Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ch. 1 a long form book response to The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Until last autumn, I had not read any of Dr. Peter Enns' books although I am a regular reader of his blog at Patheos, "rethinking biblical christianity..." I did write a brief review in November and after writing the long form book response to Flood's book Disarming Scripture, I thought it would benefit me to reflect more on this book as well. It is an excellent book and written in a more accessible style than Flood's. There are only seven chapters with numerous sub-headings in each chapter.

When the Old Testament is read literally and not as literature, as is typical in my background and for most American evangelicals, God does not come across as good. "Other parts of the Bible are shocking to read, even barbaric, and hard to defend as the Word of God in civil adult conversation. God either orders a lot of killing or does it himself - and even comes across as a bit touchy...If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide." p. 5-6

Maybe we have not learned to read the Bible well. "The problem is not the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it's not set up to bear." p. 8 Maybe we have something to learn from how the early church interpreted the Bible. Take the Apostle Paul for example. Until I read this book I never stopped at this verse of Paul's and considered how weird it is.
1 Corinthians 10:1 Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.
I never wondered before about the stalking Rock. In the story about Moses and the Israelites who wandered the desert for 40 years, Moses strikes a rock which miraculously gushes water twice, once at the beginning of the journey and once at the end. Some Jewish commentators figured Moses had struck the same rock, as it had been providing water for the four decades, and must have followed them the entire time. It would not have gathered any moss. (;-p) Paul apparently uses this interesting interpretative speculation to make a point about Jesus. When Enns encountered this Pauline hermeneutic in graduate school he freaked out a little bit. He survived and moved forward by distinguishing God from the Bible. "I needed to learn ... that trusting God is not the same thing as trusting the Bible." p. 21 This realization was liberating for Enns.
I gained a Bible - and a God - I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust, rather than needing to tiptoe around lest a grumpy God lash out with plague, famine, and sword if I get the Bible wrong - like an abusive, drunken father you don't want to wake from his nap. p. 21

Enns invites us to be like Jacob who wrestled with God through the night, and God changed his name to "wrestles with God" aka, Israel. Enns writes instead of viewing the Bible as an owner's manual, legal contract, or assembly instructions, realize, "we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey." p. 23 In fact, we are reading multiple journeys as the writers encounter God and mature in their relationship with God. Like our lives with God, theirs are messy, have some u-turns, and still God works through them to draw others as well into a relationship.

I know this proposal is threatening to some readers, as it was for me, but I had no satisfaction with what I grew up with approaching the Bible either. Turns out, there are ways the church has been approaching the Bible that is more satisfying and has been around since it's beginning.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Farting in church

Guilty. Sometimes the pressure builds and I have this incredibly optimistic belief that it won't stink. And 85% of the time it doesn't. But that 15% will peel paint off the walls. The best part about farting in public is people will suffer through it in silence, since the culprit, me, is not identifiable, unless my shoulders are shaking as I try to hold in my giggles (yes, I failed to advance out of that Freudian stage of my life).

The good thing about farts is eventually they dissipate. The distraction they cause is short lived. Babies, however, have no inhibitions when it comes to movements of the bowel. They do not care what is coming out, nor how loud it is, nor the likelihood of its pending stinkiness. They do not care how much of a mess they make.  They do not care how big of a smile they make when they do blow the tanks. Their product's essence will linger until their parents remove them from the room, change their diaper, maybe their onesies, and wipe down their baby seat.

Sometimes the church acts like me, sometimes it acts like me before I was potty trained. Sometimes they are spreading the aroma of Christ and simultaneously processing a big bowl of beans. Nicholas Kristof wrote a glowing opinion piece in the New York Times this weekend about the work of a Christian missionary doctor in Angola, who has stayed when no one else has, through that nation's violent in-fighting. Kristof's conclusion speaks of the aroma of Christ,
...I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests. Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the nonreligious, according to polls.
Yet, Kristof is not alone in wondering why devout Christians are also known for their opposition to government intervention for the poor or preserving equal constitutional rights for minorities (especially in our current context for gays and lesbians). This is the stink. The church has always been a perfumed farter through her history. From her beginning, some wanted to keep her membership exclusively to Jews and treated non-Jewish believers with disdain, while others wanted to invite all takers in. Later on, as non-Jews became the majority, great leaders, like Martin Luther, turned against Jews. While some Christians sold themselves into slavery so they could bring the good news to slaves, other Christians were torturing and killing fellow citizens for not believing correctly. While some Christians fled their homeland for religious freedom, they were also killing some women for practicing, or being accused of practicing another religion freely, witchcraft. While some Christians were conquering nations and enslaving native populations, other Christians were seeking to end the atrocities. While some Christians tried to end slavery, others were trying to preserve it. While some Christians were trying to bring aid to Uganda, other Christians were encouraging the Ugandan government to impose Old Testament laws not only outlawing homosexuality but punishing it with long prison terms or the death penalty. While some Christians are trying to love their neighbors as they love themselves, other Christians are seeking to legalize discrimination against some of those neighbors for religious reasons.

For all those lovely flowers of aromatic delight and visual beauty, they sure seem to grow on top of a lot of manure. The stuff stinks. It doesn't stop stinking for a long time. By the time it decomposes, providing a rich bed for new flowery growth, fresh piles have accumulated elsewhere. Like a herd of diaper-less babies crawling around in each other's crap, the church spreads around the world. The people who fart in church are usually the lonely prophets. No one wants to sit around them. They don't make permanent stinks, but they are seriously impolite. They emit noxious ideas inside the church like "stop hating Jews" or "stop enslaving Africans" or "stop killing natives and stealing their land" or "stop ostracizing sexual minorities" or "stop raping children" or "stop abusing wives" or "stop aligning with politics" or "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly" or "don't judge" etc. The farting prophets don't hate the church, but bombs like this do not make them popular with the church,"The Church is a whore, but she's my mother." -Augustine

When the church loves well, it loves better and with greater impact than any other group, and because of that, when it takes a crap on others, it's especially traumatizing. When prophets pass gas by pointing out the disconnect, churches get uncomfortable. It is not polite to point out her faults when so much good is happening at the same time. That's like saying it's not polite to potty train such a cute child. The cuteness can be missed when covered in shit.

"Resist the devil, and often with but a fart I chase him away." Martin Luther

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What is the most important part of the Bible for the Christian?

For 2000 years, as Christians have spread around the world they have spread the Good News. The first great missionary, St. Paul, writes to the church in Corinth in the mid-50's AD that the good news boils down to three things, 1 Cor. 15:3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures...

One of the earliest New Testament writings preserved to this day, written before the letter to Corinth, is Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica. He commends this church for you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath. 1 Thess. 1.

This creedal formula shows up several times in the New Testament, outside of the gospels, and not just in Paul's writings. Peter's sermons in the Acts of the Apostles also focus on this as the fulcrum of his messages.

