Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

Bible Thoughts

One of Roger Ebert’s movie rules is that whenever two characters are talking and one of them quotes the Bible, the other will immediately respond with book, chapter and verse, as if everyone in the world had the Bible memorized. I’ve noticed this too, including in one of my favorite musicals, Guys & Dolls. Memorizing Bible passages is a neat parlor trick, and can make one appear intelligent, like people who randomly quote Shakespeare but never read his plays, but mere memorization does equal understanding.

Worse, memorizing quotes to support a pet belief or bias—prooftexting—weaponizes the Bible in a manner that is misleading and dangerous. You want support for slavery? It’s in there. You want some “proof” that homosexuality is a sin? It’s there. In short, if you need backup for just about any prejudice you may harbor, you can find it in the Bible if you look hard enough and don’t worry about the larger context.

It was only a few generations ago that slaveholders turned to the Bible to justify their inhumane “peculiar institution.” Abolitionists were hard-pressed to find any Biblical support for their cause. Now we look back at those slaveholders waving their Bibles and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?” Now Mike Pence and a whole band of anti-gay pastors are pounding their Bibles to justify their homophobia. The current trend among this crowd is to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on gays, claiming it is punishment from God, and using the Bible as “proof.” There will come a day—not soon enough—that the world will look back on these folks and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?”

 “The portrayal of the Bible as a source of infallible truth does not arise from a reading of the Bible itself, but is a monstrous imposition upon it…Perhaps the greatest irony in the history of the Bible is that it itself has so often been treated as an idol, and venerated with a reverential attitude while its message is ignored.” (John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism at Yale University, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition, p. 393)

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Old Testament

Israel Conquers Ai (Joshua 8), wood engraving, published in 1877

There are those who agree with Ned Flanders that the Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament, and the New AND BETTER Testament. There are people who would like to do away with the Old Testament altogether. But even though some of it is rough going, the Old Testament is worth keeping. And since nearly ¾ of the Christian Bible is devoted to it, plenty of other people must have thought so too.

There is no question that the Old Testament has its difficulties, or rather WE have difficulties with parts of the Old Testament. There’s the violence, which is seemingly everywhere, but here is one sample: “With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21). The mind-numbing strings of names (1 Chronicles devotes NINE chapters to this). There are the bits which are morally questionable in every way (Judges 19). And there are long sections that are comically repetitious. Numbers 7 gives a detailed list of the offerings brought by the tribe of Judah to the newly anointed Tent of the Lord’s presence, then follows it up with lists of the offerings from each of the other eleven tribes…even though all twelve of the lists are identical!

And everyone who has attempted to wade through Leviticus knows that it is sheer torture.
BLOFELD: “So you have decided not to cooperate, Mr. Bond. Well, read Leviticus in its entirety!”
JAMES BOND: “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”

In spite of all this, we need to see the Old Testament as more than a lengthy introduction to the New Testament. The breadth and richness of the writing alone is staggering. The Bible has come down to us as a whole, and however messy the process of putting it all together most assuredly was, we need to accept it as a whole. It’s all there for a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When confronted with a passage that seems pointless or just plain yucky, don’t skip over it Ask yourself why it’s there. What role does it play in the work as a whole? Who put it there and why? I come back again and again to the questions posed by Peter Enns and Jared Byas in their podcast, The Bible for Normal People:
What is the Bible, and what do we do with it?

The Old Testament is full of treasure—start digging!

Bible Glutton

Good News Bible

I had a copy of The Children’s Bible as a kid. Every kid I knew had a copy of The Children’s Bible. It had all the good bits (and pictures!) without any of the controversial stuff. I thought of it as just another collection of bedtime stories.

I knew the Bible was a big deal. I went to Sunday school and church every week as far back as I can remember. The minister read a few tidbits of scripture as part of every service. There were copies of Good News for Modern Man in every pew. But even at church, we mostly got the good bits without the controversial stuff. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but sometime before I left high school I acquired a Living Bible (read letter, with concordance), and it was this Bible I decided I would read cover to cover, which I did.

Since then, I have read other Bibles cover to cover. My trustworthy RSV, The Message, most recently the Catholic Study Bible. Just this past week I started in on the massive CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha. I already have Robert Alter’s even more massive Hebrew Bible with Commentary on my Amazon wishlist. I guess I’m a Bible glutton.

