Scholarship and Sermonizing

Most American Christians are only vaguely aware that the Bible was not originally written in English. The attitude is something like the Hollywood Sci-Fi productions where space explorers encounter aliens far from earth who speak perfect English. (Wouldn’t it be a great plot twist if the English-speaking astronaut met a Martian who only spoke French?) Similarly, while folks in the pews (or stack chairs) realize there are different “versions” of the Bible, many do not understand the dynamics and history of the Christian Bible.

This is why Bible colleges like Nebraska Christian College teach classes in Greek and Hebrew, the two primary biblical languages. Both of these languages have modern counterparts, but knowledge of the Greek spoken in 2012 Athens or the Hebrew of modern Tel Aviv will be of little help in reading the Bible in its original languages. For this we need to know Biblical Hebrew and Koiné Greek, languages frozen in time over 2,000 years ago.

Being able to read the Bible in the original languages yields some interesting results. Let me give you two examples from my current book of study, James.

1. Trials vs. Temptations. In Christian theological formulations, we make a distinction between “Trials” (which may be placed in our lives by God himself) and “Temptations” (which are not sent from God). God may test us, but God does not tempt us. The first chapter of James, in English translation, speaks of trials/testing that can be a good thing, because if trials are patiently navigated, they lead to spiritual maturity. In the same chapter, we are told that God does not tempt us, but that temptation is the result of our own inner lusts or desires. The problem is that in Greek, the word translated “trial” and the word translated “temptation” are the same word (peirosmos). In Greek, our argument sounds like this: God tests us but he never tests us, or, God tempts us but he never tempts us. All of this is to say there is something else going on here, and the translators have obscured what James is saying (at least partially). But I must be careful. I do not want to use my knowledge of Greek to say that God indeed does tempt us, because James explicitly denies this (James 1:13).

2. The Christian “assembly” or “meeting” described in James 2:2 does not use the word for “church” we might expect (ekklesia). Instead it uses synagoge, the word that becomes “synagogue” when transliterated. Now I am all for translating rather than transliterating, but in this case the translation obscures a striking detail of James’s letter, the Jewish makeup of the congregation he is writing to. But be careful. The Greek word from which we get the word “synagogue” just means “assembly” or “congregation,” those who are “come together.”

My former student, Ann Campbell, is correct when she says I used to tell my Greek students that their Greek belongs in the study, not in the pulpit. If I remember correctly, I used to say that if I was ever in the audience when one of them were preaching and I heard them use the word “aorist,” I would come up and take them down. (Fortunately, I never acted on this stupid threat. God is gracious to fools like me!)

But the principle remains. When a preacher tells his or her congregation that the verb in a New Testament verse is in the aorist tense, the preacher has closed the text to the congregation, not opened it. The preacher is saying, “This is a highly technical matter and you must trust me more than your English translation, because I am in the only one in the room who knows Greek, and that’s all there is to it.” The average listener has no way to check whether or not the preacher’s point, based on the aoristness of a Greek verb, is valid.

Personally, I usually cringe when I hear a preacher trot out a sermon point based on the subtleties of the Greek text. Their point is usually not the result of their own work, but derivative of a point made by another preacher or author. And most of the time this type of pulpit exegesis is either distorted or just plain wrong. So, as I also used to tell my students, when you are tempted to do this, just remember that there may be someone like me in the audience. Be careful. Your Greek work, your Hebrew work belongs in the pastor’s study, not in the pulpit.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Christian Hand Signals

I am teaching a college class on the Catholic Epistles this semester, and right now we are working our way through the book of James. I found a modern icon to use for a PowerPoint slide that had James making a hand gesture that has always intrigued me. I had often read that this was the “sign of blessing” or the “sign of wisdom,” but that seemed inadequate to me.

I think I found a plausible explanation in several places. This is using the right hand to form Greek letters. This is seen from the perspective of the one making the gesture. The pointer finger is straight. The middle finger is curved. The ring finger touches the thumb, making a crossed figure. The pinky is curved (not much in this icon). In alphabet letters this might look like this: ICXC. If we separate these into IC XC, we can see they are Greek letters that signify two words. In the style of Greek we call “uncial,” what looks like our capital “C” is the way they write the letter Sigma (Σ). So the IC XC could also be written IΣ XΣ. This is a way of abbreviating ΙΗΣΟΥΣ  ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, the Greek way of spelling Iesous Christos, Jesus Christ. This sort of abbreviation appears frequently in the ancient Greek manuscripts, usually for names associated with members of the Trinity. In the manuscripts, they are marked with a solid line above the letters, “overlining.” Those who study the Greek manuscripts of the Bible refer to this system of abbreviation as nomina sacra.

So if you show this hand gesture to someone, you are flashing “Jesus Christ.” I guess that makes you part of the Christian gang, the church. And for my former students reading this, aren’t you glad you paid attention in Greek class. (You did pay attention, didn’t you? Please tell me you paid attention.)

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Calvin Miller R.I.P.

Yesterday, funeral services were held in Alabama for Calvin Miller, who died of complications from open-heart surgery at age 75. A nice obituary was carried by the Omaha World Herald.

I did not realize that Dr. Miller had been something of a celebrity pastor in Omaha for many years (and I mean this in a positive way). Miller founded Omaha’s Westside Baptist Church in 1966 and served as its pastor for 25 years. In this time it grew to be a church of 2,500 members. His daughter still lives here and is married to the pastor of a church in Papillion, NE, where Nebraska Christian College is located. Miller later taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas and Beeson Divinity School in Alabama.

Miller is best remembered as an author. When I was in college, many students were Miller fans because of his book, The Singer. This was a poetic retelling of the story of Christ. It was followed by The Song (Acts) and The Finale (Revelation). These three are sometimes called the “Singer Trilogy” although Miller sometimes used the term “Symphony Series.”

The Singer presents the life of Jesus as a medieval Troubadour singing/ministering to the people. Miller does some wonderful restatements of familiar verses of Scripture to fit this setting. Do you recognize any of these?

Blessed are the musical, for theirs shall be a never-ending song.

Earthmaker is love. He has sent his only Troubadour to close the Canyon of the Damned.

In the beginning was the Song of Love …

Come to the Singer you science-stained.
Cry for the crime and be unchained.

Here in the Great Invader’s reign.

Hailed at the time as the heir of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien for this fresh and lively writing, I’m not sure that the literary tastes of American Christianity have sustained Miller’s works as timeless classics. But I wonder if they are not ripe to be rediscovered and influence a new generation of college students. In my opinion, the first book, The Singer, stands head and shoulders above the others, and is still a worthwhile, inspiring read. It is only 168 pages, many of which have illustrations or have no print. It can be read in a couple of hours (what I call an “airplane book”). You will enjoy it if you have not read it before, and enjoy it again if you have not read it recently. I reread most of The Singer yesterday.

My personal copy of The Singer was given to me as a Christmas present in 1978. Here is what my mother wrote in it:

There is beauty and emotion in the words of this book. I cannot read it without tears. Many people do not understand it. I think you will.

Give it a try, I think you will understand it, too.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

PS: The four Scriptures above are Matthew 5:3, John 3:16, John 1:1, and Acts 2:38.

Christianity after Religion, Conclusion

A few posts ago I began to review a new book by Diana Butler Bass entitled Christianity after Religion: the End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. This book was a tough read for me, partly because Bass’s style in the first half of the book was off-putting to me. But she got better. She is at her best when she relates actual experiences she has had as a seminar and conference speaker and gives some insightful reflection.

Bass shares with me the conviction that much of American Christianity has become homogenized through the advent of the entrepreneurial church (and commercialized para-church ministries). She refers to this as “commercial Christianity.” Here is a good quote from her:

Sadly, much of contemporary church is the same. Successful churches have also become products–bigger-is-better buildings with slick programs that cater to an expanding religious market. Yet spiritual commercialization creates a culture of sameness across the country that subsumes local cultures in its wake, losing the quality of neighborly faith. Want your church to grow? Attend the latest pastors’ conference offered by a celebrity ministry. Offer an extensive array of programming. Put on a dazzling Christmas spectacular. Buy Vacation Bible School in a can.

Ouch!. I recognize myself in some of those critical comments.But they speak truth and help us understand the dilution of the power of American Christianity.

Bass’s pen is not as acidic as some recent critics, but she takes plenty of shots. Another example:

All three of America’s great Christian traditions–Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical have bungled the faith pretty badly in the last decade at a time when religions were swimming across a historic tide of doubt.

Bass is convinced that the “institutional” or “institutionalized” church is a relic of the past, and will have no constituency in the future. She analyzes this as a historic shift.

Christianity itself is changing–shifting away from being a belief-centered religion toward an experiential faith.

Elsewhere, she describes this as a reversing of the move of faith “from the heart and hands to the head,” thereby bucking the trend of systematizing the faith that took place during the Protestant Reformation and accelerated during the Enlightenment and resulting modernity.

I think this move may not be as dramatic as Bass thinks, and is the result of the abandoning of modernity for postmodernity more than anything. People today do not think systematically. There is no rigorous expectation that all the things they believe or hold dear are compatible and fit together in a coherent way. I see this in the current political campaigns where truth is long-abandoned and reasonable, logical ideology has disappeared. We can be told outrageous lies, things that could not possibly be true, and find there are folks who believe them.

But there is a move in the church that I find very healthy. The millennials who are now coming into positions of influence are demanding that the church make a difference in their world. They experience a world where things are very wrong. Injustice and apathy seem to reign as twin tyrants. They have no time for a church that is a worship club or live entertainment. They want a church that can coordinate them into opportunities to serve, and if it refuses, they will move on. More power to them.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Et tu, Fareed?

I have shared with a few friends that I was very disappointed last Sunday when I tried to watch the DVRed recording of Fareed Zakaria’s “Global Public Square” (GPS) program on CNN. The show was missing, replaced by an extended version of Candy Crowley’s “State of the Union” show. Crowley’s program is OK, but focuses on domestic issues in the political world rather than the international perspective Fareed brings in his GPS show.

I learned later that Zakaria had been suspended by both Time magazine (where he has a column that usually runs every week) and by CNN because of a case of plagiarism. Fareed admitted to this in a simple mea culpa and accepted suspension by both organizations. This was disappointing to me because I have grown to respect Dr. Zakaria. I often do not agree with him, but he brings a mix of progressive politics combined with an aggressive capitalism and free-marketism that I have found in no other national voice. His show brings in many international players whom he engages in spirited one-on-one discussions. I especially appreciate that Fareed shows respect to his show’s guests, even if they are folks he obviously does not agree with. With Fareed you do not find the constant interuptions (ala Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews) that end in disallowing free exchange of ideas and opinions. Fareed also assembles “panels” of thinkers to discuss the issues of the day, using folks from all over the world. His attempt to create something like a true “Global Public Square” is lacking elsewhere in the partisan world of cable TV.

But the evidence of plagiarism is irrefutable, and in some ways it is not surprising. Celebrity journalists like Zakaria have an enormous output of material, and obviously employ research assistants who ghost write much of this. We are naive to assume that everything published under Fareed’s name has been written by him. This pressure to grind out material seems designed to cause authors to use shortcuts. Someone in Fareed’s organization (maybe Fareed himself, although I doubt it), caved to this pressure and lifted a substantial chunk of material from another columnist. And even if his the plagiarism was committed by someone else, Fareed’s name was on the column, and the blame rests with him.

Is this forgivable? Of course. But it taints Fareed and it should. I will never be quite so trusting of him in the future. And that makes me sad. In a world where political commentary is sometimes thinly veiled rehash of talking points from one of the national parties by attractive airheads, Fareed was different. My expectations from him were too high, I guess.

Both Time magazine and CNN have lifted Fareed’s suspension and his GPS show is scheduled to resume on August 26. I will be very interested to see how he handles the situation. Will his credibility be diminished or enhanced in my eyes? We’ll see.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Limits to Forgiveness?

Can God forgive anything? Will God forgive anything?

In a class I recently taught, we were doing a discussion board that moved toward a consideration of repentance and forgiveness. I was scheduled to give a presentation on the Bible’s teaching about divorce that week, and when I mentioned this, it brought forth a range of responses and opinions. One of the students shared a ministry experience with me (privately) that has haunted me ever since. Let me paraphrase it. This man, a pastor, was invited to have meeting at a coffee house. At this meeting, his friend told him quickly that he had decided to leave his wife, file for divorce, and move in with his new girlfriend. He explained this situation to the pastor and then asked, “Can God forgive me for this?”

What a question! My pastor/student responded (somewhat reluctantly), “You know that God can forgive anything.” But it was a very uncomfortable moment. This man was very aware that he was doing a bad thing, a thing that the Bible did not condone, a thing that a Christian should not do, but his decision was made. He seemed to be planning his escape from God’s disfavor.

How have we come to this point? I do not believe that divorce is an unforgivable sin, but I have trouble understanding this man’s thinking. Forgiveness is based on repentance. Forgiveness is based on our willingness to forgive. What had this man’s wife done that could not be forgiven? And was repentance a scheduled event in his plan: infidelity, divorce, personal happiness, repentance, forgiveness, place in heaven? I don’t get it.

This reminds me of my reading of Michel Foucault, the Frenchman who was one of the most formidable and influential of the postmodern thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the postmodern philosophers are often accused of being without ethics, Foucault taught that the greatest of virtues was “care of self.” This seems like an Ayn Randian celebration of the virtue of selfishness and abandonment of any sense of altruism or concern for others. This cannot be according to the will of Christ our Lord.

It is not my purpose here to beat up on divorced persons. A failed marriage is a tragic thing and the reasons for divorce can be complex. But this man seems to take the grace of God for granted. Remember when Paul asked rhetorically, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” He does not answer this with a simple “Yes” or “No.” He thunders, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:1) In other words, “Don’t even ask that question!”

May God give wisdom and patience to pastors like my student who are called to give guidance in these situations. May the church never abandon a commitment to strong marriages. And, may pre-planned repentance and forgiveness never be acceptable to those who love the Lord and his people.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Christianity after Religion

I have been reading a book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion: the End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. It was recommended to me (but I honestly cannot remember by whom). I was intrigued when I received it by a back cover blurb from Phyllis Tickle, “It is one blockbuster of an analysis that is also a delight to read.” Really? Did you actually read the book, Phyllis?

There is a lot of provocative thinking in this book, to be sure, but I would especially dispute the idea that it is a “delight to read.” It suffers not so much from poor writing as poor editing. Much of it is repetitive, and not in a reinforcing way. It is repetitive in the sense, “I don’t remember that I already wrote about that.” Particularly irritating (at least for me) is the ongoing reintroduction of authors who have already been introduced as if they are a new element to the book each time they are mentioned.

That said, there are many worthwhile things in this book. Its basic premise is that Christianity is moving from a “religion” to a “spirituality.” It is moving from institution to practitioners. It is moving from systematized doctrine to experiential practice. It is moving from “faith from the head” to “faith from the heart and hands.” Bass sees this as a new awakening, a fourth “Great Awakening” in the history of America.

Bass uses the paradigm of Believing, Behaving, Belonging to flesh out her argument. This is the order her analysis of 20th century American Christianity has produced. First, we believe a set of doctrines put forth by a particular church or denomination. Second, we change our lives to conform to these doctrines in the area of personal behavior. Third, we are accepted as part of the community. Bass sees the new spirituality-based Christianity of the 21st century as reversing this paradigm. We begin by belonging, identifying with a faith community based on personal relationships. Second, we behave, although Bass’s understanding of this is far removed from the earlier understanding. She means that we begin to fit in with this community in our lifestyle. However, in the new paradigm, this may be because we have found a faith community that matches our current lifestyle rather than any sense of transformation. Third, we believe; we incorporate the general beliefs of our identified faith community into our lives, largely on a experiential and activist basis.

It was interesting for me to notice that Bass seems to be unaware of Robert Webber’s insightful analysis of the church using these same three terms, but in a different order. Webber believed the pattern for the 20th century church was Behave, Believe Belong. He advocated that the new pattern should be Belong, Believe, Behave. I think all these paradigms are flawed by unnecessary sequentialism. Why can’t believing, behaving, and belonging all happen simultaneously? That seems to me to be more like the pattern that Jesus taught.

So in the end, faith is action for Bass. On this point, I agree. Alexander Campbell himself taught that doctrine is what you can live. Doctrine that has no impact on how we live is of dubious value. But while it may seem that Bass and I are on the same wavelength here, that is not the case. She is for a Christianity without religion, and this means (at least in part) a faith freed from propositional truth and biblical literalism. I think we have sometimes overemphasized propositional faith and a literal reading of the Bible, but let’s not overreact. I am sure that if I could have an hour to converse with Bass about these things, she would come away thinking I am a teacher of propositional truth/faith and a biblical literalist.

Can’t we have both? Can’t we have a rich heritage of doctrine based on the Bible along with an active life of righteous works and justice? Do we really have to choose? I am no fan of a systematic theological approach to issues when it devolves into “necessary inferences” (speculative theology). But I believe the Bible is true and reveals God’s will for humankind in issues of salvation and in questions of “How Shall We Then Live.

BTW: Bass makes reference to a video based on a poem written by Jonathan Reed entitled “Lost Generation.” If you would like to hear this in a YouTube version, follow this link.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College