Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Idolatrous Nationalism from SBC Publishing House

militarybible2.jpgThis is no joke. It is not satire. It is the sickening truth.  This is a picture of “The Soldier’s Bible,” part of a series of “military Bibles” being marketed by Holman Bible Outreach International, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.  Lifeway is the official publishing house of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.A.  In addition to “the Soldier’s Bible,” the CSB Military Bibles include “the Airman’s Bible,” “the Marine’s Bible,” “the Sailor’s Bible,” and “the Coast Guard Bible,” each with covers in the distinct colors and insignia of the respective branch of the U.S. military. (There is also, I kid you not, a camoflauge edition!)  According to this website, each edition includes not only the texts of the Old and New Testaments (Protestant canon), but the following features: 

  • The Star Spangled Banner
  • America the Beautiful
  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Onward Christian Soldiers (I guess they missed the “marching as to war” lyrics and failed to understand that the hymn is meant to depict spiritual warfare along the lines of Ephesians 6:10-17 and is not talking about Christian participation in physical warfare at all.)
  • The Pledge of Allegiance (to the U.S. flag and to “the Republic for which it stands”)
  • The Plan of Salvation
  • Scripture readings for all occasions (including the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, Rom. 12?)
  • Prayers of General George Patton and General/President George Washington! (Wait, wasn’t Patton well-known for believing that Christianity made men[sic] too soft for war? Didn’t he believe that he was reincarnated as an eternal warrior keeping the world safe for more wars? Wasn’t George Washington a Deist??)
  • Quotes from President George W. Bush! (Is that like having a copy of the “Sayings of Chairman Mao?” Which quotes–“Mission accomplished?” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?””God told me to smite Saddam and I did?”)
  • Officer’s oath
  • Enlisted personnel oath (I guess they are cutting out Jesus’ ban on oaths in Matt. 5:33-37.)

There are additional features unique to each branch of the service (Shudder!).

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics has written on these special Bibles and on Lifeway’s hosting of a special event for giving away thousands to military personnel here.  Timed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force was initially listed as an official sponsor of the event, but backed out under pressure from church-state watchdog groups.  Ordinarily, I would also be concerned about the violations of the First Amendment in a government agency (the Air Force) sponsoring a religious event and favoring one religion over others, at that.  But I am so aghast at the Lifeway’s idolatrous nationalism (and marketing idolatry–worshipping Mars and Mammon while pretending to worship Jesus Christ!!) that the church-state and civil liberties violations pale and fade into the background for me!

This militaristic-nationalistic event (3-days over Memorial Day weekend 2007) features former SBC president Bobby Welch as keynote speaker. Welch, a Vietnam veteran, is the author of You, the Warrior Leader.

Where to begin? Apparently the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership, or, at least that part of it which makes publishing decisions, has rejected Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world.  It has rejected the nonviolence which Jesus practiced and taught; rejected the command to be peacemakers.  This would appear to violate the SBC’s main confessional document, The Baptist Faith & Message which, on OTHER matters, the SBC leadership has increasingly used as a strict creed in recent years.  Although the article on “peace and war” has been watered down from the 1925 version through the 1963 version to the latest (2000) revision of this statement of faith, even the latest version would seem to stand in stark contrast to the militaristic nationalism promoted by these Bibles and the giveaway event.

“It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men[sic] on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.”

That statement of near pacifism is qualified, but not enough to justify the above blasphemy.

Further, the Lifeway people, with at least the tacit support of the SBC leadership at large (they have not protested these products or even raised questions about them), are clearly promoting belief in the United States as a “chosen nation.”  This denies the universality of the gospel. It denies the vision of Pentecost and the vision culminating in Rev. 7:9 in which the glorified church is called out from among all nations, tongues, cultures, ethnic groups.  After all, the message of these Bibles is not merely a denial of Christian pacifism for “just war theory.” No, this promotes holy war in the name of one nation (the U.S.A.), with blessings from past and present military heroes.  This is “throne and altar” theology–a form of thinking which led the German churches to be supine when Adolf Hitler came to power and promised to restore the state churches (Landeskirchen) to their former glory. (It is, perhaps, worth remembering that in the late ’30s, prior to the start of WWII, many Southern Baptist pastors, including an SBC president, expressed admiration for Hitler since he didn’t drink alcohol and closed Germany’s brothels!!!)

Since leaving the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 for the Alliance of Baptists, I have tried mostly to ignore events in my former denomination. I reject their understanding of what it means to be Christian or Baptist. But this will affect the entire Body of Christ.  This is a perversion of the gospel. I cannot be silent. This blasphemy must be denounced.  Although I generally purchase books without regard to their publisher, I am making an exception here because this is so bad. I will purchase nothing from Broadman & Holman or any other division of Lifeway Resources until these “military Bibles” have been recalled and the project scrapped as the heretical, idolatrous, BLASPHEMOUS project that it is.  I urge you to join me.

