Learning Trust in Weakness

trust in weakness

In the still of the night, we may hear the voice of doubt and fear echoing in our soul. The stomach reacts with a sick feeling. A litany of anguish burns within. When will daylight drive away the demons of the night?

As I was reading about Hezekiah, I kept thinking of these voices. The armies of Assyria assembled outside the gates Jerusalem, sounding terror into the hearts of the people. Destruction loomed over the city. The people trembled.

“Who could he trust in the witching hour?”

Rabshakeh threatened and seduced the people of Judah at the same time, “Thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die.”

He mocks the Lord alongside the gods of other nations,

“33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’ ”

The weight of the kingdom pressures King Hezekiah. Overwhelmed by the doubt and fear that sound across his besieged land, he tears his clothes, covers himself in ashes, and waits upon the Lord. Though he knows the terror of the moment, he doesn’t send for Egypt or seek to make amends with Assyria, he waits for the Lord.

The terror of Rabshakeh may remind us of the looming threats in our world. Finances, job situations, family anguish, health problems, bad decisions, mistakes, and the problems around the world may haunt us. How do we learn to trust the Lord in spite of our own deep sense of weakness?

Again and again, the kings of Judah and Israel trusted in the powers around them, the gods of the land and air and mountains. Throughout the Old Testament, we see a pattern of how idolatry devastates a people. By seeking control through the local powers around them, they fall into slavery, lose their identity, and become oppressors and the oppressed.

This pattern of destruction is seen directly in the land of Egypt. Egypt is a land of plenty: a giant Cedar that shelters the birds of the air (to use Ezekiel’s language). Egypt has learned the art of controlling the world around it. You will have food to eat and may even prosper, but you will be enslaved. Everyone is a slave in Egypt even Pharaoh. He must play a prescribed role. The system of control that shapes his entire culture controls him as much as it does the rest of the people.

This idolatry, this system of twisted power is the real threat facing Hezekiah. Trust in the Lord alone, or seek control through the gods of the land and fall back into slavery, into nothingness. In our post-enlightenment world, we claim that we no longer believe in God let alone in gods. Yet, it is not hard to see how systems of power enslave us, dehumanize us, and turn us into the oppressed and the oppressors.

We are still idolaters at heart. We just don’t call our idols gods. As we face the dark fears that often loom on the horizon, we want some type of control to keep the threat at bay. In our desire for control, we can turn any created thing thing into an idol. Just as ancient culture turned the sun into a god, we may turn our politics, our money, our knowledge, our health, our technique, our technology and even our theology into idols that we hope will restore control, keeping us safe, entertained and well fed.

I am reminded of the new song sounding forth in Psalm 96.

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

As the song echoes through the land, the gods of the nations are exposed as idols or nothingness as in no power:

4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.

As Hezekiah lifts his voice to the Lord, he turns away from Assyria and Egypt (as an ally against Assyria). He knows the Lord is free to save or not save Israel, but he also knows that the Lord is faithful to His people and full of lovingkindess. The gods that threaten are nothingness. The issue is not whether the Lord will rescue Israel in this moment, but if the Hezekiah will trust in the Lord.

Our ability to trust feels so very weak. Sometimes rehearsing stories can help us remember the Faithful One. Stories resound within us. Stories like the Exodus, David and Goliath, Hezekiah with his back against the wall, and Job stripped of everything. We remember the God who is faithful even after death, raising Jesus above all power and given the name above every name.

We are learning to fall back into the hands of the Lord. The fury of Rabshakeh will seek to threaten us, seduce us, and call us to trust in the powers of the age. By God’s grace alone, we learn to let go of our control, our strength, our confidences. We are learning trust in weakness, life in death. We are learning to look to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, knowing that despite our fears and doubts our Lord is faithful and His faithfulness extends into the darkness of death and beyond.

Image by fluffisch (on flickr). Used by permission via Creative Commons.

The Wasteland of Moral Ghosts

Recently I wrote a response to the post-apocalyptic film, The Road. In the film, the world as we know has come to an end, and humans are losing their humanity in the struggle to survive. This film comes to mind as I continue thinking about the challenge raised by The Economist concerning modern progress and moral sensibility.

Morality and post-apocalyptic visions loom large in the writings of the moral philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre. In his essay, “The Achievement of Alisdair MacIntyre,” Edward Oakes introduces key themes of MacIntyre’s thought. Drawing from Oakes’ helpful summary, I’d like to review MacIntyre’s ideas in response to The Economist.

