Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Web Watch

Every once in a while, I like to talk about websites that most visitors to this blog are going to like. Here are a couple of my favorite recent discoveries:

1. Many serious Bible students recognize the name Harold Attridge. The Dean of Yale Divinity School, Attridge is one of today's top biblical scholars. He specializes in New Testament studies and has written one of the very best commentaries on the book of Hebrews.

Those who read in the area of New Testament and homiletics likely know the name David L. Bartlett. For many years, Bartlett was a professor of Christian Communication at Yale.

Anyway, recently the Congregational Church of New Canaan, Connecticut arranged for Attridge and Bartlett to discuss a few books of the New Testament. The sessions were taped, and the DVDs were used in the church's small-group Bible studies as a sort of primer to Bible reading and discussion within the group. In addition to the video sources, there are also some print resources. You might enjoy what they're calling the Yale Bible Study.

2. One of the better places for reading about the Bible and Religion on the Web is the site hosted by Hebrew Bible scholar Ehud Ben Zvi. Check it out. (Note: I have found a few dead links at this site, but most of them are good links to good sites).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rescue Your Hebrew

How many students of biblical Hebrew have mastered the basics only to discover that they could hardly make it through more than one verse of the Bible? Beginners soon realize that completion of the first-year textbook is just the beginning, not the end. Stuck somewhere between the fundamentals and fluency, most of them give up. In a reflection to which any language student can relate, Jerome once wrote about his own struggle to get beyond the basics of Hebrew:

What efforts I spent on that task, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired, how often I gave up, and then in my eagerness to learn began again, can be attested both by myself, the subject of misery, and by those who then lived with me. But I thank the Lord that from a bitter seed of learning I am now plucking sweet fruits (Epistula, 125.12).

Good teachers look for anything that will make the seed of learning not quite so bitter. But what is the best way? Until now, one of the best methods was for the student to sit down with the Hebrew Bible and a reader’s lexicon like the one by Armstrong, Busby, and Carr. What most students find, though, is that this help isn’t as helpful as they’d like for it to be.

A more thorough and much more tedious method—one that I’ve spent many hours with—is to use the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB), assisted by Bruce Einspahr’s fabulous Index in order to identify a root and get to the pertinent section of BDB. This way of working through a text has a couple major advantages: it acquaints the student with the real treasure to be found in BDB, and it helps to ensure the accuracy of the student’s understanding of the text. The downside of this method is that it slows the pace to a near standstill. What is gained in thoroughness is lost in fluency.

But now there is an alternate tool that may be the best thing yet. It’s A Reader’s Hebrew Bible, by A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).

This work starts with a text of the Hebrew Bible that is virtually identical to the one found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Then, for every Hebrew word that occurs less than 100 times in the Bible, and for every Aramaic word occurring less than 25 times, there is at least one footnoted definition. In the case of verbs, the footnote also identifies the stem (binyan).

For the glosses, the compilers have relied on the best resources: the L. Koehler-W. Baumgartner Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and BDB. At times they also include definitions from W. L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and from other sources.

Something else. A Reader’s Hebrew Bible identifies all Hebrew proper nouns occurring less than 100 times and all Aramaic ones occurring less than 25 times. Every such noun is printed in a gray scale that is easily distinguished from the regular, black type. Every student of Hebrew has struggled long and hard trying to determine of root of an unfamiliar word only to discover that it was a name. This tool solves that problem.

In his preface, Bryan Smith describes his own experience of using his own product in order to regain proficiency:

Directly before me I placed a page from A Reader’s Hebrew Bible. To my left hand was an English Bible. With my left hand in the footnotes and my right hand in the main text, I moved through the Hebrew verses, looking down at each gloss in the footnotes. Whenever the Hebrew grammar would stump me, I would glance at the rendering in the English Bible. Once I was able to make sense of the Hebrew, I moved on to the next sentence (p. ix).

What Smith describes is exactly the sort of method that can take students to the next level of proficiency. In my opinion, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible is the best tool available for intermediate students who want to increase their reading fluency. It’s also the best choice for people who want to brush up their Hebrew.

