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Archive for March, 2010

Unlicensed musicology… nothing that a specialist wouldn’t know… but some personal thoughts that originally appeared (slightly differently) in Springhouse magazine.

I listen to Mozart nearly every day.  I’m ashamed to admit that I first explored Mozart because the subject of my graduate studies, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, listened to Mozart daily and so I wanted to see what made Barth so happy.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, in what is now Austria, in 1756, and he died in Vienna in 1791, probably of rheumatic disease. He and his wife Constanze had several children but only two sons lived, and the two sons had no children. When my daughter’s choir toured Europe last summer, after the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, we visited his house in Prague. I almost purchased an opera CD set there but, when I calculated the exchange rate for the Czech money, the cost was $75 for two CDs, so I didn’t buy it. It would’ve been a fun souvenir, but we’ve lovely memories of the pleasant home in a city that appreciated Mozart during his time there. (His last years were spent in Vienna, where he is buried.) Following his death, his reputation continued to grow and his music found a permanent place in the standard music repertoire. My daughter asked me one time why he was named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when, she read, his middle name was actually Theophilus. So we looked it up! He was named Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart, but Theophilus (a Greek name that appears in the Bible) and Amadeus (which is Latin) both mean “God lover,” or “God beloved.” (The German name “Gottlieb” means the same thing.) I’ve quite a few LPs and CDs of this beloved’s music.

Much of my professional work is done at home, and I like to play music while I’m working. Unfortunately I’m also very prone to feeling blue, especially in the afternoon. Music creates a pleasant work/home atmosphere, and among different kinds of music that I like, Mozart’s is dependable for inspiration and peace. His melodies and harmonies are beautiful and seem effortless, but the musical structure is complex if you listen closely. I’ve read comments from listeners who find Mozart’s music too sweet and pleasant. He doesn’t storm the heavens. The difficult human emotions are present but often subtle. I love Mozart’s wind and horn concertos about the best. Mozart wrote a clarinet concerto (one of his last compositions), two for flute, one for oboe, one for bassoon, and four for French horn. You can easily find these pieces on CD and there are some CD collections which include them all together. I also love his piano concertos, a form which he pioneered. Mozart wrote 27 of those, which fill 11 CDs in a big box set currently on my kitchen counter next to the dirty dishes. For no particular reason, I listen most often to numbers 8, 15, 19, and 23. If you saw the movie Amadeus, the sad, slow movement of #20 was used over the ending credits.

He also wrote several serenades and divertimenti. These terms refer to compositions with multiple sections, using smaller orchestras than a symphony or concerto requires. These are festive, cheerful pieces for social occasions, some honoring particular people. So I guess I’m fine in playing these CDs while I’m doing other things. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that is, A Little Night Music, is Mozart’s most famous example; technically it’s the Serenade #13 in G Major, K. 525. I love Serenade #6 in D Major, K 239, known as the Serenata Notturna, and others. Mozart also wrote many symphonies. His symphonies are traditionally numbered 1 through 41, but that list doesn’t include several written during his childhood. Again, for no particular reason, I like 28, 30, 35, 38, 39, 40, and 41.

I listen to Mozart’s vocal works less often, but he wrote a large amount of church music. Raised Roman Catholic, he stayed rooted in that tradition. Mozart also wrote 22 operas, of which Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte , and Die Zauberflöte  are still very popular and frequently performed. The only time I’ve attended the Metropolitan Opera was a couple years ago when we saw The Magic Flute. In addition, Mozart wrote many piano sonatas, string quartets, violin concertos and sonatas, dances, and other compositions. A person can barely scratch the surface of his output. You can actually purchase a reasonably priced, 170-CD set of all his works through Collector’s Choice Music, eBay, and other sources.

We refer to “classical music” but within that genre is a “classical period” of music composed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Musical forms like the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, and the string quartet reached a significant stage during this period. The contrapuntal orchestration common in the previous, Baroque period developed into a homophonic style; in other words, instead of more than one melody playing together, a common Baroque form, chords supported melodies. Classical-period composers emphasized balance of melody, emotional expression, and formal structure in a pleasing way. Not only Mozart but Joseph Haydn, Michael Haydn, Luigi Boccherini, Carl Stamitz, C.P.E. Bach, Franz Schubert, and Beethoven are among the notable classical-period composers. I’ve a CD set of Joseph Haydn’s 106 symphonies that, eccentrically, I like to play straight through over a period of weeks.

