3.02.2015

[Pre-sermon ponderings] "Only A Fool"

On their 1997 album "Threads," Geoff Moore and the Distance have a song called "Only a Fool." It tells two parabolic stories: one of a man who quit a well-paying and upwardly mobile job to work with disadvantaged kids, and another of a beauty queen who could have made a career with her looks and charisma but gave it up in similar fashion. They are both described as "taking the job only a fool could do."

The last chorus says:

Show me the big in the small
Show me the wonder of my call
Even when no one else approves
I'll take the job for only a fool

This song came to mind as I read the epistle reading for this coming Sunday. From Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: 
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
Does this world need more fools, or less? It depends on what you're talking about.

Such passages are sometimes used to justify a false narrative of persecution or to shield any belief or action from critique. Similar to the passage in which Jesus warns his followers that they may be hated for preaching his message (Luke 6:22), Paul warns that those who promote the gospel may be considered foolish. But neither of these passages should be used to justify anything that is called foolish or engenders hatred. We have to get it in the right order. The passages teach that those who faithfully follow Christ may be hated or considered foolish, not that anytime you are hated or considered foolish, you are following Christ.

An extreme or all-too-easy example is the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who quite often feel vindicated in their preaching of hate because of such biblical passages. But perhaps harder to see is the way in which the "fools to the world" narrative is used to justify Christian endeavors that are quite the opposite of the self-sacrificial, "losing your life" calling of Jesus. Christians have been known to use political power and money to fight culture wars, secure a place of privilege for their worldview, and disenfranchise those to whom they object. The ensuing criticism is expected and thus used for self-vindication. This is not what we're talking about. The prophetic tradition of the Bible has harsh words for those who forget which side of privilege and the power structure they're on.

Foolishness for the gospel is not self-aggrandizing or power-seeking. Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Mother Theresa, who begged and pleaded to go to a despised and forsaken place to minister on the streets and be a "saint of darkness." Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Saint Francis of Assisi who abandoned a life of luxury to take the message of Christ to ordinary people forgotten by the very rich and powerful church of his day. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Redeemer Lutheran Church of Minneapolis who decided to stay in a struggling neighborhood when other churches had moved out to the suburbs. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Northern Lighthouse Ministries on the edge of Lincoln, NE, a congregation that intentionally welcomes (actually, goes and gets) prisoners, ex-prisoners, and the homeless into their worship and ministry.1 Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Kayla Mueller, the American humanitarian worker in Syria who was killed by ISIS. We've learned through her letters that she had a deep faith in Christ and that her love of God and neighbor had taken her to this dangerous place to serve.

Foolishness for the gospel is relinquishing self-preservation (or even church preservation?) to be a part of God's bigger story. It is giving up whatever obstacle there may be within us to extending God's love, grace, and forgiveness to the other...particularly those from whom rationality might tell us to steer clear.

1 Credit to Elizabeth Turman-Bryant whose work on "radically hospitable churches" introduced me to this ministry.

2.06.2015

Praying By Giving Up on Prayer

prayer at night from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 mrehan, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
I've long struggled with traditional understandings of prayer.

Especially in terms of the things or people we "pray for." All you have to do is listen carefully and then think through the implications, and you may see my problem.

Most of our talk about "the power of prayer" actually places a lot of the power in our hands: If enough people pray hard enough, God will act. Intervention requires action on our part; if we fail to act, a disaster may occur unabated.

Think about it. Some of us hear it all the time. So and so was sick, needed a job, etc. They amassed a huge network of pray-ers and, if and when things work out favorably, we say that "God answers prayer" or "prayer works."

I've never understood this. To me, the implication is that God sits, hands folded, waiting for enough people to pray, and if we finally manage to get God's attention, God will act.

We wouldn't say it that way, but that's what the language implies to me. It makes me think of flipping a car over. If enough people get on the right side and coordinate their efforts, it can be done.

Many churches, especially internationally, have prayer services for healing. People have been miraculously healed because they...were with the right people at the right place and the right time? Maybe it happens. I'm not really in a place to deny their experience. I can't explain it, which I guess is the point of miracles. But personally, I just can't get on board. I hate to say it, because I don't want to be mean, but it honestly strikes me as Christian voodoo.

