Since finishing my dissertation near the end of 2018 (finally! yay!) I’ve tried to focus my writing attention on projects that will see a little wider readership. The first two pieces of writing I’ve published since defending my dissertation are both available in full online, so I thought I’d link to them here. The first is an article titled “Sharing the Gospel as Witness to Jesus: Acts 1:1-11” for the “Texts in Context” feature in Word and World. The second is short exegetical essay I wrote on Luke 2:1-20 for the Christmas Eve Gospel reading in 2019. It’s published at “A Plain Account,” which is a preaching resource in the Wesleyan theological tradition. I hope to write more on this site, as well, in the coming year, but for now I thought I’d post these two. Thanks for reading!
I don’t preach often, but I did once this summer. I also don’t have much time for blogging new material lately, so I thought I’d post this. – CW
Caldwell Free Methodist Church
12 July 2015 – Year B – 8th Sunday after Pentecost – Ordinary Time Proper 10
Amos 7:7-17 // Mark 6:14-29
Imagine you’re just taken a clerical job in an insurance firm. As you begin cataloging claims, you notice that many of them include payouts far lower than the policies promise. That’s not too strange, you suppose, because insurance companies need to be very specific in their policies or they won’t survive. But then you start to notice a pattern… the names. Your company has a wide diversity of clients, but the policies that have lower payouts all have names on them like, “Juana María Martínez,” “Julio García,” or “Ernesto Rodriguez.” You remember Julio. He came in last week. In halting English, through a dazzling smile, he told you about his family—his wife Emilia and his three little girls. He showed you pictures. You begin to wonder if someone is discriminating against Latino people, maybe taking advantage of poor English skills, in order to cut corners on policy payouts. You go through the documents again. Your heart sinks as on every one you see the same signature approving the short payout—your immediate supervisor’s. Your conscience tells you that you should confront your supervisor; this injustice needs to be righted. But at the same time, you know that speaking up could cost you your job.
If you relate to this scenario, you’re in good company. The Bible is full of stories where God sends a lowly person to confront a high-status person. That’s almost the definition of what a prophet is. Prophets speak uncomfortable truths to people in positions of religious and political power. Remember Samuel confronting Saul to tell him that he was rejected as king of Israel? Remember the prophet Nathan confronting David with accusations of murder and wife-stealing? Remember Elijah’s challenge to Ahab for worshiping the foreign god Baal? So, too, with Amos and John the Baptist.
God sends Amos, the shepherd and tree trimmer from Judah, to prophesy to Israel under king Jeroboam. This is Israel’s second king named Jeroboam and, by worldly measures, he’s wildly successful. He ruled for 41 years and expanded Israel’s borders, recovering Damascus and Hamath, cities previously lost to other nations (2 Kings 14). Israel prospered during his reign, but the author of 2 Kings reckons the quality of his kingship in rather different terms: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat” (14:23), which is to say this Jeroboam continued to lead the people of Israel in idolatrous worship just as the first Jeroboam had done: golden calves set up in the cities of Dan and Bethel (1 Kgs 12:28-33). But that isn’t all. While Israel prospered as a whole during Jeroboam’s reign, the rich oppressed the poor, violence abounded, and the courts were corrupt. The earlier chapters of Amos describe how, under Jeroboam, Israel combines the sins of idolatry and oppressive injustice toward the vulnerable:
Amos 2:6 – “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals; they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way”
Amos 3:10 – “They do not know how to do right, says the Lord, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.”
Amos 4:1-5 Speaks about the rich women of Israel as “cows of Bashan… who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” without a thought for how their plenty plunges others into poverty. Because Israel doesn’t repent when it suffers from plague, famine, drought and war, Amos prophesies the consequences in chapter 5:
“Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them: you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous and take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore, says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas, alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, says the Lord.”
While Israel oppresses its poor, no amount of song-singing or sacrifice will make up the difference, so says the Lord:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs: I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The cure for Israel’s idolatry and oppression of the poor is a flood of righteousness and justice; the true worship of God embodied in social justice. If Israel does not turn away from its idolatry and oppression and do justice instead exile awaits. A foreign nation will swoop in to oppress Israel, divide up its land, and carry its people into exile.
No wonder Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, tells Jeroboam about Amos, “the land is not able to bear all his words,” and tries to get rid of him. Remember, Bethel is the site of one of Jeroboam’s idolatrous sanctuaries as well as his palace. Amos has gone to the heart of Israel to speak to the seat of power because, historically, as goes the king, so goes the rest of Israel. Israel is sunk into idolatry in the first place because of the first Jeroboam, and this Jeroboam has carried on that same program of idolatry and oppression.
Imagine being Amos. A vulnerable nobody, a shepherd and tree-trimmer, he probably knows a good deal about exploitative labor and struggling to make ends meet. Moreover, being from Judah, he’s from the land just to the south that Israel views like a bullying older brother—worse, in some ways, than if Amos were from an actual foreign country. And yet God sent him to prophesy against Israel’s oppressive practices. It’s a precarious position for him. Israel’s kings often did not hesitate to torture, kill, or try to kill the prophets who spoke to them of their sins. Just goes to show that sometimes, being faithful to God—especially by standing up to the powerful who are crushing others—can be costly. It can cost you your life.
So it did John the Baptist. In Mark’s Gospel, John is the first character we meet, and he has a prophetic identity from the start. He is the messenger God promised in Malachi 3:1 to “prepare the way.” He is “voice crying out in the wilderness,” from Isaiah 40, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” These words are meant to prepare exiles for return. They go right along with “Comfort, comfort my people,” and “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” and “Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.”
Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald
John prepares the people for the revealing of God’s glory, the fully alive glory of God—embodied in Jesus. How does he do it? Like every prophet before him, by calling the people to repentance. John baptizes people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, telling them to look for the one who is coming after him, who is more powerful. John points to Jesus. And turning to Jesus requires repentance—from every sin whether personal, communal, social, or systemic.