What does a moral wasteland look like?
Drawing inspiration from Walter Miller’s science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, MacIntyre describes the moral wasteland of our modern world in a parable where a series of environmental crisis lead to a violent revolt against the natural sciences.

Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still, there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred.

In this post-science world, MacIntyre describes an emerging cult of science that memorizes textual fragments, memorizes Theorems and surviving portions of the periodic table. Nothing is complete. There is no context for scientific knowledge or practice, so what remains is a jumble of words and practices that no one fully grasps, and yet they practice and debate. The ability to make sense of these scientific fragments appears irretrievably lost.
MacIntryre proceeds to suggest that this story really did happen in the world of moral reasoning. We are not entering a dark ages of morality, we’ve been living in one. And we don’t have the tools to understand moral reasoning, let alone make moral argument.

What does it mean to be wrong in a Marxist world?
He encountered this catastrophe firsthand in the 60s when he and fellow Marxists condemned the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) as wrong. MacIntyre was forced to ask himself, “What do you mean by “wrong”?” At that point, he realized that Marxism provided him with no objective standard for declaring this act as wrong. There was no room for human conscience in a utilitarian focus upon consequences and not actions. Present actions were always part of some future consequence, thus one could never truly condemn an act as wrong. This problem led MacIntyre toward Thomism and toward an analysis on the wasteland of modern moral reasoning.

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?
Elvis Costello bemoans a life adrift in the currents of pain and hatred and misery. His longing for peace, love and understanding might be about personal loss but may also point to culture that has lost our navigational tools that point us to goodness, purpose, and a moral progress that means something more than the trendy cultural “sin of the week.”

Aristotle wrote in a way that assumed there are genuine final causes, goals, purposes, and aims. This way of looking toward an end state (teleology) saturates Aristotle’s writings from science to ethics to politics. He could speak of progress with a clear direction toward specific goals that were considered actually good, true and beautiful.

In the ethical realm, these words provided a ground for understanding humans as what we could be. In other words, these words/ideas focused on a future ideal. Working from this defined ideal, we have a basis to discuss what is good and what is not good. We can talk about goals and purposes of human life.

MacIntyre argues that in the post-Newtonian world, we lost any sense of teleology. Building on Newton’s mechanistic worldview, Darwin argued that “natural selection” is the mechanism for explaining an organ’s functionality. These two ideas led thinkers to focus on “life as it is” not “life as it is supposed to be.” The discussion of purpose no longer had any real meaning or real content. In other words, we lost the foundation for words like good, moral and purpose.

MacIntyre acknowledges that Nietzche understands the implication of what happened when he writes, “If there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.” Morality has no basis. Of course, humans continue to use words like moral, good, purpose and so on, but they are fragments of a worldview that was gone.

Is the person who protests the loudest the most moral?
MacIntyre argues that the modern liberal system (he suggests conservatism and liberalism are debates within the liberal system) understand morality as voicing our feelings and opinions. Since we don’t have a way to think about ultimate purposes, we don’t have a way to truly define moral progress. Thus our morality is about voicing our complaint.

This lack of a common ground turns our debates about war, abortion or other topics into shrill, yelling matches. We voice a loud (and often mocking protest against those with whom we disagree), but we don’t really speak to those outside our camp. We shout at them.

Martin Buber, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (ERH), and Franz Rozenweig all realized that our modern world suffered a dis-ease in speech. In the 1940s, ERH wrote that we may be facing a speechless future. What did he mean?

Our words would no longer have power to connect us. Buber wrote that our discussion were not discussions at all but mutual monologue where we speak to ourselves instead of really speaking to the someone who is other from us. He studied Communist cells, Jewish kibbutz, and Christian churches and concluded that our so-called communities are really communities of affinity were we all have to think alike to join.

The ability to talk to someone outside our “tribe,” our political camp, our religion, and find common ground was disappearing. Writing over 40 years later, Scott Peck and Robert Bellah warned that our civil society was breaking under the weight of unrestrained individualism. The civil veneer that holds our society together has grown thin and is seriously fraying.

MacIntyre cautiously voices concerns about the descent of our culture into morass of civil confusion, suggesting we may already be in the middle of another dark ages:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age . . . and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. . . . What they set themselves to achieve—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Where is Benedict when we need him?
When The Economist posted their lament for progress in the modern world, they voiced a growing discontent that is echoed in political spheres, religious spheres, education spheres and even among family spheres. There is a pervasive sense for many Westerners that something is very wrong. Our iphones and Kindles and xBox 360s cannot rescue us from the abyss that Gertrude Himmelfarb warned about in her severe cultural analysis.

