If It’s Embarrassing, It’s Probably True

Jason Micheli —  September 20, 2018 — Leave a comment

I’m continuing our fall sermon series this Sunday with the question Yahweh poses to Sarah: “Why are you laughing?” In thinking about Sarah’s laughter I realized that there’s very little mention of anyone laughing in scripture at all. Sarah in Genesis 18 receives the promise of God as a punchline, and the crowds in Matthew laugh off Jesus promising to bring life to a dead girl. That’s about it.

Though there is not a laughter in the bible, there is plenty in the bible about which we can laugh. For example, the Old Testatment story of the prophet Elisha and the she-bears. Here’s one from the vault on that odd, funny passage from my book 100 Foreskins. 

God is not great.

This lightening bolt comes according to Christopher Hitchens, who, along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is one of the self-styled New Atheists. Or, as they like to refer themselves in their enlightened degree: ‘Brights.’

They actually call themselves ‘Brights.’

Christopher Hitchens’ bestselling, National Book Award-nominated diatribe carries the unsubtle, kitchen-sink title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The book is a couple of years old now, but I only recently managed to choke it all down. In it, Hitchens scolds ignorant lemmings like you and me that, far from being great, God is instead a malignant pox on human history, human inquiry and human freedom.

It takes 317 self-important pages Hitchens to regurgitate points made long ago by philosophers much smarter than he.

He steals from Freud:

God is not great; God is an illusion. God is the projection of our desire to escape death.

He steals from Ludwig Feuerbach:

God is not great; God is a totem. It is not God who has fashioned us in his image. It is we who have fashioned God in ours.

He steals from Woody Allen:

God is not great.

At best, God is an underachiever, giving us an imperfect world handicapped by violence and poverty and suffering.

He steals from Nietzsche.

How can God be great- better yet, how can God be all-wise- if he is forever choosing the least deserving, least capable, least faithful people to do his work?

He steals from Kant.

God is not great. What we call God’s Word are texts filled with horrors, cruelties and madness, stories that no right-minded person would wish to be true, stories that should provoke squinty-eyed, blush-faced embarrassment not an ‘Amen’ or ‘Thanks be to God.’

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, then we’ll come clean. And we’ll admit that Hitchens’ book would not be 317 pages long if he were pulling his points out of thin air. His argument is not with out grounds. Maybe some of scripture’s stories are best kept secret.

Take Elisha.

No sooner does Elisha inherit the prophetic mantle from Elijah than Elisha hurls a curse at a crowd of punk kids, calling two she-bears out of the woods to maul them limb from limb. Forty-two of them. All for an adolescent crack about male-pattern baldness.

For those of us who believe that God is great, all the time God is great, how do we explain a scripture like that one?

What do we say about Elisha?

 

Of course if you’ve spent any time with adolescents then you might just say you’re envious that Elisha has such powers at his disposal.

Or-

You could refuse to blink and say without equivocation, that this is a story about holiness. That just as the ark carried the covenant given by the Lord, Elisha, as a prophet of the Lord, carries within him the Word of God.

Therefore, to mock Elisha is to mock the Lord. No matter the taste it leaves in our mouths, those boys had it coming to them- when you mock a prophet of the Lord you end up dead.

Or instead-

You could say that what we think is going on in this text is NOT what is actually going on in this text. You could argue that the original plot and meaning have been obscured by time and translation.

For example, you could point out that Bethel, the setting for this story, was also the site of King Jeroboam’s temple to the golden calf. And you could point out that, in Hebrew, ‘little boys’ can also mean ‘subordinates’ as in, assistant priests.

And their jibe ‘go on up’- you could argue that refers to Elijah’s ascension. After all, just twelve verses earlier fiery horses and chariots had taken Elijah on up to heaven. In other words, in shouting ‘go on up’ they’re wishing Elisha dead too, or they’re threatening to make him so.

So you could argue that this isn’t a petty act of revenge. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare.

Elisha is doing battle against false prophets just as the prophet Elijah had done. Just as Elijah had stood at the edge of Mt Carmel and battled the prophets of Baal, so too does Elisha stand at the edge of the forest and battle the priests of false gods.

Elijah had called down fire from heaven upon God’s enemies, and now Elisha calls bears down from the woods upon his enemies.

You could argue that.

If you did-

Then you could connect this story to the story before it- where Elisha takes the mantle given to him by Elijah, rolls it up so that it resembles a staff. And with it he strikes the banks of the Jordan River and parts the waters in two so his people can pass through.

And then, with two bears, defeats the false worshippers in the land.

In other words, Elisha is a new Moses. Elisha is a new Joshua. He’s enacting a New Exodus and a New Conquest. He’s rescuing his people from the slavery of idolatry and leading them into a new and promising land.

You could argue that.

And you could take it a step further-

And focus on the crowd’s insult: ‘bald-head.’ You could point out that the mantle given to Elisha, a garment not unlike my stole, was made of hair.

So maybe when the crowd taunts Elisha and calls him ‘bald-head’ they’re not meaning the hair on his head. Maybe they’re taunting Elisha because they don’t believe he’s really inherited Elijah’s prophetic mantle. They don’t believe that the power and the word of the Lord have come to rest on him.

You could argue that.

And many have.

The fact is when it comes to the history of biblical interpretation there is no shortage of explanations for why this strange story is about anything other than what it seems to be.

There’s no shortage of scholars doing theological gymnastics to exonerate Elisha because there is so much embarrassment: that a prophet could be so petty, that a prophet could be so temperamental and vindictive, that that’s the sort of person God would call.

Years ago, when I was still discerning a call to ministry and had only just applied to the ordination process, the churchly powers-that-be evaluated me for my ‘fitness for ministry.’

The major part of that evaluation was a battery of psychological assessment tests.

I remember I was given the address of some tiny, out-of-the-way New Jersey church to report to and when I arrived some random pastor handed me a stack of these psychological tests and a #2 pencil. For several hours I sat in that pastor’s outdated, drafty office and filled in multiple choice, scantron bubbles.

The tests had questions with seemingly no right answers, questions like:

Would you rather torture a cat or date your mother?

How often do you think people are following you: always or often?

Would you rather lie to God or lie to your mother?

How often do you lose your temper: frequently or never?

Would you rather kiss a dead person on the lips or kiss your mother?

(Come to think of it, there were an awful lot of questions about my mother.)

The psychological tests took hours and when I was done- or when I thought I was done- I noticed I still had like ten leftover bubbles I hadn’t filled in, even though I’d gone through all the questions, MEANING- all of the questions had answers other than the answers I’d intended.

But at that point I didn’t care. I sighed and shuffled the tests together and turned them in.

After I’d completed the psychological assessments, I had to make an appointment at the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care in Richmond to meet with a counselor, who would go through my test results and discuss them with me. I was told ominously and without explanation, that he would be looking for ‘red flags.’

As soon as I walked in to this counselor’s office, I was convinced he was the one who was crazy. All over his office walls he’d hung pictures of himself wearing fatigues, a Harley Davidson dew rag and holding huge machine guns.

Alongside the Rambo photos he’d hung Thomas Kinkade pictures with sappy bible quotes on them and alongside them a bunch of flannel graph peace doves. In the corner of his office was a gurgling granite fountain of water and some sort of Feng Shui, Zen, Christian, Yoga garden.

Dr. Denton was his name. Not only did he have a comic book villain name, he looked like one too. Dr. Denton was completely bald with little round glasses, and that particular morning- but for all I knew every morning- he was dressed completely in burgundy, from head to toe in burgundy: burgundy polyester dress pants, burgundy polyester button down shirt. And to accessorize: an enormous green and white polka dotted bow tie and white cowboy boots.