Mark mentions nothing more about John the Baptist before the account of his arrest and death. He writes even less about Herod, but it’s clear Herod’s no hero. Although he’s technically a Jewish king, Herod was in Rome’s pocket. The only times we see him in Mark, he is arresting and killing John the Baptist, or Jesus is warning his disciples to steer clear of Herod’s patterns of thought and life. Moreover, Herod’s henchmen are always conspiring with the Pharisees, trying to trap Jesus into speaking blasphemy against God or revolt against the Romans. Herod is no hero.
In this story, we learn that John the Baptist called him out for a particular sin—taking his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias, as his own. Herod has apparently been able to ignore John’s message about every other sin he might be committing. Mark writes, “when Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed, but he liked to listen to him” (v. 30). To Herod, John is mostly the crazy man scantly clad in camel hair and a leather belt, raving about repentance and a more powerful messenger who would come after him. John is usually just the entertaining madman—except when he tells Herod it’s not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife. That’s personal. Obviously Herod was not the only one in his court whom John made uncomfortable, and Mark tells us Herod was protecting John from Herodias, the wife he wasn’t supposed to have. But two facts are inescapable: 1) Herod had John arrested so that he was easily to hand to behead, and 2) Herod had the final say in John’s death. It was too convenient; John was in Herod’s prison, so when push came to shove, it was easy to give the order.
The fact is, if you are going to speak to people in power about their sins, you have to be prepared for this sort of cost. In the Bible, the prophets seem well aware of that, but they obey God anyway. Sometimes, such speech is exactly what faithfulness to God demands. If you see abuse of power, exploitation of the vulnerable, or policies that make the poor poorer you may be called to speak with a prophetic voice.
Then again, maybe not. Remember that God sent Amos to Israel—not a foreign country or a historic enemy, but a people who share his heritage of life with the Lord God. Jeroboam is king of Israel. Amos calls Israel and Jeroboam back to life with God; you can’t be called back if you were never there. Amos brings a message to insiders who have gone astray; the same is true of John the Baptist. Herod may be deep in Rome’s pocket, but John refers to the Jewish law when he says, “it is unlawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Maybe we’re not the prophet. Maybe we’re the leader and people gone astray together. Maybe we’re like the rich women of Israel, buying our clothes without considering the sweatshop workers who make them. Maybe we, too, participate in systems of exploitation. You know, a few months back, Pastor Jim mentioned a local employer who hired illegal workers and then called INS just before payday. I wondered what product that employer is selling, and whether we’re buying it. If we are, will God look on our Sunday services with disgust, our sharing communion as mockery, and hear our worship songs as an assault on the ears? As James put it, “Faith without works is dead.” Maybe we’re Herod. Maybe we’re Jeroboam. Maybe we’re wicked Israel. If we are, and we want to be God’s people, we must listen to the prophets among us.
So let us remember that the prophets may well speak from a place of vulnerability, of powerlessness, or obscurity. Prophets may sound or look crazy—may not seem like credible, sane people. If you’re a prophet you may be angry, distressed, or extremely shy but unable to stay silent any longer exactly because you yourself have suffered the very abuses you see the powerful perpetrating:
- The strongest advocates I know for victims of sexual assault are survivors themselves.
- The most vocal advocate I know for veterans suffering the costs of war was himself a soldier in Iraq.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against systemic racism and violence from his own experience, but he didn’t do so only for himself. He did it for the good of everyone—regardless of race, both victims and perpetrators—because he knew that everyone suffers in such a system.
Sometimes prophets speak in the hope that others won’t have to suffer what they have suffered.
If you are a prophet, I hope you find the courage to speak. And if you are called to speak to us, may God grant us the humility to hear you. Let us “prepare the way of the Lord,” so that the glory of God alive in Jesus may be revealed in us. Amen.
The following is a revision of the lecture I gave on the last day of my Introduction to the Bible class at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho on 5 Dec 2014.
Every part of the Bible speaks, in its own way, the good news that God has not abandoned the world to self-destruction. The Bible tells the story of how God is renewing a corrupted creation. The story definitely portrays God’s work, but it aims also to get its readers involved. Recognizing the Bible as the Five Act Drama of Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and Eschaton helps show how Bible not wants not spectators, but rather, participants in the play. The present time takes place between Christ and Eschaton. So we know where the story has been and where it’s going, which urges people to live from the patterns of life Jesus portrayed toward the ultimate future God has planned for the world—the New Creation.
In other words, the Bible wants witnesses: a community of people who have seen how God is at work in the world, who have been caught up in God’s project, whose common life shows how God is saving them, and who actively participate in how God is working now to eliminate violence, sickness, oppression, and sorrow through making peace, health, justice and joy.
What does it take to be that kind of community? Most basically, it requires us to pay attention. Pay attention to the context in which we live in light of how deeply we have paid attention to the scriptural story.
In May 1963, Time magazine interviewed the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Among the more quotable things Barth said in that interview is this: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret your newspapers from your Bible.” For American readers, his advice could not have been more timely.
In the U.S. in 1963, the Black Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Less than a month after Time interviewed Barth, John F. Kennedy met with Civil Rights leaders at the White House hoping to avert the March on Washington planned for that August.
It happened anyway. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of over 250,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:
Dr. King exemplifies the kind of attention required to live the scriptural story.
First, Dr. King knows his context: America as it promised to be and its founding principles in contrast with the injustice and oppression his people were suffering. That’s Dr. King reading the newspaper, only he doesn’t have to read it because he’s in the thick of it. It is happening to him, to his family, to his friends, to his congregation.
Second, Dr. King knows his Bible. Biblical images language pervade the speech, but Dr. King also quotes the Bible. Twice, Dr. King quotes directly from the prophets: We will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Dr. King also quotes Isaiah 40:4-5, dreaming that “one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Third, Dr. King knows how to read his context through his Bible. By calling for floods of justice and righteousness as the solution to America’s problem, Dr. King implies that Israel’s sins of old now pervade America: “they sell the righteous for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals, trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). They “oppress the poor, crush the needy,” and then turn to God with sacrifices and offerings of thanksgiving (4:1, 5). The worship of God’s people is abominable when they crush the vulnerable and refuse justice to the marginalized, so God says, in Amos 5:21-24:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos’s words address people who claim to follow God and yet demonstrate their unfaithfulness through unjust treatment of the poor and powerless. “Stop this stench of playing at worship and do justice.” That’s the message Dr. King speaks to citizens of the U.S. who claim justice if not also Christianity as a hallmark of American society. In context, Dr. King’s reading of Amos shows that America is neither just nor Christian if it does not open the floodgates of justice and righteousness for all its citizens.
