Saturday, February 28, 2015

Springsteen and the Scriptures

In my first post I jokingly referenced two Bruce Springsteen songs; in my second I encouraged you to read the Bible more. It’s the weekend, so I thought I’d take a look at how reading the Bible more can help you catch references in Springsteen’s songs that you would otherwise miss. What can I say…I make strange connections on Saturday mornings before that second cup of coffee.

In that post about the Bible I said that not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to understand the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three owe the Bible a debt for their content. The same is true of some of Springsteen’s best songs. Consider these examples:

Adam, Cain, and Abel:
Adam Raised a Cain
“In the Bible, mamma, Cain slew Abel
and East of Eden, mamma, he was cast
You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Adam raised a Cain”

Moses:
The Price You Pay
“Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay”

Jonah:
Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)
“I fell asleep on a dark and starlit sea
With nothing but the cloak of God’s mercy over me
I come upon strange earth and a great black cave
I dreamt I awoke as if buried in my grave
We’ve been swallowed up”

Jesus, Gideon, Saul, and Abraham:
Heaven’s Wall
There was a woman waiting at the well Drawing water ‘neath the desert sky blue She said, “He’ll heal the blind, raise the dead, cure the sickness out of you” Come on men of Gideon Come on men of Saul Come on sons of Abraham Waiting outside heaven’s wall

Noah and Jesus:
Rocky Ground
“Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand”

Jesus:
Jesus Was An Only Son
“Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother’s feet
In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he’d never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips”

That’s a fair number of references spanning a 40-year career. But I want to make one thing clear: I am not saying Bruce is evangelizing here. His most famous album was not called “Born Again in the USA.” But clearly he knows at least something of the Bible, or these references would never have made their way into his songs. So if you won’t take my advice on reading the Bible, then at least listen to Bruce. He is the Boss, after all.

Note: Just in case you would like to look these references up for yourself, I have included the passage or Bible book where you can find them below.

Adam Raised a Cain:  Genesis chapter 4, verses 8-16
The Price You Pay: Numbers chapter 20, verses 1-12 and Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-5
Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale): Jonah, chapters 1 and 2
Heaven’s Wall: John chapter 4, verses 1-30. The stories of Gideon, Saul, and Abraham are found in Judges chapters 6-8, 1st Samuel chapters 9-31, and Genesis chapters 11-25 respectively
Rocky Ground: Genesis chapters 6-9 (the Flood) and John chapter 2, verses 13-17
Jesus Was An Only Son:  Matthew chapters 26-27, Mark chapters 14-15, Luke chapters 22-23, John chapter 19

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How to Choose a Bible


Men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe devoted their lives (and sometimes even sacrificed them) to bring us the English translation of the Bible. While they would likely be pleased to see how far their initial work has come in making the Bible available to all English speakers, they would also be confused by the sheer number and variations of translations and types available now. Walk into any Christian bookstore, or any other bookstore for that matter, and you will be faced with so many options that you may long for the days when the King James Version was the only one available.

Choosing the right Bible for you is no longer a simple task, but it can be made easier with a little work before you buy. The first and often most difficult choice is which translation is best for you. There are stalwarts out there who still insist that The King James Version is the only true translation, even if many of the words haven't been in use for nearly 200 years. If you are one of these people your choice is easy, at least as far as translation. For everyone else, let's take a look at the plethora of translations available.

When translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) there are two basic methods: word-for-word or thought-for-thought. In reality, all versions use some combination of this process, because many Greek and Hebrew words don't have an exact English equivalent and the word order doesn't match up exactly either. A true word-for-word translation would be virtually unreadable. And while thought-for-thought translations better convey the original meaning, even they translate Greek and Hebrew words exactly wherever possible. A third method is the paraphrase, but these versions allow for current slang and idioms and are outdated almost as soon as they are printed.

The ultimate goal is making the Bible clear and understandable to us today without everyone having to learn Greek or Hebrew. My recommendation is to stay to the thought-for-thought side without slipping all the way to a paraphrase. Another consideration is the reading level required for each version. The translations on the word-for-word end of the spectrum will require a higher reading level (12th grade for the King James Version, for example) while the thought-for-thought versions will require a lower reading level (4th grade for the New Century Version). Below is a list of widely available versions, the translation type, and reading level:

King James Version (KJV): Word-for-word, 12th grade.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): Word-for-word, 11th grade.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 10th Grade.

New King James Version (NKJV): More verse-for-verse than word-for-word, 9th Grade.

English Standard Version (ESV): Word-for-word, 8th Grade.

New International Version (NIV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.

New Living Translation (NLT): Thought-for-thought, 6th Grade.

Contemporary English Version (CEV): Thought-for-thought, 5th Grade.

New Century Version (NCV): Thought-for-thought, 4th Grade.

Beyond reading level and translation method, there are a few other important choices that must be made when selecting a Bible, things like font, print size, cost (which is related to the binding method) and type of Bible. Cost can vary widely, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. A particular study Bible may come in soft cover for $19.99, hardback for $29.99, bonded leather for $49.99, and genuine leather for $69.99 and up. While more expensive, a genuine leather Bible should last for a lifetime, while a soft cover may wear out in two years or less. In the long run, it's better to pay more now.

When speaking of the type of Bible, I am referring to another phenomenon that is fairly recent: the specialty Bible. For centuries Bibles had only the sacred text, some maps, and perhaps a brief concordance. Today the choices are enough to make a person dizzy. Type in "Study Bible" on Amazon and you will get hundreds of results. A few include: The Life Application Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Seeker's Bible, The NIV Study Bible, The McArthur Study Bible, The Reformation Study Bible, The Women's Study Bible, The Recovery Study Bible, The Men's Devotional Bible, and the list goes on and on.

Almost anyone can find a study Bible that suits his or her particular need at a given moment in time. All are filled with helpful notes, articles, diagrams, concordances, maps, and application tips that can be very useful. But one word of caution: it is very easy to get so caught up reading the notes and articles that you're not actually reading the Bible itself. The notes should always be used in addition to, not in place of, the actual Biblical text.

As for my own personal recommendation, especially if this is the first Bible you've purchased in some time, I would suggest either the NIV Life Application Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible. The NIV is the world's best-selling translation and is very readable. In addition, the notes in the Life Application Study Bible are easy to understand without a seminary degree, which is not true of every study Bible out there. The ESV Study Bible has also grown in popularity in recent years; it contains far more notes, charts, and illustrations that the Life Application Study Bible, and also tends to be more scholarly in its approach.

Whichever version and type you choose, it will only be of use to you if you're reading it daily, not simply letting it sit on a shelf gathering dust. And reading the Bible is only beneficial if you then put what you read into action. As it says in James 1:22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Sometimes we make things much more complicated than they need to be. Entire books have been written to explain the gospel, but here is how the Apostle Paul summed it up in four sentences:

"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4 (NIV)

Nothing I could add will make it any clearer than Paul did two thousand years ago.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Three Steps To Improve Your Bible Reading Time

As I wrote in an earlier post, the Bible is both the best-selling book in the world and one of the least-read. This is particularly tragic because the Bible is the one book that has the ability to literally change our lives (see Psalm 119:11, Romans 10:17). I think the main reason many either don’t read it or read it very little is that they have no real plan for getting the most out of their Bible reading time.

There are several key factors when it comes to reading the Bible. One of the most important is using a translation that you are comfortable with. Most will never read the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew (although that is a worthy endeavor if you are so inclined), so an English translation that is readable for you is critical.

Another consideration is understanding the difference between Bible reading and Bible study. Both are key aspects of the Christian life, but they are not the same thing. Bible reading is exactly that: spending time reading it, much like you would any other book you read purely for enjoyment. Bible study involves the use of lexicons, dictionaries, histories, maps, commentaries, and other tools to more closely examine a particular passage, person, or theme. The problem with not recognizing this difference is that you can spend a great deal of time reading about the Bible without ever actually reading it. As the late, great Johnny Cash once joked, “the Bible sure does shed a lot of light on all those commentaries.”

Therefore, when it comes to actual Bible reading, I believe there are three things you can do that will make your time profitable, and they actually go beyond just reading: reading the Word, hearing the Word, and writing the Word.

1. Read the Word (Luke 4:16). This is the most obvious aspect of Bible reading. It involves simply going somewhere quiet and reading. Some can do this in a crowded Starbucks without being distracted, while others need the silence of an empty house. Either way, commit to a specific period of time and stick to it; fifteen minutes is a good start for most.

Don’t simply flip around reading random verses; you wouldn’t do that with any other book and hope to understand it, and the Bible is no different. Try to always read at least a chapter (in a long book like Genesis) or the whole book (for shorter ones like James or Jonah). This will keep things in context and make understanding easier. Also, if your pastor uses a particular version when preaching and you are comfortable reading it, it can be helpful to use that same translation. This will make the transition from reading during the week to hearing on Sunday easier.

2. Hear the Word (Romans 10:17). It is well-documented that we retain information best if we receive it a number of different formats. Since nearly every Bible version is available on CD, mp3, or online today, hearing the Word is easier now than at any time in our history. Whether you listen at work, home or in the car, hearing the Bible read by someone else is an excellent way to reinforce your reading. Be sure you are using the same translation for listening that you are for reading.

3. Write the Word (Deuteronomy 6:9). This is an exercise that can have many benefits, from reinforcing what you have read and heard to being an act of worship in itself. Simply get a good quality notebook or stationery and copy down the text you are reading longhand. Copying the text will force you to focus on the entire passage rather than simply skimming it and will help it become more firmly planted in your mind and heart. An added benefit is that once you have gone through the entire New Testament or even the entire Bible, you will have a copy of God’s Word in your own handwriting that will be special to you and can be handed down to your children as well.

I believe that this combination of reading, hearing, and writing is not only beneficial but also Biblical (be sure to look up the verses cited for each of the three activities above). Practicing this in conjunction with your normal prayer and study time can greatly enhance your enjoyment and understanding of God’s word. Now stop reading this and go read your Bible.

The Least-Read Book in America

In my first post I promised a few thoughts on the Bible. After some thought I realized that I would be insane to think I could even scratch the surface. Fortunately, I am a little insane. But where to start?

I could comment on the new trend of action-hero Biblical movies that bear no resemblance to the original story: Russell Crowe as a rugged Noah? Christian Bale as a sword-wielding Moses? What's next, Robert Downey Jr. as Jesus in The Savior Strikes Back? The less said about this development, the better.

Or maybe I should wade into the ongoing debate (at least within Evangelical circles) about which translation of the Bible is the "right" one. The danger in that is the risk of the King James Version Only faction coming after me with torches and pitchforks. Contrary to what they might tell you, it is not the version Jesus read, and the last edition of Webster's dictionary that contained all of the words in the KJV came out around 1850. It is an amazing, beautiful version that was written so that the common man could understand it...in 1611. My advice on Bible versions: get the one you will actually read.

Which brings us to the area of Bible discussion I have settled on for this post. If you ask people to name the best-selling book of all time, some will say The DaVinci Code or one of the Harry Potter books, but most will correctly name the Bible as the all-time best seller. The folks at Guinness World Records estimate 5 billion copies have been printed. Yet in spite of these mind-boggling numbers, it is also the least-read book in America today.

Don't get me wrong; most people in America own a Bible, and a large number own more than one. But to borrow the line from a less biblical question, 90% of people don't read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it. Even many regular churchgoers in the Bible Belt only dust their copy off long enough to carry into Sunday services; they then toss it into the back seat of their SUV until the next week.

We weren't always biblically illiterate; only a generation ago most Americans were at least familiar with the majority of the Bible stories, if not the theology contained in them. That's not true anymore, and if you think I'm exaggerating, consider the following responses to some simple Bible knowledge questions:

In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.

Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

Samson slew the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.

Lot's wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire at night.

Noah's wife was Joan of Ark.

It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

Keep in mind that these responses came from children ranging from elementary to high school, in Christian schools. How much worse would the average "man on the street" do, since many can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the U.S.? But that's another rant for another day.

Before you argue that Biblical literacy is irrelevant, consider this: many of our laws are based on the Bible, and much of the great art and literature of the Western world was inspired by the Bible. Not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to really understand the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three of these owe the Bible a debt for their content. And that's just looking at it from a practical standpoint.

There is also, clearly and most importantly, the spiritual aspect of Bible reading. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and is nothing less than God's revelation of himself to us. I like the way The Message version translates 2 Timothy 3:16:

"Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way."

While God has never spoken to me audibly, He has spoken to me through the words of the Bible more times than I can count. And for those who say it's full of errors...show me some.

Here's a challenge: try reading the Bible for 15 minutes a day for 30 days. Start with Mark's gospel, then read Acts (not Axe). These will cover the story of Jesus and the early church, and don't have long lists of names no one can pronounce. Try either the New International Version or the New Living Translation as both are extremely readable. At the very least your literary, historical, and cultural literacy will improve considerably; the Bible has wars and romance and treachery and heartbreak and redemption, just like a good novel. Unlike a novel, though, it has so much more than that.

So be warned: once you start reading the Bible, it can be hard to stop. And if you're not careful, it just might change your life.

Welcome

Welcome to Light in the Darkness. If a Google search of Springsteen's Light of Day or Darkness on the Edge of Town landed you here, feel free to hang around for a while before continuing your musical journey. The subtitle pretty much sums up who the blog is for: seekers, skeptics, and followers. In other words, everyone.

It won't take long for the observant reader to figure out what this blog is about: following Jesus. I debated with myself for a long while before starting it, because Lord knows (pun intended) that there are a ton of similar sites out there. But then again, maybe not so similar. Consider who finally convinced me to do it; not a pastor or mentor, but a magician. An atheist magician no less:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward...how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.” - Penn Jillette of the duo Penn & Teller

Like I said, maybe not so similar to other blogs on the subject, since I've mentioned two Springsteen songs and quoted an atheist while only mentioning Jesus once. And that's important if we're going to engage in any kind of real conversation, at least as real as you can get in this weird virtual world. I'm not some Ivory Tower theological academic and definitely not a fire-and-brimstone prophet, though both of those have their place in this conversation. I am just like you: I have good days and bad days, love my kids while occasionally wanting to strangle them, and still hope that some day I will be a roadie for the E Street Band. To paraphrase Penn above, I do believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that everlasting life is possible by following, really following, Jesus. And since I don't hate you (quite the opposite), I need to tell you about it...no matter how socially awkward things might get.

When you think about it, the real question is why we don't all talk about it more, regardless of what we believe. I have talked to people for weeks about the catch that Dez Bryant made against Green Bay (and it was a catch), and have been urging total strangers I see in bookstores to read Zafon's novel The Shadow of the Wind for nearly a decade. Again to quote Penn, "this is more important than that."

So I hope you'll stop by again, read and ponder, comment and debate, encourage and question, and just generally get involved. My next post will explore some thoughts on the least controversial book ever written: the Bible.