One the critiques of MacIntyre is that he points to Benedict but has yet to offer a robust vision for the way to move forward and out from this moral paralysis. He suggests a civil conversation between science and Thomistic Aristotelian ethics but Oakes and others still would like to hear more about how to get there.

Who is the man or the community of speech thinkers that might help us rebuild and restore dialogue and find a way to talk about morality within resonating inspiration? I don’t know.

I’ve been trying to learn this for the past eighteen years and I am still not sure.

I see pointers and clues. We a serious engagement with Einstein and his shattering impact upon Newtonian mechanistic laws. Field theory opens a new discussion with new ways to think and talk about our world. Even when it’s misunderstood it continues opening new channels for thought and discussion.

Personally, I’ve found the science of Rupert Sheldrake applying field theory to biology and consciousness and memory as provocative. During the last year, I’ve enjoyed the scientific theology of Thomas F. Torrance as he seriously engaged the claims of Einstein et al in relation to his faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Another helpful development has been the re-emerging discussion of Biblical wisdom literature as a guide to engaging those who are outside our camp and those who may even be considered our enemies. My friend Charles Strohmer is thinking and writing about how wisdom speaks to foreign policy (especially in this era where Western and non-Western leaders struggle to find ways to meet).

I’ll write more about my previously claim that Jesus Christ points the way forward for me in this discussion later. I would love to hear about other “Benedicts” who may have thoughts and patterns that could lead us away from the dis-integrated tribalism that infects and is infecting our world and our capacity to speak, leading us into the age of glare where we behold
“the appalling record of the twentieth century; … the sullenness of so many high school students today, the emptiness of their elders in college, the despair of the underclass, the desperate fun-seeking of the jet set, the divorce rate, the incidence of child abuse, and on and on.”

Psalm 125 – A Story

Jeshua walked alongside his grandfather Johanan as they sang,

“Trust in HaShem and rest like Mt. Zion
resting and resting and resting.”

With each step they called out, “resting and resting and resting.” Jeshua liked this part and often repeated it.

“resting and resting and resting”

Smiling at his grandson’s energy, Johanan joined and boldly sang out, “resting and resting and resting.”

Soon they would be in Jerusalem. Soon the whole company of exiles would arrive home. Some for the first time. When Ezra announced to the community that he would be taking a group of exiles to Palestine, Johanan immediately told his family that it was time. The responsibilities among the exile community kept his father Azgad from ever making the trip. But he spoke of return and dreamed of return until his final day.

As he walked toward Zion, Johanan fulfilled a promise to his father. The family would once again since out praise to HaShem in the midst of the land.

So he sang out with gusto,
“Jerusalem rests in the circle of mountains
His people rest in the circle of HaShem
resting and resting and resting.”

As he sang, he smiled. The Word of the Lord did not return void. The city that burned. The city that died. The city that vanished into dust was rebuilt. Songs of joy and gladness echoed from the Temple both day and night. The land was waking up. The trees were beginning to clap. And people poured into Jerusalem: coming and coming and coming back to the place God had given them.

Johanan’s mind drifted off to an old story of God bringing His people back. Turning to Jeshua he asked, “Did I ever tell you the tale of the boy King Joash?”

Of course Jeshua knew this story had heard this story and loved to hear Johanan tell the story.

“The boy King Joash?” He replied inquisitively.

“Oh yes. Now that is a story.”

As he talked, Israel’s ancient history came alive in Jeshua’s imagination. Soon he saw pictures of the wicked Athaliah who to tried to seduce and destroy the kingdom of Judah and the throne of David.

Daughter of the notorious Jezeebel, Athaliah had been offered to King Jehoram of Judah. Their marriage would seal an alliance between Ahab and Jehosophat, a hopeful step to restoring the Kingdom of Judah and Israel. But this alliance turned out to be a subtle invasion of Judah.

Athaliah raised her son Ahaziah to follow in paths of Ahab and by the time he became king, he was turning the people of Judah away from HaShem to worship Baal. A dark crimson cloud descended upon Judah as the bloodthirst of Baal was hailed across the land.

In this desperate darkness, the faithful cried out to HaShem for deliverance.

Johanan stopped his story and laid his arm upon Jeshua’s shoulder.

“I’ve known the dark struggle of these people. My father and his father knew the dark struggle. What happens when the wicked rule?”

Almost on cue Jeshua said, “The righteous are led astray?”

“Yes, yes my son. The wicked prowl around like wildcats looking to pounce, looking to kill, looking to destroy the people of God. Watch out! Keep alert! For they are coming for you to!”

