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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The ever-important second phase

I confess with regret that I am not very good at (or devoted to) “application” these days.  I tend, therefore, to think and write more about interpretation than about application to life.  This tendency does not mean that I am deaf to the call to apply; it only means I don’t like to think about my weaknesses, inconsistencies, and stupidities as much as the original intentions I perceive.

This passage from a book I have never read is simultaneously illustrative and convicting.  Among other aspects, please note the phrases “true meaning” and “inspired author’s intended meaning”:  these might even be said to serve as witness to the existence of a real person—and, of course, a real Inspirer—behind the words.

… I am not going round and round a closed circle that can never detect the true meaning but am spiraling nearer and nearer to the text’s intended meaning as I refine my hypotheses and allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations, then to guide my delineation of its significance for my situation today.  In this sense it is also critical to note that the spiral is a cone, not twirling upward forever with no ending in sight but moving ever narrower to the meaning of the text and its significance for today.  The sacred author’s intended meaning is the critical starting point but not an end in itself.  The task of hermeneutics must begin with exegesis but is not complete until one notes the contextual station of that meaning for today….

– Grant Osborn, The Hermeneutical Spiral

Restoration and “plan” (2)

Certain church groups’ historical underpinnings are blueprint-oriented:  they emphasize divine “plan” and “pattern” they find in scripture.  Such orientations are certainly not entirely off-base, yet they are frequently overemphasized.

For the last century or so, a Restoration Movement hermeneutical ideal (command, example, necessary inference) has been manifest in the desire of church leaders to convince outsiders that God has a scriptural blueprint or plan for everything.  This desire, while in most cases pure-hearted, only goes so far.  And it seems to shove the grace of God as shown in Jesus’ incarnation into a back seat, while men’s interpretation of scripture may be driving the car.

In the following letter, written nearly two decades ago, I attempted to say something that highlighted Jesus more than a supposed, legal “plan.”

==============

Christian Chronicle
Oklahoma City, OK

6/29/95

RE: Restoring the Plan

To the Editor:

Thanks to Stafford North for inviting us (through his “Thoughts” column in the July Chronicle) to look anew at the first century with a view toward Restoration. While my application of the principle of restoration seems somewhat different from his, the call to look at the foundation is a good one.

Let us all understand that when the earliest Christians “began to practice what was revealed,” that Revelation was in the person of Jesus the Messiah‑‑communicated personally and then through His specially inspired men‑‑since the New Testament scriptures had not been written. The “plan” for salvation, therefore, if God would ever have expressed it in such a term, is this: divine grace expressed through Jesus.  Any other plan purported to suffice for our sin is blasphemous, and if we attempt to mandate mechanisms of our own design, Satan will laugh as he sees groups of initially well‑intentioned, Restoration‑oriented men and women on the descent into creedalized, sectarian Christianity.

In the Gospel Advocate (5/11/33), G.C. Brewer reviewed K.C. Moser’s The Way of Salvation with these comments:

“In the minds of some the divine has been completely ruled out and salvation made a matter of human achievement‑‑except that the ‘plan’ was divinely given.  The gospel was made a system of divine laws for human beings to obey and thus save themselves sans grace, sans mercy, sans everything spiritual and divine‑‑except that the ‘plan’ was in mercy given. Mercy to expect man of his own unaided strength to save himself by meeting the demands of a system of perfect divine laws.”

moserbookBrewer continued, “Such teaching as that makes ‘void the grace of God’ (Gal. 2:21) . . . and counts his blood an unholy thing‑‑except as it is reached by a perfect obedience, and then it is not needed.

Jesus is our Cornerstone, our Life-Bread, and the Center and Soul of the sphere of Christians’ existence. Jesus is the Word.  He is the Way.  He is the Plan.  May our relentless clinging be a holding to the Lord.

Sincerely,

Brian Casey

Situational letters

Deep within many of us — those nurtured by Bible-attentive churches, especially — resides a solid devotion to the timeless authority of scripture.  While such devotion is clearly a good thing, it can result in less-than-helpful situations.  Reverential attitudes toward scripture have led to

  • discussions around the nature of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16)
  • countless fights over interpretation methodologies
  • an almost idolatrous fear of writing in the margins of one’s Bible

Of deeper, more insidious concern is the tendency of some to claim for scripture that which it does not claim for itself.  Canonical writings never claim, for instance, that the words were dictated by the Spirit, i.e., that John and Peter and Paul, etc., had their upper extremities robotically controlled.