Write Lifeway and express your displeasure here.

UPDATE: Other Baptist bloggers are commenting on this horror. Read Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists’s assessment here.  Aaron Weaver, who blogs as Big Daddy Weave, weighs in here.  Brian Kaylor, a communication specialist for the Missouri Baptist Convention, sounds off here.  Laura Seay, political science grad student, lover of Africa, and usually humorous Baptist blogger weighs in here.

May 31, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, Bible, church-state separation, love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking | 35 Comments

Book Review: The Bible in History

David W. Kling, The Bible in History:  How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (Oxford University Press, 2004).

As acknowledged in the preface, I was consulted for bibliographic input for one of the chapters of this book several years back. I have only just now finished reading the final result so that I can review it.  David W. Kling, an evangelical Presbyterian with a Ph.D. in American Religious History from the University of Chicago, teaches on the religious studies faculty of the University of Miami, FL.  He has given us a very rare book here, but one that I hope creates several emulators.

Books on the inspiration and authority of Scripture are legion.  So are books on the nature of the canon, books on hermeneutical theory, etc.  What is rare are book-length treatments about how particular biblical texts have been interpreted and shaped particular movements in Christian history.  (One of the few examples to come to mind is Willard Swartley’s Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) Kling proceeds to look at eight (8) influential movements (and/or debates) in Christian history through the lens of eight (8) separate texts of Scripture that played pivotal roles in those movements.  The cases chosen for examination are:

  1. St. Anthony and the rise of monasticism (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” Matt. 19:22).
  2. The primacy of Peter and the Papacy (“Upon this rock I will build my church.” Matt. 16:18.)
  3. Bernard of Clairvaux, Medieval mysticism and the Song of Songs (“Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.” Song of Songs 1:2-4)
  4. Martin Luther and the Reformation focus on justification (“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.'” Rom. 1:16-17.)
  5. Anabaptists and Christian Pacifism (“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'” Matt. 5:44b) (Yes, this is the chapter I was consulted on in David’s early research stages, but the results are still his and I was seeing them for the first time.  I also gave a few bibliographic suggestions for chaps. 6 & 8.)
  6. Exodus in the African-American Experience (“Go to Pharoah and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go that they may worship me!'” Ex. 8:1)
  7. The roots of Pentecostalism (“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” Acts 2:4)
  8. 19th C. and contemporary debates over women’s ministry and ordination (“There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28)

Obviously many other texts and movements or controversies could have been chosen, but this is quite a selection.  For each chapter, Kling examines contemporary biblical scholarship on the passages–which sometimes supports and sometimes opposes the way the passage was interpreted in the selected movement, the influence of other passages on the movement, other intellectual and cultural factors (e.g., ascetic impulses throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time of the rise of monasticism), the overall approach of the movement to the whole of Scripture, and the reactions of other movements (even counter movements) to the selected movement. In this way, we get insights into how a passage functioned in a particular historical period as well as how it has continued to impact the church since then.

Works like this are invaluable. Scholars can debate theories of biblical authority or hermeneutics all they wish, but they need to be in dialogue with studies that show how Scripture has actually functioned at different periods of church life.  Just as the late Jaroslav Pelikan  gave us a work of overwhelming importance in examining the differing christologies of church history (in Jesus Through the Centuries), so Kling has furthered our understanding of the roles that Scripture (especially particular texts of Scripture) have played throughout church history.  I recommend this book highly.

Question: If you were contemplating writing a sequel, what movements and/or texts would you want to feature? (Notice that I am NOT asking what you would write, instead, such a book about the historical background of the texts in their original setting, etc. which are plentiful and helpful. I am not asking what you think Kling should have written instead of this book–especially if you haven’t yet read it.)

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, church history | 7 Comments

Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg

borg.jpgMarcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, is one of the most prolific and engaging scholars of the “historical Jesus.” As he has described in several places, he grew up in a traditional conservative Lutheran household, became skeptical of faith in adolescence and college, but slowly returned to a (less traditional, but very lively) Christian faith slowly as an adult.  He is now married to an Episcopal priest and is one of the most reasonable and helpful members of the “Jesus Seminar.” (The Jesus Seminar, part of the Westar Institute, bills itself as a consensus of NT scholarship, but it is no such thing. It’s methods and conclusions are regularly ridiculed at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and, outside of the U.S., it is the butt of numerous jokes.  Except for Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and one or two others, few of the Jesus Seminar members are considered heavyweights in historical Jesus research. But the Seminar does manage to popularize itself with the media and give the average layperson the mistaken idea that its publications are worth the paper they are printed on, but they aren’t.)

