Books: The House of the Lord

February 27, 2017

At a conference (for leaders of small churches) that my husband and I attended in October, one of the workshops was about the use of the Psalms in worship. That got me not only looking for ways to use them in worship (such as using them for the readings with the lighting of the Advent candles) but also to know them better personally. When the Bible study I lead finished a study on Jonah, we started looking at some of the Psalms.

So when I came across a book for sale about “inhabiting the world of the psalmist,” and noticed that the author was one of the keynote speakers from that conference in October,  naturally I was interested. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament by Michael Jinkins explores first the world of the psalms in general, and then the psalms of lament in more depth.

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the psalms of lament. How do I identify with someone who has gone through such suffering as some of these describe? And to the extent I do identify with someone crying out, “How long, O Lord,” how does that shared sense of anguish help me deal with it?

I’m not alone in that discomfort. Jinkins notes that mainline Protestant churches rarely use psalms of lament in their worship, and if they wanted to sing hymns based on them would have trouble finding more than a few in their hymnals. Many people go to church to hear positive messages, and interpret complaints addressed to God as contrary to faith and thanksgiving.

When I mentioned this in a Bible study recently, someone’s response was that when times are hard, you’re supposed to focus on the blessings in your life and on God’s goodness. Why would you want to encourage people to bring up complaints to God?

Because, Jinkins says, “praise and thanksgiving divorced from lamentation, divorced from heart-felt observation of social injustices and the cries of the oppressed, divorced from a critical assessment of our role in human society, become expressions of vanity.” And because they can mask the voids in our spiritual lives, and give us fewer resources for working through some of the really bad stuff, the stuff we don’t talk about in church.

I remember a few times in my life when I found it difficult to go to church, when I was dealing with grief and found it hard to express emotion without breaking down in tears. There were no hymns we sang that gave voice to my grief, and when I tried to sing songs like “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” or “O Happy Day,” the words stuck in my throat.

There are churches that use the psalms of lament much more, and Jinkins explains that these are generally made of of people in the lower socio-economic strata of society. They can identify with the psalmist when he speaks of suffering oppression, of being treated unfairly, of anger at seeing people prosper from their wickedness and of longing to see justice done.

For me, those are abstract ideas that I can understand but not really identify with from my own experience. (Not that I’ve never been treated unfairly, but not in any ways that significantly changed the course of my life.) Perhaps greater use of psalms of lament would help to identify with those parts of the body of Christ who do suffer in these ways.

Depending on how one classifies the psalms, forty to fifty of them are considered psalms of lament. So nearly a third of them. They include expressions of faith and praise and thanksgiving, but these are arrived at by going through the complaint and the grief.

We often find that spiritual growth comes that way in our lives, by going through trials and troubles. So why not have our worship services make more use of such psalms, as the ancient Israelites evidently did? As I am on the worship committee at church, this is more than just food for thought, but something to look for practical ways to use sometimes neglected parts of Scripture.


Thinking about Thanking

November 23, 2016

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Counterfeit Gods

July 31, 2016

I came across a quote from Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods while doing some Bible study. I’m not sure now what that quote said, but it impressed me enough to get Keller’s book from the library.

I have often heard in sermons that idols are not just statues of gods that people bow down to, but anything that takes first place in our lives instead of God. Money is often given as an example of something that can become an idol. But while that makes sense in the abstract, it is difficult to identify specific examples in people’s lives where something has become an idol, except in some more extreme cases.

Keller provides a definition of an idol, or a “counterfeit god” as he calls often it, that is clearer to me. “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” Or, even clearer: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.'”

Keller goes on to use various Bible stories to illustrate ways that people make an idol of children, romantic love, money, success, or political power. I’m not sure I agree with his interpretation of these Bible stories in every case, but he provides a new way of looking at some of them and of relating them to modern life.

Finally, he suggests ways we can identify the idols in our own lives. He suggests that we ask ourselves

What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?

  • How do you spend your money?
  • How do you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes?
  • What are your most uncontrollable emotions?

I might have preferred that he spend more than the last five or so pages discussing how to replace idols with Christ. But the book, after all, is about “counterfeit gods,” not about how to know and worship the one true God. People have to recognize the counterfeits before they can turn from those to the truth, and there are certainly abundant resources out there for people who want to know God better.


