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Shut up and learn

I have 33 out of 60 credit hours toward my Master's of Theological Studies; more than half way there. There is still so much to learn, and with each class I take, I realize how little I know. I think we all could use a little dose of that feeling regularly.

I began my summer maintenance project, translating Philippians and parsing every verb. I never thought I'd find the parsing easier than the translation. Elementary Greek courses teach lots of vocabulary; so much that I'm sure our minds were not able to cram in another word by the end of March. But that is a drop in the bucket compared to what one needs to successfully read and understand the Greek New Testament. One of the translations I did last week sounded so awkward; as if English wasn't my mother tongue. There are syntactical issues I have yet to learn which will no doubt help in my faltering efforts. The purpose of this is not to provide a translation for the masses; we are, after all, only newbie Greek students. The aim is to keep us fresh in the language, and that has been the case for far. It will also introduce us to more vocabulary, which is good.

All of this Greek talk probably sounds dull and many may wonder why I would bother. We don't really need to know Greek when we have such great translations, do we? No, we don't have to, but aside from the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect Bible version, engaging with the original language increases my appreciation for the work that Bible translators do.

School is out, and there is more time to write and share my weak and wandering views. I thought I would be able to do that, but it appears that I am being encouraged to shut up and learn. After all, what do I know? And it couldn't come at a better time, because frankly, what I have seen online since I have had the time to pay more attention discourages me for many reasons. I'm at the point where I wonder how useful social media is to the Church when so many of its participants are boorish, arrogant, and self-serving. It is a distraction away from things we should probably be doing in our homes, neighbourhoods, churches, and workplaces. Perhaps I have more to learn on that issue, too, and in that case, I'd better shut up and learn.


Bring your hammer to the argument

I love it when things I have heard from a lecture pop up again in my reading. In March, at my school's Ministry Leadership Day, our president encouraged preachers and teachers to make their teaching an act of worship by ensuring that our content is the text, not what we bring to it. As I was reading Andy Naselli's How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, that sentiment was echoed:

The main question we should be asking when approaching a text is not "What can I say about this text" or even "What does this text mean for me?" but instead "What does this text say?" And the single best way I know of to answer that question -- especially for New Testament letters -- is to trace the argument.

That task of following the argument is something I have been working to do for the past few years. While I got my feet wet with Precept Ministries' Bible studies, its emphasis on marking individual words, while initially helpful, ultimately did not help me follow the argument of a text. Learning how to do phrasing (Bill Mounce teaches this on his website) was more helpful. In the chapter I am reading, Naselli goes into detail on this topic.

Naselli quotes a letter from C.S. Lewis to a friend shortly after his conversion:

I should rather like to attend your Greek class, for it is a perpetual puzzle to me how New Testament Greek got the reputation of being easy. St. Luke I find particularly difficult. As regards matter -- leaving the question of language -- you will be glad to hear that I am at last beginning to get some small understanding of St. Paul: hitherto an author quite opaque to me. I am speaking now, of course, of the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden.

As an aside, don't you love the way he describes Paul as being "opaque" to him? 

I have found my heart also singing "unbidden" when I have been wrestling with a difficult passage. The malaise of most readers today is that we rush through things. Sometimes, in our efforts to get through a book quickly (so we can contribute to that big number of what we've read by the end of the year) we may miss things. That has carried over to our Bible reading. At least it has for me, and I'm not unique in any way. But to wrestle through an argument in Scripture means we have to slow down. 


A note to Christian publishers: what if I don't like flowers?

I'm reading Andy Naselli's book How to Study and Apply the New Testament. There are no flowers on the cover. That means one thing: it was not directed specifically to women. I have read a few books on Bible study written by women, and none of them go into the depth this one does. In the introduction to the book, Naselli says his book is for thoughtful men and women.

When I see a book by a woman, and the cover is decorated with soft colours and flowers, I know it is directed to women. And there is a good chance it is softened somehow for women. I read a book about Bible study a couple of years ago written by a woman, and it was full of "womany" type illustrations. I don't like such illustrations, and when the book opened up with one, I knew what to expect.

Friends with the author?

I have a friend who confessed to me that she was less likely to read a book by a Puritan author than she was one written by a populalr female author, because she liked to feel that she could possibly be friends with that contemporary author. There is no hope for being friends with John Owen other than figuratively. However, because some Christian authors generate the whole "fan girl" phenonenon, there is a possibility, even if all it is through is Twitter, to feel like we're friends. We may even get a few minutes to speak with her at a conference, and take a selfie. Voilá! My friend!

Is this what drives a lot of women in choosing the books they read? And are publishing companies promoting that feeling? Are publishers going to market a woman writer because she is the type who seems like she'd be your best friend if you knew her? I can tell you right now that I'm halfway through Naselli's book, and I don't know if we could be friends nor do I care; I'm just enjoying his expertise. I don't choose to read books because the woman seems appealing. I want to see what she knows, how she thinks, and what wisdom she can give. Are Christian publishing companies selling an image when they promote various female authors? When they determine what the cover will look like or who will recommend the book?

What do publishers advertise?

