Oct 072008

Yesterday’s class was a whistlestop tour of the main phases of Biblical Interpretation since the first century. Interesting enough but nothing earth-shattering. It was followed, though, by an interesting discussion on more recent approaches to scripture. Much as the traditional historical-critical methods are useful and interesting, I struggle with some of the inherent flaws present in the method.

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Sep 232008

First day back at uni yesterday. Despite the long summer break it hardly feels like I’ve been away.

I had two classes yesterday (I have one on Friday as well), both quite different. The first was Biblical Interpretation which was the class I tried to get out of but couldn’t. I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as I anticipated. The lecturer (for part of it anyway) is Prof Larry Hurtado. He comes across as a little bit dour when you chat to him but he’s quite animated when lecturing and really quite engaging. Yesterday was just an introductory session so not too heavy going. Mind you, it’s a small classroom and quite a busy class so the problem will be staying awake in a stuffy atmosphere. I’m still not overly taken by the content – it is very similar to the course I took last year and much of the focus is on historical-critical methods of Biblical interpretation, something that was heavily criticised in the course from last year.

The Hebrew Prophecy course should be interesting. Prof Hans Barstad is very knowledgeable but his lecturing style can be very off-putting until you’re familiar with it. He tends to wander off at tangents and it would be easy to switch off until he gets back on track, but there are wonderful little nuggets of teaching in his tangents and, all too often, he doesn’t get back on track. It’s only much later that you realise that, actually, he’s provided you with a lot of information to answer for yourself the question he got sidetracked from in the first place. He spent most of the first class setting out his position for teaching the Hebrew prophets – and it’s most definitely not from a historical-critical perspective, which he panned mercilessly (but I knew this and that’s why I wanted to do the course). However, that didn’t go down well with a couple of class members. One is German and is steeped in the historical-critical methodology. To be fair, he did say he was open to other approaches and I think he will get a lot out of the class. The other is from the US and seems to want the ‘right answers’. At least that’s the impression I got. She’s really not happy at the thought of more literary approaches to the Bible. However, if she gives it a chance she’ll discover that Barstad’s literary approach does not mean a liberal free-for-all in interpretation. A few of us in the class have had Barstad as a lecturer before so we know what to expect. We were chatting about it afterwards and it’s funny how particular lecturing ‘quirks’ stick in your head – and we all remembered the same ones. Maybe that’s a sign that he definitely makes an impression.

And some things never change – the potential for a huge photocopying bill for the reams of reading to be done.

Then just to cap off a busy day, I had to head to St. Andrews for the first of a series of meetings for the Ministries Training Network. This is part of the Church of Scotland training process for candidates. A short time of worship, a half hour Bible passage discussion, tea break and a one hour discussion of a theology article. I’m not altogether sure of what it achieved other than a very late return home and lots more miles on the car. At least the next one should be in Edinburgh.

Apr 222008

Sometime before the end of the exam term I need to have a good idea of what my honours dissertation is going to be and also identify a possible supervisor. My big problem is narrowing things down to a manageable research area. I like the ‘big picture’ stuff. The nitty-gritty can get frustrating sometimes.

Anyway, I think I may have identified a few possible areas of study and they cover my two main areas of interest which are Biblical studies and theology.

My main inspiration has come from NT Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’. My earlier post on it probably didn’t do justice to just how inspiring I found the book. So, I’ve come up with a few possibilities for further research.

  • The scriptural portrayal of heaven.
  • The scriptural understanding of resurrection and the ‘new heaven and the new earth’.
  • Does a focus on heaven devalue God’s ‘very good’ creation?

They can all be approached theologically or through Biblical interpretation, although the last one has a greater theological bias. Anyway, I’ve fired off my general ideas to a couple of potential supervisors and I’ll see what they have to say.

In the meantime, I need to focus on revision for my forthcoming exams.

Mar 312008

Interesting story today on a science/tech site I read. An Assyrian clay tablet lurking in a museum has been long-recognised as an astronomer’s ‘observation diary’, but some recent studies have subjected its observations to a computerised planisphere that can back-track the position of stars, etc for thousands of years. The tablet has ‘confirmed’ the impact of an asteroid in Germany but the connection with Sodom and Gomorrah comes through the effect of its trailing plume. This would have crossed the Levant, Sinai and northern Egypt (where Sodom and Gomorrah are thought to have been) and its intense heating effect would have caused flammable materials, including clothes and hair, to ignite – fire from heaven indeed.

Mar 292008

I’m churning over some sermon ideas at the moment (pulpit supply in my home church on the evening of the 13th of April) and, following through a particular line of thought, a small section of the Beatitudes popped into my head:

Mat 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

It struck me that the balance of these verses is not that we are light so that we may see, but rather that our light is there to be seen. A tiny candle-flame will be seen for miles on the darkest night for all that it does not cause the path before us to be illuminated. For that we need to bring the light to bear in a much more personal way.

