Archives For Bible

No, that’s not Bryce Harper. It’s Colby Martin.

He’s got the best head of hair in Progressive Christianity and we’ve got him to talk about his new book, ‘Unclobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality’. Endorsed by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Glennon Doyle Melton, Colby Martin works his way through the ‘clobber’ passages often used to denounce and dehumanize our LGBT brothers and sisters. He talks with the voice of a theologian while using a pastoral tone.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

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All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
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But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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A better Christian blogger would bite his virtual tongue and remain diffident. After all, beating up on American Atheists Dot Org is like making fun of Joel Osteen’s teeth or pointing out that Ted Cruz is a McCarthy-esque a@#-clown.

It’s just too easy to ridicule a group that takes itself even more seriously than the evangelicals they’re wont to battle.

Sure enough it’s Advent and American Atheists Dot Org are putting up their annual craptastic ‘War on Christmas’ billboards all over the Bible Belt.

That American Atheists Dot Org apply the same obtuse, tone-deaf literalism to the Christmas story as do the conservative Christians with whom they’re supposedly locked in pitched rhetorical battle makes me suspect their ‘War on Christmas’ is just a franchise of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas.’

If not, it at least provides bipartisan consensus that unimaginative killjoys exist in both fundamentalisms, Christian and None.

At the very least, it proves that fundamentalism itself- with literalism as one of its dominant motifs- is itself the product of modern liberalism.

Here’s their 2014 billboard:

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Don’t even get me started on their (false) assumption that the absence of Christian mythology equates to freedom from any and all other mythology (Secularism, Freedom, America, Racism, Capitalism, Individualism).

With tones of self-congratulatory enlightenment, American Atheists Dot Org’s website etc enumerates in sensationalist fashion the ‘fairy tales’ from which they would have us closeted non-believers rise up in erudite opposition.

You know the ‘secrets’ that the leaders of ORGANIZED RELIGION like me hide from the poor ignorant bastards who comprise their faithful flock.

Among these church-shattering revelations:

1. The bible does not say what year Jesus was born (gasp!).

2. The bible does not say Jesus was born on December 25, originally a Roman holiday (what? no!)

3. The bible doesn’t say there was an ox and an ass in the manger (how dare artists elaborate the story for the sake art!).

4. There are extra-canonical gospels that include other details about Jesus’ birth and childhood (No! It can’t be! Didn’t the ancient Christians know this?).

5. The bible doesn’t say there was 3 wise men (see #3).

6. Only 2 of the 4 Gospels have nativity stories (really? I never noticed that, damn).

7. Matthew’s Nativity story is different and, chronologically, irreconcilable with Luke’s Nativity story (how did I miss that?).

The membership of American Atheists Dot Org boasts some pretty impressive names so one can presume they’re not all stupid or intentionally dense, yet their craptastic billboards are a breathtaking exercise in missing the point.

It just goes to show that one can be smart yet have no imaginative, poetic sense of how narrative functions to tell ‘truth,’ convict, shape faith and elicit transformation.

It also goes to show, I’d wager in many of their cases, how destructive it can be to raise your kids in an idiot Christianity (Fundamentalism) that they then react against with their own version of black/white, overly rationalistic, idiot Fundamentalism.

American Atheists Dot Org brand of muckraking billboards never lets on that all of these supposed ‘secrets’ and ‘fairy tales’ have been known and accepted by the Church for centuries.

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For the Church catholic these revelations are a snore and for that reason their billboards should provoke a pitying ‘there, there’ chuckle.

For example, Christians only began celebrating Christmas in the 4th century. Meaning: it’s possible to worship God-in-Christ without the nativity stories (Mark and John obviously thought so); therefore, none of these breathless ‘fairy tales’ drive the dagger into the heart of Christianity as AA imply.

Yes, Matthew and Luke tell different stories. That’s the freaking point. They tell the stories they do the way they do NOT because they’re attempting to construct the sort of biography AA apparently expects. They tell the stories the way they do to make a particular confession about who Jesus is.

Matthew tells his story through Joseph and by way of Egypt to profess that Jesus is the New Moses for a New Israel through whom God is working deliverance.

Luke tells his story the way he does to make the oldest of Christian claims: Jesus (ie, not Caesar) is Lord.

And yes, I know Luke and Matthew didn’t actually write those Gospels. They were attributed to them later in a honorific gesture. But guess what? St Augustine beat American Atheists Dot Org to that newsflash by about 1600 years.

What American Atheists Dot Org gets right is that there’s not much first century documentation about Jesus.

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

rainbow-cross_aprilQuestion:

If the woman caught in adultery got caught again, would Jesus this time say ‘stone her?’

