That wasn’t at all intimidating! I was to try to distill the ancient wisdom of the book of Proverbs down to thirty seconds. Or less. Fortunately I was also given a chance to state what I thought the “Good News” of Proverbs was, also in thirty seconds.
In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:
In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…
This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..
We had a great turnout last night at Harmony Brewing Company, in Eastown, Grand Rapids. This little brewery has been open since February, and features a cozy atmosphere, spins some good tunes (last night was Vinyl Thursday), and brews up some great offerings.
A few of us started off with Jackson’s Joy Fall Festival Ale, which was a good, if a bit sweet, oktoberfest-style ale. Others jumped in with the Hideout IPA, which was a stand-in for the usual Fiddlestix IPA. My favorite on their board is the Star Stuff Belgian Dubbel. The Black Squirrel Porter was unfortunately also tapped out.
About a dozen of us squeezed in together in the upper-level, a small, quiet space of about 10 or 12 tables. A couple familiar faces, a few Pub Theology first-timers, and some regulars made for a great discussion.
The sheet had the following topics:
1. True or False: the better you can articulate what you believe, the more spiritually mature you are.
2. How do certain [spiritual] practices open you up to new possibilities?
3. Is there a difference between the Word of God & the words of scripture?
4. Is it ever wrong to try to convert someone from one religion to another?
5. What’s the difference between Christian education and indoctrination?
6. Is a believer [ontologically] different from a nonbeliever?
We kicked off the evening on the first topic, and there was immediate push back to the notion that ‘spiritual maturity’ is linked to the ability to speak well about one’s beliefs.
Immediate counter-examples were offered: an older person who has a wisdom and maturity about him but is not a good source for systematic theology; a mother who lives in a way that bespeaks spiritual maturity (it was noted that there is more than one way to articulate things, we shouldn’t limit it to verbal articulation).
Another person thought the whole notion of ‘spiritual maturity’ was dubious. “Doesn’t that whole idea speak of having arrived? Does one ever arrive? Isn’t spiritual maturity that thing you strive for but never reach?”
We then mused about whether the church often falls into the trap of equating these two things: articulation and maturity. In my own tradition, it’s when you can say what you believe, when you can give the right answers, that we acknowledge that you have reached at least some level of spiritual achievement that you weren’t at before. Perhaps there are other means for evaluating faith — in fact I’m sure there are, and I think many of us are wanting to think more holistically about what it means to grow in one’s faith, beyond just words.
At the same time, someone noted that if you can’t at a basic level explain what you believe, perhaps you have some work to do. Fair enough.
The second topic had us discussing the various practices that lead to spiritual growth, and open one up to new possibilities, new ways of experiencing God, or living into one’s experience of God. Things like prayer, meditation, Scripture reading were mentioned, as well as getting involved in justice issues like poverty, slave trade, etc. “My faith is deepened as I seek to live among those who are marginalized in our society.”
One person noted that in his own very evangelical tradition, spiritual maturity equaled the ability to share the gospel with someone else: “How many people have you led to Christ?”
This led us naturally into topic no. 4: Is it ever wrong to convert someone to another religion?
There was some hesitation. It was initially noted that there are certainly wrong ways to share one’s faith: the in-your-face model, the used-car-salesman-routine, the forcing-awkward-family-relationships routine. Yet some felt, if eternal things are at stake – how could it be wrong to convert someone?
Then one person at the end of the table piped up: “Absolutely. There are times it is flat out wrong to disrespect someone else’s culture and religion by trying to convert them. I have friends in Buddhist and Hindu countries and I don’t think it would be right at all to go in there and try to convert them. I plan on seeing my Muslim and Buddhist friends in heaven. But maybe that means I’m not a real Christian.”
This provocative perspective made some uncomfortable while others cheered. What do you think?
We ended the evening on topic no.3: Is there a difference between the Word of God and the words of scripture?
This took us many places, but we began by looking at the perspective that there are two books in which God speaks to us – one, the book of the Bible, the other, the book of creation. It was noted that in a recent NPR story a person from a more evangelical background noted that someone could not believe in evolution and be a Christian. “This drives me crazy! How can we not be willing to find God in the world he has made, even if that forces us to reconsider some of our [long-held] theological positions?”
We then wondered about extrabiblical books, other gospels, the apocrypha, and so on. Are these ‘God’s Word’ in any sense? How does canon come into play, and should we restrict the Holy Spirit to speaking only through what ‘made it in’? And what about other traditions that include other books? Or what about books that were left out, were those for spiritual or political reasons, or some other reason altogether? Finally we wondered, what about words in the Scriptures themselves that portray God in a less than flattering light. Are these too the “Word of God”, or are there instances in the canon where we see humanity struggling to understand God, and perhaps not always getting it right? This latter line of thinking made several mutter “Marcion” under their breath, and made plenty nervous. Others felt these were legitimate questions that we should be able to ask.
In the end, it was a great night. Good beer, new relationships, honest conversation. All agreed that the pub is a place to have these open and honest conversations, to have our thinking pushed, and to recognize that God just might be bigger than we’ve thought. (And of course we ended in plenty of time to watch the Detroit Tigers beat the Oakland A’s behind the arm of Justin Verlander!).
— Feel free to weigh in on any of the above topics in the comment section below!
Lectio Divina is the Latin for ‘Holy Reading’ and was a form and approach to praying with Scripture that was common among medieval religious orders. The value of Lectio Divina was rediscovered in the twentieth century.
Essentially Lectio Divina involves taking a short passage of Scripture and pondering it. This can be done alone or in a group, and normally involves prolonged periods of silence.
Choose a reader. The reader will read the text through four times, slowly, with a time of silence between each reading. Allow the words to wash over you. Be present. What is God saying to you right here and now? Open yourself to His Words.
From the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John:
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water. . .”
Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.
It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory. Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist. In fact:
Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?
We cannot escape interpreting the Bible. We are not God. Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).
The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.
Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?
If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity. But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity. This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.
We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same. James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:
For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new. Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents). One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself. In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst. Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition. The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.
But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:
“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””
Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”
This, however, is simply not the case. We all interpret. It is impossible to do otherwise. We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.
This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible. Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century. This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms. It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection. (Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?)
So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation? Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say. But the point holds: we are not God. Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text. This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:
We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives. We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.
My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:
Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.
Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.
So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this? Yes! Of course. God will speak. Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”
One of the curiously powerful aspects of the gospels in general that stands out for readers familiar at all with other ancient literature is the social context in which their stories are told. Whereas almost all other national epics and myths speak of the important events and struggles in the lives of gods, kings, or other nobles, the gospels’ concern is almost exclusively with the lives of the poor and marginalized.
Even literature after the New Testament, up until the Romantics’ discovery of the tragic narrative power of stories of street urchins and other outcasts, primarily focused on the trials and tribulations of people of wealth and authority. Lives existing amidst material splendor and social power have always intrigued those who look longingly on what they imagine to be the “good life.” In contrast, the lives of the poor have generally seemed banal and trivial, devoid of interest because of the supposed monochromatic pattern of hard work and routine demands.
If we have relatively lately learned to “enjoy” the stories of the poor and have come to accept the harsh beauty of emotions and minds living on the tense edge of daily despair, such a perspective would have been virtually unthinkable to those of biblical times. The biblical patriarchs were wealthy herdsmen who, with their families, became landowners of distinction in their local communities. If the exodus portrays the desperate struggle of an enslaved people, it is only to show that their imprisonment first in Egypt and then in the desert is but a temporary obstruction on their way to the Promised Land where they will eat their fill and gather abundant land and cattle. The longest continuous biblical narrative is the saga of Israel’s poignantly ironic marriage to monarchy, in which the main characters literally stand head and shoulders above their peers (e.g. 1 Sam 10:23). Even the prophetic promise/threat of exile was of concern primarily to Israel’s elite, as the majority of poor people remained in Palestine even after the Babylonian conquest. And the postexilic narratives of rebuilding are the stories of priests and scribes, the intellectual and cultural leaders of the Persian colonial territory that had once been a great nation.
In this context of national journey from the perspective of the leaders and other powerful figures, the gospels sound a harshly discordant note. Their tales of lepers, blind people, bleeding women, and landless peasants searching desperately for hope are a shocking contrast to their biblical predecessors. For as we know, the New Testament was originally a collection of writings aimed at providing a message of divine love and healing for people who could not hear such a word in the established religious institutions. Although the Christian “Way” amazingly quickly swept across social classes and national boundaries in its first centuries of proclamation, the stories themselves are most easily understood by people who have experienced for themselves the failure of governments and clergy to relieve either physical or spiritual hunger.
