The Bible is Weird

Perhaps like a few of you, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read the Bible through in 2015. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety, but I’ve never done it all in one year. My plan consists of reading 3-4 chapters of the Old Testament and 1 chapter of the New Testament each day. I’m only on day 8 of this project and I am increasingly convinced of one thing: the Bible is REALLY weird.

Let me say that I am an academically trained theologian. I have more than 30 graduate credits in biblical studies. I have taken classes in biblical interpretation, biblical history, and multiples classes on biblical languages, including 2 years of Hebrew and 3 years of Greek. I am not only a student of the Bible, but I have taught the Bible in a collegiate environment for over 20 years. All of that knowledge and experience with the Bible, and I still think the Bible is weird.

Here are just a few examples from my reading in Genesis so far this year:

  • Genesis 1: Both light and plants are created before the sun is created. There are also mornings and evenings before the sun exists. (I’m no scientist, but I can’t figure out how this works.)
  • Genesis 3: A talking animal tempts Eve. (And this is not a hallucination.)
  • Genesis 5: People live to hundreds of years of age and father children at those ages. (I’m now too exhausted to handle a newborn and I’m only in my 40s.)
  • Genesis 6: The “sons of God” mate with human wives and have offspring who are giants. (I don’t even know what to say about this.)
  • Genesis 6-9: Noah gathers 2 of every living thing into a boat to survive a flood. (Imagine the smell!)
  • Genesis 17: God tells Abram to cut off his foreskin. (If you don’t think this is weird, then you should Google “foreskin.” On second thought, don’t do that.)

I have only read about 25 pages so far, and yet I can’t fully explain half of what I’m reading. I’m a scholar, so I’m familiar with literary devices, metaphors, and symbols. I know about context and history and imagery. I get languages and translation. But I must still be honest – the Bible is weird.

And I like it that way. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I read it carefully and intentionally, as if I’m reading it for the first time, I am fascinated. Sometimes it’s a page-turner filled with intrigue and scandal. Sometimes it can be rather boring with long lists of names or long-lost locations or ancient nations. Sometimes it can be spiritually revolutionary. Sometimes I read it, and sometimes it reads me. And always it guides me, willingly or not, toward the path intended by the One who inspired it. So I will continue to read this weird book, hopefully in its entirety in 2015. Why don’t you give it a try?

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7 Important Things You Need to Know To Better Understand the Bible

I will admit that preachers and teachers can sometimes complicate biblical interpretation. I can understand the sentiment behind the statement “the Bible just means what it says.” Some academic approaches to biblical analysis can obscure the straightforward meaning of a text. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible is a simple book every part of which is easily accessible at first glance. The Bible is literature, after all, and that means there are some analytical tools that can help elucidate its meaning and prevent you from making it say whatever you want it to say.  Here are 7 things that in my estimation are essential for a better understanding of the Bible, one that gets as close as possible to the meaning that its authors intended when they wrote it, and one that prevents ideology and opinion from distorting its message. It will be evident as you read that I hold a high view of scripture and believe it to be the inspired word of God that we should use as an authority for the life and practice of faith, but I will steer clear of arguments about inerrancy and the historical or scientific nature of biblical texts. My purpose here is to help the average student of the Bible make reasonable sense out of what he or she reads.

1. Find a good translation of the Bible. The Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic thrown in the mix. This means that unless you know these languages, somebody has to translate the Bible for you to read it. Here’s the thing – not all translations are equal in accuracy or readability. Some are more literal, and often more difficult to read, while others are less literal and more readable, but potentially less accurate. Some translations are done by individuals and others by committees. All translators have an agenda, a theological perspective that they bring to the translation process that affects how they translate certain texts. In other words, all translation is simultaneously interpretation. Anyone who’s studied a foreign language knows this to be true. With this in mind, I suggest that you use multiple translations for reading, but select one for study purposes that is translated by a committee with as little a theological agenda as possible. In my opinion, the NIV is perhaps the best for casual reading, and the NRSV and ESV are two accurate, reasonably literal translations appropriate for study.

