Thursday, November 10, 2011

Banned Questions IV

More questions from the book by Christian Piatt with my comments. Some of the questions start to get repetitious, different ways of addressing the “literal meaning” question and others. Some are just not worth addressing. Even in one of the answers to the question about secret codes embedded in the Bible, he says it is not worth it. So, I’m skipping a few. Some are just disgusting, like the ones about the devil or Abraham and Isaac.

Link back to the first of this series

How to read the Bible?

The first answer is not bad, suggesting what not to do, but once again devolves into revelatory language. One guy points out that he came from a church that read the Bible to support their racist and classist position. He agrees with St. Augustine that any interpretation that isn’t about loving God and your neighbor is wrong. That leaves a lot of passages about God ordering killing unexplained, but it is better than that church he used to go to.

Thank goodness for Joshua Toulouse, he said there is no right way. That is the right answer to most of these questions. He also says that different translations can dramatically change the meaning of what you read. I haven’t heard that said enough in this book.

How do we reconcile the two different “creation stories”?

They got another one right.

The answers do more to explain the difference and tell why they are different and how attempting to reconcile them as if the Bible is a science book is the wrong approach. Brandon Gilvin does something very rare and points out that the God in the Bible is not the “Unmoved Mover” of Aristiotle or the God character usually portrayed in Western philosophy. The Bible grew out of an area near Egypt and is very much influenced by the East. It has God as a character in relationship with human characters. This doesn’t address “scriptural basis”, but it is an answer that gives the reader a way to look at the stories that they probably haven’t considered.

Does God justify violence in scripture?

Brandon Gilvin gives the only possible right answer. “Human beings wrote the stories in the Bible and an invisible, divine hand did not direct them.” They… “were struggling to make sense of how God was present in their histories.” He talks of how the Bible has been used to justify violence and says, “these are abusive readings.” He suggests “reading it with the knowledge that those who came before us struggled with the way to find God in every detail of their lives and histories and sometimes got it wrong.” (my underline)

What is dangerous about saying that of course is that it opens up the question of anything else in the Bible also being wrong. Even some of the good sounding things might not be good at all, or at least not really helpful. Gary Peluso-Verdend describes the dilemma that is created when you decide that the Bible is the direct word of God. You can’t get around the justifications of violence and you have to create a theology to explain it. If instead you decide that at least sometimes the Bible is written by men to justify what they do or have done, then you can answer “no” to this question. The world will be better off when more people do that.

Why is the gospel of John so different?

Is this question really banned? If I were a Bible student and asked this question of my teacher and they told me not to ask questions like that, I would be highly suspicious of what they were trying to cover up. This book doesn’t, and we are now up to 3 good answers out of 21.

To understand the gospels, you need to understand the audience they were written for. It also helps to know that scholars assume there was a source document that came before them that has been lost, usually referred to as Quell. Mark came first and is more of a simply telling of events. Matthew adds the birth narrative and others. Luke brings in more angels because he was writing to Romans who would have liked that. John came much later and was probably writing to Jews that had left the Jewish community because of the debates about who Jesus was. It spends a lot of time justifying that he is indeed the Jewish messiah, beginning with the first verses that puts him at the right hand of God before the world was created. These answers cover all of that and give excellent sources.

What about all the terms for hell?

These answers are helpful in that they sort out much of the confusion about the afterlife and how it is mentioned in the Bible and that it changed through time. Gehenna, a garbage dump in Jerusalem is explained a couple times and that would take care of several misinterpreted uses of it. In most Bibles this gets interpreted as the word “hell” which comes with meanings that were added on by the Greek ideas of Hades later as well as later authors such as Dante.

What the answers avoid are Jesus’ references to being thrown into eternal flames and separating the wheat from the chaff. This is common practice for theologians and unfortunate that it occurs here.

If I don’t believe every word of the Bible is literally true, how do I know what to consider in context and what to set aside?

This is the real question isn’t it? But once again, banned questions are treated as if they are banned. One answer directly chides the question for suggesting that anyone would “set aside” part of the Bible. Another suggests that it just “made sense” to view God as a warrior in the past. Everyone agrees to focus on Christ, but says nothing about what that means, or what you do with the contradictory pictures of him. They do recommend finding a community that you trust and using study Bibles and the internet for help with context. Not bad advice, but sorely incomplete.

The step that this book is not willing to take is to look at the Bible from outside of the Christian narrative that was fully developed after Constantine. That is, the Fall, the Exodus, exile and reconciliation through the Resurrection. Any attempt to make sense of that narrative is going to require logical gymnastics and leaps of faith. To make one of those choices will involve more of a feeling of comfort with a community than historical analysis. For any of those to work, you need to suspend the idea that a man wrote the story for a reason that suited him at that time and accept it as a revealed truth that ties the other stories together.

A few simple guidelines that I use;

  1. 1. Jesus often starts a parable with , “it is as if”. You’ll need to know a little about interpreting parables to understand what follows. For example it is usually the last character of a group that holds the lesson.
  2. 2. Language interpretation can be critical, as we found out in the question about hell and homosexuality. The Bible itself doesn’t contain clues that tell you when a word is misinterpreted. For critical passages, look at a couple different Bibles, if there are differences, find out why. This is easy to do at
  3. 3. There is no way to prove that a miracle from the Bible actually happened or that prophecies were fulfilled or will be fulfilled. Any source that tries to do this should be suspect and I would recommend finding another source.
  4. 4. If you want to jump right in, at least find a basic timeline. One that shows not only what the dates in the Bible say about what happened, but what historians say about when the books were actually written and by whom. There are controversies, but some useful items to note are that there might have been two authors claiming to be Paul the apostle. The gospel of John was probably not written by someone who knew Jesus. No historical evidence has been found for Moses or a large tribe of people wondering the desert for 40 years. It is more likely that Judaism developed out of existing communities in the Levant rather than as a legacy of Abraham. A little research on these questions first will help.
  5. 5. Historical context is key. Including knowing a little bit about the Sumerians and their gods and how the creation story in Genesis might have been a reaction to them. Influence from the Greeks to the West and from Eastern religions is also key, but be sure to use peer reviewed sources. There are some wild claims about mushroom gods, Jesus travelling to India and influences from Egypt.

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

At least one answer tells you the name of the person and century when this idea was first spit out. That is really the important part of this question. This is not in the Bible, it was passed along as gospel for centuries, and still is. Anyone who says it doesn’t really care about what the Bible is trying to say. That covers a lot of people throughout history.

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