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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A Reading Life (pt 7): Reading the Life of Christ


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Just in time for Christ the King Sunday.

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.  This, the seventh article, was published on Christ the King Sunday, November 2018.

When my wife and I got married, we thought we knew each other well. We loved each other, but we really did not know how much we did not know at the time. At our wedding altar, our officiating minister said, “Joe, love Kristina as God’s tailor-made wife for you; and remember that it will take you a life-time to get to know her intimately.” Now, 20 years later, I see exactly what he means!

I feel the same way about Jesus. When I was baptized in high school, I thought I knew him. I gained comfort from his love and forgiveness, acquired a love for the church and the Bible, and had several spiritual experiences that moved me deeply; but, even then, I did not know him well.

It was not until I got to college that I studied Jesus the man and got to know him for who he was and who he continues to be.  Since then, a large portion of my “reading life” has been invested in studying this man whom I betrothed when I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Perrine so many years ago.

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “he will save.” The root for this word is yasha, which means “to redeem” and “to release.” It hints at liberation–a savior who does not enslave, but releases people to be who God called them to be by opening new doors and opportunities to live in a new way. This is how I felt when I went to college. Jesus was opening my eyes to see him in a new way!

Part of my new-found passion came from a calling to go deeper in my faith, but it also came from studying under religion professors who loved the Bible as much as I.

The professor who influenced me most was New Testament dynamo Daniel Goodman. Anyone who attended Palm Beach Atlantic University School of Ministry in the 1990s will tell you that Dr. Goodman was a big part of their lives. He was enthusiastic, erudite, humorous, relatable, and entertaining. His chalkboard-filled lectures and soaring grammatical feats were things to behold.

When I entered Dr. Goodman’s class, I met Jesus as if for the first time. It was there that I learned about this historical figure who walked the earth, lived in a particular context and culture, and shapes the church and its liturgy today. Goodman’s enthusiasm and quest for Jesus (he was a Q scholar) were contagious, and it was hard not to walk with a pep in your step upon leaving class.

The first book he assigned us was The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders. Sanders, a Jesus scholar out of Duke University who takes a modest view of the Gospels, was a good introduction. His book opened a new world to me. I walked with Jesus and his disciples in the first century; went to temple to study and pray with him; and I confronted my own journey to Calvary, wondering whether I had what it took to “pick up your cross and follow me.”

My admiration of Jesus studies only grew from there. I read anything I could get my hands on related to Jesus and first-century Palestine, from J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright, to Richard Horsley and Luke T. Johnson. My appetite was insatiable, and my passion deepened all the more when Kristina and I traveled to Israel in 2000. I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus at the time, and what better book to read while traveling the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of my Lord?

Part of the problem of religious studies is that sometimes the head gets away from the heart, and my love for the Bible grew into an acute cynicism. Why did it take attending college to learn the basics of the faith I thought I knew so well? I remember going back to my home church one summer and grilling the pastor: “Why aren’t you teaching us this stuff? Why am I learning it for the first time?”

I later learned that my anger is natural, a part of the learning process in which faith moves from orientation, to disorientation, and to re-orientation (per Walter Brueggemann). That movement, at least from orientation to disorientation, leads to grief and uncertainty. It heightens fear and anger and stretches critical thinking to a near breaking-point. My many “whys?” to my pastor hinted at this stage of my spiritual pilgrimage.

I can’t remember the answer my pastor provided, by the way.  But now — being a full-time pastor myself — I can see why it is difficult to teach those deeper truths that an academic passion seems to unveil. And when I do preach a new or deeper truth that is unfamiliar to most congregations, especially truths that defy the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answers, people approach me with skepticism, as if learning something new is not biblical. I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “I never heard that before,” and meant it as a negative statement rather than a positive opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ.

At the same time, I have learned that every sermon should have something new to share–not just a spiritual insight or application, such as “Five ways to improve your marriage,” but rather something new about the world of the Bible–even if its an insight into the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. Several weeks ago I went to a Bible study for pastors and I did not hear anything new. We are pastors–you have to step up your game if you’re going to teach pastors! Anything less than that is just lazy pontificating.

In college, when I was learning something with every paragraph I read, it was overwhelming. I was confronting a culture in which my Savior lived and moved about and died; and the culture shock still rattles me to this day. If you claim to love Jesus, don’t just know a few things about him–know him and read about his life. Get to know what he values. Take him at his word, and venture beyond the shallows, into the deep end with him!

A Reading Life (Pt 5): The Bible

Related imageBy 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.

One of the ways you can tell someone is going to be a minister or go into ministry is if, as a child, that person has an affinity towards the holy.  Some future ministers play church, while others pretend to facilitate the Lord’s Supper instead of playing tea time.  For me, I always gravitated towards the Bible, even when I could not understand it.

When I was growing up, I always had a Bible close to me.  It was on my nightstand.  I had a children’s version of an NIV (still being published!), with pictures throughout.  One year I wrapped my sister’s Bible for Christmas and gave it to her as a gift.  When she opened it and saw that it was her Bible, I said I got it for her because I hadn’t seen her read it.  That was telling!

That NIV stuck with me until I reached high school and really dug deep into God’s Word.  I committed my life to Christ more fully when I was 16.  I purchased an NIV Study Bible, popular back then.  At the age of 18, I purchased a Word in Life study Bible, which ended up being too big to do anything useful.  My youth pastor, my primary mentor at the time, gifted several of us with a Serendipity Student Study Bible that I still use to this day for the middle-school Sunday school class I teach every week at church.  It has my notes from high school in it.

College required the Annotated Oxford Student Study Bible (NRSV), and my love for that particular Bible has been well-documented.  I am on my fourth Oxford NRSV, and I recently purchased a small one for funerals and preaching.  My Associate Pastor, retiring and cleaning out his bookshelf, gave me an Oxford RSV Annotated Bible, a real gem (more on that in a future article on hand-me downs).

Study Bibles aside, my love for the Bible took off in college.  I spent hours reading the Bible every night in my student carrel.  It was my main source of nourishment, and that carried on to the rest of my life.  I am currently reading through the Bible all the way through again, but not in a rushed manner–I read it devotionally and spiritually, praying through every verse.  I accompany the reading with a devotion from F. B. Myers My Daily Homily when I can.

I cannot help connecting my calling to ministry with my love of the Bible.  I went into ministry because of my salvation in Christ, but I majored in religious studies because I wanted to learn everything I could about the Bible.  Even to this day, I purchase introductions to the Bible, namely the Old Testament, just to learn everything I can about it.  I get frustrated when I attend conferences or pastor’s studies and I do not learn something new.  If you are going to lead a study or conference for clergy, make sure you have at least a couple things in your material that are fresh or hot off of the scholarship press–we’ve heard it all, and I don’t need another rote lecture, thank you very much.

The Bible continues to shape my world, as it has shaped the world around us.  And for all of the reading I do, spiritual or otherwise, it is the Bible to which I always return.  You cannot replace reading it for yourself, experiencing the Spirit’s whisper in its pages, and having a daily practice of meditating upon its principles and precepts.