Unintended Consequences

A search on Google for “cogito ergo” yields a hit on my blog with the following summary text provided:

… Friday, December 28, 2001. “Poopie’s hiding. He’s having lunch. He’s eating a poptart.” My soon …

Of all the possible entries to dislocate from its original context, why that one?

Arrogance

Despair.com has outdone themselves.

Demotivated Lion

UDMA

Wouldn’t you know it. DMA is not enabled in a windows operating system unless explicitly invoked for a particular drive. So my fancy ATA100 HD I bought a year ago has gained me exactly jack squat until tonight when I checked the little DMA box under its properties.

If I hadn’t been trying to capture some scenes from my dv camcorder (and failing), I may have never realized I was running at a whopping 2 MB/s… checking that box increased it well over an order of magnitude.

Snicker

“Celebrities are up there with other pillars of the community — they’re voices of influence.”

Now that I’ve gone and used the word ‘snicker’ as my topic header, I am experiencing that strange sense of dislocation that occurs when a word one is looking at stops looking like a word. Perhaps its the oblique brand recognition that is throwing me off, but ‘snicker’ is looking more and more like a jumble of letters.

Narrow = Shallow, Broad = Deep

What is the best way to learn the Bible? What gives the best bang for the buck? If you are going to engage in some type of Bible reading or study in the coming twelve months, what approach is most likely to yield the best results? I first became self-consciously interested in such questions during college. At that time I was being trained in the inductive Bible study method and taught to have a daily quiet time. The QT tended to emphasize a subjective response to God’s word, while the inductive study focused on learning God’s word.

Within a couple years, however, I found that if I simply read the Bible, using any time that I might have previously used for in depth study to read yet more, I learned far more and I learned it more quickly. I discovered that as I read the whole of the Bible, challenging passages gradually became less daunting. Paradoxically, I discovered that what I had previously considered a simplistic reading of the text led to a deeper understanding than my in depth Bible studying was able to yield.

That college experience no longer surprises me, though I think it runs contrary to the expectations of many evangelicals. Put most simply, I had discovered that the Bible is a book and that it was most fruitful to approach it as a wonderful piece of literature, replete with themes and plots that were carried through from one end to the other. Overlooked by many well-intentioned Bible study methodologies aimed at basic discipleship, the implications of God having given us a book, a unified piece of literature, are fairly straight-forward and known by almost any literate person. Books are meant to be read. They can also be studied, and such study can be tremendously fruitful, but the basis is a familiarity with the text. No literate person would expect to study in detail only the middle chapter in the most simplistic, plot-driven novel and gain much insight.

Familiarity with the Bible takes time. It is not simply a novel with a linear plot and simple characterizations. It is literature that builds words into larger structures that span the text. Thus, it takes a fair amount of broad reading to gain that familiarity that would normally be considered a precursor to in depth study. That is the source of the paradox. Normally, broad is associated with shallow, while narrow is associated with deep. When the subject matter is a fairly long piece of literature, quite the opposite can prove true. Diving deep without the knowledge to understand the themes and structures being displayed in a slice of the text will usually yield rather shallow and possibly misleading insights. Reading broadly (i.e. reading the whole Bible over and over) allows one to accumulate the knowledge needed to understand what a particular passage is communicating, thus yielding what would typically be considered deeper knowledge.

Fellowship versus Learning the Word

I seem to be dwelling on what I perceive as misplaced distinctions or compatible categories positioned as being mutually exclusive. Here’s another distinction I’ve encountered, one I’m sure is fairly common: fellowship and learning God’s word. I lead a small group with our church, and it is not uncommon to have the choice of content and format for a small group presented as a choice between learning and fellowship. The more I’ve thought about this distinction, however, the less helpful I find it. If our use of scripture is grounded in some form or fashion in the public sphere, there is far less of a need to choose between learning the Word and fellowship.

