Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Why Does Your Bible Say What It Says?

You should know something about your Bible. Yes, it's more important to know what your Bible says, but you should also know something about why your Bible says what it says.

Read the preface. Know something about who translated your Bible and what principles guided their translation. Will you find something that leads to a profound spiritual experience? Probably not, but here's the point.

You Never Read Your Bible Alone

Whenever we read an English Bible, someone has made decisions for us. These decisions determine our starting point for trying to understand the Word of God. So, let's at least have some awareness of who made these decisions and what their decision-making philosophy is.

I said all of the above because it's the main takeaway from everything I'm about to say. Most of you will find the rest of this post pretty uninteresting. Whenever you decide to bail, just please remember to read the preface to your Bible. OK, now let's look at one example why we need to know something about our Bibles.

At Least They Didn't Wait til 2020

In last week's post I mentioned my inclination to mark 52 words in my Bible. The 52 words in question are the changes to the 2016 ESV text edition from the 2011 edition. Why would I want to note these?

I had assumed the 2016 edition was inferior to the 2011 edition. I based this assumption only on the changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. I guessed that these changes were representative of a philosophy change that led the translators astray elsewhere as well. More on that in a moment. But first, what is going on Genesis? Here are the verses in question.

Genesis 3:16 (2011)
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (2016)
To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

God's statement to Cain in Genesis 4:7 on sin desiring him also uses contrary to instead of for. Now, is this a clear-cut matter of one translation being better than another? Maybe, but that's not the point.

Nuance in the Notes

Translation is always an act of interpretation. All the same, when we translate our goal must be to represent what the text says rather than what we think it means. Granted, these principles always require caveats. We want to represent what the text says so long as that's meaningful to the reader. The 2016 rendering contrary to reflects what the translators—or the ESV editorial team—think the text means. They can make an argument for that, but the translation is not the place to make that argument.

The ESV Study Bible includes a note that explains how contrary to supposedly fits the context—and that's where interpretation belongs. For more on the translation-theory issues in the 2016 ESV's use of contrary to, see Denny Burk's post, Five Quick Points on the ESV's Rendering of Genesis 3:16.

Regarding the rest of the changes to the ESV 2016, however, I've read enough to now think marking all the changes probably isn't necessary. Contrary to seems to be the only instance where the cultural momentor maybe a response to the cultural moment—led the translators to theologize in the text.

Responsibly and Regularly

Again, translation is always an act of interpretation. So is reading. We are not perfect readers, and the translators are not perfect translators. We can, however, follow principles for responsible translating and reading. One of those is to know something about who translated your Bible. So, read the preface. Also read what someone else has to say about the translation you usually use, and then get back to reading your Bible!


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Why I Don't Take Notes In My Bible

I'm not telling you not to take notes in your Bible. Below are my thoughts from my experience, though I do have a recommendation for note takers.

Writing in your Bible is OK. In fact, you're encouraged to take notes in your Bible. That was the message from my Sunday school teachers when I was kid. I agreed with them in theory, but not in practice. I don't know why.

Why didn't I follow this guidance? I don't remember thinking it an act of rebellion. I just felt an aversion to marking in my Bible. I went with my gut.

More recently I've found a reason not to write in my Bible. When I'm reading the text, that's all I want. It's the same reason I don't primarily use a study Bible. I don't want my reading of the text skewed by someone's interpretation. I also don't want my reading skewed by my own interpretation!

Then and Again?

If I've made notes in a passage, then when I read that passage again the note will take my mind back to what I was thinking the last time I read that passage. A note taker might say, That's the point! Or, rather, the note shouldn't take me back to what I was thinking, but rather to what the Spirit told me.

My feeling is that I don't want the meaningfulness of the text then to distract me from its meaningfulness now. That is, I don't want to miss the application to my life today because my notes are reminding me of my situation—the hopes, circumstances and challenges—ten years ago, or even last year or six months ago. The note taker may argue that I'm missing something else.

Notes and Narrative

I've heard people say their Bible notes tell the story of their spiritual journey over the years. I think you know I believe in the importance of knowing one's story! I'll also grant that when I critique note taking, I'm knocking something I've never tried. Not to say I haven't taken notes from Bible readingI just always do so in a separate notebook. So, in some regards I agree with the note taker in spirit.

