The Bible Is a Bumpy Book

If your going to read the Bible, one of the most important things you hold onto is this: Every verse is not equally important. Within the economy of Scripture some verses, stories, characters, and teachings simply carry more weight than others do. The Bible isn’t flat, with every text on level ground. Rather, it is bumpy, with some texts rising above others.

 

An example:

 

At one point just before his death, Jesus levels some heavy words at the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23). These leaders were hypocrites of the highest order. They loved honor and praise from their neighbors. They made a show at demonstrating how righteous they were. They demanded a high and exacting standard of religious practice on the people but failed to aspire to that standard themselves. They were more interested in converting people to their way of thinking than bringing them closer to God. And, Jesus says they, “give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters” (Matthew 23:23). They were so exacting in demanding the letter of God’s law, they missed the spirit of the law, supposing they were moral people because they gave exactingly while failing to lead lives of justice, peace, and mercy in their communities. They were bad neighbors but they gave at synagogue!

 

But, did you catch how Jesus describes justice, peace, and mercy? He calls them “more important matters.” These religious leaders gave priority to following tithing laws precisely and Jesus called them out for it. Why? Because tithing may be important but justice, peace, and mercy are more important. A flat reading of Scripture in which everything carries equal weight simply won’t do. It will inevitably lead to the sort of distortion Jesus addresses here.
Let me hit you with another example:

In his gospel, Matthew conveys Jesus’ basic teachings concerning the kingdom of God in what is called the Sermon on the Mount. This is Following Jesus 101 and we can say this because at the end Jesus compares those who do what he has taught (in the Sermon) to a wise builder who builds his house on a solid foundation. Do you see? For Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation to other teachings. It is more fundamental.

The Bible is not a flat document.

What are we supposed to do with this as Bible readers? Over the next three posts, I want to lay out three of the most basic (and most important) implications of a weighted Bible. Until then, what do you think about the notion that the Bible isn’t a flat text? What are the implications of saying some texts carry more weight than others? What are some of the dangers of giving all texts the same weight?

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The Bible Is a Bumpy Book

On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Monday night I checked off a big item on my bucket list. I met Walter Brueggemann. (For those of you wondering, I readily admit I was every bit the theology-nerd fanboy I’d hoped I wouldn’t be when I turned around and saw him sitting in the seat behind me just before he got up to lecture. Seriously, it was pathetic.)

In commemoration of the occasion, I’ve been reflecting on the influence Brueggemann’s theology has had on my own understanding of what God is doing in the world. Although I’ve only come to his work in the last six years, he has left a deep and indelible mark on my life. One of the primary ways he has reworked my imagination is in terms of scarcity and abundance. Beginning with the first time I listened to his “Food Fight and Faith” lecture, these categories have really worked me over in pretty fundamental ways.

An overview:

When God created he created a world characterized by abundance and blessing. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea swarmed and filled the skies and seas. Humankind was commanded to fill the earth, subduing it and taking as their starting place the Garden where an abundance of food and provision was at hand. This abundance, however, was counteracted by the scarcity of a world in which sin had let death loose. In the end of Genesis 3, God describes how the world now will be and a paradigmatic part of that world is now scarcity, with the attendant anxiety that we will not have enough. (Adam’s curse that he will work the ground by the “sweat of his brow” and the earth will fight back with thorns and thistles is testament to this.) With the rejection of life (rooted in God) comes the fear of not having enough.

As such, in typically Burueggemann-esque language, we can note that Pharaoh controls all the goods of Egypt but has nightmares about running out (Genesis 41). He enlists Joseph to ensure a secure future and Joseph accomplishes this (for Pharaoh, anyway) by creating a monopoly over Egypt’s resources, money, and people (Genesis. 47). This progression of scarcity and fear ultimately leads to greed and then “violence against disposable people” – first the people of Egypt and then the Hebrews.

