Dying and death

When I was in my twenties, a random adult Bible class ended up on a rabbit trail¹ about death.  I commented that I was not afraid of death but was afraid of dying.  An intelligent, hardened woman in her early 50s looked at me cross-ways across the table, apparently annoyed by the distinction I drew. 

My thoughts were not changed by the woman’s glare, and they have not really been altered since.  I still do not fear the death state, and I’m still afraid of dying . . . yet it depends on how the dying occurs and how long it lasts. 

Will there be long-term pain?  Morphine? 
Will there be aloneness or memories shared with friends?
Will there be recovery through the miracles of modern medicine, followed by worsening conditions? 

I hear about intense pain, and I have my own sporadic pain.  When I see stories on Netflix that involve physical pain,² I sometimes wonder how I will die.  Despite impressive storytelling and videographic techniques, though, a certain distance exists between TV/movies and real life.  Last fall, when my father was hospitalized for a month and then died, I thought with new intensity about pain and “palliative care,” hospice care, dying, and death.  I haven’t spent enough time with medical ethics and philosophy to gain the right to delve too deeply here, but I might just delve anyway.

Since the first humans, death has been a part of life on this terrestrial ball.

Both mystery and science are involved in death.

Some may fear (or be “spooked” by) death, whereas others may take death almost stoically in the course of medical duty.

Some may irrationally live as though death will never occur, and others may rationally long for it.

I take death as not-final, but, clearly, there is a final aspect to it.

Often, when I leaf through a local newspaper, I notice the death announcements.  Is there anyone I know, or a relative or friend of someone I know?  Whose funeral is going to take a coworker out of the office?  Funerals and other memorial events help the living to acknowledge and process the passing of those they have known and loved.  Here, in a brief post, I shared a thank-you note from a family acquaintance after my mother and I attended a funeral for his mother.  This is but one indication of the meaning that funerals can have.  Funerals, of course, are not for the dead but for the living.  Funerals are a common feature of existence, but they do not always have the same “personality” or viable connection to God and the eternal.

I’ve been to some really good funerals in my days, and I’ve seen programs from others that were probably just as good.  During my college days, significant funerals included Lou’s and my grandfather’s.³  Years later, a funeral in SE Tennessee honored Kathryn, who was something of a mentor to my parents; another memorialized the father of Carolyn, an even closer friend for more years.  I distinctly remember the casketed bodies of good people like Sybil, Bob, and Henry.  I’ve had the honor of contributing to funeral music in song (leading and/or singing) for probably three or four dozen funerals.  All told, for three+ decades or so, I figure I gained a pretty good sense of one type of church funeral.  Among the top ten funerals of my life (an odd phrase, I know) occurred last fall, effectively beginning a new focus on death for me.  Among the best elements of this memorial time was the minister’s message.4  He apologized only briefly for reading the entire raising-Lazarus pericope (John 11), following that with “but it’s worth it” . . . and proceeding to show not only effective oral reading but also good insight.

The oh-so-human narrative of John 11 is quite provocative and “real.”  The minister made mention of multiple, real-life aspects that might be ignored by the casual reader.  For instance, the grave did stink, just as Martha predicted it would.  (Such facts can escape those of us who are more comfortable with theology and/or churchianity than with living in the shadow of the Rabbi.)  It was doubtless a horrible odor.  It was death inside that tomb—a tomb I have supposedly seen personally, according to the tourist-targeted sign (but I don’t hang my hat on the sign’s veracity).  Imagination and thoughts about the story run wild.  This was a very special relationship, and it shows not only Jesus’ human connections but the Son of God’s divine power.  For my money, the Lazarus5 story is more apropos of funerals and memorials than Psalm 23 or the notion of “many mansions.”  In John 11 the reader finds a belief in resurrection and life that meets even the deepest, most personal grief where it sighs.  Actually, such belief does better than meeting grief.  It ascends from human grieving with hope.

I am always, always stimulated and enriched by spending even the tiniest amount of focused time in any one of the gospels.  I know a good deal more about Mark and Matthew than Luke, but not nearly enough about any of the gospels.  There will always be more riches to mine!  John seems more philosophical to me than the others, even as it simply encourages belief in the incarnate One.  It makes sense, then, that John’s thoughts of life and death would draw me in.  I note that Mark’s gospel uses the word “life” 4x; Matthew, 7x, and Luke, 5x.  By way of comparison, John’s gospel uses ζωή | zoe—the word typically translated “life”—36 times (spread throughout, in 11 different chapters, from 1 to 20).  This word count alone suggest at least a motivic, if not thematic, focus within John’s particular gospel portrait.  (The word “death” is used almost the same number of times in each of the four canonical gospels.)  Surely, along with an appropriate consciousness of death can also come a deeper awareness of eternal life.

During the next few weeks, I want to offer various thoughts about death and dying.  My thoughts range from the preeminence of the Kingdom of God to the Hippocratic oath, and from euthanasia to the Passion of Jesus, and from life insurance to music.  I would be honored to hear from readers on this topic, as well.

Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here and a tribute to caregivers here.


¹ Such meanderings can be rewarding, instructive, and memorable, but they occur too often when the stated goal is “Bible study.” 

² I do avoid “action” films built around gratuitous violence.

³ It was reported, in connection with my grandfather’s death, that his last words were “Lord Jesus, be merciful.”  Such a statement strikes me as an entirely appropriate utterance.  I imagine the words as something of a humble reflex born out of lifelong devotion, not a desperate prayer.  If nothing else, an appeal to Jesus shows faith.

This is a remarkable statement me to make, really, given my general aversion to formalized ministerial roles.

5 Lazarus, by the way, is one very strong candidate for the title of “the one Jesus loved,” and also a candidate for having written at least portions of this gospel we know as “John.”


 

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Xposted: 2 Kingdom glances

Here are two links to last week’s postings in a 3-part “Kingdom Glances” series on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  These two, as well as the final installment yet to come, are all duly connected to the kingship of Jesus the Christ.

The Divine Conspiracy (the sequel)

King Jesus (a 1992 song)

Coming on Wednesday morning:  the 3rd and final glance in this series.  The first two were important to me but might have seemed more like mere references or historical curiosities to others.  I earnestly believe that faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus are, or at least should be, significant to everyone.  And the installment yet to come will speak in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

I sincerely hope you will look for this and read it on Wednesday.

 

Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project

Gaps

In reading a new John Grisham novel (about my 10th, but the first in several years), I notice a technique used skillfully by the author.  Grisham likes to leave things to the imagination by leaving gaps in the narrative between chapters.  One chapter will end on a dramatic note or with some sense of “what in the world is going to happen with that situation?”  The next chapter start will somewhere entirely different, and the reader understands, within the first couple sentences, that other things have transpired in the meantime.  The gaps are eventually filled in . . . or they might not be materially filled in at all.

Image result for four gospelsThis technique reminds me of the writers or compilers¹ of the gospels—in the unique genre of literature we find in the historic-theological narrative of the four gospels.  The gospels, of course, aren’t legal suspense novels, nor are they intended as historical in terms of news incident reports or history texts today.  The gospels do relate real events that occurred in history, but there are gaps.  I might wish I knew what, if anything, transpired between Matthew 21 and 22.  Part of me longs to know what happened between John 9 and John 10.  I must be content, though, with not knowing whether it was the same crowd of Pharisees.  These “gaps” do not occur only at the ends of “chapters.”  There were no chapters or verses for quite some time, and the ones we have today can be problematic in some instances.  Are we sure that no time transpired between Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 5?  If none did, it affects the interpretation of the so-called “sermon on the mount.”  What about between Mark 8:21 and 8:22, as the reader enters the literary core of that gospel?  There are literary markers that give clues, but in most cases, I’ll have to be content in the un-knowing.

