An Interculturally Aware Read of Psalm 46 (Location, Location, Location)

Psalms of Summer

As I have read and preached on some Psalms this summer, I’ve appreciated the importance of trying to practice intercultural sensitivity in reading the Bible (and in all of life).

I am working on a course on intercultural counseling this summer, one purpose of which has been to help build intercultural competence and sensitivity.

The readings, lectures, and class discussions have reminded me of the important truth that reading and interpreting the Bible is an exercise–whether we realize it or not–in intercultural relations.

Intercultural Sensitivity=Better Bible Reading

The culture, values, and practices, for instance, of ancient Israel differ from those of 21st century North America in a number of ways. If I read a passage with only an awareness of the cultural values I carry with me, I very well may miss an important truth or robust reading of a text. Or I may map a “truth” or value judgment onto the text that the author didn’t necessarily intend to be there. (I’m not discounting the potential value of so-called reader-response criticism, but I am suggesting we seek to avoid a monocultural or culturally hegemonic interpretation of a text, if possible.)

In a 2008 article for Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (“Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity”), Steven J. Sandage, Mary L. Jensen, and Daniel Jass write:

Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience.

I mentioned here how the idea of intercultural sensitivity helped me read Psalm 23 in a fuller way. The same thing happened as I prepared to preach on Psalm 46 this week. I got a little extra help this time from a Bible atlas I’ve been reading.

Psalm 46: God Is Our Refuge

Psalm 46 begins:

 1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

How should we understand the scenario the Sons of Korah (writers of this Psalm) describe?

Mountain and WaterThe sons of Korah don’t just paint a picture of tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. A number of commentators point out here that the effective merging of the land (mountains) and waters (sea) harken back to the pre-creation state of chaos that existed before God separated the land from the waters, bringing order to life. The sons of Korah, then, describe a sort of uncreation.

But even in the midst of an envisioned chaos and uncreation of the world (!), “God is our refuge and strength.”

Verse 2 says, “though the earth give way,” or, though the land give way. Here is where an interculturally aware read of the Psalm helps it to come alive even more profoundly. (The below was inspired, in part, by Paul H. Wright’s Rose Then And Now Bible Map Atlas® With Biblical Background And Culture.)

Life for Israel: Location, Location, Location

Before there was such a thing as real estate, life for Israel already was location, location, location.

The topography or shape of the land had a lot to do with whether a given area would be suitable for habitation. Mountains, in particular, provided a sort of natural buffer of protection against enemies… a hiding place to run to, if need be. Water, of course, was necessary for life and the production of crops.

Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta's Sacred Bridge atlas)
Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta’s Sacred Bridge atlas)

The congregation of Israelites who would sing this Psalm understood their identity as intricately tied to the land. The land—which God had given them—was part and parcel of his covenant relationship with them. It was part of his blessing, a sign of his love. If we don’t have this land, how can we really call ourselves God’s people? This is still a live question for many.

Yet even if we were to lose this fundamental aspect of our identity, the Psalm declares, even if the world were to be uncreated and fall back into chaos, “we will not fear.”

The congregation can still say—can still sing, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Given how important land was to the people of Israel and the construction of their collectivistic identity, this is an amazing affirmation of trust in God.

Intercultural Insight from a Bible Atlas

Paul Wright AtlasPaul H. Wright’s cultural awareness and sensitivity is present from the very first chapter (“The Landed Context of the Biblical Story”) of his biographically-arranged atlas:

To start, it is perhaps appropriate to define a few aspects of location that have impacted living conditions in the lands of the Bible over time. The building blocks of biblical geography include the following….

He lists topography, climate, and available resources. He goes on:

The particular mix of elements such as these plays a significant role in determining whether any given plot of ground can support permanent settlements and how large and well-established these might have become, or if the land is better suited for herding or desert lifestyles.

Here’s the intercultural piece, which I so appreciated:

Specific geographical realities have also helped to shape cultural values and norms that defined individual societies. For instance, protocols of cooperation, hospitality and defense that functioned well in arid, shepherding societies in biblical times developed differently than did those that attained to urban centers located in fertile areas, or to sailors who frequented foreign ports-of-call. And aspects of geography gave rise to specific images that biblical writers used to describe God and the people of ancient Israel.

Understanding the value of land to the people singing Psalm 46–it was an essential component of their identity and experience of God’s love for them!–makes the affirmation of trust in this Psalm even more remarkable.

Though the sons of Korah envision a scenario in which their land is gone–having slipped into the ocean–they call on the congregation to praise God still.

The above is adapted from a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday. Rose Publishing has sent me the Wright atlas for review purposes. A full review is forthcoming. You can find the atlas in the following places: Rose Publishing, Amazon (affiliate link), Carta (as Greatness, Grace, and Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography), and Eisenbrauns (same title as Carta).

A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures

Peaceable PsychologyThis summer I’ve been taking a course on multicultural counseling. Here I offer some interaction with and reflection on A Peaceable Psychology, pictured at left.

Key Points of Learning: Agreements and Concerns

Before reading A Peaceable Psychology, I hadn’t really thought about counseling and therapy as “political” acts. And yet Alvin Dueck and Kevin Reimer warn well against the illusion that the therapist can somehow counsel apolitically, aculturally, amorally, and areligiously. One of the key, unifying ideas of the book is: “Civility includes learning and validating the language of the ethno-religious client. It is polite to defer to the meaning framework of a client.”

I found this to be a helpful way of framing the quest for diversity competence among therapists and pastors. Dueck and Reimer do go even farther than saying this kind of psychotherapy is polite; they suggest that to counsel in this way is to be like Jesus, especially when therapist and client can inhabit the same place of suffering together.

Although Dueck and Reimer have a healthy (and hearty!) reluctance toward philosophical foundationalism as such, they see the work and life and love of Jesus as foundational to a peaceable psychology. This is especially evident in their view of the importance of the atonement.

I found myself in agreement with Dueck and Reimer when they wrote:

The reconciling atonement of Christ is not spiritual alone but contains physical, psychological, and social dimensions of human brokenness. The suffering God is a beckoning God, who in Christ offers the potential of a new beginning. Consequently, a peaceable psychology is an incarnational event whereupon the invisible spiritual reality of God’s grace is attached to and bound up in the visible life of both the victim and the offender.

They go on, “Atonement is God’s welcoming of the enemy, of the other. It is an invitation to new life, to freedom from sin. This is the basis of a peaceable psychology.”

When considering various theological theories of the atonement, I find myself convinced by an all-of-the-above approach. (How could we limit the efficacy of the atonement by proffering just one theory as to what it was and how it happened?) The work and suffering of Jesus, they suggest, is to transform the therapist-client relationship. “If Juanita were our client,” they ask, “would her suffering fully impact us?”

This, however, also was a potential point of disagreement I had with the authors. Or at least I had questions and wanted to add qualifications. To be sure, the idea of the “kenotic therapist” makes sense to me—especially as a pastor. But the following expression of kenotic therapy was too much, at least for me: “Indeed, I am held hostage by my clients’ suffering. Their face places an ethical claim on me because as a fellow human I am systemically responsible for their suffering.”

While I can agree about “an ethical claim,” I’m not sure being “held hostage” is the most useful metaphor. How many clients will—or can—a therapist allow to hold him hostage before he feels imprisoned in an unhealthy and stultifying way? I wish the authors had spoken more to the point with some practical suggestions and caveats.

Implications for Pastoral Care

Dueck and Reimer say, “We fear that the American psychologist who assumes a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’ has already begun a subtle process of imposition upon the client.”

This is a valuable reminder to me as a minister. I simply cannot make assumptions about the cultural backgrounds of congregants. Further, there is value in this approach (of not assuming “a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’”) that has already—just this last week—had practical import and payoff in my biblical hermeneutics for preaching.

Yesterday I preached on Psalm 23. Due in large part to the idea Dueck and Reimer articulate above, namely, that constructions of self are culturally conditioned and informed, I was able to observe the following about Psalm 23.

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. …A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

This really drove home the point in another article we read in class: “Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience” (Sandage, Jensen, and Jass).

I also do and will find it useful for my own pastoring to consider that “a peaceable therapist recognizes that healing is best conducted ethnically, in the client’s mother tongue and in his or her local culture.”

Of course no therapist can be already conversant in the mother tongue of every cultural or religious tradition. But Dueck and Reimer realize that, and are suggesting more of an “ad hoc” approach anyway: “A peaceable therapist is a linguist; he or she recognizes differences between languages and honors them by learning them.”

May God help us–therapists and ministers alike–so to do!

Find A Peaceable Pscyhology at Amazon here. Baker/Brazos has its product page here, with an excerpt (including Table of Contents) here. No review copy–I bought this one!

Counseling the Culturally Diverse

Counseling the Culturally Diverse

This week I’m beginning a course on multicultural counseling. I can’t wait to jump in.

One of the textbooks we’re using is Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 6th Edition (Wiley, 2013), by Derald Wing Sue and David Sue. Here’s a bit of the description from the book’s product page:

Filled with numerous examples, authentic vignettes, and practical case studies, Counseling the Culturally Diverse, Sixth Edition remains the best source of real-world multicultural counseling preparation for students and an influential guide for professionals.

The first chapter (which is as much as I’ve read so far) begins with the personal (and professional) journeys of two readers of the book, as well as the author’s own such reflections. From the reflection questions on the very first page, readers of this sixth edition get the sense that they, too, are in for a challenging and invigorating journey. The first reflection question is:

In what ways do our personal reactions to topics of race, gender, sexual orientation, and oppression have to do with counseling diverse clients?

Then there is:

Who are you as a racial/cultural being? How often have you thought about yourself as a man/woman, White individual/person of color, or straight/gay?

The underlying assumption behind the question is that those in so-called majority statuses in each of the above categories will not have thought as much about such identities as those in minority statuses have. Indeed, this not having to think about it characterizes what folks refer to as white privilege, male privilege, and so on.

Self-understanding around issues of culture, the book suggests, is essential to the development and effectiveness of a counselor/therapist.

Finally, the author says,

[The book’s] goals are to enlighten you about how counseling and psychotherapy may represent cultural oppression and to provide a vision of change that is rooted in social justice.

I hope to have a chance to report more about the book in the future. (And if any of you reading this post has read Counseling the Culturally Diverse, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or via this contact form.)

The book is here at Wiley and here on Amazon (affiliate link). In both places it’s available in print or electronically. Via Wiley, you can look at the full Table of Contents here (pdf) and read the first chapter in full here (pdf).

Even during Finals week, we must rest.

To all my teacher and student friends who are still going with school… the below is adapted from an e-devotional I wrote that went out over email to Gordon students in December 2011.

fallow field

It may seem strange to talk about Sabbath-keeping during end-of-the-semester crunch time. Who has any time to spare for rest, let alone a whole day?

Last week I was reading from Exodus during Morning Prayer, with the people with whom my family lives in intentional community. Exodus 34:21 jumped out at me, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”

Regardless of our familiarity with agrarian lifestyles and metaphors, this text speaks to us of a God who invites his people into rest. Sabbath-keeping, as with all of God’s commandments, brings life to those who keep it.  Even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

You all are in the midst of final papers and exams—you likely can’t just up and take a day off, since that might mean missing an important exam. But you can seek pockets of rest, times to sit down in God’s presence and ask for him to guide you through all your comings and goings. If Israel must rest even during their plowing season and harvest, we ought to seriously consider following this timeless pattern, taking rest even during our busiest seasons.

So close your email. Go to bed (especially if you’re reading this at 3am). Go outside and walk around (even if it’s raining). Go eat a snack and talk to a friend. Some of you will need more encouragement to this than others, of course, but heed well God’s life-giving words. Even during Finals week, we must rest.

A Prayer for Difference amidst Unity, and Unity amidst Difference

Gordon's Beyond Colorblind logo
Gordon’s Beyond Colorblind logo

Does race matter? Is ethnicity important? How do cultural backgrounds affect our everyday lives?

This week at Gordon College we have a special emphasis week, BEYOND COLORBLIND:

BEYOND COLORBLIND is a focus week to help start new conversations about race and culture on campus.  We hope the lectures and discussions help us consider how our racial and cultural identities and experiences shape our views of ourselves, others, and God.

You can watch the first large group session of the week (chapel) here. Richard Twiss was the main speaker. It’s well worth your time.

Two weeks ago I shared a prayer for the first day of school. Today I’m sharing the congregational prayer we prayed in unison this morning in chapel. This came after the passing of the peace.

God, lover of all people,
Creator of all nations,
We praise you for all that you have made.

Thank you for the rich mosaic that is the body of Christ.
Thank you for difference amidst unity,
for unity amidst difference.

Give us a spirit of understanding and appreciation of each other.
Help us to see your image clearly in those around us.

Bless us now as we gather,
and may we declare your praises with our whole lives,
through our risen Lord Jesus.
Amen.

Find out more about the week here.

A prayer for the first day of school

2012 to 2013
 
This semester is the first day of classes at Gordon. This morning in chapel I led us in a responsive prayer, offering thanksgiving and petition to God at the start of a new semester. I offered the prayer in italics, then we all as one congregation read the bold responses.

For the start of a new semester and all the promise that it holds:

We give you thanks, our God.

For the joy we have in seeing friends for the first time in a month:

We give you thanks, our God.

For those with whom we live in dorms, apartments, and houses:

We give you thanks, our God.

For the chance to gather freely in worship:

We give you thanks, our God.

For all that we will learn: in the classroom, in this worship space, in Lane, in labs, in practice rooms, in the library, in relationships, on campus and off campus:

We give you thanks, our God.

For wisdom for all students, staff, and faculty, as we seek to offer God our very best in all that we do:

Lord, please be near us.

For family relationships that we’ve invested in over the last month but now step away from in some ways:

Lord, please be near us.

For perseverance and diligence in our studies:

Lord, please be near us.

For healthy sleep patterns, motivation to exercise, self-control in eating good, healthy foods:

Lord, please be near us.

For those areas of life in which we struggle, where we despair, and for those things of which we are ashamed:

Lord, please be near us.

Praising God through Academic Biblical Studies: Less Hypermodernist Objectivism, More Affect!

Why such an emphasis on wanting to get as close to the “original text” of the Bible as possible? Or, as some scholars call it, the “earliest attainable text”?

Earlier this week I wrote a bit about scholarly editions of the Jewish Scriptures, both the Greek and the Hebrew.

But I began asking myself today, why am I so interested in a rigorous scholarly pursuit of the text of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek?

One reason is that I love to learn. On the Strengthsfinder assessment I came out with “Learner” as my top strength both times I took the test. “Achiever” was not far behind. (See here for the descriptions of the 34 strengths themes in that assessment.) Here’s an excerpt from the description of the “Learner” strength that applies to me:

You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence.

All true, except that when it comes especially to my pursuit of biblical studies, the process, the content, and the result are “especially exciting” for me.

Why?

The late Arthur Holmes articulates beautifully:

Christ the Truth becomes the dominant motivation in intellectual inquiry. No dichotomy of sacred and secular tasks can be allowed, and no subject is exempt.

The student will therefore welcome truth and submit to it wherever it is found, out of obedience to Christ. Academic work becomes an opportunity to extend the Lordship of Christ over the mind; thought merges into worship.

“Thought merges into worship.” I love this. And I think this is why–more than just being a “Learner”–I so love to delve into the depths of Scripture, in the most “original” form that I possibly can.

I’m not overly fastidious about Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic–as if God really spoke through those languages and then anything else is just mediated and somehow a dilution of God’s actual words. (Isn’t all language already mediation anyway?) If the word of God is “living and active,” it can be living and active in its faithful translations into other languages.

But one reason I geek out so much about the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is that in my study I feel myself getting closer to that amazing time when God gave his word to humanity to be transmitted to future generations: first orally, then in written form. And I love seeing how the translators of the Hebrew Bible wrestled with putting the Hebrew into Greek. I love seeing how the New Testament writers grappled with, contextualized, and recontextualized the Old Testament.

I don’t even mind that at the moment I’m a bit perplexed by how Paul could both praise the law as being from God yet also refer to it as a “the ministry that brought death.”

Why?

Because for me, as of late, my thoughts and my studies of Scripture–even at a scholarly level–have begun to “[merge] into worship.” How can I not praise the God behind these amazing words? Though we may never know what the autograph of any part of Scripture actually said, I believe we can get close.

And somehow the closer I get to the text of the Bible–in a scholarly setting–the closer I feel to God.

Not always, of course–sometimes I’m just confused. (Dash the heads of infants against rocks? And we pray these Psalms in liturgical settings???) But there’s been a real richness for me lately in delving into the Bible in its original languages, comparing variant readings across manuscripts and versions, trying to figure out why one Synoptic Gospel said it this way, why this one said it another way…. Even in seeking to answer those questions, I know that I am seeking more of God and God’s revelation.

This is not a taken-for-granted view of things in the field of biblical studies. Take this, for instance, from Michael V. Fox:

In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.

I haven’t contacted Michael V. Fox to confirm this, but I’d wager that what I’m describing above constitutes some sort of “faith-based study,” or at least, study that is informed by and that enriches faith.

But a bit more context from Fox:

The claim of faith-based Bible study to a place at the academic table takes a toll on the entire field of Bible scholarship. The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion. Those who choose a faith-based approach should realize that they cannot expect the attention of those who don’t share their postulates. The reverse is not true. Scholars who are personally religious constantly draw on work by scholars who do not share their postulates. One of the great achievements of modern Bible scholarship is that it communicates across religious borders so easily that we usually do not know the beliefs of its practitioners.

I’m okay with trying to set aside a “predetermined conclusion,” though skeptical of that possibility. (Does Fox believe in the modernist project?)

Fox goes on, “The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic.”

Sigh.

Taking the Psalms as an example, one cannot appreciate the Psalms who does not pray the Psalms. And wouldn’t good scholarship (religiously motivated or not) call for us to engage the text on the author’s terms? How can one do good scholarship on David, for example, if one is not willing to engage the text in the way that David intended for it to be engaged? If he wrote a Psalm for corporate singing or reciting, is the individual in her or his library carrel who seeks to bracket out faith commitments going to get anywhere near to uncovering the meaning and import of that Psalm until she or he sings it with others?

Fox’s whole article is here.

Parker Palmer has a good rejoinder:

Objectivism—which is a complete myth with respect to how real people have ever known anything real—has great political persuasiveness because it gives us the illusion that we are in charge.

But gospel truth, transformational truth, says that we are not masters but are subject to powers larger than ourselves—and that we are blessed with the chance to be co-creators of something good if we are willing to work in harmony with those larger powers.

If we embrace a gospel way of knowing, we can create a different kind of education and perhaps a different world: a world where all of us are called to embody whatever truth we know; where we gather together with others to check, correct, confirm, and deepen whatever insights we may have; where we understand that, even as we seek truth, truth is seeking us; and where there can be those vital transformations, personal and social, that might take us a step closer to the beloved community.

So when it comes to biblical studies, I say: less hypermodernist objectivism, more affect! Let’s allow our thoughts–as Dr. Holmes suggested–to merge into worship; our studies into praise; our reading into praying.

My quest for the earliest attainable text of the Bible, I am realizing, is driven by scholarly interest and a general drive to learn, yes. But more than that, I want to know God more fully through this academic pursuit. My insatiable desire to master Greek noun declensions, Hebrew verb parsings, and intertextual allusions is in the end a desire to be mastered by the God who stands behind the words of Scripture.

But that kind of a posture doesn’t compromise scholarship, in my view. It makes it richer, deeper, and directed toward its most proper end.