2. Understand the genre of the text you are reading. Not every book of the Bible should be read in the same way. You don’t read Genesis the same way you read Malachi. Matthew and Revelation require entirely different sets of interpretative skills. A flat reading of scripture, one that approaches the narrative texts, wisdom literature, prophets, Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic texts all in the same manner is inevitably going to miss or distort the message. Learn the particularities of each genre in scripture and be aware of those traits as you read and study. A simple book like How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth (Fee and Stuart) can help you identify the basic types of literature found in the Bible and give you some simple pointers for how best to understand that literature. After all, we don’t read Harry Potter the same way we read Shakespeare, and Freakanomics is a fundamentally different kind of book than The Hunger Games. We are familiar with these types of literature because they are part of our culture. The biblical texts were written and shaped within a culture that we are not likely to understand without some education.

3. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Chapter and verse divisions, as helpful as they are, were not put into the text by the authors themselves, but added by later editors to facilitate Bible study. The negative consequence of their addition is that we tend to dissect the text and miss larger contexts and themes. We read verses rather than books, and our microscopic view of meaning becomes a cheap substitute for a broader comprehension of the narrative and its message. In other words, we may know Bible stories (Adam, Noah, Moses, David, Elijah, etc.) while missing the Bible’s story – the redemption of humankind. Read the books of the Bible the way they were meant to be read (or heard). Read them in their entirety, in one sitting, from start to finish. Only when you’ve got a sense of the overall narrative flow of a book are you ready to break it down into its constituent parts. And only when you’ve read the Bible itself broadly to see how the books are arranged and for what reasons, are you ready to comprehend how an individual book functions in the overarching drama of scripture.

4. Do your best to determine the author’s intended meaning. To determine what a text means you should begin by doing your best to determine what the text meant. I would not argue that a text can only mean for us what it meant for its original audience, but I do think that authorial intent is a responsible place to begin. Of course we cannot always know with certainty what the author intended a text to mean, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying to figure it out. The author’s intended meaning is an important limit on meaning; it keeps us from making the Bible say whatever we want it to say.

5. Learn context. Determining authorial intent can be challenging with even the most straightforward texts. Without context, you aren’t likely to understand the intended meaning. The historical, social, literary, or cultural context of a passage can have a dramatic impact on your interpretation. Knowing as much as possible about the world of the author, his or her language, customs, beliefs, values, etc., is of great value for making decisions about meaning. There are quality, affordable tools readily available to most anyone who wants to learn more about the world of the author, including Bible dictionaries, commentaries, language grammars, lexicons, Study-Bible notes, and a plethora of apps and online resources. As you use these tools over the years, you begin to learn enough basic context to help you even when the tools are not readily available.

6. Learn the difference between description and prescription. A description tells us what happened, while a prescription tells us what we should do. Often the Bible tells us what happened, not what should have happened or what should happen for all time and history. For example, the narrative texts of the Old Testament tell the story of people who are not necessarily role models to emulate, but rather fallible people who God chose to use to accomplish his purposes at a unique point in history. Similarly, the narratives of Acts tell us how early Christ-followers sought to navigate the complexities of becoming the Church in a culture increasingly hostile to Christian faith. There are lessons there for us in the description, but not necessarily hard-and-fast rules that should apply in every context. Clearly, the Bible contains prescription (the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Christ, etc.), but sometimes epistles give us opinion, as in 1 Corinthians 7.12 where Paul writes “To the rest I say this (not Christ but I) ….” Distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, so we should take care with interpretation and extend grace to those who disagree.

7. The argument from silence is a weak foundation for belief or behavior. The Bible can sometimes be frustratingly silent on topics that we might find important. You will occasionally hear someone argue that since the Bible doesn’t speak about a topic, or because Jesus didn’t say anything about the issue, then we are free to choose as we wish how to believe or behave with regard to that issue. This amounts to an argument from silence – drawing conclusions based on the absence of statements in a text rather their presence. This is a commonly used but incredibly weak technique for establishing the legitimacy of a belief or practice. The Bible is not meant to be a systematic theology text. The Bible is a collection of occasional texts, documents written to address a particular historical context, difficulty, or question. As such, the Bible doesn’t always answer the questions we ask, and it often answers questions we aren’t asking. In some instances, you can extrapolate from what the Bible does say to make an educated guess about what it doesn’t. But this will be a guess, so be humble about your guesses. If you find yourself asking questions that the text isn’t, maybe you should be asking a different set of questions.

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The Message of Christianity as Simply as I Know How to Explain It

God created all things and called the world that he created “very good.” Man and woman, happy and in perfect relationship with the creation and the Creator. Tempted by the desire to be like God, man and woman rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Every evil, every ounce of suffering, every war and death and disease and disaster originates from a good creation that is broken by sin. 

