International Orality Network

One of the most significant movements now in missions and missiology is the orality movement. Orality is the recognition that not all people can read or prefer to read, most of us learn by what we hear.  How often have you turned to watch a YouTube video of how to fix something rather than turning to the written manual?  And you’re a literate person, right?  Or else you couldn’t read this blog.  The orality movement recognizes that most learning throughout most of history has been based on what was heard, said, and—we might add—saw. orality

The International Orality Network is a network of scholars, church leaders, missionaries, evangelists, and business leaders who are rediscovering the power and truth of oral learning and story-telling.  It is truly changing the way we do business, teaching, training, and missions around the world.

Those of us from the text-based world at one time conducted missions this way.  A missionary would arrive in an area of unreached people.  He or she would spend time with people and learn their language.  Then two things had to happen: first, the language would have to be committed to writing; and second, the Scriptures would have to be translated into the target language.  Then the people  would have to be taught how to read before they could read the Scriptures.  Often, because they were in an oral culture, the only thing they had to read or could read were the Scriptures.  Now there is nothing wrong with this strategy; it is a good process.  It has helped to spread the Gospel in many places in the world.  But what if we could shorten the process by recognizing the power of storytelling and orality.  Then the missionary, after learning the language, could selectively begin to tell Bible stories and teach others how to tell those same stories.  As people in the orality movement say, this method is  “simple and reproducible.”

You might think this would work just fine in illiterate cultures but what about cultures that are highly literate like our own.  Good question.  The fact is that many people who can read and write prefer to learn in ways other than by reading a text.   These are called oral preference learners.  They may be living next door or in your own house.  I don’t know the exact numbers but there is a larger percentage of college graduates who never read a book after college (I’m not sure they read a book in college).  And the Bible is a big book.  People may read short items: webpages, blogs, newspaper articles, but getting them interested in a book with over 780,000 words, not likely to happen.

Orality offers us a significant step forward in sharing the gospel and living the gospel.  In the great commission Jesus instructed his followers to go, make disciples through baptizing and teaching others all that Jesus had taught them.  And what was Jesus’ preferred teaching method? (trick question) . . . orality. Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, pastors, educators, missionaries, and heads of charitable organizations across the world are learning the power of orality.   Pastors are changing their preaching to contain more orality and it is transforming their preaching.  An orality training event may be coming to your city soon.  If so, go and take part.  It is fun and exciting to HEAR what God is up to.

A Hearty Welcome!

A hearty welcome to Dr. Fred Smith who will soon join the faculty of HGST as Professor of Public Theology and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.  Dr. Smith is well suited for his new role.  He has earned degrees from Harvard (BA in Economics), Perkins School of Theology at SMU (MDiv), and Emory University (PhD in Practical Theology).  He has served as an educator, mentor, facilitator and strategist in the field of Faith and Health for 30 years.  He has traveled extensively and worked in a variety of contexts connecting faith to life.  Most recently he retired as Professor of Urban Ministry and Associate Director of the Practice of Ministry and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC.  He is the author of several books including Black Religious Experience: Conversation on Double Consciousness and the Work of Grant; A Prophetic Religious Education for the Twenty-first Century; and Black Boys Shall See Visions: Afrocentric Christian Education: A Historical Perspective.

Dr. Fred Smith, Professor of Public Theology at HGST

One of things we are most excited about is that Dr. Smith has agreed to direct a new center established by the trustees of HGST: The Center for Leadership in Public Theology.  The mission of the center is to equip leaders for incarnational theology in every arena of public life.  Look for the center to engage leaders in initiatives that serve the common good through a pedagogy that is contextual and attentive to the dynamics of our social systems.  The center is committed to praxis, that is, the ongoing interplay between theory and action.  Again: where faith comes to life.  All the training from the center will be based on the biblical and theological foundations of practical theology and will draw from a wide variety of other disciplines.  Modes of leadership development will include public service, advocacy, training, and community organizing and development.

HGST is committed to practicing deep reconciliation and preparing leaders to embrace God’s mission of reconciliation.  Forgiveness and reconciliation seem like good ideas but they are hard to achieve, especially in the critical arenas we find ourselves in today of race/ethnicity, diversity, economics, gender and politics.

We will have more to say about the Center for Leadership in Public Theology in the days again.  But we are confident that the center is in good hands, with Dr. Fred Smith.  Welcome Dr. Smith to HGST.  We look forward to all you have to bring, and we pledge to add to you as well.


