Category Archives: Bible

How Could We Have Kept JohnK Among Us?

Here’s part of a deconversion story by “JohnK” from ex-Christian.net.

So recently, when I was still a christian, I decided to do a morning devotional bible study. I started as I usually did, with a short prayer asking god for guidance and wisdom through his word. That day I came across the story of jesus’ anointing at Bethany in john 12. This is the story of how Mary (sister of Martha) poured oil into jesus’ head during a meal, which was met by indignation by the disciples and a subsequent rebuke from jesus. But that’s strange, I thought. I had remembered it was some unknown, unnamed woman who poured the oil and got rebuked. I decided to do some research on the internet. This was the beginning of the end of my faith.

I found out that the anointing at Bethany is detailed three different times in the gospels: john 12, Matthew 26, and mark 14 (there is a similar account of anointing in luke 7 but it is different enough to be considered a separate incident). In Mark and Matthew, the name of the woman is not given. However, the stories in all three accounts are almost identical: the woman, supposedly Mary, approaches jesus and his disciples at a dinner table and pours an alabaster vial of expensive perfume of nard on him. The disciples, seeing this, say something to the effect of: “Why are you wasting this expensive perfume? It could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.” And jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them to leave her alone, that she is preparing him for burial, that the poor would always be with them, but he wouldn’t, etc.

But this is the problem: the episode in John happens BEFORE jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while in Matthew and Mark the anointing happens AFTER the triumphal entry. So there is no way it could have been the same event… yet the stories are so identical, that I found it IMPOSSIBLE to believe it happened twice, within the space of a few days!

My research led me to skeptical sites listing bible contradictions and absurdities, and I discovered the bible contained many other contradictions, some I had noticed before (and tried to ignore) and others that I had not. The death of Judas Iscariot is another example. Matthew 27 states that after Judas had betrayed jesus, he became remorseful, flung the 30 pieces of silver into the temple and hanged himself. Acts 1 says he bought a field with the silver, then somehow fell headfirst into it, and died when his guts spilled out after his stomach burst open. So the “Field of Blood” was purchased by the chief priests according to Matthew, and by Judas according to Acts. The cherry on top of this whole confusing contradictory episode is Matthew’s reference in 27:9 that Jeremiah is the prophet foretelling the whole 30 pieces of silver incident; the problem is, there is nothing about 30 pieces of silver anywhere in the book of Jeremiah!

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other contradictions in the bible, such as the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, the conflicting accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, the conflicting accounts of how the disciples were first gathered, etc. (and I haven’t even gotten to the old testament). So basically, my deep investigation of the anointing story opened the floodgates to my skepticism and doubt of the bible, and my faith in the book began to crumble and did not stop. For quite a few days I was in distress, trying to find a way to reconcile all the errors. The entire worldview I had developed and lived for the last few years was breaking down! Eventually, I remember flinging the bible on my table, looking at it, and saying something like “You are full of errors. You are not reliable”. The next day I prayed my last real prayer, where I asked god, that if he was really there, to give me or show me an explanation of why his supposed book had so many contradictions and confusions, otherwise I could not keep on believing. I think the reader knows by now whether there was an answer to that prayer.

I understand now why fundamentalists always insist that the bible is inerrant. It is because once you concede that the bible has errors, it is a slippery slope. Who decides then what is an error, what is sound doctrine, and what is not? Biblical interpretation becomes very subjective, and christianity becomes a salad bar for each individual, who chooses what to take literally and what to take as metaphor depending on their own reasoning and sensibilities. Salad bar christianity is much of what I see today among christians, and partly why there are so many different christian denominations and schools of thought. John 16 says the holy spirit guides believers into all truth, and 1 Corinthians 14 says god is not the author of confusion, but these exhortations are false and ridiculous considering all the divisions and differing interpretations of scripture among christians both now and throughout church history. No book has created more confusion and conflict than the bible, because there is no holy spirit guiding anyone who reads it.

Now when I look back, I wonder how in the world I ever convinced myself that a serpent/devil deceived Eve and cursed the world, or that Noah took all the animals into his ark to save them from a flood that covered the entire earth, or that languages were uniform before the tower of Babel, etc. etc. I was so taken by Jesus and what I perceived to be his wise and other-worldly teachings, that I chose to ignore the other parts of the bible that probably deserve as much belief as Santa Claus. As a christian, when I would encounter unbelievable stories in the old testament or statements that seemed to contradict each other, I would often push it out of my mind, reassuring myself there must be an explanation, or that things were different in those days, etc. But now my faith no longer exists and I see the bible for what it really is. I still think that the bible is a remarkable piece of literature that has had an enormous impact in western history and thought, both for good and ill. But it is also no longer a book I can base my life on.

Suppose JohnK had been able to talk with a really good inerrancy apologist about the contradictions he was seeing in the Bible–could an excellent apologist have kept him in the inerrancy (and Christian) fold?

What if instead of insisting on inerrancy, someone had told John that the Bible doesn’t work quite like that?

What if he had been instructed that the Bible never intended to be 21st century style historiography?

What if he was told that the scriptures themselves were not his model, but that they, like the Holy Spirit, were designed to point the way to Jesus?

What if someone said that our faith isn’t in a book, it’s in the Christ, and the Bible is just one of our resources for knowing the Christ, along with orthodox church tradition, worship practices, and the faithful lives of the community of believers?

Would John’s experience have been different if he had been told from the start that we wouldn’t be able to make an historical timeline of Jesus’ ministry out of the gospel accounts?

Here’s a bright person, articulate and thoughtful, who lost his faith because he read the Bible.  There are thousands more out there like him.  Can the evangelical churches in America undergo the paradigm shift it will take to cultivate faith in people who currently leaving our churches because they’ve read the Bible carefully and it didn’t turn out to be what they had been told it was?

3 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Bible, Church Culture, Evangelism

What is Preaching Supposed to Be?

Here’s John Piper’s take on it:

What I mean by preaching is expository exultation.

Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable—all 66 books of it.

The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Every sermon should explain the Bible and then apply it to people’s lives.

The preacher should do that in a way that enables you to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will end up resting on a man and not on God’s word….

That’s more or less what I was taught in the beginning of my ministry training.  Study the text, explain it, and apply it.  Later, influenced by Fred Craddock, I adopted his stance that good preaching says what the text says and does what the text does–if the passage you are preaching from instructs, then instruct; if it inspires, inspire; if it troubles, trouble; if it comforts, comfort.  That was a helpful second dimension that pays attention not just to the teachable propositions of the text, but also to the intended purpose of it.  Even if you have your propositions straight, if you take a text meant to inspire and bore people to death with your step-by-step exposition, you haven’t really preached the text–you’ve processed it and turned it around to zoom down a different path.

With a thorough grounding in Craddock and Stott and other homiletical heroes, I became fluent in what I still believe are the best practices of expository preaching, which my teachers always presented in contrast to “topical preaching” (shudder!).  Topical preaching, I was told, has too much potential for abuse.  Topical preaching is too dependent on the agenda of the preacher.  Topical preaching does a disservice to the congregation, which needs a grounding in verse by verse, book by book, good old expository preaching.

That sounded just right to me, until I read Edward Farley’s Practicing Gospel.  The entire book is excellent, but it was chapter six “Preaching the Bible and Preaching the Gospel” that really did a number on me.  (It first appeared as an article in the April 1994 issue of Theology Today.)  Here’s Farley:

One thing is clear in the New Testament accounts.  That-which-is-preached is not the content of passages of Scripture.  It is the gospel, the event of Christ through which we are saved.  To think that what is preached is the Bible and the context of its passages is a quite different way of thinking about preaching. (p. 74)

That’s a huge problem.  We typically refer to “expository exultation” as “Biblical preaching.”  But if you look at literal Biblical preaching (the kind of preaching modeled in the Bible) it isn’t expository exultation.  Paul’s brand of preaching is notorious for causing problems in conservative churches because you can’t help but recognize that he’s up to something quite different than what we consider good preaching practice.  In my experience, the typical answer when someone realizes that is essentially that Paul can get away with it because he is breaking the rules under inspiration of the Spirit, but that’s one area where we can’t follow his example.  So we are left with a troubling break–Paul’s message is inspired but his method is flawed.  This is another case where a prior commitment to a certain understanding of the Bible either keeps us from seeing the obvious (the Bible itself doesn’t model expository preaching) or keeps us from giving weight to the Biblical example.  On the fundamental question of what preaching should look like, we reject the scriptural model in favor of the expository paradigm, and we do so in the name of honoring scripture.  That’s just not working.

Maybe one of the reasons that people who leave our churches say that are more interested in rules than spirituality is this model of exhortation that breaks every passage down into three or five teachable points to apply in your own life and often misses the glorious proclamation of the good news that Jesus is reigning and renewing the world.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Ministry

Why Does This Matter?

I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture.  What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts?  Here’s why I think it’s important:

1)      Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism.  At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do.  I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy.  That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals.  Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition).  Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever.  Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.

2)      These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example.  A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings.  That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly.  I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth.  But that’s the picture in Genesis.  No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space.  Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts).  I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.

So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written.  And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be.  Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then?  What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1?  How did it challenge existing ideologies?”  We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis.  This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?”  “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us.  But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text.  It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.

It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Church Culture

The New Testament and the Testament of Job

Now, am I 100% certain that James isn’t alluding to canonical Job when he talks about the “perseverance of Job”?  Well, no.  But I am pretty certain that something more than just canonical Job is in view.  I am no expert in Jewish culture of the 1st century, but we do know that New Testament writers can be aware of and allude to the broader scope of Jewish literature available to them.  There are some Biblical figures (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Job for starters) who inspired additional literature outside of the Biblical books that we are familiar with, and these books clearly held some currency in the time of the New Testament.  We also need to remember that this is a period with a low literacy rate, so when James says “you have heard of the perseverance of Job,” that’s precisely what he means–you guys have heard stories about Job’s patience.  He may not be referring to a specific text as much as an oral tradition that strongly linked “patience” to Job as his most noted quality.  But it’s hard to imagine that The Testament of Job hasn’t either originated or strongly reinforced that link, and if James has one specific written text in mind, I’m putting my money on Testament rather than canonical Job.  The former make a huge point out of Job’s calm acceptance and perseverance; the latter simply doesn’t.

This analogy isn’t perfect, but readers of the New Testament need to remember that first century Judaism was a lot more like Catholicism than evangelical Protestantism.  You have mystic groups, ascetics, extra-Biblical traditions and alternative texts all living alongside or in tension with the approved religious hierarchy.  When a Catholic talks about Mary, they are tapping into a whole stream of images, references, doctrine and devotional literature that ultimately originates with the presentation of Mary in the gospels, but with so many accretions that most Protestants feel that they don’t recognize that Mary at all.  Everyone understands that when a Southern Baptist sings “Mary Did You Know?” and a Roman Catholic sings “Ave Maria” there’s a sense in which they are addressing the same person, but in many ways they really aren’t.

And when James says “you’ve heard of the perseverance of Job,” he probably isn’t excluding canonical Job from that reference (again, you can find support for the patience tradition in the prose framework) but he’s almost certainly including much more as well.

You can see the same thing in 2 Peter 2:4-9:

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; 6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men 8 (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— 9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.

Scholars have noted many similarities between 2 Peter and Jude, not least of which is that they both allude to 1 Enoch–that’s where this weird bit about angels in gloomy dungeons comes from.  Similarly, there is nothing in Genesis about Noah preaching, but it was well-known in Jewish tradition, especially in the Sibylline Oracles, which record one of Noah’s sermons in 1:148-198.  And when I read Genesis, canonical Lot doesn’t come across as particularly righteous (getting drunk and impregnating his own daughters falls somewhat short of praise-worthiness),  but the Lot of Jewish tradition was one of the good guys:

Jewish tradition interpreted Abraham’s plea on behalf of the righteous in Sodom (Gen 18:23–32) as referring to Lot (Pirqe R. El. 25; Gen. Rab. 49:13), and so could speak of him as a righteous man (Wis 10:6; 19:17: δίκαιος; cf. 1 Clem 11:1: Philo, Mos. 2.58). His exemplary deliverance from the fate that overtook his wicked fellow-citizens is mentioned in Wis 10:6; Philo, Mos. 2.58; and 1 Clem 11:1, which seem to belong to the same paraenetic tradition as 2 Pet 2:4–9.

-Richard J. Bauckham, vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 252.