Dr. King’s reading of Isaiah 40:4-5 shows what he expects less from the U.S. government than from God. Isaiah 40 promises comfort to God’s people, the end of their captivity, and their return from exile. Earlier in his speech Dr. King used the words “exile” and “captivity” to speak about the “plight” of the “Negro … in his own land.” By reading his own context through Israel’s situation in Babylon, Dr. King calls for God to level the American social landscape and make a true home for his people. When that happens, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God!” In Dr. King’s own Christian tradition, the person who definitively fulfills the promise of Isaiah 40 is Jesus. So it makes complete sense that Dr. King exhorts the crowd to conduct their creative, relentless protest without physical violence or hatred. He does not say violence, anger, and hatred are unjustified. But for those who follow Jesus, the way to freedom is to resist and overturn patterns of injustice without fear and without violence. Serving the God who raises the dead makes fearless vulnerability possible.
If you’ve followed the news at all since August 9, and especially if you’ve paid attention in the last two weeks, you know that much of Dr. King’s dream still has not come true. Police brutality disproportionately perpetrated against Black men and boys has drawn international attention with the killing of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice—all while they were unarmed. Since last Tuesday, separate grand juries ruled that the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, would not go to trial. Regardless of what you think or you’ve heard about how each of them was doing something suspicious or illegal just before they were killed, the statistics reveal a grave injustice: In the US, in a confrontation with police, a Black teenager between the ages of 15-19 is 21 times more likely to end up dead than a White teenager. Habakkuk 1:2-4 gives voice to the rage, grief, and lament to God that this reality elicits:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
What is God doing for a situation like this? In a Word: Jesus. In Luke 1:46-55, Jesus’ mother, Mary, gives us perhaps the most powerful view on what his birth means for the world:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
The heart of Mary’s song of praise shows how God brings down the powerful and raises the oppressed. Mary knew a thing or two about being caught up in God’s plans.
No mere human being has been more deeply involved in God’s saving the world than Mary, Jesus’ mother. She demonstrates that even though the work is God’s, human beings have a real part to play. And you know what? Mary could have said no. The question isn’t whether or not God will work, but which human beings are going to be on God’s side of history. In Luke 4:18, Jesus confirms that he stands for the captives and the oppressed, and promises them liberty.
If you want to be on God’s side of history, you must pay attention—both to how the Bible describes God’s plans for the world and to how the world is not yet “God’s good future.” Heed the voices of those who cry out against injustice and oppression. Listen to people who don’t look or think or live or love the way you do, and learn how the world is trampling them into the dust. Learn the meaning of privilege. Live your life awake to the world around you, and awake to the scriptural story.
Being caught up in the story, between Christ and Eschaton, means that the players aim to live a way of life that is true to where the story has been and where it is going. At the same time it is not up to them to make sure the whole drama turns out right. The book of Revelation is clear: In the end, God wins, and it’s God’s doing. But in this space and time, the Bible tells us how to play—how to improvise—within the whole drama that is God’s story of saving the world.
On our first day I asked you to think of this class as a game, and the syllabus as the rules for the game that both show us how to function in this class and allow us to have fun even as what we’re doing is also even more serious than life and death. The Bible’s story is the syllabus for all of life.
That is why the best interpretation of Scripture’s story is lived. The best interpretation of the Bible is a community that embodies life patterns that could only be possible if the story the Bible tells is true—if Jesus actually is Lord, Christ, and Savior. And so the Bible leaves its readers with a question: “Which story will you live?”
 See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2004).
 I borrow these words from the late Dr. Allen Verhey, who used them often to describe the destiny of the world in terms of God’s final redemption.
Having grown up white in a mostly white rural area in the Pacific Northwest, moving to North Carolina in 2004 was a bigger culture shock than moving to Germany had been the year before. Sure, the heat and humidity wrought havoc on my system, but I remember even more keenly my surprise when it seemed like every checker at Target, bus driver in Durham, and housekeeper on Duke University’s campus was Black. These are important jobs, but they aren’t the kind parents dream of for their children. The socio-economic disparity along racial lines was stunning. I began to seek education and understanding of racial issues and history in the U.S. because I felt my ignorance was culpable. I read books, took classes, participated in both intentional and ad hoc conversations, and—most importantly—began to get to know some people for whom knowledge of race and racism isn’t optional.
Ten years later, I had been feeling inured to matters of race in the U.S. when the news exploded with reports of Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson by a white police officer. My sense of “This again? Are we still dealing with this?” was a pitiful blip in light of what Black people in the U.S. face on a daily basis, and for them it is a matter of life and death. Mike Brown’s death is one among many instances where a white officer shot an unarmed Black man and was not indicted. People—human beings whose lives matter just as much as mine—are being killed because police are too quick to use deadly force.
Since August, my Facebook newsfeed has filled with laments, outrage, anger, grief, and sadness—especially since Tuesday when the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson went public. At the same time, I have been dismayed to learn how many people still do not recognize how deeply racism contributed to getting Mike Brown—and so many others—killed. Imagine if Mike Brown, instead of being an African-American teenage boy, had been a white girl or boy of the same age. Would s/he have been shot in the first place? Would the officer ever have felt like he had no option but to use his gun? Would the stories and surveillance video from the convenience store episode ever have made it into the media? Were the teenager in the story white, there would probably be no story because s/he would still be alive. Ferguson has reminded me that my silence speaks eloquently of my privilege. It is a privilege not to be forced to think about race. Until people of every race have that privilege, it’s not one I want to embrace.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As always, words can’t express the gratitude I feel for the abundance of wonderful people in my life, the security I enjoy, and the fulfillment I experience in everyday life. These are also privileges, and while I am thankful for them, it feels hollow to express thankfulness and gorge oneself on turkey and all the trimmings amid the news of people who are struggling for survival. This morning, especially in light of Black Friday and BlackoutBlackFriday, I found myself meditating on Amos 4:1-5:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
3 Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
4 Come to Bethel—and transgress;
to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
5 bring a thank offering of leavened bread,
and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God. (NRSV)
I have never shopped on Black Friday—not for any virtuous reason, but because I dislike crowds and consumerism (even as I am totally complicit in consumerism). But Black Friday had never before made me feel sick. This morning when I thought about going shopping I felt nauseated. To shop today felt too much like being one of the fat cows of Bashan, who enjoy luxury at the expense of the poor, who ignore the cries of the oppressed while calling for more drinks, and then turn around and give thanks to God for their blessings. I read the prophets’ frustration with Israel’s blindness and feel convicted at how I participate in the patterns they condemn. I have become convinced that ignoring the issues raised in Ferguson calls into question my witness to Jesus.
