Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Hebrew Bible in 5 Minutes.

Ok, its more like 5 minutes and 13 seconds. But in any case, the Bible Dudes are back!

HT: Tim

Exegesis, Hermenutics and Meaning in the Text

Stanley Porter has some good thoughts on the differences between exegesis and hermenutics. He rightly points out that too often we confuse the two. Colleges and seminaries will often have a class on "Biblical Hermenutics" when in reality what they are teaching is how to interpret. The picture in today's post reflects this common misunderstanding. 

Here is a bit of what Porter has to say.
Students, however, are not always well served by various books that purport to be about hermeneutics. There are too many books that are more about interpretation—which usually means hermeneutics as technique or how to do it—than about what it means to understand as a human being. Many books that are used in seminary courses, even if they use the word hermeneutics, are often more about how to do interpretation—exegesis, if you will—than they are about what it means to understand. Some of these are books written by individual authors, and others are collections of essays with a little bit (often too little) on a wide range of topics. I won’t name names here, but such volumes are easily identifiable. They may be good for what they are, but they rarely address the major hermeneutical issues.
I would encourage students (and scholars, but that is another story) to gain a firm grasp of basic hermeneutical theory. I think that they will soon come to realize that there is no such thing as what is sometimes called the “plain sense” of a text, if by that one means a presuppositionless and contextless meaning of the text. Instead, interpretation encompasses a complex interplay involving at least the author, text, and reader, meanings mediated through language, socially and culturally influenced factors, and the relationship of past and present, among others. This is not to say that there is not meaning to be found in texts, but that the process of determining meaning is far more complex than many realize, and has been widely discussed and debated through the ages.

You can read the rest of his post here. He provides a good list of suggested reading material too. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Killing Women and Children: Those stories in the Old Testament we wish would go away

The story of Israel capturing Jericho is well-known, even among children. Sunday school teaches them the amazing story of how Joshua and the Israelites walked around the city for seven days, blowing trumpets, waiting for the walls to fall. And on the seventh day they do fall and according to Joshua 6:20-21 this what happened next.
20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

This part is not often included in the standard Sunday school curriculum. What parent wants to send their children to a religious education class that promotes wholesale genocide and slaughter? Yet this is how the story ends. Indeed, this is how many of the stories end in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, well you get the point. There are some pretty violent stories in the Old Testament. This in and of it self would not be a problem except that the Old Testament claims that God told the Israelites to kill everyone. Readers of the Bible often have a hard time squaring this claim with what the Bible has to say about God elsewhere, and it is an interpretive problem that scholars have been working on for some time.

And it seems that this topic has surfaced in the news and blogs. 

On his web site John Piper answered a question from someone who was troubled by such stories. They ask: 
Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right? Here is what Piper said:

It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.

Well this got the attention of Old Testament scholar Peter Enns who disagrees with Piper.
Certainly everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion (and what would the internet be without it), and people are always free to accept or reject what others say. Actually, on one level, it is helpful that Piper is willing to offer his views so clearly in a public forum. Characterizing God this way is, in my estimation, its own refutation, and in the end will serve the truth more than obscure it.
 But still, Piper’s position raises some serious issues that won’t stay buried for long, and are worth drawing out–at the very least so people can to work through the issue themselves and not be swayed by a public figure taking such a strong stand, or conclude that Piper represents the only option before us.

Pete goes on to list seven reasons why Pipers interpretation is unhelpful. Read it here.

Update (1) : Enns has added another post in reply to some of the comments he received. 

Update (2): It was going to happen sooner or later. Someone was going to throw our the "I" word. Denny Burk faults Enns for questioning the Bible "at every turn."

The other person to take a stab at the topic recently is Edith Humphrey. Although a New Testament scholar, she affirmed the importance of not overlooking those troubling stories and instead to dig-in and see how they fit into the overall story and message of the Bible.

Humphrey noted Jesus used the Old Testament to teach his disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and that the apostles used it alongside their own witness to proclaim the Gospel before the New Testament was collected.
“We cannot, then afford to ignore the Bible of Jesus and the Apostolic Church,” she said.
The story of Abraham and Isaac involves human sacrifice and monstrous testing, she said.  She urged readers to “take a deep breath,”  “dive in” and “abandon yourself to the drama of the story, to its power.”
The story about God’s command to Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering is not exhorting us to “slavishly obey our religion,” she said.  Instead the story takes us on “a journey on which we, with Abraham and Isaac, learn who God is, and who we are:  it is about mystery, devotion, provision and promise.”
“It is about seeing the life-giving hand of God amidst testing and confusion,” she said.  “It is about faith brought to birth and faith rewarded.”
When it comes to God’s command putting populations under the ban, Humphrey said the difficult questions these stories raise can be seen from a wider historical perspective.

I suspect we will be hearing more about this in the near future. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Neither Liberal Nor Conservative?

The last week has seen a flurry of stories about the decline of liberal Christianity. Some of the recent  decisions of the Episcopal Church (and not just the ones related to sexuality) seem to have neutered what was left of a once strong arm of Christianity in the USA. The biggest irony of the week was that the church is selling its Manhattan headquarters because it can't afford it. At the same time, the church has spent $18 million dollars suing breakaway congregations in an effort to force those congregations to return the "church's" property. Now the Episcopal church is the owner of numerous empty buildings, none of which it can afford.

My point here is not to critique or pick a fight with the Episcopal church. I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church. And although I have not attended an Episcopal church for years (for reasons not related to the present controversies), there is a part of me that still identifies with that church. But what got me thinking was the articles declaring the end of liberal Christianity. Ross Douthat of the New York Times asked Can Liberal Christianity be Saved? He is less than optimistic. Responding on the Huffiington Post was Diana Butler who reminded Douthat that conservative Christianity wasn't doing so well either. Her question is Can Christianity be Saved?

Wading into the middle is Rachel Held Evans who looked at both sides of the issue and declared that she doesn't want to pick sides. She rightly points out that missing from both articles is the fact that we are both in this togetherI want to echo some of Rachel's sentiment and ask my readers to chime in. 

I really do hate the whole culture of labels. I realize that some labels are necessary and helpful. But quite often they are used to tag, demonize and or marginalize. They are a convenient way of summing up everything about someone or some group in one word. Of course, when was one word ever enough to describe anyone? Calling someone a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican fails to consider that as individuals such labels really don't describe what a person believes about policy issues. It's possible to have a Republican who is pro-abortion and anti-healthcare or a Democrat who wants prayer in school and higher taxes on the rich. 

I find the use of labels troubling in Christianity as well. As a biblical scholar I find that I rarely "fit-in" in any group. When I am around more "conservative minded people" I feel like I am a "liberal" who is always rocking the boat and causing trouble. I wonder sometimes who people can be so myopic and they look at me as if to say "heretic!".

But when I am around more "liberal Christians" I feel like the a fundamentalist in the chicken coop. I hear some of what they say and I wonder if they have thrown the baby out with the bath water. They look at me with eyes that seem to say "ah, an another unenlightened fool."

And of course people always want you to give yourself a label: "What are you?" "How would you define yourself?" "Who do you support?" And I always find it difficult to answer. The easiest label to reach for is that of "moderate," but that sounds more like a glass of lukewarm water, useful to no one. I sometimes say "I don't use labels" which means that I am labeled as a closet liberal or conservative depending on who I am talking to. 

Part of the problem is that so many of the issues that divide people do so because they are so complicated and arose so much passion. They usually can't be solved easily with a "liberal" or conservative" label and once you dig in deeper the less inclined you are to use those labels. So much in life, theology and politics just isn't that easy. 

In the end I have yet to find a solution. I move between various groups feeling like I am a secret agent from the opposing team. And what I really want is to just be able to exist and dialog without having to "take a stand" in such a way that I "fit in."

What about you? What labels do you accept and reject? How have you navigated this path?