It is beyond reasonable dispute that the New Testament epistles include non-canonical information about Moses, Noah, Lot, and angels.  Does it seem like a stretch to think the same thing is at play with Job?  Not to me.

So it’s a bit simplistic to say “James mentions Job, therefore Job must be historical.”  First of all, even if there were no extrabiblical Job traditions, a New Testament reference is no proof of historicity.  Suppose James had written “you have heard of the compassion of the Good Samaritan”?  That’s completely intelligible and serves as the basis for moral exhortation, but without requiring that the Samaritan was a historical person.  All that is required is that there is a known religious tradition that includes a Samaritan story, and that the tradition was accepted as relevant for moral instruction.  James isn’t citing Job because he necessarily thinks Job is historical.  He may not have even thought about it one way or the other.  The “patience of Job” tradition is a shared cultural inheritance he and his audience both know, and it is relevant for the instruction he is giving.  That’s about all that citation proves: shared knowledge and relevance.  If someone really wants to posit that a New Testament allusion necessarily implies historicity, then I guess you get your trump card for claiming strict historicity for canonical Job and Jonah, but you are also going to get, at bare minimum, 1 Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, and the Sybilline Oracles in the process.  If citation proves historicity, things get really interesting in a hurry.

2 Comments

Filed under Bible

“You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

So says the epistle of James, chapter five, verse eleven: “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (NIV) The Greek word here translated perseverance is hypomone, and appears in such passages as Lk 8:15; 21:19; Ro 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2Co 6:4; 1Ti 6:11; 2Ti 3:10; Heb 12:1; Jas 1:3-4; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2, 19; Gal 5:23, where it is variously translated as “patience,” “perseverance” and “endurance.” Notice that it appears earlier in the book of James, two occurances near each other at the opening of the book.  Those occurrences are our best clues as to what James means when he uses the term later.  James writes (NIV):

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

To James, hypomone is more than just surviving tragedy, more than just pushing through.  It’s a certain kind of faith-filled acceptance that leads to spiritual maturation, an unshakable inner peace that means the disciple has no need for anything else–his great faith has brought him contentment even in trial.

“You’ve heard,” says James, “that Job had this quality.”

Huh?  Does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?  Maybe more than a bit?  For all his wonderful qualities, Job doesn’t demonstrate the kind of faithful acceptance that James seems to be encouraging here.  In fact, if Job did that, there wouldn’t really be much of a book there.  I mean, sure, he comes across this way in the opening prose framework (1:21, 2:9) but then you have 39 chapters of Job demanding answers, complaining, railing against the injustice of his plight.  He starts by cursing the day of his birth:

“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:11-12)

It doesn’t seem right that James would point to the person who said these words as an example of the kind of attitude that faithful people should have under adversity.  And it’s not like he’s shining with contentment and the peace that passes understanding by the end of his monologues.  Not even close:

My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:27-31)

This seems doubly odd when you do have some genuinely impressive examples of faithful perseverance in hardship, like Joseph or Daniel.  Why not point to one of them rather than Job, the classic existential struggler of the Hebrew Bible.  Have you ever wondered what James is up to here?  It’s almost like he’s not thinking of the Job we know at all, as though there were some other Job on his mind, one who was known for, above all things, patient accept of trial.  A Job like this one:

1 And when Satan saw that he could not put me to despair, he went and asked my body of the Lord in order to inflict plague on me, for the Evil one could not bear my patience. 2 Then the Lord delivered me into his hands to use my body as he wanted, but he gave him no power over my soul. 3. And he came to me as I was sitting on my throne still mourning over my children. 4 And he resembled a great hurricane and turned over my throne and threw me upon the ground. 5 And I continued lying on the floor for three hours. and he smote me with a hard plague from the top of my head to the toes of my feet. 6 And I left the city in great terror and woe and sat down upon a dunghill my body being worm-eaten. 7 And I wet the earth with the moistness of my sore body, for matter flowed off my body, and many worms covered it. 8 And when a single worm crept off my body, I put it back saying: “Remain on the spot where thou hast been placed until He who hath sent thee will order thee elsewhere.” 9 Thus I endured for seven years, sitting on a dung-hill outside of the city while being plague-stricken.

What’s that?  It’s the opening of chapter five of The Testament of Job, a Jewish work that dates somewhere around 1BC-1AD, and tells a story roughly similar to canonical Job, if you subtract all of Job’s complaining and add in a ridiculously exaggerated level of patience and acceptance over a long amount of time.  If you are reading about extreme patience from someone named Job with whom a late first century Jewish audience would be familiar, chances are it’s from the Testament of Job, not bitter, flailing canonical Job.

But wait, for that to be possible the New Testament would have to be willing to allude to non-canonical Jewish literature.  And that can’t happen, can it?

But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9, referencing 1 Enoch)

Oh.  Right.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible

Side Note: Regarding Adam, Job and Jonah

The three sections of the Old Testament that are most widely considered to be generally parabolic or mythopoetic rather than largely historical are Genesis 1-11, the book of Job and the book of Jonah.

Let’s take Genesis 1-11 first:

Lucas Cranach's <i>Adam and Eve</i>

Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

There’s a pretty clear break between Genesis 11 and 12 as we move out of primordial epic into the lives of the patriarchs.  We’re done with talking snakes, magic trees and flaming swords, and into something that isn’t straight history but definitely seems to be based on historical persons.  There is a groundedness to Abraham that isn’t present earlier.  The rest of the Old Testament seems to acknowledge this break as well:  there are forty-two references to Abraham after the book of Genesis, but only one definite reference to Adam (1 Chron 1:1).  Noah fares little better, with a total of three references (1 Chron 1:3-4; Isa 54:9; Ezek 14:14-20).  The stories of the patriarchs shaped the religious life of Israel far more than the primordial history did.  Even more striking, there are 121 Old Testament references to Moses that come after the Pentateuch.  While the patriarchs continue to be referenced, it is the exodus event that serves as the foundational narrative for Israelite society.

