Friday, July 30, 2010

Guitars Progress

Austin asked me to post some pictures of the guitars that I am building for him and for Quigley, so here we go.  I've been able to do a lot of work the last couple of weeks now that I've gotten some other projects finished.
Quigley's top, back and sides, bent and in the mold
Top and back bracing
Abalone rosette detail

And here are the same pics for Austin's guitar.  They look similar, but they are different shapes and sizes.  Also, the rosewood on Quigley's guitar features beautiful bands of brown and tan, while Austin's rosewood has is less variegated and features more purples.

Top, back and sides
Top and back bracing
Abalone rosette detail

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Guiding Law

George Morris is a Fundamentalist.  Not the religious type, mind you, but a Fundamentalist nonetheless. 
George, the founder and proprietor of Vermont Instruments and the person who taught me how to build a guitar, isn’t particularly religious, but when it comes to teaching people to build a guitar there’s no wiggle room.  There’s George’s way, or the highway.
He had two weeks to show five people who had never built a guitar how to build a guitar—and to actually do it.  So he rarely acknowledged that there was any other way to do it other than his way.  If he did mention other methods, it was to discourage us from trying them.  For instance, he mentioned that some people soak the sides of the guitar in water for a few hours prior to bending them.  “Don’t do that,” he said.  “It’s not water that enables the sides to bend, it’s heat.  Soaking the wood actually weakens the fibers and leads to cracking.”  So we just misted the sides prior to bending, the resulting steam aiding in the heat transfer.  In terms of actually bending the sides, I have since learned that there are at least three different methods of doing it; George only taught us one, not even mentioning the other two.  There are four ways of attaching the neck to the body; we learned one.  “Do it this way.”  No room for discussion, creativity, or innovation.
This was exactly what we needed.  Beginners can’t be expected to be able to absorb the intricacies of various methodologies, much less be able to judge which one is most appropriate for beginners.  We needed an expert to decide for us, which is what George did, and then guide us in executing it.  “Do it this way,” is exactly what we needed.  (In case you’re curious, the method he taught is the one used in allsome steel string guitars, so he could teach one way regardless of what kind of guitar the student was building.) classical guitars and in
   Rules are our friends.  They guide and help us, especially in unfamiliar territory.  Which is where the Israelites were when Moses gave them The Law.  They had just spent over 400 years living as slaves in Egypt, and now they were in the desert.  And they weren’t slaves.  So they were in unfamiliar territory, both literally and metaphorically.  And they were heading toward unfamiliar territory; the Promised Land would be a new land where they would live as free people amidst other peoples they did not know and who did not know them.
If all you’ve known is how to live as a slave, maybe living free doesn’t come naturally.  Maybe you need some guidance.  The Israelites would be creating a whole new society, one shaped by their experience of slavery.  They needed rules for this new society, rules to teach them how to live together as free people, worshiping only one God, which was also unprecedented, amidst people who would likely be hostile to them.  So that’s what God gave them through Moses on Mt. Sinai.
And The Law was given to them for another important reason: to make sure, as they gained wealth and power, that they didn’t act like Pharaoh.   Human history is littered is examples of formerly oppressed people becoming themselves oppressors once they gained power.  God would have none of that, which is why there are laws in the Torah protecting the alien, the sojourner, the stranger, and the conquered.  (And, yes, even the slave, though their presence in Israelite society is strange, but that’s another topic altogether.)
Once you become familiar with the territory, however, you have to evaluate the rules.  Some, if not most, still apply, but some don’t and need to be modified or even discarded.  If that isn’t done, the rules become irrelevant at best and, at worst, they become oppressive.
There is a tendency in Christianity to resist rules and to be against The Law; this is often based on a misreading of both Jesus and Paul, both of whom affirmed the Torah.  It is also a result of a confusion between legalism and The Law.  Being against legalism is not to advocate lawlessness—or even Lawlessness. 
I use 90% of what George Morris taught me about building a guitar.  I bend the sides exactly the way he taught, carve the neck the way he taught, thickness the top the way he taught.  But as I’ve become more familiar with luthiery I’ve also learned that there are structural, acoustic, and reparability issues regarding the way one attaches the neck to the body, and taking all those things into consideration I now do it differently than George taught.  And I know he would be fine with that, because I’m not quite a beginner anymore.  But I’m grateful that he didn’t make me try to make that decision on my own back then; I wasn’t ready for it.
The Law was a gift, as are rules for Christian behavior.  They are given to help us live life in the Kingdom of God until it is familiar territory.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Austin Update

