Read the Bible With Me in 2017

Can I suggest a New Year’s resolution for you?  Make the commitment to read through the Bible with me in 2017.  At Munger, 2017 is our Year of the Bible, and we’re launching something called The Bible Project.  Here are 3 reasons why I hope you’ll join me in reading through the Bible in 2017.

 

The Bible is Difficult to Read Alone

Lots of folks struggle to understand the Bible, which shouldn’t be surprising: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by strange people in strange languages–of course it’s difficult to read and understand all by yourself.  Through the Bible Project (we’ve taken the name from some folks in Portland with whom we’re partnering), however, we’ll be updating our blog every day with explanatory notes, videos, charts, etc.  To give you an example of the kind of resources available, check out this great intro video to the Book of Genesis:

The Bible is difficult to read alone–so don’t.  Read along with me.

The Last Time You Tried It, You Quit in February

Many of you have probably tried to read through the Bible in a year, only to abandon your resolution in February when you got to Leviticus (if you made it that far).  You’re much more likely to complete marathon training in a group, and in the same way you’re much more likely to read through the Bible along with other people.  I’m preaching through the Bible in 2017, we’ll have a weekly Bible study, a daily blog, podcasts, etc.  All these resources are to help you persevere.  Good things come to those who persevere.

Nothing Has More Potential to Change Your Life

I guarantee you that 2017 holds unexpected challenges for you.  How will you prepare?  There is nothing you can do that will have greater potential to change your life and prepare you for the future than the daily discipline of spending time in silence and scripture.

So, Here’s What to Do

If you are a Mungarian, pick up one of the free One Year Bibles we’re handing out at church; if you don’t live in Dallas, get one of these from Amazon.  (We’re using the ESV translation, but they are currently out of print.)  You could also use the Bible app on your smart phone and pick the One Year Bible reading plan, but I recommend using the hard copy.

Follow along with our blog: bibleproject.mungerplace.org.

Watch my sermons: http://www.mungerplace.org/sermon-library/.

Start on Sunday morning.

Of all the New Year’s resolutions you could make, reading through the Bible is the most important.

So, are you in?

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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What If Creationists and Atheists Are Both Wrong?

What if the way you’ve been thinking about God is all wrong?  If so, you’re in good company: according to Ric Machuga, both creationists and atheists also tend to think about God incorrectly, and both groups have been thinking about God incorrectly in the same way.

Dr. Machuga is professor of philosophy at Butte College in Northern California, and the author of Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions about God, Miracles, and Free Will.  In a recent article in Books and Culture, he argues that both creationists and atheists often make the same mistake when thinking about God.  (The article is behind a paywall; I subscribe to the print journal.)

Is God Like a Divine Watchmaker?

Does God exist?  Creationists say yes, and atheists say no.  However, we need to more specifically define what we mean by “exist:”

[Medieval philosphers] Moses Maimonides (Jewish), Thomas Aquinas (Christian), and Ibn Rushd (Muslim) all understood that ‘existence’ was not a simple Yes/No matter.  While God certainly ‘exists,’ they all insisted that God’s ‘existence’ was fundamentally unlike everything else’s ‘existence.'”

Creationists, Atheists, and Even Isaac Newtown….

In our scientific culture, we tend to think of God as a divine craftsman, a heavenly watchmaker who made the universe and set it ticking.  Creationists fight hard to defend the idea of God as divine craftsman (using Genesis 1-2), while atheists fight hard to discredit the idea of God as divine craftsman (using biology, cosmology, and paleontology).  But what if God isn’t like a watchmaker at all?

The watchmaker's bench

Professor Machuga points out that thinking about God as the ultimate craftsman is a logical mistake.

Watchmakers and watches both exist.  And though they are very different in many ways–watchmakers are conscious, intentional agents; watches are not–their ‘thingness’ is precisely the same.  Contrast this with the difference between Shakespeare and Hamlet.  While both the author and his character ‘exist,’ they certainly don’t exist in the same way.  Shakespeare existed as a human being.  Hamlet only ‘exists’ as the fictional character created by Shakespeare.  Yet, the difference between Shakespeare’s existence and Hamlet’s existence is far less than the difference between God’s existence and everything else” [emphasis mine].

Isaac Newton thought that the physical laws he uncovered were “not only consistent with the existence of a supernatural Craftsman, but that they required such a God.”  Unfortunately, Newton, for all his brilliance, made a mistake in thinking about God:

Of course, in one sense, Newton knew that God and his creation ‘existed’ in different ways.  Breadth, height, and weight are common to all material objects, whereas God is a pure spirit with neither breadth, height, nor weight.  Nevertheless, to speak of a ‘very skilled mechanic’ [Newton’s phrase] intervening to prevent planetary chaos presupposes that God and the planets exist in the same way and in the same universe” [italics in the original].