The verdict out of Ferguson, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday have converged to convict me, and the start of Advent coming on the heels of those events is beginning to light the way forward. Advent is a season to wake up: to acknowledge how the world is in fragments, how mired we are in vicious patterns from which we cannot extricate ourselves, and how deeply we need a Savior. Advent merges confession of sin with hope for salvation. Advent enjoins penitence amid thanksgiving for God’s generosity in not leaving us to our self-destruction, but instead coming to be with us in person and save us. May God truly save us, and teach us who call Jesus “Lord” to be with all God’s beloved as God is with us.
Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is both simple and complex. It is complex because—like any art, craft, or sport—it requires a range of tools and much practice in order to reach a level of significant competency. Mastery remains elusive, and not only because Scripture’s subject matter (God) escapes human comprehension. But reading Scripture is also simple. An ordinary reader can go far toward deep understanding, without special training or even a Bible study guide, because the most basic task of reading Scripture is paying close attention to words.
I feel privileged to have spent the last fifteen years learning from some of the cleverest, wisest, kindest, and most sophisticated readers of Christian Scripture I know of, and they each have contributed to the habits and skills I now bring to reading Scripture. So in the spirit of my teachers’ generosity, here are
Ten Practical Tips for Studying the Bible as Christian Scripture:
1. Read for yourself. There is no substitute for doing your own reading. Read the words on the page, ignoring chapter breaks, subject headings, and any commentary. Puzzle over what you don’t understand without resorting to external resources. It’s okay not to understand everything. It is better to learn the words and let difficulties stand than to have them quickly resolved.
2. Take notes. Tracking what you discover is easier if you write it down. Numbers 3-9 below suggest some categories for organizing notes. Taking notes isn’t essential for learning to read the Bible well, but writing aids thinking and memory, so note-taking rewards the effort.
3. Read whole books. Each book of the Bible is a cohesive document, and so books are good units for study. Like other stories and letters, biblical books want to be read from start to finish without interruptions. Start reading the book straight through—in one sitting, if possible. Look for structure and recurring themes. Reading whole books is like taking a good, long, memorizing look at the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box so you know what the assembled puzzle should look like. Finding structure and recurring themes may take several all-the-way-through readings. I have found listening to audio recordings of biblical books effective for this purpose.
4. Read small portions closely. If reading whole books is like viewing the picture on the box of the puzzle, then reading small portions closely is like looking carefully at each piece to analyze how it fits into the whole. One can’t look at an entire mural, hear a whole symphony, or read a novel all at once. Readers must select portions small enough for our ability to focus. Close reading catalogs the details in a short passage for how they contribute to the purpose of the whole book. Ask, “What would the larger image lose if this smaller section were missing?” The best reading toggles between wide-angle and close-up, fostering both depth and breadth of understanding.
5. Pay special attention to God. Obvious, but worth saying: The Bible is mainly about God, and ostensibly, Christians read the Bible in order to know God better. Every last word about God matters—how God is named, how often God appears, whom God addresses, what God says, what God does, when God isn’t mentioned, and when and where God surprises human beings. God’s many names throughout the Bible also matter. “God,” “the LORD,” “Holy One of Israel,” “Holy Spirit,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” each illuminate God’s identity in particular ways. Listing names for God and ways God appears is a useful exercise, but even a mental note makes a fine start.
6. Note beginnings and endings. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In this first verse of the Bible, both the biblical story and the whole sphere of human existence begin with God. These convictions frame the entire Bible—this world belongs to God, and so all reflection about the world’s proper order has a theological shape. A biblical book’s beginning often provides its framework. Endings frequently draw the reader into living well in this world. The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly with the fear and silence of the women who first saw the empty tomb, but the last words of dialogue send them and the disciples—and the reader by extension—ahead to Galilee to find and follow the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8). Revelation’s last verses draw the reader into expectant waiting for Jesus’ return, and into the grace-filled life that Jesus makes possible (Rev 22:20-21). So beginnings and endings merit close attention.
7. Attend to context. Every portion of Scripture was written at a particular time and place. Some books note such information clearly, or provide the setting of the story. For example, Isaiah specifies the time of his vision as, “In the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), which gives the event a narrative framework readers can find in 2 Kings 15. The story of Luke’s Gospel begins, “In the days of Herod, King of Judea…” Paul addresses his letters to particular churches in specified cities, often naming particular people in those churches. Exodus begins with the narrator’s note that “there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” which does not specify a historically identifiable place and time, but does indicate an important change in situation for Jacob’s family in Egypt. Contextual markers paint the backdrop against which the books make the best sense.
8. Notice characters. The main characters don’t hide—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. But many fascinating and important actors get little air time, and some aren’t even named. For example, without the deception of an obscure, enterprising Canaanite woman named Tamar, the line of Judah—which eventually leads to David and Jesus—would have died out in Genesis 38. Without two wily midwives named Shiphrah and Puah, his unnamed mother, sister, and an Egyptian princess, Moses would never have survived his infancy (Exod 1-2). Without Mary’s receptive generosity and Joseph’s obedient listening to God, Jesus would never have been conceived (Luke 1:38) or have survived childhood (Matt 1:18-24; 2:13-21). Neither the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman who answers Jesus so cleverly (Matt 15:21-28 // Mark 7:24-30), nor the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-41), nor the marvelously insightful man born blind (John 9) have names in their stories, but each provides unique insight into Jesus’ identity. In the book of Jonah, nearly everything is animate. A storm, a great fish, the sea, a ship, a “sultry east wind,” the “beasts of Nineveh,” a plant, and a very hungry caterpillar all have active roles in a drama displaying God’s wide mercy. In the Bible, every character matters, whether named, unnamed, human, animal, vegetable, mineral, force of nature, or human-made object.
9. Watch for repeated, interesting, or strange words. Although variance in translation may obscure some connections, it is still possible to gain significant insight into Scripture by taking note of key words. A concordance can help, but one can do such work simply by reading and comparing passages. Words repeated in a single passage often signal an important point of emphasis. For example, the word “ground” recurs in Genesis 2-3 eight times:
1. “there was no man to till the ground” (2:5)
2. “a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground” (2:6)
3. “the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the ground” (2:7)
4. “out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree” (2:9)
5. “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air” (2:19)
6. “cursed is the ground because of you” (3:17)
7. “till you return to the ground” (3:19)
8. “to till the ground from which he was taken” (3:23)
The “ground” plays an important role in the creation of all life, and so the curse on the ground shows the magnitude of human disobedience. Similarly, God’s promise, after the flood, “never again to curse the ground because of human beings” (Gen 8:21) spells the beginning of creation’s redemption. So repeated words are important, and a single word that appears in two apparently disconnected stories can reveal an unexpected connection. Every word matters.
10. Share. Reading Scripture within the church’s tradition is like learning a language. Reading the Bible for oneself using the above suggestions is like intentional language study (learning grammar, building vocabulary, etc.). Discussing and interpreting the Bible with others, reading commentaries, and studying historical interpretation of Scripture are a bit like practicing a language one is in the process of learning (actually speaking the language). Like learning a language well, becoming an adept reader of Christian Scripture involves both intentional study and practice.
For me, these practices elicit profound joy in discovering the character of the God to whose revelation Scripture bears witness. I hope they do the same for you.
…a poem for Ash Wednesday, 2014
Time was I set my face toward Jerusalem
Light of nations and Israel’s glory
But cross-ward facing,
Feel not so
Prepared for the way before me
Of prophets’ tombs and apostles’ dooms
Twittering unsheltered chicks
Helpless, yet ready to fight
Jerusalem arrests me
The things that make for peace
Will shatter me
Will save Jerusalem.
On garden ground
My heart rends of holding grief and hope
It has never been done before,
But being done now
Will render Jerusalem’s new gates never shut
Karl Barth spoke on several occasions about Christians’ need to read newspapers in light of the New Testament. Just so. But most Christians require guidance in order to do that in the way Barth means. Most of the world does not take the Gospel for granted—some simply people reject the Gospel’s account of reality by default; some actively oppose it. Christians often respond with fear, worry, and defensiveness, which suggest we believe disagreement or opposition actually threaten the truth of the Gospel. Absurd. If the Gospel is true, no human power make it false; if it is false, no human power can make it true. These realizations raise a salient question: How should those who take for granted the truth of the Gospel face encounters with those who reject or oppose it? Together, the Gospels and the book of Acts answer this question clearly:
In words and common life, tell the story of Jesus as good news without trying to enforce it, and see what happens.
Most everyone who has heard of Jesus knows how his life ended. Far fewer people link his death to his repeated confrontations with the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, and other authorities, and finally Herod and Pilate. Many Christians immediately spiritualize the significance of Jesus’ death, crafting elaborate doctrines of atonement. In attending to the spiritual, we see Jesus’ death as inevitable by divine ordination, and miss the political significance of deliberate choices Jesus made to live with integrity among powers that deemed him a threat, even as he knew they would likely kill him. Jesus knew, as Sam Wells has said, “what happens when the utter goodness of God is utterly vulnerable in the presence of the shortsightedness and cruelty of human beings.” Even in that light, these authorities could have reacted differently to Jesus; they could have accepted him, but they did not. In the Gospels, Jesus’ death does fulfill Scripture and God’s plan, but he also dies because he threatens the power of those who wield the sword and prioritize their own luxury over others’ basic needs. Once we see that Jesus’ death means more than atonement, and we remember that to be a Christian is, principally, to follow Jesus, we must face—with much less surprise—Jesus’ unpalatably constant insistence that his disciples will suffer as he did.
Jesus takes for granted that those who follow in his way will be hated, excluded, insulted, and their names “cast out as evil” (Luke 6:22). Jesus’ followers will face opposition, persecution, and suffering exactly because Jesus does: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be killed by the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and on the third day be raised. … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:22-23). Again, when Jesus reproves the lawyers for building the tombs of the prophets, he prophesies that they will go on persecuting the prophets and apostles whom God will continue to send (11:49). So Jesus foretells the violent opposition the apostles he commissions (Acts 1:8) will encounter. Especially since he sends those apostles first to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it (Luke 13:34), they can expect to fare no better than Jesus. Lest any doubts remain, Jesus tells them explicitly: “they will seize and persecute you, betraying you to synagogues and prisons; you will be brought before kings and governors for the sake of my name” (Luke 21:12-13). At this point, Jesus himself will shortly stand trial before Herod the king (Luke 23:7-11) and Pilate the governor (23:1-6; 13-25). As with Jesus, so with the disciples. Jesus knows exactly the conflicts his followers will face.
Resistance to the way of Jesus—even if not universal or unmitigated—is a fact of Christian life. In Acts the apostles quickly discover how accurately Jesus predicted the opposition and conflict they would face because they speak, teach, and heal a crippled man in Jesus’ name. Jesus in John’s Gospel puts the matter starkly: “The servant is not greater than the master; if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:16). There is no reason to suppose Jesus’ followers today should fare differently.
