The Disappearing Art of Communication (Or, Why it is Important to Listen/Read Carefully)

The digital world has increased our ability to communicate with each other, and has also made exponentially easier to totally misunderstand each other. Never before in the history of mankind has it been this easy to talk around and beyond those who are supposedly our communication partners. To illustrate, I will use myself as an example.

I am on record as saying I do not believe the Bible can be used to prove the age of the earth. Because I have said (or written) that, I have been accused of denying the inspiration of Scripture, of being an evolutionist, of having my Christianity questioned, and worse. I have never said I do not believe in a young earth, or that I believe in evolution; I certainly have never denied the inspiration of Scripture (quite the opposite, in fact); and, to be honest, I do not know any human who is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. So, what did I say (or write) that was so controversial?

To repeat – I do not believe the Bible can be used to support either a young earth, or an old earth. It matters not one little bit to me that people believe one way or the other – what bothers me is that the Bible is being used in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. And, in that sense, I feel like God’s word is being abused.

I am a stickler for consistency. I would much rather argue with someone who is tediously consistent than someone who constantly changes the rules of the discussion. And, to a large extent, I believe that is what is happening in the current debate over whether Genesis should be read “literally” or not. For many, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of creation in six days means that you have to accept six literal, 24 hour periods of time, or you deny the inspiration of the Bible. But here is the fly in that ointment – the sun was not created until the fourth “day.” Now, logically and scientifically, you cannot have a “day” without a literal, physical sun. Without a solar time-table you cannot have a 24 hour cycle. It is true that light was created before the sun, and that you do not have to have the sun in order to have light. But you cannot have an “evening” and a “morning” without a sun.

So, in order to have creation in six, 24 hour periods, there has to be a suspension of literal, “scientific” accuracy – you have to suggest that a method of keeping time existed before the only method of keeping time that the ancients were aware of. Now, this is perfectly acceptable to me – but it has to be clearly understood that a suspension of a literal and scientific understanding of time has been suggested here. If there was a method of keeping time before Genesis 1, it was not mentioned or described in Genesis. Therefore, a “literal” and scientific 24 hour “day” did not exist before the fourth “day.”

So, in order to prove that the world was created in six, literal 24 hour periods, you have to re-define the meaning of the word “literal” (or, “scientific”) to mean something that supersedes literal, scientific precision.

Which is exactly the point I am making when I say that you cannot use the Bible to prove the age of the earth. In order to do so you have to make some statements that were never intended to be used with scientific precision to be scientifically precise, and you have to take some other statements that appear to be “literal” in very non-literal (i.e., metaphorical) ways.

How old is the earth? It simply does not matter! I cannot stress that fact enough. The Bible nowhere states how old the earth is, and to make a belief in the age of the earth a measure of someone’s faithfulness is to become the most pharisaic of Pharisees. It goes way beyond straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. There are really good Christians who believe in a 6,000 year-old earth, and there are really good Christians who believe in a millions-of-years-old earth.

What does matter, and what should concern all of us, is how the Bible is being used, both by its “friends” and its enemies. Those who claim to believe in the Bible, yet use that Bible solely to promote a conservative political or social agenda, are no more friends of the Bible than those who openly ridicule it. In both cases the result is the same – the Bible simply becomes a pawn in a vicious power struggle.

I have a much better solution: let us speak where the Bible speaks, as the Bible itself speaks, and for the purpose for which the Bible speaks. That way we can hold our private opinions, and can even try to convince others of the correctness of our opinions, without treating the Bible with contempt or disrespect.

Speaking of communication – I think that is the way God wants his word to be read and understood – as HE intended it, not as any old way we want it to be understood!

Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!

Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.