Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Many Have Ruled Over Us...But...

First, let me say that Kalyn and I will be in Oklahoma the rest of this week, so there won't be any more blog posts.  That having been said, while reading Isaiah this morning, a verse stood out to me.

Oh LORD our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but we acknowledge your name alone. -Isaiah 26:13

I love that verse.  It sums up the life of God's people so well.  There are many who have power over us, many who claim the title "lord," and frankly, they do have power over us.  I do not control my own financial well-being.  Sure, I can budget and live within my means, but I can't force my employer to pay me or keep me employed.  Economics, politics, wars and alliances, all the systems of which I am a part, each has its "lord," its ruler, and I am beneath them.  The Jews knew that lesson well, especially after the exile.

However, the beauty of the prophetic imagination and vision is the prophets' ability to see beyond the immediate and obvious (although this had very immediate and real world applications).  There is a LORD greater than the lords that appear to be in control, and so the challenge is to place honor where it is actually due, in spite of a world of individuals screaming about their own power.  The prophets were unanimous; they would acknowledge the LORD alone.

"Be in the world but not of it" is a popular Christian proverb.  I like Isaiah's poetry much better.  Many lords have ruled over us, but we will acknowledge your name alone.

Stopping point: Isaiah 27

Friday, July 22, 2011

An Ending

As I read through all the judgment oracles at the beginning of Isaiah today, it struck me how the world was forever changed with the rise and fall of Assyria and Babylon.  All the countries that you take for granted in ancient Palestine, the Middle East, and northern Africa...Philistia, Moab, Edom, Israel, Nubia, Egypt...they were forever changed after Assyria and Babylon spread south.  An earthquake of socio-political upheaval came, and the landscape was never the same.

Caught in the middle of much greater powers wrestling for supremacy sat the tiny nation of Judah.  Judah would have been a wealthy nation, or at least the rich among Judah would have been wealthy, sitting on the only north/south trade route through Palestine, so it makes sense that both the Assyrians and the Babylonians would want control of the area.  I can only image what it would have been like for the Judeans to watch unstoppable armies march through their lands, or for the kings who were about to lose their thrones.  What would it have been like to see nation after nation disappear.  Here in Kentucky, it would be like watching all the states around us slowly be destroyed, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and knowing that you were next.  That is the atmosphere the prophets lived and spoke in.  That is the context of Isaiah.  I'm glad I wasn't born then and there, but I find it fascinating now.  The list of events when the world truly changes is a small one, and the rise and fall of Assyria and Babylon are pretty much the first on that list.

Stopping point: Isaiah 22

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Exile: Punishment Or Restoration

I've been having a lot of conversations with people lately revolving around the question of whether God in the Old Testament is a god of wrath, judgment, and punishment.  This is contrast to how people see God in the New Testament, which is a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness.  The question is, once we get to the New Testament, is God in fact new.  I've written about this before, so you can pretty much guess what I'm about to say, but I'm going to repeat myself anyway.

The book of Isaiah opens with five chapters of judgment oracles.  The nation of Judah will be punished for their transgressions.  I don't see how you could argue otherwise.  However, the question is why.  Why is God going to send a foreign nation to defeat Judah?  Why is God bringing punishment?  Is God just an angry God who has had enough?  Is he a God guided by wrath?  Is vengeance the best personification of justice?

God speaks to this through Isaiah in the very first chapter (verses 24-26):

"Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!  I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.  And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city."

"See," someone might say, "how can you not see God as wrathful when he himself says he's pouring out his wrath?"  Let's not get ahead of ourselves here.  What is the purpose of that?  The purpose is to refine precious metal.  The purpose is to remove the dross.  "I will restore...," says the LORD, not destroy.

To play a bit of a semantic game, in my experience it seems that when people discuss God in the Old Testament they talk about God as a god of destruction.  In the Old Testament people die in some rather horrific ways.  They're swallowed alive by the ground.  Fire bursts out and roasts them.  God tells his people to eradicate the native Canaanites.  What do you do with that (and honestly, I don't have easy answers for most of those questions)?  God works in many ways with many different people in the Old Testament, Jews and non-Jews alike, but what people remember are his acts of destruction.  This seems to be in stark contrast to what God does in Jesus, which is to create and rescue.

