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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beyond Atheism: The Truth and Limits of the Atheist Critique

I got a chance to see Marcus Borg in person with well over 500 other people in Phoenix. There was not anything new in his lecture that I had not read in his books. But it was really awesome to be there with so many people.

The title of the lecture was Beyond Atheism: The Truth and Limits of the Atheist Critique. An important point, by calling it the Atheist Critique I think Borg is acknowledging legitimate points, and that there is an opportunity for Christianity to use this to grow. That's why with each point he addresses the truth of the critique first.

Borg starts with the claim that religion is intellectually indefensible. For Borg, the truth here is that the god of supernatural theism and the idea of an infallible, inerrant Scripture that is factually and absolutely true are, well, intellectually indefensible. There is no God reaching down into our world moving us like chess pieces. And that non-existent God did not write the Bible.

The limitation, is that these are not the only ways to understand God and the Bible. These are not the oldest ways to understand God or the Bible. This is easy with the Bible, Biblical literalism is a new creation. Sure, there are laws that the Israelites treated as absolute, except when they were revising them. But the mythologies were not a part of that, neither were the wisdom teachings, or the histories.

The supernatural theism is not so easily dismissed. Indeed, it parallels the idea of God as all things. Some neat phrases from tonight: God contains all things, but nothing contains God; God is isness without limits. From the Bible: Psalm 139:7-10 “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”; Acts 17:28a “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’”; Colossians 1:17 "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

So, there is an ancient tension between those, perhaps motivated by the desire to praise God, who see God as a personified other, and those who see God as in all things and present in all things. As Borg put it tonight, like Brahman and Atman.

Alright, that will due me for tonight.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

REAX: Parable Parable

Matt: There may be more than one "right" way to interpret the scripture, but that doesn't mean there are no "wrong" ways.

Lin: So on what criteria would we identify the "wrong" ways of interpreting scripture?

One criteria would be an interpretation that is contrary to the intention of the author. This is certainly true if the portion of scripture you are reviewing is a rule or law. So, for purposes of illustration consider Matthew 5:27-28, "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." If you interpret this to mean sleeping with someone other than your wife is no different than looking at a woman who is not your wife, and since you've already done the latter there is no harm in doing the former, your interpretation is wrong. That is most certainly not what the author of the words intended.

I think it is trickier when you have parables, though. Consider the parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30. We typically say that in that story God is the Master, and we are the servants. We then latch on to the word for a large sum of money as talents and neatly transform it into talents as in God given talents, and voila it is a story about meeting your potential. Marcus Borg suggests another possible reading is that God is not in this story, but instead it is a tale about the wicked and unjust system the early church members were living in. You could see how no matter what the teller of the story's intention was, he or she could say to the other interpretation, "Yeah, I guess it works on that level too." Or even, have intended it to work on both levels.

However, to interpret the story as meaning that Jesus only loved shrewd investors is wrong, right? Whatever rule of interpretation we come up with, that interpretation can't be kosher. Someone who studied literature or fiction needs to help out.

Hymns: Some improved, some too broken to fix

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) endeavors to be a big tent and is loathe to create theological tests for measuring the validity of one's faith. But that doesn't mean the church doesn't respond to changes in the ideology of its members, including its clergy. For example, there is an effort to combat the excessive use of masculine descriptions of God in hymns. "All praise to the Father, from whom all things come" becomes "All praise to Creator, from whom all things come." Or more dramatically, the Doxology:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above the heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A-men.
becomes
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise God, all creatures here below;
praise God above the heavenly host;
Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. A-men.
I'm generally down with such conversions, although I think there is a danger in making something overly awkward to the point that I think, "eh, maybe we don't use than hymn". For me, this version of the Doxology walks pretty close to that line.