Austin is at Fort Leonard Wood in the middle of Missouri to attend the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School, which is his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).  I spoke with his recruiter today, and they are a) revamping the academics for the program, and b) waiting for enough people with that MOS to form the next class.  It looks like it will be January before the next class starts, and the class runs for 14 weeks, which means Austin will be there for a while.  His recruiter has put in for him to come to Frederick for a month to assist with recruiting, but we don't know if or when that might happen.  In the mean time, he has no specific assignment.  Each day brings a new task--he has stood guard at a training exercise (he got to tell Army officers that they couldn't enter because the field was hot; he like that), and posed as a terrorist in an exercise with the Australian army.  Firing paint balls. 

So he's getting paid to do out there what he himself would pay to do here in Maryland.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Light-Giving Word

After the first few verses, the creation account in Genesis 1 falls into a pattern, almost a refrain.  The pattern goes like this: “And God said, ‘Let there be….’ And it was so.  God made….  And God saw that it was good…. And there was evening, and there was morning, the ____ day.”
Nothing new here; anyone who has read Genesis 1 is familiar with the pattern.  Whenever there is a pattern in the Bible, the first thing you should look for is any deviation from the pattern.  This is usually a clue that you should pay close attention, something important is being said here.  For instance, the most familiar deviation comes on the sixth day after God has created humanity, when he pronounces that his creation is not just good but very good.  But it’s not the only deviation in the chapter.
The above pattern holds when God creates most things.  “And God said, ‘Let there be….’  And it was so.  God made….”  It could be translated (and punctuated) another way to make the pattern clearer.  “And God said, ‘I want there to be….’ And so there was: God made….”  In other words, God formulated what he wanted to happen in his mind first, and then he went about making real the plans that were in his mind.  The “God made…” chronologically falls between the time he said, “I want there to be” and the “And it was so.”  It would be as if a man were talking to his neighbor and said, “So I said, ‘I want to build a deck on my house.’  So I did: I went to the store and bought some pressure-treated wood, some deck screws, and a book on building decks, and I built a deck.  Took me three months, but I did it.”  It wasn’t him saying that he wanted to build a deck that caused the deck to be built—how many times have any of us said something like, “I’m going to lose 10 pounds,” and yet they’re still here (and they brought some friends).  No, the saying didn’t do it, it was the actual building that did it, and that is how, for the most part, it works in Genesis 1.  In fact, on the 5th day (vs. 20-23), when God made the sea-swimming and sky-flying creatures, there is no “And it was so.”  It’s just, “And God said….So God created….”  There’s no explanation of how.  It could have been just by speaking the words, as many have just assumed, but it could have been some other process.  It doesn’t say how, it just says that God did it: he made everything that has been made. God created or made things.
      The deviation from this pattern is on Day 1, back in verse 3: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”  If it followed the pattern it would say, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and it was so.  God made the light, and separated the light from the darkness.  And God saw that it was good.”  But “made” or “created” don’t appear.  God said it, and the saying made it happen.  There was light.
 In Genesis 1, light is the only thing created directly by the spoken word.  The speaking wasn’t just a statement of intent or the setting forth of plans; it in itself was the creative event. 
  It’s as if the ancient Hebrews understood that light is fundamentally different from the rest of creation; that it is basic to all life, foundational for the rest of creation.  But that’s not all: somehow light is created from the Creator in a way that is fundamentally different than the rest of creation.  While everything else is made by him, light emanates from God.  Humans may be made in God’s image, but light is somehow connected to God’s very being.
Light is sight; without light, everything would be blind. 
Light is warmth; without light, the world would be a frozen wasteland.
Light is therefore life; without light nothing could live.
Beyond that, light is enlightenment; we see (understand) things that were previously hidden until someone or someone enlightened us.
And light is truth.  Lies can exist only in the darkness where none can see.  A lie is exposed when it is brought to light, and the truth is revealed.
Yes, the ancient Hebrews clearly understood that light is fundamentally different than the rest of creation, even if they didn’t understand the science behind it.  And that is why light is the only thing created by the spoken Word of God.
And that is why John, a good Jew and clearly understanding this as well, opened his Gospel with Genesis 1 firmly in mind:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Brooding Spirit

Christian theologians like to use sophisticated words like “transcendence” and “immanence” when talking about the fact that God is other than the world yet continually active in it, but the ancient Jewish writers of Scripture, in talking about the same things, painted word pictures.

