Friday, September 12, 2008

To enslave, or not to enslave ...

Some texts may not teach what they at first appear to teach. Some people, however, have studied particular Biblical texts carefully and come to understand what they teach, and yet they still find them outrageous and regressive. What should they do then?

I urge people to consider that their problem with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others. We must not universalize our time any more than we should universalize our culture. Think of the implication of the very term "regressive." To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historical moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. That belief is surely as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible you regard offensive.

Consider the views of contemporary British people and how they differ from the views of their ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, a thousand years ago. Imagine that both are reading the Bible and they come to the gospel of Mark, chapter 14. First they read that Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, who will come with angels at the end of time to judge the whole world according to his righteousness (verse 62). Later they read about Peter, the leading apostle, who denies his master three times and at the end even curses him to save his skin (verse 71). Yet later Peter is forgiven and restored to leadership (Mark 16:7; John 21:15ff). The first story will make contemporary British people shudder. It sounds so judgemental and exclusive. However, they will love the story about how even Peter can be restored and forgiven. The first story will not bother Anglo-Saxons at all. They know all about Doomsday, and they are glad to get more information about it! However, they will be shocked at the second story. Disloyalty and betrayal at Peter's level must never be forgiven, in their view. He doesn't deserve to live, let alone become the foremost disciple. They will be so appalled by this that they will want to throw the Bible down and read no more of it.

Of course, we think of the Anglo-Saxons as primitive, but someday others will think of us and our culture's dominant views as primitive. How can we use our time's standard of "progressive" as the plumb line by which we decide which parts of the Bible are valid and which are not? Many of the beliefs our grandparents and great-grandparents now seem silly and even embarrassing to us. That process is not going to stop now. Our grandchildren will find many of our views outmoded as well. Wouldn't it be tragic if we threw the Bible away over a belief that will soon look pretty weak or wrong? To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible's teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn't have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense?


The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

The post above is a direct continuation from the slavery quote I just used. And I'm freely admitting right now that my analysis of this might not be the most unbiased piece of work to ever hit a blog, because it frustrated me, and emotions color logic.

My expectation upon this was set up with the idea of Mr. Keller addressing the issue of someone understanding the cultural context of a statement -- such as the slavery issue -- and thus dealing with handling the outrage even in the cultural situation. And thus he addresses what should be done in that instant.

Yet I don't see him doing that in the following paragraphs. Both the Anglo-Saxons and the contemporary British people are analyzing the Bible through their own cultural lens, which is exactly what Mr. Keller advised against in terms of the slavery issue. So how is this supposed to help people come to terms with the Bible if they still find the cultural context outrageous? Because neither group now reading the Bible is attempting to process the knowledge through how the society worked back then. The Anglo-Saxons understand the text to be wrong because of how honor-driven their society is, rather than seeing Peter's actions in terms of the Jewish society.

Not only that, in his examples he goes from a huge moral complication in terms of slavery, to much narrower complications -- the Anglo-Saxons grasp of honor, and contemporary view of judgement and exclusiveness. And my favorite line is this: "To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible's teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn't have any views that upset you." Put that line in context of the slavery issue just discussed, and I have a difficult time reading it as anything but: "To stay away from Christianity because you're offended that the Bible doesn't say slavery is wrong is to assume that if there is a God, he wouldn't have any views that upset you."

I'd be much more impressed with this line of thought if he had tackled the big moral reasons as to why people can't absorb the Bible: how it factored into the New World slave trade, how it factored into the treatment of women, how it factored into situations such as the Crusades or the Inquisition. Even elements such as Numbers 31, or the serious problem people have with a vast majority of humanity in eternal torment for all eternity. This is what makes people have a huge problem with the Bible. At what point are those points of view going to be "weak?" Or "wrong?"

There's also the complication with the fact that we're not allowed to universalize our culture. I'm not sure if that's a blanket statement at our entire culture, or just parts of our culture. Our culture today forbids slavery, has civil rights for all races and genders, has much better child labor laws, has much better opportunities for many of its citizens. Why are we not allowed to universalize that? It's hardly narrow or exclusive to say that if our society previously derailed the freedoms of 90% of its people, that is wrong.

Plus, we can't universalize our culture, but we must universalize the Bible for all moments in time? We keep getting told here that as we go forward in time, many views held now will seem ridiculous in some fashion, and yet we're supposed to hold to a book that was written before all these other examples?

6 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

Taken out of context I find some good things in the quote. I hear his message about not universalizing our culture differently than you do. While I agree with you about the moral issues you raise there are other aspects of our culture that I think should not be universalized. I offer consumer and corporate capitalism as examples.

What I find helpful are his comments that different cultures hear the Bible differently. We may look back and say that those cultures heard wrongly but we also need to hear what those cultures, (and other cultures of today) have to teach us about what the Bible might really be saying.

I offer as example a message from an American subculture that argued against the primary culture that slavery and then segregation were wrong. Curiously the primary culture heard the Exodus narrative as coming to American as the Israelites entering the promised land and the subculture (African Americans) heard it as America as Egypt.

Hearing other cultures' interpretation of Scripture can free us from our narrow minded thought that American is God's country!

societyvs said...

I am not sure who this Tim Keller is but his writing does seem kinda weak?

“The Anglo-Saxons understand the text to be wrong because of how honor-driven their society is, rather than seeing Peter's actions in terms of the Jewish society.” (OSS)

I would call that grievous error numero uno in my books. Keller is making a switch here – saying one thing for us (here and now) and another for some other time and place (they can use that excuse). That’s problematic for the sole reason – none of these cultures play any part in the original context of the writers. So Keller is wrong all around here.

