"You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."
I wonder if God reads the Bible. I mean, what we’re trying to do when we read the text is to understand it the way God understands it, right? I grew up in fundamentalist churches where biblical authority derived from the belief that God wrote it. I remember writing a paper at my Baptist college in which I said God “inspired” the authors to write what they had written; my Bible professor corrected me, saying God had inspired the text itself. I know he was just trying to fortify in me the doctrine of inerrancy. In this view, authority lies in God’s breathing of the Word, in what God meant when he wrote it. God speaks; we try to understand.
But what if God reads the Bible? And what if, as feminist Bible scholar Claudia Camp argues, scriptural authority “is always understood in relation to the authority of persons?" (p. 61) In one sense, this conclusion is inescapable. Paul’s second letter to Timothy may give us intra-biblical proof of the Bible’s own “inspiration,” but that’s a kind of circular reasoning, isn’t it? The Bible did not decide for itself what it was. By the time I wrote that college paper, Rodney Clapp’s book A Peculiar People had already opened my eyes to the very human process that gave us the Bible. It did not drop out of the sky like spittle from the mouth of God; the church drew water from the rivers of wisdom, put it in the containers of the old and new testaments, law, prophets, and Gospel, and discarded what the church deemed unnecessary. It was a messy, political process like any collective endeavor.
President Obama will publicly take the oath of office on two Bibles once owned by his political heroes, Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One Bible was well read, but cited cautiously, the other granted scriptural sanction to the civil rights movement.
When Obama lifts his hands from the Bibles and turns to deliver his second inaugural address on Monday (Jan. 21), his own approach to Scripture will come into view. Characteristically, it sits somewhere between the former president and famous preacher.
His faith forged in the black church, Obama draws deeply on its blending of biblical narratives with contemporary issues such as racism and poverty. But like Lincoln, Obama also acknowledges that Americans sometimes invoke the same Bible to argue past each other, and that Scripture itself counsels against sanctimony.
Obama articulated this view most clearly in a 2006 speech, saying that secularists shouldn’t bar believers from the public square, but neither should people of faith expect America to be one vast amen corner.
“He understands that you can appeal to people on religious grounds,” said Jeffrey Siker, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in California who has studied Obama’s speeches. ”But you also have to be able to translate your case into arguments that people of different faiths, or no faith, can grasp.”
In As I Lay Dying, the main character Anse appears self-absorbed when at his wife’s death he says, “God’s will be done. . . . Now I can get them teeth.” His character will certainly not be remembered for altruism. But Anse will be remembered for the physical effects of poverty: feet marred by labor, a spine permanently bent, skin unable to sweat from sunstroke suffered tending the fields, and a mouth without teeth.
To be clear, poverty itself does not cause dental issues. A local dentist reminds me, “Ancient skulls have minimal tooth loss. Rough grains cause more wear. For the most part rich, processed, sugary, and poorly nutritious foods destroy teeth.”
Dentistry may feel far removed from Epiphany: astronomical sighting, magi from the east, and three extravagant gifts. But I wonder, given the knowledge of these precious gifts and their use in that time for dental care, if perhaps that frankincense and myrrh would protect that winsome smile of Christ for the next three decades of his life. With these rich gifts in hand, the trio Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could leave to the safety of Egypt before Herod would threaten the life of Christ and every other young boy under two.
Is poverty what it used to be? Or has poverty grown so shameful that we dare not speak its name? So determined are we keep poverty out of view, we erase the presence of the poor from Jesus’ teachings. The widow we encounter in Mark 12:38-44 provides a case study in poverty and oppression. Unable to confront poverty, we have turned her into something safer – an example of generosity.
The election has just passed. As I’m writing this, I don’t know who will win. I do know this: neither presidential candidate could work up the courage to address poverty as a serious issue, at least not directly. If Democrats typically look out for the poor, you wouldn’t know it from President Obama; Mitt Romney mentioned the poor more often than did the president, if only to remind voters that the economy is struggling. For his part, Obama avoided the “p-word,” even if he discussed policies that could remedy the poverty problem. Some of our political leaders do include the poor in their policy work, but they face an uphill struggle.
