Right Quotes, Wrong Meanings!

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It’s been a while since I wrote Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. The topic is worth revisiting for just about everything quotable in life. While many preachers continue to misquote Jesus, Paul or Peter, Christians writers and some theologians misquote other theologians. In our sound bite electronic age, this often gives the appearance of being an expert in this or that.

Now that much of the quotation search engine is available for getting fancy quotes in, many start quoting famous theologians like Calvin, Barth, Hauerwas, Moltmann and Bonhoeffer. The two interpretive elements I emphasize are literary context and historical context. It doesn’t matter how eloquent the quote is. As long as the quote isn’t in line with the original essays in which it appears, it is a misquotation. Some can connect their own cause with merely one or two words of the quote and think that quotation would accord them the power they seek. However, even if we get the literary context right, it doesn’t mean that the interpretive exercise is over. Every text is also a product of a historical context. Calvin’s view of church-state relationship and his way of using scripture to justify that view came from an era where separation of church and state was inconceivable. He wrote as a lawyer, often in defense of the legal system he tried to uphold in Geneva. Barth and Bonhoeffer wrote in light of Nazi Germany. Their writing also resulted in certain praxis in their lives whether for Barth to move away from Germany or for Bonhoeffer to stay in Germany. Moltmann matured as a theologian in post-WWII rebuilding era in Germany. Hauerwas spent his youth in the Jim Crow era where blacks were forced to have their own restaurants, bathrooms and the seats in the back of the bus. He also saw the deterioration of the democratic process here in the US. His writings came out of these and other circumstances.

When we quote these theological luminaries for the purpose of some other contexts, are we really being true to the original historical context? I can say that surely, we don’t often respect those historical context. Let me use HK as an example. Is HK government a parallel with Calvin’s Geneva or Nazi Germany and WWII? Is HK government parallel with the republican government of the US? No! It isn’t! If the historical situation isn’t exactly parallel, what gives us the right to quote these guys as some kind of eternal truth? Nothing! Unless we can find some form of historical and literary parallel, all our quotes show is our utter ignorance instead of enlightenment. I’m not saying that there’s zero parallel historically, but most of the quotes I see seem totally oblivious to this issue. The quote only make us sound sophisticated (“Ha ha, I know Greek and you don’t.”) and gives us a false sense of authority. Instead of being educated, we’re further misinforming our readers and students. Adding a few German, French, or English words (or whatever language from which the quote came) does nothing! Appearance of being well educated is often far from reality. It’s as bad as a preacher misquoting Jesus out of the blue in some topical sermon (Yes, I realize this happens all the time everywhere even in mega churches. So?).

Every quote is an act of interpretation, especially taken from the context from which it is written for some other agenda. These days, I think we need to rescue Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and Hauerwas from their hijackers. The problem is never the quote. The problem is the interpreter. Let Barth be Barth! Next time someone uses a quote, ask him, “What’s the context?” We need accountability.

Rescuing Daniel from His Hijackers: On Christian Participation in a Corrupt Political System

“…But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food …” Daniel 1.8

Recent discussions on occupying the seats of the HK fraudulent election heats up again in the theological circles. Soon or later, someone will appeal to Daniel to justify Christian participation in politics. I’m not against participation, but the appeal to Daniel ought to be much more cautious than a rhetorical tactic. The appeal to Daniel (and many other biblical characters) is a popular tact to justify Christian involvement in politics, even in corrupt political systems.

Usually the argument goes something like this. Daniel is the typology of Christian participation in a corrupt political system. If Daniel can do it, why can’t I? Now, I’m no expert on HK politics, as I follow it as an amateur. However, I do know a thing or two about the Bible. Having spoken in Baltimore last year on the first half of Daniel and last weekend on the second half of Daniel, I think I ought to reflect on the appeal to Daniel in the HK election or any Christian participation in politics. I’ll only look at Daniel as a character in the book of Daniel. Anyone who wants to argue about authorship can go read some commentaries on Daniel. What exactly about Daniel that allows us to appeal to him as a typology for Christian participation in politics? Let me name just two criteria to make the matter simple.