Word pictures are much cooler than sophisticated words. Much cooler.

The first word picture we encounter is in Genesis 1:2—“Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the wind/Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.” (My translation)

First translation note, totally off the subject: “formless and empty” get the job done, but the Hebrew is toehoo wah boehoo. Just say that a couple of times—it’s fun, isn’t it? There is no way to translate these words that are as much fun as toehoo wah boehoo, so can we all just agree to stick with the Hebrew words and skip the boring English ones? Thank you.

Second translation note, totally on point: the Hebrew word ruach (hard ch as in ck, but deeper in your throat, like you’re clearing some…never mind) can be translated as wind, spirit, or even breath. Most English translations use Spirit of God, although the NRSV uses “wind of God.” I think both senses are intended here. If we go with wind for a second, we have the image of a wild, fierce wind blowing over the face of a wild, fierce ocean of water. Water is both necessary to life and a danger to it. You can drink it and live, or you can drown in it and die. The first humans lived near streams, lakes, and rivers, yet suffered through dangerous and damaging floods. Efforts to tame water to use it are fraught with danger, because dams burst and levees are breached. Water gives life; water kills. The two abide together, and we must accept both.

Same with wind. We need air to live, and we need the air to move in order to live, but the movement of that air can bring refreshment or destruction. A cool breeze is welcomed break from the heat; a tornado can drop suddenly from the sky and destroy whole towns. Wind brings life; wind kills. The two abide together, and we must accept both.

So this wind/spirit/life/death force blows over the face of the waters, the other life/death force. Before life can appear, they must be contained and controlled, and that is what happens with the water as the firmament is created to separate the waters above from those below and as the waters on the earth are gathered together so that dry land can appear. But the life/death tension still exists; chaos lurks in the deep, ready to reassert itself.

But what of the wind, how is it controlled? We area told that the ruach of God blows over the face of the waters. Third translation note: most translations say that it was moving, but the sense of the Hebrew is that it was hovering, which is stationary movement—again, one of those paradoxical tensions. This word is rarely used in the Bible, but one of those places is Deuteronomy 32:11—“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions….” This is why I used the word “brood” in my translation, not in the sense of pondering something but rather of a mother bird taking care of its young, setting on the eggs to keep them warm and protected until they hatch, then watching over them while they are young and vulnerable.

This is where the other sense of ruach comes into play, for it is the Spirit of God that broods over creation, pushing and containing the life/death forces so that life can emerge and keeping chaos at bay so that life can flourish.

This is how we experience life, is it not? Our lives are full of the tension between life and death, order and chaos. The moment we are born we begin our march toward death, and it is in death that life is renewed—the food for every living thing is something that once was alive, whether it be animal, fruit or vegetable. The two things, life and death, which seems at odds with each other, are actually wrapped up in each other. Death is not an intrusion into life but rather an integral part of it. There is no life without death, nor death without life. Similarly, we spend our lives trying to create order out of chaos. Sometimes our lives seem very ordered—everything is running smoothly, there is peace, there is contentment, there is satisfaction; and sometimes it seems that the dam has broken and our lives are complete chaos. These two extremes are actually kind of rare; most of the time we are somewhere in between. But through it all, there is the Spirit of God hovering in stationary movement, brooding, caring, protecting. He brings order to our lives, and on those occasions when the chaos breaks through, he is the wind who blows in and contains the waters.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adventures at Wal-Mart, Pt. 2

One of my very first blog posts back in 2008 concerned going to Wal-Mart to get a car battery installed. (You can read it here.) Well, Sunday after church, my car wouldn't start, so I got Chip to give me a jump, and then we headed out to lunch. After lunch, the battery was dead again, so I knew I needed to take the car in the Randy, my mechanic, in the morning. I should have just driven it straight over there so it would be there in the morning, but I didn't.

