On February 6, 2014

Translation: Sitz Em Laben

The church has plenty of leaders who can tell us what the bible said. What we need are leaders who can tell us what the bible is saying.-Skye Jethani

Leadership with education


One of the things I love about living in Abilene is getting to work with college students who are wanting to preach. At Highland, we have a group of young people who are training to be preachers,  they volunteer in different ministries serving throughout the church, and a few times a year they each get to a chance to preach on Wednesday nights.

Most of them are studying the Bible in depth for the first time, and they want to share some of the cool new things they are learning about, and often after I hear them preach I ask them this question:

Are you trying to teach the Bible to people, or are you wanting to teach people the Bible?

I’ve learned there is a big difference between those two things.

I was taught the importance of this question by Rick Atchley. He’s one of my best friends and mentor, not to mention a great preacher. For several years I was his associate (to the) preacher, and the entire time I was working with him, I was also in grad school. And one day he told me this story.

When he first started as the preacher at Southern Hills he was just out of college, and one day while he was teaching a Ladies Bible Class he was trying to talk about context and why we have to pay attention to the Context that each book of the Bible was written in.

Then he turned around and wrote on the Chalkboard the words, “Sitz im Leben”

Which is so funny on so many levels.

Because that’s a German phrase that just means “Situation in Life” if you’ve ever gone through Seminary or Theological studies, you’ve probably heard the phrase a lot, but if you are a member of an Abilene quilting club you probably think it’s something you are supposed to say after someone sneezes.

It’s a phrase about taking context seriously, and Rick wrote it down unaware of the irony of him writing a German word in Abilene Texas to little old West Texas ladies.

Throwing Keys and Telling Stories

I grew up in a church where the only Bible that we used was the KJV. Which is a beautiful, poetic translation of the Scriptures that makes ever verb end with -eth. But I also grew up with a preacher who was a former missionary. He paid attention to whether or not we were paying attention, and Bro. Foy would bend over backwards to make the Bible engaging to a teenager who was working his hardest to feign disinterest.

If Bro. Foy was talking about the Keys to the Kingdom and we weren’t making eye contact, he would reach in his pocket and throw his keys at us (true story), or he would tell the craziest stories about that time that he was in jail in Germany, or when he got food poisoning in India, or about his mother catching him stealing when he was a boy. And then when we were leaning in closer, he’d tell us about Jesus.

Remember in the book of Acts, when Philip is caught up by the Spirit of God? He’s whisked away where he finds a neutered man from Ethiopia who is trying to read the book of Isaiah. It’s a very relatable story, obviously lots of us have been led by the Spirit to have a Bible study with a Eunuch.

But for those of us who haven’t had this happen yet, notice that Philip’s first question to him is, “Do you understand what it is you are reading?”

Which is a totally normal question to ask. Isaiah’s got cherubim’s and public nudity and warnings and symbols and suffering servants, and if you aren’t familiar with the story of the Bible, Isaiah can be pretty confusing, no matter what language you read it in. And that’s why the Ethopian man responds the way he does, “How can I unless someone helps me out?”

In other words, the task of any Christian trying to tell the story of God is to help bring the story to bear on the life of the person trying to understand it.

Latter Day Saints

Founding of the LDS

Founding of the LDS

I think it’s interesting to see what happens historically when we don’t do this well. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the early 1800’s in response to the question that everyone was asking but not many were answering. “What does this mean today?” No matter what you think about Mormonism, one of the genius’ of the movement was it’s ability to reach for the idea of “Continued Revelation.”

So Mormons have books like “Pearl of Great Price” and “Doctrines and Covenants” in addition to the Bible, but they also believe that if the Holy Spirit falls on someone they will be able to speak with the authority of Scripture. And the reason why is because in the words of Joseph Smith:

“God said, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”

Obviously, I disagree with Mormonism and their view of inspiration, but not with their view of why they did it. Joseph Smith was tapping into a deep tradition of bringing the story of God to bear on the times and places we find ourselves in. In fact, Smith created a new story, because Christians at the time, weren’t doing a good job of telling their story for their time.

Truth needs to speak in a language that is accessible, and if it’s not than it doesn’t matter how loud you shout it or how powerful it is.

Doest thou concur?

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  • Roy Rhodes

    This doesn’t diminish your point at all, but Mary Lou Hutson, the president of the Abilene Quilters Guild, probably knows very well what Sitz im Leben means.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Of course she does. I’ve started to think more people know Koine Greek in Abilene than in Greece. My apologies Mary Lou!

  • Danny Gill

    If you REALLY knew your KJV, you’d know it’s “dost,” not “doest.” (I need a smiley face here.) Actually, one of the things the KJV does well is the “-est” ending. It implies continuing action, like the Greek verbs it was supposed to translate. I’m not a big KJV fan (because nobody speaks like that anymore), but it does have its points.

    Now, back to the real point of the blog. I think you’ve highlighted a valid point here, Jonathan. We should teach people to want to learn the story of God. Relating it to our culture and society is terribly important.

    I had a Sunday school teacher that reminds me a little of Brother Foy. He had been a tank commander in WWII, and when he talked about that to a room full of 4th grade boys, we listened. His favorite verse was “Greater love hath no man that this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” (KJV again.) We knew that he had seen that, and it really resonated with us.