Category Archives: bible

Wisdom from MLK

In his sermon “Shattered Dreams,” (you can find it in Strength to Love, pp. 87-98) Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of the sad final years of the Apostle Paul’s life.  At the end of his letter to the Romans (15:23-29), Paul expresses his desire to come and visit the churches there so that they may be mutually encouraged. He had finished his work in Asia Minor and Greece and was ready to head westward to Spain. He was planning his visit to the Roman churches after a quick stop in Jerusalem to drop off the offering that the Gentile churches had collected for the church. If we take Acts at face value, instead of the long awaited visit to Rome, Paul was instead arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome in chains. Tradition has it that he was never released from prison and was ultimately beheaded by Nero in the persecution of Christians that followed the great fire in 66 CE.

King reflects on this painful end:

Paul’s life is a tragic story of a shattered dream. Life mirrors many similar experiences. Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that they must settle for much less? We never walk as free people through the streets of Rome; instead, circumstances decree that we live within little confining cells. Written across our lives is a fatal flaw, and within history runs and irrational and unpredictable vein. Like Abraham, we too sojourn in the land of promise, but so often we do not become “heirs with him of the same promise.” Always our reach exceeds our grasp.

I have long known that there are many forces working against the just world we seek. Tuesday reminded me just how far “our reach exceeds our grasp.” I guess it’s time for us to extend a little further.

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Sarah

I was feeling snarky when I wrote this. Not yet ready to kill these darlings so I’ll share them here. You’re welcome.

 

“Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” (1 Peter 3:6)

When Sarah was a young woman, God spoke to her husband and told him to move his family from the land that they knew. God promised progeny and land. He believed and they left.

They had no sooner left what she knew when her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and protected her, not for her sake but for her husband’s.

She waited a long time for God’s promise. She was old. She had endured years of shame as a barren woman. In a culture where a woman’s value is tied to childbearing she was an easy target for ridicule. And now she could no longer conceive. Her husband knew this too. Maybe his heirs should come through her maidservant, Hagar. Sarah consented and gave Hagar to her husband. Sure enough, Hagar conceived and Sarah’s shame increased.

When her husband was 99 years old, two strange men came to speak with him. They told him that he would have a son. Sarah overheard and laughed. Not out of joy but derision. The two men made kind of a big deal about her laughter. It’s not clear why they chastised her—her husband had just done the same thing two chapters earlier.

As they continued wandering, homeless and following the whims of her husband, they found themselves in a strange land again. And again her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and ordered the man in a dream to return her to her husband.

At a very old age, far too old to conceive and bear a child, Sarah did conceive. She gave birth to her son, Isaac, a name which means laughter. This time it may very well been an expression of joy.

Not long after, her husband again heard the voice of God, this time commanding him to take Sarah’s son and to sacrifice him. We don’t know how Sarah felt about this; the bible does not seem to care. God ultimately spared the boy and people tell the story of her husband’s great faith.

Sarah died at 127 years old in a foreign land and was buried in a field purchased by her husband.

Several hundred years later an ancient work, The Testament of Abraham, was written to tell her story and that of her husband. In that work she is presented as a wise and pious woman. She helps her husband to see things he is otherwise oblivious to. Later editors of the work did not like this picture of Sarah and took away her agency and insight. Sometimes women have to be kept in their place.

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Jesus Was Right to Call Us Sheep

So a new Jesus movie is opening this weekend on 3,000 screens. And Christians of many (conservative) stripes are thrilled about it. I hear rumblings about peoples lives being changed by seeing the film. Mega churches are renting out stadiums for church members to bring their unsaved friends. As if no one in the U.S. has heard or seen this hackneyed presentation of Christianity. Jesus, a white dudebro with great hair and teeth and stands up to the evil dark skinned Jews. We love us some White Savior with great teeth.

Dudebro Jesus

News flash: we have heard this story and this understanding of Jesus has little (if any) use for us today. This Jesus has been roundly rejected in the Global North. Not because we are godless pagans (though some of us are) but because the questions of the movie are fundamentally irrelevant to our daily being and doing. Yes, christological debates were huge among the elite in the third and fourth centuries. Today? Not so much. I am daily confronted with the impotence of the church when it comes to the great horrors of our time, especially poverty and inequality rooted in various forms of discrimination. I will spare you the litany. And yet here we find churches expending considerable time, energy, and money… to basically line the pockets of Hollywood bigs. Sheep indeed. Forming new sheep. 

A few other (minorish) beefs:

  1. British accents! WTF??? (Also, WTF with only the bad guys having British teeth?)
  2. Written and directed by people with NO theological training. But Roma Downey did play an angel in a TV series with HORRIBLY SHITTY theology.
  3. The mishmash of all the Gospels into a single story… Doesn’t anyone listen to Irenaeus anymore? (Maybe that is not such a bad thing…)

Thanks to @danielsilliman for his post on the marketing of the film and the many links therein. The vitriol and frustration are my own. Which is perhaps a topic for exploration later.

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5 Minute Post: Ken Ham’s Biblical Interpretation Is as Clumsy as his Science

Tonight Ken Ham and Bill Nye will face off to debate the origins of life. The whole exercise is a farce. James McGrath (@ReligionProf) has posted numerous pieces illustrating the absurdity of Young Earth Creationism (the idea that the world was created in six literal days about 6,000 years ago) and I refer you to his blog to explore the multitude of reasons why such a view is entirely untenable. In this quick post I want to simply draw attention to the fact that Ken Ham’s ideas are thoroughly unbiblical. The irony here is that his website “Answers in Genesis” has the proud tagline, “Believing it. Defending it. Proclaiming it.” Well, dear sir, maybe you should actually know what “it” says. As a public service, here is a tutorial.

1) Genesis 1-11 narrates three events of creation. Only one of them is concerned with six days. Gen 1:1-2:4 is a distinct creation story and it is written with theological not historical intent. The author organizes the account around six days of creation to affirm God’s sovereignty (compare this account to the popular ancient creation account, the Enuma Elish, for example) and the holiness of the seventh day. There is no concern with science or history here, these concepts did not even exist as we know them. To read it as such is to impose a hermeneutic that the text itself does not demand (and one that Mr. Ham seems to be oblivious to).

2) The second distinct creation story (Gen 2:4-25) uses a different title for God (LORD God in Gen 2 vs. God in Gen 1), has a different order of creation (e.g., humans early on vs. humans last), and a different mode of creation (molding vs. speaking). The number of days required for the events to unfold are unclear. The original editors of Gen 1-11 saw these discrepancies and inserted a toledoth formula (“these are the generations of”) to announce that we are dealing with different accounts (for other examples of this strategy, see e.g., Gen 5:1, 10:1, 11:27). In short, the Bible itself does not tell a single story of creation in a set number of days.

3) The third account of creation (still in the first 9 chapters of Genesis!) is following the flood when God again makes a wind blow over the waters (Gen 8:1), reissues the command to be fruitful and to multiply (Gen 9:1), and reiterates that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Again the time frame is irrelevant and the concerns are theological and moral.

4) Leaving Genesis, we see that creation is described in many ways throughout the Bible. In Job 38, God wrestles with primordial forces (no speaking here!). In Psalm 104 God stretches the heavens like a tent. Perhaps more importantly for the question of time, God continues to create to to the present. In Proverbs 8 God gets help from Lady Wisdom in the ordering of the cosmos (mono-what?). Christ plays a part in creation Colossians 1:15-20. And on and on.

In sum, the Bible has many ways in which creation is conceived. None of the descriptions are concerned with history or science, but with what it means to be human and how we ought to relate to God, to one another, and to creation. Questions of history are foreign to the text. Ham’s “literal” interpretation is nothing of the sort.

Mr. Ham, your biblical literacy is as tortured as your scientific inquiry.

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Rock and Roll Jesus

Last week I took to teh Twitterz to crowdsource popular songs about Jesus. I compiled the songs into the following list. I will be adding hyperlinks to the YouTube songs and videos for easier access over time. For now, here is the list (another fabulous list can be found at Pop Culture Christ). Glaring omission? Let me know in the comments! Thanks to all who helped!

Bartender (Dave Matthews Band)
Christmas Song (Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds)
Crucify (Tori Amos)
Down by the River to Pray (Oh Brother Where Art Thou)
Gloria (Patti Smith)
God (Tori Amos)
Godspell
Human of the Year (Regina Spektor)
In the Name of Love (U2)
Jesus (Velvet Underground)
Jesus Came to Tennessee (Will Hoge)
Jesus Christ (Big Star)
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child (Modest Mouse)
Jesus Is Just Alright (Doobie Brothers)
Jesus of Suburbia (Green Day)
Jesus Take the Wheel (Carrie Underwood)
Jesus Walks (Kanye West)
Jesus Was an Only Son (Bruce Springsteen)
Mrs. Jesus (Tori Amos)
My Hero (Foo Fighters)
One of Us (Joan Osborne)
Opiate (Tool)
Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode, Johnny Cash)
Picture of Jesus (Ben Harper)
Power of Gospel (Ben Harper)
Rebel Jesus (Jackson Browne)
Sober (Tool)
Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum)
Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
The Man – Modern Jesus (Portugal)
The Transfiguration (Sufjan Stevens)
The Troublemaker (Willie Nelson)
When the Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
When You Were Young (The Killers)

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5 Minute Post: Would a Poor Person Ever Say That?

This morning on Twitter @Hope Jahren cleverly tweeted, “‘The poor will always be with us’ — said no poor person evar [sic].” I quickly dashed off a considerably less clever (though is seemed more so at the time), “‘Cept Jesus.” But then I got to thinking…

As I expressed earlier, I am not so confident that the Gospels always give us a reliable picture of Jesus. This particular saying, one that if I had my way would not be in our sacred text, is recorded in three of the Gospels: Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11, and John 12:8 (Luke, as perhaps would be expected, omits the saying). I get that the conclusion of the saying is an exhortation to give when one “wishes” (a wholly unsatisfying suggestion). I also understand that this can be read as an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4-11 which clearly states that there shall be no poor among the Israelites and gives specific commands about taking care of those who are. There is also the happy liberation read of the text, which I blogged about in my former life when I was an anti-hunger educator: the verse is best understood as a command to always be with those who are poor, i.e., walking alongside and working with them as they seek justice.

All this said, I am still unsatisfied with the thrust of the text and Hope is right to ask if a poor person would ever say such a thing. Are our Gospels so removed from Jesus’ experience as a poor person on the margins that they could imagine him saying something no poor person would ever say?

 

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5 Minute Post: The Gospels and Jesus

Jesus the JewI am preparing the syllabus for my Spring course, “Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Christ.” The title and course description (which were assigned to me but I like) provide a direction for the course that suggests an exploration of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The tricky part for me is that I question our ability to say much about Jesus historically. The Gospels are proclamation (John 20:30-31 is clearest about this). Even Luke, with his claims to history (see e.g., Luke 1:1-4), is writing a very different type of history than we write today. In short, I am not sure if we can recover a historical Jesus that is anything more than either a personal projection (Schweitzer’s famous well that all historians look down) or an affirmation of communal claims. I am not satisfied calling either of these historical; both are Christs of faith (or in some cases, unfaith).

Here’s the rub: The Gospels are documents of a faith community and reflect well the interests and needs of later communities. I can only access Mark’s and Matthew’s and Luke’s and John’s Christ. Since the Gospels are not historically reliable for me, how then shall I teach the “Jesus the Jew” portion of the course? What suggestions do you, wise reader, have to offer? I look forward to the conversation!

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