Friday, January 25, 2008

Two Sites You Might Like

I recently discovered two websites that I plan to visit again. Maybe you'd like them too. . . .

1. Ever wished you could just sit in on a good, basic college course? You're in luck. Yale University is now offering what it calls "Open Courses." Here's a blurb from the website: "Open Yale Courses provides free and open access to seven introductory courses taught by distinguished teachers and scholars at Yale University. The aim of the project is to expand access to educational materials for all who wish to learn." Check it out. The homepage is http://open.yale.edu/courses/

2. One of the best places I've found for clear, easy-to-use materials for study of the Bible is the website produced by Roman Catholic scholar Felix Just, S. J., Ph.D. The following URL is the homepage for his ENTER, "Electronic New Testament Educational Resources" http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/index.html

Happy studying!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's Our Anniversary!

Michele and I were married four years ago today. It's an understatement, but she's brought so much joy into my life. I'm really blessed to be her husband. (Disclaimer: I'm not really orange, and she's not really that white. It's the best photo I had).

It hasn't been easy for us. We were both previously married; both of us had experienced a painful, public divorce. All through our marriage, and even before, we've sometimes had to pay the fee for our overweight baggage. Along with the happiness, we've lived through some tears.

In certain ways, Michele and I are remarkably different. She would adopt every animal in the shelter if I'd let her. I could get by with one mostly-outside cat. One of our inside jokes is that if I go before she does, she'll become the queen of the crazy cat ladies. My will includes language to the effect that she can have the house, provided that cats aren't sitting on the kitchen counter.

We both read books, but that's where the similarity ends. Michele reads almost nothing but fiction. She reads quickly, almost anywhere under any conditions (TV on, kids talking, etc.). But she's not a book person, rarely talks about what she's reading. Novels are almost like old TV shows for her, over and done. I, on the other hand, read mostly non-fiction, only in calm, quiet, well-lit settings. I read slowly, digesting a book. And then, I usually have to talk about my new discoveries.

And then there are movies. A few we both like. "Walk the Line," for example. But she didn't care for "The Mission" which I like. But I didn't like "Sweet Home Alabama," and she did.

But for all of our differences, we've noticed that we share the common worldview we inherited from our parents. Both of us were born in the 1960s to people who were stanch, dedicated members of the Church of Christ. Of course, that means we both grew up going to church three times a week, plus gospel meetings, Vacation Bible School, Christian camp, hymn sings, youth rallies, and anything else they could think of. Both of us were baptized when we were young. Both of us attended Christian colleges run by our people. So we tend to care about the same things. Our reactions are often quite similar.

So what we have in common is Christ, and a tradition about what Christian discipleship looks like. We're far from perfect. So our marriage is far from perfect. By the grace of God we have each other, and that's so good. Because of our faith, together we hope for even better things.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Looking for a Preacher

The San Jacinto Church of Christ here in Amarillo, TX (my church family) is looking for its next preacher. The vacancy was created several weeks ago when Leonard Harper took over the prison ministry sponsored by congregations in this area. We wish Leonard well. But we also wish that he was still at San Jacinto.

In the meantime, Dale Dennis, a former missionary to Tanzania, has been preaching for us. Dale is a good man and a clear, organized communicator. We're fortunate to have him serving as our interim.

Anyway, our elders asked the deacons and me to serve as the preacher-search committee. We're the ones publishing the ads, reading the resumes, listening to the sermons, etc. I've never been on this side of this process before. It can be a lot of work. And it's an eye-opener. About the preacher-search-and-selection process, I have more questions than I could possibly write down. But here are three:

1. For those of you who've been where I am, what are some of your experiences, lessons learned, etc.?

2. What do you think are the best, most important questions a church should ask a preacher candidate?

3. On a related note, among Churches of Christ in the U.S., what would you say are the biggest differences between expectations for preachers today compared to thirty years ago?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

That Barack Obama Email

Just yesterday, I received another copy of a smear email about Senator Barack Obama. Maybe you've seen it.

It states that Obama is a Muslim, that he chose to be sworn into the U.S. Senate with his hand on a copy of the Koran, and that he refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, it says, in the presence of the American flag, Obama turns his back and (this is where it gets funny) slouches for good measure.

None of it's true. But this email has been circulated so far and wide that Obama himself has had to deny it publicly, point by point. Check it out on YouTube

Smear campaigns in politics are nothing new. But I was especially disappointed to see the source of yesterday's copy of that tired and ludicrous email sent to many addresses.

Disclaimer: I don't have a candidate in the current race for U.S. President. And if I vote in November, in all likelihood it won't be for Barack Obama.

However, I am a Christian. And I believe that it's important for followers of Christ to remember some important words:

"Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies" (Psalm 34:13).