It isn’t hermeneutically necessary to suppose that the words of the original manuscripts were necessarily authorized by God, although they might be.  Scripture certainly never claims that a single translation is authorized above another, either.  “Authorization,” when it comes down to it, seems to be an inherently human notion.  Furthermore, the authors themselves seem not to have suspected that they were authorized to create documents for the ages:  rarely, if ever, could honest readers of scripture infer that an author had the sense that what he was writing what would become scripture.

A recent conversation with friends reminded me of the distinction among various types of scriptural literature — narrative/history, letters, poetry, and prophecy, to name the major groupings.  We might even be able to correlate the type of biblical literature with an author’s relative sense of being God’s oracle for wider, longer-living audiences.  In other words, when Paul wrote letters to Timothy, they were specifically directed and situationally time-bound, and therefore unlikely to have been conceived as being for time immemorial.  The writers of the somewhat more general, and later-penned, gospels, on the other hand, might have assumed that their messages would extend to broader audiences through the decades, if not the centuries.

Also wrapped up in the question of whether Paul and Peter and others thought they were writing “scripture” is the question of eschatological foretelling:  the apostles appear, at least initially, to have thought the Lord’s final coming was imminent, so they wouldn’t likely have written something they thought would also be read by believers in the year 2012.

Most letters in the New Covenant scriptures are considered situational — that is, written out of and into a particular sitz im leben (situation of life).  Further,  I have lately learned that letters are not really epistles, despite the headings in some Bibles, e.g., “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians.”  An epistle appears to carry the connotation of a rhetorically formal document — reasoned and fully worked out.  A letter is somewhat less formal.  Most of our Pauline material seem to lean more toward the “letter” category, although Romans and perhaps another one or two are exceptions.

Inasmuch as the letter to the Galatians is an epistle, it might be thought to be universally applicable (at least, in the time in which it was penned).  Inasmuch as it is a letter, it is more situationally specific.  One goal in poring over a letter is to uncover its situation — the situation out of which, and into which, it was written … i.e., the impetus for its creation.  No matter who Galatians was addressed to (those in the specific province of Phrygian Galatia, or those in the larger region settled over centuries by the Gauls), it is unmistakable that Paul was monumentally, spiritually ticked off at the way things were going.  That he was addressing a situation is beyond question; I am persuaded he was addressing it by the impetus of God Himself.

I’m not at all sure Paul knew he was writing “scripture” for later believers, though.  (Remember that 2 Tim. 3:16 couldn’t really have applied to New Testament material, since it wasn’t collected yet.  Almost certainly, the reference to “all scripture” was to Tanakh/Old Testament documents.)  Scripture doesn’t claim that Paul had an inkling of this letter’s perpetuity, and I won’t ascribe such a sixth sense to him, either.

Does all this matter?  Well, yes, I think it’s significant, or I wouldn’t have bothered.  It’s not as significant as eternal love or grace or hope or the second coming … but as I study and learn more of such ancient documents, before I attempt to apply them to my situation, I want to know more about the situations in which they originated.  This knowledge is more important than figuring out whether Paul (anachronistically) considered his letters “scripture.”

Context

Not to toot my own horn, but I came upon this kind passage recently:

“We owe a great deal to Dr. Casey for his planning and keen insight, along with his ability.”

The sentence was penned by a respected icon in my vocational field—H. Robert Reynolds.  I’ve listened to Reynolds teach, been inspired by his lectures, read many of his words, watched him conduct, and learned from other conductors that Reynolds taught at some point during his venerable career.  Imagine how gratified I was to read what he’d written.

How nice!

How affirming!

How unexpected!

And how completely not about me.

This passage was written in a foreword to a book by Joseph L. Casey, not Brian L. Casey.  I suppose I could quote Reynolds in my next tenure review document, but the quoting would be bogus.  It would be taken out of context.

Ever heard a scripture passage taken out of context?  No?  Then you must not have been to church last week.

Quiet time (4) — the hermeneutics of it all

In what will probably be the last post on this subject for a while (rather than thinking and writing about Quiet Time, if I have the time, I probably need to use it as Quiet Time!), I want briefly to treat the notion of “following Jesus’ example” as a subtopic of hermeneutics.

First, to retrace a few steps.  (Skip this paragraph and the next one if you’ve been with me all the way.)  I suggest that Quiet Time (hereinafter “QT”) is, to some extent, a creation of the marketable Christian world and is not, as such, a requirement put forward by scripture.  As support for this, I call attention to the facts that a) supposed “habits” of Jesus cannot be assumed based on scripture, and b) nowhere in the NC writings — in either a general imperatives or a specific, problem-addressing context — have I found an injunction that says “Christians are to have a regular, set period of quiet time.”  I quickly acknowledge that my particular personality type needs QT–however one defines it and works it out–more than I take or get it.  18% of me also suspects, on some gut level, that I would be better off spending this time right now in QT activities as conceived by Christendom than in explaining why QT is not a law.  While for me it is an imperative to resist attempts to legislate doctrines and practices not legislated by scripture, I do acknowledge that, in general, QT is a good idea.  The devoted advice “if Christ did it, we should do the same” is eminently well-intended, but the assumption that our Christ did QT regularly is just that–an assumption–thereby weakening the supposed imperative.

