God of the Ship of Theseus: A Thought Experiment for Church Identity

The other night I was gazing upon the city skyline, and I counted about a dozen different cranes rising over the buildings.

I started wondering: if every brick and every slat of every building in Boston were eventually replaced, would it still be Boston?

In philosophy, there is a similar thought experiment: “The Ship of Theseus.”

To explain the Ship of Theseus, I give you Marvel Comics’ final episode of the show WandaVision, where the superhero Vision is confronted with essentially a clone of himself. They are trying to figure out which is the true Vision, so they turn to the Ship of Theseus.

 

 

The Ship of Theseus in an artifact in a museum. Over time its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”

One of the two superheroes named Vision replies, “Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.”

This thought experiment applies to churches, too. The congregation I pastor is only a little bit over 50 years old, and we still have some of the original planks and bricks of the church. Not the building anymore, sadly, but the people!

50 more years from now, when this church has its 100th anniversary, and no original plank remains, will it still be South End Neighborhood Church?

Yes. South End Church 50 years ago, South End Church today, and South End Church 50 years into the future—it’s all the real South End Church, no matter how much the parts and the people change.

Our task, then, in the presence of God, is to ask and prayerfully discern: what makes us us? What are the consistent ties that bind us together, past, present, and future?

And if we’re a ship, where are we going? Where is God leading us?


I keep hearing commentators make a big deal (as they should) about how this is the Boston Celtics’ 22nd NBA Finals appearance. The first few times I heard that stat, it was jarring. There is literally nobody on the team for whom that statement is true. Even Al Horford, their veteran, hasn’t been to an NBA Finals before.

But of course the team has. And there is something in the ethos, the DNA, the blood of this organization that serves as a through line, making the Celtics still the Celtics, even though none of the same people from the last Finals-making team are there now.

Organizations and churches and cities—like the ship of Theseus—have a culture, what some refer to as a thisness.

Those of us who steward these organizations in the present moment have the great privilege of discerning together just what that culture is—what is worth preserving, and what is worth culling, all in favor of living out our deepest identity and calling.

 

Writing Seeking Understanding

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’ve read a few book prefaces recently that have quoted Toni Morrison’s inspiring advice: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

It seems to me that one barrier to writers’ practice of this good advice is a concern that they lack the expertise to write the book they want to see in the world.

In his Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman helpfully writes:

It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting, or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.

So why not start writing that book, or song, or painting that piece you can all but already see? Why not tackle that project that feels ambitious because it is, but also feels ambitious because our standards for it are unreasonably high?

Hannah Arendt offered a useful way for writers to think of themselves. In her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, in response to his question about her desire to “achieve extensive influence” through her work, she responds:

What is important for me is to understand. For me, writing is a matter of seeking this understanding, part of the process of understanding…. What is important to me is the thought process itself. As long as I have succeeded in thinking something through, I am personally quite satisfied. If I then succeed in expressing my thought process adequately in writing, that satisfies me also.

She goes on:

Do I imagine myself being influential? No. I want to understand. And if others understand—in the same sense that I have understood—that gives me a sense of satisfaction, like feeling at home.

Writing as an ongoing “process of understanding” helps relieve some of the pressure of it, and it helps keep writers—and creators of other kinds—humble. Writers are “questing,” as a writing coach once told me. Good writers invite readers to come along with them and learn together.

Now Reading: Hannah Arendt

I am feeling compelled to finally read The Origins of Totalitarianism, the 1951 work of Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In it she explores Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She wants to come to some kind of understanding—should it be possible—of horrific evil, and of how totalitarian regimes can come to be in the first place.

In the words of an acquaintance, my strong desire to read Arendt feels both “ominous and important.” Am I reading it in preparation for the 2024 presidential election and all that may follow? I hope not—but I will anyway. Or am I reading it to (still) try to wrap my head around how so many folks in the U.S. voted in 2016 for a man who praises Vladimir Putin and himself had (has) dictatorial aspirations? Or do I feel it necessary to read this because of the ways in which anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism persist, decades after Nazi Germany?

All of the above.

Here are just a few quotations from The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Another:

Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defense.”

(This is exactly what Putin is doing in Ukraine—claiming self-defense as he launches unprovoked attacks—and also descriptive of Trump’s unprovoked verbal abuse toward others, whom he then labels enemies/rivals.)

And this sobering line:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read Arendt or anything else on totalitarianism.

“I’m not really a scholar”–the Late J. Alec Motyer

I realize that–without really meaning to–I’ve developed an affinity for Anglican priest-scholar types. To name just a few: R.T. France, Fleming Rutledge, N.T. Wright.

