Levels of Language

3 August 2018

A couple years ago, I read Paul Graham’s ruminations on higher- and lower-level languages in Hackers and Painters. Although he’s talking about computer languages, his insights have bearing on biblical language and hermeneutics. So bear with me while I lay out some of the basic points, and then we’ll look at the applications. 

  • The very lowest level of language has a very small number of things it can do. Every level up combines those basic instructions in increasingly complex ways to get tasks done.
  • Anything a computer can do, you can do in binary. But you can’t do some things in Basic that you can do in C++, and you can’t do some things in C++ that you can do in Lisp (Graham’s examples; I wouldn’t know). Lower-level languages lack the abstractions and features that higher-level languages have.
  • Perhaps equally important, many of the things you can do in all 3 languages take more steps in Basic than C++, and more steps in C++ than Lisp. The code is longer, the further down the hierarchy you go. Longer code tends to breed more mistakes, because humans don’t deal well with obsessive levels of detail.
  • Conversely, the higher the level of language, the faster you can work. If it takes 3x longer to write in (say) C++ than in Lisp, and your competitor is writing in C++, he can’t keep up with you. A feature that takes you a month to program takes him 3 to duplicate. A feature that takes him 3 months to program, you can duplicate in 1. When you’re ahead, you’re way ahead. When you’re behind, you catch up quickly.
  • A programmer thinks primarily in a certain language. Down the hierarchy, he can see that all the languages are lower level than his preferred one, because “they don’t even have [feature].” Up the hierarchy from his primary language, the languages just look weird, because he doesn’t think in them. So they have these higher-order abstractions that he can’t quite grasp, or he can’t see what anybody would ever want them for.

One other observation that is going to be important for this: good programmers often don’t solve a really difficult problem. They formulate another (easier) problem that is the practical equivalent of the hard one, and then solve that.

So given that, the analogy for biblical studies:

  • Basic linguistic/textual analysis tools like sentence diagramming or outlining are like machine code. There’s a very limited number of options, and it’s very laborious to describe what’s happening in the text.
  • Didactic literature is the next level up. It’s using the linguistic options available in a pretty basic, transparent way. 
  • Narrative comes after that. While narrative is often grammatically simpler than didactic (paratactic rather than hypotactic, and so on), there are some very complex things going on that you really can’t get at with a sentence diagram. The tools you use to decode didactic literature aren’t sufficient to interpret narrative well. 
  • Proverbs, parables and typology are very high-level, an order of magnitude beyond narrative. 

So if you think in Didactic, and you do it well enough to really have it and know you have it, then you know you don’t quite have a handle on Narrative. Narrative operates with a whole set of signifiers that your interpretive grid doesn’t know what to do with. And you really have an awful time with Typology. (This was the case for the folks that trained me in exegesis. We had a great set of tools for didactic literature, and we knew we didn’t have a parallel set of tools for narrative. And for typology? Forget it! One of our hermeneutics texts seriously claimed that we could only identify something as a type if the New Testament (didactic) literature said it was!)

Conversely, if you can operate in Typology, you can certainly handle Narrative. And when you go to prove a point using Narrative, your argument makes no sense to a Didactic-speaker, because your reasoning just doesn’t translate into his language (and it’s worse if you use Typology!) You’re using higher-order abstractions that he simply doesn’t have. If we are going to be good interpreters of Scripture, it’s not enough to grasp the didactic literature. We need to learn to read the higher levels of language as well. 

And then, because we are called to speak like God speaks, we need to learn to speak at higher levels of language, too. It comes in handy. I was having breakfast with a group of friends a while back, and one of the guys was making his case for education outside the home (and against homeschooling). His argument centered around the impossibility of sheltering your kids from the prevailing culture forever, and homeschoolers’ inability to cope with the culture when they were suddenly thrown into it at age 19 or so. He took maybe 10 minutes, and early on I told him I was going to rebut him. As he reached the end of his case, someone pointed out what time it was, and he said “Oh, crap! I gotta go!” As he was getting up from his chair to put on his coat, he said to me “But you were going to argue against that. I’m sorry about this, but can you say it fast?”

