A Little Context For Me

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"I Wish I Knew As Much About The Bible As You Do"

I have to admit that I am always flattered when people tell me that they wished they knew as much about the Bible as I do. After all, I am human, and I have an ego like everyone else. Not to mention, I worked hard to accumulate the bit of knowledge that I have collected along the way. It is nice to be recognized. However, once the initial rush wears off there is always a twinge of disappointment as I am forced to ask the question – why don’t more people know their Bible better?

Look, I know that not everyone is called to get an advanced degree in Biblical studies or languages, nor do I think it is necessary. Time, money, family obligations, and aptitude do not always allow us to pursue a formal education in this area, and it is certainly not a field that lends itself to the accumulation of wealth, at least not the monetary type. And although I teach in the Christian Ministries department of a local college, I would be the last person to encourage anyone to go to college unless they were entering a field that required academic credentials.

However, that is no reason why we should remain ignorant about our faith. Our generation has the greatest access to knowledge ever known to humanity, and it is all at our fingertips. Unfortunately, this massive influx of information often proves to be overwhelming instead of useful, leaving people wondering where to start, what to read, and who to trust. Instead of trying to filter through the noise most people give up and “leave it to the professionals” or “those of you with degrees” which leaves us with two problems: 1. Christians who are ignorant about the thing they claim to hold most precious, and 2. A very small pool of people to do the heavy lifting.

Not wanting to simply complain about a problem without offering some solutions, I thought I would make a few simple suggestions that everyone can enact to improve their education without stepping foot into classroom. Will these make you a Bible wiz? No, but they are a great place to start without any fear of drowning.

1. Buy a copy of an illustrated Bible for kids. The basic stories are there, and it has pictures! The language is simple and easy to comprehend. Knowing the foundational stories of our faith is the first key to unlocking the deeper truths in the Biblical texts.

2. Get a copy of the Bible that is reliable and is easy to read. I prefer the English Standard Version (ESV), but the NIV is also a good translation.

3. After you have read the kids version, look up that story in your Bible and see what the differences are. What did they leave out? Was there any major changes? Which details in the Bible stand out to you?

4. Start using a dictionary. If a word is new or puzzling, or even if you have the slightest doubt about its meaning, stop and look it up. Knowing the proper definition will help you understand the text more fully.

5. Make the right friends. Really, this is an important step. Find someone you can trust who has one of those fancy degrees and talk to us about what you are reading. Ask us the questions that arose in your study. Ask us for recommendations for further reading. Most of us love to share what we know and are thrilled when you do this! We want you learn more about the Bible and that is probably why we got a degree in the first place – to help others, so help us do our jobs.

6. Learn how to use a Bible commentary. For some people this seems like a huge obstacle, but it is actually quite simple. If you can find a verse in the Bible, you can look up information in a commentary. And you don’t have to buy a whole set of commentaries (which can get real expensive real quick). Just do what I did, if you are studying the Psalms just by a commentary over the Psalms. As your studies progress, your collection will grow.

7. Learn how to use a Strong’s Concordance. It is available online so you don’t even have to buy this one. The beauty of the Strong’s is that you can find all the places in the Bible where specific words are used and you can begin to see how the Bible is woven together in the most fascinating ways.

Take the word “thorn” for an example. If you look it up, you will find where thorns play an interesting part in the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Burning Bush, and the Crucifixion.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the Bible. It is when I ask questions that I am led to new and interesting discoveries about this book that affirm why I love to dig through its pages and why its author is worthy of praise.

To build on our example of thorns: Why is God including this detail in all these passages? Is this a deliberate link between these stories? How do the stories fit together? Do I understand one passage better after reading the others?

9. Practice, practice, practice. Studying the Bible, even just reading in general is a skill, and every skill becomes better when we practice. Just because it is difficult in the beginning does not mean that you are stupid or incapable of understanding, it just means you need more practice. God never decreed that we had to understand his word the very first time or even the tenth time we read it. He just told us that his word is a delight, and sometimes we have to work to discover how delightful it really is. And that is okay! Give yourself permission not to know it all, because no one does.

10. Make it a practice to look up any passages you hear from the pulpit, podcast, or television show. Read any verses cited and read the passage it was found in. Double check Bible teachers and make sure that we are giving you the whole story, not just the bits that might promote our agenda.