So yesterday morning I went out to jump it from Pam's car so I could take it to Randy, and it wouldn't take the jump. I left it connected for a long time, and it didn't seem to be recharging at all. Now, this battery is less than 2 years old, and it's guaranteed for 3 years for a free replacement. Of course, it could be the starter.

So I call Randy and he comes up and tries to jump it, to no avail. Hooks up all his electronic gizmos, and apparently it's got good voltage, and he also finds that the ground cable was loose, and that could cause it not to charge. Still, the car doesn't start until he does the ol' "whack-the-starter-with-a-hammer" trick. Having to resort to this usually is indicative of a bad starter, but Randy isn't convinced yet that it's the starter.

He calls me later and tells me it's the battery, which is good, because I can get a free replacement, and replacing the starter would have been a few hundred bucks. So the plan is, go get the battery, take it to Wal-Mart, where they will test it to make sure it's bad, then give me a replacement, which I'll take back to Randy to install, then do an oil change.

Simple plan. Shouldn't take that much time.

Pam was amazed that I could put my hands on the Wal-Mart receipt, but I had put it in the glove box with my registration and other papers, so there shouldn't be any problem, right?

I take it up there, but have to wait 30 minutes or so for them to test it. That's all right, I anticipated a wait so I brought a book. Then the guy tells me that, sure enough, the battery needs to be replaced.

"We've got a problem though: we're all out of that battery, 78N."

There's a battery on the counter in front of me. A 78N.

"A feller's comin' to get that one."

I seriously consider saying, "Well, I'm here and he's not," but instead take a deep breath and ask him to call the other store.

"Oh, sure, I can do that. I just have to wait for him"--he points to a guy in the office--"to get off the phone."

Well, there's a phone on the wall behind him, but apparently it's not good enough. Got to use the official Bat-Phone in the office.

Well, the guy in the office must have been negotiating a takeover of K-Mart or something, because he's on the phone for a while. Finally my guy gets to use the phone.

"Yeah, they got plenty of 78N's."

"OK. They won't have to test my battery since you guys already did that, right?"

"No, I'm sorry, store policy, they got to check it themselves.

So I load up my battery and head over to the other Wal-Mart.

This is my lucky day: I get to visit both Frederick Wal-Marts in one day.

I get there, and there is just a guy with dreads working the counter, and he's helping some guy with tires.

So I get to wait some more. There's a woman running around, but she's too busy to help me.

Finally some young teenage kid comes in, and Busy Woman tells him to help me. So apparently Busy Woman is Boss Woman.

I tell Teenage Kid that I need my battery replaced, and mention that the other store already tested it. Maybe Teenage Kid isn't aware of the store policy of not trusting your colleagues at other stores. But Boss Woman comes up and whispers, "No, you have to test it." Apparently Boss Woman wasn't so busy that she couldn't enforce the "No-Trusting-the-Word-of-other Wal-Mart-Stores" policy.

So he gets out the stuff to test it, but he just looks at it like it's some complicated piece of equipment designed by Homeland Security, so Boss Woman comes up to show him how to do it. And ends up just doing it herself. In a few minutes it comes up saying that the battery needs replacing. I find myself wishing that the display would also say, "You know, you could have just trusted the guys at the other Wal-Mart store," but that's too much to wish for.

So Teenage Boy walks off to grab a 78N, while Boss Woman goes over to help Dreads with Tire Guy.

I hand my receipt to Teenage Boy, who takes it, my old battery, and the new battery over to the register. He looks at the receipt. Then at the register. Back to the receipt. Register again. Then at the old battery. Back to the receipt. Back at the register.

Ah, yes, seems they haven't gotten to the part of Teenage Boy's training where they tell him how to make a warranty exchange. Or they have, and he's forgotten.

When he figures out that alternating stares at the receipt and the register isn't going to get it done, he turns around to look for help, but Boss Woman and Dreads are deeply involved with Tire Guy. Seriously, how long can it take to figure out what size tire you need?

Well, Boss Woman is getting into the thing with Tire Guy, explaining how they don't have the tire he wants but he can go online and order them and have them sent to the store and installed. But she doesn't explain, she actually goes online and scrolls up and down for the guy.

