Doing History in a Digital Age

While the journal Perspectives does not cover theology or biblical studies, the articles in its May 2007 issue may be of interest to bibliobloggers. The issue centers on the topic “History and the Changing Landscape of Information.” It may be worth taking a gander. For those who have decried the inaccuracies of Wikipedia, there’s an interesting article by a scholar who uses Wikipedia entries as a vehicle for teaching. See “Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia),” by Christopher Miller. The entire issue is available online.

Context is King – Even in Movie Trailers

For those teachers out there who would stress to their students the importance of context when interpreting Scripture, the following re-edited movie trailers on YouTube could very well serve as excellent examples. When the context is removed, you can make the harmless seem harmful and the harmful seem harmless:


Post-class comments on Lesson 4 – James 1:9-11

Yesterday’s class went very well. I was happy that the subject matter sparked quite a bit of discussion. I started the class with an exercise put together by Pamela Sparr in the updated version of Elsa Tamez’ The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead (pp. 119-125). In this exercize I had a table set up for five people with plates, cups, forks & knives, a gallon of milk, measuring cup, and a danish ring. I then had five volunteers come to the table and one of them divide the danish into four equal pieces. I took a pinch of crumbs and laid it on one person’s plate. Then I had someone cut a third of one fourth and put it on another person’s plate. Then the remaining 2/3 of the fourth on another plate. Then a whole quarter went to one person and half to one final person. I then explained that this represented the distribution of income in the United States. Each person represented 20% of the US population. One half of the income goes to a single 20% segment, while the lower 20% only recieves a “smidgeon” of income:

Individual Income 1st 20% 2nd 20% 3rd 20% 4th 20% 5th 20%
% of total income earned by group 3.6% 9% 15% 23% 49.4%
Average income for a person in group $9,940 $24,436 $40,879 $63,555 $135,401

I then had one of the volunteers pour milk into each person’s cup. The 1st recieved 2 oz.; the 2nd 3 oz.; the 3rd and 4th received 3.5 oz., and the 5th received 22 oz. of milk. Finally, I had the volunteer pour slightly less than 1 oz. in the measuring cup. This represented the spread of wealth in the world’s economy. I think that this exercise was quite helpful in demonstrating to upper-middle class residents of the North Shore of Massachusetts that there is inequality in the world, even if we do not feel it too much in suburbia.

After discussing the inequality of distribution, I handed out the lesson and we read James 1:9-11:

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. (NIV)

While studying this text, I was struck at the strangeness. If I put out of my mind what I knew of the Gospels, the scandal of James’ message hit me a little harder. The humble brother may boast in their exaltation even though we don’t see much of that exaltation in this age. The rich brother can boast in his humiliation. Then the real scandal – the rich can boast in his humiliation because he will one day fade away in his pursuits like a Palestinian flower withering under the hot sun in a sirocco wind storm. How can this be? I explained to the class that James is alluding to Isaiah 40:4, 6-8:

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. . . . All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.

This passage speaks of a day of “Great Reversal” when Israel’s exile is at its end, and Israel’s God returns on straightened paths. James picks up the imagery of the text. The humble will be exalted along with Isaiah’s valleys, and the rich debased along with Isaiah’s mountains. James’ brother, along with his cousin, John, preach of this great reversal. The beatitudes in Luke proclaim a series of eschatological blessings for the poor, the hungry and the mourning, while warning of eschatological judgment to the rich, the satisfied and the laughing. This gives the poor reason to boast. In their poverty, they are favored in the Kingdom of God.

How then can the rich boast in James? Of course this is the crux interpretum of the passage. Who are the rich? Insiders or outsiders? Is their boasting literal or ironic? The more I think about it, the more I think that the rich in this context are indeed rich brothers – they are insiders with reason to boast because in their care of the poor, they have emptied themselves of their resources. In essence, I think that James is stating, “You folks who were once rich, but have now debased yourself in care of the poor for the sake of the kingdom have reason to boast. After all, if you had continued in your pursuits as a rich person, you would have faded away like a wilted flower.” I demonstrated this pouring out by taking the 22 oz. cup of milk and using it to level off all of the other nearly empty cups. (I only spilled a little milk!)