Note: Of course there are any number of computerized Hebrew texts, with powerful searchability, produced by Gramcord, Accordance, Bible Works, etc. I have and sometimes use Bible Works, but it's just not the same as reading the text from a page in a real book.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Between Semesters

Last week was Finals Week at Amarillo College. On Thursday, we reported all of the course grades for the semester. Looking back on a term just completed, I usually have two feelings:

1. I wish that I'd done a better job of teaching. One of my great fears is that my classes will only reinforce the notion that the Bible is a boring book, tedious and impossible to understand. Teaching that engages students, that leads them to become invested in the subject, is not easy. Sometimes I do that fairly well. Other times I don't.

2. I'm confident that my students know and understand much more of the Bible than they did at the beginning of the semester. It recently got back to me that one of them commented, "He makes us work." I was glad to hear that. Without intimidating students, I want to set high standards for them. The Bible and Religion shouldn't be easy As, should they?

Anyway, on to the next challenge. Beginning in January, I'm scheduled to the teach five courses. Here they are, with a few notes about each one:

1. Introduction to World Religions

Few people on the planet can teach this course really well. I'm not one of them. Not even close. So this is the course where I abandon all hope of being the sage on the stage. I'm much more the guide on the side. Here's how it goes: First, we explore some definitions of "religion" and the growing diversity of religion in the United States. Then, one at a time, we take up
  • Native American Spirituality
  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
The course textbook is the mostly-good World Religions, 5th edition, by Warren Matthews.

2. Life of Paul

Mucho fun, this is a sophomore-level course that Religion majors are required to take. But it doesn't count as a general humanities credit. What this means is, the class size is small and students tend to be motivated. There are so many ways this course might be taught. I haven't mastered my own approach just yet. Currently, we use the outline of Paul's life provided by the Book of Acts. As we go along, we study the letters at those points in time where Paul likely wrote them. After the Bible, the secondary textbook is F. F. Bruce's, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.

3. The New Testament

This is a first-year level introduction focused on the content of the NT. For this course I've settled on a three-unit approach:
  • Gospels and Acts
  • Letters of Paul
  • General Epistles and Revelation
The secondary text is Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, 2nd edition. One of the best features of this text is that it comes with a CD-ROM that contains everything in the book, plus some short videos, questions and answers, etc. Really nice.

4. General Epistles

This is a first-year, one-hour credit class that meets at lunchtime on Wednesdays. We eat, drink, and read. No textbooks. No tests. No term papers. Grades are based on attendance, quality of participation, and one-page written responses to questions about the biblical text. The more questions a student answers, the higher the grade. 15 good responses earns an A.

5. Intermediate Biblical Hebrew

In the Fall of 2007, sixteen students began a first-year Hebrew class. About five of them made it through the first two semesters, one year's worth of language study. At this point, two of those students are still standing for the second semester of second-year Hebrew. Mah Norah! (How awesome!) We're one Christian, one Jew, and one Bible Chair director. And I have to say, studying with Rhonda and Trent is one of the highlights of my week.

Having completed the first-year grammar, Biblical Hebrew, by Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright, we're currently making our way through Readings in Biblical Hebrew: An Intermediate Textbook, by Ehud Ben Zvi, Maxine Hancock, and Richard A. Beinert (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Considering the Cold and Calvinism

Here in Amarillo, Texas, it'll struggle to get up to 25 degrees today. It was 9 when I got up, currently 11.

Today's high in Bangor, Maine? 50. Go figure.
- - - - - -
New graduates of Southern Baptist seminaries are three times more likely to be card-carrying, five-point Calvinists than are Baptist pastors. Nearly 30% of the seminarians are, compared to 10% of the older group. A good number of my brightest, most serious students at Amarillo College are staunch Calvinists. It might be time for preachers and elders among the Churches of Christ to do some teaching on this subject.

I'm no fan of the preaching style that bashes the Baptists, mashes the Methodists, and crucifies the Catholics, but is there any major point of doctrine that the Churches of Christ are willing to get in a spat over? (And, no, disavowing that instrumental music is a salvation issue doesn't count).