Some of my favorite moments in the Summer Olympics involve relay races featuring the fastest women and men in the world.  Often these are individuals who have run their own races and won individual medals in previous events (100 meters, 200 meters, and 400 meters).  By the time of the relay races they seem more relaxed.  They are used to the pressure and the spotlight.  One of the key moments in any relay race involves the hand-off of the baton between runners on the team.  Since most relay races feature four runners, there are three hand-offs that take place in the races.  The hand-offs are the most vulnerable and unpredictable moments in the races, because it is not uncommon for someone to run too fast or too slow or to slip up and drop a baton.  Now it doesn’t happen all that often, because these folks practice together over and over;  but it does happen.   When it does, dreams are dashed. handoff

Well, we are getting ready to hand-off the editorship of HGST’s blog.  I’ll soon be moving on to the colder climate of Wheaton, Illinois, and as a result, I’ll be passing on the baton–so to speak–to another.

Dr. Becky Towne, who will soon start her service as interim Academic Dean at HGST, will assume the editorship of the blog on July 1, 2017.  Between now and then, I’ll have a chance to write and edit a few more posts. Dr. Towne will be perfect for the job because she is a good writer and, more importantly, a thoughtful person.

We began the blog last summer in August 2016.  So the blog is almost a year old.  Thousands of people have tuned it at one time or another to read a post and/or make a comment.  We have had faculty, students, trustees, alums, friends and others write for us.  Let me express my appreciation to the men and women who have contributed to the conversation.  Each person has added something from their disciplines: spirituality, counseling, ethics, Old Testament, and New Testament.  These are the subjects that make up our curriculum so they are fitting subjects for our blog.

I look forward to staying in touch with the blog under the able direction of Dr. Becky Towne. I have been assisted ably in this by Ms. Linda Renz.  Thanks, Linda!  Thanks to all of you who will research, write, read, and comment on the blog for us.  It is a great way to take the conversation inside the seminary outside.

Thanks, Dr. Towne!

Prestigious Book Award

by David B. Capes

Recently two friends and colleagues of mine, Dr. Craig Keener (Asbury Seminary) and Dr. John Walton (Wheaton College) were recognized for their work with the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.  Craig worked on the comments and sidebars for the New Testament;  John authored the comments and sidebars on the Old Testament.  Here is a link to one of the announcements:

Keener and Walton, or if it we put it in the order of the testaments, Walton and Keener are at the top of their respective fields, and they have pulled together an impressive bit of scholarship to help modern readers understand something of the cultural context in which the 66 books of the Christian Scriptures were written.  We do the writers of the Bible a disservice if we insist on reading them against our culture, values and standards.  If we want to read the most important book in history well, we’d do well to pay close attention to the language, habits, customs and culture of the peoples of the Book.

John Walton
Dr. John Walton, Wheaton College

Walton and Keener received the top award in the category of Religion: Christianity in the International Book Awards, announced on May 22nd, by the American Book Fest.

“We understand and apply the Bible much better when we understand the concrete, real-life circumstances to which its words were first addressed,” Dr. Keener said. “I am grateful that this new award, like the previous one, draws attention to this resource to help people access this information.”

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible released August 2016 and has sold more than 56,000 copies. The book is available for purchase on Amazon for less than $40.00.  N. T. Wright said he wished somebody had put this Bible in his hands 50 years ago.

Mazeltov to Craig Keener and John Walton!

What were the last words of Jesus?

by David B. Capes

Recently, my rabbi friend, Stuart Federow, and I got into a disagreement.  Well, actually, I didn’t argue with him; I just listened to him in his rant against the Christian faith.  As Father Mario said, he sets up straw men and then dismantles them.  Now, I love Rabbi Federow, he is one of my best friends; but when he speaks about the Christian faith, he often gets it wrong.  Yet when he speaks about his own faith, he gets it right.  I guess that is the way it ought to be.Licona Differences in the Gospels

Federow essentially stated his opinion on the unreliability of the NT Gospels based on the “last words” of Jesus.  His argument was that each Gospel has a different saying as the “last words” of Jesus and therefore their accounts of his life cannot be trusted.  Accordingly, Jesus could not have had multiple “last words.”  If Jesus had any last words, then the Gospels should agree on them.  If they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, then there must be four Holy Spirits since there are four accounts.  So Christians should worship six figures, not three: Father, Son and four Holy Spirits.  That was a part of his mocking of the faith.  Now, we are good friends, so his mocking is not malicious.

Now let’s get out the facts.  In one sense, Rabbi Federow is correct.  The last “recorded” words of Jesus in each Gospel are different.  Now, to be clear, we are speaking about Jesus prior to his death by crucifixion.  Here they are in a random order:

Mark 15:34          “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

John 19:30           “It is finished.”