I once had someone tell me that she worried she and her friends had once "prayed for the wrong thing." There was a crisis, they all prayed fervently for a certain outcome, and their desired outcome came about. But now they question it all. "Did we pray for the wrong thing?"

That one really twisted my brain into knots. So what you're telling me is that God is willing to do the wrong thing or answer a prayer in a way that goes against God's will if enough people are praying for it?

If my above critique is not connecting with you, don't worry about it. If you see no problem with traditional understandings of prayer, and if they bring you hope, I actually have no interest in stripping you of it. But this is a post for me and others like me. I think some of the traditional understandings of prayer paint a theologically problematic picture of God. If you don't agree, that's fine, and you can proceed in your prayer life with my blessing. But I personally need something else.

At the very least, our theology of prayer must return the power and initiative to its rightful place.

In 1960, Catherine Marshall wrote a piece in Guideposts called "The Prayer of Relinquishment." She basically suggests that we're praying all wrong. She tells stories of people, including herself, frantically praying for something in the midst of a crisis, but then realizing that the way in which they were praying may have actually been hindering things.
One afternoon I read the story of a missionary who had been an invalid for eight years. Constantly she had prayed that God would make her well, so that she might do his work. Finally, worn out with futile petition, she prayed, "All right. I give up. If you want me to be an invalid, that’s your business. Anyway, I want you even more than I want health. You decide." In two weeks the woman was out of bed, completely well.
Understand: I'm always skeptical of these stories, and even if true, they potentially set the rest of us up for disappointment when we don't get the miracle. But beneath all that, Marshall is onto something. The Prayer of Relinquishment is, "I give up. You decide." The old school evangelicals might call this "letting go and letting God." There's genius to this.

As Marshall puts it, "A demanding spirit, with self-will as its rudder, blocks prayer."

In other words, whenever we pray as if the outcome depends on our prayer, we're actually blocking God out.

Part of why the Prayer of Relinquishment is effective is because it relates to our stress response. There's a reason that contemplative authors have spoken of and practiced prayer in a way that involved the body as much as the spirit and mind. Think of being in water. When you're tense, you sink. When you relax, you float. Marshall's key insight is the fact that our prayers may at times be the religious equivalent of clenched fists. We have to "give up" on this kind of prayer to be open to real prayer.

The effect of our stress response on our body and mind is well documented. Physically, our muscles tighten, our digestion slows down and our immune system is compromised. We can literally keep ourselves sick. Emotionally and mentally, we get less sleep, we make rash decisions, and are more irritable. But it's not just us. The stress response has a negative effect on those around us, keeping them tense and more focused on abating the stress than being well.

Perhaps this is a lot of what "letting go and letting God" is all about. God hard-wired us this way. We can actually find great solace and relief when we come to a place of relinquishment. "OK fine, God." Or, perhaps, "I can't control or fix this." We must not see this as synonymous with acceptance or passively saying, "I'm OK with any outcome." What if one's child is deathly ill? What if one has been falsely accused of a crime? We're not talking about acceptance. We're talking about peace. We can't be open to "the peace that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) if we believe the outcome of prayer depends on us. Jesus told the weary to come to him (Matthew 11:28) for rest. Any theology of prayer that is not restful is probably off base.

Certainly, when we're facing a crisis, the prayer of "please, fix this" is natural and understandable. I'm not suggesting that we suppress our "in-the-moment" thoughts and prayers (the biblical authors didn't). But, if it remains long-term, it's a posture that produces adverse affects.

I am not totally on board with Catherine Marshall's article, but it's a step in the right direction. It brings us closer to where I think we need to be with prayer.

I'd like to ask why prayer has to be an activity I engage in rather than a description of how I engage in all activities. Is prayer a thing, or the way in which I do all things? What if I'm supposed to pray through God rather to God?

This is not a new idea. The apostle Paul actually spoke of prayer as something God engages in with us, rather than just being a recipient. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans...the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

In a guest post on this blog, Joe Kutter reflected on prayer in terms of "priesthood" and the need that we have, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, for someone to come alongside us. Not necessarily to "pray for us" but to pray with us, voicing our concerns and suffering to God, something that is very powerful. "The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor...When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me."

