Because They Have No Changes

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ”  Psalm 55:19

 

Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations.  As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day.  I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet.  You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.

I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons.  First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches.  Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions.  Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today.  I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual.  Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation.  Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.

Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19.  There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”   Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity.  What does it mean, “they have no changes?”  The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in.  And so I looked at the verse in other translations.  Here is how the NIV renders it:  “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”

Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions.  “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.”   The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question.  It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed.  They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength.  In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.

That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible.  We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees.  That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time.  In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement.  And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural.  Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations.  Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:

12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves.  Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men.  He does not judge the wicked.  He does not reward the faithful.  The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished.  To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.

 

If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines.  Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again.  But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them.  Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement.  Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse.  Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it.  Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time.  Men in power prey on the weaker people around them.  Doctors hit on nurses.  Law partners hit on associates.  Priests abuse children.  And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.

What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country.  God is not mocked.  One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.

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Wine on The Lees

Isaiah 25:6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

 

 

If the image of wine settling on its lees (dregs) in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is one that suggests stagnation and accordant ruination, the image in Isaiah 25: 6 seems to be opposite.  That is, in Isaiah the wine that is “on the lees” is “well refined” and fit for God’s “feast of fat things.”   The wine that is “on the lees” in Isaiah is the best wine and better, apparently, for having been kept on the lees!

What can we make of this?   Maybe the best advice would be simply that these two apparently contrary images are not meant to be compared.  They were written at different times and to address different situations and no responsible Bible scholar would waste any time in trying to compare or contrast them.  It’s apples to oranges.

And yet. And yet.  The idea in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is so familiar to those of us who occupy the pews in Middle America.  This is the riff or saw or even cliché that the preachers use to warn us against staying in our “comfort zones.”  We need to get out there and engage the culture, make our witness.  All of that.

I wonder if it might be legitimately argued that the passage in Isaiah may be a kind of counterpoint to all of that.  I wonder if there may be wisdom in allowing Christians to “settle on their lees” and be thereby deepened and strengthened, not embittered.

Not in the sense of becoming complacent or self-sufficient, but in steeping in the gospel and all that it implies.  If you read Rod Dreher (and if you are concerned with the state of the church in modern life, you must read Rod Dreher) you will see constant reference in his prolific posting to the shallowness of the theology in the so-called “Evangelical” churches.  The complaint he cites has to do with the church culture becoming focused on entertainment and hipness and losing sight of tradition and the deeper truths those traditions testify to.  Just a few months ago I heard some people talking about someone who had left a local mega-church for greener pastures because the new church they had found had a better praise band.  Dreher argues – and repeatedly cites research to support – that the generation now rising in the church is all about emotion and little else and that the churches they frequent do little to change this.  In fact, they foster and even exploit it.

Thus, when confronted with any sort of sob story, these youngsters will be quick to abandon any of the church’s teachings on sexual morality.  It’s all about what feels good.  Come on in and turn it up to eleven.

 

 

 

Reading The Psalms

 . . . Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me . . .

 

If the Christian life is a personal relationship with God, then the Christian’s journal is the book of Psalms.  There may be fuller and more complete theology elsewhere, but nowhere else in the Bible do we see such a personal and candid conversation with God.  No holds are barred.  We see every emotion:  grief and doubt and disappointment and repentance.  We see joy and triumph and victory and reward and peace.

In the Psalms we see a human being pouring his soul out to God in every situation.  In reading these poems, we find that our experiences are shared and validated.  We are not the first to have great disappointments and frustrations; we are not the first to be confronted with situations and outcomes we don’t understand.  We are not the first to be confronted with our own mistakes and their consequences.

We are not the first to know that all depends on God’s grace – that we have no hope without it.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part Five)

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

 

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”

The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?”  since that is how so many people see the issue.

 

But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question.  Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew.  He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American.  By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’”   So was the Apostle Paul.  So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus.  So what?

When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures.  His answer was, more or less:  I don’t see any contradiction.  To me it’s all one thing.

Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age.  He is right to do that.  He’d be wrong not to.

The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.

 

Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality.  One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:

Dylan is not an intellectual.  He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.