The distinction arises, I believe, quite naturally from the normal meaning attributed to the notion of studying the Bible. In our day and age, it often means some form of the inductive Bible study method, or some other diagram-the-sentence-and-examine-each-word methodology. I’ll need to write another piece on my views of broad versus narrow, but suffice to say that such an approach is not the only way to go about learning the Bible, nor is it necessarily the most helpful. Suppose one can learn the Bible by talking about a theme in the Scriptures, such as the Lamb of God, using perhaps a list of references to lambs in the Bible as a starting point. Could not a group of people tell each other the story of redemption by talking about the various references to lambs, contributing the pieces of which they are familiar until a greater whole is formed?

It seems to me that such an approach could bring the scriptures to bear on our lives. Beyond that, it could create an environment of rich fellowship, so long as one is able to get beyond the idea that fellowship must be tied to entertainment or telling each other intimate details of one’s life (either in the form of testimony or prayer request). I would propose that fellowship can be built up using many different types of stones. Perhaps one type of stone is entertainment, another sharing a meal, another praying together, and yet another talking to one another about the stories of the Bible.

Contingency and Certainty

I heard a quote the other day that positioned contingency and certainty as mutually exclusive. I have a feeling that the quote sounded quite normal and natural to many of those who heard it, yet I found myself questioning the validity of such a categorical distinction. I’ll throw out an example first, and then some reflections on the inner workings of both the mistake as well as its appeal.

One way of approaching the topic is to ask, “Do the elect have to have faith to be saved?” Perhaps this example highlights the difficulty of the question I am posing. Of course the elect have to have faith, but once viewing salvation in terms of election, it is rather difficult to admit contingencies, such that what contingencies exist are often overlooked in the name of certainty.

Here’s the issue. Certainty is often tied to people’s perception of outcomes, while contingency is often associated with means. Properly understood, providence gives an account of contingent means while lending certainty based on the promises of God (e.g. all things work to the good of those who love God). I would guess, however, that many people struggle with God’s providence allowing for, or even supporting, the free choices of men. Likewise, I would guess that their notion of certainty is tied to God’s decree and His immutability, without leaving room for God’s providence to factor in the contingency of other agencies with whom God has endowed with free will. Thus, the notion of a contingent outcome being entirely certain is a poor fit for their thinking.

I would further argue that such an approach is entirely unnecessary and unwarranted by the scriptures, but is a natural bias that might evolve from a particular emphasis in one’s thinking. That is, if one slices and dices historic reformed theology to emphasize the various theologies of God, his decrees, his election, etc. without also emphasizing a solid understanding of the agency of man, the covenant of God, the means of grace, etc., it is quite easy to lose sight of the contingency of the life each of us lives. But the fact that one does not emphasize the doctrines that help us give a proper account of contingency does not in any way remove the contingency from one’s life. Thus, one is at risk to make such category mistakes as viewing contingency and certainty as mutually exclusive.

Working at Nortel

I don’t mention work very much, do I? For those who don’t know, I work for Nortel Networks. 2001 was the year to forget; yet I fear it will stay with me far longer than the ‘years of plenty’ that preceded it. Nortel scaled back a bit… from around 100k employees down to 48k. Here in Richardson we probably laid off well over 5000 of the 10k employees in town at the beginning of the year. Due to a promotion I received at the last January, I was far more aware and involved in the proceedings than I might have been otherwise. I had many formative experiences (let’s just say I had never seen people crying in the office prior to 2001). To be honest, I was absolutely certain I would start going gray before it was all over.

After enjoying a bit over a week off, I went back on January 2nd. I hadn’t realized how helpful the time off had been until I went back. It was like a shadow drifted back over me. The environment spoils what would be a major plus: the position I took last year is the first one that has given me that “Ahhhh” feeling of doing something for which I am well suited. The chaos of Nortel imploding makes it rather challenging to enjoy.

JRR Tolkien tribute

Here’s the concluding paragraph in a fascinating tribute to JRR Tolkien by Gene Wolfe, the main part of which is well worth the read (link courtesy KATA IWANNHN).

It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor. Freedom, love of neighbour, and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us — we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward.