Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Evolution of Adam (2)

Peter Enns' The Evolution of Adam provides a brilliant unpacking of the Old Testament origin narratives.  This is Enns' burden in the first half of his book, and the critique is pretty much unanswerable.  That he is addressing a predominantly evangelical audience as an insider is remarkable.  On the strength of this alone he needs to be taken seriously.

The second half of the book moves out into the New Testament, and here the star of the show, for good or ill, is Paul.  Enns maintains (rightly!) that Paul's approach to the Eden story is - let's choose the adjectives carefully - innovative, creative and unique.
The role that Paul assigns to Adam in [Romans 5] is largely unique to Paul in the ancient world, and it moves well beyond what Genesis and the Old Testament have to say.
Which is a polite way of saying that he doesn't have anything textually solid to hang his case on.

[A]fter Genesis 5, aside from 1 Chronicles 1:1 Adam makes no explicit appearance in the Old Testament.  Further, the Adam of Paul's theology - as the explicit cause of human sinfulness and death - does not seem to be found in the Old Testament either.
Which is a polite way of saying that Paul made it up.  Why?  Well, Paul is a complex thinker...
Paul's handling of his Scripture is notoriously creative and complex, not simple and straightforward.
Which is a polite way of saying that Paul is either confusing, confused, or both.  In one sense, however, Paul was not unique.
Ancient interpreters were not neutral observers of the text ... they read selectively, capitalized on ambiguities in the text, and brought it all to bear on some pressing concerns of their community.
Which is, dare one say it, a polite way of saying that Paul, but not Paul alone, happily manhandled and shoe-horned the Old Testament to suit himself, and, glory be, this was perfectly okay.

Enns goes on to provide five illustrations of Paul's fast and loose approach to the Old Testament.

1. Isaiah 49:8 as used in 2 Corinthians 6:2
2. The misreading of "Abraham's seed" in Galatians 3:16 and 29
3. Habakkuk 2:4 as used in Galatians 3:11 ("Paul calls upon Habakkuk 2:4 to make his point, a passage that, in its Old Testament context... seems to make the opposite point.")
4. Isaiah 59:20 as used in Romans 11:26-27
5. Genesis 15:6 as used in Romans 4.

This hardly inspires us with confidence in Paul's abilities, a man who is often held to be the finest, most profound theologian of all time, bar none.  Enns is blunt on Paul's singular but literal reading of the Adam character; after all this is the roadblock he wants to clear so likeminded Christians can embrace a scientific understanding of origins.

That's a worthy goal; may the force be with him.  But:
Admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul's Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined.
Do you feel reassured?

Enns' wants us to see Paul as a child of his time, which is quite reasonable.  He was however a shoddy interpreter of scripture, and anchored his gospel in multiple misunderstandings, but, hey, no worries, relax, it's all good.  Paul may have been a third rate exegete, but...
Paul came to understand that the human plight was far deeper and more widespread than his own Jewish  worldview thought.
Oh, okay, so after all that Paul was indeed the deep, profound, insightful bloke we thought he was all along.  Those darn Jews were just too dull to understand that.  No wonder he had to play fix-it with the Old Testament. Sorry guys.
His reading of the Old Testament in general is creative, driven by both hermeneutical conventions of the time and - most importantly - by his experience of the risen Christ.
There is a problem here, apart from the arrogant supercessionism.

Enns' Paul is, in effect, the real 'revelator', not Jesus.  He pays no attention, for example, to the fact that Paul was regarded as a dubious character by non-Pauline Christians, as evidenced within the New Testament itself.  Paul's interesting but flawed expositions of scripture are driven by his own visions ("his experience of the risen Christ") and arguably his towering ego.  Why is this acceptable for Paul but not for Reverend Moon?  Enns appears to stand in the camp of those who would claim that Paul is the real founder of Christianity, making the historical Jesus - along with the original Jesus movement - largely irrelevant, or peripheral at best.

And while we're flushing down Paul's opposition within the early church, we can apparently also feel free to marginalize Judaism and treat Paul's 'creative' use of the Hebrew Bible as the new gold standard.

Convinced?  Not likely.  Christianity was far too diverse right from the outset to make this a credible reconstruction.

Another problem: if Paul could legitimately play fast and loose with the scriptures, why not Benny Hinn?  If anyone can explain that without indulging in circular reasoning, please let me know.

So, at the end of the day, I both admire The Evolution of Adam and am thoroughly discombobulated by it.  Enns succeeeds brilliantly in identifying some key issues then, in my opinion, charges off up the wrong path entirely in his haste to put out possible brush fires.

