Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lutheran Study Bible -- ELCA / Augsburg Fortress

Last week, I ordered a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible (LSB from here on out) from Augsburg Fortress. I received it yesterday. Evidently, this study bible was in process when the ELCA decided to promote the Book of Faith initiative (so they say on p. 15)... but they designed the graphic art to dovetail nicely.

I have only had a day essentially to look it over, but I have a few observations.
  1. It is hard to argue with the translation... ok, at places it is hard to argue... at others it is not, if you read the original languages and knw that the translation in the NRSV is skewed (e.g. is it faith IN Christ or the faithfulness OF Christ such as in Romans 3:22? At least there the NRSV has a footnote to at least raise the issue). BUT it is the version that most congregations use in their weekly worship. So it makes sense that the NRSV is to be used here.
  2. There is some introductory stuff at the beginning that serves as an Introduction. Topics there include "What is the Bible?" and "How Did the Bible Come to Be?" Fairly good stuff there, although when they reach page 28, they create a table for "Different Canons of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)." Then under four headings (Jewish Tanakh, Protestant Old Testament, Roman Catholic Old Testament, Greek Septuagint), various books are listed under different categories. The Tanakh is listed in its traditional categories: Torah, Prophets, Writings. The other three groups have the same categories: Pentateuch (oooh, let's not use "Torah"... we might anger the superseccesionists in our congregations), Historical Books, Poetry/Wisdom, Prophets. The Roman Catholic and Septuagint headings include the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books. I understand that the idea here is inform readers of the different books that are used, but given that there are various groupings, I am afraid that folks will see these descriptive categories, and believe subconsciously that each group is using a different bible. Of course in some ways we are, since Jews look only to the Torah as authoritative, Roman Catholics can use the deutero-canonical books for doctrine, etc. BUT all the books point to a story of God, gracious and merciful, beginning and sustaining a covenantal people, even the apocryphal books... after all, Lutherans are free to read from those books in the midst of worship. Think of the Song of the Three Young Men (or Benedicite, omnia opera for you folks who still remember/care about the classic names) or the Baruch at the Easter Vigil.
  3. "A Word About Dates"... Here is another portion of the "Introduction" (p. 17) that is troublesome. When dates are listed the LSB, they use the scholarly convention of B.C.E. and C.E.; that is, Before Common Era and Common Era, respectively. They choose this convention of dating over the B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno domini, "in the year of our Lord") convention because they say, "We also recognize that we share history with people of many faiths, including Jewish brothers and sisters with whom we share sacred Scripture." If I am in a scholarly setting, of course I use I the former. After all, in a religiously pluralistic world, I cannot assume that MY Lord is necessarily OUR Lord when speaking to a group of scholars. BUT the LSB touts itself precisely as a LUTHERAN study bible... I don't know how many folks will pick this book up for perusal if they are not Lutheran or at the very least Christian. Here in this book for Christians, we ought to feel free to call Jesus our Lord.
  4. The Layout is odd... The biblical text is on thin paper, and various study articles are on thicker, glossy paper. The "Introduction" is one such section on thick, glossy paper. The ink used there for most headings is a muted blue. Unfortunately they continue using that blue ink on the thin paper for section headings (why we need section headings is another issue... that practice encourages folks to read only the little pericopes, rather than learning how to see the larger picture... I encourage my bible study participants to ignore those headings). That blue is really rather difficult to read... if you are going to have the headings, make them readable.
  5. The next group of glossy pages interrupts the flow of the prophets. We get the Old Testament from Genesis to Nahum, then a glossy section that focuses essentially on how Lutherans should read the bible, but also some things about Luther and the Small Catechism (not the actual catechism, but how the Small Catechism relates to the witness of Scripture. THEN we get Habakkuk through Malachi... It just seems awkward to break up the flow like that. Why not wait until after the prophets were finished.
  6. The study notes have several different ways of looking at a passage... which are nice. They use four small icons to denote them: World of the Bible (bringing historical or archaeological comments to bear on what the bible is saying), Bible concepts (lifting up theological insights of a text), Lutheran perspectives (explaining how a passage might be interpreted with a Lutheran lens), Faith Reflection (raising questions about how a passage might intersect with the reader's life). All in all a nice addition, but the they use that awful blue ink again... with the combination of the print on other pages seen through the thin paper and the low contrast of the blue, they hard to see. Also, with all that can be said about biblical passages, why are there long stretches where there are none of these icons? Some pages are full of these notes, while others are incredibly sparse. For example, I just finished a bible study where we were looking at the upcoming gospel lesson for this Sunday ( Lent 5B, John 12:20-33)... not one little icon found there... Who are these Greeks who come to see Jesus? What about a Faith Reflection about what someone might think it means for one to lose her life, or what it means to hate their life in this world? Who is the "ruler of this world" who will be driven out in 12:31? No comments about parallels in other gospels? I like these little icons and their insights... I just wish they seemed more complete. Do the Lutherans have this little to say about stuff in the bible? I think not... but reading the LSB, I certainly get that impression. On the other hand, I suppose if this is a study bible, perhaps they were leaving copious amounts of room for the jotting down of notes.
  7. I do like the bible reading plans that they have in the back... and yes, I did say plans. Three different plans for reading the bible: Challenge, Survey, Sampler. The Challenge Path digs deep into Scripture, reading two to four chapters daily. The Survey Path has shorter passages, but call attention to themes that run throughout the bible. Finally the Sampler Path picks several verse daily out of a story that could be used for memorization. Varying levels of time and difficulty depending on where a person is... I like this greatly. They do not say it, so I would assume that the Challenge Path does not read through the whole bible in the course of a year. I wish that were the case... that would be the only improvement that could be made in this case.
All in all, the LSB certainly would not harm anyone... and will serve many people well. The price seems a little steep. I think I paid $24 for my paperback version... $38? for the hardback... a little much, but there is plenty in here to keep folks engaged. They could certainly choose worse.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revulsion as Titillation?

