My Bible Education: Does It Mean Anything?

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My Bible Education: Does It Mean Anything?

As I near the end of nearly seven years of formal training in Bible and theology, I wonder if it means anything. I’ve had enough divine sovereignty hammered into me to know that it will end up meaning something, but I’ve also breathed in enough eschatology and incarnation to know that the present event and the ending up are in constant tension. And there’s no glory gained for the ending up by glossing over the present futility.

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“We must follow the evidence where it leads,” a Bible professor of mine once said, “and trust that the truth will be made known.”

I believed in these words for many years. When it came to the Bible, I tried my best to lay my presuppositions aside and follow the evidence where it led, trusting that if God was true and the Bible was his word, then the Bible would be able to bear up under academic scrutiny. 

What I didn’t realize then–in those early days when I was drunk on dead poets and the musk of crumbling books–was that my professor’s statement was limited by its own rationalist assumptions and the myth of objectivity that form the philosophical basis of the Western academy. This philosophy assumes that we can follow the evidence without bias to some logical conclusion–to truth, if you will. It advocates a mode of “knowing” that assumes we can submit to truth as discovered through empirical means, and that the truth leads us.

But the evidence itself is siphoned through our own selectivity and assumptions. The evidence may not end up leading us to the truth, but simply back to ourselves. (In a rationalist system, this is a negative thing, for if we inculcate ourselves into truth, it has no authority over us since it stands within us instead of outside us.)  Although rationalist philosophy uses the rhetoric of “being led” to the truth by evidence, the idea behind the rhetoric (how the divorce of form and content haunts our words, both confirming and contradicting them) is that we are able to lead ourselves to the truth by the sweat of our intellect, tapping into a higher truth by gaining mastery over it.

In a rationalist system, the ideal is to remove ourselves from the equation so that abstract truth can reign. The system collapses, however, because we are still attempting to know truth by standing outside of it. By trying to stand outside, we set ourselves up as the authority over it. We also abdicate our hope of knowing, for knowledge does not come by standing outside, but stepping within.

So I believed that if I followed the questions raised about the Bible by higher criticism that I would arrive at a fuller understanding of the Bible since I would be able to better understand the messages of the biblical authors in their original contexts. I was persuaded that if I used the proper tools, I would somehow come to see the Bible for “what it is,” since I would be setting the text free to speak on its own terms.

I am now persuaded that the questions lead back to the questioners.

For people of faith, the evidence would lead to scripture’s divine authority (however that authority might be mediated through the limitations and concession of human language and culture). For people of no particular faith but rationalism, the evidence would lead to the Bible as a merely human book sans any divine trace or authority. For the former, the evidence led to a history of revelation (God reaching down to humanity), but for the latter, the evidence led to a history of religion (humans reaching up to God). In both cases, the evidence led back to the assumptions.

The problem that I did not perceive as an undergrad was that the bulk of conversation about the Bible in the academy was had in the context of this rationalist framework, which could only lead back to the Enlightenment illusion of objectivity (with a big helping of functional deism to boot).

My professors seemed to think everything was okay (and so did I). The cultural context of the Bible “properly understood” would lead to a re-affirmation of the Bible as the word of God, mediated in human speech.

But it was that assumption–the presupposition that “proper understanding” came through the tools of grammatical-historical exegesis–that began to become a barrier to actually hearing the word of God.  In the early days of my Protestant faith, I did my fair share of harping on the Catholic church of Luther’s day and the monopoly it held on biblical interpretation. Only later did I realize that the rallying cry of ad fontes (“back to the original sources!”) and the development of critical tools for the study of scripture meant that the final authority on interpretation had simply shifted from the Church to the individual scholar (who, through use of the proper linguistic tools, was able to somehow determine the “meaning” of scripture).

These are the tools I have been learning to use for almost seven years now, freighted with all the philosophical presuppositions described above. And for the past two years, I’ve been in a program that’s given me all the ammunition to pick apart the Bible and virtually no theology with which to put it back together.

The grammatical-historical method is founded on distance. The ideal is to disentangle yourself from theological presuppositions–to suspend your history with the text and the God it proclaims–in order to come at it with some sort of disembodied, objective, God’s-eye-view of the thing.

Sometimes I feel like the Israelites staring at the manna, this bread from heaven, asking, “What is it?”

What is it? Just eat it. You’ll see.

“There’s nothing but all this manna to look at.”

So don’t look at it. Eat it. It will nourish you and preserve your life.

“Is YHWH really among us or not?”

Eat.

But eating is the very thing we must not do with texts. For when we eat, we lose perspective. When we eat this word, letting it live in us, letting it know us, it changes us. We learn to love it instead of interrogating it in the old way.

And if I’ve learned anything in the past seven years, it’s that I mustn’t love this word.