I openned up the time for discussion at this point. Does James’ declaration here mean that as Christians we should become “bleeding heart liberals?” I used incendiary language on purpose, of course! The discussion was helpful. One respected gentleman in the class, who has been quite successful in business observed that we cannot simply repond to this by pouring money out to those with need without thinking. He stated that he has been quite thoughtful about the issue, and does not see any value in socialism. On person remarked that according to certain TV preachers, the United States is blessed because it is a righteous nation founded on godly principles. This caused another to point out other prosperous nations who are anything but “Christian.” I encouraged the class that there was no such thing as an easy answer to poverty, but at the same time, we must answer. We must ask the question and not let the overwhelming nature of the problem cause paralysis. We must ask for wisdom from the Father of Lights to guide us as we are tested with our wealth in a less-than-just world.

Lesson 4 outline available.

A paper I wrote on James’ use of the OT in 1:9-11 is available as well.

Post-class comments on Lesson 3 – James 1:5-8

Scarecrow sings, «If I only had a brain...»“If I only had a brain…” That’s the song of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was looking for home, the Tin Man needed a heart and the Lion some c-c-courage. As the three were embarking on the yellow brick road, they realized they were each missing something. James, after telling us to consider all of life’s trials as “pure joy” (1:2), also realizes that we all need something – this something is wisdom. “If I only had wisdom…” Wisdom ≠ brains. No, again and again, the Old Testament says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” James later describes wisdom in terms that have much more to do with character rather than intellect (3:13-18). Wisdom for James is about reacting to trials and temptation as God would have us respond rather than with our own visceral, gut reaction.

Thankfully, James does not tell us to simply wish for wisdom, but points us to the generously giving God who is singly devoted to doing what’s best for us-with no strings attached (1:5). While God gives without reservation, he does reserve his hearing to only certain kinds of prayers – the prayers of those who are singly devoted and faithful to him. He will not listen to the prayers of double-minded doubters. Now, God does not turn a deaf ear to those of us with intellectual doubt. No, there are too many Psalms that ask sincerely “How long O, Lord?” or “Why have you forsaken me?” God hears those prayers that express “intellectual doubt” when those doubts are handed over to him. What God turns a deaf ear to is the prayer of one who asks for something from a benevolent God, but in turn goes “behind God’s back” and acts of his own accord with no regard to God’s will in his life. The God who is single-heartedly devoted to giving us what is best demands that we approach him as single-hearted believers who not only believe in God, but actually act upon it. To have anything other than single-hearted devotion to the single-hearted generous God is to accept a life and reputation as unstable as the storm-tossed sea. So, the question is will you stand secure in obedient faith, or will you accept seasickness as your lot? Secure or seasick? The answer is a no-brainer, but the follow-through will take all the resources of a God who is 100% loyally sold out to giving us what is best – for our good and his glory.


Post-class comments on Lesson 2 – James 1:2-4

An outline of the class is available here: 02_James1.2-4.pdf.

Overall I feel the class went well. I joked with my pastor that I planned to title the class “Eschatologische Vorfreude.” He wasn’t impressed. Instead, I stated that this passage has to do with the Christian’s life cycle, and the change of perspective necessary to consider trials to be an occasion for joy. While I did my “academic” homework on the passage, I found Stulac’s commentary helpful for an overall structure surrounding the words TRIAL, TEST, PERSEVERANCE and MATURITY:Joy CycleI opened with a story about a “bad day” that my wife and I had this summer, but I got a real response from the illustration of the brick layer who had a day that was much worse! (See the PDF.) Anyway, I proceeded from there. As I mentioned before, I am loathe to not let James speak for himself, but I could not help but see Christ as the ultimate example of joy in the midst of trial:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

It is because of Christ’s willingness to endure (hupemeinen), that we can be called to joyful endurance.

This past week, I have been listening to a lecture given at Gordon-Conwell by N. T. Wright on Paul’s vision of God’s future. He concludes with a quote from C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters:

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys (39).

In this chapter of Lewis’ fictional conversation between the devils, uncle Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood, Screwtape speaks of “the law of undulation.” This law refers to the ebb and flow of life as a human – there are ups and there are downs. The strangeness of this law, from a demonic point of view is that “the Enemy” (from Screwtape’s point of view the Enemy is God) uses the low parts of the human’s life to call them closer to himself. This, I think is at the heart of James’ call to joy in trials.

I ended the lesson by handing out packs of Skittles to the class. James admonishes us to consider our “multi-colored trials” as “all joy.” So, I wanted them to have something multi-colored and sweet. It was a small gesture, but I hope it let the concept sink in.

Post-Class Comments on Lesson 1 – James 1:1

So, this morning I put into action the outline given in my previous post. Overall, I’d say that the class went well, as I recieved a few comments from trustworthy friends that it was a good class. A friend did note that I used some theological jargon, but then she noted that I was quick to explain the jargon. I only wish that friend could have remembered what jargon I used. I generally try to avoid the esoteric language of biblical studies when teaching Sunday School. (This is really tough as seminary has taught me all these nifty words that are convenient signposts to bigger concepts in theological discussions.) That being the case, when the content of the class merits introducing the students to a term that is worth knowing, I like to use it and explain it. After all, they are there to learn. Nonetheless, as I’ve heard in the past: “It’s easy to take the student out of seminary, but it’s another thing to take the seminary out of the student!”

An important premise for my lesson was that as James picked Old Testament saints as paradigms for his audience, so we can look at the life of James the Just as a paradigm for our own lives. My lesson presupposes that James the Just is the author. I avoided other theories of authorship, but then again this is not a “critical” or “academic” class, and the traditional view is well grounded.

I began the class with a question and the help of my lovely wife – a preschool teacher. First I asked the class, “If you were to draw a picture of yourself, what would it look like?” Then, my wife displayed some of the self portraits drawn by her preschoolers. It’s both funny and interesting to see how a child views themselves. The drawing posted here is typical – arms and legs extending from a head, with no torso. Thankfully, our self image changes over time. The image that pops into our head when we think of a “self portrait” is not the same as the image that a child produces!

Next, it was on to James. I briefly sketched the life of James the Just. He was Jesus’ brother, but he was probably not a believer until after the resurrection. (Here I also did a little creative speculation about what it would have been like to be Jesus’ younger brother. Perhaps Mary scolded James saying, “Why can’t you be more like Jesus? He never gave us any trouble!”) I then briefly described James as witness to the resurrection, leader of the Jerusalem church and “arbitter” of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15. Finally, I described James’ piety, as described by Eusebius and Josephus, and how that prayerful piety ultimately resulted in his martyrdom.

This cursory glance at the life of James was not the focus of the lesson, however. Instead the point of the lesson was that even with James’ accomplishments, leadership and piety, James describes himself in the letter as “the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” James’ self image and perspective was not wrapped up in himself, but in the God he served. James the brother becomes James the slave in relationship to the risen Lord and Messiah. As a slave/servant of God, James stands in line with Moses, David, the prophets and even Jesus. While I am loathe to describe James in Pauline terms, I mentioned a Pauline analog – Phil. 2:5-11, as does William F. Brosend:

James announces in his self-introduction that he has emptied himself, not counting “equality” (fraternal kinship) as “something to be exploited” and claiming only the place of a slave. Tradition…records that he too was martyred, and while he is not, of course, confessed as Lord, he is revered as a saint (James and Jude, 33).

Indeed, James is an example of a life lived in emulation of the Suffering Servant. So, the question is, “How do we view ourselves?” Do we define ourselves by what we do, or to whom we belong?

Unfortunately, I did not have time to go into any depth about James’ recipients – “the twelve tribes of the dispersion.” I did end on an eschatological note that I’ll pick up next week, as James sees his audience as living in “a time between times” (a phrase borrowed from Lawhead’s The Silver Hand). Mussner’s term, “interimsethik” captures this concept even for my American ears (Jakobusbrief, 210). The phrase “twelve tribes of the dispersion” evokes hope in the restoration of God’s people, while admitting they are nonetheless still in a form of exile (hat tip to N.T. Wright). James’ call for endurance and his challenge to “count it all joy” are best viewed through this lens, but that’s next week’s lesson.

So, that’s the scoop. I hope that I did not oversimplify in the classroom, and I hope I avoided the “academic abyss.”

BTW: In the future, I will not double-post as I did this time. Instead, I’ll provide a PDF outline along with a “post game” commentary similar to today’s post.

Lesson 1, James 1:1, What’s your perspective?

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.

If you were to draw a self portrait, what would it look like?

Each of us has a different self perspective.

What is perspective? Things look differently when you change your position. We each have different “views” of ourselves and others.

  1. Who was James?
    1. How other people saw James:
      1. Brother of Jesus
        1. Taught by Mary & Joseph and grew up with Jesus (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3).
        2. Sibling rivalry?
        3. Probably did not believe in Jesus before the resurrection (Mark 3:20-21).
          “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).
      2. Disciple
        1. Witnessed Jesus after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:7).
        2. Leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15, 21).
        3. Resolved the dispute over Gentiles in the church (Acts 15).
      3. James the Just (or Righteous). See Eusebius, Church History 2.23; Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1 § 200-201.
        1. James was recognized as a righteous man even by Jews outside of the church.
        2. A man with caloused knees – like a camel – from many hours at prayer.
        3. He was martyred for his faith in Jesus – thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and beaten to death with a fuller’s club (a fuller is a person who washes clothes).
    2. How James saw himself:
      1. What did James not say about himself?
        1. James makes no boast of personal piety.
        2. James does not even admit that he is Jesus’ brother.
      2. What did James say about himself?
        1. Servant of God = “Slave of God.”
          1. Paul (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1) refers to himself as a “slave of God.” Jacob (Gen 32:10), Joshua (Jdg 2:8), and David (Ps 89:3) are all called “slaves of God.”
          2. Servant implies that one could quit working for one master and then get another job. Actually, slaves were property. “Slave” in American history implies a demeaning position. This is not necessarily the case in the ancient world. Slaves could be doctors, teachers and even leaders.
        2. Servant/Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ
          1. Jesus is not just James’ older brother, he is Lord and Christ!
          2. Lord = kurios. Kurios was used to translate YHWH, the name of God in the OT.
          3. Christ = Messiah, annointed one. Israel’s hopes rested on a future descendent of David who would conquer her foes and restore her fortunes.
    3. How do you view yourself?
      1. Carpenter? Contractor? Student? Librarian? Wife? Secretary? Pastor? Son? Mother? Father? Daughter? Teacher? Husband? OR
      2. Servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?
  2. To whom was James writing?
    1. James is a “catholic epistle.” Catholic (with a little “c”) = universal. The letter’s also known as a “general epistle.” This means that it was not addressed to any particular congregation.
    2. James addresses his letter with a different “spin.”
      1. Twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
        1. Twelve Tribes: The organization of Israel since the Exodus… Jacob had twelve sons and the twelve tribes were their descendants.
        2. Scattered: Because of Israel’s sin, she faced punishment at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians who deported her people and scattered them throughout the ancient world. (See Deut 4:27, etc.)
        3. Israel still hoped for the renewal of twelve tribes:
          1. When Israel is restored it will be divided into twelve tribes again (Isaiah 49:6; Ezek 48-49).
            Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name’ (Neh 1:8–9).
          2. The Jews at Qumran (in the Dead Sea Scrolls) believed in a final end-time battle, with Israel’s armies organized into twelve divisions.
          3. Jesus states the disciples will judge the twelve tribes:
            Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28).
          4. The 144,000 of Revelation 7 is based on 12,000 faithful times twelve tribes.
      2. From James’ perspective, his audience stands at an important time in history.
        1. They are part of what God is doing in history to restore his people to their proper place.
          1. They are between judgment and restoration.
          2. Michael Card says it well, “We belong to eternity, stranded in time.”
          3. 1 Peter 1:1 – “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.”
            1 Peter 2:11 – “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”
        2. This restoration is bigger than Israel’s twelve tribes. It is a restoration of all creation (Jas 1:18).
    3. How do you view your world? How do you view your fellow Christians?
      1. We are a part of God’s plan to restore his people, and to restore all of creation!
      2. We are strangers, scattered in a foreign land.
      3. We await our gathering together as the people of God.

    (PDF outline available here.)

    Not many of you should become teachers…

    Seat of MosesTomorrow I start an adult Sunday School class on the Epistle of James. This will be the first time I’ve systematically taught through the book, though I’ve stared at this work for quite some time. Of course this is the rub. I’ll be teaching a book that I have studied academically to people who need to hear its practical message. I guess it is fitting that I feel this dissonance, after all, James did warn of the high calling/responsibility of teaching:

    Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. Μὴ πολλοὶ διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε, ἀδελφοί μου, εἰδότες ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα.

    James demands practical application. Of course it’s reception in theological circles has suffered because it appears to be “light” on theology and “heavy” on application. I once surveyed some of the primary systematic theologies (in English) and found only a handful of references to James in the indices. Perhaps this speaks of a larger problem, where ethics can be divorced from theology. James would answer of course, οὐ χρή, ἀδελφοί μου, ταῦτα οὕτως γίνεσθαι (See trans.).

    So, tomorrow I begin. May the class be flavored with the practical wisdom of the epistle! Of course, my first class is only on one verse (1:1)! I could be leading the class to a dangerous ledge, with the real threat of pushing them into the academic abyss. I think I’ve found a way around the danger, but I’ll post more on that after Sunday morning.

    PS: I hope to post my teaching outlines and ideas on this blog as the class progresses. I welcome feedback.