Sometimes one hears popular adaptations of Mozart. Researching this essay, I was surprised to learn that Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” from 1972 was inspired by the slow movement of the 21st piano concerto. (The melodies are similar but I’d not associated them.) When I was younger, I listened to music on WDZ, the AM station in Decatur, IL. I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember the artist who turned Mozart’s fortieth symphony into a pop single, which WDZ played quite a bit. Finally I found it on the internet: “Mozart 40” by Waldo de los Rios in 1971. Anyone remember that, too? I also tried to think of the Mozart piece used in the old Warner Brothers cartoons, whenever Granny walked along: it was the (apparently old-fashioned-sounding) Piano Sonata #16, K 545. Currently on television, there’s an annoying Chase Bank commercial where a woman, climbing the side of a mountain, has an Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ringtone announcing her checking account balance is low.

I’ve used several “K” numbers here. Mozart’s works are numbered in estimated chronological order from his first simple pieces for harpsichord, composed when he was four years old, to his last piece, Requiem (K 626), left unfinished at his death. The 1800s musicologist Ludwig von Köchel made the first listing of Mozart’s pieces, and his catalog-list has been updated in the years since. So the K (sometimes KV) stand for Köchel and Köchel-Verzeichnis (“Köchel catalog”), respectively. Not many of Mozart’s pieces have opus numbers, a numbering system favored by publishers and used for the music of many composers, notably Beethoven. I become impatient when music critics refers to a piece only by its K number, like the “K 550 symphony” (#40), a more accurate reference but confusing to an amateur like me who doesn’t have all the “Ks” memorized.

Speaking of Beethoven, he died in 1827, which is the year Mozart would’ve been 71. It’s astounding to view the prolific output of Mozart and the effortless quality of his work, considering that when he died, he was not quite 36. What would his output have been like had he lived to an older age? The question has intrigued music lovers for many years. Why, indeed, did this particular person display such an early and natural genius? The question is a theme of the famous 1984 movie Amadeus, based on a play. I found a website that discusses the historical accuracy and dramatic license behind the play/movie: http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html. Several key aspects of the movie are fiction. The idea that Mozart composed pieces perfectly in his head, and wrote them down later, is partly based on an 1815 forgery purported to be an original Mozart letter. He did compose rapidly and, like some other composers, mentally, but he was also a hard worker who refined and rewrote.

Nevertheless, the quality of his music and his early mastery of musical forms and instruments will always fascinate. Amadeus frames it as a question of fairness: why would God bless this particular person, and not others, with astonishing talent?  Karl Barth actually attributed to Mozart a special divine grace. “I am not a man with particular artistic gifts or an artistic education,” said Barth in a 1956 talk, “nor am I inclined to confuse or to identify salvation history with any part of the history of art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart’s music have always spoken to me—not as gospel, but as parables of the kingdom revealed in the gospel of God’s free grace, and they continue to do so with the utmost freshness.”[1] Elsewhere he wrote, “What is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which ‘beautiful’ is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always ‘moving,’ free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? …Hearing [God’s] creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its … harmonious praise of God.”[2]

Wow! For Barth (consciously writing as a Christian theologian) Mozart caught and expressed a beauty of God and creation in a unique way.  At different times in my life, I’ve felt the same way as I’ve listened to music while contemplating pretty days and natural scenery.  The Catholic theologian Hans Kűng writes that Mozart’s music is “the sound of the beautiful in its infinity.” “If I allow myself to be open, then precisely in this event of music which speaks without words I can be touched by an inexpressible, unspeakable mystery.” Kűng recalls being a doctoral student where he experienced “a touch of ‘bliss’” each day listening to the clarinet concerto, one of the few records available to him at the time.[3]

Whether you’re religious or not, Mozart certainly provides that “touch of bliss,” even if you listen to him once in a while. I’ll let the man himself have the last word, because I like this quotation. He wrote this in a letter when he was 31, and may give us a clue about the wellsprings of his creativity: “I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose and disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures could enjoy it.”[4]

1. Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Fortress Press, 1976), p. 410.