John’s gospel, in contrast with Mark and Luke in particular, has little to say about poverty and God’s promise to provide good things for those who have gone without because of injustice. The fourth gospel proclaims not that the poor are “blessed” but that they are “always with you” (Jn 12:8) – although the Johannine perspective is not the cynical acceptance of the permanent presence of an underclass that it might seem to be when heard out of context. In the fourth gospel, characterization and plot focus not so much on economic exclusion as on the social barriers of ethnicity, ritual impurity, and lack of “proper” belief. Those who have been denied privilege in the dominant culture because of their “wrong” birth (e.g., the Samaritan woman and the one born blind) are the ones upon whom Jesus’ compassion centers. At the same time, those who are willing to be reborn, regardless of original birthplace (e.g., Nicodemus and the “Judeans”), are invited into the community to which the gospel calls its readers.
And this reality leads directly to the negative and positive poles of my own reading stance. As a “white” male citizen of the United States at the end of the twentieth century, I must engage in strenuous acts of imaginative projection and concrete insertion in order to begin to hear the power of this gospel’s word to those on the margins. It is a twofold task that cannot be done exclusively from the comforts of my warm home.
Each experience I have had in which I have, albeit hesitatingly and feebly, touched the actual lives of the poor in our culture has been a hermeneutical gift of immeasurable proportions. An hour with street people in downtown Seattle metamorphoses the abstraction of “the homeless” into the broken yet still human lives of Junior, Charles, and Althea. A few days in jail transforms one’s vague notion of “criminals” into a perception of ordinary people whose lives have either gone sour along the way or existed on a road of shattered glass from the moment of their births. Many of us are, regardless of our good will, faith, or love, at a huge distance from those in our inner cities or in the Third World to whom the gospels speak clear and almost obvious truths. Only by pushing out from our easy chairs and into the cold darkness of the streets, prisons, public hospitals, and other havens for outcasts can we begin to catch the radicality of the gospel’s word.
If this is true at the level of our personal zone of daily life, it is all the more the case with regard to our political and social privilege. I come to recognize more and more each day how the wealth of our nation has been systemically taken from the mouths of others. Indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, Latin America, and Asia all cry out as just prophets condemning our theft, indifference, and brutality as a nation. The increasing clamor for immigration limits and border patrols bears powerful testimony against our claim of being a just and free land, open to accepting the world’s poor. And, more to the point of the fourth gospel, we have again increased the sickening acceptance of racial and ethnic scapegoating, whether against poor African-Americans or wealthy Japanese and other Asians.
All this puts us as a people squarely on the opposite side from the Johannine Jesus and the community of the fourth gospel. But this brings us to the positive pole in my own prerelationship with the text. Despite my personal and national privilege and responsibility for massive injustice, I believe in a God who invites peoples such as myself to work and pray with others for the liberation of all peoples. While acknowledging my participation in unjust structures and in enjoying the fruit of rotting trees, I trust in the God of all life, who constantly calls me to focus on God alone and the way of shalom. Without attempting to express a complete personal philosophy in this space, it is important to proclaim my commitment to helping to shape a future in which all creation will sing joyously of the God of nonviolent and interdependent love.
Thus, I come to my own reading of John with a dual awareness. My birthplace veils the gospel from me in certain ways, leading me to find new experiences that help penetrate into the place from which the text seems to speak. At the same time, my commitment to a God who breaks down injustice and generates true love and freedom for all people opens me in other ways to hear the text speak its challenges to the status quo.
Second in a series of posts taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God: Read the first post here.
If we choose to accept this life-changing invitation, how do we start? How do we know that the path we take is not simply a trail that loops back to Egypt ends in a cul de sac in the desert? If we journey alone, we indeed run a high risk of picking a futile road to nowhere or, worse, to a place of great danger. The Bible’s narrative of God’s mighty acts and words is heady stuff that can, to the misguided, justify the worst sort of violence and brutality.
The antidote is the one given by the Bible itself in nearly every story: to journey not alone but in the community of fellow travelers. Whether that means starting a Bible study group, going to church, or delving into the scholarly conversation, the joyous task of encountering the Bible makes sense only as part of an interpretative community. From Eden to Revelation, the Bible’s various forms of discourse present one of the most intensely social collections of writings known to humanity. Its people are constantly in dialogue, either with other people or with God directly.
And its questions are persistently in the first-person plural: Who are we and where are we going? The Bible contains virtually no notion of the isolated individual, no flinty-faced Marlboro man gazing outward with a private vision. The first challenge of reading, then, is to share in whatever ways we can in acknowledging this most basic premise of the text.
This book is an attempt to share some of my own reading of a particular text from the Bible. By putting my reading into writing, I am aware that I risk the same freezing of live conversation that the gospels writers themselves risked. Each day, new insights unfold for me about the fourth gospel, as I continue to grow in my self-awareness and my awareness of the gospel’s own intertextual and intercultural contexts. But, as with the gospel, I hope that readers of this writing will continue the conversation, albeit at a distance, by continuing to think, pray, and act in response to what they read here.
This work, as with the Bible, is the product not of an isolated individual but of the collection of energies that make up the matrix in which I journey. In the following section, I will state openly some of my life commitments and reading strategies. I do this not so much to persuade readers that these are the best or the correct perspectives, but in the interest of encouraging all Bible readers to continue the process of demythologizing the notion of the “objective” or “scientific” reading.
In the next section we will note the importance of asking the question: “Where are you from?”, in order to name one’s commitments before encountering the Word.
JERUSALEM (AP) — A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.
An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.
Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.
And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.
For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue’s Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.
But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.
The project’s scholars have been at work on their critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, a version intended mainly for the use of other scholars, since 1958.
“What we’re doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible,” said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project.
The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project’s version “the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time,” said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.
But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project’s office on the university campus will find that many members of the university’s own staff have never heard of it.
This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.
If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now. This is both a point of pride and a matter of some mild self-deprecation around the office.
Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin. The last member of the original team died last year at age 90.
The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions — differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.
A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.
The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to “those who swear falsely.” The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: “those who swear falsely in my name.”
In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God “to you” once read “to us,” a significant change in meaning.
Other differences are more striking.
The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.
The year the Bible Project began, 1958, was the year a priceless Hebrew Bible manuscript arrived in Jerusalem after it was smuggled out of Aleppo, Syria, by a Jewish cheese merchant who hid it in his washing machine. This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the complete biblical text in Hebrew.
The Bible Project’s version of the core text — the one to which the others are compared — is based on this manuscript. Other critical editions of the Bible, such as one currently being prepared in Stuttgart, Germany, are based on a slightly newer manuscript held in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project’s scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.
“A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy,” said the project’s bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. “But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God’s agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.”
This is the third in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).
In our last post we looked at the possibility that God was simply working within a warring culture and showing improvement amidst that.
On further review, it seemed that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, particularly in instances where God instituted what is called ‘the ban’ – the ancient practice of committing an entire city or town to utter destruction on behalf of a god, as an act of sacrifice or dedication. This was a practice other ancient cultures also did in the names of their gods. So much for improvement.
We ended by saying that perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
I think many of us resonate with this, because it seems to echo so much of what we see in the life of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament.
One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”
The challenge is seeing how the texts endorsing slaughter in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua support that, (let alone the rest of the OT). In fact, Thom Stark notes that “the number of texts in which Israel is pitted against the nations far outnumber those in which Israel is for them.”
But perhaps we could see this as Israel’s failing, rather than God’s, as the prophets so often reminded them. God wanted them to be a blessing, but they didn’t live up to it. I think that is very often the case.
But that still doesn’t explain the texts in which they are commanded, by God, to destroy some of these nations they are supposed to bless.
“Imagine the Israelite soldier consoling the young Canaanite girl, just before running her through with the sword: “Not to worry, young lady. In the overall scheme of things, my people are going to be a blessing to people like you.”
But what about the idea that through Israel would come the Messiah, and so God needed to protect and preserve Israel to bring the messiah into the world? Stark asks, “How is it that an omnipotent and omniscient God – who is powerful enough to fashion the world with a few words and to bring the dead back from the grave – could not think of any way to bring the messiah into the world than to kill helpless Canaanite children?”
Some of you responded to the last post questioning whether these texts simply represent the human element of what was happening more so than a divine stamp of approval. It is worth considering (we’ll get to this momentarily).
This protecting-the-messiah tack is “essentially a utilitarian argument: the end justifies the means. It is at this point that the Christian apologist’s fervent defense of the idea of absolute, objective morality is tossed aside in the name of biblical inerrancy. The claim is ultimately that although genocide is morally wrong, God had to do it in order to protect the lineage of one Jesus of Nazareth.”
Old and New
But if we go this route, we have to be prepared for the consequences: that this kind of argument will be used again.
Stark explains: “This end-justifies-the-means mentality has manifested itself elsewhere in history. An immediate example would be the United States of America. Like ancient Israelites, early European Americans believed they had a special calling from God, a calling to be a light to the nations. To them, their destiny was plainly manifest. God had brought them to this bountiful new land, flowing with milk and honey, and although it was necessary to eradicate the malignancy of the savage natives, in the end, the blessings the United States had to offer the world would far outweigh any necessary evils committed along the way.”
This really was the mentality. Listen to one American writer waxing just so in the 1800’s:
“Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another… This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect, we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man – the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen.” (John O’Sullivan, “Great Nation of Futurity”, 427, 430).
We might not like this honest assessment of our own history, but who of us cannot read this and cringe? It’s true – we committed indefensible evils in our treatment of the Native peoples, and did it in the name of God. And then, centuries later, it was conveniently seen as the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.
Rereading the Bible
Isn’t it at least possible that ancient Israel did exactly the same thing? Committed atrocities as a growing nation and in retrospect credited it to God? (The Scriptural accounts were written down much later than the occurrence of the actual events). You may not like this approach, and I’m not sure I do, but we have to at least grant that it’s a possibility.
Are people any different today than they were then? Maybe in some ways, but not in every way. We want to make an exception, because “it’s in the Bible.” I certainly want to. But if you’re not willing to at least grant the possibility, you may be defending an idea about the Bible that may not actually be the case about the Bible (but that’s another blog post).
Some will say that this devalues the Bible. Maybe. Maybe not. It is interesting that some will prefer to defend the Bible than to defend God. I’m not so sure a perfect Bible is more comforting than a perfect God.
This approach actually gets God off the hook for some pretty heinous stuff. Shouldn’t we consider it, or perhaps even embrace it? Who wants to worship a God who looked exactly like the gods of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon? If the God the Germans worshiped in the 1930’s and 40’s endorsed the holocaust, and it was in our Scriptures, would we just swallow common sense and say, ‘Well, God said…’?
Fell From Heaven?
Is there room in our assessment of Scripture to say that it is a product of humanity? There has to be. Can anyone even argue this is not the case? No one that I know argues that the original manuscripts were some golden tablets that fell from heaven discovered in the hills somewhere in Galilee (or upstate New York). That would be a different religion.
Humans wrote the Bible. And humanity, as we know, is incredibly flawed. That does not mean God was not involved in the writing of the Bible. I believe he was. But I don’t believe the Bible fell from heaven, or was directly dictated to people who were little more than robots. The evidence doesn’t support such a claim. In fact, a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is that it was organic. In other words, it was a cooperative effort between humanity and God. I think too often we fail to allow this view to fully develop.
People were involved. So is it really beyond the pale to assume that on some occasions people put their particular spin on events of history? Or even that in some cases they put words in God’s mouth? People certainly do it today, and we tend to be skeptical when they do. Someone will say “God told me that you need to _____.” We hear that and are generally skeptical. But when we read that in the Bible, even when the words are scarcely believable, we believe it anyway.
[But, again, this is getting into another future blog post on the idea of inspiration, and what is the Bible, and all of that.]
Sleight of Hand
Back to killing people, and how we make it OK in one instance, and abhor it as evil in other cases:
“To argue, then, that the extermination of the Canaanites must be seen as part of the larger picture of Israel’s calling to bless the nations is, in effect,” notes Thom Stark, “just a sleight of hand trick: ‘Don’t look over there. Look over here.’ Or as Barack Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past U.S. human rights abuses, “I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.” Buried beneath layer upon layer of such rhetoric lie the victims of those who just want to get on with things. But as Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past Indonesian human rights abuses, “We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”
As with this version of United States history (‘selective perception’), so with us when we want to focus on all the good bits of Israel’s history, while ignoring the rest.
Blessed to Be a Blessing
We are to be a blessing to the nations. I believe that. I also believe that means owning the places in our own Scriptures where God’s people failed to be that, and being open to the possibility that there are instances where they gave the credit for that to God. Adam blamed God for putting Eve in the garden with him. Is it so unbelievable that later Israel wanted to blame God for the actions of their own hands?