As the good news spreads, 2nd and 3rd generation re-tellers find themselves wishing they had an eyewitness, especially an apostle, to answer some questions. But the apostles are starting to get killed. Also, some re-tellers are disagreeing with each other, filling in the gaps with their imagination. According to tradition, before Peter is executed, he tells his story of life with Jesus to Mark who writes it with a Roman audience in mind. Matthew uses Mark's work as well as his own experience and tailors it to a Jewish audience. Luke also uses Mark's work and tailors it to an upper class audience. His Greek is of the well educated. Finally, John, the beloved apostle, writes his own gospel, arranged thematically, unlike the other three, using simple Greek and simple metaphors to provoke deep philosophical reflection. In John's gospel Jesus is the Word of God, a spring of water, a vine, bread, a lamb, a shepherd, a gate, a path, life and light.

All four gospels include his death and resurrection.

When missionary translators arrive in a new culture that wants to avoid the problems of the re-tellers of the good news they usually start with John's gospel. Those images of Jesus are usually cross-cultural and provide a rich theological feast for a new church. Although sometimes Mark may be first because of its intense brevity.

As a church ages and grows it will seek the context in which Jesus arose, the Old Testament, as well as how the good news has affected communities like theirs, as seen in the rest of the New Testament. Some of the ancient churches believe the inter-Testamental literature is essential reading for Jesus' context and includes them in their Bibles. Some ancient churches also believe there are New Testament era writings that are essential for context as well. The Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas are two examples. Even some books included in the New Testament today were sometimes not recognized as such, including the Revelation of John. Some books are outright rejected because they contradict the good news and perpetuate bad re-telling.

The early church historian Eusebius (c. 324) writes, "Let there be placed among the spurious works the Acts of Paul, the so-called Shepherd and the Apocalypse of Peter, and besides these the Epistle of Barnabas, and what are called the Teachings of the Apostles [Didache], and also the Apocalypse of John [Revelation], if this be thought proper; for as I wrote before, some reject it, and others place it in the canon."

Paul thought it important to his churches to know the good news happened "according to the scriptures." Thus the Old Testament provides context for the good news. It is not unlike an artist's application of shading makes a 2 dimensional drawing seem 3 dimensional. Without shading I can draw a circle. With shading I can draw a sphere. Without the OT, the Jesus story is still good news. With the OT, it is the climax of a grand story. In the same way, without the rest of the NT, the story is a climax without a denouement, "the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved". John's revelation is one attempt at this. Yet the church has not agreed what it does, even after they agreed to allow it into the canon. As summarized by Wikipedia
The obscure and extravagant imagery has led to a wide variety of interpretations: historicist interpretations see in Revelation a broad view of history; preterist interpretations treat Revelation as mostly referring to the events of the apostolic era (1st century), or, at the latest, the fall of the Roman Empire; futurists believe that Revelation describes future events; and idealist or symbolic interpretations consider that Revelation does not refer to actual people or events, but is an allegory of the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil. 
John's imagery, just like his gospel provide a rich banquet of theological reflection. Like all of the NT, it's best understood in relief with the OT which is John's source for so much of his imagery.

The circle of canon necessarily encloses the simple message of the good news of Jesus. As the annual celebration of his death and resurrection in the church calendar draws near we are reminded that the church has always remembered this story to make sure we know, both the teachers and the taught, how simple this good news is, yet how pivotal it is as well.

Jesus changes everything.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

am I a still a Christian?

John 6:29 Jesus replied, “This is the deed God requires—to believe in the one whom he sent...40 For this is the will of my Father—for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 

I do look to Jesus.

I am not sure I have ever seen him clearly.

I can agree with the creed that he is fully God and fully man, that he died and that he rose again.

But I do doubt.

Sometimes I don't believe.

In most traditions and tribes of Christianity this does not make me ineligible for a heavenly afterlife. It's seen as normal covered by the grace of God.

I definitely struggle with the view of God portrayed in the Bible as well. Breaking free from the mindset that every part holds equal authority to every other part, a flat reading, has definitely helped me. The disconnect between some portrayals of God in the OT and Jesus in the NT are not as paralyzing for me when I prioritize Jesus' revelation of God over any other.

John 5:19 So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise... 22 Furthermore, the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.

If Jesus overrides some portrayal of God as bully in the OT, who am I to not honor his teaching.

It may feel to some people as it used to feel to me that I am dishonoring the word of God. It has taken me a long time to learn that I am only dishonoring the Bible when I dishonor the Word of God in the flesh. Dishonoring flat, literal readings of the Bible is not equivalent to dishonoring Jesus.

I think, for today anyway, this all means I am still a Christian in need of more grace than I have given, trying to let that overflow of God's grace towards me spill out to others.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

god of the bullies

I have more experience with bullying than I wish I had. I grew up with a bully. I was bullied at school. I found safety in joining the bullies as well. I suffered from and contributed to the sickness of the world.

  • In elementary school I defend a kid getting bullied for his afro. In high school I'm making jokes using racist epithets.
  • In junior high school a bully sits next to me on the bus ride home and punches me hard in the leg over and over again. When I get home I get into full contact fights with my younger brother.
  • I sing songs of love to Jesus, then post on Facebook the most obnoxious verse about God I read that morning.

I need to explain that last one a little more.
Those commands to kill every man, woman and child? I'd make that my status for the day, but not ironically. A verse that portrayed God in an ugly way, I posted. Why? I wanted my friends to see how mighty my God was. How he could do whatever he wants. Including being a bully.

In the 1990's I started attending a Vineyard church which emphasized the father heart of God. This was an incredibly healing time for me. But then that emphasis went away. One of the topics that remained, not in the forefront, but there, is that God killed Jesus, which is kind of the father heart of God you don't want since that God is an abusive bully.

Then I started learning that Jesus, who is very likable, is the exact representation of God. I was freed from trying to reconcile nice Jesus in the New Testament from bully God in the Old Testament. I learned that Jesus selectively quoted the OT, so did his disciples. Those bully verses from the Old Testament, since they don't agree with the gospels, are incorrect/false/uninspired/wrong.

God is love. Jesus is God. Jesus is love.

God is not a bully. I will not worship the god of the bullies. I will worship the God who is love as revealed in the flesh of Jesus.

Good Friday comes soon, the annual recollection of Jesus getting killed by religion, government, and the military. He stood up to those people in power, the bullies, he scared them, and the bullies killed him. He forgave those bullies. He loves the bullies. He even saves the bullies. People like me. He is God of the bullies, but not by being the bully god.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Gestational themes in the Bible and me

It takes about 40 weeks to prepare a human in the womb for the world. Forty weeks or 280 days takes about 9 full moons.

  • Noah sat on his boat for a little over nine moons. It rained on his boat for forty days.
  • Moses lived in exile for 40 years.
  • The children of Israel were liberated by Moses after 400 years of Egyptian slavery.
  • Moses went up on the mountain to talk with God for 40 days.
  • The Israelite spies visited the Promised Land for 40 days.
  • Moses prayed for Israel for 40 days.
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • The prophet Elijah fasted for 40 days.
  • David began the liberation of Israel after 40 years of Philistine oppression.
  • Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent.
  • Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days before he began his ministry.
  • Jesus appeared after his resurrection for 40 days.
  • The Lenten season lasts for 40 days.

