Friday, April 28, 2023

The Bible Wasn't Written to Us

 A few years ago, in a class for teenagers on how to read the Bible, I showed them Hosea 1:2 — “Go, marry a promiscuous woman….”  I asked them how that applied to us today, and how we were supposed to obey that command. And I got, as I had hoped, some blank stares and a few uncomfortable chuckles.  

     Now, no one actually thinks that this particular command is one that we should obey today. I used it then — and I’m using it now — to talk about the fact that the Bible wasn’t written directly to us, and if you read it like it is sooner or later, as in my Hosea example, you’ll run into trouble.

     Hosea’s actually easy; the text itself gives hints to who it was for. It says that these are God’s words to him — to Hosea, that is. It is a command from God, but it’s to Hosea. 

     The second major hint to reading the text is what God says after the command: “…for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD.” 

     So this command isn’t to us, and it isn’t about us. It’s a command given to an Israelite prophet who lived nearly 3,000 years ago. It’s intended as a sort of acted parable about the broken relationship between Israel and their God. It was written down by the prophet or his disciples, and later regarded as Scripture by Jewish people, some of whom several centuries later became Christians and shared those Scriptures with non-Jewish people.

     So, how is it Scripture to us? Well, we can see what it says about human beings. In what ways have we broken faith with God? What “adulteries” do we pursue? Have we ever even thought of sin, particularly idolatry, as “adultery”, breaking faith with God?

     But we should also ask what this text tells us about God. He’s heartbroken. He’s hurt when we break faith with him. But he doesn’t give up on us. As you read on, you see a God determined to win his people back to him. He’s going to “lead [Israel] into the desert” — exile — but with the intention of renewing the covenant. He doesn’t believe his people are too far gone that they won’t see what they’ve done and return to their God.

     It isn’t hard, as Christians living more than two thousand years later, to make the connection to the story of Jesus: God doesn’t give up, he pushes past the limits to bring his people back to him. 

     See what we did? We read that text by looking at what’s still the same — a God who doesn’t change, and flawed human nature — to make comparisons and connections. It’s another example of “covering” a text.

     We often just ignore books like Hosea, where the distance seems too great. That’s one of the reasons we end up with a “canon within a canon” — something we’ll get around to talking more about. We shouldn’t ignore them. We just shouldn’t treat them like they’re written directly to us.

     One thing you might have noticed is that the interpretations I’ve suggested don’t come from that five word command, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman.” Part of our problem in reading Scripture is that we try to find commands or inspirational verses to just apply directly to ourselves because that’s easier. 

     But here’s what I want you to know: there is not one word in Scripture that is written directly to us.

     Not one? There are some that feel so immediate. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But, who’s God? And who’s this Son? Belief takes some unpacking, doesn’t it? Most of those connections we make unconsciously — but they connect to other times, other places, other people. God does love us, and he loved us by giving his Son for us, and through him eternal life is for us. But even that text wasn’t written directly to us.

    Or take Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I have a photo of a mug that says, “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context,” and that sums up our mistakes with this text. Paul wrote those words about himself. He was talking about enduring deprivation and need in prison. We sometimes think that verse is telling us that through Jesus we can have everything we want, but for Paul it was the secret of his contentment in circumstances he didn’t want! It has something to say to us, for sure — but it’s not that if we just believe hard enough Jesus will give us that seven-figure income! It’s that we can be content with having less than we want or even need through the strength Jesus will give us. 

     It matters; Interpreting Philippians 4:13 like we often do can devastate people who are struggling by making them think there’s something wrong with their faith. We can do such damage when we read the Bible like it’s primarily to us.

     Take 1 Corinthians 14:34 — “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” Well, what law says that? Probably it refers to the Old Testament, though there are no laws that say that in so many words. In any case, when we read this text like it’s written directly to us as a sort of worship service owner’s manual for all time, we miss some things. 

     First: Paul’s addressing a specific problem in the church in Corinth in his day. Their gatherings are a chaotic mess, with people trying to speak in tongues and prophesy over each other. Paul says that God doesn’t create confusion, so if he inspires a prophet while another prophet is speaking that means it’s time for the first prophet to “be silent.” And women in Corinth, who were interrupting to ask questions of the prophets, needed to “be silent” and ask their husbands at home. 