The other day I read one of those little blurb reviews of films in the local paper. The page had a number of reviews, but my eyes fell on the one for Last House on the Left. I had seen a trailer for it at some point before I read the review, so I knew it fell in the horror genre. And I had a very deep suspicion that amidst the violence there was a rape scene. The review confirmed my suspicion. Despite being only a blurb, it was clear that the reviewer was disturbed by this scene, mainly because the reviewer thought that the scene was added mainly for, and this word sticks in my mind despite no longer having the review in front of me, titillation.

The movie is a remake of Wes Craven's film of the same name. His original also, I believe had a rape scene as did his The Hills Have Eyes, also recently remade but apparently not by the same folks. Having seen neither of these Wes Craven films, although I have seen a number of his Nightmare on Elm Street films, and The Serpent and the Rainbow which he directed and which I can no longer remember. I have also seen enough of the horror genre to know that titillation is part of the point... it draws the audience into the story and sets up the anticipation and suspense for the moments of surprise and horror and deepen the experience. Usually however, the sex, drinking, drug use and other illicit behaviors, those that titillate us, are undertaken by the ultimate victims of the violence. This pattern does indeed lead me to give some credence to the notion that horror movies are in some way sanctioned by moral conservatives to show the consequences for such behavior. The wages of sin being death, after all.

However, for rape to be portrayed as titillation continues to propagate the notion that rape is about sex, and not about violence, a truly revulsive violence. Perhaps the argument could be made that because rape looks like sex we cannot help but be somehow titillated, but really, either rape must be repulsive or else it isn't really being portrayed as rape.

As far as I can recall, I have only seen two other films with rape scenes, The Accused starring Jodi Foster, and Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Interesting to note, I think, that both of these movies won Oscars. I think that the rape in The Accused was purposefully titillating to help make the point precisely that rape is abhorrent and not the fault of the victim even if it seemed to be sex.