Books I’ve been reading

December 28, 2015

I haven’t found enough computer time or the inclination over the past couple of months to post about the books I’ve been reading. Back when I started this blog, it was easier for people to comment, and the blog was a way of having a conversation of sorts with other people who were interested in some of the same things. But these days it’s mostly a monologue.

But I have plenty of time this week, since the college where I work is closed between Christmas and New Year’s. So I’m going to try to post about some, at least, of the books I have found most interesting. Not a post for each, but grouped by some characteristic the books have in common.

I’ll start with books based on Biblical characters, because I just finished one yesterday and it is fresh in my mind. But before I get to that one, I’ll start with one I read a few weeks ago, since it is set about one generation earlier.

I noticed The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks on the New Books shelf at the library, first because it was by an author whose other books I had enjoyed – People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing. When I saw that it was about King David I eagerly checked it out of the library.

As with other retellings of Bible stories, it is not the plot that draws one it – after all, anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows what’s going to happen – but the characters, exploring their feelings and motivations. Much of this is inevitably speculation, especially with those who play a minor role in the Bible stories, but it’s always interesting to see how it might have been.

The character with whom Brooks takes perhaps the most liberties is her narrator, Natan the prophet. (Throughout she uses transliterations of Hebrew names which are closer to the original Hebrew than the versions we are familiar with from the English Bible.) We know next to nothing of Natan from the Scriptures, only that he speaks God’s words to David, whether of blessing or rebuke.

Brooks invents for Natan a backstory and a personality, though as narrator he tells others’ stories more than his own. He is not zealous for God (as one assumes from the Bible) so much as for the truth, and serves as mouthpiece for God because he really has no choice in the matter when visions seize his mind and the divine voice uses his mouth (though in a distinctly different voice from his own).

It is of course where the Bible says least that Brooks can be most inventive, offering a somewhat far-fetched explanation as to why David’s brothers despised him, a circumstance that also helps explain why he allows his sons to turn out as they did. The story of Natan’s origins is equally unlikely, and does more to explain David than Natan himself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks uses the idea, common today among those who read modern assumptions back into Biblical characters, that David and Yonatan were lovers in a homosexual relationship. For some readers, that may be a positive thing. A Washington Post book review asserts that

The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul’s son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul.

I tend to see it more as Brooks catering to modern values. For many people today, it may be hard to envision a soul-deep love between two men (who are not related) that finds its highest fulfillment without a sexual component. Personally, I would like to see a good storyteller depict such a relationship and show how it is not diminished by the lack of sexual expression.

But David’s relationship with Yonatan is hardly at the center of this novel anyway, any more than his harp-playing is, although both always hover in the background. It is about his rise to power and then his efforts to hold onto power, even as his own bad choices bring about tragedy within his own family.

He doesn’t come across as all that much of a hero. As one review points out, David is depicted as “power-hungry, duplicitous, murderous and cruel.” Perhaps there is too much effort to show what a flawed human he is, rather than a divinely favored king set on a Biblical pedestal.

It is a good reminder, however, that just because many things he did were not explicitly condemned by God as was his behavior in the matter of Uriah and his wife, does not mean that what he did was good or right. In the Bible study I lead, we have been reading through 1 Samuel, and I have noticed that Bible study guides I have looked at online seem to assume most of the time that David is in the right if Scripture does not say otherwise. But is that a valid assumption?

In the end, the character I found perhaps most intriguing is young Schlomo (Solomon). In the Bible, we see nothing of his childhood, only the young king appearing fully formed and full of wisdom – at least the wisdom to ask for wisdom, and then receive it as a gift from God along with great riches and power.

In Brooks’ novel, he is an inquisitive child, not expected (by anyone but Natan who has foreseen the future) to become king, and thus left free to pursue his interests in learning about nature, philosophy, and anything else he can learn with the help of his tutor Natan (who knows the future king needs guidance). His adult interest in learning of all kinds makes far more sense when it is an outgrowth of his natural childhood curiosity.

It was this aspect to his character that also contributed to my interest in reading The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee, which I also found on the New Books shelf of the library, and just finished reading yesterday. It is told from the point of view of Bilqis the queen of Saba (known as Sheba to the Hebrews), but of course it concerns Solomon a great deal as well.

