Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Bible Is Not an Answer Book

Just today I received an email from Paula (not really her name; I want to protect the guilty) with SONday Distributors. They had a special deal “for churches only” on “a great Bible.” For just ten dollars each (regular $40 value) we could get a shipment of ANSWER Bibles. That’s right—the ANSWER Bible. Their goal, she said, was “to plant a Bible (I presume she meant an ANSWER Bible) in 10,000 homes, organizations, and establishments in communities across America.” She wanted churches to make a commitment to give them away to “lost” people. Isn’t this typical of dualistic Christianity; it’s always the other who is “lost.” I’m the answer man or woman. I’ve got the truth, brother. Isn’t that what the Southern Baptist Convention is promoting right now with: Find it here! Find what? The ANSWERS, of course. We have the answers, glory be! That implies that we have the questions too. We have the questions and we have the answers. Amen!

Normally I click “delete” not giving this sort of thing a second glance, but for some reason I couldn’t resist the temptation to be a bit sarcastic. This was not one of my best days. So I emailed her back and said: “No thanks, Paula, I’ve heard enough ANSWERS in my day, but if you ever get a Bible that probes people to ask the hard QUESTIONS let me know.” Well, she emailed me back. She wasn’t happy with my response. If she happened to project any of her anger at me onto her husband or boyfriend, I bet he found himself in the doghouse (I can imagine the dazed look on his face; Lord knows, I’ve spent enough time there). She reprimanded me pretty good. And then she ended it with: I say this with the love of Jesus in me. (For some reason I get showered with the love of Jesus a lot). Well, having not been able to resist the temptation initially, I couldn’t resist the second time either; I had to respond. Of course, I did it with the love of Jesus in me.

Personally, I think if we are going to just pass out Bibles willy-nilly we should put a warning label on them: This could be hazardous to your health. What I have discovered is that people looking for answers in the Bible tend to find the answers they are looking for. (You may need to read that again). We all have a tendency to project the answers we want to find into the biblical text.

When we approach a biblical text we bring our biases with us; it’s unavoidable. The biblical authors and communities were no different than us; they too were children of their culture and their faith encounters with the divine were interpreted within the framework of their presuppositions, biases, and worldview.

There are many inspirational and transformative texts in the sacred Scriptures, but there are also not a few demeaning and oppressive texts, and often these can be found in the same biblical book (compare 1 Cor. 13 with 1 Cor. 14:34-35). I know that someone is likely to point out the text that says “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching . . . and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Keep in mind, though, that the author who said that all Scripture is inspired and useful for training in righteousness is the same author who restricts women from teaching men and instructs women to learn in silence because it was the man who was created first and the woman who was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:11-14).

I can accept the idea that all Scripture is useful for training in righteousness if that means, at times, preaching against the text. The key question that I believe every disciple of Jesus must bring to the text is: Does the text bear witness to the gospel? Does the Scripture bear witness to the unconditional love of God and the universal call to justice embodied in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ? We who proclaim this gospel are called to proclaim the gospel, not the text, and sometimes proclaiming the gospel means preaching against the text.

The Bible is not an answer book, but it can prompt us to ask the right questions, if we approach it honestly, openly, and humbly, grounded in the unconditional love and justice of Christ. The biblical authors, as well as all of us interpreters of the Bible, have biases; it’s part of the human condition. And while we cannot eliminate our biases, if we are honest enough to acknowledge that we have them, the Bible is more likely to become a tool for transformation than an instrument of oppression.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Converting Christians to the Way of Jesus

Samir Selmanovic, in his book, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Athiest Jewish Christian, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways they had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months.

But while he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. A bit disoriented by what he heard, he realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say; because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward, morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”

The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. They obviously had no intention of even considering the possibility that their viewpoint could be wrong. “It is we Christians who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus.” says Selmanovic. That offers us a different perspective and opportunity for Christian mission doesn’t it?

In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says: “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.” It’s true isn’t it? We will not experience the transforming grace and love and beauty of God’s new creation unless we Christians become converted to the ways of Jesus.

The Jesus movement began as a Jewish reform movement outside of institutional Judaism. The Jewish establishment rejected Jesus, especially his practice of open table fellowship with “sinners” and his acceptance of people the establishment found unacceptable. The few within the religious establishment that were attracted to Jesus and his message were mostly too afraid of losing their place and power to publicly identify with Jesus and his disciples.

I suspect that if Jesus could somehow come into the midst of the Christian establishment today the institutional church would mostly reject him the way the Jewish religious establishment rejected him. Institutional Christianity has basically abandoned the way of Jesus reflected so poignantly in the Synoptic Gospels and settled for establishment versions that came into their own under Constantine when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Renewing the institutional church that has settled for some lesser version of Christianity shaped by our Western/American sense of comfort and security, governed by rewards and punishments, fixated on getting beliefs correct, and oriented around feel-good, self-glorifying, God wants you to be happy and prosperous teaching, is a very difficult and slow process. Trying to get the institutional church to embrace a new vision and change even slightly is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. Do not expect any sudden shifts.

Those of us who are committed to the institutional church can easily lose hope, especially those who see the potential in all those resources, if only, as Selmanovic says, we could be converted to the ways of Jesus—the ways of humility, nonviolence, inclusion, simplicity, unconditional acceptance and love, and the difficult path of forgiveness, peacemaking, and reconciliation.

Maybe we institutional church pastors push too hard. The Quaker mystic Thomas Kelley has said that we do not have to save the world; God gives us our portion. I think it was Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, who suggested starting with the few who are open, teachable, and looking for the opportunity to invest their lives in that which is truly commendable.

We who are institutional church pastors must continue to care for the institution. We will marry and bury the young and the old. We will offer our insights on committee selections and budget planning. We will visit the sick and offer our prayers before surgeries. It’s all part of our day job. It’s not a bad job. We get paid for this; some of us even get paid more than we are worth. But let us, who have caught Jesus’ vision of an inclusive gospel, who have a vision of God’s peaceable kingdom, preach and teach and write with passion. We can seek out the teachable and teach them. Maybe the virus will spread; maybe others will get infected. But that’s not our worry. The seed will grow in its own time.