Luke 23:46           “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Matt 27:46          “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

A few notes.  First, the last recorded words of Jesus in Mark agree with Matthew.  So there are not four variations, as the rabbi claimed, there are three.  Second, in both Mark and Matthew, we are told that bystanders misunderstand Jesus and think he is calling for Elijah  to come.  So they ran and filled a sponge with vinegar and gave it to Jesus. Later Mark and Matthew agree that Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last.  The point is that there is an interval of time between Jesus’ cry of dereliction and his cry leading to death.  How much time? We don’t know.  Did Jesus utter other words in the interval? Perhaps.

The fixation we have on someone’s “last words” is a modern phenomenon; it should not be imposed upon ancient people or ancient biographies. I say fixation because that is what it is.  I’ve often heard people at funerals ask: “what was the last thing Sandra said before she died?”  Stories are shared as part of the grieving process.  You can google the “last words” of nearly any famous person and the Internet has the answer.  Here are a few examples.  These are the last recorded words of these people.

Steve Jobs          “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

John Adams       “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

John Paul II         “Let me go to the house of the Father.” (in Polish)

Michelangelo     “I’m still learning.”

Clearly, we have an interest in the last words of famous people, and Jesus is one of the most famous of history.  But we must be careful not to insist that the first followers of Jesus have the same interests as we do.  That is a kind of cultural arrogance that insists the way we think about these things is superior to anyone else.  We condemn, criticize or mock cultures and people who do things differently. Scholars are clear that the NT Gospels are examples of ancient biography, and ancient biographies do not operate the way modern biographies do.  They have a different set of priorities and purposes.

Let’s be clear.  Nowhere does any Gospel say, “now these are the last words of Jesus . . .”  The writers aren’t thinking in those terms: “Oh, I must record the exact, last words of Jesus for posterity.”  No.  They have a story to tell, and they tell it to the end.  If we know the themes of each Gospel, then we can understand why they tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion the way they do.  The process of dying and Jesus’ time on the cross took about six hours. He probably said a lot of things from the cross that are not recorded.  Furthermore, as he neared the end and his voice grew weak, he was probably heard to say a number of things that were not understood as Matthew and Mark indicate.  The Gospel writers give us the kinds of things Jesus was saying from the cross.  Jesus was remembered to have said a number of things from the cross, and each Gospel writer focuses on the one that fits his theme.  None claims to give us the exact “last words” of Jesus.

Now I haven’t run any of this by my friend, Mike Licona.  He has written an important, new book published by Oxford Press (2016) entitled Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biographies.   I’d be interested in his take on the “last words” of Jesus.  I’ll be doing a review of his book soon.


David B. Capes is the Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Houston Graduate School of Theology. 

What Is a Story?

by David B. Capes

“A story is a way to say something which can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say it.”  –Flannery O’Connor

I was inspired recently by a statement Flannery O’Connor made about “story.”  She was a gifted southern writer whose stories continue to garner attention. Flannery OConnor

One day someone asked me a question.

Question: “What is propositional-based thought and how does it apply to us?”

The person is referring to the introduction in one of The Voice products where we observe that people do not respond to propositions as well as they respond to stories. This, of course, is nothing new. People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Humans are hard-wired to tell stories, remember them and pass them along to others.

Not long ago when people were sharing “the gospel,” they would boil it down to a set of manageable propositions:

1.  God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

2.  But you are a sinner separated from God.

3.  Christ died for your sins and helps to bridge the gap between you and God.

4.  So put your trust in Jesus to be saved and you .

Now these propositions are true, but they make little sense when isolated from the greater story of God’s plan and purpose for the world and us.

Let me illustrate it this way.  Here are some lines from one of the greatest films of all time (Casablanca 1942):

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world and she walks into mine.”

“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.”

Now these are some of the most memorable lines in the film. But without the rest of the story you have no clue what it going on. They might punctuate the story, remind you of the story, illustrate the story, but they are no substitute for the story itself.Casablanca

Imagine deciding whether or not to marry someone based on a resume. You might say, “Well, he looks good on paper.” No. We would never do that. On a first date you don’t exchange resumes or give a list of your strengths and weaknesses (you don’t, that is, if you expect a second date!). No. You sit down over a good meal and begin to tell your story. You talk about where you come from, what you love to do, what it was like to be the older brother or sister in a family of four, or whatever is unique to your own story.  This is how we woo a potential partner and how we make friends, by telling our unique stories to those willing to listen.

God did not give us a list of propositions to follow. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead he gave us 66 books that detail an amazing story of love and redemption. Get to know the Story of Scripture.  It will change your life.

