Civility in the Public Square

trumpBy Joe LaGuardia

Now that another presidential election season is upon us, we need to remember the importance of civility in the public square.  No matter where we stand on a political, social, or cultural issue, God calls us to be kind and respectful.

Civility is a rare commodity during an election year.  We who engage in and listen to political debates are not surprised at all of the mudslinging, vitriol, cliches, platitudes, exaggeration, fear-mongering, hate-speech, haughty speech, ignorance, arrogance, and (as always) proverbial bologna our politicians wield at their disposal.

Christians need not follow their example.  While politicians use polls and consultants to craft words, we must craft our words based on the Bible, the revelation of God’s Word.

There are several lessons in the Bible that relate to civility in the public square.

The first comes from the book of James.  Writing to a community of persecuted Christians, James instructed Christians to value perseverance in the face of hardship and watch their language.  He wasn’t referring to bad words or slang, but speech that was disrespectful and divisive.

A close reading of James posits that a Christian’s manner of speech can shape his or her character.  Like a bridle that guides a horse, a tongue can direct one’s walk with the Lord.  This echoes Jesus, who said that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that defiles.

This had something to do with the ancient understanding of biology: The “quality” of what emanates from one’s eyes, mouth, and even ears reflected the condition of one’s soul.  Why else would James start with the tongue in his diatribe on the importance of character in faith formation (see James 3:1-4:12), or Jesus’ references in the Sermon on the Mount to our speech and the affect that eyes have on the entire body  (Matthew 5:22; 6:22)?

For Christians who long to follow in Christ’s footsteps, words indeed matter.

Another lesson can be found in Proverbs:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those love it will eat its fruit” Proverbs 18:21.

We can bless or curse others depending on how we say something or express our opinions; but those who use tact and mercy not only bless others but receive a blessing of kindness in return.  Words can be as nourishing as fruit that is shared within community.

When we engage in politics in the public square, we speak as ambassadors of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Let us not try to keep one foot in God’s Kingdom and another foot in the world or we, as one theologian put it, will only stumble as a result.

Based on these lessons, here are a few tips to keep in mind this election season:

Keep your speech objective but compassionate.  I have had my share of political debates over the years, and there is nothing more frustrating than when a debate turns personal.  This is one way that the tongue can get out of hand.

Stay focused on issues.  If you find that you are talking about politics with someone, make sure that you speak fairly about issues that matter.  Do not simplify issues into absolutes.

Most, of not all, issues are complex and not as black and white as broadcast media makes them out to be.

Avoid speaking about serious topics on social media.  My general rule is to refrain from expressing divisive opinions on social media because it is hard to discern tone and intent over the internet.  Also, tit-for-tat harangues in status updates, Facebook posts, tweets, and “comment replies” can strain and, in some cases, damage friendships.

If you save your debates for when you are with someone in person, then there will be a greater chance of understanding, compromise, and a clear line of communication between the two of you.

Lastly, remember that you don’t need to express your opinion about everything.  Momma was right: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Another adage says, “Better for people to think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”  Sometimes expressing an opinion is not worth it.

During this election season, allow the Bible’s truths rather than the latest politician’s speech to guide your speech.  It may save a friendship or two, and keep you from the fires of conflict and judgment.

Generational faith formation makes a difference

coffee-and-bibleI once had an Old Testament professor who was reading through his grandmother’s Bible.  He had read through the Bible many times before, but this one was special because it had all of his grandmother’s hand-written notes and reflections throughout.

He cherished those notes and found that it helped him experience Jesus in a fresh, vibrant way.

Ever since then, I have been intentional about writing in my Bible, not only to keep track of sermon prep and Sunday School notes, but to make a sort of spiritual record to pass on to my children.

It was several years ago that I found out I was buying too many new Bibles to do this.

I, like so many others in our consumerist society, came under the misunderstanding that buying a new Bible would somehow get me to read it more.  I had to decide on one Bible–one made well, that could travel with me to both pulpit and prayer closet–and start the journey of writing, and to do so with my children and (eventual) grandchildren in mind.

I told this to a colleague who is an associate pastor in the city.  She, too, had a professor who stressed the importance of writing in one’s Bible–in fact, he allowed his students to bring notes for tests to class, as long as they were written in a Bible.  He felt that the notes would be accessible to students well after graduation, as well as build an heirloom of learning for future generations.