Oblivious to poor, helpless Teenage Boy and Increasingly-Impatient Middle-Aged Guy. Boss Woman is so into helping Tire Guy that Dreads figures he's no longer needed, so he just kinda wanders back.

I see Teenage Boy whisper to Dreads. OK, good, he'll get some help from Dreads, who's obviously been around for a while. But Dreads just smiles and shakes his head.

I'm starting to get a little ticked off now. Boss Woman spends a good fifteen minutes working with Tire Guy, who is not even going to be buying any tires today!

Finally she gets done, and Teenage Boy asks her for help. She whips out some keys, turns some cranks, pounds out some numbers on the keyboard, and bunch of other stuff, and finally Teenage Boy is able to use the scanner to make the exchange. I sign a couple of things, he apologizes for the wait, and I head out to the car.

I'm driving Pam's car, of course, but when I turn the ignition--nothing.
Nothing. I check to make sure the car is in Park. It is.
The battery is dead.

"Are you freakin' kidding me?!" I get out of the car, and I'm in full rant mode. Mother's are hurrying their children off to safety, covering their ears as they go.

I'm oblivious. I shake my fist at God: "Nooooo! What have I done to You? I didn't steal yesterday's sermon off the Internet, I wrote it all myself! Why? WHY?!!"

So now I go to the guy outside who's in charge of lining up service orders. Dude is wearing a collar, I kid you not. Some kind of string-and-shell collar. But Collar Dude is real helpful. He gets all his equipment, hooks it up to Pam's car, and in a minute gets a printout saying that the battery needs to be replaced.

And, seriously, I'm waiting for him to tell me that they are all out of that battery, but I can get one over at the other store. Luckily, for his sake and that of all the mothers with small children who happened to be at Wal-Mart at that time, he has the battery. Jumps it off and tells me to drive to the third service bay.

I'm thinking, it doesn't take long to replace a battery. Loosen a couple of nuts, remove the cables, loosen a bolt, pull out the old battery, put the new one in, tighten the bolt, put the cables back on, tighten the nuts, BOOM! Done.

So I go inside to wait the ten minutes max this is going to take, when Collar Dude comes in and says, "Hey, it'll be about an hour on that battery."

Well, of course it will be. So I go in the store, buy a Mt. Dew--full strength, not diet, because why not?--and go back to sit in the waiting area.

After an hour I get up to see that my car is ready, but at the counter Boss Woman and Dreads are checking some dude out, except the dude has a cart full of groceries. Why are they checking a cart of groceries in the automotive section? And why is it taking two people to do it?

So I get in line, and it takes ten minutes to check out Grocery Guy. And the two people in front of me need keys made. It takes 20 minutes for me to finally be able to pay for my stupid battery! But, finally, it's paid for, and I can get in the car, take the first battery to Randy and go home and, I don't know, maybe get drunk or something.

And just then the heavens opened up, and rain comes cascading down in sheets.

"Noooooooo!! What have I done to You!!!"

You know, a lot of people who go to Wal-Mart are kinda sketchy. I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't say that, but you know it's true. But you know you've gone over the top when the sketchy people whisper to each other, "Stay away from that guy, he's kinda sketchy."

So now I have to wait for the rain to die down a bit. What the heck, I'm getting good at waiting. It's like 4 p.m. by now. Eventually I get the battery to Randy, go home, cook some fish on the grill, then head to the garage to work on a guitar while Pam heads to the rescue squad.

In a few minutes Randy calls and says, "Got your battery installed, Mr. Eubanks, but I can't get to the oil change until the morning."

"That's fine, Randy." Considering everything else that has happened today, it's actually perfect. Anything else would have ruined a perfectly rotten day.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Scripture and Authority, Pt. 3

I want to explore one more way that we can understand biblical authority that is undoubtedly different than most people’s understanding of that phrase, but perhaps more in keeping with the biblical witness. A story has been described as a narrative that has a beginning, middle, and an end, and let’s assume for argument’s sake that a given author writes his story in this order. After he writes chapter one, chapter two must in some way build upon chapter one. As he writes each subsequent chapter, the previous chapters serve as a control. A character can’t change personalities each chapter, or act like events in previous chapters never occurred. The story can’t move from being a comedy in one chapter to a tragedy in the next and then a satire in the third. In other words, there has to be some internal consistency in subsequent chapters. What has been written has a certain amount of authority over that which will be written.

