Wednesday, March 3, 2010

179: Start Reading in the Middle, and Work Your Way Out

Psalm 78-79
How long, O LORD ? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? - Psalm 79:5

Both the Psalms today are written by Asaph.

Psalm 78: At a whopping 3 pages, this Psalm looks to be the longest so far. Unfortunately, it's another biblical recap. At least it isn't an entire book this time. It is just Asaph retelling the story of Moses, and talking about how naughty the Israelites were for rebelling.

Psalm 79: Asaph prays that God will return and destroy Israel's enemies. Asaph complains that God has left them to die and refuses to avenge them.

Am I better than Christians that don't read their bibles every day? I don't know. I'm just asking questions.

A concerned Christian wrote a letter to Billy Graham that I thought was interesting:
DEAR REV. GRAHAM: One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to read some of the Bible every day. But like most of my resolutions, I've failed to keep it. I found some of it interesting, but I didn't really understand most of it, so I stopped. Was I doing something wrong?
I generally think that the "I don't understand what's going on" problem stems from reading the KJV. In reading the NIV, I've had no problems understanding. Hating what I was reading? Being bored out of my mind? Yes. But I understood what was going on.

Billy brings up some interesting points in his response that I've been wanting to address. First of all, he brings up one of my original motivations for reading the bible, "nothing will help you become the person God wants you to be more than the Bible." I know, I haven't gotten to the "good part" yet, but I think this experience has so far made me like religion less instead of making me "the person God wants me to be".

Here's what I really want to talk about:
You aren't alone in finding the Bible difficult; many people have the same problem. But it doesn't need to be like this if you approach it in the right way. For example, many people do what you did: They start at the beginning and try reading the Bible straight through. After all (they say), isn't that the way you read any other book?

Yes, perhaps so — but when we come to the Bible, it's better to begin at the center — that is, with Jesus Christ. All Scripture points to Him, and He is the center of God's plans for this world. Begin, therefore, with one of the Gospels in the New Testament (I often suggest John), for they tell us about Jesus — His life, death and resurrection for us.

[tl;dr Start in the middle so you don't read the nasty/boring stuff.]
This isn't just Billy Graham's idea, I hear this from many Christians that I talk to. "You've started in the wrong place". The biggest problem with this assertion is that it directly undermines the hypothesis that the bible is the "all perfect" word of God. The book is perfect, but oh by the way, if you start in the wrong spot (aka the beginning) you're going to absolutely hate it.

Another point, this comes off to me as intellectually dishonest. The concerned Christian knows that the beginning of the bible contains terrible atrocities committed by God, but the middle is all flowers and sunshine. So why not start there? Because once you know Jesus loves you, you won't care that God indiscriminately kills people and sends bears to eat children (supposedly you won't care, I mean). Or even better, maybe that rabid atheist you're trying to make read the bible will only read the middle to the end, and just not bother reading that nasty bit at the beginning.

Billy's closing advice is this:
Read a small portion every day — perhaps only a few paragraphs at first. Ask God to help you understand what you're about to read, and then read it carefully and thoughtfully. What does it tell us about God, or Jesus, or God's will for our lives? Then ask yourself what God is teaching you through it, and what difference it should make in your life.
Good questions, what does sending bears to eat children tell us about God? What does it tell us about God's will for our lives when he swiftly dispatches two cities filled with people? What lesson is God teaching us when he punishes certain people differently than others (all people should be killed for adultery, except David!)? Ok, maybe those questions aren't so good after all.

(via The Wichita Eagle)


  1. Please compare:

    An alien comes down to Earth and asks you, "What's all this I hear about the Star Wars Saga, anyway?"

    Now, do you take your new alien friend, sit him down in your living room and load up The Phantom Menace?
    Please don't. Please, please don't.

    You start with A New Hope, the original 1977 cut if possible. You could argue the 'new' special effects, but since this is an alien he's only going to laugh at either version, so just give him the original.

    A friend of mine has argued that the better starting place is in fact the Battle for Hoth. I don't agree, but I see his point -- nothing else explains the desperate and reckless situation of the rebels better. And really, it is only The Empire Strikes Back that truly justifies the sloppy ad hoc "Trench Run Plan" in the earlier A New Hope.

    But all the same, within the first 10 minutes of A New Hope, you understand clearly the character of Vader, and that's the important thing. The Phantom Menace might be the beginning, but there are so many arguments as to why to steer clear.

    My introduction to the bible came through Arch Books, a kind of graphic novel set for kids, usually heavy on the parables told by Jesus but there were some OT bits as well. The audience was clearly in mind when they were published, and usually the moral was the true point and it was well high-lighted by the end of the 20-pages or so.

