William Bellinger

Season 3 - Episode 349

December 11, 2020

William Bellinger
William Bellinger

The season of Advent provides a time to think, reflect and prepare our hearts for Christmas. In this Baylor Connections, William Bellinger, the W. Marshall and Lulie Craig Chairholder in Bible and Professor of Hebrew/Old Testament, shares thoughts on maintaining a faithful hope amidst the trials of the year. An expert on the Psalms and worship texts of the Old Testament, he examines stories of hope and the bonds of community that resonate today.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education research and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And our guest today is Dr. William Bellinger. Dr. Bellinger serves as chair of Baylor's Department of Religion and is the W. Marshall and Lily Craig shareholder in Bible and professor of Hebrew in Old Testament. He's known for his research on worship texts of the Old Testament, with much of his work exploring the Book of Psalms. He's chaired the steering committee for the Book of Psalm section of this society of biblical literature. And is the author or editor of numerous books and scholarly articles. He joined the Baylor faculty in 1984 and was named Cornelia Marshall Smith Professor of the Year in 2013. Dr. Bellinger, it's great to have you on the program. Thank you so much for joining us today.

William Bellinger:

Thank you Derek. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Derek Smith:

Well, it's great to visit with you and dive into some different topics, especially this time of year, as we are in advent and heading into the Christmas season. We saw your great advent of peace as Baylor family shares advent together, yours running at the end of November. It's great that the Baylor family can share this together. And I want to ask you a little bit about that, but first I want to start broadly, gave a overview of your work. And I'm curious, what drew you into biblical studies and more specifically into the worship texts of the Old Testament and Psalms?

William Bellinger:

Well, Derek, I grew up in a small town in South Carolina and my upbringing was very much tied to The First Baptist Church there in the middle of the 20th century. And I was a great reader and I was fascinated by many of the characters in the Old Testament and how they attempted to live out faith. But sometimes in a very frail way, quite frankly, and yet God continued to work with them and use them. And I found that to be a very encouraging thing and the fascinating thing and that I found the literature in the Old Testament to be most interesting to me. And I decided that I wanted to pursue that. It was interesting. It was different. In some cases it was very unusual and I've always been interested in things that are not the most common things, if you will. And by the time I got to seminary and studied Hebrew, I was fascinated with it. It's a language that goes from right to left in contrast to English and has a very different alphabet and verbs system. And so I found that interesting as well, and all of that sort of put me on the track to study the Old Testament. And I really did begin to focus on worship texts in the Old Testament. And that's really a very personal matter for me because worship has always been so important to me as I think it is to the church. Indeed, in recent years, I have been very drawn to the first verse of Psalm 42, which is about how the doe requires water to live. And in the same way, we require a sense of the presence of God to live. And in my view of worship is that it's about the encounter between the presence of God and us as the worshiping community. So that really drives much of my life and faith. So I do think the Psalms are probably the central expression of that in the Old Testament. And it kind of broadened out from there and I've tried to pay attention to the poetry and so much beautiful music that uses the Psalms as they are central to worship even today. And I've tried to emphasize that we need to study and teach and preach the Psalms as well as sing them. And so that's kind of my background.

Derek Smith:

We are visiting with Dr. William Bellinger. And Dr. Bellinger, as we talk about the Old Testament, I'm curious, there's the Psalms and Proverbs that I think stand out to a lot of people. But there's obviously so many books that are really somewhat obscure, even for a lot of people who've been reading the Bible for a long time. When you talk to people about the Old Testament, are there common receptiveness or lack thereof people have to it, or their misconceptions, misunderstandings that you and your work have the opportunity to speak into?

William Bellinger:

Well, yes, that's interesting. I do think for many people, the Old Testament is a book that is lost in time if you will. Lost in the past and you are right that... I mean, we used to have the New Testament published. It was the New Testament and the Psalms, but now often it is the New Testament and the Psalms and Proverbs. But there are many other texts in the Old Testament. And I think they come from a world very different than the world we live in. The ancient near East was simply a very different place and it had very different customs and it had a very different history. And I think it's harder for people to interact with. And people have the notion that the Old Testament is very violent book. And indeed, sometimes have the notion that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is a violent and vengeful God. I would say that both of those characterizations of the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament are at least unbalanced, if you will. They do not attend to many of the texts in the Old Testament. And I think there's a part of the history of the Christian church, which accounts for that in which the Old Testament gets contrasted with the New Testament. That one of the misconceptions is the Old Testament is the book of the law. And the New Testament is the book of the gospel, but it's quite clear in the Old Testament that law and really a better translation of the Hebrew word Torah is instruction. Instruction is about how to live out in faith. It is because ancient Israel was God's people that they are to live according to God's Torah or instruction. And it is not that they are to live according to God's law in order to become God's people. They are already God's people and this Torah instructs them in how to live. And I think if we read the Old Testament with that in mind, it's easier for us to see how, when you read the New Testament, the New Testament always emphasizes its connections with the Old Testament. So there is a continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. So I just think we need to think about all those things when we are about the important task of interpreting these texts and trying to understand these texts as best we can.

