Monday, April 28, 2008

Jesus was a friend of sinners

The gospels regularly use the word 'sinners' in a way to indicated those known, in a close-knit society where everyone in torn knew what everyone else was up to, those known to be notorious breakers of commandments. Jesus is well known to be a friend of these kind of people. So, what sort of people does Jesus spend his time with? Whores, Criminals, and Terrorists. That's it. Firstly, whores. Jesus associates with women known to be sexually immoral. John 4 has Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman who has remarried 5 times and now is with a man not her husband. The woman who comes and washes Jesus' feet with her tears and anoints them in Luke 7 is known to be a 'sinner', i.e. a publicly known sinner, almost certainly on the basis of sexual immorality. In Luke 5 Levi (or Matthew) hosts a big party, and he's a tax-collector, a group of Jewish collaborators with Roman rule who collect taxes, basically on an auction system, and pay them on to Roman equites, and keep whatever they can, so they're running around with a protectionist racket with stand-over men and basically they're the Judean answer to the Mafia. Likewise Zaccheus in Luke 19 is a 'chief tax-gatherer' and so some kind of made-man or don, who collects taxes from his hitmen and pays it onto the Romans. Matthew 19 identifies Jesus as 'a friend of tax collectors and sinners', meaning everybody knew who Jesus hung out with. Jesus also hung around terrorists. Mark 3:18 identifies one of Jesus' twelve disciples as 'Simon the Zealot', that is one of a group of political extremists within Judea at the time who were willing to use violence and had the stated intention of a violent overthrow of the Roman government in order to restore an Israelite state, as in the time of the Maccabees. Jesus took one of those guys into his trusted 12, a guy who probably had quite a beard and slept with a knife under his pillow.

This is the kind of guy Jesus is. He hangs out with them, befriends with them, welcomes them into his closest circles. He doesn't invite them to join a program, tell them to come and talk to him when they're not hung-over, or anything like that. He turns up at their parties, invites them to his parties, and generally they have a great time together.

And when Jesus is on trial, despite his reputation as a drunkard, a glutton, and all the guilt by association (You can imagine, "Jesus, did you ever lend a SIM-card to Simon, because he's on file as a terrorist"; "Jesus, did you ever smuggle any liquids through customs?", this to the guy who turned massive amounts of water into high-quality wine), despite all this they cannot pin Jesus for a single crime. They have to whip up some perjurious witnesses to testify to Jesus' talking about the temple's destruction, badly misquoting Jesus (it's a fix-up from the start), push him into a blasphemous claim about divinity (which Jesus' can make and isn't blasphemous because it's true), and mis-represent his teaching to Pilate (to whom he plainly tells, 'My kingdom is not of this world', making abundantly clear how radically different his teaching is). But, in the end, they can't pin him for a single thing, and Pilate has to conclude, "Why, what evil has this man done? I have found in Him no guilt demanding death" (Luke 23:22).

Jesus is Sinless.

I belabour this point to get to another one. What does it mean to imitate Jesus, and to pursue a mission like Jesus'?

John 17:15 and the verses surrounding it put out a tension for Christians: that we are in the world, but not of the world. We are engaged, but to be protected from the evil one. 1 Thess 5:22 reads "Abstain from every form of evil". Likewise 1 Tim 6:11 talks about fleeing the temptation to riches. 1 Tim 3:7 lays out the qualities for an elder, including "it is necessary also to have a good testimony from the outsiders, so that he might not fall into disgrace (reproach), even the snare of the devil".

Now let me ask the radical question, Are you willing to lose your 'ministry' for the sake of Christ?

If you've been around long enough in Christian circles, you will hear tragic stories of Christians in ministry who have lost it. Some, through scandalous sin are rightly deposed and it's truly a tragedy. Others, through scandalous rumour and accusation, unsubstantiated, are asked to leave their positions.

Let me make some points:
1. It's right to avoid sin, no question about it.

2. It's also right to (a) avoid certain temptations, (b) put in place safeguards for one's reputation. For example, it's a great idea to run filtering software, or better yet reporting software, on your computer, to avoid temptations of internet pornography. This is a good thing. Likewise, it's wise not to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex in private environments.

3. It's wrong to avoid 'sinners', including in contexts where they are sinning, except when your presence would constitute a sin itself. Examples: (1) It's not good to sit down and watch a porn film with your friend who is a sex addict. That's not helping, and it's not right for you. (2) It is fine to be at the pub with your friend who gets drunk, provided that you aren't getting drunk too. That's presence without sin.

4. The solution to temptation is not dis-engagement. Consider this: We often have an image of Jesus that is supra-, and therefore sub-, human. We think of Jesus just cruising through life like some kind of moral superman, tempted, but not really, by sin. Is this the picture of the scriptures? No. Hebrews 4:15 describes Jesus as "tempted in every respect like us, without sin". Jesus was a single man throughout his life, and he hung out with whores. He was sorely tempted, beyond what you and I can imagine. Jesus went to wild parties with drunkards and gluttons. He was not a drunkard. Jesus lived as an itinerant with little wealth, in the company of some who were accustomed to use violence as their means of living. He was sorely tempted. The solution to temptation is not retreat, but holiness. It's walking real close to Jesus, talking to him, knowing the scriptures, (consider Jesus' temptation right at the start of his ministry). It's not trying to do things alone, but keeping close to brothers and sisters, confessing sins and keeping one another close to Jesus. The answer to temptation is not avoidance, it's Jesus. It's innocence coupled with wisdom, not naivety. That's what Jesus is saying in Matthew 10:16, "Behold I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves". he's sending them out into a world which will eat them alive, and he tells them - play it smart, and stay holy. He's not saying, 'play it dumb, and stay home with the tv off'.

5. Lastly, you might have to sacrifice 'your ministry', to be a part of Jesus' mission. If you start spending time at the pub, visiting the home of pot-heads, befriending hookers, then religious people are going to get mighty worried about you. They're going to get mighty worried about your reputation, and the reputation of your denomination, and they're going to quote 1 Tim 3:7 at you. And that might be okay, if you're being faithful to Jesus. We read 1 Tim 3:7 with what I will call Pharisee's glasses - we wonder what the good people will think. Jesus' reputation with the Pharisees is mud. But his reputation with 'the outsiders', with whores, terrorists, and thugs, is really 'good', even 'beautiful'. He's their friend, he's partying with them, and he's loving them, which includes him saying, like some kind of broken record, 'The Kingdom of God is at hand, Repent and Believe the Good News'.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sins and Errors of Language and Translation thinking

to be honest, I suspect most non-Christian Western people think little about issues of language and translation. They don't have as much invested in the question, unless they (a) have an interest in linguistics or literature, (b) are polyglots, (c) are adherents to another religion with sacred scriptures in another language.

Anyway, the more I study, the more I hopelessly wish they were a perfect translation of the Scriptures. But there isn't, and there can't and won't be. And so I'm more and more committed to a profound mastery of the languages. Commendable, I think, and so I commend the same in others. Nevertheless, I'm also more and more aware of just plain wrong or stupid or unhelpful thinking about language and language knowledge. So, this entry is me summing up some of them:

Errors about language born from a Western monoglot culture

Errors of the monoglots
1) Original languages don't matter.
There are some, honestly, who are just oblivious to the fact that there *are* any issues around different languages, meaning, translation. They live in pure blissful ignorance, which is a real shame.

2) Original languages matter, but our translations are pretty good, so no need to worry
To be honest, I'm happiest to see a regular, ordinary Christian have this kind of attitude. Because, clearly, translations work - people read the Bible in English, understand God's message, repent, put their trust in Jesus, and it's all beautiful. This is because, despite all the logic, translation works, and there are some decent translations. They all make me angry, but at their heart, they work.

3) Original languages matter, but our translations are *really* good, so let's read a few different translations, argue about the English words, and base doctrine on English grammar.
Now, these people get me angry. They get me angry because (a) they think that a set of translations will give them a better perspective to get at the 'real meaning'. No, they'll give you a set of perspectives which may or may not give you better perception. This isn't a balance game. They get me angry too because (b) they place a weight of interpretation on things that won't support them. Few English translations can bear the weight of a grammatical argument based on their translation. Some translations, I admit, I will use their grammar to bear a point I consider established on the original grammar. But I would hate to base a point of teaching on the English.

4) Original languages matter, and so our knowledge of the scriptures is severely deficient.
To be honest, few monoglots hold this position. It would drive them to despair. Or, better yet, to study languages! But, well some people do think this. I'm sure of it. And it's wrong.

Then we get to the 'recently initiated'. Those who have studied some Greek or Hebrew, maybe a year or two, through a grammar-heavy method. Their errors get me very angry.

5) The sin of a little knowledge
It's pretty clear that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing', but this doesn't seem to occur to the recently initiated. Their newfound understanding of grammar and vocabulary-glosses sends them off translating texts and looking up lexicons and making over-confident and arrogant conclusions since they feel they have mastered the language

6) The sin of better translation
Any time you hear or read 'more literally....' followed by a gloss, I cringe. Neophytes tend to think they can produce better translations based, usually, on a more wooden English-weird-sounding Greek-word-following, etymologically-bound rendering of the text. Sometimes they are right. Usually, they're not.

7) The sin of my-grammar-wins
Neophytes often apply grammar poorly but technically correct. For example, they will argue that there is no reason why a word here can't be modified by the adjective 14 clauses later (okay, I exaggerate slightly). Vaguely possible, but not really. Why? Well, really this sin comes about because neophytes are initiates into a magical-grammar system, and are poor readers of Greek or Hebrew, and have no sense of how a Greek/Hebrew speaker would read a clause, and worse-yet, it doesn't occur to them that that is even a problem or question.

8) The sin of the Code
Lastly, I'll list this one, the tendency to reduce language to a set of equations. Grammar forms the rules of the mathematics, vocabulary functions like algebra, and you can plug in the right elements and do a few transformations, and out comes the 'meaning', or 'the english'. Argh, language isn't like that!

Wanderings of the professors:
I'll be fair, highly educated-in-languages types vary wildly, but some of them are still prone to some errors, and I'm going to whinge about those here:

9) Original languages or nothing
Some people with a well developed ability in the languages come to the position where anything less than devotion and mastery to the languages is not good enough, going to lead you into error, and in fact how can you claim to read the text at all? They've forgotten that translation is possible! (See point 2!). Translation does become a seemingly impossible task, as you realise how fraught it is with compromise, betrayal, and danger, but despite all this we still do it and it still works - meaning gets carried across. I think this sin is a kind of hubris, and to be avoided.

10) The sin of arcane hyper-grammar
This is my pet hate. If you start down the 'dark path' of making the most important and integral aspect of your language study the analysis of grammatical minutiae, and do not learn to read with fluency and without translation into your mother-tongue, then you'll eventually reach this sith-like position. I'm not (and never) saying that grammatical minutiae and taxonomy (Wallace!) don't matter, or can't help, but if this is the sole way your knowledge works, you've failed to grasp that Greek and Hebrew were dynamic means of communication of real people, and that people don't speak in syntactical structures. No one, except Greek students doomed to composition (by which they understand translation) exercises, ever thinks, 'I'll need to use the Genitive of Material here!'. No, they simply use the Genitive. It's only grammarians who overthink language like this, and there comes a point you need to stop.

11) The sin of despair
One can also arrive at a point where, because of one's attainments rather than one's ignorance, one despairs about the knowledge of language. Whether it's because of translation, or the circularity of lexical formulation, or the lack of appropriate data, there are all sorts of ways to get to a point where it seems original languages have failed you. Don't despair! Real communication, despite all the barriers, happens nonetheless.

12) The sin of contempt
You know, just because you have 15 PhDs in Hellenistic Literature and ANE Languages, doesn't mean that when someone else, including those pesky neophytes, says 'the Greek means X,Y,Z' that they're wrong. They could, possibly, be right! There are no monopolies on the mastery of the languages, and inexperience doesn't equal wrongness.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Points of Contact

The thought that has been particularly on my mind for the last month or more is the question, "How do we be church in a way that is genuine and will see people come to know Jesus?". Here's a broad outline of where my thinking is going.

I think the main (that is the most immediately relevant presenting problem) question, rather than the critical (ie, there are questions that are more important, but my church has probably already dealt with them), is "How do we make contact with outsiders and then see them confronted with the gospel?"

My answer flows out of an analysis that places a co-central emphasis on Jesus Christ, the Gospel, Mission, and Community. (Reflected in my current sermon series)

The answer then becomes focused on points of contact. By this I mean thinking through where we, christians, can go to meet people we wouldn't otherwise have contact with. It involves being intentional in organising our lives to go out and meet people, and build ongoing relationships with them. clubs, hobbies, whatever and wherever people congregate, we should be a part of that. That's kind of step (1). Step (2) is to do this not as individuals but as part of a community, so it means working to connect new friends with your christian life - introducing them to other christian friends you have, inviting them into your life and so building multiple lines of friendship between them and the life of your christian community. this reduces the burden of 'lone individual' evangelism, and gives the church an opportunity - individuals can use their gifts respectively all as part of showing love to the outsider. step (3) is then vague and led-by-the-Spirit: having ensured a genuine sharing of life with outsiders, our community life together needs to be decisively christian in shape and content, so that they see, know, and acknowledge the christian-ness of our lives, and in one form or another the gospel is articulated to them.

The key challenges are:
1) Forming a vibrant christian community - moving a population of individual christians from meeting once a week to seeing and acting as an organic connected whole that is also outward looking, not inwardly obsessed
2) Creating a mindset among christians of living lives aimed and directed at meeting people and befriending them in order to share in their lives and share Jesus with them
3) Creating a practice of christians living their faith naturally and verbally in community with the presence of outsiders welcome

Just some thoughts along the way...