Part 5 of series: Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed
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I had thought that I was finished weighing in on recent changes in the PC(USA) exegesis exam. But an experience I had this past weekend motivated me to add a postscript to my series. This experience was of Michael Card.
If you’re familiar with Michael Card, you probably know him as an award-winning Christian musician and songwriter. His best known song is “El Shaddai,” which was recorded by Amy Grant, among many others. Michael has released over 30 musical albums, and has won several Dove awards from the Gospel Music Association (the Christian music Grammy). You may not know that Michael Card is also a fine author, having written many books, several of which have also won awards. And you may not know that he is also a radio talk show host and a fine Bible teacher.
Michael came to Laity Lodge this past weekend in the unusual role of speaker and musician. Usually two or ever three people fill these roles in a Laity Lodge retreat. But Michael did it all . . . quite splendidly, I might add. He was also a delight to hang around with. He’s not impressed that he’s Michael Card, even when those around him are.
Michael’s subject was not one that would immediately jump out at you as something you’re dying to learn more about. In six messages he addressed the issue of slavery: in the Old Testament, New Testament, and in our lives. Though he mentioned the ethical crisis of slavery in today’s world, his focus was not so much on questions of justice as it was on what it means for us to be slaves of our Heavenly Master, the one who took the form of a slave in giving himself up for us on the cross.
Michael offered many new insights into Scripture. Among other things, he showed beyond question just how important it is for us to understand slavery if we’re going to make sense of New Testament Christianity. Slavery played a major role in the culture of the Roman world, and the imagery of slavery fills the pages of the New Testament. Jesus, for example, told many parables in which slaves were prominently features (for example, Matt 25:14-30). Paul identified himself as a slave of Christ (for example, Rom 1:1). The prominence of slave language in the New Testament is hidden by most English translations, which prefer to translate doulos, the Greek word for slave, with servant, rather than slave. But close attention to the original Greek of the New Testament proves how central slavery is to the life and theology of the first Christians. (Photo: Michael Card teaching at Laity Lodge. If you look closely, you’ll see doulos, a Greek word for slave, on the tablet behind him.)
Michael Card was able to see the centrality of slavery in the New Testament, in spite of the limitations of English translations, because he has some facility with Greek (also Hebrew). I didn’t ask him how much Greek he has studied, but he used it frequently and competently. His knowledge of Greek enabled him to see things that would be almost impossible for someone without some knowledge of Greek to see.
As he taught, I couldn’t help but thinking of my recent laments about the PC(USA) exegesis exam, which no longer expects potential pastors to demonstrate basic knowledge of the ancient biblical languages. Although candidates are still expected to take these languages in seminary, I fear the new standards for the exegesis exam serve as a sign of the PC(USA)’s lagging commitment to serious study of the Bible.
What I experienced with Michael Card this past weekend at Laity Lodge was a powerful reminder of why it’s so important for Ministers of Word and Sacrament to know and to use Greek and Hebrew (even if with the helpful crutch of a computer). Translations, no matter how good they might be, only get us so far in the task of biblical interpretation. One who can investigate the original languages has an unparalleled chance to find deeper truth, just as Michael Card has done when it comes to slavery.
The main point of Michael’s study of slavery was to challenge us to consider how we can be truly free by submitting ourselves fully to Christ as our Master. The point is not bondage, not at all. It is experiencing the freedom of the Christian life, a “better freedom,” as Michael calls it. If you’re interested in what this is all about, let me point you to a new song Michael has written, called “A Better Freedom.” It is not available on one of his CDs yet, but it can be found on the “By/For” website. (This website, by the way, is a wonderful new ministry inaugurated by Michael and some of his colleagues. It seeks to make available for free works of art, music, and teaching that are “by the church” and “for the church.” Be sure to check out www.byfor.org.)
Michael Card also did a concert for us as a part of his leadership of the Laity Lodge retreat. It was a giant blessing to enjoy his music both in person and in such an intimate venue (70-person venue). I have enjoyed his music for more than two decades, but have never heard him in person. (Photo: Michael Card in concert at Laity Lodge from my perspective in the front row. Click here to see a short clip of Michael at the concert.)
If you’re not familiar with his music, I’d certainly recommend it. Michael is wonderfully gifted musician (singer, guitar player, piano player, etc.). But what makes him almost unique is his ability to write songs based on Scripture, songs that tell the story of the Bible in profound poetry. After this weekend, I now know one more reason why Michael is such a fantastic songwriter: his deep study of the biblical text includes attention to the original languages, which gives him the ability to write songs such as “El Shaddai” (a Hebrew term for God, usually translated “God Almighty”).
To sum up, my point in this post is to show how knowledge of biblical languages isn’t just some arcane denominational requirement that should be jettisoned. Rather, it is a precious tool that allows a teacher – and even a contemporary Christian songwriter – to plumb the depths of biblical truth.