Reflections from Myanmar #2: Proof-text Preaching

I finished my first day of class at Myanmar Bible Institute. I have 10 Master’s level students in the class. There are three local preachers who are auditing, and there has usually been one or two of the MBI professors sitting in. It has been very fun for me. The class is actually participating with questions and feedback, which is pretty unusual in these circumstances.

Today, we had a good discussion on “proof-text” preaching. At its worst, this is where a preacher comes up with a thematic sermon and finds a text to support all of his points. It does not treat the Bible with the respect and dignity it deserves, but uses it like a dictionary of unrelated verse-entries. At the break, two of the MBI professors who were sitting in asked me to talk about this some more, because they said it is the prevalent method in the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches in Myanmar. I’m not sure I can make a difference here, but I hope I can influence them to work through a single text and mine it for all the meaning it has before immediately turning to “supporting texts” which may come from an entirely different context. I don’t know if I can make much of a difference, but if I can get the 10 future preachers to buy into a more expository method, that will be a start.

I’m posting from an internet cafe because the wifi at my hotel has not worked for two days. Sound like home for some reason. 🙂

Mark Krause

Reflections from Myanmar

I finally arrive in Myanmar last night. My plane odyssey was Omaha-Atlanta-Houston-Moscow-Singapore-Yangon-Mandalay. About 36 hours total. I slept on the planes a lot, but still arrived pretty tuckered out. This morning I will be attending church services, but not preaching. There is a team here from a church in Jacksonville, FL, a church that supports Myanmar Bible Institute. They have come for a visit and to encourage the wonderful folks here. A couple of quick reflections on what has changed in 10 years since I was last here:

1. The school, Myanmar Bible Institute, is now fully recognized by the government. It is not underground in any way. That does not mean they receive any help or respect from the government, but it is a step in the right direction.

2. Technology has had an impact. I am writing this from my room using the hotel’s wifi, but I get the impression that this does not happen very often. Still, all the faculty members of MBI have cell phones. I had the jarring experience of seeing an elderly Buddhist monk at the airport using an iPhone (cognitive dissonance?). But things are changing. Still, the experience at the airports was about the same. Hand stamped boarding passes. Attendants shouting out when flights were ready and herding people on. But it works.

3. I had an interesting conversation while waiting to get on the plane to Mandalay with a woman from Paris. Although she was a very normal looking French person in her 60s, she was in Myanmar on a Buddhist pilgrimage to visit holy sites. She was complaining to me of the lack of respect she had seen from Americans at some of the Buddhist shrines. Surprise! When I told her I was here to help at a Christian school in Pyin Oo Lwin, she was very surprised. “Not many Christians here,” was her comment. She assumed I was Roman Catholic and asked if my “order” sent me a lot of places. Very interesting. With the new freedoms now promised to the people of Myanmar, there may be a chance for growth of the church, but the Buddhist establishment will still be resistant, and they have a lot of influence.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I will try to blog a couple times this week.

Ceizu in ba de,

Mark Krause

Postmodern Generation #1 (continued)

I left off with the story about The Smartest Man in the World. My point in telling that story is to ask, what makes someone the “smartest” anything?

In the late 15th century, an Italian, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, had a brief but meteoric career in the great centers of learning of Renaissance Europe. Although he died at age 31 (probably poisoned as a result of intrigue with the Medici family), I have heard it said that he was considered by some to be the smartest man in the world during his brief career. What does this mean? I think it means that Pico was the most learned man alive. He had read all of the books, literally all of the books available. This included all the available Greek and Roman authors from antiquity and all the learned treatises of his day. He knew everything there was to know, a prototypical Renaissance man. (See article)

So, my guess is that when we talk about someone being the Smartest Man (or Woman) in the Room, we mean that person has the most facts in his or her head, and can quickly recall them for use in an argument. In the recent political debates, this was probably highlighted by certain candidates who were clearly not the Smartest Man in the Room.

What does this have to do with the Postmodern Generation, the Millennials? Just this: I don’t think they care. They are not impressed. Why jam my head full of facts when they are a few keystrokes away on my computer? If I need them, I know where to look.

I am not saying this judgmentally and it would not matter if I did. My brain is crammed full of both helpful and useless information, which allows me to win at Trivial Pursuit most of the time. But in a Wikipedia world, I am becoming a dinosaur. This has huge implications for the future of higher education. We risk having libraries full of books that no one will use in the future. We cannot teach college classes without taking the technological prowess and needs of our students into account. And the Smartest Man in the Room may not even win the debate, much less get elected.

Mark Krause

BTW: I leave for Myanmar tomorrow. I will try to do some posts from there, but I’m not sure if it will be possible. I return on February 7.

Postmodern Generation #1

I am leaving on Thursday for a ten-day trip to Myanmar to do some teaching at a sister school there. I have been to Myanmar twice before, but it has been nearly ten years since by last visit. This has caused me to wonder what it will be like. My impression of Myanmar is frozen in time, and it has surely progressed. For example, its technology will be better, and I will likely be surprised. Also, the diplomatic relationships between the USA and Myanmar have improved considerably, so I am interested to see how that is manifested to everyday guys like me who are making a visit.

All that is to say that I have also been pondering parallel changes here in America. Ten years ago, everyone was saying that we were entering the postmodern world, but no one really knew what that was or what it would be like in the future. I wrote an article on “Postmodern Ethics” about seven years ago and tried to lay out the contours of postmodernity as I saw them at the time. I was right on some things, but not on others.

In 2012, the postmodern world is still struggling against the ghosts of the modern agenda and modernity’s ways of thinking. Yet the college students of today know nothing except a postmodern world. This country’s 18-year-olds don’t really even remember the Clinton presidency, which was certainly a transitional time in politics, and included many shifts toward a postmodern outlook. They live on the far side of that.

I have been struck by some of the aspects of this in the current presidential campaign, and I am trying to understand this from an college student’s perspective. (BTW: I do not intend to use this blog for political agendas, so I will keep my comments non-partisan). I have been struck several times the past few months about the comment that “Candidate So-n-So” is the “smartest man in the room.” I have heard this multiple times, used to describe several persons from various political viewpoints. But what does this mean? What does it mean to be the “smartest person in the room?”

There is an old joke about five people who were on a plane flight together. They were the pilot, the President of the United States, the Smartest Man in the World, an elderly woman, and a college student. In mid-flight, the pilot opened the door of the cockpit and said with terror in his voice, “The plane is going down, so put on a parachute and jump! I’ll show you how.” The pilot grabbed a parachute from the pile, strapped it on, opened the plane’s door, and took the leap. After his departure, the four people left were startled to notice there were only three parachutes left in the pile. The President immediately grabbed one, and, claiming that the free world needed him, he jumped. Then the Smartest Man in the World gave a little speech to the old woman and the college student, saying, “There are other smart people, but no one in the world is as smart as I am. The world needs me as much as the President, so I must take one of these parachutes and save myself.” So he jumped, too. This left the college student and the old woman apparently needing to choose between themselves for the last parachute. But, before the woman could say anything, the college student gave her a mischievous smile and said, “Don’t worry, ma’am, there are two parachutes left. The Smartest Man in the World just jumped with my backpack strapped on.”

How does this apply to postmodernity and being the smartest man in the room? Check back in a day or two and I will explain.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #4: “Mark 16:16”

You may pick up from me that there is a tension between “systematic” theologians and “biblical” interpreters. This is a necessary thing, because we believe the Bible to have a unified message and don’t want texts in conflict.

That said, the desire of systematicians to have everything in its place has caused heartburn to biblical interpreters like me. One of the causes of this is the theological method sometimes referred to as “necessary inference.” This takes a text or multiple texts and draws conclusions from them that seem logical and consistent. However, this necessary inference often goes beyond what any one text says. A good example of this is the whole doctrine of the Trinity, but I will discuss this some time in the future.

Let me give this example, Mark 16:16:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (NIV 2011).

There are two problems with this text. First, it is uncertain that it was an original part of the Gospel of Mark, since many of the earliest copies of this book do not have Mark 16:9-20, or have a different ending. Discussing that is also for another time, though.

The more important thing for this post is determining what the text says and what it doesn’t say. Here’s my take. There are two categories represented here. First we have those who are believers and who are baptized. They are given the promise of salvation (“will be saved”). Category two: those who do not believe. They are given the promise of condemnation (“will be condemned”).

And that’s it. What about those who believe and are not baptized? Don’t know anything about them from this text. Actually, there was no one like this in the early church, so the question did not come up. Equally true: what about those who are baptized and do not believe? Don’t know any thing about them from this text, although there were surely such folks in the early church. But to use this text to say that without baptism you are condemned is a conclusion not supported by the wording of the text. At best, it is a necessary inference. But necessary inferences are logical conclusions of human theologians. Even though it has gotten me in trouble many times, I am unwilling to do this. I guess I would be a failure if I ever tried to write a Systematic Theology textbook (which I have contemplated). 🙂

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #3: “Missing the Mark”

Sometimes, strange things happen when systematic theologians use the Bible. Rather that searching Scriptures to find theological material that allows them to build solid doctrine, the process often goes the other way. Having decided upon a doctrine, it is always tempting to search for a text to support it. Rather than a text that speaks theology to a careful listener, it is theology in search of a text, a conclusion in search of a premise. (Tonight I am stuck in the Salt Lake City airport due to a massive snowstorm in Seattle, our destination. I could probably do some searching to find a Bible text that expresses my feelings, but I think that would be unwise right now.)

This agenda often intersects with the idea of doing theology based on the meaning of Greek words. Today’s example is the Greek word hamartia and its verbal counterpart, hamartano. Usually translated “sin,” you have probably heard an explanation of this word group as meaning “missing the mark.” In other words, it is a word drawn from the archery world. I shoot my arrow at the bullseye, but I miss the mark and end up in the second ring of the target. I have missed the mark.

But sin isn’t like this. Sin is not where I try my very best but fall short. (This isn’t even a Calvinistic or Augustinian view of sin, which would be that I am incapable of even shooting the arrow.) Sin is when God tells me to shoot my arrow at the bullseye, I know that God desires me to hit the bullseye, and I deliberately turn 180 degrees and fire the arrow the other way. I disobey. Sin is more than failure, it is rebellion.

The point is that no one in Paul or John’s audiences would have thought archery metaphor when they used the word hamartia. What they were talking about was far more serious. John says, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” I think that leaves the possibility that some sin is “mortal” or “deadly.” Serious stuff. Not ring two on the archery target. Bad bad bad stuff. Let’s lose the “missing the mark” baloney.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #2: The “Called-Out Ones”

mark and susanIn the 1950s and 1960s, we saw the heyday of the “Theological Dictionaries.” These were examinations of the Greek (and Hebrew) words used in the Bible with a theological eye, looking at earlier usages in classical literature and in various Bible verses with the goal of understanding some sort of theological value behind these words. There were several problems with this approach. First, word meanings change over time, so looking at how Plato used a word might be interesting, but it does not necessarily indicate how Paul might have used the word 500 years later. Second, linguistics has taught us that words have no meaning without context, only potential meaning. Etc., etc. This dictionary angle has survived in the “word study” approach to exegesis, which teaches students to use the theological dictionaries and other sources.

There are legions of examples of someone who has uncovered a meaning of a Greek word that is thought to unlock some type of hidden meaning. In this blog, I will point out some of these from time to time, for they lead to theological mistakes (although these are sometimes more humorous than serious).

One of these is the Greek word ekklesia, which is usually translated “church.” Long ago, some bright Greek student noticed that this is a compound word in Greek, ek + klesia. “Ek”  is a preposition meaning “out” or “out of.” “Klesia” comes from a root that means “to call.” Thus, it is reasoned that ekklesia means “the called out.” One more logical step leads us to understand the church as “the called out ones,” presumably those called out of the world.

Now, the word did mean something like this originally. It was used for the calling of the people of a Greek city to an assembly point outside the city for a town meeting. By the time of Paul, though, no one was thinking of “the called out” when they heard this word. They were thinking “assembly.” Ekklesia was the word the early Christians chose to refer to their assembly, similar to the Jewish/Greek word synagoge (which means “the gathered”). Thus ekklesiai tou Christou could be translated “churches of Christ” or “assemblies of Christ.” (Romans 16:16). The latter is more accurate, though.

This wouldn’t be a big deal except some folks have derived theology from this misunderstanding, teaching that the church is made up of those called out of the world. Not only is this an exegetical mistake, it leads to questionable doctrine. While we are taught to be “unstained from the world” (James 1:27), I don’t think the New Testament teaches us to withdraw from the world. Jesus didn’t. Paul didn’t.

When the infamous Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he reputedly said, “That’s where the money is.” Well, how do we reconcile being the “called out ones” with the Great Commission? Isn’t the “world” where unsaved people are? Isn’t the world where the orphans and widows who need justice are? We are not called to be hermits, but ambassadors of Christ.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #1: “The Wise Men”

ImageWelcome to my new blog, the “Krause Korner.” I will be mainly exploring current theological issues and their impact on the church in this venue. I have done a lot of writing for publication over the years. This has never been with the purpose (or result) of making big bucks, so I am glad to share my ideas with you. To begin, I would like to explore what I call “Little Heresies.” These are small items of doctrine where we find the popular doctrine of the church is off-track. These are not issues of salvation, but misunderstandings. Some of these are very old and persistent. Some are actually quite humorous.

Let me give you a silly example: The Wise Men following the star. Our Christmas legends have been built on the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew only, we find the account of “Wise Men” (magi) who come to visit the young Jesus.Many things in popular imagination are not found in this text. For example, there is no evidence the Wise Men visited Jesus in a stable (a detail drawn from Luke, where the shepherds visit the newborn Messiah). The wise men see an astral phenomenon they describe as a “star” and this is “in the east.” This probably means they see a new “star” while they are in the east (east of Jerusalem), perhaps in Babylon. For them, the categories you learned in astronomy don’t apply. This might have been a star, a planet, or a comet. But they take this as a sign that the Jewish Messiah has been born, something they seem to be expecting. We can only speculate how they make this connection, but it probably stems from their connection with the Jewish community in a place like Babylon, or through their own reading of Jewish scriptures.

Despite our depictions in art and video, the Wise Men don’t follow the star for miles across a wasteland of a desert. They come to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn Messiah. They seem to reason that if the Jewish Messiah had been born, someone in the center of Judaism might know something about it. It is from Jerusalem that they follow the star to the place where the young child was in Bethlehem, a distance of less than 10 miles. How this worked, I have no idea, but it was an obvious miracle that worked as intended.

So, just smile a little when you see a Christmas video showing three guys on camels plodding through a trackless wasteland. Nice legend. Not biblical.