One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 193 pages.
Ever since I took a class in the transmission and translation of the Bible from Dr. Neil Lightfoot the subject of textual criticism and Bible translations has been a hobby of mine. I cannot say that I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am simply an apprentice in the field. The subject is immensely fascinating. I also have a very strong opinion that it is equally critical for the disciple of Christ to know something about the history of the transmission and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible, and that the average member of the church knows either nothing or next to nothing about those subjects. Those deficiencies make purchasing and reading this book that much more important.
In order to write a good book in this field an author must accomplish two goals – and goals that are not necessarily complementary. One, he or she needs to cover a vast amount of material that can be complicated and, at times, seemingly esoteric. On the other extreme if the book is to be effective it needs to be written so that the average church member can read and understand it. It needs to have some “there” there or it will just be placed on a shelf where it can look impressive to the casual observer. In this book, One Bible, Many Versions, Dave Brunn cleans up on both accounts. He does not get into the vagaries of textual manuscripts, but he does do an outstanding job in discussing the complicated process of translation and how the different translations we have of the English Bible are a blessing to us all.
Several aspects of this book scream for proper attention. One, the book is clearly written in language anyone with a high school education or beyond will be able to understand. This is no small feat given the subject matter at hand. There is no “technalese” that bogs so many specialty books down.
Two, the book is literally filled with wonderful graphics that illustrate the issues the author is describing. In particular, Brunn does not simply say that there are “many examples” of such-and-such, he gives those examples in painstaking detail – sometimes pages of them – in easy-to-read chart format. If you are going to argue with Brunn’s conclusions, you had better study hard and stay up late to challenge his many and well defended examples.
Three, Brunn is not writing with any particular axe to grind, unless it is that he dislikes it when people write about translations with axes to grind. He points out that every translation violates it’s guiding principles at some points, that literal translations sometimes take great liberties with the text, and that sometimes idiomatic translations are more literal than the “literal” translations.
Just one example here will suffice – Brunn points out that many people will argue that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is one of the most literal, word-for-word translations on the market. However, Brunn goes through and points out that in many verses a more idiomatic (or, Dynamic) translation is actually more “literal” or formal in its translation than is the NASB. The same is true with the ESV and the HCSB. I was mesmerized by the evidence, and I will never look at the NASB with the same understanding as I once did.
Another chapter that I feel like was worth the purchase price of the book was the chapter in which Brunn described the problems translators have in translating the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts into languages other than English. (The chapter is titled, “The Babel Factor”) We, as English speaking Americans, tend to measure everything by how it affects the English language. Brunn worked in translating the Bible into the Lamogai language of the people of Papua, New Guinea. His grasp of translational issues is not simply one dimensional – it is truly multi-dimensional. If you buy, read and even study this book your understanding will be multi-dimensional as well. You will never look at translations, or translational issues, in the same way.
I know that every book I review in this blog space is a book I highly recommend (otherwise, why waste the time to review it!) But I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you do not want to buy the book for yourself, buy a copy each for all of your elders and your minister or ministers. If they spend any time at all speaking about how one translation is “better” than another, they need to read this book. In fact, if they spend any time even reading from an English translation they need to read this book.
But, quite honestly, every member who considers himself or herself to be a student of the Bible needs to read this book. It is that well written and that important. Do not attempt to call yourself educated in the field of translations if you refuse to read this little volume.
Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.
The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.
There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.
The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).
It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.
We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.
As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.
Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.
In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.
If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.
The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.
I guess that works to a certain degree.
Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.
(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.
That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.
If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)
If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.
If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.
And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.
What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.
Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.
But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.
Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.
Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.
It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.
Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.
And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.
When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)
The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.
Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!
May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 271 pages of text, with 4 appendices and 29 pages of endnotes.
In terms of statistical studies, this book is beginning to show its age (published in 2005, with research being completed some time earlier), but the information it provides is still valuable, at least as far as I am concerned. This was the second book I read to inform myself of the current state of young people in the teenage-college age bracket (the first was Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0). This book is far more conventional in the sense that the authors performed a standard survey information gathering process and followed that up with a detailed interview process with a selected number of those who had completed the earlier phone interview.
Without going into serious information overload, here are some basic numbers: the initial phone interview involved 3,290 teenagers and their parents from all 50 states between 2002 and 2003. From that number, 267 teens were selected for an additional in-person interview to follow up on the information that had been gathered from the phone calls. One interesting side note, the teens and parents were both paid for their time for the phone call interview, and the teens were paid for their time in the face-to-face interview. The next time some political party calls me to ask me who I am going to vote for, I am going to ask them to show me the money.
Anyway, back to the book. The results reveal the standard “good news/bad news” that research tends to provide. On the good news side, the research showed that teens are far more religious than some doomsayers are trumpeting. The teens largely follow the faith of their parents (or leading adults in their family). There is very little of the “spiritual but not religious” trend among teenagers that some people are so fond of reporting. And, with one very important caveat, religion is having an impact on the lives of teenagers.
Now for the distressing news: even though teens are religious, they are almost totally incapable of articulating what that means. For example, they may know that premarital sex is not appropriate, but they cannot articulate why. The best reason they might come up with is the dangers of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This reveals that, in a broad general sense, religious groups are doing an abysmal job in presenting what they believe to teenagers. Another issue that I saw in the reporting was that, even among the most religious teens, life decisions were very often made in violation of those religious beliefs. So, there appears to be a large degree of compartmentalization among teens. Religion and spirituality is for church, but dating is for sex (not necessarily intercourse) and cheating on tests is almost required to get ahead. What this tells me is that churches may be doing an okay job at aiming for the head, but we are missing the hearts of teenagers by a mile.
This is an involved read. It is a long book, and the reporting of numbers and statistics is complicated. However, each section of analysis is accompanied by a graphic chart, so the material is there in both narrative and chart format. Those who are familiar with statistics and research will undoubtedly have an easier time reading the book than I did (I have absolutely no clue what a “multivariate regression analysis” is!) However, if you are a youth minister, a minister, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or simply a person who is deeply concerned about today’s teenager, you will want to buy, read, and even study this book.
I have to add a couple of (even more) personal comments. One reason I bought the book was because of a referral by way of the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (chapter 4 of the book) Basically, MTD is the term that the authors used to describe the primary religion of American teens. It is moralistic – teens do have morals, but the morals are tied to what works – therefore the “therapeutic.” And it is connected to a form of Deism – the idea that there is a supreme being, but that being only really exists to help in bad times or to make people feel good about themselves. And the authors point out that there are several different forms of MTD – conservative MTD, liberal MTD, – whatever “brand” of religion the teen leans toward has its form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This chapter is worth the price of the book in and of itself, but you really need the rest of the book to fully understand what the authors intend by placing the chapter as the fourth in the sequence.
Many of the results of the surveys and interviews confirms what is common knowledge or common sense: girls are more religious than boys. Teens in the south are more religious than teens in the northeast or northwest. Younger teens are more spiritual than older teens (although, not as significantly as may be expected). Teens with both parents at home are more religious, and parents who are more religious raise more religious teens. Conservative parents and groups produce more religious teens, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics do not score as highly. And, not surprisingly, Mormon families score the highest in producing religious teens, as well as producing teens who are the most articulate in expressing their faith.
The authors use 7 categories to describe religious teens – Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and non-religious. Appendix “D” gives the denominational breakdown of how the authors categorized each group, and the results are, shall we say, interesting.
I learned a lot from this book. I was encouraged as well as discouraged. I was challenged and I saw a lot of my own faults in the book. The authors certainly stepped on my toes. It is important to know, for example, that teens are looking for something greater than themselves. They desperately want their parents in their lives (even if every word or action seems to say otherwise). They need limits. And they are willing to respond appropriately when given the information they need. If anything, this book puts the responsibility of raising spiritual teens right where it belongs – on the adults who should be providing that guidance in the first place.
I have been given the opportunity to preach again this coming Sunday (yea!) and in the process of working on what I wanted to say a thought occurred to me. Now, it’s not everyday that I have thoughts that occur to me. I was actually pretty excited.
Anyway, this is what came floating through my mind, and pardon the stream of consciousness thinking here – I hope everything will make sense by the last word.
We (and I am speaking inclusively here, obviously there are exceptions to every general statement) have been working diligently over the past who-knows-how-many years (more than a decade, less than a generation) to make every verse in the Bible easy to understand. That is to say we have been teaching what the books and sections and verses of the Bible mean. But we have overlooked one very important issue that has now come back to haunt us.
We have been forgetting to teach that the Bible means something anyway.
You see, we can teach the exact meaning of every single verse in the Bible, but if we fail to teach that the Bible itself has meaning, then all of that instruction is pointless. You can teach me what every word Karl Marx wrote means, and I will say to you, “So what?” You can teach me the precise meaning of every word that Joseph Smith wrote down and will respond the same way. The writings of Marx and Smith mean nothing to me, so the meanings of each individual section, sentence or word are completely meaningless to me.
