21 March 2007

How do I do it?

by Frank Turk

It's been a couple of weeks since I have posted anything substantive here at TeamPyro (some people may say it's been longer than that, but we will let the scoffers heap hot coals on their own heads), but I've been busy. I hope you have enjoyed All-Dan blogging.

Anyway, I think at some point we left off with the question of, "well, if Scripture is so plain, how do I read the durn thing, cent?" Because telling people to read the book is not quite as helpful as it seems on the front side of the question. I know factually that some people read the Bible once every year -- every year, day by day -- and never get any spiritual or personal insights. So rubbing the text up against your eyeballs is not much better, really, than sleeping with the book under your pillow. It's not an ointment; it's not an injection. It's a book.

So you have to read a book. I know: very startling. What does that mean?

Well, you have to read a blog to get anything out of it -- and sometimes I am sure you wish you hadn't read some blogs because, well, you don't have a shower at work. But that said, what's it take to read anything at all? Can we read? Can a reader get something out of the text, or is he stranded in the wasteland which exists between minds in the radical existential void which has existed since about 1800?

Here's where my speciality comes in: I'm a Literature major. I know -- I haven't been in Grad School for almost 2 decades now (where does the time go? How can I not be 23 anymore?) -- so my "chops" may be "soft". Pheh.

That's why we're going to start with Scripture rather than my musty old M.A., and then work our way back to the practical issues, and we're going to be ready to respond, in the comments, to people who think this approach is solipsistic or whatever.

Here's what Scripture says, among other things:
Ps 119  How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Now, here's David as he's getting ready to unwind Ps 119, and he calls God's word several things: "your word", "your commandments", "your statutes", "the rules of your mouth", "your testimonies", "your precepts".

What is interesting about this is that it speaks to the way in which David must be receiving what he says he has "stored up in his heart": it is not in some completely-neutral textual medium but in kinds of texts, which the really snooty call "genres". Think about that -- David says that God's word comes to us in different kinds of expression, from the broadest category ("words") to some pretty fine categories ("testimonies", "statutes").

So in making this first serious clarification of how to read God's word, let's realize that God's word is not some kind of featureless sine wave of data which we just have to plug into. It has various forms of communication in the various books, and we have to be able to receive these things in the method and purpose of that particular text type.

Now, I think I have covered this example before here at TeamPyro, but I'm going to spell it out again here for emphasis. Let's look at another passage of Scripture for an example of how to do what I am talking about here:
O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God.

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill.

I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people!
For those of you who are well-read, I am sure you recognize Ps 3 here. But look at how this song ends: {Lord}, strike my enemies on the cheek {and} break the teeth of the wicked!

Is David really praying to God to punch his enemies in the mouth hard enough to break their teeth? That's what the text says, right? Even the wretched MSG gets that much out of the text. So is David the first guy to pray to Ultimate Fighting Jesus -- and have we finally found a foothold for full-contact Christian apologetics?

I am sure some of you are hoping I say "yes" to that so that I have to go back and take back all that I said about tats and dressing like bikers to enter in to a culture, but that's not going to happen. Let's go back a few verses here and look at the beginning of this song -- this poem. In the first stanza, David said, "many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God".

Well, so what? What's that have to do with God being a brawler? Well, it has nothing to do with God being a brawler, which is exactly my point. God's not a brawler: He's a punisher of the wicked. And David, who is asking God to deliver him from wicked men, is asking God to punish men who have said wicked things. And here, the punishment for a lying mouth is a punch in the mouth -- a slap to the face hard enough to break teeth.

But to get that from this text, you have to do something interesting: you have to recognize that David is speaking in a poem, and that the way a poem works is by means of things like metaphor, hyperbole, and analogy.

It may be startling to some people -- like atheists, for example -- to discover that the Bible is a sophisticated text written by literate men by the inspiration of God, but it should not be startling to Christians. And in that, we have to be willing to engage a sophisticated text with some level of literacy and -- if we may say this in circles which demand inerrancy and at the same time a "simple Gospel" -- sophistication.

If you can read this blog, you can read the Bible. I'm sure I'll have more about that in the future, but until then, try to read your Bible and not just skim. You might be surprised at what you find.

UPDATED: Dudes, you must read this and read to the end or else you'll have a heart attack.


Marcian said...

Don't you mean "sine wave"? English majors. Pheh.

In all seriousness, though, grad school ruined me when it came to Bible reading. When I was being pulled by God toward His Book, I found myself skimming and cramming in the same manner I had when I was given mountains of texts to read within the span of a few days. I had forgotten how to read for pleasure, and I was approaching the Bible as I had all my other texts: skim for content, understand that 90% of what I read is filler. This was a HARD habit to break, and I still fall prey to it. But I no longer beat myself up if I can't get through two verses every once in a while because they happen to say that I need to make some changes in my life, or it is a hard truth to swallow.

Great post. Thanks for the encouragement.

centuri0n said...

Yeah, there are other typos in this thing ...

Peculiar Pete said...

I think the thing that hinders most Christians from taking more from their Bible reading, is that they are reading it as only a bunch of facts. Instead we should be looking for ways we can apply the passage to our own personal Christian lives. Application, Application, Application.

Another thing is that they don't read it in context. That can be scary. All false doctrine comes from either not using the Word of God, or using it, but molding it into what you want it to say. Not what God originaly intented it to.


centuri0n said...

Pete --

On the one hand, your comment seems so obviously true, and on the other hand I think you have missed a larger point about the Bible:

It is not just about "context", although context matters -- especially the historical context of the books in question. But what matters is the intention of the author. I am reading a great book, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, by Graeme Goldsworthy, and he thinks that if you don't get where a book or a passage falls in the larger context of God's metanarrative, you can't get the passage at all.

The problem, if I may diagnose here, is that we have grown up in a culture where we have learned the Bible by AWANA and not by reading it as if it were literature. We have a fragmented view of Scripture, and that was actually going to be my next pocket of change on this issue.

LeeC said...

It took us all the way up to the year our daughter was old enough to attend AWANA to get over our aversion to the piecemiel (sp?) way the Scriptures are thrown at them. This is her first year in Sparkies now, but we work hard to keep things in context with what she is learing and memorizing.

Of course it beats the first Sunday School class I taught where the curiculum wanted me to teach on John 2:5 "5 His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." To show how to obey our parents quickly...

Turretinfan said...

You wrote:
If you can read this blog, you can read the Bible.

I respond:
Sadly, many people simply have a problem reading.

You see it all time, in lots of contexts.

It can take the form of selective vision:

- Arminians see the "world" in John 3:16 but not the "all believing"

- Papists see Peter speaking in the assembly, but do not see James rendering the judgment in the council of Jerusalem

It can take the form of presuppositional reading:

- Arminians see "free will" (and Pelagians "human ability") in every command in Scripture.

- Papists see the pope in every reference to Peter (in Scripture and the Early Church Fathers).

It can take the form of vocabulary deficiency:

- "Jesus wants the little children to 'suffer'?"

- "They "should be saved" but people don't always do what they should."

It can take the form of defensive exposition:

- "My crush couldn't be saying he/she doesn't like me - he/she must be trying to play hard to get."

- "But why would Jesus not want everyone to understand what he was saying?"

And I'm sure we could identify many other reading problems. There may even be a special category for folks like Dr. Geisler when it comes to reading Reformed authors like Calvin.

Praise be to the Lord that we have the Holy Spirit's grace!


Ebeth said...

I read the Piper piece. Worthwhile addition to this post. But I have yet to read anything unworthy by Team Pyro.

Caleb White said...

Francis Chan talked a bit about a related subject at Passion '07...he said sometimes people put him up on a pedestal and praised him for being so spiritual, but he said he wasn't incredibly spiritual -- it was just that other people were so unspiritual. He said people need to get into the Word for themselves, instead of relying entirely on speakers like himself to act as Biblical pez dispensers (which corrolated to a hilarious illustration during which a pez dispenser called John Piper was ripped apart and sent pez flying everywhere).

Garet Pahl said...