There is something about a Bible that is passed on to others that symbolizes the power of generational faith education.

Sociologist, Vern Bengston, writing for The Christian Century (“Families of Faith,” 25 December 2013), argued that a child’s religiosity, or lack thereof, is directly influenced by the faith of his or her parents, especially that of the father.  He also wrote that the faith of a child’s grandparents is just as influential, even if the parents are not religious at all.

Several weeks ago, I held a Bible study at a retirement home in Decatur.  We had a new participant in the class, so I made sure to get to know her a little bit.

She told me that she did not grow up in a Christian household.  She did, however, have a grandmother who was always reading or telling stories from the Bible.

Passing on the faith–sometimes in the form of passing down a Bible–is a significant way to teach the next generation the importance of Christian living.

The Bible explicitly commands that we, as God’s people, have an obligation to do this one way or another.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gave Israel instructions related to this command, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (6:4-7).

Teaching children faith–and the Bible–is so very important in our culture today.  A few weeks ago, the Barna group released statistics showing that Atlanta ranked 29 among the most “Bible-minded” states.  That means there are 28 states whose population knows the Bible better than we do.

Can you be counted among the “Bible-minded” in our state?  How do you get your children and grandchildren involved in engaging their faith and learning about the ways and Word of God?  Is it by telling the “old, old story;” or by having a Bible to leave with loved ones after you have gone to be in glory?  Whatever the case may be, God commands us to teach our faith, and we would do well to listen.

The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Fourth Edition, and Me

The newest member in the Oxford Annotated Bible family

For the past half-year, I have been vacillating about whether to purchase a new Bible.  Every time I went to Cokesbury in Atlanta, I drooled over all of my favorite translations.  I looked at hard covers and the leather editions. I checked prices and versions.

Whenever I went, I felt that I was committing some sort of adulterous act.  At home, I knew my beloved Bible, the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Third Edition, sat waiting for me to return, longing for me to crack open its pages yet again.  I purchased the Bible over six years ago, and it got some great use in Bible studies, Sunday school, and sermons.

It seemed only natural, then, that if I get a new Bible, it would have to be the next Oxford edition (the Fourth Edition): Over the past fourteen years I owned a total of four Oxford Annotated Bibles.

The original “Brick”

I remember the day I purchased my first Oxford Annotated Study Bible in 1996.  I entered college and my religion professors required this particular version.

I went to the campus bookstore and saw this behemoth of a Bible (I later learned that it goes by the nickname, “the Brick”). At the time, I was using the very popular NIV study Bible (mine had a cool DC Talk “Jesus Freak” sticker on the back cover, thank you very much).  Why would I spend forty to sixty dollars for another Bible?

Several reasons.  For one, it had the Apocrypha, which provides historical insight from the inter-testamental period leading up to Jesus’ ministry.

Also, it was the New Revised Standard Version.  Unlike the NIV, which combines both literal and paraphrase translations in haphazard fashion, the NRSV is an ecumenical translation boasting some serious historical-critical scholarship.  It is not perfect, but it is accurate and in the tradition of the King James Version.

Upon looking at the various “versions” of the Oxford Bible available, I settled on the paperback edition.  At least if I did not use it, I was not spending an arm and a leg.

You get what you pay for, and within one semester the covers and end-pages were dog-eared and nearly torn.  I had to replace it with the hard cover, “the brick!”

It did not take long before the Brick replaced all of its contenders in my life of faith.  The old NIV started to collect dust on the bookshelf along with my Ryrie NASV and a waste-of-money NKJV Word of Life study Bible (which probably weighs ten million pounds) I picked up before college started.

The Brick sustained me through four years of college as a religion major, one year of teaching Bible at a private school, three years of seminary after that, and then another four years of doctoral studies.

My beloved Bible eventually matured into a swollen, well-worn artifact. I was in luck because by the time I graduated with a Master of Divinity, however, I found out that Oxford Press had published a Third Edition of the Brick.

The Third Edition was a gift from my parents in 2004

When I graduated with a Masters, I thought it appropriate to celebrate by purchasing an Oxford Annotated Third Edition Bible.  I splurged and bought the leather-bound version.  I was living the high life now; and I had a gold-leaf name on the front of my new Bible to prove it.

By now, six years later, the leather-bound edition became as well-worn as the original Brick I purchased so long ago.  The gilded edges were spotty and the spine grew an awkward fold from a publishing defect.   The pages showed signs of slight water damage (how they got wet or humid, I know not).

Buying a new Bible can be a daunting task for any Christian, especially when it has to count for something.  No one wants to drop a lot of money on a Bible and then not like it after two months–(I had experienced that with that wretched NKJV study Bible years ago).

So, choosing a new Bible is a rather serious commitment.

What was more daunting was that, this time around, I questioned whether I was going to even purchase an Oxford Bible.  There are Bibles on the market that were not available a half of a decade ago.

The other Bible that caught my eye was the Wesley Study Bible.  I’m not a Methodist, but this Bible has solid notes, devotional sidebars, and handsome binding.  Only problem is that it lacks the scholarship of the Oxford, and it is a bit larger than the Oxford (not in thickness, but in width).  It just would not do.

I also considered other translations.  There are so many good ones out these days, from the English Standard Version to the New Living Translation.  Both have excellent study Bibles available, and both have a wide variety of leather-bound styling.

Translations anyone?

Then there was the new Common English Bible, published by Cokesbury.  If I chose this Bible, I would have to wait for a study Bible [now available] to come along.

Well, to make a long story longer: The other day, I decided I was going to make this momentous decision, so I carved out one hour to spend at Cokesbury.  I brought along my Oxford Third Edition to get its blessing before I replaced it.  That…and I wanted to compare the size of all these Bibles to the Brick.

My adventure started with the Oxford Fourth Edition.  I compared the binding (didn’t want to get stuck with another defective Bible), leather, page quality, font, and (of course) the study notes with my Third Edition.

In the areas of binding, leather quality, font, and page quality, the Fourth Edition is far superior than any of its predecessors (the leather feels like sheepskin, and is quite handsome indeed).

The study notes in the Fourth Edition, although similar in many areas to the Third Edition, are actually expanded, and they read more clearly than the previous version.  I noticed that a few footnotes alluded to reference passages in both the apocrypha and the Dead Sea scrolls, which I though were kind of cool.

The fourth edition also comes with tables, historical timelines, and a concordance like the third edition; however, the fourth includes a theology glossary.  Now how cool is that?

The size of the two editions are comparable.  It seems that the fourth edition is thinner by a fraction, but I think the binding just makes it appear as much.

I really did want something smaller, something I can carry outside of church. So, I left the Fourth Edition there on the shelf and continued to take another look at those other Bibles.

After a few minutes searching, an odd feeling hit me: I needed an Oxford.

Where would I be without those faithful study notes?  How could I read scripture in public if not for the gender inclusive version that that NRSV offers?  How would I explain to all of those professors and teachers and colleagues of mine who know how much scholarship means to a person like me if I were to not get the Brick.

Nice view of the Fourth Edition

And before you know it, my bank account was $80 less, and some lady was in the back storage room putting my name on the cover in gold letters.  I had committed to being a loyal Oxford customer yet again.  What a ride.

It hasn’t been a week since I bought the fourth edition Brick, and I have not been able to put it down.

Also, the new Brick spent some time meeting its cousins–my former companions–it replaced.  Every free moment I get, I transfer my hand-written “notes” from my original hard-cover Brick to the new Brick.

And, before my very eyes, I see that my faith journey comes full circle.

When I go through those notes, I see just how much the Oxford Bibles have meant to me over the past fourteen years of my life.

The original hard-cover Brick, for instance, contains notes from college, my first job as a Bible teacher at a private school, seminary, and, later, my doctorate degree.

(When I did my dissertation for my D.Min., I used the hard cover Brick because it was the one I kept at home, and I did most of my doctoral work in my home office–lo, the hard cover has been with me through every major faith development, crisis, and research in my entire religious career.)

When I brought the Fourth Edition home, I took a few minutes to fill out the little registration card that Oxford Press includes with all of their leather-bound Bibles.

There is a little space that asks how the consumer “heard” about the Oxford Bible and why it was purchased.  I found myself checking the “other” box, and filling in the lined space with a simple, yet profound truth:

“I have been a loyal Oxford Annotated Study Bible customer since 1996.”

Nothing less would do.