"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Friday, February 27, 2015

WWJD?

In virtually every meeting he attended, a kind, sensitive and beloved pillar of the church pleaded, “What can we do to attract younger adults and younger families?” His concern was well-intentioned. North American churches have been in decline since the late 1950’s; and, he has worked hard all his life to build his congregation and keep it strong. Now advanced in age, he continues to do more than most church members do; but his energy and strength are fading and he’s concerned about seeing all his work go down the drain. Much church energy over the last few decades has been devoted to “attracting younger adults and younger families.”

It will be 55 years this August since I preached my first sermon at Hickory Tree Baptist Church in Balch Springs, Texas. I was 18. During the years of my undergraduate schooling and military service I preached now and then, doing youth revivals and filling the pulpit when pastors were away.

 In August, 1968 I returned from Vietnam, was released from active duty and began work on my Master of Divinity at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. I also was called as Student Pastor to First Christian Church of Waynoka, Oklahoma (almost in the panhandle; go to the end of the world and turn left).

From then until October of 2005, I was a parish minister. That was the time of decline in the North American church, and not even the emergence of entrepreneurial mega-churches slowed down the decline. By the time I retired no denomination or association of churches had escaped the slide.

Strangely, while church membership and participation decreased, surveys and polls in the 90s began to indicate that 95% of North Americans (plus or minus, depending upon the poll) believed in God. Religious emphasis weeks on college and university campuses attracted crowds, especially if featured speakers were celebrities or practitioners of magic, eastern mysticism, witchcraft, Satanism or other fringe religion.

Around the turn of the 21st century phrases began to emerge, like, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” and Canadian churchman, Thomas G. Bandy collected and assimilated related data and identified what he called the largest and fastest growing spiritual population in North America: “the spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public.” The majority of that population, he observed, was under 40 years of age.

When one observes the typical church in North America, the overwhelming majority of those participating will older than 60, it will be in a survival mode and its oft-repeated mantra is, “What can we do to attract younger adults and younger families?”

About that same time the 1991 landmark work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations, was making an impact on those who studied spiritual, religious and ecclesiastical components of society. During my work as Transitional Minister I have focused, with observable effect, on what my parents and grandparents called “the generation gap;” except that today that gap is a multiple one, separating six generations!

What I have discovered is that the primary strategy by which the church struggles to survive is precisely what’s strangling it to death: cutting expenses—and therefore ministries—across the board. In my estimation, it would be better to narrow a congregation’s focus and to adequately fund one or two meaningful ministries, than to try to keep the entire traditional slate of seven (or however many) functional committees operating on shoestrings. There’s just not enough mayonnaise left in the jar to spread the whole loaf!

That economic strategy is one symptom of the church’s death rattle that has been heard for several decades: “We never did it that way before.”

My favorite definition of insanity is “doing the same thing again and expecting a different result.” Try this: if you want to attract young adults and young families, ask them what they want from a spiritual experience, and do that. You probably will discover that you don’t have to replace the organ and the choir with drums, guitar and video screens, although you may end up using both.

Theologian Walter Wink writes: “American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds or the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith.”[1]

Everything I hear and read regarding the spirituality of millennial generations[2] affirms the accuracy of Wink’s statement. Millennials care little about doctrines or denominations or congregational polity. They want know how to follow Jesus—to be more like Jesus. My nephew, a Millennial and a prolific writer, has embarked on a one-year project to discover through study, prayer and praxis what it means to follow Jesus (myjesusproject.com).

And so, when I came across a book whose subtitle includes the phrase, “Why We All Need to Learn to Read Scripture Like Jesus Did,” I was interested. It’s been challenging, as you can discover by reading my previous seven blogs. It’s also enlightening and inspiring, and I believe it points us in the right direction.

I’m with the Millennials in that I really am not vested in the survival of any church or congregation unless that church or congregation has a passion to follow Jesus. I agree with Walter Wink that American Culture is in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance, and I want to be in on it.

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim




[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday Galilee, 1999), Kindle edition Location 1961.
[2] A generalized melding of Strauss’ and Howe’s generations “X” (born between 1964 and 1981) and “Y” (born between 1982 and 2000).

