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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lanier Lectures: On the cutting edge of Eternity

Lanier Theological Library

 At a time when many serious Biblical scholars are announcing the decline of Western Christianity, and the rise of secular humanism, not to mention the visible groundwork for Armageddon, it was a striking detour to be ushered into the depths of theological debate thriving at the Stone Chapel in North Houston, sponsored by the Lanier Theological Library. To add to my already overloaded senses, was the sudden revival of memories which had flooded my mind, as the Lanier Library compound lies in the same place, once a forest wilderness, where my brother and I rode horseback as redneck teenagers. I actually courted my first sweetheart under the virgin pine canopy near there. I shook off those thoughts as I came into an Old World village complete with cobblestone walkways and a 6th Century Byzantine chapel, executed with Thomas Kinkadesque beauty and perfection. 

 Like a kid in a candy store... my brother Reynolds insisted that I come see this amazing facility... 

My brother had insisted that I come with him and showed me around the Lanier Theological Library, host of some 86,000 volumes... and sundry Holy Land artifacts. There was a panel discussion going on in the Chapel, on slavery of all things... I was still thinking about the unlikelihood of this kind of thing being tucked back in this wooded neighborhood.... as we took seats in the chapel and caught the end of the discussion...

You might, like me, wonder what slavery has to do with the price of beans. But there have been arguments made against the trustworthiness of the Bible... and the God of the Holy Bible, since it is perceived by some readers that the Bible condones slavery... an unforgivable stance to any modern, enlightened mind. Some modern thinkers reject the God of the Bible because he obviously was prejudiced and unjust, if not racist and downright narrow-minded.

 Incredible murals bring Old World flavor to this reproduction of a 6th Century Turkish church.
The panel discussion was tough for me to follow as a layperson, as some of these leading theologians, brought in from all over the world, would often use Hebrew or Greek to make their points... which were often answering some obscure premise thrown to the experts to chew on. The pitcher was Mark Lanier, who played the role of facilitator-host... pacing and postulating under the grandly adorned dome of the chapel, a sort of Donahue goes to Cambridge... stimulating and sometimes baiting discussion from the four fairly soft-spoken theologians. One of the youngest and most animated of them was Peter Williams, Warden at Tyndale House Cambridge in England, who would be the featured speaker that evening.

 Mark Lanier has built the most impressive theological library in the region. So far he has hosted thirty lectures.

The exchange was friendly and yet earnest, and a rare glimpse for Texans into Christian intelligentsia. But for me, on face value the questions illustrated an unkind assumption I have nurtured, perhaps unfairly,  that theologians are people with huge brains and long pedigrees who focus too long on the most insignificant things.

Still, we need them, to settle those stupid questions inspired by well-meaning, almost smart folks, people who fall under the cynical influence of the Evil One. The gist of the question, and I can only assume this because I missed the introduction, was: Were the assumptions valid which claimed that the Holy Scriptures endorsed the practice of slavery, thus rendering the God of the Bible as an ancient excuse for ethnic oppression? These seemingly absurd interpretations were used all the way up until the American Civil War. Actually they survived in some southern pockets long into the 1960's.

The panel revealed that the devil was in the details; that great harm had been done with ambiguous translations of the words for servant and slave; that translators have through the centuries allowed their cultural attitudes to color their somewhat subjective translations. As time has passed, when there was an option, later translators chose to emphasize a more hostile form of bondage, (Hebrew "ebed/eved": can mean servant OR bondservant) as opposed to voluntary indenture (servanthood). Where older texts sported a limited use of the word for slavery, later translations abounded with them. And lost to all of us are the cultural realities of Ancient times. In fact people, sometimes whole nations voluntarily placed themselves in servitude, for decades, to gain protection or avoid wholesale starvation. Slaves in ancient context had rights... and protection, and limited engagement. When God gave direction through His prophets concerning slavery, it was in the same vein as His laws on divorce... not because it was His Divine Will, but because of the hardness of men's hearts. 

A great deal more could be discussed when this is considered. Even God understood that the world is imperfect, and once relationships like ancient slavery had been established since the days of Pharaoh, it was not so simple to just declare instant justice and freedom for all. The interdependence between the parties, and the consequences from sudden liberation of a servant class with no education, no assets, no homes, and most importantly inadequate acculturation, could only lead to further chaos and injustice. In God's wisdom, the best solution to men's complicated social structure was to let them work it out gradually over time, laying down the bedrock concepts of mercy and justice as the underpinnings of society.

As Peter Williams pointed out (and hard for our modern minds to comprehend), for some disadvantaged people, ancient forms of slavery were the best thing for them at the time, and they were the first to admit it. Knowing this makes the actions of some slaves in the South, when they refused to leave their plantations when set free, and tearfully begged to stay, explainable. This loyalty was not because of ignorance, but because of personal knowledge of their questionable readiness for independence. But concepts of "justice" and a bloody war overruled common sense. 
Peter Williams took these observations about Hebrew and Greek nuances to their plausible conclusions, but he also offered some surprises. He has been doing some deep-sea diving in the currents of many languages, forging one authentic, holistic world view of these issues. Studying Germanic, Gaelic and Latin languages, he has done yeoman's excavation of these ancient words and their translations and how various peoples made them their own. They had no axe to grind and thus suffered less cultural distortion of these words... and perhaps a more clear understanding of the nuances... sometimes lost in our English translations.

 Peter Williams of Tyndale House, reads and studies in a dozen languages.
But Williams' brilliant twist came from his study and observations of the supposed slavery of the Jews while in Egypt. We have all grown up being told that the Jews were brought out of Egypt from the oppression of slavery and service to Pharaoh. And we have all been ignoring the scriptures which tell of when the Egyptians themselves willingly committed themselves into slavery to Pharaoh as well... via the negotiations of Joseph, father of two tribes of Israel, the Israelite placed at Pharaoh's right hand. In fact everyone was a servant of the Pharaoh, but the Israelites enjoyed a somewhat elevated status... more as hirelings, status they won upon their arrival in Goshen hundreds of years before under the protection of Joseph. Maybe Joseph had been forgotten, and the Egyptians were cruel employers, but the Israelite's confrontation with Pharaoh was more akin to a Victorian labor dispute.

Over the years cultural bias caused more than one translator to render these servants into “slaves.” In some cases translators, bending to their own perceptions, translated the same word for servant, used twice in one paragraph, differently. This subtle bending of semantics was not without terrible results. Sadly 600,000 Americans died in a Civil War where around half the country argued that the Bible justified their use of slavery, so this sloppy scholarship had very grave consequences, as provincial minds, assuming the veracity of English translations, bet their lives and futures on them...

 Q & A at the end of the lecture.

Peter Williams more than once wisely refused to pass judgment on participants in the American Civil War, ( known by Southerners as the War of Northern Aggression). He explained that each individual in the war, on either side, was there for his own reasons or rationale... and finally he quipped that if the audience wanted to know the proper understanding of the war, they would have to be there on Judgment Day. 

 Stairwell in the Lanier Library

Some things we do not get to grasp- on this side of Eternity. The path to perfect understanding is much like the stair rail in the Lanier Library. But for those things that can and should be grasped... the folks at Lanier can be trusted to flesh them out.

The Lanier Library is open from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays and until 9:00 on Tuesdays. You can learn more about it at:  www.LanierTheologicalLibrary.org.

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