The verb tense in Luke 5:16 is ambiguous:  when the wording in English is “But he would withdraw into the lonely places and pray,” the Greek tense does not necessarily imply a habitual activity on Jesus’ part.  It doesn’t preclude a habitual action, but it doesn’t require one, either.  Even less to the point, Mark 1:35 mentions one instance and brings to the scenario no implication of a regular practice.  In my lifetime, I’ve probably heard 101 sermons and devotional talks that encouraged regular QT, and many of them appealed, obliquely, to English translations in these isolated verses.  Those appeals are largely bogus.  Now, if I had to guess about Jesus’ habits while on earth, I would suspect that He often, or at least periodically, had QT, but I seriously doubt that He always prayed for 30 minutes at 7 a.m. or before going to bed, or that He read a Torah chapter per day.

Now, for the new stuff:  hermeneutics. I think I learned this word when I was in college, and it’s been with me ever since, as my perspectives grow.  Not merely a religion word, it derives from Greek; a relationship may be seen with the name Hermes, the messenger “god.”  Hermeneutics, put succinctly, is the science of literary interpretation.  (Pause for excursion into Wikipedia land, where I just spent a few minutes making minor edits on the hermeneutics page!”)

In the American Restoration Movement tradition, a somewhat standard biblical hermeneutical formula emerged and has endured, to an extent:

  1. command
  2. example
  3. necessary inference

Although I am no real student of hermeneutics, I have been around long enough to observe the effects–both positive and negative–of adherence to this formula.  (Many more aspects and questions come into play in hermeneutics; in no way do I suggest that these three items encapsulate it all.)  Initially, it seems sound to categorize in this way, and I have assumed that those who propound this method of interpreting scripture view it as hierarchical, i.e., that commands come above examples, and examples, above inferences.  In actual working out, the 3rd level–the necessary inferences–have proven divisive within the ARM, even creating branches and sub-branches of denominations, while the 1st- and 2nd-level commands and examples are more universally problematic.  Stated another way:  while few outside the ARM care much about provincial “necessary inferences,” there is sufficient disagreement on the nature and implications of “commands” that plenty of arguments can occur there without descending to the 2nd and 3rd levels!

Commands

In scripture, at first blush, a command would appear to be just that–an authoritative instruction issued by the Father, the Son, an apostle, etc.–for us to follow, no questions asked.  However, it’s not that easy.  Jesus said “Go thou and do likewise.”  Does that mean I have to find myself a Samaritan?  When we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Greet each other with a kiss,” should I pucker 77 times per Sunday, or are handshaking and hugging approved substitutes?

Examples

In scripture, we find abundant examples.  Which ones are meant for us to follow, and which are merely to be taken as records of other people’s behaviors?  (Before I write what I’m about to write, I want the world to know that I have called my old friend to warn him that I was going to do something like this, letting him hear the grin in my voice before I actually wrote this, tongue in cheek.)  When scripture tells us that Jesus once (or more) had QT, you tell me I should follow that example?  Yeah, I guess you’re right.  Pardon me first, though, while I go change a Brita water pitcher into one filled with Chardonnay, chuck demons into pigs, precociously ditch my parents, sting a flock of Pharisees with my sharp criticism, weep because of Jerusalem has rejected me, and get transfigured.  🙂

You get the point, I’m sure.  In the world of examples, we must interpret contextually.  Some examples are clearly meant to be followed, others are clearly not to be imitated, and a bunch of examples in the middle are left to our interpretation.  We must figure out if and when we are to follow this last group.

Inferences

One question about so-called “necessary inferences”:  who decides whether they’re “necessary”? This question, for me, swings a heavy axe near quite a few roots:  of religious freedom, of the institutional church, of the clergy system, and even of the basic nature of Christian discipleship.  I may infer something that you don’t infer … or, you may infer it, too, but not find it as significant as I find it.  If it’s “necessary” for you, it may not be “necessary” for me, and after all, it was only an inference, not a clear statement.

Finishing off …

It’s not always easy to determine what falls in the command category,  the approved example category, or the necessary inference one.  I immediately think of a major area of Christian doctrine that is perpetually the source of significant disagreement and disunity.  In my estimation, for instance, Billy Graham was wrong in this area, having made little of the commands and examples involved, and not having inferred enough from the scriptural implications.  On the other hand, some in my tradition have been too insistent on particulars and have not found viable frameworks for Christ-centered unity, where sincere, studied differences surface.  For me, in this area, it’s a matter of a) what seem to be clear commands, b) supported by many examples, and therefore c) implications that are abundantly clear.  But for others, based on what I believe is  legacy-inflicted error, the commands are explained away, and the examples are neatly ignored … the inferences therefore become wispy to the point of non-existence.  A tough area for Christians, historically, and it all comes down to hermeneutics.

The “example” level in this ARM hermeneutical model–and particularly the assertion that “if Jesus did it, we should, too”–led me into this blogpost, but I’ve gone far afield of the initial topic!  One thing is certain:  heremeneutical differences create disunity.  How we handle that disunity, it seems to me, is highly significant.  For now, I’ll try to have more (and more focused) QT, and you have your QT … but please don’t try to require QT of everyone.  I know of no valid biblical hermeneutic or exegetical principle that requires QT or even suggests that it is to be a pattern.  At this juncture in my walk, I am opting for a more broad list of “devotional” practices, including communal experiences in Christian gatherings, worshipful noticements of nature on casual walks, special moments of closeness with God inspired by gratitude for private experiences of exercising gifts (such as musical gifts), biblical studies, some QT experiences, writing on things I believe are important to the Kingdom, and the like.

If I’ve annoyed or offended you in this essay, please know that two results of my thinking and writing about Quiet Time are

  • a greater consciousness of QT in general
  • a sense of increased need for QT in my own life

Quiet Time is no Christian law, period.  However, as one valid expression of the Christian disciple’s devotion, it can be highly valuable in deepening the connection with God.

Legit literally?

This is for all those who say they take all of the Bible literally.

Literally?

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Literally?  Really?  In scripture,

  • there’s history, and there’s poetry
  • we find negative and positive examples, as well as imperatives
  • there is apocalyptic, figurative language, and there are clear instructions for living

God, help us to discern what’s what; better yet, help us to live out the essence of what we read.

If he propounded that …

There’s something to be learned from just about anyone.  I know enough, second- and seventh-hand, about the Pope and Romish religion to know I want nothing to do with him or it, and I ardently want to keep others from him and it.  Still, there are probably some things I can learn from the current Pope.  (I capitalize in deference to English language standards and not to the Roman institution.)

I probably have less grasp of the place and work of John Calvin, but I have grown to distrust anything associated with this man’s (or any other’s) name, mainly because of certain extremes he and his progeny espouse.  Still, there are some things I can learn from him.  In this case, I suspect, a bunch more than in the case of the Pope!

If John Calvin was half the exegete people seem to think he was, I can learn from him.  Below is a statement by partly Calvinist author Moises Silva, who teaches in a Calvinist institution.  This comes in the context of Calvin’s hermeneutics:

It is all too easy to become mesmerized either by exegetical problems or by perceived devotional needs; in both cases, we allow the central and simple message of the text to recede into the background.  If, however, we keep in mind that no motive is more important than the edification of the church–the basis for which is God’s own teaching and not our imagination–our efforts will remain focused on the historical meaning intended by the biblical text.  “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 254

If that was a focus for Calvin . . . if he indeed propounded focusing on historical meaning intended by the biblical text, well, then, insofar as he did that, I’m for him!

Colossians (1)

Our study of Philemon is now history.  My written rehashing of some important things that grew out of the study is also now past.  Time to move on!  As our study of Colossians gets seriously underway – we’ve now read the text aloud twice and have discussed some situational factors that may play into the construction of the letter – I wonder what’s ahead.

In the other two study series (Mark and Philemon), we have enjoyed substantial, trusted material to draw on.  Now, with Colossians, we are more “on our own.”  To be frank, it feels a little early to be setting off without the same brand of compass, but we’ll trust that God will use patterns with which we’re now more familiar to guide us hermeneutically.

There are a few things I “know,” based on life experience and prior study.  For instance, because of a relatively longstanding acquaintance with, and attention, to diction and pronunciation in various languages, I feel rather certain that the way Brett Favre’s name is pronounced is a careless corruption of the French.  Mere celebrity and a few years of paparazzi do not a new pronunciation guide make.  And don’t get me started on the pronunciation and misspelling of “sherbet.”