2.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, the Doctrine of Creation, Part Three (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), pp. 297-298.

3. Hans Kűng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 27-28, 34-35.

4. Quoted in Kűng, p. 24, and also in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, the Doctrine of Creation, Part Four (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 589.

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Here are three pieces from my blog paulstroble.blogspot.com. In these pieces, I think about ways where we can focus on Christ and the Spirit during Lent.

Discipline

My wife Beth and I are watching the Olympics this evening, but I’m also thinking about Ash Wednesday this week and the upcoming Lenten season.

Many of us will spend part of Wednesday with an ash cross upon our foreheads. Many of us will practice some kind of Lenten discipline, whether giving something up or adding something to our devotion. My question is: How can we prevent these practices from becoming self-centered rather than Christ-centered? To put it another way, how can our Lenten practices point to Christ rather than to ourselves?

To help answer these questions, I thought about a couple interesting passages from Paul, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Galatians 6:12-15. The first passage alludes to the original Greek sports. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Someday I may make a list of Paul passages that I wish he had expressed better or differently; this is one. Obviously Paul would never teach salvation by works, but a person unfamiliar with Galatians and other letters might use this 1 Cor. 9 passage as a proof-text for “earning” God’s love. We never ever ever earn God’s love; it’s simply ours in abundance. That’s why Paul is so grateful for the empowering cross of Christ, as discussed below.

Understood in context with the whole letter, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 refers to the self-discipline we need to love. We can certainly be very disciplined Christians–evidenced at Lent–but we’re wasting our time unless our spiritual practices lead to love, kindness, gentleness, and other gifts sketched by Paul in Galatians 5. (This, by the way, applies not just to Lent but to spiritual retreats like Emmaus, service ministries at your church, small groups, and other ways.) So the aim of spiritual practices is to curb our selfish inclinations so that we can display the lovingkindness and compassion that will definitely “show Christ” and not just proclaim Christ.

This point is depicted even more startlingly in the second Paul passage. Several years ago I wrote a short study book, Paul and the Galatians, for Abingdon Press. Paul’s hope that the pro-circumcision teachers at Galatia would “castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12) is a notorious text. I think an equally startling text is just a few sentences down.

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal. 6:12-15).

The explicit bitterness of Gal. 5:12 makes it a more obvious put-down than Gal. 6:12-13, which, you might notice, contains a double entendre. “Flesh” (sarx) means the sphere of human existence–a word usually used by Paul in distinction to God’s Spirit—but “flesh” here can mean the circumcision itself. To restate Paul more crudely, the pro-circumcision teachers are boasting about their penises (i.e., their circumcision), and they want to boast about the Galatian men’s penises, too (i.e., to boast about converts to their belief that circumcision is necessary for Gentile Christians)!

Expressed so rudely and absurdly, the whole issue is clearer: boasting about our own righteousness is foolish. Only the amazing gifts of God–the cross of God and the consequent gift of the new creation through the Holy Spirit–are properly boasted about, according to Paul.

I’m very aware how regrettable is Paul’s language for contemporary Jewish-Christian fellowship. Paul faced different issues and a different circumstance than our own time, when many of us are seeking to help heal centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Paul is upset here, not because he is prejudiced against Jews and their religion, but because he believes God has opened up amazing possibilities for Gentiles via God’s faithfulness to the Jews. Jews had always had (male) circumcision, but the Galatians were Gentiles and had never been required to adopt this Jewish sign of the covenant. And yet the Holy Spirit had been given to the Galatians–thus including Gentiles within God’s covenant-faithfulness–without them doing anything to earn or deserve such a gift! God had already given them freedom and equal standing as heirs and children (Gal. 4:7). For Paul, this was an amazing, wonderful blessing for the Galatians (and others).

