Archives For The Bible

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Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


Postscript:

During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

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In this increasingly relativistic cauldron we call “the world,” chaos is fueled by the concept that everyone is entitled to determine their own reality.

It all depends on one’s perspective.

“Perception is reality,” is a common sentiment. More clearly said, “an individual’s perception is their personal reality.” In other words, the way that a person thinks things are, is reality as far as they are concerned.

Changing a person’s perception of reality is no easy thing. Nor should it be (in most cases).

People base their thinking on a variety of approaches. Those who are more analytical are terribly frustrated by others who base their views of reality on their emotions, or what they “want” to be true.

Nowhere do I find this more striking then when people who have nary a religious thought in their daily lives gather together for a funeral. At least 66% of what one hears, for example “he’s looking down on us now,” is based on nothing other than wishful thinking or irrational notions.

C.S. Lewis described how reason is the crucial mechanism for understanding. In his book Miracles, he makes the following argument.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good.

But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Mental Illness and Perception

One particularly fascinating aspect of the perception and reality question comes in the case of some mentally ill individuals. Schizophrenia, for instance, frequently involves delusions or hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality (in the mind of the sufferer).

A well person may find it implausible to accept that a person could genuinely believe impossible things were true. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the deluded, it may make all the sense in the world that they are the only person alive who recognizes how things truly are.

Decades ago I spent several months in a psychiatric ward. (Not as a patient, as a clinical pastoral education student.) I had many conversations with a delightful resident who had been institutionalized because he was utterly convinced that he was one of Jesus’ apostles.

Thanks to the proper medications, he knew that to be illusory, and he was optimistic that he would soon be released to begin his studies to become a mental health worker. One reason for his confidence that he was truly getting better was because his previous hospitalization came when he became certain that he was one of the Old Testament patriarchs.

From his point of view, the increasing chronological proximity between his delusions and reality indicated he was almost well.

Some of these people do become healthy enough to recognize that their perception of reality is askew. These are the few who continue to take their meds so they can function as the majority of us perceive to be “normal.”

Many psychotic individuals, of course, only take their prescriptions under duress and when they are not monitored, cease to take them because they either (1) already feel better, so they obviously don’t need them, or (2) prefer chaos to the side effects such as lethargy.

Truth is Not Based on Perspective

Truth, in the ultimate or alethiological sense, is not relative. It doesn’t shift due to the distortions of individual perception. It remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Now, since what we human beings regard as truth does shift (e.g. shape of the Earth), ultimate truth must come from a source other than mortal minds, transient philosophies or momentary scientific theories.

Christians believe they have found that source in God’s self-revelation, the Judeo Christian Scriptures. In fact, Christians believe that their Savior, Jesus the Messiah, was the embodiment of truth. We believe he was speaking the eternal truth when he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

C.S. Lewis was quite candid about the truthfulness of the scriptural testimony being the necessary cornerstone for faith. In dialogue with atheists and agnostics, he wisely points out that the conversation must address this essential question.

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. . . .

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. (“Christian Apologetics”)

In a world that wants to relegate Jesus to the status of some great teacher or prophet, it is vital to say that if he was lying when he said “the Father and I are one,” Christianity should be dismissed altogether.

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For those who enjoy challenges:

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True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

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* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

The Bible’s Complexity

September 1, 2015 — 8 Comments

locustsWhy is it people say the Bible has many writers, but only one Author? The answer to that question is simpler than it seems.

Many different people, over a span of centuries, wrote the various books we find in the Scriptures. At the same time, each of these diverse individuals was inspired by the same Person—the Holy Spirit. Thus it is said by orthodox Christians that the Scriptures are the “Word of God.”*

The word “scripture” itself simply means a written work, although it is almost always applied to books regarded as sacred.

For Christians, Scripture/s can be singular or plural since the Bible possesses both aspects, being inspired by a single Author, yet compiled by numerous individual scribes.

The current issue of World magazine offers a satisfying interview** with David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Skeel was raised with minimal exposure to Christianity, and while majoring in English, he found his ignorance of biblical allusions to be a serious handicap.

To rectify that problem, he decided to read the Bible over the summer after his sophomore year. Riding on a cross country trip with some classmates, he says “by the time I’d gotten a few chapters into Genesis I was persuaded it was true. I had never read anything so beautiful, so psychologically real.”

I was especially intrigued by the following insight offered by Skeel.

Christianity impressed you because it’s complicated?

Absolutely. The psychological complexity of Christianity was really powerful for me, as was the complexity of the language of the Bible. Truth can’t be conveyed in a single genre, so the Bible’s mix of genres, language and images is part of the evidence of its veracity.***

I don’t recall ever thinking of it that way, but he is right. God’s revelation of his mercy and grace is far too vast to be “conveyed in a single genre.”

Back to Oxford

Skeel doesn’t mention C.S. Lewis in his interview, and I have no idea whether Lewis’ work has influenced his life.

Despite that, his response to the question above reinforced for me one of the reasons Lewis has proven to be such a powerful blessing in my own pilgrimage.

Lewis intuitively recognized that same truth. God’s message is too boundless to be restrained to a single means of proclaiming it. And because of that, he used every genre at his command to celebrate it.

Essays, debates, poetry, fantasies and history were all fair game.

Which brings me to a corollary to Skeel’s observation. Not only is Truth too immeasurable to be limited to a single genre . . . by God’s design, humanity’s diversity is too abundant to allow for a single manner of communication to speak with the same power.

Some are moved by God’s poetry in a singing brook. Others by his majesty in the face of a snow-capped summit.

Some are drawn to his embrace through stories of human struggle and redemption. Others by logical arguments that appeal to their confidence in reason.

This is precisely why different individuals favor different books in the Scriptures, just as they prefer various writings over others within the Lewis “canon.”

Fortunately, Skeel’s literary interest in the Bible led him to pick it up without any life-changing expectations. That makes him one of the rare exceptions to Lewis’ observation with which we will close.

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely.

Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose. It may be so.

There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them.

Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull [an incongruous statement], that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible. (“The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version”).

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* Although the Bible is commonly referred to as the “Word of God,” it is more properly referred to as the written Word of God. The actual Word is none other than Jesus Christ himself, through whom all things were spoken into existence. This is clear when you compare the following passages from the Scriptures. If you have any questions about this, feel free to write to me here at Mere Inkling.

Creation as described in the book of Genesis, chapter 1.

Echo of creation in the Gospel according to John, chapter 1.

** You can read the interview here.

*** In his response, Skeel wisely answers the actual question by substituting the word “complex” for “complicated.” The latter implies unnecessary complexity and a problem. The former, complexity, simply states the facts. It is impossible to adequately describe an infinite God with finite words.

The illustration on this page is from the Walters Art Museum and portrays the plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians.

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 13 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

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You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

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The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.