     Second: He’s already written guidelines for women who pray and prophesy. Complete silence of women in all or even most contexts wasn’t required. Women prophesied and prayed, and there’s nothing to suggest that it wasn’t in the context of the church assembled together. 

     Third: He writes that “It’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.” He doesn’t qualify this in any way, but the disgrace he mentions has to do with his culture, in which women didn’t have equal public standing with men. Once again, it wasn’t written directly to us. 

     And again, this text has authority for us. But it’s not something we should obey by copying directly. And we know that, don’t we? We don’t require women to cover their heads in our assemblies, or think it’s “disgraceful” (11: 6, same word) if a woman cuts her hair short. We don’t require a “holy kiss” at church. First Corinthians was written to people for whom a kiss of greeting, head coverings for women, and yes, submission represented by silence in gender-mixed public places was normal. Unless we’re ready to say that to be faithful we have to reconstruct first-century Greco-Roman culture in its entirety (hello, holy kisses), we have to recognize that interpreting Scripture isn’t as simple as arbitrarily assuming that some texts can be applied directly to us while others can’t.

      Reading the Bible this way will sometimes yield different results among different people. Some latitude has to be given for differing understandings of a text. Listening and humility will be required.

      That’s OK though. Listening and humility should be two traits that every follower of Jesus is cultivating. 

      Which might remind us that, as we’ll talk about in the next post, interpreting the Bible is something we do not just with our intellect, but also with our character. 

Friday, April 21, 2023

Command, Example, and Inference

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
     While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
     On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, NIV) 

In my last post, I touched on how interpreting the Bible — which we all do, in ways we’re aware of and unaware of — can become a sort of groupthink for churches and Christian groups. It’s “what we all think” and “what we’ve always thought,” in the way Jesus’ critics were certain that his healing work and concern for the needs of human beings over law-keeping violated the Sabbath. Jesus offered them a different interpretation of Scripture, one that read everything through the lenses of doing good/saving life. For Jesus, the question of what’s good — what saves life — seems to have been one of his chief criteria for how to interpret the Bible. 
     It’s easy for “what we all think” and “what we’ve always thought” about Scripture to mute the self-awareness that’s necessary for us to recognize how our interpretations can end up doing more harm than good. That groupthink — especially around issues, doctrines, and texts that we’ve deemed especially important — can create difficulties in seeing any other possibilities. 
     I grew up in Churches of Christ, part of a loose association of churches known as the Restoration Movement. (The Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and a few others also trace their roots to the same movement.) It was originally a unity movement, and in fact Christians in several different organizations joined together to create it. These Christians differed about a lot of things, but they united on the basis of one assumption: that if they could find authority for everything they did in the Bible and gave up denominational differences, they would be able to get along. They could restore New Testament Christianity by obeying what the Bible clearly said, and, crucially, not dividing over what it didn’t say. 
     In order to do this, leaders of the movement identified two ways to determine what the Bible required: Commands and Examples. If God commanded it in Scripture, then it was essential. If there was an example of it in the Bible (especially the New Testament and especially Acts and the Epistles), then it was essential. This method of interpretation, this hermeneutic, did offer some clarity. But it also left some gray area about which we had no commands or examples, about which Christians might disagree. 
     Those two categories took some fine-tuning. Some commands and examples were considered nonessential: at least four times in Paul’s letters he tells a church that they should “greet one another with a holy kiss,” but I’ve never even attended a church that had “holy kiss time.” We sort of ignored examples of people speaking in tongues after being baptized (or sometimes before). Biblical examples of meeting places for the church include an upper room (probably in a house), temple courts, a lecture hall, and a house — never once a building owned by the church. 
     Our inconsistency demonstrates that it isn’t self-evident that the Bible is to be interpreted solely by the categories of Command and Example. It led to a de facto canon within a canon, which I’ll say more about in another post. It left a lot of gray area about which Christians might disagree. 
     And that was fine, as long as Christians were allowed to disagree. But one rule of interpretation that the church has lived with probably all its life is that we don’t like uncertainty about the Bible. We like clarity and agreement, and get pretty anxious when we don’t have it. And so we came up with a third category: Necessary Inference. 
     Much of this category was meant to free us up, I think. We’re commanded to meet together, and have the example of the early church meeting together. Therefore there needs to be a place to meet, whether rented, borrowed, or owned. Baptism is taught by command and example, so a baptistry is OK. We’re commanded to sing, so it’s OK to have someone leading the songs. But inference could also be used to be more restrictive; an example that comes to mind is the idea that Christians shouldn’t ever drink anything alcoholic because of the Bible’s frequent warnings against drunkenness. Is it a correct inference that having a drink leads to drunkenness? Of course not — though if you prefer not to drink, that’s an honorable choice. 
     Making necessary inference an interpretive category has led to binding burdensome rules that God hasn’t bound on believers who are trying their best already to please him. 
     Yes, we can learn from command, example, and sometimes even inference. In a lot of ways, a hermeneutic of commands, examples, and inferences might be easier and cleaner. But there’s a lot in Scripture that doesn’t fall neatly in to those categories. We need other ways to understand the Bible. 
     One way that Jesus interprets Scripture is similar to how a musician might “cover” another musician’s song. Take, for example, the events of Matthew 9. Jesus’ critics are using inference to try to take him down; he is suspect for sharing a meal with “sinners.” Nowhere do their Bibles actually say that it’s wrong to eat with a tax collector and his buddies; they infer this. 
     Jesus looks to the prophet Hosea to answer their criticism. There’s no direct command, example, or even inference here. Rather, the message Hosea receives from God is about what God wants. Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 
     You have to realize, Jesus’ world is different from Hosea’s. Seven or eight hundred years and an exile separate them. The synagogue, not the temple, is the center of religious life. Questions about sacrifices aren’t nearly as important as questions like who you can eat with. But Jesus “covers” Hosea by applying a text about the relative value of mercy and sacrifices to this controversy over whether it’s more important to God to be picky about your dinner companions or to show mercy to “sinners.” 
     Much of the Bible must be interpreted this way, if at all — by “covering” the biblical texts, playing our own variations on biblical themes, and spending time reflecting on what God desires and “what this means” in our own lives, among the people with whom we live. 
     Try it. Try it with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” How does that apply to you and to the people you know? How would you “cover” Jesus’ words, or the prophets words, for our time? Again, that might not be as neat and easily verifiable as command, example, and inference. But it’s more true to the form of the Bible. 
     That’s what we’ll turn out attention to in the next post: interpreting the Bible by understanding the forms represented in it. 

