The Bible’s World: Essentials

20080307110449!SennacheribThe Bible is a daunting book to study, and very imposing in its scope, size and nature. The  barriers to getting into it present real problems—problems that we have to deal with if we hope to help people find nourishment in the scriptures.

One of the most significant barriers is that that there is a lot of background stuff that you have to absorb if you’re going to be able to pick up what’s going on in any text—and lots of texts have different background pieces that inform them particularly. If you’re a historical nerd who loves geeing out on facts about the ancient world, this is great news for you—people like you and me love this stuff, and it is absolutely endless. You’ll never learn it all.

But what about everybody else? One of the big questions of how the church studies scripture is: What’s the baseline of background detail that people need to understand? What do people need to grasp in order to begin to wade into scripture without feeling like they’re drowning? How can we set up people to learn well, and feel capable of going further?

It’s an open question for me, but I want to suggest a set of areas in which having a basic understanding of the ancient world can really help people get some traction.

  1. Geography. I think it’s helpful if you can put ancient Israel, Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, and Rome on a map. Probably Syria, too.
  2. The Exile. A huge part of the Old Testament revolves around the events of the Babylonian Exile. If you get that story, and the problems it presented, a large part of the canon opens up.
  3. Pharisees.  A better understanding of what the pharisees were about is exceptionally helpful in understanding the stakes of the conflicts in the gospels. It needs to go beyond “Pharisee = Bad”, too.
  4. Economics. I think having a little understanding about the scale of the ancient economies really helps as well. What was the relationship to having land and being self-sufficient? What about ancient wealth distribution? It doesn’t get talked about in most sunday schools, but it’s an eye-opening subject.
  5. Honor/Shame. These categories were incredibly important to the identities of ancient people. Get this and their motivations make much more sense.

 

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While I’ve Been Away

It’s a little embarrassing how large the gap is between this post and the one preceding it. It would be difficult to overstate how much life has happened between that date and this one. Our girls are growing like crazy, with our two eldest daughters finishing kindergarten and learning to read, and Lucy pursuing such interests as learning to laugh, sit up on her own, and eat big girl food. These truly are magical days in the Hovater family.
And, because I don’t want to miss out on any of that, taking on a couple of new projects meant that something had to be put aside for a while, and blogging was easily the best candidate.

So, why back now?

Well, I am rapidly winding down one of my biggest side projects, and it seems like it’s about time to start sharing it with the world, partly because I want to share a little bit about my experiment of taking on Coding as a hobby.

It can be a maddening, infuriating, and rewarding hobby. In some ways, I feel like its been rewiring my brain a little bit, appealing to and reinforcing those parts of my person that love processes, results, and obsession. It began as something of a curiosity, but as I did it more and more, I really began to love the part of coding that is somewhat poetic, playing for structure and design.

The counterpoint to all of that is that the more I came to see and love the beauty in it, the more frustrating it became when things just wouldn’t fall into place. I’ve spent too many nights staring at the ceiling wondering where the errors were coming from, or what was wrong with the constraints on my xib.

So I’ve learned a lot in this process, and some of the most important things were about myself, about some of the things that appeal to me, both beautifully and dangerously.

I’ve almost finished my little project. It’s an app for Mac OS X called “Sermon Design”, and I hope it will be released on the Mac App Store soon. Over the next few posts, I’d like to tell you about it.

Posted in Coding, Ministry, Preaching | 1 Comment

Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

abraham-approaching-sodom-with-three-angels-genesis-xviii-16-1956The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading

Posted in Bible Study, Genesis, justice, Mission, Narrative Theology, Old Testament, Story | Tagged | Leave a comment

Weighted Mail

I slide my pen across the page
The physics demand that the paper draws
the carefully engineered ink
from the carefully engineered pen,
forming my carefully engineered letters.
and then by mystical force
I leave the physics aside,
and infuse the whole
with worry and hope.

Then I fold the paper carefully,
and slide it into an envelope, addressed.
It goes into the mailbox, where it waits
to join a flood of such weighted words:
Debts and obligations,
promises and lies,
and the occasional personal note,
like mine.

The Mailman comes.
He takes the letter.
He puts it in his bag
with the others.

How can he carry such a bag?
He must be the strongest man in the world.

 

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Vulnerability: Newtown and Nouwen

Last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut hurts. It hurts badly,  troubling us at multiple locations of doubt, hope, fear, and love. Survey the landscape and see what has been scorched: the innocence of children, the space of the schoolhouse, our duty (and capacity) to protect children, our general sense of security in the midst of community, a myriad of assumed rights and responsibilities, ideals of parenthood and the resiliency of children, our blind spot toward mental illness, perhaps even our tacit acceptance of public risk.

In the destructive wake of the violence, many voices have rushed in to offer solutions–a not unhealthy impulse, even though many of the solutions are misguided, I think. Many of them reflect views that are not new judgments, but old commitments given new urgency, and these have been immediately met by other old commitments fueled by the urgency of any defense played at critical junctures. Political pundits, theologians, pastors, social scientists and community leaders are all having their say, and I suppose that some of those discussions may well bear fruit, if they are pursued with honesty, courage, and wisdom. In the end, now that the idea of this type of violence has been seeded in our communities, it may not ever be eradicated from the consciousness of those deeply broken people who might consider it a live option. Becoming more intentional about addressing that deep brokenness, addressing the systemic devaluation of human life in our society, limiting how well-armed such individuals might come to be, and making sensible decisions about security and emergency procedures may well combine to save lives—I would hope many—but eliminating the seed itself may be beyond our grasp. (This is not to say that such pragmatic conversations should not be pressed forward! Even if we can spare but a few families this sort of deep horror, I hope we will courageously engage the questions.)

Beyond the immediately pragmatic, the deaths in Newtown have again exposed a conversation that we are scarcely willing to pursue, namely our extremely fragile ability to experience community with other humans. When we join in others for any public endeavor or experience of community, we always experience danger, whether that be in the market or workplaces, in the schools or mass entertainment venues. Such events raise our awareness of the willingness of others to abuse our trust and do us harm in exceptional ways, although we most commonly encounter such abuse and harm in mundane, petty things. Whether they do so out of rage, greed, or some other vice, our experience of such danger threatens our willingness to be full participants in community, and in exceptional moments of violence, even at the hands of madmen, we can be pushed further into retreat mode.

I say “retreat”, but as I mean that, the impulse to ratchet up security and devise better schemes for protection, and to make ourselves stronger is also a “retreat” from community, in its own way. Those impulses are a way of insulating us from the sense of vulnerability that we have in encountering “strangers”, people who are really our neighbors, but who have become “estranged” from us. Whether they have become strangers to us through their own failings or ours, through the broader directions of culture, or through some innate human “fallenness” is one of the central questions of theology, as is the cure. Put simply, these questions ask, “How did we become this broken?” and “How can we be fixed?” And so, moments like this can be deeply theological moments, because we experience in an acute way the condition of humanity, They strip away the illusions that we hold of ourselves, whether those illusions reflect to false invulnerability, a cavalier sense of immortality, or the pretenses of faux community.

All of this has called my mind back to Henri Nouwen, one of the most formative influences on my own life. I think Nouwen has a lot to say to our world in this time, particular in his great theological insight that honestly owning and living in our vulnerabilities is a more fruitful way to live with God, other people, and ourselves than our endless maintenance of the illusions of security and strength. Nouwen writes about the roots of our loneliness, a symptom of our estrangement from each other, when he writes, “The roots of our loneliness are very deep, and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love images, or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.”