The first appealing criteria about Daniel’s participation is intelligence. In order to navigate that system, Daniel had intelligence in abundance. The Bible says that he was without physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand and qualified to serve in the king’s palace (Dan. 1.4). What that meant was that he was an obvious genius and a physical specimen. He was near perfect. The Babylonians had superiority over Israel in every sense back in those days, whether in culture or military might. For the Babylonians to recognize these qualities, Daniel and his friends must have been quite outstanding, not just in an ordinary sense but in the sense of even greater than their superior captors. Yet, they didn’t stop at being intelligent. In a society where illiteracy was high, their mere ability to read literature set them apart from fellow Israelites, but they had further education to be informed by the language and literature of Babylon (Dan. 1.4). Thus, they had both nature and nurture on their side. What did learning the language and literature of Babylon do? The learning enabled Daniel and his friends to administer properly in their future leadership roles in serving the king. As far as whether we have people in the theological circle that would resemble Daniel’s education and intelligence, I’m not qualified to judge. Now, if we look at the situation in HK theological circles and those involved in the debate, there aren’t many who have had real government experience other than my colleague Dr. Freeman Huen. Whether you agree with him or not (certainly, he and I can disagree on some fine points for sure), he has walked the walk. For the most part, as far as I know, the rest are just like Donald Trump talking about longevity in business success or marriage. It’s mostly just fantastic balderdash and a good mix of hot humid air. I’m not talking about elitism here. I’m talking about competence.

The second appealing trait about Daniel’s participation is integrity. Daniel continued to take great risks even as he was serving the king. In fact, he would be safer not to serve the king and be an ordinary captive. We often notice the heroic exploits and piety of Daniel, but his prophetic office is where we can clearly see integrity. In Dan. 4, Daniel was forced to interpret a dream that was unfavorable to the king. In fact, it was a message of doom against the dignity of the king. In the Ancient Near East, the king’s honor was something a nation preserved. It was a supreme crime to offend the king’s honor. Daniel could’ve sugar-coated the interpretation about the king’s demise in Dan. 4, but he didn’t. He spoke plainly against the king without knowing what the final outcome would be. He even told the king he would eat grass. Next time you think you’re Daniel, ask yourself whether you have the courage to tell Xi Jingping to eat grass! Report back! As if that wasn’t courageous enough, we mustn’t fail to notice that roughly half of Daniel (Dan 7-12) was devoted to pronouncing doom against the Medo-Persian Empire where Daniel also served its kings. That fact alone shows that Daniel was a man who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth without having to measure the consequences of his prophecy. It’s already quite evident in HK politics that MANY “Christian politicians” haven’t only failed their duties but further succeeding in sugar-coating the lies from Beijing. Their participation is the very opposite of Daniel’s. They were eager to please the government or to participate in the governmental power structure. Their record is mostly abysmal, highlighted by the dire failure of Donald Tsang, a self-proclaimed Catholic. The theological circle is no different really. I’ve even heard a former principal of a major seminary who supported the pro-China speed rail spending (while the money could be spent on bettering the quality of life for the poor) previously now speaking on the destruction of crosses on mainland churches and blaming the churches for not dialoguing with government. How does any of this demonstrate the integrity of Daniel? If anything, these sad examples are the poverty in integrity. In the administration of Xi Jinping, Daniel would be imprisoned, tortured and put to death. In short, we don’t have people who have enough integrity to speak the truth forcefully without worrying about 1) personal interests 2) institutional interests (i.e., “mission” to China, especially to China’s wealthy and powerful elite). No, I can safely say that we don’t have a Daniel who’s qualified to serve the king now. Intelligence without integrity can do more harm than good.

Part of our job as church leaders, theologians and biblical scholars is to help the church and society where we are, but if we can’t fulfill that task, at least don’t hurt the people. So, before you dare to appeal to Daniel’s example, ask yourself whether you’re the kind of person like Daniel. I dare say that there aren’t too many people even in the history of humankind that’s like Daniel, let alone the corrupt circle of HK politics (and church denominations). The worst case scenario is the US. Here in the US, we have every candidate claiming piety towards the Christian God more than the next. I’m not against Christian involvement in politics (a successful example would be Abraham Kuyper), but I’m against the careless appeal to the Bible even when the appeal clearly doesn’t respect the text, culture and message of the Bible. Before you hijack the Bible for your own ambition or publicity, go read your Bible first!