Even though Jeshua had heard this before, a cool shudder swept through his body.

“But do not fear my boy. Watch for their footprints. Listen for their seductive words. When you see them coming, look to the Lord. HaShem will give you strength and wisdom to stand against their traps, their seductions, their deceptions.”

“Remember our song.”

Together they proclaimed, “The rule of the wicked will not rest, will not rest, will not rest on God’s people. So the righteous may not fall but walk upright in the land.”

And then, “Trust in HaShem and rest like Mt. Zion
resting and resting and resting.”

A moment later they returned to the terror of Ahaziah’s rule. As the people of God cried out for justice, Ahaziah cried out in terror at the sword of Jehu. The wicked king fell. Upon hearing reports of her son’s slaughter, Athaliah immediately executed his sons and cut down the house of David. In the void, she now ruled with terror and tyranny.

The dark cloud seemed to grow darker. Under her cruelty the people groaned and the land groaned. But the Lord was silent. Was He powerless in the face of the mocking followers of Baal?

Year after year after year passed by. The wicked Queen grew stronger and stronger as each year passed. The land and the people grew weaker and weaker.

Yet the Lord really did surround His people in the midst. For even in the dark days, His hand extended over His people, and His Spirit protected the House of David. One child survived the slaughter of the princes. One child grew up in hiding. One child learned the wisdom and power and faithfulness of HaShem.

That child was Joash.

In his Sabbath year, rest was restored to the land. The Priest Jehoida crowned Joash, son of David, King of Judah. And the people cheered. And their cheers echoed throughout the city and into the ears of the wicked Queen.

In her fury, she tore her clothes and cried, “Treason!” But her restless reign was over. Armed guards removed the wicked Queen and the righteous rule of God was restored in the scepter of a seven-year-old.

As though the song were part of the story, Jeshua and Johanan resumed the chorus,
“Trust in HaShem and rest like Mt. Zion
resting and resting and resting.”

As they sang the final words of this song, the old man and young boy thought of the land beneath their feet. They walked upon the land of their fathers. They walked upon the promise of God fulfilled. They could see Mt Zion in the distance. They could hear the steps of God’s people all around them.

“His people will rest, will rest, will rest in His way.
But the wicked leave the way and the land.
So the land may be Shalom
and Shalom may be the land.”

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Psalm 119)

I’ve tried to sketch out a few ideas out about how modernism and postmodernism influenced the reading of the Bible. After I wrote up a few thoughts on some of the ways I might think about the text, I thought began to think of simply highlighting how the text tells us to interpret itself. As with anything I write, I am not trying to provide an exhaustive study but rather a sketch. So I might simply take one passage that explores the idea of meditation in some depth: Psalm 119.

As I reflected on the Psalm and listed out the various forms of meditation mentioned, I discerned that the list might be considered in three seperate categories: hearing, speaking and seeing.

1. Hearing – In verse 33 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” This request is part of a larger pattern that reappears throughout Scripture. The Spirit of God teaches us the Word of God. At the very beginning of the Bible, God is speaking.

Hans Urs Balthasar taught me that hearing is the position of humility. I exert less control over hearing than seeing. While I can easily change me gaze or attention from one spot to another, when I am addressed, I cannot so easily change the focus of my listening. To change the focus of my hearing would require me to physically interfere with my ears through headphones or earplugs. Thus to refrain from listening suggests active resistance.

Whereas to hear, to listen is to submit. So like the Psalmist, I approach the Word with a listening ear, and ask the Lord to teach me. The Psalm is filled with entreties to God to teach, comfort, come, revive, and so on. The Psalmist models the position of prayerful listening. As I humble myself before the Word of the Lord, I ask the Lord of the Word to speak, “for your servant is listening.”

This reflects an attitude of trust, which is reiterated thorughout the Psalm. I listen and trust in the Word. The Psalmist prays,

Forever, O Lord,
Your word is settled in heaven.
90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
You established the earth, and it abides.
91 They continue this day according to Your ordinances,
For all are Your servants.
92 Unless Your law had been my delight,
I would then have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.
94 I am Yours, save me;
For I have sought Your precepts.
95 The wicked wait for me to destroy me,
But I will consider Your testimonies.
96 I have seen the consummation of all perfection,
But Your commandment is exceedingly broad.
NKJV – 119:89-96

The Psalmist acknowledges that the Word is faithful, good, trustworthy, delightful, and stands over all people. He writes “all are Your servants.” Whether we aknowledge the Lord or not, we are His servants and stand under His Word.