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Gudea to Jesus: Shepherd-Temple-Builder

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Gudea to Jesus: Shepherd-Temple-Builder

I’ve been reading up on a Sumerian ruler named Gudea of Lagash in order to learn more about how his statues functioned as “images” of the king. There are some parallels between this mode of representation and how cult statues functioned as “images” of gods. The following is a (draft) excerpt from my book-in-progress, in which the concept of humans as the “image of God” in Genesis 1 features quite heavily. As I was wading through the inscriptions on the Gudea statues in order to write this narrative section, it reminded me of how texts like these can inform our understanding of the relationship between gods, kings, and temples in the ancient Near East and in the Bible (but I’ll talk more about that below).

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His oval, dark green diorite eyes stared at me, unblinking. His whole face was carved of the same smooth, green stone, his pursed lips framed by a strong, dimpled chin and full cheeks. The nose, too, was full and round, like an unbroken dewdrop on a date palm leaf. A sturdy royal crown encircled his forehead. He was seated, his hands clasped together, firm and dignified, at his waist. The top of his robe was gathered to his left shoulder, leaving his strong right arm bare and unflinchingly still. The hem of his robe reached to the tops of his naked feet, and was covered with line upon line of cuneiform script. On his lap was what looked to be a board or book of some kind.

The statue of Gudea of Lagash was less than a meter high, but those eyes, perfect and impenetrable as a crow’s, seemed to take in the room. The glass display case that separated us did little to mute their gaze.

“He can’t see you, you know.” The voice belonged to a rotund, straight-backed woman with a docent tag pinned to her navy blazer.

“Can’t he?” I tilted my chin to look at her. Her long, silver hair was stretched taut from the edge of her high forehead and coiled into an unimpeachable bun in the middle of her skull.

“The ancient Mesopotamians thought he could, but only when he had undergone the proper rituals and been set in a special room in the god’s temple. Until then, our friend Gudea was just a block of cold diorite–blind, mute, deaf.”

“What’s this writing on his skirt?”

“We’re very lucky that the writing on this statue is intact,” she said, her painted eyebrows raised with excitement (which made the bun quiver a little). “We have the remains of twenty-seven Gudea statues in museums around the world, but many of them are severely damaged or, in some cases, just fragments. But this little guy,” she said, gesturing toward Gudea with one leathery, manicured hand while the other remained calmly at her side, “tells us a lot about himself.”

“He’s a king, no?” I said. “Why is he sitting? I thought only gods sat.”

“Gudea was deified after his death, and this statue may be trying to reflect that. But what’s most interesting–well, what I find most interesting–is how this image functioned as a representation of the flesh-and-blood Gudea. Over the course of his life, Gudea built temples to the gods in the places he governed, many in the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu. Kings like Gudea believed that they had been chosen by the gods, or a particular god, to be the ruler (or ‘shepherd’) of the region. Building temples to the god who had chosen the king accomplished two things. It showed gratitude toward the god and also showed the people, in a very public way, that the right ruler was on the throne, endorsed by the gods. The writing on the image’s robe extols Gudea as the shepherd chosenby the god Ningirsu out of 216,000 people, and tells the story of how Gudea built a house, the temple Eninnu, for Ningirsu. Once he built Eninnu, Gudea fashioned an image of himself out of diorite mined from the mountains of Magan, placed it in the temple before the cult image of Ningirsu, and commanded it to speak to the god on his behalf. ‘Statue,’ Gudea says, ‘tell my lord, Ningirsu…’–and then proceeds to tell the statue the details of how he built the house and installed his statue in order to convey messages to Ningirsu.”

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The inscriptions on the Gudea statues frequently refer to Gudea as “the shepherd,” and emphasize that he was chosen by the god to whom he built the temple. The Gudea texts are not unique in this regard, as rulers in the ancient Near East were often called shepherds. It comes as no surprise, then, to find out that the biblical writers portray King David as a shepherd in the days prior to his becoming king. What better way to remind your readers that David is a king than to show that he was an actual shepherd before becoming a metaphorical “shepherd” as king?

David, as you’ll remember, wanted to build a house for YHWH. He believed that he was YHWH’s chosen king, God’s anointed. It was good religion and good politics to build a temple. What better way to express his gratitude to YHWH for choosing him as king than by building him a house where the people could worship?  And what better way to show the people that David was God’s man than by building the temple?  David’s son, Solomon, ends up building the temple for YHWH, but it serves the same purpose. God promised to David that he would establish his dynasty, that a son of David would continue to sit on the throne (2 Sam. 7).

When we get to the Gospels, Jesus emerges in various ways as a New Solomon. In Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is the messiah (“anointed one”), the son of David (Matt. 1:1). He is not just the temple and temple-cleanser, but the temple-builder like Solomon (except here, Jesus builds the “temple” of his body by raising it from the dead) (John 2:19).