I have elsewhere called Borg one of my favorite theological liberals. Unlike most of his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar, I find much of his work helpful.  I first encountered him through his book, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (1984, rev. ed., 1992) and again in Jesus: A New Vision (1987).  In my view, these are the best of Borg’s many writings on Jesus.  They contain many helpful ideas that I believe are on target: 1) Borg’s understanding of the conflict between Jesus (and his movement) and the Pharisees as a conflict between rival Jewish renewal movements and, thus, a conflict within 1st C. Judaism instead of a rejection of Judaism.  2) Borg’s belief that Jesus was closer in outlook to the Pharisees than to other rival parties within Palestinian Judaism. (Anyone who has seen siblings feud understands the dynamics involved. The further away from someone’s viewpoint, the more another view can be ignored. But one is often infuriated by folks one thinks right on many things, but dead wrong on others. –Aside to Jonathan Marlowe: This also explains my love/hate relationship with Stanley Hauerwas.) 3) Borg’s contrast of the Pharisees’ “politics of holiness” (or “purity”) with Jesus’ “politics of compassion” seems almost exactly right, although I would not say that Jesus was unconcerned with holiness, but rather that he redefined it in terms of justice and compassion. 4) The importance that Borg places on Jesus’ table fellowship. 5) Borg’s recognition (with many others) that Jesus, though nonviolent, was a real threat to both the Romans, their client rulers in Palestine, and the temple elites. This nonviolent threat to the established order was the motive for Jesus’ execution.

However, I also have many differences with Borg’s approach to Jesus.  1) His attempt to have a non-eschatological Jesus simply will not work.  “Kingdom of God” is clearly eschatological, even apocalyptic, language and if we know ANYTHING about the historical Jesus at all, it is that the Kingdom of God was central to his message.  2) Although recognizing some prophetic elements in Jesus, Borg downplays this and sees Jesus far too much with the Wisdom traditions in Israel. (For very different reasons from Borg and each other, Ben Witherington and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are both mistaken about this, too.) In my view, all Jesus borrowed from the sages was the form of his teachings, while the content of his message was far closer to that of the prophets.  The Sages, as exemplified especially in Proverbs, were far too accepting of a stratified status quo for the social sphere, but Jesus shares the prophets’ hunger for social and economic justice.  3) N.T. Wright and others go too far, I think, in dismissing all value from Borg’s attempt to see Jesus in cross-cultural perspective, first in terms of other teachers in the Mediterranean world, but also in comparison with other figures in world religions. I have, for instance, found some real insights in Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (1997).  But where Wright (and others) are right is that Borg jumps to such cross-cultural work too soon, without first making sure he has completely understood Jesus as a figure within 1st C. Palestinian Judaism.  Borg (and his fans) will protest this, saying rightly, that he insists that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. But, frankly, Borg’s Jesus (unlike the various–and not entirely compatible–reconstructions of Wright, E. P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, John P. Meier, Brad Young, and Bill Herzog) just doesn’t seem all that Jewish. If one is only comparing Borg’s Jesus with that of much of the Jesus Seminar, then, yes, he emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness. But, if one is really trying to fit Jesus firmly into 1st C. Palestinian Judaism, then Borg’s Jesus just doesn’t quite fit.

I have more problems with Borg as a theologian. This puts me in a minority in my local church, I think. My pastor is very taken with Borg’s The Heart of Christianity.  There are helpful insights there and in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The God We Never Knew.  But ultimately, I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.

April 1, 2007 Posted by | Bible, liberal theology, New Testament | 18 Comments

Brief Thoughts on N. T. Wright

nt-wright.jpgAs my biblical and theological readers probably ALL know, Nicholas Thomas (Tom) Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham (U.K.) and a renowned New Testament scholar. He is a prolific author of both scholarly works and popular works for laity. (He also has a secret career of dancing a silly dance over at Chrisendom, thanks to the superb technical skills and bizarre humor of biblio-blogger, Chris Tilling! If your life would not be complete without seeing an Anglican bishop dance a silly jig, you can find it here.