Joh 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Mar 282008

Some time over the next few weeks I’m supposed to come up with some ideas for my dissertation for next year. I’m really struggling to narrow things down though. I have an interest in theology, Biblical interpretation and Biblical criticism. My initial idea was to consider how a ‘reader-response’ approach to Biblical criticism is shaped by the theology a person is exposed to. That was given a general nod of encouragement but I was told to narrow it down to something in particular, but I can’t think what.

I then thought about pursuing the line of ‘how the Bible interprets itself’ – but, again, I’ll need to come up with specifics such as how Paul uses particular Hebrew scriptures for example.

But then I had another thought. I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ (more on that another time) and found it really fascinating. His main theme is that the western church pretty much ignores the Biblical teaching on ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ to focus on heaven as an end in itself. He discusses the whole idea of resurrection and what it means and it’s got me quite fascinated, so now I’m thinking of following this as a possible avenue of study. To be honest, I could probably still tie it in with theology and all the rest, but, again, it’s a case of narrowing it down to something manageable.

Ho! Hum! something to let stew at the back of the mind for a little while anyway.

Mar 032008

My two favourite subjects. I happened to be browsing the interweb and I discovered a list of ‘categories’ that helped identify preferred Biblical interpretation slant depending on one’s theological leanings. I don’t normally hold with labelling or categorising, but I did find these to be uncannily accurate.

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Jan 132008

An odd pairing you might think, but surprisingly apt – or, at least, it seemed to make sense in the shower this morning. The reading for our ‘Method of reading the Hebrew Bible’ class this coming week was an introduction to, and a fairly robust criticism of, Historical/Literary Criticism. This particular branch of Biblical criticism seeks to ‘de-construct’ scripture as it stands and ‘re-construct’ the original documents or oral histories that make up our combined texts. The purpose is to get under the skin of the texts, analyse them for historical content and so be able to better place them in context and understanding. It is a ‘scientific’ approach to the texts, but that description should be used guardedly for it does not imply that ‘facts’ may be extricated from the text, rather that it is a very analytical approach.

The critique of this method, in my reading, comes primarily from Lou Silberman. In a nutshell he says that texts are best understood when the are ‘experienced’ rather than analysed. In the article I was reading he cites a number of examples where ‘analysis’ of the language of the text raises concerns over the technically correct usage of words, leading to considerations of scribal errors or questions over meaning. However, when one ‘zooms out’ of the text, it can be seen that the choice of words or phrases better fits the rhythm of the story or its poetry or its emphasis. It’s easy to forget that the Bible is literature – it has a dramatic story to tell and it tells it in a dramatic way. Remember too that much of it stems from oral tradition. When was the last time you heard a good storyteller use bland phrases and uninteresting delivery?

But for some, reading scripture as a story devalues it in some way. Rather, it should be a list of ‘rules’, examples of what’s right and wrong, guidance without ambiguity. How can a ‘truth’ be transmitted in a story when it would be better stated clearly? I think the answer is ‘impact’. If we have to work at getting the truth of a passage, the message of a text then it has much more impact on us. Moreover, it means that there are many paths that can be travelled to reach that truth and, what’s more, there are many truths that can be found along those paths.

And that brings me to limericks. I was trying to think of a more contemporary or literary example of this idea of valid truth within a form of literature that, at first glance, detracted from the truth it contained. For whatever reason the following limerick popped into my head:

An epicure dining at Crewe,
found quite a large mouse in his stew.
Said the waiter, “Don’t shout,
or wave it about,
or the rest will be wanting one too!”

Now, at first glance it’s mildly amusing – the absurdity of other diners also wanting a mouse in their meal. Then there’s the puzzling choice of the word ‘epicure’. Surely a word like ‘gentleman’ would be just as effective to communicate the absurdity? But then we consider who/what an epicure is and we realise that the limerick can actually be quite a biting social comment. Why is that? Well, here’s a definition of the word:


n. person taking care over the niceties of food and drink. epicurean, a. luxurious; sensual; n. such person; follower of philosophy of Epicurus, who taught that ultimate moral good is happiness.

The use of the word to indicate merely a lover of food is actually a relatively modern usage and departs somewhat from Epicurean philosophy. Nonetheless, let me suggest that it implies that the diner would be, identifiably, a lover of fine foods. And if the epicure had a mouse, then it must be good and so, in order to appear as ‘sophisticated’ diners, then the rest would wish to eat the same. So the ‘truth’ at the heart of this limerick is that we are always concerned about appearances and like to emulate those who, in our opinion, set a fine example to follow. And so we arrive at a ‘truth’ within an absurd form of literature.

The question is, is that what is intended by the limerick? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not but the point is that when we de-construct the limerick, we may understand the meaning of the words, but it’s only when we ‘experience’ the limerick in its entirety that deeper truths may be revealed. De-construction may help us to see the social comment (and even allow us to phrase it in more ‘rule-like’ form), but the humour and the absurdity and the style make it memorable and add emphasis to the truth it is imparting. The fact that we may need to do a bit of digging to appreciate it simply adds to the overall impact.

I quite like the analytical – it can highlight fruitful avenues of exploration but, ultimately, it can be dry with only an academic interest at its heart. So, I guess I’m firmly in the camp of scripture needing to be experienced and that means allowing the Spirit to open up the truths it contains, noting, carefully, the plural.

Jan 102008

The first week of the second semester of third year is now underway and I have been to classes for all three of my subjects. Actually, I only have two classes because one of my subjects is a placement with the chaplaincy team at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. In some respects that’s a dream course – no weekly reading, no exam, no term-time essay. But, it other respects it’s quite tough. The assessment requirements are: a satisfactory report from my supervisor; a 4000-word essay relating the placement to the theory done last semester; a 2000-word ‘journal’ report; a verbatim. Then, of course, there’s the placement itself. I’ve been assigned to the renal ward and I have to spend a couple of hours each week touring my ward and chatting with any and all (patients, relatives and staff). That’s the bit I find hardest. I’m not a natural conversationalist. Give me a topic and I’ll discuss it for hours but start me from cold and my brain turns to jelly after saying hello and commenting on the weather. But that’s partly why I wanted to do the course. Conversation, and especially pastoral conversation, is a skill, so it can be developed through effort and application. So, if at the end of this course, all I can do is chat more freely and in a relaxed way, then I’ll have benefited immensely.

As for the other two courses – well, a mixed bag so far. One class is Method of Reading the Hebrew Bible. It’s about the different critical methods that have been and can be applied to interpreting scripture. There are only 5 in the class and it looks like it’ll be really good. I volunteered to do the first presentation/group discussion next week. Typically, I was then informed that it was probably the most difficult. I’ve gone through the readings and had to laugh. The one I’ve to do starts off with speaking about approaching scripture as myth/saga/story and then develops the idea of ‘experiencing’ the narrative, not just reading it as words (all in response to ‘literary criticism’ – I’ll do a separate blog entry I think). I was speaking to the lecturer today (I had to borrow a book from him) and he was asking how I found the readings. I sad that I thought they were very clear and straightforward and not at all ‘difficult’ and he explained that the reason they are found difficult is because some people can’t get beyond the idea of myth/saga/story implying ‘falsehood’. Anyway, that course looks to be really enjoyable.

The other academic course is Reformation Theology – looking at the events and arguments surrounding the Reformation and counter-Reformation. It promises to be a good course but it’s a big class – over 25. That’s not so good because, in my opinion, honours level courses need that bit more ‘involvement’ and more opportunity to explore issues in detail. You lose a lot of that in a bigger class I feel. Still, the weekly reading is not too onerous and the essay’s pretty straightforward so all in all I should make the most of a relatively uncomplicated semester.

Sep 232007

Following on from today’s other blog entry, I was thinking about the lectionary. Today’s readings from Amos, 1Timothy and Luke were kind to me. There was a connection that could be made between them and, more importantly, one that could be used at today’s Harvest Thanksgiving service.

The thing I struggle with about the lectionary series is that you can hit those times when there is simply no obvious connection to be made and even a contrived one is a struggle. From speaking to a friend, I know that their view is that there doesn’t need to be a connection and it’s perfectly legitimate to have a reading with no further reference to it. The purpose of the lectionary is to expose the hearer/reader to parts of scripture that may otherwise be ignored. I don’t have an issue with that and can see the validity of the argument.

However, there are times when a reading just sits there, on its own, in splendid isolation. Should it have its own exegesis and application ‘slot’? Or should it be left to stand alone. I think the danger of the latter approach is that if it’s a difficult reading then there’s a risk of people ‘turning off’ and, rather than it being given the exposure it merits, it contributes to an overall sense of ‘I’ll stick to the bits I understand’. The risk of the former is that the service appears ‘bitty’ and disjointed or, if a contrived connection is made, there is the possibility of being open to the, perfectly valid, accusation of distorting scripture to make it mean whatever we want.

There is, of course, one over-riding influence which can come to bear and perhaps needs to be borne in mind more. When scripture is read in an open and honest way, its meaning comes not just from our own comprehension but through the intercession of the Holy Spirit as well. So, when that piece of scripture is sitting in splendid isolation, the reality is, it’s not sitting on its own and its capacity to ‘speak’ to someone is, in no way diminished.

It’s just frustrating when your eyes are opened by something you’ve heard or read and the preacher goes off down an entirely different avenue, ignoring your exciting revelation. Still, take a moment to enjoy the presence of the Spirit, leading, guiding, teaching.