Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Study Bibles – A Barrier to the Text

A small group is reading the Gospel of John; the format is that the group reads one chapter a week and then meets to discuss it. For some of the group it is the first time they have read John from front to back; for others…well…it is possible to read something and not read it – it’s happened to me more than once and hopefully it will keep happening.

We are in Chapter Two, Jesus is at a marriage in Cana, the wine has run out – Mary wants Jesus to do something about it, Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” The question arises in the Bible study, “What did Jesus mean by that statement?” The eyes of those who have Study Bibles leave the Biblical text and begin reading the explanations of Jesus’ statement. I’m dying inside. I’m not going to say anything, at least not this night, maybe later, maybe some other night, but not this night. What can I say that will make sense? The group likely won’t understand me anymore than most people reading this will understand me; it will simply be one of Bob’s quirks, impractical, weird, strange. Study Bible’s have the answers, what’s the problem with that? Get over it Bob.

I’m dying inside because the beauty of John’s Gospel, the adventure, the journey of discovery is being denied to not only the man asking the question, but denied to the group as a whole – no need for discovery, no need for mystery, no need for pondering – the data is right there in the Study Bible notes – and that’s what we’re after…right? Data, information; more information, more data. Forget the motif of John, forget the themes, forget connecting the rhythms and points and counterpoints – forget the music of John – just give us data. The questioner is robbed – he need not ask again, the answer has been given, it’s right there in the Study Bible notes.

I finally mention that he’ll see the idea of “hour” and “time” again and again in John – I even fast forward to John Chapter 17 where Jesus says, “Father, the hour has come.” I do it to hold out some hope, some expectation, that there just might be more than the Study Bible’s two or three sentences of explanation. The theme of “hour” and “time” unfolds in the Gospel of John, it is a journey laden with jewels that the traveler can experience as way markers in the ministry of Jesus Christ, deep with mystery; why does Jesus say this here? Why there? What does He mean? What’s going on? Questions, questions, more questions – questions designed to draw us into a journey with Jesus Christ, questions to challenge us and bring us out of our earthly-minded thinking – ha! But no questions need go unanswered, no mystery need remain without clarification – the Study Bible plays the role of intermediary – even though Protestants often pride themselves on having no mediator than Jesus Christ.

Harsh? No, not really. What is harsh is to interpose data in place of an encounter with the Scriptures – that is harsh; and it looks so innocent, benign at worse – a faithful teacher at best. But wait, faithful teachers do not give all the answers, faithful teachers develop their students, faithful teachers challenge, faithful teachers stretch their students – see Jesus in the Gospel…He’s not giving all the answers, in fact He is saying things that make no sense at times, He is acting in ways that are not conducive to surface understanding…what is His problem? But wait Jesus, we can help you by providing ready-made and accessible answers – we’ll make good Christians for you – trust us.

Then there is the piecemeal fashion in which we approach the Bible. Would we watch a movie by freezing every scene while we consult a dictionary as to the meaning of every word? During the first fifteen minutes of a movie what if we were to insist on answers to every seminal reference or illusion as opposed to allowing the movie to come to us, as opposed to actually experiencing the movie? Yet we think we can read a few verses here or there, or even read a chapter this week and then one next week and so forth and somehow retain the ebb and flow and contours of a Biblical book – it can’t be done. Now to read it through and then read it again and then to read it again and then to freeze this scene and that scene as we ponder how the scenes relate to the entire movie – well there is hope there, there we have possibility – but we don’t teach like that, we usually don’t preach like that (developing and retaining context) – little wonder we have folks who have “read” the Bible for decades and yet can’t tell us the story of Mark or John or Acts or Philippians; but they can tell us the storyline and memorable scenes of a favorite movie or share the details of a biography or novel.

Study Bibles with interpretive notes, when used as the Bible of first resort, when used as the primary reading Bible, protect us from the text of Scripture, no wonder we don’t reproduce.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The NIV – Yet Another Example

Working through the Gospel of John with a weekly small group has once again reminded me of the debilitating effect of study Bibles, which I’ll address in a future post; of the piecemeal fashion in which we read and study the Bible, which I’ll also address in a future post; and of the poor job the NIV does in being faithful to the original text. It has also got me thinking about how little, if any, folks know about translations.

Around the table we have mainly NIVs; there is one NASB and one ESV; we used to have one KJV but that person was recently given an NIV so she is now bringing that – I wish she’d continue to bring her KJV along with it.

I don’t understand why some commentary writers write for NIV commentaries for I can’t see how one can do that without seriously criticizing the NIV; but then those writers typically subscribe to the “Dynamic Equivalent” theory of translation so I guess that explains it. If one wants to witness the slippery slope of this theory one only has to look at the more recent permeations of the NIV, permeations which I don’t keep up with but which, the last time I looked, was neutering the Biblical text in more ways than one.

One of the problems with the NIV and other pseudo-translations is that they think for the reader, thus dumbing down the text; these translations argue that they are translating the thoughts of the author, but that indicates that the translators are mind readers and I doubt that is the case. They also argue that they are making the text more understandable for the reader – well now, what ever happened to good solid engagement with the text…not to mention the Holy Spirit? Then there is the argument that most people read at a ninth or tenth grade level (a level which is likely degrading so that what is now a tenth-grade level may soon become what is now a sixth-grade level) – the thinking is that rather than bringing people “up” we bring the text “down”. That’s pretty sound thinking isn’t it? It must be sound thinking because that seems to be how society operates in many arenas.

By the way, what does this say about the ancient readers of the Greek and Hebrew texts? Among other things it says that they were able to hold complex and prolonged paragraphs and passages in tension without losing the tension and intricacies of the passages. We can’t do that as a society – we insist on treating a text piecemeal because we can’t hang with a Pauline paragraph that encompasses a few verses – it’s too much and we shut down – I’ve seen it in small group after small group – it’s like feeding a baby pureed food.

I like using Romans Chapter Six when I illustrate one of the problems with the NIV; it uses the term “sinful nature” for “flesh” (sarx in Greek). The NIV has no warrant for substituting a “term” a “designation” for a word that is clear Greek, sarx is sarx is sarx and it means “flesh”. Now as to why Paul uses the word “flesh” in Romans Six, well now that is another question – but that is not a question for translators, that is a question for the reader and the teacher. The NIV does the reader’s work for her, it does the teacher’s work for him, and we need not interact with Paul the human vessel or God the Author – the NIV has taken care of that.

Time and again when teaching and observing I’ve seen the NIV dumb down the text – but those who don’t know the text beyond the NIV don’t know it, nor do they know the theories behind the translations. (When does one take a time out in a small group or Bible study and say, “Do we understand the different theories behind the translations we are using?”)

Here’s the thing that has disgusted me in our study of John; when Jesus prefaces key statements with “Amen, amen, I say to you…” the NIV substitutes, “I tell you the truth”. Here again, as in Romans Chapter Six, the Greek is clear, in fact the Greek word is “amen”. So Jesus is saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” At least the KJV, NKJV, ESV and NASB use “Verily, verily” or “Truly, truly” or an equivalent – they are keeping a word for word correspondence to the Greek text and in so doing are retaining both the cadence and emphasis that Jesus places on His statements. (Just to clarify, I don’t think that all translation need be word for word, considering that Greek is a synthetic language, like German, it often takes more than one English word to correspond to a Greek word, plus a Hebrew or Greek word may have a thought behind it that is better expressed by more than one English word - I appreciate the KJVs use of italics when adding a word for better understanding.)

Read John Chapters Five and Six in the ESV, NASB or KJV and look for the Amen, amen or Truly, truly, or Verily, verily; read them again and again with an eye on these statements, savor their rhythm and emphasis, note the statements of Jesus that follow them – you don’t see this in the NIV. Reading these chapters in the NIV is like listening to a symphony in which all point-counterpoint has been removed. (About a year ago I did a blog series on John Chapter Five in which I held that Jesus’ use of “Amen, amen” is the equivalent of Yahweh proclaiming, “Thus says the LORD”, thus Jesus is proclaiming His Divinity. Whether one agrees with this or not at least if we have faithful translations we have something to wrestle with!)

I’ve seen this weekly small group go through the first six chapters of John and no one has caught the “Amen, amen” statements – in part because they’re reading the NIV – what a shame. A symphony without a motif – that’s the NIV and its companions in the land of the slippery slope.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Burning Desire

From the Valley of Vision, a book of Puritan prayers, page 213:

As I pursue my heavenly journey by thy grace let me be known as a man with no aim but that of a burning desire for thee, and the good and salvation of my fellow men.

Herein are the first and second great commandments, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To be passionate about loving God, knowing God, living for Him; and to be passionate about living for the good and salvation of men, women, and children.

Jesus lights everyone who comes into the world (John Chapter 1); we are called to bear His light to all – to the thankful and the unthankful – to love those who are open to love and to love those who reject love. We are called to serve those who will receive as well as those who reject. It is not for us to choose who we will serve, if we will serve Jesus Christ then we must serve all our generation – it is not for us to separate the sheep from the goats – we serve all just as our Father blesses all with His rain and His sun and His goodness.

The light (Jesus) is the light of men (John Chapter 1). As God gives us grace we also are to be the light of men in Christ – we are to dispel darkness, shining as lights in a dark world. Jesus teaches that we are not to cover our light with a basket; yet it seems at times we do cover it; it seems at times that we are covert followers of Christ Jesus – but is that possible? Is it possible to follow Jesus covertly?

Jesus teaches us that we are to have a single eye and that if our eye is single then we will be full of light – a single eye is an eye fixed on Jesus, the Author and Completer of our faith – as we behold Him we can see people (in a measure) as they really are – sheep without a shepherd, people in pain, people programmed to run here and there in search of acquisitions, in survival mode – trying to make it another day, another week, another year – perhaps another minute or hour. Or perhaps seeking to retire early – but for what? The hamster wheel, the rat race…it may be technologically advanced…the hamster wheel may not require physical force to turn…but that makes it all the more insidious. The wheel turns faster and faster – but we continue to arrive at nowhere.

Will we pay whatever price necessary to bring others into the Ark? Will we seek the good and salvation of our fellow man?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I’m the Guilty One

Vickie and I recently visited a manor house and gardens in a neighboring state. The gardens are spectacular and the house is architecturally and historically interesting. The docent provided a wonderful tour, relating the life of the man who purchased the house in the early 20th century and who established the gardens. (The owner is deceased and the house and grounds are now in a trust). The owner came from a wealthy family and never worked a day in his life – not a day. He lived a life of not denying himself anything. Some of the people he associated with, though very rich and very famous, were from all historical accounts hedonists. The docent didn’t comment on the hedonistic reputation of the group of friends and acquaintances and I didn’t raise the subject. It must have been one of my more polite days.

After we left the tour I said to Vickie, “All that money and there is nothing to indicate that he engaged in any philanthropy.”

The following morning as I thought about this man I asked myself: What about me? He had all that wealth and he apparently never used it for others, what wealth am I using for others? While I don’t have material wealth, I have the wealth of Jesus Christ, I have eternal life, I know the Good News of Jesus – am I sharing that wealth with others? Or when I die will someone say, “Well, he may have written about Jesus occasionally; and he may have even taught and preached on occasion, but did he share the wealth of Jesus Christ in the fabric of his life”?

And in terms of what I do have materially, am I sharing with those in need or do I just talk the talk? Do I show prejudice between social and economic classes? In my own social strata am I hedonistic and narcissistic? It is much worse to have spiritual wealth and not share it than it is to have material wealth and not share it – after all, the use of material wealth may feed a person for a day, but spiritual wealth can feed a person for eternity. Once again I stand convicted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Seeker Sensitive or Pain Avoidance?

From page 213 of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers:

“If others deem my faith folly, my meekness infirmity, my zeal madness, my hope delusion, my actions hypocrisy, may I rejoice to suffer for thy name.”

It is important to know our audience; Paul knew his in Athens, and as he writes in 1 Corinthians he became all things to all men, you can’t do that without knowing your audience. But there is a difference between being sensitive to the communication patterns and milieu of an audience and seeking to be sensitive to an audience to the point where the audience is never offended. All too often seeker-sensitive thinking has as its unstated goal: “Do not offend, no matter what, do not offend – do nothing that might cause others to feel bad.” That is the mantra of our therapeutic society where the truth and accountability are seen as “confrontational” and “offensive”. Others have termed it, in the professing church, “Therapeutic Deism”.

In working through John’s Gospel with a weekly small group I’ve been struck by how Jesus seldom stated the obvious and often spoke in terms that people did not understand. The idea of teaching that others should partake of His flesh and blood, and teaching it in a synagogue of all places, is not what I’d call seeker-sensitive preaching. And in John Chapter 5 why didn’t He ease into the idea that He is God? Why did He pound home His divinity with the repeated, “Amen, amen, I say to you”? And why not sit down in the Temple in John Chapter 2 and just say, “Look here, it’s Passover right now so let me talk to you about what the blood and the lamb really mean.”

I’m all for winsome witnessing and conversations seasoned with salt – it can be fun and I enjoy fun; but there are times when the fact is that sharing Christ and being faithful to Him goes against the grain – in fact it usually goes against the grain, and then what do we do?

Do we teach that we are called to suffer for Jesus Christ? Do we equip our people to suffer for Him and the Gospel? Do we teach our young professing Christians that they are called to suffer? Let me be winsome but let me also winsomely and graciously suffer for His sake and the sake of others. Sometimes it takes a martyrdom, such as Stephen’s, to draw a Paul to Jesus Christ. Do you think Stephen suffered in vain? Just as Stephen did not see the fruit of his suffering while on this earth there are more times than not when we have no idea of the fruit of our obedience.

Jesus says, “Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it abides alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” What would we say to Jesus today if He should say to us, “My son, My daughter, I’m looking for a seed willing to fall into the ground and die for the sake of this man, this woman, this child, this family, this city, this nation, this world”? When those times come do we say, “Here I am Lord, sow me into the ground”?

Monday, June 4, 2012

How Easy It Is!

A few mornings ago during devotions the following was in my Puritan prayer for the day:

Halo my path with gentleness and love, smooth every asperity of temper; let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief; may I strive to bind up every wound, and pour oil on all troubled waters.

The fact is that I do forget how easy it is to occasion grief. Sometimes I say or write and email things that I intend to be taken matter-of-factly but they are misinterpreted. Oh but there are those other times I am self-indulgent and thoughtless with regard to the grief I occassion, I think (like a fool!) that I am justified using rapier sarcasm or in pointing out the "obvious" in a way that is obviously graceless and anything but gentle. And the thing is that I can do this in an instant without thinking about it! Bang - incoming email and bang! bang! outgoing email from yours truly.

In the past month or so I posted some thoughts on email, on being thoughtful and considerate and temperate in its use; just a week or two after that post I sent one of the most thoughtless emails I've sent in quite some time - I occasioned grief - oh what a great testimony that was. I didn't think about the people I was writing to, I didn't think about them as people, I was looking at a problem abstractly without concern for the people involved. Go Bob!

I'm reminded of the words of James that the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy... It might be nice if I practice what I profess to believe.