Friday, April 14, 2023

When the Mob is Sure

 No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”  (Luke 5:36-39, NIV)

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. With the deck 127 feet above the water, it was one of the highest. The bridge can “flex” in height, depending on traffic, by as much as 9 feet. 

     With that much flex, and given that the new bridge was the first to use steel suspension cables, armchair engineers questioned whether or not the cables would hold at max traffic. (This was before most of the traffic was made up of cars.) On opening day, when more than 150,000 would walk across the bridge, there were fears that it would just collapse into the East River.

     So there was some fear about the bridge in the air. Many of the people who crossed would have been nervous about being there in the first place. All went well on opening day, but 6 days later, on May 30, a woman slipped and fell going down the narrow stairway on the Manhattan side. Another woman screamed loudly, which caused people nearby to rush toward the stairs. Others saw them running, and a rumor started to spread that the bridge was collapsing. Since there were thousands of people on the promenade, a pileup quickly formed at the staircase. They climbed over each other and trampled each other trying to get off the bridge before the “imminent” collapse. By the time it was over, 12 people had died and 35 were injured — not because there was anything wrong with the bridge, but because thousands of people thought there was.

     Isn’t this why outlandish conspiracy theories become legitimate political platforms — because enough people think they’re true?

     Isn’t this how runs on banks happen? Because enough people think that the bank is going to fail?

     Isn't this how relatively mild financial ripples can become full-blown recessions? 

     If enough people think it’s true, it can become, for all practical purposes, true.

     We were discussing Luke 5 and 6 in our Bible study last Wednesday night, and we came to the puzzling little parables about old and new clothing and old and new wineskins Jesus taught at the end of chapter 5. His point, from two contemporary (to him) illustrations of how life works, is that sometimes you can’t combine new ways of thinking and living with old. It has to be one or the other. Otherwise, you compromise the new and/or ruin the old. 

     Right after these parables, Luke tells us of two confrontations Jesus had with his critics — experts in the Bible all — about honoring the Sabbath day. In one, Jesus’ disciples are hungry as they travel through a grain field. They pick a few heads of grain, rub it in their hands to release the kernels, and eat them. Jesus’ critics say that’s “working” — threshing grain — on the Sabbath.

     They came to that conclusion by inference; their Bibles said to honor the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, by refraining from work. Threshing is work, and the disciples were threshing (on a very small scale). VoilĂ , they’ve violated the Sabbath. They all think this. 

     Jesus answers them by appealing to Scripture as well, in this case to show that the great King David, a man after God’s heart, had seemingly violated Scripture to feed hungry people. In David’s case, it wasn’t an inference that was violated, but a command. But the need of human beings took precedence in that case over strict obedience to a law. 

      In the second confrontation, the stakes are higher. It happens in the synagogue, not in an isolated field. There’s a man there with a paralyzed hand. Jesus’ critics, maybe remembering the incident in the field, are thinking that Jesus just might repeat his “violation” of the Sabbath by healing this man. Which he does.

      If enough people believe something is true, it can become, for all practical purposes, true. It seems like this is what happened with Jesus’ critics. They all read the Bible alike, because to read it differently would be grounds for dismissal from “the club.” And, in fact, when Jesus comes along with a different reading, they do just that. They remove him from the club.

     That’s as good an explanation as any of the history of the church, of the ways we’ve divided over our reading of the Bible. I don’t know of a Christian denomination that ignores the Bible. But we’ve settled on interpretations in our own little tight circles — interpretations that sometimes have as much to do with cultural realities as they do faithfulness to the Bible — and enough people have believed those interpretations were true that they have, for all practical purposes, become true. And we’ve rushed to defend those interpretations, even when in doing so we’ve trampled and wounded good people. 

     There's a word for what we’re talking about: hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the interpretation of a text — like the Bible — and a hermeneutic is a particular method of interpretation. The hermeneutics of Jesus’ critics created an understanding of the Bible that said God preferred obedience to every law every time over the well-being of human beings. Jesus’ hermeneutic was the opposite. You hear it in what he says just before he heals the man with the paralyzed hand:  

“I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”    

For Jesus, the question of what’s good — what saves life — seems to have been one of his chief criteria for how to interpret the Bible. If your interpretation leads you to damage or destroy people, it’s wrong. 

     No matter how many people think it’s true, or who they are.

     In the next few posts, I want to take some time with this groupthink that we in the church call hermeneutics,  the interpretation of the Bible. I want us to consider how our interpretations of the Bible help or hurt people. This isn’t easy work. I already know that it might well upset some people. Jesus himself  acknowledged that at the end of his “new-and-old” parables, when he said, “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” That’s the power of groupthink. It can make us prefer the old, the familiar, the comfort of being in the majority. It can make us think that what has “worked” for “us” is by definition right. And even when the majority has turned into a mob, running roughshod over vulnerable people, we can fail to see.

          Much of the interpretation we do when we read the Bible is unconscious. That isn’t always a problem, but it can be for reasons that I hope will become clear. So one of the things I want to do in the next few posts is help us be aware of the ways we interpret the Bible, in hopes that it will make us better interpreters. 

     In the next post, I’ll start by talking about Commands, Examples, and Necessary Inferences.     

Friday, April 7, 2023

The "Sin" of Despair

 …She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

    He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” 

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

    Jesus said to her, “Mary.” 

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

   Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

    Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” 

-John 20:14-20 (NIV)

I read something this week about “The Sin of Despair.” It’s about the Covenant School shooting in Nashville and some of the responses to it. That title grabbed my attention. I have never thought of despair as a sin. 

      Despair is the sense that hope is gone, that there’s no way things get better. Despair is what maybe you feel when your wife of six decades has to be moved out of the home you raised your kids in together. It’s watching a business you’ve put your money and sweat and life into circle the drain. It’s a terminal diagnosis, a rejection, the loss of a child. It’s justice denied so long and so consistently that you lose even the expectation that one day things might get better.

     Despair, I think, isn’t a course of action we choose as much as it is a gloom and unhappiness that threatens to sweep us away. It’s too much a cousin of  clinical depression for me to be comfortable labeling it as sin. Despair is the unasked-for, unwanted, and yet very real sense that good has been overwhelmed by bad. It isn’t a path we choose, it’s a glacier that rolls down upon us, freezing anticipation and joy and initiative and leaving us barren.

