Tuesday, January 20, 2009


How big is too big?

This is a question that every growing church or organization has to ask itself. This is especially an issue in churches (like mine) where one of the "growth engines" is relationships or fellowship or community or however you want to describe it. It's kind of ironic that people are drawn to community yet the more people that are drawn the harder it is to maintain; the very thing that draws people to the church is endangered by them being drawn into it.

As I've been thinking about these sorts of things over the past year or so, I keep coming back to Dunbar's Number: 148. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who has stated that 147.8(usually just referred to as 150) is the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships." Of course, he has done a crazy amount of research pointing from primate colonies to hunter/gatherer groups and tribalism, to military organizations (Ancient Rome's military units were 150 strong), etc...

Dunbar has given a pretty large margin of error for his number but has a "95% confidence interval of 100 to 230." As our church attendance nears 200+ I begin to wonder, "what do we do now?" This last year I met a pastor from BC whose church had planted several times. He said that once they got close to 150 they began preparing to split and plant a new church. I have no idea why he chose 150 but it does line up with Dunbar's number.

The fact is that the bigger a church gets the more likely (and maybe even necessary?) it is that cliques form in order for people to maintain a sense of closeness and connectedness with at least some people in the church. After all, if you can't get to know everyone you have to know someone.

Outside of the church there is a movement called "Neo-Tribalism" which is partially based on Dunbar's Number. This is a movement of people who say that, with the increase of globalization, the foundations of society have fallen apart. To combat this they have formed "tribes" of people who live (literally or even virtually) together. They base many of their principles on the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others.

Christian Anthropologist David W. Shenk describes in his book, "Global Gods" the strengths of African Tribalism. He says that tribalism can be summarized as "'I am because we are, and we are because I am.' The person can exist only in community, and community can thrive only through the harmonious involvement of the person. The relationship between the person and the community is reciprocal, creative, and life enhancing."

I think it is safe to say that life in our contemporary society is far from "reciprocal, creative, and life enhancing."
What do you think?
So where does that leave each one of us?
What about the church?
How big is too big?
What do you think about Dunbar's Number?
What do you think of Neo-Tribalism?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More than Scripture?

Following up on the heels of my sermon from this last Sunday (which proposed that we need more than the Bible for our spiritual survival) here is another offering. On Sunday I asserted that we need community to survive. If you want to discuss that we certainly can but I'd also like to propose what has come to be known as the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral."

John and Charles Wesley were the 18th Century-Oxford-educated-brothers who founded the Methodist Movement. While I certainly don't buy into all of their theology these guys did some pretty sweet, radical things. They also preached in cool gowns as can be seen in this picture of John on the right.

Anyway, John proposed that we can know God in four different ways (hence the whole "quadrilateral" thing) and that without all four our relationship with God is incomplete and unstable. Thus the analogy is often of a square (4 sides) or of a 4-legged stool. Without 4 sides a square is not a square... without 4 legs the 4-legged stool will not hold weight, etc. You get the idea.

John's 4 ways to know God are usually summarized as:
1. Scripture
2. Tradition
3. Reason
4. Experience

In his own words, "… the Holy Scriptures [scripture] stand first and foremost, and yet subject to interpretations that are informed by ‘Christian Antiquity’ [tradition], critical reason [reason] and an existential appeal to the ‘Christian experience’ of grace [experience].”

So, while I know that evangelicals tend to get pretty squeamish when it sounds like we're taking any steps away from "sola scriptura" I think I stand closer to Wesley than Luther on this one.

Wesley very appropriately puts scripture "first and foremost." I don't think any of us would have any arguments with that. But while it is good that we hold firmly to the scriptures they cannot stand alone. We have only to look to our fundamentalist "cousins" to see what happens when people hold to nothing but the scriptures. I think they could use a little reason and experience to balance things out.

#2 poses a few more questions for a lot of evangelicals. Many evangelicals balk at the very mentioning of the word "tradition." They picture priests and monks quoting obscure "saints" alongside scripture as if they had equal authority and all sorts of stuff like that. However, most of this is myth.

Pretty much all denominations (including Catholics) that give any sort of credence to tradition define tradition as Wesley does: the "interpretations that are informed by ‘Christian Antiquity’." Tradition is simply the way in which others have historically interpreted scripture. I don't have much of a problem with that. In fact, according to this definition, any time that I quote someone in a paper or a sermon I am appealing to some sort of tradition.

#3 is reason. I don't think many of us will argue with this one either. We have all seen how people have used and abused scripture or misrepresented the Christian faith because they weren't using their brains. In order for us to properly interpret scripture (and thus create a healthy repository of tradition) it requires that we think critically. Without critical thought we are lost.

But reason needs to be balanced out by experience. I appreciate that Wesley said this back in the 1700s otherwise people might just think that this is a post-modern thing. But no, we need to recognize that the way that we interpret scripture and all of our critical thought is shaped by the ways in which we have (or haven't) experienced God in a personal way. I love the way John Wesley puts it: "an existential appeal to the ‘Christian experience’ of grace."

Of course, each one of these four could be expanded on but I don't want my posts to be too long or people will stop reading. The only remaining thing to be said is that in order for the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to work properly none of the 4 can contradict any of the others. All of our traditions, our thoughts, and our experiences must be consistent with the Word of God and visa versa.

So, what do you think?
Are you comfortable with all of these?
Are there any of these 4 that you are more or less comfortable with?
In what ways can the Quadrilateral help us in our Christian walk?

Friday, January 9, 2009


Hold Everything.
Stop what you're doing
All of your Oscar conjectures need to be put aside for the new benchmark of film-making.
Yes! It's true!
... or at least all of my wildest dreams are about to...
ASTRO BOY - The Movie!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Bible as Literature: Chiasm

I hope last week's post inspired you all to learn the Biblical Languages! Having even a basic grasp of the languages that the scriptures were written in makes such a huge difference in interpretation. Often we miss out on what the author was trying to say because things just don't translate well. The Biblical writers frequently used literary devices that are very difficult to translate (ie. Ps 119 is an alliteration... doesn't really work when translated).

But what we often miss out on is that there are literary techniques used by the Biblical writers outside of the Poetic Books (ie. Ps, Pr, Ecc, Job, etc...). Sometimes a basic knowledge of Greek or Hebrew is required to catch them (like in the case of alliteration) but here is one that we can all catch if we are looking for it: chiasm.

The chiasm (or chiasmus) is named after the letter "chi" in the Greek alphabet (Gk: X; Eng: ch).
It is a literary form used often in the ancient world and there are many examples of it in Hebrew (the OT), Greek (Homer, the NT), and Latin (Seneca, Virgil). It is named after "chi" because the structure follows the > angle of that letter. A chiasm has inverted parallel statements with the most important concept sandwiched between them. Thus it will often have this type of structure: ABBA or ABCBA or ABCDCBA, etc.

Here is an example from 1 John 3:9 (ESV): No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
A - No one born of God
--B - makes a practice of sinning
----C - for God's seed abides in him
--B - and he cannot keep on sinning
A - because he has been born of God.

So you can see, the "A" and "B" statements parallel each other while the key concept is literally central. Verses like this one are relatively easy to spot but some authors (like Paul) create really big, long, intricate chiasms. For example: 1 Cor 13:8-13 (this is just the structure)
A - love
--B - 3 things: prophecies, tongues, knowledge
----C - things we only know in part
------D - ... I put aside childish ways...
----C - things we only know in part
--B - 3 things: faith, hope, love
A - Love
As you can see, the "parallel" statements simply need to echo each other, they don't have to be exact replications of each other.

Here is another famous example from Isaiah 6:10:
A - Make the heart of this people dull
--B - and their ears heavy
----C - and blind their eyes
----C - lest they see with their eyes
--B - and hear with their ears
A - and understand with their hearts...

The reason that I brought this up is because during our whole "soulless" discussion I was wondering about Matthew 22:37 (and thus also Deuteronomy 6:5).

As I was thinking about these passages I realized that they might be chiastic!
Matt 22:37, 38:
A - "You shall love the Lord your God
--B - with all your heart
----C - and with all your soul
--B - and with all your mind
A - This is the first and greatest commandment."

This same chiastic structure can be seen in the original text that Jesus is referring to,
Deut 6:4-6:
A - Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one
--B - You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart
----C - and with all your soul (NEPHESH)
--B - and with all your might.
A - And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

If we can agree that when the Bible is talking about our souls it is really talking about our entire being (physical and spiritual) then it makes sense that the central point in the chiasm would be NEPHESH sandwiched by the other aspects.

Do these verses fit together with our soul discussion?
What other chiasms can you spot in the Bible?
What other literary forms do the Bible writers use?
How do you feel about God using poetic forms to teach us about Him?