I agree there is value in documenting what the text (and hopefully, the Spirit) have taught us over time. There's also value in just recording the questions and thoughts that pop up. I will not, however, concede that all we have is a disagreement over method.

My concern is for keeping space open for new words from the Word. The note taker may claim he or she has continually understood new aspects of the text over the years without interference from his or her past notes. If that's the case, maybe this question is a to-each-his-or-her-own kind of thing. Still, I'll offer a recommendation to the note taker.

Fresh Pages, Fresh Eyes

Don't read only your note-taking Bible. Keep also a Bible that you never annotate. Spend a week in it every so often. Give yourself opportunities to read the text as though you were reading it for the first time. See what you see that you haven't seen. Will I make the converse concession, to spend a week now and then making notes in a separate Bible? I don't think so, but maybe I should.

I have some inclination to mark a certain 52 words in my current church-carry Bible. If I go through with that in the next week, you can read all about it right here. In the meantime—if you trust the Holy Spirit living in you as the guarantee of the salvation accomplished by Christ, then the only wrong way to read your Bible is not to read it. So, whether or not you take this note-taking or non-note-taking advice (from a kid who mostly listened to his Sunday school teachers), read your Bible!


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

On Watching A Helicopter Land Atop Children's Hospital

One day last week I found myself sitting in a parking deck, looking at the city. Suddenly, a helicopter appeared overhead. I watched it, and after a moment it took on a different motion. It became surreally deliberate in its descent. Then I realized it was landing on top of Children's Hospital.

It's neat to see something that appears to be still, but also moving, while knowing part of it is moving so fast you can't really see it. It was awesome—reminded me of Airwolf, but just for a moment.


Soon people appeared on the roof, rolling a stretcher to the helicopter. I had to process the reality. This scene wasn't Airwolf. It was somebody's baby who needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. That sent me down a different line of thought.

I'm glad our society has systems in place established on the premise that preserving human life is worth a helicopter flight. Yes, I know someone owns the helicopter. These systems can be lucrative. But, think about the pilot and the people on the roof. In that moment, do you think it was about the money?

So, a different way to say it could be that I'm glad we have systems established on insurers trusting that somebody considers the preservation of human life to be worth a helicopter flight. That's the less-feel-good sentiment, but we can feel worse still.


We could say that our society considers human life to be worth a helicopter flight, at least for now. While Western culture has continually looked less and less to Judaeo-Christian principles for its values, the average atheist still agrees that you don't count the cost before flying someone to the hospital. We'd be foolish, however, to take societal agreement on that point for granted.

Here is where we could list fundamental ideas whose perseverance was taken for granted anywhere from 70 to just ten years ago. But, that's not necessary, is it? The point is that we'd be foolish to think that dynamic has reached its conclusion. Some folks like to say the culture war is over, and we lost. That doesn't mean we don't have more to lose. Or, as Bob Dylan says it,

When you think that you've lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more

So, what do we do?


I don't have the answer for how to help atheist and pagans continue (or start!) believing that human life is worth a helicopter flight. Thankfully, that's not our job. Our job is to preach the gospel and to live by the ways of the kingdom.

  • Love my enemy
  • Give and serve without seeking recognition
  • Defer to the rights and dignity of others

The kingdom of God is always growing, always expanding. The culture doesn't always reflect that continually growth because the kingdom doesn't play by the culture's rules. The kingdom's advancement is mysterious, sometimes hidden. It doesn't look like a Fortune 500 company or a successful political campaign. It looks like:

  • A mustard seed
  • A woman kneading yeast into flour
  • A banquet for bystanders and beggars

We live our lives by the truth of the kingdom. In the world we find a chorus of voices that deny the kingdom's existence. So, we don't expect the world to look like the kingdom, and we shouldn't expect the kingdom's advancement to look like worldly success. Rather, while we go on living in the world, we go on looking for the kingdom and living by its ways. That doesn't mean we give up on the culture altogether. Sometimes the seemingly rocky ground rests on good soil hiding just beneath. We don't try to dig everything up. We scatter the seed.