For Brueggemann, this cycle of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence is paradigmatic for the world we live in. This becomes a “totality” – the sum total of our experience, outside of which we cannot imagine anything else “working.” This is just the way things are in the real world. Borrowing from the work of people like Randy Harris, James Bryan Smith, and Richard Beck I’ve tended to talk about the same reality in terms of fear and power.

Against this “totality” – the realm of what is possible within the bounds of the way the world works – the kingdom of God provides an alternative reality in which God calls us back to his original intentions, which includes a return to blessing an abundance. Powerfully, Israel is called out of Egypt – who controls all the bread, and all the meat, and all the water – into the wilderness where they quickly conclude that they will die. They do this only to find that outside the reach of Pharaoh, outside the possibilities of the way things are, God does impossibilities and provides abundant bread, meat, and water.

Dealing with what God can do outside of our systems of scarcity and violence stands to have a profound impact on the way one does business in the world. These (im)possibilities have been a major meditation of mine over the last few years and I want to explore them more in coming posts.

On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Is It Like Jesus?

I was recently reminded of two episodes from my earlier life. The first is from back in my school days. The leadership of a supporting congregation asked me to come speak to them because they wanted to express concern over my use and promotion of the (then new) English Standard Version. After all, this new translation was endorsed by individuals who were persona non grata in our corner of Christianity and “we don’t feel comfortable using a translation of the Bible they endorse.”

The second came several years later when I was neck deep in congregational ministry. We were developing a sort of small group program and someone had suggested we call them “Brother’s Keepers” groups. The idea was immediately nixed by one of our church leaders who responded, “There’s a band that plays at one of those other churches up the road that call themselves The Brother’s Keepers. We don’t want to be associated with that sort of thing.”

It doesn’t matter that I could’ve named twice as many preachers that were verboten in our tribe that used our beloved King James Bible than I could the ESV. Nor did it matter that “brother’s keeper” found its origin in the Bible rather than with some contemporary Christian house band. In some ways, the corners of our tribe I used to inhabit had (sincerely and inadvertently) become primarily defined by how they differed from other faith traditions. “We don’t want to be like those churches.”

But, I’m going to admit: I’m not terribly interested in playing that game. I think there’s another metric we need to consider. I no longer really care whether or not something makes us look like some other church.

I want to know if it helps us look like Jesus.

If it looks like Jesus, I’m not going to fret over who else it makes us look like.

Is It Like Jesus?

Ash Wednesday

Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the fact that the Christian Calendar is best understood as a discipline rather than mere tradition  – “Because this is the way we’ve always done it!” – and as such, there’s wisdom in its responsible practice. Specifically, practicing the Calendar asks us to exercise spiritual muscles we typically aren’t inclined to use. For me, this is perhaps most evident in the observance of Ash Wednesday (which is this Wednesday).

Kicking off the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday asks us to dwell on our own mortality. Across centuries, continents, and theological tradition Christians begin their preparation for Easter by marking their heads with ash and confessing, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We begin preparing for the celebration of Christ’s victory over death by acknowledging and reflecting on the problem of death. In a culture that treats death as taboo, this is important: if I’ve learned anything, it is often the taboo things that exert the most influence over us.

That is, the specter of death drives an enormous amount of what is painful and broken in our society. And, against our inclinations to push death away at every turn, Ash Wednesday asks us to drag it into the light, dealing both with the ways death shapes us and with the ways that Jesus has set us free from slavery to it.

This is distinctly unpleasant — but like any discipline, it is necessary.

Ash Wednesday

Afraid of Being Afraid

In Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death, he makes a case from Scripture, theology, and psychology that in our broken, post-Fall experience, much of our human endeavor is driven by the fear of death. A central notion for him is the Hebrews author’s contention that Jesus set us free from slavery to the fear of death when he defeated the devil in his cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Beck tells us there are two basic forms of death anxiety. The first is obvious and primal. We experience anxiety when we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from or when something (or someone) threatens to take our life. Many people around the world experience this sort of anxiety each day as they are refugees or live in areas suffering from famine, drought, disease, etc.

