Posted by: Ken Brown | March 5, 2011

Repost: What Does it Mean to Trust the Bible

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" by Caravaggio (1601-1602)

In light of the ongoing discussions surrounding orthodoxy and heresy following the Rob Bell brouhaha, I thought I’d repost an older piece of mine that’s relevant to the underlying issue of the role of a questioning attitude in the life of faith. It was first posted here, and sparked a follow-up post here. I hope you enjoy it, but most of all I hope you question and discuss it:

I’m sometimes asked how I can trust the Bible when it (particularly the “Old Testament”) includes so many harsh laws and horrific stories, many of which claim divine sanction. Is a God of love and goodness truly consistent with a Bible that includes such atrocities? In fact, too many Christians do seem to be inconsistent on this point, claiming that morality is “absolute” in the present day, but then becoming curiously relativistic when it comes to our own scriptures. They will happily accuse moral relativists of trivializing the holocaust, while simultaneously trivializing the genocides in the Bible itself (such as that described in Numbers 31, to name just one abhorrent example). Even the most horrific biblical commands are sometimes claimed to have been right and moral “back then,” by people who otherwise claim to reject moral relativism.

The problem, as I see it, is that texts like these are generally glossed over or ignored by those who seem to wish the Bible were a monolithic work of systematic theology. Ironically, the common insistence that the Bible is “literally true” on every point leads to some quite improbably non-literal interpretations (like the claim that the conquest of Canaan is just a “metaphor” for spiritual warfare). It is little surprise then that many critics reject such obfuscations as ridiculous, and I must agree that such unquestioning trust in the Bible is misguided.

But the curious thing is that this view of the Bible is not actually biblical. Yes, there are passages which speak of the truth and inspiration of God’s word (and I believe them—the Bible truly is inspired), but they certainly don’t require that Christians treat it as a collection of unquestionable propositions, as too many do. For instance, only one verse in the Bible makes any claims about the nature of “all scripture,” and it falls far short of claiming inerrancy: 2 Timothy 3:16 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Whatever “breathed out by God” means (the Greek word is theopneustos, translated “inspired” in other versions, and occurs no where else in the Bible, but in the early church it was also used to describe both scripture and non-scriptural orthodox texts), this verse merely claims that scripture is “profitable” (ōphelimos; which could also be translated “useful,” “beneficial” or “valuable,” but certainly not “inerrant”) for teaching and moral correction. The goal of scripture, according to the following verse, is not that we would be provided with a perfectly accurate knowledge of science, history, or even theology, but that we would be “equipped for every good work.”

Though there are other texts which claim “God’s word” or “the law” is “perfect” or “unbreakable,” such can only be applied to the whole of what we now call scripture by inference (and of course it would be entirely circular to appeal to such texts to “prove” themselves). Inerrancy, then, is a theological construct that is applied to the Bible, not a necessary conclusion from the Bible, and it too often obscures the fact that the Bible itself, upon inspection, is the product of a long process of writing and rewriting, debate and disagreement. The Bible is full of texts which take up previous biblical ideas and modify, extend, or call them into question. For instance, if you read Exodus through Deuteronomy as they now stand, you will find chapter after chapter of regulations concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, all claimed to have been commanded by God shortly after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Yet the prophet Jeremiah, writing several centuries later, attributes the following to God in 7:22, “in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (many modern translations, such as the NIV, add “just” after the highlighted terms, but there is no basis for this in the Hebrew).

Now there are only a handful of possible explanations for such a text (other than positing, without evidence, a scribal error): 1. Jeremiah was unaware of the Mosaic legislation, and so was mistaken about what God commanded at the Exodus; 2. What we now call “the Law of Moses” was not yet (fully) written by the time Jeremiah was speaking and/or; 3. Jeremiah knew of sacrificial regulations that were attributed to Moses, but disputed their divine origin or wanted to make a point (perhaps through hyperbole) that such regulations were misunderstood.

In all probability, the truth lies in some combination of all three. Jeremiah almost certainly was not aware of all that we call the Law of Moses, because not all of it had yet been written (though some of it had). More basically, in criticizing the corruption and injustice he saw amongst those in his own day who claimed loyalty to the sacrificial regulations of the Jerusalem Temple, it is very likely that Jeremiah was questioning whether such cultic practices deserved the divine approval claimed for them. In short, not only does this text provide direct evidence of the developmental nature of scripture, but it is also an instance of explicit disagreement between biblical authors.

But here’s the key point: Jeremiah’s purpose does not appear to have been to reject the Law of Moses as false (remember, it didn’t even exist in the form we now have it). His point, as the rest of the chapter makes clear, was to convince his contemporaries that injustice and oppression of the poor are far more serious matters than adherence to the Jerusalem Temple. In order to shock his contemporaries out of their self-destructive complacency, Jeremiah here proves himself so passionately committed to justice and faithfulness to God that he is willing to call into question the Temple and the Mosaic law themselves to make that point. And he was right to do so. At that time, Israelite society was corrupt and heading towards disaster. Within a few years, Jerusalem would be wiped off the map by the Babylonians, her Temple destroyed, and her people exiled.

Jeremiah was right, but to make his point—indeed to remain faithful to God—he was willing to question scripture itself. This, I must insist, gives us a picture not of a static and “eternal” Bible that must be accepted without question, but a text whose very tensions and “contradictions” challenge our complacency and pseudo-piety, forcing us ever and anew to face the God it claims to reveal. To trust the Bible then, means not to maintain a slavish conformity to an eternally unchangeable set of Truths, but to carry forward its calls to faith and justice into our own situations, with renewed creativity and passion.

