Holy books, wholly understandable

I try, every year, to read the scripture of some other faith. That is, read the books themselves, not just a second-hand analysis of them

In 2016 it was the Koran, which I found well worth the read, if a little repetitious. It is about 4/5 the length of the New Testament.

In 2017 I have read the Bhaghavad Gita, which is a substantially shorter book. And I think I will try to squeeze in the Book of Mormon this year, which is twice as long as the New Testament.

All three books I will have done as Audible recordings, of which I am a major fan.

My observation here has to do with clear communication:

The Koran I read was the Penguin edition (1956) by N. J. Dawood; it is meant for non-specialists and was very understandable. Click HERE.

The Bhaghavad Gita I accessed two ways; first through then through the wonderful introduction and translation by Eknath Easwaran. And much, but not all, of the 2000-page commentary by Swami Ramsukhdasji, a gift from a dear Hindu friend.

Especially in the case of the Eknath Easwaran edition (click HERE), the rendering is very clear, with technical terms carefully explained; and then before each chapter, the author sums up the previous context, then gives a summary of the new chapter. In other words, it couldn’t be easier for the non-Hindu.

Foment curiosity and independent thinking? Sure! Create confusion? No!

All to say that, in both cases, someone exerted a great deal of effort to make clear to me the basic message of the holy books of another faith. In neither book was I ever lost, although of course my understanding of them remains superficial.

The application for the Christian should be clear.

How much more should someone who is interested in communicating our true message take great pains to

  • study it seriously,
  • meditate on it deeply,
  • pray about it thoroughly,
  • rely on God’s grace to live it authentically, and
  • seek God’s direction to proclaim it truthfully and powerfully.

Also, I would add, use straightforward language instead of flowery or technical; and to employ good English – rather than Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Bohairic, or who knows what. (See my long article on this issue HERE). To give Paul’s statement a different but legitimate application: “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” And out of the church, that’s even more so;

These versions of holy books remind me of our dear late professor, I. Howard Marshall; the first sermon I heard him preach, in Kings College Chapel in Aberdeen, was on the theme of “repentance” from Romans 2: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” He was speaking to a mixed group, some of whom were not very familiar with the Bible. I paraphrase him: “Repentance is not making ourselves out to be the worst person that ever lived,” he began, and then gave us a simple short sentence on what it does mean to repent. Clear as a bell. The handful of times I went to hear John Stott preach, same thing.

That is the apostolic way, it is the way of love.

“Holy books, wholly understandable,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

My Favorite 5 New Testament Archaeology Discoveries in Recent Years!

To download the full article with all images and notes, click here: Shogren_Archaeology of the New Testament

Usually it’s the Old Testament that garners all the publicity for archaeological finds, and for good reasons: the Israelites inhabited the land for centuries and left behind all kinds of artifacts. Jesus and the apostles did not erect buildings or put up inscriptions or make special clay pots.

Nevertheless, New Testament archaeology has yielded some excellent and surprising finds. My criteria here are: finds from the last few years; finds that reveal some sort of physical evidence for the New Testament story; and frankly, things that I find cool. Consult an expert for rankings of findings in order of scholarly importance.[i]

#5. The Pool of Bethesda. The Pool of Siloam (John 9) was discovered in 2005, and it fit very neatly with the biblical description of the place where the blind man washed and was healed. The Pool of Bethesda, by contrast, was discovered long ago but positively identified only recently.[ii] It lay just north of the Temple, by the Sheep Gate, as John states.

In John 5, Jesus visits Bethesda and sees the lame man who had been waiting for years. John describes the structure as a pool “surrounded by five covered colonnades.” Now, a five-sided structure would have been rare indeed, and some skeptics used to dismiss John’s description and other elements of his gospel as a myth. But sure enough, the ruin of Bethesda shows that it definitely did have five colonnades and porticos, just as John describes it – and its architectural oddness is probably the reason why he mentioned it in the first place! It appears that the pool was a mikveh, that is, a place where people would bathe to purify themselves before entering the temple.[iii] The Pool of Bethesda backs up what John says, and suggests that he had reliable information about its details.

The Pool of Bethesda

#4. The Magdala Synagogue. We remember Magdala principally because it gave Mary her nickname, Mary Magdalene (more…)

Christians and “Coincidences” or Is There a Hex in the Patternicity?

This article has many images and footnotes; I encourage the reader to download it as a pdf here: Shogren_Christians and Coincidences

It happened just the other day: I had been thinking about James Bond, and later when I pulled out a form of identification for the bank teller, I noticed that my ID number began with 007! Was I a secret agent? Perhaps one suffering from amnesia?

Or, let’s say a man “has a system” for beating the Vegas roulette table. He has noticed that black has come up eight times in a row. So he bets everything on black, because “there’s clearly a pattern to the wheel tonight.” Meanwhile, a man across from him is thinking to himself, “I’d better put everything on red, since it looks like it’s due to come up.”