The second form of anxiety is more nuanced and a lot harder to describe. We might say it is attached to the search for meaning in the face of death. This is the core issue the Preacher deals with in Ecclesiastes. In a world where everything “under the sun” is rendered empty by death, where does one find meaning? The sociologist Ernest Becker explores a similar thought in his The Denial of Death where he argues that we develop culture as a way of pushing away the looming fact of death and thereby invest meaning in our life that is bigger than our mortality. Becker believes we’re all pretty much like the Preacher, working to find something meaningful in the face of death, and that is what we call culture.

Sociology and psychology have observed (much as Scripture has) that once our basic survival is relatively secured, we begin to operate out of this second kind of fear or anxiety. The Hebrews writer would say we are slaves to it, that we serve death. Last year, I took a survey course in World Literature and was interested to see how often this theme pops up. In the oldest extant narrative we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk seeks immortality and, failing that, looks for meaning in the face of death. At one point, he says, ““I have peered over the city wall, I have seen the corpses floating in the river’s water. So too it will come to pass for me, so it will happen to me … Since no man can avoid life’s end, I would enter the mountain land and set up my name.”

Importantly, Scripture, Beck, and Becker all agree on one point. Motivated by our anxieties over death, we hurt each other. We find an obvious example in the Exodus narrative (cf. Exodus 1). A new Pharoah rises to power that doesn’t know what Joseph did for the nation. As such, when he sees the Hebrews, he only sees a threat to national security and he is afraid. Acting out of this fear, he institutes a domestic policy of Hebrew enslavement. When that fails to ease his anxieties he calls on all patriotic Egyptians to execute any Hebrew boys of a certain age when they encounter them. This narrative is paradigmatic for how death anxiety operates in human culture.

Put another way, for those of us who don’t have to worry about starving to death or living in a war zone, the reality of death is still present. Because of this, we build up structures – culture – to help us push away this reality. When I’m at the symphony, shopping at the mall, eating a great meal, playing video games, working hard at my job, or tossing a football in the backyard with my kids, I can deny the fact of death. What’s more, when I engage in this way of life I’ve helped build up, I tell myself that my life is meaningful in the face of death. But, when someone challenges that way of life, when someone threatens to unmask the reality of death that I’ve been pushing away or they call into question the meaningfulness of my way of life, I respond with violence because they reintroduce the anxiety I’m working to forget.

In the introduction of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, she summarizes this second, existential anxiety helpfully. She says, “Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid.” And history shows we’re willing to go to great lengths to deal with that.

