Category Archives: Theology

Musings on God and His ways in the world, and how we humans interact with Him/them.

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

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From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

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Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

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I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

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This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

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A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

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I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

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I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Why all the fuss over RHE?

The amount of controversy kicked up by Rachel Held Evans never fails to amaze me. She says stuff I disagree with, stuff I agree with, and a lot of stuff in between that just represents …. ideas. Not brilliant or heretical or life-altering. Occasionally perceptive, deep, and moving.

So it was with when I sat down to read one of her more famous books. After noticing how the mere mention of RHE turns many of my (otherwise nice, kind, normal) male Christian friends into raging assholes, I started reading more of her works in an attempt to make sense of what kept happening on my Facebook feed.

51T8OyRMLiL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A Year of Biblical Womanhood punches all the buttons of someone who wants to hate RHE’s books: She’s happy to pick and choose theological and religious experiences in her pursuit of living for a year like a “biblical woman.” She rejects several standard, beloved Evangelical positions. The whole book is written as if it should be a Big Deal… when it really isn’t.  But hey, I remember being 30 and uncertain and searching.

On the other hand, RHE always turns up (IMO)  ideas I find worthy of contemplation. Several moments of her yearlong experiment in living through loosely defined ‘biblical womanhood’ resulted in moving passages in the book. I nodded along and underlined sentences and starred words which encapsulated some of the same critiques I launch at the “evangelical establishment” – though usually only for the tiny audience of my husband.  Baptizing patriarchy and calling it holy through years of tradition and cultural syncretism is bad, even if challenging the status quo makes people uncomfortable.

Her ceremony to honor the female victims of the “Texts of Terror” is a good example of what makes her so infuriating to Evangelical men and endearing to me — a section both controversial and very touching. Rachel and her friend met in a modernized vigil similar to the commemoration of the Jephthah’s daughter mentioned in Judges 11:39-40 but lost in history. They lit candles in honor of the women who lived (and often died) in horrific circumstances, preserved for all time an eternity as “stories” in the Biblical text: Jephthah’s daughter. Tamar. The Levite’s concubine cut into pieces.

It pisses off Evangelicals to label as “texts of terror” the Old Testament accounts of brutal rape, murder, or mutilation of women. But RHE has a point: By normalizing these stories (or simply ignoring them – when’s the last time you heard a sermon from Judges 19?), we never force ourselves to come face-to-face with the difficult questions presented in the narratives of Scripture. Our world is seriously fucked up. Evil is really really really evil. Saying “it’s not so bad! God can make it good!” doesn’t make the evil less evil. But it’s way easier to ignore this than acknowledge it.

Or take Proverbs 31. A simple search for “Proverbs 31 woman” on Amazon brings up 100 pages of title results.  To say it in emoji:  O.O

This text is so revered as the sine qua non pattern of perfect womanhood, most of us won’t even speak out loud how deeply this text shames us:  The Proverbs 31 Woman, as archetype, is unattainable. Within the Evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, this woman may be prized as far above rubies, but the daily failure of any of us to live up to the standard makes it hard to smile through the Mother’s Day sermons. “She shall be praised,” yes, but the rest of us women live with the consequences.

RHE brought to light the fact that, within Judaism, Proverbs 31 is a blessing, not a command. How ironic. The “woman of valor” (eschet chayil) uses her gifts to bless her household, and within Judaism, it is the husband who memorizes this passage, that he may quote it for his wife in acknowledgment and gratitude.  Reading that section on Proverbs 31 in A Year of Biblical Womanhood released the passage from its status as oppressive overlord and gave me eyes to see instead beauty and grace. “Women of valor” exist everywhere in my life and they should be praised!

*   *   *   *

The conversation on “biblical womanhood” revolves around three fights:  1) equality vs submission within marriage; 3) women’s roles in the church, especially relating to the  pastorate; 3) modesty.

I appreciate RHE even when I disagree with her exegesis, hermeneutics, or conclusions because she reminds me that those fights are not as cut and dried as we insist on making them.

Good people – men and women with whom I will share the New Jerusalem – do not agree whether women can be pastors or whether the pursuit of egalitarian marriage is misguided or what makes something ‘modest.’ And when our response to an opposing viewpoint is to label it as dangerous liberal heresy and refuse to engage in the ideas or even acknowledge the writer herself as having a legitimate voice at the table, we fall into a blindness of our own making. 

