Monday, August 31, 2015

A Review of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy

Last week, the Colson Center posted a review of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy that I wrote on its Youth Reads page. The page is dedicated to young adult fiction, and while the space trilogy isn't written for young adults, I read it in high school.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part IV: Some Solutions

In my last post, I discussed the low view of the Bible held by many scholars in my field, Biblical Studies. This view raises a number of questions for me, which I’ve grouped into two broad categories: questions about the reliability of the Bible and questions about the value of academic Biblical Studies. Here, I’d like to present some of the answers I’ve come to.

First I’d like to examine questions related to the truthfulness and consistency of the Bible. I have three ways of dealing with them, which I’ve summarized in phrases starting with r words, because I can!

The simplest step is to reject the assumptions of materialism held by some scholars. Jon Collins, whom I quoted above, made the argument in his introduction to the Old Testament that the stories about Elijah and Elisha must be fictional because they include miracles, which don’t really happen. Similarly, he wrote concerning Genesis 3, “The appearance of a talking snake should alert even the most unsophisticated reader to the fictional nature of the story.” But if you don’t presuppose that supernatural answers are impossible, there’s no reason to assume that these narratives can’t be historical. Those who believe in miracles do not take the mere fact that something is a miracle as evidence that it didn’t happen.

This is a pretty straightforward solution, but it doesn’t solve every problem, because not every event in the Bible is a miracle. We need other approaches to deal with questions about the natural events it records.

It helps to recognize what exactly is at stake in the specific question we’re dealing with. There are some traditions about who wrote what in the Bible that go beyond what the Bible actually says. For example, tradition says that Moses wrote Genesis, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, but Genesis never says it was written by Moses. So if it were proved that Genesis was written by someone other than Moses (a question I am not currently taking a position on), that wouldn’t mean that the text itself is in error.

It’s pretty common for Biblical scholars to consider Biblical books to be composed of multiple books. The most common example of this is the Documentary Hypothesis, which says that the Pentateuch is actually composed of five sources identified by the letters J E D and P. But scholars make similar moves with other books, too. We don’t necessarily have to oppose all of these moves. If 1 and 2 Samuel, for example, are composed of multiple sources, this doesn’t really affect our faith. God can inspire several writers and editors just as easily as a single one.

But there is still a problem. The reason why scholars see a need for multiple sources is because they think the text as it stands is contradictory. And while a true document can be composed of more than one source, a real contradiction does mean that at least one of the conflicting statements is false. So the next and most difficult way to deal with questions about the Bible’s accuracy is to try to resolve those contradictions. This is the approach I took in my earlier series on 1 and 2 Samuel. There, a superficial reading showed the texts to be contradictory, but looking at them in more detail showed that they not only didn’t conflict but also complemented each other well.

The second set of questions I raised was, if academic study of the Bible does not promote faith, why bother with it? Two reasons come to mind.

First, academic study can deepen our faith, make us more confident that the Bible is in fact God’s word and lead to applications.

I discussed this with my father a few months ago, and he compared it to music theory. When performers are playing or singing, they are not usually thinking about music theory, but their knowledge of the theory does improve their performance. Similarly, knowing theology might not directly change your Christian practice, but it will do so indirectly.

For example, my understanding of the idea of kingship poses a potent challenge to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” an idea that is sadly prevalent in many churches today. Israel’s problem, as I understand it, is that they want a messiah (remember, the word “messiah” means someone who is anointed, such as a king) who will deliver them from the consequences of their sin without asking to repent. Sound familiar?

And the second reason why evangelical Christians need to engage in theology, particularly Biblical studies, is that other people who don’t take the Bible seriously are doing so. C.S. Lewis’ comments about philosophy apply equally well to theology.

 “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part III: The Plot Thickens

This is the third post in a series on my first year of my master’s program.