    Your comment of hating the reading and being bored speaks volumes, as it should. The American university student wasn't the intended audience (and I might even dare say the Christian that wrote Billy Graham wasn't either).

    The real place to start isn't the bible. But to get an adequate appreciation for myth, history and literature in terms of ancient cultures, well I guess you can probably understand what that would take....

  2. @godwillbegod:

    I disagree. I would start a hypothetical alien at The Phantom Menace, basically because it's the background to the later story. Just because broadcast order wasn't story order doesn't mean it's not better told in story order. There's a definite progression in both story and skill of story telling. Most people agree that Revenge of the Sith is a far better movie than The Phantom Menace, and most people agree that A New Hope is better than Revenge of the Sith.

    If that analogy holds to the Bible, Bryan has hope. The ability of later story tellers may be much better! Maybe...

    To take another example though: you can start at any Harry Potter book and get the general picture. It's much easier to follow if you start at The Philosopher's Stone, though, because everything is laid out in that book in much more detail than later books bother to go into. Similarly, Jesus refers to "the Old Laws" a bit. If you're only vaguely aware that the old laws are detailed in Leviticus, et al., but haven't read through them, this doesn't have the same impact.

    Back to the Star Wars analogy; in A New Hope, Darth Vader is eeeeeeeeevil, and obviously so. However, if you haven't seen The Phantom Menace, you don't know that he was supposed to bring balance to the Force (and has done exactly that by way of killing all barring two light-siders, leaving exactly two Force-sensitive people on either side of the Force).

  3. Aaaaaargh! :-)

    Please. Are you telling me Pulp Fiction would be a better movie if all the vignettes were unraveled and put in order? I declare a straw man challenge!

    Would you say it is better to start reading Tolkien with The Silmarillion (backstory)? (maybe a better straw man)

    I do agree with you, to a point, that there is a progression in story and skill of storytelling. (For this discussion, I will not raise all the Return of the Jedi issues). But progression of skill of storytelling is not the crux.

    It is key to see Vader first as eeeeeeeeevil and in relation to his genetic offspring (albeit unknown, but that's still important plotting). Vader is an absolutely dominating presence. In Vader Unleashed (Also known as The Empire Strikes Back) he is completely ruthless and all in all not a great military leader because of his fixation on Luke (and Leia). To wait 4 episodes to see that just so you can 'have backstory' crushes his presence to something merely obsessively human. Ok, maybe there's a bit more sympathy when you know he started as a kid or something. But, to see Vader the heartless machine-man first allows the viewer to be first overwhelmed.

    Also, in terms of storytelling, leading with a sympathetic tragedy is a way of creating empathy for your lead characters (or at least a character the audience might feel attachment to). Phantom Menace? A Trade Dispute being handled by Jedi, and Jar-Jar making every other scene excruciating. A New Hope -- The rebel ship gets commandeered, Leia in custody and Luke's Uncle and Aunt burnt alive, and everyone in a scramble to figure out what's going on and how to survive. Every little girl and boy become automatically emotionally attached to the two offspring.

    I'm going in search of more straw peoples...

  4. Erm.... the point I think is that neither Harry Potter, Star Wars or Tolkien claim to be perfect works! Hence one can read start watch from where on is in hope of understanding better as an individual..however if something is PERFECT! then it shouldn't matter where you start reading watching or anything should make a difference perfect is perfect straight through right!@?

  5. Bryan,

    As you have read BOOK 3 you have noticed that the laments about God have increased (i.e. your comments about Psalm 74, 76, 77, 79, etc). Remember these Psalms were collected and ordered post-exile. You are reading the real life theological struggles of the nation of Israel as they wrestled with God’s promise of a perpetual Davidic Kingdom ruled by a righteous king and yet the reality was 1) the obvious failure of the kingdom of Israel, 2) the ascendancy of the gentile nations around them to conquer them, and 3) the seemingly lack of faithfulness of God to His promise to David.

    Here is how I understand BOOK 3 plays out….

    Psalm 72 as the close of BOOK 2 paints a picture of the ideal king (a realization of the intent of the Davidic covenant)

    He judges with righteousness
    His reign is characterized by Peace
    He vindicates the afflicted
    His reign extends to the ends of the earth
    He has compassion on the poor
    His reign is characterized by abundance

    Thus, this king’s reign is a universal and eternal kingdom of peace and justice free from oppression and violence. While Solomon certainly had the most prosperous and geographically broad empire of Israel, his reign ended. It was neither universal nor eternal. And you, yourself have written about the sad history of Israel/Judah after Solomon and you lamented of having to read it : ) So here is a question…"Is Psalm 72 speaking in metaphorical or hyperbolic imagery of Solomon’s reign?" If so why did the compilers include it? Could it be that they still remained hopeful of a future Davidic Ideal King?