By rebuilding the temple of his body, Jesus accomplishes two goals. His resurrection is the public declaration that he is YHWH's chosen ruler, the messianic son of David who is the king, the son of God. Rebuilding YHWH's temple is also an act of gratitude. Jesus thanks YHWh for establishing his kingship by creating a place for YHWH's presence to rest, where people can come to worship him. And that temple is Jesus.

At least, that's my working theory. There’s obviously a lot more to explore here, but these are some initial thoughts.

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When Nothing Arrives

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When Nothing Arrives

When Josh picks me up from class, I sometimes ask for his smartphone as we drive home. “I need to check the ‘likes’ on my Facebook status,” I say.

“Dear, you’re so Facebook-popular,” he says. “I’ll bet you have fifteen ‘likes.’”

“You’re the one who makes me popular,” I say. “Everyone loves when I quote your witticisms.”

It’s just a running joke between us. We both know the ‘likes’ mean nothing and that Facebook updates are just part of a persona. Still, there’s a small boost in my mood when I see a ‘like.’ A ‘like’ means acknowledgement. It means someone has heard. Conversely, when there are no ‘likes’ or comments, it’s as if I’ve spoken up in a crowded room and no one has heard. My voice falls on nothing and void.

That sounds a bit dramatic when we’re talking about Facebook, but I view the desire for Facebook affirmation as microcosm of a broader gap that I often feel – a bigger nothingness that comes periodically (most often during times of transition). First comes the sense that I have been speaking and speaking and Nothing answers back. Nothing hears. And then comes the feeling that I myself am Nothing. My labors are for Nothing. My writing says Nothing. I am good at Nothing. I am worse than a waste of space – I do not even occupy space.

I can write such disparaging thoughts without misgivings because I think most of us feel this way from time to time. Writing helps me assuage the gnawing sense of Nothing. For you, it might be another creative activity – telling stories, baking, building, painting, crafting a mosaic, learning a second language. These activities, these Somethings, dismantle Nothing brick by brick. But you’ve got to face the Nothing first – the blank page, the empty canvas, the scattered mess of tiles and wood and letters.

I think the majority of human activity is spent trying to beat back Nothing. That quest is what’s behind our routines and rituals and roles. We create structures so that the world will be full of Something instead of Nothing.

I know why Nothing arrives in times of transition. It comes because the old routines, traditions, and identities begin to fall away, and I am faced with the dreadful silence.

Many people take this Nothing as evidence that Nothing is, that God is not (or at least inactive), and that all our busy Somethings are attempts to fill the void with meaning. I don’t think that’s an unfair conclusion, but this answer has never satisfied me. It only accounts for the Nothing. And the Nothing – though troublesome and dark – has never been a source of cognitive dissonance for me. I know the Nothing. I feel the Nothing. I am that Nothing.

For me, the source of dissonance (if I can call it dissonance) is the excess of joy that cuts through the Nothing. The meaning that somehow, someday always breaks through, filling me with gratitude for life, both this present life and the “life of the world to come,” as the Nicene creed calls the new life that believers in Jesus look forward to after the resurrection of the body.

I want to explore this more in a future post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to go about building wisely in an intellectual climate of deconstruction. My generation of Christians (or perhaps my “brand” of Christianity) has a kind of allergy to easy answers, absolutism, and certainty. This is a natural and, to an extent, healthy reaction to the religious dogmatism of previous generations. That very dogmatism was (I suspect) bound to fall apart because it was forged in the fires of rationalism. Rationalism assumed that the best (nay, the only) kind of knowing resulted through human reason and objective observation. Western Christianity could survive in that climate when church dogma was assumed to be part of the truths of human reason, but once everyone figured out that the truths of Christianity were not universally “self-evident,” Christian dogma had to be relegated to the sphere of subjectivity (of revelation rather than human deduction) – which had already been deemed inferior to the sort of knowing that was “provable” through experimentation.

By now, most everybody in the academy (regardless of religious adherence or lack thereof) has figured out that no one can view anything objectively, which is why we’re always awkwardly apologizing in our papers for our limitations and unobjectivity. It’s embarrassing, really – the fact that we're not God. Because we are limited human beings, we’re only allowed to say “I believe” and not “it is” – but our intellectual heritage has already taught us that the subjective “I believe” is inferior to the objective “it is,” so we feel bad about “I believe.”

All this to say: my generation knows it needs to find a different kind of knowing, not one that is necessarily antithetical to Christian dogma, but one that sees faith, doubt, and dogma working together. But we are often at a loss as to how to rebuild our faith without resorting to cookie-cutter answers and insincere platitudes in responses to real suffering and tough theological problems. The unfettered dogmatism of our forebears frightens us – we cannot go back there, nor do we wish to. 

But what do we do when Nothing arrives in its place, when even our shanty towns of meaning crumble and we are left in the dark surrounded by rubble?

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