Scripture like Music

Reading Scripture like Music

I’ve always been a frustrated musician. I can play by guitar by ear and even carry a tune. I love music, but I can’t read sheet music beyond a few notes at a time.

Recently, I sat in the back of a noisy school music room. My five, eight, and ten-year-old children joined about a dozen other children practicing flutes, trumpets, trombones and various other instruments.

The little musicians blew with all their might to send one solid “C” note magically from their lungs, to their lips, and out through their instruments. Their instructor produced a large card with a single quarter note in its proper place on the music staff. What seemed like just noise to me at first, was actually music. I know it was music because it was intentional and it could be captured accurately on page.

At home, around the dinner table, I held one of their music books up to my ear. “I want to hear the sound “C” marked on this page,” I told them. They quickly corrected me. The music on the page was not really the music. I then hummed the first few notes of the Beethoven’s familiar 5th symphony.   I asked which came first, the sound or the written music. “Where did this familiar sound come from? And, where was it before it came into being?”

It seems easy enough to trace written music back to the actual sound and even back to the inspired mind that created it. It can be as simple to explain Holy Scripture to our children. I put a page from a Bible up to my ear and said, “I can’t hear what Jesus is saying, can you?” Obviously, words on paper are only a representation of words once spoken or thought.

Learning foreign languages makes this so clear to us. People learn language through experiencing it and written words are only arbitrary symbols for the reality. This is why when learning language (even or own language) we might often have to look for the spelling of an expression that we only know verbally. How many of us have said, “For all intensive purposes,” or “Nip it in the butt?” (both are incorrect, but I’m sure you figured that out the first time you had to write it:).

This should all be helpful in understanding Holy Scripture (literally writings, or words). Even children understand that there must be a predecessor to the written Bible. Some person(s) wrote it down. All written scripture at some point was simply “talk.” Even that talking or oral existence was often preceded by the actual events. Jesus words, “God is spirit, and we must worship him in Spirit and in Truth,” were spoken to a Samaritan woman long before they were written down. So Scripture exists in multiple times… the time of an event, the oral remembering and transmitting, the writing down, and the time of its reading.

Still of greater importance is where the words of Scripture began. We might ask where did Beethoven’s 5th exist before he first hummed it out or produced its music from his capable hands. Even if originating from his mind, his thoughts must have been inspired in some way. We might become fixated on the perfection of his music as we listen to it, or if we are capable enough, as we produce it with our own hands… but the real miracle is the genius that thought it into existence in the first place.

Scripture, then, is not simply something on paper. And, it would be a tragedy to truncate it to only words on paper! It reflects an incredible journey of time and voice, but ultimately originates from the very breath of God (the Hebrew word for breath and spirit are beautifully interconnected). God’s spirit blew through those speakers and writers like the belly breath of my youngest child bursting forth in magical music. And just as the perfection and beauty of Beethoven or Mozart is observed and understood through listening to it, the sacred quality of scripture is also discovered through listening to it (reading also being a form of listening).

Today the church is lacking in good theology of Scripture. We connect with the written word but without deeper connection to what’s behind the word. Scripture must captivate us like music. We as the reader must dissolve into the rich history and inspiration of the Word of God allowing Scripture to claim us rather than us claiming it.

Saint Partick’s day excerpt…

st-patrickIt is easy to miss the larger context of St. Partrick today.  During the early Middle Ages, the the Roman world was  in decline in continental Europe, but Celtic Christianity and spirituality were growing .  Celtic Christianity was marked by a belief that God was very near, that the spiritual world was very real, and that all of nature and life were sacred.  Celtic monasticism, in contrast to other forms, was very focused on reaching out into the world, rather than retreating from it.

Here is a small excerpt from a research paper I wrote on Celtic spirituality, theology, and mission.

…Another important starting point for Celtic theology is its unmistakably strong Trinitarianism.  Although the three-leaf clover is often recalled as an early Irish tool for explaining the Trinity, Olsen notes that this would not have been necessary. Celtic folk religion already had a conception of triune gods or gods that traveled in three or had three heads.  Saint Patrick’s Confession of Faith demonstrates a robust Trinitarian theology in sync with the Nicean (325) creed.  God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, divinely empowered believers to grow into “sons of God” and preach Jesus so that every tongue could confess that their Lord and God was Jesus Christ.  The repetition of the three persons of God is a common motif in Irish liturgy as noted in the opening and closing of St. Patrick’s breastplate:

“I bind unto myself the name,
 The strong name of the Trinity,
 By invocation of the same,
 The three in one, and One in Three, Of whom all nature has creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word, Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.”

