Reading the Bible on Your Head

Many thanks to Brian Zahnd for sharing his “problem” with the Bible. This is an excellent little meditation on hermeneutics (even though he doesn’t use that word). When we read the Bible, who do we identify with? Who is telling the story of Scripture: Is it a minority report, or a majority report?

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite!

Lots to ponder here.

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There He Goes Again…

There he goes again…

If I could be an advisor to President Obama for a day, I would urge him to tone down the religious talk and to stop “quoting” the Bible altogether.  Now, I know that politicians brazenly co-opt everything for their ambitious purposes–and Mr. Obama is no exception.  They use people, groups, and organizations to further their political vision, and that’s fine, because that’s what politicians do.  But if I could be a bug in Mr. Obama’s ear, I would whisper, “Please think twice before you audaciously use God and/or the Bible to hawk your particular political program.  Because it comes off as arrogant, misguided, and nauseating.”

At last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, the president assumed his Spiritual Man persona and talked about the intersection of faith and politics.  Which is where the nausea sets in for me.

The first brazen misuse of the Bible came in his discussion of his tax policy.  The president’s conviction conveniently “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'”  Never mind that what he said is not actually a quote from any English translation of the New Testament.  Never mind that he intentionally gave his words an archaic, biblish flavor to convey authority.

The passage the president tried to quote is from Luke 12, and it comes in the midst of Jesus’ teaching about the End.  President Obama’s snippet follows Jesus’ parables about being ready for Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgment.

Here’s the relevant paragraph from Luke’s Gospel (from a certifiable translation…):

[Jesus said,] “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48 NIV)

And as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the Bible is dealing with religious matters here, and not matters of public policy and government (“You tithe the priest, not the tax man.”); this passage of Scripture has nothing to do with a progressive tax system and high taxes on the wealthy.  The “much” that is given to the servants is God’s special revelation in the Law of Moses, given to Israel.  Jesus seems to be saying that those who know God’s will (i.e., who have received the Law, presumably issues concerning righteousness, justice, and religious duty) are more responsible for obeying it than those who are unfamiliar with God’s express commandments.  Nothing at all about taxes!

In fact, the president’s error seems to grow when you draw parallels between what he said and what Jesus said.  In Jesus’ words, the master who returns to check the work of his servants and mete out judgment on them is the Messiah.  In the president’s words, the master that checks on the servants’ status and demands accounting is the IRS.

Utter blasphemy.

It gets even scarier when you consider the president’s implied understanding of government revealed in this passage.  In his world, apparently (assuming he’s actually thought this one through, even though he didn’t bother to look up the passage from a Bible to get the quote right), the government plays the role of God/Messiah, and the proletariat plays the role of slaves (Greek: doulos, meaning bondservant or slave) on the plantation.  In his world–keeping with his analogy from the Bible–the peasants (us) are accountable to the feudal lord (him), and the slaves are subject to “beatings” if they do not perform up to his expectations.

Truly frightening.

The second brazen misuse of the Bible was when the president repeated his favorite mantra: “I am my brother’s keeper.”  Mr. Obama uses this phrase a lot while campaigning (which is a lot) to refer to our mutual responsibility to take care of our fellow citizens through–you guessed it–a progressive tax system with high taxes on the wealthy, mediated by an authoritarian federal government.  (Sense a pattern here?)  Once again, “I am my brother’s keeper” is not a quotation from any translation of the Bible, but it is paraphrased from Genesis 4:9.  Here, in the biblical story, Cain has already murdered his brother out of jealousy and spite.  The Lord comes to Cain and inquires, “Where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain says, “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  So never mind that Cain was lying…to God…about committing murder…against his brother.  And never mind that Cain really isn’t a model for our moral obligation for “taking care of” our brothers and sisters (in the mafia sense of “taking care of” someone, that is).

