Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Starting Summer, Useful URLs

The spring semester at Amarillo College is long gone. Students were taking their final exams two weeks ago, and Commencement ceremonies were held on Friday, May 15th.

The week after that, I'd been preparing to teach a summer section of Introduction to World Religions. It was to have started yesterday. But hardly anyone had signed up for the class and it wound up being canceled late last week.

It's not like I don't have anything to do, though. Here's a bit of what's going on in my world:
  • Last Sunday, I visited the little Church of Christ at Adrian, Texas. What a great group of people. When you go to Adrian, you teach the Sunday morning adult class and preach during the morning worship. Then, you go home for lunch with one of church families and, then, preach again at 4:00. It's a full day in the country.
  • Tonight, at The Colonies Church of Christ, I'll finish out a series of lessons on the Psalms. We'll close with Psalm 137.
  • Of course, a few projects around the Bible Chair are waiting to be done.
  • Next Monday, we start a nightly Vacation Bible School at San Jacinto. As usual, I get to lead the opening and closing assemblies.
  • At the end of next week it's off to Connecticut where I'll get to spend a little over a week.

- - - - - -

Every once in a while, I spend some time searching (not surfing) the Web for sites that I can use and recommend to my students and people who show up at this blog. Here's some of the better stuff I've recently seen for the first time:

1. A complete, searchable Greek New Testament edited by Westcott and Hort. Yes, that's an old edition of the Greek text. But most of the differences between this and newer editions are few and insignificant. What I really like about this on-line edition is that you can click on any Greek word and get a ton of grammatical information about it. One odd thing about this page is that the NT books are listed alphabetically.

2. Here's the English version of the official website of the Vatican. Want to look around? The homepage has a search window. I typed in celibacy and, later, Vatican II and came up with dozens of hits for each. Interesting stuff.

3. You might also check out the searchable Yale Divinity Digital Image and Text Library. By going to this site, you get both the image database for biblical studies plus the image and text database for Christian history. Thinking about biblical studies, I searched for Crete and came up with several photos (along with descriptions). Predictably, searching under Ephesus gave me even more hits. Turning to Christian history, Campbell brought up nothing (ironic for some Church of Christ people), but Geneva rendered several hits, and Luther dozens.

What are some of the more interesting or useful websites you've recently discovered?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Instrumental Music of Ministry

Most people are right-handed. So when most people begin playing the guitar, they strum or pick with the right hand, and press the strings to the fretboard with the left. That's the right-handed way. Seems a little ironic, doesn't it? But, really, it isn't.

Right-handed beginners naturally focus on the left hand because it's the one that has to figure out the frets. Once the fingers of the left hand are in position to play a chord, the right hand then has a relatively-easy job. One stroke and the strings make a sound.

But at first, it's hardly ever a good sound. The fingers of the left hand aren't quite strong enough. The finger tips don't yet have their callouses. So the strings buzz. Or maybe one of the fingers is out of position and the chord is just off. The first few attempts at playing are rarely, if ever, good.

These less-than-pleasant sounds bring out the determination in some beginners. Like Bryan Adams in the Summer of '69, they play 'til their fingers bleed. That is, the fingers on the left hand. All along, the right hand is almost entirely ignored.

Some beginners eventually give up, the objects of their old affection now hanging in a pawn shop, or gathering dust in the corner of a closet. The others finally make a break through, the awkwardness of the early days all but forgotten.

Of those who make it, there is at least one thing that distinguishes guitar players who are mediocre-to-good from those who go on to become truly great. All of the great ones learn to develop not only the left hand, but also the right. Some of them repeat this mantra: The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.

To say that is to repeat something every true musician knows: the vital element in music is rhythm. Nothing else is so important, so very basic. Many sounds have a definite pitch. But not all of those sounds, even in a sequence, add up to music.

The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.

I've thought about that as an analogy to Christian ministry. Aspiring church leaders almost always give attention to what you might call the left hand. I know I did.

When I was very young I memorized many verses of Scripture in that beautiful language of the King James Bible. Most of what I memorized were the passages used to prove the points that the tradition I grew up in thought were essential. Those texts stood at the center of our religion. They were our "Bible within the Bible."

Sometime later, I attended a Christian college affiliated with my group and majored in (what else?) Bible. There I studied the Scriptures in English, learned a little bit of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and read some church history. I was told about the tenets of Higher Criticism. In the larger religious world where such theories held an honored position, I needed to know what they were and why they were mostly wrong. It was left-handed stuff, exactly the sort of thing that beginners dream about.

During that time, there was one command I was sure to keep: don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. My right hand--my self, the inner man--just wasn't getting much practice.

Of course, I was nice to other people. I made friends. I was even voted a class favorite. But I wasn't doing much to develop the person out of whom I might carry on an authentic ministry of the Word. In time, my neglect of the right hand resulted in me hitting some truly sour notes.

Like a lot of guitar players, some ministers never get over this tendency to emphasize only the left hand. To them Christianity is all about facts and figures, plans and patterns, Greek and Hebrew, books and (dare I say it?) blogs. If they're not careful, because of the lure of the world, the ABCs of their ministry become Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. Their teaching can become no more than the right responses to a carefully-selected set of questions.

