Monday, March 31, 2014

The Flood and the Gospel

There is a lot that can be said, and should be said, regarding how thoughtful Christians can handle the Noah story in a responsible and faithful way. There are important questions about what of literature we are dealing with (literal, metaphorical, some mix of both?), how this literature in the Bible relates to other very similar ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian literature, and what we are supposed to takeaway from this story regarding the character of God.
Here, though, I only want to touch on one aspect of the story, and that is that the coming of Christ, with his victory over sin and death through the cross and the empty tomb, changed the way at least some early Christians interpreted this story. While the story in Genesis speaks of a swift and final judgment for the generation of Noah, the New Testament holds out the hope that even those who experience the rain of God's judgment can also ultimately rejoice in the rainbow of God's mercy.
I am referring to a notoriously difficult passage of Scripture from 1 Peter, which would become the basis for the very popular belief in the early church that Christ descended into hell to set the captives free.

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

In the history of the church this passage has received numerous interpretations, none of them ascending to the level of the-one-right-orthodox-position. That said, the dominant tradition in the Eastern branch of the church holds that this passage teaches that Christ descended into hell to offer salvation to those imprisoned there. This is why in the Eastern Orthodox church the hope of universal salvation has always been seen as an orthodox option, in contrast to the Augustinian pessimism of the Western church. While humans remain free to reject Christ, in this age and in the age to come, Christ remains free to keep seeking to save the lost, in this age and in the age to come. (The best resource on this is Hilarion Alfeyev's Christ the Conqueror of Hell.)
Some scholars have pointed out that in post-biblical Jewish tradition, the generation of Noah is spoken of as an unredeemable generation, representing the worst of humanity. Perhaps, then, the author of 1 Peter is saying that even the worst of the worst are not beyond the reach of Christ's liberating love, and that there is no realm of reality in which Christ's love is without power. Yes, our sin and our violence can unleash floods of destructive chaos in our lives and in our world. We don't really need Genesis to tell us that, we can just open our eyes. But when Christ opens our eyes with his healing love, and cleanses our vision of God, we can begin to see that divine judgment, while not negated, is displaced. It is no longer ultimate. There is judgment, but in the words of James, "mercy triumphs over judgment." The rains may fall, but it is the rainbow that remains.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Adam Hamilton's Bucket List

In advance of his new book on the Bible, Adam Hamilton has made a couple of blog posts about biblical interpretation. In the first post, he stated that biblical passages can go into one of three "buckets":

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.
In the first bucket would go things like the Golden Rule, in the second things like circumcision or dietary laws, and in the third would go things like those stories about God ordering the slaughter of children, women, and men on a grand scale. Hamilton argues that the debate about homosexuality is essentially about which bucket the handful of scriptural passages about same-sex relationships go in. 

So how do we know which Scriptures go in which bucket? The answer to that, of course, has no easy and quick answer. There is no formula or algorithm that we can use to be certain of our choices. But for Hamilton, the most fundamental interpretive criteria is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ is the image of the invisible God, he is the Son who makes the Father known, he is the exact imprint of God's being. Scripture itself gives us the lenses through which we read and apply Scripture, and it makes it clear those lenses are the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we take Jesus to be the deepest and truest embodiment of God's heart the world has ever seen, then he becomes our guide as we interpret and apply the Scriptures to our life. 

That doesn't solve everything, of course. There will be disagreement about what Jesus taught about various things, and hence which passages go into which bucket. But the bucket list Hamilton articulates gives us, I believe, some helpful categories for these disagreements and discussions. 

Not everyone will even grant that. In a blog post response from an Asbury Seminary Old Testament scholar named Bill Arnold, he argues that all of the Bible is equally authoritative and sharply criticizes Hamilton for evening daring to suggest that biblical passages can be divided like this. He writes:
None of us should take up this call to divide Scripture into three buckets. Please, let us not consider dividing Scripture into separate texts that belong in any of these buckets. I reject the idea that certain portions of Scripture about sexual ethics fit into one bucket while others fit into a different bucket.
Maybe I am missing his point (not sure how I could be though), but I really cannot make any sense out of this. Does he really mean to claim that everything the Bible says about sexual ethics expresses God's timeless will? Unless you are for killing adulterers, then you must acknowledge that some biblical passages about sexual ethics must fall into either the second or third buckets. How is that point even up for debate?