In this light, modern Western Christians need to rethink the subject of persecution. We tend to think we should be able to follow Jesus without suffering for it. We’re obviously not reading the Gospel if we think that. Second, we wrongly count as persecution a prohibition against officially organized prayer in public schools or other public institutions, sanctions against public display of the ten commandments in a context that would present them as normative, or—a particularly relevant example given the approaching season—businesses forbidding their employees to wish customers a “Merry Christmas.” And some of us worry that President Obama is a Muslim and will, therefore, depose Christians from our privileged cultural status. I recently ran across an article about a woman in Germany who interrupted an interfaith Muslim-Christian worship service and “denounced a Muslim call to prayer by reciting Martin Luther, proclaiming, ‘Jesus Christ alone is Lord over Germany!'” One commenter was outraged that a “Muslim Call to Prayer” should occur in a Christian church and asked, rhetorically, whether American Christians would “stand up for Jesus” when—not if—this sort of thing begins happening in America.
Such mild opposition hardly counts as persecution. Of course some people do not believe what Christians believe. It has always been so. More importantly, neither Jesus nor the apostles ever exhibit the smallest fear that others’ unbelief in Israel’s God poses a threat to their own life of faith. Others’ beliefs have no bearing on the truth of the Gospel, the being of Israel’s God, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, or his identity as Lord of all. The apostles insist upon preaching in Jesus’ name because it is good news—not because they aim to secure their own survival or power, or the truthfulness of the message. They assume it is true! If it were not, they would have a much bigger problem. They do not argue against others in order to prove to themselves what they claim to believe, or to make it true by saying it loudest and longest. They do not believe the truth of what they speak depends in any way on them, and they live accordingly. The apostles’ example says that Christians should never accost others with talk of Jesus out of fear—fear that our faith isn’t strong enough, that the story might not be true, or that Christianity will lose the place of socio-political power it has held in the West since the 4th century. Christians’ social power has nothing to do with making the Gospel true. For the apostles, not having to make it true means they can show what it looks like when lived, as can Christians today. Indeed, the apostles seem to recognize something that modern American Christians seem to get backwards, namely, that the direst threats to the credibility of Christian life are not people who reject our beliefs or think them false. Rather, Christianity’s credibility suffers most from those who claim “Christian principles” or “Christian faith” but whose lives look little or nothing like Jesus’ life.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 shows just how seriously lapses in obedience to Jesus threaten the early church’s life and witness. Acts presents Ananias and Sapphira in contrast to those in the community who sell a piece of property and bring all the proceeds to the apostles for distribution within the community. This couple sells a field and donates just a portion of the proceeds, but they do so in such a way that implies they give as generous and costly a gift as those who are giving the entire proceeds of a sale. In this community, such an act undermines both trust and economic stability—if the rich in the community deceptively withhold property for themselves, they will create mistrust, reinforce the economic disparity that the Gospel heals, and so undermine the community’s witness to Jesus. The immediacy and severity of Ananias and Sapphira’s punishment indicates how great a threat their action posed to the community’s life and its proclamation of good news. When the apostles confront Ananias and Sapphira with their deception, they fall down dead—the Holy Spirit removing them from the community like cancer from a body. Ananias and Sapphira lack the integrity to live the story they claim to believe. Such behavior does not threaten the truth of the story, but it puts an axe at the root of community life and undermines the proclamation of good news. How Christians live and present the story of Jesus has everything to do with whether others can receive the story as good news. Christian proclamation of Jesus’ story should always serve its being received as good news.
Jesus’ first apostles mostly told their story because they were found doing something (or something was happening to them) that required explanation: tongues of fire and new language at Pentecost (Acts 2) and a crippled man walking again (Acts 3-4). Sometimes they told the story in response to a direct request—an Ethiopian eunuch asking for guidance reading Scripture (Acts 8), or a summons from a centurion (Acts 10). The apostles generated, in Sam Wells’s words, “a context that demands an explanation, a living mystery that invites scrutiny.” The apostles’ preaching about Jesus gathered a community whose common life elicited wonder and joy from those who saw it. That is how the church should proclaim Jesus—with words and deeds commensurate to one another. If the church is “a context that demands an explanation,” then “the explanation is Jesus,” and it’s the church’s job to show how Jesus explains the life we’re living:
We should seek to embody in our church life such hopefulness, such faithfulness, such patience, such endurance, such forgiveness, such truthfulness that could only be possible if Jesus has saved us. We must ensure that salvation in Christ is never just a theory. It’s a reality. It has to be seen in context. And it could just be that that context, at the moment, doesn’t just mean the Jews. It means us.
Being that context does not mean we should not use words to tell Jesus’ story. We should tell the story as truthfully as we can, but our best telling will be with those who invite us to speak. Berating others with the Gospel does not only waste the time of all involved; it actually undermines the truth of the story we hope to communicate. Part of being a good witness of Jesus involves learning when to speak, when to remain silent, when to wait for an invitation to speak, and when to make an offer uninvited. But we need never ensure the truth of the story we tell. If we relinquish that vain task, we can instead begin spending our energy on displaying ever more beautifully, creatively, and compellingly, how Jesus’ story is true in our common life—indeed, how Jesus saves us.
Two years ago, in a conversation about being a Christian amidst non-Christians, a friend of mine noted that Christians today struggle to answer well the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” In attempting to respond, she observed, Christians often spend substantial effort trying to convince our interlocutors we’re not crazy! But “crazy” is a matter of perspective, and Christians have known since the first century that from some perspectives we are indisputably crazy. And so, in fact, no one can give a universally satisfactory answer to the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” But Christians are charged to be Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:8), which requires us to communicate the story of Jesus’ cross and resurrection even as we know that those who do not already believe will receive it as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1; 2 Cor 4). Jesus gives Christians the gift and burden of a commission to tell as “good news” a story that will most often be received as “crazy.” So here we are. What now?
Christians should not apologize for our crazy; we should not try to make ourselves make sense according to general or supposedly universal standards of the rational, acceptable, or sane. Such standards, whether those who promulgate them know it or not, arise from particular perspectives no less than ours do. If we accept the rules of a different game, we lose before we begin. I cannot prove myself sane, but my inability on that score does not absolve me of Jesus’ commission to be a witness—to tell, portray, live the good news. I need not prove my sanity in order to tell the story.
One can only begin in the middle. The first important thing to say concerns epistemology—theories of human knowledge: I see no reason to suppose human beings can perceive everything that exists. I don’t mean microscopes versus telescopes here, or subatomic particles versus galaxies thousands of lightyears away. I refer to things our senses lack the ability to apprehend. I simply don’t suppose that in this world, what you see is what you get; just as likely, there exist untold things of which we know nothing. Philosophers would identify the converse assumption as an argument from silence—a weak argument. No objective foundation supports the claim that the sets “things knowable” and “things in existence” overlap exhaustively. In other words, epistemology and ontology are distinct subjects.
Second, the story seems internally consistent. In short, the Christian claim that the God who created this world speaks to us in Scripture seems totally plausible to me. Here’s why. Imagine God is utterly distinct from us—not a different kind of being, and not a person or a thing or a force somewhere in the universe, but the sole source of existence itself, and therefore, able to create this entire universe without the benefit of raw materials. Imagine Being that can and did generate matter and energy, and fashioned the world and everything in it. Imagine Life that cannot die, and so can bestow life on material creatures. If God created everything including us, creatures capable of communicating, it makes sense to me both that God would seek to communicate God’s existence to us, and that doing so would be no small feat.
Imagine the difficulty involved in communicating between Being itself and a created object, or creature. The distance between God and human being is categorically and infinitely greater than the distance between a human potter and a clay vessel. The potter and the jar both consist of matter and occupy the same material world, but God does not live somewhere in our universe. Imagine a potter speaking to her pots—and expecting comprehension, to say nothing of response! The analogy is flawed, but it begins to show the difficulty of communicating between Creator and creature. Creator-creature communication must begin from the Creator side, and success depends on the Creator.
The Creator must use methods adapted to creaturely limitations. The message must appear familiar enough to be apprehended, but not so much like usual human communication that we mistake the source of the message. A message from God must come in a form we can receive, but also that we can perceive as divine. That God would successfully give us any message is nothing short of miraculous—several times over—even before reckoning with the general attitude of skepticism prevalent since the 17th C. Especially in the post-Enlightenment era, Westerners prefer nearly any characterization of an event other than “act of God.” Even if God wrote in flames across the sky, “This is God. Let me tell you about myself…” we could easily imagine other more probable causes of such a spectacle. Grand gestures do not suffice. We require a strong dose of the ordinary in our messages from God. We need burning bushes, human teachers, and written words.
It strikes me as totally plausible that God would select a few people with an epistemic apparatus open to the experience of God and charge them to write the texts that communities throughout history have treasured and preserved because they found in them witnesses to God’s own revelation. It makes complete sense to me that God would choose the kind of thing Christians call “Scripture” as the primary means of communicating God’s identity.
Beyond internal consistency and the recognition that no story anyone tells about the world stands on an objectively knowable foundation, I can only say, third, I find the scriptural story a compelling account of reality. Telling the story of the world as God’s story—God creating, God calling Israel, God in Jesus, God calling the church, and God making all things new—strikes me as both plausible and beautiful. God calling particular people in the world as ambassadors to the rest of the world seems like the most plausibly effective way of communicating God’s plan for the world to humanity. God becoming human in order to communicate and save us seems like just the sort of thing the Creator God would do. The character of Jesus and the way that God saves us in Jesus’ cross and resurrection strike me as exactly fitting and beautiful. Jesus at the center of the story matters all the way down, and I never saw that more clearly than I did after reading Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom. Here’s how.
Jesus’ life is the life of God in the world—the God who “overcome[s] the powers of this world, not through coercion and force, but through the power of this one man’s death.” Jesus does not capitulate to violence by participating in it, but rather subverts it by submitting to it. Jesus rejects violence not because he is powerless, but because he possesses the true power of God, which, “exactly because it is a genuine and truthful power, does not serve by forcing itself on others.” Jesus’ power overcomes worldly powers not because Jesus wields a stronger version of it, but because Jesus wields a non-oppressive power against which the world’s corrupted powers are ultimately impotent. Jesus’ power subverts and voids any power expressed as violent subjugation and oppression. Jesus’ cross inaugurates God’s peaceable kingdom—a kingdom that cannot be inaugurated or inhabited through coercive means.
God’s raising of the crucified Jesus confirms that love and forgiveness inhere in the structure of God’s world. Moreover, the inner logic of God’s world presents a life-paradigm for those who would live well in it. Christians, therefore, reject violence not because it is inherently evil or merely because it is ultimately ineffective, but rather because it is incommensurate with imitating the God who rules creation not through force but through nonviolent love. Hauerwas writes, “The nonviolence of the church derives from the character of the story of God that makes us what we are—namely a community capable of witnessing to others the kind of life made possible when trust rather than fear rules our relation with one another.” Here Hauerwas names the core from which Christians’ peaceableness derives and Christians’ resultant primary posture toward the world as “witness.” The Christian church is that community which, through both its internal and external relationships, bears witness to the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians bear witness to the God who rules creation through nonviolent love.
This is the story I find compelling. Suppose it’s true. What if God really did raise Jesus from the dead?
That’s the point on which everything turns—Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is not God incarnate, risen from the dead, and the only one who saves us, we don’t need him after all. We can only say why people need Jesus if we already assume the Christian story is true. We can only know the truth of the Christian story by living it with other people, and we can only communicate that truth by inviting people to come and see it in action. That’s what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses. Yes, it’s a circle, and philosophers hate that. But it’s a good circle, if you have to pick one… and, some say, you do. Or, it just might pick you.
 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 78.
 Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 76.
 Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 81-82.
 Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 87.
 Hauerwas, “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 53-71 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 70.
I’ve got a backlog of several posts I want to write, but I did want to post something fairly quick before much more time elapsed.
This video is a lovely recording of Eric Whitacre’s stunning “Alleluia,” which is a choral adaptation of his instrumental “October,” which I also love. I heard this “Alleluia” for the first time live at a concert of Eric Whitacre conducting his singers as part of his “Inspirations” tour. It was a few weeks ahead of Easter, but now in the Easter season there’s little that’s more appropriate than nine minutes of alleluias.
For anyone studying for finals right now or writing papers, it’s a wonderful accompaniment.
