Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Use Plot Diagrams

The most common literary genre found in the scripture is narrative. Estimates vary based upon how narrative is defined but most scholars argue that 60% to 80% of the scripture is in some form of narrative. Therefore, if we are to engage in thorough study of the bible we need to have some understanding of how to approach narratives. For example, the guidelines for interpreting narratives are much different than those for letters or psalms. The study tip that I am introducing today, however, is even more basic than applying those rules. Before you can interpret or apply the teaching in biblical narratives you have to be able to properly observe and understand the structure and emphasis of the narrative. Since these observations are tied to the plot development a useful tool for doing the observation step with a narrative is to use a plot diagram.

Scholars as far back as Aristotle recognized that the plot of any dramatic narrative can be usually broken up into 5 parts.

  1. The Exposition: This is where the story is setup. Background information such as the setting and characters are introduced and the coming conflict or problem is being developed. The exposition will also include the introduction of a conflict of some sort. It may be internal or external to the character and often it is both (a decision that has to be made about some external circumstance). This introduced conflict will setup an inciting moment. The exposition ends with this inciting moment. This moment is the problem or action that kicks off the narrative. Without this moment there is no story.

  1. Rising Action: This is a series of events that build tension in the narrative and move toward a climax in the action. This can be complicated by secondary plot lines and conflicts but the overall plot will continue to have increased tension and build toward a major turning point in the action.

  1. Climax or Turning Point: This is the peak of the action and after this event everything in the story changes. The tension is relieved and often the fortunes of the key human character will change at this point (In biblical narrative God is always the main character).

  1. Falling Action: This is where the conflict begins to unravel. There may be moments of suspense and a few more twists but the action unfolds and the key human character either “wins” or “loses”. The falling action often finishes with a final observation or action that functions as a type of finale.

  1. Resolution (denouement): This is the final state of affairs within the narrative. This is where the key human character ends up dead, living happily ever after, etc.

In 1863 the German writer and critic Gustav Freytag developed a helpful way to illustrate the plot elements visually, known as Freytag’s pyramid. Although Freytag was working on fictional drama his plot diagram is also helpful for studying biblical and other forms of dramatic narrative. Basically what he did was lay out the 5 plot elements visually, forming a pyramid.

The value in this is that it is easy to see quickly how the plot flows through the narrative and it can be applied to both simple and complex plot lines. For example, you can lay out the overarching plot of the bible’s redemptive history using this method:

Or you can use it for much smaller narratives within scripture. As our example we will use the short narrative of Jesus rebuking the storm found in Mark chapter 4.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
(Mark 4:35-41 ESV)

Let’s find the following answers in the narrative.

  1. Exposition
    1. Who are the characters? Jesus, His disciples, and the storm.
    2. Who is the main character? Jesus- there are 10 references to him in this short section.
    3. What is the setting (place): They are in a boat on a lake.
    4. What is the setting (time): It is evening.
    5. What is the conflict? A storm arises while they are in the boat.
    6. What is the inciting moment? The boat was filling and apparently sinking and they are afraid.

  1. Rising Action
    1. Jesus was in the stern (not immediately available)
    2. Jesus was sleeping
    3. The disciples wake Him
    4. They ask Him if He doesn’t care that they are all going to die

  1. Turning Point
    1. Jesus rebukes the wind and waves

  1. Falling Action
    1. The wind ceased
    2. The sea was calm
    3. He questions their lack of faith
    4. They were filled with fear

  1. Resolution
    1. They marveled and wondered at Him

When we plot this out it will look like this:

One way to see if things are tying together is to look at the transition points that you have chosen. In this narrative we have both an internal and an external conflict. The external conflict is obviously the storm. The internal conflict is the interplay between fear and faith in the disciples. Since the three main transitions must be related in some way to the conflict we can look to see how it lines up. The initial conflict is that the boat is taking on water and appears to be sinking and the disciples are afraid. The action then continues to rise as they try and get Jesus involved until we reach the high tension point when they ask Christ if He did not care that they died. Then comes the second transition, the major turning point, where Christ rebukes the storm. Everything changes after that.  The tension then falls until we have the observation that the disciples were filled with great fear because of what they saw. The resolution of the incident is that they are in awe and wonder about Jesus and His identity. The key plot transitions are tightly linked between the external and internal conflicts. Storm/fear of the power of nature then the boat sinking and fear of Christ’s indifference. Then the storm rebuked and fear (reverence) of the power of Christ. As we can see from the plot diagram the narrative isn’t just about the display of Christ’s power but also the effect of that power on his disciple’s apprehension of His identity. The conflict (internal and external) is related to the doubt and then awe inspired consideration of who Jesus is.

The key to getting the most out of this tool is to get started. Don’t worry about getting every detail correct. The point is to start thinking about how the author is structuring the narrative. Just answer the questions as best you can and keep practicing. The more you do it the easier it is to see the transitions. Also, keep in mind that if you are working with longer narratives they may be difficult to fit into this structure if you try to be too specific.  You will likely have a series of conflicts and rising and falling actions. The idea is focus on the big picture of the narrative, ask what is the big problem, what major event happens as a result that changes the situation, and how is the problem resolved. Once you understand how the narrative develops and is structured you can then focus on the details and begin looking at how each of the smaller sections supports that overall plot.

I pray that your studies are profitable and that the Lord blesses you through them!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Meta-Conspiracies: A Few Thoughts

My kids enjoy watching the conspiracy driven National Treasure movies. Of course, those movies are just for entertainment and are intentionally fantastic. That is part of the fun. I have; however, in my library a few works by authors that quite are quite serious about a conspiratorial view of history. Books such as Ralph Epperson’s The Unseen Hand, even argue for an overarching theory of history based upon conspiratorial presuppositions. I must admit that these conspiratorial histories are quite creatively assembled. Stories about the secret influence of Masons, Bilderbergers, The Trilateral Commission, Skull and Bones, the illuminati, and others are generally popular in American as a whole but I have noticed that there seems to be a particularly high percentage of people within the Christian community who are attracted to these types of historical explanations.

To be certain the interests of powerful people often come together to influence particular events. In many cases these powerful agendas are in fact coordinated. It is also true that governments and other organizations lie, cover up information, and obfuscate the various influences and relationships involved in decisions and events. Any particular historical event of any major consequence likely involves a series of overlapping and often independent influences as people attempt to use their power and connections to bend events to their own self-interest. There is, however, a theological reason why the more grandiose multigenerational conspiracies are unlikely. The kind of theories that conjecture that conspiracies hatched by the knights templar or the illuminati in centuries past are playing out today, as planned, are highly unlikely for doctrinal reasons.

One of the prominent doctrines of scripture is the depravity of mankind. The root of this sinful disposition is the placing of self interest ahead of the glory of God. Since the fall of Adam human beings apart from grace are lovers of self and will, if given the opportunity, make choices that they perceive to be in their own self focused interest. This particular reality of the human heart makes it very unlikely that people would continue to participate in cross generational schemes that have some ultimate payoff in the distant future.

It might be argued that these people do realize personal gains by being associated with the power structures that enable these conspiracies but that argument ignores the fact that anytime powerful people have a secret it opens the door for someone to profit from revealing it. Anyone who has ever been involved in complex plans involving lots of people knows how difficult it is to keep them quiet even if they do not involve major or interesting developments. The explanation of how hierarchies protect the alleged conspiratorial secrets seems to be quite naïve with regard to the way that people and organizations actually function. Certain things can be kept silent for a long time but to keep complex organizations of people spanning many generations is highly unlikely.