I won’t say much more about this passage, because Jerry Bowyer provides an excellent analysis of the language of Genesis 4 and how the president applies it to his politics.  (Bowyer also recently published a defense of his first work that is equally impressive.)  In a nutshell, Bowyer points out that “keeper” (shmr) can be translated as “shepherd”–which is a clever pun that Cain uses, considering his late brother was a “keeper” of sheep.  And apparently Cain thought he was a “shepherd” to his brother, since he slaughtered him like he would any fat lamb that was ready for the Passover feast.  So not only does this verse from Genesis have nothing to do with tax policy, but it is frightening (once again) when we consider its implications for the dynamics between the governed and governing.  Does it mean that President Obama is a “keeper” of the “sheep” only until it comes time to pay the bills and feed the family?

Truly frightening.

I especially like Bowyer’s observation that the LORD (YHWH) is described in the Torah as the Keeper or Shepherd of his people (“May the LORD bless you and KEEP you…”), and not the average Israelite.  For them?  They just need to be their brother’s brother.

The political and economic theology of shepherds starts with the affirmation that the role of provider, shepherd, and keeper of the people does not belong to any imminent human authority, but to the Lord. On this foundation, we see the Torah develop a social theory of equality before the law and of brotherhood among citizens, not keeperhood by the state.

Am I my brother’s keeper? No. According to the Torah, I am not my brother’s keeper, because I am my brother’s brother. (Jerry Bowyer)

So if I were an advisor to the president, I would say scrap the sermonizing and the tortured biblical interpretations.  Because Scripture also says (in the New King James Version, mind you, just for proper effect): “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1 NKJV)  And that goes for everyone…including politicians.

Those Almighty Scholars

Don’t get me wrong: I deeply appreciate that our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition emphasizes intelligent, scholarly engagement with Scripture and theological tradition.  I love it that John Calvin, the fountainhead of our particular stream of Christianity, was a scholar and not a cleric.  I appreciate that our colleges and seminaries are populated with biblical scholars who seek to understand and apply Scripture.

But I am disturbed when church members, ruling elders, deacons, teaching elders (a.k.a. pastors), and even church councils mentally place “scholars” at the top of the authority heap.  It’s disturbing because our polity gives no formal authority to “scholars” for decision making.  We have church councils (sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly) with all their appendages, made up of teaching and ruling elders, who discern together Christ’s will for the church.  We also have a body of confessions that articulate our Reformed heritage and provide pretty clear boundaries when it comes to doctrine and practice.

It’s especially disappointing when councils charged with making rulings defer to an amorphous body of unnamed “scholars,” instead of making judgment calls on their own.  Such was the case in the Synod of the Pacific’s Permanent Judicial Commission’s (SPJC) ruling in the Parnell et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco case.  In their September 16-17 hearing, the SPJC ruled that one of its presbyteries was justified in clearing for ordination a candidate who did not meet constitutional and confessional requirements.  Without discussing the merits of the case, it is disheartening to read this in the SPJC’s final decision (p. 3):

Presbytery did not commit doctrinal error in its decision to accept the departure and to ordain the candidate. The record and trial testimony make clear that interpretations of scripture and the confessions, and the conclusions that result from those interpretations, have not been uniform in the history and practice of the Church. Nor are those interpretations uniform among theologians and biblical scholars within the denomination, as witness testimony and the record make clear. (Emphasis added)

This kind of thinking just doesn’t belong in our polity.  But it doesn’t happen solely in mainline circles either.  I often hear Christians of all stripes appeal to the almighty scholars who apparently know everything and who are the final word on every matter.  But what if scholars sometimes err?  What if the human intellect (which is subject to sin and corruption and prone to rebel against God’s governance) is actually fallible?  What if scholars, just like the rest of us redeemed sinners, start with preconceived attitudes and form their opinions around them?  I know that lots of us Protestants don’t have bishops or a magisterium to guard doctrinal integrity, but could we at least stick to our own authority and polity structure?  Can we at the very least adhere to our confessional and scriptural tradition?