I mention this in part to point out that that the internal evidence in the Bible suggests that the earliest stories weren’t given nearly the “weight” in Israelite tradition that modern conservatives assign to them.  If you grew up in a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical context, you probably heard countless proclamations that the creation narrative is the foundation of our faith, and that everything stands or falls with the way that we interpret the creation week, Adam and Eve, and the flood.  Yet the scriptures treat Exodus as the primary story, with the patriarchal accounts as prequel, and 1-11 as prequel to that.  It’s not that they are disregarded–not at all–but it’s Moses who is the big deal in Jewish thought, not Adam.  They simply didn’t have as much riding on whether Adam was historical as we seem to.

When it comes to Job, I think it’s pretty clear why many people, even quite conservative scholars, treat it as ahistorical.  With the exception of the prose framework (chapters 1 and 2, and 41:7-17), the whole book is written in long dramatic monologues with a highly stylized a poetic sensibility.  No one really talks that way–sitting around taking turns doing spontaneous soliloquies.  It could be that it is a drama based on a historical event (like Shakespeare’s histories) but there’s certainly no compelling reason to assume so.  Within the larger canonical context, it strikes me as a story that was intentionally designed to counter a legalistic reading of Deuteronomy that insists that tragedy is always the result of sin.  Job is set up as the perfect foil: “So there was the man who was super righteous!  Really, really righteous!  God himself said he was the most righteous man on the whole earth!  And then tragedy happened!  Really, really awful tragedy!  The worst tragedy you’ve ever heard of!  And he had these three friends who tried to interpret it within their theological framework.  But they were all wrong!  Here’s what they said….” When you have a text with dramatic/poetic form and an extreme situation that is perfectly designed to raise theological questions, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this is intended to be historical.

And then there’s Jonah.  A lot of folks consider Jonah a fable because of the part where he is swallowed by a great fish.  I see their point, but that’s not the issue for me.  I’m not really interested in spending a lot of time in a debate about miracles.  The more salient point, I think, is that Jonah, similar to Job, seems to be another story designed expressly to challenge bad theology.  Jonah is an extremely unsympathetic character.  He whines, he rebels, he gets upset when the Ninevites repent:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The kicker is when God withers a shade bush, exposing Jonah to the sun, and Jonah again gets angry.

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

This is another story that intends to undermine self-serving religion.  A Hebrew prophet is acting like a whiny infant because God is being gracious and loving! He wants God to be harsh and vindictive with his enemies, but continually gracious to him and his friends.  He even quotes the great faith confession of Exodus 32:4 disapprovingly.  Again, this strikes me as a parable to raise pertinent theological questions–and to expose a self-serving theology as base and infantile.  Read Jonah against the backdrop of the other minor prophets, and it’s an obvious outlier.  I think the parabolic nature of the story is obvious in the greater context.

My friends who insist on the historicity of these three texts have a quick rejoinder, one that to them seems insurmountable.  Adam, Noah, Job and Jonah are all mentioned in the New Testament.  Because the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself!) reference them, they must therefore be taken to be historical accounts.  I’ll address that in a future post.

2 Comments

Filed under Bible

Same Planet, Different Worlds

Over at Scotteriology, agathos tries to explain “why Biblical scholars and conservative theologians will always disagree.”

In a nutshell, one side of the discussion, conservative inerrantists, prefers a deductive synchronic approach to the text and the other, biblical scholarship, prefers an inductive diachronic approach to the text. These interpretive assumptions and methods are so different as to leave the opposing camps with essentially different Bibles, hence, the arguments.

Once someone has set up a deductive synchronic shield around a text any argument with them is almost pointless, especially, if the shield becomes more important than the text–they are in the Matrix and do not have a context for what you are trying to explain. On the other hand for those that have taken the red pill the methods of biblical scholarship are self evident and any attempt like the character Cypher in the movie to re-enter the Matrix blissfully unaware is impossible. As James notes that would be akin to criminologists stopping the use of fingerprinting.

In the comments he gives some definitions:

diachronic = seen through time, to develop over history
inductive = see what the text actually says and then develop your theory about what it is

synchronic= seen from only one point in time, to always have a fixed meaning
deductive = come to the text with a theory already in place and then use the text to support that theory

I think this is pretty accurate.  I’m reminded of a discussion several years ago on an email list that wound up being essentially between me and a pastor who was very dedicated to verbal plenary inspiration.  In a nutshell, it went like this:

Him:

A perfect being can only produce perfect things.  God is perfect. God produced the Bible.  Therefore, the Bible is perfect.

Me:

That sounds great in theory, but the problem is I’ve actually seen a Bible.

Him:

A perfect being can only produce perfect things.  God is perfect….

There’s your inductive/deductive distinction right there.  And I think it makes a huge difference.  None of us are going to approach the text free from bias, but the strict inerrantist assumptions don’t just color your conclusions, they keep certain possibilities from even being considered.

2 Comments

Filed under Bible, This Is Good

My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 2: Its Priorities May Differ From Mine

This is related to the conversation about genre, and also to Ben Witherington’s comments I quoted below.  Next in the list of assumptions:

2) Some things that seem important to me don’t matter to the Biblical writers

Actually, that Witherington post covered a lot of what I intended to say.  The point is this: even in the New Testament period, when there is an established discipline of history, the ancient standards are still very, very different from our modern ones.  Compare the temptation accounts in Luke and Matthew, and you’ll see pretty quickly that the chronology differs.  In Matthew it’s stones to bread, jump from the temple, bow down to Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world.  In Luke it’s bread, kingdoms, jump.  At least one of these is presented in an order that doesn’t represent the actual historical chronology.  It’s easy for a skeptic to point to this as an example of the Bible being “wrong,” but that’s a pretty silly critique.  More likely each writer has chosen to present the temptations in the order that best presents the themes of their book.  Matthew’s Jesus is the rightful king, who already is heir to all power and authority.  Notice that Matthew surrounds the temptation accounts with the exact same line, said once by John the Baptist, once by Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2, 4:17).  Luke, on the other hand, is well-known for his strong sense of geographical movement.  In Luke’s presentation, the Temple (and, by extension, Jerusalem) has enormous symbolic significance.  Jesus is dedicated there as an infant, and at age 12, when his family was leaving Jerusalem after Passover, Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.  When an anxious Mary and Joseph found him, he said “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (2:49).  After that, Luke doesn’t show Jesus in Jerusalem again until he enters it for his crucifixion, a journey that he makes gradually but inexorably (see 9:51, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11).  Because Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story, he makes it the climax of the temptations.  There are always people who want to say that either Matthew or Luke must have erred in their temptation account, but in reality, both did it the right way for their own purposes, and in keeping with the literary conventions of their own time.  As they say in marriage counseling, neither is wrong, they are just different.

