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!

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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.

Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

Faith and the Comfort Zone

I recently wrote about stepping outside of my comfort zone (Take Me Out to the Ball Game). In his book Holy Grounds, Rev. Tim Schenck writes, “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” I say amen to that!

Take the oft-quoted John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV) This is one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith, that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross so that my sins would be forgiven. Just about everything about this takes me out of my comfort zone.

First off, it doesn’t make sense. I like things that are neat and logical, and this just sounds crazy. Why would God do something like this? It sounds like a terribly roundabout way of doing things. Didn’t he have any better ideas? How does that work anyway? What possible connection could there be between Jesus’s death on a cross 2,000 years ago and my sins today? How do I manage to get eternal life out of the deal? The very concept makes my brain hurt!

I’m also more than a little uncomfortable with the whole business because it sounds too fantastic to be true. We are always told, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, that certainly fits the scenario here! Eternal life? Really? Even though I in no way deserve it? I’m naturally wary of any deal this one-sided, even if—especially if—it is entirely in my favor.

Furthermore, I didn’t ask for it. Jesus did it for me anyway. We are unaccustomed to any act of over-the-top generosity. Most of us can’t honestly fathom the idea of going to a horrible death for a stranger. How much less would we be willing to die for a stranger who won’t even be born for another two millennia. I’m uncomfortable with that level of self-sacrifice. If there was ever a gift capable of inducing overwhelming guilt, here it is!

Faith is not only accepting the gift and accepting that it happened as told in the Bible, but accepting that it really is as wonderful as it sounds. “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” John 3:16 takes me way out of my comfort zone. I am suspicious of it because it defies logic. I goes beyond anything I have come to expect in the world. I fear that I am unworthy of such love, and that I might lose it.

Then there is this to consider: Elsewhere in the Bible we read, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12:48, KJV). I would say everlasting life qualifies as “much.” Faith demands that I overcome my fear of the much that may be required of me. I must leave my comfort zone.