That’s why Paul was so angry; the pro-circumcision teachers convinced the Galatians that they had to “make sure” they were truly within God’s will. For Paul, that was tantamount to saying that God’s gifts of freedom and equal standing as heirs was unsatisfactory; just in case the Holy Spirit is not enough, we need to “cover our bases” by adding a traditional rite. But how could the Holy Spirit be not enough?

As we study the Bible, we discover numerous gifts of transformation that the Holy Spirit provides as we’re touched by God’s love.

· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)
· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.

To connect these gifts to our Lenten disciplines: we must keep in mind that these gifts are not characteristics that we’re supposed to achieve through will-power and discipline. Nor are our disciplines add-on rites about which to boast as if they, in themselves, make us righteous. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). Paul is being sarcastic again–of course no law (including laws stipulating circumcision) would create these qualities. They are gifts of the Spirit’s “new creation”. We, in turn, can open ourselves to the Spirit’s love as we seek to understand more fully the depth of God’s love.

Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 6 can be an excellent guide and focus during the upcoming season. Everything relies upon the power of God through the cross of Christ and the transforming Holy Spirit, and whatever personal righteousness I might bring to the table counts as nothing. How wonderfully freeing is that?! And yet our Lenten disciplines are not worthless because God can use them–and, indeed, God can lead us into undertaking them. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 alerts us that the power of God can tragically elude us if we’re not careful. And so, aware of how easily we can become unloving, we strive to focus on seeking the Spirit’s gifts of love, kindness, and gentleness which, in turn, show Christ.

Prayer

Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s prayer life… but so are other times of the year.

The epistle says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) but of course that cannot be taken literally if it refers to an individual Christian’s prayer. I like this short page (http://www.allaboutprayer.org/pray-without-ceasing-faq.htm) that explains “without ceasing” as an attitude and an openness. One of the first Hebrew words I learned was hinneni, “Here am I!” the response that people like Abraham made when God called to him. Our professor, Bonnie Kittel of blessed memory, noted that the response implied a openness and readiness to hear God. That’s one good way to think about prayer: a communicative attitude toward God that in turn makes us open to God’s leading and guidance.

I’ve several prayer books but usually read from the “Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” based on the Liturgy of the Hours, and I’ve four devotional quarterlies that I like to use. Recently I got out other resources that I like but haven’t used for a while. My wife’s deceased first husband received a little prayer book (“My Prayer Book”) when he was confirmed, and it contains wonderful intercessory prayers. I’ve other books that I use less often, but I found a nice “Minister’s Prayer Book” published by Muhlenberg Press in the 1950s.

I wish I was more consistent day to day to use these resources. I do pretty well, but since my days are filled with teaching and writing on religious subjects, I’m often thinking about God and mentally praying to God but my “organized” religious devotion falls by the wayside unless I make an effort to keep that part of my life on track.

On the other hand … Years ago (1980s?) I read an article in Christian Century that made the point that Jesus seemed not to have a structured way of praying. He prayed a lot and sought time and places for solitary prayer, but the texts say nothing about specified times that he prayed, nor did he make people wait for him to conclude his prayer time. The article noted that being organized in our prayer lives could just mean that we’re … well organized!

We grow in quality and quantity of prayer among our daily comings and goings (Ps. 121:8). When I was in seminary, my prayers were self-doubtful, anxious, and uncertain about the future—not untypical of a “dark night” situation. Seminary is a time for many of us when God tests our calling and vocation. Now … I’m nearly thirty years out of seminary, happy with and amazed at the ways God has led me over the years. So my prayers aren’t self-doubtful in the manner of a young person, but my prayers are offered with a heightened, respectful sense of mortality and the unpredictability of life. During the last ten years my amazing daughter has grown from middle school- to college-age, and I’ve handled my widowed mother’s affairs in addition to all my other responsibilities. Circumstances like these (and others) can help a person turn more of “life” over to God’s care. You really do understand, psychologically, that surrendering to God’s care is a happier way to live than clinging to the idea that you have a lot of control over your life.