The idea that powerful people would continue in secret collaboration over hundreds of years to bring about particular ends may provide a convenient explanation for why things seem to have a certain historical momentum that does not appear to be in the interest of the common person but it doesn’t adequately account for the reality of the instability and selfishness of the human heart. Powerful interests do often collaborate to protect their own interests and that is often not conducive to justice for the average person but powerful interests are not monolithic in their goals. Every strategy or plan eventually provides a counter-opportunity for profit and influence. People are not naturally inclined to give their treasure, time, and passion for an idea to be realized many ages to come without direct benefit.

That we see a pattern or momentum to history is, however, not merely coincidence. We know that there is a definite plan or teleology that is driving history. The Lord God is working out His purposes in history and it has pleased Him, for a time, to restrain His full judgment upon the devil and those who follow him. Even in this, however, nothing escapes the overriding providence of God. The various relations and connections that influence our history are all subject to the ends to which God intended them.

As believers we know that there are powers at work in history that are not readily observable. We also live with the keen awareness that the world around us, its systems and movements, are not aligned with our interests. These powers may work through human governments and institutions but they do not originate there. The chaos of human history is played out within the broader spiritual struggle between good and evil. Though evil may appear to triumph for a time we know that it has already been defeated and will be judged. Multi generational human conspiracies are not necessary to explain the events in the world around us. They are highly unlikely given the nature of humans. Regardless of the extent that current conspiracies influence may be influencing us we have no need to fear them. God remains upon His throne and all things done in secret will be revealed.

Why do the nations rage
            and the peoples plot in vain?
            The kings of the earth set themselves,
            and the rulers take counsel together,
            against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
            “Let us burst their bonds apart
                        and cast away their cords from us.”
            He who sits in the heavens laughs;
            the Lord holds them in derision.
            Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
            and terrify them in his fury, saying,
            “As for me, I have set my King
                        on Zion, my holy hill.”
            I will tell of the decree:
            The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
            today I have begotten you.
            Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
            and the ends of the earth your possession.
            You shall break them with a rod of iron
                        and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”
            Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
            Serve the LORD with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling.
            Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
            Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
(Psalm 2 ESV)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Did Jesus Have Mary's DNA?

(see also Jesus DNA Follow Up)

A few weeks ago I was asked my opinion regarding the teaching that Jesus was implanted into Mary who carried Him and delivered Him but that His human physicality was wholly formed by God. According to this view Mary is the mother of Jesus in that she birthed Him but not in the sense that He is physically descended from her. There are a number of arguments that are used to support this view. First, there is the argument that Jesus is the new Adam and also a new federal representative of the human race. As such He was the start of a new “line” fully formed by a miraculous act of God just like the first Adam. There is also the argument the human genetic code mutates over time (because of sin) so if Jesus had Mary’s DNA He would also possess the “junk” DNA that we all have and would therefore not be perfect. There are also various arguments built around the idea that the virgin birth is the fulfillment of the new covenant contract prefigured by the Abrahamic covenant where “God passed through the flesh” to seal the agreement.

It is true that biblical words such as “conceive” may simply mean “to get pregnant” and do not refer specifically to the genetic processes that we think of today. The bible is not biology textbook and we should not necessarily understand begetting and conceiving etc. in their technical sense. This, however, does not mean that the biblical writers did not understand anything about these processes. The bible demonstrates that that they knew a great deal about the process of pregnancy and birth and certainly knew that 9 months after the introduction of the constituent elements a baby would be born. In my opinion the various arguments in support of the view that Jesus was not genetically descended from Mary are all easily answered. It is not necessary for a federal representative to be the first of a physical line and at any rate Jesus has no descendants and is thus not the head of any physical line.  It is also not a given that “junk” DNA serves no purpose and even if it does not it doesn’t follow that it results from sin. No major view of the transmission of original sin entails a genetic inheritance. Even those who hold to traducian procreation have historically argued that the inherited depravity was the result of the spiritual not the physical element. To make sin a materialistic substance is highly problematic. In addition to these observations I would add that Christ’s perfection is a reference to His moral character and divine nature and not to His physical characteristics. The interpretation of the virgin birth as the sealing of a contract is allegorical and fails to find sufficient historical-grammatical support.