    In contrast, to the end of BOOK 2, BOOK 3 begins with Psalm 73 and laments the harsh realities of Israel’s experience in that wickedness is prospering not righteousness. These laments continue throughout BOOK 3 with the refrain “how long?” and “why?” These questions seemingly refer to “how long” before the Davidic promises are fulfilled and God’s anger subsides. “Fulfilled” in my terminology means the realization of the ideal of Psalm 72.

    Robert Cole observes about BOOK 3
    “Pleas and complaints are directed to God not only by the community, but often by the voice of a single righteous one in the beginning of Psalms 73, 75, 77, 78. In the last six psalms (84-89) his voice becomes much more prominent. He suffers along with the nation, while being distinguished from them by his righteous conduct. His suffering brings him into death’s domain, but is rescued in keeping with the covenant made with David. Furthermore, by the end of BOOK 3, he is promised a throne that is indistinguishable from that of Yahweh.” –Robert Cole, “The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73-89), pg. 231.

    So…what is this telling us?

    What theological foundation is the description of the ideal Davidic King Psalm 72 laying for us?

    What theological foundation is the lone righteous individual –suffering alongside the nation, coming toward death’s door but being rescued—laying for us?

  6. @Brent,
    Very well played, sir. If we were all in a band and you the guitar player, I'd want you to play lead.

    According to Nehemiah and maybe Chronicles we are told Asaph lived around the same time as David. During the 500 years or so of writing and compiling the book of Psalms, Asaph's sons and their lineage/legacy would have to deal with the exile and what it meant for God's people, right?

    God's covenant has up to this point been edited at least 4 times or so now, yes? The Psalmist editors would have to look to this massive collection of verse and have to look at how it can add to a cohesive arc to the larger narrative.

    In 72, the word 'bless' does come up quite a bit. In the Hebrew, that's kind of nice, in the sense of saying and doing nice things to someone. If Bryan had started with an NT gospel or something, the word would carry a kind of literary significance. But with respect to Anonymous and Jimbo, there is a hope that when Bryan gets to it, there might be a "Hey, that's kind of neat" moment later in the saga (bearing in mind all the other influences he will have to slog through).

    In 73, let's not make a virtue out of having to be rescued. Or thinking your own wishes will always turn out to be right. Persistence through doubt may be appropriate sometimes. For a long time during that 500 years the Judeans weren't getting their own way and they had a lot of whining to do about it. The ruled-over consistently wish to rule themselves, or at least have a say in the ruling. That's fair enough. But when it's time to go back to Jerusalem (and compile the Psalms) there had to be a certain, almost dangerous, feeling of vindication. "See, we have suffered enough." That's a dangerous kind of righteousness to carry around.

    But maybe that's to future lessons also, eh?

    I claim Tolkien's work to be perfect! And I claim Episode 4 and 5 of the Star Wars Saga to be perfect! Even in their imperfections! (But not Harry Potter!)

    But, I'm imperfect, and incomplete, and inconsistent, and easily influenced by personal opinion. Oh, and influenced by time too.

    Oh wait -- does claiming something to be perfect make it perfect? :-)

  7. @Godwillbegod,

    I would not use the term “edited” but “developed.” God has revealed his plan progressively in stages for a purpose. The first clear development of His covenant was the Abrahamic promises in Gen 12. These were later expanded/developed in the Mosaic and Davidic covenants. But, yes, the compiler of the Psalms (probably Ezra) certainly shaped them to rightfully contribute to God’s larger meta-narrative as God worked His plan of redemption through history. There is a cohesive arc running throughout the OT that lays all the necessary foundation for the NT.

    I’m not really sure what you mean by making a “virtue out of having to be rescued” in Psalm 73. The Psalm 73 individual only appears to be suffering disillusionment. However, by the time one gets to Psalm 88, the “loan voice” in Psalm 88 is basically at death’s door and wondering “will the dead praise God” (v. 88.10-12)? I believe Psalm 89 begins to answer that question. I will comment on this when Bryan gets there. And yes there was a certain amount of vindication going on post exile when it was time to be restored. However, much of the zeal was muted by the obvious lack of fulfillment of the glories of the promised restored kingdom. There was still something that God was yet producing/teaching/illustrating about a suffering servant who would be also the Davidic King who would bring the full measure of the promised glorious kingdom.