Not being Anglican, I have no thoughts on how good or poor Wright is as a bishop or priest.   However, I have been fascinated by how controversial he is in certain circles as a New Testament scholar.  In some circles he is widely admired and in others viewed quite negatively.  In Pauline studies, Wright is either praised or disrespected for being one of the proponents of the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which holds basically that Paul was not a Lutheran-before-Luther and that “justification by faith” is more of an ecclesiological concept than one about individual salvation. Paul remained far more Jewish in his thinking than is usually credited. I don’t find this very controversial, and I am mostly surprised that this perspective is thought so “new.”  Surely it dates back at least to Krister Stendahl (Dean of Harvard Divinity School in the ’60s and later Lutheran Bishop in Sweden) and his famous essay, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Judaism, and James D.G. Dunn have also promoted this view.  When I went to seminary in the mid-’80s, I understood it to have become nearly a consensus.  So, in this area, Wright seems to me to be neither a brilliant pioneer, nor some kind of arch-heretic. He has, I believe, consolidated the arguments for this perspective and, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, has popularized a view that had not previously “trickled down” from scholars to the pew. Perhaps that is what makes this aspect of Wright so controversial. 

But Wright is not only a Pauline scholar, but a Jesus scholar, part of the so-called “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He is controversial here, too. Liberal scholars like John Dominic Crossan (and, to a lesser extent, Wright’s friend, Marcus J. Borg) believe that Wright is basically a “scholarly fundamentalist” who defends far too much of the Gospels’ materials as historical, including the bodily resurrection. For this reason, many evangelicals have become major fans of Wright, but others have assailed him, because his interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels is far more Jewish (and political!) than many evangelicals find comfortable.  And many are furious at Wright’s realized eschatology (following his teacher, G. B. Caird, and, before him, the legendary C. H. Dodd), which revels in apocalyptic imagery, but reinterprets it in ways that rule out a literal end of the world or even, apparently, a literal Return of Christ. (So, although the Crossans of this world continue to dismiss Wright as just one more evangelical, it is not your average evangelical whose hero in Jesus studies is Albert Schweitzer!)

Here, I agree with about 90% or so of Wright’s work.  I find his description of the Jewish milieu of Jesus’ day convincing, and his rooting of Jesus in it spot on.  I find his “politics of Jesus” similar to the perspective of John Howard Yoder (except that Wright seems to hesitate to draw the full pacifist conclusions of his view, as Richard B. Hays has pointed out) and, with quibbles over details, highly persuasive.  I share an amillenial outlook, but I demur at being as completely preterist as Wright is. Both Jesus and the N.T. writers clearly speak of a close to history when the fullness of God’s Rule will be established at Jesus’ parousia (future return–literally “unveiling”). Wright says that he prefers to call his eschatology “inaugurated,” to “realized,” but the former usually leaves room for a future dimension that he seems to omit.  I can’t follow him there.

In short, I find Wright’s work significant and helpful, but I can’t be counted either in the camp with those who think he hung the moon, nor with those who dismiss his fans as adherents of “Wrightianity.”  I find him to be more original and creative in Jesus studies than in Pauline studies and such creativity risks making large errors in order to make real advances. Those content to simply add a few footnotes to scholarship risk less, but make less progress. Anyway, that’s my $.02 worth.

Update: 1) Thanks to Jonathan Marlowe for reminding me to link to N.T. Wright’s webpage here. It contains much information about Wright, but also many of his sermons, lectures, papers, etc. on a variety of topics. 2) In places of agreement, I forgot to mention that Wright’s overall approach to Jesus’ studies (and to NT and early Christianity generally) is based on two principles that I share (and had adopted before I ever heard of Wright): A. A commitment to historical evidence and to realizing that, for Christianity, historical research is important–and not unconnected to faith. Thus, Wright and I (along with many others) completely reject the semi-gnostic attempt to secure faith by sealing it off from historical research which, in different ways, is done by fundamentalism, by some followers of Rudolf Bultmann (it’s an open question as to whether or not they are reading Bultmann himself right at this point), and some followers of Karl Barth (again, whether Barth himself is implicated is debatable), and by the conservative Catholic scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson. B. However, Wright just as thoroughly rejects the extreme historical skepticism (in the principles set out by Van A. Harvey in The Historian and the Believer) and methods of the Jesus Seminar types, even in the less-extreme versions represented by Wright’s friend, Marcus Borg.

3) Confession-time: Unlike many evangelicals, I find much of value in Borg’s work.  As I discussed here, Borg is one of my favorite liberal scholars, though I do not consider myself “liberal,” theologically. (Politically, I am, for a U.S. context, very liberal, although I prefer the term “progressive” because of my identification with the early Progressive movement.) I love the book co-written by Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, not least because it is a great example of how two Christians can disagree strongly while remaining friends. Overall, I am more in sync with Wright’s portrait of Jesus than with Borg’s, but there are a number of places where I thought Borg had the better of the argument.