So, if you think inspired history has to be meet modern standards of objective reportage to counter as scripture, the Bible is going to disappoint you over and over again.  Ditto if you feel the need to know what exact words were said on a given occasion.  Or even to whom they were said.  You just aren’t going to get that certainty in the Bible.  Different gospels are going to have somewhat different wording.  Sometimes two or three gospels will cover the same event with very different emphases.  Look at the healing of the centurion’s servant, for example.  To make this a bit easier, I’ll underline some parts that are unique in each account.

Matt 8:5-12

Luke 7:1-10

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”

7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The first time I encountered these texts in my ministry training, my instructor went out of his way to point out that there wasn’t necessarily an historical discrepancy here, because there is a sense in which statements communicated through intermediaries could be honestly recorded as statements between the two principal parties.  His example (this was back in 1991) was that President Bush could send Secretary of State James Baker to deliver a message to Prime Minister John Major, and the newspaper headlines could honestly say “Bush Tells Major “We’re On Your Side!” although the two men hadn’t even been in the same continent, and those exact words weren’t said.

If you find that convincing, I won’t try to talk you out of it (well, not right now, anyway), but that didn’t work for me.  At the time, I thought it was pretty deeply troubling that the people who only had Matthew’s account would have a completely wrong mental image of what happened, and it seemed to me that if the Spirit was going to give fuller details to Luke’s reader, he certainly could have done that for Matthew’s.  Making things worse, the lines from Jesus in Matthew 8:11-12 don’t appear at all in Luke, nor does the information that the servant was healed “at that very hour,” which means that Luke’s account is also flawed!  Neither was meeting my standards for what I thought the Bible should be.

Only some years later did I try to read those texts in terms of what the original audiences needed, rather than what I thought I wanted.  Of course, we’ll never know for sure what was going on in Matthew and Luke’s heads when they wrote their gospels, but each of them were writing at a time when tensions between Jews and Gentiles were high.  Luke, a Gentile writing to Gentiles, probably thinks it is important to reinforce the point that God had chosen the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were being brought into a grace relationship that already existed.  What better way to do that than to write about an incident where Jewish elders intercede with Jesus on behalf of a Roman soldier–one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The soldier serves as a model of Gentile discipleship that is openly supportive of the Jewish people and their religious environment–exactly the kind of example that Luke wants his Gentile audience to follow.  And he wants them to see Jewish religious leaders who are quick to do what they can to bring blessing to a Roman.  That picture only helps them cultivate a healthier attitude toward Israel.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jew writing mainly to Jews.  And he could be concerned that if he writes this up the way Luke does, his Jewish readers are going to use this as evidence that Gentiles can’t approach God on their own–they have to either become Jews or use Jewish friends as intermediaries.  They might get the idea that the only Gentiles God will respond to are ones who are building synagogues and actively befriending Jewish elders.  That’s could easily spin into an ongoing sense of entitlement and superiority that Matthew doesn’t want to reinforce.  And so in his version, the centurion comes to Jesus on his own.  And Matthew is sure to include the parts where Jesus makes it clear that some faithful Gentiles will be dining with the patriarchs in the kingdom, and some of the Jewish people won’t.  It’s a matter of faithful response to God, not DNA.

Notice that “I have not found such great faith in Israel!” becomes a rebuke of Israel in Matthew’s story.  (“You Israelites ought to have this kind of faith, but none of you do!”  In Luke, though, it seems like Israel has set a very high standard for faith, but the centurion exceeded it.  “Wow!  Even in Israel no one has quite this much faith!”  It doesn’t seem like a rebuke of Israel at all.  In fact, it seems like Jesus implicitly compliments their faith by using it as the baseline for comparison.

Both authors are interested in history.  I don’t think either of them is making this story up.  But they don’t have accurate historical detail as the highest priority.  And in a situation where giving their audience the most complete possible historical truth could lead them into theological error and ungracious attitudes, it’s obvious to the gospel writers which is the better path.  Ultimately, they aren’t writing history so much as narrative theology with deep pastoral concern.  I might want straight history from them, but they want to form churches in the character and spirit of Jesus.  It could be that those seldom conflict, but when they do exacting historicity takes a back seat to kingdom concerns.

After a while it occurred to me that Matthew and Luke have a better idea what good scripture is than I do.  Part of my submission to the Bible is letting it be what it is, not insisting that it’s flawed if it isn’t what I wanted.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Ministry

An Aside: Ben Witherington on Ancient Historiography

In response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book (which I haven’t read yet):

Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.

There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?

If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Books, This Is Good

My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

Picking up where we left off before–

Sam Harris wants to tie his interlocutors to a specific dichotomy about the Bible.  It’s either the inerrant word of God or a purely mortal product.  Because he knows his fundamentalist target audience already believes that, he doesn’t bother to make the case for accepting that dichotomy, nor does he bother to tell us why we should reject other views of the Bible between the extremes.  But there certainly are viable views in between the extremes that still allow for the scriptures to be authoritative for our faith without the need for an over-rigid theory of inspiration.

For what it’s worth, here’s where I am when it comes to issues of Biblical inspiration and authority:

1) No one wrote a history before someone wrote a history.  Okay, that’s tautological, I know.  But the point is that genre is important, especially regarding the Old Testament.  It is generally acknowledged that the first person who set out to write a history in anything close to the modern sense was Herodotus in 5th century B.C. Greece.  That was the beginning of a new discipline that sought to record events in a way that faithfully represented the accounts of those who were there.  Before Herodotus, there weren’t distinct histories, just epic stories that combined parts of what we would now label history, legend and myth.  If a superior intelligence wanted to communicate in written form to the tribal peoples of the ancient near East, he would be unlikely to choose to do so through history, a genre that was completely unfamiliar to them.  (It is so familiar to us that this is hard to imagine–we just have to do our best to get into the mindset of a 13th century Hebrew slave.)  If you compare the early sections of Genesis to other ANE creation accounts like Atrahasis or the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see some pretty marked similarities.  Skeptics consider that evidence against the Bible, but it’s only reasonable that God would communicate in a cultural form that was already familiar to the Hebrew people.  Giving them a history would have been a huge misservice when they only knew how to interpret cultural myth.  And here I mean myth as a literary form, not implying falsity, but noting that exacting historicity was not the point.

