Out 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.