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How Have We Lost the Love of Bible Study?

Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.

Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.

I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:

  1.  As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
  2. There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
  3. With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”

And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?

I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.

But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.

Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.

I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.

God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!

Let Us Be Done With Proving Everything, Shall We?

There is something deep within the psyche of the modern, born-again, “praise God and pass the contribution plate” Christian that cannot leave bomb-proof, unassailable, “put the atheists in their place” kind of scientific evidence alone. (How is that for incorporating generic identifiers?) What is mean is this – you cannot hardly turn on your computer today without someone, somewhere “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that some such thing once doubted is now finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, proven to be real or historical or some such thing. It might be the age of the earth, or the hypothesis that humans shared living quarters with dinosaurs, or the exact, precise, down-to-the-minute day and time that Jesus was: born, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and/or will come back to earth. The number of things that science can supposedly prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is truly staggering. And, call me a skeptic, but I wonder if even a fraction of the claims are even remotely scientifically accurate.

Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. It is very definitely true that during certain times within history, Christians would travel great distances and pay money to visit “relics” of saints. So, pieces of holy objects such as the cross or Noah’s ark, or bones, hair, blood – you name it – from all sorts of “saints” started showing up with quite startling frequency. It is said, for example, that if you had every single piece of the wooden cross upon which Jesus was said to be crucified, gathered back from all the sales of “genuine cross relics” dealers, you could take those tiny little shards of wood and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Not bad for two beams of wood.

As a very real example of devotion to “relics” today stop and consider the veneration given to the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus. Never mind it has never passed a test that dates it older than the middle ages, many believe it to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.

The one story that just always leaves me shaking my head that so-called intelligent people will accept it is the story that EVEN TO THIS DAY gets retold regarding NASA, a special clock, and the missing day of Joshua 10:12-14. As the story goes, in order to go to the moon, NASA had to develop a clock with incredible accuracy. It  was so accurate, so the story goes, that the developers made it go BACKWARDS in time to verify its accuracy. They kept going back, back, back, until, LO AND BEHOLD they discovered a missing 24 hour period in the age of the earth – Joshua’s missing day!! Are you kidding me?? Intelligent people cannot see through this? But they can’t, because (1) they do not want to see through it because it purportedly proves a point they want proved and (2) what self respecting American patriot would question the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?

Has anyone who believed this story ever wondered why NASA did not just keep going back to find out PRECISELY how old the earth is with their wonderful clock? Has anyone ever heard of a clock that can tell time BACKWARDS? Yet, this story gets repeated ad infinitum by otherwise intelligent people and, because they tell it, it gets believed by an entire new generation.

Those who demand bomb-proof, unassailable, “beyond any shadow of a doubt” proof only prove one thing – how fearful and shallow their faith truly is. God did not allow the Israelites to know where Moses was buried lest his grave become a shrine. God did not allow Noah’s ark to survive lest it become an idol. God did not allow the ark of the covenant to survive for the exact same reason, as with the cross, the tomb, and anything else related to critical events in the Bible. Those relics are just raindrops in the overwhelming ocean of world history. We do not know nor can we calculate the day of Jesus birth, death, resurrection (beyond the “first day of the week”), or ascension, and we certainly cannot figure out the day of his return. Those who claim to be able to do so are charlatans – or are the mistaken minions of such charlatans. They either have an agenda to push, or a book to sell. Be very careful of such spiritual snake-oil salesmen.

Just stop and think – seriously think – about one question. If you cannot believe that God can raise his Son, his incarnated self, from the grave, just exactly why would having a piece of the cross on which he was killed prove that fact to you? And, if you can believe that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the grave, why would you need to prove Joshua’s “missing day” to buttress your faith? There are occasions when I fear that Karl Marx’s statement that religion is an opiate for the people to be far, far too accurate for my comfort level.

But, if you still want to believe in all this new scientific evidence that proves everything from the age of the earth to the exact location of Moses’s 70 palm trees please let me know. I have a piece of Jesus’ cross that I would love to sell to you.

Book Review – “Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker” (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)

I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardles51L8n6dixxL._AA160_s of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.

Boy, am I glad I did.

My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.

Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)

I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.

Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.

Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.

Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.

Conspiracy Theorists, Deniers, Lunatics and the Story of Jesus

Last night I was watching a documentary on the Apollo space program on YouTube. After the episode was over I surfed those “recommendations” that are over on the side of the screen. One happened to be about how the “hoax” of the Apollo program was finally, incontrovertibly, proven. I clicked on the video, more out of curiosity than anything. At first I was amused, then concerned. Finally I just became angry. Reading the comments below the video only made me more angry.

Now, I must say that there is a certain little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “These people are just out to rock the boat, get a little rise out of people. They don’t really believe all this conspiracy garbage, but they want you to think they do, just to provoke a response.” I cannot really be sure – but from watching the video and from reading the comments, it certainly appears that a great many people believe the whole Apollo space program, and especially the lunar landings, were all one huge hoax, filmed by Stanley Kubrick on some desert wasteland in Arizona.

But it is not just the Apollo space program. There are people who do not believe the space shuttle actually flies into space, that the massacre of the school children at Sandy Hook elementary school actually took place, or, of course, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed president Kennedy.

This might all be mildly amusing if it were not for more than a few some troubling issues. One, these “conspiracy theorists” refuse to consider any conflicting evidence. The more evidence that is presented to them that contradicts their hare-brained ideas, the more they insist that your argument proves their conspiracy. Take, for example, the Apollo space program. How many thousands of individuals would have to be in on the hoax that the US supposedly sent 12 men to walk on the moon? Yet, confronted with this question the “conspiracy theorists” simply argue that proves their point – the power of the government was so overwhelming that it could and did keep those thousands of people (a large number of whom are still living) so utterly silent about the hoax. Never mind the photos that were recently taken that show the bases of the lunar landers still on the moon, with numerous foot and rover tracks all around the landers. Hoaxes, all of them. If you can fake an entire lunar landing, you could certainly fake a few “supposed” satellite pictures.

The conspiracies around the Sandy Hook massacre are more disturbing, so I will not dwell on those. Anyone who denies the carnage that took place at that school is not just deluded, they are psychotic. They are genuinely mentally ill.

As I was pondering all of this, a related though occurred to me. People have been denying the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ever since the first century. These “conspiracy theorists” have created all manner of convoluted stories as to how the “myth” of Jesus was created – from the virgin birth, through his miracles, and finally ending with the crucifixion and resurrection. No matter how much evidence is provided to these people, their only response is, “See, that just goes to prove that my theory is correct – Jesus never existed!”

This goes a long way to prove a theory that I have – that the field of apologetics is basically designed for those who already believe in the truth of Scripture. While all the various attempts at “proving” the truth of Scripture are interesting, and some are more convincing than others, it is readily apparent to me that no amount of “evidence” demonstrating the truth of Scripture will convince anyone if they initially choose to reject the basic premise of the Bible – and that is that God exists.

If God had wanted men to prove that he exists, he would have given us the exact manner in which to do so. But he did not – he gave us the Bible, a story that relates how he created us, loved us, and eventually became one of us so that we might at some point choose to accept his love. Scientific proof (the stuff of apologetics) demands adherence to scientific theories and laws, but it does not require any kind of a loving relationship. God, however, does not want a mindless adherence to a set of laws, even his laws. He wants a relationship with that which he created – us. God loves us, and wants us to enjoy the blessings of loving him in return. The field of apologetics misses that point entirely. Apologetics is about science. The Bible is about faith and love. Science never created a Christian. Only the cross can create a Christian. And there is no “incontrovertible” evidence that the cross of Jesus ever existed. Unless, of course, you are willing to accept the eyewitness accounts of both his followers and his enemies. But, never let contradictory evidence foil a good conspiracy theory!

Speaking of foil, those people who doubt the Apollo space program, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot president Kennedy, or the fact that the 9/11 terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center, causing them to ultimately collapse, need to tighten their tin-foil hats around their heads a little tighter. They are a living definition of the concept of lunacy – the idea that the moon has demonic power over human beings. Reality is a scary thing – especially when you refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual pieces of evidence and testimony. Those who have a theory that men never walked on the moon, that the FBI, the CIA, and the mafia all conspired to kill Kennedy, and that the US government was complicit in detonating bombs in the twin towers to destroy them probably hate this post.

That’s okay by me. I don’t believe any of them really exist. They certainly cannot prove they exist, even if they think they do. The proof of their existence is all just one big hoax.

Try to deny that fact!

What is Education?

Yesterday I responded to another blogger who equated information with education. He claimed that because the millennial generation had access to the greatest amount of information in history, that made them the most educated generation in history. In a not-so-subtle poke at irony, I pointed out that conclusion revealed a considerable lack of education – mere information does not equate to education.

So, in the spirit of fairness (and after re-reading my post a couple of times) I think I should offer a few thoughts about what education IS, as opposed to what it is not.

First, education certainly begins with the accumulation of information. You cannot be educated in an intellectual vacuum. So, you have to have some information in order to be educated.

Second, education requires the accumulation of differing types and levels of information. If you receive your information from only one source your education will only go so far. Also, if your information stays on one level you will never proceed very far in your quest for an education. I’ll have more to say about this later. And, finally, your information must be quality information. You can surf the internet and get literally hundreds, if not thousands, of bits of information that is questionable, unreliable, or just plain false.

Third, education requires a competent teacher/mentor. Whereas a great amount of information can be gained just by reading books (or the internet), real education requires the poking, prodding, and positive resistance provided by a caring, knowledgeable teacher. Good teachers know when to support, when to challenge, when to question, and when to discipline. As the Ethiopian eunuch responded to Philip when asked if he understood the prophet Isaiah, “How can I, unless someone guides me.” (Acts 8:31). We all, every single one of us, needs a competent teacher to move beyond the basics of any field.

Fourth,  the best education is achieved in the presence of many others. In other words, the best education is communal, not private. Now, here again, you can learn great things, and you can take private lessons and become quite well informed – but to be truly educated you need to rub shoulders (and exchange thoughts, impressions and ideas) with others. The wise teacher once wrote, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)

Fifth, education takes time. You cannot bake a cake in 30 seconds. Concert musicians will practice their scales for hours, not minutes. Real education involves more than the ability to “google” a word and scroll through a couple of dozen web sites. Real education takes time – lots of it.

So, it may very well be that the millennial generation ends up being the most educated in history – but they are far too young and inexperienced at this point to make such a grand conclusion. I am going to withhold my final judgment until the millennials cease to be the generation that is known for moving away from home to go to college, only to get a degree and move back in with their parents because they can’t, or won’t, establish their own lives. It is a generation under construction, and it is too early to declare they are the most anything.

As I close, I just want to add a theological twist to this post (after all, the title does involve the word “theology.”) It is a huge aggravation to me that certain individuals will claim to be well educated when all they read are books written by certain authors, or published by certain publishers, or blogs written by “approved” writers or preachers. I know publishers who will not publish certain works because they do not fit the “profile” of the publisher. There are then people who will only buy books from that publisher because the publisher is “safe” or “sound” or “approved.” Thus, the same material gets re-hashed and re-published in various forms (none of which are controversial or designed to stretch anyone’s comfort zone) and yet the publisher and the reader both strut around like so many peacocks in a zoo, proclaiming their erudition. Here is a hint – if you only read books because you know going in what the author’s conclusion will be, and you read the book because you agree with that conclusion, you are NOT getting an education. It is the height of stupidity to speak in an echo chamber and to be impressed because all the voices you hear agree with you.

To be truly educated, you must be able to express the conclusions of those who disagree with you in such a manner that they know you have not only read their material, but actually understand it.

No preacher should ever proclaim that he understands any subject, or the beliefs of any group of people, unless he reads deeply and broadly in that subject or group. I cannot tell you how many people have tried to teach me about the Emerging Church and they have never read a single book written by someone who actually promotes the Emerging Church movement. Oh, but they read a review of a book written about the Emerging Church by a “sound” brother in the faith, so that is good enough.

O, please, spare me your pathetic ignorance.

I hope this clarifies why I responded to that blogger in such a straightforward manner.

Informed Does Not Mean Educated

Yesterday I was directed to a blog post regaling the virtues of the millennial generation. For those of you who do not know, the millennial generation is that group of people born in the late 1970s (or early 1980s) through the mid 1990s. So, the oldest of this group are entering their 30’s, the youngest are still in college, or are perhaps entering college. You can find many different opinions as to when a “new” generation arrives and supplants its predecessor. There are obviously large “buffer” groups in-between clearly defined generational groups.

Anyway, in this blog the author made the statement that the millennial generation is the most educated generation in modern history, if not all human history. I almost choked on my coffee. But, then I understood what the author was saying. In the next paragraph he pointed out that millennials have greater access to more information than any generation before. Now that I can agree with. But, seriously, information does not equal education.

I deal with millennials every day. And, granted, some of them are incredibly gifted, brilliant, and well educated young people. And, on the other hand, some of them are dumber than door-knobs, yet with the ability to google just about any topic and scroll through thousands of bits of information in just seconds. They know how to work their tablets and smart phones with amazing dexterity, and yet they cannot think their way out of a wet paper bag.

Having access to information does not equal education. You can live in a library for all of your life and still be illiterate – just having millions of books at your disposal does not mean you know what is in them, nor does it mean that you can process the information that they contain in an intelligent manner. The fact that the author of the blog appeared to be a millennial himself (just going by his picture) proves my point. He equated information with education. Education certainly requires information, but education means far, far more than access to or even appropriation of information.

What does this have to do with theology? It is funny, but one of my college groups was discussing the huge increase in the number of Bible translations over the past couple of decades. Whereas I grew up with maybe a dozen translations to choose from, now there are hundreds, with more being produced every year. You have more translations on your smart phone than I had to study in the library at ACU (okay, that dates me). But, the proliferation of translations has done nothing to increase the knowledge of the Bible, nor general biblical literacy. If anything, knowledge of the Bible has decreased with the increase in the availability of modern Bible translations. Access to greater information has actually had a negative affect in terms of people knowing the text, and how to apply the text of the Bible. The Bible has just become another app on your phone, standing in competition with FaceBook, Twitter and the latest, greatest computer game.

I do not mean to unduly criticize the millennial generation. Those in this category certainly did not ask to be born in the year they were born, and they were handed a world that was thoroughly trashed by the Boomers and Gen X. Maybe the millennial generation will be able to fix some things that need to be fixed, and, God willing, maybe they will see fit to return their sights onto God and the Church. They have a tough row to hoe – and mere access to information is not going to help them. They need to learn how to process that information, and they need to learn how to make that information work to the benefit of mankind, not its detriment. My generation did not do such a good job with that mandate. I can only hope the millennials, and my daughter’s generation (what ever it will be called) can do better.

But, please, do not confuse information with education. That just proves how uneducated you really are.

Book Review – Hearing God’s Voice (Tom Olbricht)

Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).

I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.

One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.

Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.

You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”

Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.

I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.

Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.

Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.

A Brief Reflection on the Gift and Labor of Scholarship

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat.

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past couple of months I have gained two things: a deeper and more profound respect for those who have earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and an increasingly negative opinion of those who disparage education.

It takes hard work to achieve any goal of value – and that includes a professional sports contract or a terminal degree in any field. We worship our sports heroes, and we laugh at “egg heads” and “ivory tower intellectuals.”

I will be forever grateful that the surgeon who cut my back open and fixed my nerve damage was among the most highly trained and educated physicians in New Mexico. I will be  eternally grateful that my Bible professors had the intellect AND the drive to achieve the highest goals of research.

I am just really, really becoming fed up with people who do not have the foggiest idea of what it takes to excel in academia and yet who make fun of those who make the sacrifices necessary to excel in any academic field.

So, for those of you who think it is funny to belittle those who devote their lives to biblical scholarship – the next time you need a doctor, go schedule an appointment with someone who thinks that obtaining an M.D. is a waste of time, and that if he spends 8 years or more in pre-med and medical school he will lose his belief in how the body works.

Yeah, I thought so.

The Proof is in the Verbs

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.

Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:

God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)

It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.

Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.

And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.

Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.

I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.

When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.

We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.

It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!

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Where Bill Nye and Ken Ham Were Both Wrong, Right

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer here – I was not able to watch the debate last night between Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) and Ken Ham. (I was busy feeding about 75+ hungry college students). But I have read some news reports and commentary today and I am generally familiar with their arguments, so I would like to offer some commentary of my own.

First, where Bill Nye is wrong.

