Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []

Don’t blame the preacher?

Photo by iowa_spirit_walker

Jonathan’s doing again what he does best. Stirring! This time he tackles the myth that preaching in NZ is bad. Suggesting sensibly that Kiwi preachers are probably on average no worse that any other nationality. Which is doubtless a huge comfort to all you Kiwi preachers, but must be a real worry to the rest of the world ;)

OK, crude rude and highly unfair joke out of the way, Jonathan’s stirring slags off several groups I belong to:

  • I preach (in NZ usually) should I be offended that he has to work so hard to claim that I’m no worse than the global average?
  • I teach at a seminary, and boy did JR slag off people like me. Apparently we are forever fostering the myth that all preachers are terrible, wouldn’t know a Bible if one fell on their foot, and have an obsession with being trendy.
  • I also sit in the pew, sometimes for what seems like hours listening (or catching what last year were trendy micro-sleeps) to sermons.

JR’s practical advice in the post: The Social Location of the Preacher and the Blame Game is aimed at all three of me:

1. If you are a biblical preacher teach your congregation what biblical preaching is and how to train their preachers in it and let them train you! (and make sure you are actively training others)

Yes, yes, yes, that’s right. I’ve learnt heaps about preaching from the people at Balmoral Baptist Church over the last 18 years, and quite a bit from other people I’ve preached or ministered to elsewhere too.  I hope I’ve also (often, maybe even usually) modeled decent preaching, and faithful, sensible approaches to biblical hermeneutics also…

2. If you are an academic adopt a different preacher each year, be nice to them and encourage them in their preaching of scripture.

I am sorry, I’m not arrogant enough to go out and “adopt” a preacher, but I do try to talk (to anyone who shows the slightest evidence of interest) about what I think makes a good sermon. And over the years I’ve also written in the NZ Baptist a number of rants on the subject, from an early castigation of the blasphemy of “relevance” when it takes priority over real biblical content, to a more recent claim that I could sum up good preaching in one word: sharp.

3. If you are a frustrated congregant pray for your pastor and talk to him or her gently but matter of factly about what is missing from the sermons.

The praying and talking make sense, but “what is missing from the sermons”! You’re joking Jonathan, surely? I wouldn’t attend one of those “Christian” entertainment centres where the preacher fails to make an attempt to proclaim the word from Scripture, so nothing “is missing from the sermons”. The problem is the opposite. Almost every sermon I hear would be twice as effective if it were half as long.

To cure that problem all you need to do, preachers, is spend an extra hour preparing. And most of you can easily save several, since you spend too long already “crafting” your words. Instead cut ruthlessly till all that is left is the essential message. Done :)

Actually there is one serious confession, and one (other) serious piece of advice I’d offer:

  • The confession: far too often when I preach I am content to show people what the Bible says. That is not enough :( Tell any human a “rule” and they will almost instantly discover “good reasons” why that particular rule, though good in principle, does not apply to them.
  • The advice: is simple, apply the Scripture to a number of differing people. (These application stories can be fictitious, though true is even better.) Make the stories “real” and people will identify with the characters, and apply the “lesson” to themselves. A smart neat and effective use of human nature (we are empathic animals who love responding to stories).

Theological education: some autobiographical reflections (ii): Revolting students

This post follows my Theological education: some autobiographical reflections: Childhood.

I arrived at University determined to use the opportunity of life away from home to explore existence without God or church.  I was studying psychology, keen to see how the scientific method, with its empirical and experimental openness, could throw light on the mystery of human behaviour.  However, despite my intentions, by a series of random events, or through divine providence (you decide), I ended up agreeing to attend the Baptist Students’ Group’s opening meeting. Well, at least there’d be free food, and more women than men :)

I found a bunch of late-sixties student radicals. They questioned things I’d never dreamed of examining, tested everything intending only to retain what stood the test. Within days I was reading the (then popular) “death of God theologians”. What nonsense, the divinity whose death they were gleefully if sadly admitting was not God, but merely a god. Those little convenient powers that humans invent, keep in their back pockets in case they will be useful on rainy days,  and then discard when umbrellas are invented. This wasn’t God. Through reading deeply of the “death of God” I discovered I was a latent, if confused, theist. And worse, that God had his claws in me, and I could not escape in any of the (then) usual ways. I was hooked, and the shape of my future life (all unknowingly to me at the time) was foreordained.

