Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Banned Questions

I came across this book recently. It came out earlier this year. It presents many of the liberal interpretations that I have discussed in an easy to digest Q & A format. A free preview is available. I link to that and then review those questions.

Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe the Bible is perfect, handed down directly from God to humanity without error?

Craig Detweiler begins the book with the first answer to this first question with a series of non sequiturs about science, ending with “Surely the Bible operates on an entirely different plane and claim to authority.” I could discuss how we make claims to authority, but I would be wasting my breath because Craig, and I suspect most of the other answers in this book will always try to slip out of that discussion and simply state the Bible is different. Instead of “surely” in the above answer, I hear, “I really want there to be answers to things that science has not yet provided, so I hope the Bible might have them.”

He makes an analogy to love. Love is real and profound, but not definable. Being able to define love is not as important as practicing it. The Bible talks about love and gives us examples of practicing it. Beautiful. I wouldn’t argue with that. It does nothing to answer the implied question of this book; Why follow Jesus? I expect that will be a theme throughout this book.

Skimming through the rest of it, I see something else I expect to be recurring, a very brief mention of some scripture that is worth exploring in depth. That is not a criticism. The book is intended to be taken in short bits and used as a study guide, ideally in a group. The better the facilitator or student, the more they will get out of it. In this answer, Craig says, Jesus “gave little time or attention to those who tried to trap him into semantic arguments about obscure interpretations of the Torah.” That little statement has a lot of interesting scripture behind it. Mark 1:21-28 is listed in scriptural references that come at the end of each set of answers, but I’m not sure it is referring to this. Mark 2:27 would be a better choice. The point is, as with any Bible study, it is best done in a group. With the right people, you could spend many fascinating hours working through each of these answers.

The next answer draws the line that will keep this book out of many churches, “inerrancy… is not a requirement for salvation.” Amen Jason Boyett! He puts the Bible in historical context, a time when they wouldn’t have thought much about chronological or scientific errors. And points out that the discussion of inerrancy didn’t begin until the Enlightenment era (another one of those sentences worth hours of study). Then he slips in that the Bible is “inspired”. This means almost nothing, in that it still leaves you, the reader, free to interpret as you wish. Since it is a book written by mortal men, that is exactly what you should do anyway.

Next up, Jose F. Morales Jr. lays another wonderfully slippery, meaningless statement on us, “the awesomeness of the Bible is that it points beyond itself.” So, it isn’t the authority, it just points to God, who is the authority. He then gives a brief intro to “salvation”. There are lots of things to read about that, some of them are given in the notes that come after each question. I’ll give you a hint, the Bible is not clear on just how salvation works.

The editor, Christian Piatt, makes his first entry with an important piece of history about Martin Luther. Luther believed that people should not be beholden to the church. Piatt also makes an important point about psychology, “we humans aren’t big fans of letting go of control.” The next answer, by John Toulouse finally touches on where all the fuss comes from, and it is referenced later (Timothy 3:15-16). He then promptly dismisses it. The recommendations for further reading are excellent, and will be helpful if you are looking for an approach to Christianity that is comforting and semi-compatible to the modern mind. They will do very little to comfort or convince someone who does believe in inerrancy.

John Toulouse goes on to talk about how the Bible can still inspire us today, that it is a living text. This is a theological way of saying that you can read this book and apply its meaning to the world you know today. Theologically, this means God is inspiring us today. In modern terms, it’s a book, some books are inspiring. The next answer, by Becky Garrison, says it a little better. The Bible uses metaphors, symbols, poetry and literary devices. You need to be able to recognize those and sometimes know what a symbol meant 2,000 years ago to even get started with an interpretation of it.

The last entry, by Jim L. Robinson, opens up many more questions, some of them addressed later. Jim explains how the so-called “errors” could be in our “presuppositions about the texts”. Throughout history, some people “got” God and some of those writings were preserved. Scriptures contain truth, but God didn’t dictate it. My questions are, how do we know that the right words were preserved? What about all the translations? We have found books from that time that didn’t get in the Bible, was this a purposeful omission, or should we be doing the same evaluating that our ancestors did, and add these to the canon? Is it just a really old book and have we lost some its meaning to history? Given things were said by Presidents, Prime Ministers, Priests, Gurus, Kings and CEO’s just yesterday that we aren’t sure how to interpret, I think the answer to that last question is obvious.

