Tag Archives: evangelical

One Thousand Sets of Ears

In September of 2005, I started a little side project called The Bible Podcast. The idea is pretty simple. I flip on a microphone, and record myself reading a chapter a day from the bible. Then, I upload it to a website where people can download it and listen. Then, sometimes, other people record themselves reading chapters, and I upload them. The website is www.thebiblepodcast.org, if you want to check it out.

Today, this little side project passed a major milestone. It passed 1,000 daily subscribers – people who set iTunes to go fetch the podcasts every single day. In fact, it pretty much blew right through that number, from 800 or so on Monday, to 900 on Tuesday, and today, I logged on to see this:

1216

I’m a numbers guy. I love seeing the numbers creep higher and higher, and to break them down in as many ways as possible. Things like:

25hits9minutes

get me all fancy up with my bad self. I go to the site and refresh the statistics every few hours to see how much bandwidth people are burning through. In December, the server spit out 300 gigs of data. In January, it’s been burning at a rate of about 30 gigs per day. Matthew 11, which was just posted yesterday, has been downloaded 1500 times.

I know that these kinds of numbers are hardly a blip on the radar for the big dogs in the new media, but in the little world of podcasts about the bible, it’s a pretty big deal.

If you search for the words “Bible” and “Podcast”, the site comes up as #1 on Yahoo, and #3 on Google. It you search the iTunes podcast directory for the word “bible”, it’s the first podcast listed.

Gretchen has a theory about the rapid acceleration of subscribers. She thinks everybody got an iPod for Christmas, and then they made a New Year’s resolution to read the bible more. So, they go poking around in iTunes for a way to get their daily bread in tastee little no-hassle packages, like a Twinkee. I think Gretchen is pretty smart.

So, I’m a numbers guy, but I love reading emails from people who listen. There’s a Catholic priest who lives in the northern most tip of Japan, who sat around listening to the Gospel of John with a family who had just lost their young wife and mother. They just put it on repeat and listened over and over again.

There are students in South America who get together to listen to the podcast, and read along with the text, in order to improve their English. Thing about how scary that is, for just a second. You might be walking through Brazil someday and bump into some kid who speaks English with a Mike Lee accent.

There’s a guy who is fairly agnostic about God, but was curious about the bible, so he subscribed to see what all the fuss was about. His email was hilarious. He just wanted to let me know that he enjoyed it, and concluded by saying, “Please don’t send me any tracts or religious crap.” I was tempted to forward him every Chick tract in one ginormous email, but I restrained myself.

tbp_logoThere are the people who want to argue about the translation that I’m using (New English Translation, pretty good, in my humble opinion), or they take issue with the fact that I let Catholics into the club (sheesh), or they are upset that I’m reading the Bible “Out of Order” (I’m guessing they think the thing was handed down out of Heaven in a neatly stacked set of galleys, ready for publishing). I get an equal number of emails from people who love the bumper music, and can’t stand the bumper music. I smile a little bit, because I think there are people who just love to pick a fight, and they like it even more if they can call it “contending for the faith once delivered”. Mostly, I just hit “delete” on those. Life’s too short.

A few have just floored me. There are people in countries that block access to sites having anything to do with the bible, but they are able to subscribe to a podcast feed. They listen. Two people have approached me about expanding the podcast into other languages that will reach areas where it is dangerous to distribute bibles. One wants to do a version in Farsi, the language spoken in parts of Iran and Afghanistan. Another wants to do a version in Mandarin Chinese. We’re still working through the logistics, but I’m hopeful that this will come together.

So, the Story of God advances. 500 years ago, they burned the bones of those who suggested that the Bible could be read and understood by the common people in their own language. Today, a 12-year-old kid in Taiwan can log on to iTunes, and download it.

Why I am (still) an Evangelical

First, let’s clear some brush. Evangelical is not a political movement, it’s not a formula for church growth, and it’s not a hairstyle. It’s not a publishing slogan, a conference circuit, a musical genre, or a brand of SUV.

I am (still) an Evangelical, even though I have to parry and dodge assumptions whenever I use that term. I am (still) an Evangelical, because of the great hope to which the movement aspired at it’s founding. I am (still) an Evangelical, because, at it’s root, Evangelicalism is an ecumenical movement: an attempt to erect a large tent in the ground between the cultural withdrawal of fundamentalism, and the withering incredulity of theological liberalism.

