A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 2

cropped-coffee-and-bible.jpgBy Matt Sapp

This is the second post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often.

In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.

Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible successfully and most profitably.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?

As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:

-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)

1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books.  Sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage, but basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading.  One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions.  Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what’s happening in the passage.

2.What does the text mean?  What can I learn from the text?  What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God, the human condition, or the world?  This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.

3.What questions does the text raise in my mind?  Where do I want to know more?  What should I look up when I’m finished reading?  This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read.  Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.

So, first try to understand what the text is saying.  Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate.  Finally, identify areas for further study.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first?  Here are my suggestions.  Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it’s a place to start.

These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks.

THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.

Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.

Exodus 1-3 – This records an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt.  These chapters include Moses’ birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.

Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt.  This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith.  These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.

Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze.  The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing.  In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book.  The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.

Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103—  The Psalms include a blueprint to the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel.  There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.

Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.

THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7
—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.

Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.

John 1:1-18 and John 13-17— Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God.  In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.

1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.

WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?

The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.

Four translations to try:

New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).

You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com–a wonderful tool for searching scripture.  But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible.  The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION

If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.

In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.

Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.

If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.

The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.

A FINAL WORD

I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.

The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.

One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.

Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?