Proverbs 2 also highlights this posture of listening:

Prov 2:1-9
My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
2 So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
3 Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
4 If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
8 He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.
NKJV

I believe this posture of listening continues in at least two other ways. One is listening to the actual reading of the Word aloud. Thus part of the tradition of God’s people is the public reading of the Word. This is a fundamental part of worship. Secondly, we need to listen to God’s people proclaiming the Word.

While Psalm 119 does not seem to specifically highlight this, we see the pattern again and again of God’s people listening to God’s ministers (his angelic flames) announcing the Good News of God’s Word. From Moses to the Prophets to the Apostles and Teachers, we see the consistent pattern of God’s Word being spoken, proclaimed, taught through the servants of the Lord.

In Ephesians, Paul writes the God has given each person on the body of Christ a measure of grace. And we are to offer back that measure in service to one another. One way we do this is by speaking what is “good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

So listening to the Word involves personal, prayeful listening, public listening to the reading and proclaiming of the Word, and listening to the saints around me speak and edify through the Word.

2. Speaking – The Psalmist not only writes about listening but about speaking the Word.

1 My lips shall utter praise,
For You teach me Your statutes.
172 My tongue shall speak of Your word,
For all Your commandments are righteousness.
NKJV – Ps 119:171-172

Throughout the course of the psalm, speaking seems to be part of remembering, which involves speaking, wlaking, running, obeying, studying, rehearsing, re-enacting, reflecting, and enfleshing. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts the people

6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
NKJV

Speaking the Word seems to be a fundamental extension of listening to the Word. So speaking becomes a vital part of interpretation. Speaking is much more than just reading and preaching. It involves singing and rejoicing over the Word. Then working outward from this image of rejoicing in the Word, speaking seems to involve imaging the Word in my body (obedience) and in the world that I create.

So interpretion is enfleshed on many levels. In submission and obedience, I seeking to build the world of my family around and upon the Word of God.

3. Seeing – I won’t say much about this now (because I’m ready to stop writing), but it seems that the culmination of listening of speaking is seeing. The text moves to hearing to seeing. The Psalmist speaks of seeing and even the whole drama of Scripture starts with God speaking and ends with God’s people seeing.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text – (Dougernism)

Tired of hearing the angry voices competing for attention by increasing volume, I have often felt like the post-modern who says, “You’re both all right.” Silence seems golden when the only sound you hear is the sparring of two syllables in flight. But what is even more golden than silence is the articulate voice that creates the future in the midst of a world that seems to be crumbling.

Now more than ever I believe we need people to pay attention, to listen, and to respond with an articulation of wisdom from the Word. So how do we approach the Bible, the Word of God? What tools, what lenses, what frameworks can assist us in our endeavor?

This is not an exhaustive list but a few thoughts collected from writers and thinkers far wiser than myself. Karl Barth (via the great synthesizer Donald Bloesch) taught me that I don’t stand over the Word but it stands in judgment over me. So the first tool in my bag of interpretive tricks, is the grace, the gift, the challenge of humility. I come to the text realizing my own flaws, my own limited vision, my own sinful heart and deceptions. I humble myself under the mighty hand of God that He may lift me up in due time.

One of the dangers of critiquing modernism is the sense that I am finally here to save the day. Actually many a man far greater than myself lived and died in the school of the moderns, and I am grateful for the gifts of that generation. So in addition to humility, gratitude might also be helpful. We might learn to be grateful for our critics, our forebears, and especially for the heretics. I can learn from the successes and failures of others if I might learn to appreciate them and listen.

Listening is yet another key tool. Listening to the text. Listening to the writer influenced by the Greek philosophical world, the Roman legal system, the early medieval tribal world, and the late medieval scholasticism. Listening to the heart of the Reformers, the precision of the Enlightenment thinkers and the passion of the emergents. If we can develop the skill of listening to others across space and time, we might be forced to reflect upon and consider and grow from a different perspective.

All these initial tools might be captured in the words, “faith, hope and love.” The Word is not my word but God’s Word. So when I open the text, I must believe that God is speaking to me through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of critical distrust, I bring critical trust. As a good Protestant, I believe the Word stands over and above all human words. Yet, like the Reformers before me, I believe that this God Word echoes through the communities of faith across space and time. So listening intently to these communities is valuable.

Different times sound forth particular articulations that sometimes seem unrecognizable from our current milieu. This requires the discipline of sustained listening through the ears of love. In addition to speaking from vastly different cultural contexts, different Christians across time and space have read the Word through particular parts of the Word. Gerald Bray suggests that the early centuries of the church read through the lens and questions of John’s gospel. It should be obvious that we read the text today through the lens of the book of Romans.