But first I had to learn about sectarianism and about the church…

Mission trips again…

Tim teaching on the Thai-Burma border

This is my third contribution to the mission trips conversation. This particular conversation (and there are/have been of course many earlier ones ;) was started by Vinoth Ramachandra’s post: Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”? If you have not read that read it before reading on…

I was pointed to that post by y colleague Jonathan who offered a characteristically thought-through and rich metitation, so I responded here and here (I neglected to make explicit – for anyone who is a casual visitor here – that I have an interest to declare). Since writing those posts I have seen another response (from someone with a stronger declared interest) the Kouya Chronicle‘s “Short Term Mission Trips: Just Say No?”

On a lighter note Lingamish offers thoughts on Clownin’ for Jesus. And among the various comments to all these posts I found Judy’s particularly good at stating the case for good mission trips, so I’ll reproduce it here:

Tim, I agree with what you say, but I think there are some legitimate things that people can do in short term visits that are more than being tourists – they just shouldn’t be called “mission”.

First, my denomination takes groups of young people to Aboriginal communities in the north and centre of Australia, and to villages in various parts of South East Asia and the Pacific. They spend time being oriented to the culture beforehand and more time being debriefed afterwards and a couple of weeks staying in a community. We call it Faith and Cultural Exchange and the desired outcome is that the young people will get an exposure to eachother’s culture. I am not sure that we ever bring young people to stay in our urban communities, though – which is the logical extra. The young people come back radically changed and energised to work for justice and many of them are involved as leaders in working for justice a decade or more after their visits.

Second, people in local churches get together to go to various places to do building projects. My region has a relationship with a theological college in PNG and every year they take an architect, a qualified and experienced builder and a team of volunteers over there to do more work on their buildings. They pay for their travel, they pay for their food and they raise money to cover the cost of building materials. The architect and the builder went over to scope the project in consultation with the locals before it started and as a result, the students at the college have far better accommodation and teaching facilities than they had four or five years ago. The volunteers find out a bit about the local culture because many of the locals can speak English, but what they are doing is equipping local people to do mission, not doing mission themselves and I haven’t heard people talking about it as mission.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

It does. More than reasonable, it offers fine examples of the good that short term visits by rich-world Christians to other Christians can achieve. These good things should not be thrown away. I’m not asking for that. “Merely” stressing that people on such short term visits need to be prepared, appropriate people, and need also to understand that the goal is not so that they can give, so much as that they can learn. And all this needs to be achieved in ways which do not result in the sort of sadness that Vinoth Ramachandra describes so well. Anyone thinking of involvement in this “business” should read his post and have conversations along similar lines at both ends of the trip (starting point and destination). Such trips are not a “right” they are a privilege! They should be earned not by cash but by behaviour and through relationship.

PS: The always interesting William Black has added a (long but thoughtful) post: Short-Term Missions – Boon or Curse

Bible Study tools online and free to download

The latest Tyndale Tech email just arrived. I do not usually repeat them here, I reckon if you are interested you subscribe! But this one has a much wider than usual potential readership. In it David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House, Cambridge presents a pretty full list of the remarkable range of online or freely downloadable Bible study tools, and also highlights briefly the main ones to buy as well.

If you study the Bible, at any level at all from beginner to PhD there is likely to be something here for you that you did not know about! The range of superb online tools has grown so fast over the last few years, that it is now amazing what is available.

Procrastinating usefully

My daughter (in Glasgow as an exchange student) has been posting recently on Facebook about procrastination (it’s nearly the exam season there, and revision does not beckon like she thinks it should. Shopping, cooking, buying tickets… her list of procrastinatory activities are different from mine. But today I am procrastinating too!