Now suppose that, as sometimes happens, an author dies before finishing the story, and his son, wanting to honor the father’s memory, decides to finish the story. What the son writes has to fit with what his father had written, yet he doesn’t know how his father intended the story to end, so he must be creative, but always under the authority of what has already been written. The ending must be something that is believable given what the reader already knows about the characters, the setting, and the main conflict. Ideally, the son will have done such a good job in following the trajectory of the story the father had written that the reader can’t tell where the father’s writing ended and the son’s picked up.

Now, the biblical story ends with Revelation, but the story that the Bible tells—the story of what God is doing in the world—that story hasn’t ended yet. It is still being written. It is the story of God putting the world back to rights, back to the way that he intended it to be when he created it and populated it with birds, fish, plants and animals, and humans. He is doing it through the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus and the power of the Spirit—and he is doing it through humans as well. The Bible is full of stories of God interacting with humans, drawing them into his plan, vesting them with his authority, and sending them forth to both submit to and create the outworkings of this plan.

So we can look at the Old Testament as the opening chapters of this larger story, and the New Testament as the middle chapters, but the story continues. Each of us are invited to write part of the subsequent chapters through the living of our lives, but in order to do so, we must know how the story begins, we must understand the climax of the story in Christ, and we must submit to what has gone on before so that what we write with our lives will be consistent with what has already been written. God invites a certain amount of creativity, because themes like love, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption are inexhaustible in the ways they can be demonstrated. But we don’t have complete freedom to do whatever we like—our freedom falls under the authority of Scripture. In other words, every innovation of our lives must also be consistent with the story that God has been writing throughout history, embodied in Scripture.

In this way Scripture is more than a witness to what God has been doing in the world to bring about his redemptive plan, it is a vehicle for bringing it about. When we read it, in private and out loud in public worship; when we study it in depth and allow it to become part of the fabric of our being; when we fall under its authority and live our lives as part of the continuing story, fully consistent with what has gone on before, we actually help to bring into existence the Kingdom of God toward which God is moving all creation. And when we invite others into the story and help them hear God’s invitation to write a chapter, we create the Kingdom of God as well.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Scripture and Authority, Pt. 2

In the last post I began looking at the issue of the authority of Scripture by asking the question, “In what ways can a poem be authoritative?” and then showing that, in many ways, applying the concept of authority to the variety of literary types found in the Bible is a category mistake. In other words, each literary type or genre has it own rules or conventions and must be examined and interpreted according to those conventions. For legal documents, authority is a proper category; a municipal code has authority limited to its municipality, while the U.S. Constitution has complete authority that is nonetheless limited to the United States. But unless lawmakers start writing bills in verse, I have a hard time seeing how authority is a proper category for poetry. “Is it beautiful?” is a proper question to ask, as is “How does the poem make me feel?” “Is it true” is also a good question, but the issue of truth applied to poetry is different than when asked of a newspaper column. In the latter, “Is it true” means “Did it actually occur as the article reports?” but that’s an irrelevant question regarding 99.9% of poetry, including biblical poetry. Go ahead, pick any psalm and ask that question and see how it gets you nowhere. For poetry, “Is it true” means something like, “Does this jibe with my own experience or that of people I know well? When things are going well and I want to praise God, does this psalm express what I am feeling? When things are going bad and I want to complain to God, does this psalm express what I want to say but may be afraid to say?” If the answer is yes, then you may want to say that the psalm has some authority in your life—but probably not. You would probably say that it really speaks to you, that it means a lot to you, that you are drawn to it over and over again.

I’m not sure that, prior to the dominance of Enlightenment philosophy beginning in the 18th century, authority was much of an issue with regard to biblical interpretation. Even if so, it certainly wasn’t so at the level that it became, particularly for evangelicals, at the beginning of the 20th century. Before the Reformation, authority rested in the Church, ruled by priests and, ultimately, the Pope. Now, there is no confusion about authority there. We understand how people exercise authority—to control other people. But when the reformers transferred that principle to a book things got muddy. N.T. Wright expresses this well:

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.

Maybe the word “authority” applied to literature is like “Christian” applied to a t-shirt; just as a t-shirt can’t be a Christian, only a person can be a Christian, maybe a book can’t be authoritative, only a person can be authoritative. And just as the moon only reflects the light of the sun, so also any book that bears authority is just reflecting the authority of the person behind the book.