My first year of graduate school has been interesting and fruitful for me. However, I’ve also been a bit disillusioned by it. I came in somewhat na├»vely thinking that Biblical Studies would approach the Bible primarily as a serious theological text with the goal of understanding precisely what it taught. In fact, I discovered much scholarship focused instead on seeing the Bible in political and historical terms, as a document that tells us about its time and its writers (who frequently aren’t the same people tradition says they are).

This certainly isn’t a bad thing. The Bible was written by human beings and for human beings (although it was also inspired by God). There is very much to be gained from seeking to understand the Bible the way its original readers did. However, focusing exclusively on political and historical influences can lead to overlooking broader theological points. And in practice, these approaches tend to undermine not only the authority but even the basic accuracy of the Bible. It is presented like any other historical source, and as no more reliable than, say, The Illiad.

Frankly, I was shocked at certain scholars’ skepticism and dismissiveness toward traditional views of the Bible and even toward the text itself. I read things like the following:

“No type of writing could possibly contain the inconsistencies, doublings back, apparently aimless changes of style, of titles for God, of narrative tone, that these books [the Pentateuch] encompass. For one man to write such a text, he would have to be mentally incoherent or disturbed, or – and here source criticism really begins – he would need to be using a lot of already existing material which, for whatever reason, he was unable to change, and setting it down in all its inconsistency.” – John Barton

 “Rather than ask whether a text is revealed (and by what criteria could we possibly decide?) it is better to ask whether a text is revelatory, whether we learn something from it about human nature or about the way the world works. A text that is neither historically reliable nor morally edifying, such as the book of Joshua, may be all too revelatory about human nature.” – John Collins

As a Christian Bible scholar, these types of comments raised a lot of questions. They basically fall into two categories:
1. Are these scholars correct in saying that the Bible is incoherent and self-contradictory? That would mean that at least some of it is untrue, and therefore not the word of God.
 2. If the Bible is reliable, the fact that scholars can spend their lives studying it and come away with the conclusion that it isn’t raises questions about their methods. Does this mean that academic study of the Bible is a waste of time, or worse, dangerous to faith?

Of course, to completely answer these questions, even in my own mind, would take much longer than a year. But in my next post, I’ll share the answers I’ve come to so far.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part II: Great Blessings

This is the second post in my series on reflections from my first year of studying theology in graduate school. You can read my first post here.

My first year of graduate school was filled with some great opportunities. As planned, I took two semesters each of Greek and Hebrew. It was intense. I would not recommend starting both languages at the same time if you can avoid it. However, I did learn a lot and am now reasonably competent with both languages. That is, I can read “real” texts with extensive help from dictionaries.

I also had a chance to TA and get a taste of teaching at the college level. Since this is one of my possible career paths, it was helpful to get a taste of what teaching is really like. Chronologically, the class covered everything from the Gospel of Mark (probably the earliest book in the New Testament) to Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Obviously we didn’t read everything important that was written during that time, but the class did give me a chance to read some classics that I hadn’t gotten to yet.

During my first semester of graduate school, I took a class on early Christianity with John Cavadini. He’s a very interesting and compelling lecturer, and he really focused on the theological ideas of the thinkers we were dealing with. We covered the first through fourth centuries, which had some really great theologians (and some not-so-great ones, by which I mean heretics).

I also had a wonderful class on Genesis with Gary Anderson. We focused mostly on the story of Joseph, which was different from most Bible studies on Genesis I’ve been in, which focused on the beginning. We read a book that I’d highly recommend, Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. His book deals with a reoccurring pattern of sons being sacrificed and then restored to their parents that appears throughout the book of Genesis. The obvious example of this pattern is Isaac, when Abraham nearly sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. But Levenson also brings in Abel, who dies because God prefers him to Cain; Jacob, who is also prophesied to rule over his brother but has to flee his home because of it (and then returns); and Joseph, the beloved son whom his father believes to be dead, but who actually survives and saves the entire family. Levenson doesn’t go into the fact that Jesus also fits this paradigm (nor would I expect him to, since he’s Jewish), but as Christians, this is exactly what we should expect to see in the Old Testament. Genesis tells the Gospel story again and again, though it does this in a way that is subtle and easily missed.

