the biblical text carry much more weight. Does anyone do more Bible teaching than a Bible translator?

3. In addition to what Alter observes about the flexibility of the term nefesh, and the necessity of using more than one English word to translate it throughout the Old Testament, in some verses I wonder if there is any English word that adequately communicates what nefesh does. Of course, if you're publishing a translation, then even at those "iffy" places, a decision has to be made.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Whimsical Wednesday

I've been meaning to rant about this ever since I heard the news last week. Here's what's buggin' me. On Monday night the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Madonna.

Muh-DON-nuh?! . . . In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? . . . While folks like the Steve Miller Band are still waiting in line? I just don't get it.

Hey, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Madonna didn't record rock and roll. Of course, neither did Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and they're in too. But I guess my question is, Why not induct the people who performed and recorded rock and roll? Just a thought. Oh, and what's the impeachment process?

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One of my weaknesses in teaching is that I don't often ask good questions. For a lot of my class sessions, I prepare a lecture that doesn't exactly want or invite interruption. So I don't often stop to ask a question. It's not that I don't want questions. And sometimes I do stop and ask, "Okay, what questions do you have?" But that's not the same thing as asking questions that actually involve the students in exploring the topic.

Yes, I've read that when students passively sit and listen, they don't take much home. They're much more likely to learn and retain something if they become active in responding to questions, or if they state what they know and think about the topic of the class. And I've accepted all of that. From the neck up. But I don't do much of that.

Oh, I guess I could blame my former teachers. Some of them presented straight lecture for hours on end. Class sessions were often a matter of us students writing down notes as they were read to us by the professor. It was like we'd signed up for a course in copying dictation. In one graduate course I took, students asked a grand total of two questions all semester long. In both instances, the question was an awkward interruption of the professor's reading class notes to us.

And then there's my preaching experience. Most sermons don't invite or want any sort of question, feedback, interruption. Our inherited definition of "preaching" means that nobody talks but the preacher, which is why many churches marvel at how smart the preacher is while everyone else feels sort of dumb and inadequate. (Ever notice that virtually all of the sermons in Acts get interrupted?) I think this point is connected to the health and growth of churches, but I digress.

I don't want to revert to the teaching models I've always known. A lot of them are weak and ineffective. I feel compelled to do better. But it's hard for classroom teachers to throw off the dream of being the sage on the stage. That's part of the problem. Another part is that teachers sometimes just don't know how to change for the better. So I want to begin by asking more, and better, questions in class. I'll begin by practicing on you:

1. You teachers out there, do you ask probing, open-ended questions when you teach? Did this come naturally to you, or did you have to develop it?

2. Who is the best "question-asking teacher"you know? What are that person's class sessions like?

3. Are there benefits and good uses of more less straight lecture or speeches? What are they?

4. It's assumed that today's Christian preaching is much more "conversational" than the preaching of a generation ago. If that's the case, do you church-goers have any experience with talk-back sermons? (that is, where listeners ask questions, pose problems, during a sermon).

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I'm teaching from John chapter 7 tonight. I've read and studied and thought. Guess I should pray too. Take a look. What questions sort of raise themselves when reading this passage? What's most conspicuous? Troubling?

Ideas? Thoughts? Suggestions?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Alter on the Psalter

It's Friday afternoon. Michele and I are home from the hospital, and she's sleeping off the anesthesia from this morning. (See previous post for details).

So while I sat in the waiting room, I read the "Introduction" to Robert Alter's new translation and commentary on The Book of Psalms. A couple months ago, I did a post about some of Alter's previous work, and some of the buzz about this latest book. You can read my earlier post here.
I've been toying with the idea of writing a review of Alter's latest. Just thinking about possible titles makes me smile. Alas, someone beat me to the punch on "Altering the Psalms" (the title that showed up in the journal "First Things"). Alter doesn't think terms like "sin" and "salvation" and "soul" belong in a translation of the Psalms. For reasons I might eventually talk about, he prefers Alter-natives like "crime" and "rescue" and "life." So what do you think about this title? "No Sin, No Soul, Nor Salvation in the Psalter: What Demon Hath Possessed Poor Robert Alter?" I know, too many words, and just a little on the sappy side. Darn. Anyway, here are some of the highlights from the "Introduction":

Alter starts out with "Historical Contexts" of the Book of Psalms. So many millions of people around the world and across the ages have read and cherished the Book of Psalms. It has become their book, our book. So it might be easy to forget that the Psalms are "intricately rooted in an ancient Near Eastern world that goes back to the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE) and that in certain respects is quite alien to modern people."

What was so different about that world? For one thing, just as modern Christians aren't the only ones who write religious music, the ancient Israelites weren't the only people who wrote psalms. Egyptians, Canaanites, and people living in Mesopotamia wrote psalm-like "cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods." Many of the biblical psalms are later than, and are sometimes quite similar to, their international counterparts.

These kinds of observations aren't new. And it doesn't seem that Alter intends them to be unsettling. However, I do know that sometimes believers assume that since the Bible is supposed to be unique among the books of the world, the writers couldn't have gotten their ideas from anywhere but heaven. (Such believers, I've noticed, also struggle with the idea that although he was more than a man, Jesus was a man). Often, when people read non-biblical literature that comes from the biblical period, they are surprised to find out how similar the Bible was to other books of the time. But a little further reflection suggests that we really shouldn't be surprised. After all, almost everywhere he went God-in-the-flesh walked. (I know, one time he did his walking on water. But the point is, Jesus didn't get around by hovering).

Regarding specific dates Alter thinks that "a few of the psalms might be as early as the Solomonic court, or even the pre-monarchic period. Many of these poems appear to have been written at some indeterminate point during the four centuries of the First Commonwealth (approximately 996 to 586 BCE). Many others offer evidence in their themes and language of composition in the period of the Return to Zion (that is, after 457 BCE)." This seems pretty standard.

One thing I especially liked about this first part of the "Introduction": Alter weighs in, and judiciously I think, on (1) the supposed cultic background to most of the psalms, and also on (2) the approach called Form Criticism.

Regarding the "cultic" (i.e., ritual worship) approach to the psalms often associated with the name Sigmund Mowinckel, Alter acknowledges that some of the psalms "were composed for use in the temple cult." (Again, he means worship at the temple). But, he adds: "What should be resisted is the inclination of many scholars, beginning in the early twentieth century, to turn as many psalms as possible into the liturgy of conjectured temple rites--to recover what in biblical studies is called the 'life-setting' of the psalms." I agree.

And when it comes to Form Criticism, most often associated with the name Hermann Gunkel, Alter insists that we must recognize its limited usefulness. This is the approach "that identifies distinct genres of psalms (supplication, thanksgiving, Wisdom psalm, royal psalm, historical psalm, Zion psalm, psalm of praise). Though these generic categories are sometimes useful for understanding the thrust of a particular text , there is more fluidity of genre than they allow, with many psalms being hybrids or switching genre in mid-course and at least a few psalms, such as Psalm 137, standing outside the system of genre." Once again, I think this is a fair critique, and well said.

Maybe I'll write more about the "Introduction" another time. But now I'm curious: Do you have a favorite psalm? Which ones have meant the most to you? Why?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Prayer Request, Religion Survey

Tomorrow, my Michele will undergo a procedure on one of her ears. Over the last few months, she's had quite a bit of hearing loss. We hope and pray, of course, that her hearing will be completely restored. Within a week or two we should know how much good was done. I'd appreciate it if you would include her in your prayers.

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I can't remember how I came to the following website. It's the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It includes a ton of detailed information about religious groups in the U.S. Check it out: