That Old Time Religion Ain’t Conservative Enough

So my friends lists on Facebook, and on my blogroll, and even on my television (good Lord, do I love Rachel Maddow) are all talking about the same thing this week.

The Conservative Bible Project.

Like Rachel Maddow, like many of my friends when we first emailed this around, I was convinced this had to be satire. Surely The Onion was pointing out the foolishness of over-reliance on Biblical translations by creating a silly story about people so committed to the causes of conservatism– including Biblical literalism– that they would re-write the Bible to make it easier for them to take it literally. A joke, right?

Right? please?

Nope.

So you’ve probably heard this one by now, but there’s this group on the conservative wiki “Conservapedia” who want to create a ‘translation’ of the bible devoid of liberal bias, which, according to them includes “three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning:

  • lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ
  • lack of precision in modern language
  • translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.”

Instead, they want a Bible that obeys these guidelines:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

I’ve never found Hell to be particularly logical. In fact, I’ve never really found there to be a strong case for it in the Bible, but I’ve been reading those liberal Bibles that leave things in their original language where possible, so I read more about Sheol and Gehenna than Hell. Oh well.

I don’t even understand point 9. They want a bible that credits the openmindedness of the author of the fourth gospel, who, 70 years after Jesus’ death, wrote “No one comes to the Father but by me”? I can’t speak to this point.

And 10 just makes me laugh. Yes, silly liberal wordiness; why keep single words in their original language like “Yahweh,” when you can use two words loaded with historical, gendered, medieval baggage like “The Lord”?

But strangely, the one I have the biggest problem with is #7. Maybe this isn’t strange; I did just watch Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which I highly recommend, and about which I hope to post soon. In any case, I can’t even begin to get my mind around how much you have to misread the Bible to think that a good translation would be committed to “explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.”

Yes, yes, I remember. The Israelite concept of Jubilee– you know, bailouts for the wealthy, but forget that bit about letting all the slaves go free and forgiving individuals’ debts. The Deuteronomic Law insisting that in the land which God provides, the people must care for the widows and orphans and strangers (actually, aliens– don’t know if we mean illegal immigrants there or people from other planets…)– that’s the one part of Deuteronomy we should ignore (but keep the part about sexual practices, because nothing in human sexuality has changed in 4000 years). Most of the prophet Micah’s work, because in fact, God requires that you seek punitive justice, love kindness as an abstract concept, and walk along arrogantly proclaiming that you are in accordance with God, who, now that ‘He’ thinks of it, could care less about mercy and does require a big, honking CEO bonus of a sacrifice.

Then there’s that ridiculous Socialist society of the early church, holding all things in common, by which we should really understand that they took things from other people to accumulate their own wealth, which they held in common until the strongest among them developed a corporate buyout scheme, leaving the rest of the fledgling church members paupers.

And that Jesus guy. I must have totally misunderstood! He didn’t really mean blessed are the poor, but thank God for the poor because without their class to oppress, the rich couldn’t be rich. And he was being sarcastic when he said that it a rich man should sell everything and give it to the needy; no, he should sell everything at the best price he can get for it, gouging other retailers so they go out of business, and making the poor dependent on his goods so they can’t sustain their lifestyles. God’s kin-dom is like a foreman who hires workers for a day, and pays them all the same amount regardless of the hours worked, because the foreman is trying to break the back of the Union so tomorrow he can fire all those workers and hire new ones for much less money. Whoever holds on to their life is bound to accumulate more and more of it, and whoever looses their life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel is a right fool who deserves to fall on hard times and no one is going to give them a free ride.

Again, you have to seriously, painfully misread the Bible and misunderstand what faith is and what it means to be faithful to think that this is a idea that merits anything other than scorn.

The Coolest Thing Since the Printing Press

codexI’m surprised that this didn’t make more of a splash when it came out a month or so ago. The Codex Sinaiticus project is updating and making available online the images and translations of a codex—a 1600-year-old bible, one of the oldest and most complete versions of the Christian Bible ever found.

Why do I think this is amazing? Why do I compare it to the printing press or the translation of the Bible into the vernacular? Because it seems to me that this is just as important a moment, placing images and translation processes previously discussed almost exclusively in academic circles before the whole world.

To me it is moving to see the respect and care with which these sorts of documents are treated, when found, and to witness the dedication and the reverence with which they are studied, translated, reconstructed, and incorporated into the body of knowledge about Biblical source material.

At the same time, it is much more difficult to believe that this is a text delivered as a finished product direct from the hands of God. Rather, it is a very human document, edited and re-written, margins filled with corrections and commentary, lost and found, but nonetheless joyfully, reverently, miraculously handed down for millennia, still conveying truth and power and love and God’s ongoing story of creation and love for the world. That it speaks anything coherent after all that fragmentation and reconstruction is astounding; that it speaks truth and power and love is jaw-dropping.

Is this an amazing moment in the life of the church, this invitation to see the Bible perhaps with new eyes? Or is it just a bunch of old parchment found in the desert somewhere? Only we—and by we, I mean anyone with internet access—can decide what it means to us.

Eureka!

Replying to my sister’s comment from my previous post, and still thinking about it, I got the nugget. I think I figured out not only my sermon, but how I can live with this text (and I didn’t even have to hunt down a copy of Leonard Sweet’s out-of-print book, although I still have a request in to the inter-library loan for it). All it took was wrestling with that passage long enough for the Spirit to bless me (even if I think my hip is a little out of joint!). I know I’ve found good inspiration when it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

So what bugs me about the passage is not the child sacrifice (actually pretty common in Abraham’s time and place), or even Abraham’s blind obedience, inconceivable as it is. What bothers me is the praise. This was the right thing to do, and I just can’t believe that.

What I want God to say to Abe is, “Good effort, and I appreciate your faithfulness, but you’ve missed the point of being faithful. Remember when you bantered with me for the sake of a city full of rude strangers? That’s true faith. Dialogue with Me. Relationship with Me. Not blind following. Have you become so overpowered by the blessings you’ve received from me that you’ve forgotten to engage your whole self– body, spirit and mind in your worship? This is what I ask of my faithful ones: that you talk with me, argue with me, use your whole being in service to me. Ask questions. Recoil from evil, even when it comes from my lips.”

That’s what I want. I want God to tell us that something in us should recoil from a God who asks us to kill our children. I want God to say, loud and clear, this should make you uncomfortable. This should make you doubt. Never be so complacent as to think that I demand mindless automatons (is that the right word? I never know. I can’t say it right).

How would God tell us this? Tell us that we should question even the things we think are God’s words when they tell us evil things?

God would tell us this by telling us a story. A story about someone who gets obedience right and faith wrong. A story that makes us so sick to our stomachs that we have to question whether it (and by extension, any other parts of the narrative that say God is a God of death and malice and evil) can be God’s Word.

Oh, and guess what. God did.

Lunatic, Liar, or Lamb?

At a recent Theological Diversity Team meeting, I thought we made a little head way in terms of finding commanility in scritural interpretation. The the more conservative interpretation in the room centered around the argument that the Bible is the ultimate truth and we should believe it because it’s a reliable source when it says that it is true.

To defend this position, the proponents used what it usually called the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument. As best I can tell, this arument is from C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, c. 1952. Josh McDowell, author of More than a Caprpenter and Evidence that Demands a Verdict, quotes it, I assume with proper citation. I belive Lee Strobel does as well in Case for Christ.

Anyway, it goes like this: A man walks up to you and tells you he’s God. He is either a. wrong about this, or b. right about this, and therefore worth listening to in everything else he says. If he’s wrong, he either a. knows he’s not god but is saying he is so he is a liar and you can believe nothing else he says, or b. believes he is god and is clearly therefore insane and you can’t believe anything he says. So your choices are that he (Jesus as portrayed in the Bible) is either a liar, a lunatic, or the lord.

I let my collegues make this argument without interruption. Then I said, very simply, “I don’t agree with your first point. I don’t agree that he either has to be right or wrong about being God.” When asked, I gladly explained further.

“Let’s say the same man walks up to you and says, ‘I am a lamb.’ Now, by your argument, he is either lying, insane, or possessing a very nice wool coat. But we know that he’s not a sheep, clearly. We can see that. And yet, he is communicating something *true* about himself using the metaphor of Lamb, is he not? If I say I’m an otter, I might be trying to communicate that I am playful and intelligent, possessing skills to use simple innovative tools, or embodying native american women’s magic. I don’t mean that I have a wide tail and a nice pelt. I assume you agree with me that Jesus is not a sheep, but that he is using metaphor when he calls himself a lamb. So he is either a Liar, a Lunatic, a Lamb, or speaking metaphorically. A lyricist, if you will.”

Here, my collegues conceeded that they do indeed interpret the bible metaphorically. “I don’t beleive that trees can clap their hands,” one said. Good. So we agree that we interpret the bible metaphorically.

“Then the only place you and I differ is in how far we take the metaphor and when we choose to see it not as metaphor. You clearly believe that ‘Lord’ is intended literally, and I think it’s yet another metaphor.”

Next time, historical criticism, and the Bible’s defense of slavery and polygamy and it’s condemnation of women’s menstruation and homosexual actions. Clearly, conservatives read some of these things as products of a less enlightened context, and at least one of them as not. But the only difference is where they choose to draw a line. And, you know, what appalling and condemning things they chose to say and do because of their poor choice.

Book Reviw: Lamb

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore.

Why everyone in the world should read this book:

This book accomplishes something that not many authors/filmmakers attempt: an actual characterization of Jesus as, you know, a *character.* This was one of my top complaints about “The Passion” (and that’s saying something, because I had a lot of complaints): Gibson did little to actually tell us who his Jesus was. I felt something when they drove the nails through his wrists, sure. It’s hard not to be moved by the sheer amount of blood. But I didn’t care about Jesus as a person. And usually when I read the Gospels, I don’t read them as story anymore, but as work material, as sermon fodder. I care about Jesus as a teacher, a leader, a Savior, even. But not a person. It’s been a long time since I cried at the crucifixion scene. “Godspell” can get me every once and a while–now there’s a characterization of Jesus. But that’s the music too.

My chest got all tight as Moore took his character, this funny, quirky, horny, flawed, struggling young man Joshua, through the events of his last week. Biff’s sole description of the actual crucifixion: “I turned away, but even from a thousand yards I could hear him screaming as they drove the nails.” speaks louder than all the fake blood Mel could ever muster. And it brought tears to my eyes, which hasn’t happened in a long time. I cared about Josh as a person, and about his friends, especially Biff and the wonderfully characterized Maggie (Mary of Magdala). And with all the bodily function humor and all the uses of f*ck imaginable, it was still a beautifully reverent rendering of who Jesus might have been. The last supper scene should replace the actual words of institution in worship; it’s that good in some ways.

So what would it be like, every now and then, to let–to encourage–the people in the pews to see Jesus as a person? What would it be like to have his character develop as it does in a novel, divorced from the high theology of the church? Why can’t we just let Matthew tell us a story he heard, and let that person move us, and not worry this time about what it means for him to move us as a person and not a god? What if we wept for Jesus’ death, not because we feel the weight of our sin upon him, not because we think we should theologically, but because we love that quirky guy Joshua and his humor and kindness and patience and love of others, and like his friends we can’t stand the horrible unfairness of a world that kills him for whatever their reasons? I use storytelling and parable a lot in preaching, but I shy away from telling tales about Jesus, from making him the sappy catch-story at the beginning or end of the story. Why? I figure people get it, people are as moved by his life and death as they are going to be, and driving it home focuses more on guilt than anything else. Too many times I have heard the “Jesus died for you, you miserable useless sinner!” sermon, or the Passion play emotionalism designed to make me feel guilty or bad or sad, because then I’d be feeling *something*, but it’s not really moving any more. It’s just that, just emotionalism, not true emotion.

What if we step back from that? What if we tell a story about a wonderful man and his friends and how much they loved him, and how scared and devastated they were to lose him? What if we did some real character development, so that by Friday night of Holy Week, people cried not out of guilt or sentimentalism or emotional manipulation, but because they loved the Jesus they had come to know the way one cries at the end of a movie where the hero dies? In short, what would it be like if my Good Friday service this year was a reading from the Gospel According to Biff?

That may be a joke; I’m not sure. How far can I go to make Jesus human, real, a person to relate to and care about? I don’t mean read the part about Bart learning to lick his own balls (although I could barely breathe for laughing), or Biff’s exploits with harlots as he tried to describe sin to his pure friend. But what about telling the story like someone there, someone who loved him and was loved by him, not in the “Jesus loves me this I know” way, but in the way we all love and admire our dear friends and grieve for their pain and loss?

Anyway, the book is also very funny, which is what most people say about it, rather than dwelling on the parts that made me cry. And my favorite line about the humor comes from the author’s afterward: “This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”

Indeed. Everyone should read this book.

Take a Stab at This (or, why I didn’t preach Luke 16)

I was too timid to tackle Luke 16 this Sunday. I spoke instead about another lectionary text, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, wherein God laments over the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored?). I did not talk about any administration, past present or future, although I was tempted to suggest that perhaps our armed forces would have better luck finding balm in Gilead than they are finding bombs in Baghdad. But I digress.

The reason I dodged Luke 16 is that all of my prayer, research, online reading, and exegesis came up empty. I don’t get what’s going on in this passage. And because it doesn’t make sense, it seems doubly certain that Jesus in fact said it (Ockham’s Razor applies in reverse in textual studies: all things being equal, the least likely quote is probably the most authentic, because no scribe/follower would invent such a statement). On the surface, Jesus seems to praise the dishonest steward who, when faced with the prospect of losing his job, sells his master short in canceling the debts owed, presumably so that the debtors will look favorably upon him, the steward, and offer him aid when he is unemployed. The master commends the dishonest steward, and then Jesus commends him as well, saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What follows is, in the opinion of most commentators I read, a series of attempts by later authors and editors to explain what the heck JC meant because they didn’t understand it either. So they insert things like “the children of this age are more shrewd” (a phrase unfamiliar to Jesus, but found all over the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are very concerned with the ‘children of this age’). The whole summation paragraph seems to be a conglomeration of statements Jesus made about wealth and trust, mushed together in a desperate attempt to shed some light on this bizarre story. I think the best question Jesus presumably asks is “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” (verse 11). But the steward *is* unfaithful/dishonest with the dishonest wealth, so how is he worthy of praise?

I tried thinking of other things wealth and debt could mean. There is the obvious reducing debt=forgiveness metaphor seen in the Lord’s Prayer and many parables. So we should forgive others more easily (ie at a lower price) so that they may give us eternal homes? Well that makes a bit more sense at least, but the parable is set in a context about being faithful with little=being entrusted with greater things, and applying the forgiveness of debt=forgiveness model to this line of thinking is a stretch to say the least. Wealth is often a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven or for God’s grace, so perhaps we should be frugal with grace, but no, that’s not JC’s point at all.

The closest I can come is that the steward, in being shrewd and forward-thinking, was more concerned with the future (the Kingdom of God) than he was with the wealth of this world. This still doesn’t explain how he was *faithful* with “little things” (the dishonest wealth), but at least shows him to have his priorities straight. Through that interpretation, this passage would be better followed with “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” and then the bit about loving God and money. The being faithful with little things, often the focal point of the passage, doesn’t actually help much. That’s too bad, because I’d really like to see it in the text, but I don’t see it here. It is better said in the parable of the talents, where the servant who invests and grows his wealth is rewarded for his faithfulness and entrusted with greater things. It’s an important lesson, but one I have a hard time supporting in the text.

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