My Answer: Yes. You can call yourself a Christian for many reasons.

If you want to join a church, they will ask you to participate in a ceremony that probably involves you saying that you give your heart, mind and/or soul to Christ. There also might be some statements about what you believe. There are a few churches that won’t do this. It doesn’t really matter. No matter what you believe, most people who call themselves “Christian” will say you are not a “true Christian”. If you are reading this book or this blog with an open mind, you are probably a “liberal Christian”, which indisputably puts you in a minority. If you are reading and sure it is blasphemy, you are probably a “conservative Christian”, a much louder minority, but still a minority. The middle ground is not that big either and very difficult to define. It is populated with a variety of denominations that don’t agree.

This goes for everybody, even if you are the Pope. The Pope is taking a lot of heat right now for his part in the child abuse scandals. Even many Catholics don’t think of him as a “true Christian”. If he can’t get the respect of the majority of Christians, who can?

If Adam and Eve were the first (and only) people on Earth, where did their kids’ spouses come from? Did they marry each other? And if everyone on Earth but Noah’s family was killed in a great flood, did Noah’s kids sleep with each other? Isn’t that a sin?

This is some more detail on the inerrancy thing and parts of the answers are similar to that first question. Christian Piatt does some interesting elaborating by discussing the roots of the name “Adam”, being “man” and “earth”, and a common translation for “Eve” being “life”. He also notes that there are many flood myths throughout history. A good thing to know, and something that should lead to more questions.

Then he says, these stories, “address the age-old questions of why bad things happen in the world and how we continue to endure them.” I would like to know what he is talking about. They do not address “why”, only subsequent interpretations say they do that. They say nothing about how to endure bad things, Adam, Eve, Noah and his family are simply commanded to do so. The second answerer seems to agree with me on this, although he doesn’t say much beyond, “don’t take them literally.” I suppose this could be seen as a positive, that the book provides multiple perspectives.

The creation story is a foundation for other stories in the Bible. It is crucial to the cycle of man’s fall from grace that is reconciled through Jesus. It is used to support creationism and anti-homosexuality. A critical examination of this story is important to healing the current conservative/liberal divide in the world of Abrahamic religions. Piatt takes a pass on that. Joseph Campbell, John Shelby Spong and Michael Pollan have all written about it, as well as many others, so there is no excuse for saying so little.

Aren’t women treated poorly throughout the Bible? Why would any intelligent modern woman today even want to read the Bible?

Rebecca Bowman Woods responds by first reiterating the questions she had since when she was eleven about women in the Old Testament. She then doesn’t answer those questions, but says it got better in the New Testament and that there are good stories about women in the Old Testament, although they are sparse. That’s it. That’s her thesis. Becky Garrison doesn’t do much better. Craig Detweiler again exposes some of the worst examples and again says, Jesus made it better. This despite the fact that he just quoted Paul saying women should remain silent. Note, Paul did not start his ministry until after the crucifixion.

Marcia Ford somewhat corrects Craig by noting that women did play important roles in the early church. The scriptural references and notes will help anyone digging for these hard to find passages. Marcia glosses over a couple millennia of history when she says, “While some see the Bible as condoning masculine control, others interpret the biblical perpetuation of patriarchy as a way of working within existing cultural norms.” Studies of the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Sumerians and other early Ancient Near Eastern cultures show women frequently playing more equal roles. One theory is that as war between Mediterranean cultures grew, men asserted their physical power and cultural norms changed. It was about this time that the Torah was written. Another opportunity for exploration that this book misses.

How can a God be all-loving yet allow people to be thrown into hell?

There are two answers given to this question. Jarrod McKenna uses “hell” metaphorically. He says it’s separation from God. God is love, and choosing to separate from that is hell. Jim L. Robinson answers by saying God doesn’t throw anybody anywhere. He gives the best explanation of grace that one could in just one page, then says, “I’m relatively confident that present-day teachings about hell will one day be revealed as human misinterpretation of scripture – either in the writing, the reading, or in both.” I would love to be a fly on the wall in a study group where some of the people are confronting that idea for the first time.

What does “apocalypse” mean, and does the Bible predict one?

Not much to say about this section, except I’m glad that Becky Garrison puts in here that the Left Behind series does not agree with scholars throughout history. All but one of them leave it way too open that Revelations might predict something that could happen. They at least mention other possible interpretations.

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