Retrieving History

by David B. Capes

Adjunct Professor, Stefana Dan Laing, has recently published her book, Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2017).  Laing is the assistant librarian at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Houston, TX) and has taught for HGST for a number of years.  She has also taught at Houston Baptist University and Beeson Divinity School (Birmingham, AL).  She earned her PhD at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in church history, with an emphasis on the first few centuries of the Church.  She will be back at HGST teaching in fall 2017.Laing Retrieving History

Laing’s book is not just an introduction to first five centuries of the Church; there have been plenty of them of late.  Her point seems to be that here we are as Christ-believers in the 21st century and our identity is formed more by our culture than by our faith.  She thinks, and I agree, that the Church has an identity crisis.  We reflect more of the culture today than our own heritage.  Culture today has a tendency to focus on who or what is trending.  It is whatever is happening at the moment.  She asks a great question: would the saints of the past be able to tell the difference between Church and theater?

She writes: “While Israel was admonished to “remember” and to stand at the crossroad seeking out the ‘ancient paths,’ the church today is merely looking around rather than looking back.”

Laing’s book has a lot to do with memory.   But you can’t remember what you didn’t know in the first place, so she helps us understand our past.   She helps us to “retrieve history,” with its beauties, wonders, and warts.  She has chapters on the martyrs, the saints, and what it means to write a history.  History is more than “what happened,” as Laing delicately shows us.

Dr. Laing is not only concerned with the shape of the church in the second through fifth centuries (AD); she is deeply concerned with  the shape of the Church today.  She wants to help us through the current identity crisis by helping us know from where we have come.  To borrow a line from “The Lion King” (and adapt it just a little): “We are more than what we have become.”

This is a book that can and ought to be on your reading list this summer.  Not only do people like George Kalantzis, Bryan Litfin, and Paul Hartog recommend it.  So do it.  I can’t wait to really sink my teeth into it.

F. F. Bruce & W. E. Vine

Most pastors I know, and a few laypeople, have a particular book in their library.  It is typically referred to as “Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.”  It was originally published in four volumes but is available now in a single volume.  Vine’s refers to W. E. Vine.

Recently a friend of mine, Frank Couch, sent me some information which I find compelling and likely true, but I’ve never read it before.  It is in a document from Robert F. Hicks, and it indicates that when Vine was writing his now-famous book, F. F. Bruce, who was destined to becomeone of the finest NT scholars of his age, was hard at work with him.Vine's expository dictionary

Hicks it seems is now in charge of the works of the late W. E. Vine.  He knows Vine’s immediate family and his personal secretary, John Williamson.

Hicks came to understand through his contact with the surviving family members and his secretary how important F. F. Bruce was to proofing, correcting, checking and adding to Vine’s important work.  Bruce and Vine had a great deal in common.  They both belonged to the Brethren Church.  In the USA, this denomination is known as the Plymouth Brethren.  Both men also had a good deal in common academically.  Both trained in the Greek classics.  Both were well versed in textual criticism and knew the Greek manuscripts behind the New Testament.   In addition, both scholars knew well the Greek Old Testament and were familiar with how NT writers read and incorporated the OT into their letters, history and Gospels.

From what Mr. Hicks relates, F. F. was a major contributor to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, a bit of information which I did not know but I now pass on to you.   I have to admit that I felt I graduated on from Vine’s decades ago when I picked up my copy of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  As Bruce himself notes in the forward  to the single volume versions of Vine’s:  “this Expository Dictionary comes as near as possible to doing for the non-specialist what is being done for the specialist by Kittel’s encyclopaedic Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.”  I now repent in sackcloth and ashes because I’ve had a chance to go back to Vine’s and see what a massive and important work it is, even if it is a bit dated.  Vine’s finished his work in the late 1930s, so it is nearly eighty years old.

Vine himself gives praise to Bruce in the Preface to the 1939 edition: “It is with a sense of deep gratitude that I express my indebtedness to a friend Mr. F. F. Bruce, for his wholehearted assistance in going through the typescript and making corrections and valuable suggestions previous to its being printed, and in proofreading subsequently, whose efficiency, as a classical scholar, and whose knowledge of the originals, have enhanced the value of the work.”


Turabian 8.0

“Turabian” is short-hand for a style guide authored initially by Kate Turabian and published by the University of Chicago Press.  It represents the writing standard of most colleges and seminaries in matters of theology or biblical studies.  The published style guide covers just about any research eventuality and should be consulted for serious research.  For most of us . . . most of the time, it is enough to consult a short version of it.  Fortunately, the University of Chicago offers just such a handy, online version.

Here is a link:

Students often make mistakes in underlining or italicizing the names of series rather than books, referring to the editor of a series as the author, forgetting volume numbers on journal articles, or mixing up long and short forms of a footnote citation.  If you want your work to be clean and professional, Kate Turabian can help you do it.

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