What I have been pondering however is the other film, Dead Man Walking. Throughout the movie we see Sister Helen Prejean's ministry to both the perpetrator and families of murder and rape victims. Throughout the movie Sister Helen has been trying to get the death-row convict Matthew Poncelet to essentially confess. Shortly before his execution, Matthew does in fact free himself of his burden and tell of his crime, which is shown rather graphically. In this movie, we have seen Matthew portrayed as a horrible person. The rape scene in that movie is not, I believe, portrayed as titillating. It is precisely not meant to get us excited, but instead to portray Poncelet as a revulsive character. What type of human could do such a thing to another?

Clearly, the one issue is the way rape is shown in order to titillate. But then there is also the differences in response between Last House on the Left and Dead Man Walking. Apparently, not to give away too much, the family whose house has been invaded, the same evidently as the young woman who has been raped, concoct deepening levels of revenge upon the invaders/rapists. The tag line of the movie, according to imdb.com is "If bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?" That is what we expect, isn't it? These offenders who have accosted us with their sexual violence and now go farther, earn their justice, even if we who have been titillated by it get away scot free.

Yet, in Dead Man Walking, we are brought into the midst of the violence, the rape and the murder, seeing how revulsive it actually is, wondering how any human being can do that to another? But then the response toward Matthew, while the state demands execution, is not just an eye for an eye. Rather, Sister Helen tells Matthew that when he is on the table about to be injected he should fix his eyes on her because she wants the last face he sees to be one of love. Here is the gospel message. One whose acts are revulsive, and who rightfully earns the world's justice, is nonetheless shown mercy from another. The proper Christian response to violence is not revenge, but forgiveness and evangelization. Yes, Poncelet suffers the consequences imposed by the state, but he is not forsaken. His violence is truly repulsive, yet the response of God and God's servants is the truly titillating.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Bible ala N.T. Wright

I just finished N.T. Wright's Suprised by Hope last night. Absolutely one of the best reads for me in a long time. The point of Christianity is not, as he argues, to get to heaven, but to partake in the new creation that God is bringing about most notably through Jesus' resurrection, but also that the Church continues to witness to in its mission.

Wright writes the following about the Bible, and this passage is fine example of his engaging writing (Surprised by Hope, pp 282-283).
The Bible as a whole thus does what it does best when read from the perspective of new creation. And it is designed not only to tell us about that work of new creation, as though from a detached perspective, not only to provide us with true information about God's fresh, resurrection life, but also to foster that work of new creation in the churches, groups, and individuals who read it, who define themselves in terms of the Jesus they meet in it, who it to shape their lives. The Bible is thus the story of creation and new creation, and it is itself, through the continuing work of the Spirit who inspired it, an instrument of new creation in human lives and communities.

The Bible is not, in other words, simply a list of true doctrines or a collection of proper moral commands--though it includes plenty of both. The Bible is not simply the record of what various people thought as they struggled to know God and follow him, though it is that as well. It is not simply the record of past revelations, as though what mattered were to study such things in the hopes that one might have one for oneself. It is the book whose whole narrative is about new creation, that is, about resurrection, so that when each of the gospels end with the raising of Jesus from the dead, and when Revelation ends with new heavens and new earth populated by God's people risen from the dead, this should come not as a surprise, but as the ultimate fulfillment of what the story had been about all along. (This, by the way, is deep-level reason why the other gospels were not included in the canon. It isn't that they were the really exciting or subversive bits that the early church excluded in the interests of power and control. They were the books that had stopped talking about new creation and were offering a private, detached spirituality instead. The sudden enthusiasm for these other gospels in certain quarters of the Western world in our own day is a token not of the rediscovery of genuine Christianity but of the desperate attempts to avoid it. New creation is far more demanding--though, ultimately, of course, far more exhilarating--than Gnostic escapism.)

Thus, just as the proclamation of Jesus as Lord results in men, women, and children coming to trust and obey him in the power of the Spirit and to find their lives transformed by his saving lordship, so the telling of the story of new creation, of covenant and new covenant, doesn't just inform the hearers about this narrative. It invites them into it, enfolds them within it, assures them of their membership in it, and equips them for their tasks in pursuit of its goal.

long delay...

Sorry for the long delay in more posts... we have had a long February in my house... sick kids, sick parents, hospital visits... and then Lent hit... wow... Hopefully back to a more regular posting schedule.