For Nouwen, the way to deal with that suspicion was to avoid the natural impulse of adding layers of security around it, and to confront it head on through radical hospitality—creating space in our lives for others despite the real danger that they would somehow harm us. Creating free spaces inside our perimeters of supposed invulnerability allows us to discover community with each other because it allows us to be honest and free, despite being “threatened”. Dealing with our sense of vulnerability also helps unmask the illusions of immortality and invulnerability which, being idols, stand between us and any relationship with a free and loving God. For Nouwen, God’s own actions in the story of Jesus represent just this sort of radical hospitality, and thus create space for us within the story of God within which it is possible for us to inflict harm upon God, but also to freely know and be blessed by God.

As a framework for policy, radical hospitality sounds like a recipe for disaster. As a framework for really building community between broken people, it may be the only way forward.

Posted in Community, Henri Nouwen, Spirituality, Theologians, Theology | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Broken Earth in Genesis 1-6

Tonight, in my class on the Torah, we wrapped up by observing the tight connection between the moral responsibility of humanity, the human descent into wickedness, and the effect on the earth itself in chapters 3-6. Hearing the church’s common conversations, you could get the impression that the problem with the “fall” is simply the rift human sin and pride creates between people and God.  In reality though, the consequences of humanity’s fall is multifaceted. For instance, as demonstrated in the Cain and Abel story (and the Lamech one that follows), relationships between humans break down due to sin and violence, and we may easily observe the conflict that arises between the sexes on the heels of the tragic episode in the garden.

One of the too often ignored facets of the human fall is the curse that it brings on the earth itself. Although God’s initial directives to humanity were to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”, as the story plays out, it’s as if the earth itself suffers the sin of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Read chapters 3-6 with a ready eye, and you’ll see the motif show up repeatedly. It’s in the original garden fallout scene, and the language that contains the motif in the Cain and Abel saga is some of the richest in the Old Testament:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so![c] Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,[d] east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16, NRSV)

See how the motif functions here? It begins simply enough, with “the field” being the site for the murder. But as the story develops, the ground or soil is almost a character in the story, bearing testimony against Cain, even cursing Cain. Cain’s punishment involves being hidden from the face of God, and social exclusion as well, but note that this layer of being driven away from the soil itself seems to be Cain’s most agonizing consequence.

The motif continues to develop in the early chapters of Genesis, perhaps culminating in the flood saga. In the build up to the Flood story, Noah is introduced by a reference to the curse upon the land: “[Lamech] named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(Gen 5:29, NRSV)  In the next chapter, God’s actions in the Flood are repeatedly attributed to God’s observation of how the wickedness and violence of humanity has corrupted the earth:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.                             (Gen 6:11-13, NRSV)

On the other side of the Flood, the focus shifts a bit, returning to the original command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. God returns to the project of filling the earth with rich human life, scattering humanity across the world. This eventually leads to the strategy of blessing the scattered peoples of the world through the people of Abraham, but that’s a subject for another day. For today, it is enough to not how tightly God’s purposes for the earth were connected with God’s purposes for humanity. Perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising, unless we have forgotten that God indeed made the man (hebrew ‘Adam’) from the dust of the ground (hebrew ‘Adamah’), and that we are connected to the earth through our work until the moment that we are returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19, NRSV). given this, how could our sin result in anything but estrangement from the very earth which is our perpetual context?

Posted in Bible Study, Genesis, Old Testament | 2 Comments

Unclean by Richard Beck

Richard Beck’s theology blog has long been one of my favorites, (at least it is whenever I get around to reading blogs). Beck is a disciplined blogger, and nearly every day he posts thoughtful, provoking, and important thoughts, often about he intersection between theology and his own native field of psychology. For my dime, I think he’s often quite brilliant at driving right at the uncomfortable place of tension and ambiguity that is always right below the surface in all our conversations about God. Seriously, I hardly ever go to his site and scan through the top three or four articles before I come across something that seems to demand more attention and thought from me.

I had been meaning to pick up Beck’s book Unclean for some time, and finally my friend Mark’s shared interest in Beck’s work put me over the edge and into the text. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I’d like to engage with some of the ideas in the book here over a few posts. Let me first say, though, that I think the book is the kind of stimulating reading that I think we need so much more of in the church—it is fresh, provocative, and resonates with a “yes-that’s-absolutely-in-line-with-my-experience-even-though-I-didn’t-know-quite-how-to-describe-it-myself” sort of feeling, at least for me. If you can, score a copy and read along with me a little bit—I’m sure you’ll find it challenging.

As a way of introducing Beck’s work, I’d describe the core of the book as a riff off of the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” in a key of missional psychotheology. Beck opens by thinking about how mercy and sacrifice stand in opposition to each other, and uses the friction to open up a conversation with disgust psychology and the way it regulates our thinking about sacrifice.

Beck is concerned with how sacrifice themes in the church’s message, wrapped in metaphors such as purity and contamination, trigger our psychology of disgust. While metaphors uniquely help us gain traction in understanding abstract ideas, they also come loaded with extra content. The boundary of any given metaphor and the boundary of the theology which is it intended to convey may not be the same shape. In some directions the metaphor becomes inadequate, leaving ideas unrepresented. In other directions, the metaphor may leave impressions outside the boundary of appropriate theology.

In this text, Beck argues that some metaphors which have become dominant in popular Christianity leave impressions that outrun the theologies they represent. In particular, certain types of sin, such as sexual sin, take on a lot of metaphorical baggage such as “dose insensitivity”, “negativity dominance”, and “permanence” because they have become primarily affiliated with the metaphor of contamination. In the same way, there are consequences to understanding Christ’s work solely through metaphors of grace such as “Washing” without the balance of other conceptual images that sketch other ways of grasping God’s mission on earth.

Exploring that line of thought brings up issues ranging from our understanding of sin and grace, obstacles for missional christianity, and understanding the psychological roots of individualistic piety, along with a fresh reading of how the mercy of Jesus, particularly represented in the Lord’s Supper, challenges and reshapes the boundaries our psychologies would impose. Altogether, I find Beck’s work challenging, and look forward to engaging with its implications in deeper ways.

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First Day of Kindergarten

I can’t believe my girls are this big!

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Not Native—A Meditation on Matthew 1:1-17

This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.

Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.

The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.

So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.

It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.

Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.

Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.

Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.

I have much to learn.

Posted in Bible Study, Matthew | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Seminary Journal—Class Presentations

It’s fairly customary for D.Min seminars to include some sort of presentation component, something that involves unpacking the material for the course in one’s own ministry context.  In this course on the missional church, my colleagues and I were each assigned to give a taste of the final projects we’re working on for the course, which will basically be about the future of the church and where we feel called to lead in this moment in time.  I’ll share some of my own project on the blog as it develops, but I wanted to stop and record a few reflections from taking in the other projects.

First, it’s amazing to hear about God’s work in very different places. That’s been one of the most interesting blessings of going back to seminary—I feel like it’s given me new perspective on how the Holy Spirit is at work in lots of different ways, in diverse and homogenous congregations, old and young churches, with traditional and more contemporary aesthetics.  It’s fascinating.

Second, even in this small sampling of church leaders there is an interesting mix of things that we see similarly in the future of the church, and different emphases. The importance of spiritual practices, diversity, technology, authenticity, and cultural influence all played out differently in the different congregations, and differently among my peers.

Finally, it’s just a neat time to be looking into the future. The pace and direction of cultural change, the evolution of the church and her forms, and the call of the holy spirit to join God’s mission make this a wonderful, if challenging, time to be looking into the horizon. I don’t know if anyone really knows what the church will look like twenty years from now—it will probably be different to today’s iteration in ways we could not expect, and similar in ways we probably wouldn’t predict. But still, we know that God is faithful, and we walk into the future by faith, if not by sight.

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