"He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool" (Proverbs 10:18).

"With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor" (Proverbs 11:9a).

"But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37).

"Rid yourselves of all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind" (1 Peter 2:2).

Slander and its printed version, libel, are deeply wrong. Followers of Jesus Christ should have nothing to do with them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Second Corinthians, Hermeneutics, and More!

Okay, I want to know. What's going on with Second Corinthians?

It's one of my current studies, and it's got me turned inside out. If you're not currently up on this letter, here's the skinny. There are at least two big questions about 2 Corinthians:

(1) What has happened since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians? (Evidently, a lot).

(2) Is the letter we call 2 Corinthians a single letter, or is it the result of someone splicing two or more letters that Paul sent to Corinth on different occasions?

Now, you might be wondering why anyone would ask questions like that. But if you just start reading the letter, you'll see that these these two, especially the first one, jump off the page.

A good example of those sections that raise question (1) is when Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:1, "I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you." Hmmm. When was that visit? And what was so painful about it?

The most commonly-cited example of question (2) comes at the break between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10. Up to that point, it seems like maybe Paul has things patched up with the congregation. But then, afterwards, he's blasting a group of guys he sarcastically refers to as "super apostles" who are in reality "false apostles." Is this the same letter as chapters 1-9? It's certainly possible (and that's where I come out at this point).

A similar question comes from chapter 2 where Paul talks about a letter he'd previously sent to them: "I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you" (2:3-4).

Is Paul talking about the letter we call 1 Corinthians? (the traditional answer). Or is he talking about a lost letter that was after 1st and before 2nd Corinthians? (an answer given by scholars like F. F. Bruce).

Either way, he seems to mention the same letter again in chapter 7: "Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it--I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while--yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. You became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us" (7:8-9).

Then there's a third and different question. It pertains to much more than 2 Corinthians. It's often unspoken. But it's much more important. The question is, To what extent do answers to these questions matter? Can a letter like 2 Corinthians be used as sacred Scripture for the church without our having to answer historical and literary questions about that letter?

The reason I say that this third question is more important is because it's not merely an interpretive question about 2 Corinthians. This one is what scholars call a hermenuetical question. It's about how we should approach the work of figuring out what the Bible means. How much does historical background information (much of which is and has been inaccessible to the majority of believers of the last 20 centuries) really matter?

Think of it this way: Many conservative Christians in the United States know about, and have contributed to, efforts to distribute translations of the Bible in places like China and the former Soviet Union.

Now, when a fourteen year old girl in Russia reads 2 Corinthians in her Russian Bible, does her faithful response to the messages of this ancient letter depend upon her knowledge of and answers for the questions I've been asking? Remember, the only piece of religious literature she has is her new Bible.

One response would be, If she's reading with a good level of comprehension, then the questions that I've said "jump off the page" would be noticed by her. Assuming that's the case, how important is it for her to decide something about the history behind and literary integrity of 2 Corinthians? For that matter, what does she believe about the origin and nature of the Bible? How is the Bible handled in the church she attends? Etc., etc.

My own provisional conclusion is that sometimes modern, academically-oriented approaches to Scripture have the effect of leading people to think of and to treat Scripture as a collection of historical questions and literary puzzles. This is a temptation for me. (Can you tell from the foregoing?)

I would add that academically-oriented approaches to Scripture have the effect of making knowledge about the Bible the very point of studying the Bible. This orientation (which is the stock in trade of many seminaries) is not spiritual. It's not meditative. It's not anything like that. It tends to militate against the Bible's identity as Scripture for the church.

Is that necessarily the case? No. Is that sometimes the effect? Without a doubt.

Without deciding either of the two critical questions I've mentioned above, isn't it possible for a person to read 2 Corinthians and realize that the real question is, "How does the victory of Jesus show up in the life of a Christian? What does it look like?"

Paul completely agrees with his opponents at Corinth that the Christian life is a life of victory: "But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ" (2:14). However, just as it was for Jesus himself, so it must be for the followers of Jesus that before the final victory of resurrection (Joel O., take note) there is suffering. With the very beginning of the letter, Paul insists that "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives" (1:5). The life of the Christian reveals the life of Jesus himself. But since Jesus was executed, it means that we Christ-ians "always carry around in our body the death of Jesus;" that we "are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (4:10-11). Yes, Paul is primarily talking about his own missionary existence. But I think it's fair to say that he wants his Corinthian readers to come around to this view of Christian life in general.

I've sort of come full circle and need to stop here. Thoughts? Historical reconstructions? ;-) Recommendations?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's the Point of PowerPoint?

These days I'm wondering about the use of Microsoft PowerPoint in churches and classrooms.

