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 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.

 

 

A Reading Life (pt 8): Crisis of Faith and the Dark Night of the Soul

Image result for experiencing god henry blackabyBy Joe LaGuardia

Have you ever read a book because everyone else is reading it?  Harry Potter.  Twilight.  Tuesdays with Morrie.  The Purpose Driven Life. Fifty Shades of Grey.  Well, maybe not that one…  I have never been one to read what everyone else is reading, except this one time when I went through Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby.

Experiencing God is a great study.  It is in-depth and moving; it awakens faith and puts it into action.  But when it comes to putting that powder keg into the hands of a college student who also, by chance, is experiencing a crisis of faith, it can become dangerous.

A crisis of faith erupts when people move (in the words of Walter Brueggemann) from orientation to disorientation.  This is how it works: When a person grows up believing things that she has been taught, those things solidify into a worldview.  When the person confronts things as an adult that conflicts with those beliefs, it threatens the worldview and forces a re-evaluation of those facts.  This creates grief, anger, and crisis.  It can also lead to hurt, confusion, and rebellion (as in a season that includes coming-of-age).  The person moves from orientation to disorientation and, like heroes who must confront monsters from the past or from within, find that she is far from home.  A cross-roads arises, and the choice is to move forward in uncertainty and greater faith, or return to the adolescent mind in which naivety requires ignoring new information.

College is a time of disorientation for many people.  Students are learning new things, learning how to think critically, and questioning truths that they have assumed for years.  For Christians, this movement can result in a crisis of faith, what St. John the Cross called a Dark Night of the Soul.  It can be, if someone finds a coach or spiritual guide, a rite of passage that broadens faith, creates empathy for a hurting world, and opens people up to a God who is much bigger than they first assume God to be.

My second year of college was one long Dark Night.  I was learning new things in my religion classes, while questioning the faith of my youth.  I was confronting the doctrines of my home church–a Presbyterian church–and discovering a new Baptist paradigm.  I was trying to learn the Reformed theology of that tradition (Presbyterian) and coming up short.  Like Martin Luther whose faith waned under hardship of his Catholicism, I was reforming faith and a very different journey.

Enter Experiencing God, which intends to ignite a new way to live by faith.  Blackaby’s premise is that God is calling people to join Him at work in the world, and you cannot stay in the same place you’ve lived for your entire life.  You must, like Moses or Abraham, hear God’s call, respond, and move into a place in which the Holy Spirit guides you.

At the time, I took this a little too literally — again, the adolescent mind cannot always understand deep spiritual truths and differentiate it from metaphor — and I thought God was calling me somewhere else.  I was searching for answers: Is God calling me to the mission field, to leave a life of biblical scholarship behind?  Was Jesus asking me to deny my family and go into the ministry in some far-off land?  How was I to leave my old life behind–toss my CD collection?  Stop watching movies?  “Kiss dating goodbye”?

At the time I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she received the short end of the stick of this journey of faith.  I waffled in my relationship with her, and my emotions ebbed and flowed about marriage.  One week I knew I couldn’t live without her; the next week, I thought I heard God telling me to leave everything–and everyone–and go to Africa.  It was a crazy time.  Experiencing God was not helpful.  At all.

My best friend and my father had to step in and coach me.  My best friend endured my insecurities and venting, and comforted me in all hours of the night.  He told me that God leaves a lot up to us, that the Christ-follower actually has a great deal of agency in decisions.  If I chose to be with Kristina, then so be it–it wasn’t as if there was that one “perfect girl” out there for me; I had to choose to commit to her, and that choice–rather than some predestined relationship–would be more valuable anyway.

A few months later, sensing my anxiety and Kristina’s frustration, my father sat me down for a serious talk.  He, an armchair theologian who rarely cracked open a Bible, laid it out straight: “Joey,” he said, “This girl ain’t going to stick around too much longer if you keep going back and forth.  She is a great one, and you should marry her.  She is special.”

When I brought up my feelings about God, he persisted: “All I know is that when I watch you two together, there is something special.  Don’t let Satan deceive you, and don’t let go of her.  Ever.”

That conversation sealed the deal.  I did end up going on a short-term mission trip to Africa for a month, to get my foot in the waters of missions, only to come back and clarify that a life of travel was not for me!  Two weeks later, on August 13th–my wife’s birthday–I asked Kristina to marry me.

I tossed Experiencing God, and I learned how to trust in the Holy Spirit, my intuition, and my support system.  I also learned that confusion, disruption and deception are the weapons of Satan, the Father of Lies.  I got through that crisis of faith, and became a whole new person.  I wrestled with God and became a man.