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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Exodus: Brought to You by Women

As I was reading Exodus the other day, one of the study notes in my ESV Study Bible brought an interesting fact to my attention. I've heard it said that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is an anti-female book. It was written for a patriarchal society, and parts of it have been used over the centuries to oppress women (or at least to try and make them shut up!) But in the first few chapters of Exodus, women play a crucial role. In fact, without the actions of these women, we would have never heard the name "Moses."

The action begins in chapter 1; the new king of Egypt is suspicious of the people of Israel, enslaving them and instructing their midwives to kill any male babies born to Israelites. The midwives do not kill the babies, however; because of their faith in God, they tell Pharaoh that the babies were born before the midwives were able to get there. These two midwives are even honored by having their names, Shiphrah and Puah, appear in the narrative! If those faithful women had obeyed Pharaoh's orders, Moses would have been killed at birth. No Moses.

In chapter 2 we find some more faithful women. A woman has a baby boy, and hides him from Pharaoh's kill squad for the first three months of his life. Then the mother, knowing she can't hide the baby any longer, puts him into a little boat she makes for him out of a basket and floats him out on the river (presumably hoping someone who can help him will find him). Who should find him but the most unexpected of the heroines in the story... the daughter of Pharaoh! She takes pity on the baby, and in the most stunning case of "he followed me home, Daddy, can I keep him?" in history, decides to take the baby in. She knew he was a Hebrew child, and surely she knew that boy Israelites were supposed to be killed. If she had allowed him to be murdered, the story would have taken a turn for the worse right there... No Moses.

What about the most insanely gutsy female in the whole story, the baby's sister? Since when does a slave girl run up to the princess of the whole nation and give her advice? Because she did, though, Moses was nursed by his own mother. The baby's mother got paid to raise him! Surely she taught him as much about the true God as she could as he was growing up. Because of the audacious actions of his sister, Moses had the opportunity to be exposed to Godly influences that certainly were not present in the palace of Pharaoh. There may have been a Moses, but he might not have turned into the man he did.

So in the first two chapters of Exodus, we find that the whole story hinged on the actions of four women and one little girl. The only males in the whole account, Exodus 1:8-2:10, are the murderous Pharaoh and the helpless baby. Everyone else, all the Godly players, are women! Without them, the Exodus from Egypt would not have happened like it happened. The Bible, anti-female? I'd say not!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Psalms: Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

I've been reading a book called How to Read the Bible as Literature, and it has really opened my eyes to some things about the Scriptures. For example: I've discovered that the Psalms are not boring.

What, you say? The Psalms? One of the most beloved books in the whole Bible, boring? Containing the only chapter of the Bible (except The Lord's Prayer) that some people even know about? Yep, that's the one I mean. Now, as a musician and songwriter, I love the Psalms at least as much as most people, and probably more than many (heck, I even have an honest-to-goodness favorite Psalm!), because I feel a kinship with David and the other Psalmists, but I've also spent a lot of time reading in the Psalms and thinking, okay, here we go again, David is whining about his enemies again, hey wow what a surprise, a happy ending, blah blah blah. After a while you do start thinking, didn't I just read this Psalm two chapters ago?

Let me ask you something. Has it ever occurred to you that most popular-style songs. including the stuff you hear on the radio and even the Chris Tomlin songs you sing at church, are very tightly structured? Most pop/rock songs have this structure: verse 1 - chorus - verse 2 - chorus - bridge (a section with different music, either sung or instrumental) - chorus? There are infinite variations on the theme... for example, the song may start out with the chorus and then go into the first verse, or there may be an additional third verse, or the chorus may happen twice at the end... but that's the basic structure songwriters look at when they put pencil to paper. Now that you know that, you may start to notice things about songs that you never noticed before (particularly the presence of a "bridge" section). That structure is not there to limit creativity in any way; in fact, the main reason it's like that is to keep the song interesting for its whole 3 or 4-minute length while still having something that repeats many times (the chorus, and usually other elements as well) so that you can come away singing the song you heard. And for a songwriter, it gives you something to kind of help you get started. It's like arranging your stuff in a new house or apartment; you know you have this room and this room and this room, so you know basically where the furniture needs to be, and then you work your magic inside of that. The structure is not a requirement, but it is beneficial to everyone involved.

The Bible is a book. It is an inspired book, yes, but still a book, and as such, it contains book stuff... there are many different literary genres in the Bible, and that's what How to Read the Bible as Literature is about. The Psalms are, as pretty much everyone knows, poems, and we believe that they are also songs. But they don't fall into our verse -chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus structure, do they? With a few exceptions, there is rarely even any repetition of lines at all. But that doesn't mean that there is no structure; in fact, there are any number of "types" of poems in the Psalms, and they each have well-developed structure. For example, the book gives the following 3-part basic form for what it calls a "Praise Psalm":
  1. The introduction to praise
    1. a call to praise the Lord
    2. naming the people who are being called to praise
    3. mention of the mode of praise
  2. Development of the praise
    1. poet gives a motivation/reason to praise
    2. list of praiseworthy acts or qualities of God
  3. Conclusion (which often takes the form of a prayer or wish)
The book lists these Psalms as examples of the praise Psalm: 18, 30, 65, 66, 96, 97, 103, 107, 124, 136, 139.

Now, during my lifetime as I've read through the Psalms (and I have read through them all, a number of times), I've sometimes found myself in a "here we go again" mode: "Here we go again, David is telling somebody to praise God. God is this, God is that, yadda yadda. Oh, and he hopes everyone will praise the Lord. Ho-hum." I think sometimes I subconsciously got the idea that there was a lack of originality there. But I realized today as I was reading my book that it's not a "lack of originality", but a "strong use of structure" that I was sensing, and in many ways it was the exact opposite of a "lack of originality". I suspect the next time I read through the Psalms (in a few months on my Bible in a year readings!) I will have a different perspective. The Psalms are not randomly-strung-together rantings and cooings; they are thoughtfully-structured, carefully constructed works of art. Art created through inspiration from God. The separate sections each have meaning and function, and understanding those functions is key to understanding the art itself. I can hardly wait to discover the riches I'll find there!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

ESV Study Bible Giveaway

Over at they're giving away an ESV Study Bible! It's the TruTone, Mahogany Trellis Design edition. Enter the contest before January 31, 2010. Good luck! Let me know if you win because you saw it here! :)

Enter to Win an ESV Study Bible!

Friday, January 15, 2010


Jesus came to Earth with a futile task.

Wait just a second... let me back up. I'm reading a book called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It's a novel, I guess, but it really comes off as a series of loosely-related short stories rather than as a unified whole. The reason it's written that way is because the theme of the book is the isolation, aloneness, and helplessness that young people in their 20s and 30s were feeling in the late 80s/early 90s, when it seemed like Baby Boomers ruled the earth and would rule it until their children, the "X" generation, were too old to enjoy it. The term "Generation X" was invented for this book, but since it seemed to describe the group of young people which I belonged to so well, the term was subsequently adopted by other authors, the media, and the culture at large. A few weeks ago a Tulsa radio station converted over to a "Gen X" format, meaning that they are playing the hits of the 80s and 90s, catering to the generation that thought they would be forever invisible. It's incredible how short-sighted we are when we are young!

The music and the novel have got me thinking about how hopeless and impotent we, as a group, seemed to feel back then. The characters in the novel have isolated themselves from their families, from corporate life, from caring what happens to the world (actually they care very much, and think the world is headed for a bad and imminent end, but they don't think they can do anything about it), and moved to the desert to try to get their heads screwed on straight. I remember as a child watching The Cosby Show and thinking how cool it was that the Huxtables were such a close-knit family, and then a few years later watching Seinfeld and Friends and thinking how cool it would be to be on my own in the big city of New York, with nothing to tie me down, able to basically do whatever I wanted to do. That was a naïve illusion, of course; we all have responsibilities (for example, if you you enjoy such activities as eating and getting to sleep inside, you probably want to have a job!) but I think that kind of thinking drove much of my generation. We had spent our childhoods fairly convinced that someone somewhere (probably the Soviet Union) was going to push a button, probably a really big red one, and blow the whole world to pieces, and the last thing any of us was going to see was a mushroom cloud. After all those years of fear, no wonder we grew up slightly sullen as a culture.

Much of the music of the 90s has that same helpless, hopeless feel about it. There are the dance songs and the rock songs, but the big-party hair-bands were gone, replaced by the alternating sad groans and angry screams of bands like Nirvana and the plaintive melodies of groups like Blind Melon and Dave Matthews Band. I'm not sure if popular music reflects culture or if it influences it (probably a little of both), but I always find it interesting to look back and see how a decade seems to match perfectly with the prevailing music of the time. The let's-ignore-reality-and-party music of the 80s collapsed into the sullen, reality-sucks-and-we-don't-care-anymore music of the 90s, much as the optimistic hippie idealism of the music of the 60s had collapsed into a low, fluorescent corporate buzz of the music of the 70s two decades before.

I think that we-can't-do-anything-anyway apathy still prevails in my generation. I think the very positive rhetoric of the Obama Presidential campaign was successful in part because it managed to somehow shine a glimmer of hope into a group of people who had felt helpless and futile for a long time. And I think that without hope, we wither and die. I think the words "Yes we can!" were like a drink of cold water to those of us who are now moving out of our 30s and into our 40s.Can Barack Obama fix everything that is wrong with the world? Of COURSE not. Nobody can. Nobody will ever be able to fix everything. Show me the person who could have prevented the tragedy that is going on in Haiti right now... nobody could have stopped it. There will always be evil in the world. This is the thing that frightened, discouraged, and I think deep down, angered Generation X in our youth. We wanted to fix things, just like our parents had wanted to in the 60s... it's just that our parents thought they could do it with music, flowers, and tie-dye, but we thought that we couldn't do it at all. Both extremes are wide of the truth. Each person can do some good. I can't help everybody, but I can help somebody. And I should.

Back to Jesus. Like I said before, Jesus came to Earth with a futile task. The desire of God's heart is that everyone would come to repentance, but God also knows that many will choose to die in their sin. So Jesus came to Earth, in a sense, doomed to fall short of what God wished would happen. Now, Jesus succeeded fully in what He came to do Himself, which was to make Salvation available to all, but since the other part of the fulfillment of God's desire depends on our acceptance of His gift, that part can only succeed as each of us makes a decision to receive Salvation. Jesus' Salvation is only received by a portion of those He seeks to reach, and with our human limitations we can only help part of the people we might desire to help, but it didn't stop Jesus from doing what God had called Him to do, and it shouldn't stop us, either.

The word "Christ" is the English version of the Greek word pronounced "Christos" and spelled "Χριστός". Christos... with an X. Let's seek to have a heart like Christ... today let's be "Generation Xristos". The generation that seeks to do good, regardless of the impossibility of fixing everything. That's the "Gen X" I want to be a part of.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Can't Get 'Em Back

Back in the mid-'80s, I was at a Farrell & Farrell concert in Shreveport, Louisiana. Farrell & Farrell were one of the most successful "new wave" Christian bands out there, one with successful albums and even some radio hits to their credit. They were a married couple who had started performing in the '70s, with some of their biggest hits occurring in the early and mid 1980s. The concert I was at was tour attached to maybe their biggest hit album, Jump To Conclusions. I loved the album (still do) and was pretty pumped about the show.

Unfortunately, Shreveport Louisiana isn't particularly known for being on the cutting edge of pop culture, and attendance at the show was dismally, and uncomfortably, light. The hall was oh, I don't know, maybe half full, maybe less (give me a break, I was a kid... I wasn't looking that closely!) The band put on a great show, and I remember a few things about it, but after all of these years, the thing I remember most clearly was the chewing-out that the crowd received from Bob Farrell.

Bob was obviously pretty upset about something. Maybe it was the low attendance, or maybe there was something else that was bugging him that night. Maybe he ate something that didn't agree with him, or had some bad news from his management or record company, or maybe he and Jayne had had a disagreement earlier that day. Maybe he was tired from touring so much. Whatever it was, he took an unpleasantly long break from playing music to chew us out, the people who had paid to hear the concert, for not bringing our friends and filling the place up. Maybe he was right, or maybe not (how could he know? Maybe if we hadn't each brought a friend, the place would have only been on-quarter full!)... but all I know is that I don't remember exactly which songs they played or what he might have said about Jesus. All I remember is that he bawled us out. All these years later, whenever I listen to Farrell and Farrell, I remember Bob Farrell getting mad at me when I came to his concert.

Last night I was really tired because I hadn't had enough sleep and then unexpectedly had to do some major work in my garage, and I yelled at my wife in front of my kids. Because of me, my children will now grow up with the memory of my temper tantrum in their memory banks. Jayne Farrell may or may not have set Bob straight after the concert (how could he have done that to his fans?), and I know the Holy Spirit has certainly been working on me about my own tantrum, but words said in anger, whether from a stage or a dining room chair, cannot be retrieved and un-said. There is no way Bob could have reassembled that crowd and apologized for his harshness, but I sure can assemble my three-person audience and apologize to them for my outburst. Maybe my children will grow up with that apology in their memories and not just the image of my blowing my top.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In A Year

This year I'm going to do it.