Now simply reading the Bible cover to cover does not constitute Bible study. Digging into the Bible in depth is a worthwhile activity, and necessary if one is to even begin to truly understand this sprawling mess of a book. I should add here that simply memorizing select passages also does not count as Bible study. It might be an impressive parlor trick, and could potentially help on Jeopardy, but memorizing and understanding are not synonymous. People who can rattle off dozens, or even hundreds, of out of context Bible verses remind me of Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, in the movie Rain Man. Raymond is profoundly autistic. He has an astounding memory but no sense of what it is exactly he has memorized. When stressed, he recites Abbott & Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” comedy sketch word for word, over and over. People who quote Biblical passages with no knowledge of the context or meaning of those passages are like that.

I love the Bible. I love reading different versions of it. I find something new in it every time I dip into it. I love reading it, and I also love studying it—reading commentaries, footnotes and cross-references; listening to podcasts and speeches from Biblical scholars; discussing it with other Bible fanatics. Too many people who claim to base their faith on the Bible have only a superficial knowledge of the book. Treat it simplistically and you will miss the best parts. If you stay in the shallow end, you’ll never discover the riches in the deep end.

Crystal Clear Bible!

crystal clear bible

“Are you tired of ambiguity? Sick of long passages of meaningless genealogies and obsolete laws? Embarrassed by sex scenes?

“Well, fear no more! The new Crystal Clear Bible is here! All the answers you seek to life’s problems and today’s hot button issues can be found in easy to digest, tweetable chunks. No more contractions! No more room for interpretation! It’s all crystal clear! In less than 300 pages!

“Your favorite stories are included, minus the nasty bits. Distracting tangents have been eliminated. Problematic wording has been glossed over with feel-good aphorisms. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Job: Gone! Proverbs has been brought into alignment with current prosperity gospel thinking. Difficult foreign names have been Americanized because the Bible was written, after all, with the United States in mind.

“Take advantage of these helpful extras: Enjoy reading while you listen to your favorite contemporary Christian choruses using our handy praise tune concordance! Useful talking points are printed in red letters! Explanatory notes highlight allowable exceptions to the Ten Commandments. We have thoughtfully toned down Jesus’ anti-establishment rhetoric, and substituted family friendly quotes that we’re sure are what he actually meant to say.

“Buy now and receive a handy wallet card that puts the Bible’s main points at your fingertips. It’s all crystal clear!”
* * * * *
This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

Calling: Ministry? (shhh!)

Bibles 2

While I’ve experienced nothing as dramatic as a burning bush, a blinding light, or a voice from God, lately I have been feeling a most unexpected calling: to the ministry. There’s something I didn’t expect! Though I’ve long been interested in religion and theology, and fascinated by the Bible in all its sprawling messiness, an actual career in ministry has never been on my radar. So why am I now feeling the urge to go to seminary? I’m not sure I believe in God, and don’t even like people all that much!

Well, the first thing to recognize is that seminaries have evolved beyond what they were when I first attended college back in the primeval past. (I’m so old we had to run from dinosaurs on the way to school, dodging around pools of molten lava where the Earth’s crust was still cooling.) It used to be that if you wanted to be a Methodist preacher, you went to a Methodist seminary; if you wanted to be a Baptist preacher, you went to a Baptist seminary, etc. Seminaries were there to make preachers in whatever denomination they worked with. These days, seminaries (at least some of them) are much more academic and much more diverse. A seminary may welcome students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. This phenomenon was highlighted in a 2015 New York Times article called Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.

In my own case, after many years of avoiding church like the plague, I have oozed my way back in, first as a substitute choir accompanist, and now as an actual church employee. Though I initially looked on the whole project as “just another gig,” the experience has rekindled my earlier passion for theology. I’ve been enjoying a whole new crop of books, podcasts, and YouTube channels that prove “religious” and “intelligent” can be compatible terms. I’m absorbing—sometimes in agreement, sometimes not—the words of Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. And I’m wanting to dive deeper.

But seminary? At my age? Really?

At this point, everything about the endeavor feels like a long shot. Applying to school, being accepted, paying for it, juggling that along with job, family, and other commitments—these are all big hurdles. Not to mention navigating the many side-effects such a radical life change may bring. It feels, with only minor exaggeration, as dramatic as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” I keep thinking of how Scrooge’s acquaintances and family reacted to the new Scrooge with shock and disbelief.

It’s too soon to think about any of that. For now, I am still in a period of exploration and contemplation. There will be much private meditation and many conversations ahead.