Is it possible to communicate theological truth through ahistorical stories?  Would God do such a thing?  Well, sure he would, and if you’re a Christian, you think so too.  Because we believe that Jesus was God and Jesus communicated through parables–one of the most culturally relevant genres of first century Palestine.  If Jesus chose stories about vineyard workers and banquets to communicate genuine truth about God and the kingdom, why couldn’t the Father have chosen ANE style epic form to communicate essential truths about himself and the world he created?

The Bible communicates through a tremendous variety of genres: songs, proverbs, letters, parables, apocalypses, law codes, gospels, prophecies, dramatic monologues, genealogies, and, yes, histories.  But there is no compelling reason to assign the label “history” to many early sections of the Bible, and I suspect that we only do so because of the weight of tradition and our own cultural familiarity with the genre.  When Genesis is laid alongside other contemporaneous literature, it’s clear that epic myth is a much better fit for genre.

And that doesn’t make Genesis less inspired or less authoritative, any more that understanding that there wasn’t a historical good Samaritan or prodigal son make those stories less authoritative.  (You do think that those are preachable, right?  And they tell us something about God, right?)  But it does mean that arguing about whether the days of creation were 24-hour days or eons, or whether the flood was world-wide or local, ultimately is about like arguing over what color the good Samaritan’s donkey was.  It’s not the point of the story.

I think it’s important to say that I didn’t come to this view of Genesis because I wanted to disregard it in any sense–and I don’t.  I came to this view because my evangelical Bible teachers taught me that to interpret a passage well, I had to understand its genre.  To me, the most conservative approach I can take is to assume that the Bible was written in the genres appropriate to its era(s), and not impose on the scriptures the forms and preferences of my own era.  To force the early Biblical passages into the genres I know and like regardless of the original cultural context is not a conservative move–far from it.  God communicated clearly within the constraints of the literary forms that were available to his readers.  He could not have done otherwise and expected them to understand.

Next up, assumption #2: Some Things That Seem Important to Me Don’t Matter to the Biblical Writers

4 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Bible

The Restoration of All Things

resurgam1“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

 17“Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets….

The Apostle Peter, in Acts 3:12-21

For a long time now I’ve been dissatisfied with the traditional evangelical treatment of heaven and the afterlife.   I couldn’t figure out what was so exciting about being a disembodied spirit roving through the clouds, and I didn’t know how to get people excited about it, when everything that I really like about my life right now is dependent on my corporeal existence.  And I think a lot of Christians feel that way if they are honest.  Heaven gets good press not because it’s so wonderful in and of itself, but because it beats the alternatives: hell or non-existence (and in my understanding of the scriptures, those are eventually the same thing.)

I thought that there had to be something more that we just weren’t seeing.  Some of the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place, but it was N.T. Wright, in his Resurrection of the Son of God and Surpised By Hope who really helped me see the big picture–something that I could genuinely be excited about.  The ultimate hope isn’t heaven, it never was.  It is bodily resurrection and everlasting life on a renewed and restored earth.  Once I glommed on to that, passages like Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21 start to make a whole lot more sense, and I kicked myself for not having seen it before.  And then, once I had our future hope of resurrection, restoration and renewal clearly in mind, I started noticing that it was present in all kinds of scriptures.  Like Acts 3.  The apostolic message is clear.  Jesus isn’t coming back to wisk us away or to end his misguided experiment with time and matter.  He is coming back to restore all things.  Everything broken will be fixed.  Everything thing tarnished will be cleansed.  Everything dead will be brought back to life.  That, and nothing less than that, is what we are anticipating.  The complete prophetic vision will be made reality, and the glory of the Lord will cover the earth.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Reflections

Believing in the Bible

Just ran across this column from Bart Ehrman at the Washington Post site.  Excerpts:

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible….

To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible….

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

And so, biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity. It might de-convert people away from a modern form of fundamentalist belief. But that might be a very good thing indeed.

I think Ehrman is being a little coy.  If you read the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, you get a brief version of Ehrman’s faith journey, which basically boils down to “I was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian for a while, and because of that I got deep into Biblical scholarship, and what I learned about the Bible turned me agnostic.”  I don’t think he’s lying here–he certainly knows that there are a lot of Christians who take a liberal or post-liberal stance toward the scriptures but are still guided by a deep faith in Jesus.  I’m one of them.  But I think if Ehrman were really pressed on this point, he would admit that while there are people who accept Biblical criticism while retaining Christian faith, he himself doesn’t find that position tenable.

I don’t want to pick on Ehrman too much.  I’m pretty appreciative of his books, which essentially take the basic Biblical information you’ll learn in a mainline seminary and make it accessible to a mass audience.  We ought to be discussing the difficulties with the Bible in church more, and it really isn’t Ehrman’s fault that some people learn this information and drift away from faith.  (As per this post, I think it’s the fault of the kinds of churches who essentially make their congregants choose between believing in inerrancy or becoming an atheist.)  But he ought to be a more honest about the reality that his books certainly will provoke a faith crisis in a fair number of his readers, if not an outright rejection of Christianity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Books, Church Culture

No Voices in My Head

If you’ve never stumbled across Bill MacKinnon’s article titled No Voices In My Head, now is the time to go take a look.  You really ought to read it all–it’s not long–but here’s the take-away:

It is curious to me that if someone in a typical evangelical church stood up and said an angel spoke to him and told him that God wanted him to be a missionary to Africa , we would be very skeptical at best.  Yet if that same person stood up and said that he “just really feel led to go to Africa to be a missionary”, the “amens” and applause would be deafening.  Yet the former is biblical and the latter is not.

So, should we be looking for angels or burning bushes?  No. Moses wasn’t looking for one.  We shouldn’t be looking for anything.  What we should do is read our Bibles.  You want to hear God speak?  If you have a Bible, you have thousands of years of God-inspired instructions, messages, exhortations, rebukes and praises right at your fingertips.  Why do we think we need more than that?  God’s will for your life is written there.  God’s instructions for living are there.  To want them piped directly into your brain is just foolishness and laziness.  Worse, it opens you up to the worst kind of doctrinal errors.