4) I found out this past Advent, that an argument I constructed in seminary in the ’80s for the historicity of the Virgin Birth has much in common with a recently published defense by Wright. (This is what happens if you don’t publish quickly and often. Later, everyone thinks you’re just cribbing from a more famous person!) HT: Darrell Pursifal (Dr. Platypus) for calling this to my attention last Advent. My argument came more from thinking through hints and clues in the work of the late, great, Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, but if Wright has made similar arguments then maybe I was onto something and not just having semi-fundamentalist holdovers from my past. 🙂 As I pointed out here and here, however, I do not think the emphases of the NT birth/infancy narratives have much to do with the question of whether or not Mary was physically a virgin when Jesus was born.  The tendency of evangelicals to focus on that question and miss the major themes of these narratives may be very close to straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

5) The resurrection is a different matter. I have not yet read Wright’s book on the resurrection (It’s on my birthday wish list to be posted this weekend. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.), but the description in several reviews shows an overall approach that I would approve–one I learned from such diverse sources as the late G. E. Ladd, my teacher, Gerald Borchert, my teacher, Frank Tupper, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.  I cannot agree with Marcus Borg that the resurrection is wholly “history metaphorized,” instead of “history remembered.” There do seem to be legendary or metaphorical details, as well as contradictions on details between the Gospel accounts (and the attempts of someone like Craig Blomberg to harmonize every one of those details do not persuade me). But the underlying event happened in our history–in space and time–even though it changes the nature of history, is eschatological, and is not just another event like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I cannot agree with those like Crossan who believe that the body of Jesus was thrown in the garbage dump (Gehenna) and eaten by dogs and, with the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15), I hold that if Jesus was not raised, Christian faith is vain–an illusion. The spiritualized resurrections that people like Borg, Crossan, (or Bultmann?) embrace strike me as dualist, gnostic, and, more to the point, something that no first C. Jewish writer would have described as a “resurrection.”  So, if the reviews are correct in their description, I expect that I will agree with Wright’s book on the resurrection, and like it as well as Jesus and the Victory of God.(Now, the question is, will Wright understand, with Barth, and Moltmann, and Pannenberg, that Christ’s resurrection is the “prolepsis of the future?” That is, will he/does he see what the resurrection of Jesus means for the future dimensions of the Christian hope? I’ll have to wait and see.)

March 30, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Jesus, New Testament, nonviolence | 22 Comments

Bible Study with “All the Right People”

Sunday School is no longer popular with many churches.  This is not necessarily bad. Sunday School was invented in the 19th C. and is hardly a biblical mandate.  But I am concerned that with the loss of Sunday School, most churches are also losing biblical literacy as well as the skills of mutual discernment cultivated by group Bible study.  Studying in groups helps the entire group cultivate skills of exegesis, theological and ethical reflection. It also helps the group bond in ways of mutual support and accountability–practises which spill over to the wider church community.

I particularly enjoy the adult Sunday School class at my church because it has an added dimension: Nowhere else have I studied Scripture regularly with such a diverse group of people.  Some of us are highly educated: I have a Ph.D. in theological ethics with minor concentrations in philosophy of religion and in New Testament. Among those regularly in the class are several seminary graduates (not all the same seminary, either) including one with a Master of Social Work and a Ph.D. in sociology who teaches social work and social theory at a nearby university; one with an M.A. in History who combines work as a youth minister with teaching Middle School social studies; one who works as a church-based community organizer.  Another classmate is a current seminary student planning a Ph.D. in New Testament studies with a concentration on the Pauline writings. Yet another has no seminary training but spent time as a young man in the Jesuit Volunteer Service (the token Protestant for that year, he often jokes) and has an M.A. in philosophy and an M.Sc. in engineering–and works on engineering for renewable, non-polluting energy sources.  Moving in and out of this core group, we are infrequently joined by a medical student and her sports and service oriented fiance husband, another schoolteacher, 2-3 social workers, a visiting missionary to Morocco, a law professor and others.  A highly educated group, no?

 But that’s only half the class:  the rest is filled by high school graduates and high school dropouts, some homeless; up until recently, one of our most dedicated classmates was a brilliant, but largely self-educated man who is a self-described “mental health consumer,”–previously in a state-run institution, he obsesses over tiny details and his brilliance is often combined with either a childlike naivete or a paranoia.[Note: These are amateur observations/descriptions and by no means attempts at diagnosis.  I am out of my league there and well aware of it.] This part of the class includes a young, very passionate,  musician deeply concerned with peace & justice, but with a deep penchant for interpreting biblical texts through a comparative religions mysticism, a la’ Frazier’s, Golden Boughwith a few updates from Cambell’s views on mythology.