But then there are verses like the one above from Isaiah, verses that acknowledge that judgment is coming, but frame that judgment in a very different way than most people see it.  God's judgment is restorative judgment.  When God judges, it is no less the loving God of creation acting out that judgment than when he created all things to begin with.  In this context, judgment gets defined in much bigger terms than getting ones comeuppance.  God's justice and judgment is setting things back to right.  And yes, that may mean that something needs to be taken out of the equation, destroyed if you will, such as evil, corruption, abuse, or arrogance.  Is that really such a bad thing?  Do we want God to allow corruption forever so we can think of him as nice?  Of course not, so judgment can be restorative.  It can be loving.  It can be kind.

And one other thing about this judgment oracle from Isaiah, notice that part of God's judgment is withholding punishment.  If God is going to restore judges and counselors, that means he's showing mercy to some.  A god of wrath hurls lightning bolts willy-nilly.  God in the Old Testament is rather selective.  His "wrath" is creative and restorative.  In this passage, his wrath resurrects what was meant to be: a city of or righteousness and faithfulness.

So, I'll get off my soap box and sum this up.  Yes, God's wrath exists in the Old Testament, but it is for restoration, not pointless punishment.  Is food for thought, read Matthew chapter twenty-three and tell me there isn't a "God of wrath" in the New Testament.  God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  We're the ones who get confused.

Stopping point: Isaiah 8

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Did Ecclesiastes Get It Wrong?

A few days back, Kalyn left a comment to one of my posts and specifically asked me to respond to it (One of the perks to being married to the blogger is you can remind him at home to respond to a comment!).  You can see the post and her comment here.  Rather than trying to put my thoughts in another comment box, considering how long winded I can get, I decided to just do a whole post in response.  Her question was this:

"As Church of Christ -ers, we are taught that the Bible is infallible. Is it fair to say that Ecclesiastes got it wrong, though? It is arguing that this life is vanity, and we know that is not the case."

After thinking about the question, I see two issues that need responded to before I can directly look at Ecclesiastes.  The first is the idea of infallibility, and the second, the word vanity as used in Ecclesiastes.

So, infallibility....  Infallibility as an idea is often used interchangeably with the idea of inerrancy, which is the theological argument that the Bible is free of error.  Here's the kicker...how do you define "error."  You see, there's a lot of baggage behind that little word in regard to the Bible.  For example, does the idea of inerrancy suggest that there cannot be any spelling errors in the Bible?  There are, and that statement isn't even beginning to scratch the complexity of how we now get our Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  What do you do with the fact that some ancient manuscripts don't even have the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark or put verses in different places?  Well, someone might argue, the original didn't have those mistakes!  Maybe, we of course don't know because the originals no longer exist.  But in a way, all those arguments are just dodging the issue.  If Paul misspelled a word, would Scripture still be innerant?  It would, by definition, contain an error.

Some would argue that inerrancy means the Bible has an answer for all our questions.  This grows out of the idea that the Bible is our guide and authority as Christians (which I personally couldn't agree with more.  After all, canon means "measure," so the Biblical canon is the thing which Christians must measure themselves against.); however, there are some problems with thinking that the Bible answers all our questions without critical thought or interpretation.  For example, does the Bible tell us whether we should be Republican or Democrat?  What about modern tax legislature, does the Bible directly address that?  Social Security reform?  Traffic laws?  These, of course, are superficial examples, but it goes to show that the Bible does not have an answer for every question we might ask.  The challenge of the canon is to learn to humble ourselves to a point where we start asking the same questions it is asking.  We might find out our questions weren't the point to begin with.

Inerrancy also assumes that all parts of the Bible are meant to be interpreted literally.  With this assumption, the Bible becomes nothing but a rule or code book we must decipher.  In the end this belittles the reality of different genres within the Bible, such as wisdom literature, historical narrative, poetry, myth, gospel, and epistle to name a few.  Different genres function differently, so the proverb that says, "Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more (Proverbs 31:6-7)," isn't suggesting we should throw whisky at the homeless.  So too, the Psalm that says, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9)" is not suggesting infanticide as a Christian virtue.

As you might have noticed, I am not a supporter of the idea of inerrancy.  Scripture is authoritative.  It is our measure.  It is an account of God revealing himself to humanity, but "inerrancy" (read also "infallibility") among Christian circles comes with a huge amount of negative baggage, most of which the Bible itself does not support.