A child and her companion lie on their backs, looking up at the clouds. “That one looks like a giraffe!” she says. “And that one a camel!” “No, not a camel, look at it upside-down, it looks just like an octopus.” One child says, “An angel!”; another says, “Actually, it looks quite like Charles Darwin!”

We have all played this game without realizing that we were doing pattern recognition. As Paul Simon wrote many years back, in the song “Patterns”:

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves,
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees,
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall,
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child’s uneven scrawl.

Leaves, shadows, trees, indecipherable scrawling – these can all seem like messages because of our human tendency for patternicity. So can tortillas and numbers and corporate logos, as we shall see.

This is why astronomers speak of the Horsehead Nebula, which was not modeled after a terrestrial animal, but just sort of looks like a horse!

From ages past, people have imagined patterns in the stars and constructed “constellations” of animals, gods, heroes. And we can get a cross-check on patternicity by seeing how different cultures “read” the same stars –  it’s Orion in European legend, but the same stars are a hunter and his dogs chasing a deer in India. Mr. Rorschach invented his famous ink blots on the basis of human pattern recognition (“Ummm…is it, maybe, two ducks kissing?” “Okay, Mr. Anderson, we’d better make it three sessions per week!”)

We are wired to quickly detect patterns in the data we see and hear. This is a huge help to get us through the day: when our alarm clock goes off, we don’t have to puzzle over, “Now, what could that buzzer possibly mean?”

But for some people, that recognition faculty goes beyond what is useful (more…)

Is the Nestle-Aland Bible against the deity of Christ? No!

It is the narrative in a few remote corners of Christendom that only the Textus receptus reflects the original text of the New Testament. Some would add a second chapter, that newer critical editions – which, in fact, are based on almost 6000 manuscripts, let alone ancient versions and church fathers – are part of a conspiracy to destroy the church’s faith. Their editors are supposedly hell-bent on erasing any Bible verse that affirms the trinity, the deity of Christ, redemption by his blood, justification by faith, and other cardinal doctrines. Or so the legend goes.

The evidence for this curious notion simply does not add up. Take a look at the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, and you will find all of those doctrines fully and clearly taught; and you will find no evidence of any systematic dismantling of the faith once for all handed down to the saints. This will be evident to those who can read Greek: they can freely access the NA28 online, as well as other information. [1] English readers might look over the ESV on the same quest.

And in fact, there is some nice counter-evidence to the theory. It appears in the little epistle of Jude, where the deity of Christ is more clearly set forth in the latest critical edition than it has been in previous ones.

First, let’s place the critical version in context. (more…)

How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans]

Certeza Unida and Kairos will publish my Romans commentary as part of their Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bible Commentary). More than 160 scholars participated in the project.

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What follows is adapted from the section “How to Read Romans,” in which I show its particular application for Latin America.

The epistle to the Romans meets the Christian on two levels: (1) as a treasure house of beloved gospel texts; (2) as an ancient missionary letter, written for a specific moment in Paul’s work among the nations.

Both levels are valid, since the disciple today first comes to know Romans because of its neat formulations of, for example, the deadliness of sin (3:23), the free gift of eternal life (6:23), the transformation of the new person in Christ (12:1-2). Then beyond that, we must enter into the mind of Paul and appreciate his plan for the final years of the AD 50s – a missionary journey that would take the gospel farther west from Jerusalem than it had ever gone, across several of what we know as time zones. We then see that Romans, when first delivered, was a clear call to action for the believers in the capital to receive Paul for a time, and later to sponsor his trip to evangelize Spain.

In Latin America too we are arming ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, in particular, unreached ones. We too will benefit from knowing, not just what Paul said about salvation, but why he said it to these Christians in Rome, and by extension how it is God’s summons to us to show forth the gospel.

Romans is the largest extant letter by Paul. It is also the most systematic in its structure, touching on many facets of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but saying little about other themes, for example, the Last Days. Paul begins with the lostness of the world, then God’s solution in the death of Christ, the power of the new life in the Spirit, and later, details about how to live the Christian life. He also introduces a long section in chapters 9-11 to answer the questions Why don’t Jews believe in their own Messiah? Will Israel come to God eventually?

The best way to enjoy this letter is to read it; one can read Romans aloud at an unhurried pace in about one hour.

“How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s easy to preach against sins your people don’t commit

One of those, “Wish I had said this, in this way, but there’s no way I could have improved on this statement by Russell Moore

I think sometimes pastors and leaders simply take whatever they find objectionable in the culture and rail against it. They sometimes use the language of decline, where we’re in the worst situation we’ve ever been in before, and these very dire terms—which is not true. If you look at every generation of the Church you see older people complaining that the next generation is just going to pieces. That’s always been the case in every history of the Church. It’s fear-mongering. It’s easy to stand up and rail against other people’s sins in a way that can cause your congregation, or your Bible study group, or whatever it is that you have responsibility over, to think “Man he is really hard against sin,” when in reality, we’re just hard against other people’s sins, and we don’t have the courage to address the sins that are going on right in front of us. (emphasis added)

Gary again: preaching about THEIR sins is always going to be easier and less likely to get you fired than preaching about OUR sins. This may be why I have heard:

  • plenty of warnings against gay marriage, but little about the abuse that happens in Christian marriages;
  • a lot of denunciations of hateful Islamists, but little condemnation of Christians who hate the haters;
  • a lot about those lazy people on welfare, but little about Christians who spend every spare minute and dollar on their own recreation.