But, God and the universe do NOT exist in the same way.  God is not a just divine craftsman, and thinking of God in that way points us in the wrong direction.  A better direction is to think of God as a divine playwright, because God’s reality is utterly distinct from the reality of the universe he created.  If this distinction seems confusing, just think about Shakespeare:

Because Shakespeare is not contiguous with the world of his creature, he can have a reality, endurance, stability, and ‘otherness’ that far exceeds Hamlet’s.  Without Shakespeare, Hamlet is literally nothing.  But without Hamlet, Shakespeare is still something, even if his glory is slightly diminished.”

God Isn’t a Divine Watchmaker, but a Divine Playwright

God is not simply the largest, greatest, and strongest part of our reality; God is another reality, distinct from us.  God is not a divine watchmaker who sets the universe ticking; God is a divine playwright who wills us into existence from his imagination.

We Can’t Prove or Find God, Unless….

This means that the only evidence for God that can be found in our universe is evidence that God deliberately places here.  It means that we shouldn’t expect to be able to prove God’s existence any more than Hamlet could prove the existence of Shakespeare.  It means that unless God shows up, we can never ever find him.

And it means that the Incarnation changes everything.

Take the Abraham Quiz

The Bible is mysterious and difficult, but it’s not impossible.  With a little bit of background knowledge about the ancient cultures of the Bible, ordinary people like you and me can learn to read scripture in such a way that even some of its mysterious parts offer important insights.  Below is a bit of background information about a very strange episode in Genesis.  Read the background, take the quiz, and let me know what you think.

"Butcher's Shop," by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

“Butcher’s Shop,” by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

 

You “Cut” a Covenant

In the ancient middle east, the way 2 parties formalized an agreement was through a covenant ceremony.  In Hebrew, you “cut” a covenant, because covenants involved taking animals and sacrificing them, and then walking between the carcasses.

And Say, “I’ll Become a Slaughtered Calf”

Here’s the point: when you walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animals, you were saying, “May I become like these dead animals if  I don’t keep my end of the agreement.”

(I think our wedding ceremonies would be much more interesting and divorce much less frequent if we adopted the same practice….)

beefmap

So, Abraham Gets Ready

In Genesis 15, Abraham, on the Lord’s instructions, prepares one of those covenants:

The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” [Genesis 15:9-11]

It’s obvious what will happen next: Abraham will pass between the carcasses, showing his commitment to the Lord’s plan.

Abrahamic-Covenant-890x713

[www.tillhecomes.org]

But Something Strange Happens

But, that’s not what happens:

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lordmade a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’” [Genesis 15:12, 17-21, my emphasis].

 

Take the Quiz: What Does Genesis 15:17 Mean?

What’s the point of the covenant ceremony recounted in Genesis 15?  What does this mean?

(Hint: The best way to read the Bible is to read backwards, i.e., to read the Old Testament in light of what we have in the New Testament. To put it another way, use Jesus as the interpretive key.  In light of what the Church believes about Jesus, what’s going on in Genesis 15?)

 

 

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3 Don’ts When Reading Genesis

Genesis is hard enough as it is; here are three things NOT to do when reading the first book of the Bible.

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Brueghel

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Brueghel [c. 1563]

Don’t Mistake “Is” for “Should”

Genesis is descriptive, not prescriptive, i.e., it describes the world as it is, not as it should be.  Subsequent to The Fall described in chapter 3, every situation, family, and life is corrupted by sin.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are sinful men, and their families are a mess.  Don’t be surprised when great heroes of the faith turn out to be seriously flawed.  And don’t confuse descriptions of sin with approval of sin, even in the lives of the Patriarchs.

The good news?  God writes straight with crooked lines.

Don’t Draw Conclusions Before the End

The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories; rather, it is one long drama in three acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end:

  • The Prologue: Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, and the Flood)
  • Act 1: Genesis 12 through the rest of the Old Testament (Covenant and Israel)
  • Act 2: the Gospels (Jesus)
  • Act 3: the book of Acts up through the present day (the Church)
  • The Epilogue: the Book of Revelation (the End).

Each small story in the Bible fits into the larger whole.  You wouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the author of a story from the first page of a novel or the director of the movie from its first five minutes.  In the same way, reserve judgment until you see how the story resolves.  Yes, there are parts of the story that are troubling, but reserve judgment until you see where everything is going.

