In the Beginning… (Or How to Read the Bible)

January 1, 2007

Happy New Year!!

Since we all tend to think about the future about now- what it holds, what our hopes are, etc.– I thought I would write about two different ways of looking at it.  Through the Bible, of course.

Our future is inevitably bound up in our past.  Our experience governs our forward trajectory the same way inertia keeps a ball moving once thrown until something changes it.

So let’s start by looking at the way I don’t look at the past and the future, just as a strawman for comparison.  I’m not accusing anyone of looking at it this way, only using this model as a reference point for the next step in the discussion.

One way we could look at the Bible is to read it as a literal revelation from God.  If we do so, then we will find a series of judgments, of rules, and of punishments that make time look something like this:

 Armageddon

(The captions on this very roughly drawn timeline are, in order: Crucifiction, Hitler, “Declining Moral Values”, Today, Armageddon/Apocolypse.  The decline of the vertical axis indicates general decline of “goodness”.)

Using this method of reading the Bible, we find that in biblical times people tried over and over to please God, failed miserably, and things just got worse and worse.  Things continue to get worse, and someday God will punish the world by destroying it to establish a new, better world where things won’t be so disobedient.  Perhaps not everyone is horrible, and some folks will be saved from this utter destruction, but it is only by recognition of the utter badness/evil of the world that we can save ourselves from this fate (through belief in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice to save us from this evil).

If I take this world view, I look to the Bible and focus on passages that show God as a judgmental God.  I look for rules that will show me how to become one of the elect that will keep me from the destructive fate that is determined for most people, and I tend to think that the new year will bring some new evil that we cannot overcome because it is part of the global struggle of good and evil (although there may be short-term joys to help me get through the primarily long-term sorrows).  The world is bound to get worse until the final showdown is over because it is preordained in the book of Revelation.  My best role looking forward is to try and convince others that God is a punitive, judgmental God because then at least I’ll be saving them from that awful fate.  At least selfishly I can live by those rules because I will escape it.

Now, that is NOT what I believe.  That is NOT the hope I have for the new year, and that is NOT how I read the Bible.

Insead, my view of time is something like this:

Kingdom of God

(The captions on this one are: Resurrection, Enlightenment/Individual Freedoms, End of Apartheid, Today, Kingdom of God.  We might also add the end of the Holocaust and liberation of Europe, the end of slavery in the US, and so on- if the world were bad these things would continue unrestrained.)

The Bible, rather than being a revelation of strict truths, is part of the grand narrative of time.  It is the faith history of God and God’s people, showing how God’s people have learned about God as they move through time, gradually understanding more of God’s truth and responding appropriately.  Sometimes they have it right, and sometimes they don’t.  The Bible captures this struggle for forward movement- the joys and the sorrows, and shows how we, as a people of God, have made progress over time…

After the creation, there were horrible atrocities.  Slavery was accepted.  Women were property.  An eye for an eye was the way.

The law was revealed to Moses, and people shaped up a little.  In an undeveloped society, punishment may be the best motivator to get people to behave– they may not be able to act unselfishly (a fact I’m sure God knows as our creator).  The people of God did the best they could to figure out how to serve God.  The people of God changed, responding to God the best they could.

That worked for a while.  But then it didn’t work anymore.  Genocide was condoned.  People fell away from God.  Empires took over and threatened the existence of God’s people with endless cycles of violence and differing theologies.  Sacrifice took precedence over social justice.  The people of God changed again.

Jesus came when things got out of hand again, when the world needed him most.  He brought a new message– not sacrifice:  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  He actions indicated that action- fixing the world’s injustice and suffering- was more important than sacrifice.  He then died, suffering in solidarity with the pain of the world, and was raised in triumphunt hope over that pain.  His followers began to understand.  The world changed yet again.

Paul took the message further.  While Jesus insisted that his message was only for Jews and was a strict Jew himself, following purity laws; Paul pushed the limits.  Circumcision was not necessary to be a follower of Christ, said Paul.  Even Gentiles can follow.  Yet another improvement, another revelation, moving further upward on the grand arc of the narrative; another deepening of the relationship with God and God’s creation.

Each step of the way, the point of the Bible has not been to show an absolute truth.  The point has been to show the journey; the process; the becoming; the movement.  It is about the relationship with God.  It is about how God loves us and nurtures us along the way.  God walks with us, both when we run confidently knowing each step AND when we stumble and fall.  God does this with us individually and corporately, as a people, a human race.

I think to say that the Bible does anything but show God’s love for us and for our gradual understanding of God’s support for our movement towards a prophetic understanding of his benevolent will for us over time is taking the Bible out of context; it forgets the grand narrative of the Bible.  Each book, each chapter, each pericope, each verse– indeed each word must be read in this context.  The context of the forward inertia of God’s love, God’s compassion for God’s creation, God’s benevolent care for God’s creatures.