RHE is a signpost for the changes in 21st Century American Christianity. A Millennial, she speaks for many who simply do not operate under the older “rules,” especially the tinge of Modernism that shaped the Christianity I grew up in. For postmodern Christians, story trumps propositions. Community triumphs over sectarianism and denominational divisions. Significance means seeing the Gospel heal the world in both tangible and spiritual realms, not ‘being right.’ Faith anchors in a living relationship with The Word (Christ).

Obviously many of my male theological friends disapprove (if Facebook is an accurate thermometer), but I happen to think the young’uns are headed in a better direction.

Faith UnraveledThis particular book of RHE’s will not move any mountains, and in some ways it’s as much an experiment to provide content for her blog/book than anything else. But others – like Faith Unraveled – are absolutely worth your time to read.

And I am glad that Rachel Held Evans (alongside many articular women) is writing, speaking, and provoking responses in the Church. We need her – and many more like her.

 

 

Why we need blue-haired people

A few weeks ago, I dyed my hair blue. This has caused a bit of a stir.

I’m not surprised. I find it quite stirring myself.

I did some experimental color last summer and fall, but this was a step well beyond the reds and even dark purples which don’t seem to scare people. I guess blue screams, I’m breaking away from the norms!

I’m sure people think I’m having a mid-life crisis. I don’t feel all crisis-y, so I doubt that’s it. I just honestly wanted to do something cool for once and this seems pretty innocuous and non-permanent. And fun.

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Having blue hair has been a revelation in some ways.

For one, total strangers are way more likely to give me a shout-out now. “I love your hair! Blue is my favorite color!” I’ve heard that at least a dozen times now, usually in the grocery store.

I’ve seen kids’ eyes get wide as they break into huge grins. They know what’s up. Sorry, parents, if your kids are using me right now as leverage in their argument to let them dye their hair…. By the way, you should totally let them do it….. Be prepared for some weird colors left behind in the shower though.

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We need blue-haired people in this world. We do. And tattooed people, and people with nose rings, and people who wear weird colors or look androgynous or who play D&D on the weekends with their friends in a basement somewhere.

We need the people outside the “norm.” They show the rest of us that it’s ok not to be all matchy-matchy with what the world tells us we should be like.

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We’re called to love those who are different, difficult, or outside our comfort zone. If you can’t get past the fact that I, a woman in the middle of her professional career, assaults your eyeballs with hair displaying about 5 blue hues — what are you going to do with the genuinely odd people you’re called to love?

Further, young people need to see all kinds of people living healthy, productive lives. Offering one standard model of a Human creates the impression that all the others are somehow deficient.

We crazy-haired people are pretty normal. Some of the nicest employees at the mall work at Hot Topic. Their body modifications (a typical trait of a HT employee, I’ve noticed) has no bearing on their friendliness, their capabilities as workers, or their value in this world. Likewise, I’m not sure why schools tend to jump all over things like crazy socks or crazy hair colors. Who cares what your socks look like? Or your hair?  “It’s distracting.”  Really?

God doesn’t care (I’m pretty certain) what my hair looks like. He created it brown, but I’ve never put much stock in the “if God wanted you to have ——, He would have created you that way” line of argument. Adam and Eve, apart from the Fall, would have still been working toward the New Jerusalem. From a Garden to a City was always the plan. (Read more about that in Al Wolters’ excellent little book, Creation Regained.)

Growth and development have always been the tasks of humans who create, being in God’s image.

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Evangelicalism is really struggling right now to handle the LGBTQ+ movement. What I’m seeing, for the most part, is a willingness on the part of most Christians to love individual people (people they know, people they’re already friends with) even after they find out those people identify with an alternate sexuality …. but a deep-seated resistance to loving LGBTQ+ people as a group.

Somehow, in the aggregate, what is non-normative is more threatening. To extend marriage rights (some argue) diminishes marriage. To bake a cake implies approval. And Godforbid we imply that in any way, we condone anyone’s aberrant sexual behavior, identity, or leanings.

Apparently the Holy Spirit has lost His ability to convict people of sin, righteousness, and judgement (cf: John 14) in these latter days. The LGBTQ+ movement broke Him?

A decade of teaching taught me that I can’t change anyone. I can love them, encourage them, cajole them, and warn. But I cannot change anyone. It’s simply not my job. And it’s also not my job to function as someone else’s conscience, certain that I identify the areas in his life where he’s clearly wrong and sinning to make sure he knows that he’s messing it up.

