Tuesday, June 26, 2018

TIME, Trump, The Death of Socrates, and The Art of Biblical Interpretation

Journalism ethics is all the rage this week (literally), with a provocative TIME magazine cover on the topic of immigration. (With apologies to readers interested in the politics of immigration and assurances to those weary of the debate, this post is not about immigration, but rather the relationship between art and truth). Are the facts at odds with the truth?

The Facts: President Trump has never met this girl from Honduras. Her separation from her mother at the border was only momentary, as her mom was searched. Afterward they were (at least temporarily) reunited as they awaited processing.

The Truth: Still, the girl comes to represent the many hundreds of children who have been separated from their parents while seeking a better life. The moral outrage following the public's realization of this is understandable, no matter how you propose to handle illegal immigration.

TIME's cover reminds me of a painting from the 1700's -- "The Death of Socrates," by Jacques-Louis David. David depicts Socrates surrounded by his disciples, on the verge of drinking his death sentence in poison. He teaches until the final moments of his life, remaining stoic in the face of death.

"The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David (1786)
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Here's the connection with TIME's cover: Plato, from whom we learn the story of Socrates' death, was not present when it happened, yet David depicts him seated at the foot of the bed, slumped over and facing away.

Why include such an inaccuracy in this painting?

The Facts: David knew from Plato's own writings that he was not present at Socrates' death.

The Truth: Plato was deeply affected by Socrates' death and opposed it. By positioning him at the foot of the bed, looking away, the artist accurately captured Plato's disposition toward the death of his esteemed colleague. If Plato had been missing from the painting, we would lose this central point the artist is trying to make -- a point that coveys the truth of history creatively.

From time to time, feathers are ruffled when someone dares to suggest that the writers of Scripture  were brilliant artists. To some, this implies a disconnect with truth and a denial of divine inspiration. The second objection is easily solved. The God who created all things endows humans with creativity and invites us to participate in his work. As a prime example, take Bezalel and Oholiab, the men charged with designing the tabernacle (Exodus 31). These men were Spirit-filled and skilled creatives, in spite of the fact that their task was to construct something that already had very detailed blueprints. If their creativity was not a valuable asset for this project, God would have been better served finding an automaton. No, he chose humans, men who had spent years honing their skills in weaving and engraving and woodworking and all types of art.

But does art imply a disconnect with truth? Put another way, would the exercise of artistic license in the production of sacred Scripture get in the way of truth?

A great place to test this theory is in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell us the story of Jesus. With their words they paint a portrait for us of his life and ministry. They share much in common, at times even whole episodes or chapters. But there are differences, and some of these are rather puzzling. Did Jesus drive out the money changers in the temple at the beginning of his ministry (as John tells it)? or at the end (as Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount)?  Some Christians assume that Jesus must have driven them out twice -- once at the beginning and another time at the end of his ministry. But could this be an example of creative license?

Each Gospel writer introduces us to the historical Jesus by showing us something distinct about who he really is -- the Jewish Messiah (Matthew), the suffering Son of God (Mark), the Savior for all people (Luke), the Son who reveals the Father (John). To show us what is true about Jesus, in some instances they are best served by rearranging events so that everything will point in the direction they want us to look. This is not because they are trying to hide the truth, but because truth is their main concern. They arrange the details so that we as readers don't get muddled -- so that we can see what they see.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke may have saved this story until the end to illustrate how the opposition to Jesus gained momentum, resulting in his crucifixion. On the other hand (I suspect this is the better explanation), John may have chosen to tell us about the temple cleansing earlier because he's arranging the episodes of Jesus' life topically. The temple cleansing fits a string of stories illustrating Jesus' redefinition of Jewish institutions (sacred vessels, temple, rabbis, and sacred sites; John 2:1-4:54).* The cluster of stories among which the temple cleansing sits is followed by a series of stories in which Jesus redefines Jewish festivals (Sabbath, Passover, feast of Tabernacles, and feast of Dedication). Together, these two clusters make up the "Book of Signs," where John presents 7 signs that reveal Jesus' identity and call people to faith, setting us up for the "Book of Glory," where Jesus is glorified by offering his life on the cross.

However you slice it, artistic license is clearly at work. Either somebody moved this event out of chronological order, or all four gospel writers chose to omit a second occurrence. In my opinion, the truth has been gloriously served.

*For a fuller discussion of John's arrangement of material, see Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity (Zondervan, 2009), 216-219.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Making Summer Work

This week I published a short piece over at The Well, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's blog for Women in the Academy and Profession. A very simple trick is working wonders for my summer schedule. You can read about it there.

The basic idea is that I write until noon and do other stuff after that.

There are exceptions, of course, like last week's dentist appointment, faculty interview, and farewell party that ate into my mornings. But by refusing to let my to-do list eclipse my writing time and scheduling everything possible in the afternoons, I'm enjoying great momentum. As the halfway point of the summer quickly approaches, I'm happy to say that the first draft of my next major writing project is also about halfway done.