This is why question of justification, faith vs works, law vs grace and so on are so readily in our discourse and our faith walk. Another book that has exerted a powerful gateway into the rest of the Bible is the book of Psalms. This collection of songs offers an interpretive lens for everything from the creation story to the end of time, and we would all do well to sing (listen twice) to the treasures of this hermeneutic aesthetic.

Growing up with an attitude of derision toward the law, I found parts of the Old Testament virtually unreadable. More recently, I’ve begun to discover the treasure that the law brings in opening up the stories, the songs, the provers, the gospels and even the epistles.

By moving back and forth between varying perspectives, am I not simply reflecting the post-modern conditioning of my culture? Unquestionably. On the bad side, this can lead to a position of having no tools to correct readings that damage the text, and having no ability to draw distinctions between Biblical revelation and the latest new age prophecies.

But seeing the Bible through varying perspectives does not mean that I give into a sea of subjective waves. Rather, I can draw from the tools of the ancient church realize that multiple perspectives can operate at the same time without canceling each other out. I can appreciate the narrative tools and rhetorical devices without denying the historical veracity of the stories. Both perspectives can teach me. This can begin helping me develop the Biblical skills I need to distinguish between subjective fluff and subjectively inspired revelation via an objective God who stands outside of my thoughts.

While I don’t like to really even use the terms objective and subjective, but for now let me suffice with the idea that the church has and still does offer the tools to distinguish between helpful and hurtful approaches to the text.

I might also suggest that objectively I can obey and embodying the words of the 10 commandments. Without faith in the historical Jesus and literal obedience to His commandments, I am still on the outside and all discussion of interpretation is simply theory. Stepping on the inside, I discover that I can listen and obey in simple childlike faith. And that many of the most simple will interpret the Word through their lives far more effective than me by listening, trusting and obeying the gentle (and not so gentle) promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Post-Modernism)

The post-modern critics learned one thing well from there modern mentors: to be critics. It seems the modern critical distrust is still present in the post modern except now I apply the skeptical eye of distrust to everyone, including myself. So in this sense, post-modernism might be better termed: late modernism or modernism unleashed. It seems the modern corpus has become a corpse, and we call this dead body post-modernism.

Post-modernism finally stuck the knife in the heart of modernism by taking distrust to the extreme and losing all potentiality of meaning or reality for that matter. In this sense, post-moderns finally freed form from content only to discover that content disappeared, leaving an empty shell of form like a discarded cocoon.

Post-modernism did actually recognize the imperialist tendencies of the modern voice, and so it welcomed other voices to the table. And it served distrust and unbelief to all voices, taking us from one dominating voice to many voices with a dominant insistence that there are no voices.

Post-modernism is more like a magic trick where the assistant in box A reappears in Box B (with a different headscarf). Post modernism rejects one prevailing idea, one prevailing narrative, and seems to affirm all narratives. Now the prevailing “narrative” is that there are “no meta narratives,” resulting of course in one meta narrative. If that didn’t make sense, it’s okay because it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

While I may seem to be hard on post-modernism, I appreciate some of the gifts it has given us. It has suggested there is value in many perspectives, in many voices. It raised the question of meaning. I think it opens the door for a serious consideration of particularity vs universality. And it loves stories. Lots of them. Narrative rhetoric has been a great treasure for the church, helping us to recover the stories beneath layers of moralisms and judgments upon the texts.

Post-modernism is not a project, not a system, not a paradigm, and not a model. It is a series of noises that fill the modern void as we learn to articulate the coming era.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Modernism)

A friend of mine recently asked me the following question:

If so, I’d like to discuss modern vs. postmodern readings of scripture. And more to the point, I’d like for you to unpack your approach–can I say interpretive paradigm–for reading scripture. Here, I’d like to understand more clearly a) your handling of exegetical (original meaning) and existential (current meaning) horizons to a given text and b) what resources you might direct me toward that you feel best articulate and or model your preferred approach.

I like questions like this because it gives me a chance to put my ignorance to work. Instead of limiting it to one conversation, I thought I’d spread my ignorance around on a few other brave souls and glory in the half-articulations of thought.

Attempting to discuss any interpretive paradigm is fraught with risks much like boldly proclaiming the decision “not to vote” in a culture of passionate partisans. Since I like to fall flat on my face, I’ll take the risk and hopefully avoid wrecking anyone’s faith along the way. Now I might be clear that articulating an interpretive paradigm and using an interpretive paradigm are two different things. I will attempt to write about my understanding and approach to reading the text, but odds are I may clean up a much messier mind that responds to the text in ways that I have yet to grasp.