If we push that inertia forward, just like that ball that has been thrown, we can see the arc of history continuing up, up, and away– far out into the future.  The early church continued developing on Paul’s theology, using Jesus as the centerpiece and foundation of her work.

St. Augustine wrote wonderful pieces of God’s love and about his experience of that love, as did other church fathers.

The medieval saints did the same- I’ve written about some on this site.

The inertia continues today, with equality for all of God’s people.  All races, all genders, all ages, all sexual orientations, all cultures.  The arc continues moving forward until there is peace on earth– and at that point we will have reached the point of the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem.

(I’m not sure whether that is a tangible point in time or whether the value is in the journey itself–  sort of like a beautiful moth, who always seeks the light but if she ever reaches it would be so burned by the light that she would perish.  There is value in the journey itself, in the relationships, in the communities we build along the way, in the people we meet, in the things we do, in the memories we create for the next generation so that they can look back at the milestones on the arc.  That is something hard to remember in our goal-oriented society.)

We move towards peace on earth.  We hope for it.  It is not an empty hope.  It is the trajectory the Bible begins.

Let there be peace on earth.  And let it begin with me.

j

Advertisements

14 Responses to “In the Beginning… (Or How to Read the Bible)”

  1. sion Says:

    I enjoy the clarity of your thought in these simplified models of faith. In fact, the upward trajectory is consistent with my own view, except I believe the Kingdom of God already exists here on earth. (the downward seems like one a televanegelists would love)
    I am confused by your use of the word “inertia” in describing the progress of God’s love or social justice milestones. Dynamic things. Inertia resists movement or change.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thanks for posting, sion.

    Yes, I see your point.

    First let me address the point about the kingdom.

    Suffering is a mystery, and we still inflict so much of it upon each other. I agree that there are places in which we can find the kingdom in the here and now, but I’m not sure that without an active forward movement- an act of faith so to speak on our part- that we can keep the inertia going that reduces suffering and keeps the kingdom growing until suffering is gone and all is well– I think it is our action that keeps the arc growing upwards and onwards.

    As I said, I don’t know if the kingdom is a fixed point in time or not, but I think that what is important is that we cannot be lulled into complacency just because the arc moves upward; we are called to act to help it move forward and while it moves forward with an inertia that is so powerful due to God’s unconditional love that doesn’t excuse us from the call to act when we see injustice or suffering in the world.

    So yes, I think the arc does resist forces in that it IS constantly changing; constantly moving God’s agenda forward; it cannot be stopped from reaching upward and onward; but it is not an excuse to sit idly by and wait for God to do the work.

    It resists the forces within us that would not change, it breaks through the stagnant waters into moving waters. I suppose that if you take it too literally you can look at it as something that is not dynamic, but I think of inertia as a force propelling an object forward; and that to me is very powerful. Feel free to find a better metaphor!

    j

  3. sion Says:

    For the most part I agree with you, especially about the inevitability of progress and God’s agenda plus our responsibility to act. We have no disagreement here. It’s possible we interpret “kingdom” differently; an end state for you, part of a continuum for me.
    No big deal.

    I’m still confounded by your use of “inertia” which is not “a force propelling an object forward”. (that’s a stimulus or accelerant) In common usage, interia is resistance to change, or a state of rest, as in “the interia of Congress”. In other words, the opposite of what you intend.

  4. Jeff Says:

    It sounds like you’ve got the point, and that’s the most important!

    If we want to get technical, inertia is the resistance of an object to change its state of motion. Yes, that can mean that an object that is still stays still (different from necessarily being a “state of rest”). But the more common use in my experience is that a moving object continues moving unless another force (such as gravity) interferes, and that is the context of my example, such as a thrown ball, without gravity or friction getting in the way, will continue moving forever. Such is the arc of time with justice. It will continue moving onward and upward.

    Uugggh… I hope that helps explain what I meant; I certainly didn’t mean to have to put anyone through physics gymnastics in this post!

    Again, feel free to pick your own metaphor!!

    Peace,

    j

  5. BobinWashPa Says:

    Jeff:

    I read Richard Friedman’s book, “Who Wrote the Bible” which opened my eyes further to you above posting. When you read about who wrote it (the first five books only) you learn that this is quite simply human beings struggle to discern who God is and how God operates.
    I really agree that the bible is a document of that struggle and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.

    Atonement theology is something many in my diocese take great stock in. When I ask how does a down syndrome child or an autistic child figure in this “we’re all terribly dirty and unworthy” I get a variety of “fudge.” Doing wrong that harms yourself and or others is wrong. I’m so glad I stumbled on you blog.
    It’s nice to know more people think along the same lines.

