Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

Over-emphasized (?):  Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus

Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought

The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants.  Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.

It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹  I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud.  Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them?  Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles?  Put another way:  could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?

Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons.  From an institutional standpoint, I get that.  But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship.  A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive.  Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.

I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent.  Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power.  Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another.  Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones.  The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.

In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business.  Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation.  I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries.  By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.

Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?

I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight.  [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.]  I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture.  There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.

We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church).  I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice.  So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people.  I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view:   Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades?  More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?

In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.

B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17


¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance.  They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.

 

Effectiveness and “making a difference”

Effectiveness and “Making a difference”

Or, Ineffective Interviewers, Political Activity, and (sometimes) Prayer

On a Netflix special that consisted entirely of an interview, I heard a master interviewer¹ interviewing another interviewer-become-interviewee about a project that involved hundreds of conducted interviews.  (You might have to read that sentence again.)  Near the end, the interviewee was asked why she did it all.

“Because I believe we can make a difference.”

And then—as though she knew those words were empty, and being unaware that adding the next part would actually weaken her statement—she appended,

“I really believe that.”

No matter how much I might sympathize with her cause (and I happened to have been tipping about 72% in her direction), I didn’t “believe that” at all.  I don’t believe that her thoroughgoing efforts, her passion for the subject, or the resultant documentary about her interviews will make any noticeable difference in the reality of the situation.  They will ultimately be ineffective.

~ ~ ~

More than one Facebook friend believes the current U.S. presidency (or another one—it really doesn’t matter which) has a chance of making a positive difference.  Many also feel otherwise.  Whatever their vantage points, they all really seem to “believe that.”  I’m not necessarily able to discern these matters very well, but I myself haven’t observed much presidential effectiveness.  I suppose several presidents of yesteryear could be said to have been effective in one or more ways.  I’m not about to sing “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” here, but it does seem that there’s a slim current-era likelihood of much good effect from major political figures in this country.  I highly doubt that petitions, bills, resolutions, and documentaries (no matter how interesting and on-point) will ultimately be effective.  Political gangings-up, whether by the liberal-biased media or the conservative-biased evangelicals, aren’t going to be too effective in working good, either.  None of it will make much difference, or if it does, it will be short-lived.

~ ~ ~

My wife notes that certain consumer product markets have changed in good ways in the last decade, based primarily on the demand side.  Non-GMO-label products have proliferated, and artificial coloring has disappeared from many items, for instance.  While regulations have not followed suit, i.e., government lags reality, some health advocates and activities have arguably made a difference.

~ ~ ~

James said the prayer of a righteous man is effectual.  (OK, I don’t actually know the words James used, or whether they were first penned in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek, but “effectual” in the KJV is a richer word than “effective.”  I can do without the subsequent “availeth much.”)  Most people I know would say “prayer makes a difference,” but I have for years preferred to put the emphasis on God, not on the activity or the words of prayer per se.  Prayer is not some elixir or magical incantation that is effective in itself.  No, it is the One prayers are directed to that must make them “effectual.”  My own “prayer life” (a Christianese phrase not found in scripture) was once in a time of relative plenty, but it is now in a time of famine.  The prayers I’ve eked out in recent months/years haven’t seemed very effectual.  They just haven’t made a difference.  Not so far, anyway.  That is discouraging.

~ ~ ~

My dad recently wrote me a personal reflection about a prayer in his own life.  His words were transparent, humble, and rich in personal history, and he experienced the “effectualness” of his own prayer.  I am grateful for him and his experience, and I am also envious.  May I be simultaneously encouraged for him and discouraged for myself?

~ ~ ~

A couple weeks later, I participated in a small group study of the last part of James chapter 5.  That passage of text has some interesting translation-interpretation issues (e.g., healing/saving, the connection with anointing, righteous/just, and others).  Beyond those matters (which do intrigue me), I keyed in early on the word “anoint” and began to wonder about possible allusions here to King David’s sin (2Samuel 11).  Could it be that this entire, concluding section of James’s epistle was intended to lead the predominantly Jewish audience to hark back to times of old?  Below, I have divided James 5:13-20 into three sections and made a few observations on the right.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.  

This section can be taken as relating to emotional and spiritual health as well as physical.  See especially v16 which may be connecting the two.  There may be dual “healings” here (v15, v16)—both spiritual and physical.

17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest. This section provides a clear, emphatic example of the effectiveness of praying.  Here, it is physical, but the earlier part of the Elijah story (1Kings 18) dramatically connected both the spiritual and the physical.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

 

Elijah and David would have been quite familiar to James’s audience.

It is really only the anointing in v14 above that caused me to recall and look up David’s repentance story.  If my hunch is correct that there might be an echo here of Nathan and David, the import of 5:13-20 could be to say to the Jewish audience, “Pray for one another’s deep needs.  Remember:  praying was effective in Elijah’s case and also in David’s.  The physical side may or may not be changed, but the spiritual will be.”  

In any event, the praying James is encouraging focuses on spiritual results.  

Doubtless, Jewish believers in the middle of the first century CE would have known well the story of David and Bathsheba, even though it was 1,000 years in the past.  Perhaps when reading James’s suggestion of anointing the (spiritually?) sick one with oil, the Jewish reader would have called to mind more than one anointing in their history, including David’s anointing of himself, connected with his own spiritual healing, as recorded in 2Samuel 12:20.  The appeal to Elijah is inserted as a central testimony to God’s responsive action, and then the curious James 5:19-20 concludes the letter.

So, what to make of verses 19-20?  If—and I do say if—I’m onto something with this recall of King David, then verses 19-20 could be alluding, in rabbinic remez² fashion, to the work of the prophet Nathan.  In other words, the ideas of (1) turning a sinner from his ways and (2) the resultant covering or cancelling of sins could have led a Jewish Christian to remember that Nathan effectively spoke a message from God for the sake of a sinner.

It can also be so with the Jesus-follower in the new age, when he, too, will speak for God to a sibling who is sinning.  A few people have attempted such a “turning” effort with me; their concerns were well-intended and appreciated but not entirely on point.  I’ve probably needed it a lot more at other times, and I’ve neglected doing the same for others way, way too much.  Maybe I just didn’t believe it would make a difference.  And that is on me.

B. Casey, 5/2/17 – 5/27/17


¹ I know of only a few who could rightly wear the label “master interviewer,” but I’m sure there are many others who just aren’t known to me.  Barbara Walters has been known as a master interviewer, but the interviewer in this case was Oprah Winfrey.  I myself would like to interview Oprah to ask if her parents didn’t look up how to spell “Orpah” before naming her.  And then I would like to discuss the biblical account of Orpah, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz with her.  Somehow I think Oprah probably already knows of the story, but we could discuss it with some depth, and I imagine she would be intrigued by the details of the Hebrew narrative.

² Remez is briefly explained here (“Remez is one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he quoted scripture, which is a teaching method by which the teacher quotes a verse from the Bible but the point he is making is from the verses surrounding the one he quoted”) and also here, and here.

MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30)

[This is an installment in the sporadic Monday Music series which deals with topics related to Christian music.  Other, related posts may be found here.]

In mid-2016 and again in early 2017, I was invited, in a manner of speaking, to reconsider an invitation from Jesus’ own lips, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30.

Even if it didn’t possess an intrinsically openhearted quality, this passage would stand out because it has been memorized a lot.  It was also “my” passage to recite during my college chorus’s scripture-and-hymns program, performed every evening while on tours.  At the time, despite my sometimes having to stutter out the initial plosive consonant on “Come to me,” I was complimented on my delivery and the perceived match of my vocal timbre with a preconceived idea of the Jesus behind the saying.  Now, however, I have negative associations with a couple of people from that time, and I definitely had a less mature understanding of the text back then, so it’s with mixed feelings that I recall the experience.

At some point, I became acquainted with the Leonard Burford song “Come Unto Me.”  The legally blind “Brother Burford” was director of the chorus at Abilene Christian College and had studied at Juilliard.  This song is available in only one of my hymnals.  I suppose it was sung in only a very few churches and would hardly be known now.  It is an inviting, near-choral-type setting and is of good technical quality (speaking musically and poetically), but it seems to excel in terms of musical form and harmony more than in communication of a text (and context).  Here is a sample:

Another setting, used several times a year in the church of my youth, was more accessible to large, untrained groups.  Both of these songs employ a good deal of repetition, but the latter is more approachable and singable.  The stanzas below, written for soprano-alto duet, are only indirectly related to the text.  The men’s voices enter emphatically at the chorus, which was the actual setting of the Matthew text.  This version, in my estimation, is somewhat better than the Burford one.  Given its era, the quasi-instrumental-accompaniment setting of the refrain here was effective.  The textual emphasis at primary cadence points (ends of lines 4 and 6) seems to be on “rest for the soul.”

It might even be supposed that the writers of many other “invitation” or “altar call” songs had Matthew 11:28 in the backs of their minds—loosely and implicitly if not explicitly.  I think here of the likes of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home,” and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

Years transpired after my college choral days, and I became less interested in choral music.  Incidentally, I became increasingly averse to the whole churchy “invitation” thing during that time.  Nevertheless, in 1996, I wrote my own “Come To Me,” tied more directly and strictly to the passage—and specifically spurred by Gary Collier’s book The Forgotten Treasure:  Reading the Bible Like JesusA sketch history of this song goes something like this:

At what I might say was just the right time of my life, I read The Forgotten Treasure.  Bothered as I was by what I took as legalistic, un-grace-filled approaches to people within certain churches, I felt a deep impact from much of the book and keyed in on the middle of Matthew (including chapter 11), based on Gary’s emphases and structural suggestions.  Compelled, I wrote the song and shared it with the author of the book, having been in touch with him through a Bible discussion e-mail group.

A group called Lights, audiowhich I directed and sang with through the 1990s, was available to me, and I naturally went in the direction of a musical arrangement that played to that group’s strengths and resided in its comfort zones.  Lights ended up using the song in performances at youth events, church retreats, etc.  Lights made two recordings, and both recordings strike me now as acceptable, given what I had to work with, but dated.  A bass voice is heard on the solo, and my younger sister’s voice and mine are heard in countermelodic bursts in the final chorus of the recording stored here.  I am still pleased that the overall demeanor of the song is different from that of the run-of-the-mill, more churchy appeals the Matthew text with which I had been acquainted.  This song is more targeted, more insistent . . . and even the conclusion is a comparatively forceful invitation, with a half-cadence that suggests the Son of Man’s unending, energetic interest, not a namby-pamby “just lie down and go to sleep with gentle Jesus.”

I moved on from Lights, but I never forgot the song and still periodically turn to it for personal devotional use.

Last summer, a conference was held, organized in connection with the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation.  When the theme was announced as centering in Matthew’s gospel, an obvious opportunity arose to revisit my song that had also been based in that document, so I did just that.  It turned out to be the 20th anniversary for my “Come To Me.”  Having become largely disenchanted with the a cappella medium of the first version of the song (excerpt shown here)—and particularly with the accompaniment style I had used for the Lights performance group—I knew it was time to abandon that approach.  Few really sing that way anymore, and the group was perhaps even in a time warp during part of its history, too.  In trying to function within the niche-world of a cappella church music, Lights appealed to some but perhaps outlived our usefulness.  I digress.

Looking back, I’d say the song is conceptually and creatively among my 10 or 15 best.  (There were many others written during that decade—some, barely mediocre.)  Gary’s book had pointed me in a focused way to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, so I think the song carried an authentically scriptural, strong message.  Since 1996, my understanding of Matthew (and of texts in general, and the newly inbreaking reign of God, and more) have grown immeasurably.  Here are sections of the sheet music for the updated version of “Come To Me”:

A home recording of this version is here, for what it’s worth.  It might need to be downloaded before playing it, depending on your setup.   The pre-recorded keyboard part is 5-10% too fast, and my out-of-shape voice is found wanting.  (A more in-shape female solo voice would have been better on this song!)  This 2016 update incorporated several minor musical and lyrics changes—plus adding a bridge that solidifies and significantly strengthens the whole, I think:

Hear and learn from the Master.
Understand the reading of the Old and the New.
Go and follow the Master of mercy!
He brings the Kingdom into view!

A responsible interpretation of Matthew 11:28-30 must not merely take some poetic expressions and make them sound sweet in a song.  One ought to consider those words of “invitation” apart from the “altar call” or “invitation” dynamic in traditional congregation settings.  Further, one ought to pay attention to Matthew 11:28-30 within the striking contextual arrangement of Matthew’s gospel.  No song could succeed in every detail, but in pursuing such a biblical text contextually, in this way, what Matthew’s gospel says about the Master can become clearer.

Whatever its strength or weakness of this song, I hope that you are taken further, or maybe just a little differently, into Matthew’s riches and Jesus’ invitation.

A birthday of sorts

I’m not much on birthdays (or any holidays, for that matter).  I do remember the birthdays of all those in my family of origin, of three of my grandparents, and of my own, little nuclear family.  That’s about where it ends.  I only know birthdays for one niece, one nephew, one aunt, so I probably ought to be embarrassed that I do remember the birthday of my childhood baseball hero every year.  That guy is a year younger than my father, but let’s just say Dad’s character and life patterns are infinitely more admirable than the former Major Leaguer’s.  I have once again not mentioned the baseball player’s name on his birthday, because I don’t want to call any more attention to him.

April 30, though, is a birthday anniversary of something I will call attention to:  the initial invitation for Eugene Peterson to write The Message. 

Portions of The Message were published serially for a period of about ten years, starting in 1993, and I intentionally purchased each new volume until the whole was at last published in 2002.  It was difficult for me to divest myself of the separate volumes such as The Pentateuch and The Prophets, but it didn’t make sense to keep them all.  I now have only a complete hardback edition, a separate hardback copy of The Wisdom Books, a paperback Psalms, and a full electronic, versified edition.

Speaking of “versification,” one helpful-yet-annoying feature of the original work is that it does not contain traditional “verses.”  I say “helpful” because not having those little numbers can guard against the breaking up of thoughts as one reads longer passages.  I say “annoying” because the lack of verse numbers makes it difficult to find a particular spot and to compare with other versions.  There is a place for both, so I’m glad to have non-versified editions in print but also glad that my Logos software contains a versified version for easier pinpoint access.

I could not presume to add what so many others have said in praise of the translation, and I don’t care to expend effort refuting or responding to its judgmental detractors.  (No translation is above criticism, and I’d rather be more granular in my approach to this one and all others.)  Rather, I just want to recognize this milestone.  Here, I’ll allow Peterson’s own introductory words to speak for themselves.  He tells of the time in which the seed of The Message took root:

     I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible in the world of Today.  I had always assumed they were the same world.  But these people didn’t see it that way.  So out of necessity I became a “translator,” . . . daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sings songs and talk to our children.
     And all the time those old Biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible. . . .
     The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here . . . is simply to get people reading who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. . .  So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.  Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”

– Eugene Peterson, Preface to The Message, 2002, © Eugene Peterson, published by NavPress

Now, especially if you have never read from The Message, you might try it once in a while.  Try it for a change.  Try it for a perk.  Try it for a comparison.  Try reading long passages.  You might be surprised at how quickly one of Paul’s letters goes, or how marvelously new one of the gospels or the books of Hebrew history sounds.  Whether or not you get into The Message, read, consider, and study the message by any helpful means.

Happy creative birthday to Eugene Peterson for his distinctive accomplishment in The Message, with thanks to the editor who wrote the invitation letter received more than a quarter-century ago on April 30, 1990.  No translation is perfect, but this one went a long way in making scripture come alive for readers.


For more Bible Anniversary reading . . . another translation of note, now more than four hundred years old, celebrated a birthday in 2011.  The KJV was a massive achievement in its time and was deserving of celebration and praise for 200-300 hundred years, I figure.  Read my anniversary farewell wishes to the Authorized Version (KJV) here.

Issues with literalism

Some literalism is a good thing, but I’m afraid my son is now in training for the ranks I unwittingly joined long ago—those or us who are often over-literal (and who are hindered in life because of the trait).

Image result for literal wordsThinking and hearing and reading over-literally can keep me from understanding things.  I’m not dealing here with the overuse of the word “literally” in common speech.  No, it’s more of a sometimes-exaggerated sense of what isolated words mean within a passage of text or in a spoken message.  In the middle of a conversation, my brain can get hung up on a word, trying to make sense out of it and wondering about its strict meaning . . . and going into an exploratory hermeneutical limbo while the unsuspecting person finishes her sentence.

When I read the redundant, presumably erroneous phrase “recapitalizing the operating capital,” I wonder if I need to adjust my literal understanding of at least one of the instances of the root “capital,” or perhaps the phrase wasn’t written well.  (And I miss the rest of the paragraph.)

I get stuck on the list of “principal parts” of Greek verbs, because I try to figure out what the parts are parts of, literally speaking.  (And I remain confused about, say, imperfect middle/passive vs. aorist middle, and pluperfect middle/passive.  [I know.  Who wouldn’t be confused?  But my comprehension issues can be partly related to over-literalism.])

I hear the prophetic phrase “every mountain will be brought low,” and I wonder just how the figure of speech might have been intended 3,000 years ago, and how it should be understood today.  Is it topographical mountains or conceptual ones?  Maybe both?  And what does it mean to be “brought low,” exactly?  A given interpretation might be more or less literal, and more or less related to mountain type.  (And I try not to worry too much, for many greater minds have read and understood prophecy in terribly different ways, to each other’s chagrin.)

I rather randomly turned to a page of scripture in a supposedly “literal” translation and found these phrases without even trying:

  • “deserting Him who called you” (not a physical desertion; and, except in Paul’s case, not likely an audible calling)
  • “beyond measure” (a phrase that expresses extreme actions, not literal measuring)
  • “advancing in Judaism” (a verb that suggests physical motion used with reference to some kind of conceptual progress)
  • “He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace” (I count four figurative expressions here—two actions and two prepositional phrases)

– Galatians 1, NASB

Literalism in scripture reading and interpretation can actually be a bad thing, although the phrase “take God at His word” is generally meant as a positive notion.  It is possible to read some expressions of scripture (and, verily, to understand common phrases spoken in daily life) quite figuratively, thinking all the while that one is reading literally.  Even the idea of taking words in the Bible “at face value” can be a smokescreen for taking them as some individual wants you to take them. 

It is often a particularly bad idea to take prophecy literally, but even phrases in the epistles and sections in ostensibly narrative texts can involve symbolism and figurative meanings.  Quite a few of scripture’s idiomatic expressions, if understood truly literally, would make an exegete bark up the wrong tree.  (See what I did there?)  Poetry appears in scripture, too (sometimes, right alongside historical narrative!); surely it is clear that poetically conceived words should not be confined to “literal” interpretation.  Ponder Peterson’s preface to poetry in prayer:

Poetry is language with used with personal intensity.  It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech.  Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us.  Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself.  They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it.  Poetry grabs for the jugular.  Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.  It is root language.  Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.  The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language.  Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct.  We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.

– Eugene Peterson, Answering God:  The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
(c) 1989 Harper & Row

I wish I had at hand a similarly provocative introductory piece on prophecy.  Failing that and staying with poetry, please consider a few songs with me.  These are examples of song lyrics that I once took literally and decided, at least for a while, that I could not conscientiously sing:

1.  “I know not when my Lord may come—at night or noonday fair, or if I’ll walk the vale with Him or meet Him in the air.”  – st. 4 of I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace

Sometime in my twenties, I decided not to sing that stanza.  The either-or statement in the second half of the stanza appears to preclude the possibility of interpreting “vale” as “valley of the shadow of death (if one takes the grammar literally).  The only remaining possibility is allowing for the possibility of a millennial reign on earth, and that is not part of my eschatology.  These days, although I still don’t expect that kind of reign, I don’t really care how it eventually turns out for the good of those on God’s side, so I suppose I could go with a less literal approach to the song and sing along.  The thing is, I think I’ve missed the chance, because this song really isn’t sung much anymore.  I can still remember the strength of its chorus.  When discouragements run rampant, it’s a good one (and pretty literally taken from scripture, at that):

“I know Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.” (2Tim 1:12)

2.  “Through this world of toils and snares, if I falter, Lord, who cares? ” – st. 3 from Just a Closer Walk With Thee

When my college chorus sang that song, I would confidently clam up during those words.  I wouldn’t sing them.  I felt quite justified in my literalism, but I was stupid (or, if you’re into showing grace, “stupid” could be paraphrased as “befuddled by college-aged, pseudo-spiritual passion”). 

As with pretty much everything, the idea in that verse is better interpreted in context (wait … what? context? like, it matters in songs as well as in scripture?).  The verse continues, “Who with me my burden shares?  None but Thee, dear Lord.”  I now think the entire verse means something like, “If I falter in this world, I won’t let it cloud my overall view that you are with me!”

Thinking that the expression “Lord, who cares?” should be taken literally is as dumb as thinking that Ps. 51:5¹ is proof of the Calvinists’ hallmark doctrine of total depravity.  Here is an excellent example of Peterson’s suggestion of “intestinal” import of language, of expressions that leave the “experience of being human before God exposed.”

It’s poetry, people, not literal doctrinal instruction.

3.  Farther Along (Tempted and Tried)

This one may not fit in the same category.  It wasn’t the same type of question of literalness that kept me from singing this song, really.  It was the whole idea of the song.  It just bothered me to be so whiny.  At some point I allowed myself to lead and sing only the final stanza and chorus—and that only after one of the darkest discouragements of my life—but I still didn’t want to whine through all the whiny stanzas.  The fourth sufficiently expressed the negatives of this life in perspective:

“When we see Jesus coming in glory, when He comes from His home in the sky, then we will meet Him in that bright mansion.  We’ll understand it all by and by.”

These days, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t heartily sing the whole song.  There have been many times since that I have been “made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long” and have dealt, on a pretty literal basis, with other questions the song raises.  At this point, despite the ostensibly bad attitude and the hick-ish musical style, I suppose the whole song is okay by me.

Maybe you think I’ve caved with respect to my later decisions on the above songs.  On the other hand, maybe I’ve succeeded, in these few cases, in not being an over-literal interpreter.


¹ Ps. 51:5:  Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me . . . (KJV)


For more on literalism and literal interpretation:

Literal instructions (1/30/10)

Do we really take it literally? (Leroy Garrett) (12/11/09)

Interpretations and ironies (B) (interpretation of prophecy—pretty heavy) (12/8/15)

Strike That:  A Take on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Hymnals (today!)

BONUS:  A fresh Logos Academic Blog writer on words, semantic range, context, and more.  This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also entertaining, mixing Humpty Dumpty, Japanese missionary humor, linguistic instruction, and context.

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A scant few: “religion” words and passages

In the last post (“Religion?“), I tried to spotlight a line of demarcation between religion on the one hand and Christianity on the other.  I do believe there can be such a thing as true religion—i.e., a practice of religion that in some sense really is Christ-ian.  Here, I think not only of the aphoristic wordings of James 1:26-27, but of all those souls, far more devoted than I, who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.

On the other hand, I do try to pay attention to the definition of terms (see here and here for other examples) whenever anything is discussed, and I want to be clear on what I am (and am not) seeking to denigrate in these posts on “religion.”  So, toward a clearer definition—in terms of scripture—we find in one reputable English version (ESV) that the word “religion” or “religious” appears seven times:

  1. Acts 17:22
  2. Acts 25:19
  3. Acts 26:5
  4. Col 2:23
  5. James 1:26/27 (3x)

But an English word’s presence only tells us so much.  I mean, who cares what the English says unless it can be shown to be a reliable translation of the original language?  (And the ESV is certainly one of the more reliable translations available today.  I’m just making a general point here.)  We must either know something about the original or trust that the translators are handling the language correlation well.  Here, on a level that barely scratches the surface, I’ll refer to the original language….

The Greek term θρησκεία | threskeia and cognates serve as antecedents for the Acts 26, Col 2, and James instances.  In other words, the Greek antecedent is different in Acts 17 and 25.  A good hunt would eventually involve appeal to reputable lexicons to determine the range of meaning of that word in all period literature.  For purposes here, we’ll keep the definition at a “gloss” level:  it means, roughly, “religious observance.”

That is one level of investigation, but let’s dig down into another layer.  What about any other passages that began with the same Greek word but do not show up as “religion” in English?  There is only one additional instance of threskeia not translated as “religion” by the ESV:  Col 2:18, where “worship” is the English rendering.  (I think the choice of “worship” here can throw off even the most pure-spirited bloodhound on the trail of angel, religion, or worship “creatures”!)

The results of such searches may be different in other English versions.  For instance, the HCSB chooses a word other than “religion” in both of the Colossians 2 verses.  The NASB opts out of one of them.  The KJV actually skips both of them but chooses to give “religion” in two additional verses (Gal 1) in which the Greek original is different.  Consideration of all of these translations may serve either to clarify or to blur.  An illuminating sidelight here is that the KJV’s choice of “Jewish religion” for Ἰουδαϊσμός | judaismos in Galatians 1:13 and 1:14 is fairly close to current English usage, at least as I hear it.  In other words, the “Judaism” or “Jewish religion” referred to here might be a direct ancestor of some observant-but-less-than-centered manifestations of Christian religion today.

In Colossians 2:23, Paul might have been intentionally distinguishing between whatever had been genuine in Jewish religion and something false.  He might even have coined a term, because this compound word is found nowhere else in scripture:

threskeia

The Abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a/k/a “Little Kittel”) has this to say about Col 2:23:

The word ethelothreskeia . . .  seems to denote, not an affected piety, but a piety that does not keep to its true reality, to Christ, but is self-ordered.

Surely there is a distinction to be made between genuine religion and self-made (or other un-admirable types of) religion.  If I were a better person, I’d aim for stronger association with the former.  For now, I’ll have to be content with distancing myself from the latter.

Repertory breadth: of Bruckner and the Bible

Anton Bruckner is an interesting figure in 19C music history.  I have only a general impression of his music and have never participated in deep study of his works as either a conductor or player.  I once considered programming at least a movement of one of his symphonies, but that never occurred.  At the intersection of Bruckner and the Bible, there would be much to inquire about.  I won’t be analyzing Bruckner’s faith or his life, though.  I’m going somewhere different (and won’t be probing very deeply).

In or near my CD player right now are these discs:

  • Anton Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Doobie Brothers—Takin’ it to the Streets
  • Phillips, Craig, & Dean—Where Strength Begins
  • Frank Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Edgar Meyer/Yo-yo Ma/Mark O’Connor—Appalachian Journey
  • Carter Pann—The Piano’s 12 Sides
  • Fernando Ortega—Home

A nice smattering, yes?

I like variety.  I suspect many people think they’re getting variety these days when they listen to two different rappers or three pop-country “singer-songwriters.”  Ah, the choices we make.  Maybe I should have substituted some Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, brass ensemble or choral music for the Phillips, Craig & Dean or one of the two orchestral CDs . . . but the above list nonetheless provides a good deal of diversity.

pandoraSince I also like high-quality sound reproduction (not to mention valuing my hearing), I don’t use earbuds very much, and I’ve never had an iPod.  I have rarely used my smartphone or small tablet as an .mp3 player.  On the other hand, I have been streaming Pandora through speakers a lot lately and would like to recommend that some of you Pandora users try out the channels marked in blue to the right.  I was very happy to find the “Classical Complete Performances” channel; it seems to have little to no commercial interruptions.  The “Chamber Winds” channel is a favorite of mine, and I’m working to refine it more.  The offerings here so far are really only about 1/4 true-blue “chamber winds,” but it still makes for transparent listening.  “The Folks” consists in gentle, folk-ish songs; it and “Acoustic New Age” “and “Classical Guitar” are all very good streams, too.

Back to Bruckner and the point I started out to make.  There’s this ongoing thing with the so-called Three Bs:  the powerhouse music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  A few have added other Bs such as Bruckner and Britten.  For whatever reason, I once programmed two entire orchestral concerts of “B” music with only marginal recourse to one of the original Three.  Instead, I used music of Bax, Britten, Beach, Barlow, Brouwer, and Bernstein (Elmer, not Leonard).

For grins, I’m going to make a hypothetical exercise a little more challenging here by pretending my CD stack had been this one full of various “B”-composed art music:

  • Brahms—Symphonies No. 2 and 3
  • Boccherini—String Quintets
  • Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Beethoven—Symphony No. 7
  • Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Borodin—Symphonies No. 1 and 2; Prince Igor
  • Bax—Tone Poems

Now, I rarely use the “Random” or shuffle functions, since I tend to like hearing one style or genre for a while before moving on.  What if I had pushed the “Random” button and then found myself in another room when the next track started playing?  Could I have identified the composer as Brahms or Borodin?  Bax or Bruckner?  (Boccherini, Beethoven, and Bridge would be a bit more distinct and easier to identify here.)

There’s been this other thing occurring in music appreciation and music history classes through the decades since the invention of the phonograph.  It was at first called the “drop the needle” test.  The professor would actually drop the needle of the record player in a random groove on the record, let the music play for a few seconds . . . and then the students being tested were required to identify the piece:  composer, title, and sometimes more.  The tough profs might play only an obscure section of the second movement of a symphony, and you almost never got the first few notes, so you really had to know the piece in order to succeed on the test.  (The last time I did this for a class, I edited some .mp3 files with the precise excerpt I wanted to play and collected them into a playlist.  It worked fine, but it took way too much time to prepare.  The record player would have been easier!)

As an undergraduate student, I think I experienced this type of test three or four times.  On the graduate level, the method was brought back with a vengeance.  There, our esteemed professor would inflict on us entire exams that consisted of a few pages of each of several scores.  The title and composer were blacked out, of course.  Based on other clues in the score, we were to write our analytical thoughts that led us to a guess as to the style, the genre—and the composer and title, if possible.  As with certain math tests, we were graded mostly on “showing our work.”  The reasoning was more important than the correct answer.  Although I made good grades in those courses, I never really aced one of those tests.  It’s difficult to know a whole repertory (body of music literature) so well that you can make a very educated guess as to the composer and style after hearing or seeing a small bit of music.

So, earlier today, when I heard some music coming from my study, I knew immediately that it could not be Bridge and had to be Bruckner.  That particular comparison really wasn’t that difficult, but I could probably be tripped up if presented with early Bruckner passages vs. late Beethoven ones.  Some Bax might sound like some Bridge—unless I knew the work of each of them very well and could identify the musical language used by each.

Here’s where all this connects to the Bible.  Does any one of us know the biblical texts—the entire repertory—well enough to succeed on a “drop the needle” test?  If we were presented with a few sentences, could we identify them as having come from

  • Paul’s letter to the Colossians as opposed to the Galatian or Ephesian letters?
  • Matthew’s gospel vs. Luke’s?
  • Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs?
  • 2Timothy vs. Titus?

Many of us could nail many passages from Genesis onto a reasonable place on the wall, but can I hear Isaiah and know it’s neither Jeremiah nor Amos?  Can I distinguish where the history of Joshua leaves off and where 1Samuel begins?  If 1Peter sounds like Hebrews to me, I don’t know either of them well enough.

Maybe I need something more than a Bible app . . . something more than background biblical Pandora.  I also need more devotion—both to the texts and to the God their authors served.

B. Casey, 1/7/17

An e-response to e-opinions about e-giving

I’m all for ease and efficiency, and I love systems that work.  I am not, however, in favor of weekly church contributions that are electronically set up on a recurring basis—for more than one reason.  A recent article brought up this question, and several official church leaders were interviewed.  Below is an expanded version of the original comment I made under that article.

Sincere individuals will frequently have very nice, spiritually minded ways of working something like electronic contributions out for themselves.  The folks interviewed for the article, for instance, presented a nicely balanced, thoughtful view of the e-giving conundrum.  Thinking about the masses, though, I would put forward three reasons not to move in the direction of e-contributions:

  1. As pointed out, it tends to be neither very personal nor very communal to click or tap in a charity app—especially if that click/tap is for a one-time setup for a recurring transaction that it’s so easy to be unaware of later.
  2. Some of the “pro” rationale strikes me as very institutionally motivated rather than Reign-of-God-motivated.  Contributing to building upkeep and salaries as a member of an institution may be fine for some, but it is not as compelling for those of us more interested in simple/organic concepts and missions.
  3. Giving charitably is good, but the tithe, after all—and we simply must realize this—is not a New Covenant thing.  A payment service calling itself “easyTithe” is perpetuating the problem.  Other e-giving options may be less problematic in terms of overt nomenclature and illegitimate association with ancient Israel’s priestly tithe system, yet the very idea of regular contributions appears more connected to paying dues in a club than to the goals of the apostolic church.

I found it interesting that a (pretty good!) translation of 1Cor 16:2 was included in the above-referenced article.  It bears emphasis here that the import of the first few verses of 1Cor 16 is not a little ambiguous.  This passage certainly cannot be inextricably linked to weekly contributions to today’s church treasuries, though.

For more on this topic, please see the following posts:

In the second of the above posts, this on-target quotation appears:

There is no indication given whether this is meant to be a tithe (no such prescription occurs in the New Testament); but is is implied that it is proportional and substantial.  It seems this is to be done on a family basis and the funds kept at home.”  (emphasis the authors’, not mine)   – Orr and Walther, The Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary, v. 32, 1 Corinthians (1976), p. 356.

One can object to my objections on any one of several grounds (e.g., community-based, tradition-based), but the simple fact is that habitual, institution-supporting weekly giving to a church treasury is not explicitly supported—or dealt with at all—in canonical Christian scripture.

The open God of ancient Israel’s history

Yesterday, I posted some fairly lengthy material on Judges 8 and 1Samuel (“Summary from the 8s:  Observations from Ancient Israel’s History“).  Here is the conclusion, followed by a short expansion on the point of what I take as God’s concession in granting Israel a King.

Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leader.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept:

God is sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, negative things occur.  His sovereignty will be seen, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.

On the point of “concession” as suggested in point #2 above:  many reader-interpreters have inferred God’s approval, thinking that He must’ve looked favorably on the idea of a human king, or He would not have allowed it.  God, though, is in some senses an “open” God, listening to humans, interacting, and even “changing His mind” on occasion.  He allows many things He does not approve of.  His sovereignty is not threatened by human decision or input; the fact that He allows our discretion does not change the ultimate reality that He is God.  On the contrary, His actual sovereignty is enhanced because He does not force it on people.

I believe that God did not want His people Israel to develop into a kingdom with a human king—but that He allowed that development, anyway.  He yielded, in a sense, acceding to the people’s will and granting them another king.

Other examples of God’s allowing bad decisions (but continuing to work despite them) can be seen throughout biblical literature.  Consider these examples, and add your own:

  • the choices of Lot and his wife
  • the actions of Joseph’s brothers
  • the hardening of Pharoah’s heart
  • the murderous rampage of Herod
  • the treachery of Judas

For a bit more on an “open” view of God, see here:

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/openness-of-god-1/
https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/openness-of-god-2/

Summary from the 8s: observations from ancient Israel’s history

The Weather Channel™ has its local weather forecast “on the 8s,” occurring every ten minutes, starting with 8 minutes after the hour.  Those are usually pretty good summaries of local weather (as I recall . . . we haven’t cable or any other such TV service for more than three years).

In paying recent attention to chapter 8 of Judges and chapter 8 of 1Samuel, I’ve observed substantial historical weight.  Here in these chapter 8s, we seem to find pretty good summaries of negative aspects of historical Israel.

Judges 8
After the account of Gideon’s unusual army and a resounding defeat of the Midianites,

The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of the Midianite. . . .”  But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you . . . the Lord shall rule over you.”

Aspects of the leader (and some of his actions) and not appropriate for emulation today, but oh, for Gideon’s spiritual acuity and his devotion to God’s sovereignty.  His insight stands in contrast to the people’s desires.  Those desires, unfortunately, are to progress with time. . . .

1Samuel 8
This chapter 8 begins with this event:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.

In making that appointment, perhaps Samuel felt he was acting according to established pattern¹ (see Eli, 1Samuel chapter 2), but his poor judgment led to the people’s distrust of the system of judges—and to their desire for a progression to something new.  With hindsight, I wonder why Samuel, who was clearly sanctioned and blessed by Yahweh throughout the narrative (see 1Sam 3:19-21, to start), didn’t also call to mind a striking double-negative in Israel’s recent history:  (1) his predecessor Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas had been killed when (2) the ark of God was taken by the Philistines.  If Samuel had been superstitious, he might have been afraid to install his sons as priests.

And the story continues:

Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.  Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel. . . .

And it should have displeased Samuel.  But the Lord told Samuel to listen anyway, because the people were not rejecting Samuel, after all; they were rejecting God Himself (1Samuel 8:9).

God told Samuel to warn the people what would happen.  And warn them he did:

[The king you want] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots . . . and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and fifties . . . and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. . . .

This king-like-other-nations’-kings would . . . well, he would be like all the other kings!  He would conscript, and he would tax, and he would build up the “empire”—his own royal reign.  According to the ancient text preserved in this chapter 8, Samuel concluded his warning with the dire prediction that the people would bemoan the resulting situation, crying out because of this king they had chosen for themselves.  We ought to note who is doing the choosing—and for whom.  And the most terrible thing of all?

. . . the Lord will not answer you in that day.

But the people persisted:

No!  But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

And the Lord made it happen.  And the Lord knew what was going to happen.  I’d say there is a rather solid prediction in chapter 8, and it’s not about fair weather.

Other 8s
Now . . . maybe it was boredom, but I became curious about the chapter 8 thing and started to look other chapter 8s in the Hebrew Bible.  Starting with Genesis . . . .

Genesis 8:  At the outset of this chapter, it is reported that “God remembered Noah” after the flood—or, as the New Jerusalem Bible has it, God “had Noah in mind.”  The covenantal aspect of God might be said to begin here.

Leviticus 8:  Here we find the ceremonial “setting apart” of Aaron and his sons in a “priestly” class—and an atonement ceremony that involved Aaron, his sons, and Moses the deliverer, too.  I haven’t thought previously about possible leadership connections (for lack of a better term) between Israel’s priests, judges, and kings.  I don’t know that there is any dark light shed on the Aaronic priesthood at the outset, but it is curious to me that God set in this role the family of the man who had overseen the making of the golden calf.

Deuteronomy 8:  Here, too, is a major section about the covenant between God and His people.

Joshua 8:  The destruction of Ai is founded on the “word of the Lord” . . . see 8:8:  God makes a point of saying “I have commanded you.”  It is God’s doing.

I’m not thoroughly familiar with the storyline of Joshua, but I have the general impression that things began to deteriorate after his death.  If the people, in the eras of the Judges and Kings, had had both the faith and perspective of Joshua, perhaps redemptive history would have played out differently.  I can conceive of an entirely different, 1000-year historical progression in which the scenario would not have included kings at all . . . and perhaps the mission of the Redeemer Christ would have looked a bit different when He came, as well.

Postlude on the 8s
Back to documented events and observation over hypothesis.  Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leaders.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.²

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept in at least those two chapter 8s:

God has always been the sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, it is not pleasing to Him.  Since the beginning of Israel’s “kings” era, the people’s loyalties were divided, and as a result, things proceeded differently.

God will always be sovereign, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.


¹ A cynical view might query whether Samuel felt entitled, based on political clout, to pass on his exalted standing to his descendants.

² Not at all incidentally, I see God’s response as an open concession, not approval or pleasure.  Tomorrow’s follow-up will append a brief expansion on this point.