What is the Bible?

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Michael Pahl has an excellent post (a really long one comprising several from his church website) on What is the Bible and how should we read it?

The post is simple (any intelligent Christian should have no trouble understanding what he says), profound (many readers will be able to continue to draw sustenance from the post over years of Bible reading) and explained with some powerful picture stories.

Any Christian who has not done “Bible college” should read it, and many who have may find things their teachers said make more sense after reading this post!

Have I burbled on enough to get you over there? If not I’ll need to repeat what a fine post this introduction to Bible introductions is!

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Bible, Normative OR Negotiable a false dichotomy?

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In an excellent post on the Aussie BS blog Mike Bird provides a neat helpful brief summary of things people need to recognise about the Bible. The post should be helpful for both believers and unbelievers alike, potentially dispelling ignorance and superstition in both camps ;).

His number six offers an interesting take on the Conservative-Liberal party divide. Mike’s approach helpfully sidesteps the shibboleths of inerrancy and infallibility with their focus on questions of facticity, and suggests in their place talk of Scripture as normative. So far so normal, and indeed to speak of Scripture as normative does more than proclaim its authority, it protects the Protestant standard of core or central authority.

What interests me though, is Mike’s other pole: negotiable. As Mike uses it, to speak of Scripture as “negotiable” means that it is merely “a human word about God to be selectively utilised insofar as it enables us to speak a transcendent word to our native context”. Indeed in a Facebook conversation the term becomes more clearly polemic:

…my idea of “negotiate” is not the complex hermeneutical reflection needed for proper application and obedience; rather, my concern is with a blaise dismissal of a text since it points away from values of the progressive tribe. For case in point, Paul was a sexist homophobic bigot, who cares what he thinks, stuff like that.

If your goal this is to distinguish “us” and “them” – at least if “us” is the Conservative wing of some denomination this understanding works really well. However, inherent (if sadly not inerrant) Middle-of-the-roadist that I am, I cannot avoid the thought that “negotiation” is precisely what Scripture, understood as both Mike and I both understand it (see his points 1-5 and 7) demands.

The Bible, or rather any part of the Bible that is currently in front of us and under discussion, requires negotiation. It needs to be brought from being merely an ancient text that is often metaphorical or emotionally non-literal that was written to and for people in very different circumstances than ours to being a word for today. Without negotiation, that is without a careful; conversation about the nature of the ancient message and the world to which it applied, and how that ancient message translates into today, without such negotiation application is merely your word against mine – all interpretations are valid and Scripture means nothing and has no authority.

For the Bible (and not merely its interpreter) to be normative Scripture requires negotiation. From where I sit, uncomfortably and dangerously, in the middle of the road, both the Conservatives and the Liberals in their such different ways reduce the Bible to an icon.1

For Scripture to be normative it must be negotiated. When it is both negotiated and normative then like John Robinson in his address to the Pilgrims:

I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

  1. By this I mean a symbol to inspire allegiance, but with no real authority, the Conservatives delivering ultimate authority to those they recognise as inspired interpreters, and the Liberals doing the same but being perhaps more likely to claim that the speaker themself is among that blessed company. []

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Small talk and biblical narrative: a challenge

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I was grabbed by a question Derek Tovey asked on Facebook. He’s been reading the blurb to Peeter’s edition of Elizabeth B. Tracy, See Me! Hear Me!, Contributions to biblical exegesis and theology 75 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015). The blurb begins with an (unreferenced) quote from Fokkelmann: “The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk.” Derek asked: “Is he right? Can you find an example of small talk in the Bible?” I think he is and I can’t, can you?

There is banter in the Bible, not least banter between strangers – the case of Jesus and the woman at Sychar (John 4) is a strong example. There are examples of a host’s gracious welcome – Abraham and the three men offers a classic example (Genesis 18). But no “small talk” (which I understand to mean polite by trivial or meaningless talk to oil the wheels of social interaction).

This seems to me not unexpected, I can’t think (though please let me know that I am wrong) of examples of small talk in literature before the modern period, and even then the earliest examples I think of are from Shakespeare (and I think drama works differently from prose narrative).

More than that though biblical narrative is well-known to be parsimonious with unnessary detail of all sorts. Descriptions are almost only given when some detail advances the plot, or characterisation, in significant ways. Indeed, often the silences and omissions are meaningful, “fraught with background” in Auerbach’s redolent phrase.