The Bible is a sharp sword, and meant to slice into Our consciences as well as Theirs.

Full article “Engaging the Culture in the New Year,” HERE. Russell Moore was for a while in the news, because he spoke harshly against Christian supporters of Donald Trump, but he is consistently one of the best evangelical spokespersons out there on public ethics.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

 

What I read in 2016, the short list

I have always been a big reader, but never anything close to my list for 2016. That’s when I began to use the wonderful online group, Goodreads.com, to log the books that I have read, am reading, and want to read. I am up over 1900 books that I have logged as “read” in my lifetime, so far, but I know there are hundreds I cannot remember; I imagine the number should be more like 2500.

“Do you want that reading list Super-Sized?”

Over Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016, and set a (as it turns out, too ambitious!) personal goal of 150 books/plays this year, including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Koran, and others, let alone material for class prep. Typically I am reading eight books at a clip; some short documents, some long tomes, some Audible recorded books from Amazon.

Overall, I read a lot more non-fiction this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Russian themed. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) was excellent. I am about a third of the way through the fictionalized biography of Trotsky by Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1868-69) is a Christ-allegory. All are available on Kindle.

George Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I have read 1984 a dozen times since Junior High, and decided I should branch out. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel (more…)

Your politics is not Christianity

No matter what you think; no matter what your favorite pundit tells you; no matter what the majority of your friends believe; no matter if you are Right, Left, Center, or Other:
Any word you can tack “ism” to the end of is a potential idol. Anytime you add a hyphen to the word “Christian” (Christian-hyphen-whatever, or Christian-slash-Whatever) you nibble away from the significance of “Christian.”

Whether election season or not, this wonderful insight from Thomas Merton remains relevant:

…on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the “opium of the people.” And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system – when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate…his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith in his own nation, class or race. His ethic ceases to be the law of God and of love, and becomes the law that might-makes-right: established privilege justifies everything, [his] God is the status quo.

Taken from Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, available cheaply used or on Kindle. Merton was, by the way, strongly in favor of political activism, as am I; but not religion as the appendage of a political ideology.

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Your Body, God’s Temple

The devil has a Weapon of Mass Destruction, and it is called online pornography. Of help is the following article is by Jason DeRouchie of Bethlehem Bible College and Seminary. It is one of the best explorations of the topics of masturbation and sexual fantasy that I have read, and I repost it, knowing I could not write one this good.

Blessings!

“If Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin,” by Jason DeRouchie

The Golden Rule and Political Discussion

This has been the most difficult election season, at least since 1948, perhaps since 1860.

For that reason, may I request that, when someone didn’t vote the way you or I did, that we not automatically respond:

  • “Oh, that means you don’t care at all about ____.”
  • “Oh, you’re ignoring the sins of your candidate, and damning the sins of mine.”
  • “Oh, you’re deluded by your choice of news outlet.”
  • “Oh, you only look at information that backs your candidate.”
  • “Oh, only imbeciles and morons vote for ____ (not my terms, I’m quoting).”
  • “Oh, only people with zero education vote for____.” When I tell people I have a college education, some reply, “Well, there are plenty of stupid people with degrees, they don’t mean anything!”
  • “Oh, you must be brainwashed or a ‘useful idiot’ or politically-correct or anti-politically-correct.”
  • “Oh, you must be a lemming (or some other slow-witted mammal).”
  • “Oh, why would you vote for the devil” or “the antichrist?”
  • “Oh, you must be morally corrupt.”
  • “Oh, you have an agenda! (And I sure don’t).”
  • “Oh, you can’t possible be a Christian if you voted like that!”
  • “Oh, God told me how to vote, so if you voted differently, you must not love the Lord!”
  • “Oh, prayed about my vote, and if you did not vote the same, you must not have prayed.”
  • “Oh, that means you are a (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.).”
  • “Oh, you just threw your vote away (maybe on a Third-Party Candidate).”

These are all more or less quotes from things I’ve seen the last few days. From Christians and non-Christians.

Personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who found this election easy. Maybe you didn’t have to think hard about whom to choose, I certainly did. This isn’t a math problem, where 2 + 2 = 4 every time, there are hundreds of variables, and I know thoughtful people who have come up with different answers. That’s not “moral relativism,” it’s a nod to the difficulty of the problem we are trying to solve.

The Golden Rule would suggest that I should do unto others (I should assume they had wrestle through this) as I would have them do unto me (I want people to assume that I had to wrestle through this).

May we please – for the nation’s sake – assume until we hear otherwise, that perhaps, just perhaps, the person who voted for the other team really does care, really did look into things, and really did have to struggle about how to vote.

Yes, it works in politics, too

Yes, it works in politics, too

“The Golden Rule and Political Discussion,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica