January 18, 2011
You may or may not be aware of this, but InterVarsity Press is about as geeked out as an organization can get over Bible study. Our very first homegrown book, back in 1947, was Discovering the Gospel of Mark by Jane Hollingsworth, and we've pretty much never stopped. Our commitment to being rooted in the Scriptures gets expressed in overt ways, as we publish commentaries like The Gospel of John (Resonate), and in subtler ways as we publish books for personal reflection and group discussion like The Story of God, the Story of Us. The Bible problematizes everyday living and cultural issues in books like Unsqueezed; it orients stories of spiritual growth and turbulence in books like Pilgrimage of a Soul; it catalyzes social change in books like Living Mission and How to Inherit the Earth. We even did two fortnights of reflections on donkeys in the Bible right here at Strangely Dim. So yeah, we like the Bible here.
We like it so much that we continue to publish new Bible studies, on topics and characters and biblical books, every year, as part of our LifeGuide line and in other forms as part of our IVP Connect imprint. And as if that weren't enough, we like Bible study so much that we give one away every day for free. A new Lifeguide study is posted daily at our Quiet Time Bible Study page; it gets you into a passage from Scripture and, if I may be cliche for a moment, it gets that passage from Scripture into you.
So, if you've got a little time to kill and you feel like doing some soul searching and some Bible reading, find a quiet place and give yourself a little "quiet time"--a quaint little term meaning "time alone with God," most often occupied with prayer, meditation and (you guessed it) Bible study. Before you know it, you'll be as geeked out about it as we are. And I'm pretty sure, if I may be presumptuous for a moment, that being as geeked out as we are was your new year's resolution.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:03 AM
October 26, 2009
What Genesis Has Made Us
Of all the books in the Bible, I'd say that Genesis has the most capacity to capture the imagination. Genesis features countless stories that get stuck in little kids' heads--Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Lot and Sodom, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and Pharaoh. All these stories are on every short list for inclusion in every picture Bible ever approved for publication.
But Genesis has proven that it's not just for kids. It's Genesis that keeps the debate raging over whether we emerged out of a primordial soup or were formed by God from the dust of the earth, and whether our planet is thousands or billions of years old. It's Genesis that keeps literary critics interested in the Bible, as they trace back contemporary gender, ethnic and power dynamics to this constitutional epic. Journalists, comedians, artists, musicians, poets, scientists and politicians alike look to Genesis to stimulate their imagination. We are, in a sense, what Genesis has made us.
Of course, all this appropriation of Genesis doesn't mean that everyone reads it the same way; there are seemingly infinite interpretations and biases that Genesis can support. One of the most recent is Robert Crumb's graphic treatment, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Crumb, an early innovator in underground comix who made his mark with irreverent humor and bodacious body parts (including the notorious Fritz the Cat), has shown his genius in later works both autobiographical and philosophical. R. Crumb's graphic Genesis is generating buzz from the New Yorker to UCLA's Hammer Museum as a shockingly comprehensive and sophisticated interpretation of the first book of the Scriptures.
Crumb grew up a practicing Catholic but left the faith at age sixteen. His participation in the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s is a reflection of his broader appropriation of the Zeitgeist; his art from that era was cutely anarchic and hedonistic, displaying a sort of existentialism that is more fully acknowledged in his later illustrated introduction to Franz Kafka. His 1978 marriage to Aline Kominsky led to a more focused exploration of Jewish spirituality and worldview, which comes through in Genesis Illustrated.
Crumb is a man of his time, and his interpretation of Genesis is a reflection of that reality. For him, Genesis's God is an angry old man, committing deicide against polytheistic traditions even as he's portrayed creating the world in six days. Genesis is a chronicle of women nurturing the divine feminine in secret while men rule and wreck the world. Genesis is a statement on the way the world works, and a call to humility that's given expression fully and finally in Joseph's merciful treatment of his brothers at the moment of their reconciliation. For all its declarations of the origin of humankind and its Creator, Crumb's Genesis is a treatise on how to live well after God.