In practice, everyone divides the Bible up into categories similar to what Hamilton suggests. It might sound pious and all to say that the whole Bible is equally authoritative, but no one actually reads and applies the Bible that way. Which is a very good thing, because to do so would lead to some very unchristian beliefs and practices. 

At a funeral, for example, should a pastor proclaim the pessimistic agnosticism about the afterlife we find in the book of Ecclesiastes, or should she proclaim the hopeful conviction we have in the resurrection story? Ecclesiastes, while it is filled with wisdom and insight (and remains one of my favorite books of the Bible to read), does not have the same authority on this matter as, for example, 1 Corinthians 15 does. The whole Bible is a gift of God, and it all can be used by God's Spirit to teach us in some way or another, but that doesn't mean it is all equally authoritative. 

I am glad Hamilton has written this book. While it is going to piss off some people, it sounds like it is going to be helpful to a lot of people who are kept from Christ because of overly simplistic claims about the Bible. While the Bible was meant to be a tool God uses to bring people to faith in the living Christ, it so often keeps people from Christ because we make promises about the Bible that it can't keep. We oversell it. We say that it has all the answers, that all the answers become clear with enough study, etc. 

Like in many relationships, most people are let down by the Bible because they bring the wrong expectations to it. It is much better to acknowledge upfront that it is a messy, confusing, and complicated collection of human texts that God can use to breathe new life into our messy, confusing, and complicated lives. 

God is real, Jesus is alive, and the Spirit is here. Or so I believe. None of this is compromised by being more honest about the Bible, and making sure our theories about it match up with the way we actually use it. 


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Celibacy, Contraception, and the Church that Changes

In discussions about same-sex marriage within the church, there is a common argumentative strategy on the part of progressives to acknowledge that the Bible indeed says some negative stuff about same-sex relationships, but they will then try to diffuse the significance of this by going on to ask the rhetorical question, "What about slaves and women?" Just as people in the past used (or, as most of us would agree, "misused") the Bible and church tradition to justify pro-slavery and anti-women attitudes and practices, so now people misuse the Bible and church tradition to stigmatize and exclude gay and lesbian persons from full inclusion in church and society.

As I have written before, I think the analogies of women and slaves are helpful in some ways, but the analogies only go so far. They don't show that since we were wrong about those issues, we must therefore be wrong about this one. They just show that we might be wrong about this issue, since we have gotten things wrong in a major way in the past. These two analogies show that longstanding church tradition and a handful of biblical quotes do not suffice to guarantee one's position is authentically Christian, but, again, much more has to be said by the progressive Christian to make their case.

It seems to me that in this discussion and debate over the consecration of same-sex relationships, the church would be better served by focusing less on the analogies of women and slaves, and more on the analogies of celibacy and contraception. These two issues not only represent ways in which the church has radically changed its position, but since these two issues are from the realm of sexual ethics, they seem much more intrinsically connected to the issue of same-sex relationships.

Let's start with the issue of celibacy. While the orthodox church has always taught that marriage is good (primarily for procreative purposes), up until the Reformation era about 500 years ago it also taught that celibacy and virginity are morally and spiritually better. In fact, as a 4th century theologian named Jovinian learned the hard way, you could be declared a heretic for suggesting that marriage is just as good as celibacy.

When you put yourself in the position of the Reformers, and you make the argument that clergy don't have to be celibate because marriage shares an equal moral status with virginity, you are making an argument that goes against the church's way of interpreting the teachings of Jesus (Matt 19:12, Luke 20:27-40) and Paul (1 Cor 7) for nearly 1500 years. But the Reformers did it, and now we Protestant Christians take it for granted. What was essentially the most radical shift in Christian sexual ethics up until that point we would now yawn over if we heard someone debate it.

Fast forward another few hundred years to 1930, the year marking the first time any church denomination officially authorized the use of contraception. When the Anglican church made this unprecedented move, they were going against nearly two millennia of church tradition that strongly and universally condemned contraception. This is hard for us to appreciate now in this day and age, but the Christian condemnation of contraception was just as severe throughout history as was its condemnation of same-sex relationships. Although marriage had always been considered good in the church, marital sex, by and large, was only seen as morally good if it was for the purpose of procreation. Marital sex only for pleasure was seen as lustful and even "against nature." Therefore all contraceptive or intentionally non-procreative sex was seen as a grave sin.

Just as Christians could (and still do) appeal to the story of God's destruction of Sodom (Gen 19) to justify God's supposed abhorrence of all same-sex relationships, Christians could appeal to the story of God's killing of Onan (Gen 38) to justify God's supposed abhorrence of all contraception.

Defenders of contraception would want to argue that Onan was killed, not for contraception as such, but for selfishly refusing to honor his brother by agreeing to follow the custom of levirate marriage (levir is the Latin word for "brother-in law"), whereby if a man dies without having a son, his brother is obligated to try to reproduce with his widow so that a male offspring can be reckoned as his and can carry on the family name and control the land. This argument, though, doesn't sit well with the fact that the punishment for refusing to do this was public shaming, not death (Deut. 25:5-10), and in the history of the church there has been, up until 1930, a universal condemnation of contraception with this passage being used most frequently to show that God is against all intentionally non-procreative sex. While it is hard to say with certainty that the "original meaning" of the Onan story was a condemnation of all contraception (although a strong argument could be made that it was), we can say with certainty that this is how the church throughout history and across the globe interpreted this passage for nearly two thousand years. Yet now, even for the vast majority of Roman Catholics whose church hierarchy still forbids artificial contraceptive methods, contraception is not even seen as a live moral debate. In a period of less than half a century, contraception went from being universally condemned to being nearly universally embraced.

It seems to me that the ethical issue of contraception is the most insightful analogy for thinking through the church's ethical debates about same-sex marriage. Not only does it show a major reversal of a traditional church teaching, but the reasons for this reversal are deeply connected to the current movement among many to embrace same-sex marriage in the church. Contraception became permissible as the church's understanding of marital sex shifted to focus more on intimacy and pleasure, not just procreation. Once the church accepts that marital sex is good based on the values of intimate bonding and mutual pleasure, without procreative intent or possibility required, then it becomes much harder to say exactly what could be wrong with two people of the same sex living in a covenant relationship and basing their sexual lives together on these values as well.

While I understand the debate over same-sex marriage cannot be reduced to these considerations I have raised, in my experience those who are against same-sex marriage place a great deal of rhetorical weight on the "two thousand years" argument in their case. Its rhetorical power, however, masks its logical weakness and historical naivete.

"Who are we to question the universal and historic church on this issue?" they will say. Well, we are part of a church that has a long history of challenging what came before it. We are part of a church that has changed its mind about many things, including the value and purpose of sex. We are part of a church that is always in need of reform. We are part of a church that has been growing and changing for a good while now. We are part of a church that has made a tradition out of questioning tradition. That's who we are.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Joy of Constant Communion

For the first time in my life, I am participating in Holy Communion on a weekly basis. Every Thursday evening at our campus ministry's worship service, we conclude the service by sharing in the bread and the cup. It is the highlight of my week.

Growing up Methodist, I participated in communion the first Sunday of each month, which seems to be an unofficial Methodist rule followed just about everywhere. This is a very unfortunate departure, not only from the practice of Jesus's early friends and followers, but from the practice and teachings of our spiritual father in the Methodist tradition, who taught us that we should never pass up the chance to commune with our Lord in this holy meal.

John Wesley's sermon, "The Duty of Constant Communion," has many great points, yet he chose a horrible title, in my humble opinion. Don't get me wrong, I do believe there are such things as "duties" in the life of discipleship to Christ, but participating in communion doesn't strike me as one of them. Calling it a "duty" makes it seem like an unpleasant affair, something you do out of obligation, not desire.

But to desire regular communion, you must have an understanding of Communion that is desirable.

Although we are way out of the Middle Ages chronologically, we are still there theologically in some respects. I have found many Protestant Christians operate with a medieval Roman Catholic view of the sacrament centered exclusively on guilt, sacrifice, and pardon. Not that these things never have any part in communion. They most certainly do. But if communion is never anything more than taking a few minutes to feel bad about your sins and then get a forgiveness booster shot that will last you until the next week, then I can understand why people would not want to do that very frequently.

But I have come to see communion in such a way that makes me want to receive it very frequently, and I want to say a few words about it here. I wouldn't, of course, want to say that this is the meaning of communion, as it is a sacred ritual with multiple levels and shades of significance and meaning. But this is the meaning of communion that speaks most deeply to me at this point in my life.

