Monday, April 29, 2013

Application Questions, Part 3

The last set of questions from our reader of DANT:
 Would doing things that cause weaker Christians to stumble in private be acceptable?

We should first note that “stumble” in this case means to cause to apostasize. That said, the answer would have to be yes, if you can be assured it will remain private.

What do you make of Jesus saying to invite not your friends, but the lesser of society? Is Jesus against inviting friends over for dinner?

In today’s society, no – invitations such as these were sent to accrue honor, not for the sake of socialization, as in today’s society.

 In terms of giving, how do we define what is "sacrificial"? Does each social class have different levels of responsibility in this regard?

Yes. As I note, comparison is made by Paul to the distribution of manna. This would indicate that the level of “sacrificial” will very widely (in terms of amount given) according to what each person possesses.

What if I am not currently involved in a ministry of my church directly per se, but I do other things in ministry outside of church?

The main concern is to serve the Body of Christ – which means service does not have to be tied to your local fellowship of attendance, though of course if you can give them “first dibs,” that would be a great expression of ingroup loyalty!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Application Questions 2

Turns out my hand injury has recovered enough that we can now consider a few more queries from our reader of DANT.

Natural Affection--What does this mean for participation in church ministry (especially for those of the more introverted persuasion, a.k.a. me)?

And me (heh heh). This relates to what is meant by "natural affection," and in a collectivist society, that would have to mean agape love for one's ingroups. So rather simply, it means finding some way to serve the church. That doesn't mean it has to be some public, extroverted service like being a greeter. Nearly all of my service in ministry is done alone at home or in libraries. Yet of course, it serves the church at large.

The Body of Christ can accommodate service for introverts and extroverts alike. The main thing is that we serve -- in whatever way we are gifted and crafted.

Does giving money to organizations that fight trafficking and help the poor honor Christ?

Yes. I believe that as part of that "Body service," some are called to be the "breadwinners" -- to make money in business so that they can support others in more direct ministry. The example of this would be wealthy patrons who supported the ministry of Jesus out of their means (Luke 8:3).

What if one is unable at any given time to participate more directly? Can giving money still be a loving gesture (of course I am not advocating necessarily never considering doing something more direct)?

Again, yes. The simple fact is that capital of some sort allows ministry to function. These days cash is the token; at other places and times it may have been food and shelter. The bottom line is that provision of tangible support is a solid way of participation.

How to live out the command to visit the widows and fatherless?

This refers, in the New Testament at least, to James 1:27.We should note that it says to visit these peoples in their affliction, and that the word "visit" is a bit of a King Jamesism; it means to look after, not just ring a doorbell. To that extent, we live out the command with ministries to such persons. The "Visiting Angels" service would be a good example to follow when it came to widows (as well as widowers) -- keeping in mind of course that in the Biblical world, "widows" were often quite young, in a day when 35 was the normal lifespan! I cannot speak to any examples for the "fatherless" although I am sure there are ministries that cover such ground.

We'll look at the last three questions next time!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Robert Letham: Misreading "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes"

I've recovered enough mobility in my hand to type more efficiently, so we’ll get back to our usual schedule on Monday, which will include the next application question asked by our reader. For now, we will address what is a partially misguided review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (MSWE), authored by Robert Letham, and featured on the Gospel Coalition website (link below). Most of the review is positive, but Letham offers three general reservations that spoil much of the benefit readers would derive from the review.

First, Letham says, "the bulk of the book’s examples are based on Richards’ experience in Indonesia; however, Indonesia is not Israel in biblical times. " That is true, but beside the point. Richards and O'Brien use Indonesia because it is where they have personally been. Even so, the attributes they describe broadly exist in some manifestation in ALL agonistic, collectivist societies, and that includes Israel in biblical times. 

As an illustration of this, in my recent reading of Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, a biography of Kit Carson, I found included a discussion of Navajo concepts of time. Central elements of this reflected those also found in the description offered by Richards and O'Brien in their discussion of time in the Biblical world, and in Indonesia. It would obviously be profoundly nonsensical to object to Sides that Indonesia is not Navajo culture in the time of Kit Carson.
Letham's point about Indonesia not being Israel in biblical times is therefore a non sequitur, in terms of making MSWE less relevant or accurate in terms of application. 

I would add at this point that this misperception is most likely to Letham's academic orientation: He is a systematic theologian, not a scholar of the social sciences. The scholars of the Context Group have done significant work in showing that "Israel in Biblical times" (indeed, the Roman Empire in Biblical times) had the very attributes that Richards and O'Brien describe for Indonesia.

Letham goes on:

Moreover, much of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is taken up with the idea of cultural distinctiveness as such. This is a necessary part of the hermeneutical process, but it’s not immediately relevant to the title of the book.

Letham might consider that publishers, not authors, are usually responsible for selecting titles, though whether either does so is usually related to issues such as sales or indexing in databases, not relevance to subject matter. The classic example of this today is Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which is not about misquoting, and says relatively little about Jesus in particular. In either event this point is rather nitpicky.