As I look over the modern landscape, I can help but noticing a rows and rows of identical houses, identical shopping centers, and lots of ipod-clad people shouting about their “individuality!” Modernism boldly steps into the void of metaphysical meanderings and declares a “clear plan” to solve the world’s problems through scientific discipline, clear thinking, and a battery of lawyers.

I’m grateful for this modern arrogance as I sit in the coffee shop, typing on my laptop and enjoying music piped in from somewhere over the rainbow. Way to go moderns! I love my luxuries!

Off the top of my head (and certainly not from the depths of research), I’ll a venture a few thoughts on modern approaches to the text. Moderns forced us to think seriously about the historical claims of the text. Of course, their own lack of deep historical resources resulted a many wrong-headed claims about the fool hardiness of the text that are finally beginning to subside. Modernism inflicted a critical distrust upon the text (and upon everything else). While criticism can be helpful, distrust can lead to the inability to believe anything (sounds a bit like post-modernism to me).

Moderns were on a plan to save the world from ignorance (and faith and hope and love). Taking their cue from the warring medieval lords, moderns exchanged guns for ideas and set about on a conquest (or dare I say crusade) to relieve the infidels of their blinding ignorance. Thus in addition to a critical distrust of any metaphysical idea, moderns also brought an imperialistic fervency that rejected disagreement with fierce ideological torment. Unlike their cruel medieval counterparts, moderns did not torture a few heretics in the courts of inquisition, rather they tried an entire class of people in the halls of academia, determining that ignorant people were heretical and a danger to the future of the world.

The poor common man who actually still believed the text and considered the supernatural an integral part of his natural life was consigned to the galleys of mental slaves with virtually no hope for his redemption.

Over time, the modern “enlightenment project” tended to flatten the text (insert Bible) from a robust, multi-layered and multi-voiced story to a series of principles extracted from a dangerous mix of contradictions and limitations. Thankfully, these few principles could be extracted and put in a course on “Morals for a better world” and in hundreds of congressional regulations.

Don’t let my comments betray me. I do believe the modernist project brought some good. It continued and refined the project that the medievals began of getting the text into the hands of the people, helping increase literacy in every culture where it appeared. Of course, once the people finally got the text, the moderns reminded them to quit reading it because they couldn’t really trust it.

Modernism has enriched us with a critical eye that helps us in some ways think more clearly about historical problems and historical contexts. This along with the improving of translations, the ready availability of texts in many languages, the practical/applied approach to Scripture all have a place and have enriched us, and for that I am grateful.

Okay, I’ll stop here and take up some more mis-informed thoughts on post-modernism before I finally lay out my own ideas on reading and responding to the text.

Thank You Hans Urs Von Balthasar

I am grateful to Hans Urs Von Balthasar for writing about the riches of God in ways that both challenge my mind and stir my heart to worship. The Beauty of Jesus captured Von Balthasar soul, and his writing carries the sweetness of a beloved child entranced by the riches of his heavenly Father.

I first discovered Von Balthasar while ambling through a used bookstore in Knoxville. I found a small, stained book with only one word on the cover: Prayer. For three dollars I purchased his classic theological devotional that wounded me with God’s love. Since then I have been enriched and mentored by many books from this man who wrote with a heart to stir God’s people to prayer.

Here is a small excerpt from this rare treasure:

“We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to simply let go in him and gain new strength to go on living. But we fail to look for Him where He is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in His Son, who is His Word….we fail to listen where God speaks; where God’s Word rain out in the world once for all, sufficient for all ages, inexhaustible. Or else we think that God’s Word as been heard on earth for so long that by now it is almost used up, that it is about time for some new word, as if we had the right to demand one. We fail to see that it is we ourselves who are used up and alienated, whereas the Words resounds with the same vitality and freshness as ever; it is as near to us as it always was. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom 10:8). We do not understand that once God’s Word has run out in the midst of the world, in the fullness of time, it is so powerful that it applies to everyone, all with equal directness; no one is disadvantaged by distance in space or time. True, there were a few people who become Jesus’ earthly partners in dialogue, and we might envy them (in) their good fortune, but they were as clumsy and inarticulate in this dialogue as we and anyone else would have been. In terms of listening and responding to Jesus’ real concerns they had no advantage over us; on the contrary, they saw the earthly, external appearance of the Word, and it is largely concealed from them the divine interior.”