I'm thankful for the good advice of other writers that helped me craft my own plan.
  • Write 500 words first thing every day. Save editing for later in the day. (My daily goal is 750).
  • Write in the "gaps." Don't wait for long stretches of time. Seize the moment. Thanks to Scrivener, I'm discovering that I can easily write in 10-minute segments.
  • Set personal goals to keep you motivated. I have a chart listing all of my current projects (including blog posts here and elsewhere, journal articles, conference papers, and books), and I've mapped out where I'd like to be on each project by the end of each week of the summer. When I have a free hour, I can dive into the next project. 
What simple step can you take to ensure that your most important tasks get done this summer?

Monday, June 11, 2018

#readwomen: Taking the Challenge

Last month, InterVarsity Press launched a new campaign that piqued my interest: #readwomen.

IVP (and its parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) has long been a champion of women authors. So why did this campaign grab my attention?

Two reasons:

(1) Because I was about to submit a book proposal to IVP. Here was a publisher that not only seemed interested in my work, but was making a concerted effort to market books by women authors.

(2) Because I know from experience that books by women in the areas of Bible and Theology are few and far between. Don't believe me?

My Personal Biblical Studies Library. Books with their spines showing
were written (all or in part) by women. (Photo: C Imes)
Here is a photo of my personal library in Biblical Studies and Theology. After I heard about #readwomen I wanted a visual illustration of how few women publish books on the Bible and Christian Theology. I turned backwards every book written by men so that only the spines of those written by women are showing.

During my doctoral studies at Wheaton College, we were required to read and write reviews on 35 key books in the field of Old Testament. None of these were written by women. We were also to become familiar with the contents of another 193 books in preparation for our comprehensive exam. Only 9 were written, co-written, or edited by women. I did the math for you. That's under 4%.

My dissertation is published by Eisenbrauns in the Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series. Though it is the 19th volume in the series, mine is the first written by a woman. That's 5%.

My (mostly) New Testament shelves
with books by women showing.
(Photo: C Imes)
After a tour of my office, a colleague asked why I think so few books in Bible and Theology have been written by women. The answer is undoubtedly complex, but I suspect that the primary reason is the decades-long prohibition in many denominations of the ordination of women. Ministry roles open to women have not typically required seminary education, so women have often not been encouraged to pursue learning. This has resulted in very few female role models for women who feel drawn to biblical and theological studies. Without the training to write academic works, these women have invested their many talents elsewhere. 

It should be clear from this photo that I owe most of what I know about the Bible to men. I am immensely grateful for all the men who have trained me through their writings. I do not for a moment wish that these men would stop writing. Keep on, brothers!

Nor do I wish for any of these books by men to disappear. Now that I've taken photos for you, all the books by men are turned back in their rightful direction, where I can continue to refer to them often. Still, I'm thankful for the #readwomen campaign because if we only read books by men, we're not getting the full picture of what there is to know. If we only read books by white authors, or by North Americans, our view of things is still partial.

According to PhD research by IVP senior editor Al Hsu, "women read fairly evenly between male and female authors (54% / 46%), but . . . men read 90% male authors and only 10% female authors. That’s why the #ReadWomen campaign is needed, to highlight how we all benefit from reading women’s voices and hearing perspectives from the whole body of Christ."

Men and women are different. God made us different. And for that reason, we need to listen to one another. We bring unique perspectives and life experiences to the table.

Two summers ago I wrote about my compulsion to write (it's okay to laugh at the redundancy). Every one of us has something we must do. Something without which we feel out of sorts. Writing is one of those things for me. Seeing my bookshelves with so few spines showing was a powerful motivation to get busy. I've had a sign on my office door since school got out: 

Summer Schedule
Please email with anything urgent.

It's working.
Every day, writing comes first.

And I have good news -- 

InterVarsity Press has just offered me a contract for my new book!

This one will unpack the research from my MA thesis and PhD dissertation for a wider audience. I discovered so many things that every Christian should know, but at the moment all that learning is hiding behind a lot of academic jargon and other languages. Most people would find it a frustrating read. In the words of my grandma, who kindly bought a copy of my published dissertation and attempted to read it, "It's not just the Hebrew that's a problem. I can't even understand the English." In contrast, my new book is written like a series of blog posts in plain English so anyone can read it.

Meanwhile, what's on your summer reading list?
Here are a few of my absolute favorite books by women:

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation
Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament
Karen H. Jobes, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles
Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recovering God's Global Vision for Women
Lynn Cohick (co-author), The New Testament in Antiquity
And if you haven't read the Sensible Shoes series yet by Sharon Garlough Brown, don't waste another minute. Brown blends fiction and Christian formation in a captivating way!

Will you take the challenge? Which one will you read?