Nor is this an isolated example. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is constantly alluding to or citing previous scriptures to make new points, correct old ones, or extend them into new situations. For instance, during the Babylonian Exile, someone composed a rather unflattering history of the Israelite monarchy, which we now know as 1 and 2 Kings. After the return from exile, another group rewrote that history in a more positive (and Priestly) light, and that work is known as 1 and 2 Chronicles. Both works, presenting alternative (and often conflicting) interpretations of the very same history of Israel, were included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, with no official attempt at harmonization. Clearly those who wrote and collected the Bible did not share our modern obsession with consistency, or at least they considered it less important than the truth they found in these texts, tensions and all.

Such examples could be extended ad nauseam, all of which suggests that Christian scripture presents something far more like an engaging debate about the nature of God and God’s activity in history than a settled and permanent record of True Propositions. Therefore when someone points out to me that scripture describes some terrible things, I don’t feel any need to defend those things as “right” in our or even their own time. Perhaps the people who committed them believed they were following God’s will, perhaps God even commanded them for reasons that I can’t begin to comprehend, but nothing in the Bible demands that I accept that. Rather, the Bible presents me with an authentic portrait of humanity, and humanity has committed some truly awful deeds, many in the name of God.

To trust the Bible, then, does not mean believing it without question, but interacting with it, questioning it, reflecting its claims off of each other and our continuing experience, but, ultimately, letting it transform us. For despite what some seem to think, the horrific parts of the Bible, like the horrific parts of life, are not given the last word. The Bible places far more emphasis on laws which promote love and community; it highlights prophets who bravely condemned God’s own people when they clung to dead rituals and pious platitudes while ignoring justice and mercy; it tells the story of a God who loves the unlovable and constantly takes us back when we rebel; it even incorporates psalms and wisdom literature which question God’s own justice and faithfulness. But above all, it points to Jesus Christ, who calls us to self-sacrificing love as the only true and final answer to the evil we find in both the world and in the Bible, and who himself demonstrated the power and divinity of self-sacrifice through his death. To trust the Bible is to trust that God, not without question, but in the midst of our questions.

Posted by: Ken Brown | March 1, 2011

To Hell with Hell

It may be hard to believe, but this little video sparked a minor explosion over the weekend. Though Rob Bell’s book is not even out yet, it is already being denounced as heresy with surprising vehemence. Justin Taylor’s response, which well-known pastor John Piper linked with the tweet “Farewell Rob Bell,” drew over a thousand comments and a quarter million pageviews, and at one point “Rob Bell” was even a top ten trending topic on twitter (where not a few folks had @robbell confused with @realrobbell). CNN has a good summary here, and Christianity Today has compiled a number of other reactions.

The crux of the controversy is the doctrine of universalism, and specifically whether it is acceptable for a Christian pastor to publicly doubt hell. According to Taylor and many other folks, Bell’s questions in this video border on heresy, as belief in universalism is simply incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. As Taylor puts it, “this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

I’ve written quite a lot on this topic, especially as part of a “bloggersation” that occurred a couple years back on whether non-Christians can be “saved.” As argued in this post, I’m rather partial to universalism myself, but am not sure I can quite accept it, for reasons detailed further here. I’ve also long been a fan of Rob Bell’s, and used his Nooma videos in our home group one year. There is a lot that’s debatable about Bell’s views as expressed in those videos (I’ve not read his books), but I love his ability to ask good questions. I find it ridiculous that asking such questions should be enough to get you denounced as a heretic, especially when it is not even clear that Bell does in fact accept universalism.

But my interest today is with a post Taylor linked in his response. In To Hell with Hell, Kevin DeYoung offers eight reasons why he believes universalism is unacceptable, focused primarily on the issue of God’s wrath. I would like to respond to each point in turn:

First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism.

I’ve noted before that whether it is possible to be saved without being a Christian should not prevent us from sharing Christ, but I find this focus on the wrath of God unhelpful. Evangelism should be about inviting people into a relationship with God, not threatening them with punishment, and I fail to see how hell being empty should make the call to love God any less appealing or important.

Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forgo repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked.

I find this completely wrong-headed. It assumes that the only reason that we shouldn’t avenge ourselves on our “enemies” is because we know God will do it for us. Frankly, this doesn’t sound like forgiveness at all. It’s like a bookie “forgiving” someone’s debt only because he knows the mob will break the man’s legs for him.

Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.

This is simply false. One need only look to the very first Christian martyr, Stephen, who echoed Jesus words by praying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60, see also Luke 23:34). That is, he died praying that God would not punish his enemies, not trusting that God would.

Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives…. Sometimes we need to literally scare the hell out of people.

Apart from the fact that we ought to be loving God for who he is rather than from fear of punishment, my main problem with DeYoung’s claim here is that it assumes that God cannot condemn our sin without condemning us to eternal punishment. This is patently false. Unless DeYoung believes that God only saves those who have never sinned, then he must admit that it is possible for God to condemn a person’s sin without sending them to hell, as this must be true of every single Christian. The inclusivist or universalist simply holds out the same hope for non-Christians as well.

Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means.

I actually agree with this point, but simply deny that it necessarily entails that God’s wrath needs to be eternal. That as sinners we deserve hell does not require that anyone end up there. That God might save everyone truly would be “amazing grace”!

Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.

This is like saying that my kids cannot fully appreciate living in my house unless they know that I’m willing to throw them out on the street if they disobey. With Bell all I can ask is: “How can anyone call that good news?”

Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.

To be sure, fear of hell could motivate one to love and serve “the least of these” (and this is perhaps the best reaction to belief in hell), but it is hardly necessary or even a particularly effective means to motivate charity. To say nothing else, I would simply note that some of the folks who give the most to help the poor are not Christians at all, much less motivated by fear of hell.

Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return. We must keep the lamps full, the wicks trimmed, the houses clean, the vineyard tended, the workers busy, and the talents invested lest we find ourselves unprepared for the day of reckoning.

