Monthly Archives: November 2015

Engaging the Word, Part Two.

Like most Christians and people of faith, I have several stories of failed attempts to make prayer a regular part of my day. I remember one resolution, when I was 19, to get up at 5 am every day and read my Bible. What was I thinking? Now, at 25, I feel too old for such a rigorous schedule.

But I find that often if I just aim myself in the right direction, a structure for my life will emerge, and I will organically become the person I want to be rather. This tend to work better than trying to force some structure onto my life.

So now, 6-7 years after my conversion, I find I am starting to do some daily scripture reading, and to really internalize it rather than just studying it for class. Now I find that if I don’t do it, I feel like something is missing. It’s a good I pursue rather than something I do out of obligation.

So what helps me connect with scripture?

I highly recommend investing in a Journaling Bible. This Bible has large, lined margins for personal spiritual writing and reflection. Once I got past my initial hesitation at writing in a Bible, I really started to benefit from this tool. Now I bring it to church and take notes on the homily!

One thing I like about the Crossway Journaling Bible is that it has very, very minimal scholarly notes. My New Oxford Annotated is full of them, and for my classes, that is great. But I don’t want those things distracting me when I am just trying to pray the Word.

One thing I really admire about my Muslim friends is the emphasis on the orality of scripture in their tradition. I don’t know of any Christian equivalent to the Islamic tradition of memorizing the entire Qur’an. I have heard of Christians who have memorized the entire New Testament, or monks who know the Psalter by heart, but it’s just not promoted as much for us. So taking a cue from my Muslim brothers and sisters, I am trying to find ways to engage in the orality of the Bible.

One great way to do that is Faith Comes by Hearing, an organization that produces free audio Bibles in hundreds of different languages. They have an iOS app where you can download the entire Bible in several English translations. I am using the ESV, and this recording of it uses multiple cast members, reading dramatically, with light background sound effects. I do a lot of walking every day and this gives my mind something to contemplate, even if it (inevitably) wanders astray.

Another method I’ve been using is Scripture Typer, a website and app for memorizing Bible passages. I have played with memorizing scripture before, but this really makes me do it in a systematic way. I’m starting small: Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, Psalm 23, and some other popular passages from the Bible. It’s pretty fun to see my progress and accumulate points. I admit, my competitive side likes racking up points and seeing where I stand in the website’s rankings. Sometimes God uses the less holy parts of ourselves to do good.

One mode of teaching that I discovered at the Parliament is bibliodrama, a method of biblical study used by Christians and Jews that can only be described as group theater. In it, the leader calls on the group to take the part of biblical characters, to try to go through the feelings and motives of each character in a biblical story. At Parliament, we did this for the Garden of Eden narrative: what made Eve eat from the tree? How did God feel about it? I liked this method because it brought home the humanity of biblical characters and helped us bring our own life into the story, to make it our own. Armed with inventor Peter Pitzele’s book on the method, and the many web resources offered on it, I hope to try this out at my own church.

In short, I am trying to engage with scripture in as many ways as possible. Zabriskie hit the nail on the head when he said that seminary courses are no substitute for daily spiritual reading.

Engaging the Word, part 1.

By the way, I have not been absent out of laziness! Two weeks ago I was out of town for the weekend for Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. Then I went on a trip with my mom to visit family in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

One of my favorite things about the Bible Belt are church signs. A few we saw:

“What’s missing from ch ch? U R”

“Jesus is sending you a friend request: Confirm / Ignore”

“7, 8, 9, 10! Ready or not, here I come! – Jesus”

This last one was on a sign for a Christian cemetery. It’s easy to make fun of these churches for their cheesy messages, but then again, I still remember them, so it’s actually good marketing.

51hepG0az7L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_When I was in Charleston, I went to Grace Episcopal Church, and after the service I bought a book from the church bookstore: Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie’s Doing the Bible Better: The Bible Challenge and the Transformation of the Episcopal Church. Zabriskie is an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania, and several years ago he founded the Bible Challenge to get Episcopalians to read the Bible more. This book is a description of the Bible Challenge and an exhortation to engage with the scriptures more. Zabriskie makes a pretty condemning (and true) point when he cites data showing Episcopalians are the most educated denomination in America, but one of the least biblically literate. He sees daily Bible reading as a cure for the clubishness, division, declining membership, and apathy in so many Episcopal churches. He gives his testimony that daily scripture reading has made him a more patient and kind pastor and family man, a better homilist, and a closer follow of Christ.

Like most hortatory speakers, I think Zabriskie overstates his case. Reading the Bible alone will not cure all the divisions currently plaguing the Anglican communion. But as a grad student in biblical studies and an Episcopalian, I too feel frustrated at the lack of engagement with the Word in Episcopal preaching. Although scripture permeates our liturgy, it doesn’t permeate our homilies. I’m probably caricaturing here, but most Episcopal sermons I have heard are a little Bible, a little Saint Francis, a little Mary Oliver, a little Anne Lamott, a little personal reflection – and they are often very good sermons that leave my soul nourished. But just once I would like a sidenote on the nuance of a Hebrew word, a sentence or two on the context of a Pauline letter in early church politics, an active struggle with one of the many “texts of terror” that don’t show up in the lectionary in the first place. Sure, there are many churches that do this very well, but I want that kind of depth in the context of the inclusivity and liturgy that keeps me in the Episcopal Church.

So for me, Zabriskie’s book is an invitation to think about how I could help my local church in its biblical literacy. There is an off chance I will be leading a bible study next Lent.   I’m both terrified and excited by the prospect. But I have been the beneficiary of so many adult ed/lay ministry programs, such as the Scripture Institute program I did for two years (back when I was Catholic), and I have known for some years that I want to teach in that venue as well as in the university.

Zabriskie tells the story that one summer, he hired a local classicist to tutor him in biblical Greek and Hebrew. Though he loved the mental challenge of the languages, he said he did not feel closer to God, and his sermons did not improve. Zabriskie makes the point from this that there is no substitute for personal engagement.

After a few months of grad school, I now realize the same thing. Reading for class is not the same as reading for my own edification and delight. In the next post I will share a few ways I have used to engage the Word more deeply.

Bus drivers, ballet dancers, and biblical scholars: skill and effortlessness.

I live in San Jose, CA, but three days a week I hike up to Berkeley for school. (Any of you who live in the SF bay area know that is a trek!) What this usually entails is a 20-minute bike ride, a 45-minute bus ride, a 50-minute train ride, and a 30-minute walk. (I could do the drive in 1 hour (on a good day) but I think the stress of that drive would shave a few years off my life.)

This morning I was talking to one of the bus drivers. He told me he used to drive big rigs. I asked him, which was harder? He said buses, hands down, because of the pressure of being responsible for so many lives. He said (paraphrasing), “We make it look easy. But every moment, we are constantly aware of our surroundings, of the traffic, and our minds are always working.”

His statement brought me back to when my mom took me to see The Nutcracker when I was a teen. Ballet dancers make their art look so graceful, so effortless, even fun, as if bouncing and twirling around on stage for an hour just comes naturally. Of course you know that their craft is the result of years of disciplined practice, and results in bloody toes and worn-out joints. But the ballerina, like the bus driver, has practiced their skill for so long that others don’t see how hard it is, because they make it look easy.

I think of biblical languages in the same way. My undergraduate Greek professors made Greek look so easy. Of course, each of them had studied and taught Greek for many years. In the case of one of them, we were the last first-year Greek class she taught before retiring after over dour decades of teaching. Another one of my professors, Daniel Turkeltaub (a Homerist), often compared learning Greek to working out at the gym: there is no substitute for disciplined, methodical practice, day in and day out. Only with that practice can you get to the point where it looks effortless. And, I would add: like the bodybuilder, we aspire to get to the point where it looks effortless.

All this is to say: using this metaphor of building a skill, honing a craft, helps keep me motivated as I try to practice my discipline in Greek and Hebrew.

Speaking of biblical languages, I am hoping to come out with some resources on my blog soon to help students of biblical languages. There are a lot of things I wish I had been aware of when I first started learning Greek, in particular the scholarly conventions and (sometimes) outright falsehoods that we learn in first-year Greek to make the language make sense. As scholar of comparative religions J.Z. Smith titled one of his books, map is not territory. One of the projects I am working on is for a professor writing a handbook for students of biblical Hebrew. Another is something much smaller I will post here.