I find it nearly impossible to believe that a God who calls us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him”, to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”, and to “share food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter”, is the same God who calls for wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.
I love the Bible, and I believe in its pages I discover God himself. But I also believe that uncritical readings of Scripture, and inappropriate appropriations of it can lead to some of the terrible things done in history in the name of God, and it’s time we own that, and seek to do otherwise, that we might indeed be a blessing.
(This is the text of an introductory message on Revelation Bryan gave at Watershed. The audio did not come through, so it is – excuse any typos and half-sentences. Much of the below came from Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther’s Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now)
How do you feel about this book?
Many of us are a bit intimidated by it.But really, what’s not to like about angels and demons, visions and dragons, beasts with horns, lakes of fire, Satan, blood, scorpions, terror and mass hysteria?
If it scares you, you’re in good company:Some early church fathers Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria; Gaius, Cyril of Jerusalem and others refused to use Revelation because “it contained errors in fact and had not been written by an apostle. Others, felt it was written by a Gnostic heretic, others hated the way it was abused to make predictions about the future. As late as the fourth century Eusebius declared this was a ‘disputed’ book (rather than simply accepted or rejected).
Martin Luther denied Revelation canonical status because in his view it was not theologically accurate. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli refused to base any teaching on it because it was, “no biblical book”.
John Calvin wrote commentaries on 26 New Testament books. How many are there? 27. He skipped Revelation.
To this day, Catholic and Protestant lectionaries have only minimal readings from Revelation, and the Greek Orthodox lectionary omits it altogether.
So if you don’t like Revelation, if you’re scared by it, if you expect fire and brimstone just b/c we’re talking about it – join the club.
SO WHY IS IT IN THE BIBLE? That’s a very good question.
Well, early on it was accepted by many Christians and within a few decades had quite a wide circulation – it was cited as authoritative teaching in Asia, Egypt, North Africa, Rome and South Gaul. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Melito, Bishop of Sardis and Irenaeus, and later Augustine all supported it.
Others throughout the history of the church have found that it does contain some important words from God for the community of faith.
And here’s the thing: if we skip over this book and ignore it – others will step in and interpret it, and their voices will fill the void.
Indeed they have, and they are. (In fact, I just listened to a message on prophecy from an area church and it was a scary but all-too-prevalent approach).
Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered the New Jerusalem: “Of the New Heaven and Earth which our Lord made, as St. John writes in the Apocalypse… He made me the messenger thereof and showed me where to go.”
Seventeenth-century puritans like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather saw America as ‘the Promised Land’ and the end-time ‘City on a Hill’. Which is all well and good, except that it branded the indigenous peoples as ‘savages’ who stood in the path of fulfillment of Scripture and legitimated the genocide of much of the native inhabitants of this land.
– John Darby (1820’s) invented a theological perspective called dispensationalism, which into our own day has often spent the most energy in this book (often to very imaginative conclusions) (7 dispensations) Often words like Armageddon, tribulation, prophecy, rapture, pre-millenialism.
I hate to break it to you, but the rapture is not a biblical concept (but we don’t have time here to get into that here).
– C. Scofield – Scofield Study Bible (10 mil sold). Perpetrated a dispensational viewpoint by blurring the line between his commentary and the text itself, leading unsuspecting readers astray.
– This spawned vast numbers of fundamentalist premillienialists who felt they were living in the last times and that God would rapture them away. They opposed any social action as doomed to failure and as actually the work of the Anti-Christ. (You see how this can become insidious).
Late, Great Planet Earth – Hal Lindsey
Oil, Armageddon and the Middle East Crisis
– supported much of the 1980’s right wing policies of Peace through Strength and helped us see ourselves as Good and others such as the Soviet Union “Evil” (or the Evil Empire)
Left Behind series (Read it as fiction, not as an account of anything happening in reality).
But all of this comes out of a desire to understand our human condition, to understand where we are in history, to understand where things are going.
German Theologian Ulrich Körtner notes that existentially we all have “apocalyptic world anxiety” – not that we think the world is about to end, but that we all recognize that life is finite, and we are unable to change that fact about ourselves.
Caputo: “Every generation believes it is a part of a crisis, that something unprecedented is around the corner, for good or ill.”
Catherine Keller notes that the bad side of this is that we can develop “the apocalypse habit”.
This doesn’t mean we binge on movies like Terminator or 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.
It means we act out our lives as a series of “apocalypse scripts”, patterns in which life is seen as an either/or moral duality. We must unite against “the enemy.” It’s us vs. them. So we divide the world into the “saved” and the “condemned” and yearn for the destruction of those who are “outside” the holy circle.
In times of social confusion and stress, apocalyptic answers are attractive…
But we must take care before assuming we can open a book like Revelation and discover a ‘code’ that will reveal easy answers for our time.
In fact, I think you’ll agree as we get into this book that there may indeed be some answers, but they may not be the things we expect.
So what will our approach be?
Revelation is like a piece of art –
complicated, mysterious, powerful.
Aspects will strike you as beautiful, other aspects as hideous.
A good piece of art is designed to create an encounter that changes you, that takes you somewhere, that speaks to you more than once and in more than one way. It is not able to be grasped directly.
Consider Picasso’s painting, Guernica:
We could approach this painting in a vacuum – and it would speak powerfully to us. We don’t need to know any of the background or historical context to be moved and affected by this piece. You don’t even need to understand cubism/surrealism.
However, knowing the story, knowing the style also helps bring out the depth, nuance, and power of it. It helps us connect it to real things in history. Not every painting seeks to do that. But this one does. Check out the backstory here.
So we will approach Revelation in this manner – as a magnificent piece of art – to be handled delicately rather than presumptuously, to be viewed many times without making a definitive verdict on our particular interpretation, to be conscious of the context in which it was written –
Who wrote it?
Who was it written to? Why?
What circumstances is this addressing?
What literary genre does this belong to?
Are there other similar works that we can compare it to?
What themes, pictures, wordplays are happening that would be understood in its day that may escape us today?
And then and only then: what does this have to say to us?
Five keys in understanding Revelation:
(From David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance)
1) Revelation is the most ‘biblical’ book in the Bible. Hundreds of quotes and allusions are made to the OT.
2) Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and uses symbolic language, to be understood carefully and in its context.
3) Revelation is speaking about imminent events – things happening in the world of the first century. It is not about nuclear warfare, space travel, or the end of the world.
4) Revelation is a worship service. John describes a heavenly worship service in progress.
5) Revelation is a book about who is ruling. It is not about how terrible the Antichrist is, or how powerful the devil is. It is, as the first verse says, ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ.’ It tells us about his lordship over all, and that the kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he and his people shall reign forever.
— Revelation is a letter. What do we know about letters? They have specific authors and specific recipients. Here is where it differs from much art, or from other types of literature like poetry, which are more open-ended.
So, fundamental to our approach will be this:
This was written in a particular time in history to a particular group of people (in fact, we’re even told the recipients – the 7 churches). It was not written to us. If we want to understand it, we must read it in terms of its original hearers & their situation. The end of the first century AD was much different than beginning of the 21st century.
It has historical particularity. But that fits in with much of the Bible and the basic Christian affirmation of the incarnation. The gospel’s foundational declaration is not that God is revealed in general, but that he has definitively revealed himself in Jesus, a particular Aramaic-speaking Jew who lived and died in a particular time and place.
So our first point of approach will be historical – to understand who it was written to and why, and then and only then to begin to draw some connections to us here and now.
Revelation is a call to have faith in God rather than empire. It draws on language familiar to a people who throughout their history had been subjected to one empire or another, who had experienced oppression at the hands of Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. Revelation is a witness to the way of God, who entered into the heart of the empire in Jesus, breaking the cycle of earthly powers not by conquering it, but by submitting to it in love.
So for all the pictures of violence in this book, you have to remember that Revelation relies upon visions and dreams and often communicates things by way of illustration, parable and allegory – and when we literalize these things we do violence to the message itself. Because the God of Jesus Christ revealed himself ultimately not as a violent king, but as the lamb who was slain.
Revelation is a call above all else to loyal endurance – to remain faithful when it appears evil is having its way, it is a call to be ready to forgive, to turn fear and anxiety into trust – to know that our victory as the people of God often remains as hidden as the victory of Good Friday – but that the way of God, the way of love, the way of the cross will always win.
So in the next few weeks we will bravely blow the dust off this long neglected, much misunderstood masterpiece.
May God give us eyes to see it anew.
— You can listen to subsequent messages on Revelation here.