Here is an excerpt from another stunning classic, The Heart of the World.

Lifetime of a Nation

Our “lifetime” is intimately bound up with the “lifetime” of our people. We have a particular lifetime that moves between our own personal memory and vision, but this movement between memory and vision does not happen in isolation from other individuals. Our memory and vision is bound in with the memory and vision of our family, and our family memory and vision is bound in some way with specific communities.

And this multi-layered movement between memory and vision helps to shape our understanding of the world and our expectations of the world. Thus it shapes our language and what we mean by using specific words. For example, the word “justice” can mean one thing to a people living on the edge of survival and something entirely different to a people living in comfort.

But there’s a problem with our sense of meaning that grows out from memory and vision. We cannot remember very well. So the movement between memory and vision is skewed in one sense, and this skews our language, our expectations, our lifetime. In my own personal life, I easily forget events and moments that may play a significant role in shaping me.

A photograph of past experiences may remind me of events and experiences that I only vaguely remember. Additionally, my experience in a particular event is limited to one point of view. This experience may cause me to remember certain things in an exaggerated manner. In turn, I may form expectations that are incorrect. I may have one bad memory of a visiting the dentist as a child, and continue to hold fearful expectations of future visits. This skew in memory multiplies through my own life and in the life of my family and community.

I remember some things of my parents’ life and even few things of their parents’ lives. But my memory rarely reaches back farther than two generations. And even in those two generations it can be skewed. This problem only multiples and expands outward as I think about my culture. As a result, I may develop a family memory or cultural that is incorrect.

What I think are long held attitudes or traditions may only stretch back 30 or 40 years. As I look farther back, I may tend to misunderstand or misread the events prior. If I am part of a people and a culture, how can I remember the story of the people farther back into time?

This is the power of words. Words carry the symbolic weight of memory and vision. But like a photograph, words must be captured in a way that spans across generations. Oral cultures carry the words through storytellers. The stories are acted out in celebration through feasting, dancing and other rituals that carry the words into actions to help reinforce the memory.

Unfortunately, without the storyteller the memories can still be lost. And the rituals can become actions with no referent. The people may forget why they do what they do. The rituals may take on meanings that were never part of the story. Soon the span between memory and vision is deeply skewed and the lifetime of the people is askew.

This is the gift of ancient Israel. Their festivals, their laws, their rituals are rooted in Torah: in a written law. The word is recorded and passed down. (I realize that some people reject the written word in ancient Israel and suppose it is all oral, but if I accept the text at face value, they wrote down the words. See Jim Jordan for more on this.) The written word becomes a standard the perpetuates the enacted word.

Every year the people re-enact ancient memories according to prescription (written instructions/law). Using prescribed actions, they rehearse the past. They rehearse the Passover. This communal re-enactment of the deliverance from Egypt helps to forge common memory. Using the written word as guide and interpreter, their actions work memory into their bodies: their eyes, hands and feet.

These festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and so forth do not simply re-enact the past. Gradually, as more revelation unfolds, they begin to realize the festivals are also re-enacting the future. The Passover does not simply point back to the time when God delivered Israel from the hand of Egyptian oppressors, it helps to explain future deliverance as well.

In fact, the Christians will revision the memory as pointing also the Jesus Christ. The full deliverance of God’s people from slavery. For the Christian, these memories become markers of historical events that anticipate an even greater future unfolding. This use of memory and rehearse to interpret or project vision helps to forge a common memory and vision across space and time.

In one sense, we are learning to remember the past together. We are learning to anticipate the future together. We are bound by one hope of calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father. This continual reconnecting through the Word and Sacrament binds the people of God afresh into one memory and vision, which in turn helps to interpret and correct our personal and familial memory and vision.

10 Commandments in Stone

God impresses 10 words in stone. 10 words, 10 commands revealing His heart of blessing for the world. The words are not meant to stay in stone but to become enfleshed. They’re not simply rules about what to do and what not to do, they are revelations of life.

The 10 words in stone were glorious, but a greater glory was coming. Jesus embodies the 10 words fully. He fulfills the law. Jesus comes as YHWH in our midst to reveal the heart of God flowing out from the 10 words. He  calls for an obedience not rooted in will but in relationship. Jesus bears both the death that comes from violating the words and the life that comes from fulfilling the words.

In Him, we enter into the words. Or rather, they enter into us. The Spirit writes the law upon our hearts, so that we, as the body of Christ, might also enflesh the words. By the Spirit, we reveal His life, His blessings, His kingdom to the world.