This last point perhaps best captures the problem with DeYoung’s approach and the worldview it represents. Here he alludes to several of Jesus’ parables, the first of which is the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), which contrasts those wise bridesmaids who kept their lamps lit awaiting the bridegroom–even though he was late in coming–and those ill-prepared ones who were absent when he came and so missed the wedding. This certainly emphasizes the importance of being prepared, but the motivation for all involved is not fear of being shut out but rather the desire to join in the wedding banquet. So also, it is not fear of hell that should motivate us to follow God, but rather joyful expectation of living with him.

Posted by: Ken Brown | February 21, 2011

My Wife’s Blog

While I’ve not found much time to post lately, I seem to have passed the blogging bug on to my wife. She started her own blog yesterday chronicling our experiences here in Germany, and already has a couple posts up. I expect she’ll have plenty of interesting things to say, without my characteristic vice of self-importance (yeah, I’ll try to work on that…).

Do swing by and take a look. She is especially hoping that the blog helps her connect with other moms raising kids far from “home,” so if that describes you be sure to drop her a note.

Posted by: Ken Brown | January 27, 2011

I Drove On The Autobahn Today

Just sayin’…


Image from dicktay2000 by CreativeCommons, and may or may not accurately portray what I actually drove...


In fact it was quite the eventful day. In the states visiting a store half an hour away would hardly merit a second thought, but here it took the whole day. We had to drop the kids at a friend’s house, take the bus across town to rent a car, then drive to the next city south to visit Ikea, where we purchased the rest of the necessities for our new apartment, then dropped the whole lot off with another friend to keep until we can actually move in next week. Oh, and we did all this in the snow–which of course didn’t stop anyone from passing us like we were standing still, when we were actually going 130kph.

Ah Germany!

Posted by: Ken Brown | January 21, 2011


This picture of the view from my office aptly symbolizes my first four months in Germany. Through the twisted branches you can just make out the three poles around which my life has unevenly turned: church, state and academy. On the right is the bell tower of one of the city’s old cathedrals. It is currently under renovation, much like my religious life. On the left is the main University library. So near and enticing, yet I’ve hardly found time to visit. And in the middle, frowning at the back of my whole landscape, stands the grey tower of the town hall.

You know those comedies where everything imaginable goes wrong until the last possible moment, when suddenly everything falls together at once, as if by magic? I hate those kinds of movies. They feel so unrealistic, and the constant misunderstanding and misfortune grates on my nerves. Apparently, God doesn’t share my taste in comedy, as that rather perfectly describes my life for the past four months. Since we arrived it felt like nothing could go right. I visited the immigration office more times than I can count. The first half-dozen visits I went in fully expecting to walk out with our permits, and each time I was given some new hoop to jump through instead. After the two dozenth time, I went in fully expecting to be turned away again. There was always something, and time was running short.

Along the way, they forced us to completely rearrange my financial relationship to the university, which in turn required us to replace our current insurance coverage (which had taken us forever to secure in the first place), and continually delayed our search for an apartment. Not that we were having much success on that front either. We could only stay in our current place until the end of January, but every time we found a reasonable offer, it would either be gone by the time we could get a hold of the landlord, or would come with a hefty agent fee, or would be impossible to secure a viewing, or would be 20 kilometers outside the city, and so on and so forth. Just a week and a half ago, after three and a half months of struggle, we still had no long-term residency permit and had yet to succeed in seeing a single apartment, much less signing a contract. We couldn’t help but wonder if either was ever going to happen, or whether we had made a huge mistake in moving here in the first place.

Then suddenly, with no time left to spare, everything fell together this week. Last Thursday we finally managed to visit an apartment–and actually liked it!–Tuesday we finally received our residency permits, and just yesterday we signed the papers for the apartment and finished the documentation for our new insurance coverage. In the space of a week, the three biggest worries that have been hanging over our heads were wiped away. We should get the keys to our new place in the next few days, and move in next weekend, and then maybe things will finally settle down around here.

And as nerve-wracking as the wait has been, it actually worked out better in the end than if we had been granted our permits at once. First, we will have more money per month due to the reworking of my funding. Moreover, if we had managed to convince them to give us the permits at the beginning, they almost certainly would have only been for one year, forcing us to go through this whole process again in 12 months. With the higher monthly income, though, (and proof that we actually managed to live, and save, even with the old lower income), they granted a permit through 2013. I’m not sure if they were finally convinced that we will be able to support ourselves, or if after four months they are just tired of dealing with us, but that was a welcome surprise.

More than that, the extended wait for the permits was also indirectly good for our family. My wife in particular struggled the first couple of months wondering if she really wanted to stay here at all. The uncertainty was especially hard on her, and at times she probably would have been happy if we had not been approved at all (though she felt bad for feeling that way). After four months, however, those initial feelings of homesickness and displacement have settled out and she had finally reached the point where the news that we could stay was exciting and relieving rather than merely bittersweet.

For my part, I never wanted to leave (though I did entertain a few doubts about our decision to come in the first place!), but the long delay was good for me in other ways. I’ve always been a procrastinator and have never been particularly assertive, so marching in and out of immigration, insurance and rental offices on nearly a daily basis was a major challenge to me. Add to that my longstanding hatred of calling strangers on the phone, and the last four months have been among the most stressful in my life. I think my hair has been turning grey faster than most American Presidents, and I’m only 28. In the end, though, I had no choice to press on, and found that I can be a lot more assertive and persistent than I’m used to, which can only benefit me in the future. At the least, no English phone call should ever be intimidating again.

In the end, though, we’re just excited to finally be able to move forward with our lives.

Posted by: Ken Brown | December 29, 2010

Writer’s Block

The fact that it gives me an excuse to post this, almost makes up for hardly writing anything in months. This is (apparently) the full text of an actual article you can find on PubMed (HT DiscoBlog):


In case the font is too small, you can find the PDF here. There is also a follow-up.

