Thursday, February 19, 2009

Biblical Application in James - And In General

Scot McKnight writes regarding James 1:2-4 in Jesus Creed - A Brother's Wisdom 2
For some, when James says "whenever you face trials of many kinds," they think James is referring to most anything we can imagine or most anything we face. The next thing we are talking about losing jobs or broken relationships or flat tires. This view of James 1:2 is shaped more by what we can get out of the text than what James meant.

The first thing we are to do is read James to see what he might mean, and we can come up with a nice little list of his pressing concerns:

1. 1:2-4 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that try one's very faith and that lead to the virtue of perseverance.
2. 1:5-8 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that lead us to cry out to God for wisdom.
3. 1:9-11 suggests he's talking about stuff the poor are experiencing and it right here that we can explore all kinds of texts in James, including the judicially-sponsored exploitation of the poor (2:1-7) and the oppression of the poor by the rich (5:1-6).

It is wiser to let James give us concrete ideas before we impose our own concrete applications. James is more likely talking about the stress of the poor at the hands of oppressors than he is giving simple timeless wisdom about wearing a happy face.
This is good advice, not merely for reading James or interpreting this particular passage, but for biblical interpretation in general. I've written something similar in my discussion of the "salt and light" passage from the Sermon on the Mount. We have a tendency to make simple analogies to biblical metaphors, or springboard off of a single suggestive word or phrase, into any number of modern applications. It's a bad way of reading the Bible; it frequently misses the point of the original writer.

Hermeneutics 101: one must first discover what a passage meant, in its original context, before one can proceed on to what it means in our contemporary context.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

As long as a book would write itself I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag; but the minute the book tried to shift to my head the labour of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures, and conducting its conversations I put it away and dropped it out of my mind.... It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired along about the middle and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interest should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw material reinforced by lapse of time.

It was when I had reached the middle of Tom Sawyer that I made this invaluable find. At page 400 of my manuscript the story made a sudden and determined halt and refused to proceed another step. Day after day it still refused. I was disappointed, distressed and immeasurably astonished, for I knew quite well that the tale was not finished and I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple -- my tank had run dry; it was empty; the stock of materials in it was exhausted; the story could not go on without material; it could not be wrought out of nothing. When the manuscript had lain in the pigeon hole two years I took it out one day and read the last chapter that I had written. It was then that I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep--also while you are at work on other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.

--Mark Twain