Thursday, December 16, 2010

Little Town of Bethlehem

“I traveled to the U.S.…every summer to meet with family at that time, and I met with many people in the U.S. And nobody knew anything about our situation. Nobody knew what a Palestinian was. Bethlehem was Israel for many people. Even Bethlehem was how people saw it in the Bible.”—Sami Awad, Palestinian Christian

I hope you will take the time to read my review of the movie "Little Town of Bethlehem" at Associated Baptist Press.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dangers of Reading the Bible

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Uncle Bilbo was a wise hobbit. His lessons apply to so many areas of life. I thought of this quote after a wonderful conversation I had with a student.

[Warning: In the following true story, the names have not been changed because the innocent said it'd be okay to use them].

Among my other responsibilities, I have been teaching freshman in a "Intro to the Bible" in some form or another (OT, NT, or OT+NT) every semester for the past 12 years. Like most professors, I have had students who grew up in Sunday School and are expecting to ace every test because they "love Jesus." In fact, when we begin teaching things that aren't covered in Sunday School like form criticism, the invasion of Tiglath-Pileser III and its impact on reading Isaiah 7, or how the Bible came together, then the students who struggle the most are the students who had been the most active in church.

Some of them shut down, believing that if their pastor didn't think it was important, then they won't either. Some of them keep struggling and wrestling to reorient their faith to make room for these new ideas. "Wait, form criticism can inform faith?" "Textual criticism isn't antagonistic to faith?" "The Enuma Elish helps me understand Genesis 1?!"

One concept that is challenging to them every semester is the discovery that the authors of the biblical text were aware of and used other Near Eastern texts to make their point. This is shocking! Scandalous! PLAGIARISM!!! (It really shouldn't be that upsetting. After all, we are products of our culture--called to transform it, but when the biblical authors do it, it's a problem). I usually have to shepherd the students through Genesis 1 after discovering the connections with the Enuma Elish and the flood story after discovering the connections to the Atrahasis Epic and Gilgamesh. The biblical transformation of these other Near Eastern documents is beautiful and rich, but challenging to the first time reader.

I assumed we had worked through most of those issues this semester, and as I worked through Proverbs, I talked about the book of Proverbs borrowing from the Instruction of Amen-em-opet almost as an afterthought. What I didn't realize was that one of my students had been struggling since creation (literally), and this was one literary source too many.

"This bothers me, Dr. Wallace! Why not just add whatever we want to the Bible!? How can the authors just keep borrowing like this!?!"

Trying to help, I said, "Maybe this will help. Some people believe that Paul incorporated early Christian hymns into his letters. Does that bother you?"

"No," she said, "That is totally different."

"Um, okay," I said, "What about those Christian T-shirts that look like something secular, like Budweiser, but is says something oriented toward God, like 'God makes one wiser'"

"No," she said, "That is totally different."

"That's totally different?" I said, "That is exactly what the biblical author is doing!"

"No," she said, "That is totally different."

"Okay, okay," I said, "'It is totally different.'"

I thought for a minute and said, "Michelle, can God save you?"

She said, "What?"

I said, "Can God save you?"

"Yes," she said tentatively.

"Wait a minute," I said, "Someone as secular and worldly as you can be transformed into something that witnesses to the grace of God in this world."

In a wonderful response, she paused and said, "I see where you're going, Dr. Wallace."

She felt a little better, but she stayed after class, to talk more about the issues. The topics ranged from textual criticism, why some Bible translations have some verses, but others don't, more form criticism, canon, authorship, inspiration. None of it seemed to make her feel any better, and truthfully, she was probably spiraling down a little. Finally, in a desperate attempt to help, I said, "Michelle, one thing you can remember and that should give you hope is that I know all of these things, and I still have a deep and abiding faith!"

In what might be the best response EVER given to me by a student, she said, "I had a deep and abiding faith, too, and then I read the Bible!"

I laughed involuntarily. But she continued...

"I used to think it was a good idea to read the Bible. 'My friend's having a hard time, they should read their Bible.' And, I am like, 'NO, DON'T DO THAT!! Here, read this list of scriptures, but don't go flipping around.'"

[This feeling was confirmed last night when Daniel heard me mention something about a drunk and naked Noah. When he asked what I meant, I explained the ending of the story of Noah. He responded, "Wow. Now I know why they just told us the story in church and didn't read it from the Bible."]

The next day some students and I were talking about Michelle's struggle. One of them commented, "Yeah, I know what she's going through. It's not even what the Bible says, but, boy, when you find out what that means!"

William Tyndale lost his life for the right for each of us to hold a Bible in our hands in our language. Now, my students and my son are questioning the wisdom of that. My wife commented with a laugh, "Makes you think the Catholics might have had a point. They didn't want just anyone picking up the text without training."

Of course, the alternative is to stay in your nice, safe theological place--never challenged, never moved. You can be absolutely certain of what you believe, know all the answers, and never doubt. But I don't like people who have all the answers, and I don't trust people who have all the answers. If you can't say, "I don't know," I don't trust your reading. The people of Judah just knew that God was on their side. They were the chosen people after all. God wasn't, he was on the side of Nebuchadnezzar. The Pharisees just knew that Jesus wasn't the messiah. They could give you chapter and verse to prove it. I think they were wrong, too. The disciples made light-year leaps forward when they were able to say, "I don't know as much as I thought I did."

So, I will shepherd my students through their crises as I do every semester. I will help them see how this new material can fit in a growing life of faith. And I will pray they will be able to say, "Wow, I didn't know as much as I thought I did."

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door . . . " That is true. But I believe it is better than staying closed up at home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Sunday

I have shared many times how Advent saved Christmas for me (just recently in fact). This Sunday of Advent, I am trying catch my breath more than I am trying to reflect on the hope that comes with the incarnation. This past week is busier than most. My professional meeting always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving (this year it was in Atlanta). The family thanksgiving, a family trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, driving my mom back to her home, and driving back this has been a busy week. And I have to get a stack of grading done, and I have a number of extra, professor responsibilities this week, and . . . and . . . It isn't really a good week for reflection.

At my meeting in Atlanta, I went to the "Blogging & Online Publication" session. As I listened to the interesting papers and how "information exchange can happen instantly," I thought of the good ol' days when information exchange took a little longer. Articles were written. Articles were read. If you had comments to make, you had to write them up and submit them (you couldn't just write them under the article on the website). If you had an opposing view, you had to put together a well thought out, well-reasoned response so that the journal would publish it. Time passed. Thinking could take place. Reflection could lead to new insights. I wonder if these days we have enough time to really process all that we receive. I wonder if we have given up on "wisdom" in favor of the accumulation of more and more "knowledge."

Of course, as the great philosopher Billy Joel reminds us: the good ol' days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

This hasn't been a good week for reflection, but maybe that is why it is a good week to reflect. Advent reminds us that in the busiest time, the word became flesh. When there were a million of other things to do, the word became flesh. When the world didn't want to take time to notice, the word became flesh. It is time to experience the most important event in history. But the urgent begins to push out the important, and the urgent can even mask itself to seem more important. Black Friday is apparently a big deal, and if I don't participate in it, I am missing part of what it takes to celebrate the holiday. "Be Thankful for Clearance Sales"and "Be Thankful for Savings" are just two examples of how the hte urgent tries to mask itself as important.

Maybe after some reflection, I can say that my life will be just as rich without a cheap DVD player. Maybe the "Buy Nothing Friday" social justice movement is on to something. Or as the Grinch said, "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?"

Of course, that would take stopping and reflecting.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas Fast

I didn't grow up in a liturgical church. We had a church calendar but it was never expressed formally. Where many churches have a liturgical calendar that celebrates Advent (the coming of the Christ), Epiphany (the visit of the Magi), Pentecost (the coming of the Spirit), and other events around the life of Jesus and the early church, my church's liturgical calendar looked more like this: Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, etc. If you don't believe those were formal events in the year of church, watch what happens to the Baptist pastor who doesn't celebrate Mother's Day in worship.