But mental prayer can carry the risk of self-involvement and self-satisfaction. That’s why I have my little battery of prayer helps that I use to direct my prayers during those secret times of Matt. 6:6. Prayer resources are wonderful: among other things, they explain prayer, they provide accompanying scriptures, they contain great prayers with which we can read along and make our own, and they remind us what to pray for. Prayer resources can also stop us cold when we encounter prayer-words that we really don’t want to pray at that moment! Thus we can think about the present situation of our feelings toward God.

I’m a member of two prayer chains. The requests come by email so I print these out. Much of my daily attitude in prayer is intercessory, but I’m liable to forget to pray for folks whom I don’t know unless I have the prayer requests at hand. I have these words of Oswald Chambers almost memorized: “The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends NOW; pray for those with who you come in contact NOW.”

As I wrote this little piece, I grew very insecure. Specifically, I worried that I don’t do enough for God, both in my prayer life or generally. This is a good example of the importance of fortifying our mental prayers with scripture study and resources. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. Although there are numerous ways to pray (some better than others), our prayers are never ways to earn God’s favor or to “leverage” God. Prayer is a wonderful way to learn more about the God who has done more for us than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).

Reading the Bible

In my thoughts so far, I’ve reflected on the need to keep our Lenten growth Christ- and Spirit-centered. I want to think some more about that, with a different, somewhat round-about approach. How does our growth in Christ (at Lent and other seasons) connect to our Bible reading? How is our spiritual growth guided by the Bible?

We don’t always think through the way the power of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the Spirit’s ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible.[1] This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.[2] Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”[3] Although his assertion by no means exhausts the different ways we can read the Bible, I find his argument quite interesting with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.[4] How does the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—influence our Bible reading?

For one thing, the Good News gives is a larger interpretive framework with which to approach the whole Bible. For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.[5] If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. In the New Testament, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. Instead of quoting it randomly for proof-texts, or ignoring most of it altogether, we must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness.

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.[6]

But not only does the gospel give us an interpretive framework for the whole Bible, the Good news of Christ’s death and resurrection also informs how we understand New Testament teachings, so that we don’t err and consider them a form of salvation by works, as Goldsworthy argues. The Bible’s words are inseparable from the life and power of a living Savior who is our teacher, healer, and risen Lord. The Good News frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) and also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we, in our supposed personal righteousness, have checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.”

I thought of several ways this is true when we think during Lent (and other seasons) about our spiritual goals and growth in Christ.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: how do we pray the Psalms as Christians? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers, now part of the Christian canon, too. But as Christians, we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? I admit, I’ve prayed the psalm without connecting it strongly to Christ’s saving death and resurrection! But we Christians HAVE to connect the psalm to verses like Romans 7:24-25 and 8:37-39, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11, when people used God’s word against her. Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way. This is good to remember–always, but also during a time of self-assessment and honest introspection during the Lenten season.

* As we grow in Christ, we’re called to make disciples. Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; but “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; nor was Paul’s ministry among the Athenians effective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work of conversation is not done by us but by God’s Spirit.

* How about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too! We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! Goldsworthy makes this point concerning Bible heroes in general. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them.

Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. We potentially have a clearer notion of God’s will for our lives than Abraham, for we have the Spirit and a community to help us discern God’s leadings. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).

So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, our assurance of salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit which is at work in us. The way Goldsworthy puts it, “The problem is when the gospel is viewed only as how we start the Christian life, for then the only way to continue is law. Yet the perspective consistently set out in the New Testament is that we need the gospel [Christ’s saving power] to grow. . . The greater our sense of being forgiven and justified sinners, the greater will be the likelihood that others will see in us the character of Christ.” [7]

1. The idea of “progressive revelation” affirms the development of God’s truth from lesser to greater clarity. Scriptures such as a prophetic messianic text or a messianic psalm have has meaning for their own times but gain additional meaning when we connect the passage’s original sense to Christ.

2. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).

3. Goldworthy, page 95.

4. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), page 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs.

5. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.
This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

6. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.

