THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IN THE BIBLE

What do fundamentalists and atheists have in common? Fundamentalists sometimes quote the Bible and say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Atheists assume this attitude is taught in the Bible itself. Both groups assume the Bible is an authority to be accepted by blind faith whether it makes sense or not. Both groups assume that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible is simple. Both ignore the historical aspect of the Bible and its interpretation.

Apart from a few passages, such as the Ten Commandments, the Bible does not claim to be dictated by God. The Bible portrays the complex interaction between God and humans over long periods of time. The interaction includes presence and absence, revelation and mystery on the part of God. It includes human seeking, groping, and grasping for God along with human resistance, dullness, and stubborn refusal to accept God’s will. It includes a process of learning and growth, punctuated by periods of regression.

Does the Bible stifle critical thinking or encourage it?

People who have a fundamentalist attitude toward the Bible, whether they are believers or atheists, have never read the Hebrew wisdom literature–or at least they have never read it with any literary sensitivity. The book of Job deals with the problem of suffering; but it does not solve the problem or answer the question why. Rather, the book invites the reader to enter the debate. The book of Ecclesiastes raises questions about the meaning of life and avoids giving easy pious answers.

Jesus challenged people to think. He taught that the commandments of God are not to be enforced in an irrational or inhuman way: A farmer would pull a lost sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath day; in the same way followers of Jesus are allowed to do good on the Sabbath day, to heal, to save life.

The rabbis likewise interpreted the commandments in a way that is intended to preserve life rather than to harm. The Mishnah teaches that the commandments must be interpreted in ways that repair the damage in the world. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ article at http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/).

Those who ignore the historical nature of the Bible assume it endorses slavery and capital punishment for trivial crimes. Both are untrue. The Bible recognized the existence of slavery and gave laws to mitigate its abuses and provide protection for slaves. For example, the fugitive slave law of the Torah forbids returning a runaway slave to his master and commands providing sanctuary. Those who ignore the type of rhetoric used in the Middle East assume that the ancient Hebrews actually stoned rebellious sons; yet Jewish sources record no record of that law actually being carried out.

The Bible encourages critical thinking on several levels. Biblical texts criticize theological traditions. In the ancient world the sun, moon, and stars were worshiped as deities. In Babylon the sun is Shamash the god of justice. The moon was the favorite deity of Abraham’s one-time home of Haran.

When the creation of the heavenly bodies is reported in the Bible, they are not even given names; the sun and moon are simply the big light and the small light. The stars are almost an afterthought, “moreover, God made the stars.”

The prophets challenged the religious practice of their times. God is not impressed with loud praises and sacrifices. He desires justice.

The Bible is also critical of nationalism and military pride. The whole critique of idolatry is not only about the theological question of who is the true god. Idols are symbols and instruments of oppression.

The writers of the Bible never tell us to turn off our brains. Instead they challenge us to think through the implications of faith in an unseen God who sides with slaves, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the crucified.

NEXT WEEK: The Historical Interpretation of the Bible

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ROLLIN’ ON A RIVER

big-spring.jpgNo deep theology today. Our family just got back from an annual vacation trip at the Current River in Missouri. (Pictures courtesy of http://www.mo.gov.) The group totaled about 37 family and friends.

current-river.jpg

 

Apart from a couple of bad sunburns, everyone survived the trip in good shape.

Our grandson enjoyed slapping the water and the river. He also discovered the moon and enjoyed pointing it out and saying “Moon, Moon!” He also likes trees . Elijah is 14 months old and loves the outdoors. I will have some pictures of him soon on the “Mark” page.

We had a good time reminiscing with our cousins Charlie, Kathy, and Mary Lynn.

I always enjoy making up songs, improvising new lyrics to old tunes. Nephews helped me with “Take me home, Jolly Cone, to the place I belong. South Missouri, Ozark Mama, take me home, Jolly Cone.”

We did have a brief church service at the campsite Sunday morning. We sat in a circle under a Sycamore tree. I spoke about Zachaeus and the text in Luke 19 “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation for Zachaeus meant he was restored to a relationship with God; his sins were forgiven and he had the assurance of entering the presence of God when he died. It also meant he was restored to the community of God’s people. “He too is a child of Abraham.” Salvation also meant that Zachaeus volunteered to be a part of God’s program of repairing the world. “Behold, I give half of my money to the poor.” Zachaeus now had a purpose in life beyond merely accumulating wealth.

I could have come up with a meditation on Heraclitus, who said you can’t step in the same river twice. When we were talking about danger spots in the river (downed trees and so forth), my brother Kerry commented, “well the river is never the same,” and that is true.

 

Later my young nephew Dylan commented, “we know this river like the back of our hand.” That is also true. Our family has been camping and floating the river at the same spot for over 15 years. There is both continuity and change, in our family, and in the river.

 

THE THREAT TO MARRIAGE?

The biggest threat to marriage is the failure of marriage.  While the divorce rate increases, the marriage rate is decreasing.  Many young people are avoiding marriage completely, or delaying it indefinitely.  Maybe they are disillusioned by the failure of their parents’ marriages, or maybe they regard it as irrelevant.  A friend in campus ministry said college students used to be devastated when their parents would split up; now they seem to take it in stride.
For advice on avoiding marriage, see:

http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Marriage-and-Other-Committed-Relationships

Divorce was once a serious issue among Christians; at one time few Christians would have voted for a candidate who had been divorced.  The Wall Street Journal observes how this has changed and how evangelical biblical scholars have rethought scriptural teaching on divorce:

http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110009907

Believers claim that faith makes a difference in their lives.  Why then do evangelical Christians have a divorce rate as high as the national average, and higher than that of many mainline denominations?  These statistics come from a survey conducted by George Barna in 1999:

http://www.adherents.com/largecom/baptist_divorce.html

How can we explain this? As someone once said to me, “You would think that if Christianity were true it would work for somebody, somewhere.”   I have been bothered by this question.  On the one hand, I know many people whose faith commitment makes them better people: kinder, more generous, more loving.  On the other hand, I see many failures.  I look into my own life and into the lives of other believers and ask, “Why doesn’t faith, why doesn’t the transforming power of the Holy Spirit make more of a difference?”

Somebody once said, “My dad was a Christian and he argued a lot with my mom.  My uncles who weren’t Christians cussed their wives, beat them, and cheated on them.  My dad didn’t do that.”  Maybe it’s not saying much, yet maybe an unhappy but nonviolent marriage is an improvement.

Churches and Christian leaders have tried hard to make marriage work. Over the past thirty years I’ve seen two trends that should be positive.  First, churches have become much less judgmental about divorce.  Many churches that once had a very strict anti-divorce policy are now offering divorce recovery workshops.  Second, churches and Christian organizations are sponsoring a variety of educational, enrichment, and counseling opportunities to help strengthen marriage.  What went wrong?

Could our expectations about marriage be wrong?

Could it be that the very programs designed to save marriage have created an unrealistic expectation that is actually undermining marriage?  Maybe the premise of marriage-enrichment workshops is that the purpose of marriage is for our own personal enrichment.

What if God had another purpose in mind for marriage?  Socrates said that he married Xanthipe to prove that a philosopher can endure all things.

Maybe the purpose of marriage is to provide an opportunity to develop the virtues of patience, forgiveness, and peacemaking. In a world where so many people are motivated by differences to hate and kill each other, maybe the purpose of marriage is to show that people who are fundamentally incompatible can live in the same house, cooperate in raising a family, manage finances together, and still avoid killing each other.

Maybe what the world needs is not fulfilled individuals, but reconciled individuals.  Maybe marriage is designed to be a laboratory in reconciliation, peacemaking, and forgiveness.

It is a great improvement that we are less judgmental and more gracious to divorced people.  Maybe we can learn to apply that kind of grace to others who fall short of what we understand to be God’s will.

SUPPORT OUR TROOPS

Our good friends Alex and Margaret have three sons in the army. Eventually all three will have served in Iraq. We live near Fort Riley and know many military families. I have soldiers and their spouses in my classes. I have good working relations with two chaplains. Recently I met my brother-in-law’s son-in-law (I’m not sure there’s a term to describe how he’s related to me), who is in the army and between tours of Iraq. I told him I appreciate his service to our country.

Beyond that I don’t know how best to “support our troops.” Two pieces I read this week disturb me. The first is from General William Odom who says the only realistic way to support our troops now is to bring them home. General Odom says the army is at the breaking point:

No U.S. forces have ever been compelled to stay in sustained combat conditions for as long as the Army units have in Iraq. In World War II, soldiers were considered combat-exhausted after about 180 days in the line.”

For more of General Odom’s comments, go to
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/070707B.shtml

How Does the Holy Spirit Lead Us in Time of War?

If we believed in the divine right of kings, the answer would be easy: God speaks to us through our divinely anointed leader. In a democracy, it is more complicated.

Christians believe God speaks through the Bible. For three hundred years, most Christians took this to mean abstaining from carrying a sword into war. (See previous posts, including “Inquisition” and “Semper Ref.”)

A more nuanced interpretation by St. Augustine led to the doctrine of the just war. Christians were now allowed to participate in wars that met the qualifications of just authority, just cause, just means, and so forth.

But in a democracy, how does a Christian nation decide when to go to war (or to put it more accurately, how do Christians in any nation decide when it is just to support a proposed war?) How do we discern the leading of the Holy Spirit? There is a tradition that God sometimes speaks or leads through the consensus of the faithful.

The second disturbing article is by Charles Marsh in the Boston Globe. He states that before the war, the universal consensus of nearly all our Christian brothers and sisters around the world was against the war in Iraq.

From Pentecostals in Brazil to the Christian Councils of Ghana, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, from Pope John Paul II to the The Waldensian Reformed Church of Italy and the Christian Conference of Asia, the voices of our brothers and sisters in the global ecumenical church spoke in unison.

Mr. Marsh also relates an interesting personal experience:

Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.

But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories – red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, “I support our troops” ribbons, “God Bless America” gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man’s response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. “They’re in the back with the other discounted items,” he said, nodding in that direction.

(For more, see: http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/070807F.shtml.)

What Can Be Done Now?

I don’t know. Will more Iraqi citizens die if we abandon them? Will the whole region descend into a blood bath? Or will the citizens of Iraq turn against Al Qaeda and drive them out? I don’t know.

SEMPER REF

It turns out it’s pretty hard to pinpoint the origin of the phrase, “ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda.” It evidently surfaced some time in the 16th century. The phrase means that the church, even after having gone through the Reformation, is still always in need of being reformed.

(For more on “Semper Reformanda”:

http://www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may04/reformed.htm)

Before he finally kicked the habit, my dad used to smoke Pall Mall cigarettes. The Latin motto that accompanied the brand logo was in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign you will conquer.” Since the motto was originally a Christian slogan, its use to promote a deadly addictive product seemed almost blasphemous to me.

The legend of Constantine’s conversion says that he saw the sign of the cross in the sky and heard the words, in hoc signo vinces. Constantine put the accent on the wrong syllable. The cross was originally a sign of hate, defeat, and disgrace. Christian faith transformed it into a sign of the victory of love. Constantine missed the irony of Christian imagination. For three hundred years, Christians had been saying, “Our war is not against flesh and blood. Our weapons are faith, hope, and love.”

“In this sign you will conquer,” is what Constantine should have heard. “The victory God will give you will be by the power of suffering love, by the power of humility and peace.” Instead he heard, “in this sign you will conquer.” When Peter tried to defend his Lord with the sword, Christ took his sword away. After Constantine, the church took up the sword again. Since that time, the church has always been in need of reform.

In fact, the message of the Bible is that religious people are always in need of reform. The majority of prophets and teachers whose voices are heard in the Scriptures are speaking against the popular majority religion of their time.

Two secular web sites this week reported on the danger of Christian militancy. The first form is an “end-time,” pro-Armageddon type of belief: http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/062907J.shtml.

End-time Christians follow a method of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism. The vast majority of evangelical biblical scholars have repudiated dispensationalism, but it is still very popular among lay people and many pastors–especially those who buy TV time. Most people who follow dispensational interpretations are harmless–they are quietly going about their lives and waiting to see what happens. But when it influences public policy and military decisions, end-time Christianity is dangerous–and a serious aberration from the historic faith.

Christian reconstructionists are less dangerous since they advocate working through the ballot box to impose their views on others: http://www.alternet.org/story/55717.

One of the hazards of democracy is that any kook can get up on a soapbox and advocate any agenda. The hope is that in the free market place of ideas, good ideas will overcome bad ideas by the force of reason and persuasion, without resort to the sword.

Still, those who advocate some sort of Christian Taliban are followers more of Constantine than Christ. It is true that in a democracy all of us have the right and responsibility to speak out on moral issues and to try to influence public policy, especially in defense of the powerless. But influencing public opinion and policy in the give and take of democracy is not the same as trying to impose a total theocratic agenda on a godless minority.

Militant Christianity makes it hard for those of use who believe that faith means following Jesus in the way of peace, love, and humility.

Semper Reformanda