To be specific, left-handed-only ministry shows up in a number of ways. Here are a few:
  • Bible reading only for the sake of preparing lessons, never for simply feeding on the Word and hearing the voice of God.
  • Prayer occasioned by the latest emergency or public event, but not by the need to commune with the Almighty.
  • Non-Christian acquaintances thought of as "contacts," not as fellow beggars hungry for the Bread of Life.
  • Sunday-morning centrality, with times like Tuesday night and Thursday afternoon being completely up for grabs.
  • A glaring lack of self-discipline.
How different that is from the ministerial pattern left for us by Jesus. Mind you, he didn't neglect the left hand. Jesus knew the Scriptures and the traditions of Israel. He understood the times in which he lived and the enduring questions of life. But above all, Jesus developed and lived out a passion for doing the will of his Father, being the man God had called him to be.

I have to confess, I've spent a good bit of my life as a Christian minister focused on left-handed stuff. I know I'm not alone. Even as I write and publish this, it feels like I'm exposing my own shallowness. At the same time, it's something I want and need to say.

Here and there, I've spent some time trying to develop the right hand. I hope it results in a better sound.

The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evangelicals and the Use of Torture

Okay, so you've probably heard by now: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released the findings of a survey that began with this statement:

The use of torture against suspected terrorists . . .

Turns out, white evangelical Protestants are most likely to say that torture can often (18%) or sometimes (44%) be justified. They're also the least likely to say that torture can never (16%) be justified.

On the other hand, the religiously unaffiliated are some of the most likely to say that torture can never (26%) be justified. The only group with a higher percentage of this response are white mainline Protestants (31%)--that is, most Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.

For what it's worth, the Pew Forum people say that because the responses from other religious groupings were too few for statistical significance, the responses of only white religious groupings were reported.

At any rate, ever since the report was published news outlets have cited the statistics and offered analysis. A CNN story, for example, begins by saying that the more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists. The story goes on to specifically point out that white evangelical Protestants are the group most likely to say that torture is often or sometimes justifiable (62%).

The sorts of blog posts and comments that I've seen so far are more less united; people both inside and outside of the evangelical camp are denouncing the group for their hypocrisy, an apparent allegiance to Republicanism rather than to the ethics of the Kingdom of Christ.

My questions: Is this a fair criticism? Can anything reconcile the avowed Christian faith of evangelicals with their greater support for torture under some circumstances?

What do you think?

Friday, May 08, 2009

A Lamp Unto My Feet, and a Light Unto My Path

The year 2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. That would be a good time, I think, for preachers and teachers to tell the story of the Scriptures in English.

People like to hear about "How We Got the Bible." Lessons like that remind us of the incredible distance between the biblical world and our own. Folks come to appreciate that none of the Bible was written in English, that all of the Scriptures were hand-copied for centuries on end, and that people who had first dedicated themselves to the glory of God spent a lifetime learning the biblical languages and translating the Word of God into words that the ordinary person could read and understand.

When that saga is told well (and there are so many fantastic episodes!) people develop a greater respect for those who have gone before them. This is a natural and normally-effective cure for sectarian tendencies.

We also develop a greater humility. When people know the history of the Bible, they never regard that TNIV newly purchased at the local bookstore as a new product. Instead, they see it as a recently-added link in a chain that is very, very long. When we know what it really cost for us to have a Bible in English, we can only give thanks to God.

Okay, so as you might have guessed by now, one of my current reads is a book about English translation of the Bible: In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, by Alister McGrath (Doubleday, 2001).

What a fine book. My copy is a first edition hardcover (without, alas, the dust jacket). I got it at an Amarillo Public Library book sale. I had seen and heard McGrath's name many times and knew he had a great reputation. (He's a scientist and theologian who taught for many years at the University of Oxford. Here's his homepage). So as I was going through the stacks at the sale, upon seeing his name and the title, I instantly put the book in my paper grocery bag that, when completely full, cost me a whopping three dollars. (The one thing that makes a great book even better is getting your own copy dirt cheap). Anyway, on the influence and significance of our best-known English translation, here's McGrath:

The King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians. The influence of this work has been incalculable. For many years, it was the only English translation of the Bible available. Many families could afford only one book--a Bible, in whose pages parents recorded the births of their children, and found solace at their deaths. Countless youngsters learned to read by mouthing the words they found in the only book their family possessed--the King James Bible. Many learned biblical passages by heart, and found that their written and spoken English was shaped by the language and imagery of this Bible. Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim's Progress, no Handel's Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address. These, and innumerable other works, were inspired by the language of the Bible. Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished (pp. 1-2).

Now I'm curious, what would you recommend as the best resources and ideas for teaching about the history of the English Bible? The transmission and preservation of the biblical text? Biographies of people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale? The history of and different approaches to the task of translation?


Thursday, May 07, 2009

New Testament in New England

I'm excited about this summer. In early June, I'll make another one of my trips to Connecticut.

My employers provide me a week's worth of "professional development." So next month, on a Monday through Friday, I'll be taking a course at Yale Divinity School. This year, it's a "Romans" class with Harold Attridge, a first-rate New Testament scholar and the Dean of YDS. Should be good.

Then, that weekend, I'll get to take Ben back to Kent, Connecticut for this year's Northeastern States Men's Retreat. If you guys have the opportunity to make this one, it's well worth it.