Thus, I learned some wonderful things during my first year of graduate studies. However, I also struggled with some aspects of the field of Biblical Studies, which I plan to discuss in my next post.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part I: How I Got Here

In a little over a week, I’m going to start my second year of my master’s program in Biblical Studies. This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned over the first year, and I’d like to share some of my experiences.

The first question is: why did I begin this program in the first place? Before I started graduate school, I lived for a while in Taipei. One thing I did there was leading Bible studies for ESL students. The Bible study, which was called Friday Night Live, brought in a lot of non-Christian students who just wanted to practice English, as well as many Christian students.

At first teaching a Bible study was frankly terrifying. I have a tendency to impose ridiculous expectations on myself and to imagine worst-case scenarios: “If I don’t do a good job teaching this Bible study, our new non-Christian students won’t come back. They won’t have another opportunity to hear the gospel and they’ll die and go to hell, and it will all be my fault!” But one day I was having a conversation with a counselor I was going to, and I confessed some of my fears to her.

She said, “What is the goal of the Bible study?”

I said, “Well, people come to learn English, but our goal is to help them come to know God, or for the Christians to know Him better.”

“Right. And whose responsibility is that?”

Not mine. From that point on, I tried to turn to God when I felt worried about the Bible study and ask for help. And every single time, He came through. Often, the weeks when I went into the Bible study feeling the most exhausted and unprepared were the weeks that went the best. The Holy Spirit just took over, and I spoke far better than I normally would have. After a few years, Friday Night Live was my favorite part of the job.

I think while I was at Bible study, I must have had a flashing neon sign above my head that said, “Ask me the hard questions.” I got questions like, “What’s the difference between socialism and communism?” “Does the kingdom of God include Hell?” and “If God wants us to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ why did He create gay people?” I did my best to answer these questions, but I also got very comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “Let’s talk about that after class.” I also tried to look up answers for some of them. I actually really enjoyed talking about the hard issues and had some amazing moments when answers came to me that I hadn’t known before. It was thrilling to see God working so clearly, and this convinced me that I wanted to do more teaching, maybe even full-time. And for that, I needed graduate school.

The next question was which sub-field of theology I should focus on. I decided on Biblical studies, also because of my experience overseas. I observed that even the most poetic Chinese songs didn’t work nearly as well in English, even when they were translated accurately. It occurred to me that the Bible also might lose something in translation, even when those translations were made by very competent people. So I resolved to learn Greek and Hebrew, and the most efficient way to do that was to do Notre Dame’s program in Biblical Studies. What I found when I started the program will have to wait for my next post.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Harmony: An Anniversary Poem

A few days ago, on August 3, 2015, my parents celebrated their 35th anniversary. I wrote this poem to honor them for their commitment and love. The older I get, the more deeply I realize what a blessing it was to grow up in their family.


That summer day, long years ago,
You stood with hands and hopes entwined.
You spoke and merged two lives in one.
As on that day the church bells chimed,
The silent songs of both your lives
Rang forth in joyful harmony.
Each voice distinct, you sing as one,
An echo of eternity.

And flowing from those living chords
New lives one day began to be.
I, child of your vows, now stand,
A witness to your unity,
For though I did not see the day
When life and life were joined in one,
I’ve seen the flower but not the seed;
I’ve danced to music then begun.

I’ve seen you laugh and talk and kiss
And look into each other’s eyes.
I’ve seen you give each other rest
Amid your sorrows, toils and sighs.
I know that discord must have come,
And sought your music to deface,
But dissonance was soon resolved
By your resolve to offer grace.

Commitment like a castle stood
To guard me in my early years.
Into your walls of love I’d flee
When I was overwhelmed by fears.
And though I now have left your home,
No matter what I see or do,
I know that lifelong love is real,
For I have seen true love in you.