Why I Read [actual] Books

I didn’t grow up a reader. Surfer magazine was the only written word worth while (I promise, it wasn’t just the pictures…). I didn’t pick up a book for fun until I was nineteen. You’d think I’d be thrilled to be alive in a time where most people communicate with encrypted text messages, emoticons, 140 character tweets and youtube clips.

In many ways I love the tools at our finger tips. Other times I find myself wishing I lived during grandma and grandpa’s day when you needed pen and paper to record your thoughts and a bookstore to get a book.

No one ever walks into an Apple Store, picks up an iPad and says, “I love the way this thing smells.” And you don’t sit in front of your computer screen thinking, “It just feels so great in my hands.” I don’t have the best sense of smell, but I love the smell of old books. And my posture would be much better if I didn’t sit in front of a computer most of the day.

Contrary to what many in my parent’s generation think, the developed world isn’t digressing into an illiterate age. Instead, the definition of literate has changed. My good friend Jondou suggests that proper English has changed as well…Language evolves, but that’s a post for another day, possibly a discussion for our new blog). To quote Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. We can’t ignore today’s media or the way in which it has changed our language.

But books, those things made out of paper and comprised of complete sentences, bring us back to the basics of language. If we never learn the basics, today’s valuable tools will lead us down a path of frustration into a world of dull dreams and incomplete thought.

The last year I’ve read a lot of what Michael Hyatt has been writing. I’d recommend his stuff to anyone. As a the former CEO of Thomas Nelson, he get’s the whole book thing. He writes,

Contrary to what is often reported in the mainstream media, books are not dead. They are still valuable today. But we must contend for their existence against all other forms of media. Books do for people what movies, television, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and social media will never do—fundamentally alter their worldview and inspire them to greatness.

We need to allow books to inspire us and alter our worldview. Sometimes I read for an escape. Others,  I read to be challenged. Simply put, I can’t afford to stop. None of us can. But too many of us have. This year I’ve been doing something I haven’t done since high school; I’m keeping a reading log/journal.

Why do you read? And what are you reading?

3 Punishments: Two Curses & A Promise

I threw my Old Testament class for a loop a few weeks ago. We had spent about 20 hours going over the historical setting, context of and the different theories about the Pentateuch’s composition. After the fourth lecture or so I could tell they were less than thrilled to hear about another dead guy’s opinion. Running without knowing how to crawl, let along walk, seems to be a common theme in Malawi—Biblical study is no exception.

After convincing myself that I had dutifully explained that it is possible to critically study Scripture while still holding it 100% authoritative, we finally opened the book of Genesis.

I lectured for about an hour on the two accounts of creation (yes, Scripture has two sometimes conflicting accounts about the formation of the world) and then I tried to convince them that the significance of the Primeval History (Gen 1-11:26) is theological in nature. I explained that while debating the how of creation, we often miss the why, which (regardless of how you interpret the first chapters of the Bible) has to remain central.

For the most part they were tracking along, so I figured I’d drop the gender role bomb. Malawi is a very male dominated society and, similar to much of the conservative evangelical western world, Scripture is often used to defend man’s domination over woman. I had them turn to Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25 and 3:14-24.

Gen 1:28-28. God created humankind in God’s image, both male and female, god created them. Most in Malawi read from the Chichewa, King James (KJV) or Nearly Inspired (NIV) versions of the Bible—which all wrongly translate humankind as man.

Gen 2:18-25. Verse 18 reads, “it is not good for humankind to be alone.” Again, not man. It’s not until the end of verse 23 that we see a distinction between genders (“this one shall be called woman”).

I said that if you want to use Scripture to defend male dominance, you have to look somewhere other than creation—somewhere like God’s response to original sin.

Gen 3:14-24. Three punishments; two curses and one promise. The punishment for the serpent; it was to be “cursed among all animals.” The punishment for man; the ground itself is cursed because of his actions. The punishment for the woman; a promise that childbearing will be painful AND her husband shall “rule over” over her.

We debated the issue for a bit and it was refreshing to see that at least a portion of my lectures on the work didn’t fall on deaf ears. I mentioned that the discussion we were having-one that asks what happens when one interpretation of Scripture confronts culture-was one that needs to be had frequently within the church, and too often it’s not.

A week or so after our discussion at JMTI, a good friend and mentor of mine posted this article about Scripture and Homosexuality (which was responding to this article) on facebook.  What followed was a very well thought out, though incomplete (really, how does one have a full conversation on facebook?) discussion about Scripture and culture colliding when it comes to sexual ethics.

In mentioning homosexuality and the church I do not mean to beat the dead horse that has unfortunately become the theological center of the destruction of the Western Church (the Church takes its focus off of Christ and then, somehow, is surprised it is dying?…a post for another time). I bring it up to ask this question; when it comes to any sort of Christian Ethic, are we to strive for the pre-fall understanding of our relationship with God and others? Or do we just accept that we live in the post-consequence world?

But we don’t only live in the post-consequence world, we also live in the post-resurrection world—where death has been conquered and love of God and neighbor is to reign supreme. But what does that mean for how we act and live in today’s world?

Teaching Shenanigans

I hate tests. Always have and always will. I had a teacher in high school who said that a test was “an opportunity to show what you have learned.” I call Shenanigans. Most tests show nothing more than one’s ability to memorize data and spew it out as fast as possible. It’s not learning, it’s regurgitating.

Both my wife and mother are educators. Every year they grumble about the time wasted preparing for and administering standardized tests. It’s pathetic that training children for a test has become more important than preparing them for life.

While some schools are attempting both and other innovative programs are atempting to excite students about learning, most fail to acknowledge that the system is broken.

When I was in elementary and middle school and the dreaded two weeks of testing came, I didn’t even pay attention to the test booklet. I took my scantron and created patterns and thought of words that contained only A through E.

I hated history until college. Why? Because in college I learned history wasn’t about memorizing dates, but about actual people and real events. Likewise, I didn’t read anything but Surfer Magazine because in high school I had always been taught to look for a specific genre, remember a plot or memorize a quote for a test. It turns out there are enjoyable stories behind frozen dates and literary jargon—if only I had learned that at a younger age.

My favorite class in seminary was taught by Colin Brown. He came to class everyday with a briefcase of books. During his lecture he’d hold them up one by one and say, “this guy believes this and this man disagrees because of this.”  He’d add in some commentary, telling stories, and then move on. He too hated tests.

Dr. Brown studied in the UK where he, after defending his doctoral dissertation, had comprehensive exams covering six years of classes. After the experience he promised he would never force a student to endure anything close to what he had to suffer through. There are plenty of other ways for students to display what they have learned.

His promise inspired me to take the same vow. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever teach a class that required grading, but I knew that if I did, it would be test free. Yet, here I sit, writing a Systematic Theology exam and study guide for my students at Josophat Mwale Theological Institute.

I am conflicted. My middle school self, coke bottle glasses and all, would probably hunt me down and kick me in the shin. The part of me that took the SAT three times is crying. Yet the country of Malawi has standardized testing for every area of collegiate study, including theology.

I want to prepare the students for the test; it is my duty to do so. But more than anything I hope and pray I am able to teach that the study of Scripture and Theology is not about producing scripted answers, but about asking the correct questions. If they don’t pass the test in June it will be depressing, but if they end up in a congregation without the ability to critically examine what surrounds them it will be catastrophic.