Fokkelmann, however approached the question differently. The quote comes from his introductory textbook and his concern is with the way characters’ speech is “existentially revealing”.

The other speeches in our pilot story show that the character’s text not only contains many forms of the present tense, but often also commands and wishes. This means that speech is often about the imminent future, and this is something the narrator himself can never manage. Characters may say that they want to have this or that, or want this or that to be done in such-and-such a way. Speeches are often excited or dramatic.The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk; almost every word by a character is existentially revealing or rooted: the speaker is totally committed to the matter under discussion.1

This notion of speech in biblical narrative as “existentially revealing” is (I think) much more interesting than mere parsimony!

  1. Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative : An Introduction Guide (Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) 68. []

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Getting pictures to illustrate daily life in biblical times

Beni Hasan, tomb of Khnumhotep II, carpenters building boat and furniture, adr1603247542

Back in the 20th Century it used to be difficult and expensive for books or websites that seek to explain the Bible to get suitable illustrations (it was even hard to get pictures for classes. For the Hypertext Bible Commentary: Amos “volume” I had to travel to Israel and take photos myself. For an earlier print book Etudions l’Ancien Testament I paid an artist to produce line drawings to illusrate various aspects of the text.

Then with the advent of “Web 2.0” and sites like Flickr and Wikipedia finding photos of places became easy, many with Creative Commons licenses. Photos of ancient statues, wall plaques and other such large and impressive objects was also possible, though few people can take really good shots in a museum. However, since the average Jo or Joe who is visiting a museum is unlikely to shoot everyday tools and the like these are still hard to source.

Granary

Model granary with store chambers, grain sacks and scribe, Middle Kingdom (AD Riddle)

I was delighted therefore to read AD Riddle’s Three Things I Like About Egypt in which he writes about the usefulness of Egyptian museums with things like their tomb figures illustrating aspects of life like the model granery with its scribe (above).

I was even more delighted when Todd Bollen in a reply to my question in a comment said Bible Places are looking at producing a collection of such photos!

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Gospel games

It’s not yet launched (coming Thursday US time, Friday here) yet from what I’ve heard and seen The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance could be an answer for people looking for a decent, fun game for kids (and the young at heart?) that inculcates Christian values and the gospel message it cannot be worse than most of the “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” type nonsense that is usually marketed as “Christian”!

Unstoppable Play from The Aetherlight on Vimeo.

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Article on David’s story in Samuel-Kings (for comment)

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I am working on some ideas I delivered orally a few years back and at that stage did not finish polishing with a view to publication. Basically the idea is that if we read David’s story as told in Samuel-Kings1 through the optic of his relationship to death, unsurprisingly the episode in 2 Samuel 10-12 where he arranges Uriah’s killing to cover up his taking of Bathsheba is seen clearly as the turning point, such a reading also makes sense of David’s puzzling response to the illness and death of his first child with Bathsheba.

Here is the link.

I really would be grateful for comments and suggestions as returning (like a dog to vomit) to earlier work and now trying to polish it is not easy!

  1. Recognising that Samuel-Kings does not tell a “Story of David”, it does tell David’s story. []

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Legacy texts or e-commentaries?

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Because designers of file formats and Bible software that uses them are print-centric in their thinking I seem to face a choice in envisaging a new generation e-commentary. Either I produce something that accepts the traditional limitations of print, but which would work within Bible software and so be available to people when and where they need it. OR I produce a genuinely electronic commentary, with links and media (pictures, video and sound), but that must be accessed apart from the Bible study tool.

In my previous post I expressed some frustration at the lack of tools for conveniently preparing a text marked up in OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard). In this post I will look at OSIS from a different prespective. I am discovering that, as well as the practical difficulties of producing well-formed valid XML, I have  another deeper problem. OSIS is designed for marking up Bible and related texts, but it is designed for and from the print age. Its mentality is that of words written on a page. It is therefore quite good at rendering manuscript texts (after all print largely mimics manuscript). It is not good at producing e-texts.

To make matters worse, different front end1 designers have different ideas about the importance of non-textual elements (like figures)2 or hypertextual elements (most notably links). Among those who can import OSIS text (often adapted into Sword modules) some support figures (though the ability to size and place images in text seem to be rudimentary), others support links – though learning the arcane methods reguired is problematic and on occasions the results are bizzare (Xiphos3 may jump to an internal link in a commentary module, but seems to reset the Bible text displayed to the start of Revelation each time, not quite the effect I am after!