I’m supposed to be polishing (off) a talk for tomorrow night on Song of Songs (I guess since I am the only person many people know who has preached on the Song I deserve the invitation ;) but that experience does not really make preparing to preach on the Song easy – so I procrastinate…

Actually this post is both related to the preparation (since the stimulus was seeing that Dale, who invited me to preach, uses a neat plugin to post from his blog to Facebook) and is actually useful – at least if this post appears in FB as well as on the blog.

Anyway enough procrastination, back to the Song of Songs.


Muscular Christianity?

Muscular Christianity?

Well, I’m busy with this week’s sermon, after the helpful comments on my post last week Helicopter gunships in Joel – a plea for help :) though none critiquing what I actually preached :( I am tempted to make this post too a plea for assistance ;)

Instead, I’ll just note that my theme is that “The Bible is Perspicuous” and I plan to illustrate the theme and turn what risked being a lecture back into a sermon by looking at Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scripture and Salvation…

I’m attaching the slides again, and any comments or suggestions would be welcome :)

I’ll also say, that despite the fervour with which guys (but not often women – I wonder why, are most women too sensible?) from the US of A debate the details of “inerrancy” I really find that concept – even when qualified into safety by someone as skillful and provocative as John Hobbins – quite cold and uninspiring – when wielded by a mouth-foaming hearty muscular Evangelical (usually with a very big E) it is just terrifying! By contrast “perspicuity” is a peacemaker, patient, kind and gentle, though with a heart of steel. Just think of Menno Simons saying:

The Word is plain and needs no interpretation: namely, thou shalt love the  Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and  thy neighbor as thyself. Mt. 22:37, 39. Again, you shall give bread to the  hungry and entertain the needy. Is. 58:7

Who can claim to have mastered such a Scripture?

Image (poster at top of post) details:
Title: Strong in the strength of the Lord. We who fight in the people’s cause will never stop until that cause is won
Artist: Martin, David Stone
Issuing Agency: United States. Office of War Information
Publisher: U. S. Government Printing Office
Date: 1942
Genre: War posters
Extent: 1 print (poster) : color
Description: Three muscular arms, one holding a gun, the others holding tools reach upward together.
Notes: U.S. Government Printing Office : 1942–O-488341; OWI Poster No. 8
Period: World War, 1939-1945
Subjects: Christianity; Patriotism; Propaganda
BPL Department: Print Department
Rights: Public Domain

The Bible is NOT a code book…

Weekly World News Apr 3, 2001 Vol. 22, No. 28

Weekly World News Apr 3, 2001 Vol. 22, No. 28

So, how did I preach about “Helicopter gunships in Joel“?

As I said, this was part of a series on “How to Read the Bible” and though the sermon was on Joel 2:5-8 the title was “The Bible is NOT a code book… the Bible means what it says“.

I’m uploading my presentation and an audio recording of the sermon (as whole “slides” rather than with some bullet points and images appearing sequentially to save bandwidth as I am using a borrowed connection this week, for the same rerason the audio is AMR rather than MP3) so you can get a feel for the sermon:

Basically I suggested:

  1. that there are three dominant pictures in Joel of a disaster: Locust plague, drought and invading army, and that these images shift from one to another through the book (even perhaps within a verse). This provides fertile ground for the “code-breakers”, but if the Bible “means what it says”, then it should not be impossibly difficult to understand without esoteric knowledge.
  2. that looking at the cotext (a previous sermon pointed out the importance of lookin g at the text around the passage) provides all the clues we need
    1. so, the opening of the chapter tells us these pictures concern the “day of the Lord” – a time when God would intervene to put right what was wrong
    2. and those that follow (Joel 2:12-14) tell Joel’s hearers that they are part of the problem and must truely repent – mere words or ritual actions are not enough
    3. if they/we do then we may discover the God who “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”.

The Bible is not a code book, but clear, it means what it says, and contains good news!