The story of her visit to Solomon in the Bible had always struck me as a bit odd. Would a queen of such great wealth as hers is described really travel that far with such a huge entourage to see if the reports of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom were true? And what was the purpose of all those rich gifts, on both sides?

Lee’s novel presents the journey as part of Bilqis’s project to impress trading partners with her country’s greatness, as well as to give both her and Solomon the opportunity to meet one another, after they have exchanged written correspondence which has increased their mutual curiosity and desire to know one another.

Solomon comes across as a man unable to find what he really wants in life. As readers of the Bible know from Ecclesiastes, he has tried everything life has to offer, including all the luxuries available to a rich and powerful king. He has hundreds of wives, yet as Bilqis realizes, he has no one – until she arrives – who really knows him. She understands, because she feels the same weariness with the demands of ruling a country.

Solomon also feels trapped between his desire to achieve political power and stability, which he accomplishes by his many marriages to daughters of allies, and his God’s disapproval of his foreign wives with their foreign gods. He has justified it to himself, but even during Bilqis’s visit, he faces increasing unrest among his own people, who resent both the forced labor he requires and the presence of this pagan queen.

Bilqis, meanwhile, increasingly doubts her own god’s care for her. She has long wondered what the gods make of human prayers and sacrifices, and questions how one can truly claim to love a god when all that is done for the god is to secure what one wants from the god.

Solomon suggests a different perspective, where one loves God by loving other people, who are made in God’s image. His words sound good, but clearly he has not done very well at putting them into practice in his own life.

Lee drew on legends related to Solomon and the queen of Sheba that I was not aware of, from the Kebra Nagast, a work describing the origins of the Solomonic rulers of Ethiopia, considered to be the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.

On the whole, I think both books accomplish what I look for in this type of fiction. They bring the historical setting to life, they offer alternate ways of seeing a familiar story, and at their best they offer new insights into people and their relationship with God. And they’re well-told stories that I enjoyed reading.


Inductive vs deductive Bible study

July 25, 2015

Note: This post is written by my husband. An ordained Presbyterian pastor, he has plenty of experience both studying the Bible and leading Bible studies.

Inductive versus Deductive: Does there need to be a conflict?

I lead a couple of Bible Studies. Recently, as we finished one of them, and the group looked at what would be next (I decided to let them choose), they came across the terms “Deductive Bible Study/Reasoning” and “Inductive Bible Study/Reasoning”. When researched, articles promoting one were always very dismissive of the other. And the members of the study still didn’t really get what the point was. So, I am writing this article to try to give MY take on it.

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Books: A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

May 25, 2015

I first learned of John Pilch’s research into cultural aspects of the Bible when I was looking for resources to help me understand Luke 12:49. What did Jesus mean about wanting to “cast fire on the earth”? Is this the fire of divine wrath? Is it talking about the work of the Holy Spirit (associated with fire in verses such as Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3)? John J. Pilch explains that a better translation would be “light the earth-oven” , and that Jesus is referring to himself as a catalyst for conflict, much as salt acts as a catalyst in the earth-oven.

Pilch’s explanation gives a new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about his followers being the “salt of the earth,” which in the past I had always heard interpreted to refer to salt’s use either as a seasoning or a preservative. I was curious what insights on other passages I could gain from his work, and I decided his A Cultural Handbook to the Bible and decided it would be a good resource to have.

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Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

November 28, 2014

I have enjoyed several works of historical fiction lately, so when I was looking for a book recently at the library, and had no author or series in mind, I decided to just look for historical fiction. It’s easy to find books belonging to other genres, such as science fiction and mystery, because the spines of the books are marked with little stickers showing a spaceship or a question mark. (In the same manner, it’s easy to skip over the books marked with hearts or cowboy boots because I’m not interested in romances or westerns.)

But there’s no sticker for historical fiction. (What would one look like, anyway?) So I just walked along, running my eye over book titles, waiting for something to catch my eye. And what caught my eye was Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Now there’s a piece of history I knew little about. We learned in history class about the significance of Gutenberg’s development of movable type, and in Junior Achievement classes I have helped students get an idea of the huge gains in productivity that resulted. But I knew next to nothing about how the invention of the printing press actually came about.

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