There’s a lot at stake here. By trying to turn the Jewish poetry of the Genesis story into a scientific-historical text that would stand against evolution, Creationism, as an ideology, serves to diminish the account of human dignity established in the Creation story that might, in fact, represent a worthy alternative to Darwinism. Says [Marilynne] Robinson: “People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of ‘to him who asks, give,’ or ‘sell what you have and give the money to the poor.’ In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of ‘religion’ have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.”
Debates on immigration in the United States continue to move in the default direction of North/South. As such, the prominent debating points often direct public attention to the U.S./Mexico border fence and the Latina/o community. By sleight-of-hand, many in the mainstream media tend to recast a centuries-old U.S. immigration experience as a Latina/o problem.
Unlike the variety of migration stories in the Bible, the forces creating migration for many Latina/o families are closely tied to the issues of power and hyper-consumerism. Often as a last resort do immigrant families enter the northbound currents of low-wage laborers that, as Bishop Minerva Carcaño describes, feed “the economic machine in this country.”
Biblical literalism, and the corresponding idea of the inerrancy of scripture, has been bumping up against the sciences for a long time.
Way back in the Renaissance, the church insisted that the Bible taught that the sun revolved around the earth, and charged Galileo with heresy for claiming otherwise. Today, the debate between the Bible and natural science continues, most notably in the evolution/creation debate.
While discussions of religion and science usually revolve around conflicts with natural science, I'd like to propose that the place we really should be placing our attention is the relationship between faith and the social sciences.
As our understanding of all science grows, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the position of biblical literalism without seeming absurd.
Maybe we haven't all heard the thunder clap yet, but the lightning bolt struck a while ago. We are going to have to adjust our reading of the Bible to coincide with a modern scientific understanding of the universe. In broad strokes, that shift has already happened.
The better way says, if we follow God’s religious values we can use global technology, green economy, and targeted economic and infrastructure investment, total access to education, and creative job creation strategies to address the ugly realities of poverty. If we follow the enduring ethic of love we can beat our swords of racism into the plows that will till the new soil of brotherhood and sisterhood
If we see the poor as our neighbors, if we remember we are our brother’s keeper, then we shall put the poor, rather than the wealthy, at the center of our agenda.
If we hold on to God’s values, the sick shall have good health care. The environment shall be protected. The injustices of our judicial systems shall be made just. We shall respect the dignity of all people. We can love all people. We can see all people as God’s creations.
We can use our resources to develop our minds and economy, rather than build bombs, missiles, and weapons of human destruction.
Do we want to keep pressing toward God’s vision? Values are once again the question of our times.
Do we want a just, wholesome society, or do we want to go backwards? This is the question before us. And I believe that at this festival there is still somebody who wants what God wants. Somebody who understands there are some things with God that never change
There are still some prophetic people that have not bowed, who as a matter of faith know that Love is better than hate. Hope is better than despair. Community is better than division.
Peace is better than war. Good of the whole is better than whims of a few. God wants everybody — red, yellow, black, brown and white taken care of. God wants true community, more togetherness … not more separateness. God wants justice, always has, always will.
Because with God some things never change.
After reading my post about Randy Wolford, the snake-handling pastor, died from a venomous snakebite, fellow God's Politics blogger Tim Suttle sent me a link to his own post on the subject. Suttle’s angle was different, and I found it fascinating.
Basically, he contends that the verses in Mark that Wolford and others use to justify handling snakes as an act of worship (among other bizarre practices) should not ever have made it into the Bible to begin with. His article cites what he calls a “nerdy academic journal article” from Bible scholar Robert H. Stein. In it, Stein notes a few reasons why the text in Mark chapter 16 beyond verse 8 should never have been included in the Bible.
First, there have been older copies of the manuscripts from which Mark was produced that stop at Mark 16:8. In addition, there’s the historical agreement among scholars that scribes (the guys who copied the texts by hand) did have a propensity for adding to the documents they copied but seldom, if ever, deleted anything. There’s also the fact that ancient scholars whose commentaries on Mark have been found do not mention these verses at all, as well as the agreement among many Biblical scholars that the tone of those verse suggests a different author wrote them.
When I am faced with dishonesty and fraud on a systemic scale, I ask my questions of God. But I am continually directed back to humanity itself to find the origins of injustice.
So what can we do to end injustice?
The Washington Post reported on the massive falsification of documents by banks:
“Employees at major banks who churned out fraudulent foreclosure documents, forged signatures, made up fake job titles and falsely notarized paperwork often did so at the behest of their superiors, according to a federal investigation released Tuesday....
"‘I believe the reports we just released will leave the reader asking one question: How could so many people have participated in this misconduct?’ David Montoya, HUD inspector general, said in a statement. ‘The answer: simple greed.’”
There was a movement back in the 1960s that many of us only have read about, while others vividly remember. Philosophers and theologians explored what was labeled the “Death of God” movement. Interest in the subject has re-emerged particularly as of late because William Hamilton, one of the more prominent voices in the Death of God movement, diedlast week at age 87.
The movement inspired TIME Magazine’s now-famous cover (seen here) in 1966, raising the question in the public forum: Is God Dead? The cover has since been listed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Ten Covers that Shook the World.”
Hamilton’s faith was shaken during his teenage years when three of his friends were making a homemade pipe bomb. The project went wrong and detonated, killing two of the three boys.
The two killed were Christians. The lone survivor, an atheist.
Hamilton’s crisis of faith centered around a theological concept known as theodicy, which explores the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More specifically, why does misfortune seem to befall the faithful, while those lacking faith enjoy what seems to be a providential hall pass?
Eugene Peterson has written more than 30 books on theology and the life of faith in his 80 years, but he is perhaps best known for the one book he didn’t write: The Bible.
Peterson’s “para-translation” of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, was published over a span of nine years, from 1993 to 2002. And even a decade after its completion, critics still are debating the merits and missteps of his translation of Holy Writ into idiomatic, sometimes colloquial, modern English. To date there are more than 15 million copies of The Message in print.
During the two-day Q Practices gathering in New York City this week, Peterson talked about the epic translation project he says he still can’t believe he actually managed to complete.
“I didn’t feel it was anything special when I was doing it,” Peterson said. “I can’t believe I did this. Reading it now I think, ‘How did I do this?’ It truly was a work of the Holy Spirit.”
The question is, are we listening? For God, who hears the prayers of God's people, is calling us to listen as well. God's justice is a collective project.
But when we listen, we hear stories of oppression, corruption, and injustice, in the face of honesty and hard work. But listening is not enough. When we listen, God calls us from the quiet of prayer to be a healing presence in the world.
"She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness." - Proverbs 31:27
This past Sunday, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the blog Red State wrote a post titled “The Perversion of the Words of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the Sinner Barack H. Obama."
First, I hope that Erickson remembers that in the Christian tradition calling someone a “sinner” is a theological statement of fact, not a pejorative. Labeling another Christian as a sinner in a bold and brash headline is, I am sure, very gratifying, but it hardly sets one up for an argument based in the teachings of Jesus who came not for the healthy but the sick or Paul who labeled himself the “chief of sinners.”
So, let me get this out of the way. I, Timothy M. King, am a sinner too.
Did you hear a particularly good sermon, homily, teaching, preaching, lesson or message this Sunday?
We'd love it if you'd share it with us.
Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States, founder of the Carter Center and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He has authored many books, the most recent being "Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President." In the wide-ranging interview that follows on the blog, the Huffington Post's Senior Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush spoke to President Carter by phone about the role faith played in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the time of his greatest alienation from God, faith in the White House and his personal daily devotional practice. This post originally appeared on HuffPo.