It is also helpful to recognize the theological ending point or trajectory of Celtic theology.  Celtic eschatology largely shaped the rest of their theology and practice.  Christian Celts largely viewed humanity as on a precipice of the end of times.  Patrick’s eschatology is a great example.  Jesus words in Matthew 24:14 must have rung in Patrick’s ears, “And this Gospel will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  O’Laughlin goes as far as to suggest that Patrick saw Ireland as the far outer limit of preaching (with the center being Jerusalem).  This end of the earth, end of time orientation is in stark contrast to the victorious Augustinian, “Kingdom of God” perspective.  It is also what ignited Celtic communalism, radical spirituality and a profound sense of mission.”

A message in a bottle for pastors…

nf_message_in_a_bottleWe’re always intrigued by the message in a bottle possibility.  Well here is one that has been traveling the seas for some 1,400 years.  The world and church was so radically different that it might seem like a message form another planet, but there’s some valuable advice for pastors today.

It comes from Pope Gregory (the Great, c. 590), Pope/Bishop of Rome.  Gregory was a part of a growing centralization of theology and authority of the church (i.e. papacy).  One of his legacies was a document concerning pastoral roles and responsibilities, the Book of Pastoral Care.   It had a positive and lasting effect wherever it was read and remains surprisingly relevant today.

In all, it covers four themes: the selection of clergy, the life that the pastor ought to live, how to deal with different types of people that the pastor will encounter; and the importance of the pastor guarding himself against egotism and personal ambition.  Here is a glimpse concerning the last theme:

“The pastor should be discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech; lest he either utter what ought to be suppressed or suppress what he ought to utter. For, as incautious speaking leads into error, so indiscreet silence leaves in error those who might have been instructed. The pastor ought also to understand how commonly vices pass themselves off as virtues.”

In short… know when to speak, when to shut up, and beware of passing off possible vices in your life as virtues.  Pretty much spot-on for church leaders today.

Thinking is Believing – Grace and Free Will

GraceFreeWillWe’ve all heard that “seeing is believing.”  Well Augustine seemed to think that “thinking was believing…” or at least he thought that believing was always preceded by thinking.

It works like this.  You chose to do something.  Maybe you choose to do right or maybe something wrong.  You belief however was preceded and based on a thought.  This awareness of thought, according to Augustine, was a grace from God.  This is why he could firmly believe that even though we have “free will,” it is always founded on a preceding grace of God.

Augustine is never without good reasoning…  He reckons—If our belief was not based on God’s initial grace and awakening in our minds, then we could actually boast that our belief were on account of our own merits.

So with this we might ask ourselves, “am I asking God regularly to invade my mind and plant his thoughts in my mind, according to his grace, that I might then act on them?”  And, we might also heed Augustine’s warning… not everyone who thinks, believes… or makes the right choices.  It is by this inaction in the light of God’s grace that we can stand guilty of faulty faith and faulty actions.

7 Interpretive Questions You Should Be Asking

I’ve been working with a group on Doing Everyday Theology.  Here are seven great interpretative questions that can (and should:) be asked when looking at any passage of Scripture.

  1. Where in the “narrative” of Scripture is this coming from?  I.e. creation, fall, nation, fall of nation/prophets, gospels, church (Acts forward)
  2. What is the historical or cultural context?  Obviously good resources are valuable.  So is common sense.Scripture
  3. Is there a ‘genre’ that should be considered?  I.e. poetry, parable, history, law, prophecy, Gospel account, epistle/letter, etc.
  4. What is happening? I.e. who, what, why, where, when, and how.  What’s going on and why?
  5. What do you think it ‘meant’ to its original or historical audience?  (or, if the writing is removed from the events covered, to those who recorded and passed it down)
  6. What do you think it ‘means’ to us today as a part of Scripture (God’s reveled Word to us)?
  7. Are there any immediate tensions with the rest of Scripture or Church tradition? *There often are, note them down and be honest with them.

In general we need to avoid “Reading into” Scripture and focus on “Drawing out” of Scripture.  Maybe you can think of some others to add?  I would be glad to hear from you!

My druid is Christ

P1010335_16-10-2011I’m doing some research on Cetlic Theology and Spirituality and have run across the very inspiring figure of Columba of Iona.  Columba is one of the Holy Trio of Irish saints (along with St. Pattrick and St. Brigid) and is especially noted for the establishment of the monastic community of Iona and evangelizing Scotland.

The Celts were a warrior people.  Originating in Central Asia, Celtic peoples moved west and once occupied most of Central Europe (the Gauls in France were Celts).  They were a traveling people but found their clans and kingdoms pushed out of mainland Europe by the Romans.  They ended up primarily in the British Isles.  Columba and his companions established the monastic community on the isle of Iona within sight of the Scottish mainland.  They learned the language and culture of the native Northern Picts of Scotland and ultimately their proximity strategy paid off with great success.

The evangelization of Scotland was not without ‘power encounters’ as the Celts were steeped in druidic spirituality and magic.  Columba was a great believer in these realities himself.  He manifested a courageous faith that no evil could befall him as his life was in the hands of the more powerful creator God.  We see this deep confidence in a line of poetic liturgy that is attributed to him:

My Druid is Christ, the Son of God,

Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbat,

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

The Four Degrees of Love was twenty-two when he walked into the monastery of Cîteaux in Dijon, France.  Three years later, he would help establish a new Benedictine community named Claire Vallée or Clairvaux (thus the name Bernard of Clairvaux).

Bernard’s times were those of religious extremes.  He tended toward an extreme devotion to Mary.  He was also a prominent figure behind the second Christian crusade, recruited by the Pope and King of France to rally new crusaders.

Bernard is also interesting because he held to a nearly Protestant theology of justification (hundreds of year before to Luther or Calvin).  His most challenging legacy for us today is perhaps his Four Degrees of Love.

  • First Degree – Love of Self for Self’s Sake
  • Second Degree – Love of God for Self’s Sake
  • Third Degree – Love of God for God’s Sake
  • Fourth Degree – Love of Self for God’s Sake

Many of us arrive at loving ourselves or even loving God for our own sake.  Some of us arrive at loving God for God’s sake, but it is perhaps this deepest degree that remains the most difficult.

Bernard writes, “I am not certain that the fourth degree of love in which we love ourselves only for the sake of God may be perfectly attained in this life.  But, when it does happen, we will experience the joy of the Lord and be forgetful of ourselves in a wonderful way.”

The spirituality of the Four Degrees of Love is of the potent Medieval kind.  Its radical call to us is, “how do we love God today?”

The power of a praying mother

MonicaOfHippoIf there is one church father that is easy and fashionable to recall, it is Augustine.  He shaped the Christian Faith beyond measure, but who shaped him?  Augustine penned these words in his Confessions concerning his late conversion, “O beauty so ancient and so new!  Late have I loved you!  You were within me while I had gone outside to seek you.”  Many of us miss the portrait of a desperately praying mother behind the foreground of this Christian great.

We miss that she raised him and two brothers as Christians even though she was unable to baptize them being married to a non-religious nobleman.  We miss her as she refused to let young Augustine return home after joining a Christian cult, or later as she took him in along with his mistress and his child.   She later strategized to cross his paths with the Bishop of Milan, leading toward his eventual vocation as a monk, a priest, and a theologian.

In 387, Augustine’s mother Monica sweetly passed from this life, surrounded by her three boys and grandson.  It’s nice to know that among the great theological and spiritual traditions of the church, this is one stands out… the presence and power of a praying mother in the life of a saint.

Theology as Reaction

Where does theology begin?  Well, mostly it begins with an issue that it is reacting to.  When we look into the Church Fathers we see that a majority of their theology was in response to something, namely heresy or issues challenging the church.  Irenaeus of Lyon was writing in response to Gnosticism.  Tertullian was trying to iron down the sufficiency of Scripture (before the Canon of Scripture was even set).

Theology has the same function for us today.  It helps us identify issues and points of tension, then seeks to gain understanding from a faithful vantage point.  Perhaps we should look at theology more like an art or craft rather than a science or discipline.  It is like a potter fashioning clay, moving from through the creative process within the limits and commitments of her resources, convictions and skills.  When we reach those flashpoints requiring theological thinking, will we react with the passion and devotion of a fine artist and skilled artisan?

Cristen the ship!


Well, here we go!  I’m launching the Theology and Spirituality blog.  Christen the ship!  I’ll be blogging about two things: theology and spirituality.  My blogs will be from a historical perspective and come out of two classes I’m taking on those subjects (Historical Theology and History of Christian Spirituality).   Here are some useful definitions as we set sail:

1. Historical Theology = Theology in the light of its historical development.  Theology has a history and it’s important to consider theology in light of it!

2. History of Christian Spirituality = Pretty much the same… the story of Christian spirituality with a special interest in its forms, traditions, and emphases, all in a historical light.

The church of the present owes a great debt to the church of the past.  As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us,

“Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.”