Sociologists repeatedly tell us that the growth of a religious movement depends upon its taking a stand that resists the culture at large or, in the American context, other religious cultures. As I see it, there's plenty in the name of God for Christians to resist. But how will that happen unless our leaders explore and teach about basic issues of truth? No, not every preacher will be an Augustine, a Luther or a Campbell. But every one should carry on the best ministry of the Word possible. Revival and numeric growth are always accompanied by a growth of the Word.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Psalm 137: On Bashing Babylonian Babies

I've been teaching from the Book of Psalms on Wednesday nights. What a blessing. But what a challenge, too.

We started out with an introduction and overview. From there, each class session has been devoted to one psalm in particular. Next Wednesday night will be the last time for me to teach the class. I've decided to go with Psalm 137. Here it is from the New International Version:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

As you guessed, I wanted to get to this one because of its one of the best known of the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms. Verses 8 and 9 pronounce a blessing on the one who smashes the little children of the enemy. It's not something most people expect to find in the Bible. Savage vindictiveness can be found in other places in the Scriptures. But it's not often this raw.

Naturally, I plan to take the class back to one of our first observations about the psalms: they aren't like the Ten Commandments or a prophetic oracle. That is, they don't come from God per se. Instead, the psalms are primarily the words of people. It is only because these particular psalms make up a biblical book that people of faith regard them as being part of God's written word to humanity. By their very nature, the psalms tell us about God in a much more roundabout way than something like a prophetic sermon.

From there, I want the class to explore the kinds of experiences that led the poet to feel this way--massacre, looting, destruction, robbing people of their dreams and their well-being. I want to explore questions like, Don't passages like this one speak of the way that we ourselves sometime feel? I want to get into questions like, What are Christian people to do with their own deep anger? Is it appropriate for us to pray our own rage? How do we do that? Or do we just do it, like Psalm 137?

While I'm turning the text over in my mind, I'm interested to hear what you think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You Might Want to Read . . .

The November 2008 issue of the Gospel Advocate magazine features several articles on "The Emerging Church Movement." Evidently, when the Advocate, a Churches of Christ publication, sold all the paper copies of this one, they chose to temporarily post the feature articles on the Web. I haven't had the chance to read them yet. I suspect that they will mainly disapprove. But it should be interesting to hear the various takes.

Last spring, I did a few posts about the Ascension of Christ: a little complaining about how the biblical teaching has been overlooked, and then some of the teaching itself. More recently, Wade Hodges has published in New Wineskins magazine the best thing I've ever read on the topic. Take a look at the article Hail to the King!

A couple years ago, Restoration Quarterly published a very informative and challenging article by Evertt Huffard. Since then, RQ has begun to make some articles from their back issues available on the Web. I'm glad they chose to include this one by Huffard: "When Scholarship Goes South: Biblical Scholarship and Global Trends."

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Few Notes on Music in Churches of Christ

I've been thinking lately about the quality of singing in Churches of Christ. I don't have anything like statistical proof or scientific research to back up any of this. What I do have are my observations. What they tell me is that there are several things that sometimes work against vibrant musical worship in today's congregations. Here's a short list:

1. Poor Acoustics

Something I see (and hear) over and over again are newer, plush church facilities designed to be cost-effective and comfortable, but not to be "sung in." Carpeted floors, padded seats, noisy heating/air-conditioning units, and porous ceiling tiles conspire to create a worship space that sucks up sound. Some church leaders, aware of these kinds of problems with their buildings, have made changes to worship areas so that the setting will be more conducive to genuine worship. Good for them.

2. Praise Teams

I have no theological or aesthetic objection to praise teams. But I do think that they can be a barrier to the participation of the whole assembly. In some of my experience, it seemed to me that the praise team was a little too loud. The distinctive, amplified voice of the team was saying, "Listen to the performance" rather than "Sing along with us." Sometimes this feel is compounded by the on-stage music minister/worship leader who doesn't acknowledge the assembly, encouraging them to sing, but who constantly looks to and directs only the team. These sights and sounds combine to communicate: "We're going to sing for you. Just sit and listen." When it comes to good congregational song, I think that praise teams can be most effective when their amplification is subtle, their presence is inconspicuous, and when the worship leader looks to and leads the entire congregation.