The other day I posted a tongue-in-cheek, redacted version of John 8, the passage where the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives to Jesus.

Pointing out how the bible clearly mandates that this woman be stoned to death for her sin, they ask Jesus for his judgment.

Jesus responds with the brilliant but now cliched parry ‘whoever is without sin cast the first stone’ and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself (who is indeed without sin) Jesus tells her ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Now my intent in the original post was to point out how I think conservatives read scripture in such a way that mutes the revelation of Christ, particularly when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. Emphasizing the bible’s language of sin, holiness, judgment and wrath on the subject they inadvertently (or not, perhaps) obscure the revelation of God in Christ, for here in John 8 is but another instance of Jesus, when faced with the clear, black and white command of scripture, choosing mercy.

For the post last week, I received the expected amount of pushback, including several breathless emails desiring to enlighten me to the fact that Jesus does conclude their exchange by telling her ‘Go and sin no more.’

He wasn’t giving her carte blanche to keep on committing sin nor was he declaring sin no longer to be sin.

Said one respondent: ‘Jesus chooses to show he can be merciful in this instance but sin is still sin and God is still holy.’

In other words, Jesus’ opting for mercy not sacrifice in this episode does not negate the command of scripture nor does it-evidently- reveal God’s holiness.

Said another, in what I take to be an unintentionally revealing comment: ‘Jesus tells her to go and sin no more. It’s not as if Jesus would keep on forgiving her if she remains in sin. That would be cheap grace.’

Translation: If they catch her again in her sin, she’s a goner.

All cheek aside, I think that begets a fair (and fairly significant) question.

If the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time?

Or, let’s say, the fifth time?

Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees ‘You’re right guys. The bible’s black and white on this. Stone her. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first one?’

Do you believe Jesus would say to the sinner ‘I showed you mercy and told you to sin no more but because you’ve continued sinning and because I’m holy…?’

Doesn’t jive with the Jesus story does it?

To read the bible in such a way that your logic would have Jesus casting stones is biblicism not Christianity. It privileges scriptures over and against the revelation in Christ.

Biblicism, not so ironically, turns Jesus into a Pharisee.

You can draw out the contrast by asking a more general question:

Are passages like John 8 just revealing episodes on Jesus’ way to placate an angry, holy God upon the Cross?

Or do passages like John 8 reveal God?

Is scripture the full revelation of God? Or is Jesus Christ the full revelation of God?

If the former then, whether it jives or not, we’ve got to swallow a logic that eventuates in Jesus casting stones. If the latter then we can confess that the identity of God is revealed more fully in this refusal to condemn a sinner on the Mt of Olives than to Moses on Mt Sinai.

Insisting on the latter doesn’t make me a Marcionite. It makes me a reader of the New Testament, of John in particular.

In his first chapter, John frames his Gospel to come with this audacious claim:

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’

And again, John doubles-down in his first epistle:

‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other (as Christ loved) then God remains in us…’

Those aren’t just pious sounding asides- that’s John up-ending the entire way we read the bible because, of course, it’s not true.

According to the bible.

According to the bible, lots of people have seen God.

Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre. Jacob freaking wrestled God on the shores of the Jabbok.

Moses saw God in a burning bush.

And Moses saw God again later on top of Sinai where he received from God that very law (and the 632 others) which commanded that woman on the Mt of Olives be stoned to death.

Moses encounter with God on Sinai was such that Moses’ face was left shiny and glimmering. Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God atop Sinai so they saw God too.

So did the prophet Isaiah in year a king Uzziah died; he saw God enthroned in the Temple.

Daniel, meanwhile, in his vision of the Son of Man saw the throne room of heaven, which is but a reverent way of saying he’d seen God, and Ezekiel’s long book of prophecy begins with a God sighting.

The Old Testament is replete with patriarchs and prophets seeing God so what could John possibly mean by (falsely) asserting that no one has ever seen God?

He means Jesus, not scripture, is the full revelation of God. Jesus is the one in whom we believe. The words, work and witness of Jesus are not secondary or subsidiary to scripture; rather, scripture must now be read in submission to Christ.

If we want to know what God’s holiness looks like, we look to Jesus.

If we want to know how God judges sinners, we look to his suffering because of them and listen to him say ‘…forgive them…for they know not…’

If we want to know how God feels about war and violence, we look to the sermon on the mount.

And if we want to know how God treats sexual sin, we go up to the Mt of Olives and listen to this exchange with a woman caught in adultery because God is more fully revealed in that moment than God was in giving of the law which condemns her.

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son…has made God known.’

Translation: Jesus is what God has to say.

The Bible is Not History

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2014 — 10 Comments

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

6. Can the Bible be read as history?

I suppose so, but isn’t that boring?

And doesn’t it miss the point?

The Darwinian methods of the 19th century eventually exerted influence on biblical interpretation as well, creating an approach we can call historicism.

Historicism treats scripture purely as an historical document. Faith claims and the confessional intent of scripture are ignored for ‘what really happened.’

Historicism betrays a deeply modern prejudice against the supernatural and the miraculous. In doing so, it exhibits a cynical dismissal of the sophistication of ancient rhetoric- it’s not as if resurrection were any more common or believable in the first century than it is in the twenty-first.

Historicism attempts to rescue scripture from the fantastical elements of a premodern world and to discover the ‘facts’ behind the stories of scripture. For example, we all know the resurrection could not have really happened- so what’s a rational and an historically plausible hypothesis to the real Easter story?

While approaching scripture historically brings to the Church an appreciation for the context behind scripture…

the downside to approaching scripture solely in terms of history is that in trying to get at the story behind the story you miss the Story.

Scripture, after all, isn’t trying to narrate a strictly factual, historical story. It’s attempting to give witness to the saving love of God and convert you to that love.

The Virgin Birth is a helpful story by which to point out the deficiencies of both biblical literalism and historicism.

When it comes to the Virgin Birth, what’s important for biblical literalists is that it really happened. Indeed the Virgin Birth, with the inerrancy of scripture, is one of the Fundamentals. The Virgin Birth is important only to the extent that its necessary to safeguard the infallibility of scripture.

For historicism, what’s important when it comes to the Virgin Birth is the (unimaginative) assumption that it did not happen. A purely historical approach to scripture will then attribute the nativity narrative to an extra-Christian myth attached on to the Jesus story, or it will try to wipe away all the unbelievable, impossible parts of the story and arrive at the nugget of historical fact underneath.

What both approaches miss, it should be obvious, is what on earth Matthew and Luke could have wished to profess about God-in-Christ with the story of the Virgin Birth.

‘Why did Matthew and Luke include this story?’ is a more interesting question from the Church’s point of view because once you ask that question it becomes clear that for the Gospel writers the Virgin Birth is shorthand for Jesus as the start to a New Creation, for in Mary’s womb God once again creates ex nihilo, out of nothing.

“This is the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

– Matthew 1.1

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

5. What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Biblical literalism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture. The bible, in this view, is the direct, unfiltered Word of God. It’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.

Scripture, it is held, is as free of error as had it fallen from heaven printed and bound. This view of scripture is a modern belief, arising only in the late 19th century.

Such an absolute assertion of scripture’s divine origins and textual infallibility provoke several significant problems.

First, positing every word of scripture as the literal, inerrant word of God flattens the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other. The purity of codes of Leviticus are now logically equivalent in importance to the sermon on the mount, God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical as Christ’s self-sacrifice.

By flattening scripture and making it all of equal import, the central thread gets lost:

the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Biblicism makes Christian scripture, like the Qu’ran, into a collection of equally authoritative precepts, teachings and codes instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Second, demanding that every word of scripture be infallible forces the Christian in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture. So then a literalistic rendering of the creation story, for example, forces some Christians to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Gripping onto scripture’s infallibility can also lock Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded.

Third, biblical literalism is an unmediated revelation.

Scripture is the Word of God with or without the testimony of faithful witnesses.

While, in the fundamentalist minds, this secures scripture from the acids of the modern world, it does so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, it is instead presented in an authoritarian mode.

Scripture is something to which we must conform; it’s not something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

– 2 Timothy 3.16

 

karl_barth_1167312313122810A while back someone asked me for some reasons why they should not leave the United Methodist Church. I didn’t have time to respond and, frankly, I couldn’t come up with any answers that wouldn’t sound cliche or, worse, prejudicial.

The truth is the issues that once ruptured the Body of Christ are now largely resolved.

How justification is understood in the Catholic Church now resembles how justification is understood in most Protestant churches and that, of course, was the primary dispute.

So I didn’t come up with any real, urgent reasons. People should go to the church where their faith is most alive and activated. That said, Karl Barth gives his reasoning in this section of the Dogmatics.

Again and again in 1.1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth comes back to the question ‘what is the word of God?’

What does the Bible have to do with the word of God?

And how does Bible direct what the Church says about the faith?

In §1.7 Barth locates what he’s said thus far within the rubric of Dogmatics. In doing so, Barth distinguishes what he takes to be Protestant Dogmatics from both the dogma of modernism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. By contrast, in Barth’s view at least, Protestant Dogmatics is unique in the role the Bible exerts as a word that can always stand as a witness over and against the finite words of people. In a nutshell, this is Barth’s assertion:

In fact Church proclamation is not an undertaking which can come under other criteria than God’s Word in respect of its content. Other criteria cede ground, building the identity of the church on something other than that which truly defines it.

Barth thus aims his polemical ire at Roman Catholicism.

*It should be noted, however, that Barth respected Roman Catholicism; he was invited as one of the lone Protestants at Vatican II and he counted Hans Urs Von Balthasar as one of the best theologians of the 20th century. 

For Barth the difference between Protestant and Catholic dogmatics comes down to whether or not the church has been entrusted with dogmas that must be believed- apart from the word.

Barth argues that to place our belief in ecclesial dogmas is to place our belief in the words of men rather than the Word of God.

Barth goes so far as to assert that their very character as dogmas, which are often logically derived, differentiates them from the dogmatics that emerges out of strict obedience to the Word. 

For an example of the kind dogma Barth might have in mind, consider the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception. Protestants (and Catholics for that matter) often erroneously assume the immaculate conception refers to Christ’s conception by the Spirit. Not so.

It actually refers to Mary’s sinless conception, which is a logical necessity- so goes the doctrine- if Jesus is without sin and sin- so goes the antiquated doctrine- is passed down to us biologically.

The immaculate conception is entirely logical when considered in its own and perhaps it’s defensible theologically for what it tries to convey.

Nonetheless, Barth would insist the Church should not be given dogmas which it must believe which themselves do not come to us by way of the word.

Before you think Barth’s just jumping on Roman Catholicism, note how his critique could just as easily be leveled at certain strands of Protestantism today. Within the so-called neo-Calvinist movement, fidelity to the Reformers’ (mis)interpretation of justification transcends an honest reading of justification as its given to us in scripture. Many neo-Calvinists do not do what their predecessors did, always reforming and reexamining assumptions, but instead reify doctrine in the precise way Barth insists we should not do.

Or consider how many evangelical fundamentalists hold to a doctrine of scriptural infallibility- and require others hold to it to be considered legitimate Christians- that scripture itself does not give us and which is itself a relatively recent product of anti-modernism.

Barth’s other target in this section is modernism, which is the air most Christians in the West breathe. Modernism refers to theologies that begin with ‘secular’ knowledge and then proceed to the Bible, often forcing scripture to fit into a-scriptural categories and jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit: ‘We know resurrection can’t happen so this must be a story of the disciples’ own interior experience of Jesus being with them still, in their hearts.’  

This type of theology, with its feigned sophistication, is everywhere in and out of the Church. The world becomes the measure of what we say when we speak of God. No doubt, this is a necessary to an extent.

We can’t just assume a 1st century worldview, but neither can we afford to lose the Bible’s freedom to stand against us in judgment.

 

Does Being ‘Biblical’= Being Pauline?

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In some ways it’s a continuation of his work in Simply Jesus. 

Wright’s overarching premise is how Christianity in the West has largely forgotten what the Gospels are about. Christians of all traditions and across the theological spectrum tend to read the Gospels episodically or we read them to buttress theological perspectives we bring to the texts. We do not- and haven’t since the ancient church, Wright contends- read the Gospels, asking the question: ‘What overall story does this Gospel think its telling?’

Wright argues that Christians, especially since the Reformation, have construed the ‘gospel’ in terms of atonement and justification; meanwhile, the story the Gospels attempt to tell is how God in Christ is King of the Earth as in Heaven. The extent to which Jesus’ ascension has become a neglected text and holy day supports Wright’s assertions, and just on a literary level it’s a good charge to level. There are no other narratives we could read where how the authors constructed the beginning, middle and end are incidental to the authorial ‘point.’ It’s not a trivial detail that the Gospels conclude with Jesus’ enthronement nor is it of little consequence that Luke ends the Gospel with Jesus’ ascension and then Luke’s Acts picks up with the disciples living in the form of this new Kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Whatever one’s theology, Wright thinks it problematic that most Christians can articulate a definition of the gospel that need not make any reference to the actual Gospels. Our definitions of the Gospel center on terms like atonement and justification, terms that feature prominently in Paul but are not in the Gospels themselves and are certainly not their main theme. In the same way, Wright notes a commonly observed problem with the creeds; namely, that they skip from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection and leave out the bulk of the Gospel story.

Instead of shaping our definition of ‘gospel’ by asking what story the Gospels are attempting to tell, we use the Gospels, Wright says, to illustrate arguments derived from Paul. By doing so, Christians have lost the plot…of the Gospels. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Wright doesn’t ask the question but it’s there in his argument: Shouldn’t our reading of Paul be in submission to and in service of the Gospels rather than vice versa?

Is it the case, Wright wonders, that when we claim to be biblical we’re really being Pauline instead? And by neglecting the narrative arc of the Gospels are we actually being something profoundly less than biblical?