    BTW: you can be the band manager and run off to a tropical island with all the money : ) Thanks for the kind words.

  8. @Brent,

    edited, developed. po-tai-to, po-tah-to. Mea culpa.

    In terms of what Bryan has been through in the OT, there really hasn't been much discussion on the promise of heaven (everyone knows the ending already right? Everyone knows Vader is Luke's father at this point and there is redemption?) The OT, and the OT God, is not really that concerned with any kind of defined afterlife (notable exceptions of course -- angels appearing from somewhere, prophets being lifted up and fiery chariots...)

    Now in the Psalms, where it seems like there is just no way out of suffering and being abandoned, the insertion of the idea that somehow God will still bat last for the righteous comes along (baseball's a poor analogy, sorry. How about Vader will become human again?) It's as if they needed to find a way of rescuing 'God's people', and also in some ways rescuing God, so that God can keep his side of the promised bargain.

    The 'rescued thing' is a personal pet peeve of mine concerning Christianity (and Judaism I suppose) and little more than that. When the Jews needed a destroyer to explain bad events, God's destroyer side was 'revealed' to them. When they needed a warrior to explain their exodus, that side of their God was 'revealed' to them. When the Jews needed an international diplomat whispering in the ears of Emperors they could never overpower, well that side of God was 'revealed' to them too.

    When there was no other rescue available, their God 'reveals' another part of the oh-so subtle plan for them that even transcends death and taxes through the mysterious wonderment that is their god-of-many-hats.

    If I were to grant you 'your God' revealed his plan progressively in stages for a purpose, will you grant me those revelations or changes (or political/mythical spins) in the plan all fit nicely after the events occurred, and the compilers did a good job of piecing them together?

    [I learned years ago I'm a poor manager of people. I would take you up on the tropical island offer, but I'm afraid the world is too small and the justice system too persistent. How about I just play rhythm, or maybe counterpoint?]

    P.S. Psalm 89 - the mythical Rahab is mentioned again? I do so enjoy myth!

  9. @ Godwillbegod

    Regarding “heaven”… see my post to Bryan’s question #3 in entry #69, Nov 8-Nov 15. All of this is also related to the notion of “The Kingdom of Heaven/God” with which the OT is preoccupied.

    “Afterlife?” If God promised Abraham the land (Gen 13:15)…but Abraham died only with a small parcel of the land (i.e. a grave for his wife), then either God is a liar or there is something else going on. What is the essence of the story about Abraham and Isaac in Gen 22? What did Abraham believe that God could do with the promised seed, Isaac, whom Abraham was also instructed to kill? What had Abraham seen God do with a “dead” womb in his barren wife? What does this mean…”God is the God of the living not the dead?” If God is not a liar what must be the case with the promise to Abraham and Abraham himself?

    Granting me “developed” and me granting you a convenient “after the fact” editing will synthesize our understanding in a way in which I cannot concur. Sorry. Language has meaning and by “developed” I mean “developed” as a seed grows into a mature plant. All the “seed” theology necessary for all that is developed throughout the OT is present in the Pentateuch.

    Rahab “the boisterous one”….I do grant you that “mythical” terminology is used. However, the referents are clearly not mythical. In Psalm 87 “Rahab” is referring to Egypt. In Psalm 89, “Rahab” is referring to God’s dividing of the waters at creation (v. 9, 11 context around v 10). One could say that the Scriptures are demythologizing the then current cultural concepts. Gen 1 is indeed a polemic against a theogony and is given as a cosmology.

    BTW: Fulfill whatever position you wish in the band : )

  10. I'm a bass player, just sayin...
    And 'the boisterous ones' is a great band name

  11. Hey again gang,

    @Brent, like I said it's really just a personal peeve of mine and I'm willing to let it be just that. My god can lie, and there are certainly other things going on. I'm willing to to allow him/her/them/it every possibility, even changes in any pre-formatted plans when their image throws a wrench into the gears.

    "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." - Pablo

    I believe the OT eventually becomes preoccupied with the afterlife because all other covenants are exhausted. But, like I've tried to say before, I'm certainly not going to try to convince anyone of my views or defend them much. If I do, then I'm missing the bigger point.


    Gaga on bass, two guitars, Bryan is doing a good job of leading us in voice...

    "All we need is a drummer
    for people who need a beat, yeah!"
    (Oh sorry, Sly and the Family is already taken)

    The boisterous ones it is! I like it!



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