I said, “‘As arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.’ You want to send your arrows out in the midst of your enemies — but you don’t let your enemies mess with the arrows while the glue on the fletchings is still wet.”

He got it. I was able to cleanly counterpoint his 10-minute speech in 2 sentences because I was able to find a way to operate at a proverb/parable/type level of discourse. Of course, that’s not the same thing as winning the argument, and I’d have really liked to have more time. But I laid out a relevant objection to his point of view and gave us room for further discussion. Not bad for 2 sentences. 

The Bible is genius-level communication, and the more time we spend with it, the better off we’ll be. Read first for what it’s telling you. After you start to have a good handle on that, start reading for the lessons in communication. I promise, you’ll learn whole new ways of speaking well.

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If You Love Sheep…

24 July 2018

This post is part of the July Synchroblog on the topic of Just War and Pacifism. Scroll to the bottom for links to other participating blogs.

In the course of your Christian growth, if you never have a serious flirtation with pacifism, you’re just not paying attention. We serve a martyr king, a lamb who was slain and raised in glory. The original band of apostles were all martyred except John, and the only reason he didn’t die a martyr’s death was because he survived being boiled in oil; it’s not like they weren’t trying to kill him. Those martyrs were consciously following a tradition that stretched all the way back to Abel (see Matthew 23:35 and Hebrews 11, for example). In both Old and New Testaments, there’s a glorious history of powerful martyrdom in service to God, and the blood of the martyrs really is the seed of the Church.

At the same time, in the course of your Christian growth, you ought also to notice that God seems to approve of an awful lot of the violence in the Bible. Even if you’re inclined to a Marcionite tunnel-vision focused exclusively on Jesus, you have to address Luke 22:35-38, in which–whatever its other implications–Jesus definitely told His immediate followers to go out and buy swords in preparation for their future journeys. This same Jesus returns in Revelation 19, all tatted up and slaying the nations. He shall break them with a rod of iron….

Paul says the civil magistrate is God’s servant for good, and does not bear the sword in vain. The kings of Israel went to war regularly with God’s blessing–in fact, both David and Saul had trouble because they didn’t go to war in the way they should have. And so on — ain’t no shortage of divinely sanctioned war and police action in the Scriptures. (There’s even a reference in Numbers 21:14 to a Book of the Wars of the Lord.)

All of this has been written about, over and over again. Lots of divinely commissioned martyrs, and lots of divinely commissioned violence, all over the Bible. The basic data are not much in dispute. The question is, how do we make sense of this mess?

The answer, of course, is that we should exercise discernment. The simple answers — reflexive hawkism and pacifism equally among them — are not just bad ideas; they are temptations. Their appeal is in the way they authorize us to ignore complicating factors and reject maturity.

And maturity is required, because we really are sorting out a mess here. The basic impulse that drives pacifism is a sense that the world shouldn’t be like this, that violence is not okay. The pacifists are absolutely right about that. The world was never meant to descend into struggle and death. But God gave us real choice in the Garden. We broke the world and introduced death, and that had real consequences.

Downstream from the Fall, we live in a profoundly broken world. We need only look to places where rule of law (and the governmental violence it requires) have fallen apart to see that brokenness in all its horror. In such places, rape, murder, and every form of predation on other human beings are commonplace. The strong terrorize the weak at whim, and in the face of such horror, pacifism stands revealed for what it is: a blanket abdication of our duty to care for the poor and defend the weak and helpless. No one has a right to shirk that duty because the world isn’t supposed to be violent. (And there’s nothing more deeply hypocritical than a pacifist calling 911 to summon gun-toting professionals to do violence on his behalf. Yech.)

Our duty to care for the weak requires effective responses, and effective responses to a determined attacker generally involve maiming or killing the person. (Less-lethal solutions are getting better all the time, but they are plagued by range limitations and reliability problems. A stout knife or a firearm are far more versatile and reliable.) We are tempted to appeal to hard cases, and say that no one but God has the wisdom to wield such power well. But we cannot ignore the fact that from Noah to Caesar, from Genesis 9 to Romans 13, God consistently delegates that power to human beings.

From a woman fighting off a rapist in an alley to a nation-state fighting off an aggressor, the same principles apply all the way up and down the scale. A solid Christian response to the problem of evil encompasses an intellectual response to the intellectual difficulties, a compassionate response to the emotional difficulties, and a pastoral response to the physical difficulties, which includes being willing to draw a weapon and say, “Not today, pal.” The shepherd has a rod and a staff for a reason: if you love sheep, you fight wolves.

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This post was part of the July 2018 Synchroblog on the topic of Just War and Pacifism. Here are links to others who contributed this month. Go read them all!


Moana, Frozen, and Repentance

14 June 2018

Elsa is Moana’s polar opposite. (See what I did there?) Elsa has no real guidance or mentors to speak of, and she finds something in herself that she has no way of living with. First she denies what is obviously true about herself; then she denies her connection to her people. (It’s more than a little revealing that “Let It Go,” the iconic song from the film, comes from this point of near-murderous isolation in the story, and not from the later resolution. As a culture, we don’t identify with the resolution.)

When Elsa finally comes to terms with both the reality of who she is and her connections to her people, she finds rest — but she gets little help along the way. She has no grandmother, no sea looking out for her, no Yoda, no Jiminy Cricket, no Philektetes. The only person who believes in her is her sister Anna, and she’s separated from Anna for the critical portion of the story arc. Elsa has to figure it out all by herself.

As evangelicals, we tell ourselves that we are in Elsa’s position. It’s all new, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. But it isn’t true.

On the surface, Moana looks similar to Elsa: overcoming parental resistance to embrace her true identity and calling. But as it turns out, Moana’s calling is the same calling her people have shared for generations. Her father turned away; it is her job to turn back, and in that task she is assisted by her grandmother, her mother, mystical visions, and the very sea itself.

Her people have been long-distance seafarers from time out of mind. They turned from the path because the seas became too dangerous as a result of Maui’s theft. Her father continues the error by trying to turn her from the path too, but as the deadly consequences of Maui’s sin reach her home island, Moana’s people can no longer hide. It falls to Moana to heal the brokenness of her world and reclaim her lost heritage, and she does.

Herein lies a tricky business. “Move not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” “Honor thy father and mother.” In a perfect  world, those two commands would never be in conflict. But what if you are the child of the man who moved the ancient landmark? What if he’s your grandfather? Great-grandfather?

That is the evangelical dilemma. And Moana has a lesson to teach.


New Page

7 June 2018

Although I’ve been off the scene of the Free Grace movement for some time now, I remain Free Grace in key elements of my theology. As I’ve interacted widely with my brothers and sisters in the broader Church, I find that the best of the Free Grace tradition holds treasures in trust for the rest of the Body (and vice versa, of course).

In hopes of providing some starting points for those not familiar with the Free Grace traditions, I’ve put up a page of resources. You can find it here; feel free to offer suggestions or feedback.


Forgiving Sins

31 May 2018

I woke up a couple weeks ago with this sermon in my head, to be delivered after really good musical/liturgical worship. The Lord spurred me to send it on to someone, a person I don’t even really know; friend of a friend kind of thing, with a note that I don’t know who it’s for or what use it should be put to, but I’m giving it away for whatever God’s purposes may turn out to be. I hope it’s a benefit to that person, and for what it’s worth, I offer it to you as well.

I want to talk with you about what we’ve done here today, because I want you to see it with heaven’s eyes. When we gather like this, something special happens. And to see it as God sees it, we need to go back, all the way back to Genesis, because that’s where our story starts.

From the waters below the sky, He calls forth land and sea, and covers the land with plants. But it’s still empty.

Then on the fourth day, He takes the waters above the sky and fills the empty sky with sun, moon, and stars. The fifth day He fills the air with birds and the waters with fish. The sixth day, He fills the land with every kind of animal. And then, it’s time to sign the masterpiece.

How do you sign the painting when you just made the universe? It’s not like there’s a corner you can scribble your name in, right?
And so He made us from dust, and breathed spirit into us, His image, male and female together to bear His name in the world.

And you know the story. We blew it, and in the process we broke our relationships with each other and with God, and we broke the world, too. And the very first thing God tells us about that is, there’s a redeemer coming, a seed of the woman who will really be exactly like us—but victorious—and He will crush the serpent’s head.