As I said countless times, the problem isn’t the biblical text. The problem comes from foolish interpreters.

 

 

Passing an Inheritance

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“I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and I’m persuaded, now lives in you also … What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus..” 2 Timothy 1.5, 13.

The past weekend marks a great milestone for my kid’s short athletic career. He broke the state record on the deadlift. I held a record in the same lift more than 10 years ago in California. He’s a chip off the old block. Many would think that it’s purely genetic. Yet, other things also contribute. We saw a lot of impressive lifts in the meet, including a smallish Asian man who deadlifted more than four times (yes, FOUR TIMES) his bodyweight for a world record. The biggest deadlift of the day was a few pounds short of 900 lbs. (yes, 900!). To give an idea of what that means, an average car weighs 4000 lbs. That’s almost one-fourth of a car. A most impressive feat for me however (as a dad) was this Japanese-Hawaiian kid who’s around 14 or 15 who just lifted a few pounds less than my son but weighs about 10 lbs less. My son made a keen observation in the warmup room. All the lifter kids have fathers who are lifters. This little kid who did the super heavy weight isn’t big, but he has great techniques. He was accompanied by his entire family who are all lifters and all the friends from those lifters’ gym. They were all Hawaiians and they all looked related. I saw them giving advice and support in the warmup room and preparing like real professionals. Isn’t that what it takes to be a great athlete? My son joked that this kid probably won the genetic lottery, but in all honesty, genetics without knowledge still lack substance. What I passed on to my son also came from my experience and from all the great lifters I lifted with in my younger days. They all contributed to his success. It takes more than talent. It takes the willingness to coach and pass knowledge. I think that’s how life works.

The serial suicides in Hong Kong really have me worried about the young people. One of them could’ve been my son if he were stuck in that educational environment, as he’s talented in unconventional ways that a rigid traditional education wouldn’t appreciate. Certainly, we can’t deny that the educational bureau has to shoulder a large part of the blame for the environment it fostered. Kids aren’t meant to be in the pressure cooker. I think this is also a alarm bell for parents. It’s hard to be a parent in this situation. Many parents are busy working (partly due to necessity), while sending many of their children to maids and tutoring classes. I believe academic failure is only part of the picture. Children need coaching and emotional support. They need their parents to pass on what they know to them. This is something tutors can’t do for them. The kids could acquire some skills, but skills are best learned from someone who loves and cares about you. I think there’s no easy solution, but it’s a sobering time for many of us parents.

When we look at the problem of failure, failure isn’t always a problem because there’re plenty who have failed but climbed back up. One of the contributing factors to stand back up is the emotional and spiritual support for the person. Emotional and spiritual support can only come from someone who cares. Sometimes it can come from a faith community. Certainly, it would help a great deal when there’s plenty of parental care and guidance. I see a lot of very capable parents who are successful and intelligent, but don’t really contribute to passing on those skills to their children. I believe success isn’t about the individual. It’s a corporate effort. I realize that there’re many exceptional cases when everything seems right but the children still choose that tragic path, but we can certainly try to do our best corporate effort to mentor our children and our young people, whether in church or family.

When we look at Timothy’s heritage, he had a grandma and a mother who were both first-generation believers. They cultivated Timothy whose life was also enriched by the continuous mentoring of Paul. Timothy faced plenty of difficulties. He was able to persevere. We need more people to walk with young people more than ever in our very challenging time.

The Blind Worship of E-Books: Are E-Books Really Better?

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A recent Facebook post written by Dr. John Chan, a junior colleague, got me thinking about how technology impacts our learning and even our church life. The post basically says that the decrying of electronic books is an antiquated way of thinking, and that it represents other antiquated ways of thinking. I wish to challenge all parts of his general statements. I will only speak on what I know from teaching preachers how to communicate on the pulpit and on New Testament studies. I’ll leave the rest of the argument with others with greater expertise in other areas of communications. Anyone wanting my further opinion on communications in modern media age can consult my second Chinese monograph on preaching, published by Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, a textbook I use for my preaching classes.