Enough about inerrancy, what about vanity?  In my post "A Puff Of Smoke," I mentioned that the Hebrew word used by the author is better translated as a "puff of air," sort of like seeing your breath on a cold day.  It's there and then it's not.  The word is either hevel or hebel, I can't remember off the top of my head and I've packed up my Hebrew Bible, so I'm out of luck as far as looking it up.  Either way, maybe a good way of thinking about "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity," is, "Fleeting, fleeting, everything is fleeting."  That is not the same idea as pointless, which is along the lines of what we usually think of when we hear the word vanity.

So, let's bring this all back to Ecclesiastes and Kalyn's question, "Is it fair to say that Ecclesiastes got it wrong?"  I would say no.  First of all, the Teacher doesn't say life is pointless but that it quickly passes.  It would be a rare person who disagreed with that statement.  Second, if we appreciate Ecclesiastes as wisdom literature rather than a book we must use to find some rule by which to live (a.k.a., a book meant to challenge its readers to help them learn and grow rather than a book that provides them with a systematic form to duplicate), we see that Ecclesiastes is very helpful as a standard for measurement (canon), in spite of how dark a book it might be.  Ecclesiastes got it exactly right.  Life flies by, and money, pleasure, security, wisdom, the list could go on...nothing will make it last any longer.  In the end, fear (honor, worship) God and obey him, and learn to appreciate the blessings he gives us along the way.

I hope that helps, dear.  I'll see you after work.

Fire Is Good In The Fireplace

One of the most influential people in my life was a professor at Rochester College, Dr. David Fleer.  If you're curious, he now teaches at Lipscomb University.  One of the many courses I took under Dr. Fleer was Survey of the Old Testament.  If you were to teach Song of Solomon to a bunch of hormonal college students, how would you tackle the subject?  I think he handled it with great aplomb...well, great aplomb after yelling down the hall that we would be talking about sex in class that day.  His take on Song of Solomon was pretty straight forward, "Fire is good in the fireplace."

There's a whole strand of Christian tradition that interprets Song of Solomon allegorically (to be fair, there's a whole strand of Christian tradition that interpreted the vast majority of the Old Testament allegorically).  In this train of thought, the love story we find in Song of Solomon has nothing to do with physical desire or sex.  Instead, Song of Solomon is about Jesus's love for the Church.  Now I can completely understand why a monastery full of celibate monks would find a way to interpret a book about sex so that it has nothing at all to do with sex...AT ALL!  But seriously, Song of Solomon is about sex.

Maybe the saddest part about our uneasiness with sex, and therefore the book of Song of Solomon, is how gnostic our thinking is.  Sex is just too physical.  It's messy.  Animals do it, and so, for many people, the act of sex is something that lowers their humanity.  To broaden our view, it's sad how much of the Bible is read through a gnostic lens.  In that regard, some people may be uncomfortable with the book of Song of Solomon specifically because it undermines that ideology.  Sex (physical, messy, and animalistic) is created by God, and when all was said and done, God said it was "very good."  All of it, as it was.  Physicality isn't the opposite of spirituality.  They are, in fact, part of the whole of God's creation.  Therefore, a book entirely dedicated to love and sex has it's place in the canon of scripture.

At the same time, maybe you parents out there might want to follow the ancient Jewish tradition of not letting your children read it until they are forty.  I'll leave that for you to decide.

Stopping point: Song of Solomon 8

Friday, July 15, 2011

Today's My Anniversary

So, today's my and Kalyn's five year anniversary, and in typical fashion I forgot to get a card.  All day I've been trying to think of something non-cliche to put in a note or something, and I haven't had much luck.  I've been thinking back over the last five years, and there's just too much to say.  She's been faithful and true.  She's been kind and generous.  She's been loving and present, and continues to be all those things.  In the last five years, we've lived in three towns/cities in two states.  We've had a dog and a cat, two dogs and a cat, one dog, two dogs, and one dog again.  We've had good incomes and we've barely gotten by.  We've had a miscarriage and a son.  We've had friends and enemies.  We have had people praise us and curse us.  We've been happy and sad.  We've celebrated and mourned.  We've gotten along and we've fought.  In other words, we've lived together for five years as husband and wife.  A wise man once said that marriages were people growing machines, and Kalyn has certainly helped me grow.  Thinking of life without her is a terribly depressing thought, so I don't do it much.  Anniversaries are a strange mixture of special day and just another day.  So, like every day, after work I'll go back to our house, tell her I love her, and be glad I'm home.

Happy fifth anniversary.  I love you.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. –Ecclesiastes 7:29

It is amazing how often the theme of the Fall shows itself in different books and different genres throughout the Bible.  In Ecclesiastes, the fall shows itself in Qohelet’s acknowledgment that things are not the way they were meant to be.  Humanity has caused its own harm.  The frustration with Ecclesiastes, and the author basically says this himself, is that humanity cannot pull things back around.  The only available option is to try to enjoy the little happinesses in life.  What else is there when death is the final arbiter of existence?

Without the restorative, re-creating power of God, life is nothing but vanity.  Is it any wonder that the New Testament writers saw the work God did in Jesus as such good news?  In Jesus, the story was redirected.  As death came through Adam and the Fall, life came through Jesus and the resurrection.  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” is no longer the final word.  If life is more than a puff of smoke, that re-interprets things.  Praise God.

Stopping point: Ecclesiastes 8

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Puff Of Smoke

I would highly recommend hopping over to Experimental Theology and reading through Dr. Beck's blog book Freud's Ghost.  Some may find his thoughts controversial, but they are certainly provoking.  In relation to Ecclesiastes, I find Dr. Beck's thoughts on winter Christians especially helpful (see Part 3: Withdrawal).  Here's just one excerpt from chapter 7, "Sick Soul."

[William] James moves on in The Varieties to describe the "sick soul." And it is with the sick soul where we find our first hint that an existentially non-defensive faith may be possible, contrary to what Freud's Ghost asserts. Specifically, according to James the sick soul is much more open to existential reality compared with the healthy minded counterpart. The sick souled are convinced that "the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence" (p. 125) and they ruminate on the existential condition of man's finiteness and vulnerability: "The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity" (p. 132, emphases in original).
 Without going into much detail to explain Dr. Beck's thinking up to this point, the author of Ecclesiastes falls heavily into the category of sick soul.  Vanity, life is vanity.  That is the one truth the author of Ecclesiastes can't seem to get around.  It is always in his way.  I like the imagery of the Hebrew better than the English "vanity."  In Hebrew, that word connotes a quickly evaporating vapor, a breath of air, a puff of smoke.  "Vanity" becomes the idea of something present for the blink of an eye and then gone.  Some have compared life with the flame of a candle...quickly blown out.  The author of Ecclesiastes says it is worse than that.  Life is more like the wisp of smoke that quickly disappears after a candle is blown out.

This obsession with the shortness and futility of life has understandably earned Ecclesiastes the reputation for being a depressing book, but ironically it has been a favorite of mine since middle school (Seriously, how many twelve year olds do you know that like Ecclesiastes?  I was a weird kid.).  I would consider myself a winter Christian, a sick soul, one who resonates more with lament than praise, so maybe that's why I've always been drawn to it.  Who knows?  Be that as it may, there is strength in being a sick soul.

To jump way ahead in Ecclesiastes, the epilogue has this to say.

The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. -Ecclesiastes 12:13

Many scholars have noted, and probably rightly, that this is a later redaction to the book.  It seems to stand in such stark contrast to the darkness and shadow that proceed it.  After a whole book of smoke puffs, the last word seems superficial and overly simple, but that isn't necessarily so.  As Dr. Beck points out in his post, the faith of the sick soul is not held as a denial of death, but in the face of death.  True faith has the strength to look death in the face and still say, "I believe."  That is no small feat, and I would argue, that is the faith behind the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.  "Vanity" and "fear God" go hand in hand.

Stopping point: Ecclesiastes 4

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I'm Still Trekking Along

So, my blog posts have sort of shriveled up, but do not fear, I am still on track for my reading.  In fact, I've gotten a little ahead, which is nice.  Yesterday I finished up the book of Psalms, and today I was able to finish up Proverbs.  I'm no looking forward to Ecclesiastes.  Proverbs has to be one of my least favorite books in the Bible, but (and here again I prove how strange I've always been) Ecclesiastes has been one of my favorites ever since I was a kid.  So, I might actually start blogging more often once I get into Ecclesiastes.

Stopping point: Proverbs 31

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Know When To Fold 'Em

Okay, so my attempt to read three psalms a day has gone...well, not at all.  So, I decided to just play catch up, which I finally did today.  As of today, I have read through Psalm 119, which by the way, is one huge psalm.  That means I'm actually ahead in my reading, since I began reading in Proverbs too!  To those of you who have been reading three psalms a day for years, my hat goes off to you.

If some of you have been wondering why I'm not posting as often as I used to, to tell the truth, the book of Psalms doesn't stimulate me all that much as far as blogging ideas goes.  If I think of anything, I'll be sure to write about it.

Stopping point: Psalm 119