secret decoder ring: philippians edition

… children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…

I was a little afraid to take a class on Philippians. I’ve loved the book since high school, and I had a fear buried in my little heart that I would learn something terrible about Paul, or discover that everything I loved about the book was misinterpreted or beside the point, or that I’d just become really bored and resentful of the same four chapters by the end of the semester. But I’m happy to report that this is not the case. It is still a wonderful letter.

My final project for the class is an upcoming series of blog posts. I’ve done a good amount of research for it, but I feel compelled to tell you I’m not a Biblical scholar. Which is not to say that only Biblical scholars can say things about the Bible – and is still less to say that Biblical scholars have a great repository of hidden, universally-agreed-upon knowledge of what each verse of the Bible definitely does or does not mean. It is just to say that your disagreement, insight, research, and questions are very, very valid and very, very welcome.

The thing about reading the Bible – in this case, the New Testament – is that all these books were written by different people surrounded by a culture that is extremely foreign to mine in some ways and really similar to mine in others, and they tended to say things that were bizarre or even offensive to that culture, but at other times they assimilated that culture’s ideas and values just because that’s the way things were. And now, some of the things they said that were really strange have become mainstream parts of my culture, and other things that used to be normal have become super weird to us, and some things get ignored just like they did Back in the Bible Days, and other things they said are translated into English words or American thought in ways that just don’t mean what the Greek words or Greek thought meant at all.

It’s all very confusing.

So when I wander on over to my blog wearing my Biblical Scholarship hat, I’m just trying to tease all those things apart and think about them, with a prayer that God will show up at some point and teach me something about who God is and who I am. Or at least that God won’t be mad at me.

Going back to Philippians: as I’ve studied Paul’s words and Paul’s culture, I’ve become convinced that he expected Christians in the churches he founded to live their lives on an alternate plane from everyone else – or, like, another dimension – or a parallel universe, if you will  (have I lost you yet?).

In other words, here’s what I think Paul was saying, sometimes explicitly and very often implicitly: This Jesus person has changed everything. Now that a guy has raised himself from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit and appeared to me on a road, all bets are off; reality is simply not as it seems. The Things They Always Told You can’t be taken for granted anymore. You have to learn to see differently, live differently, and it’s not always going to make sense. But this is The Way. Will you walk in it with me?

It’s a pretty epic project. It’s an upside-down kingdom, a foolish wisdom, an already-not-yet way of life, walking a few inches above the ground – on a plane between heaven and earth. Some days you’ll see the signs absolutely everywhere, and some days doubt will convince you that the laws of gravity and death are all there’s ever been. But that’s why Paul keeps reminding us to look farther, beyond the accepted wisdom and the easy ways, to Jesus Christ – the God-man who turned everything on its head – and redefined everything we thought we knew.

I’ll be diving into Philippians tomorrow, and then adding the next post in the series – each exploring a different word Paul redefines or reimagines – perhaps every Wednesday. Or maybe twice a week. Really, anything could happen come 2014.

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