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The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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culture current events literature

Deconstructed News

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Read this post on my blog.

Deconstruction was a hot, new technique in literary criticism 25 years ago when I was a grad student in English studies. It was hot because it was favored by the sexy French theorists like Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan and also because it authorized a detached, cynical approach to works of art. Deconstruction differs from analysis. The goal of analysis is to identify and examine parts that contribute to a whole. Analysis presumes integration: there is one work with perhaps multiple meanings but still an overarching significance. The goal of deconstruction is also to identify and examine parts, but not so one can see how they contribute to a whole. Indeed, the whole is illusory. The task of deconstruction is to reveal the constructedness of a work and examine how it produces the illusion of wholeness despite tell-tale signs of its constructedness. Deconstruction became the darling of postmodernists because of its suspicion of absolute categories like truth, reality, and meaning. Like all the darlings of the elite, the concepts of deconstruction soon found their way into mainstream culture stripped of all nuance and philosophical underpinnings. So it’s no surprise that “deconstruct” now appears in place of “analyze” in news stories:

New York Region
By SIMON AKAM
Published: October 11, 2009
Deconstructing a care package headed to a friend serving with the British Army in Afghanistan.
The article just details what’s in the care package. It’s even short on analysis and certainly does not represent deconstruction. They don’t always get it wrong, though:
Film
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: October 11, 2009
By slowing down a short film, Ken Jacobs shows not a work of art but what is behind its illusions.
You might expect a New York Times’ film critic to get it right, and she does.
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current events literature

Spook Country

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Spook Country is only the third of William Gibson’s novels that I have read. The first—and, I have to say, best—was Pattern Recognition. Spook Country shares with it the same sense of incipient danger amidst a cultural malaise spiked with a curious hope. It also shares the wealthy and enigmatic Hubertus Bigend. If you’ve read and liked Pattern Recognition, you will like Spook Country. I highly recommend it.

Some of the claims in the book are too bizarre to be true, yet they are. For example, one character tells the protagonist, Hollis Henry, that a staggering $12 billion was sent to Iraq and distributed without any oversight or monetary controls. This was true; you can read about it here. One shipment consisted of shrinked-wrapped hundred dollar bills totaling over $2 billion. That’s nearly a ton of currency. The money was not US taxpayer funds; it was seized Iraqi assets, so it belonged to the Iraqis. Nevertheless, you can imagine the potential for abuse and corruption with that much money flowing freely into a war zone. If you can’t, Gibson can.

Like other books by Gibson, Spook Country requires careful reading and attention. Gibson seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of recent—and not so recent—popular culture. His characters are comfortable with Google, GPS systems, and Internet-enabled phones. Comfortable but also distrustful. The book follows three characters whose stories seem at first unrelated. The switch from one story to another was disorienting at first, but quickly took on a rythmn of it s own. It was a fascinating and satisfying read.

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