3. Performance Music

That Christian recording artists sound great singing their songs on the radio is no reason to try to get a congregation to sing the same songs. Sometimes the differences make a huge difference. For example, sometimes music performed by Christian entertainers requires a vocal range that most people just don't have. Sometimes a song is just too complex for a group of non-specialists. Too, sometimes the rhythm and feel of performance music is generated by instruments, a major problem in most Churches of Christ. I realize that many of the traditional songs sung in congregations include moving parts, alto leads, etc. But those songs were introduced and learned at a time when a good number of Christians attended annual singing schools and when the musical training of a congregation was much more of a priority than it is today.

4. Unfamiliar Songs

Every well-known song was once brand new. Some of today's newer songs can be worthy additions to the church's repertoire. But new songs should not be sprung on the church in the context of Sunday-morning worship. Small groups, Bible classes, and Sunday-evening worship times can be the setting in which new songs can occasionally be tried out and learned.

5. Lowered Expectations

It seems like singing in worship is no longer understood to be a religious responsibility. Does anyone under twenty years old sing in worship anymore? In some churches, it seems like the musical part of worship is a time to look around, talk to the person next to you, watch the music minister and praise team, etc., but not sing. Not so long ago, there was a time in Churches of Christ when not singing was about as unacceptable as "forsaking the assembly" (that is, not going to church). After all, the same New Testament that said "not forsaking the assembling our ourselves together . . ." also said "speaking to yourselves in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs." Case closed. Singing was considered an act of worship that God required. So you either had strep throat, bronchitis, or laryngitis plus a doctor's note, or you sang. Looking back on that time in my life, I happily realize that sometimes the theology of our mostly-borrowed songs was actually more-balanced than the theology of our pulpits. Consequently, we sometimes sang our way into a truer way of seeing. But what if we hadn't sung?

These are some of my observations. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Population Shifts and the Future of Churches of Christ in the U.S.

The Census Bureau now estimates that minorities will become the majority in the United States by the year 2042. That's different from earlier estimates which had previously identified the tipping point at 2050. The times, they are a changin'. And faster than we thought. Consider:
  • Over the next few decades, the Hispanic population of the U.S. will triple. By contrast, during that same period of time the non-Hispanic, single-race white population will barely increase at all. Could President Obama eventually be followed by a "President Hernandez"?
  • In just 15 short years, minorities will comprise half of the children in this country, perhaps the most important statistic in this list.
  • Currently, about 1.3 million immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year. That number will likely climb to about 2 million a year by 2040.
  • Over the next few decades, the Asian population in the U.S. will rise from 15.5 million to well over 40 million.
  • During that same period of time, the number of people who see themselves as multi-racial will climb from 5.2 million to over 16 million.

As these changes are taking place, what I see among the Churches of Christ is a widespread satisfaction with church life and our few church plantings which are almost-exclusively white, middle to upper-middle class, ignorant of the world on our back doorsteps and, consequently, destined for a waning influence in a future United States.

Here in Amarillo, for example, mission efforts conducted by Churches of Christ among Hispanics and Asians are almost non-existent. And interestingly enough, those efforts are not being conducted by the college-educated, multi-staff, well-to-do congregations. Those groups(where I most naturally fit in) seem very interested in overcoming what they see as their sectarian past. But they do not have an evangelistic motivation or rationale to replace the old one.

The congregations who have the strongest outreach to minority groups in Amarillo are the ones with older facilities, located in the poorer sections of the city, and who hold to what I would describe as a much more traditional outlook. Is it that way in your city too?

I do not intend to disparage what is currently being done. In fact, I applaud and want to do anything I can to encourage those efforts. What I also want to say is that, along these line, the Churches of Christ must pick up the pace. Immediately.

What do you think?