After this Letham also objects again to the focus on Indonesia, "so many that at times it seems more a manual for an intending missionary in Indonesia." So it would be -- and in the same way, it would serve as a manual for an intending time traveler to the Biblical world, or a reader of the Bible. As noted, Indonesia is merely a useful analogy, since the authors have been there. Why does Letham see a need to make an issue of this? I daresay again that it is because he is not expert enough in the social sciences to see the relevance of the material.

Second, Letham considers "a number of lexicographical assertions that are at best highly questionable." He selects two for illustration: the distinction between chronos and kairos, and the four types of love, like agape. Letham does not address or refute these contentions, though; he merely claims that such distinctions were "undermined by the work of scholars such as James Barr." 

Well, no, they have not been. Barr was a fine scholar in his own right, as a linguistic specialist, but he was not at all aware of the social differences between our world and the Biblical world. Rather than Barr undermining the work of authors like Richards, O'Brien, Malina, and Pilch, it is their work which should be seen as a corrective to Barr. That is a very good reason why Barr is not mentioned. I might also add that Barr criticized the idea of Biblical inerrancy, which places Barr at odds with the views of the Gospel Coalition that Letham is writing his review for. So does Letham really wish to posit or imply that Barr is not open to correction, and should serve as a corrective to MSWE?

The last points offered object to a perceived "theological deficit" in MSWE. Letham refers to "certain relativizing of the law of God, seen in a polarity between law and relationships, " but I found no such relativizing in MSWE, and Letham does not quote the text of MSWE to show that there is any such relativizing. The same objection is made regarding "a similar polarity between the individual and the collective." It would seem rather that Letham has fallen victim to the classic misunderstanding also found in Barnett's Paul and the Salvation of the Individual: Namely, that by reinvigorating the notion of collective identity, MSWE has somehow denied or trivialized individual responsibility. Not at all; no scholar of the social sciences would deny that "Adam’s disobedience to the law of God was simultaneously a breach of his covenantal relation to him..." especially since Adam was part of the collective – indeed the founding member – of the very group with which the covenant was made. The "false conflict" Letham perceives is in his own imagination.

The last point is, regrettably, the most appalling. Addressing the point in MSWE about the non-existence of guilt and modern expressions of internal conscience, Letham rather condescendingly suggests that "the authors should read carefully Psalm 32 and kindred passages." I would suggest that Letham read carefully the wide range of social science scholarship available, showing that it is he who is force-reading modern ideas into the text. What "effects of suppressed and unconfessed sin" there are there, are due to shame, not guilt -- because God, an external agent, is aware of David's sin, not because his internal conscience is disturbing him:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me (32:3-4)

Note that it says "YOUR" hand -- God's hand -- was heavy on David.  That is the source of David's shame.

It is unfortunate that Letham has been allowed to review this book and perpetuate these misunderstandings that MSWE and scholars like those in the Context Group are trying so hard to correct.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Application Questions, Part 1

A reader of the Direct Application New Testament sent us some questions about specific situations that make for good blog entries. So we'll plough through seven questions in a few blog entries.

Today I'll do just one...I was planning more, but this weekend I developed an infection in a finger on my right hand that is making typing difficult. So it is possible the Ticker may take some time off until that issue is resolved. Fortunately I typed this part up on Saturday before all that happened. :P


Good Samaritan--How would this teaching apply to helping homeless people on the street? What about helping people on the side of the road, say, in terms of changing a tire, or picking up a hitchhiker (even when potentially dangerous)?

Modern life has complicated this one in many ways. Homeless people are often homeless by choice, rather than (as would be the case in the first century) because they have no choice. There are also a multitude of social services available for the homeless. And yes, we have those dangers as well; a homeless person today may as well stick a shank in you as thank you. Same with helping people on the road.

I would say our best options these days are:

For the homeless, provide and have available the social service organizations needed for them to get back on their feet, get a meal, and have a clean bed. But do that with the admonition that those who do not work, do not eat. The goal should be to reintegrate such people into society, not provide them with a series of handouts again and again so that they can live perpetually on the dole. Indeed, allowing that would also rob us of resources for those who are needy and wish to recover.

On the road, it might be good for churches to have roadside assistance ministries -- though some of our interstates (in Florida at least) have that already. In light of danger, I'd say we should help those with a flat tire in person, if we feel safe enough doing so (e.g., by a major highway, but not on some lonely road; if we are a 250 lb muscular person with lots of company and a gun vs being a petite 125 lber who is traveling alone). Otherwise, offer to get them help either with a cell phone call to a service dealer, or by stopping at the next service center to send help. Of course the advent of cell phones has made this one also become less frequently necessary.

Hitchhiking is actually illegal in most states, including Florida, which would means we'd be encouraging lawbreaking by picking someone up. See link below. So this one has become moot. But, it might apply to giving someone a ride in other circumstances, and in that case, the same admonitions regarding safety I just noted above also apply.