Through the whole Hebrew Bible, this longing grows. Who is the redeemer? What will he be like? God reveals more and more, but it’s cryptic. Sometimes it says He will conquer and reign, and set everything right. Sometimes it says He will suffer and die. How can he do both? Late in those times, we learn about where He will be born, from the prophet Micah. We learn about when He will come, from Daniel.

And then…silence. There is no prophet among God’s people, for four hundred years.

The new beginning doesn’t look like much. Just a wild man calling people back to God. He doesn’t work with the Temple; instead he calls people out into the wilderness and baptizes them there, having them pass through water as Israel once did, because God is calling out a new people for Himself. He has no credentials, this wild man, and he says so himself. He’s just a voice crying out in the wilderness—but he is announcing the coming redeemer.

Then Jesus comes to the wild man. The wild man says “you should be baptizing me” but Jesus talks him into baptizing Him anyway, because Jesus is the foundation of the new people of God. When he comes up out of the water: The Spirit descends from heaven and rests on Him, and the Father speaks from heaven , “This is my beloved son; I am pleased with Him.”

That is what we are invited to join. We are invited to be a people the Spirit rests on, and our Father is pleased with us. What would it be worth, if we could earn something like that? But God is even more gracious than that.
Jesus goes to the cross, and there, He takes all our sin, all our shame, all the weight of every time we’ve failed to bear God’s name well. All of it is nailed to the cross and all of it dies with him, and is buried with him in the heart of the earth. When He comes out, He leaves it all behind, and so we are raised with Him, free from every weight that drags us down, and it’s all a gift. Jesus bought it for us.

And then, in the upper room just before He leaves, He breathes on His disciples and says two things to them“receive the Holy Spirit”. and “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain their sins, they are retained.” It’s a re-creation of humanity, implanting a new spirit in them, a spirit that can move in power for the healing of the world. He ascends to heaven, and on Pentecost the Spirit breaks out and begins to move in power among God’s people, and from that day to this one, He hasn’t stopped. That is what you experienced tonight, and I’m going to invite you to extend the experience a little further.
You are the new people that God is making. You bear His name in the world, and by the Spirit you carry the authority to remake and heal the world that He made. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.

All around us, people carry weights they don’t have to. There’s something they are, something they’ve done, that holds them back from the glorious freedom God designed us for. Some of us also struggle; the past still holds us back. It doesn’t have to, and tonight, I want you to do something about that, starting right in this room.

Turn to someone nearby you. If God gives you something to say in addition to this, then say what He gives you too. But I want you to be sure to say what God gave us all to say when He gave us His Spirit: Your sins are forgiven. Look each other in the eye and say it: I forgive your sins in Jesus’ name. You have the authority to do that.

Make sure nobody gets left out. The people who kinda slid into the corners of the room? Hunt them down. Make sure you get whoever’s hiding in the bathroom. Don’t forget the people down front. We need this too. Go now; I commission you in Jesus’ name, by the power of the Spirit: go do it!


Where It Wishes

19 April 2018

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but no one knows where it comes from, or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

God shifts our focus over time. Mine certainly has shifted. This remains a theology blog, but my interests have shifted and my focus has sharpened. Expect to continue to see the theological reflection this blog is known for, but we’ll be turning that lens on some new topics. I considered leaving this blog as is and just starting a different site. (I have done that for some special-purpose things.)

But no. Theological reflection is what this blog is for. If you don’t change anything, you’re not being very reflective.

This is gonna be fun. There will be more soon.

 


A Brief Word on Hermeneutics

24 January 2018

Conservatives usually learned to read the Bible from hermeneutics books, not from the examples God gave us in the biblical authors themselves. This is a serious mistake, and despite the fact that most modern conservatives make it, Our People have not always been so willfully thick.

For a brief and helpful look at medieval hermeneutics, see Peter Leithart’s brief article on the Quadriga. If you want to go deeper into Leithart’s approach, he has an excellent book, Deep Exegesis.

My most detailed take on this can be found in a course called Living the Living Word. I’d teach it differently — and probably a lot more simply — now, but the basic strategy is the same: study the biblical authors as they read the text. Follow their example.

Go practice.