7. Goldsworthy, p. 96.

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When we study the Bible, we’re always in the midst of “other things.” Many of us keep up with a religious life as best we can amid all the other things about our lives: we have jobs we love or hate, we have and think about sex, follow favorite sports teams, enjoy pastimes, worry about money, carry deep wounds, and wish certain things about our lives were different. The theologian Karl Barth famously said that we should read the Bible and the newspaper together [1], but reading news sources is itself an integration of your personal life with the world at large, and the Bible can give us the framework for both. The temptation, though, is to fail to integrate all three (personal life, the world, and the Bible), so that you’re a churchgoer whose opinions and attitudes are not particularly informed by Bible teachings, or you’re a bitter, disappointed person whose reverence for the Bible is part of the veneer of respectability that you layer upon your life, or you‘re a decent person who has never sought the living God through the Spirit-gifted word.

My own life is on the whole wonderful (no major illness at the moment, for instance) but never stress-free. Like many millions of people in my age group, I’ve have simultaneous care of two generations. My widowed mother is in a nursing home 500 miles away and I manage her financial matters. Her affairs, especially health care regulations for the elderly, can be complex. I get advice and help from knowledgeable people. One of the saddest chores, from which I’ve not recovered emotionally, was selling my childhood home, where Mom lived nearly fifty years.

Meanwhile my daughter is growing up. I’ve stayed home with her every summer since she was four. During one of the summers of this project, my wife and I helped her get ready for college three hours away, and we also helped her learn to drive. To paraphrase a saying, there are no atheists in the passenger seat of a newly-learning driver. But she learned quickly and now is quite a good driver. The empty nest is peaceful, but when she “flies” back for semester breaks, the family feels complete again

All these experiences, common to so many people, inspire me to prayer. They’re occasions that call for “extra grace.” I frequently ask God for confidence as I manage Mom’s affairs, for comfort for Mom in her lonely circumstance (how long will she live in her very infirm condition?), for guidance and protection for my daughter (the world is filled with “weirdos” and risky situations), and many other things. Recognizing the comparative stability my own life (and recognizing my very human tendency to feel my own problems more urgently), I think to pray for persons who have much harder circumstances. I love this quote by Oswald Chambers: “The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends now; pray for those with who you come in contact now.” [2] A regular prayer life balances both personal and intercessory prayer, which in turn balances and empowers your daily responsibilities and, potentially at least, leads to the Spirit’s gifts of peace, love, and kindness.

These are not the only aspects of my life, of course. My wife and I have been married twenty-five years and friends for thirty-five. She has a complex and difficult job, which she does love, and which she’s developed (thanks to very providential steps) over the years. I teach college classes, write freelance for the laity on religious topics, and volunteer at our church; bridging academic and parish work has always been very important to me. I ask God for help with these things, too: for my and my family’s well-being, for the well-being of my students and people we know, for the people (unknown to me) who’ll read things I publish, for the ministries of our church. None of these things is “within my control.” Life can be strange and unpredictable even for the most conscientious pray-er. I’m a terrible worrier; God has not removed the trait even in my most sincerely relinquishing moments (2 Cor. 12:9-10), and so I pray.

I’ve always been interested in other viewpoints. Truth is neither relative nor subjective; nor is it solitary. I’ve Christian friends, from liberal to moderate to conservative, and also friends who profess other religions, friends who have been hurt and discouraged by religious people, and a few friends who are agnostics; I’ve learned things from humanist friends who show me how my religion is perceived by someone with a secular viewpoint, which, in turn, helps me know how better to be religious myself and how to read the Bible. My Jewish friends have taught me a lot, and I seek ways to understand the Gospel that are not anti-Jewish. [3] Although I’ve committed my life to the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ, I dearly hope God provides ways by which persons outside the circle of Christian witness can experience that power and grace. [4] As a history teacher I know how badly Christians have failed historically and continue to fail to witness faithfully to God’s grace; God‘s patience with us is surely as long as it was with the people of the Bible. I strongly believe that if we are not kind and humble in our religious faith—if we are unwilling to allow God to know more than we do about the mysteries of his grace—then we risk becoming closed to God, and toward other persons, too. [5]

My grandmother died accidentally when I was fifteen, an event that, among other things, gave me an excellent object lesson in the unpredictability of life. I learned at a young age to make one’s life count, because you don’t know what’s ahead (and that, of course, is a biblical teaching).[6] Here’s another favorite quote, this one by Mozart: “I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose and disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures could enjoy it.” [7] One of my favorite scriptures, James 4:13-15, calls us to be mindful of our inability to see the future, and to seek God’s guidance in the things we say and do.