I should point out that the brother advocating this position was clear that he believed that Jesus was completely and fully human. Some have argued that to deny that Christ is physically descended from Mary would entail a denial of His humanity and thus is patently heretical. To deny Christ’s humanity is certainly heresy but this is not a necessary outcome of denying Marian physical motherhood. Adam was fully human though created through a miraculous act of God and it is logically possible that a similar miraculous act could have occurred in the case of Christ. While it is logically possible I do not believe that it has biblical support. In addition to the very brief objections already raised I would like to point out another reason why I believe that Jesus had Mary’s DNA.

Jesus is the focus of all redemptive history. As such He is the fulfillment of all the historical-redemptive promises given to the people of God. This includes the promises given to Eve and to the prophets. Many of these promises, if interpreted plainly, indicate that the blessings of the coming “One” will come from the physical familial lines of Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, etc. The redemptive drama is a history of God working through a particular chosen line to bless all nations.

First are the promises made to Eve. The so called protoevangelium records the first promise of redemptive history pointing to Christ. The promise seems to imply that the redeemer will come from Eve’s line.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
(Genesis 3:15 ESV)

One could argue that offspring might simply refer to the fact that a human descendant will birth the Lord but the plain understanding of the promise would seem to be that the coming "One" will come through Eve. It is at least reasonable to assume that Eve understood the promise in that way.

If that isn’t convincing enough there are also the promises given to Abraham. In Genesis we see the great promise given to Abraham that the everlasting covenant would come through his lineage.

God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.
(Genesis 17:19 ESV)

And later it is explicitly revealed that the blessings would come through that line…

I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,
(Genesis 26:4 ESV)

The New Testament makes it clear that the focus and fulfillment of these promises is Jesus Christ.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
(Galatians 3:16 ESV)

These promises make the most sense and are most plainly understood as a promise that the blessing would come through the progeny of Abraham and not simply be facilitated by one of his descendants. One might point out, however, that Abraham is the father of faithful and that the term offspring is also used of his spiritual children in the bible. That is true but the genealogies of Jesus are physical genealogies. The Gospel writers consciously connect Jesus with those promises when giving their genealogies and at any rate the force of this argument disappears when we look at other promises given elsewhere.

One example is the promise that the messiah king would come from the line of David. It seems difficult to understand this promise as a promise of facilitation because the emphasis in that promise is clearly on descent. The Lord tells David that the king will come from “his body”.

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”
(2 Samuel 7:12-16 ESV)

This prophesy includes the whole lineage of David up through Jesus Christ and though Solomon and others are also implied it is clearly Christ who is the focus of the Davidic promises as is made clear in the New Testament.

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.
(Acts 2:29-32 ESV)

These promises appear to be promises from God that the Christ would be among his physical descendants. If Jesus were simply implanted into Mary it would seem that these promises to David and the others were not fulfilled. Claiming that they do not necessitate actual genetic descent seems to be reading the theology into the passages rather than taking them at face value. This is true especially in the case of David where genetic descent would be necessary to place Christ in the royal succession. It is inconsistent to spiritualize the promise with relation to the culmination in Christ when the other prophesies related to the descendants were all fulfilled literally and physically.

When we have to choose between a conclusion that rests solely upon the logical deductions of speculative theology in opposition to the plainest interpretation of biblical passages we should place the greater weight on the biblical rather than the speculative theology. Of course, if the exegetical conclusions lead us to a logical contradiction we know that we need to study further. In this case, however, accepting the plain interpretation of the promises provides no logical problems for historic Christian doctrine. For many reasons, including the interpretation of the historical-redemptive promises, I find no reason to accept that Jesus was not the genetic son of Mary.