"To stay away from Christianity because you're offended that the Bible doesn't say ‘slavery’ is wrong is to assume that if there is a God, he wouldn't have any views that upset you." (Keller and OSS)

I disagree with Keller’s theology here – maybe some things God does we may not quite comprehend having a brain the size of a pea compared to His – but some things we should automatically expect God to denounce – this includes slavery. If he leaves a concession here – then he has no right to enter parts of the world where slavery still exists and say a single damn thing condemning it. He has a moral dilemma on his hands (or one with hypocrisy in it).

I can see the reason for tying it back to the bible – our moral code...because this is what is respected in the world – amongst Christians (the bible as God’s word). So, I have to make a good argument for reasons slavery is not allowed and never can be (and I think I have at times). So when I happen upon a Christian person with a slave I can outright condemn his practices. If he wants to debate the validity – we can turn and ask the slave’s opinion of being a piece of property (would he rather be equal to the owner?).

“At what point are those points of view going to be "weak?" Or "wrong?"” (OSS)

I agree 100% - at what point do we not just condemn something as ‘wrong and hurtful’ – in this case – slavery.

“We keep getting told here that as we go forward in time, many views held now will seem ridiculous in some fashion, and yet we're supposed to hold to a book that was written before all these other examples?” (OSS)

Good point! I have been thinking about this avenue of thought for a little while also – maybe the bible is a standard to teach us to develop righteous standards – like it tried to do for its early Jewish community? This would be comparable to our country’s current law system and its upkeep/usefulness. I mean, Torah is about law and governance for the safety of society. Did it make mistakes? No comment…but it is a good instructional tool for the development of society.

OneSmallStep said...

Pastor Bob,

**Taken out of context I find some good things in the quote.**

This made me laugh. :) (Not as a way of mocking you, but in a truly finding it funny sort of way. Hopefully, you see why I saw the humor).

When you say you hear his message differently, is that because you're taking it out of context?

I also agree that not everything in our culture should be univerialized, either. Thinking back on it, if I do compare my culture to one in the past, it's usually based on the improvements we've made, such as civil rights and stuff.

I just really wish he had addressed what I saw as the main idea as to coming to grips with the Bible from the cultural standpoint the Bible had. And he didn't -- his examples again dealt with interpretation through one's own culture, and I found his examples flimsy at best. Almost dismissing those who do have serious problems with the Bible and how it's been used. And if he can't take those seriously, and deal with the serious objections, how am I -- or anyone -- supposed to take his reasonings seriously? Especially if his reasonings are meant to address my dilemmas?


**We may look back and say that those cultures heard wrongly but we also need to hear what those cultures, (and other cultures of today) have to teach us about what the Bible might really be saying. **

Agreed. Especially since how those cultures saw the Bible might still influence how we see the Bible. I'm thinking of the various atonement theories, for one.

Society,

**I am not sure who this Tim Keller is but his writing does seem kinda weak?**

I wish I could say this is a poor example of his entire book, but I can't. I was frustrated with a great deal of it, to the point where I was skimming the parts where he actually dealt with Christianity. I could've done a lot more critiquing, but that would've been obsessive. :)

“The Anglo-Saxons understand the text to be wrong because of how honor-driven their society is, rather than seeing Peter's actions in terms of the Jewish society.” (OSS)

**I would call that grievous error numero uno in my books. Keller is making a switch here**

I need more clarification here, in terms of how you're seeing this as an error. When you say that he says one thing for us -- is that the part about how contemporary British people read it, compared to the ANglo-Saxons? Or are you tying into my point that he's not addressing how to read the Bible in the original context by the two examples he offers?

**I disagree with Keller’s theology here – maybe some things God does we may not quite comprehend having a brain the size of a pea compared to His**

Just to make sure -- the part from my post that you quoted was how I was understanding Keller's point, not the words he actually used. But it sounds like you're understanding the same danger I am, in terms of the concession he's making if tied to serious moral examples such as slavery.

Although, and this ties into my comment to Pastor Bob ... if his sentence about God offending us was the whole point of his two examples, maybe he couldnt' offer deep examples in terms of slavery or women's rights. There's no way that sentence would've worked, then.

**So, I have to make a good argument for reasons slavery is not allowed and never can be (and I think I have at times).**

I thought your example with Exodus was a lot better than how he addressed the point. You, at least, are acknowledging that slavery is wrong, period, regardless of the type of slavery.

**maybe the bible is a standard to teach us to develop righteous standards – like it tried to do for its early Jewish community?**

It's an interesting thought ... if something is helping us grow, does that thing also require growth as well, in order to ensure that we don't grow out of the very thing helping us?

societyvs said...

"Or are you tying into my point that he's not addressing how to read the Bible in the original context by the two examples he offers?" (OSS)

My problem with Keller's interpretations is he does not go to original context and time - namely the Jewish viewpoint on the subject. He is addressing something like this culture thought this and that culture thought that - but who really cares - what did the original writers and their historical cultural context think on that issue. That is nowhere to be found in Keller's arguement. I mean, there is nothing thoroughly Jewish about this debate - and these are Jewish scriptures - shouldn't they be given some consideration?

I think Jewish writer's are involved in the original writings personally - now can I back that claim - not really except to say the original community talked about in the gospels is thorouhgly Jewish (Peter, James, and John) and saw things from that cultural viewpoint...and this Keller does not quite address.

Luke said...

the bible would be so much easier to read if you crazy liberals would just let me put my 21st century values on a 2,000+ book. seriously ;-)

http://toothface.blogspot.com/2008/09/duality-in-4-sentences.html

OneSmallStep said...

Luke: A Modern Prophet for a Modern Century. You even have a Gospel name! ;)