Maybe I was having a childlike (or at least less cerebral) moment in the parking deck, because I was genuinely surprised when the helicopter took off again. Maybe even American culture has pleasant surprises still in store—some good soil beneath the surface. After all, we believe in the One who does the work of redemption. We are waiting for the One who makes all things new.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Christ's Victory Over Death Doesn't Wait For Us To Die

Trusting Jesus means having no fear to die.
It should also mean having no fear to live.

You may have seen a headline over the summer about a professional golfer who wants to live to age 130. His name is Bryson DeChambeau. He believes that improving medical technology—along with forward-thinking diet and exercise—will make this goal achievable for his generation. DeChambeau is 27. So, he's got a ways to go. He discussed his lofty target in an interview that leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

The Dilemma

First of all, why? Granted, staying alive is the default human ambition. You probably did at least something today under the motivation of not dying, and you feel no need to explain that choice. Nonetheless, if you want to live a good 50 years beyond the average lifespan, that's a philosophical decision. You should have a reason why you want to live to 130 instead of to 80. That brings us to another question.

What does DeChambeau plan to do in those additional 50 years? Yes, he's chosen the one sport that somewhat forgives aging, but even if 80 years of life is not enough living, surely 80 years of golf is more than enough golfing. How is he going to spend his platinum years? Also, what does he want at the end? Does he want to know when he's finally made it there? Let's transition this thought experiment to the life of faith.

The Difference

In his book, A Cross-Shattered Church, Stanley Hauerwas points out that Christians in earlier times wanted to know when they were nearing death. He refers us to the Great Litany of the Episcopal Church, in which the pray-er petitions to be spared "dying suddenly and unprepared." Stan contrasts that idea to the modern desire to die in one's sleep after a day like any other. Short of that luxury, we hope for doctors skilled enough to keep me alive to the point that I don't know I'm dead. We want to be here, and then not, without facing reality in between. That makes sense enough, unless you believe death is not something to fear.

Christians can live without fear of death because we know that in Jesus God made good on his promise from Isaiah 25:8.

He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.

By his own death Christ defeated the power of death. So trusting Jesus means having no fear to die, and also having no fear to live. That is, we can live without fear of failing to cheat death. We can reject the scams this world peddles as ways to beat death. Let's consider a couple of these bogus prospects.

1. The Robust Life

This idea says that if you do everything you ever wanted to do and go everywhere you ever wanted to go and own everything you every wanted to hold, then, congratulations—death cannot defeat you, because you've gotten everything you wanted out of life anyway. This idea has plenty of problems.

Firstly, well—read Ecclesiastes. So few of the things we long for get even close to delivering the satisfaction we imagined they could. Secondly, there's always something else. Desire is part of our makeup. Only those who train their desire on righteousness and holiness will be satisfied. For the rest of us, there will always be a next thing that we want. Finally, this approach simply saddles us with a different kind of fear—the fear of not accomplishing everything on the list. What if I have an unexpected expense and then can't afford the Paris trip?

2. Transcendence

We're still reading Shakespeare. While few of us aspire to that level of relevance after death, the world still tempts us in the same way on a smaller scale. If we can just make a name for ourselves in some circle of influence, we'll be remembered—at least for a little while, at least by somebody. The world touts legacy as a sort of immortality. This idea also fails. First of all, any scheme for cheating death that uses immortality metaphorically is a fantasy. And, again, it leaves us fearful. How can I ever be sure that I've done enough, said enough, or achieved enough to be remembered?

The Way

Trusting Jesus means we don't have to play these games, or any others. We don't have to find a way to cheat death because Jesus has already conquered death, and his victory over death doesn't wait for us to die. Jesus frees us to live today. Any attempt on our own to establish meaningfulness in life doesn't really constitute living. Rather, it becomes toil—toiling to find some way to defy the fearfulness of death.

To toil is part of the curse of sin. Jesus not only swallows up death, he also removes the reproach of his people. The curse still mars this world, but we don't have to be slaves to it. The answer to escaping the curse of this world isn't stretching our time in this world to 130 years. Rather, it depends on the One who is making this world new. Jesus liberates us to love God and love others without being fearful to die and without being fearful to live!