This is closer to something that makes sense to me. Because, let's face it, even those who claim to believe that God will fix things will still call 911 in an emergency or take their broken down car to a mechanic rather than praying over it.

As a pastor, I've seen some people experience healing and restoration and some people not, and it has never made sense to attribute the outcomes to who was praying how.

But it has been my experience that when people are sick, depressed, stressed, or a host of other things when life is beating them up, they need people to come alongside them, take their hand and say, "Let's approach the throne of God together."

It may be disconcerting not to have certainty about what the outcome will be. But it's downright terrifying to think that I and my friends have to come up with the right prayer.

Luckily, I don't think we do.

12.30.2014

A Cherry-Picker Critiques Cherry-Pickers: The Newsweek Bible article

Newsweek magazine decided to close out the year with a gem of an article on the Bible that is sure to rankle uncritical Christian fundamentalists while injecting a great new sense of vindication into atheists and former Christians.

The problem is, that's exactly the kind of point-scoring the article was written to do as it masquerades as journalism.

You know it's bad when Al Mohler and I basically have the same opinion. Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he and I would butt heads on basically every theological topic. But his assessment of the article is right on:
It is an irresponsible screed of post-Christian invective leveled against the Bible and, even more to the point, against evangelical Christianity...[The author] really does not address the subject of the Bible like a reporter at all. His article is a hit-piece that lacks any journalistic balance or credibility.
Of course, Mohler, a Southern Baptist, would then go on to try to discredit everything Eichenwald says about the Bible, which is no more responsible. Eichenwald gets some things right, but he does so by way of a sloppy foray into biblical scholarship that is rife with the same level of cherry-picking and oversimplification for which he chides evangelical Christians. It purports to be an article about the Bible itself, but in reality it's an attack on a certain brand of Christianity, evidenced by its opening paragraphs which are full of unfair, broad-brush over-generalizations seeking to paint all evangelicals as extreme fundamentalists. To be sure, I am not any more endeared to Eichenwald's targeted brand of Christianity than he is, but that doesn't mean his article is fair or accurate.

Obviously, you should read the original article first. My response here will fall far from providing an in-depth response to every point raised by Eichenwald (one of the drawbacks of his article is that it fires off a barrage of unrelated debunker's talking points about the Bible, making a response very difficult). But this is my attempt to clarify and correct, as well as provide some general commentary on biblical interpretation and scholarship.

*****

Transmission and Translation
Eichenwald gets our attention by saying that "no one has read the Bible," making the point that all we're actually reading is a "translation of copies," so to speak. He is correct to remind us of this. Translating, of course, is always an imperfect process that requires a good bit of interpretation. But Eichenwald carelessly says, "At best, we've all read a bad translation..." Tell that to the scholars who've spent years using their linguistic and epigraphic expertise. He also erroneously says that scholars are translating it from a translation. That was true of the King James Version, but modern day scholars are in fact translating from the original languages (just not the original manuscripts, none of which we possess).

Eichenwald writes as if we should be shocked that some words in the Bible aren't always translated the same way. Although he's right that some ancient Hebrew and Greek words have no English equivalent, he uses the example of the Greek word proskuneo and the fact that it's not always translated "worship" to cast doubt on certain passages. Of course it's not always translated the same way. Very few words are. Any given word can change meaning depending on the context. Welcome to the phenomenon of human language. Eichenwald also mentions the fact that ancient writing used no capitalization, punctuation, or spacing. He is correct. But he says this as if it presented an impossible puzzle for those who read it then and translate it now, relegating scribes and scholars to guesswork. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Eichenwald is correct that the transmission of the Bible depended on many hand-copied manuscripts over many years, and he is correct that this process included both mistakes and intentional changes. But most of what he says is overstated or not accurate at all. He claims that "about 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament." Leaving aside the fact that he's off by about 100 years, what he's talking about is canonization (not "compilation"). The Third Council of Carthage in 397 C.E. was when the New Testament was officially canonized as the 27 books we have today, but what he leaves out is the fact that the books of the New Testament were widely read and considered authoritative long before they were canonized (canonization often affirmed, not imposed, the acceptance of a book).

Justin Martyr, who wrote between 130-170 C.E. mentions and quotes from some of the Gospels, suggesting that they were already in wide circulation by then. Several apostolic fathers—the designation for a person who knew someone who knew Jesus—mentioned and quoted other books in the New Testament (Polycarp, Clement I, Ignatius). A document known as the Muratorian Fragment that dates between 170-200 C.E. mentions New Testament works as authoritative. Origin, writing in the early 200s, compiled a list of books that were being used by Christians in various regions, and came up with something very close to today's New Testament. This is hardly the 400 year gap that Eichenwald wants us to think there was. On the contrary, this represents one of the fastest tracks to distribution and acceptance in antiquity. In terms of the large number of different manuscripts, New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger put it well:
Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! The truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text....Most other ancient texts from the first century (or thereabouts) are preserved in around 10-20 manuscripts (and some only in a single manuscript). Thus, the 5,500 manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.
Text Variants
In talking about all these manuscripts, Eichenwald is quick to point out that this means that there are a lot of textual variations. This is true. For any given book of the Bible, there are many extant copies, none of them exactly the same (thus the need for scholars to first reconstruct the original before translating). But the vast majority of variations are minor and inconsequential: a word here, a phrase there. Even some of the malicious or agenda-laden changes made over the years are caught and rooted out by scholars in their reconstructions, thanks mostly to all those manuscripts we have. But Eichenwald, to make his point and shock the reader, picked the passages inserted later into Mark and John as his examples, the only two examples of significant text variation in the entire New Testament. He presents such passage insertions as commonplace: "Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament," he claims. This is patently false. The two he mentions are the only two, and his commentary on them is reckless.

Let's just look at one. Open your Bible to John 8, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Either right there in line with the text or in a footnote, you'll read something to this effect: "The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:59-8:11." See it? It has always been there. This is not the great revelation that Eichenwald seems to think he's making. It means what it says: all of the earliest copies of John's gospel do not have this story, meaning it was inserted later.

That's about all Eichenwald gets right. He goes on to claim that "scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages." Not even close. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a 3rd century document, mentions the story, and it was included in the Vulgate, the 4th century Latin translation of the Bible. Eichenwald also boldly claims that "the story didn't happen." How does he know that? It is possible, even probable, the story simply circulated independently for a while, as many stories did, and was later included in John's gospel. Besides, the story paints a very characteristic portrait of Jesus. From everything else we know of him, his handling of the woman caught in adultery is quite true to character. It sounds like Jesus through and through.

Throughout Eichenwald's section on text variants, he makes other factual errors. He claims that some verses, like Luke 22:20 or 1 John 5:7, appear only in late Latin translations of the Bible but not in any Greek manuscripts. Wrong again. The verses he mentions appear in Greek documents like the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, and others.

Creeds and the Divinity of Christ
Being a Baptist, I don't have as much of a stake in defending the Nicene Creed or other creeds of the church, but in the interest of fairness, Eichenwald had some exaggerations and mistakes here as well. He rightly points out the influence of Constantine and his less-than-stellar human rights record (although who did have a good human rights record in those days?). But he gives Constantine way too much credit in determining what books made it into the New Testament. He also makes it sound like the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) was more responsible for the doctrine of Christ's divinity than it was. I can't pin this totally on Eichenwald, though. I've read a number of scholars who insist on saying that Jesus was more or less thought of as a Jewish teacher early on, and that the idea of him being divine only developed centuries after his life. In fact, the divinity of Christ partially comes from the works of Paul, some of which were written while Jesus' contemporaries were still alive. This includes the book of 1 Thessalonians, widely thought to be the New Testament's earliest work written in the late 40s C.E. The book of Philippians contains the well-known Christological hymn that says Jesus was "in very nature God" and had "equality with God" (NIV). This hymn is thought to have been recited by Christian churches years before Paul included it in his letter.

AuthorshipDoublets and Contradictions
A substantial portion of Eichenwald's article is dedicated to pointing out realities of the Bible that are no surprise to anyone with a theological education. He deals with a lot of issues related to the Bible's authorship, its inclusion of more than one version of a story, etc. Clearly, he thinks such things are going to serve as a devastating blow to Christianity and its veneration of the Bible. But as far as I'm concerned, the problem with the realities he points out is not that they are true, but that the average Christian doesn't know them.

For exampe, Eichenwald mentions the fact that the first 5 books of the Bible (the "Torah" for Jews, the "Pentateuch" for Christians) were not written by Moses. Duh. I've never understood why people insist that they were. The text doesn't identify an author, Moses wouldn't have known the Hebrew language, and countless pieces of textual evidence point to a time period long after Moses.

He mentions that 6 of the 13 New Testament books attributed to Paul weren't actually written by him. Yes, that is the overwhelming scholarly consensus, one of many nuggets that are well-known and accepted in biblical studies circles but not known to many in the pews. It was called pseudonymity. It was a common (though not necessarily preferred) practice in ancient times, and would not have carried the connotation of forgery that it would today. In fact, some pseudonymous authors would have thought they were paying their named figure a compliment by writing in their name.

Eichenwald mentions that many Old Testament stories have doublets—two versions of the same story. Yes, this is correct. Examples like the Moses or Noah stories are tricky because they are interwoven with each other and thus make it hard to spot (unless you have a copy of the Torah that is color-coded by source). Others are pretty clear and it's hard to understand how we missed it; for example, the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Later in the Bible, it's clear that the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings record one version of the early monarchies with 1-2 Chronicles, written later, having different versions of the same events (though what he mentions is the Goliath doublet, which is kind of a different animal and has a long explanation). That kind of thing has been present in the Bible for as long as it has been a unified book. The problem is that we hardly read these books, much less compare them. Of course, for the New Testament, Eichenwald also mentions the disparities between the details of certain stories that are recorded in more than one Gospel. Again, this is nothing new. Such differences have been in plain view for a long time.

This is only a problem for people who have been taught to think of the Bible in problematic ways...and unfortunately, that was the case for me years ago, and it's the case for many Christians. We impose our standards of history, science, record-keeping and everything else on this ancient text, and in doing so actually prevent it from revealing to us the heart of God. While people continue to debate or insist on the inerrancy of the Bible, there is no answer to such questions because the questions themselves are nonsensical given the reality of the Bible. It should be a clue to us that the later compilers and editors of the Bible saw fit to include all of these differing stories with no problem at all. Why would they include two different creation stories (poems, really) together that have so many differences? Maybe because they saw value in both and were unhindered by our modern narrow-mindedness. Unlike us, they were able to leave room for mystery and beauty from the pens of those who were inspired by God to write.

We need to continue to bridge the gap between scholar and average Christian. As a pastor, I stand in that gap and work that space all the time, and it's hard. Pastors often avoid mentioning certain aspects of biblical scholarship in our sermons because we only have 15-20 minutes, and the mere mention of some things would require an extra 40 minutes of explanation. Mental models are powerful things. I've had people during my Bible studies stand up, red in the face, and anxiously ask, "So we can't trust the Bible?!" The assumption is that I have compromised the authority of the Bible (with facts?), when it is our false assumptions about that Bible that are the problem. We trip over our own feet. When we demand historical accuracy from a poem, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? When we are thrown for a loop by two conflicting versions of a story that have both been in the Bible for centuries, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? As Peter Enns put it, "The problem isn't the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it's not set up to bear."

But...public figures pick and choose Bible verses!
Yawn. The parts of Eichenwald's article that most clearly reveal that he really wasn't writing about the Bible itself to begin with are his many examples of how public figures betray their hypocrisy by picking and choosing parts of the Bible to obey or using it for their own agenda. No disagreement from me there. He chooses very likely and easy targets. My question is, to what standard of interpretation is Eichenwald holding those he criticizes, and does he meet it himself?

Judging by this over-simplified hit-piece that plays fast and loose with the complexities of the Bible, he joins the rest of us who "fall short of the glory of God" and often leave something to be desired.