Young Earth Creationism and Literary Form

The more I read Michael Spencer (aka Internet Monk), the more I respect him.  His post about why he disagrees with young earth creationists (YEC) is right on target.  Here is the crux:

The young earth creationists believe that Genesis 1 is “literally” a description of creation. I do not. It is this simple disagreement that is the cornerstone of my objection. I believe that Genesis 1 is a prescientific description of Creation intended to accent how Yahweh’s relationship with the world stands in stark contrast to the Gods of other cultures, most likely those of Babylon. Textual and linguistic evidence convinces me that this chapter was written to be used in a liturgical (worship) setting, with poetic rhythms and responses understood as part of the text. It tells who made the universe in a poetic and prescientific way. It is beautiful, inspired and true as God’s Word.

Right on, iMonk! Also this:

Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?

Read the whole post here.  In case you’ve never pondered the intersection of science and the Bible, this is a helpful essay, and it’s definitely worth your time.

Heart of the Bible

Friday, April 23, 2009

Once in a while I encounter a passage of Scripture that seems to capture the message of the whole thing.  And while I recognize that this can be a tricky thing–summarizing the whole canon–I have a couple of candidates to put forward, one for the Old Testament and one for the New Testament.

The heart of the Old Testament:

“I shall show you what is right and good: to revere the LORD and worship him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you.” 1 Samuel 12:23b-24 REB

Here, the prophet Samuel teaches Israel to follow their God wholeheartedly, based on his mighty acts in the past (e.g., the exodus, the promised land).  It’s all there.

And the heart of the New Testament:

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering.” Romans 8:1-3 TNIV

In this passage, the Christian message is summarized: In Christ, God dealt with sin permanently, so his people could be free from condemnation.

What do you think?  What do you observe the heart of the Bible to be?  Or at least the respective testaments?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Hint: John 3:16 is too obvious; dig deeper!

Cats in the Bible

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What do you get when you mix together cat lovers, babytalk, and the Bible?  The LOLCat Bible Translation Project, of course!

The LOLCat Bible simply needs to be experienced, rather than explained, but a little background is always helpful.  LOLCats are a contemporary art form (and I use the term “art” generously), dating from the mid-2000’s, that blend humorous pictures of felines (and other critters) with amusing captions, usually expressed in broken, pidgin English.  For examples of LOLCats, see here and here.  The captions make generous use of LOLspeak, a highly compressed form of English that is derived from leet, an early computer-programming shorthand.

Besides being entertaining (I have a few LOLCats as bumper stickers on my facebook page!), I was very interested to see the Bible being “translated” into LOLspeak.  My inner Puritan, of course, disapproves of distorting God’s Word into such a crass, perverse language.  But my inner hedonist thinks it’s quite fun.  On the balance, it offers a unique perspective (although not always accurate) of what Holy Writ says and a humorous felinization of the Bible.

A couple of great examples, for your enjoyment (please refer to the LOLspeak dictionary if you get stumped!):

Psalm 23

“Ceiling Cat iz mai sheprd (which is funni if u knowz teh joek about herdin catz LOL.)
He givz me evrithin I need.

He letz me sleeps in teh sunni spot
an haz liek nice waterz r ovar thar.

He makez mai soul happi
an maeks sure I go teh riet wai for him. Liek thru teh cat flap insted of out teh opin windo LOL.

I iz in teh valli of dogz, fearin no pooch,
bcz Ceiling Cat iz besied me rubbin’ mah ears, an it maek me so kumfy.

He letz me sit at teh taebl evn when peepl who duzint liek me iz watchn.
He givz me a flea baff an so much gooshy fud it runz out of mai bowl LOL.

Niec things an luck wil chase me evrydai
an I wil liv in teh Ceiling Cats houz forevr.”

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

“Wen he seez lotz kittehz, he climbz tree. His BFz climbz tree too.

He sez hai and he teaches teh kittehs, he sez:

Cheezburgrz to teh n00b kittehs, theys can has teh Ceiling.

Cheezburgrz to teh sad kittehs, theys can has teh petting.

Cheezburgrz to teh jentul kittehs, theys can has teh urfs.

Cheezburgrz to teh kittehs who sez ‘I can has gud, plz?’, theys can has it.

Cheezburgrz to teh kittehs dat no pwns, Ceiling Cat no pwnz0rz thems.

Cheezburgrz to teh kittehs wiff haz gud hartz, theys can sees Ceiling Cat.

Cheezburgrz to teh kittehs dat be makin teh peece, Ceiling Cat is liek ‘u mai kittehs.’

Cheezburgrz to teh kittehs dat gets pwned by otehrs fur haz gud, theys can has teh Ceiling too.

Cheezburgrz if otehrs be liek ‘DO NOT WANT’ 2 u, an liez abt u, coz of meh. B teh happys and selubraets, coz u can has cookiez n cakez in Ceiling. Iz liek wen theys been liek ‘DO NOT WANT’ to all teh holee kittehs b4.”

Ephesians 2:1-10 (my favorite)

“B4, yu wuz bad kitteh, srsly.U no smell gud.Wuz alwais goin in heets, LOLs. Ttly embaresin. An all time u fite fite fites. Ceiling Cat not want.But Ceiling Cat lovded yu newayz.Even tho yu not gud kitteh, Ceiling Cat tell Jebus bout u. Jebus go finded u, even tho u wuz vereh stinkeh kitteh.Jebus washed u off an maded u smell gud.Now you iz speshul an can haz RESPECT! An Jebus give yu best cookie EVAH!

U can haz cookie not cuz u earnded it, but cuz iz preznt frum Ceiling Cat.Kittehs braggin ‘See teh cookie? Maded it mah selfz!’ got to STFU, srsly.Ceiling Cat maded kittehs cuz He wantz kittehs keepin Him compny an watch Him make cookies nstuf.”

Saved by Faith

Thank you for visiting my brand-new blog! My goal is to publish a new post each Monday morning. Please read my thoughts, and then post your comments and questions if you feel the urge.

The idea of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ is foundational to my Protestant heritage: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV) That is, I can never be good enough to cause God to accept me. Only Christ’s merits are enough to purchase my salvation, and I must receive that tremendous gift with humility and trust.

But what does saving faith truly look like? Why do some people who profess to be followers of Christ still act like worldly people? What about the passages in the Bible that seem to emphasize personal responsibility in keeping God’s commandments as necessary for salvation? (e.g., “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…” Romans 2:6-10 TNIV; “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2:24 ESV)

The basic question is crucial: What does true, saving faith look like? I have come to realize that faith is never just words. I may claim that I am a great artist, but if I can only draw stick figures, than my words do not change the reality of the situation. Likewise, with faith: If I simply claim with my mouth that I am a follower of Christ but have nothing else to back it up, then chances are good that my faith is empty.

Recently I was reading a passage in Old Testament that helped me to make better sense of this. God repeats the same promise to Isaac that he made to Abraham, including the promise of land, descendants, and becoming a blessing to the world. God said, “I will do this because your faith Abraham obeyed me. He did what I said and obeyed my commands, my teachings, and my rules.” (Genesis 26:5 NCV) After reading this, it clicked for me. Abraham’s faith, which is lifted up in the Bible, was a profound trust in God that was demonstrated by obedience to God’s will. Too often we Protestants, in order to avoid works righteousness, over-emphasize salvation by mere intellectual assent (e.g., “In my mind I comprehend that Jesus was the Son of God; therefore I am saved.”) But in some ways, this emphasis has promoted a hollow, vacuous faith.

True, saving faith always issues forth in obedience. A person cannot possess true faith without works of obedience that point back to one’s trust in God (James 2:18). True, saving faith is rooted in a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9), but that confession bears the fruit of righteousness, holiness, and obedience to God’s standards (Luke 3:8; Ephesians 2:10). Saving faith is proven and borne out in our good deeds in response to God’s grace (See Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-12; James 2:14-26)

That’s why the Bible is able to make the audacious claim that we can be made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:28), while at the same time demanding that we demonstrate our salvation through obedience to God (2 Peter 1:10)!

Thanks be to God for his infinite grace!