I have come to see communion as central way in which Jesus can touch me.

Many preachers and scholars over the years have noted how important physical touch was for Jesus's healing ministry. Even though it seems Jesus didn't have to touch people to physically heal them, he frequently made a point of touching people who were ill and in need of help. Since physical illness (both then and now) can have an alienating effect on the person, making us feel unsafe in our own skin or unwanted in our own community, Jesus offered holistic healing by touching people and helping them to see they were safe and wanted in God's embrace. In the touch of Jesus, people experienced the love of God. He didn't just tell people that God loves them. He touched people so that they would feel that divine love.

I think of communion as one of the ways that we can continue to be physically embraced by the Risen Christ. Through the gifts of bread and wine, we can tangibly experience the life and love of God, broken open and poured out for the healing of the world. Holding out our hand to receive the elements is a way that we can reach out our hands to Christ, asking for him to touch us, and make us whole. As we take in the bread and wine, we allow ourselves to be touched by the love embodied in Jesus, and now, through him and the Spirit, embodied in us.

God wants to touch us. That is the good news of Jesus. None of us are too ugly, sick, or sinful to be touched by God. When God became one of us, he couldn't help but touch us. Jesus incarnated the divine love that longs to touch, to embrace, to kiss, and to hold (Luke 15:20). In his last meal, he made the bread and wine perpetual signs of his divine love for us because divine love is always striving to become materialized- striving to become tangible and felt. When we come to his table, again and again, we are being touched in ways we cannot explain.

Jesus wants us to have physical signs of his love for us. He wants to touch us. He can do that in many ways. Communion is by no means the only way he can touch us. But it is one of the ways he left us to experience his personal reality in our lives. Understood in this way, constant communion it is not a duty. It is a need, a longing, and a joy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Other Side of the Jump

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. - John 11:25

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. - Romans 8:18

On this side of the jump, there is so much paralyzing fear…

so much uncertainty…

so much anxiety…

so much unbelief.

On the other side of the jump, there is so much unrestrained joy…

so much celebration…

so much transformation…

so much victory.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Where I Agree with Ken Ham

On the one hand, critiquing Ken Ham's approach to Genesis is too easy. Even Pat Robertson realizes it's nonsense. 

On the other hand, I would never debate him because he has such a high tolerance for incoherent distinctions (such as the bizarre and idiosyncratic distinction between "observational" and "historical" science) that he can wiggle his way out of any intellectual trap.

The most interesting thing about the whole Nye-Ham debate to me, and Ham's entire multi-million dollar ministry/theme park, is that it rests on Ham's inability or unwillingness to see the significance of a key point that he himself acknowledges. 

Towards the end of the debate, in the Q&A section (beginning at 2:24:05), Ham was asked:

"Do you believe the entire Bible is to be taken literally?"

Ham's response, essentially, is to say "no," the Bible contains different types of literature, and history is to be taken as history, poetry as poetry, etc. 

Yes! Totally agree! 

Ham acknowledges that different genres of literature produce different expectations for the reader, and that different types of writing are governed by different conventions of interpretation. (As with literature so it is with films. It is is mistake to watch a romantic comedy as if it were a documentary, and so on.)

Yet, Ham also insists that Genesis 1 is to be understood as history because it reads like "typical historical narrative." I wonder if Ham would think that this passage reads like typical historical narrative:

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
    And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,

Their waters were mingled together,

And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;

When of the gods none had been called into being.

These are the opening lines of the "Enuma Elish," an ancient Babylonian creation myth that influenced the writing of Genesis 1. Most biblical scholars recognize that what we have in Genesis 1 is a mythic, poetic account of creation written in response to this Babylonian creation poem. Far from being "typical historical narrative," Genesis 1 provides a brilliant and innovative view of the divine and the human place in the world through the medium of myth. 

For example, in contrast with the Babylonian mythic vision that presents multiple gods creating the world through violence and only making kings in their image, the Israelite mythic vision presents one God creating through a peaceful word and making all of humanity in the reflection of divinity. You tend to miss all that powerful theology if you mistake Genesis 1 as an eyewitness report of creation. (You miss its ethical implications too. The former myth supports violence and hierarchy, while the latter supports non-violence and equality.)