Evangelicalism is a way of reading and understanding the bible, and I (still) believe that it is as close as we can come to a neutral hermeneutic, one that allows the text to breathe out its stories without being unduly constrained by our expectations of it. The evangelical hermeneutic rests on this assumption – that if God is omnipotent, present, and interested in revealing things about himself, we can expect His revelation to have certain basic characteristics. Things like:

1) Inspiration – God was involved in the production of the texts.

2) Infallibility – the texts do not err in their purposes.

3) Historicity – the texts were written at a place and time in history, by people situated in history, and as such, they are products of their historical/cultural perspective.

4) Textuality – text as text: the normal tools for interpreting meaning in any text are the appropriate tools for interpreting meaning in biblical texts. In other words, when we read “Joseph was lowered into the well”, the meaning is conveyed by the content of the words “Joseph”, “lowered” and “well”, just as it would be if those words were written in personal letter, a historical footnote, or any other work outside of the biblical canon. Attempts to use “secret codes” or numerological sequences to unlock the “true” meaning of the text are therefore inappropriate to interpretation (think Kabbala, or “The Bible Code“).

5) Data – the text is an robotic engineer on an ‘NC‘ class star cruiser with a positronic brain incapable of human emotion. Just checking to see if you were still with me.

The second and third stakes in the Evangelical tent are, to me, the most interesting. It is the 2nd stake, infallibility, that marks out the left most boundary of the evangelical hermeneutic – it is the essential difference between Marcus Borg (the Jesus Seminar) and Ben Witherington or Scot McKnight.

Likewise, the third stake marks out the right boundary. It’s the third stake in the Evangelical tent that we have a tendency to to forget, to our detriment, because it is the third stake that separates Evangelicalism from Fundamentalism.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was the subject of a public scorning a few months ago for daring to assert that the moon does not, actually, produce it’s own light. He dared to suggest that the moon’s light was merely a reflection of the light of the sun.

This is a problem for Fundamentalists. Because, you see, Genesis clearly states that God created two lights, one for the day, and one for the night, and fundamentalism requires a literalist reading of that text. There is no room for taking into account the historical or cultural situation of the author, and reading the text from within that perspective. A fundamentalist is fundamentally commited (get it?) to reading Genesis with the same kind of literalism with which one would read a newspaper article or, say, a science textbook. And so, Bill Nye’s assertion that the moon does not produce light becomes a contest of authority, between the literalism of Genesis and the literalism of Bill’s scientific data. And hey, look, if that’s really the fight, I’ll gladly put $20 down on God. $30 if my jury duty check has come and I have the extra cash.

But that’s not really the fight, is it? Evangelicalism isn’t bound in the same way that Fundamentalism is when it reads Genesis, because it recognizes that the author wrote from a certain cultural and historical perspective, and from his perspective, there was a bright light in the day, and a second light at night. A historical hermeneutic of Genesis also recognizes that the authorial intent matters to the interpretation – the point of the passage isn’t a scientific assertion about the origination of the light coming from the moon, it was that God made provision for human existence in the ordering of creation. We need light to see, so God instituted a means of light for day and for night. To agitate for a literal reading obscures the significant point of the passage.

Here’s why this matters – in the rush to defend the left flank against a diminishing view of scriptural accuracy, we have left undone the hard work driving in the right-hand peg, of teaching the people in our care how to read The Book with an eye toward the historicity of the authors. We’ve told them to believe it’s true, thundered that from pulpit and screen and print, but we haven’t taught them how to understand the thing about it that is true. A belief in the infallibility of scripture is a crippling kind of intellectual deprivation when coupled with the sort of literalism that fundamentalism espouses.

So, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a critical deconstructionist, because I have to believe that an omnipotent God is capable of speaking an infallible truth into human experience, and I have to believe that a compassionate God would. But also, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a fundamental literalist, because I have to believe that God’s dialog with humanity took place in time, in space, in history, and in the midst of the very real cultural features of our human existence. It is an unfolding story, whispered in human ears, etched on human hearts, and relayed through their hands.

This is the great strength of the Evangelical tent, and how it holds up so wide a canopy.