Or maybe, like me, you'll take up the challenge to write a book this summer. 
What have you learned that others could benefit from hearing?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Five)

Bryan Stevenson is a modern day hero. As a young lawyer, he devoted his life to the cause of justice. His work on death row uncovered the sobering realities of systemic racial injustice today in our prison system. In my most recent post on Racial Injustice, I cited a number of statistics pointing to injustice in the American court system. African Americans living in the US today are much more likely to be given the death penalty than white Americans accused of the same crime. Decades of injustice in our court system have resulted in a largely disproportionate number of black inmates on death row, many of whom were not given a fair trial.

One of these was Walter McMillian, an upstanding business owner who was put on death row before he even faced trial for a 1986 murder he could not possibly have committed. Innocent until proven guilty? Apparently not if you're black in America. McMillian's only "criminal history" was a consensual affair with a white woman. McMillian was at home with his family at the time of the murder. Dozens of people could vouch for that, as there was a fish fry fundraiser for church members going on in his front yard all that day. His arrest satisfied a white community bent on finding the perpetrator of the crime. He was framed by a white social outcast with criminal background whose outlandish accusations against McMillian were a ploy to gain attention and a more lenient sentence. The accuser was known as an unreliable witness with a colorful history of criminal activity. The concocted story was corroborated by a black prisoner in exchange for payment and for his own release from prison.

When the key witness later recanted his testimony, investigators didn't take him seriously. The trial was moved to a neighboring county, where the black population was low so a nearly all-white jury could be guaranteed. McMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death. Appeal after appeal, met with miscarriage of justice until 60 Minutes made the story national news. After 6 agonizing years on death row, further investigation revealed conclusively that McMillian was innocent.

Stevenson "founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system" (from the back cover of his book, Just Mercy). He has courageously entered some of the darkest and most dehumanizing spaces of our nation in an effort to restore dignity and beat the drum for justice. He tells his gripping story in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a New York Times Bestseller readily found in your local library. Just Mercy is undoubtedly the most important book I've read on my quest to understand racial inequality in the United States. Stevenson's decades of work as a lawyer has taken him behind bars and into courtrooms and archives where you and I will never go. He brings dark stories out into the light, where they can awaken us from our ignorance and indifference.

McMillian's is only one of the many stories Stevenson tells -- stories that began in the 80s and 90s or more recently that are only now seeing the light of justice.

I invite you to listen to Stevenson himself as he describes another problem in the US criminal justice system, the sentencing of minors to life in prison without parole. He writes about a boy named Charlie who watched his mother's live-in boyfriend (a police officer) slug her in an alcoholic rage. She fell to the floor. Blood poured from her head, but the boyfriend had gone into the bedroom, leaving her unconscious in the arms of her son. This was the fourth time the man had beat her to the point of needing medical attention. Fourteen-year-old Charlie unsuccessfully tried to stop the bleeding. Finally, he went to the bedroom to call 911 for help, but found the abusive boyfriend there sound asleep. Before calling for an ambulance, Charlie found the abusive man's gun and shot him to protect himself and his mother, who he thought might already be dead. Charlie was sentenced as an adult for killing a police officer and sent to an adult prison. There he was repeatedly and brutally assaulted and raped by other prisoners (116-126). Stories like Charlie's should leave no doubt about the brokenness of our criminal justice system.

Because of the tireless work of the Equal Justice Initiative, it is now "constitutionally impermissible" to sentence children who are not guilty of homicide to life imprisonment. In cases of homicide it is no longer mandatory to sentence children to life without parole (295). This will help young people like Charlie who act in self-defense. Over 100 prisoners have been released from death row. But the work of restoring dignity and working for a more just society is just beginning.

In April 2018, a new museum was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It unveils the sordid story of America's recent past in order to open the way for a more hopeful future. Rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration still make it more dangerous to be black and innocent than to be white and guilty. This should not be. In his late 20s, Stevenson himself was confronted by police without cause, who illegally searched him and his car while parked outside his own apartment, quietly listening to a song on the radio. He knows firsthand how dehumanizing the wrongful assumption of guilt can be. That evening, his only guilt was being black in America.

The roots of racial prejudice still run deep. Although the US federal prohibition on inter-racial marriage was abolished in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), by 2011 46% of Mississippi Republicans still supported a ban (29). As long as we see those with different skin color than our own as anything other than fellow humans made as God's image, we perpetuate an injustice that looks at a human and sees something less. I fear that as white Americans slowly leave behind prejudice against those of African descent, it will merely be replaced with a new "Other" -- immigrants from the Middle East or Latin America, or Asia.

Bryan Stevenson's book is no easy read. It will wreck your day, as this blog post has wrecked mine. But the longer we hide from reality, the longer injustice prevails. Let's work for a better future -- for everybody. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Human. What will it take to live like we believe this is true?