Nye is wrong in that he seems to think that “science” is a pure subject. It is not. I know this sounds esoteric, but when Nye says, “science is just about studying facts” he is in fact (no pun intended) working under a larger philosophical concept of “scientism.” Nye, and many other evolutionists, confuse the examination of particular artifacts as “science” when in fact their examination of those artifacts is being driven by an earlier presupposition to accept certain results and reject others. When Nye and other evolutionists claim that a certain rock or fossil “proves” evolution, they are in fact rejecting other possibilities because those possibilities do not fit the theory that they are indeed trying to prove. To be specific, there is not just one “missing link” in the chain of “evolution,” there are many. But, you will never hear an evolutionist even mention those gaps, because their “scientism” will not allow them to ask the question that might allow for a Divine Creator – how can you explain these gaps? On the other hand, the scientist who believes in the Creator God can look at the exact same evidence and argue that the “gaps” in the evolutionary chain are the fatal flaws of evolution. Their examination of the facts, or “science” is disavowed by Bill Nye and others because it does not fit within their “scientism” – a philosophical belief that will not allow for a creator God in any way, shape or form.

Now, where Ken Ham is wrong.

Ken Ham goes to the other extreme. Ken’s failsafe position is “because the Bible says so.” In effect, Ken turns the Bible into a scientific text book, complete with an inerrant chronological record and specific history of all things created. The Bible was never meant to be used in such a fashion. Perhaps the one thing that distresses me the most about Ham’s position is his relentless promotion of the “6,000 year old earth” argument. I wrote about Archbishop Ussher and his computation of the 6,000 year age of the earth a long time back, but the salient facts bear repeating. Archbishop Ussher was a profound Christian apologist and quite a remarkable mathematician. By combining various chronological lists in the Bible along with some intricate mathematical computations, Ussher arrived at the age of the earth as being around 6,000 years. His findings finally found their way into the introduction of one of the early editions of the King James Bibles, and it has been sacrosanct ever since. But I know of no current (or even relatively recent deceased) Old Testament scholars who hold that you can take the various genealogical lists given in the Old Testament and come up with anything even remotely bearing certainty. That was NOT the purpose of those genealogical lists! Just one example: in Ruth 4:18-22 we have the “genealogy” of King David, from Perez (the son of Judah) to David. The list includes 10 names, but the time period involved (from before the time Israel entered into Egypt leading all the way to David) involves at least 800 years! (Note: I am assuming that the reigns of the judges were sequential, and not that some of them were “co-regents” of a sort) The various genealogical lists are provided for various reasons (theology being one, and perhaps the most important!) but calculating the age of the earth is NOT one of those reasons!

James Ussher

James Ussher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe Ham lost a very important opportunity here to point out that the debate is not between science and theology – it is between one philosophical view of science (the idea that science can solve all of our questions, or the above mentioned “scientism”) and another view of science (that science can lead us to ask better and more appropriate questions, but will never provide all, or even a majority, of the answers). Instead, Ham more or less let Nye hold the high ground (or so Nye supposed) and tried to argue from a philosophical foundation that Nye and other evolutionists reject entirely.

Where both Nye and Ham were absolutely correct.

Both men argued their positions in a calm fashion, both made salient points, and both were respectful (by virtually all accounts). I think they were both absolutely correct in saying that this issue is critical for our children to be able to discuss. Where I would disagree vehemently with Nye is that I believe this discussion SHOULD take place in our science classrooms, in addition to our philosophy classrooms and religion classrooms. To deprive our children of the right to hear and discuss these questions (as I believe Nye is promoting) is simply to abdicate our position as educators. Education is all about the examination of all possible facts and the various theories that those facts lead different scholars to believe. To eliminate 50% of those conclusions and resulting theories because they do not fit some very limited concept of “scientism” is just blatantly irresponsible. So, whether he wanted to or not, I think Nye made a very important point: this discussion DOES deserve to be in the science classroom.

This is true if for no other reason that our children deserve to discover that evolutionists cannot answer even the most basic questions about their theory: why is there “anything” to begin with? From whence came the “stuff” that started this whole process?

For the answer to that question we must turn to God. And that, my friends, is exactly what terrifies Nye and his comrades.

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