In response, God chooses the nation of Israel to use for his purposes to begin to restore the world. He taught Israel how to live as his chosen people, set them free from captivity, provided for their needs and gave them the law (10 Commandments, and a few others). But the law that was a gift was also a curse. The law exposes how truly broken we are. This was God’s plan all along, to teach us that we cannot be good enough to fix the world, to be genuinely happy again, or to restore a perfect relationship with God. The prophets, priests, and kings of Ancient Israel teach us that in the pages of the Old Testament.

Enter Jesus. He was an Israelite, the next step in God’s plan through Israel to remake the creation. He was born, lived, and died as a human being. But he was also God, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, the fullness of God in a human being. He was tempted like us, laughed like us, hurt like us, cried like us, bled like us, but without sin, without fault. So when he was executed he didn’t deserve it. He sacrificed himself for us, and in some mysterious way that I cannot fully understand, he took upon himself the sin and pain and misery of the world in order to fix it. There was a debt I owed that he paid. I was captive to an old life and he set me free. I deserved a punishment that he took in my place. The God of the universe is so just that he could not ignore sin, and so filled with love that he could not let it destroy us. So God sent Jesus to fix the problem. And Jesus did, and is continuing to do so, and will one day complete that task for good at the end of time, at the end of the world as we know it. In the words of Andrew Peterson, the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

What does this mean for us? We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot manage our own spiritual lives. We cannot restore ourselves or the world to the good condition in which God created it. We need Jesus. And the good news is this, literally the Gospel is this, that Jesus invites us to follow him, to believe in him, to trust him with our lives. And if we do so, he saves us from all that is wrong with us and from all that is wrong with the world. He restores us to a right relationship with God and with other people, gives us companionship, meaning and purpose in the Church, and begins the process of fixing everything. We do nothing to earn what God gives – this is grace, all of God offered to us in Christ. We acknowledge our sin and accept God’s gift, with the faith that God is who the Bible says he is, and that Jesus did what the Bible says he did for us. We enter a new relationship with him. All things become new.

– Presented at Freshmen Retreat, Samford University, August 29, 2014 and Shades Mountain Baptist UMin, August 31, 2014

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10 Myths That Christians Believe (Part 1)

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” – 1 Timothy 4:7

Sometimes Christian culture helps popularize some ideas about faith and spirituality that are simply false. These myths are false because either they plainly contradict the testimony of scripture or they run counter to the experiences of wise believers through the centuries. After over 24 years of work in ministry and higher education, I have seen these myths in many forms and know the disillusionment that they can cause. I am sure there are other myths that I still hold, and I can only hope that people wiser than me will eventually help disavow me of those myths, as others have pointed these out to me.

Along those lines, I owe a special thanks to Andy Byers who gave a talk on this subject at Samford University and later wrote a book that includes some of this material. Students have frequently told me that Andy’s talk on this subject was among the most memorable of their college experience, so the idea obviously struck a nerve. I have used the idea (with Andy’s blessing) for talks at Mississippi State University and Southeastern Bible College. I have both borrowed from Andy and inserted my own ideas in the posts that follow. If there’s anything true here, then thank Andy. If there’s anything false, blame me. Because of the length of this particular topic, I will post these myths as a series, with links to each of the earlier posts in the later ones.

Myth #1: The Bible answers all your questions.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this common remark, it is simply false, primarily because we so often ask the wrong questions. The Bible was written in a culture very different from our own, and so people tend to seek answers to questions that the Bible’s authors never intended to answer. Most biblical authors were Hebrew in ethnicity, culture and thought, but the education system in the U.S. is a by-product of the Western intellectual tradition. If you ask Western questions of an ancient Near Eastern text, you aren’t likely to get coherent answers. Students often look to the Bible for advice on dating. They want guidance for choosing a university, or academic major, or career, or spouse, or political party. They want help solving their problems and sorting out the mess of their everyday lives. But if you use the Bible primarily in these ways, you are likely to find it difficult, boring, confusing, or disappointing.

Teachers know that when students ask, “Will this be on the exam?” that they are missing the point. Similarly, students of the Bible often miss the main point of the Bible. The Bible isn’t really about you and your life and your decisions, as much as it is about God, and God’s plan, and God’s love for his people, and by extension his love for all people, and the extent to which God demonstrates that love in Christ. So the next time you open up the Bible hoping that it will help you decide for whom you should vote in the next election, don’t be angry if your neighbor does the same thing and comes up with a different answer.

