A Reading Life (prt 11): The Bible, from a different point of view

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new.  If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale.  But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.

One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned.  “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears.  It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.

I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college.  Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult.  But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text.  I’ve never read the Bible that way!

Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view.  As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.

Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me.  Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude.  The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.

Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text.  Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language.  It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.

This was a life-giving methodology for me.  I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list.  He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.

Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder.  It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life.  It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.

As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy.  It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously.  It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching.  If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.

 

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The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.

 

 

 

The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

In the last two hundred years of biblical research, scholars have outlined various “quests” for the historical Jesus.  Each quest accompanies new insights into historical records and artifacts that emphasize some never-before-understood facet about Jesus of Nazareth.

The first quest, around the turn of the eighteenth century, applied new approaches of historical inquiry to the Bible.  Many, like Thomas Jefferson, concluded that Jesus was a wise sage whose many miracles were an invention of the early church.

Other quests thereafter understood Jesus to be a prophet who proclaimed the world’s imminent end.

Now, with the start of a new century, we stand in the shadow of a contemporary, burgeoning quest for the historical Jesus.  Unlike years past, it combines historical research with literary criticism, specialized interpretation, and global, multicultural experiences of the Risen Christ.

For many, the freedom to marry objective inquiry with spiritual, global awakening is refreshing.

I am reminded of a book review I did some time ago on Jonathon Merritt’s Jesus is Better than You Imagined.  I noted that the book focused on Merritt’s experiences of Jesus more than the life of Christ or the many ways that historians understand his ministry, death, and resurrection.

Little did I know that this type of experiential writing tipped a hat to a new quest that makes the reading community–those of us deeply invested in the Bible and the life of Christ–a part of the interpretation of who Christ was and is.

edgarIn his book, Jesus Christ Today, New Testament scholar Edgar McKnight notes that this kind of interpretation marks one of three contemporary interpretative resources that define a new quest for the historical Jesus.

Whereas the first resource is that of experience and multicultural theology, a second resource originates in ongoing conversations with world religions.

Echoing an age-old question aptly summarized by Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, Christians are asking whether Jesus is the “name above names” or simply “the name among other names.”

Our understanding of other world religions — their dissimilarities as well as similarities to Christianity, including similarities related to a penchant towards religious fundamentalism and violence — is shaping how we read Christ’s teachings and the impact he has made on the church and history.

No matter how we answer Knitter’s question, however, we cannot deny that theological study and dialogue with other religions illuminates Jesus’ presence in our life.

A third interpretative resource consists of scholars and clergy who understand Jesus as a rabbi deeply embedded in the Judaism that shaped his teachings and understanding of God.

It was not until after the Holocaust–and the realization that much of Christian theology influenced anti-Semitic policies in the west–that scholars revisited and affirmed Jesus’ Jewish identity and relationship to the people of Israel.

Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright are but some contemporary scholars who have mined the Bible with this field of investigation in mind.  N. T. Wright, a popular author even in conservative, evangelical circles has argued persuasively that Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Jewish worldview of the First Century.

It is precisely this type of quest that has ignited a reexamination of the Bible and inspired Christians to practice a vibrant, fresh faith in which Jesus has become all the more “relevant” in the minds of believers around the world.

It is relevant because this examination has political ramifications.  The more Christians listen to different communities of faith–be it Jewish or otherwise–the more Christians are forced to reconcile Jesus’ message of peace with the ongoing religious conflicts that detrimentally affect global politics and the Middle East in particular.

This new quest–steeped in interpretative communities that emphasize religious experience, world religions, and Jesus’ Jewish roots–has the power to add a valuable and much-needed voice in a world that is becoming more divisive and violent due to the fracturing of historical, political, and religious ideologies.

No matter where we stand in this new quest, may we faithfully seek Christ and respond to His cause for peace wherever we trod.