If God wants to send me on some particular errand, he knows where to find me.  In the meantime, I have more than I can handle just trying to live out the clear teachings Jesus left for us.

The idea that I need to interpret vague signs or inner nudges to determine the will of God isn’t just unscriptural, it’s markedly anti-scriptural.  Remember this great passage from Deuteronomy 30?

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

One of the reasons for Israel’s praise was that God had made his wishes completely clear-primarily through the ten commandments, but also through all the detailed provisions of the covenant code.  Unlike the capricious pagan gods, you didn’t have to go to an oracle or read sheep’s entrails or look for patterns in the tea leaves.  God had already spelled it all out.

The composer of Psalm 119 opens with:

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.

2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart.

3 They do nothing wrong;
they walk in his ways.

4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.

5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!

You can find this sentiment all over the Bible.  What you can’t find is someone kicking themselves for not seeking out the subtle cues that would lead to “God’s perfect plan” for their life.  It’s just not in there.

Or read this from the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

With all that as background, you have your work cut out for you if you want to claim that proper Christian devotion requires listening for God someway other than the revelation of Jesus recorded in the scriptures.  And yet, I’ve been in a lot of situations similar to what Bill MacKinnon has apparently experienced, where people who regularly hear God speak to them (or so they say), are not-so-subtly exalted as spiritual exemplars above the poor shmucks who have to be content to just read the Bible and do what it says.

When the scriptures say that what God wants from you is has been clearly recorded, what attracts people to a form of religion that emphasizes the vague and ephemeral?

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Rants, This Is Good

In The Presence of the Holy One: A Sermon

Exodus 24:1-11 (NIV)

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, 2 but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”

3 When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”

8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.

This text is notoriously difficult.  There are parts of this story, that, to be honest, seem primitive and weird.  It can be a bit off-putting for well-dressed modern readers.  Folks who like shampoo and manicures can have a hard time with this passage.  Moses builds an altar, which represents the Lord, and he builds twelve stone pillars, which represent the twelve tribes: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Maybe there is a symbol on each pillar so you can tell which one is your tribe.  It is early in the morning when Moses does this, and the people gather round.  Strong young men select flawless young bulls from the herds of Israel, and lead them to the altar where they are sacrificed.  Burnt offerings and peace offerings are made, a graphic symbol of the peace that exists between God and the tribes.  Blood from the sacrificed bulls runs thick.  Half of it Moses puts into bowls.  The other half he sprinkles on the altar.  Then he reads the Book of the Covenant to them.  These are the laws that God has given, the commandments that will establish the values of their nations, the statutes that will guard their hearts.  In a rare moment of deep and pure faith, the people respond.  “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”

Moses lifts up the bowl, and he dips his fingers in the warm blood.  With vigorous motions he sprinkles the blood upon the crowd.  Blood dots the people of Simeon.  There is bright red on the arms and faces of the tribe of Levi.  Crimson stripes run down the cheeks of Judah.  Eyes are closed and hands lifted up, in Issachar, Zebulun, Bejamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh.  All are sprinkled with the blood.  Moses calls out, “This…is the blood…of the covenant…the Lord…has made…with you…in accordance…with all…these words.”

It is done.  The Lord has a people.  The Israelites have a God.

This text is notoriously difficult.  It intrigues scholars and vexes preachers.  Fundamentalists will bend over backward to fit it into their tidy syllogisms, but the text doesn’t budge.  Liberals will ignore it or dismiss it as an old and obsolete story that made it’s way into the Bible because no one felt quite right about snipping it out.  Unlike some other difficult passages, the problem isn’t that we can’t be certain what it is saying.  No, what is says is clear enough.  The problem is that what it clearly says runs counter to what we thought we knew about God from other passages, especially the line that tells us “No one can see God and live.”  God may have inspired that verse, but he won’t be bound by it.  With a kingly divine freedom that is continually frustrating to the folks who would like to know exactly what they can and can’t expect from God, He does what we thought he would never, ever, do.  He hosts a mountaintop picnic for the leaders of Israel.  Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders ascend the mountainside, and when they arrive at the summit, they do the impossible–they see God.

This text is notoriously difficult.  It feels ancient.  It is dream-like, mysterious.  And it refuses to answer our questions.  “Moses, Aaron, elders—when you made that final climb, when your muscles were aching with the exertion of the hike, when your lungs were panting in the thin mountain air, when you finally set foot on the rocky peak, when you turned and saw God—what did he look like?”  No one says.  He has a body of some sort, with hands and feet.  His hands are huge, formidable, the kind of hands you would expect God to have.

Back when Moses explained the Passover ritual to his people, he said:

“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ 16 And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (Ex 13:14-16).

The elders have witnessed the fearsome work of those hands.  And now they see them with their own eyes.  Heart-rates go up.  Knees weaken.  Some of the men brace themselves for what must surely come.  But the hands of the Lord remain at his side.  “God did not raise a hand against the leaders of his people,” we read.

When they glance down they see God’s feet.  Under his feet is a kind of sapphire pavement, blue like the sky and as clear and pure and heaven itself.  They’ve never seen anything like it.

Having seen God and survived, seventy-four men sit down on that sapphire pavement, and they eat and drink.  Does God dine with them?  Did He provide the food?  What exactly did they have to eat and drink?  Does anyone speak?  Does God?  Does anyone dare ask him a question?  Or, after the travails of slavery, the struggles of the journey, the stresses of leadership, is this a bit of that Sabbath rest God told them about—a chance to truly, protected and provided for by God.  Is this a time for slow, deep breaths?  A time to rest in quiet security in the presence of God and just be?

This text is notoriously difficult.  One could, I suppose, go to a lot of trouble to try to explain it; clear it up; make it palatable.  But that would be an injustice.  The prophets and scribes knew good and well that this text was a challenge, but they handed it down anyway.  They gave it a central place in the Exodus narrative.  The may very well have intended it to be the climax of this story.  And they didn’t feel the need to add explanatory footnotes or parenthetical comments.  They bequeathed it to us as an act of wild and mysterious grace.  “Remember this!” they say.  “The God who carried us out of slavery on eagle’s wings and brought us to himself gave our leaders the blessing of his tangible, visible presence.  We pledged ourselves to him in fire and blood, and he pledged himself to us at a sapphire-tinted banquet.”

There is no other passage like this in the Bible.  It is the most extraordinary story of divine presence in all of scripture.  And when we read on, we quickly see that God intends this to be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with his people.  He gives Moses the plans for a tabernacle.  The twelve tribes are to build a portable dwelling for God, a place where they can go and meet with him.  He has chosen to live among them.

Centuries later, God will be dine again with his people, this time in the form of Jesus.  And it won’t just be the leaders of Israel.  In fact, they won’t even top the list.  No, it will be folks like Simon the Leper, Zaccheus the Tax Collector, dying Lazarus and his sisters.  It’s a bit of a scandal that God is willing to eat with such a diverse crowd.  “He dines with sinners!” the people said, sometimes in a wondrous tones, often in harsh accusation.

John writes this:

The Word became flesh and blood,

and moved into the neighborhood.

We saw the glory with our own eyes,

the one-of-a-kind glory,

like Father, like Son,

Generous inside and out,

true from start to finish.

(John 1:14, The Message)

Matthew quotes Jesus:

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Always with us.  Always with us.  Always with us.

Some days it feels like that.  Sing a few hymns, say a prayer, read a passage, and you can get an urge to slip off your shoes and set the tip of your toe gently down.  It’s a silly thing to do, but you know that God won’t be confined to the little box of our expectations.  And there’s always a chance that one day you’ll reach out that toe expecting to meet carpet, and find out the whole floor has turned to sapphire, as pure and clear as heaven; as pure and clear as we want our hearts to be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible

In Response to Comments…

I really appreciate the folks that have dropped comments on my obscure little blog. Let me take a moment to respond to some of what you’ve said.

In the “On Not Voting” post, d.eris writes: “How would you read “render unto Caesar” in this context? As paying the tax and casting the ballot? Or paying the tax and casting off the ballot?”

caesars-image1Since the Gospel writers were in an imperial context, far different than a modern representative democracy, this matter of Christian political engagement won’t have an easy “chapter and verse” kind of answer to it. I kind of get why some folks think “rendering unto Caesar” means something like “doing what the government encourages you to do–short of obvious sin,” but I can’t make that leap myself.

Here’s the full context in Mark 12:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.

The first thing to note is that Jesus was answering this question in a religious environment where it was a very hot topic.  Tax collectors were often viewed as collaborating with a hostile pagan government, and it was no secret that tax money would, in part, go to fund the armies which kept Israel from independence and freedom.  Since land and nationhood were some of the foundational promises of the Bible, it was pretty easy to construe payment of taxes as working directly against the plans of God.  On the other side, you had the folks who thought that cooperation really was the best thing, that God establishes all political leadership, and he must have, for his own reasons, elected Caesar to rule the chosen people for the time being.  Under this view, God is moving our money to Rome as part of his discipline, and we should accept that.   So they are asking Jesus a question designed to make him choose one side or the other.  Are you with the rebels or the collaborators?  You can imagine the consequence to his ministry if he actually makes that choice.  It’s going to hard to keep both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in his band of Twelve.  It’s a wonder those guys get along, anyway.

Instead of accepting the dichotomy as it was presented, Jesus reframes the whole issue:

“Who’s face is on that coin?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Well, then, it’s his money, anyway.  Give that to him and give God whatever has God’s image on it.”

Instead of taking a pro-Rome or anti-Rome stance, Jesus downplays the significance of taxes as a sign of political loyalty or resistance.   That stuff?  It’s not yours or God’s anyway.  There’s nothing riding on what you do with it.  Just give it back to Rome.

The second half of the sentence is incredibly under-emphasized in current teaching.  “Give to God what is God’s.”  This is what Jesus is really concerned with–that those who are made in the image of God, (human persons) are given to God.   I take this to mean that the state should be welcome to my money–it’s spiritually dangerous for me to hold on to that stuff anyway–but they can’t have me.  This is one reason that I side with people who are wary of Christians joining the military.  When the State gets my body to do with as it pleases, I’ve moved an icon of God into Caesar’s control.  And I don’t want my personhood compromised in the political machinations of the State, either, so I shun voting.

I think Philippians 3 should be carefully read in this regard.  Philippi is an incredibly pro-Roman society. (Remember their shout that “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice”?) Paul tells them that “their citizenship is in heaven.”  Not Rome.  Heaven.

George Washington can have anything with his picture on it.  Fine by me.  But he doesn’t get the stuff with God’s picture on it.  My personhood is off limits.  I belong to another.

How far do I with go with this?  My wife was fired once for abstaining from reciting the pledge of allegiance.  (Sorry, we only have room for one ultimate loyalty at a time.)  Refuse to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and he can get awfully upset.

On a different note altogether:

In response to “I Thought Only Protestants Could Be This Cheesy,” David writes: “I cannot see what you’re trying to show. Can you tell me what it is? Before you hold off converting to Catholicism (if you were serious, there) please try to learn what the Church really teaches. There’s no doubt bad Catholics, just like there’s bad everything else. Don’t let Catholics give Catholicism a bad name. Please let me know if there’s something I can do to help here.”

Your helpfulness and kind spirit are much appreciated, David!  Here’s where I am in relation to Catholicism–after a long time of your standard Protestant anti-Catholic indoctrinations and distortions, when I started reading Catholics on my own, I was increasingly impressed with them.  There’s a lot of depth in the Catholic tradition that was sadly lacking from my own spiritual formation, and I’ve benefited tremendously from acquainting myself better with Catholic thought and history.  I now have a huge spiritual crush on Teresa of Avila, whose insight shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.  Still, I was teasing about about converting.  I can’t quite get there.  Anglicanism, maybe, but I don’t see myself in Catholicism.  I am, though, a huge admirer of all I see that is healthy and good about the Catholic tradition, which is why it especially irks me when I see Catholic imitating the Protestant-style church marketing.  We’re the ones who have a tendency to be flippant and pseudo-witty with the sacred.  I really need you guys to keep modeling what reverence and respect ought to look like.  It’s the antiquity, the meaningful tradition, and the sense of the ineffable Other that draws me to your tradition.  Stuff like the cheesy Sham-Wow ad parody undercut the best things that Catholicism offers to the rest of us.

But if I ever decide to cross the Tiber, I’ll send you an email.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Politics and Culture