    God’s blessings for a happy, healthy, peace and love filled 2007.
    Bob

  6. obadiahslope Says:

    Can I reject both diagrams? Or perhaps see something of both being true. The kingdom of God is breaking into our world so there has to be hope and progress. At the same time I would not expect a member of my nation’s indigenous community to say that for them the path has sloped upward.
    I suspect your view reflects the nation you live in and the viewpoint it gives you of human history.
    Others may feel that things go down sometimes, not up.
    To my mind scripture and it’s author offer a realistic view which contains both judgment and hope.

  7. Jeff Says:

    Hi Obadiah-

    Of course you can reject both diagrams. You can do anything you want!

    And of course an oppressed person, in the course of oppression, may not find the hope that this model offers.

    The point is to look for the biggest, longest, widest, picture– the closest we can come as humans to the totality of God, the broadest view possible. The “corporate-ness” of humanity, the human race; the human family– how we progress over time even though over the course of that history we may treat each other awfully at times (be it for 5 years or 500), the trend is that we learn from our mistakes and we move forward into God’s kingdom.

    j

  8. Greg Says:

    yes, i think Obadiah has something of what I was thinking, that both diagrams present an incomplete picture of truth. I am an advocate of absolute truth, and the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s upsetting to see so many “your truth is your truth” people in the world. so from your perspective, I would say that as we look at the Bible from a “man’s search for God” instead of a “God’s revelation to man” that we are “free” to take passages and verses out of the common context and apply them to our agenda, take non-confrontational material and claim that we are all reading the same bible and then deny the righteousness and Spiritually inspired text when we do not agree with it. It makes the bible so very flexible. another comparison would be a glass with holes in it. It contains no substance. What am I to hold on to then as a Christian, if the Word of God is incomplete an altogether uncertain? What foundation do I have to stand on when the Word of God is so flexible as to fold from lack of wholeness? Now that is not to say there is not text from the Scriptures that do not perplex in there seeming contradiction. But then God’s mercy and justice find themselves reconciled in Christ don’t they? I am certain text such as this find themselves reconciled in the working and character of God. If we take God and put him in a box and say we know Him in the sense we know a discipline such as math, God consisting of formulas and patterns then we become idolaters. We can say we know God to the extent he has revealed himself. God has revealed his character and will in the Law and In Christ, again two things reconciled mysteriously by God. Christ came to fulfill the law not destroy it. And so, when the Law imparted by God and mediated by angels declares God’s will in the issue that brought me to your site, homosexuality and sexual immorality in general, do you choose to declare by your own will God’s Word to be false, and your interpretation true? let God be true and every man a liar. I am actually curious about the arguments that are presented in gay and lesbian theology. If you can, please send me arguments that try to refute scripture such as the meaning of “lying with a man” or the real sin with Sodom and Gomorrah was that they weren’t hospitable guests. I know quite a few, and none of them hold any water.

  9. Jeff Says:

    Greg –

    Thanks again for posting.

    There are many books dedicated entirely to the topic of homosexuality and scripture. You can find them easily on Amazon.com in the link on my menu bar. One is “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.” There are others.

    Again, I do not have time to go through a detailed exegesis of scripture for you for each reference of homosexuality.

    You might find my post on David and Jonathan interesting; that is about the closest thing I have on this site but it assumes the reader is already familiar with historical-critical reading of the Bible, which I can tell is not your lens for reading Scripture.

    Let me make a suggestion for you: The Bible does contain truths, but perhaps the solution to your question is not whether or not it contains truths but what kind of truths it contains. You are looking for truths I call “easy truths.” They do not require much thought to understand– do not lie, do not steal, and so forth.

    Let me suggest that the Bible may contain some of these truths, but the more meaningful truths of the Bible are more relational. Relational truths are much more difficult for us to get at, particularly in the Western world. These truths show us how people work with God. They show us how God works with us. They show us the difference between helping one another and hurting one another. They show us the difference between good and bad. But they do not make it easy.

    For example, when we look at the Bible from an historical perspective, we know that most of the Old Testament was not written until after the exile of Israel to Babylon. That includes the parts of the Old Testament that describe the history of Israel before the exile. The stories were redacted and re-written to reflect how the exiled Jews thought of themselves and their world-view based on their exile. They had been conquered and needed a theological explanation. The result: a theological system that explained the Babylonian victory by determining that God was good to Israel when the people did good and God withheld goodness when the people did not do good. This was not necessarily a revelation by God; this was a theological response the people developed to the situation they faced.