I grieve when a friend tells me they’ve spent a lifetime trying not to be gay, not to be weird, not to be trans*, not to be different. I don’t have easy answers for them. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to think and feel about these issues – I cannot reconcile the Bible’s words (as I understand them) with the narratives I hear from people I love.

I’ve read the arguments from Christians working to reconcile biblical narrative and systematic theology for those who claim both faith in Jesus and a non-heterosexual identity. Ken Wilson’s Letter to my Congregation is one of the few I find compelling — I like his recommendation that churches provide a pathway for gay Christians to remain in communion with the Body while the larger Church sorts this stuff out. The Holy Spirit is big enough to handle Christians who are behaving non-normatively and – if they’re sinning – convict them of sin.

I’m certain that breaking people in the name of Jesus isn’t the right way to handle this.

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Friends, if we cannot bring ourselves to tolerate oddball hair colors, a non-threatening behavior that lies outside our accepted norms, how are we capable of loving God and our neighbor when that actually gets hard?

Loving God doesn’t mean making everyone around me worship Him the same way I do and for the same reasons. It’s God’s job to call people to His name – He makes that clear.

Loving my neighbor doesn’t mean co-opting the Holy Spirit’s job to sanctify those who claim faith in Jesus. It means …loving.

Perhaps it means allowing myself to live in the uncomfortable region where I cannot exactly see how to reconcile my theology and my faith with my friends or their narratives, while remaining genuinely hospitable and welcoming to anyone who shows up at my door needing a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Perhaps that is what Grace looks like – giving up my comfort zone for the sake of another.

Perhaps we Christians need more blue-haired people around.

Because if you can learn to stop thinking of my hair as an unnatural aberration, maybe you can also stop seeing your LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ only as misguided, disobedient Christians … and simply care for them instead.

What Grace in parenting teens might look like

Ran across this excellent piece about the storms of parenting adolescents. 

I had to hold back tears when I read this, because it dredged up deep memories of watching friends and parents I know do this for their teens. Grace always hits me in the feels like that. 

I usually got to see both sides — the fear and fighting from the scared teen, and the pain and fear it caused their parents. 
Yet they both held on. And they made it. 

The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You

Great read: Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You

One of the best analyses of fundamentalist thinking I’ve ever read

It is impossible to debate a fundamentalist….because their very language psychologically traps them into their frames of mind.

In saying it is impossible to debate fundamentalists, Race is saying that fundamentalists — to borrow a concept from Robert Jay Lifton‘s idea of totalism — load the language. They use language in a radically different way from most society, which enables them to control dialogue. They use “thought-stopping cliches” (which is also a term Lifton uses). Race explains that,

That’s why it’s impossible to debate with a fundamentalist. By replacing “my” with “God” and melding beliefs about authority with authority itself, fundamentalist vocabulary has left no room for humility, reason, openness, doubt or change.

And, in conclusion: fundamentalism values ideology over people  

Yes. A crisp insight, one that’s vital to understanding current political discourse or my college years.

Source: Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You

If education grad classes were like seminary classes

A parody…. in love…. but with a point….
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“All right, class. Let’s get started. I’ll open in prayer:

Lord and Great God of All Wisdom, we enter Your presence today bringing with us our empty hands, begging for Your Grace and Spirit to fill us. Without your help, O Lord, we cannot comprehend these words of education. We will err in our understanding of the men You have raised up to speak Your words to us. Give us insight today as we consider these minute yet vital details which matter so much to our own lives and to the lives of our students. Grant us wisdom, O Lord. In your most Holy Name, Amen.

“Let’s turn in our Dewey to chapter 6, paragraph 15. I believe that’s where we left off last time. Sarah, would you begin reading with the first sentence?”

“Preparation” is a treacherous idea. In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience. But it is a mistake to suppose that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of arithmetic, geography, history, etc., which is taught and studied because it may be useful at some time in the future, has this effect, and it is a mistake to suppose that acquisition of skills in reading and figuring will automatically constitute preparation for their right and effective use under conditions very unlike those in which they were acquired.”
― John Dewey, Experience and Education

“Great. Let’s stop there and dig into these words. Class, you’ll need your dictionaries and lexicons handy. The Shorter Dewey has an interesting article on the word ‘preparation.’ Lester, what can you tell us about that word?”

“Well, sir, it’s an interesting choice for this passage. The author could have used a more specific synonym, like ‘training’ or a broader one like ‘education.’ It’s interesting that Dewey here chooses a middle-of-the-road word with a broad semantic domain.”

“Yes! Excellent! Did you notice that in three other books by Dewey, he uses the word ‘preparation’ in near conjunction with similar words to what we see here, like ‘education’ and ‘experience’?  The lexicons can fill in more detail – you all should spend some time with that entry tonight.  And tell me, just so we can nail down the basics, what kind of word is ‘preparation’?”

“Oh, it’s a noun….. um, singular, neuter. Regular stem …so the plural form would have had an -s on the end. I’m pretty sure this is a singular….”

“Yes. But isn’t that interesting? Does ‘preparation’ imply something more rich and meaningful than a single moment or single experience? Could Dewey be suggesting, by using the word ‘preparation’ in the singular, that the sum total of one’s learning experiences is actually what he has in view here? What ramifications does that have for our teaching practice?

“In fact, let’s make this really practical. What do you say when you’re beside the desk of a student who is struggling — really struggling to make it? What good does all of this graduate school learning mean to that one student? If, as we’ll see once we work our way through the paragraph entirely, Dewey is suggesting that teaching must go beyond merely imparting information to building someone’s very soul — what might that mean for our students?”

“You know, professor, just last week I was in that exact same situation. I was with one of my students who was failing. I thought he was a goner! Really! His grade was at rock-bottom, he’d stopped studying or even trying. And we had just gone through that part in chapter 3 here in class where Dewey uses the word ‘reflection’ to emphasize the real value that comes after the classroom time is done. Education doesn’t actually happen without reflection!

[*growing passionate*] I said to him, I said, ‘Tommy! You have to think about it! You’ve got to reflect!’ Of course, I didn’t tell him all the stuff we learned in class, about how verbs can actually function sometimes like nouns or adjectives, and the richness those verbals bring to the discourse. But I found that concept of reflection so compelling and I think Tommy did too.

[Class nods thoughtfully, staring back at Thursday’s notes. Real-world applications are always so meaningful….]

“Great, Clara! I’m so glad you’re applying what you’re learning here! In fact, did anything strike you about this week’s reading?”

“Yes! Did you notice how Dewey uses ‘preparation’ twice, once at the beginning of the paragraph and once at the end, but in the middle section he switches to ‘acquisition,’ sometimes with the object ‘skills’ explicitly stated? I wonder if this is one of those chiastic structures you suggested we should look for?”

“Absolutely, Clara! Excellent! Reading Dewey, you will find that many passages offer this X-shaped semantic structure, nestling a key idea in the center and flanking it with carefully constructed repetition on either side. We should consider that perhaps Dewey wants us to understand that the heart of preparation lies in acquisition more than anything else.

“Ah, I believe we are out of time. Class, in addition to your next reading from the syllabus, please take time to mark the nouns and verbs in this pericope. Look for unusual terms, perhaps places where Dewey alters his vocabulary or sentence structure. Those are always highlights in the text.

“Remember: We know the author’s intentionality behind his words. Every word choice, every grammatical point is a signpost of meaning. Dig in! And be blessed this week, my friends, as you go out into this cold world to care for the hearts and minds of the students in your class, fulfilling your high calling in this world.”

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I find myself in an advanced grad-level Hebrew class for the first time in over a decade. It’s going to be a great class; we’re focusing on poetry and there’s so much that’s developed in linguistic understanding of biblical Hebrew since the last time I looked at any of this stuff. So I’m excited.

But I earned another master’s degree since I was last in seminary, and getting back into this particular setting highlights some of the unique *ahem* culture that exists among seminary people.

Everything is extra “holy.” Every word is held up as mattering more. Every motive is baptized with sincerity and earnestness because, after all, we’re studying God’s Word.

I guess it’s just kind of funny. I’m not here to criticize or be cynical. Really I’m not. But the approach feels so …. foreign now. I’m not sure God really cares as much as we think He does about how we’re parsing that Hithpael verb. I’m definitely sure Dr. Barrett was right when he constantly reminded us:

There’s an inverse relationship between your knowledge of a language and the amount of “nifty” things you can discover in it.

Never sacrifice exegetical exactness on the altar of ‘niftiness.’

Well said, sir. Well said.