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.

On Conducting (2): Reflecting the Music

A central aim of the conductor should be to look like the music.  

If he is merely beating time—with gestures not in keeping with the style—he may be conducting beginners in very simplistic music, or he may be worried that the sense of pulse may evaporate within the ensemble, or perhaps he is irritated, or he may simply not be very skilled.

On the other hand, if the conductor’s nonverbal communication is well centered in the specific music being conducted, even complex or unusual gestures can have an air of ease.  Being “in the music,” imitating its essential nature, leads to a genuine flow of communication that in turn evokes the desired sonic result.

How will a conductor know whether he “looks like the music”?  He can look in a mirror, but his nonverbals might in that case be affected/altered by self-consciousnessFayare.  Video recordings are invaluable aids in studying oneself in this regard.  Another, differently objective reflection will be seen and heard in the human beings he is conducting.  For instance, do questions, comments, and other feedback indicate that the musicians, aided by the conductor’s nonverbals, “get” the music?  Over and above any dialogue that arises in rehearsal, the “proof in the pudding” is whether the music turns out to be stylistically authentic, manifesting appropriate interpretation.

A conductor should clearly be in tempo (which is a universally understood concept) and in style (which is not as universally evidenced in aggregate practice).  If he is in tempo and in style, he may be said to be in the music.  DudamelThis embedding of oneself in the music turns out to be a strong reflection of the composer’s intentions.  There is evidence, then, that the conductor has studied what is written in the score—understanding what it “looks like”—and is intentionally pursuing its essence.

Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

– James 1:23-24


Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.

On Conducting (1): Bad Habits

A conductor can easily get into bad habits.  He knows, for instance, that such practices as

looking down at the score relentlessly
using two hands continually and thoughtlessly
dividing the beat gratuitously

. . . are rarely helpful, but he does these things anyway.  Being accountable to no one, he chooses to go his own way, avoiding even the self-critique that could come from reviewing video.  The conductor who knows what to do but doesn’t do it has simply gotten into lazy habits.

So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it….

– James 4:17, NET Bible, referring particularly to individual presumption


 

Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.

James 3

History.  Maxims and aphorisms.  Wordplay.  Textual discrepancies.  Alliteration.  Textual criticism.  And, of course, context. . . . All these factors (and more) are significant in James 3.

Last Sunday, our small group worked through the first section of James 3.  This letter, supposed to have been written by Iakob (Jacob) (James), the half-brother of Jesus, displays connections with Matthew’s gospel in particular and seems to have strong internal unity and intentional construction.  A few have said this could be the earliest extant Christian document.

3:1-13 constitutes one of the more clearly self-contained sections in the letter, making analysis of the micro-context not only key to interpretation, but also easier to manage.  One hint of the fact that this is a discrete section is the book-end-ish instances of the word-pair adelphoi mou (brothers my) in 3:1 and 3:12.

A few miscellaneous comments . . .

That teaching/teachers are at issue is clear in 3:1; the questions of who’s doing the judging of them (3:1b) is curious. At least these three possibilities appear to me:

  1. that God ultimately judges (i.e., final judgment) those who teach by a higher standard
  2. that God expects more of (judges more stringently) teachers on an ongoing basis during this life
  3. that human peers judge public teachers by a higher standard

Many in our group leaned toward #3; this feeling might have resulted, in part, from reading onto the text the 20th– and 21st-century “public teacher” scenario of paid clergy, senior ministers, and televangelists (not that all of those terms are of the same stripe).  Folks were at first interested in how teachers and preachers are often held to a higher standard than run-of-the-mill Christians because they live in a glass house.  That is a syndrome, to be sure, but I’m not convinced it was what James had in view.

No firm answer appears for this question, but I lean toward a combination of 1 and 2, based on the context provided toward the end of chapter 2.  No matter, though:  the import of the warning to those who teach holds, regardless: speech (the tongue) is a huge pitfall, and those who speak words of instruction ought to keep an especially vigilant watch.  The warning is extended to others, as well.

A built-in question appears in v2 related to the “perfect man”; James’s intent (and he did have one, regardless of whether we dig it out and wash it off enough to see the potsherd’s edges) may be illuminated by recognition that “perfect” might be translated “complete” or “mature,” as well. With one of those readings, the thought could become less an ironic assertion—obviously, no one can be perfect with the tongue—but more a call to mature thought and action.

Word order appears to be significant in v6: the word gehenna appears in a prominent, final position in Greek.  (Many English translations obscure this fact.)

“Doubles” appear frequently in James, starting with the “double-minded” man of chapter 1.  Here, the tongue is pictured as capable of two diametrically opposing results (blessing/curse, sweet/bitter, etc.).

A neat, little textual variant occurs in James 3.  The first characters in the Greek 3:3 could be one of these three:

  1. ιδε (ide, “see”)
  2. ει δε (ei de, two words, roughly “if then” or “and it”)
  3. ιδou (idou, “behold”)

Like so many such variants among the best Greek texts we have available, this one is a curiosity that allows conjecture over which is the most likely.  It is also like most variants in that one’s chosen answer to the question doesn’t change the big picture.

In mentioning alliterations, I’ll give three of the six or seven English transliterations of the Greek words highlighted by Luke Timothy Johnson in his Anchor Bible series commentary:

  • mikros melos . . . megale (3:5)
  • phlogizousa . . . phlogizomené (3:6)
  • damazetai . . . dedamastai (3:7); damasai dynatai (3:8)

An English reader might notice possible assonance or rhyme in the last of the three above, but that is not necessarily a valid a perception; the “ai” ending is merely a function of verb declension and not a “rhyme” per se, although the aural effect might well have played some role when first hearers heard the letter.

There is much more here—some, discussed in our small group, and some, of more specialized and/or esoteric interest. It is a good review for me to write out a few mentionables for sharing here.  And ya know what’s great?  I get to be part of another Bible investigation tonight!

Re-newing

The “theological context” of the public library
On the way to Bible study Wednesday night, the three of us were discussing renewing library books.  We defined “renew” for our first-grader, and then I thought I’d take opportunity, so I commented that we’d now have a little “theological lesson.”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“‘Theological’ comes from two Greek words that refer to 1) God and 2) reason or message.  So, something “theological” has to do with how God’s reason or message applies to it.”  (Don’t get too critical of that quick definition.)

“Oh, OK.”

“So, back to ‘renew.'”  In a way, that’s what God promises to do for us—to re-new us . . . to make us new again.”

“Like being new in heaven?”

“Well, yeah, that’s a good thought.  That’s one way.  But also on earth.”

“But it’s not possible to be alive again, is it?”

[exchange of glances with my wife]

“Umm … wow, Jedd.  That’s so much like the question an old Jew named Nicodemus asked Jesus once! ¹  We’ll read that tonight before bed.”

(And we did.)


¹ For more on the expression “born again” and “born from above,” see this post.  I find that the latter is a much more apt, exegetically derived translation of the expression in John 3, although the secondary reality is that being “born from above” is a second, or “again” birth.

Jedd listening to Kathryn (in our small group, currently studying James) give an answer to his question about homeless people.
Jedd listening to Kathryn (in our small group, currently studying James) give an answer to his question about homeless people.  This was two Sundays ago.  It was pretty cool that he was listening to discussion of chapter 2 and was thinking about how to treat people.
He asked the great question to my privately, and I shared it with the group. He's still listening. Everyone honored him by giving him a personal response. So much for sending the kids off to another room to watch Veggie Tales. We're keeping our kid in the group.
He asked the great question to me privately, and I shared it with the group. Everyone honored him by giving him a personal response.  Here, he’s still listening intently.  So much for sending the kids off to another room to watch Veggie Tales.  We’re keeping our kid *in* the group!

 


 

Jamesian confluence

There has been a confluence of thought and study that I really couldn’t have orchestrated myself.  Whether you call it happenstance or the will of God or a prompting of the Holy Spirit, it has happened.

This post, by the way, is not related to the James River of Virginia or to the “Jamesian Stew” series of essays that dealt critically with the King James version of the Bible.  This is a different kind of “Jamesian” confluence (and a very different James from the king of the early 1600s!).

The flowing rivulets are these:

  1. recent group classes/discussions centered in Acts 15—the chapter that documents the “conference” ultimately led by James
  2. recent group discussions of the letter known as James’s epistle
  3. my desire to understand more of the literary and historical contexts of both documents

In no way has the resulting river emptied into a “Dead Sea” that collects gunk and doesn’t move.  Not yet, anyway.  For now, this is living water that continues to flow.  At this juncture, I’m contemplating and processing a few elements and aspects that float in little whirlpools where the rivers come together:

  • James himself
    • his history as a person, his character (wisdom, humility, etc.)
    • his emphases as a teacher and leader (and whether he heard much of Jesus’ teaching personally or came to know some of them after Jesus’ death)
    • the morphings of his name
      • Hebrew Yaqob (possible symbolic weight of the famed OT Jacob) ==> Greek Iakobos ==> Latin Jacomus ==> German Jacobus
      • Old French Gemmes/Jaimes ==> English James
  • Chronology
  • Intertextualities
    • a) James and b) the beatitudes/”Sermon on the Mount”
    • a) James 2 and b) Leviticus, viz. the showing of favor, the rich and the poor, etc.
    • a) James and b) the Septuagint, i.e., many wordings of James are said to be related to the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT that was widely circulated and used before and during the 1st century
    • a) James and b) James (that’s no typo!)—how the vignettes and apohorisms of James chapter 1 relate to the longer treatments of some of the same subjects in the succeeding material (this could be labeled “book-level context”)

I’ll make an observation in each of the above categories, if you don’t mind.  (Actually, I’ll make the observations even if you do mind, but the condition sounded nice.)

James, as referred to here a few days ago, is almost universally recognized to have filled a unique role in post-resurrection Jerusalem.  He was a Jew, he became a believer in his half-brother, and he was recognized as a leader in the city-wide group of believers.  James now intrigues me more than ever. . . .  How and when did he become a believer?  How is it that he came to be looked to as a leader?  And what about his wisdom?  He emphasizes it in the letter that bears his name, and he manifest it to some degree in the Acts 15 conference.  This same figure, we presume, was the one who came to be referred to as “James the Just.”

Which brings me to chronology. . . .   James was probably not a believer with any particular role or status while Jesus was on earth, yet he clearly had some elevated role (at least in hindsight) within a few years at the most.  My personal guess would be that James was a Messianic Jew, to use an anachronistic expression, by 34 or 35, and a thought-leader in Jerusalem by 40.  His letter might have been written as early as the mid to late 40s.  The conference about which we read in Acts 15 likely occurred within a year of 47, and some have perceived a similarity of speech between the epistle and the Acts 15 mini-missive sent to gentile churches.

The intertextualities captioned above are far more significant, and also more solid, than the musings about James as a person or the dating of events and pertinent documents.  I am just now taking out a small pin to scratch the surface, but I’m already convinced that there’s a lot to learn in reading Leviticus 19, in particular.  That should probably be what I read next—if I want to be a serious doer/applier of the message, that is.

B. Casey, 10/11/15

Applying Acts 15: James as judge?

You don’t even have to be a good test-taker to get this question!

See?  That wasn’t difficult.  You got it right, didn’t you?

This much is plain to me:  whatever we can apply from Acts 15, it can’t be identical to that which the 1st-century believers applied.

Moreover, the letter/message written at the time and circulated to gentile churches is like many other NT letters in at least this respect:  the letter was written because of, and into, a specific set of circumstances.  Because of the situational nature of a letter, a hermeneutical misfire often occurs when one tries to make out of it a prescriptive example for all time.  The happenings related in Acts 15 are not to be construed as constituting a grand example for all time.

I noticed tonight that in many English versions, Acts 15:19 has James almost banging a gavel and pontificating, stating his verdict, i.e., “I have determined that . . .”  But the tense of the verb is not the perfect.  Here, James’s grammar doesn’t denote a process that emphasizes the end result.  It is a simple present tense, and synonyms for “judge” might be “discern,” “determine,” or “consider.”

I do, however, find that the word “judge,” (κρινώ | krinō) is a term

  • with legal connotations
  • that can involve a process of cognition, of “taking into account”
  • that can mean considering, making a selection, and deciding

I also note that, in Acts 16:4, the perfect tense of this same verb is used:

Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. (16:4, NASB)

Initially I’d staked a claim on Acts 15:19’s not implying a legal stance taken by James.  The situation, which includes the fact that the Jerusalem/Jewish establishment was intent on including and encouraging gentiles, would seem to conflict with seeing the Jewish James as a pre-pope pope who speaks ex cathedra.  Yet I must admit that some quasi-legal aspect may be present in this text.  That possibility may be supported by the presence in the chapter 15 event of rhetorical devices such as exordium, narratio, and probatio,¹ which might be roughly translated “opening argument,” “narration,” and “proving of the point,” respectively.  

Epilogue
After class, a man to whom I was introduced was talking about a recent, African safari hunt.  One in his group had some connections to South African Dutch ancestry—I’m not sure how strong a connection.  Apparently, the S. African man asked an honest question of another believer, earnestly seeking an opinion on whether or not black-skinned people would be in heaven.  I kid you not.

Now there’s a closer parallel than anything else I’d considered in a long time:

  1. Jews in 1st-century Israel were being caused to consider whether non-Jews were to be included along with them in the church.
  2. Some South African descendants of apartheid-ists apparently also have real difficulty with whether or not today’s blacks are to be included along with them.

The so-called “Jerusalem conference” was not about trivial issues like church carpet color or mundane differences of opinion held by “separate but equal” churches.  The matter then at hand amounted to a cataclysmic shift from Jew-centered faith to all-are-welcome faith.

B. Casey, 10/7/15

P.S.  For more on the matter(s) of Acts 15, see this prior post.


¹ Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 456-7.