Dude, I got that same e-mail from Desiring God and I was like Whaa?... But when it comes down to it, incredibly powerful and convicting stuff.(as was your post Frank)

That book sounds really interesting. I think we often have a fragmented view by reading the separate books whilst contemplating the perspective of their separate authors, almost by default. Instead we must need read scripture considering the singular author that we profess, who communicated with a singular theme in mind, i.e. "the praise of his Glory." Rather than trying to see how every jot and tittle "applies to me" and isolating it in its immediate context, we should read with the eye of a literary critic, searching for how each jot and tittle contributes to the overall theme. And not just the meaning of the words, but the sound and sense of them too, which God being the greatest of poets and storytellers, manifests his perfections when expressing the concrete reality of his holiness with the ultimate use of imagery and artistry. Beauty, like goodness and truth, is not relative. I think we can see this in the development of characters, plot and in the usage of devices such as foreshadowing, hyperbole and imagery. The Bible is the greatest Epic ever written. It's struggles excel the drama of the Illiad and its hero surpasses valor of the Icelandic Sagas. As Prof Lewis says, “the story of Christ is a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with a tremendous difference that it really happened." It's when we realize we are actually participating in the unconceivable story of redemption unfolding, that our lives can be redeemed to be permeated with incomprehensible freedom and beauty. Freedom so unconstrained and immense as to infuse the soul with extravagant abandon for life. Beauty so dreadfully perfect it overwhelms and consumes the senses with a violent, paradigm shattering energy. Literature operates on our hearts and minds in a way "religous instructions" simply cannot.

BTW, this is way off topic, but has anyone noticed that Hillary is calling her candidacy platform a "conversation". Interesting parallel with the Emergents- old liberalism trying to "emerge" as a new something else (that is really still old liberalism). Just a thought.

Modern Day Magi said...


It should be noted that "purpose" or "authors intention" is part of the "context" when reading anything.

It is sad when Christians own a big, leather bound, center referenced, study, red letter paperweight or book end.

Sadly too, there are those who will be ever reading and never perceiving as per Mark 4:12


centuri0n said...


You have to wait for all the parts to go up, bro.

Genre plays a big part in determining things like intent and purpose, so we covered that first.

Tyler Bennicke said...

"you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." (Lk 10.21)

Agatha "chotch-key" Lennon said...

Observation observation observation!
Context context context!
Interpretation interpretation interpretation!
Question question question!
Application application application!

hunormously biganticly mondoely important!

just think if you had read the piper piece without context or without asking a single question. It's been reported to cause a heart attack.

Adrian said...

For me, I think that Pipers article has a lot to say to those of us on both sides of the cessationist fence. To the charismatic he is saying "Listen, God really does speak thru the Bible - you better make sure your experiences of Him are rooted in His Word and that you find Him through His word the Bible" To the cessationist he is saying "Listen, God really can speak personally to you in a way you can experience - you better make sure you allow His Word to really affect you".

We have all done God a disservice in our thinking by attempting to divorce His Spirit from His Word. We were always meant to experience God in powerful ways through His Word. God's Spirit takes the word He inspired and makes it living, active and personal to us as individuals today in the 21st Century.

I fear that the average intellectual student of the bible will have found Pipers experience to be totally alien. In fact I fear that even many of us that claim to be charismatic do not regularly - if ever - have the level of genuine experience of God speaking to us that Piper here describes as routine for him. It is no wonder Piper preaches like he does when he has regularly encountered the person of God in this way. This article is not really about the charismatic issue, although when he is reading aloud for his mp3 available on his site, he adds the following words which I have bolded below:-

"What makes me sad about the article is not that it isn't true or didn't happen. Don't put me in that category What's sad is that it really does give the impression that extra-biblical communication with God is surpassingly wonderful and faith-deepening. All the while, the supremely-glorious communication of the living God which personally and powerfully and transformingly explodes in the receptive heart through the Bible everyday is passed over in silence." - John Piper

There is some more discussion about this Piper article going on over at my place.

Adrian said...

The bolding didnt come thru - the words Piper added into that paragraph when reading it aloud were "Dont put me into that category"