Ground Rules

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Words, words, words.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

As I embark upon this exegetical project of mine, I feel I need to explain my approach, so as to avoid confusion down the line. It may be controversial, but that is the point: as a rule, church leaders are not controversial enough (at least, not in the right way) when “rightly dividing” the word. I say this from experience: too often, preaching is intended to tickle the eardrums, to tell people what they want to hear and send them back out to endure another week in the world. The idea of challenging them to encounter that world and allow that encounter to act as a reverse hermeneutic, itself shaping one’s interaction with scripture, never really comes into play.

What I’m talking about is not the controversy of standing on principle. It is the controversy of questioning the principles upon which we stand. The sacred cows. The pet doctrines. The things we yell about come election time. It is the controversy caused by challenging people to think beyond received wisdom, to see things in a new light.

So, here goes:

1) I will set aside entirely the language of “divine inspiration.” I have no problem with the notion that biblical authors were inspired by a love of God or belief in a certain idea of God, or that as a text it is an inspired work. All texts are inspired by a love of something, from poetry to treatises on computer coding. But this is as far as I will go. Beyond this, there be monsters. Not because I am daunted by supposed divine authority, but because if all people are to benefit from the positive teachings of Jesus (from Christians to Buddhists and back again), the slightest whiff of sectarianism will throw off the whole project. And what is talk of ultimate authority but code for spiritual imperialism?

2) This is not an exercise in demythologization. Myth is not in itself a bad thing. It is the vehicle whereby we interpret our world, meaning handed down through the generations. Myth is not the problem. The problem arises from treating myth as if it were fact. So, when it comes to miracle stories, it is not enough to simply dismiss them as false, because they are not. Of course, they are also not strictly true. Somewhere, nestled between literalism and metaphor, lies meaning. And meaning is what we’re after. Homiletical approaches to miracle stories often suffer not from too much interpretation, but too little. They are either taken at face value (this happened), or rejected at face value (this didn’t happen). This project is aimed at both extremes, in the hopes that their adherents might be encouraged to meet in the middle.

3) I will seek to redefine the doctrine of salvation in terms purely physical. This is one area in which most literalists wax blithely metaphorical. Somehow, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and preaching good news to the poor throw off the shackles of biblical literalism and don the sublime clothing of allegory. Why? Because it’s easier to preach to someone than it is to actually reach out and touch them as people. So, we need a theology that encourages us to save what we can see before moving on to what we cannot. We have no business lyricizing the life beyond while life right here and now falls apart around us. No more fiddling while Rome burns.

4) With certain rare exceptions, I will be sticking to the Gospels (and possibly even some of the extra-canonical teachings of Jesus). I will not touch Revelation with a ten-foot pole: that hobby-horse has been pretty well beaten to death. As for Paul, well, we wouldn’t have most of the problems we have today were it not for him. (The rest of them, of course, were caused by Augustine.)

5) That I am arguing for the good in the New Testament should in no way be construed as a dismissal of the elements which might be more problematic. This is an attempt to offer one interpretation, and interpretation is always an act of dissection, deciding what to keep and what to set aside. To toss out the good because of the bad is unwarranted. This is why authority must be earned rather than assumed: that which is patently unjust must never be accepted as authoritative. And that which passes such things off under the guise of authority should always be set aside.

At the end of the day, this is really about those I’ve left behind. Call it an apology for bailing out before the ship started to sink. I sometimes think that, had I been less exhausted, I might have stayed on board. To these people, I say: there are other ways to live your faith, ways that are contributory rather than retributive, ways that recognize the meaninglessness of “in but not of” as the foundation of a moral code.

Even if you do ascribe to the Bible an authority that I do not, these lessons apply. There are other modes of interpretation that deserve at least a glance, a chance to convey something much more akin to divine love than the image of a jealous God ever could. An approach that allows us to open the door to Jesus without slamming it shut on everyone else.

I am the Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

The Bible, as Viewed from a Fence Post

800px-crapaud_st_helier_jerseyOut of a small set of plain speeches by Christ grew a mountain of critical discourse preaching the word of a violently angry God who demanded that He be appeased. Just as in Classical Greece, the more violent, less thoughtful factions came to the fore, and we have lived with the consequences ever since. Long letters to the faithful prescribing aggressive piety have buried Christ’s simple message. Jesus spoke of peace and of contributory ways of being, and the Romans executed him for it. That many of his followers became more Roman than Christian is telling.

– Patrick Finn

They say that if one sees a turtle on a fence post, the only logical conclusion is that a higher purpose (i.e., some dude) placed it there.

I say that that turtle possesses the clearest vision of us all, because only it knows if our conclusion is valid.

So, from my fence post, I feel the time has come to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was, after all, trained in college to interpret the Bible, and I spent almost a decade of my life doing it for a living. Furthermore, I spent the first three decades or so of my life trying to live according to the dictates of divine scripture, and I’ve spent a good deal of time insisting to some of my more strident non-Christian friends that there is good to be found in the Bible, even if one doesn’t assign to it any metaphysical origins.

So, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

The first thing I’ll do is dismiss out of hand the entire Old Testament. I know, I know. How very neo-Bultmannian of me. In my case, though, this has nothing to do with dispensations and/or historical relevance, and everything to do with the fact that the Old Testament simply does not do what so many theologians and pastors have gymnastically insisted that it does. It neither “prefigures” Jesus or his teachings, nor does it offer any advice on living one’s religion in a constructive way. It is destructive, divisive, and aggressively political–all of which stands in direct contradiction of even conservative interpretations of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

In other words, mining the Old Testament for lessons on goodness and moral rectitude is not unlike searching for tips on a healthier sex life in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. You might make a little progress…but only if you’re willing to miss the point entirely.

You might point to Pauline “exegesis,” and claim that the later New Testament is all about explaining Jewish misinterpretation of what is, really, a chronicle of divine benevolence, and a foretaste of warm fuzzies to come. But positive interpretations of the Old Testament aren’t just about reformulation; they are an exercise in selective ignorance.

All of the stories from which we glean our “pearls of wisdom” are submerged in so many muddy details that considerable rinsing is required before these jewels can emerge. But once the wash cycle ends, we deny the laundry room’s existence.

Take that most convenient of scapegoats: Noah’s Ark. Beyond mathematical, architectural, and logistical difficulties, one encounters a picture of God based almost entirely on the old “means vs. ends” debate. Look at the pretty rainbow, parcel-post from a fairly petty deity. Try as you might to dig some diamond out of this conceptual muck, it just can’t be done. At least, not with any intellectual integrity.

Here we have, if taken literally, the most drastic bait and switch ever perpetrated upon the human race: Omniscient God creates innocent humans (innocent in the sense that they do not know right from wrong), puts them in a garden full of shiny objects, and tells them not to touch the shiniest one. Which they immediately do. Anyone who’s ever told a child anything could have seen that coming. And God, being omniscient, had to have.

After knowingly creating a hopeless situation and watching it fall apart, God proceeds to hold the innocent humans’ preordained choice against them for all eternity (oh, and by the way, against you and me, as well). What’s more, however many years later, apparently surprised at what he already knew would happen, God places the blame for a deck he himself stacked on the shoulders of the whole human race, and decides to wipe them out for their completely egregious participation in a plan he himself formulated in a way that led inevitably to this conclusion.

Rinse, rinse, rinse.

God loved his creation SOOOOO much, that he saved Noah and his family, and some of the livestock. Sweet dreams, kids!

I could go on, but enough about that. My point is that if one is to find the good in the Christian scriptures, they will do well to jump straight into the New Testament. Because, while there is plenty of detritus through which to sift there as well, there are also many beautiful thoughts that have impacted my life in a positive way and which, were they to become a greater focus within Christian congregations, would represent a game-changer, a whole new way of living Christianity, not just spiritually constructive but socially constructive as well.

I come in the name of the baby so often lost in the bathwater, in the firm belief that there is more to Christianity than the 700 Club might suggest. Beyond the Family Research Councils and the Jerry Falwells we all know and love, there’s this guy named Jesus, who lived and died, and in the meantime taught some wonderful things our religious leaders have worked so hard to make us forget.

I am Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

Religiocracy

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Your Catholic blues, your convent shoes,
Your stick-on tattoos now they’re making the news
Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car.
Please, please, please
Get up off your knees.

– U2

It’s not me; it’s the Bible.

I have had just about enough of the line of reasoning that, after admitting freely that same-sex marriage represents harm neither to the social fabric or the institution of marriage, still insists that same-sex relationships must be opposed, because scripture says so. Or the Vatican. Or whatever.

When I ask for your position on a given issue, I’m not looking for a quote from the catechism, or the Pauline letters, or the Baptist Faith and Message. I’m asking for your position. If you must resort to the aforementioned sources, then I would humbly suggest that in reality you have no position. You may have subscribed to someone else’s, but you don’t really have one of your own.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with a religion that is, as the old cliché goes, so heavenly-minded that it is no earthly good. With a God who makes his bones by setting people against each other instead of making them one. Anybody can promise pie in the sky by and by; it takes a real “person” to effect change for the better in the lives of individuals right here and now. With the former, there is no burden of proof; with the latter, proof is the burden.

There is something even more fundamentally wrong with a religion that preaches love while practicing discrimination in the name of love. This is the “milk” of scripture on which we’re raised: we must ensure inequality now in order to guarantee equality in heaven. We must forsake the self-evident present to ensure the all but imaginary future. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the Hell kind of sense does that make?

No less an historical figure than Augustine himself embodied perfectly the double standard upon which this approach to “freedom” is based: when we are persecuted by them, persecution is evil, but when we, given the upper hand, persecute them back, it is the essence of Christian charity.

If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious….Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow; she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error (The Correction of the Donatists).

In this spirit of self-important benevolence, we greet the world. Give us freedom, that we might give you less.

On the one hand, we follow a teacher who promises life in abundance (not then; now), while on the other we insist on a hermeneutics that takes it away. We are living a “faith” that subsists on inequality and division, in the hopes that one day, way beyond the blue, when the roll is called up yonder, we’ll still be around to care.

Why?

Because we believe. Or so we’re told…

Fool Me Twice

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Friend: a
word, so long as no more
words are heard. Truth be told,
grow old in doubt, and
when you shout, no rope
responds. Life preserved
to sink or swim, then sink
again.

And when the waters,
once receded, flood anew…

Blue