One of Ham's main arguments that Genesis 1 is to be understood as a straightforward historical narrative is that Jesus believed it was history. Why does he think Jesus thought it was history? Because Jesus quotes from it when talking about marriage. This argument, of course, contains a suppressed premise that if a person quotes from a piece of literature to make a moral point, that must mean that person thinks that piece of literature is history. Which is absurd, generally speaking, but even more absurd when you consider that Jesus's main method of teaching theological ethics was telling fictitious stories. 

Just as Ham errs in assuming that it was intended to be read as a straightforward historical description of creation, many err in the other direction by saying, "See, it is just a myth that borrowed from other myths, and it has no value for us today." But as the biblical scholar Peter Enns has done a brilliant job pointing out, the God of the Bible is an incarnational God who takes on the thought-forms of people where they are at. How odd it is for people like Ham, who exalt the "sovereignty of God," to deny that God could communicate in whatever medium God wants to, including ancient myth. 

Bill Nye was misguided, I believe, in continually focusing on the age and number of translations the Bible has gone through. Even if Genesis 1 as we have it in "American English" (as he kept saying) could be shown to be a perfect translation of an original copy, that wouldn't change the fact that it was written as theological poetry, not typical history. 

Interestingly, even though Ham insists on taking Genesis 1 as history, he seems to have no concern for understanding Genesis 1 historically. This is revealed clearly in his closing statements (2:38:03) where he muses, "I don't know of any another religion that has a book that starts with by telling you there is an infinite God, and talks about the origin of the universe..." 

Right. There is no other world religion that contains a book like Genesis... except the Jewish religion, which also happens to contain Genesis. There is a thick irony in taking such an ahistorical approach to a text you insist is history.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

When Fundamentalists are Too Liberal

Would you say that people who believe in a literal seven day creation six millennia ago are too conservative or too liberal?

The fact that the most natural response would be "too conservative" reveals just how misleading and unhelpful our current all-embracing binary of liberal/conservative really is. (More on that in a second.)

This media-constructed polarization affects, and infects, nearly all public discussions, including those in the church. By forcing every position into a package of positions that must be labeled either "conservative" or "liberal," we miss any possibility of nuance and lose any hope of actual rational discussion. Instead of interaction, there is merely assertion and counter-assertion from "both sides."

But any attempt to fit the varied rich intellectual and moral positions of a religious tradition into only two categories is bound to involve confusions and oversimplifications.

Back to the creationist question.

In my experience, many people assume that the Genesis story has historically been interpreted in a very literal way, but with the rise of modern science, especially Darwinian evolutionary theory, we now have to abandon this literal interpretation in favor of a more modern metaphorical or allegorical approach. But so-called "young earth creationists" have held on to the past and refused to move forward in adopting new biblical interpretations that adapt to changing scientific knowledge.

That whole way of thinking, however, is completely false. The vast majority of ancient and medieval theologians in the Christian tradition did not understand Genesis to give a factual report on exactly how God created the world. The most influential Western theologian, St. Augustine, explicitly warned against trying to use Scripture to trump scientific knowledge. He taught that Scripture should be interpreted in such a way as to conform to undeniable knowledge of the natural world. This is why many of Darwin's religious contemporaries, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, found nothing objectionable in his proposal.

So when in the early twentieth century a movement arose in the United States among some Christians to make a literal, factual interpretation of Genesis a fundamental tenet of Christian belief, they were not in fact acting as "conservatives." That is to say, they were not conserving what the dominant stream of thought in the Christian tradition had to say on this matter. Instead, they were acting as "liberals," proposing a very new way of approaching these texts in reaction to the modernist intellectual culture of their day. In a manner which exposes the fluidity and relativity of these terms, you have fundamentalist Christians who are not being conservative enough.

The moral of this story for me is that this is an instructive example of how sometimes debates get stale and stuck because we have made an error in the way we have framed the question and the way we have labeled the positions.

Sometimes our task isn't to carry on a debate, but to question the very frameworks and labels within which the debate has been taking place. I suspect this is why Jesus so rarely gave a direct answer to the burning debates of his day. He didn't want to give support or energy to a framework that itself was in need of rethinking. He knew that sometimes you don't just need new wine, but new wine skins.