Oh, I know, you can never tell how English words will be pronounced.  There are so many ways to pronounce the letter combination “ough” that we Englishers ought to know how rough it can be as we hiccough through it all.  See (this amusing poem for more fun-poking.)  Pushing aside the inconsistencies of what Howard L. Chace has dubbed the Anguish Languish, and the plenitude of which Richard Lederer has also parlayed into newspaper columns and books such as Anguished English, let me acknowledge this:  the adulteration of clear principles and institutions of Christianity will be infinitely more significant than the oddities, vicissitudes, and errors of English pronunciation and usage.  Yet, just as the likes of Lederer can say a lot of things with relative certainty because of his history in studying English and other languages, because of a longstanding “conversation” with God’s literature, there are some things I can be relatively sure about.  Some things do seem clear.

Knowledge puffs up, Paul famously said in his 2nd letter (1st canonical one—see reference in 1 Cor. 5:9) to the messed-up Corinthians.  It doesn’t matter whether one merely thinks he knows, or actually knows.  Either way, knowledge can get him into trouble. I do know this.  So, as we proceed into Colossians, and as I prepare and lead, I publicly confess awareness of these things:

  • the apparent surety of insight gained from long-term experience
  • the great likelihood that human inadequacy will set my judgment off course and my insight askew

It is my desire to uncover God’s message conveyed through Paul in this letter, throwing off any prejudices that may hinder the ascertainment of said message, all the while utilizing any insight gained previously, toward a fuller, more apt understanding of this letter in its original historical, spiritual, and literary context.  It is then (and only then) my desire  to apply the message to the current day.

I, Brian Casey, am typing this with my own keyboard on Sunday morning, January 23, 2010.[1] I type this for my own sake, for the sake of those in the group that may read this, and for my small corner of the blogosphere (in no particular order)—that we all may be reminded of the need to be humble as we approach scripture.

Father God, because of the One and Only Son through Whom the cosmos was created, and because of our desire to be wrapped up in the called-out family of believers of which He is Head, help me/us to see what you want us to see in Colossians.  Please work clearly and influentially in this study of an important piece of communication, written as Your Kingdom spread in the 1st century.


[1] Col. 4:18; 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; 2 Thess. 3:17

Understanding authors

If I want to understand Mark Twain’s socio-political scruples as implied in The Prince and the Pauper, I probably won’t get much from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I’ve admired several of Frederick Buechner’s writings. If I want to dig into his life, I won’t get insight into the impact of his father’s suicide, which is detailed autobiographically in The Sacred Journey, by reading his fictional interpolation of Abraham and Isaac (Son of Laughter).

If I want to know who Horton is and why he hears a Who, I probably won’t find much help in the legend of the green eggs and ham. Sure, I get a little surface insight by reading another Geisel/Seuss work–something is clear about the author and his overall bent–but not much more than that.

Just wondering why we Christians are typically so careless with this type of thing. . . .

I mean, yeah, Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Timothy and was somehow divinely inspired to do so, but they’re different letters, written at different times, to different people, for different purposes.  Paul wrote them both, so, as with Seuss, we can get a general idea of his M.O. by reading two distinct letters, but one doesn’t help all that much to interpret the other.

This didn’t start out to be a plug, but I feel called to plug now. Two men whose spirits and intellects I respect greatly are working toward related Bible-reading goals. Gary Collier (http://www.CoffeeWithPaul.com and http://www.CoffeeWithPaul.com/aroma/index.html has embarked on a voyage of significant “instructive devotion” as he teaches how to read New Covenant scripture with careful attention to literary context (yes, with some Greek). Gary’s learning and gift with words, together with his insight into relationship, uniquely qualify him for this pastoral task.

Greg Fay is simultaneously writing a magnum companion-volume set on how to read the Bible. Yes, this type of thing has been done before, or so it would seem if you just look at the title. But I submit to you that if these books are published, the modern Christian world (and more) will have its best-ever methodologies for how to read scripture. I’ve been privileged to read the chapters as he writes them; I know both the wealth of content and the well-supported logic in the writing. Greg’s diagnosis is, essentially, that we read scripture verses sort of like “ink-blots,” isolating them from all context and imbuing them with meanings that sound good in Christianese but that are causing us to miss God’s original intent. The therapy for this malady is also prescribed by Dr. Greg.

If both Gary’s and Greg’s works are disseminated and utilized by as many people as they should touch, we could see a mass biblical intelligence boost that changes the face of Christendom. Wishful thinking, yes. But perhaps you would ask God to accomplish His purposes through these works, elevating the labors of these men’s minds and hands as they attempt to bolster God’s Kingdom?

To the sisters who sought recently to explain Romans 5 by appealing to 1 Corinthians 13 (or, further afield, to James or 2 Peter!): you are victims of a decades-old problem with the hermeneutical control tower that directs our scripture-reading flights. It’s not all your fault.