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Summary of My Lenten Pilgrimage to Date

Lent. Wandering the wasteland of apparent contradictions in Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Giving up unproductive—even counterproductive—ways of reading Scripture. Taking up the challenge of reading Scripture as Jesus did.

The unproductive ways:[1]
  1. Reading to defend Scripture (as if it needed my defense!); accepting every word at face value and reading from a prospect of unquestioning obedience, with relative disregard for the people and life situations to which the text was originally addressed and the life situations within which the current reading takes place. This has brought about the necessity of rationalizing (denying) any apparent contradiction in the name of defending the Bible. 
  2. Again, accepting every word at face value, but rejecting the whole on the basis of the unresolved contradictions.
  3. “Cherry-Picking.” Selecting the texts that support my presuppositions and avoiding the rest.
 Jesus’ way:

1.       Reading from the prospect of faithful questioning based upon an understanding of God’s nature as Love.
2.      “The Priority of Jesus was not on defending a text or a ritual, it was on defending people—in particular defending the victims of religious violence and abuse.”[3]

The Hebrew Scriptures make no apologies for their seeming contradictions. Indeed, the conflicts are a central feature—an organizing theme—of the collection of diverse writings that comprise what we call the Old Testament.

Walter Bruegemann compares it to a courtroom with disputing testimony and counter-testimony representing diametrically opposed understandings of God’s nature. Which is it: (1) Is God a warrior/despot, jealous of his conquests and harsh in judgment upon those who stray from his pronouncements and laws, or (2) is God a creator, redeemer and sustainer whose concern is the wellbeing of the people who choose to live in relationship with him?

The courtroom reverberates with the debate[4]. The book of Job is the perfect paradigm, with Job taking the second argument above, and his friends taking the first.

Many of the Psalms and later prophetic writings side with Job; in fact, if we are really alert to the content of the prophetic writings, we cannot avoid the realization that among the most frequently listed sins of Israel is the neglect of widows and of the poor.

These debates are based upon the ancient wisdom that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. Job, the Psalms and the prophets don’t argue against this moral paradigm; indeed, they support it, even to the point of advocating violent retribution against evil. Their contribution is in their recognition of unjust enforcement of the paradigm; that is, sometimes evil people prosper and good people suffer. Still, these Scriptural voices become the earliest advocates for justice on behalf of victims. Previously, suffering was seen as evidence that the sufferer had sinned or committed evil and thus deserved to suffer (such assumptions persist even today within some circles, e.g., the poor are lazy and should get a job. The truth is that not everybody is able to work. Period.) It is these cries of the victim that Jesus takes up in his reading of Scripture.

Jesus entered fully into the debate, clearly and articulately choosing sides. In doing so, he set the standard for any who choose to follow him. If we are to read Scripture as Jesus did, we will begin with the understanding that God’s basic nature is Love, and that the Scriptures are a witness, leading us to accept that Love, both as a gift (grace) to be received and as a gift to be given and shared.

Jesus’ new twist that brought him into direct opposition and confrontation with the Pharisees, was his abandonment of the traditional wisdom that victims suffer because of some sin or evil in their lives, and thus deserve to suffer. Jesus acknowledges the reality of “innocent” victims, and challenges the injustice of their suffering.

Of course there are lazy “welfare bums” and “welfare queens.” Of course some people have learned to manipulate the system and leech off it! I have never heard anyone deny that. Given that starting place and the dialectic of Scripture, we have two choices, and if we are to follow Jesus we will take sides: (1) we can assure that absolutely no abuse of public assistance is tolerated, even if it means cutting off funds and thereby abandoning the many (demonstrably the overwhelming majority) who are simply unable to work or obtain resources on their own, or (2) we can respond to the cries of the victim and make sure that no innocent victim suffers unjustly, even if in the process some of the undeserving find ways of manipulating the system and unjustly benefiting.