    Look at the speech given by Solomon at the dedication of the temple: 1 Kings 8:33-53. Ostensibly this speech was written sometime around the time of Solomon. Interesting how his speech predicts so nicely exactly what happens to Israel hundreds of years later, isn’t it? That’s precisely because the speech wasn’t written until hundreds of years later AFTER the fall of Israel.

    It is that relationship– the struggle of people to understand their God and form ideas about God that tells us something. What it tells us is not for me to tell you. But is does tell us something. We can select any passage and do the same thing. That isn’t to say that the text itself isn’t valuable– it is. But we can’t tell what the text itself means without also knowing what exists BEHIND the text.

    Texts that reference homosexuality are no different. When Sodom and Gomorrah are referenced, modern conservative readers tend to overlook that Lot offered up his own virgin daughter rather than give himself up to the would-be attackers. The sin here was the sin of inhospitality at the least; they made Lot feel extremely uncomfortable with advances that were certainly not welcome; at most it was attempted rape.

    References in Leviticus in the impurity code to man lying with man must be also taken in context with other purity code references to sex and sexual activity. See the book “Jonathan Loved David” for detail on the normality of same-sex sexual activity in Biblical times. Same-sex activity was normal and occurred regularly. Whether or not purity codes were enforced or existed for other reasons is a subject of debate for historians. My entry on David and Jonathan has some (but not much) information on this.

    New testament references to same-sex relationships is limited to Paul. It is true that there were no gay relationships until the past few decades. Relationships in Greco-Roman times were not equal in power– usually they were imbalanced in power due to age or class differences, so they were not healthy relationships and existed for sexual gratification and other non-relational reasons. It is difficult to apply Paul’s teaching in a modern context given the current cultural context of equal same-sex relationships (of course, marriage was not an equal relationship between opposite-sex partners either, but that’s a whole different Oprah).

    Again, for a more exhaustive analysis, please find a good book on the issue.

    j

  10. Judy Says:

    Am I the only one who caught “Crucifiction”? Does that mean that you doubt that fact, a historical truth in my opinion?

  11. Jeff Says:

    No, my poor spelling has no bearing on my beliefs.

    And I have no doubt in the historical truth of the crucifixion. My emphasis is more on the resurrection, that is the point– do we dwell on suffering, or grace? Which do we work towards in our daily lives? The empty cross, or the crucifix (a major theological difference between the Roman Catholic tradition and Protestant churches).

    That is the point of the different focus in the two diagrams. You can read other posts of mine for commentary on historical criticism of both.

    j

  12. Judy Says:

    My Catholic perspective won’t allow me to disregard the crucifixion and only concentrate on the resurrection. He died for all humankind, and the resurrection validates this sacrifice. Without the resurrection there would be no Christian faith, of course. But the sacrifice is what we commemorate in the sacrifice of the mass.


  13. I’m more curious of the lost years of Yeshua (Jesus). He could not of simply just been in Jerusalim, sorry if mispelled, there would have been info on this. His teaching run very coinciding with Buddhism. There is info out there about St. Issa, who may have been Jesus. Saying the same philosophy to the Tibetans, and Buddhists. The prime problem with Christianity is that each branch of this tree, which evolved from Judaism, points it’s fingers at each other, failing to realize that they worship the same ideal, maybe putting different narratives on these. The real diff. is political, not religious so much, some differences are there but utimately the same. In fact all religions worship a higher power, the same thing, just putting different names on these. Even the Gods, angels? maybe something higher than the self but still seeking the higher still which is above even these. Coming together is the key. We have to remember, I’m considered Pagan, but even amongst Pagans, I call myself the non-pagan Pagan. I’m an Agnostic in search of Gnosis, and in my research I’ve found the only real truth or religion is Shamanism, this is what all religions are based on, and have evolved from. The religions, philosophies are not the prob., it is the followers of these. Exploiting them and burying the truth we all so want and seek.

  14. Jeff Says:

    Joseph-

    I hear what you are saying.

    I think there is a universality to God.

    I can only speak to my own experience, though, and that is a very powerful experience with Christ. That doesn’t necessarily exclude that Christ works in other ways, shapes or forms with other people (see scripture on: I have other flocks, etc. for those literalists who may feel compelled to start flaming me with “I am the way” comments).

    But I do think it is important for me not to seek only Gnosis, but relationships. Truth comes in many forms, so I suppose it depends on how you define Gnosis. For me, relationship with God through Jesus Christ and relationship with my community in the Holy Spirit are both vitally important.

    I am called in response to the grace I am given to love both my God and called to action to help my human family.

    For me there is a danger of pursuit of gnosis alone if it prevents action. Navel-gazing is fine for a while, but one must set a timer to remind oneself that love is a verb, and not a noun…

    j


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: