What Are We Left With?

I got to thinking the other day. What started it was the ever-present demand by those who want to re-construct our understanding of biology (and especially of the roles of male and female) to eliminate from Scripture any reference to gender differences and the roles attached to the separate genders. So, if they cannot explain away certain passages, they just eliminate them as being the uninformed opinions of bigoted males – the apostle Paul being the chief culprit. It the author of a particular passage was a male chauvinist homophobe, then we do not have to listen to anything that he said, or wrote.

So, in the spirit of this line of thinking, I got to thinking – why stop there? Let’s continue and remove any language that can be deemed to have roots in a patriarchal society. Let’s purify the Bible of any semblance of male superiority. That would mean excising all references to God as “Father” and Jesus as a male. In fact, let us be done with all the male/female binary language in the Bible. Eve should not be singled out as the “mother of all living,” as that reduces her to a mere object for male dominance. In fact, the language extolling any kind of human attraction and love needs to be cut out – think of the horrid descriptions of the female body in the Song of Solomon!

While we are at it, let us not forget to eliminate any references to a hierarchal/dictatorial culture. The chief offender here is any idea that God or Jesus could be “Lord,” as that is the pinnacle of a repressive society. The warrior language is especially galling – who wants to worship a God who wields swords and who commands his people to utterly destroy their enemies? Gone also will be any views “from below,” – words like obey, or submit, as they merely work to institutionalize systems of dominance and power.

Let us not forget that the people who first received the Bible were highly superstitious, and so to purify the Scriptures it is also incumbent upon us to remove any references or suggestions regarding the supernatural. This would include cutting out all the references to spirits, (including the Holy Spirit), demons, miracles – and even prayer itself. Closely related, since these people are considered to be “pre-scientific,” let us be done with all the incorrect and misleading language – all that talk about the sun rising and setting, the four corners of the earth, etc. Think of all those silly metaphors in the Psalms that compare thunder to the voice of God, and the majestic human to a smelly sheep. Surely we can do better than that.

The only question I have after we do all of that is this – what are we left with?

You see, when we (our 21st century culture) start editing the Bible to fit the world in which we live, where do we stop? If we want to eliminate certain verses from the pastoral letters or the Corinthian letters, why limit ourselves to just one segment of our society? When we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” we are making a politically subversive statement: we are bound to obey Jesus as our supreme leader, not some elected official. In reality that is far more offensive than stating that males and females have been given different gifts and ministries in the church! Yet, because we have so neutered the word “Lord” in our language, we can sing about Jesus being our lord with sublime expressions on our faces and utterly miss the significance of what we are saying.

I have to be careful here because I too have wrestled with the question of what are timeless truths and commands within Scripture and what is culturally limited. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. But my anxiety and my questions cannot overturn what basically amounts to 4,000 years of accepted teaching and interpretation.

Standing under Scripture is difficult, because it cuts against every fiber of my rebellious nature. I don’t want to submit to certain texts because it means that I am no longer the master of my life. It means I have to uproot the idols in my life and return Jesus to the center. Idols are idols precisely because we love them and are comfortable with them. Removing them is painful for those very reasons.

But if we no longer have God at the center of our life, what are we left with?

Standing Under Scripture

If you have been reading the last few posts (my “Uncertain Inferences” series) you note that I have been illustrating how we can look at a passage of Scripture and deduce, or infer, that something is true when, in fact, it is either not true, or at least the certainty of our inference is indeed “uncertain.” You may disagree with me on one or more of these issues: that is fine – by no means am I claiming infallibility. However, you better have more solid scriptural evidence than I have presented to bolster my case if you want to convince me. I am passionately opposed to perpetuating error just because it happens to be popular.

What all of this boils down to is our approach to Scripture. One of my most favorite professors stressed to his students that we stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. When we stand under Scripture, we submit to its message, listen to its modes of communication, and seek to obey what it directs. In the 21st century, that means we have to unlearn as much about reading Scripture as we have to learn how to read Scripture.