Don’t Fill the Gaps with Suspicion

The Bible is filled with gaps.  All we usually get are big broad strokes, and it’s left to our imagination to fill in the gaps about why or how.  For example, in the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel, why does the Lord God approve of Abel’s gift but not Cain’s?  Isn’t that rather arbitrary and unfair?

Mind the gap

Here’s the true answer: no one knows why God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s.  In the face of such a gap, then, we have to fill it with our own conjectures.

Unfortunately, in the modern, cynical world, we are quick to fill gaps in the Bible with our own suspicions.  But suspicion is a choice, and there is another approach:

Don’t fill gaps with suspicion; fill gaps with trust.

It’s true that deciding ahead of time to fill the gaps in the Bible with trust is a faith decision, but deciding ahead of time to read with a hermeneutic of suspicion is itself a faith decision.  If you decide ahead of time that the Bible can’t be trusted and that God is cynically setting up people for failure so he can punish them, then nothing you read will ever change your mind.

A better way is to decide to fill the gaps in Genesis and elsewhere with trust and humility.  Then, when you encounter things you don’t understand, you’ll admit what you don’t know and assume that what you don’t understand has a purpose in God’s redemptive plan.

P.S.  What About the Bizarre Stuff in Genesis 6:1-4?

If you ever tried to read through Genesis, chances are that Genesis 6:1-4 caused you some trouble.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

-Genesis 6:1-4 [NRSV]

Here’s the truth: nobody really understands this passage.  Here’s how Terence Fretheim puts is:

This brief segment is one of the most difficult in Genesis both to translate and interpret.  Certain words are rare or unknown…; issues of coherence arise on many points.  These verses may be a fragment of what was once a longer story, or scribes may have added to or subtracted from the text.  The fact that the text presents ambiguity may be precisely the point, however: the mode of telling matches the nature of the message….

“Consistent with other sections in chaps. 1-11, this material reflects an era no longer accessible to Israel. [That is, the ancient Israelites who were the original readers of Genesis.  –AF] The text does not mirror a typical human situation…but speaks of a time long past when God decreed a specific length to human life.”

-Terence Fretheim, from Genesis, in vol. I of The New Interpreter’s Bible

So, who are the mysterious “sons of God” mentioned in v. 2?  Three options:

1. They are sons of Seth, mentioned in chapter 5, mixing with unbelievers.

2.  “They may be royal or semi-divine figures who accumulated women in their harems” (Fretheim).

3.  They are some kind of angelic beings.  This seems most likely in context, and most troubling and bizarre to think about.

But, basically, as mysterious as this passage is, it fits with the larger context: before the Flood, things were going from bad to worse, spinning out of control.

The good news is that Genesis 6:1-4 doesn’t affect any important Christian doctrines or beliefs.  (Which doesn’t mean it isn’t really strange.)

The Murderous, Hilarious Human

The human is a creature of contradictions, capable of murder, wit, wry observation, and great perseverance, not to mention many other things.  Consider:

After a Boko Haram attack [newyorker.com]

After a Boko Haram attack [newyorker.com]

“Slaughtered Him Like a Ram”

Details are sketchy, but by some reports Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist militant group, butchered 2,000 people last week in northeastern Nigeria.

A 12 year-old survivor of an earlier attack, now living as an orphan in a refugee camp, recalls the death of his father:

I saw them kill my father; they slaughtered him like a ram. And up until now I don’t know where my mother is.” -Suleiman Dauda

Jesus, have mercy.  This is what the human has made his particular speciality for thousands of years: murder.

Of all the earth’s creatures, none is capable of greater evil than the human.

So, Why Not Destroy the Creation?

In Genesis 6-9 we read of Noah and the Great Flood that the Lord sends to destroy the earth.  When I read of what’s happening in Nigeria or Syria or some other place, I think, “Why not wipe the whole thing away, Lord?  Why not stop all the killing?”

"Noah's Ark," Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, c. 1100 AD

“Noah’s Ark,” Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, c. 1100 AD

For people like me, living comfortable lives in comfortable places, it’s easy to be troubled by the Lord’s decision to kill everyone.  But if we were living in the midst of the kind of suffering and misery and murder that’s happening in Syria or the Borno state in Nigeria, would we be praying for God just to end it all?

When we honestly contemplate the violence of which the human creature is capable it seems that God was right: the slate needs to be wiped clean.

But the Creation’s Still Here

So, why didn’t the Lord finish the job and completely destroy our entire race?