Acts of the Apostles, doctoral study, duke divinity school, faith, good work, graduate school, imagination, pedagogy, religion, seattle pacific university, stories, teaching, theological education, theology, university life
I recently had occasion to consider how the last twelve years of my own theological education have formed my perspective on what theological education should be, and why I want to participate in the theological education of others. Foremost, I view the world theologically. As the psalmist declares, this world and everything in it belong to God (Psalm 24:1). God is not an object in the universe, but the Creator and Lord of everything that exists; God is the measure of all things. If God is the measure of all things, and theology encompasses all thought, speech and reasoning about God, then a person’s theology will govern her thought, speech, and reasoning about all else. Theology is inextricable from an entire way of life. Theology matters “all the way down.” So viewing the world theologically involves measuring my life on God’s terms. Human beings cannot reflect God’s life in the abstract; doing so requires a particular story. Christians stake their lives on the reality of God’s story as told in Scripture and summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Theological educators should invite students to know the God of that story and explore this world as God’s world. Christian theological education should unite the conviction that God is the measure of all things with the distinct content of God’s story that Christians confess, and should use all the resources of the academy that serve the living knowledge of this story.
All my post-secondary schooling has taken place in institutions committed to this perspective on theological education, which has shaped my work profoundly. After graduating from Seattle Pacific University’s School of Theology, I came to Duke Divinity School—first for the M.Div. and now the Th.D.—because I sought academically rigorous study integrated with Christian confession and, ultimately, a doctorate oriented toward ecclesial life. I named my major area “Christian Scripture,” because these words together identify the community whose presuppositions and story frame all my work. I have focused on discerning what habits and skills make faithful ecclesial reading of Scripture possible and developing them. I have learned to use whatever academic tools prove helpful for understanding the Bible as Christian Scripture—that is, as witness to God’s self-revelation, and indispensable and authoritative for ecclesial life.
I exercise this training every time I sit down to work on my dissertation, which engages the portrait of “witness” in the book of Acts as a whole, to the end of illuminating a Christian ethic of reading Scripture. Acts portrays a community endeavoring to live out the conviction that the God revealed in Jesus is the measure of all things. This community must articulate its identity not only for itself but also to an entire range of others, who run the gamut from eagerly receptive to violently hostile. Acts is peculiarly concerned with matters Christians must consider whenever we try to make ourselves intelligible to those who do not share our epistemic assumptions or our deepest convictions. The book of Acts, and especially its idiom of witness, offers resources for thinking through how Christians can rightly make claims to knowledge of God. “Witness” in Acts holds together precisely what theological education should: the conviction that God is the measure of all things with the particular story of Israel’s God revealed definitively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
My reasons for writing this dissertation correspond to three main challenges I see facing 21st Century theological educators:
1) Remaining committed to God as the measure of all things even as we work in American higher education, which requires that we neither reject entirely the prevailing epistemic paradigm nor measure all our claims to knowledge on its terms,
2) Reshaping study habits formed by easy access to information, which inhibit the careful attention that learning to know God requires, and
3) Maintaining the close connection between thought and life that the truthfulness of our convictions demands.
My thinking about these challenges continues to evolve, but here I offer how I am currently considering the way forward.
1) Because Christian theology begins from the presupposition that God is the measure of all things, working within American higher education presents a peculiar challenge. Modern people, whether in the academy or otherwise, are unaccustomed to considering God the measure of all things. Rather, modern people accord epistemic preeminence to science and history—disciplines that trade in encyclopedic knowledge and assume the reliability of human sensory experience. On one level, trusting historical and scientific judgments makes good sense. Christians, too, rely upon these disciplines and their epistemic underpinnings in our daily lives, but we cannot accord them epistemic preeminence without undermining our faith. Indeed, excellent scholarship requires that we use whatever tools its disciplines make available, but our commitment to reading the world on God’s terms obliges us to consider more and different possible realities than these tools alone can make available. All Christians, but especially those who work and teach in the theological disciplines, must develop the intellectual agility to use the tools of modern scholarship while not adopting its epistemology and, instead, maintaining the conviction that God is the measure of all things.
Such agility involves recognizing our single identity as one and the same person whether writing, teaching in the classroom, or participating in worship. The scholar and the Christian do not come apart. The practical form of such agility will vary according to discipline and the scholarly tools most appropriate to the kind of theological claims one makes. Modern theological study of the Bible, for example, can and should make use of historical-critical tools in order help bridge the gap between the Bible’s original context and our own. But biblical scholars should always keep the ultimate object of study in view, and not limit the Bible’s subject matter to historical possibilities.
From the very beginning of my theological training, my mentors have modeled such reading and have encouraged me to hone my skills in this art. As a result, I have not only learned by doing; I have had to think deeply about how such reading works and is possible. I am convinced that the flourishing of the Christian church requires that we continually return to Scripture, so I consider learning the art of faithful reading vital.
2) Theological study requires habits significantly at odds with the methods of information retrieval that both serve and plague our society. Most future college students have never lived without nearly ubiquitous Internet access. A bottomless store of information ready at our fingertips can distort our understanding of what constitutes knowledge, inhibit our ability to judge the quality of information, and hinder us in developing practices of seeking suited to our object. Theological study’s object is God, and knowing God is not quick, easy, or available via Google. Christian Scripture rewards and requires slow, carefully attentive reading. As always, how we know shapes what it is possible to know. Theological educators will have to recall students to slow, careful, methodical observation, and to long and thoughtful mulling. We must resist thinking of knowledge as a commodity—a thing available as a product in the classroom. A theological view on the world requires the constant reminder that knowledge of the deepest reality available to us comes only as a gift from God’s side of the Creator/creature distinction, and can only truly be known through living its truth in communion with others.
3) Living this truth in community is the final and most constant challenge for theological educators. I have already partly addressed this concern in noting that Christians must maintain the integrity of their identity. There can be no real distinction between the scholar and the Christian—no division between “work” and “life.” But living the truth of our convictions demands even more. Theological education exists not for its own sake, but for the flourishing of the church, which likewise exists not for itself, but in ministry to God’s world. Perhaps more than some others, the theologically educated are in danger of calling Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” and not doing what he commands, not following him as his disciples. The good of viewing the world theologically consists, finally, in becoming more like God. Such is the aim of my own life, and the way of life I hope to commend to my students.