Aside from working to counter act the God is Man trend, we also generally work against the God is Warrior King imagery. Again, I generally support it, but last weekend I heard the Battle Hymn of the Republic on Prairie Home Companion. Man that is a great song. And written by a great lady, Julia Ward Howe. One of the great technical choices about Ray Charles' version of America the Beautiful is that he starts with an unfamiliar verse. Prairie Home Companion did a similar thing with the Battle Hymn. Consider this stanza:
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
"As ye deal with the least of these*, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
Or what about this closing stanza:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
I find these lyrics stirring. I am convinced that seeing your cause as just and worthy of sacrifice is not troubling. When I reflect back on the fight for civil rights of racial minorities, and is there any doubt that it was a fight, I wonder if these songs feed the wrong wolf. I don't know.

(*I'm pretty sure this is how PHC translated contemners when I heard it on the radio, and I like it.)

Now, I'm posting this in the middle of a larger conversation within the Church. So, let me be clear that I think it is harmful to use exclusively male images of God. I also think there are churches that employ the Christian Soldiers motif in a dangerous way. I am not generally opposing either effort described above. Rather, it's like when you were a kid and taking a box of junk out of your room and you pick up your Boba Fett toy, look at your mom and say, "I want to keep this one, is that okay?"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Harmonies of Liberty

Okay, folks, I know she is the General Minister and President of my denomination, so you may not believe me, but seriously, go watch this. It is a sermon and only 18 minutes long. (Dad always said after 20 minutes they forget more than they remember anyway.) The text is here, but I really recommend hearing her words.

It is an amazing sermon. And even watching it in my office, feeling sort of obligated to do so, I was deeply moved by it. It is so tightly constructed, that I believe this illustration from early on fairly presents the theme:
There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom:

One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.

“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said.

“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear ...

“The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love ...”

The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”

His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

It is remarkable to see such an example of prophetic preaching. The scripture is from Isaiah, and she is Isaiah. Dr. Watkins is imploring the new president to do what is right, to remember his gifts as well as his challenges. She speaks frankly about the temptations to hide and draw in when in trouble times, but begs him to feed the better wolf.

Local note: I've seen preaching like this before. This is the type of sermon that Linda Miller gives the folks at Chalice every Sunday. Now, I say type. Presumably preaching to the president is something you work on pretty intensely and Dr. Watkins is an accomplished preacher, so I'm not saying Linda brings me to tears every Sunday. But my point is, Rev. Miller delivers impassioned sermons that are academically consistent and that respond to the world we live in today. She draws from Christian and non-Christian sources and she calls us to action. I know that there are others who provide the same. If you found this moving and inspiring, I humbly suggest you try to find a Sunday morning service that has something like this. I think they are out there. I know we've got it a Chalice Christian Church, 15303 S. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, Arizona. ;)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Excorcism in the Synagogue

This is the scripture I'll be teaching in Sunday School to first through fifth graders. When we read the story before it yesterday, a little boy in my class kept reading on to this story. I said, "That's it Ryan. We're ready to talk about what we've read." (Which was the story about Jesus calling the first four disciples.) Ryan said, "No, wait this next part is really cool." I asked if he meant the bit about the deamons, and he said he did. So for that reason, I'm glad we have the following story for next week. I hope Ryan comes.
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil[a] spirit cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Thanks BibleGateway. Checking out the Commentary on this passage, I gain the insight that unlight your typical exorcism story in the bible, Jesus does not say a special incantation, nor does he appeal to God for authority. Rather, he does the work himself. I remember a friend from grade school whose dad was a Nazarene preacher. He told me one day that the problem with the Catholics was this idea of using all these special words to exorcise deamons when really Mark told you just to tell the deamons to leave. There might be a rich area of exploration there.

The other academic I bring to the table in considering this scripture is Marcus Borg. In Jesus, and elsewhere, Borg suggests that the Gospels are made up of two types of stories--pure allegory and memory remembered as witness. Others would add newspaper account or history, but I agree with Borg that nothing in the Gospels was written that way. Because of the language about deamons talking and whatnot, it is easy to put this in the pure allegory folder. But, I'm slow to do that. Mark is such a no nonesense Gospel, and the author talks about healing a lot. Was Jesus skilled at helping the insane? Consider Annie Sullivan. Could he have had a way about him that brought an end to the suffering of troubled people? And then, in writing the story of his life, Mark would include that as evidence of his greatness? That I think is the best reading of this story.