Posted by: Ken Brown | November 21, 2010

Slavery, Segregation and the Society of Biblical Literature

In an effort to combat jet-lag, I came to SBL on Thursday and spent Friday seeing a bit of the city. In particular, some friends and I took a walk through Olympic Park, then over to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site. It is the location of Dr. King’s childhood home and one of the churches he preached in, as well as his tomb, and the site celebrates and memorializes Dr. and Mrs. King’s lives and roles in the Civil Rights Movement. It is well worth visiting if you get a chance, and only a 20 minute walk from the conference hotels.

What I found especially striking, however, was the contrast between the situations in Dr. King’s day and our own. The museum emphasizes especially the many non-violent demonstrations organized by Dr. King and others, demonstrations that were often greeted with rage, assault, imprisonment and even murder. The Civil Rights Movement as led by Dr. King was built on the belief, not just that people of color have as much right to be treated with dignity as any other human beings, but that the work of freedom can only be achieved through peaceful and self-sacrificial means: not to destroy the oppressor, but to redeem him. To “turn the other cheek” is not done out of cowardice, but as a fundamental declaration of dignity and personhood, saying: No matter what you do to me, you cannot make me join in your evil; you cannot make me your slave.

Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King, it is tempting to look back at those times with haughty disdain at the racism he fought, to think that we really have overcome the darkness of prejudice and segregation. But have we? When we visited Olympic Park on Thursday, we passed by a modern-day “Civil Rights” demonstration. Some 50 or 60 black people (I do not recall seeing any whites) were holding a peaceful demonstration in front of the CNN building, urging greater awareness of the disenfranchisement and genocide taking place in Africa. No one was shouting at them, spitting at them, or blasting them with fire-hoses. No one arrested them for trespassing, much less attacked and murdered them. The right to demonstrate, like so many other rights, has indeed been won. But the larger issues of segregation and prejudice persist.

Fifty years ago, people of color protested segregation, and were spit upon and attacked. Today a similar march protesting the still greater evil of genocide receives no such violent reaction, for it receives no reaction at all. No one mocks or attacks the demonstrators, because hardly anyone notices them in the first place. Men and women and children are, right now, enslaved and destroyed all over the world, and most of us don’t really care. Oh sure, we may spare a few moment’s thought to the subject now and then—we might even write a polemical blog post—but we don’t really do anything. Even a public demonstration of solidarity receives, at most, a brief acknowledgement from passers-by, who then go on with their lives unchanged. Those suffering persecution are so far away, and we’ve got more pressing concerns to deal with, like where to go for lunch or how much Internet access costs at the conference hotel. Segregation is alive and well today, we just call it nationalism, or social inequality, or we ignore it completely.

On Saturday morning I went to a session on the book of Job, in which Kirsten Dawson explored the role of systemic violence in the book, looking particularly at the ambiguous role of slavery. Job is described as a wealthy and righteous man, yet a great part of his wealth is his many slaves. Here then slavery is assumed to be completely unproblematic, unremarkable even. Certainly the keeping of slaves is not viewed as impinging upon the innocence of Job, which is affirmed by God himself. Yet further, when God allows the Satan to “test” Job (or rather, to test God), this occurs first and foremost, not through the affliction of Job himself, but rather through the destruction of his “property,” including his slaves. Untold numbers of people and animals are wantonly destroyed with hardly any notice at all, neither from the text itself nor from some commentators. The focus remains upon the suffering this inflicts upon the “righteous” man Job, the one whose position and prosperity had depended upon the slavery of the people who have now been destroyed “for no reason” (2:3). Here is violence assumed and ignored, systemic evil that dismisses the oppression and destruction of whole groups of people, who are implicitly denied the same status as human beings that Job himself is afforded.

As Dawson helpfully argued, however, this apparent acceptance of slavery stands in tension with the book’s later use of slavery as a metaphor for suffering itself. Thus in his first speech Job longs for death, for “There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.” (3:18-19 ESV). Slavery is recognized to be evil, yet Job’s own participation in it is overlooked. The ambiguity of this situation is seen especially in the epilogue, where Job is given back twice the cattle and flocks he had before, and seven new sons and three new daughters in compensation for those he lost (as if such a replacement were possible!), yet there is no mention of servants. As Dawson asked: Is this because Job no longer possessed slaves, or because (like Job’s wife) their presence is simply assumed, and slavery’s evil once again and finally overlooked?

To go beyond Dawson, I must ask to what extent we in the post-Civil Rights era find ourselves in the same position as Job. We have seen the suffering of people like Dr. King, and have come to recognize the evils of slavery and segregation. Indeed, far more even than in Job 3, today slavery is often paraded out whenever someone needs a convenient example of unmistakable evil. We may not agree on abortion or immigration or social welfare, but we can all agree that some things are evil, slavery and genocide being the usual suspects. Yet for all our rhetoric, most of us pay little if any attention to those who actually suffer from these evils. Like Job, we can trot out slavery as an example of ultimate evil, but never actually do anything to help those who, even today, live in slavery. Perhaps Job’s friends where not so wrong, after all, to insist that Job’s “innocence” was illusory, whatever God may say. Perhaps we also are far too quick to view ourselves as innocent of the systemic violence that Dr. King fought, while ignoring the same evil in our own world. Slavery and genocide may be going on in Africa and other parts of the world, and sure we feel really bad about that, but we’ve got other things to worry about, and Africa is sooo far away.

All of which brings me to last night’s Presidential Address by Dr. Vincent Wimbush. Our new society president is the first person of color to hold that position, and it is fitting that he should give his first address here in Atlanta, the home of Dr. King. Nor did he shy away from the theme, using his speech to insist that we ourselves, as a society, are not innocent of the segregation and slavery that we so casually dismiss. This society was founded in 1880, and he noted that it was not until the 1950s that we had our first black member, and not until the 1980s that we had our first session specifically focused on African American issues. Even today the academy evidences a distressingly elitist tendency to dismiss the popular religion of black (and, I would add, other “fundamentalist”) preachers on the basis of a supposedly neutral “historical” reconstruction. We, as enlightened, learned scholars, know what the Bible is really about, unlike the ignorant masses who seem to think it has some relevance for their contemporary lives.

I exaggerate, but in truth we have too often been a kind of old-boys club, and sometimes even ostensibly academic concerns with maintaining a “critical” approach to the Bible can hide an uncritical dismissal of popular religion or social concerns. Moreover, even as we as a society have sought to open up discussion with a wider range of issues, one need only glance through the program book to see that segregation is still a fact of life in the SBL. Why should we have specific sections devoted to African-American Biblical Hermeneutics, Disability studies, Queer Theory and Feminism, yet see little if any impact of such concerns within most of the other sessions? Certainly ideological criticism has made inroads in various places—it was after all a session on Job, not a session on Post-Colonialism or some such, that Dawson presented her paper on slavery and systemic violence—but such things remain the exception rather than the rule.

Admittedly, there is far more to biblical studies than ideological criticism, and I must say the session I have enjoyed most so far this year–on Hebrew poetry and theology–had little direct connection with such issues, nor did it need to have any. All of us are faced with too little time and too many things that would be worth pursuing for us to indulge every potential angle in every session. We must choose where to focus, and so we build program units in accordance with our interests, and perhaps also with a view to drawing the largest possible crowd. We may lament that there are other sections we would also have liked to attend, but ultimately we all must make choices about where to spend our time, and overwhelmingly we choose to spend that time on questions of history, theology, literary criticism and the like.

Yet for that very reason, and others, I found the conclusion to Wimbush’s Presidential Address rather unfortunate, particularly his claim that in this century of multiculturalism, we as a society can no longer limit ourselves solely to “biblical” literature, but must also expand our scope to embrace all “scripture” more generally. At the risk of throwing my lot in with the bigots, I cannot agree. There are other learned societies available to discuss “scriptures” more broadly, and we can all be grateful that the SBL will once again be meeting alongside the American Academy of Religion next year, without having to remake ourselves in its image. If we truly want to take more serious account of our and the Bible’s history with and ongoing participation in slavery, segregation and other systemic evils, we would be better served to do so through a more sustained engagement with such issues in relation to our already existing shared interests, than in ballooning our mission out to some amorphous discussion of “scripture” the world over.

However valuable it certainly is to learn from traditions quite different from our own, and however vital it must be to broaden our horizons beyond the academy to the world we all live in—even those suffering so “far” away–we as a society have quite enough to divide and distract us already, without abandoning the one thing that unifies us: a shared interest in biblical literature. Indeed, as N.T. Wright’s address on Friday night so well argued, an informed and intensive investigation of the Bible in its original historical settings can and should itself lead us into participation in God’s work of remaking the world, of freeing the oppressed and setting the captives free. That it so rarely does says nothing good about our claim to be a society of biblical literature, whatever the future of our discipline may be.

Posted by: Ken Brown | November 19, 2010

In the Dark

Alone in the Dark

Image by RedEyeRex, from Flickr Creative Commons.

Hoffnung ist ein gutes Frühstück, aber ein schlechtes Abendbrot. -Francis Bacon

…perseverance produces character, and character hope. –Romans 5:4

A few weekends back we lost power in our apartment. It was a windy night so this was not at first surprising, but then we looked out the window to find that everyone else still had light. We had not been doing anything power-intensive (just sitting on the couch reading), yet as far as we could tell the whole apartment had lost power for no reason. Could a storm knock out the lights to just one apartment? We couldn’t see how, but I went down to the basement to look at the meters anyway, and sure enough, they were all spinning except ours. It seemed that everyone around us was happily going about their lives, while we scrambled around in the dark. It was not the last time we would feel that way in Germany.

We reserved our apartment as temporary accommodation. Several people had strongly urged us not to try to secure a permanent place from afar. German apartments are typically unfurnished, which doesn’t just mean no furniture, but no fixtures and even (in most cases) no kitchen. Many of the better apartments also come with a hefty real estate agent fee, in addition to their steep deposits. Then there is the matter of interpreting the jargon and abbreviations of the classified ads (and no, Google Translate is little help there), then calling in German to inquire whether a given apartment is still available. Oh, and it is not uncommon for apartment owners to be quite discriminate in who they allow to rent, including (if they like) choosing not to rent to foreigners, those with children, those who practice tap dancing, and so on. Ok, I made up the last one, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We’ve been in Göttingen for two months and apartment hunting still gives me the shivers, so we were certainly well-advised not to attempt it from the States.

The advantage of our current apartment is that it includes not only a kitchen but also furnishings and linens, all for a reasonable monthly rate. We had also heard good things about the place from a family who rented it before. When we arrived, however, things did not quite live up to expectations. Our first clue was when we called the company’s local representative two days before the scheduled move in. He promptly informed us that he no longer handles the property, and we should call the company directly. When we did so—wondering if we still had a reservation at all!– the company itself appeared to be unaware that he had quit, and had no one else to take over. They ended up sending someone all the way from Berlin just to hand over the keys, and that is the last we have seen of them.

The man from Berlin was obviously unfamiliar with the apartment as well, but did very kindly inform us that “Der Backofen ist kaput,” as indeed it was: The whole oven door was hanging off its hinges. He assured us that the issue would be taken care of immediately. It was not. After two days my supervisor at the university (who speaks much better German than us) called them for us to inquire about the oven repair, and he was told that it wasn’t the company’s problem. After arguing for 20 minutes, he finally got them to agree to pay if we hired someone to fix it ourselves, but when we then found a repairman he said he needed to hear directly from the company if they would be paying. We then called the apartment company back and couldn’t reach the same person who we had spoken with before, and were once again told it was not their problem (!). In the end we fixed the oven ourselves (it wasn’t as bad as it looked), with no help from the company.