I think I know which choice Jesus would make. I think you do, too.

hadn't anticipated that this summation of my Lenten pilgrimage would lead where it led; nevertheless, that’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim




[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and We All Need to Learn to Read Scripture as Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 227 ff.
[2] Ibid., Location 225.
[3] Ibid., Location 424.
[4] I would add the additional metaphor of a bitterly partisan legislature, with each side intent upon inflicting and enforcing its own values upon the whole. And at the infamous bottom line, each side believes sincerely that its own set of values is the best—indeed the only valid—model for life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Confusing Choices

For me, spiritual growth is not so much a process of reaffirming what I already believe and making it stronger (although that often happens) as it is venturing beyond my comfort zone and walking with the God who is “always making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

By definition, growth is change, and there are community dimensions, as well as individual dimensions, to spiritual growth. The Bible is a record of individuals and of a people who grew in their relationship with their God, each generation passing on to the next generation the cumulative testimony of that relationship. We are beneficiaries of their testimony, and are afforded the opportunity—indeed, the responsibility—of expanding and enriching that relationship and passing our testimony on to subsequent generations.

The one constant throughout that testimony is change. Abram, a Habiru (?) from Chaldea had a life-changing (and history-forming) encounter with God at Shechem, and changed from a nomadic life of questionable character to a settled agrarian life, quite possibly participating in an established community of faith led by the mysterious priestly figure of Melchizedek of Salem (Genesis 14:17-18).

His change was of such depth that his name was changed from Abram (Father of Height, or Father of Praise) to Abraham (Father of a Multitude). And the change continued when he intended to offer his son, Isaac as a sacrifice, and grew to understand that God did not want human sacrifice (although there is evidence that some pockets of Israel continued to practice it into the sixth century BCE), and that God would provide whatever was needed.

We follow the descendants of Abraham as their prophets (especially Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah) grow into the understanding that God does not want sacrifice at all, but considers ethical behavior toward fellow humans (especially the poor) to be a proper expression of worship (although the general population did not understand that, and in general the Christian community today still wrestles with questions of “the right way” to worship and whether to serve the poor at all.)

Jesus took the prophetic teachings to their highest point, saying that no matter what form or worship one expresses, if it does not motivate ethical behavior within the community, and especially in regard to the poor, it is meaningless. Again, the community of faith in general still has not assimilated that teaching.

Change is always resisted; and the strongest rationale for resistance is that the faith must be defended. Such rationale assumes “the faith” is static—a one-and-done thing that does not grow. But the question soon must be faced: are we really defending “the faith,” or are we protecting our own position relative to the status quo? A faith community that can rationalize genocide in the name of God (as in Deut 20:16) can rationalize anything.

Previously we have suggested that Jesus rejects the status of earlier testimony regarding the divine/human relationship, especially when the earlier testimony advocated violence and retribution. Consider the example of Elijah calling down fire from heaven to prove he is a “man of God” by consuming 50 soldiers and their captain (2 Kings 1:10). When Jesus is rejected by the people of a Samaritan village, James and John, perhaps hoping to follow Elijah’s example, ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy them. Jesus not only rejects the Elijah narrative, he sternly rebukes his disciples for even suggesting it (Luke 9:55-56). Where Elijah claimed the action proved his status as a “man of God,” Jesus makes the opposite claim: the true man of God would not obliterate life to save, heal and restore it (later versions of the Lukan passage, as well as Luke 19:10, John 3:17, et. al.)

Walter Brueggemann makes the point that the Old Testament is a record of disputing testimony (see the previous blog), and Jesus calls us to enter the dispute. “In fact, because of its multiple conflicting narratives we simply must choose, we must take sides in the debate, we are forced to embrace some narratives while rejecting others.

“The key difference between Jesus and the Pharisees … is in which narratives they chose to embrace. Similarly, the question for us is not whether or not we will choose, but rather which narratives we choose to embrace, and how will we choose them?”[1]

The more cutting question in my mind not “how,” but “why” we choose the narratives that inform our faith and guide our spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, relational and even our political lives. Why would any Christian choose to base his or her faith and behavior upon a text of Scripture that advances violence or retribution when Jesus clearly and repeatedly rejects violence and retribution— unconditionally?

This blog is a journal of my own spiritual journey, so I ask of myself, am I motivated by a need to protect “The Bible” (or at least my understanding of it), or by a desire to follow Jesus into an unknown wilderness and thus risk having to change? (Ironically, to follow Jesus requires trusting in the Scriptural witness about him.) Is that growth?

I wish I could see more clearly through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scriptures: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Scriptures Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 668 (emphases his).

The Voice of the Victim

My intention during Lent is to wander in the wilderness of apparent biblical self-contradiction—a wasteland that acknowledges that in the biblical story of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land God told Joshua to destroy the cities and to kill “everything that breathes” (Deut 20:16), to slaughter men, women, children and even flocks, herds and pets. And when a man attempted to keep some of the livestock for his own herd, God ordered him put to death.

In contrast, and in direct opposition, are texts such as the 6th Commandment given to Moses: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13) and Jesus’ teaching, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5:44).

Generally, I have avoided the issue when possible, and when avoidance was not possible I explained the contradiction as the product of a progressive understanding of God on the part of humanity (e.g., the command to “kill everything that breathes” can be seen against the backdrop of previous models of warfare in which the victors tortured, raped and enslaved their victims and reaped the material spoils of victory. In some instances, warfare was the way a tribe or kingdom supported itself financially. The newer command forbids any kind of profiteering from warfare, and thus, while still horrendous in its outcome, is a step toward a more humane way of doing what humanity seems hell-bent on doing, anyway.) My explanation got no support from my seminary professors, nor have I seen or heard anyone else offer it.

Walter Brueggemann submits that the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) are presented in a testimony/counter-testimony format, much like a courtroom scenario with multiple competing voices—each claiming to be the correct view, each claiming authority.

The testimony is the ancient wisdom that good people are rewarded and evil is punished. The application (best exemplified by Job’s friends) is used as explanation for bad things that happen to people: it’s because they’ve sinned. The victim is to blame.

The counter-testimony (represented by Job and by the Psalms and later prophets) advocates for the victim and argues that the traditional wisdom is unjust. In the present consideration the debate in Job hinges on God’s response to Job’s friends: “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). In such passages the voice of the victim is heard for the first time in a world context “in which it was exceptional for the voice of the victim to be heard at all. These were the ones who formerly were scapegoated, condemned and dehumanized, but who Jesus saw and loved. This is the cry of the least of these.”[1]

It is important to note that, even while they advance the cause of the victim, the Psalms and Job still do not question the ethos in which the just would prosper and the wicked would suffer. They do not question the justice of this ethic, but rather complain that it is not enforced. Neither the Psalmist nor Job sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness (as in Paul’s theology); instead, they see themselves as blameless and righteous.

So, while the Psalms and Job represent a significantly unique introduction into the world of religious faith and wisdom, the Scriptures do not at that point reflect an understanding of God’s image as merciful and forgiving.[2]

Thus, Israel fully assimilated the ongoing debate into its life, with the majority advancing a narrative of unquestioning obedience to laws and ritual, and continuing to blame the victims of misfortune and banishing widows, lepers, the poor and virtually all who suffered. According to the ancient wisdom of the majority, it was precisely their suffering that proved that they were evil and deserving of their suffering.

Meanwhile the protesting minority advocated faithful questioning.[3] Perhaps the latest, and therefore the clearest voice for this minority is found in the theme of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Here, as in Job, the servant is blameless; thus his suffering is a product of oppression and injustice:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?”   ~Isaiah 53:7-8 (NRSV)

It is this image of the Suffering Servant, and the role of faithful questioning that Jesus personifies in his understanding of his identity as God’s “chosen one.”

We can see in the Gospels that Jesus embraced some parts of Scripture as describing his messianic mission and reflecting God’s kingdom, while other parts he either ignores, reinterprets, or—as we have seen in his “but I say to you” statements—even directly contradicts. I’ll be moving into some specific examples next,

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim

[Disclaimer: this Lenten series of blogs is a journal of personal pilgrimage which I’m sharing. It is offered in the form of a long—40 DAYS LONG—book report. But more than that, it is my way of assimilating what promises to be a life-changing new way of organizing what I believe about Jesus and how I live out those beliefs. I am grateful for the feedback I’ve been given. It helps me to sharpen my own understanding. I hope you will stay with me through the journey, and I welcome further feedback; but, to be honest, you’d probably be better advised to get the book and read it yourself.]




[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scriptures: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, Kindle edition), Location 592.
[2] Ibid., Location 601
[3]Ibid., Location 553.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Filling the Law Full

There are those who consider it unpatriotic or even treasonous to point out imperfections in anything American. In fact, one state legislature in the last few days has presented a bill to make it illegal to teach any model of American history (or, I assume, the history of that state) that is critical of any historic action taken by any representation of American policy. One would assume, given the extreme partisanism of American politics today, that emphasis would be given, and bias expressed in favor of the specific policies of the party that originated the legislation.

Others seem to make a life out of criticizing and finding fault with virtually anything done by the “other party”; and it’s about as broad as it is wide when it comes to which party is more critical of the other.

The stance one takes in the resulting cacophony generally depends upon what will accrue the greatest benefit to the individual and/or to the party that provides his or her political, economic, cultural and, yes, religious identity. [It’s interesting, and somewhat appalling to note that church mission/purpose statements more and more reflect the platform and values of one political party or another, even when draped with biblical sound bytes.]

Now, this really isn't a blog about American partisanism. I’ve pretty much exhausted that subject in previous blogs. Nevertheless, it seems a given with which most Americans can identify. I take time here to reassert my bias because it wasn't all that different when Jesus of Nazareth taught and ministered. Today in America we have Democrats, Republicans (including the Tea Party branch), Libertarians, Independents and even a sprinkling of Socialists. In first century Israel you had Sadducees and Pharisees, with rabbis, priests and scribes identifying with one or the other.

And, like the protagonists in American politics the priests and scribes of Jesus’ day were absolutely certain of the absolute truth and validity of their specific position, and often arrogantly obnoxious in their promotion thereof.  And so, when Jesus said, “You have heard it said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment (Matt 5:21-22), his statement was received with all the grace and cordiality an avowed Socialist might expect at an American Tea Party caucus.

But in that statement lies the heart of Jesus’ approach to reading Scripture.

In his book, Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood submits that none of the common approaches to Scripture, viz, the Conservative/Fundamentalist approach, the Atheist approach or the Liberal/Progressive (Cherry-Picking) approach has effectively reconciled contradictory images of God presented in various parts of the Bible, specifically, the contradiction between images of God (mostly Old Testament) as a warrior who commands atrocities, including genocide, in his name, versus images of God (mostly New Testament, although the prophetic writings of Hebrew Scriptures contain some of this) as nurturing and merciful—Jesus called God, “Father”.

Which is it? Is God fickle, or even schizophrenic? Or is there something in our reading and understanding that needs to be addressed?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses those contradictions and reconciles them using the familiar formula, “You have heard… but I tell you…” And, it is crucial to note that Jesus prefaces these confrontations by declaring, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). The question comes to mind: “Why would Jesus preface his teachings with this disclaimer?” when it appears that he proceeds precisely to overturn the law!

In the original language of the New Testament, the word translated “fulfill” can mean either to meet all the requirements of the law, or it also can mean “perfecting or completing something.” [1] In the full context of these sayings, “it becomes abundantly clear that he is referring to this latter sense of perfecting the law, lovingly bringing it into its fully intended purpose.”[2]

Jesus’ “fulfilling” of the law is rooted in forgiveness and enemy love, which is in direct opposition to the way of violent retaliation and payback justice (“eye for eye”)  characteristic of much of the law of Moses. There is virtually no disagreement among biblical scholars that the “eye for eye” law was itself a movement to limit a previous system of unlimited retaliation: “one-for-one” in place of the 7-fold retaliation of Cain (Gen 4:15) and then the 77-fold vengeance of Lamech (Gen 4:24).

Jesus' reinterpretation of the law, then, is consistent with the movement established much earlier in Scripture. Thus, he fulfills its purpose.

The pattern continues through the issues of divorce, civil lawsuits, and even hatred of one’s enemy: “You have heard… hate your enemy; but I say… love your enemy.” Jesus takes the “eye-for-eye” understanding of limited retribution to the next level, and applies it virtually to all relationships, proposing not to retaliate at all; instead proposing a superior way which seeks to restore enemies, rather than to destroy them.[3]

This is how Jesus read Scripture and understood faithfulness to Scripture: lovingly bringing it into its fully intended purpose. It proposes that the Scriptures, as written, are not necessarily complete and final, but that they point us in the direction of ultimate fulfillment.

No, it’s not militarily or politically proficient. It wasn't for Jesus, either. It got him crucified. So, how serious are we—REALLY—about following Jesus?

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014), Kindle edition, Position 393.
[2] Ibid. (emphasis his).
[3] Ibid, Location 406.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Jesus, Don't You Walk So Fast!