After I got married, Cindy and I joined a church that celebrated Advent, and it honestly saved Christmas for me. Christmas might be good for the economy, but it was really bad for my faith. Taking a moment each week to remember the coming Christ was like water to a soul made barren by the commercial, capitalistic pursuits of the world. The liturgical calendar really opened up a whole new world for me--a world organized by the life of Jesus.

I was particularly fascinated by Lent and the power of the fast. Naturally, "fasting" was not something that I understood coming from my faith tradition either. Fasting can serve a number of purposes in the life of a person. As an Old Testament professor, however, I think the one function of fasting that means the most to me is the power it has to reveal idolatry.

Over the years, we have tried to celebrate Lent as a family. When we talk about what to give up, I find that some things are not on the table. Cindy: "What about TV?" Me: "Um, no, March Madness. Can't miss March Madness." Cindy: "What about meat?" Me: "Um, no, can't give up meat. I would go hungry, I think." Me: "How about sweets? Something challenging, but not too challenging."

Pretty effective indictment of my faith, and it's a pretty clear indication of where some of my idols lie. What has power over me? What controls me? Could I really give up March Madness, take up my cross, and follow? Maybe (not yet, but maybe).

In the Eastern Church, November 15 traditionally began a Christmas fast. Like most fasts, it focused on diet. In our culture, as the Christmas marketing ramps up into full swing, maybe we should recover (and discover) the practice of the Christmas fast. Maybe we could give up those things that so easily hinder us and our faith.

What is it that I can't give up this time of year? What is it you can't imagine your life without? Football? Fudge? Wassail? I can't speak for everyone, but I imagine a Christmas fast would do my faith a world of good.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Generations on the Job Market

A generation in the Hebrew Bible is forty years. A generation for iPods is about a year. A generation for someone with a PhD is about 4 years.

I come up with that number because that is about the how long it takes before the current grad students don’t know the incoming grad students because they aren’t in courses with them anymore. For some, that is how long it takes to get done with your dissertation. Once you get that first job that is exactly how long it takes to move your young freshman from orientation to graduation.

I have spent about 3 generations on the job market. In Fall of 1998, I started teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. It was about that time I began combing the internet for any institution, anywhere that might have a full time position who might hire someone who was All But Dissertation (never mind that I wasn’t ABD at that point—but hey you had to dream).

Back then, I was pretty convinced I could do anything. “Gen Ed Interdisciplinary Core with an Area of Competency in Asian Religions?” Sure, I had a course in Asian Religions, I can do that! “Hebrew Bible with an Area of Competency in Rabbinic Judaism?” Sure, I can do that . . . maybe. “Women and under represented groups encouraged to apply” Well, maybe I can’t do EVERYTHING.

Of course, over time I got more realistic with my application packets, more accepting of my ding letters and absolutely ritualistic checking the openings websites. For years, the “Openings” website would update the first of every month. I stayed up till midnight at the end of many months waiting for the openings to click over, only to see one (maybe two) Hebrew Bible postings in the United States (and one in Germany). Of course, I received many, many, MANY ding letters:

“We thank you for your interest in the servile, low-paying position at Hole in the Wall Community College, Fairbanks, Alaska. We had many qualified candidates and have narrowed the list and you aren’t among the finalists.”

When I finally got the job at Shorter, I knew the time was coming when I wouldn’t be welcome there. Many of us assumed it would be a one year posting. We were afraid the Georgia Baptists would come in with guns blazing and clean house in the Religion department. Thankfully, they took their time. It was 5 years before I was told my presence would no longer be welcome in the classroom.

Everyday for five years, I came into work. I turned on my computer. I opened the “Openings” web pages: Chronicle of Higher Education, Society of Biblical Literature, Inside Higher Ed, etc. Every now and then an opening would be interesting. Every now and then I would get an interview. Every now and then it would come down to me and one other candidate . . . and the school would go with the other candidate.

Every day. Every morning. It was more than habit—it was liturgy—it was an act of prayer. It was how I maintained some measure of hope. I tried to be present in my present, but in my heart I was looking for a place where I felt there could be a future.

Next week, I am going to the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. For twelve years, I have gone to this meeting looking for a job. This year I am not. It has been a weird experience. This is what it is like to be content? This is what it is like to not be looking every day for an opening?

I walked across the Judson University campus on this absolutely beautiful fall day, and a smile came across my face. Yes, it is a different world than I have known, but I think I can get used to this.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Advent (thanks to Wal-Mart, a little early)

The day before Halloween I was walking through Wal-Mart buying a few extra bags of candy. We are still in our “firsts’ here in this new place (“first summer,” “first Halloween,” “first Christmas”). I was reflecting on how excited we are to live in a place with lots and lots (and lots) of trick-or-treaters, and my drifted over into the “Home and Garden” section, and I noticed the first Christmas trees peeking over the aisles.

I know that a lot of people are discouraged by that, and I understand that emotion. It is true that Christmas is when all the retail establishments make a profit, so the earlier they can make Christmas, the better off they are. But I decided years ago, that if anyone can have joy about the approach of Christmas, it is a Christian. So I decide to use those (possibly exploitive and commercial) symbols of the season to move me to joy.

On that day, those Wal-Mart trees were an advent wreath. I felt such joy and hope seeing them, my eyes even welled up.

It almost exactly a year ago that I sent of my application packet to Judson University. The job opening posted exactly one day after I received the news that the trustees no longer wanted me in the classroom because of my Baylor Ph.D. [For my details see the discussion tab in the facebook group, “The Truth Behind Teachers' Removal”]

I am a teacher. In my heart of hearts I know that. I had decided (with Cindy) that this would be my last year on the job market. I would find something else to do. I was tired of ding letters. I was tired of coming so close so many times only to lose out. On the plus side, I had gotten very good at laments: Kate Campbell’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” Allen Levi’s “Bartimaeus,” Michael Card’s, “The Silence of God,” and others. I am afraid I was also getting very good at teaching the laments in the Psalter.

For some reason one song moved me more than others. Chris Rice’s song “Belong” became an almost liturgical practice for me. It was the first song I played every morning when I sat down at my desk. It was top of my iTunes “Top 25 Most Played” for some time, and more than once, I found myself in tears as I tried to sing those early verses.

I cower ‘neath the monster trees
And try to stand on tired feet
But gravity knocks me to the ground
Where I give up, and tears roll down
I claw the dust and beg the end
Curse the day that I began
to hope there’d be a place where I belong

It is a year later, and God has changed my mourning into dancing. We survived the move (I will be more confident when the boys and Cindy survive the winter!). Now, I am settling in as the new Old Testament professor here at Judson. The students are responding to me, and I can see where this place can benefit from my gifts. I am connecting with my colleagues, and I see where I can benefit from the gifts of this place. Though I have expressed the joy I have in my facebook statuses quite frequently, I truly could post joyfully every day.

This year when I light that first Advent candle and say, “Jesus brings Hope!” I will confess that this year, I will say that a little differently. Last year, I said it with longing. This year, I say it in declaration.

How did I miss this wondrous song?
The forest sang it all along
"River rinses all your shame
Father offers you His name
Father Love prepares a home
Brother Jesus leads you on
Follow to the place where you belong!"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Indispensible Electronic Resources

I have a number of friends who I try to update whenever I find a nifty new electronic resource. As a professor, I have specific needs and limited budget. So, accomplishing some tasks requires some creativity. I thought I would put together my list of electronic resources that I absolutely can't live without.

  1. CutePDF—Pdf has become the standard document format on the web, and, sometimes, you need to produce a pdf file. OpenOffice does have a "convert to pdf" button, but on occasion the spacing just doesn't work right. CutePDF installs like a printer on your machine. If it is a program you can print from, it is a program that can create a pdf. The appearance is perfect. I have never had a problem with it, and I have been using for years. Oh yeah, and it's free.
  2. Dropbox—Just discovered Dropbox a few months ago, and now I can't live without it. Like so many people, I find myself working from a number of different computers. To rectify that problem, I had been using a flash drive. Dropbox creates a folder on your local hard drive that is synchronized with as many computers as you install dropbox on. So, the paper I was working on at the office is the version on my home computer (and my wife's laptop). The copies are local so you don't have to be connected to the web to access the files, they are simply synchronized the next time you connect. You can also access your files via the Web if you are away from your computer (or download the iPhone app). It's free for 2GB, and if you invite friends to join, you and your friend receive an extra 250MB up to a maximum of 10GB. My dropbox folder is now 6.3GB. If you follow this link it will be more J
    Dropbox referral
  3. OpenOffice—Most people know about open office. It is the open source suite of programs that allow you to do word processing/powerpoint/excel without the nasty Microsoft price (OpenOffice as the name implies is free). GoogleDocs might give OpenOffice a run in the "free word processors" dept, but ONE feature makes OpenOffice indispensible. That is. . .
    1. OpenOffice Convert PDF extension—one of the needs we often have is to edit PDF file. Open office will import a pdf file and convert it to its version of a "Publisher" file. You can add and move around text, then print (using CutePDF) to preserve the formatting.
  4. PDFSam—once you create all those pdf files you might need to combine (or split some). I use the freeware program PDFsam (which stands for "Split and Merge"). Pretty intuitive program.
  5. LibraryThing—Like most professors, I am a bibliophile. I have a huge library, and if something happened to it, I am not sure what I would tell the insurance company. Library thing lets you keep an index of your books online. Just enter ISBN#/LC number/title/author/something and it will search to find the right book. You can index 200 books for free. For $25 you can have a lifetime membership with unlimited books. I would also spring for the $15 bar code scanner that can scan your books into the system. Multiple users can create groups which can list their books together.
  6. Logmein—I am the computer expert in the family. However, the family is spread over the county, and talking someone through a computer repair is pretty tough. Logmein allows you to remotely access your home/office/Mom's/Mom-in-law's computer (provided you have set it up on that computer). It is free to access the computers. For a fee, you can share clipboards and drag and drop files. I haven't needed anything that advanced, so the free version works for me.
  7. Google Calendar—As a family, we have entered the age of piano practice/football practice/drama practice/basketball practice—not to mention the schedule that my wife and I have to keep. With Google calendar, you can each have your own calendar. It will sync with outlook, and it has saved our bacon this last year.
  8. Picasa—Solid/free image manipulating software. It will resize before mailing to whatever size YOU determine. It scans your disks to find all your pictures. The facial recognition software is addicting. It will also teach you things you never knew about your family . . . like how much your son looks like your grandfather . . .
  9. Browser Wars: Chrome or Firefox. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The most indispensible feature for me is the ability to sync bookmarks. Chrome comes with the ability to sync. Firefox will sync if you install the "Firefox Sync" add-on. So no matter what computer you are working on, your bookmarks will all be the same.
  10. Snopes—A must have for anyone in ministry with an email address. How many well-meaning students/church members have sent email which have been "sent from a friend" warning about the secret recording in which Obama predicted the end of the world in 2012 when you spell his Hawaiian birth name backwards in Hebrew . . . Snopes is a urban legend debunker. It will give you the vocabulary to gently inform those well-intentioned, but sadly gullible, emailers.

Bonus for Procrastinators!

  1. StumbleUpon—After a hard day of staring at the computer, you sometimes need to find a way to kill time. StumbleUpon lets you set up your interests, and it will randomly select a website. It is like channel surfing the internet. I will warn you VERY addictive.
  2. Live Mocha—But what if you want to procrastinate by doing something productive? Go to and learn a language. The lessons are set up inductively (like Rosetta Stone), but many of the lessons are free. And it is productive procrastination.


  1. Zotero—To make this a baker's dozen, I will add one thing that I have not had a lot of time to use yet. That said, it might have the potential to jump to the top of this list very soon. Zotero is an extension for Firefox (making the web browser selection pretty easy). It will grab bibliographic data from searches and insert it into Word in the correct style (APA, SBL, MLA, Turabian . . . whatever you select). It has many of the features of EndNote, but like so many things on this list, Zotero is free. It generates Bibliography, keeps copies of pdfs… I haven't had time to use it much yet, but I think that as I start using it for research, it will be a must have.

I am by no means an expert, but these have saved me time and effort. I would be remiss if I didn't pass them on!