The Deadly Mix

The human is a mix of the brutal and the beautiful, of violence and humor.  While murder was happening in Nigeria (and many other places), there was an NFL playoff game yesterday between Dallas and Gren Bay.  After Dez Bryant’s remarkable catch was controversially overruled by the officials, someone posted on Twitter:

The same creature that is capable of the murders in Nigeria is also capable of a wry, funny observation in 140 characters or less.  That tweet by Brandon McCarthy is just about perfect, isn’t it?

Plus a “Bro Country” Mashup

An aspiring country music songwriter named Greg Todd wanted to prove that there is a simple formula that the writers of the top “Bro Country” songs all follow.  So, he laid the songs over each other in an audio mashup, and made a video of it:

The same creature that is capable of murder and writing witty 140 character sentences is also capable of astute analysis of a pop cultural phenomenon.  And capable of putting his analysis together in a way that pokes good-natured fun at the industry in which he wants to succeed.

And Then We Have The “Ghost Boy”

Martin Pistorius lived a real-life nightmare: he was totally unable to move for 12 years, but everyone thought he was in a vegetative state.  For 12 years, he was a prisoner in his own body, able only to control his thoughts.

Martin Pistorius sometime between 1990 and 1994, when he was unable to communicate. [NPR]

Martin Pistorius sometime between 1990 and 1994, when he was unable to communicate. [NPR]

His story is one of the more remarkable (and blackly humorous) stories I’ve heard in years.  At one point, Mr. Pistorius talks about how much he hated the television show Barney that was always on the tv in front of him, day after day; his admission made me laugh out loud. (Listen to the 11 minute NPR story yourself.)

Maybe God Knew

I’m not saying that a funny Tweet, entertaining YouTube video, and the testimony of a man imprisoned in his own body somehow balance out the horrifying murders in Nigeria.  I’m merely pointing out how strange a creature is the human: all of the different examples above are the actions of the exact same species.

Maybe God knew what a bizarre mix the human was.  Maybe, while hating the sin in the human, the Lord also loved the humor, invention, perseverance, and love of which the human was capable.

Maybe God isn’t through with us yet.

 

Lurking at the Door

Where did it go wrong with Bob McDonnell?  Where does it go wrong with any of us?  Beware thinking that you or I are aren’t capable of the same things.  And worse.

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

What Do You Do When You Want to Sin?

It’s a question I’ve been asking recently: how does someone purposely refuse sin when it’s sin that he wants to choose?

It’s easy to refuse sin when it’s not what you want, but what about when sin’s precisely what you most want?

The one who wants to commit adultery will choose adultery.

The one who wants to steal will choose theft.

The one wants to gossip will choose to spread the unkind word.

The one who wants to murder will choose murder.

At the moment when you are confronted with a sinful choice that you’ve already decided you want to take, it’s too late.

The First Murder in the Bible

The first murder in the Bible is in Genesis 4, but before it happens, the LORD God warns Cain, “Sin is lurking at the door.  It’s desire is for you, but you must master it” [Genesis 4:7 NRSV].

At some point, rather than fearing sin, Cain welcomed it, and was devoured.

Cain murders Abel–his own brother–and murder has been part of the human story ever since.

[http://www.africadreamsafaris.com]

[http://www.africadreamsafaris.com]

No One Is Safe

Bob McDonnell, former Governor of Virginia, was sentenced Tuesday to 2 years in Federal Prison on corruption charges.  Bob McDonnell is a Christian and is described by his family, associates, and political rivals as a good man.  And yet for all that, Bob McDonnell made a choice to choose the sin that would devour him, but that choice wasn’t at the specific moment that a political donor asked him for some special favors: it was way before that.

At some point, Bob McDonnell made a choice to ignore small dishonest choices.  And then those choices grew up.

Sin starts small, but grows.  There are sins in my life that if I ignore–or worse, deliberately attract–will devour me.

Same goes for you.

At the moment we are faced with the sin that will devour us, it’s too late.  The only way to be protected is to fight the sins early, when you don’t want them and when they are small.

Kill It Early

The easy time to kill adultery is when the first thought of it appears, not when you’re on the work trip with the co-worker you’ve been flirting and drinking with for 48 hours and whom you’ve been looking forward to sleeping with for several weeks.  At that point, you want to choose sin, and you will.  At that point, sin’s been lurking at your door a long time: its desire for you is probably much stronger than your desire to master it.

You fight theft by attacking the obvious signs of greed in your life.

You fight gossip by repenting of small harmful sentences you speak about others.

You fight murder by being aware of your tendency to small bursts of indignance and superiority.

It’s Lurking At Your Door

I’m not any better than anyone else.  And neither are you.  But for the grace of God, there we go.