Afraid of Being Afraid

Me and Revelation

The language of Revelation scared teenage me to death. There was a time prior to 1995 when I was sure (to my way of looking at things) I wasn’t “ready” to be a Christian, but I knew I needed to be. During this period, the imagery of John’s Apocalypse haunted me. This universe of cosmic monsters, bloody battles, falling stars, red moons, and red tides weighed heavily on me. I remember that night in Spring, when I was buried and resurrected with Jesus in baptism, I came home to the same house I’m living in now, sat in nearly the same spot that I now occupy, and read Revelation from start to finish, ecstatic that I no longer needed to fear its words.
It should go without saying that I didn’t actually know much of anything about Revelation back then. My fear owed more to an overactive imagination, driven by countless “meeting sermons” about people dying on their way to be baptized, but I’ve grown up a little since then, and while I still don’t know a whole lot about Revelation – don’t trust anyone who says they do! – I’ve learned a little more.
I’ve learned that Revelation is a fantastical retelling of the Exodus story. It is a story about God hearing the cry of his people in the darkness of their experience and going head to head with the gods of the world, bringing liberation. It is about what happens whenever the Empire of this age – that ancient beast, mounted by the harlot of Babylon – rises against the Kingdom of the Lamb that was Slain. As Randy Harris summarizes the book, Revelation teaches us, “God wins. You need to pick a side. Don’t be stupid.”
The monsters of Revelation no longer scare me, but as I reflect on the book, they do raise another set of concerns. In the Exodus story, Egypt was the global super-power and under her oppressive reign, the weak, powerless, and marginal cried out to God. In Revelation, the beasts that served the great, satanic dragon represented the might and power of Rome that dominated the known world with bread, and circuses, and swords. The cry came to God from those who were crushed by the machinations of the Empire’s beastly power. God acted against those who hold all the power – and greedily so – in favor of those who had none. In a similar way, Mary sang in her Magnificat that in her child, God was bringing the powerful down and raising up the weak. He was sending the powerful away empty handed and filling those who had nothing with good things.
One of the perennial sins I commit when I read Scripture is that I associate myself with the good guys. Of course, blessed Mary is pronouncing a good word on me – even though I’ve never been hungry a day in my life; even though I was born with more privilege and power than most other people in our world could even dream up. I look at Egypt and decry the evil of the Empire that dehumanizes and oppresses the other for its own exploitative ends. I do this almost instinctively without ever wondering about the true cost of the “must have” items that line my closets, shelves, walls, and storage units. I look at the Roman beast and condemn its power without ever stopping to wonder if I might be part and parcel of the same satanic system.
Nowadays, when I read texts like Revelation (or the Exodus or the Gospels), I’m trying to put myself in the proper place and read it for what it is worth from that perspective. That is, I’m learning to remember that I’m situated on top of the pile and that is a precarious place to read Scripture. It’s not impossible to read (and follow!) from that starting place. After all, none of us chose to be born where we were on the pile and unless we forget, “Nothing is impossible with God!” But it does bring its own set of attendant sacrifices, concerns, temptations – and even blessings.
I’m not scared by the beasts of Revelation anymore. If anything, I’m leery of the ways they might look like me. But, I am mindful of the word we’ve received from the Lord, “Come out of her, my people, so that you don’t take part in her sins and don’t receive any of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).
Lord, you have redeemed me from the Empire. By your Spirit form me in such a way that you take the Empire out of me. Amen.
Me and Revelation

Being Human – Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a series exploring some aspects of the biblical call to be human. Here is where you can find parts 1, 2, and 3.

The discussion of what humanity is centered on the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-28. Today, I want to briefly trace one way that idea is used throughout the Bible. As a refresher, here is the text from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

As we have already noted, being human is descriptive of a way of life rooted in relationship with God as his image bearers. Being human is more of a vocation than it is anything else. We have been created to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and hold dominion over God’s creation, on God’s behalf.

Much later, Israel’s Poet in Cheif – King David – will pick up this same language when reflecting on nature and the place humankind holds in it (Psalm 8):

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David draws on the human dynamic we outlined in the last post. Humankind has been created “a little lower than God,” but has, “been crowned with glory and honor” and has been given, “dominion” over the work of God’s hands. When David contemplates the place of humankind in God’s cosmos, he draws on the Genesis language of vocation. This is what it means to be human.

Again, much later, the Hebrews writer will pick up David’s language (which echoes Genesis’ language) in making her or his case about the supremacy of Jesus. After quoting from Psalm 8, the Hebrew writer observes (Hebrews 2:8-9):

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The argument is simple and powerful. God created humanity to rule as his representatives but we see that has not happened. Humankind has rejected and muddled up that vocation in endless ways, both large and small. But, Jesus came in flesh- “made lower than the angels,” as we are – and fulfilled the human vocation where the rest of us had not. At every point we have forgotten or forsaken our divine calling, becoming less than human, Jesus sided with God’s intention, being what he (as a human) was meant to be.

There are lots of things we want to say about this – and we will in future posts without throwing too much out at once. Here, let’s begin by repeating something we said last time and by adding something new.

First, Scripture takes a high view of humanity. Sin doesn’t reveal our humanity – “Oh, I’m only human, after all.” Sin reduces our humanity. It makes us less than human.

Second, in not sinning, Jesus got Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 right where we have not. Jesus is the only genuine human. In that, he stands to show us what it looks like to return to our humanity. Importantly, the Hebrew writer is eager to point out, he also makes that return possible.

Being Human – Part Four