The class is not only educationally diverse, but economically, and sometimes racially diverse. (Alas! Despite heavy recruiting, we have few women as class members and far too often we are male only.)  We also have different religious backgrounds:  most have come from very conservative evangelical upbringings, but not all.  Some of those with such backgrounds are in full rebellion against them, too. We approach weekly Bible study with different views of what the Bible IS, what kind of authority it has, as well as bringing very diverse perspectives to the texts.

We rotate the leadership of the class. We do not have one active teacher and a bunch of passive listeners. Each week one is prepared to lead, but most study ahead of time (we have no pre-packaged literature, but share commentaries and other resources–and those of us who have some skill in biblical languages sometimes prepare translations for the class) and all come to the class ready to ask questions of texts and each other–challenging questions.  Often there is no consensus.

Does this sound like chaos? Impossible? A recipe for anarchy? Maybe, but it is the most exciting weekly Bible Study to which I have ever belonged. I come away each week believing the class to have been of value–and usually I would say that I heard the voice of God in the text or in the voices of my fellow classmates–or both. And EVERYONE in the class, including the amateurs and those with less education have regularly contributed important insights–something that must seem strange to those who consider Bible study best left to “experts” and that everyone else should be labeled “dilettantes.”

I am convinced that this is how regular Bible study should be conducted. There are roles for those with technical knowlege. But there are also insights from those who may have no technical knowledge but much spiritual maturity. There are the insights that come from being poor or marginalized–those most similar to the ones Jesus spent most of his time among. There is cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural insight. There are skeptics to raise the hard questions–and strangers to the community to ask the unexpected questions.  There is no patience with the pre-packaged pablum of most “adult Bible study” materials which are still written for 11 year olds and in which the teacher is to make sure the class gets the “main theme” of the “lesson.” Instead, there is hard questioning of the text, of each other, and sometimes of God. I don’t always get away unscathed. But, like Jacob wrestling the stranger at Jabbok (Gen. 32:22-32), when I walk away wounded, I am also blessed.  Thanks be to God.

March 4, 2007 Posted by | Bible | 2 Comments

GLBT Persons in Church: Case for Full Inclusion, 2

In my first post on this topic, I tried to clarify some terms and presuppositions. READ THAT FIRST–especially before writing angry comments. This post will prepare us to read the (few) biblical texts related to this topic (or which have been used in speaking of this topic). We’ll actually get to particular texts next time. First, we need to talk about how to read Scripture in moral discernment–in deciding ethical issues.

There is an important 2-point minimal consensus in Christian ethics (identified by Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen) on the relation of Scripture to normative Christian ethics:

  1. Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics.
  2. To be authentically “Christian,” all contemporary Christian moral judgments MUST relate to Scripture in some fashion.

Now, this is a VERY minimal consensus and many of us, myself included, would like to say far more. But first, let’s examine why this consensus exists. The first statement will be far from obvious to many and the second to others.

Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics. Really? Why not? Several reasons which I list in no particular order.

  • First, the biblical writers and communities did not confront many of the moral issues and historical forces which shape our lives today: e.g., genetic engineering, global warming, cloning, nuclear weaponry, civilian nuclear energy, etc., etc. Although same-sex pairings and actions were known, I am arguing that they did not confront “homosexuality” as we understand it today.
  • This leads to a second reason: sometimes a moral issue remains much the same in its basic outline, but the context is so altered that the biblical response no longer applies. E.g., On almost every page from Genesis to Revelation is a deep concern for poverty and hunger, but the causes of hunger in our day are less to weather eccentricities than to hunger as a constructed human reality. Practices of gleaning will hardly help today’s urban poor. The basic moral issue is the same, but the altered context will demand an alteration in the character of response, too.
  • On some issues the Bible has plenty to say, but says numerous different things: e.g., on war and peace (with continuities, but also sharp differences between on Old and New Testaments) or on the relationship of women and men (with some texts stressing equality and others prescribing female subordination). Which biblical texts should be prioritized over others?
  • On some issues the wider shape of biblical faith points in a different direction than specific biblical texts. The classic example here is slavery. Nowhere in Scripture is slavery as such completely condemned (the closest is the book of Philemon). Even the jubilee legislation of Leviticus–which demands freeing Hebrew slaves every 50 years still allows for permanently enslaving non-Hebrews. A slave’s death was not considered as morally bad as a free person’s death. Even though biblical slavery was not based on the concept of “race,” the 19th C. movement to abolish slavery had a hard time because the conservatives seemed to have the stronger biblical case. (In fact, I would argue that most American evangelicals and Southern Baptists never changed the way they approached scripture. They abandoned slavery because they lost a war, not because they learned to read the Bible in such a way as they saw it as evil.)

But the second point of the consensus is equally important. Christian ethics cannot simply forged apart from reflection on Scripture. This collection of texts forms our identity narrative–it tells us who we are by telling us who we have been. It tells the tales of our ancestors in faith and their experiences in history with God: How they encountered God and responded, sometimes faithfully and sometimes not. We call these texts “Scripture,” and claim it as our “canon,” or “rule of faith.” We believe in some mysterious way that God speaks in and through these very human words (in a way different from whatever other writings, etc. in which we may hear God)–so that the community of faith can hear in them the Word of God. Christian ethics is not CHRISTIAN apart from Scripture.

No one, of course, derives their moral conclusions ONLY from Scripture–not even, maybe especially not even, those who think they do so. We approach texts from within various traditions that make up the Christian Tradition. My own (ana)Baptist faith has often made negative comments about “human traditions”–believing that no confession of faith, creed, or theological document (or person like the pope) is infallible or unable to be questioned or revised. I hold to that view, strongly. But that does not mean that we stand outside any traditions–no one does. And the more familiar we are with our own and other traditions, the more we can see where they are helpful in illuminating biblical insights–or where they distort and lead to misreadings.

Our own experiences also shape the way we read Scripture. We approach texts and moral issues with particular loyalties and vested interests.

Reason and the human sciences while providing no moral voice of their own can also help us. After all the first question to ask in moral discernment is not “What must I/we do?” but “What is going on?” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and “What is God doing in this context?” (Paul Lehmann). (Lehmann’s general answer, “God is in the world working to make and keep human life human” is a good one, but fails the ecological test–it is too anthropocentric.)

One of the strengths of the critical methods of biblical interpretation is that they serve initially to distance the text from ourselves–to show us how ancient and strange and different the world of the biblical writers was from ours. That may seem alienating, but we too often assume we know the answer to moral or theological issues before we even ask the questions. We have to make sure we are not hearing echoes of our own voices–our child rearing, our Sunday School lessons, what we heard said about gays or lesbians (to take our current issue as illustrative) in locker rooms or on the playground, etc. To discern the voice of God in Scripture and in the living church today, we first have to screen out other voices and look at these ancient texts with new eyes.

So, with these preliminary thoughts in mind, I will in my next post in this series begin to examine the texts in Scripture that have been used in the debate over “homosexuality.” I will begin with the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19–with a glance at a parallel story in Lev. 19. From there we will examine a pair of laws in Leviticus. Before leaving the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, we will glance back at the creation stories in Gen. 1-2 (I will explain later why we do not begin there) and note some general things on sexuality found in the Song of Songs. Then, in the New Testament, we examine 2 common “vice lists” in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) before turning to Rom.1-2, the most extended discussion of same-sex matters, the only place lesbianism (female homosexuality) is specifically discussed alongside male-male actions (there are hints of female-female eroticism in Ruth, but nothing conclusive). Rom. 1& 2 is also the only place where much in the way of theological reasoning is given on this issue. There are good reasons why many consider it to be the key text in the debate. Finally, before leaving biblical exegesis for reflections on other sources of information (Tradition, science, and experience), we will examine an obscure saying of Jesus that some new studies suggest may have been a positive word for people we today would call gays and lesbians. (This will be very tentative because of its newness–it has not been widely tested in academic debate.) My final post on the topic will move from Scripture to contemporary church in theological reasoning. [This outline is open to revision as necessary.]

I expect much interaction–and many to disagree. I understand that. I took 10 years of wrestling with this issue before coming to a position on full inclusion. My own strong commitment to biblical authority kept me wrestling with texts (like Jacob with the stranger/angel at the river Jabbok) long after my experiences with meeting gay and lesbian Christians was pushing my heart toward full inclusion. I had no desire to jump on some politically correct bandwagon. If you are cautious in reading my arguments, I fully understand. I ask only an open mind and heart–and to keep reading and wrestling and praying long after this series is done. I will give sources for further reading for those interested.

If you already know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about this issue, why bother reading this series? I welcome constructive criticism. Please point out any errors I am making. But if you are not reading with an open mind, why bother to read at all? The Bible is not really authoritative for us, no matter how much we claim otherwise, if we are not prepared to hear a different Word in and through its pages than the one we already believe beforehand.

December 30, 2006 Posted by | Bible, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 18 Comments

VERY Short Bible Commentaries

Darrell Pursifal, aka Dr. Platypus, became inspired to see if he and others could, Hemingway-like, write very, very short summaries of biblical books. The limit is 6 words to describe an entire biblical book. I have added a few and invite others to join in. It’s fun and works your brain to try to summarize that briefly. We haven’t yet gotten 66 entries, so feel free to try your hand. Also, Darrell has generously posted more than one commentary on a book. Enjoy.

October 29, 2006 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis | 2 Comments

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: One Perspective

The Miner, a fairly new blogger I just discovered, has posted some very interesting perspectives on violence in the Old Testament. They are patterned after Kim Fabricius’ famous 10 propositions series over on Ben Myers’ Faith & Theology blog. Print them out and use them as discussion starters. If you disagree, tell the Miner on his blog. You could even propose alternatives.

October 29, 2006 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., nonviolence, peace, violence | Comments Off on Violence in the Hebrew Bible: One Perspective

Combating Biblical Illiteracy in the Churches, 1

Dr. Jim West, pastor of Petros Baptist Church, is part of a growing number of bibliobloggers, i.e. folks who blog primarily on biblical studies. On his blog, Jim regularly blasts TV preachers and others who regularly misinterpret Scripture badly as “dilettantes.” I have argued with him that he seems to promote an “academic magisterium” of semi-official biblical interpreters which, it seems to me, undermines the Reformation doctrines of the “perspicacity of Scripture” (i.e., that the main message of Scripture is understandable to all who read it–barring learning disabilities or other special circumstances) and of the “priesthood of all believers.” But Jim and I agree that the Bible is regularly mangled by TV preachers, writers of much popular drivel found in Christian bookstores, etc.

Further, the state of biblical literacy among laity is very low. Theologian George Lindbeck notes that when he was a student at Yale Divinity School entering students were tested for levels of biblical knowledge that would now surpass many graduating students–and that is not something unique to Yale. Indeed, I have heard similar complaints from many professors at conservative evangelical institutions. When I taught New Testament introduction courses at a local church-related university (in Louisville, KY–part of the Bible Belt in America), I began each course with an anonymous pre-test to let me know where the students were at the beginning of the semester.

I asked the following 6 questions: 1) How many books are there in the New Testament? 2) How many Gospels are part of the New Testament? Name them. 3) Who wrote more books of the New Testament than anyone else? 4) In which book would you find the Sermon on the Mount? 5) Which book tells some part of the history of the early church? 6) What is the name of the last book of the Bible? Never did more than 5% of the class get all 6 questions right and usually the percentage was much smaller. More than once over 95% of the class missed all 6 questions and this did not vary too much on whether the students came from strong church backgrounds or not. I have made inquiries across the U.S. and found that these kinds of results are fairly typical.

Thus, laity (and many clergy) are easy prey for heresies, whether of “New Age” nonsense or militant Christian Zionism, or any of a dozen or more other schemes propagated by TV preachers and popular Christian authors, many with mail order degrees from diploma mills and not from reputable schools (although it is quite possible to have heretical nonsense from people who should know better, too).

September 10, 2006 Posted by | Bible, blogs | 20 Comments

Combating Biblical Illiteracy 2

There are no quick and easy answers to the state of ignorance rampant in American churches. Nor will the answers to this ignorance come in “one-size-fits-all” formulae. I am giving an open invitation for bibliobloggers and others to join me suggesting practices for churches struggling to reverse these trends. What follows are my tentative suggestions:

  • Mandatory new members classes for new Christians, either before baptism in a revival of the ancient catechumenate, or following baptism or both. Adult members who transfer from other congregations of “like faith and order” can no longer be presumed to have had much instruction, however, so (diplomatically and with pastoral sensitivity so as not to scare members away) these transferring members should be tested for knowledge of basic Christian beliefs and basic biblical knowledge.
  • The idea behind such a catechumenate, from my Free Church perspective, is not indoctrination in a creed, nor encouraging legalism nor blind acceptance of pastoral authority. Rather, the classes should stress basic biblical knowledge, basic Christian concepts (broadly construed) and basic behavioral expectations of Christians. All churches must assume that they are in a new missionary context: the surrounding culture, while still very religious and vaguely “Christian,” no longer gives much, if any, biblical literacy. Yet, students in these questions should be encouraged to question and explore. Especially from a Free Church perspective, one does not want docile laity who blindly accept the theological authority of so-called clerical “experts.”
  • Although it is no substitute for deeper study of individual biblical books, there is also no substitute for reading the entire Bible several times to get a “sense of the whole.” There are several good programs promoting reading the Bible through in a year’s time. See here and here for examples. There are also 3-year read-through programs structured around the Common Lectionary. Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses, but the important thing is to encourage such regular devotional reading of large sections of Scripture. There is no substitute in getting a sense of the overarching narrative structure, the major themes and concepts, etc.

September 10, 2006 Posted by | Bible | 6 Comments