Crumb is entitled to his opinion, of course, and while orthodox Christians may find his work unpalatable, his interpretation will take its place at the table with other serious considerations of what Genesis means. That's a good thing: a book as ambitious as Genesis, with as much capacity to capture and shape our imagination, rewards multiple readings and broad conversation. One might argue that God himself invites us to look beyond the God of Genesis. After all, there's plenty more Bible where that came from, and to live well we would benefit from looking similarly toward the God of the exodus, the exile, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Pentecost, the kingdom come.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:22 AM
December 16, 2008
Maybe: A Story of Advent
Wake, walk, wait, return, rest, repeat. Every day was the same for him. His whole life till now, going back as long as he could remember (his memory, of course, was no longer all that good), was this pattern: wake, walk, wait, return, rest, repeat. He'd considered giving up more than once, but another day would come and go, and still his pattern would repeat.
Over time everything else had faded from his priorities--due to his faltering memory, perhaps, or to the vagaries of time passing. The older you get, the fewer the temporalities that can keep pace with you. Really he was down to three. He still had a love for his people Israel, who year after year had like him waited for the restoration of their greatness in the eyes of the world. He still held on to his faith in the God who, so the Scriptures say, once delivered his people Israel with a mighty hand and in the intervening centuries had promised more than once to deliver them again. And then there was this loitering hope of his--hope that this wild-eyed, half-awake vision which had overtaken him so many years ago would be realized, that he would see what he had been told he was meant to see.
Still, that was so many years ago, and if the memory of the old is suspect, the audacious visions of the young are likewise to be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it wasn't a vision, he occasionally allowed himself to consider; maybe it was a moment of hubris--certainly not his only such moment. Maybe in seeking the fulfillment of this promise from God he was merely indulging a private fantasy of his own importance.
That thought did occasionally cross his mind, but it typically left quickly, its only sustenance having long dwindled with the steady fade of all his other priorities. He was a tired old man now, with little time for hubris.
He had been helped in his endurance by the woman. She was always there in the Temple courts when he walked in to wait, and she always remained after he returned to his rest. They exchanged knowing glances from time to time; those around them all knew that they were both waiting for the same thing, but only these two really knew what it was like to wait.
So today they would both wait again. No one would mock them; their age earned them the deference of the crowds. And in a sense all Israel took some courage from their waiting. They were given space every day to follow the same pattern--wake, walk, wait, return, rest, repeat--a lifelong wait for the ransom of captive Israel, a lifelong wait for their own death and deliverance into the age to come.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:15 PM
September 2, 2008
I Got the Music in Me
Last week several of us around Likewise Books participated in a little experiment, inspired by the fine folks at Word Made Flesh. Each of us would pick a song that we would listen to exclusively for an entire workday. Then we would blog about the experience--what, if anything, we discovered about the song, our workplace, our coworkers or ourselves. Keep an eye out here for those posts. This one is mine.
I chose the song "The Transfiguration," from the album Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens. I've come to think of myself, culturally if not doctrinally, as a "Sufjangelical," a term which I'm proud to say appears only once (probably now twice) on the entire Internet. Sufjan, you're welcome; please drop the restraining order now.
A Sufjangelical, as I define it, is an otherwise orthodox Christian who likes his or her faith the same way avant-garde pop musician Sufjan Stevens likes his music: quirky, multi-textured, playful yet melancholy. An example of Sufjan's complexity shrouded in simplicity comes from the song "Kasmir Pulaski Day": "Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body. But nothing ever happens." One- or two-syllable words paint a simple picture that evokes sadness and perplexity, disillusionment and yet hope. And that doesn't even take into account the music.
But that song is not this song. In "The Transfiguration" Sufjan is more arcane, more ethereal, as he recounts the story of "when [Jesus] took the two disciples to the mountainside to pray; his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame." This scene from the Gospels is a seminal moment in Jesus' earthly ministry, when the curtain was pulled all the way back and Christ revealed his glory and the fulfillment of the Scriptures that was taking place in him. The disciples were dumbstruck and comforted only when the transfiguration ended. Then they went down the mountain and everything, for a time at least, returned to normal.
But that story is not this story. "The Transfiguration" is captivating, a fitting song to listen to for eight hours straight. It's a simple rhythm--cyclical, really--that builds by instrumentation and voice as the story progresses. The melody has no real resting point, so that the end blends nicely into the beginning; the first word, when, sung on the third tone of the scale, carries the feel of an interruption, something overheard unexpectedly.
The song is in a waltz rhythm, strummed on a banjo at the start as an indication of an everyman out for an everywalk with a couple of everyfriends. Gradually, as the mystical event unfolds, voices and instruments are added, all of which carry a youthful, minstrel quality. One tinny horn plays a repeated riff; several childlike voices sing along in a unison chorus that dances back and forth between lyrics: "Lost in the cloud, a voice [a sign]: Have no fear! Turn your ear [we draw near]!" Jesus is identified in the chorus as Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, in case the onlookers and overhearers weren't aware of his identity.
The song is like a dance, and--especially when played in an eight-hour loop--the song is like an eternity. Often we hear or even sing the words of "Amazing Grace"--"When we've been there ten-thousand years bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we'd first begun"--and the faintest hint of a distressing thought might creep into our consciousness: Oh, I hope not! That sounds dreadful! But when we overhear eternity sung, when we look on while mourning is turned into dancing, the thought of ceaseless praise starts to make sense and even entice the imagination.
I hereby apologize to my coworkers for repeating the same 3-4 minutes of music some 135 times last week. Fortunately for them, "The Transfiguration" is not a whistling song, or someone might have lost it. This song won a friend and (now former) colleague of mine over to Sufjangelicalism when he first heard it, and he now counts it among the quintessential examples of what Christian music ought to resemble, and for good reason: here is theology faithfully presented, grounded in Scripture, presented in story, intended for dance. Here is a moment in time that transcended time, some two thousand years later set to a rhythm that doesn't constrain it but sets it free. Eight hours later, I still love it, and I still love Jesus. Not bad for a banjo, a tinny horn and some quirky musicians.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:00 AM
January 10, 2008
Life Verses Versus Living Verses
I still remember the first passage of Scripture that compelled me to take notes as I read: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough worries of its own" (Matthew 6:34). I liked it because of the implicit paradox: there's plenty to worry about, so relax; you need to worry at a sustainable pace. For a time I designated it as my "life verse."
The quest for a life verse has wide appeal. Individuals and organizations alike pursue the practice. InterVarsity Press turned to the Word of God for a means of encapsulating our corporate mission in our tagline--"Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength."--quoting Jesus' quotation of the Deuteronomic Shema to explain that we publish holistically, integratively, from a Christian perspective. Likewise, Likewise Books effectively adopted Jesus' exhortation to "go and do likewise" as our name and tagline to evoke the active, thoughtful, compassionate faith of the good Samaritan for our publishing program.
So between myself and my employer, I am well versed in the art of finding that one key phrase to organize your thinking, to focus your mission, to represent yourself to the world. But the practice has its blind spots. A friend of mine tells me that the Christian satire magazine The Wittenburg Door used to have as one of its favorite verses 1 Chronicles 26:18: "At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar" (KJV). By aligning itself with such an obscure reference, the Door was challenging the notion of a single life verse, daring its contemporaries to figure out what eternal truth they had in their finite wisdom determined was more important than every other statement contained in the Old and New Testaments.
Lately I've been enjoying the music of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Half Handed Cloud and, most recently, the Danielson Family, all of whom in their songwriting take a playful approach to Scripture. This music isn't irreverent by any stretch--in fact, some of it is profound in ways that more radio-friendly music rarely achieves--but it's quirky, odd, an acquired taste. From Sufjan's reflections on Isaiah 55 in "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" to Half Handed Cloud's description of a purge of vice among the Israelites in "Let's Go Javelin'" and the Danielson Family's similarly scripturally rooted "Singers Go First" and "We Don't Say Shut Up," these songwriters have found a way to dance around the Bible in a way that rings true to the text without being cliched, doctrinaire, humdrum.
I find that my appreciation for these songwriters has affected my approach to Scripture. These days, rather than look for the one verse that would make a good tattoo, I tend to read any given passage and imagine what it would be like to actually feel the emotions being conveyed, to actually perform the actions being described, to firmly believe the assertions being made. It's made Bible reading more vibrant to me, more creative, more playful, more--dare I say it?--fun.
I've had fun with the Bible before. When I was in school my friends and I would giggle our way through passages that mention people's private parts, portray particularly gruesome deaths or describe bowel movements. I suppose my new discipline is similar to that earlier, sillier practice, only now without the crass irreverance. I think maybe I'm approaching the far side of simplicity as it relates to the Bible, where God's Word has moved from an archaic jumble of weird words describing ancient odd events, to a desperate search for one Word that justifies my existence, to an embrace of the Word of God as a generous gift.
Or something like that.