     I can’t call it a sin. I can’t paint despair as rebellion against God. 

     Did Elijah sin when he hid in a cave on Mount Horeb with a price on his head, broken-hearted at what he thought was the complete apostasy of Israel? Oh, I know there were things he wasn’t seeing — but those weren’t things God had shown him, and once God did Elijah left his cave and went about his business. Despair is often — I guess always, if you take your faith seriously — a failure of vision. But a complete field of vision is something God doesn’t give human beings. 

      The author says that despair is a sin because it means that “we’re beginning to doubt if God Himself can do anything.” I don’t think that’s the problem most believers have — thinking that God can’t change things. We despair, I think, because we think he can. We despair, I think, because we believe in his power, we just don’t see his willingness. When people of faith despair, it isn’t that we’ve lost our faith in God’s strength. What we lose our faith in is his intention. 

     I think we can certainly sin in our despair  — and often do. We grumble and complain. We lose track of the blessings we have. We get self-absorbed. We lash out in anger. We self-medicate. We give up on our good intentions and stop doing good works. But the author mentions the disciples leaving Calvary, the women making preparations to embalm Jesus, Cleopas and his friend going to Emmaus, and Thomas deciding not to be in the upper room as examples of the sin of despair, and the Bible calls none of those things sin. All of them are examples of people who have evaluated what’s going on as they see it and decided that it doesn’t make any sense to keep on keeping on. They haven’t had their paradigm shifted yet. 

      Which is why God doesn’t chide them for forgetting something they were already supposed to know. 

     He tells them something new. 

     Mary went to that Garden tomb not as an act of resignation, but as an act of love. It’s that love, in fact, that places her right where she needs to be so she can be the first to say that he’s risen.“You can stop touching me,” Jesus tells her. There’s something new, something that Mary didn’t know. He didn’t need embalming services. He needed her to let go of him and go and tell.

     It’s true, Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them and sent them and gave them the Holy Spirit. We’re not given any insight into his state of mind. Nor why he wasn’t there that evening. Just that, when he was told that he’d missed Jesus, he said he wouldn’t believe. Said he needed to put his hands on Jesus’ wounds before he could believe. 

     We call him “Doubting Thomas” for this, as though he was somehow more settled in his doubt than the other disciples had been before they saw Jesus alive. When Jesus does show up, he doesn’t lecture Thomas for his doubt. He offers him peace. He offers his wounds for Thomas’ inspection. “Stop doubting and believe,” he says.

     Turns out, of course, that Thomas didn’t need to touch him either. As soon as he saw him, he believed. 

     Neither Mary nor Thomas believed without seeing. But Jesus offers a blessing for those who can do just that: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Paul says “we live by faith, not by sight.” If there is something of sin in despair, then I would argue that it’s the willful obstinance behind it that says, “If I can’t see it, I won’t believe it.” That obstinance, or something very much like it, is what drives us to despair. It’s believing that if we’re out of ideas, then God must be too. That it’s all up to us. 

     The article about The Sin of Despair had this to say: 

“I’ve lived long enough to figure out that the problems we’re dealing with today were solutions to yesterday’s problems. We don’t have a good track record of fixing anything.”

Curiously, that sounds pretty full of despair. I don’t find it very accurate, either. Human beings can fix a lot of problems. Human beings wholeheartedly committed to the Kingdom of God, even more. Strangely, though, there’s a wide swath of Christianity in America that seems to believe that if God wants some problems fixed, he’ll fix them. Then refuses to be part of whatever solution God might be cooking up. 

     What Jesus’ resurrection means, one of the things it means, is that people who have teetered over the edge into despair can come back and be part of God’s work in the world. In fact, that’s the only way God does things! No one knew about the resurrection ahead of time, though they should have. People in absolute despair saw the risen Lord, were filled with his Spirit, and went out announcing the coming of the Kingdom. People who have never seen him at all, but believe in the testimony of those who did, go out just as fearlessly and hopefully to do the same. 

     I don’t think despair is a sin. It just means you need to know that Jesus is alive, and that there’s nothing you’ll face that he can’t help you deal with. Not the worst-case scenario you obsess over. Not even death.

     Despair is for people who don’t know about the empty tomb. Easter is for people who do.

     How truly blessed we are if we can believe beyond what we can see.