Derek Smith:

We are visiting with Dr. William Bellinger here on Baylor Connections. And Dr. Bellinger is we find ourselves in a global pandemic. I know for you and your students this semester, like no other, everybody dealing with it in different ways, are there elements of what you study, what you read that stand out right now that you see it with fresh eyes through the lens of this pandemic?

William Bellinger:

I do think always the way we're living is in conversation with how we read texts and in this case, how we read the Old Testament texts. And it seems to me that one of the things that the pandemic raises to great importance is the centrality of community for us all. So I think I tend to emphasize those texts more now in the time of COVID, if you will. For example, I like to talk about not social distancing. I don't think we need social distancing. I think what we need is physical distancing. Physical distancing, we can still socially relate to each other, and we can still give attention to others, which they need, and we need in this time of pandemic. I also think the theme, which is central to the Psalms of a life has pilgrimage is very important in this time. And I think that sort of rises to the surface for me a lot in reading Old Testament texts. I tend to read the Psalms as pilgrimage songs of faith. These are the songs that ancient Israel sang as they were walking through faith. And it's interesting, isn't it? To be in a time, while we're talking about these ancient texts, that technology is so important. It's obviously was not a part of that world, but it's really important to how we can still relate to each other and indeed how we can read texts and comment on them.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Bellinger, I want to shift focus a little bit specifically to this time of year, as we head into Christmas. And we're in the middle of advent, and you recently wrote an advent devotional for Baylor's family advent journey together. People can find that at baylor.edu/givelights. And I want to ask you about just some of those thoughts this time of year at this unique moment in time, a little more. But for those who maybe aren't as familiar with the season of advent in its meaning, could you give us an overview of what it's about?

William Bellinger:

Yes. I'd be glad to. Advent is a time of preparation for the season of Christmas. Some people may be even more familiar with the notion of lent, which is a time of preparation for Easter and Holy week. Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. The word advent means coming or appearance. And so it is about the fact that we celebrate during the season of Christmas, the coming of Christ into the world. And so advent prepares us to see the real significance of that and embrace it. You will notice I have talked about the season of Christmas. So often we think of Christmas as Christmas Day, one day, but we are also perhaps familiar with the tradition of the 12 days of Christmas. Christmas is actually a season that celebrates the coming of Christ into the world. The birth of Jesus, the Christ, and the significance of that for us. Actually, advent has become very popular it seems to me. I mentioned that I grew up in a small town in South Carolina, The First Baptist Church of McColl South Carolina, these days also celebrates advent. It seems to have spread its influence. And I think that's because people were so concerned that the Christmas season had become dominated by what I call our militant consumerism. That we are so focused on the things of Christmas, the buying, the giving. Giving is a good thing, but if we're obsessed with that, we can miss much of the significance of the coming of Christ into the world in this time. And advent gives us a way to prepare for that and focus on it. And in the history of the church, it gives us ways in worship to focus on texts, which prepare us for that, such as John the Baptist coming. And John the Baptist says the one who goes before and prepares the way of Christ in the world. And the preparation in the Old Testament for the coming of the Messiah and focusing then eventually on down toward texts about the birth of Jesus and the coming of the rule of God in here.

Derek Smith:

The advent reflection that you wrote for Baylor, obviously there's innumerable ways that we can reflect the innumerable versus to look at, but we'll talk about the other one you chose. Jeremiah 33:14 to 16, focusing on faithful hope. What is meaningful to you about those verses particularly in this season?