I recently had a routine dental check, and when I expressed to my dentist that I had some tooth sensitivity, and I told him which toothpaste I used (Arm and Hammer Whitening, for the curious) he told me not to use it anymore. He said it isn't good for my teeth, because it's too harsh. I had no idea; clearly, I had bought into advertising and purchased what I was told I needed. What is the Christian publishing industry advertising when it consistently publishes books by women with flowery covers, more practical content over the more theoretical, and "soft," womany illustrations. What is it telling women they need? Or worse, what they can handle?

One thing I think women should be encouraged to do is stop thinking that they must be taught by women alone; that men can't possibly have anything to say to them. There are issues for which I would seek a woman's view first, but theology isn't one of them. I want the best person for the job, whether he's a man or a woman. I think this division between men's books and women's books is a larger issue of division within the local church, but that's a separate topic. And ultimately, women as book consumers need to read beyond their comfort zones.

All of that ranting to say this: publishers, if you put out a book with pretty flowers and it's supposed to be about a deep theological matter, I won't buy it. Some women may buy it, but I won't. I prefer my flowers on my kitchen table, the patio, or my back yard.


B.B. knows about seminaries

Last week, I saw references to a book called 15 Things Seminary Couldn't Teach Me. I have not read the book nor do I plan to, but I think I get the point, and it's a good point: there are things that pastors in a local church will not learn in seminary that they will need in the context of the local church. That is a good point, and one I agree with. I do wonder, however, if this view, taken to an extreme might lead someone to think that seminary is not worthwhile.

My Greek professor linked to an article called "15 Things Seminary Teaches Me That a Busy Pastorate Can't." My Greek professor has been a pastor, a seminarian, and now a professor. He knows all sides, so I was interested when he shared the article. I was left wondering if the whole matter is a bit of a false dichotomy. 

I can say with certainty that I have already been a beneficiary all of those 15 things that seminary can teach me. And I will never be a pastor. But I am a Christian and a servant in the Church. And that is what the issue comes down to: what is seminary for? It is for more than training pastors. It is for training servants of God. If we think of seminary as a box one must tick off in order to get a job or be taken seriously, we will not get the most benefit from it.

It was timely that shortly after reading the article, I read this quotation by B.B. Warfield, in Andy Naselli's book How to Understand and Apply the New Testament:

The entire work of the seminary deserves to be classed in the category of means of grace; and the whole routine of work done here may be made a very powerful means of grace if we will only prosecute it in a right spirit and with due regard to its religious value . . . 

Treat, I beg you, the whole work of the seminary as a unique opportunity offered you to learn about God, or rather, to put it at the height of its significance, to learn God -- to come to know him whom to know is life everlasting. If the work of the seminary shall be so prosecuted, it will prove itself to be the chief means of grace in all your lives.

Isn't that an interesting way to regard seminary? As a means of grace. It has been the means of much grace to me in these past two years, as I have been the recipient of teaching, encouragement, and growth in my own Christian life. 


Cooking, midwifery, and now blogging

When I was working on my degree in history, I took a course on the history of women in Canada. One of the more interesting things I learned was how the "professionalization" of various things changed women's work. Specifically, I read about how the standardization of cooking measures and the changes in medical practices affected women.

For the grandmother type who used a "handful" of this or a "pinch" of that, standardization of cooking was probably unintelligible. It also made teaching her granddaughters how to make a cake a challenge. Especially after the First World War, there were education programs that focused on home economics. In L.M. Montgomery's book, Rilla of Ingleside, at the end of World War I, the main character, Anne Shirley's daughter, is contemplating going on such a course. Technology always helps us, but it also means that things become more complex, and often, professionalized.

The same thing happened with midwifery. Today, there are many more midwives than when I had children. In fact, having a midwife was not an option for me when I had my children. At one time, that was the primary way of bringing a child into the world. Once medical practice began to become more organized and doctors' care more available, midwives, especially the ones with no training, became obsolete. A couple of years ago, I read the novel The Birth House, which was set in 1917. This was about this kind of transition.

Though blogging is not nearly as important an activity as midwifery or cooking (and we could all do quite nicely with out blogs when it comes right down to it) I see a similar occurrence. Tim Challies' article today deals with the topic of why Christian blogs aren't what they used to be. I want to suggest that it is in part because the big parachurch blogs have "professionalized" blogs, and the regular, ordinary blogger rather unnecessary.

Organizations like the ones Challies mentioned in his article tend to establish a standard, whether it is intentional or not. Women, especially, who have little time to read a lot of blogs, may prefer to read the ones written from the "professional" platforms. That means that the regular, ordinary voice is seen as not nearly as relevant or necessary. Blogging has become less about fellowship and more about information. I would suggest also that it has become more like journalism than anything else. The way bloggers race to be the "first" to comment on a juicy story has made me often think of reporters trying to "scoop" one another. When Rachael Denhollander gave her victim impact statement, everyone wanted to be in on the story, and now, every other woman and her dog wants to be writing about such issues. I don't think that Christian blogging is even about doctrine and theology as much as it is about cultural aspects. Someone always sets the trend, and we follow. And that means fewer "ordinary" blogs.

I loved the old blogging days. It's different now, and I never though there were be a day when I was indifferent toward my own blog, but seminary has offered me writing venues that are simply better for the kind of writing I'm interested in. But now that school is out, I like to keep cranking out sentences. I still like the voices of the ordinary, and in all honesty, I don't often read what comes from the big name bloggers. But I do regularly read  my favourites, the ones I've been reading for years, my friends; and I don't mind if they're not professionals.