I'm not one for New Year's Resolutions (because I figure you're mostly just setting yourself up for failure), but I think I can do this. And if I try and fail but don't quit, it'll still be a good thing.

What I'm talking about, of course, is reading all the way through the whole Bible in a year! I've tried it before... I have an NIV Daily Bible: In Chronological Order that I've had for probably two decades, and I made it a good bit of the way through that once. There are LOTS of schemes for getting through every verse in the Bible... they're in the back of your Bible, they're in pamphlets that you can pick up for free at your church or Christian bookstore, they're in your Bible software, they're on the Internet... heck, there's one in the right-hand column of this blog! They're even on your cell phone! The trick is to stick with it for 365 days.

The real problem with those plans is that there's no leeway. They're a recipe for sending yourself on a massive guilt trip! If you miss one day, you feel terrible about it... then you try to catch up, and maybe you succeed. But what if you miss two days? Or three? There's no way to catch up on that much reading unless you just sit down for a whole afternoon and don't get up until you're up to date! That just doesn't work for me, and I'm guessing it doesn't work for most people... life is too hectic and unpredictable these days. My life doesn't tend to fall into nice little squares so I can put my Bible reading in the 9pm-10pm square every night or whatever. Heck, I've been trying to do some Bible studies with just my wife and son, and we have a hard time figuring out when to do it. Life goes by fast these days!

But today I've read a couple of blog posts that I've found very encouraging. First, Denny Burk blogged his plan for Bible reading this year. He's going straight through, from cover to cover, but he's done two interesting things: first, he's divided up the chapters according to whether they are "long" or "short" chapters, and he's stopped on chapter boundaries. Maybe not a foolproof scheme for some passages (what if he breaks in the middle of a story?) but it should get the job done. But more importantly, he's done something I've never seen before: he's added a little bit of grace into the picture. He's included "catch-up days"! So if I keep up with the schedule perfectly, I could even take those days off if I wanted to. (I don't expect that to be a question that comes up, but if it does, hey! The leeway is there!)

Another blog post has encouraged me further. If you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you know that I fall all over myself loving my ESV Study Bible. Well, this past year Bob Kauflin read the entire thing, cover to cover! (Well, the Bible text and notes, not the extra-credit articles.) If he did it, so can I! If I take Denny's plan and Bob's success and put them together, I think I can do it!

But what if I fail to finish by December 31? What if I get to December and I'm in the middle of Obadiah? What if I choke on Leviticus (which has been my problem in past tries) and that one book takes me a whole month? Well, you know what... if I don't get to the end in one year, I'll get to the end eventually. Maybe it will take me two years. Maybe three. Maybe it will be so fascinating that I'll make it in even less. J. Jackson of Christian parody band ApologetiX has read it cover to cover many times; when he finishes Revelation, he turns around and starts over with a different translation. In past years the members of ApologetiX have encouraged many teenagers to start reading the Bible, and some of those kids have gone cover to cover. If Denny and Bob and J. and a bunch of teenagers can do it, so can I! What's so special about starting on January 1 and finishing on December 31 anyway? Nothing. Nothing at all. Well, except maybe bragging rights. But what's special about making it all the way from the book of "Pre-Face" to the book of "Maps"? EVERYTHING.

I know I've read every word in the New Testament countless times and in any number of translations. I've read much of the Old Testament as well, but I know there are nooks and crannies where I haven't been. And if my experiences reading all the way through John and Revelation in the ESV Study Bible are any indication, the notes will direct me to historical information and correlations with other parts of Scripture that will simply blow my mind. It might take me two, or three, or five years to read through the entire Bible "in a year," but however long it takes, this year I'm going to get started. God's Word is too important to miss any part of it.

January 5 update: I'm on track so far, even though we were out of town for the first couple of days of the new year! I'm tweeting about my Bible reading using the hashtag #BibleInAYear, and several other people have use that tag too... so I created a list of those people at @TulsaMJ/bibleinayear. I've also been thinking about how I might want to do this next year... if I don't use my NIV Daily Bible I might want to use The ESV Literary Study Bible instead. If I finish by the end of the year, I'll buy myself the ESV LSB as a reward! ;) I've had my eye on that Bible for some time anyway, and I'm reading a related book already. I'm not the only one who thinks using that Bible as a read-through Bible is a good idea... check out this brief blog post!