Many of my friends who are the most knowledgeable about the Bible are not people with seminary degrees.  They are simply people who wanted to know more, and who were willing to use the resources they had at hand to learn more about the Bible. There is no reason you cannot do the same thing, and anyone who tries to tell you that you aren’t smart enough to understand God’s word to you is lying and that includes that voice of self-doubt in your head. So don’t buy it, and if you get stuck, ask for some help. That’s what why I am here and that is what I do, and if I don’t know the answer, I will tell you but maybe we can look for them together.

Well, that’s a starting point. What suggestions do you have for learning more about the Bible? Leave them in the comments below!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reader Question: A Look At the Devil

Question 1: Why is the devil portrayed as an ugly twisted red thing with fangs and horn when he is said to be the most beautiful angel of all Do you have any idea where the (relatively) modern version of him came from?

There is no straight path to the answer, and most of what we think we know is based on probable leaps of logic by those long dead. I think that unless further evidence is found, the best anyone can offer is conjecture. However, having acknowledged that, the conjecture is based on ideas and concepts accepted by most scholars to be historically accurate.

Let’s begin by looking at the role of goats in Judeo-Christian thought.

They have a rather mixed role within both religions. Goats were considered to be “clean” under Levitical law and therefore an accepted part of the Jewish diet and an acceptable sacrifice. It was a ram that Abraham found in the thorn bush when he was released from the command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. (Genesis 22).

Despite all these good things, we also find the goat present in the story of Jacob and Esau where the goat skins become a means of deception. (Genesis 25). Jesus declares there will be a time when the sheep will be separated from the goats in reference to judgement. (Matthew 25:32). But the most damning element is found in Leviticus 16:8-10, in a puzzling ritual sacrifice in which two goats are chosen for sacrifice and then the priests casts lots for which one shall be offered up on the altar and which one shall become a “scapegoat”. The scapegoat is released, symbolically carrying the sins of the people out into the desert to a demon or fallen angel known as Azazel.

The Bible offers no explanation as to who Azazel is, but his story is recorded in an extra-Biblical work called “The Book of Enoch” which tells us that “the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.” (1 Enoch 10:8) Many Biblical scholars believe that Satan, and Azazel are all the same entity as the description of each one is mirrored in the others. Additionally, Satan is not strictly a name, despite how it has been commonly used, and is more accurately a title meaning “accuser.” (This is where I will spare you the long theological debate about on how many satans there are and if or why they may or may not be different.) The point is Azazel predates any concept of Satan, and he has always been closely linked with the goat.

A key aspect of Azazel’s story, as told in the Book of Enoch, is that he was the leader of a group of angels known as the Watchers who came to earth and raped human women, giving birth to what were called the Nephilim. It was for this sin that Azazel and all the angels who followed him were condemned.

And we should also bear in mind that the Levitical law was given directly after the Exodus. In Egyptian culture the goat was also sacred – the point that it was not sacrificed. (Think Hindu cows.) In fact, Moses original request to Pharaoh was to release the people of Israel so that they might sacrifice to God in the desert away from the Egyptians who would be offended by the slaughter of their sacred animal.

In Egypt the Goat of Mendes was linked to fertility and some of the rites performed were even said to be sexual as recorded by Herodotus.  This goat god was later absorbed by the Greeks to become the god Pan. Pan would be known for his love of drinking, food, and women and would be worshipped by excessive consumption of all three just as Banebdjetet was.

Skip ahead a few millennium or so, and we have Christianity on the scene. A new religion with deep roots in Judaism and attempting to make a place for itself among the many religions practiced in the Roman Empire. Believing that all gods, apart from the Hebrew God, were demonic being masquerading as the truly Divine the imagery of the Greek/Roman gods was used to depict any spiritual entity in opposition or perceived competition with the Hebrew God.

Additionally, Pan’s mythology shared in several of aspects associated with Satan/Azazel. Pan was deceptive, a glutton, loved to drink, was a talented musician, and was basically the personification of lust. Combine that with the fact he was goat-man creature and that his image was everywhere, and you have the easiest target in the world. Particularly, if you are have two fold agenda:

1. Convince people that the pagan gods are abhorrent by equating them with pure evil. So the most popular god becomes Satan.

2. Strike fear into the hearts of your followers by portraying your enemy as something disgusting so that they will not be tempted to give into temptation. So Satan becomes ugly in the image of Pan.