Forty is about new birth, a difficult period of growth in preparation for transition.

I remember first asking Jesus into my heart when I was five years old. I have a funny memory of that experience. I went to church every week as soon as I could be dropped off in the nursery. My church was committed to instructing us as early as possible on our need to get saved by asking Jesus in our hearts. I was a serious little dude. I had to think this one through. I don't know if it was a Sunday night or mid-week, but I lay in my bed after the lights were turned off and considered this prayer. I decided to pull the trigger and asked Jesus to come into my heart. I was pretty excited so I jumped out of bed to tell my mom about the big decision, figuring she'd be happy I wasn't going to hell anymore. I might have developed a pattern of not staying in bad, I don't remember, but she was polite about my good news but preferred I share it with her in the morning and sent me back to bed.

It's been forty years for me since that night. I feel like something died in me last year religiously and has been replaced with something more optimistic and hopeful. In the midst of it, I really despaired. But at this very close perspective, I don't think something died but something was born out of great pain. I read the beginning of Genesis again this morning and identify with Eve's consequence, Gen. 3:16 “I’ll multiply your pains in childbirth; you’ll give birth to your babies in pain. You’ll want to please your husband, but he’ll lord it over you.” My metaphorical "husband" was my fundamentalist understanding of God, the Bible, and Jesus. I could never satisfy that "husband." It didn't serve me, but weighed me down. That road to God, for me dead ended in a wilderness. I wandered around theologically, never quite letting the end of that road out of my sight. I read about older paths to Jesus. I heard about people today, like me, who found that fundamentalist road did not lead far enough. I used to fear those roads. I was taught to fear those roads. I used to tell other people to fear those roads. It was painful. After 40 years of gestation, I might be onto something new to me, though something very old in itself.

I will see what the next 40 years will bring. Moses was not called by God until he was 80.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

ch. 10, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 10 is titled, "Re-thinking biblical authority." Flood introduces this chapter with a serious question. "If there are things endorsed in the Bible like genocide and slavery which we can and must clearly recognize as wrong, then in what sense can we say the Bible is inspired, let along infallible or inerrant?" p. 229 Even before we can ascertain what the Bible is we have to recognize the fallibility of its readers and interpreters. If we weren't fallible, if we did not bring to the Bible our psychological wounds, nor social privileges, nor our cultural blind spots, perhaps we could even begin to discuss the Bible how fallible or not the Bible is. Yet it was written by people who wrote with those same limitations. And we have seen shown by Flood how Jesus and Paul have used parts of scripture differently than they were intended. In summary, the point is moot, because we don't agree on much of anything. If we did, Zondervan would not be constantly publishing it's Four Views series on different biblical topics.

Flood notes, even with Jesus, Peter, and Paul, life experience affected their understanding of scripture. "...Paul had, in fact read Scripture and arrived at a very different conclusion - aligning himself with a toxic narrative of violent zeal for purity. In other words, Paul had read the Bible extensively and gotten God completely wrong." p. 238 But when he encountered Jesus, he saw everything in scripture completely differently. In the same way, Peter, as a faithful Jew, who had already ministered with Jesus, still needed a dream and an observation of God's Spirit working in non-Jews to change his understanding of who God's people actually include.

So what is the role of scripture? Flood asserts, "Scripture is therefore not an end in itself, but points us to that life-giving relationship, leading us into a life of Christ-like love." p.255 We need to distinguish between the Word of God, Jesus, and the book which contains words from God that point to the Word of God. "Martin Luther thus describes the Bible as the manger in which Christ is found. Without the manger you will not find Christ, but you dare not confuse Christ with the manger." p. 255 As I noted in my series, Not everything Biblical is Christian, all the lead up to Jesus provides the problems and symbols and clues that Jesus solves when he arrives. Jesus is the climax of the story. A story that only has a climax is a comic strip.

My conservative evangelical tribe already practices faithful questioning in safe areas. Those texts that were challenged a long time ago and already won, e.g. slavery. There are other places still not safe to challenge and be seen as faithful when done, women leadership, violence, and LGBTQ inclusion, among others. We can join those brave heroes of the faith in the past if we take the great risks they did.

This is the last chapter in Flood's book and last part of my long book response to it. This has been fruitful for me so I will do this again with another book I read recently.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

ch. 9, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 9 is titled, "Undoing judgement." Flood shows in the chapter how even in the gospels Jesus subverts his culture's contemporary violent images with his teaching. First, he starts with a section from Jesus' sermon on the mount.
Matthew  5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To our ears today, Jesus' statement in verse 45 is a tautology, a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form. Of course rain falls on righteous and unrighteous farmers. Yet Jesus is overriding the conditional theology of Moses from Deuteronomy 11:13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. For the Christian, not everything Biblical is Christian because Jesus, as the full revelation of God, gets to overwrite anything Biblical that is inconsistent with who he is. Flood writes, "Jesus in contrast, is saying that God does not repay evil for evil and good for good, but instead that God shows unconditional benevolence." p. 201 Whose vision of God is right, Jesus' or Moses'? If one follows Christ, not Moses, then I assume Christ's vision prevails.

The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt. 18 is provoked by Peter's question regarding how often he should forgive someone. Jesus takes his suggestion of seven times and amplifies it with Lamech's threat of vengeance in Genesis 4, "seventy seven times." Just as Lamech intends his vengeance to be extravagant, but not actuarial, in the same way Jesus wants his followers to be known for their extravagant generosity in forgiveness. Then Jesus tells a story about a guy who owed his boss millions and begged for release from his debt. The boss granted it, then the guy went and shook down a fellow worker who hadn't paid him back for lunch money a few weeks ago. When the boss heard it, he went apoplectic, 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. It is completely over the top. But it's an over the top story as a whole. The weird part is the conclusion. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Is this how God is? Didn't Jesus just tell Peter he needs to forgive extravagantly, over and over again? Are we supposed to be more forgiving than God, who only gives you one shot after you have been forgiven?

Early in the church's history, a practice formed and remained popular for a couple centuries of delaying baptism until one's death bed. The church fathers who did this feared of sinning after their baptism resulting in their losing their ticket to heaven. Perhaps they read this parable this way. Today, however, even in conservative evangelicalism we don't hear of threats about losing salvation for one sin. If one refusal to forgive is all it takes to get one out of heaven and to hell, then why does Jesus instruct us to pray daily, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? We understand that last line of Jesus' parable to be an overstatement, hyperbole, to impress on us the importance of forgiveness.

Flood discusses a couple other examples, especially from Matthew, when Jesus subverts his listeners' culture with familiar examples but couched paradoxically. This forces those who have "ears to hear," or those willing to faithfully question with Jesus, to ponder the new kingdom's culture.