Two images are bouncing around in my mind, bumping into each other and stirring up dust. One is the 1935 book title, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. It journals a pastor leading his congregation in a one-year pilgrimage to become more like Jesus by asking at each event and circumstance, “What would Jesus Do?”

The other image is the Wayne Newton song from a number of years ago: “Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast.”

My Lenten journey this year is an effort to walk “In His Steps”, specifically in regard to how Jesus read Scripture; but the pace is fast, set by Derek Floods’ book, Disarming Scripture (Metanoia Books, 2014).

Flood confronts the difficult and mostly avoided question of how we reconcile the apparent biblical contradiction of a God who sometimes seems loving and nurturing, and at other times orders total genocide, dashing babies’ heads against rocks and disemboweling pregnant women (Hosea 13:16, et. al.).

The book urges the reader to “take a long and sobering look at the extent to which human violence is not merely described in the Bible, but actively promoted as God’s will. This is not simply a matter of a few troublesome passages. Violence and bloodshed committed in God’s name is a major theme of the Old Testament” (Kindle edition, Location 127)

Swiss theologian, Raymund Schwager, writes, “Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishment by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire he passes judgment, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation … No other topic is as often mentioned (in the Old Testament) as God’s bloody works.”[1]

Flood suggests that the questions we ask are even more pointed because of Christianity’s long history of violence, which he proceeds to document, noting the Crusades, slavery, Native Americans, the 800,000 Tutsis killed in the Rwandan genocide and other examples, all justified by the use of Scripture and committed in God’s name. “This is our legacy as Christians and we need to face it head-on, rather than trying to ignore or excuse it” (Kindle edition Location219).

So, what responses have been offered in view of God-ordered violence? Atheism generally has responded with anger and aggressive language. “New Atheist,” Richard Dawkins, writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[2]  [Other than that, I wonder what he thinks of God.]

Conservative Christians, on the other hand, generally attempt to justify the violence, basically letting the horrible, even ungodly, morality issues be trumped by the importance of defending Scriptural integrity as they understand it.

In the conquest of Canaan as recorded in Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites are ordered to kill “everything that breathes” (Deut 20:16). The slaughter is to be complete, including not only humans but, also herds and pets; and when one Israelite attempts to keep a goat or a cow for himself, God orders him put to death.

One commentary justifies the genocide at Jericho as necessary “so that Israel would not be ‘infected by the degenerate religion of the Canaanites,’ declaring that ‘pure faith and worship’ could only be maintained ‘by the complete elimination of the Canaanites themselves’.”[3]

A mega-church pastor compares the Canaanites to a cancer that must be eliminated for the health of God’s people. He calls the genocide "surgery". Another commentary suggests that these stories would be “more palatable” if we think in abstract terms (effectively dehumanizing the victims of genocide).

What seems to be lost in the conversation is the disturbing similarity between these arguments and those used by Hitler to justify the Holocaust!

Why would (presumably) good, loving people go to such lengths to justify genocide in God’s name? Their perspective is based on the sincerely held assumption that faithfulness to Scripture means accepting everything it says at face value. (I hope Flood will flesh out this point in later chapters. If he doesn't, I may make the attempt.)

But there’s a third (and equally ineffective) approach that Flood calls “Cherry-Picking”, and lays it at the feet of progressive or liberal Christians. Essentially, this is the practice of using blinders when we approach the Bible. We’ll just pick out the sweet, nurturing, likable texts, those that call for ministries of compassion and justice, and those that make us feel good, and ignore those more troubling parts.

The primary fault with this third approach is that it’s dishonest (my word, not Flood’s). The secondary fault is that, like the other two approaches, it does nothing to resolve the related biblical disparity between the violent images of God versus the nurturing images.

Flood’s proposal is to face the troubling passages honestly, openly, and as Jesus did.

But therein lies another conundrum. On the one hand, Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matt 5:17). But then he proceeds blatantly to contradict and overturn multiple passages of Scripture.

I love a good mystery; but, “Jesus, you walk so fast!”

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim




[1] Raymund Schwager, Must there Be Scapegoats?: Violence and Redemption in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), page 55 (italics his). Quoted in Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture, (Kindle edition, location163.)
[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), page 51. Quoted in Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture, (Kindle edition, location236.)
[3] Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1984) page 342. Quoted in Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture, (Kindle edition, location245.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Into the Wilderness

My personal Lenten journey this year leads through a wilderness I’ve known but avoided for many years. Oh, I’ve taken brief day-hikes along its fringes; but never have ventured into the heart of it, and certainly not with the intention of spending forty days there!

I have a nephew who this month embarked on an ambitious effort to spend one year trying to experience what it means truly to follow Jesus. Almost three weeks into that pilgrimage he still is struggling to identify his approach. To some extent he toys with the idea of “doing” what Jesus did. For example, he plans to gather resources to feed 5,000 people.

At another level he faces the task, not so much of doing what Jesus did, but rather of being who Jesus was (is). He has chosen a mentor for each month during the year, all of whom represent a broad diversity of theological and faith perspectives. He plans to leave no stone unturned in his quest to know what it means truly to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus is also a foundation of my Lenten Journey, although mine is limited to forty days, and has a much tighter focus. The wilderness I contemplate is the diverse, apparently contradictory images of God presented in the Christian canon of Scripture (specifically the Christian Protestant canon).

Specifically, I want to address the apparent contradiction between the New Testament image of God as “Father” (actually, Jesus called God “Abba”, which is the familiar sense, like “Daddy,” or “Papa”—a loving, nurturing being), with the Old Testament image of a vengeful, spiteful, jealous warrior God (“Lord of Hosts”) who orders genocide on many occasions.

My primary resource for the journey is Derek Flood’s book, Disarming the Bible (Metanoia Books, 2014).  Flood describes three common historic approaches to resolving the apparent contradictions in Scripture.

1.       The Conservative/Fundamentalist approach, which places a premium upon defending the integrity of Scripture, sometimes at the expense of discerning its truth. Too often the defense of Scripture, while a noble intention, ends up being a defense of one’s own understanding of a specific text, which one assumes is the correct, indeed the only true understanding. In this approach it sometimes become necessary to advocate things we know are profoundly wrong in the attempt to defend the Bible.
2.      The Atheist approach, which maintains the conservative/fundamentalist approach to Scripture, but then abandons any semblance of faith altogether in an attempt to maintain some sense of moral integrity.
3.      The Liberal approach of denying the problem and simply whitewashing over the evidence. In this approach attention is directed away from the genocidal violence in Scripture, focusing instead on the mercy and social justice found in the teachings and examples of Jesus. Flood calls this approach “Cherry-Picking”, and defines it as picking out the sweet portions of Scripture and ignoring the difficult passages that seem utterly contradictory to the Gospel.

It is my expectation and my hope that Flood will further develop and critique each of the three approaches as he makes his case.

He calls for integrity in our approach, saying, “If we as progressives are going to reject violence and instead focus on mercy and social justice, then we need to have a developed interpretive[1] rationale for our reading which can stand its ground against a conservative reading that seeks to legitimize violence in God’s name. …Rather than justifying or whitewashing over the problem of violence in Scripture, we instead need to confront it, and do so from the inside, as an expression of a healthy faith.” (Kindle edition, Location 348)

Flood’s proposed approach is to discover (or hopefully rediscover) the “radical and surprising way Jesus read (Scripture).” Of course, there was no collected and canonized “Bible” at that time. There were, however, Scriptures—Holy Writ: The Torah, which is the first five “books” of what we call the Old Testament, was available in some form (whether that form had become standardized is open to question), as were some of the prophetic and wisdom writings.

We are warned at the outset that reading the Scriptures as Jesus did will not be a self-evident effort. Indeed, the way Jesus read Scripture “scandalized the religious authorities of Jesus’ time and is likely to be seen as equally subversive and ‘blasphemous’ by the religious gatekeepers today.” (Kindle edition, Location 362)

The wilderness is always intimidating; but that’s where The Adversary[2] is. The Adversary has been having its way with God’s people, dividing them over understandings of the very writings that should be uniting us. Jesus confronted The Adversary and prevailed. Will I? Will we? Will you go with me and hold my hand?

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Flood uses the word “hermeneutical”. It’s academic and has many facets. One can find a broad treatment of hermeneutics on “Google.”
[2] The literal translation of the word that usually is transliterated (as opposed to translated) “satan.” It carries a sense of “the attorney for the other side”.