Like a lot of you, after I first discovered PowerPoint, I was very excited about its potential for preaching and teaching. This had the capacity, I thought, to really engage a group of people, to visually reinforce a message and clarify its ideas. It didn't take me long to wake up. I had a lot to learn.

I was a later-comer to the use of this technology. So most of what I learned early on came by way of good and bad examples that I saw.

One of the first things I noticed was that some preachers were copying and pasting their sermon notes and outlines onto a series of slides. Often, a slide was filled with a lot of text in a small font. Sometimes, with his head turned away from the group, the speaker would read from the slides word for word. If you've seen this sort of combination, you know that the effect can be the opposite of the intention.

Something else I noticed was that pictures and font styles and the use of animation were not always appropriate. Sometimes it seemed like there was no appreciation for the fact that fonts have the power to set a tone and create a mood. The words and the fonts didn't match. One time, I was completely turned off when the word "death" came spinning onto the screen. The animation suggested "Happy Birthday!" not "death."

I got a taste of the good use of PowerPoint when I visited the Otter Creek Church of Christ in the Nashville area. The preacher, Tim Woodroof, used nice artwork and just a bit of text (as I remember). The projections always fit, and never overwhelmed the spoken word, which was very well prepared. Something else I noticed was that attention had been given to coordination between the sermon and slides.

When I first started using PowerPoint myself, even though I was armed with my own list of dos and don'ts, there was still a lot I didn't know. For example, a friend showed me that, when using such a large screen, I should use a white font on a dark background, as opposed to using the default black font on white background.

Over the last several years, my use of PowerPoint has improved. I've read a few articles on the subject, and every one of them taught me something practical that I needed to know or remember. You can read one such article here.

I'm interested in hearing about your experiences as presenters and listeners. A few questions:

1. What, in your opinion, are the most important things for presenters to know and do when using PowerPoint?

2. If you preach or teach, do you use it all of the time? Some of the time? Never? Why?

3. In your experience, who uses PowerPoint especially well? What factors contribute to the quality?

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Book of Psalms: An Alter-native Translation

How many times does a book in the biblical-studies category get a review in publications as different, and unlikely, as The New Yorker and The Jerusalem Post?

That's exactly what's happened in the case of Robert Alter's new translation of the Book of Psalms.

People who are into Bible study and who know the name Robert Alter probably met him through one of his most-popular books, The Art of Biblical Narrative. In it, the UC Berkeley literature professor shows that Old Testament narratives are not the result of clumsy cut-and-paste. Instead, lengthy sections of the Bible reveal a beautiful artistry, a sound to which modern, academic study of the Bible is practically tone deaf.

Since he wrote that book, Alter has produced translations and commentaries on the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Samuel. And now he's turned to the Psalms.

"Real" Bible scholars are forever pouncing on Alter for not knowing what they know. They don't seem to appreciate that he identifies aspects of the biblical text that, for all of their deep study, they've missed. I've heard that some people have questioned why a theological skeptic like Alter should be teaching the Scriptures. I just take his work for what it is: brilliant analysis of the Bible, and a fresh attempt to bring into English the most important words in the world.

About my pledge: I know, Alter's translation is new. And his commentary is new. And in 2008, I'm supposed to be reading books that are old. But the Book of Psalms is very, very old. So, this counts as one of the "old" books I'll be reading in 2008. Can't wait.

Oh, and you can read Alter's short article, "Psalm Springs: How I Translated the Bible's Most Poetic Book" here. To hear Alter reading his translation of Psalm 19, click on the link at this page.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Supporting Missionaries in a Manner Worthy of God

I guess I'll never forget the first time I ever read Third John. A few months before, I had decided that if was going to be a real preacher, it just made good sense to read the Bible. All of it. So I was making my way through those sections of Scripture I'd never read before when I came across something that really struck me.

In 3 John 6, the writer is talking about what we call traveling preachers. He says to Gaius, the reader, "You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God." As scholars tell us, "send them on their way" is not a reference to their going-away party. It's a euphemism for financial support. I knew that from my study of Romans. Paul uses the same sort of expression in 15:24 where he tells the church that he expects them to speed him on his way towards Spain. Translation: Get ready to write a check, pull out the plastic, etc.

What got to me in 3 John 6 is that it says the support of traveling preachers, or missionaries, should be done "in a manner worthy of God." I knew I was supposed to participate in the Lord's Supper "in a worthy manner." But here in Third John, the same kind of language was used to speak of support for missionaries.

I don't know about you, but when I was a kid my limited experience taught me that missionaries were those people who seemed to have the least. They were so in love with the Lord. They were so used to the sub-standard conditions in their countries of choice. For the sake of their work, their mission, their passion, they just got by on whatever churches doled out to them. If they ever quit and came back to the United States, they seemed to be on the verge of bankruptcy. That's the way it seemed to me.

" . . . in a manner worth of God."

I have little evidence for this conclusion, but my sense is that missionaries might be a little more demanding these days, expecting and receiving more from their sponsoring congregations than they did in years gone by. But I don't know. My suspicion is that, especially in previous generations, missionary support didn't measure up to the standard of being worthy of God.

Some of you may be missionaries or former missionaries. Some of you sit on missions committees at your home churches. Some of you know and have known missionaries and their families. What can you tell me about the history and the state of missionary support?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

I'm Reading Old Books in '08

I plan to do something different this year. Actually, I've been meaning to do this for sometime now, but just never have taken the plunge. Here's the plan: In the year 2008--with a possible exception or two--I'm going to read nothing but older books. By "older" I mean at least 50 years old. But most of my reads will go back much further than that. I'm doing this mainly because of something C.S. Lewis said.

In 1944, Lewis wrote an introduction for a then-new translation of St. Athanasius' book, The Incarnation of the Word of God. Sometime later, the piece was published as an essay under the title, "On the Reading of Old Books." You can find it in the classic collection God in the Dock.

Here's why, says Lewis, people ought to read plenty of old books. First, by reading old books (and what he especially has in mind are classics) a person doesn't have to sort through all of the secondary works on, say, Plato. A person can go straight to the great source and read the Symposium. Lewis says that most people avoid classics because they don't think they'll understand them. They believe they have to read some much later book written by a scholar on the subject. The impulse of humility is a good one. But here it's misguided. Most of the time the secondary works are much harder to understand than the primary ones. So that's what people should read.

Second, by reading old books (again, Lewis means classics) you don't have to wonder if it's a good book. We know the old books because they have stood the test of time. Some of the new books, not many, will eventually stand up. But you don't know which ones. In the case of old books, we know. (There's an argument that could be made here about church music too. But I won't go there, . . . as though I just didn't).

Third, by reading old books a person prevents himself from becoming enslaved to contemporary thought. On this point, Lewis says that, as a corrective, a person should read an old book for at least every new one. Think about it, he says, you already know the genuine and general truths of our time because you live in this time. So if you read only recent books, you will only hear again what you already knew. But, you will also be indoctrinated in the errors of our age. On the other hand, when a person reads old books, he easily and immediately detects the mistakes of that previous age. But he also hears truths that are hardly known in his own age. So, Lewis says that reading old books is, to use the phrase, a win-win.

Fourth, by reading old books--specifically, old books written by Christians--a person becomes acquainted with what Lewis called "mere Christianity." Lewis observed that there is general, basic, irreducible faith to which all Christians hold no matter what the time and place. He says that if you don't believe it, you should know that unbelievers certainly do believe it. He knows, he says, because he used to be an unbeliever. And what he experienced back then was that Christians from various times and of various stripes all smelled the same.

So often, Christians looking at the current scene see nothing but division. Lewis admits that there's a lot of division and that it's lamentable. However, when a person reads Christian classics, he sees a unity of Christians across time and place. As I was reading this part of Lewis's essay, I couldn't help but think of some of the extreme and narrow believers I have known. Almost to a one it seemed as though they had never read anyone besides someone of their own time who already agreed with them. What Lewis basically says is that, by reading old books, you have a much better chance of getting over any sectarian tendencies. And you have a much better chance of being right when you think of someone else as a heretic. So, it's old books in '08. And I already have a short list. So far, I plan to read the following:

1. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana. Maybe the City of God and/or the Confessions.
2. Pascal, Pensees
3. Aquinas, one of the summas
4. Thomas Paine, Common Sense ('cause I want to).

Some of these I've dabbled in before. But I've never read any of them all the way through.

Do you read very many classics? What was the best old book you ever read? Got any recommendations?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

And a Happy New Year

The beginning of 2008. Doesn't seem possible, does it?

I remember when I was a kid, I calculated how old I'd be in that far, far away year 2000. It seemed so distant then. And 37--my age in 2000--seems so much younger on this side of it.

The Book of Ecclesiastes says that you're better off going to a funeral than a party. Why? Because at the funeral you've got a much better chance of getting dead serious about living. New Year's Day can have the same effect. A momentous, obvious milestone in time, January 1st can cause even the most callous person to really reflect, to think about what his or her life means.

So, did you make any New Year's resolutions? Are you planning to make a change in 2008?

Years ago, I gave up making a long list of resolutions. But I have decided on one thing for next year: I'm going to read many more old books than new ones in the new year. I'll tell you why sometime soon.

Until then, what is it that you plan to start, or stop, or change in 2008? I know, for some of you the resolution is too sensitive for you to say here. So I guess I should ask, What are some of your "public" resolutions for the new year?