That was the problem they actually told us about. We soon discovered that the apartment has a variety of other issues they neglected to mention–damage to the walls, floors and furniture, light switches and power outlets that do not work or do so only intermittently, a closet full of bathmats soaked in spilled perfume, a missing smoke detector, and so on and so forth. I sent them an email documenting the more egregious of these (with pictures) and did finally get a helpful reply, asking if we would like to schedule a time to have the apartment renovated. Of course, when I wrote backing asking only that something be done about the electrical problems, it took them a month to get back to us with the name of an electrical company that would supposedly contact us, but never has. One of these days we’ll probably have to track down the electrician’s phone number and call him directly, but I doubt he’ll have the foggiest idea who we are when we do.

All of this would be frustrating enough in English, but German throws up a massive wall in front of any attempt at resolution. I have to admit that I used to feel rather annoyed at people who live in America but cannot speak English very well. When some such person would come into my office or happened to be in front of me at the store, I couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated that they could not understand what was being said to them. After all, if you plan to live in a country, you should at least take the trouble to learn the language. How hard can it be?

Pretty friggen hard, actually! I had no easy access to German courses before I left the States (the local community college did not offer German, and my university was too far away and too expensive), but I did study it as intensively as I could on my own, reading grammar books, using RosettaStone, and spending at least a half-hour a day with Pimsleur’s Speak and Read Essential German CDs (I finished both courses I and II before leaving). Since arrival I feel like all I do is practice German, including 4+ hours of immersion classes every morning, 4 more hours of private study in the afternoon, then often a couple hours further in the evening, usually spent trying to make sense of the German mail I get, or the nearly incomprehensible German immigration laws (more on which, in a moment). Even when I decide to take an evening off, I usually relax by reading Harry Potter, in German.

Yet despite all of that, I can still barely manage a casual conversation, and if things get the least bit technical I’m quickly lost. There is just too much specialized vocabulary, and too many distinct situations to master–from the grocery store to the foreigner’s office to the speeches given at a professor’s 60th birthday party–that I can’t keep up. Reading is easier, but hearing and speaking are a major challenge, and are likely to remain so for quite some time. You can only imagine how much more frustrating it is for my wife, who has far less time each day to devote to German practice.

Nor is this simply a matter of embarrassment. Some issues are difficult to resolve even in German, and all but impossible with my limited grasp of the language. For instance, in October I went to pick up our residency permits, only to be turned away empty-handed. The lady spoke little English, and my German was even worse then than it is now, but from what I could gather she thought our apartment is too expensive, and did not think I make enough to support a family. How she determined that, and what she expects me to do about it, remain a mystery to me even after a dozen further conversations, several with an interpreter.

It has been two months since we arrived and we have been backwards and forwards between the foreigner’s office, the insurance company, the university and the employment agency so many times that I’ve lost all count, and everyone gives us different information. The woman at the foreigner’s office says we don’t make enough to keep our children in Germany, but we could stay if we got government assistance from the employment agency. The employment agency says you cannot get government assistance with the kind of residency permit we are being offered. The university lawyer said we do have enough income to qualify for a sort of residency permit that would allow us to get government aid, but the representative at the foreigner’s office disagrees. We finally made an appointment with the head of the foreigner’s office, and marched down there with an interpreter and my supervisor, only to discover that she was sick that day and not in.

The second worst part of all of this is the uncertainty. Many days we have felt completely lost in Germany, unsure where we belong, whether we can stay, and if so where we will live once our temporary rental contract expires. This is especially hard for my wife, who is a planner by nature and rather homesick as well. The worst though, is that from the very beginning we were told by our health insurance company that they could insure me on the basis of my employment contract, but they could not cover my family until we had our residency permits. This was frustrating when we thought it would just take a couple weeks and a rubber stamp to get through, but the longer the time drags on, the more desperate one becomes without insurance.

A few weeks back my middle son fell down and split his head open. If that sounds worse than it was, it also looked worse than it was. Even small head wounds bleed a lot, so it is hard to know how worried you should be in such a situation. If we were back in the States, we would have just called up the kids’ doctor and, if he thought it was necessary, gone in right away. But what about here? Our insurance coverage is somewhat questionable and we don’t have a regular doctor to see yet, so what are we going to do? Pile the kids in the stroller and push them to the nearest emergency room, point at the boy’s head and wave a credit card, hoping whatever string of German they reply with is marginally understandable and helpful? Luckily the wound was not as bad as it could have been, as I fear to think of what would have happened if it had been serious.

Before coming here I had no idea how vulnerable one could feel moving to a new country. Not only have you left behind all the supports of family and friends, but at first you have no phone number or internet access, no health insurance (except the temporary travel insurance we bought before leaving, which is basically useless), limited access to your funds back at home (if they are even worth much here), and not even any guarantee that you will have the right to live here at all.  When we moved to Canada it was relatively painless. We spent a nervous hour in the immigration office, then walked out with our visas and the university took care of the rest. Here it seems like an endless march from office to office trying to get such-and-such document from so-and-so to take to so-and-so, who probably won’t accept the document in any case.

All involved act as though the request is completely unexpected—like no American has ever moved to Germany before!—and most often respond by composing a letter saying “if they get X then I will give them Y.” This is necessary, because the residency process appears to be one big series of catch-22s. You can’t get insurance without a residency permit, but you can’t get a residency permit without insurance. You can’t work in Germany without a residency permit, but you can’t get a residency permit that allows work unless you first prove that you will have sufficient income. You can’t get government aid without a residency permit, which of course doesn’t stop the immigration office from sending you off to apply for government aid as a condition of getting your residency permit!

In most cases, I’m stuck either negotiating through my terrible German and their often equally terrible English, or taking an interpreter who proceeds (very helpfully of course) to rattle on in completely incomprehensible German on my behalf. I spend so much of my time researching the relevant laws and marching from office to office that I barely even have time for my German homework, and yet most days I still feel just as in the dark as I did that evening when the lights went out. If we didn’t have friends and colleagues here to help us, I think we might have given up by now. Thankfully we do.

The next morning after we lost power, we woke up from a restless sleep to find we still had no electricity. It was a Sunday morning and I had no hope of getting a resolution from our unreliable rental company, so I called my supervisor instead. His wife answered, and it took her all of thirty seconds to diagnose the problem: the fuses had blown. In hindsight, this should have been obvious, but we had not seen anything like a fuse-box either in our apartment or near the power-meter. It turns out the fuses were hidden in a small panel out on the staircase, which must be opened with a key that we didn’t realize we had. The key was quickly found, and just like that, all our confusion and angst disappeared with the flick of a switch.

On Tuesday, fearing that without a residency permit I might be turned away when I tried to return from the SBL Annual Meeting in Atlanta, I went back to the foreigner’s office to make a last desperate plea. My interpreter could not come, nor was my supervisor available, so I spent a couple hours trying to piece together some coherent German to explain my situation and ask for a temporary permit to give us time to work things out. After writing a test in German class, I hurried off to the foreigner’s office with little time (they are only open until noon) and even less hope, and anxiously awaited my turn. Finally it came, and to my great surprise, she needed little convincing and quickly granted a temporary permit for three more months.

So we now have until mid-February to get things sorted out, and my supervisor assures me that we have options to pursue. We will worry about that after SBL. Even better, armed with the temporary permit, I decided to try my luck again with the insurance office. I didn’t really expect anything with a temporary permit, but thank God (truly) they accepted it! We should have our cards in 10 days, and if we have a problem before then our account numbers should be available in a couple of days.  I was also able to buy a year’s worth of comprehensive travel insurance for less than 10€, just in case I fall down an escalator at SBL, or something. In the end, we still don’t know what is going to happen with our residency permit application, nor where we will be living come February 1st, but for the first time in a long while we have hope. We may still be the only ones around in the dark, but at least now we know there’s a light switch.

Posted by: Ken Brown | October 11, 2010

A New Start

Morning in Göttingen. All images are from my Flickr photostream.

Nicht da ist man daheim, wo man seinen Wohnsitz hat, sondern wo man verstanden wird. (Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.) ~Christian Morgenstern

Less than three weeks ago my wife and I packed up our kids and the last of our belongings and flew to Germany. Our flight passed by the arctic circle, which creates a bizarre and unexpected experience: watching the sun set and rise out the same window of the airplane. It was like the whole world reversed its axis while we floated by, and three weeks later we’re not sure we’ve yet found our bearings.

We realized recently that we have either had or been house-guests nearly constantly since the beginning of August. For over three weeks we didn’t have a place of our own at all, and even now we are just in a temporary apartment until January. We have been extremely grateful for the hospitality of family and new friends who have endured our three young children and luggage and jetlag, and made the transition so much smoother than it might have been, but it is hard to live like vagrants for so long. I cannot even imagine how difficult it would have been to move here without their help, and I’m thankful that I did not have to find out.

As it turns out, moving to Europe is nothing at all like moving across the US, or even moving to Canada (which we have done, though before we had children). It is not as though you can simply pile your junk in a U-Haul and take it with you. It can cost hundreds of dollars to ship a single suitcase from the US to Germany, so you can only really afford to bring the essentials. But just getting rid of the old can be a major headache, not to mention the time and expense required to rebuy a whole household. In the end, we spent a couple of months trimming everything down to 12 medium to large suitcases and a handful of carry-ons, which is hardly anything for a whole family of five to live on, yet still proved nearly unmanageable for three adults to move across Frankfurt Airport.

Even more than the belongings that need to be replaced, however, the challenge of a move like this is that it requires one to replace virtually all of the services that make modern civilization run as smoothly as it does. Banking, insurance, credit cards, taxes and more must all be changed over or completely replaced, and neither the American nor German counterparts are much familiar with how to manage that process. There are the visas, residence permits, contracts and countless other documents (mostly in German) needed to make sure you are actually legal to live in the country. I spent the better part of four months trying to figure out what paperwork I might actually need, often finding it difficult, expensive or even impossible to acquire and even now it’s hard to be sure that things are truly in order. There are, of course, dozens of books and websites offering advice on How to Move to Germany, but these have a dismaying tendency to offer completely different lists of the most essential preparations, little of which ended up applying to us in any case. In the end most of what we agonized over proved hardly necessary, yet there were still numerous headaches that came completely unexpected.

Altes Rathaus Göttingen

Rain clouds over the old Town Hall in Göttingen. The new Town Hall is considerably less charming.

Our first taste of this was on the trip over. We thought we were very clever scheduling an over-night flight with a morning connection in Iceland, not realizing that flying out at 4:30pm from Seattle and landing at 7:30am in Iceland didn’t actually mean we could sleep through the night; it meant we would skip the night entirely. 7:30am in Iceland, you see, is only 12:30am in Seattle, so by the time we landed the kids had slept no more than an hour or two, and the whole night was gone. Indeed, between sunset and sunrise there were less than three hours of dark.

Upon arrival in Iceland, we expected to have 45 minutes to make our connection, which seemed tight but reasonable enough in such a small airport (there are only 8 gates), but we discovered too late that arrival time does not account for taxiing from the runway. We may have landed on schedule, but by the time we actually disembarked we only had about 10 minutes to make our next flight. Moreover, because this was our first entry into a Schengen nation, we could not go straight to our gate but first had to bypass through security and passport control. At a mad dash we arrived 10 minutes after our scheduled departure time, but thankfully the airline held the plane for us and we left shortly after finding our seats.