Friday, March 20, 2015

ch. 8, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 8 is titled, "A practical guide to enemy love." In it Flood defends the Anabaptist vision for peace, but seeks to clarify that pacifism is not a commitment to inaction but action to end suffering. Those who think inaction is always the way to respond are victims of their own unquestioning obedience. Those who go down this route cannot find in themselves a way to counsel women to leave abusive marriages. There is another way. "Jesus cares for us and is not calling us to passivity or irresponsibility. Enemy love is about ending suffering, not validating it." p. 177 The challenge Flood sees as a follower of Jesus is how to do this without violence.  Part of this reorientation involves "renewing our minds" and preparing ourselves with understanding, not just of doctrine but of biology.

Here is a paragraph of golden doctrine.
Jesus begins with the call to "love our neighbor as we love ourselves," and then pushes us to expand our definition of "neighbor" to encompass those we would normally reject and shut out. Love of enemies challenges us to enlarge the border of inclusion beyond its normal boundaries of family, tribe, and nation to include those we would regard as unworthy and enemies. In the relational perspective of Jesus, there is no "them," there is only "us." p. 180
I think this is just one of many ways to arrive at this conclusion. I came to a similar place as I meditated on the forgiveness section of the Lord's prayer. Jesus' model prayer says "Forgive us our sins..." Those plural nouns can change our perspective, similar to Flood's. There is no "I" or "me" in that prayer, just us and our and your. When I pray the Lord's prayer, when I ask God to forgive us our sins, I am asking God to forgive my sins, my kids' sins, my literal neighbor's sins, my fellow church members' sins, my co-workers' sins, my nation's sins, and my enemy's sins. When I pray that prayer, I ask for God's mercy for all of us. There is no them, only us.

The doctrinal stance I love. The science part intrigues me but I am always suspect of Christian authors using current science to support theology. I am not disagreeing with it, but as a scientist myself, I know research constantly shifts theories, especially in the extremely complex area of neuroscience. He presents the research on the amygdala, the primitive section of the brain, takes over the prefrontal cortex, the advanced/social section when we feel threatened. "When we feel threatened or triggered, the compassionate and social part of our brain literally gets shut down." p. 182 Thus the necessary "renewing of our minds" which will enable us to respond in love when we are threatened is a retraining to overcome our instincts.

He points to the success of a program in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department called Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) as an example of how rewiring can work. This is from their home page.
The mission of the San Francisco Sheriffs Department's Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) is to bring together all those harmed by crime, including victims, communities, and offenders. RSVP is driven by victim restoration, offender accountability, and community involvement.
Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) recognizes that violence hurts victims, communities, and offenders and creates an obligation to make things right. Based on a restorative justice model, the program aims to accomplish the following:
  1. Centralize victims' needs, giving survivors primacy in the development of RSVP, while empowering victims to restore themselves, their families, and their communities as they make the transition from being victims to becoming survivors and advocates.
  2. Hold offenders accountable for their violence, focusing on redefining and restructuring their male-role belief system and on repairing the harm caused to their victims and communities.
  3. Mobilize community involvement to support victim restoration, reduce offender recidivism, create opportunities for restoration, and prevent further violence.
Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) has proven successful in reducing violent crime and has resulted in a reduction in recidivism of up to 80% in San Francisco, CA. RSVP has been recognized with numerous honors and is a winner of the 2004 Innovations in American Government Award.
Imagine if our culture chose to prioritize restoring criminals and their victims instead of punishment, which does not work based on recidivism rates.

As an aside, the practice of meditation/mindfulness, even of the secular variety also can help the brain strengthen its social section, improving tolerance, and reducing irritability/ social reactivity. I listened to a fascinating discussion on that topic by a couple Christians on the Liturgists podcast, Episode 14. I have been using mindfulness practices since the beginning of the year and have found them helpful. I have also found the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises a helpful supplement as well.

Flood provides several examples of how non-violent means like RSVP have been successful in the wild. Usually they are longer and more complex than the response of violence, but usually the issues that come up are complex and have long histories as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ch. 7, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 7 is titled, "God and the state sword." Flood introduces his readers to Anabaptist interpretation of violent New Testament passages. Jesus' instruction to acquire a sword; Paul's instructions about submitting to the government; soldier metaphors for spiritual warfare. If one has not grown up under such theology it is fascinating to learn how an entirely legitimate perspective from your own can be derived from the same pages. It is also humbling to realize honest believers see things so differently.

Every religious tribe has its identity markers. Almost all of them are minor differences. The early church creeds, Apostles' and Nicene in particular lay out the majors. After those, it's all minor. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, great accomplishments for God mean nothing without love. I appreciate so much the efforts of people like Flood who are trying to motivate us to not only live in love, but the read the Bible, our repository of God's work through a people, to bring a person, to redeem all people, with lenses of his love and compassion for all of us.

This chapter is long and tries to cover a lot of ground across the New Testament. Instead of covering all of them in this blog, I recommend either buying Flood's book or searching for topics like "Anabaptist reading of..."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

ch. 6, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 6 is titled, "Reading on a trajectory." Flood takes the work of William Webb and takes it past Webb's idea of trajectory in certain areas. This is Flood's proposal, "we cannot stop at the place the New Testament got to, but must recognize where it was headed." p. 124 At first blush this sounds anathema to conservative Christians. But consider slavery as an important test case.

The New Testament certainly sets a trajectory on the topic of slavery by encouraging slaves to seek their freedom, teaching owners to treat slaves as Christ treats them, and teaching the church that in Christ there is no distinction between slaves and free citizens. Despite these doctrines, nowhere in the New Testament is slavery condemned outright. There is no proof text for ending slavery. Hence, many conservative evangelicals around the time of the U.S. Civil War believed they could not condemn slavery as a moral evil because God's Word did not.

Flood includes a paragraph of John Henry Hopkins pamphlet, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, 1861, but I'll add some more or Hopkins' reasoning.
Thus understood, I shall not oppose the prevalent idea that slavery is an evil in itself. A physical evil it may be, but this does not satisfy the judgment of its more zealous adversaries, since they contend that it is a moral evil a positive sin to hold a human being in bondage, under any circumstances whatever, unless as a punishment inflicted on crimes, for the safety of the community.
Here, therefore, lies the true aspect of the controversy, and it is evident that it can only be settled by the Bible. For every Christian is bound to assent to the rule of the inspired Apostle, that "sin is the transgression of the law," namely, the law laid down in the Scriptures by the authority of God the supreme "Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy." From his Word there can be no appeal. No rebellion can be so atrocious in his sight as that which dares to rise against his government. No blasphemy can be more unpardonable than that which imputes sin or moral evil to the decrees of the eternal Judge, who is alone perfect in wisdom, in knowledge, and in love.
With entire correctness, therefore, your letter refers the question to the only infallible criterion the Word of God. If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean to my own understanding." As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions, when I know that they are in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account in the last great day. 
Bishop was the Episcopal Bishop of Vermont. His reasoning is normal for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today. I have written from this very same position myself on a variety of secondary topics. Yet why aren't these people still railing on Fox news against the government for suspending of the religious rights of those Christians who want to own slaves? (Although there are still Christians today, such as Douglas Wilson, who write books arguing that Southern slave masters were kind hearted Christians and there were only a few bad apples who raped their slaves or beat them to death.)

How is the Christian today to honor God with our "weak and erring" intellects? Flood thinks, since we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:15), and Jesus says we will know false prophets by the fruits of their teaching (Matt. 7:16), and the fruit of the Spirit of God is love (Gal. 5:22), then we can evaluate the trajectory of New Testament doctrines by their fruit. "If we therefore recognize that a particular interpretation leads to observable harm, this necessarily means that we need to stop and reassess our course. To continue on a course we know to be harmful, simply because 'the Bible says so,' is morally irresponsible." p. 144 The Bible also said touching a dead man makes a Jew unclean, so the priest and the Pharisee pass the robbed and beaten man left for dead on the side of the road. But Jesus praises, in his parable, the Samaritan, considered a heretic by his audience for not worrying about his religious purity. The fruit of the Good Samaritan's doctrine was ripe and the fruit of the doctrine of the "biblical" teachers was rotten.

Slavery is not the hot topic in the church today, LGBTQ human beings are. Before I began faithfully questioning I thought like Bishop Hopkins. Then I came to recognize the harm that position has done and the falsehoods that propped it up. I have changed my doctrine, to the chagrin of a few fellow believers who know my repentance. I still belong to fellowships that complain when mingling between services about all the homosexuality infiltrating TV shows they watch. For now, this is my main venue to advocate in my tribe against their dominant belief that the only homosexual Christian acceptable to God is celibate or married to the opposite sex. I am not capitulating to the culture, but listening to the pleas of gay Christians and acknowledging the rotten fruit of this dominant doctrine.

Monday, March 16, 2015

ch. 5, a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 5 is titled, "Facing our darkness." Based on his previous chapter, in which he discusses ethics as necessary for Biblical exegesis, he supplements the earlier idea of faithful questioning: faithful questioning motivated by compassion. p. 91 More than any of the previous chapters Flood shows multiple examples from within the Old Testament in addition to inter-Testament questioning.

The problem of evil is a topic of dispute between the authors of the Bible. Unfortunately, one has to go to the old King James translation to get a literal translation of the Hebrew word ra'.

Amos 3:6 Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil (ra') in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?

Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil (ra') : I the Lord do all these things.

1 Kings 22:23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil (ra') concerning thee.

The question is, was God really responsible for these evil things, especially if God is perfectly revealed in Jesus? The Old Testament is full of ascriptions of sickness and defeat to God's judgment. But when Jesus encounters sickness, say a blind man, his disciples want to know whose sin caused it, but Jesus counters neither. Jesus combats sickness and death because they are the work of the demonic, not God. Jesus' move is not unique. Flood notes that a book between the Testaments, Jubilees reframes things attributed to God in the Old Testament and attributes them to the prince of demons. See a short summary of this at Wikipedia. One notorious Bible contradiction serves as an example of Jewish theological development; who motivated David's census. In the earlier account of 2 Samuel 24:1, God did. In the later retelling at 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan did. Jesus' approach to the world is akin to the later theology of the Chronicler. Evil spirits cause bad things and bad things happen for no reason but God is not the problem but the solution to those bad things.

In the Old Testament, the Babylonian prophet, Ezekiel is a source of a few examples of faithful questioning.
In Deuteronomy 28:63 God is said to be pleased to ruin and destroy his people if they are unfaithful. But Ezekiel 33:11 says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
In Deut. 5:9 and Exodus 20:5 God punishes the multiple generations for the sin of the fathers, see my post here, but Ezek. 18:19-20 God only punishes the sinner and not the sinner's descendants.

The question is, did God change his mind or did his prophets change their theology in response to faithful questioning with compassion? I used to believe the former, it is simpler when one is committed to an inerrant Bible. As Flood sees it, these contradictions are not mistakes for Bible critics to harp on, but "intentional contradictions, a record of the dispute found throughout the Hebrew canon, cataloging developing and conflicting views of God. Therefore, rather than viewing such contradictions as something embarrassing we need to explain away, we can instead view them positively as a record of moral development that emerges through dispute and protest." p. 98

For me, this is incredibly liberating. But am I qualified to faithfully question with compassion? Flood points to Paul's letter to the Corinthians to find the affirmative answer.
1 Cor. 2:14-17  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”[Isaiah 40:13] But we have the mind of Christ.
Isaiah's question is rhetorical, but Paul does not take it that way. Why not? Because Jesus changes everything.

How then should we engage these texts? Flood writes,
It's also helpful to view these texts from the perspective of the victim, as Jesus so often did. We might, for example, try to read the Exodus story from the perspective of the conquered Canaanites, or view the story of the flood from outside of the ark... we need to ask how Christ and his way of compassion, grace, and enemy love might point  to better Jesus-shaped alternatives to the ones found in such passages. p. 105-6.
Unintentionally, I have tried this approach myself. One of the leaders in my tribe encourages Bible teachers to look for Jesus in every passage. One time I had to preach on the rape of David's daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother Amnon. As I looked at all the characters in the story, all the men who did nothing to protect her or help her, I looked for Jesus. I found him in Tamar. Innocent, seeking to serve, related, and ultimately violated. I made the risky, for my tribe, proposal that Tamar is the Jesus figure in that story.

What about Psalm 137, where the poet asks God's blessing on those who smash the skulls of Babylonian blessings, see my post here, or 139, where the poet hates those who hate the Lord? Shall we remove them from our reading? Shall we go liberal and excise them? No, to remove them is to deny the humanity of the authors and our humanity as readers. Flood writes,
Just as the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, it also cuts through the middle of Psalm 139, reflecting our human hearts before God in all of their beauty - and in all of their darkness as well. We can no more cut out these verses than we can cut out a piece or our own hearts. Instead, we need to learn how to honestly face this in the Bible..." p. 112

Well said Mr. Flood.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

ch. 4 a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 4 is titled, "The divorce of ethics from exegesis." Citing the research of Rabbi Anson Laytner, Flood agrees that the multi-vocal nature of the Old Testament that continued in the Talmud and throughout Jewish culture. "'s said that Jewish exegesis is often more comfortable with asking questions than it is with giving answers. After all, the very name of 'Israel' means 'wrestles with God'." p. 73

Flood then reviews some early church leaders' approaches to the contrasts between the ethics of Jesus and the texts of terror in the Old Testament. Marcion is notorious for his approach, rejecting the Old completely. For this proposal he was excommunicated and labled a heretic. Flood points out that this extreme of labeling the OT as all bad is no worse than labeling everything in the OT as all good. Another, more popular approach among the early church fathers, as also used by St. Paul, is reading the OT as allegory. He quotes Origen frequently.
Acknowledging that these Old Testament accounts of war and genocide are "exceedingly difficult" to make sense of morally, Origen insists that we much go beyond the "ordinary usage that speech would indicate" to find the meaning of the Spirit which lies "profoundly buried" beneath it. p.79
Origen saw the same results Flood sees today. The literal reading of the Old Testament results in heartless Christians whose answers to questions over the atrocities in the Bible are "God's ways are higher than ours," and a hindrance of their spiritual maturity.
Again, what becomes clear from this is that the early church was in fact in agreement with Marcion that the violent picture of God the came from a literal reading was incompatible with Christ, leading people to, as Origen puts it, a view that makes God look worse than "the most unjust and cruel of men." p. 80
It's as if Richard Dawkins started reading Origen before his books making the same claims. Yet Dawkins missed Origen's solution.

As an example of Paul's allegorical readings, the New Testament reading from the lectionary for today easily shows this.
Galatians 4:21 - 5:1 (NRSV) Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
"Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married." 
 Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? "Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman." So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Isaac is the hero in the Jewish story, but Paul makes the children of promise the Christians, including Gentiles who believe, and Jews as well as Gentiles who do not believe in Jesus are not the children of promise. He completely hijacks the story and gives it all new meaning in light of God's final revelation in Christ.

However, Flood contends allegory is not enough. His call to faithful questioning is a call to exegete with the ethics of Jesus having equal weight in the process of interpretation and application as the use of grammatical and historical techniques. "The starting point for that ethical engagement, however, begins with having the simple common sense to recognize that things like infanticide, genocide, and cannibalism are simply and always categorically wrong. Frankly, it does not require a great deal of moral insight to recognize this." p. 87

I would have to faithfully question Flood on this last point. I do not agree with Flood when this assumption of common moral sense is applied to all cultures, hence the non-issue for the Jews who produced these texts of terror without ethical contraint. I think Jesus is the key to the moral insight. It was the early Christians who recognized the immorality of infanticide and rescued babies off Roman trash heaps. It was Christian missionaries who discouraged cannibalism among cultures when they encountered it, proclaiming the hope of a resurrection for those bodies. Thus, moral common sense is not that common among all cultures. Although I do agree it should be among Christians.

As far as Flood sees it, just as Jesus and Paul as faithful Jews questioned the text, so should we and not choose between Marcion and Origen. I give Flood the last word, "Rather than censoring and sanitizing out the undesirable parts, we are called by the text itself to learn to make ethical evaluations. Rather that being being dependent on an authoritarian text, the very disputatious nature of the Hebrew canon invites us to engage with the text in this debate as morally responsible adults." p. 88

Friday, March 13, 2015

Freshman racism

That freshman frat boy from a Jesuit prep school caught on tape leading an obnoxiously racist chant? I know him. Not literally. But I was a good kid with black friends who spoke stupid obnoxious racist words around some of my white friends. It's on tape as well. A literal tape from 27 years ago when we made mix tapes and played them on our boom boxes.

Why did I say that stuff? Because doing something shocking, for humor in my case, made me feel brave and cool. Yep, I felt brave saying racial slurs around a few white friends.

The bravery was displayed in violating a social contract. I did it and lightning did not strike me dead.

I don't know how serious the social contract of racism is down in Texas or Oklahoma. I am sure alcohol brought it even less so in the eyes of the beer goggler.

Social contracts are powerful things, even in the church. They are neutral, so can be part of great good and great evil.

The kid on that frat bus who filmed the sing along and shared the video on-line broke a social contract as well. The filmer was part of a closed society, yet betrayed its trust, exposed its wickedness. As a consequence, the university and the nation condemned the fraternity and these kids, two of whom have apologized.

[For what it's worth I apologize as well. I was wrong.]

Those kids were small fish in a big pond. When big fish, with many allies, get called out in small ponds, they are often able to get their version of stories out as alternatives to reality. Since they have generated good will in the past with other fish, the accusers, or exposers are not believed or shamed into silence.

It happens in the church all the time. For whatever reason, the church's social contract seems to be a leader can only be in that position of respect and responsibility if they live God fearing lives, otherwise God would take away their platform. However, when God let's their sin be exposed, the very method of removing a platform, followers resist God's methods. The abused are shouted down.

Jesus said something about people with ears to hear who cannot hear and eyes to see who will not see.

It is disorienting to see our "godly" leaders accused of failure. It is even more disorienting to see the leader's followers attack the person wounded by the leader.

In the frat video we saw a follower attack minorities in general. His judgment was swift.

In the church we've seen leaders abuse followers or wives or children and judgment seems to never come. Why?

For some recent examples on my mind today see these posts.
tips on how to silence a dog (or a person)
Police Report about Calvary Chapel Pastor Bob Grenier’s child abuse released

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Bible as a parallel pilgrimage

I just finished listening to episode 8 of Rob Bell's podcast "The RobCast" titled The Enduring Relevance, Astonishing Power, and Unexpected Brilliance of the Bible. He shares a similar theology to Derek Flood, whose book I've been responding to chapter by chapter here.

Bell speaks of the progressive nature of the Bible. He thinks it is the wrong question to ask why did God command/permit all these terrible/Unchristian things throughout the Bible. He started from the repugnant directions on enemy women captured as war booty in particular. I covered this topic last autumn. He agrees that it is terrible. But, he notes, it makes in incremental progressive move by forcing the Israeli captors to acknowledge the women's humanity. In essence, not only is God's revelation progressive but the flourishing of all humans progresses as well.

Finally, Bell asks his listeners to give the Bible as much grace as we give ourselves in our own pilgrimages through life. Just like the Jewish nation, through fits and starts, forward and backward, changed as it continued in relationship with God, we too can mature as well. I am sure Bell agrees with St. Paul who writes, It's like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)

We know maturity takes time. We know children do not act like adults. We do not approve of adults acting like children in all the negative connotations.

The American church has put away the childish things of slavery. The American church has been working on putting away patriarchy. The majority American church is working on oppression of minorities. Progress is being made.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood ch. 3

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I intend to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 3 is titled, "Paul's conversion from violence." Flood does a great job in this chapter showing Paul's practice of selective quoting of the Old Testament and re-visioning those passages sometimes in direct contrast to their original intents. According to N.T. Wright Paul's zealotry against the early church, before his conversion, came from a culture that celebrated Phineas, who plunged a spear through the bodies of a fornicating Jew and Moabite, Elijah, who called down fire to destroy his enemies, and the Maccabeans who fought to the death to defend their freedom of worship. I could add the example of Ezra who forced Jewish men to divorce their gentile wives and send them and their children away to preserve their purity, or Elisha who commanded a bear to kill young men who were mocking him. Paul, formerly Saul, kept God's law to the ultimate degree, yet after his conversion considered himself the worst of sinners because he missed compassion. Jesus, Paul saw fulfillment of the law as embodies in compassion, rather than in legal ritualistic observance. In other words, Paul's problem was not with the law itself, which he understodd as having the ultimate goal of leading to love, but with a particular hurtful way of interpreting and applying the law (and thus Scripture) that prioritized rituals and rules over love (cf. Rom. 13:8-10). p. 49
I would add 1 Cor. 13 as well. Paul converted to the good news of love but "away from religious fanaticism." p. 50 In a shocking response to his conversion he starts stripping away quotes from the Old Testament that are zealous without love. In Romans 15 he quotes Psalm 18, leaving out the parts about God avenging the Psalmist against the Gentiles. He quotes Deut. 32:43 in the same manner. What gives Paul such boldness to proof text, out of context like this? Flood writes, "Paul now understands salvation to mean the restoration of all people in Christ, including those same 'enemy' Gentiles." p. 53 His entire missionary endeavours have focused on bringing the good news to the Gentiles. The good news is not just for Jews. Flood sees Paul converting these anti-Gentile passages from violent ethnocentrism to compassionate neighbor love, just as he was converted.

I can relate to this transformation in my own pilgrimage as described over the years on this blog. I did not have a Damascus Road encounter with Jesus. My transformation has taken decades. Over the past couple years, I've concluded I would rather be guilty of being too open handed than too tight fisted. I think erring on the side of loving too much than on the side of judging to little is more aligned with Jesus's mission of good news.

More explicitly,
Just as Jesus had not come to condemn but to redeem humanity, this transformative hermeneutic ultimately seeks to redeem these passages rather than reject them - to "fulfill" rather than to destroy...Thus we might speak of this New Testament hermeneutic as redemptive transformation resulting in the disarmament of these texts. p. 58-9
Paul inverts the meaning of Hosea when he asks in 1 Cor. 15 "Where, O death, is your victory?" Paul did not do this in a vacuum. Jesus also does this. When Jesus read Isa. 61 in his local synagogue, he left out the part about God's vengeance, Luke 4. Then Jesus spoke about God's miracles among the Gentiles in the Old Testament, which made his Jewish ethnocentric crowd ready to lynch him. Jesus was leaving out the promised vengeance parts and Jewish victory parts and focused on love and deliverance for any and all comers.

Flood sees the pitfall of Paul and the Pharisees still before us today. "The problem is when this focus on correct interpretation becomes primary, and love takes a backseat, the focus being placed on "being right" and "orthodox" at the expense of love." p.67. This pitfall is readily apparent in American Christianity's difficulty with race, slavery, miscegenation. All the proof texts are there to be found in the Bible when read without love, without concern for how those interpretations affect others.

As Paul writes in Romans 13,
8 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Flood observes, "Love is the hermeneutical baseline." p. 69 It is just as simple and complicated as Jesus' two great commands to love God and love our neighbor. It is just as freeing and terrifying as learning to swim. As the ground beneath our feet slip away, we either learn to swim or drown or turn around, back to the limits of the shallows.

I grew up in the shallows and after 4 decades I am going out above my head, knowing that my Savior is good and loves me and will not let me drown. As Paul says in Galatians 3:24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. The tutor's swim lessons have been done for a long time. Now the lifeguard is out in the deep water (he walks on it actually) and he will not let me drown when I doubt, see Peter's story, in Matthew 14.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood ch. 2

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I hope to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 2 is titled, "Reading the Bible like Jesus did." As Jesus overturns or rewrites Old Testament teachings in his Sermon on the Mount he pulls back and declares, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." Matthew 5:17. But in the eyes of his religious opponents he was destroying the law. Flood points out the semantic range of the Greek word for "fulfill" includes completing something. Before Jesus, the law was incomplete, now, with the arrival of the Son of God, the law can be completed/perfected. (To evaluate this for yourself, please consider the Greek Tools of the NET Bible for Matt. 5.) Fulfilling the law for Jesus did not involve regurgitating it, but changing it and re-visioning it, approaching it from the minority hermeneutic of Old Testament.

Flood writes, "The priority of Jesus was not on defending a text, it was on defending people - in particular the victims of religious violence and abuse." p. 27 For example, over and over again Jesus challenges the majority interpretation by flaunting his miraculous acts on the Sabbath. An example of his re-visioning hermeneutic is when he asks "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" Luke 6:9 Yet these actions and teachings got him labels such as "blasphemer" and "law breaker." Why does Jesus make this hermeneutical move? He takes seriously the two greatest commands, to love God and our fellow humans.
Matthew 22:36-40 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’[Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’[Lev. 19:18] 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” 
If these are the two primary commands of the law, then everything has to be re-visioned with them in perspective, since everything hangs or derives from these two commands. Flood writes, "This radical sense of prioritizing love over law could be said to be the baseline of Jesus' exegetical method." p. 30 The opponents of Jesus, however, do not prioritize radical love. Flood calls their posture to the scriptures as unquestioning obedience and Jesus' as faithful questioning.

I need to back away from the book at this point to notice this tension in my own life. I come from a fundamentalist background where unquestioning obedience to the Bible as tribally understood is the norm. As a youth I was a faithful questioner in small ways such as growing my hair long (contra 1 Cor. 11:14) and listening to heavy metal music (devil's music). I found some freedom, but with freedom comes insecurity. As I aged I retreated from faithful questioning to the security of simple answers to difficult questions of the Bible. Ultimately, as I continue on this pilgrimage of faith, I have moved back to the insecure land of freedom through faithful questioning. I think most Christians waver between these two. Flood notes in our American evangelical subculture today, unquestioning obedience leads us to defend genocidal warfare in the Bible or exclusion from fellowship of unclean people, much like the Pharisees. On the other hand, faithful questioning frees us to interrogate portions of Scripture that do not lead us to love.

What is the minority hermeneutic of the Bible? Flood uses a description from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who "describes the Hebrew Bible as consisting of what he calls testimony and counter-testimony." p. 35 Flood elucidates,
The Old Testament is a record of dispute. This dispute can be characterized as consisting of an ongoing debate between two key narratives: On the one side is the majority narrative of unquestioning obedience, and on the other is the protesting minority voice of faithful questioning. p. 36
Examples of faithful questioners include Abraham disputing with God over Sodom destruction, or Moses and Israel's destruction, Job and his friends, the prophets and Israel, the psalmists and God. Jesus goes further than all of them, "while embracing the prophet's priority of compassion over ritual, [Jesus] rejects their common tactic of blaming the victim, and instead acts to heal those who are sick, effectively undoing God's supposed 'judgment' on them."  p. 40 In John 9, when Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man, the disciples ask whose sin caused the blindness. Jesus does not partake in that worldview. Instead, he loves the man and heals him to bring glory to God. Thus Jesus loves God by loving a fellow human. When James and John ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven on some inhospitable Samaritan villagers, they want to go all Old Testament on them like the great prophet Elijah, Jesus strongly corrects them and this path of judgment against his opposition, unlike Elijah.

Flood acknowledges, "To be sure, the narrative of compassion and questioning is a minority voice in the Old Testament. One might even rightly argue that unquestioning obedience represents the majority narrative in the Old Testament. The way of reading the Bible we see in Jesus and the prophets - characterized by faithful questioning - has always been a minority voice, both within Judaism and Christianity. p. 45-6.

As an adolescent in my fundamentalist church, my challenge of 1 Corinthians 11:13-16 was accepted, maybe because of my age, but long hair was also culturally acceptable in the 1970's. Yet, when one says they take the Bible seriously and literally as God's infallible word, how much latitude should I have been given?
13 Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? 15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
My fellowship strongly preferred women's heads covered with doilies in church back then based on this chapter. Paul says my long hair was unnatural and the churches of God have no other custom. I'm grateful for the latitude and grace my church had for me in their application of their rules. But now I'm a middle aged man, in a different church that is evangelical with a fundamentalist/charismatic background. Now I stand for other things Paul calls unnatural, see my reading of Romans 1:27, full acceptance and inclusion of my gay brothers and sisters. When Rob Bell tells Oprah that the church will move on eventually from rejection of sexual minorities because of 2000 year old letters, he would not have outraged so many if he was referring to men with long hair. His online fundamentalist judges went nuts, claiming Bell was rejecting the Bible. I rather think he was reading it with the same love and generosity they would read 1 Cor .11. May we all read with love and respond to each other with love.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

a long form book response to Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood ch. 1

Derek Flood has written an excellent book explaining the issues I covered in my blog series this past autumn. My series is titled "Not everything Biblical is Christian." His book is titled Disarming Scripture. Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. It is certainly a mouthful, but his examples are better than mine and deserve a thorough treatment here. Flood's book is ten chapters long and I hope to speak about each chapter in separate blog posts. I heartily recommend this book for the thinking Christian.

Chapter 1 is titled, Confronting Violence in Scripture. Flood is not the first Christian to notice the contrast between Jesus in the New Testament, who teaches enemy love and blessing as the full and final revelation of God, and the violent, tribal god in the Old Testament. How can God be love according to St. John yet command wholesale slaughter in the Old Testament? One of the most frequent names of God in the Old Testament is Lord of Hosts, or Lord of Armies. Israel is commanded in Samuel to not spare a single Amalekite, including non-combatants. Psalm 137 is notorious for hoping Babylon's babies are dashed against rocks. This portrayal of God does not only predict extreme violence Israel's enemies, but also against the nation itself. Hosea speaks of babies being dashed to the ground and wombs ripped open as consequence for Israel's sins. The major prophets as well as Leviticus contains curses from God in a similar vein. Rape, famine, and cannibalism are all in store for those who turn from worship of the Lord of Hosts.

Yet Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me." He is the one who teaches to turn the other cheek. If Jesus is the full and final revelation of God, then where did this presentation of God come from? Did God change his mind? Were the prophets wrong? Did they supplement what they heard from God?

Unfortunately, in the church's history, appeals to these violent Old Testament scriptures have been used to justify slaughter. Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem in 1099, when blood flowed down the streets like a river, after 80,000 were killed. Oliver Cromwell found it convenient to label Irish Catholics "Canaanites" condemned by God to destruction. Even Tutsi pastors incited their people with twisted exegesis of the Bible to encourage the Rwandan genocide. The examples are abundant in the church's history.

The problem for the church continues today as these exhortations by Moses and Joshua for genocide are justified by Bible commentators. I collected many commentary notes in a long post titled, Joshua, God's ordained killer, as I started my own wrestling match with God and the Bible and these texts of terror in 2006. Back then, I do not think I would have been able to receive this statement by Flood. 
It's hard to imagine anything more morally abhorrent than smashing a baby's head against a rock or committing genocide in God's name. Such actions are simply and always categorically unjustifiable - no matter what culture or time one lives in. One is hard-pressed to conceive of something more self-evident and morally obvious than this.
In fact, the only reason one would even think to question such an obvious claim is because of an a priori belief that biblical commands override conscience. p. 13
At this point in my studies, I whole heartedly agree with Flood. I also agree with his assessment of someone like me who used to hold my nose and assent to God's blessings on these passages. "What causes otherwise decent and loving people defend genocide in God's name? A big  part of the problem has to do with the assumption that faithfulness to Scripture means accepting everything it says unquestioningly." p. 14

But what can be done with these passages? Ignore them? Deny them? Question them? What did Jesus do with them and why did his method get him in trouble and called a blasphemer? These are the intriguing questions Flood hopes to tackle in the next chapter and through the book.

Friday, March 06, 2015

breaking legs for God

The Apostle John thoroughly describes the scene when Jesus dies at his crucifixion. This part struck me tonight as I meditated.
John 19:31 It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn't want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was the Passover). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. 33 But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. (NLT)
 by James Tissot ca. 1890

These guys were hanging on crosses, being executed in one of the most barbaric ways concocted by the Romans. I am sure it appears merciful to ask Pilate to hasten their deaths by breaking the legs, hastening death by suffocation. John is clear that mercy is not the motive of these religious leaders. No, they were motivated by religious inconvenience. They had a high holiday to attend to and these executions were about to run over and put a blot on their religious score cards. Thus they went to Pilate, agent of oppressors, Rome, and asked him to move things along.

Religion, including Christianity, has a schizophrenic reputation. On the one hand, it can be be a community that can bring a great source of comfort, but in other situations, especially towards those who do not conform to the group think, it can also twist the screws, increasing the pain.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in response to the discrimination free blacks encountered in Pennsylvania, where they were forced to sit separate from whites and ordained black preachers were only allowed to pastor black congregations. They finally distinguished themselves in the early 1800's. The revivalist religion of Methodism did so much good, yet remained blind to the implications of the key teachings of the New Testament, love of neighbor, treatment of the least among us, and no distinction in Christ. Christ's law of love is so radical, exceptions had to be made. Exceptions were easy to find in the Old Testament as well as common sense/group think/ good manners/ chain of being/ etc.

It is easy today for us to cluck our tongues at those foolish episcopalians. But true racial equality still escapes American culture, and white American church culture is hardly different. American preachers can be found on YouTube today railing against inter-racial marriage. They have the Bible proof texts.

Religion has a difficult time with dissent and minorities.

Jesus preached that the focus should be love. He also claimed to be God. If they didn't believe he was God, why not let him be the crazy love preacher who healed and fed people? But he was a dissenter and a critic of the establishment. He overturned the Old Testament by selectively quoting it and reinterpreting long held beliefs. So they killed him. Out of "mercy" they sought to hasten his death.

When the soldiers got to Jesus, he was already dead. Religious aggression stops with Jesus.

I've been a shin breaker for Jesus myself, something he never asked me to do. But when people were down, already hurting for whatever reason, I've swung the Bible bat at them, making it worse, rubbing it in. "I know you are hurting, but God will make it all better if you simply stop doing this other thing." Job had friends just like this. They were wrong. At the end of Job's story, God tells Job's friends they were wrong and Job did nothing wrong to bring on the trial he was suffering. God did not even explain why Job was suffering. But he was with Job in the suffering.

I have apologized to a few people from the past who I have offered such "mercy" to, and they have graciously forgiven me. I have put down my Bible bat. I'd like to be more like Simon, a North African. Luke 23:26 As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. Breaking legs is not merciful, but sharing a burden is. Hence I try to be an ally of sexual minorities in the church today.