Ultimately, our authority as Christians is Jesus, and even Scripture falls under his authority, for he and no one or no thing else is the perfect and complete image-bearer of the Father. And it does no good to say, as some have done, that we only know Jesus through the pages of the Bible, for then I can no more have a personal relationship with Jesus than I can with any other historical figure that I can only know through the pages of some history book. No, the Christian witness is that Jesus is alive, that we can each have a personal relationship with him, and that in following him I can know God. God is our authority, but his authority is not that of a king with a sword but of a king washing his servants’ feet, and then hanging on a cross.

And God’s authority isn’t about controlling people but redeeming them so they can live the life he created them to live. And maybe that reveals a lot of our problem when we talk about religious authority, whether that of a book or of an ecclesial body or even that of God—we are still speaking of authority in terms in which the world has always defined and exercised it, whereas Jesus came to provide us a new definition of authority and a new way of exercising it. Instead of controlling people, God’s authority frees them; instead of coercing obedience, God’s authority invites obedience; instead of dictating behavior, God’s authority provides examples of the type of behavior that leads to life; and instead of authority resulting in resentment and/or power-hoarding and power-grabbing, God’s authority results in love, thanksgiving, and mutual submission.

And that’s the point: God’s authority doesn’t feel like authority, it feels like love, and that’s because that’s what it is: the authority of love. We listen to God not because we have to, but because we know he loves us and is looking out for us. And we obey, not because we have to, but because we love him and we trust him with our lives.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scripture and Authority, Pt. 1

In what way can a poem be authoritative?

I ask that because the Bible is full of poetry, and evangelicals like to invoke something called “the authority of Scripture,” which begs the question: “In what way can a poem be authoritative?”

With some written documents the issue of authority is clear. A bill passed into law by a government in our country has authority. It must be obeyed, or there are consequences ranging from monetary fines, community service, or incarceration. These laws are authoritative, yet they all fall under the authority of another written document. The Constitution of the United States has an authority that is clear. All laws must be in keeping with the rights, privileges, values and principles outlined in the Constitution, and any that in any way violate or contradict the Constitution are thrown out, invalidated as being unconstitutional. So, in a legal sense, we understand how documents can be authoritative. But is this helpful in understanding the authority of Scripture? Sure, there are legal sections in the Old Testament, and for orthodox Jews these sections still carry authority for their lives, but not even all Jews recognize the authority of these old legal codes; certainly Christians don’t (except when those laws touch on certain pet social issues and support our position on those pet social issues). Jesus did not feel compelled to obey all the Old Testament laws regarding clean and unclean food, association with sinners, and gleaning on the Sabbath. And Paul’s letters, particularly Romans and Galatians, even more directly undermine the authority of these legal sections over the lives of Christians. Consequently, we are suspicious of anything that smacks of “legalism.” So surely when we speak about the authority of Scripture, we aren’t talking about the kind of authority one finds in a legal document, are we?

Are we?

Sometimes we’ll use “authoritative” with reference to a biography, history, or even science book that is seen to be the best word, the most complete word, or the most definitive word in a particular discipline. For instance, in the first half of the 20th Century the definitive text on Southern Baptist theology was E.Y. Mullins’ “The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression.” If you wanted to know what Southern Baptists believed, that was the book that you went to first and foremost. In most disciplines there are those definitive texts that are considered to be authoritative. The problem is—well, for one thing, how many of you have heard of E.Y. Mullins’ “The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression”? How many of you have heard of E.Y. Mullins? He was a giant among Southern Baptists, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1899 until his death in 1928. But by the time that I arrived at Southern Seminary in 1981, his text was no longer the definitive text. It was good, it was useful, but it had been bypassed by other theology texts. That’s the nature of authoritative texts: they are authoritative in their time, but rarely remain so. Human knowledge grows and develops, and as we learn, texts become less relevant and authoritative.

Surely this isn’t what we mean when we say that Scripture is authoritative, is it?