Add to that list the late J. Alec Motyer. I can hardly imagine studying Isaiah without Motyer’s work. And his commentary on Zephaniah is a model of scholarship that praises God.

I recently came across this great quote from him:

I’m not really a scholar. I’m just a man who loves the Word of God.

J. Alec Motyer

I’m not sure I’m in danger of being called a scholar. All the same, his words resonate deeply with me, as what I aspire to.

Praying “Thanks in Advance”

“Thanks in advance” is a funny phrase.

“Thanks in advance” is what you say when you thank someone for something they haven’t done yet.

You: “Hey, here’s 10 bucks.”
Me: “Thanks; I’ll pay you back.”
You: “Okay, thanks in advance.”

Or, I might say to my spouse, “Honey, I have had A DAY. Thanks in advance for doing the dishes and putting the kids to bed while I watch random YouTube videos.”

Psalm 100:5 says, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

The Psalmist models a prayer that looks ahead with confidence, knowing that we will see God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness to all generations.”

For his love and faithfulness we can give thanks in advance, because their existence in the future is guaranteed.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” I guess a lot of it was in his head. We worry!

Another writer says that “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.”

If we spend time worrying about the future, why can’t we spend time giving God thanks for the future? If we let ourselves experience failure in advance, why not let ourselves experience something much more certain in advance, namely, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness?

Even Job can say with confidence, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Our prayers, then, can include the envisioned experience of God’s future faithfulness. So we can say with confidence, “Lord, thanks in advance!”

Fear No Evil or See No Evil? One Way to Preach a Textual Variant

Last week’s Hebrew Bible lectionary gave us the beautiful Zephaniah 3:14-20. There is an interesting variant in the Septuagint reading of verse 15.

Hebrew

לֹא־תִֽירְאִ֥י רָ֖ע עֽוֹד

= you will no longer fear evil

Greek

οὐκ ὄψῃ κακὰ οὐκέτι

= you will no longer see evil

The Hebrew verb for fear (יָרֵא) looks like the verb for see (רָאָה), especially in conjugation:

תִירְאִי

= you will fear

תִּרְאִי

= you will see

The only difference is the presence or absence of the vowel letter in the first syllable, which is superfluous for pronunciation anyway. Both words sound the same in Hebrew.

So the Greek “see” for “fear” is easy to appreciate. But which one to preach? In this case, whenever I quoted the passage in my sermon, I was using my own translation. Since both readings seem equally plausible to me, I decided to present the Greek variant as expounding on the Hebrew, not replacing it (so to speak).

The single line became:

You will no longer fear any evil. You won’t even see evil.

This is many more words than are in the Hebrew text, but I think both the Hebrew “fear” and the Greek “see” so well capture the essence of the passage, that it was worth quoting both. It’s as if God is saying through Zephaniah (if we combine the readings)—not only will you not fear evil, you won’t even have to see it… because it won’t exist.

Lord, haste the day!

A Review of T. Muraoka’s “Fully Fledged” Septuagint Lexicon

Introduction

Takamitsu Muraoka’s work is a gift to all who would read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

When I first began to love reading the Septuagint, T. Muraoka’s Two-Way Index was my most valued resource. I reviewed it here.

So of course it has been with great interest and appreciation that I’ve used his “fully fledged lexicon” (X) of the Septuagint, titled A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (GELS). I review it here, with gratitude to Peeters for sending the review copy, with no expectation as to the content of my review.

The Approach of This Lexicon

First a word about the book itself: the binding is sewn and the cover is cloth. It is built to last. There could be no shoddy construction for a work of this magnitude and price, but even the publisher Brill sells multi-hundred-dollar books with glued bindings.

Why GELS?

The importance of the Septuagint does not lie merely in its value for historians of Early Judaism, but also in the fact that it embodies quite a sizeable amount of texts witnessing to Hellenistic, Koine Greek. Some of the current lexica such as Liddell, Scott and Jones, and Bauer do make fairly frequent references to the Septuagint, but their treatment, by universal agree­ment, leaves much to be desired. Furthermore, the last several decades have witnessed remarkable revived interests in the Septuagint, not only on the part of scholars interested in the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible, but also those who study the Septuagint as a Greek text with its own interests and perspectives, not necessarily as a translated text. (VII)

Consider the reader of an English translation of the New Testament. They may not know the original languages. If they don’t, they’ll be reading in translation, thinking of the text as it is in front of them. The one reading only in translation reads the text-as-received, not necessarily with an interest in the translation and production of the text. In the same way, I enjoy reading Bonhoeffer but know barely any German. I read him in English translation and except for the occasional footnote, don’t really consider the German or the particular decisions the translators made.