It is important to realize that the Jesus-narratives retained in our four canonical gospels amount to selective literary portraits, not exhaustive documentaries in a meticulous, 21st-century sense.  As such, the gospels tell selected things, putting them in certain orders for their own purposes.   There are gaps in, and re-orderings of, the respective storylines.  The reader should know that time might pass between two events, or the second might have occurred before the first.  Did the “cleansing of the temple” occur late in Jesus’ life, or early in his ministry, as the “contra-optic” John has it?  Did the Nicodemus conversation occur soon after that, or was there a gap of weeks, months, or even years between the two?

I wish I could fill in more of the gaps in the life and teaching of Jesus, but I think I have my hands full with what I already have in my head and heart.


¹ Not one of our four gospels retains a definite authorship attribution, and the names we have associated with each one are based on tradition—strong tradition in some cases, but tradition nonetheless.  I tend to think that each of them was tied in some way to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Perhaps most of the inscribing and compiling of selections of written fragments (and oral traditions) was ultimately the busywork of groups of believers that surrounded each of those men.

Xposted from Kingdom blog

Image result for writingOne of the great things about blogging (and other self-directed forms of writing) is that the writer gets to write when the inspiration comes.  There are no deadlines per se, and no financially based pressure, so one writes as he wills.  This kind of subjectivity can degenerate into self-pleasing or merely entertaining outbursts, and I have been guilty of that from time to time.  Most of the time, I try to allow various nudges, external stimuli, and compelling pursuits to guide what I write about.  With almost anything I write, I intend (1) to be genuine, dealing with what seems important; (2) to be responsive to nudges that might be God speaking to my spirit; and (3) to attempt to speak a helpful word to others.

My other blog, Subjects of the Kingdom, has been in existence for year and a half, and it has not been very active in terms of feedback.  That saddens me on a personal level, because it shows a lack of interest in my book.  (If 50 or 100 people suddenly signed up for feeds from that blog, I might stop cross-posting as much on this blog.)

Far more important than a readership’s response, though, is a possible broader lack of interest in the topics presented.  On the one hand, one analysis would suggest that I just stop writing about the Kingdom of God, because people either seem to be apathetic about it, or they already think they have it figured out.  On the other hand, I am perpetually impelled by the Kingdom.  Conceptually, God’s Reign touches everything.  Lately, there have been at least as many stimuli to process and write about Kingdom topics as to write on topics for this blog.  So, for whatever it’s worth, another book is in the early stages.  The working title is Two Kingdoms—Essays, Examinations, and Notes.  It will be well into 2018 before a draft is complete, but I hope to have the book out next summer.

For now, here are links to two recent posts from the Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  (Some of this material may make its way into the new book, so reading it now is like a sneak peek.)

Subtextual “empire” in Paul?

– a brief review of a scholarly inquiry into “hidden subtext” about the Roman Empire in Pauline literature

Unseen yet apparent: insights into the Lord’s model prayer

– a more devotionally oriented piece on the “unseen” element in the context and text of the “Lord’s Prayer”

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, which 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.

Three 4s

Chapter 4.  In three books.

I notice the significance of chapter 4 in three of the four gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and John.  I have no mystical sense of numerology about it, and chapter divisions weren’t in the original manuscripts, after all, so the number element doesn’t really matter.  Still, I thought this might make for an interesting trivia piece.

1. In Matthew, chapter 4 includes an extended treatment of the testing of Jesus before beginning to describe His earlier “ministry” and setting up the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  In my younger years, I was led to tuck away neatly the three “temptations” (probably not the best term, given our usage today) as representative of all human temptation in any time:

  1. the lust of the flesh
  2. the lust of the eyes
  3. the pride of life

Although I’d say those characterizations have moderate worth, I now see chapter 4 more in its context.  There is more to the specific tests as it figures in to the whole of Matthew.

Side point:  “pinnacle” (of the temple) in the 2nd testing is probably not the best translation of the Greek πτερύγιο | pterugio.  It was probably not a spire or high point per se.  According to numerous scholars, the reference is probably to the edge of a “wing” or extremity of the temple compound that essentially overlooked a valley.

~ ~ ~

2.  In Mark, chapter 4’s parable of the “sower” (and the spots onto which he sowed) is structurally significant within the whole.  Mark appears to have an intentional form that includes these sections:

A Beginning – the “forerunner” (John) points to Jesus (1:4-8)
B Jesus’ baptism (which became figuratively a death in Christian thought and writing), the splitting of the heavens, and the voice saying, “You are my son” (1:9-11)
C Jesus is tested in the wilderness (1:12-13)
D The parable of the sower (4:1-9)
. . .
D’ Parable of the vineyard (12:1-11)
C’ Jesus is tested in the temple (12:13-27)
B’ Jesus’ death, the splitting of the temple veil, and a voice saying, “Truly this was God’s son” (15:33-39) (also note in this gospel other declarations of Who Jesus is)
A’ The “post-runner” (the young man) points to Jesus (16:1-8)

A longtime friend’s master’s work was on the place of the parable of the sower in the overall structure of Mark.  Chapter 4’s sower parable is significant and may be related to the vineyard parable (chapter 12)—both dealing with the response of the people.

~ ~ ~

3.  In music, prolonging an element can result in either drama or montony.  Particularly in art music, the compositional technique known as “phrase extension” and the prolonging of a “dominant” harmony (V chord) have notable effects.

In narrative, an extended passage can have an effect related to the author’s purpose(s).  In John, chapter 4’s encounter with the woman at the well is the longest recorded single conversation of Jesus with any individual.  The reader-interpreter does well in taking note of this incident, assuming its conceptual prominence—or at least the fact that there must be something special about it.

Bibliology bits 3: context, instructions, and design

biblicalbooksThis post continues from prior ones in which I briefly discussed books and literature types, and then canons and versions.

On contextS
A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared that the primary teaching pastor at his church had recently committed what I consider a major instructional infraction:

While delivering a message on how to study the Bible, historical and cultural contexts were treated at some length, but no attention at all was given to a book-level, paragraph-level, or even “verse”-level look at the literary context.  

What passed for “literary context” was really only a nod to the historical setting in which the document was originally penned.

Whoa!

Let it be noted here that the friend referenced above has a terminal degree in NT biblical studies, and the teaching pastor, of approximately the same age, is well down the road toward his own doctorate in Hebrew and OT.  What the one knows and understands about overall emphasis in text study should also be what other knows and understands.  And the latter very well may know and understand it.  The problem is that he missed a golden opportunity as a public teacher to emphasize literary context!

It makes sense that literary context should be considered primary in biblical studies.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and theological studies may undergird and will be of great interest, but what is actually in the text is more fundamental—and almost always a more objective enterprise.  Pursuit of the literary context should therefore be considered ahead of the pursuit of other contexts.  I might put rhetorical and discourse analysis methods in a tool bucket (along with selected reference tools) to be used as part of contextually aware studies.  Knowledge of the syntax of the original language is indispensable.  (Personally, I have only enough grasp of Greek syntax to know how important it is.)  There is always more to learn about the words and sentences and “paragraphs.”  The point here is that intensified contextual awareness is fundamental when seeking to understand a document.

On instructionS
The number of instructions (reputedly 613) in the Hebrew Torah is daunting.  The number of superimposed rabbinic teachings (Talmud, etc.) is positively dizzying.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christians would fall into the habit of looking at the “New Law” in the same legal terms, but it does surprise me that any of us would defend that habit explicitly.  In the words of Danny Gamble, a neighborhood boy from my childhood, “What are ya—dumb or sump’n?”  (He was talking about my family’s habit of praying before meals.  His rude-yet-innocent comment speaks much better to stupid human tricks such as creating a new legalism.)

There are matters on which God has spoken, of course.

There are also matters about which people wish God had instructed.

And there are quite a few matters about which people claim God instructed us—but the supposed instruction sometimes turns out to be trumped-up, or even bogus.

I won’t specify things I think fall into any of these three categories, because I might get in trouble with some people I respect.  🙂

On design
The structure and design of biblical documents is typically overlooked.  This post (from a year and a half ago) laments the tendency of very good, otherwise spiritually minded people to ignore text design in favor of what turns out to be a faux devotional vantage point.

Even when structure is to some extent in view, it is rarely understood and applied very thoroughly in local churches.  We may affirm that (literary) context is king, but even those public teachers who pay lip service to context will rarely spend appropriate time dealing with its significance.

Here are a few examples/comments:

The structure of Psalm 119 famously involves an acrostic design (based on Hebrew letters).  The literary structure is obvious, aiding understanding of this piece’s origin and possible its intent.

The structure of Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is clear, making the thrust of the message quite impossible to ignore in Greek, although it rarely if ever shows itself in English Bibles or in Bible classes.  Although richly provocative clues reside in the Greek, if more disciples would merely take more time with the English, truly studying this document instead of dismissing it as a nice story about a former slave, the document would speak volumes.  Loudly.

I’m somewhat acquainted with the structure of both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, but I would have to say that it’s required many years and great opportunities to come to understand only a little of their design.  In other words, the structure of a more lengthy document requires deeper, more extended experience.  I am currently engaged in Matthew studies.  Every step of the way, I learn something that enhances my understanding of this text.

Knowing how these documents are put together—how they are designed—is key in coming to understand their emphases.

There is so much more.  The Bible is a lifelong pursuit but must not be seen as an end in itself.  To conclude this series on perhaps a lighter note, I think I’ll soon post a survey about word frequency, i.e., “how many times is X word found in the NT?”

A different proposition: historicity in the gospel narratives

Moisés Silva offers succinct, sage counsel on reading and interpreting the gospels:

The Biblical faith, as is almost universally recognized, has a historical character at its very foundations; in contrast to other religions, this feature is one of its most significant the stages.  Moderns who seek to affirm the religious teachings of the Bible while rejecting its historical claims are more daring than Houdini.  The resulting incoherence is logically unbearable. . . .

In addition to this theological obstacle, there is a literary snag.  When reading any kind of literature, nothing is more important than doing justice to its character.  If we attempt to understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a straightforward historical narrative, we misrepresent its total meaning.  We may still be able to interpret many details correctly and even make sense of its message, but no Shakespearean scholar would put up with the inevitable distortions that would result.

In the case of the Gospels, every indication we have is that the writers expected their statements to be taken as historical.

The reason many students of the Bible believe they can downplay the historicity of the New Testament narratives is that these narratives do not always conform to the patterns of modern history writing.

[T]he historical trustworthiness of the gospels is not to be described in terms of modern historiography, which stresses clear and strict chronological sequence, balanced selection of material, verbatim quotations, and so on.  In our real sense, the gospel writers are preachers.  They select the events of Jesus’ life and his teachings, guided not by comprehensiveness but by their purpose in writing.  They arrange the material not always on the basis of sequential order but with a view to impress upon the readers certain specific truths.

We get into trouble, therefore, when we approach the text with questions that the gospel writers were not interested in answering. . . .

When we study the parables, . . . we should be interested not only in their function during the ministry of Jesus but also in the way they are used by the gospel writers.

These writings . . .  are like stained glass windows.  Not only do they point to and reflect the light that is behind them, they also invite us to look at them and enjoy them for what they are.

– Moisés Silva, “But These Are Written That You May Believe,” in Kaiser and Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 107-108, 113, 109.

 

26 years ago: John 9

I have long loved John chapter 9.  Posts on this blog have touched on it a few times.  In ridding myself of some old files, I found evidence that I’d felt attached to this chapter as early as my twenties.  Twenty-six years ago today, I’d apparently presented a short message, first reading the entire chapter (and if you have time now, you might also read it now) and then making the comments below to the gathered Christians at the Cedars Church in Wilmington, Delaware.


Sometimes we, too, are guilty of ignoring the obvious, undeniable, simple facts.

We react blindly to the visible and to threatening situations—threatening because they’re unusual and uncomfortable.

We accuse the wrong people for the wrong things, not wanting to SEE truth and actuality.

Some things are really simple, and we make them difficult, denying them and pointing a finger elsewhere in order to keep from having to truly examine the realities.

[Pray for healing of hardness of heart; unwillingness to be taught & be led by Spirit; spiritual blindness.  Let us SEE.  Keep us from attacking bringers of good news because we don’t want to listen or consider.]

B. Casey, 6/27/90


See also

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/digging-in-john-9-1000/

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/personal-application-john-9/

An eye-opening 36 hours

It’s not exactly a blazing tempo, but it was still significant for me.

Earlier this week, within 36 hours, I immersed myself in Matthew’s gospel, reading it all the way through—mostly aloud, to myself.  (This was one step among many taken to prepare for a presentation early next month.)  I took a couple chapters at a time, eating leftover thin-crust pizza and accomplishing other miscellany in between.  I noted so many textual connections that it made my befuddlable brain dizzy!

I’m struck by at least two levels of literary connectivity:

  1. A possible, quasi-chiastic, document-level structure that has outer sections, inward sections, and a center.  Several ties may be seen, for example, between teaching sections in chapters 5-7 and chapters 23-25 (apparently the next-to-outermost sections).  I also noticed connections between the birth and crucifixion narratives.  This feature of Matthew has been noticed, discussed, and sometimes disagreed with by scholars, and I was aware of that going in.
  2. A repetitive structure that has seemingly less significant items showing up more than once, possibly for emphasis.  Example:  the mentions of children in 18:1-4, 19:13-15, and 21:16.  These features will surely have been noticed by others, but I had no preparation or predisposition to notice the repetitions.  They just kept popping up!

Overall, GMatthew’s portrait of the Messiah has been 3rd on my list in terms of familiarity.  It has now risen to 2nd, and I think I might even love it more than either Mark or John now.

The gospels are historical, to be sure, but a close and honest look at them shows them to be less concerned with an exact historical chronology of events than with the faith-significance of the events.  – Gary D. Collier, The Forgotten Treasure, 44.

Heroes

When I last visited the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame about 8 years ago, I wandered into a bookstore and noticed a book authored by my childhood baseball hero—a book in which he monotonously spouted many things about himself.  This former player holds many National League and MLB records, and I’m of the opinion that he should be in the Hall of Fame despite personal downfalls.  His prideful character is far from unassailable, though, and I long ago stopped listening and following his exploits (although I do have a gift coffee mug with his uniform number on it, and I’m hanging onto an autograph, too, for posterity).  I can’t completely shake my consciousness of this past player, but I’m opting out of using his name here since he’s gotten more than his share of publicity.  As late as my 20s, I might have named him as one of my “heroes,” but no more.

My dad, during his childhood, had chosen a far better baseball hero—Stan Musial, a man who apparently never did anything societally unbecoming.  Musial also holds many baseball records and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.  Musial is “The Man” by nickname and could also be referred to that way in complimentary slang terms (i.e., “Dude, you Da Man”):  his baseball career, his reputation as a person and celebrity, and his personal integrity all seem to have been aligned.  My dad’s autobiographical memoir (for which I served as copy/layout editor) contains an entire chapter on Musial.  I have a copy of an autographed Musial photo on my wall and am also happy to be first in line for a Musial-autographed ball, which will be passed down the line through my son.  [See also  https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/multi-talented-monopolies-or-sluggers-and-clergymen/]

Baseball heroes are okay, I suppose, as far as they go.  Most of them are probably better than entertainment-types.

But the only hero I now claim lived 2,000 years ago.  He’s the only One worthy of hero worship.  Obviously, the Galilean Rabbi didn’t tick off the baseball commissioner or the press, but He did tick off the religious establishment as He turned the world upside down by newly bringing in the Kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman Empire scene.  The “Son of Man” (in a sense a nickname, and one with a lot more theological and cosmic significance than Musial’s “The Man”) didn’t have sports records, but He did have a completely perfect record as a human on earth.  It would be hard to imagine Him giving autographs like a celebrity, and He didn’t receive a national medal.  He did have given to Him the name that is above every name . . . the power above all powers . . . the authority and status of The Name YHVH.  He is Kurios, the Lord.

God upraised Him to the topmost place and freely conferred on Him the name which is above every name.   – Philippians 2:9