As just a few examples, consider these: we (and I speak as an American, although much of what I say can be shared by other Western cultures) think linearly. Point B follows point A, and point C follows point B. Time flows in a straight line. Result Y is directly related to cause X. When we read Scripture, we automatically impose that way of thinking on the text. We think that is the way Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter must have thought and acted, because that is the way everyone around us thinks and acts.

Philosophically we are basically Platonists. The world is made up of the ideal and the material. The material is somehow corrupt, whereas the ideal is perfect  – how many times have you heard the phrase “true love?” Our Platonic worldview is especially seen in our view of “heaven.” We have a view of disembodied “spirits” or “souls” flying around on little clouds in some nebulous realm “up there.” We base virtually every decision we make on some form of scientific “truth,” and yet we pray on Sunday mornings for “divine guidance.” These are all grand-children, or step-grand-children, of Plato’s understanding, and we are so immersed in that thought that to think otherwise is to be branded as a heretic.

Yet, when we enter into the very different, and we might even say strange, world of the Bible we see that so much of what we consider to be the only way to view things is NOT the way the biblical writers viewed them. Their world did not always follow a direct cause and effect pattern. Time for them was not always linear – sometimes it was, and sometimes it was cyclical and sometimes it was significantly disjointed. Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter lived in a world where paradox was more common than consistency. And while Jesus and Paul and Peter lived in a world influenced by Plato and Aristotle, their thinking was more in line with Abraham and Moses than with the Athenian philosophers.

Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is this difference in thinking more profound than in the type of literature we call “apocalyptic.” This is the very strange world where beasts live that have seven heads and ten horns, where the sun goes dark and the moon turns red. We, as good 21st century Westerners, read those passages and immediately we think in “literal” terms. We start trying to figure out how ten horns can be divided onto seven heads – we start trying to calculate when solar or lunar eclipses must have occurred to give the biblical writers their “literal” reference. In so doing we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point! By forcing our worldview (literal, linear, and scientific to a fault) onto a mostly Hebraic, and sometimes Persian, and sometimes Egyptian, and sometimes Babylonian, and sometimes Greek, and sometimes Roman worldview, we destroy not only the method, but we destroy the message as well. What we are doing when we do that is we are standing OVER the text, not standing under it.

The problem is that this is the way we have been taught to read the Bible ever since we were very small children. We read a passage, made a modern day application, and moved on. We were never taught about Egyptian or Mesopotamian creation myths, or about Hebrew poetry, or about Zoroastrian dualism because our teachers knew little or nothing about those topics – and they did the best they could understanding that they had not been taught about those subjects. When I was a small child I searched the maps in the back of my Bible for hours, knowing that somewhere in those maps I could find Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my beloved Pecos river. We did not even have a globe in our classroom so that the teacher could show us just how far Bethlehem was from Santa Fe.

Please understand – I am not criticizing my teachers. They did the best they could with what they knew, and I might add that they did a remarkable job with those flannel boards and little sand boxes where the battle of Jericho was fought again and again with striking realism. But I do want to shine a light on a serious problem – what was adequate, and perhaps appropriate, for elementary age children is pathetically inappropriate for grown adults. We must grow beyond flannel boards and sand boxes. As we mature in our understanding we have to learn that the world of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter and every other biblical writer was vastly different from our own, and if and when we impose our way of looking at reality onto their way of describing their reality, we distort and even misinterpret Scripture.

Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Job is not a guide to astronomy. Revelation is not a road map of the future. Jesus spoke in parables because of, not in spite of, their open ended conclusions. It just seems to me to be the height of arrogance for us to say that we know everything about everything in the Bible when we are separated almost two millennia from the youngest of the biblical writings. We, who claim to be people of the book, must be the most careful and humble when it comes to speaking from that book.

Standing under the Bible means we have to get on our knees, not stand on a soap box. It means that we have to ascend by bending lower.

[Note: this post was edited to better reflect our Platonic worldview.]

How NOT to Handle a Controversy (Apparently)

A follow-up to the unfolding saga of Eugene Peterson and the confession that never was. Here is what I have been able to discover so far. (All of this can be easily confirmed – I subscribe to Christianity Today online, and all relevant links are embedded in the stories)

  1.  Eugene Peterson was approached about conducting a phone interview by Jonathan Merritt. He agreed, and agreed to having the interview tape recorded. The interview lasted approximately 33 minutes
  2. Merritt had some hints (the language here gets kind of nebulous) that Peterson no longer held the traditional view of homosexuality (if he ever did) and that he now endorsed homosexual marriage. At the conclusion of the interview Merritt posed two specific questions regarding this possibility.
  3. Peterson answered the first question (regarding homosexuality) in somewhat of a rambling answer, basically saying that culture has evolved, the question of homosexuality has been answered, and he had no problem in accepting practicing homosexuals in his church. He even mentioned his acceptance of a practicing homosexual as music minister for the church where he had recently retired.
  4. Merritt then asked if he was approached to perform a same-sex marriage, would Peterson perform the ceremony. Peterson responded with an unequivocal, “yes.”
  5. When Merritt published the interview an instant storm blew up, and one of the largest Christian booksellers threatened to pull Peterson’s books off of the shelves – this was no idle threat. Lifeway Books does not mess around with authors they feel have rejected clear biblical teaching.
  6. A day after the interview went public, Peterson had a strange “Damascus Road” moment of conversion, recanted what he had said about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, claimed to have been distracted by a flurry of hypothetical questions, and concluded with perhaps one of the biggest equivocations in history, “I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
  7. Apparently (I have not viewed the video), Merritt responded to the recantation by providing a video in which Peterson certainly leaves the door open that his views on homosexuality were changing.
  8. Somehow or another, as is so often the case in these situations, Merritt is being made to look like the bad guy, when all he did was report on an interview that was pre-arranged and was in no way coercive or deceitful.

I have some additional thoughts to my post of yesterday.

  1.  Peterson’s mea culpa sounds forced and overly affective. What in the world does “I affirm a biblical view of everything” mean? Why, if Peterson does not accept the traditional view of homosexuality (as being aberrant and a human perversion) would he approve of a practicing and unrepentant homosexual being hired as a congregational music minister? But, why, if he thought the issue was decided in favor of committed, faithful homosexual relationships, would he then so emphatically deny he accepted homosexual behavior as being blessed by God? Why even attempt such a nebulous statement like, “I affirm a biblical view of everything?”
  2. It really bothers me that Merritt has been attacked as being the heavy here. Peterson has such a cult following that, apparently, some people cannot stand to see the altar of Baal being destroyed. Instead of searching their own culpability in the situation, they want to kill the messenger (see Judges 6, also 1 Sam. 5). As I wrote yesterday, it should not come as any shock at all that Peterson accepts the homosexual lifestyle as being compatible with Christianity. Although he may nowhere confess such a belief, it is thoroughly reconcilable with his voluminous writings.
  3. Peterson’s defense that he was temporarily confused or distracted by a hypothetical question has got to rate in the top five of all sophistic statements of all time – right up there with Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” If Peterson was a pastor for a large congregation in the Presbyterian Church, he was inundated with hypothetical questions every week, if not every day. He cannot argue that one fairly straightforward question somehow tripped him up – unless he is dealing with the onset of dementia, and that is something that no one is suggesting. I hate hypothetical questions – but I learned how to recognize them a LONG time ago. If I knew that an interview was being taped, and I sniffed out a hypothetical question that was virtually impossible to answer (and Merritt’s question was really very direct), I would have blown it up. If Peterson is only half as intelligent as his defenders claim, that question should have caused no problems at all. And, that is exactly my point. At the time of the interview, Peterson answered with a direct, unequivocal “yes,” indicating he understood the question about conducting a same-sex marriage and his willingness to officiate such ceremonies.
  4. All of this goes to demonstrate how NOT to handle a controversy. Peterson’s original answers have caused a tidal wave of accusations, counter-accusations, recriminations and other fall-out that directly relates to the esteemed position he holds in the minds of many. His recantation sounds forced and artificial. Merritt’s motives and his integrity have been impugned. He has further angered many with his attempts to defend his initial reasons for asking Peterson the questions he did.