Needless to say, he was hard to read and I was immediately on the defensive.

After shaking my hand and introducing himself, Dr Denton gestured and had me sit down on this bamboo sort of love seat that was about two inches off the ground; so that, his knees were at my eye level and to anyone walking past I must’ve looked like an overgrown man-child sitting at Santa’s feet.

I sat there for several minutes, staring at his knees, while he pondered my test results, occasionally arching his eyebrow and going ‘HMMM.’

When he finished, he stared at me over his glasses and said: ‘This suggests pretty strongly that you have an argumentative personality.’

‘I don’t think that’s true’ I said, taking the bait. And he scribbled something in his notes.

Then he summarized my psychological test results:

I usually thought I was right and others were wrong.

I typically thought I was the smartest person in the room.

I still had many doubts about my faith.

My family of origin was broken and troubled.

I had a tendency to be contrary and confrontational.

I could be abrasive and short-tempered.

I may have trouble working well with others.

I was often foul-mouthed and vulgar in my language and immature and inappropriate in my humor.

To be honest, at that point in my life, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Because at that point in my life I still wasn’t convinced I was called to do this.

I still didn’t think I was cut out for ministry. I didn’t think I was good enough or holy enough or righteous enough for God to use me.

He told me exactly what I wanted to hear because I wanted him to let me off the hook.

     ‘Well, I guess this means I’m not cut out for ministry.’ 

  ‘I didn’t say that,’ he replied with surprise, ‘God’s used worse people before.’ 

 

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

When investigating the authenticity of a scriptural story, the reasoning goes that that which is most embarrassing to believers is probably historically true.

And so, scholars say, Jesus probably did submit to baptism by John. Jesus probably did act the slave and wash his friends’ feet. Jesus probably did die naked and a criminal and on a cross- because no first century believer would make up something so embarrassing about the Messiah.

That which is most embarrassing is most true.

And so Peter probably did deny Jesus three times. Paul really was a persecutor and murderer of the Church. Moses really did kill a man and hide him in the sand. Noah, after the flood, probably did get drunk, pass out naked and disown his son when he woke up.

And the prophet Elisha-

Before he rescued a widow’s children from slavery, before he raised a woman’s little boy from the dead, before he fed multitudes with only twenty loaves of bread, before before he healed a Syrian general of leprosy-

Elisha probably did respond to adolescent mocking with a petty, vindictive, violent curse of his own.

Because if you’re making up your scripture these aren’t the sorts of people you would choose for God to use.

If you were making up your scripture, you would choose heroes.

You would choose people:

who were always strong in their faith

who never wavered in their commitment to God

whose character was pure and spotless

You would choose saints:

who never drank too much

who were never seduced by money or prosperity

who never chose the wrong side

who never made a rash decision

who never forgot their purpose in life

who never lashed out in anger

who never escalated a petty argument

who never broke a promise or a vow.

But God chooses differently. God doesn’t choose holy people. God enlists imperfect people to do holy things.

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

But you and I- we call it grace.

I hate Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens’ New Atheist movement is so stale and hackneyed it deserves to be no more than a passing fad.

Hitchens’ best-selling book, God is Not Great, is no better than beach-paperback brain candy. It’s intellectually and morally trivial. That Christopher Hitchens passes for a theological expert in the popular media is embarrassing.

There’s not one new idea in any of his 317 constipated pages. Christopher Hitchens is wantonly incurious. His scholarship is egregiously slapdash. His attempts at philosophical argument make it obvious he’s sailing in uncharted waters. His book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors I gave up counting them.

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

I think he’s shallow, reptilian and obnoxious.

He’s cruel in his sarcastic judgments.

He’s arrogantly dismissive of our faith, and he’s despicable in his mockery of Jesus Christ.

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

And yet I should bite my tongue because he’s exactly the sort of person our God just loves to use.

Isn’t God great?

Jason Micheli

Posts

No Comments

Be the first to start the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.