Here, then, is how Muraoka approaches the LXX:

Following a series of exploratory studies and debates, we have come to the conclusion that we had best read the Septuagint as a Greek document and try to find out what sense a reader in a period roughly 250 B.C. – 100 A.D. who was ignorant of Hebrew or Aramaic might have made of the translation, although we did compare the two texts all along. (VIII)

This is not, Muraoka is quick to note, the same approach as the so-called interlinear model of the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS). Besides, for more comparison between Greek and the Hebrew it translates there is the Two-Way Index.

How does Muraoka approach words and their definitions? Meaning is derived from how a word is used in its context: “Thus we started from the actual text, the whole text” (X). (This lexicon has evolved over time. He began with Obadiah and then the rest of the 12 prophets, to be exact.) Here it is worth quoting GELS at length:

A word is hardly ever used in isolation and on its own, but normally occurs in conjunction with another word or words. Such collocations help to establish the semantic ‘profile’ of the word concerned. Two words which are closely related may not wholly share their ‘partners,’ each thus gaining its individuality. Such in­formation about collocations a given word enters provides important clues for defining its senses and deter­mining its semantic ‘contours.’ It concerns questions such as what sorts of adjective a given noun is qualified by or what sorts of nouns or nominal entities a given verb takes as its grammatical subject or object. In ad­dition to these semantic collocations, the question of syntactic collocations is equally important: which case (genitive, dative or accusative) and which preposition a given verb governs.

Different translations and lexicons may have their different approaches, but I appreciate how clear Muraoka is about his. I greatly value his approach. For those wondering, he uses Göttingen critical editions, where they are available, then Rahlfs, with “occasional use” of the Cambridge LXX.

The Structure of the Entries

Perhaps the two most welcome contributions of this lexicon are that:

(A) Muraoka provides definitions and not merely glosses or translation equivalents.

(B) Lexicon entries not only cite but also excerpt relevant LXX passages… even including an English translation of the quoted Greek. In this, Muraoka says, “we have decided to err on the generous side” (XI)—indeed.

There are 9,548 head-words—and I thought learning New Testament Greek was a challenge! Each entry has three primary sections:

  1. The headword (lexicon entry) in bold, followed by a “morphological inventory” so you can see the lexeme in other forms (this is great for language learning). There is also an asterisk that signifies a word “not attested earlier than the Septuagint” (XIII).
  2. The “main body” of the entry, “defining senses of the headword and describing its usage” (XIII). If there is “more than one distinct sense” of a headword, Muraoka marks them off by bold numerals.
  3. A surprising but helpful inclusion: “a word or group of words semantically associated with the headword” (XV). This is reminiscent of the Louw-Nida NT Greek lexicon, and a welcome addition. There are also references to secondary literature, when Muraoka deems them relevant to understanding the word.

Muraoka’s humility and sense of humor are here, too—qualities I might not have anticipated shining through in a lexicon. He says, “(?) is a symbol of despair, indicating our inability to establish any relationship of equiva­lence between the Greek word concerned and the supposed Hebrew original of the translator” (XVI).

Entries, Compared

Here is a comparison of entries between Muraoka’s GELS and Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (“LEH”=Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie). The word is μακάριος, the first word in the Psalms and in the Beatitudes in Matthew. One immediately begins to appreciate the depth which Muraoka treats a word.

LEH (via Accordance):

Muraoka:

I especially appreciate that Muraoka not only defines the word, but helps the lexicon user see how it is used:

With a limited number of exceptions (see below), μ. opens, as in the Beatitudes (Mt 5.3-10), a generic, typological statement in the form of a nominal clause without a copula with the fortunate character of the subject—a human, never a divinity—formulated by means of a relative clause or a participial clause….

While I appreciate Muraoka’s in-depth definitions, I wondered if he couldn’t have also included more translation equivalents as part of the entry. While the LEH entry is rather sparse, it gives the expected “happy” and “blessed” in its entry (though GELS does list “fortunate” right away as a translation equivalent). “Blessed” doesn’t come in Muraoka’s entry until further down, and only then as a translation of a Greek example. So too with φιλέω. LEH gives “to love” and “to kiss” right away in its few-line entry. Muraoka (whose entry is much more detailed) gives the first meaning as “to find agreeable, feel attracted to,” which is comparable to BDAG’s lengthy “to have a special interest in someone or someth., freq. with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend.” But if it’s often (and appropriately) translated “love,” why not indicate that earlier in the entry?

This may just be personal preference, and it would be unfair to evaluate Muraoka’s lexicon on something it doesn’t set out to do—namely, to provide translation equivalents at every turn. (He does say, “Occasionally, when we saw fit, we added a translation equivalent or equivalents….”)

So perhaps the best workflow is to consult Muraoka first to really understand a word, then go to LEH for a translation equivalent if needed. No one lexicon can do it all, and Muraoka really fills a large gap with his extended treatment of words.

Typographers, Shield Your Eyes?

Typographers, shield your eyes? Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. And may God bless and prosper biblical language typographers!

Still, for those looking closely, there is a bit of a distraction with how the font is vertically aligned in places, both in Greek and in English. See here:

In “and” and “unmarried,” the letters appear not to be totally flush with the baseline. The letters r and n and a seem to be the most frequent offenders. And there are issues with kerning (consistent spacing between letters):

Is this picky? Maybe. Could I do better? No way. I can’t imagine how hard it is to typeset a multi-language book like this. It is a little distracting, though, so I just try not to notice it.

Ordering Info

My only wish now is that Peeters would consider licensing this lexicon to Accordance Bible Software, where I would find it immensely useful. However, the bound edition is beautiful, and I do actually appreciate leafing through a print lexicon, just like I did in the olden days.

Any of the above critiques are far outweighed by the impressiveness of this lexicon. Kudos and thanks to Prof. Muraoka and others involved for producing such a fine resource.

And thanks again to Peeters for the review copy. Find the book here at their Website, and here via Amazon (affiliate link).

Expect, God willing, more Septuagint resource reviews in the weeks ahead.

Review: HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting

You probably already realize how much of in-person communication is non-verbal. But did you know that audiences perceive non-verbal signals as having more weight than the words you are actually saying?

Nick Morgan notes as much in his Harvard Business Review article, “How to Become an Authentic Speaker”:

If your spoken message and your body language are mismatched, audiences will respond to the nonverbal message every time.

Why?

You’re probably coming across as artificial. The reason: When we rehearse specific body language elements, we use them incorrectly during the actual speech—slightly after speaking the associated words. Listeners feel something’s wrong, because during natural conversation, body language emerges before the associated words.

Recently in a natural conversation I tried to notice which came first—my hand gestures or the words they accompanied. And Morgan is right!

So if you’re going to script non-verbals into your public speaking, well… maybe just don’t. Those need to be natural, or the listeners will know something is off.

Morgan’s article is in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting, a compelling and informative read that has already helped me as a preacher.

Here is the list of articles included:

  • “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” by Chris Anderson
  • “How to Become an Authentic Speaker,” by Nick Morgan
  • “Storytelling That Moves People: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” by Bronwyn Fryer
  • “Connect, Then Lead,” by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger
  • “The Necessary Art of Persuasion,” by Jay A. Conger
  • “The Science of Pep Talks,” by Daniel McGinn
  • “Get the Boss to Buy In,” by Susan J. Ashford and James R. Detert
  • “The Organizational Apology,” by Maurice E. Schweitzer, Alison Wood Brooks, and Adam D. Galinsky
  • “What’s Your Story?” by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback
  • “Visualizations That Really Work,” by Scott Berinato
  • (“bonus” article) “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story,” by Nancy Duarte.

I don’t think there’s a dud in here. Chris Anderson’s lead article is an inside look into the world of TED Talks. As the curator of the conferences, he’s coached plenty of speakers, and here distills some of his advice.

I especially appreciated the focus in a few articles on good storytelling. Even if data is part of a presentation, tell a story about it, rather than presenting it in drab charts and graphs. (Or use charts and graphs, but make them visually compelling.) “What’s Your Story” is about how to frame and re-frame career transitions—especially relevant to the so-called “Great Resignation” happening across workplaces today.

Harvard Business Review and its books have always appealed to me, though as a church leader I often have to translate the wisdom into a somewhat unique context. This particular volume, however, is immediately relevant to anyone speaking or presenting to people.

Check it out here.

C.S. Lewis on Deception

Is it possible to gaslight oneself?

Here is a profound insight on what self-deception (and then deception of others) looks like:

No man, perhaps, ever at first described to himself the act he was about to do as Murder, or Adultery, or Fraud, or Treachery, or Perversion; and when he hears it so described by other men, he is (in a way) sincerely shocked and surprised. Those others “don’t understand.” If they knew what it had really been like for him, they would not use those crude ‘stock’ names. With a wink or a titter, or in a cloud of muddy emotion, the thing has slipped into his will as something not very extraordinary, something of which, rightly understood and in all his highly peculiar circumstances, he may even feel proud.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C.S. Lewis

We rationalize our actions, even if we might rightly balk at the same actions, were it somebody else. Hard a pill as this is to swallow, I think it’s an important truth to acknowledge—and confess to God.