No one knows how this whole sordid affair will end. Quite possibly it will dissipate as does a little tempest in a tea-pot, with everyone going away licking their wounds and vowing never to trust the “enemy” again. There may be some residual damage to either Peterson or Merritt or both. But it does illustrate that the best policy is to state what you believe with conviction, defend your convictions with the facts you hold to be true, and when challenged, answer with grace and humility.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#11)

This post shall be rather brief (I’m trying to make promises I can keep) –

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

My point here was (and is) that we should not view Scripture as a “flat” piece of literature. The Bible contains some excruciatingly boring lists of genealogies, some breathtaking poetry, some captivating narrative, and some mystifying views of the future. To treat the genealogical material in the opening chapters of Chronicles with the same significance as the parables of our Lord is just wrong. As Jesus himself said, there are “weightier” matters, and by definition that means there are less weighty matters.

Over the years I have come to love the Scriptures as literature. I have come to recognize the artistry of each gospel writer, I have been shown both the tenderness and the pugnacity of the apostle Paul, and, in particular, I have been enthralled with the deep layers of the book of Revelation. I cannot explain all of this in a tidy little blog post, so I will end with as simple an encouragement as I know how: as we sit down to read the Bible, let us open our minds – and our hearts – to absorb the words of Scripture with all the variety and beauty that they have to offer.

Once we recognize, and value, the beauty of the presentation, we can far more deeply recognize, and value, the content of the message.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 4 and 5)

The fourth and fifth Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection fit together so tightly that I decided to handle them together. Also, number 4 is really self-explanatory. Number 5 deserves a few words, though.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

I do not know what else to say about number 4. The Bible is truly a story – a story about God and man. The story begins and ends with God, but from beginning to ending the content of the story revolves around God’s relationship with his finest creation – the only creation that was made “in our image.”

I think it is number 5 that people will misinterpret, or misunderstand. I believe that the average “sit in the middle of the pew” Christian simply does not understand the meaning and purpose of theology. I do not blame them – because for the most part theologians have done a rather pitiful job of explaining theology.

For the curious, I have read two books that do a wonderful job explaining the practice of theology, and of explaining how everyone who claims to live a Christian life is in some sense a theologian. The first is Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. The second is Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. If you only want one, I would recommend the first, first. However, both are wonderful books and do a much better job of explaining this than I do.

Stated as simply as I can: everyone who reads and attempts to live out the words of Scripture is a theologian! Theology is not the private domain of some old graybeard cloistered in some ivy covered tower. If you read the Bible, and if you attempt to live the Christian life, you are a theologian, plain and simple. The only question that remains is this: are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad one?

Subsequent explanations of the following “Undeniable Truths” will unpack just exactly what I mean when I use the words “good theology,” but suffice it to say here that the key is found in the last phrase, “the careful study of the Bible.”

Good theology is the result of careful, diligent, intentional study of the Bible. Bad theology is the result of shoddy, reckless, or inattentive reading of Scripture. Good theology is never an accident, while good theologians are sometimes guilty of producing bad theology, for the simple reason that even good theologians occasionally get careless. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to approach the story of the Bible as carefully and intentionally as we possibly can, each and every time we pick it up to read it.

As always, please refer to Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 1, and repeat often.

We can only ascend by climbing lower.

Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.