Although most of us have difficult or tragic events in our lives, we react differently to them. For many people, a tragedy can shatter, temporarily or permanently, their view of a providentially-ordered world. For instance, I recently read a book of midlife thoughts by a very good writer. The author had embraced a “Judeo-Christian“ doctrine of God and had tried to be a good person until a painful, unexpected divorce had caused the author to abandon earlier beliefs. The author is now agnostic, although the author does pray daily. Traumatic events–not only accidents and crimes but also betrayals–can certainly throw into turmoil a person’s trust in God and God’s faithfulness. Why did God let X happen? Another way to put it: why did God let X happen when I (or my loved one) believed in God and did the right things?

This very human response to trouble is another reason I’ve found Bible study so important. God does, indeed, seem to let us down sometimes! Like Saul in 1 Samuel, we feel bowed down and defeated by the silence of God. Our best efforts don’t always lead to the kinds of blessings and peace that we one-sidedly associate with divine grace. People hurt us, betray us; accidents occur; we get sick; tragedies happen. The Bible “keeps it real” because human disappointments and discouragement are written into the word of God: read many of the psalms, or Job, or even (properly understood) the confident letters of Paul. As you dig deeper into the Bible, read the anguish of Jeremiah and other prophets who witnesses the defeat and exile of God’s people. The apostle Paul faced turmoil and occasionally violence in response to all his hard work and best efforts; and yet his letters are wonderfully helpful sources for one’s faith.

Our disappointment in God may be partly based on the way we, at least informally, perceive the Bible as a something separate from God’s grace in our lives today, as if the Bible were infallible legislation written long ago. The Bible tells us everything we’re not supposed to do—lie, swear, get angry, commit adultery, and so on—in other words, instruction for behavior. It’s a book we can literally or figuratively lob at someone’s head if they haven’t shaped up. But although the Bible most certainly defines and instructs behavior, it is much more than that. It is a living witness to God, written from different points of view over centuries and yet providing us the timeless promises that inform and guide us. The Bible tells us who we really are and how we can count on God’s grace no matter what happens to us in the world and no matter what kind of people we are. The Bible is of a piece with—never, ever separate from—the Spirit who freely gives us life and power every day.

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21)

Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb. 7:25).

We so easily lose our proper focus and make our religious faith about … us, our respectability, needs, dreams, and goals. (“The hardest to learn is the least complicated,“ is a favorite line from an Indigo Girls song.) True, when we’re religious, we’re held to high standards in people’s perceptions, and we must be concerned about witnessing to God through our lives. But on the other hand, your religion is never about you, and, in fact, you want to guide people beyond your piety, struggles, and so-called achievements to the God who does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, which is to save and transform us and to love us undeservedly. Being a Christian is always a balance between being a sincere, fallible, and, yes, sinful person, and simultaneously being transparent to God’s grace and a blessing for others, a clay jar filled with heavenly treasure (2 Cor. 4:7). [8] We can discover so much wonderful from God–unfailing access to God in prayer, power through the sacraments, providential guidance in our decisions, unexpected events, the life of God which provides us everlasting life–and God does not tire in showing us his love and grace. God knows our imperfections (Ps. 103:14) and meets each of us, not at some imagined place of greater saintliness years in the future, but at the place we are right now!

All of us do come to the Bible with different experiences and attitudes. The Spirit helps us interpret the Bible amid our special circumstances, just as that same Spirit helped the disciples when difficult circumstances arose (for instance, the Jerusalem conference, Acts 15). To make our personal experiences the norm of our Bible interpretation—and to assume our experiences should be normative for others—is always a temptation. That’s one reason why the Bible is best read and understood in a group of diverse people. Ephesians 4:15-16 defines the church as a place of mutual support and maturing. The Bible not only shapes us but also shapes a faithful congregation in which people love one another, the Word is preached, and the sacraments are shared. As God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternal relationship as the one Lord, so we are complete as human beings when we share in relationship with one another.[9]  But on the other hand, in the realities of everyday life, it’s not always easy to find a church fellowship where you are accepted unreservedly and nurtured as a Christian person. [10] As we live open to the Spirit, however, we may discover congenial congregations as well as styles and approaches to spirituality depending upon our individual circumstances, experiences and personalities. God uses many circumstances in order to bless our lives—and God does will to bless us and to share his divine life with us, through the Bible and other ways.

Notes:

1.  The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website, http://libweb.ptsem.edu/collections/barth/faq/quotes.aspx?menu=296&subText=468

2.  From The Quotable Oswald Chambers, compiled and edited by David McCasland (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), page 206, emphasis in the original text.
 
3.  Because Christians see Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture, we read and interpret the Bible with Christ in mind. But Jews read the same scripture in a different tradition: the development of rabbinic Judaism. When I try not to be anti-Jewish in my outlook, I try to be sensitive to and aware of this different reading of the scriptures, conscious of the tragic history of disdain and persecution wrought by the church upon Jews at different times of history. I’m also sensitive to the fact that, if I were a Jew who reads the numerous negative references to “the Jews” in the New Testament, I might have a hard time seeing benefit in this material. 
            Several good books explain the anti-Jewish roots of Christianity, for example, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
 
4.  This is a classically challenging theological issue. Scripture undeniably attests to the uniqueness of God’s revelation in Christ and the power available in his name (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Christians stake our faith and lives upon the truth of this witness. And yet God loves the whole world (John 3:16), and so does God provide kinds of mercy to people outside the circle of Christian witness? How does God show mercy to those hurt by the injustice wrought by Christians and Christian societies? Two Vatican II documents express an optimism concerning the mystery of God’s saving grace. Lumen Gentium states that “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to know his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace.” Gaudium et Spes also states, “For since Christ died for all people … we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every person in the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (my emphasis). Both these quotations are from Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson (New York: Continuum, 2008), pages 155-156.
 
5. Somehow we forget that fact when we uphold the Bible; the Bible itself calls us to put away out self-justifying and uncompassionate attitudes. Just one example—a painful one—is the issue of suicide. (This topic is on my mind because, when I first wrote these thoughts, a former student took his life. I don’t know the family but I hope they had compassionate people who helped them.) How many families have suffered because someone implied, twisting an implication out of scripture, that suicide is an unforgivable sin? Suicide is a serious and tragic sin, but it is a sin that often originates in illness (whether depression or substance abuse or other factors), or from an impulsive moment of overwhelming mental pain. Christ saves us from all our sins, not just the less serious. The Bible calls us to preach Good News which heals; our witness must always be kind, helpful, and motivated by building-up rather than judging and hurting (Eph.4:14-24).
 

6. I reflect more about my grandmother’s death in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2006), pages 92-95.  
        My professor Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), writes of the importance of “symbolic worlds,” the “systems of meanings that anchors the activities of individuals and communities in the real world” (page 12). Tragedies happen that shatter such worlds and yet we continue to search for meaning and understanding. He uses the “dialectic of experience and interpretation” (page 17) in his New Testament study regarding the symbolic worlds of the New Testament and the interpretation of a new reality based on the experience of the risen Christ.
 
7.  From Hans Kűng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), page 24, and also in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, the Doctrine of Creation, Part Four (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), page 589.
 
8. Martin Luther had a saying, Pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo, “sin boldly, but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.” He meant that, as a help for a guilty conscience, we can have a realistic self-assessment of ourselves as imperfect and sinful—but as saved sinners because of the power and grace of Christ.
 
9.  Stanley Hauerwas has argued the essentialness of a believing congregation in Bible reading, in his Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
 
10. Corinne Ware helpfully explores ways that people learn and grow spiritually in different ways and helps them understand “types” of spirituality that individuals and congregations embrace: Discover Your Spiritual Type: A Guide to Individual and Congregational Growth (Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1995).
 
 

 

 

 

 

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