On Sunday morning I awoke around 7am, showered, put on the same clothes I had worn for the previous three days (fresh undies, at least), and enjoyed a quick breakfast of granola, yogurt, toast, juice and coffee. The guest house is a lovely old building with about ten rooms, and half of the tables in the reception/dining area are outside under some lovely trees. My room is small but clean, with a neat tiled bathroom and shower. Very view of the windows in the homes and public buildings in Stellenbosch have screens, so you learn to either use the AC (which they call “aircon”) or deal with the bugs. After one night of bugs, I chose the AC even though it was nice and cool outside.
As a closeted Anglican in a Presbyterian church (or at least a Presbyterian with a great deal of Stendahl’s “holy envy”), I enjoy visiting Anglican churches when I’m abroad (so far just in England, Canada and South Africa). When I’m in Stellenbosch I attend St. Paul’s Church (CESA), and I had a lovely conversation afterward with Pastor Doug. He was very kind and hoped to get in touch again when (if!) I return in April for graduation.
I hurried back to my guest house to meet our friend, Julia. After some coffee, we toured various farmer’s markets and wine farms in Stellenbosch. The reputation of South Africans–and Africans generally–as hospitable folk has proven to be true in my experience. We had a lovely time–even though I was quite warm in my jeans, socks and collared shirt.
We talked about many things as we enjoyed our lunch (I had an ostrich-meat sandwich) and drinks (a nice white beer, and later, fine wines of many kinds), but I thought I’d share a bit about one conversation because it links up with something I’d like to blog about separately in the future. Julia kindly told me that she had found some of my work on Lamentations to have been very encouraging to her through a rough time. I’ve found that others have had a similar experience: learning about Lamentations lets them feel free to express their anger, sadness and depression before God–it can be very liberating.
I expressed satisfaction that my academic work–which was quite technical in my master’s thesis–has borne fruit in people’s spiritual lives. I think that should be the goal of Christian academics: not to shy away from very detailed, technical work, but to use that work to inform one’s teaching for the layperson. But as I prepare to defend my dissertation on Friday, I am concerned that my doctoral work will not necessarily have the same impact. To be sure, my historical thesis is interesting and (I believe) valuable for the academic field of Chronicles studies. And, the things I’ve learned about Chronicles along the way have informed my teaching. But I haven’t yet conceived of how my thesis itself (that Chronicles represents a conciliatory message toward the tribe of Benjamin in the late Persian period) would be edifying for the layperson in the pew. Maybe some insight in this area will present itself in the months and years to come.
But I think it’s a problem with Chronicles more generally. Chronicles is simply not as compelling initially to the novice reader of Scripture. There are a few reasons for this. First, the narrative of Chronicles is punctuated by long sections with lists and instructions (starting with nine chapters of genealogy!) that do not seem relevant at first glance.
Second, the narratives of our favorite figures–David and Solomon–do not include some of the best-known stories that show their complexities, their sins and their struggles. Thus, when the women’s Bible study at our church does a study on the life of David, much of the “spiritual meat” is drawn from Samuel, not Chronicles. Third, Chronicles is just long. It doesn’t always seem to be worth the effort that it takes to get through–especially if it’s viewed as “just supplemental” to Samuel-Kings (reflected in the LXX title for the book, των παραλειπομενων, “[book] of the things left out”).
What we need is trust and humility–both on the part of the academic to periodically descend from the ivory tower to help enrich the layperson’s life and faith, and on the part of the layperson to make the time and effort to dig deeply into Scripture beyond a five-verse paragraph for a “quiet time.” Much of Scripture is only “applicable” after several logical steps removed from an initial reading. Chronicles may not have as compelling characters as those found in Samuel and Kings. But once we grasp three truths about Chronicles–that the Chronicler felt the need to re-write the history of Israel by changing, adding and subtracting; that Chronicles did not supplant Samuel-Kings in the canon but was retained alongside it; and that the Chronicler infused the history with other Scriptural themes and adapted the narratives to the particular needs of his time–then the book comes alive as a fascinating window into the other Scriptures of the Persian period. What did these sincere believers think about tradition, Scripture, and God’s faithfulness–and how can we learn from that?
Anyway, I digest–er, digress. But needless to say, I have some work to do in figuring out how to “sell Chronicles” to the person in the pew. Some books of the Bible are an “easier sell,” like Romans, the Gospels, Isaiah, Proverbs, Genesis. Others need a good sales pitch, like Deuteronomy, Jude, Revelation, Hosea. And still others are just plain hard: Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Leviticus, Hebrews, Obadiah.
After Julia dropped me off at the hotel in early afternoon, I stopped out for some groceries. My suitcase was delivered around 8pm–just in time, because I’d just had a shower. Nothing seemed to be missing, though Prof. Jonker later counseled me against leaving my camera in a checked bag going through Jo’burg. So, now that advice is out there for you also…