In all of this the children did remarkably well, but we were understandably exhausted by the time we reached Frankfurt, one of the largest airports in Europe. Here things started smoothly. Since we had gotten on last, our luggage was among the first to arrive in baggage-claim and was all intact, and since (we only later realized) we had come in from another Schengen nation, there was no security or passport check, and going through customs was as simple as walking through a big unmanned door reading “Nothing to Declare.” So much for all my worry about how we would get through customs with 12 full suitcases.

But then things got interesting. We had given ourselves 2 hours to make our train (again, not counting on the gap between “arrival” time and disembarking) and would have been fine if we had not had too much luggage to carry onto the train and so had to drop off several bags at a shipping service. This was a fantastic idea (which I owe entirely to our hosts), except that we still had to drag three carts worth of luggage across the airport, on and off a bus, and up an escalator (!), to get the little shipping office, which we then could not find. In fact, we spent about an hour and a half searching for either the office or anyone who could tell us where it was (let’s just say that Germany is not known for its customer service), all while our internal clocks were telling us that it was 4am. I was so tired I couldn’t even figure out how to make a German pay-phone work, failing to notice that the place I was looking for was about 10 meters to my right.

Eventually we did manage to find the place and get the baggage sorted, but needless to say we missed our train and had to buy new tickets for the next one, then wait another 45 minutes at the train terminal hoping we were in the right place because we still couldn’t find a single official to ask. By the time our train finally arrived in Göttingen, our kids were so dead asleep that I had to physically block the train door from closing so we could get them off before the train left for the next stop. Thankfully our gracious hosts were still there–with a warm dinner waiting for us back home–but if I say we slept in ’til close to 11 the next morning, I hope no one will blame us. It took at least a week for the kids to finally get back to their usual nighttime routines, if they have even now.

It hasn’t been all stress and chaos, however. True, I’ve spent more hours than I’d care to count trudging back and forth (mostly on foot) between the town hall, the insurance office, the bank, and different departments of the university, struggling to get our paperwork in order (for a nation that thrives on Order, the Germans have an awfully ad hoc way of managing documentation). Right now I’m trying not to think about the pile of German paperwork on my desk waiting to be translated. Hopefully none of it is time-sensitive! Meanwhile, our German dictionaries have gotten some of their hardest workouts trolling the aisles of various German stores. We still haven’t figured out how a nation with more bakeries per capita than any other on earth can make it so difficult to find baking powder in the grocery store, but I am proud to say that I made my first purchase at a German flee-market: a used set of the first four Harry Potter books, in German, which makes practicing the language rather more enjoyable than it might be.

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. Is this what she meant?

This is good, because I’ve got quite a lot of German to do! Even though I am allowed to write my dissertation in English, I have to pass at quite a high level of German to get a doctorate here. This means I’ll be spending much of the first year in intensive German courses (thankfully covered by the research funding!). In order not to waste any more time than necessary, last week I jumped right into the middle of a second level course that started in mid-September. Not surprisingly, I’m finding that my preparation has been far too scattered to fully prepare me for such an immersion. While I can read German better than many of the other students, I cannot hear it any where near as well and my facility with casual German conversation leaves a great deal to be desired. Hopefully 4-hour immersion classes, five days a week, will change that fairly quickly, if they don’t kill me first!

In the meantime, we’ve taken advantage of an unusually warm fall to explore Göttingen, which really is a wonderful city. Just on my way to work I pass through a lovely path bordered by hundreds of private gardens, then down the main road into the old city with its narrow and winding cobblestone streets and traditional architecture (see the picture at the top for an example, and more on Flickr). The university itself is also old, but the buildings are mostly modern, including its main library, housing some 6 million volumes crossing all disciplines (this is not even including the Old Library in town, the Theological library housed in our building, the collection of Septuagint manuscripts, and so on).

Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Just a portion of Göttingen’s 6 million volume library.

We’ve also enjoyed traditional German fare (including some delicious wurst and a few German beers), laughed at what is considered “American” in the foreign section of the supermarket, and eaten more than our share of their incredible ice cream and baked goods. I don’t think we’ll ever again be able to stand boring old American white bread for anything other than toast. We’ve strolled the streets of the old city and wandered across the countryside to a 500 year old watch-tower, and we’ve had plenty of chances to try out our German, some more successful than others. You know the feeling when you think of the perfect thing to say about two minutes too late? That’s how nearly every German conversation feels right now. If being “home” really does mean being understood, it may be a while for us to feel like more than visitors here.

As much as we have enjoyed our first three weeks in Göttingen, we are getting to the stage where the differences become more and more apparent. Beyond the language barrier, many of the adjustments come down to a simple matter of space: Everything is smaller in Germany, and quite a lot of it is slower (the Autobahn and DeutscheBahn being the two major exceptions). Cars, beds, groceries, appliances, the cities themselves are all considerably smaller (and generally more environmentally conscious) than their American counterparts. On first glance, much of this is annoying, if not downright puzzling– how can a family survive with such a tiny garbage allowance?!–but in many cases it makes better sense once you get used to it.

I’m about to sound like a typical uppity European, but it really is amazing how wasteful we Americans can be, hopping in our SUVs to drive a mile down the road and filling huge bins with garbage every week. I remember a great commercial aired by Pemco Insurance making fun of those obsessive-compulsive recyclers who even go so far as to wash their tin-foil, yet that and more is simply necessary and expected here. And you know what? It’s actually quite amazing how simple it can be to recycle or compost most of your waste (the city collects biological waste separately from the rest), to hang your clothes to dry rather than use a dryer, to walk or bike around town, and so on. Everything takes longer this way, but it saves a great deal of money and resources, not to mention being quite a bit better for your health. Of course, I say this now in the midst of a relatively balmy early October–ask me again in mid-January and I may sing a different tune!

Posted by: Ken Brown | August 14, 2010

Roger Ebert Quote

It isn’t the sad people in movies who make me cry, it’s the good ones.

Roger Ebert

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