Personally, I think as Christians we shot ourselves in the foot with this seemingly brilliant move. For while I do believe that there are demonic forces that masquerade as gods demanding to be worshipped, we have allowed the world to believe something that is counter to the teachings of Scripture. Satan is not ugly - the Bible teaches us this. He is beautiful and seductive in his beauty, but no one is on guard against beauty. We are all waiting for the man in red pajamas to scare us because we think we know that this has to be what evil looks like. We have based our ideas about God and Satan on movies, not Scripture. We have accepted superstition, folk lore, and Hollywood scripts as theology instead digging into our sacred text, and in doing so allowed offered up a lie to the world instead of the truth we were entrusted to share.

Speaking of red, I almost forgot. I could find no ancient sources that gave me any indication of color. So I will offer my speculation. Red has long been associated with passion, lust, and fire. Plus, it looks good on film and producers needed to dress up their characters in ways that immediately conveyed who and what this person was to embody. If I had to guess where the red came from, that would be it, but I am open to correction.

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Friday, October 2, 2015

"How Could Such An Intelligent Person Believe That?"

I am often asked why “such an intelligent person” would allow my life to be dictated by such an archaic book as the Bible. The implication being that to do so is a stupid choice or, worse, I am stupid for making that choice. Now, this the point in the conversation where most Christian do one of two things: they become offended and say some rather rude things about the questioner, or they start quoting Scripture at the questioner, appealing to the Bible’s declarations of authority.

The flaw with first approach should be self-evident, but in case you need a refresher, calling people names, casting aspersions on their intelligence or character, or more simply failing to be gracious is not in keeping with the dictates of Scripture. Furthermore, you have revealed your own hypocrisy and lack of faith by seeking the validation of another’s agreement. So just don’t, okay?

The second approach is also flawed, because it ignores the one basic fact that would lead to such a conversation in the first place – the Bible is not authoritative to anyone who does not believe in it.
Allow me to break this down for you: If you do not accept that Bible is a holy and inspired work, you have no reason to accept any of its claims, including the right to be seen as holy and inspired.

However, there is a third option. It is a much harder and demanding option, but it places the demands of Scripture above our own flawed thinking. This is three step approach, and it cannot be something that you do in the heat of an argument. Waiting until someone challenges you on the authority of Scripture to apply this method is too late, and it will not work.

First step: Live like you believe that Bible really is the divine decrees of God. I am not going to try and make a list of what this should look like. To do so would require far more time and space than I suspect you allowed for reading this blog, but it brings us to the…

Second step: Study your Bible, and I mean really study your Bible. I am not talking about doing a daily devotional. Devotionals all fine and dandy, but most of them were designed to make you feel good about your faith. They were created to be soothing to your ragged nerves and fragile egos, but real Bible study confronts and challenges us. It is does not allow us to pass over the unnerving bits of Scripture and forces us to ask ourselves, what do we truly believe? Are we comfortable with the God who demanded that Abraham place his son on that altar? How about the God who killed the first born of Egypt or demanded the deaths of entire nations, right down to the last child? What about a God who condemns his own son to a bloody death?

Real Bible study will not let us get by with only focusing on the happy verses. And happy verses alone do not demand maturity or growth, they let us remain spiritual babies who can only live like we believe the Bible is true in the good times. By finding God in those troubling verses of the Bible, we learn how to find him in the troubling places of our lives, those places where the world needs to see him the most.

Third step: Share the awe.

There is something amazing that happens when you dig into the word and find God’s fingerprints upon the pages. A sense of awe rises up and leaves you in wonder of the revelation and artistry of this book. It is a feeling that does not have to be conjured up or whipped into a fanatical frenzy, it simply is and it settles upon your heart in waves and currents of love, joy, peace, happiness, and all the other fruits of the spirit that we are to exhibit in our lives. It inspires us to share what we have learned not through adversarial tactics but in true awe-struck veneration of a God who transforms us into a reflection of his Son.

In that place of awe, there is no need to be offended, no compulsion to be rude, and the futility of arguing is revealed. Instead, we can face our critics with love, with compassion, and with a pure desire not to be right but rather with the hope that they can experience a similar moment with their Creator. For in the end, it is not about winning an argument, and it is not about being smarter. No, it is about finding him to be bigger than our doubts and objections, unafraid of intellectual wranglings and justifications, and discovering a God greater than ourselves – a discovery that we can coerce or force upon another.

So instead, we offer them a peek at the inspiration we found in the pages of his Word. For beneath the ink and paper, beyond the rules, is the reason for our obedience – the God who wishes to be known and the love that our souls crave more deeply than any other love we once held sacred.

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