Myth #2: God will never give me more than I can handle.

The problem with this notion is that it actually contradicts the Bible outright. One of the Bible’s main characters, a missionary named Paul, had a pretty difficult life during his final years. He did not suffer due to his mistakes, but because of his faithfulness to God’s mission. By his own account, he experienced trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Romans 8:35). He survived stoning (an ancient form of execution), several beatings, shackles, chains, stocks, and multiple imprisonments. Writing to his friends in Corinth, Paul admits, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

If we take these words seriously, then we cannot accept the idea that God never gives us more than we can handle. Apparently God does, for at least one specific purpose – that we might renounce the myth of self-reliance. We often harbor the notion that we can make it alone, that we don’t need others, that we don’t need God. Unless you take it by faith that something comes from nothing, then at the very least, the world we inhabit and the life we live originates from his creative design. Sometimes it takes pain to remind us of that. It takes situations that we cannot handle to remind us of God, by whose strength we can handle anything. And that really is the point of faith isn’t it, to release our obsession with self and rely on someone else?

[Myths 3-5 will follow in the next post.]

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What is Biblical Manhood?

“What man? Which man? Who’s the man?
When’s a man a man? What does it take to be a man?
Am I a man? Yes, technically I am.” – Flight of the Conchords

It has become trendy in some Christian circles to talk about biblical manhood. Here’s a confession. I am a man. I have been a Christian since 1982. I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than once. I am a trained scholar and theologian. I’ve heard dozens of sermons and read books and articles on the subject, and I still have absolutely no idea what sense to make of the term “biblical manhood.” Here’s why.

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Many seem to intend biblical manhood to refer to people who (1) have a male anatomy, (2) behave in stereotypically male ways (leadership, chivalry, toughness, athleticism, assertiveness, etc.), (3) are also able to relate to others with appropriate sensitivity and gentleness when the situation requires it, and (4) read the Bible and try to follow its pattern for life. Here’s the problem with this description. With the exception of (1), most of these traits apply to my wife, and my daughter, and my female co-workers, and my mother, and Mother Theresa! Are these women behaving un-biblically if they behave in some stereotypically male ways? If not, then the only part of biblical manhood that is exclusively male, is having male anatomy!

Ok, so maybe the previous paragraph was a touch cynical. Honestly, I understand why there has been a push over the past decade to discuss the subject. Many men, especially young men, have lost their way. They’ve grown up in a world where devoted fathers are increasingly rare and mothers anchor the home. They’ve learned that women can do most anything that men can do, and they’ve seen women surpass men in achievement in both educational and professional contexts. They’ve been told that there are almost no psychological or emotional differences between men and women, and that to attribute certain traits exclusively to men is stereotyping at best, or sexist at worst. In short, America is a low-context culture when it comes to gender roles, meaning that there are fewer and fewer cultural norms that help men learn what it means to be a man.

That being the case, some have sought to use the Bible to fill the void, interpreting the patriarchalism of ancient Israel and the Greco-Roman world as prescriptive and not merely descriptive. In other words, the role of men described in the Bible should be the role of men today, or so the argument goes. But one of the most basic principles of biblical interpretation is that you should not make the Bible say what the Bible doesn’t say, and the Bible just doesn’t say that men in every culture should behave as men did in the world of the Bible’s authors. The Bible does say that Eve was created as a helper for Adam (and vice versa), that sin resulted in a condition in which Adam would “rule over” Eve, that the husband is “head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church,” and that wives should “submit” and husbands should love. We could argue all day about what these verses mean, but at the end of the day, these passages are more about marriage than manhood. We could analyze Paul’s instructions about how men should behave in church, but again, these passages are more about leadership in a particular context. We could try to arrive at a view of manhood based on the instructions Paul gives to women about church behavior, which would be like learning to play basketball by watching soccer.

I realize that this is not a comprehensive discussion of the subject; I intend it as a conversation starter. In the final analysis, the Bible simply has much more to say about being Christlike than about being manly. I tend to think that when we men get Christlikeness correct, then manhood will take care of itself, and if we focus on manhood to the neglect of Christlikeness, we’re to likely to screw up both.

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