Dylan is not C. S. Lewis.  He is not a systematic theologian.  He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience.  Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience.  We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts.  We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  That’s not who Dylan is.  It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates.  Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.

Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs.   For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living.  He did not set out to find and exploit a market.  He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul.  Even if that took him away from the market.

Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others.  He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours.  The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel:  Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”

 

If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists?  That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?

Marshall offers several ideas on the point.  There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession.  In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on.  Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that.  He just goes on to the next chapter.

 

Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism.  This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here.  The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.

But the book is a wonderful piece of work.  I could hardly put it down.  The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated.  It deals with an amazing subject; this Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winning American poet.  Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own?  Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:

The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience.

Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And Amen.

Bottom line?  Here is the conviction the book leaves me with:  Dylan’s conversion was no stunt.  It was not a result of confusion or delusion.  He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold.  They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand.  They may be cherished.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part 3)

 

 

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by [Marshall, Scott]

 

 

 

(Readers; Here is part three of a continuing post reviewing Scott Marshall’s new book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.  You can get the first and second installments by clicking back, post by post, on the “previous post” link at the bottom of this post.)

 

Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me, “
Just so you know where He’s coming from.

Bob Dylan, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”

 

 

 So, we have a three-way tug-of-war going on here,

 

with the Christian Dylan fans, like me, pulling one way – i.e. Dylan’s experience with Jesus Christ was a real, actual event (Dylan himself described it as “knee buckling”) and his gospel songs were not motivated by a desire for publicity but are authentic expressions of a converted soul, of a man who has met the Lord and, despite his open sympathy for the Hebrew community, of which he and his children are inseparably a part, and in spite of Dylan’s more recent writing that is less directly concerned with the Gospel and in spite of any crazy, excessive behavior Dylan may have engaged in since that time, he has never disavowed his confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and never disavowed a word of the songs he wrote as a result of that experience;

Secular fans pulling another way – that Dylan’s “gospel period” was just an emotional phase, not untypical for artistic types, but it has no spiritual or lasting reality and though Dylan himself has not directly and expressly disavowed his experience with Christ, such a disavowal can be fairly inferred from Dylan’s downplay of his gospel songs in recent concerts, his open participation in Jewish rituals and his rock-star behavior.

(Let me be clear about that last thing.  Marshall’s book hints that there are rumors of Dylan doing the kind of drinking and womanizing lately that we’ve come to expect of musicians while on the road.  The book does not detail or suggest any support for such rumors and I am not here implying that there is any truth to it.  All I am saying is that if such rumors are out there, it is a cinch that this tug-of-war team will use them to establish their case.)

The third team in this battle is, of course, Dylan’s Jewish buddies and fans.  The book tells that Elie Wiesel viewed Dylan’s conversion as “a tragedy” and that Paul Shaffer, the long-time music director for the David Letterman Show, admitted that he was brokenhearted by the news of Dylan’s confession.  This group sees Dylan as one of their own; one of their very best.  Dylan’s embrace of Christ is at best a kind of family embarrassment to them and at worst a real collaboration, by a former hero, with a deadly enemy.   This group will repeat almost all of the arguments made by the secularists as described above and add great emphasis to the evidence of Dylan’s later attendance at bar mitzvahs and other Jewish celebrations and his involvement with the Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish group.

It is the goal of Marshall’s book to sort it all out.

 

(more on the way. . . .)

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Boaz of Bethlehem: Attorney at Law

Image result for boaz at the city gate

 

If we read the book of Ruth like we would read any well-written story, we must pay attention to the facts that the writer puts in.

 

Ruth’s story, as we’ve said here before, is a real story; it’s not made up.   It is an account of actual events that happened to real people.  But the writer of the story had decisions to make.  There was no videotape of these events and even if there was, it would be literally months long.

This writer had to decide what would go in to the telling and what would be left out.  An example of what’s left out in this case is the circumstances of the deaths of the three men in Ruth’s family.  Her father-in-law, her husband, and her only brother-in-law all die in Moab.  That, undoubtedly, was pretty dramatic stuff and would have helped to introduce us to the characters and make us more sympathetic to them.  And yet we get not the first detail about any of that.  The three men died.  That’s all the book tells us.

This writer, like any writer, had an editorial or authorial purpose.  There is a point to the story, or maybe several points,  and the story – the details that are included in the story – are there to advance that purpose.  This writer, like any other, leaves out much, summarizes some, and then in places gives us fine detail.

When we get that fine detail, we must ask ourselves why it is there.  Why did the writer choose to bring the camera in so close?  How does this detail forward the authorial purpose?  How does it advance the story?

The story of Ruth is efficiently written.  There are no long asides describing atmosphere or emotion; no florid descriptions of landscapes or people.  But it is during the legal proceeding near the end of the book that the writer gives us fine detail – seemingly more detail than was necessary to move the story from point A to point B.

The writer tells us exactly – word for word – how Boaz presents his case to the other near-kinsman – the man who had first right of refusal for the purchase of the land of Ruth’s late father-in-law and, accordingly, under the customs of that day, a corresponding right to marry Ruth.

Boaz first tells the near-kinsman of his right to purchase the land without mentioning Ruth.  And the man immediately bites on the offer.  Of course he’d like to add the land to his holdings.  It’s kind of a windfall for him.  It is only then that Boaz explains that his purchase of that land will bring with it the duty to marry Ruth and have children with her.  The kinsman then runs like a scared rabbit.

But why did Boaz present his case in this order and why did the writer of the story think that order of presentation so important that it merited such a detailed retelling in this tight, little book?

At first blush, Boaz’s ordering of his case seems counter intuitive; self-defeating.  It is clear from the story that Boaz was taken with Ruth and ecstatic at the prospect that she might become his wife.  Why then did he pitch the easy part first?

I think it a great mistake to consider Boaz as anything other than wise and strategic.  He is described as a man of wealth and influence.  He did not get there by accident or by making silly decisions.  At every turn in the story, his actions are generous but careful.  Thus, the way he orders his case here is not random and not foolish; he has a plan.

I think Boaz was just the sort of man who was intimately familiar not only with the law, but with the community in which he lived.   That is to say, not only was Boaz fully informed as to what the legal realities – both procedural and substantive – were for all concerned when he discovered Ruth beside him on the threshing-room floor, we must assume that Boaz knew his opponent in the proceeding.  He certainly seems to have known just where that man would be as he arranged for the hearing to take place.

What I see in Boaz’s presentation of the case – in his ordering of his proof – is a kind of reverse psychology.  If Boaz would have presented the case in the other order, telling the man first of Ruth and the ensuing obligations, the kinsman might have smelled a rat – or smelled blood.  That is, the kinsman may have thought to himself Boaz is presenting this in a negative way.  He’s trying to talk me out of this.  He must have his own interest.  He must really want this.  I’d better hang tight here and see what is really behind this.  I may be able to drive a harder bargain if Boaz is really that interested.

But Boaz makes it appear that he is actually trying to get the other man to bite.  Telling him the good stuff first.  Now it may appear to the cynic that Boaz is actually trying to avoid the responsibility that would fall to him if the other kinsman refuses.  This makes the kinsman give away his right without a second thought.  Pretty slick.

It will be easy to criticize this opinion of mine, I know.  Some will say I have built a real house of cards based on very little evidence.  But I cannot get away from the notion that the writer of this book meant to tell us something important by including the details of Boaz’s practice here in this proceeding.  And I am sure that Boaz went into that courtroom with an overwhelming desire to take Ruth for himself.  (That may not have been totally selfish.  The guy with whom he was dealing might have been a real loser.  Boaz might have known that Ruth would have been miserable in that other man’s household.)

Others may say that I have dwelt on minutiae and missed the whole point of the book.  The book, they will say, is a parable of Christ’s love for us – His sacrifice, His providence, and His grace.  Who cares then about the details of Boaz’s practice?

I respond with this – the details of Boaz’s practice only deepen and enrich the Christian parable.  That is, we, like Ruth, may finally realize that we’re in a mess and that we must humble ourselves, as Ruth did, and rely on the grace of another for salvation.

But it is also true that we may recognize our desperate situation without appreciating fully how complicated it is.  Thus, when God acts to pull us out, He moves in ways strange to us, knowing, as He does, the complexities and dangers that we may have been oblivious to.