William Bellinger:

Well, I find this to be an interesting text and an interesting choice of texts for this season. Jeremiah was an interesting character. He is sometimes called the weeping prophet. He lived in a difficult time when Jerusalem in the seventh and sixth centuries, Jerusalem fell finally in that time to the Babylonians. And Jeremiah was in some ways, a lone voice of the Lord calling the people to justice and righteousness and faith, and reminding them of their faith in God and what God asks of life and how God gives life. And this particular text is in the time in which the Babylonians have laid siege to Jerusalem. And it's a difficult time. And yet Jeremiah who was called the weeping prophet, and who's been castigated in Jerusalem by many people for being... He was the sour one, if you will. There were other prophets around who were saying, "Oh, everything's going to be fine." But Jeremiah said, "No, everything is not going to be fine as long as we are living the way we are living, a life of injustice and unrighteousness. And we need to be reminded of the significance of our faith." And so what the Lord said to Jeremiah was the Babylonians have already conquered much of the land around Jerusalem. And I want you to buy a plot of land out near your homeland. And I want you to have evidence that you have bought this land as a way of saying that in the future, in that land, there will be opportunities to buy and sell and to grow crops. And to enjoy, even though the word in English translation is always that there will be a time of safety for the people still to come. So that the text becomes a way of if you will affirming God's hope beyond the sorrow, which is at hand. The sorrow, which is at hand is the consequences of our own living out of favor with God's faith, the faith God gives us, but at the same time, it is a time which can lead us to a future still. And Jeremiah, I think, speaks of hope in the midst of trouble. And it does seem to me that, that's a word we could certainly use in our day. There are lots of troubles around and Jeremiah still with this act of buying a land, that's behind enemy lines, if you will, as an act of hope for the future.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. Dr. Bellinger, you mentioned earlier in the program, you thought a lot about community and how we distance physically, but not necessarily socially. We share in these things together and people in this time were suffering as a community, but we're also given signs of hope as a community. What's the significance of that to you?

William Bellinger:

We tend to think about hope for the future. We tend to think of hope as a future thing, but it seems to me in the Old Testament, the understanding of hope is that, yes, there is a hope of God's rule in the world. But that hope somehow can invade the present and it can enable us to live toward that future hope in the present. And it does seem to me that that sort of understanding of hope is central to the Old Testament, but it's also central to our needs today. And you will not be surprised that I go back to the Book of Psalms at this point, the Book of Psalms finishes with the remarkable line, let everything that breaths, praise the Lord. And yet it's clear that at the end of the Book of Psalms, that praise of the Lord is going on in the midst of great trouble for ancient Israel. They preserved and sang those words of praise in the midst of difficulty. So that they look forward with hope and yet that hope somehow infuses their current daily life. And when we can live in pilgrimage together, I think that becomes more possible.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. William Bellinger and Dr. Bellinger, as we head into the final couple of moments, I wanted to ask you, I know you're in a great community of scholars. A great family of scholars within Baylor's Department of Religion. And you're blessed to share that department, at the end of your advent reflection, you said that your goal in teaching and researching the Old Testament is to bear witness to this faithful hope. For you, what does that look like in your teaching and research, and what does it mean for you to be able to do that with a group of people who are your colleagues within the Baylor Department of Religion?

William Bellinger:

Well, the Department of Religion is a wonderful place to both teach and research and to do it with colleagues who are committed to both of those important tasks and colleagues who are committed to the church. So community is very important there. Also, it is a great privilege to be at Baylor where with the Department of Religion and also with the Truant Seminary faculty, we have several scholars who study the Psalms. And it's a rare gift really in the academic world to be at a place where there are people who we can study the Psalms together. And that's a pretty remarkable thing. I also think the twin themes for me of God's rule in the world, the kingdom of God, if you will, the reign of God and the other theme of how we struggle with the difficulties of life, the sorrow that we encounter. Both of those teams are so themes, are so present in the Old Testament and particularly in the Psalms. And they are so important in our day. And I just think if we can remember that in all of that, in the Old Testament, what becomes central is how God is committed to the human community. And how God is committed to the human communities finding wholeness in life. And if we can embrace that, it just is powerful for the living of life, even in the age of COVID.

Derek Smith:

Very good thoughts. Well, Dr. Bellinger, thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us. I really appreciate you sharing today and Merry Christmas to you and your family.

William Bellinger:

And to you as well.

Derek Smith:

Thank you very much. Dr. William Bellinger, Chair of Baylor's Department of Religion, the W. Marshall and Lily Craig shareholder in Bible and professor of Hebrew in Old Testament. Our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.