Friday, September 12, 2008

How shallow are you today?

I have one more bit of advice for people struggling with some of the Bible's teaching. We should make sure we distinguish between the major themes and the message of the Bible and its less primary teachings. The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of those subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don't make sense. We should therefore consider the Bible's teachings in their proper order.

Let's take a hot issue today as a good example. If you say, "I can't accept what the Bible says about gender roles," you must keep in mind that Christians themselves differ over what some texts mean, as they do about many, many other things. However, they all confess in the words of the Apostle's Creed that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.

You may appeal, "But I can't accept the Bible if what it says about gender is outmoded." I would respond to that with the question -- are you saying that because you don't like what the Bible says about sex that Jesus couldn't have been raised from the dead? I'm sure you wouldn't insist on such a non sequitur. If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible. If he is not who he says he is, why would we care what the Bible says about anything else?

Think of it like this. If you dive into the shallow end of the Biblical pool, where there are many controversies over interpretation, you may get scraped up. But if you dive into the center of the Biblical pool, where there is consensus -- about the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection -- you will be safe. It is therefore important to consider the Bible's core claims about who Jesus is and whether he rose from the dead before you reject it for its less central and more controversial teachings.

If we let our unexamined beliefs undermine our confidence in the Bible, the cost may be greater than you think.

If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship. Remember the (two!) movies
The Stepford Wives? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a relationship as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won't! You'll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as a real relationship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.

Later, he goes on to say "Sometimes people approach me and say, "I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don't think I can accept that part." I usually respond: "If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead." That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can't live our lives any way we want. It also mean we don't have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything."

My first reaction upon reading this section: apparently, having moral quandaries about certain Biblical passages is the same as wanting to live in whatever manner I want. The problem here is that whenever the charge comes that people reject God, the person issuing that charge means that the God-rejector wants to just wallow in a sin-fest. A gluttonous, lying, envious, hating sin-fest. If the person *really* wallows, maybe s/he will even murder or steal, too!

So who is truly the person who is not taking the Bible seriously? The one who says that s/he has serious issues with events in the Bible, and certain commands that might support immoral conditions? Or the person who seems to be implying that if you just want to live the way you want if you reject Bible over those issues.

Which is again what frustrates me, because I'm not detecting that the author is taking the problems seriously in any way whatsoever. I'm essentially told that if Jesus rose from the dead, I have to accept everything in the Bible? (Although, I'm not sure how to accept some of those "secondary" issues because there's a vast amount of disagreement, such as proper gender roles. And somehow, the secondary issues such as how widows are to be treated doesn't make sense without the primary Jesus coming back from the dead issue, only I'm guessing the secondary issue still doesn't make sense if there's massive disagreements about the secondary issues).

Not only that, but it's divorcing the resurrection from the moral claims about God. When you say that Jesus is the son of God, you also have to define who "God" is. Is God someone who demands all firstborns be thrown into a volcano to appease His wrath? Yet is this a same God who everyone claims is moral? In which case, the two claims about God are contradicting each other, because our definition of morality is that it is not right to throw firstborn children into volcanoes. So the issue is not "if the Bible says immoral things about gender roles, then Jesus didn't raise from the dead." The issue is, "if the Bible says immoral things about gender roles, then is this truly the work of a good God?"

Second, the false dichotomy between either having a Stepford God or completely trusting all of the Bible completely skews those who are serious about the Bible, and yet don't hold it to be inerrant. Those who find human elements in the Bible find that element because of events that occurred in the Bible, events that would outrage us in any other setting. Take Noah's Ark, for example. Every single person on the planet drowned, and from what I understand, drowning is the worst way to go. Now, the Bible does say that all the people were horrible. But what about the children? The infants deserved to drown? The two year olds? The eight year olds? They all deserved to have absolutely no mercy or compassion? And what if people were in the water, pleading with Noah and his family for help? Pleading for their children? We'd be horrified if people did that today, and yet it's acceptable back then? I have a Stepford God if I believe that a good, moral and just God does not behave in such a fashion? That's a contradiction to assign that type of behavior to an entity that we are also describing as loving?

Yes, in a true relationship, there will be events that piss you off. Such as with a husband and wife. At the same time, though, there are also limits imposed on that relationship. If your wife is a compassionate person, then you also know that your wife won't let infants drown if she can do something to stop that.

It almost seems that the approach in this paragraph is creating an undefinable relationship. If you have an entity that can do something like that, and yet still be called loving, then you have no way to define that entity, because words become meaningless. If you say the entity is loving, and yet the entity can do anything it wants, what does the word "love" mean? Or justice? Or mercy? You're still in a situation where you can't have a real relationship, because you have no way of qualify the entity with whom you have the relationship. There's no way to truly describe the entity, because there's no limits imposed upon said entity. There's no way to truly know who the relationship is with, because those descriptive words -- those qualities -- allow us to know that we are interacting with person A and not person B.

It's like saying that your wife is a loving person, and then watching the wife slaughter everyone on the block for no reason whatsoever. You then have no way of knowing the wife. Words used to describe her are useless.

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?