At present it looks as if I have the choice of aiming for commentary that is as print-like as possible, producing such a print-like commentary augumented by links to Internet based materials outside the commentary itself, or producing an e-commentary that does not work inside Bible software.

If anyone can suggest ways to cut the Gordian Knot, or even a decent compromise, would deserve and recieve my deep gratitude!

 

  1. Think Bible software or websites that allow you to read and study the Bible. []
  2. Photos, maps, diagrams, charts… []
  3. One of the most developed Crosswire front ends. []

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Returning to e-commentary

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Over a decade after the peer reviewed citable edition of the Amos commentary was published, and after several false starts and a lot of unproductive work, I am returning to explore the possibilities for e-commentary.

One thing that has changed for the better is that now OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard) is more firmly established. It will allow the material coded in such a way it can be shared across, and used within a number of Bible software front ends. Screenshot below shows a mockup of some commentary on Amos 1:1.

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One thing that has not changed1 is that OSIS is infernally difficult to code and no convenient tool exists to let anyone but a markup geek work with the markup.

I am learning lots, I now know about modern Bigendians and why they are dangerous to meet. I am discovering the delights of disappearing titles and the vagaries of front end designers, more than I ever thought I’d want to know about file formats and relative paths… One detail I learned is that if you put a BOM where you should not everything blows up. But that is not why everything blew up this afternoon, I still have to discover that new piece of information!

If anyone reading this knows of a decent way for a human (who is not a markup geek) to compose text in OSIS markup I would be delighted to hear from you!

As part of my preparation I have been rereading my old papers describing how I envisaged the project a decade or a decade and a half back, in case anyone else would find them interesting I am uploading them to Academia.edu here are the 2004 ones I have been looking at recently:

  1. As far as I know so far. If you know otherwise PLEASE tell me! []

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An intelligent designer

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I’ve commented before (on Facebook if not here) on how beautiful the “ordinary” North Island scenery on the road (whichever route we take) from Auckland to home1 is. We frequently try to explain to overseas visitors that NZ’s most spectacular scenery is mainly in the South Island. Yet the everyday beauty of the drive blows me away, every time.

As daybreak arrived this morning this was the view off to my left from the Matamata straights:

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The spectacular beauty of the sunrise was swiftly followed by the ordinary beauty of the fresh rounded NZ hills and paddocks (that Colin McCahon’s paintings teach us to appreciate). My response to such sights, for me, confirms my inability to believe that the world I inhabit is due to mere laws and random (or quasi-random) variability. I am forced to postulate an intelligent designer.2

Why can’t I believe in chance? Well aside from complexity and “fit” (which can, I guess, be explained away if you really want to explain them away) it seems to me that such random (or quasi-random) explanations do away with free will. And I simply cannot understand life, the Universe, and everything without positing that alongside all the powerful conditioning and predisposing my choices are indeed “mine”. Neither militant Atheists nor ardent Predestinarian Theists can convince me otherwise.

And now, after that spitritual interlude (provoked, like too many of my most profound spiritual interludes today, by driving a long way alone)3 back to normal life.

  1. In the hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, near Otanewainuku. []
  2. NB I do not mean the daft Six-Day-Creationist sort of designer, but that there is intelligence and in some sense personhood behind the beauty, as well as the terror, of the world. []
  3. I think the experience of driving alone for an hour or three provokes such experiences because as well as being alone one has little to focus on, except the mechanics of driving, and so the mind is freer than usual to freewheel, perhaps one of the few times it is really free. I must get out more, and go for more walks in the bush! []

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Revelation and Donald Trump

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Recently my Facebook feed has repeatedly presented me with cartoon pictures that echo the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, and apply that thinking to the rise and rise of Donald Trump on the US political scene. It is interesting how in even such a determinedly “secular” culture as NZ this biblical imagery still has power beyond the church.

However, some of the best sense I have read recently about Trump and Christians comes from Paul Windsor. In trump – again?! my Kiwi-American-Indian ex-boss neatly explains much of what most needs to be said about reading Revelation in the West, and about the unrecognised and so unacknowledged syncretism that continually trips us up. His scalpel is directed in this post at US Christians, but the message is for all. We build our belief systems, and so our lives, not only on the solid rock of the gospel but also on the shifting sand of the cultures we inhabit (and that possess us).

Do read his post.

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