So, today, we as teachers and preachers and parents and other church leaders can exegete and decipher and work out the meaning for every jot and tittle in the Bible, and the sum total of our efforts is a big fat zero because of one fundamental fact: the Bible is totally irrelevant to a large and growing population of the United States.
So, I think we need to back up a little bit and ask a fairly basic question: what does it mean to say that the Bible means something, anything?
To my generation, and certainly to generations preceding mine, it was just assumed that when you spoke from the Bible that most people would care. They might disagree with what you said, but at least the Bible mattered to them. Today I do not believe that is a valid assumption. It is my experience that a large number of people, if not a majority of people today, simply look at the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. This is especially true among the college age and younger generations. So, even if you get the meaning right, it doesn’t mean anything.
We are truly living in a post-Christian, post-biblical world. I think we are going to have to stop teaching in paragraphs and go back to something a little more basic. I think we are going to have to go back and teach the alphabet.
And that means we are going to have to start living like we believe the Bible means something, before we can teach that the words within the Bible mean something.
[Legal disclaimer: I am currently involved in the university teaching world. The school that I serve currently believes very strongly in the process of on-line teaching. Therefore, my comments should be interpreted strictly as my own, and in no way do they reflect the policies or opinions of any employer I have had in the past, or will have in the future.]
I do not think that it would be controversial at all to make that statement that education in the United States is in a crisis mode. It has been for several decades, but it seems to me that the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” act really put the education system in the US in a tailspin. Educators are finally getting the attention of the politicians, and there are some hopeful signs that we can correct the worst of the damage, but I’m not sure but that we have severely handicapped the better part of a generation with our “teaching to pass the standardized test” methods of the past several years.
DOWNWARD TREND #1: However, I see another trend developing, and as bad as NCLB was, I think this one is worse. And it has come not through the edict of congress, but through the evolution (or devolution) of the twin powers of developing technology and political correctness. That trend will ultimately spell the demise of what we refer to as “higher education” in the United States. It affects junior colleges, standard four-year colleges, and graduate programs. That trend is the seemingly unstoppable headlong rush into “on-line” computerized courses where the student has no face to face contact with his or her professor, nor any collegial contact with fellow students.
If you stay current with higher education trends you are no doubt familiar with “Massive Open On-Line Courses” (MOOC) that many universities and colleges are offering. If the university does not offer a MOOC, it is virtually certain that it will offer some or all of its catalog of courses via an on-line option. There are many reasons given for the option to allow on-line courses, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
On-line courses save money, and that is their only benefit. Pious platitudes such as, “it allows the non-traditional student the ability to study and maintain their current position” is just that – a pious platitude. If the courses were limited to only those students who could not physically attend a local university that might be a legitimate argument – but even then I am not going to accept it. And, it is clear that more on-campus students take on-line courses than do off campus students. In the common vernacular, on-line courses are a crock.
From the founding of this nation until just a few decades ago, the attainment of a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree was the sign of exceptional perseverance, a dedicated work/study habit, and very often of great sacrifice. Our businesses, our corporations, our classrooms, and our courts are full of individuals who bussed tables, served as waitresses/waiters, mowed lawns, washed windows or mopped floors in order to put themselves through a college or university, and they did it by taking night classes or going to school in the day and working at night. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the graduation podium. Instead of a higher education being a tremendous honor and hard-earned accomplishment, it became some kind of a right that should be bestowed on everyone who wanted it. Exit hard work, sacrifice and dedication, enter the privileged class.
I am a part of that generation that felt it was “owed” a higher education. For my graduating class it was assumed that we would be going to a university. And, with very few exceptions, it was assumed our way would be paid by our parents – or with loans we would have to pay back, or by grants and scholarships supplied by someone else. That is just the way our world worked. Several of my classmates in college did have to work their way through school, but at least all of us had to do one thing in common – we had to leave our homes and travel to an on-site university where we had to sit in a class and actually pay attention to the professor.
Now, move the clock forward to the second decade of the 21st century. The right of a higher education has only been strengthened, but a profound shift has occurred in relation to the sacrifice and dedication it takes to obtain that degree. Today’s pitiful little high school graduates do not have to leave home, or even leave their bedrooms, to enter college. And, heaven forbid they actually have to pay for the degree they are supposedly earning. No, the mantra is that we want a full college diploma, but we don’t want to have to actually attend a class or pay full tuition, we want to stare at a computer screen dressed in our jammies and pay a fraction of what it costs to support a brick-and-mortar physical building.
I know I am being snarky. I’m sorry, but this issue is just too important not to express some of my baser emotions. But, intellectually, here is the real rub. education is more than the simple transfer of data from one computer to another computer. Education takes place in the give-and-take and the interaction between instructor and student, and between student and student, and that has always been the strength of a university setting. Students from all different backgrounds and all different belief systems are smashed together in a grand environment in which ideas and concepts and thoughts and issues are discussed in an (ideally) neutral context and out of the whole glorious mess an educated person emerges sometime later. Remove all of the educative environment and all you get is the transfer of a few thousand pixels of information and an isolated individual with no real connection to the instructor or their fellow students.
If costs are truly the issue, there are ways to address that issue. First and foremost would be the elimination of government guaranteed student loans. (Like that will ever happen.) But to cut the education nose off to spite the financial face is simply, in a plain old good English word, stupid.
DOWNWARD TREND #2: Lest I get too long-winded concerning the first issue, I have to address the second disturbing trend I see developing. In the grand and glorious state in which I reside the governor just signed into legislation a bill providing for the largest city to offer high school classes in which the students will be prepared to graduate with, get this, both a high school diploma and an Associate degree. Already many students are graduating from high school having earned enough college credits through dual classes to enter a college or university as a second semester freshman, or in some cases, even a sophomore. I remember as a high school graduate we could earn college credits, but we had to take a college equivalency test administered by a specific college or university to do so!
Now, either high school students today are just light years ahead of where we were thirty years ago, or something is seriously flawed about this system. Believe me, I grade papers produced by college sophomores, juniors and seniors. I have students who cannot compose a coherent English sentence, let alone a college level paragraph, or heaven forbid, and entire 10 page paper.
So, you are going to tell me that a high school graduate has learned everything he or she needs to know in order to graduate from high school and an additional two years of college studies to earn an Associate degree? Really? Really? I get to see the results of all our educational political correctness, and believe me, it is depressing. But it is NOT just me. Every instructor I talk to has the same experience. We are producing the most highly credentialed uneducated graduates ever in the history of this country.
Hey, Governor Martinez – I have an idea. Let’s just give every kindergarten graduate a full four-year Bachelor’s degree and cut the whole elementary, middle school and high school stuff out. That would save us a ton of money!
What is the solution to this madness? I really do not know. Maybe society will devolve so that spelling, the construction of a coherent sentence and the ability to perform fundamental math equations will no longer be necessary. Maybe with voice activated computer systems the human brain will shrink to the point that none of this will matter. Maybe when we fill our heads with hip-hop mush and utterly lose the ability to read Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare and Thoreau we will no longer be aware of what we are missing. Maybe then it will be of no consequence at all.
But for some of us still alive it matters very much. And when I have a paper turned in with eloquent phraseology, perfect spelling and genuinely creative thinking, there is a little glimmer of hope that possibly the concept of education will not die after all.
I can only hope.
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
I think I have posted on this before, but if I did I can’t find it. (Just one of the benefits of a fading memory, being able to hide your own easter eggs is the other.) But I am struck by a profound and disturbing paradox: many people want to “prove” beyond any shadow of a doubt that their God exists, without understanding that the minute they do it (if they are able to do so) they cease to have God at all. If a being can be reduced to the barest essentials of having been “proven,” it ceases to be what the Bible says of God. I wish more people would understand this. The whole attempt to “prove” the existence of God is nothing more than a highly sophisticated attempt to reduce God to something that we can control – it is the most elegant form of idolatry that exists. If we “prove” God, we in essence become God, because only God can know enough to prove his own existence.
I am aware of all the various arguments of the existence of “a” God, and some are quite fascinating and some are even (to my mind) quite convincing. But they by no means “prove” that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists, or that Jesus was resurrected from the tomb. What those arguments lead to is a firm conviction that a being must exist that is vastly superior to man. But humans throughout the centuries have created a whole pantheon of gods that explain that particular understanding.
In my understanding, what separates a biblical faith from a “faithless” attempt to prove God is that a person of faith is willing to live in such a way that transcends the limits of human understanding. A person of faith is not opposed to science – he or she should love and follow the path of the sciences where ever they lead. But a person of faith transcends the limits of those sciences. Archeology is a great tool, so is anthropology, astronomy, chemistry and comparative anatomy. They all have tremendous secrets to tell us about the human life. But they cannot teach us about the human soul, and the human striving to know its creator. For that we must turn to the Bible, and to understand the Bible we must possess faith, not a Ph.D. in thermodynamics or microbiology.
Just my two cent worth, but I really wish many Christian would tone down the rhetoric about “proving” the existence of God. Quite frankly, I do not want my God to be so small that he can be proved. At that point I no longer would have to get out of the boat or roll back the stone. All I need to do would be to buy a book, read it, and presto-chango – God would be indisputably within my grasp and control.
As tempting as that may sound, no thanks. I want my God to be bigger than me, bigger than my favorite theologian (Bonhoeffer and Lewis combined) and bigger than my favorite scientist. While God might reveal himself to me in the most mundane of situations, he must always remain transcendent – or he simply becomes my pet.
(Continuing my series of reviews and comments about the 21st annual Wheaton Theology Conference, titled “Bonhoeffer- Christ and Culture” held this past April in Chicago.)
The second lecture on the opening day of the Bonhoeffer conference was given by Dr. Keith Johnson titled, “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy.” Dr. Johnson made three significant points.
The first is that Christ is the basis and criterion of all the reality of the world. The Christian academy, if it is to be true to its calling, must see everything in a Christological lens. We are not to try to figure out how everything “fits together,” we are to obey Christ.
The second point is that the Christian academy is intrinsically connected to the church. As an institution, an academy cannot be “Christian” in the sense that it does not receive the sacraments. However, the academy is comprised of Christian individuals, and so they bear a responsibility to the world, just as the church has a responsibility to the world.
The last point Dr. Johnson made is a combination of the first two points. The Christian academy is in and for the church as the church is in and for the world. Just as the church is to “die” for the world, the Christian academy is to “die” for the church. (Thus, the title for his lecture!). The Christian academy must equip the church to both stand against the world and also must show the church how God is working in the world in “new and exciting ways.” By Biblical example, Dr. Johnson used the precedent of Acts 15 in which the church realized that God was speaking in a new way, not just capitulating to culture. In conclusion, Dr. Johnson pointed out that the church must hold the academy accountable – to be honest to the Word – while the academy must challenge the church to engage the world.
I know that in a movement as diverse and the Churches of Christ/Christian Church/Disciples of Christ it is impossible to make a generic statement that is universally applicable. But I could not help but wish that our college and university administrators were present for this lecture. If I may make a sweeping generalization that is true to some extent in every situation, although not as pervasive in some as it is in others, it would be this: the colleges and universities associated with the American Restoration Movement have forsaken their calling to be Christian academies. Now, let me unpack that statement, and if the truth fits, let it fit, and if it does not, then simply ignore it.
First, “our” Christian colleges and universities sold a large portion of their souls many years ago when they started accepting Federal assistance. This meant that they had to start abiding by federal standards, in greater or lesser degrees, and as Jesus the apostles all stated, you cannot serve God and the kingdom of this world in equal proportions. I know that many students were able to attend a Christian university or college based on this federal assistance. But the cost in terms of spirituality has been severe.
Second, “our” universities and colleges have surrendered their focus on Christ and the Bible. Some still require that students take a course in the Bible every semester, but many do not. Some allow a course in marriage and family planning to be substituted for a course in the text. Now, I am all for helping young people understand the importance of marriage and the family. But if we are going to be a people of the book we must study the book! Many colleges and universities have reduced or eliminated the daily chapel worship experience. That was one of THE defining aspects of my four years at ACU. I still remember certain chapel devotional talks. When an administration agrees to reduce or substitute other assemblies in place of daily worship, the focus on Christ is lost. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.
Third, it is obvious by looking at the web sites of our Christian colleges and universities that the top two primary values of the institutions are athletics and academics. “We are in the top _______ (fill in the blank) of highest rated universities” trumpet the ads. “Our teams won ________ (fill in the blank) championships last year!” “We are #1 in our conference!”
You would think Jesus died on the cross wearing Nike cleats.
Why do our colleges and universities spend so much money on NCAA or NAIA sports? I am not just talking about hundreds, or maybe thousands of dollars. I am talking about hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Well, those sports generate a lot of money for the school” you respond. Oh? Where is that money spent? On Bibles? On mission trips? On spiritual retreats? NO, NO, and NO. It is spent on more athletics. On salaries for growing administrative staffs. On salaries for coaches and assistant coaches and compliance officers and tutors and tape and uniforms and buildings and more tape and video cameras and weight rooms and some more tape and bandages. When I was at ACU my professors were using the same chalkboards that had been in the classroom for probably 50 years, but you can bet the football team had the latest technical equipment and the finest weight room that the school could afford.
You see, it is all about priorities. And I will flatly challenge any college or university administrator to explain to me how spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an NCAA division I or II athletic program advances the cause of Christ. Colleges and universities have expensive athletic programs for one purpose and one purpose only. They advance the prestige of the school. The school gets to fly its banner a little higher. And, if a team is successful enough to reach a national audience, there you go – more money for the trustees to spend. We need a new gym, after all and Division I is just so much more impressive than Division II.
Once upon a time our colleges (I doubt we had any accredited universities back then) were very closely connected with our congregations. That day was virtually gone by the time I entered school, and it is a distant memory now. The presidents of our schools used to be preachers. Now the only men who are considered for presidential appointments are money-raising gurus. I am NOT saying they are bad men. I am saying that the focus of our colleges and universities has changed. We do not look for spiritual giants to lead our Christian academies any more. We look for successful businessmen and proven administrators. The question is not, “Is this man a man of God?” but it has become, “How much money can this man raise?”
I don’t know if the church stopped holding our Christian academies accountable (shame on the church), or whether the Christian academies simply decided they were big enough without the church and did not need the church any more (shame on the institutions). But as I see it, and I have been a minister and a member of the church for almost three decades since graduating from a Christian university, there is a HUGE disconnect between our Christian academies and the local congregations. The university is now a multi-million dollar entity, and there simply is no need for the church.
We used to have Bible lectureships to feed and encourage ministers and congregational leaders. Now we have “conversations” that are designed to prove to the evangelical world that we are finally one of them. Our lectureships used to highlight men who had been in the pulpit for many years, and who were capable of actually preaching to the audience. Now esoteric lectures are delivered by effete academicians and those who only speak to and listen to each other. Our lectureships used to be opportunities for our young ministers to hear and learn from our wiser elders. Now, a speaker older that 40 is rare, and one older than 50 is almost non-existent. Gray hair has been replace by the goatee. Rehoboam was not the last person to glorify the folly of youth.
Dr. Johnson’s speech had an ironic twist in the title. I wonder, if in just one significant way, the Churches of Christ are not witnessing the “end” of our Christian academies. It is certainly not the meaning Dr. Johnson intended. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would certainly not approve.
The only question that matters is whether Jesus would approve of the direction our academies are heading. It is a question to consider, at the very least.
I just spent well over an hour writing a book review, and upon further review, had to delete 80 % of it. It was just all wrong. Now I am mentally fried and frustrated and I am going to have to turn my ‘puter off and go take a nap. Who knows when the review will be finished. Arrrrgh.
I was told a long, long time ago that the toughest part of writing is in the editing. When we write something we are just so proud of it – I mean, it did come from our brain so it has to be perfect right? Problem is, very few writers have that ability to create publishable quality material on the first attempt. It takes cutting and re-writing and editing and more cutting and more re-writing. Writing would be a wonderful profession if it were not so cotton-picking difficult. I probably should edit out “cotton-picking” but I am tired of hitting the “Del” button.
This post has relatively little connection to flying through the fog. Except that every once in a while even the best pilots have to “go missed” and wave off a bad approach and set up for another one. In pilot speak, “going missed” is the equivalent to the writer’s “Delete” key. The really good pilots rarely use it, but every approach plate as a section dedicated to the procedure a pilot has to fly if he or she cannot land on the initial approach. Sometimes it’s the weather that gets worse, sometimes the airport has a problem, and sometimes the pilot just makes a mistake so critical that it is important to quit while you are ahead, go around and try again.
Today I had one of those major “missed approach” days. It kills me because I lost time, got hugely frustrated with a project that I really truly love, and now I need to set up again and try to figure out when I am going to get this project “on the ground.”
Oh well, all is not lost. I was able to salvage most of the opening paragraph.
The “Delete” key. You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. I just wish I did not have to use it so often.
Update: as of 10:00 pm local time, after a long nap and a good supper, I was able to write the book review. It took me another two hours and a colossal number of hits on the “delete” button, but it is “in the can” as the old saying goes. Ahhh. Now on to a blissful night’s sleep.