The argument about media isn’t that new, believe it or not. If anyone thinks that it’s really about being progressive versus antiquated, he needs to read Plato dating some 2500 years before our conversation. Yes, 2500 years ago! Plato knew stuff. In Phaedrus, he talked about the changing media and how writing could impact the reception of originally oral presentations. I’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I won’t rehash it here. I just wish to deal directly with Chan’s post.

The post written by Chan says that people want to read printed books instead of reading e-books is due to habit, and he feel bothered by such a traditional way of thinking. Sure, IF habit is only the reason they decry e-books, then I’d be bothered too. I’ve never been accused of being a traditionalist in my entire academic career. If anything, people often accuse me of being too progressive. The issue is very much more complicated than traditional versus progressive. He writes that if someone loves to read, he would read using any medium, including using e-books or the computer screen. I can’t disagree, but is that the only argument in favor of e-books, the love for reading? I don’t think so. This is where his baseless opinion begins to fall apart. What he fails to realize is that the medium of each person who loves to read impacts the way the text is received.

Here’re some complicated issues to ponder. A few decades ago, Marshall McLuhan proclaims, “The medium is the message.” McLuhan may be more than half right. If the message is only information like Chan suggests, yes, it’s very simple to read the data the way one reads a dictionary, but it isn’t that simple. Reading for data is the lowest level of reading that is mostly primary (or elementary) school stuff. Reading is mostly not for data. Reading is for interpretation, and when you interpret, you need context. . Text isn’t just data, as McLuhan notes. Instead, the interpreter receives text, and here’s where Chan’s worldview runs into trouble.

All over Asia, Australia, and many parts of N. America, I’ve tested the effects of reading e-books in my explanation of the importance of a printed Bible for our primary reading tool in listening to sermons and in personal reading. I think I’ve conducted a wide enough samples of experiment with both the Chinese-speaking and English-speaking communities to say with a very large degree of certainty that e-books have serious drawbacks in certain kind of reading. When it comes to listening to sermons and Bible reading, e-book Bible is the main culprit in many exegetical fallacies, especially when the interpreter rips the text out of its context.

In my experiment, I usually ask how many have a cell phone with the Bible in it. Then, I ask how many have a Kindle Bible. Usually a large number of people have their e-book Bibles. Then, I get out my printed Bible and call out the passage I wish to discuss. Thereafter, I ask those with cell phones how many verses they can access. Most can only access 3-4 verses. At best, some can get 10 verses. The Kindle can get a few more. In my Bible, I can get about 80 verses on two opened pages. Who can read the context more? I can!

Some may say that most people have excellent memory and can recall the context. In every single instance I conducted this experiment, I’ve yet to have one single person recall the context before the verses clearly for me without flipping back to it. Believe me, people have very bad short-term memory.

Some may say that they can flip back in their e-book Bible to see the context. The only problem is when these people flip back in their electronic Bibles, they can’t see what was originally on their screen. They’re limited by their 3, 10 or at most 15 verses right in front of them. What if I’m preaching nonsense and say that the Bible says thus and thus, but no one can check me? You’d better be able to see your 80 verses in front of your opened printed Bible and not rely on your 3-4 verses in your cell phone. Otherwise, we’re pretty much up the creek without an oar then, aren’t we? Many who favor electronic hegemony in fact are up the creek without an oar. That’s because the medium DOES MATTER. The medium impacts reception/interpretation. Anyone who says otherwise is probably equally incapable of reading well in context.

Certain books need context more than others. This is my experience. For example, if I’m reading Barth’s Dogmatics in print, I can better appreciate the context on which he made a certain claim. If I’m reading a monograph (e.g., in biblical studies) in humanities that depends largely on subtle argumentation, context is everything. In my teaching experience, I can almost always tell which students are used to reading out of context. These are the same students who quote what a commentator says about another commentator but attribute the opinion to the wrong commentator. These are the same students who use e-books and even e-commentaries. I have graded papers to prove that. So, the e-book argument isn’t all that simplistic at all. Since most of my Chinese work is in the monograph variety, I would resist any overture to turn them into e-books. Even if I lose some sales, it’s better than being misread and misquoted. I almost regret allowing certain Chinese publishers to do my stuff in electronic format. In fact, it didn’t only fail to increase sales. It killed sales and the entire series. While I plan on republishing and updating the series, I won’t ever allow it to be in electronic form again.Critical reading needs a printed medium.

Other books may be more conducive to electronic reading, as I said earlier. I have dictionaries in my computer I read for data. At the same time, I would assert that this kind of reading is the lowest form of reading that most people with advanced education beyond secondary education (high school) should get away from. E-books may have their place, but their place isn’t as big as the technology worshippers claim. IF e-books take the primary place, I foresee more non-contextual reading that import one’s theological agenda (aka “theological reading”) into the text rather than letting the text speak. At that point, if the said text is the Bible, that leads us back to raping the text for our cannon fodder.

The problem doesn’t only deal with printed books. It has to do with a lack of understanding of how communication works. It also has to do with a blind worship of certain popular technological trends without considering many surrounding factors. The lack of understanding and blind worship of trends can extend to other areas in life where we mistake regress for progress.

By the way, I do use a Kindle to read novels when I fly on long-hauls and I have excellent memory, but e-book isn’t the last word on book matter.

 

Fun and Games are Overrated: Winners and Losers!

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My kid Ian’s wrestling season is finally over. He came in 4th in county this year which is a dramatic improvement from last year, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled with this finish. In fact, on match day, you would’ve thought that his puppy had died after he lost his 3rd place match. Last year was hard wrestling as an inexperienced freshman on varsity. During the off season, he went to a conditioning camp run by the legendary J. Robinson (aka J. Rob) that had trained 99 state champs from just last year and hundreds of state finalists. Mr. Robinson was an NCAA champion wrestler, a former Army Ranger (the Army special forces that are supposed to be tougher than the Navy Seals), assistant coach to the legendary Dan Gable at Iowa and now Minnesota University’s head coach. He has coached the phenomenal Brock Lesnar who played in the NFL, won the NCAA wrestling championship, won the UFC heavyweight title and now wrestles for WWE. J. Rob’s also a fine Christian man.

The entire conditioning camp was modelled after Ranger school. Kids would call home to quit this camp. The work included not only all day wrestling, but early morning long runs before breakfast just like the military, various feats of fitness and strength, a half marathon and a Navy Seals challenge run by REAL Navy Seals. The routine lasted till almost midnight and the next day, up at 5am, the kids started all over again, just like bootcamp. Ian was determined to do better than last year. So, he put himself through the J. Rob camp. Besides that, Ian had started following my 5-day-a-week powerlifting program to up his strength. To ensure that he would also get good enough cardio, he even sprinted for 20 minutes after dinner everyday, rain or shine. That’s how he made it to be the 4th best wrestler in our 2000 square mile area. In fact, if he managed his championship tournament well, he could’ve gotten 2nd or 3rd place. There’s always next year, but aspiring champions don’t think like that. They aren’t satisfied with loser medals. The day after the season ended, he’s back in the gym.

There’s nearly no sport in high school that’s more demanding than wrestling, not football, not basketball, not track (I’ve done track and football and my relay team was the 3rd best in the region in the 4×100), not even soccer (I’ve played that in high school too). It’s an individual sport that pits one man against another in the most primitive form of combat, and there’s no teammate to blame for losses. Since everyone you compete against is already the tough guy in his school, top placement has to come by clear wins. Top placements don’t come easily. To be better than most of the other guys (who are already toughest guys in their schools) in the toughest sport in high school demands complete commitment. My kid wasn’t satisfy with just being the best wrestler in his school so that he could represent the school; that goal is for losers. He sought to win county right from the beginning of the season. Getting a 4th place finish was no comfort to him. He was hoping to get further, but perhaps he can go to state that next year, but that process starts now. Being satisfy with mediocre accomplishments is for losers, not for winners.

