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.