A history book is authoritative if it accurately records and describes what really happened during the period on which it is reporting. Thus if a book on the Civil War says that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred on July 5-7, 1864 instead of July 1-3, 1863, we aren’t going to give much credence to anything else the book says. I think that we are getting closer to what some people at least mean by the authority of Scripture, but there are (at least) two issues to deal with here: what, for instance, do we do with John placing the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2:12-16) when Matthew, Mark and Luke have it at the end of his ministry in their gospels? There are other similar chronological issues in the historical sections, but even if you are able to reconcile those, you are still left with the original question: In what way can a poem be authoritative? Not all of the Bible is historical in nature. There are parables, poems, apocalypses, epistles, prophetic utterances (almost all of which are poetry), psalms, proverbs, legal codes, love songs, festival songs, and all sorts of narratives to which it is difficult to apply the concept of authority.

This is an important issue, but a difficult one once you really start to examine it. Maybe, just maybe, the issue of authority is the wrong place to start when dealing with Scripture. Like I’ve said many times, if you ask the wrong kind of questions you get the wrong kind of answers.

Maybe there are better questions to ask.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Boot Leave

After graduation Austin had ten days of leave, officially called "boot leave." It doesn't count toward the 30 days of leave he gets each year. So we all drove back to our motel and changed for the drive home. Austin couldn't wait to get into civilian clothes.

A cool thing happened while he was changing. He showed us the Marine Corps emblem he received after at the Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony after the Crucible, and then he said to us, "I want you guys to have this, because I couldn't have done this without you.

Pretty cool moment for parents, as you can imagine.

Then he said, "I'd probably lose it anyway." OK, he could have left that part out, but it was still a cool moment.

After changing clothes we all headed over to the Outback for lunch. Since Austin turned 21 while in boot camp, he couldn't wait to get his first legal drink, so he ordered a Long Island Ice Tea. I think he was a little disappointed that the waitress didn't card him.

Then we piled in the cars for the 10-hour drive home. Judy and I went with Matt in his car since neither Pam, Angela, nor Ariella wanted to be separated from him. For the last leg of the trip I drove with Ariella, Austin and Judy so that we could drop Judy off at her house in Jefferson while Pam, Angela and Matt could arrive home first to surprise Austin by setting out yard signs.

Finally home:

Reunited with Kobi:

A big welcome:

Back in his room, just as he left it:

A camo fashion show at 1 a.m.:

Sunday morning he came to church in his dress blues. People were excited to see him and many wanted their pictures taken with him. Won't show you all of them, but here's one with Tim Krauss and his mother Becky. Tim is a young man with Asburger's whom Austin has worked with since he was young. Throughout boot camp Austin was the first person that Tim would pray for each night.

Pam's parents and sister Karen came up for church; this was the first time they got to see him, and I imagine seeing him in his dress blues was quite moving.

Pat Orr has been Austin's best friend since elementary school, and has the shirt to prove it:

We love Pat.

After church we headed home for a feast of barbeque from Famous Dave's, where Ariella works, and, more than two months afterwards, Austin's 21st Birthday Cake, which Angela made:

OK, sorry, I know I'm biased, but you gotta admit those are two good-looking kids Pam and I raised.

Celebratory cigars on the back deck:

Ten days went by fast, as you might imagine. He ate A LOT--I couldn't afford to feed him for more than 10 days, although he used his new salary to eat out a lot with Ariella. He went swimming at my parents' neighbor's pool:

And he, Ariella, Matt and Angela went to King's Dominion one day, which obviously drew Austin and Matt closer together:

Getting in touch with their inner...whatever.

One little boy from church, Jared McWilliams, had been looking forward to seeing Austin, but he was sick the day Austin was in church, so we arranged to have Jill bring Jared by the house the night before Austin left, and had Austin dress in his uniform. Jared says he wants to be a Marine chaplain, so he was thrilled to see Austin and had a ton of questions for him.

Austin with our next door neighbors Maddie and Justin:

Then it was time to take him to BWI so he could report to Camp Geiger in North Carolina for Marine Combat Training.

His flight left at 6:30 a.m., which means we had to be there around 4:30, which means...yeah, we didn't get much sleep.

And then he was gone again. We are, of course, very proud of him, and excited about how far he has come in the last few years to get to this point.

And hoping that things will get better in Afghanistan before he has to go there, whenever that might be. We have some time before that could happen, so we'll enjoy these times right now.