Cary Kolat, a legendary wrestler of international status, told a good story about when he was a boy. My kid told me that he thought that I was old-school hardcore until he heard this story. Although Kolat’s father wasn’t a martial artist like I am, he trained Cary throughout the summer. In one instance, his dad was trying to help him get out of the bottom position by teaching him the Grandby roll. It’s a simple but effective technique based off the front roll. In those days, there’s no youtube to give instruction. His dad found some illustrations to teach the steps to the Grandby roll. In one summer day, they did this for 7 hours. 7 hour! His father would sit there and watch and look at his sheets of paper illustration to see if the young Cary’s roll matched the drawing. If not, he would force him to correct himself until he got it right. Needless to say, 7 hours could be an overkill, but go ahead and ask Cary Kolat now and see if he knows the Grandby roll. He can probably do it blind or in his sleep. I recall an interview with the gifted former UFC champion George St. Pierre. He stated that in order to be a champion, he had to be willing to endure the boredom of training. I’ve competed in powerlifting and had set a state record. I’ve also earned black and brown belts in various martial arts. I can testify to the utter boredom of training. Some days, you just don’t want to be in the gym, but you get in there, and you get it done. The life of a champion starts with having a heart of a champion. I’ve heard one coach say that you can teach technique but you can’t teach desire.

In our day and age, the above stories and ideas aren’t popular. Having a heart of a champion is farthest from most Christians’ minds. The above stories could be inspiring, but they’re “too hard” or “too boring.” Think about how many of us have read a difficult and challenging book recently. How many of us read and serve others regularly? These and many other disciplines don’t usually make it to our top to-do list. We live in an age where people look for the entertaining, esoteric, strange and fun stuff. We look for funny memes. We love short sound bites that give us simple, useful, immediate and witty solutions whether from blogs, from memes, from Facebook pages, from self-help TV programs or some quick-fix book. Everyone gets a participation medal. No one gets left behind. Everyone’s a winner. The biblical fact is, not everyone is a winner. Some are plain losers! If we continue in our modern-day trend of fun and games, we’re producing an entire generation or three of losers.

Here’s what St. Paul had to say, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” (1 Corinthians 9.24) He continued to talk about the boredom and hardship of training, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” The way to get disqualified in the ancient games include not training and not being ready as well as breaking the rules. There’s no way around hardship. Hardship is part of the Christian mission for Paul. It’s about doing all one can do and then see if one can do more in order to achieve one’s life mission. There’re many things that distracts us, but most of us, our attitudes and character often fail us. Who enjoys discipline? Not many. Those who do will be the elite of their professions, and the Christian life is no exception.

J. Rob was addressing the congressional military sub committee one time, and he was talking about recruitment of the Navy Seals. The Seals pride themselves on a dropout rate of the program that’s around 75%. J. Rob had a different opinion. He said that perhaps a program that had this many dropouts showed that the recruits were the problems. He said that if they recruited among kids with high-level of wrestling experiences, the dropout rate would only be 20% because barring life-threatening and crippling injuries, the wrestler isn’t going to give up before the whistle. He’ll keep coming! I wonder how many Christians are wrestlers and how many are the other kinds. Paul’s athletic metaphors illustrates that there’re winners and there’re losers in the faith. Those who are winners will always discipline themselves not to be the dropout. The losers take the easy and fun way because training is never fun, but training is what brings out the champion in all of us. A true champion doesn’t care if training is boring or tough because without hardship, there’s no winning. Without desire, there’s no champion.

Huffington Post Review and Response to My Book

Professor Greg Carey, a Jesus scholar, reviews and responds to my book Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives.

 

“Jesus’ parables — vivid short stories and comparisons like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Laborers in the Vineyard — make up the most distinctive element of his teaching. Lots of Jesus’ contemporaries used parables, but nearly all interpreters agree that Jesus’ stories stand out for what one commentator called their capacity “to tease [the mind] into active thought.” Almost all of them open themselves to multiple interpretations, leaving interpreters to scratch their heads and argue with one another for centuries.

Perhaps our first challenge involves asking the most productive questions. A new book by Sam Tsang sets itself apart by asking each parable: “What if things went otherwise?” Most parables present readers with a “hook,” a moment when the story jumps off the tracks of predictable and ordinary behavior…” Read more here.

Trumping Two Corinthians: Right Text, Wrong Outrage

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The Donald made the news again. Surprise! This time he made news in Liberty University. The report happily states that a Liberty University student corrected Trump when he claimed, “We’re going to protect Christianity. I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame … is that the one you like?”  There’re plenty in blog sphere and in the audience who so gladly and smugly note that it’s “SECOND” Corinthians not “TWO” Corinthians. After all, there’re more than TWO Corinthians. They were may Corinthians in Corinth.

 

The pitiful thing about this episode is not so much about what Trump said because we’ve come to expect outrage. I’m not even shocked to learn that another conservative Christian college has chosen to align itself to the most extreme right of the political spectrum. I’ve come to expect it. I’m even less shocked that he was giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when many respectable educational institutions take the day off while Liberty conducts classes. Liberty, after all, has never been about “political correctness” anyway. What I find most pitiful is that a college that’s supposed to teach about the Bible has students who only focus on the “Two versus Second” instead of Trump’s clear misquotation of 2 Corinthians 3.17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom.” (NET)

 

The verse has nothing to do with freedom. Paul was talking about the glory of the new ministry in Christ in light of the ministry by Moses. He was involved in this ministry and the freedom he was talking about was regarding the freedom from Torah-observation among gentile converts to his gospel (3.3, 6, 7, 9). It is possibly Paul’s reformulation of Exodus 34.34 with a similar formula of “Now the Lord … ” Unless Trump was arguing about how gentiles fit into God’s greater plan for Israel or how Paul used certain phrases of the Hebrew Bible to express  his ideas, he shouldn’t be quoting anything from that section of the Bible. While we can’t expect any of Trump’s quotes to be accurate, I’m shocked that no one at Liberty caught this and made it an issue. I suppose if Trump’s agenda fit the political leaning of the college, all’s forgiven. What would be worse however is if people who were taught in that college, a bible-teaching college, can’t even understand that Trump was misquoting scripture. That degree of ignorance is what allowed politicians from both sides to snow well-intentioned believers in the church.

 

 

Right text, wrong meaning, anyone? As a result, we reap the consequence of mistaking the petty for the main issue by majoring in the minor. If we don’t go for political correctness, can we at least go for scriptural correctness? Then again, if we have arrived at scriptural correctness, we may have to change our ways of thinking and our behavior. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?

 

By the way, in England, where I studied for my PhD in the New Testament, they call it “Two Corinthians”. Just saying …

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 9: Luke 6.43-49 Modern Implications

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I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 15-16 talks about the implications for the modern readers in terms of what Jesus taught in Luke 6.43-49.

 

The present teaching by Jesus implicates the modern faith community. Recent news tells us that one former Christian band member quit Christianity altogether and declared himself an atheist. While we can’t judge his faith journey, his reason for quitting was due to the fact that the organized Christian religion has such stringent rules that mask struggles. He has a point here. Jesus prefaced the present teaching with a discussion about accurate judgment that makes allowance for the judge to be wrong. The wrong judgment that hasn’t been born of correct vision will inevitably lead to a community built on ground without foundation. When hard times come, such a community will crumble. Indeed, many segments of organized Christianity have fallen on hard times. Even though many churches are getting bigger, the number of Christians hasn’t really increased in many parts of the West. Many Christians think that the problem is secularization. Perhaps they’re half right, but quite often, the church needs to look at what Jesus said. Poor judgment would destroy the community. If the church has been living in ignorance and apathy during easy times, then when hard times come, she will crumble. Jesus’ teaching speaks to today’s church because the church has suffered bad PR for quite a while by selective morality without a broader and more comprehensive obedience.

One of the mistakes preachers and Bible study leaders make is to see the set of teachings as merely about listening and doing. When it’s all about doing what Jesus said, the preacher dooms Jesus to the role of a moralistic sage and nothing more. Another mistake some preachers make is to harmonize the present set of sayings with Matthew 7:15–27. While it is possible to see crossover meanings from the two passages, Luke’s teaching differs in emphasis. Matthew was talking in general term in the concluding lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s story is more specifically about the urgent oppression in the troublesome near future. In some ways, Jesus’ words point to a future when hard times would come. When hard times come, the church could crumble, not because of the hard times but because she had not created a culture or lifestyle of understanding and obedience to Christ. Thus, instead of blaming the hard times the church can’t control, the blame should be placed on the church culture. The greatest enemy is internal. If a preacher wants to tackle this text, one good way is to put the storm at the end in the same way Jesus did it so that the emphasis is not so much the what, but the why of obedience.

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 8: Luke 6.43-49 Applications

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This is a great week for me because my book receives a great review from Huffington Post by Jesus scholar Prof. Greg Carey who makes a methodological comparison between my work and that of another Jesus scholar, Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is someone whom I admire very much. I jokingly said that whenever I write about Jesus, the voice in my head is Levine’s. Yet, my book is deliberately different from Levine’s not because I don’t like what she does. I do. I just don’t think I can do what she does better.

 

I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 14-15 shows how setting the text in history of Luke’s reader would give proper applications.

 

The teaching of Jesus prepared the disciples not merely for lives of integrity. He was doing much more. He was teaching the disciples to deal with oppression. Jesus also taught about creating a community that should be circumspective and, more importantly, introspective in its judgment. The care members ought to take comes in the area of attitudes, words, and deeds.

For Theophilus, he was the default patron of the community. His literacy, privilege, and natural leadership would have allowed him to shape the attitude, words, and deeds of the community. As the head of this community, Theophilus would have recognized that the ultimate “lord” was Jesus Christ. In our free societies where individual rights are respected, we most likely don’t understand the word “lord” the same way as both the ancient author and reader. In Theophilus’s time, with the changing of Roman dynasties, the political flux demanded that he would choose the right master to ensure his own prosperity and political success. To call someone “lord” was to submit one’s life in its entirety. Yet, Luke used a lordship story to inform Theophilus about who the ultimate lord was, so that every decision he made in these uncertain times would reflect that relationship.

In terms of words, we ought to understand the way ancients viewed words. Jesus talked about the listening and practicing of his words. Leaders of his community would pass Jesus’ words down from generation to generation. Not only would they pass them down; they also had to put into practice these words. Just like when Jesus talked about leadership and teaching just prior in Luke 6:39–40, so Luke’s parable taught Theophilus about leadership and teaching. One special feature of the early Christ community was its continuation of the teaching tradition from the synagogue. Theophilus would eventually transmit Luke’s writing along with other traditions he received about Jesus. In those days, not everyone could use words to influence. Only the privileged and educated could do that because rhetorical training was only available to the most educated. Theophilus was among the privileged. When talking about words, we aren’t just talking about a literal faithfulness in passing down words of Jesus. We’re talking about using one’s privileged position to do the work of the kingdom. Jesus’ demand was precise. Words only meant something when they were modeled for recipients of the Christ community. Privilege was the means by which a person served that community. For someone like Theophilus, to call Jesus “lord” would by itself completely turn his world upside down, but for Luke, this was only the beginning. The words and deeds had to match for Theophilus to be a true disciple.

The context surrounding the discourse is oppression or persecution. The moral of Jesus’ teaching is quite simple. He wasn’t merely talking about listening and doing. He was talking about developing a strong community life in the habit of listening and doing, so much so that when persecution would come, nothing would shake and fall down.

Right Parables, Wrong Stories Intro 5: Luke 6.43-49 (I)

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I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 9-10 regarding Luke 6.43-49 regarding fruit bearing, listening and doing … I start this installment by talking about how this parable could’ve been told differently. In the next installment, I’ll explain why Jesus told the parable in the manner in which he did.

 

Telling It Different: Luke 6:43–49

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. The good person out of the good treasury of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasury produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart. Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice—I will show you what he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.

The early followers of Jesus were students. Their religious institutions were an outgrowth of the synagogues, where listening and doing were an important part of their lives. Although illiteracy rate was high in those days (higher among Gentiles), believers would learn by hearing and reciting the teachings read by their literate leaders. After learning for a while, they would internalize the knowledge to apply in real life. Failure to practice would indicate ignorance.

This story Jesus told (as I have arranged it above) is talking about listening and doing. It claims that there are two different kinds of builders. The two-way teaching of Jesus is fairly common. Jesus often talked about making choices that were favorable or unfavorable in relation to kingdom values. Even with this modified version of the story, the moral of the story is very clear. Those who listen should also apply, but what exactly was Jesus saying here by telling his story the way he did? (to be continued)

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