The Evolution of Adam is hopefully just an opening shot in an ongoing conversation that evangelicals desperately need to get involved in.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Original Sin and Sin of Origin

Across at Sansblogue Tim Bulkeley has some interesting thoughts on the intimidating doctrine of 'original sin'.  Seeing those comments are in part related to Peter Enns' book, maybe the following quote might be relevant.
George L. Murphy
[I]t is helpful to keep in mind the crucial theological distinction expressed succinctly by Lutheran theologian George L. Murphy.  This distinction is between "original sin" and "sin of origin."  The former, as bequeathed to us through Augustine, refers to an event at the beginning of history and requires a historical Adam as the first human to sin and transmit that sin to all subsequent humans.  The latter affirms the absolute inevitability of sin that affects every human being from their beginnings, from birth.  In other words, Murphy and others counsel that we must remain open on the ultimate origins of why all humans are born in sin (original sin) while resting content in the observation that all humans are born in sin (sin of origin)... the notion of "original sin," where Adam's disobedience is the cause of a universal state of sin, does not find clear - if any - biblical support.
It's a subtle distinction - but then, hey, this is theology.  As Enns points out earlier in his book, there is no such doctrine derived from the Genesis story in Judaism.

As for Murphy, who'd have thought you could be a Lutheran theologian with an Irish surname... isn't there some kind of rule about that?  He also apparently has a doctorate in theoretical physics; I just bet he isn't LCMS!

And I'm also led to wonder, not for the first time, whether the world would have been a much better place if that old reprobate Augustine hadn't converted from Manicheanism.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Evolution of Adam - a view from the Cheap Seats (Part 1)

I have a lot of time for Peter Enns, a man who has endured much at the hands of apologetic nincompoops like Norman Geisler.  Enns recognises that, if Christianity is to survive, it must lift itself out of the biblicist, literalist cesspit - natural home of American evangelicalism - and get to grips with reality.  It's quite a mission.

In The Evolution of Adam Enns is blunt when it comes to the genesis of the biblical origin stories.  We learn about the post-exilic dating of the Pentateuch and are introduced to Wellhausen.  Those in the megachurch pews are going to be dragged past a raft of exhibits - from Atrahasis to Enuma Elish - that clearly demonstrate the human origins of Genesis stories.  Was Adam an historical character?  Of course not.  In fact, Adam is a peripheral figure within the Old Testament.  He pops up in Genesis then disappears without trace (the exception is a passing reference in 1 Chronicles 1:1).

All this is great stuff, and a much needed corrective to the usual bumf that sits on the shelves in Christian bookstores. But, to be absolutely clear, Enns isn't a Bible debunker, but a committed Christian of evangelical hue.  His reading of the Eden stories is, unsurprisingly, a theological one.  The symbolism has (Enns maintains) everything to do with the "Israel's temple and the Sabbath rhythm," and nothing to do with the origin of humanity.

If all we had was the Hebrew Bible, this might not be such a camel-sized gnat to swallow.  But for Christians there's Paul.  Paul, for whom Adam is not just a peripheral figure, but a lynchpin in his theology.  As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.  Jesus' death is contingent on Adam's sin; he is the "second Adam."  For many [most?] Christians "it is theologically necessary for there to be some sort of Adam somewhere in human history who is personally responsible for allienating humanity from God."

It's a logic that's hard to refute if you've bought into the assumptions.  Enns' task is to find a way through: Jesus as saviour minus an historical Adam; Genesis as scripture without a rejection of modern science and evolution.  You've got to admire his fortitude.

Does he succeed or fail?  In my view 'yes' to both.  But make no mistake, this is a significant book and, perhaps, a harbinger of much needed change among twenty-first century evangelicals.

To be continued

Rag FM

Internet radio?  Gotta love it.  Number one in an occasional series of personal favourites is Rag FM, based in Raglan, a small seaside community on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island.  While my poison is invariably classical, this is an oldies, country format that provides light relief.

The guy who designed their website should be shot for crimes against web design, but if you look past that, it's all good.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

What does this mean?

All beard, no balls?
"...God in His gracious wisdom has chosen to have Himself addressed in gender specific terms all the while reminding us that this does not presume all the freight of human anatomy -- except with respect to the Incarnation."  Source.

From this we can know that...

1.  Yahweh doesn't have a penis, but is still a bloke.
2.  Jesus was God and had a penis while doing a convincing impression of a regular bloke.
3.  God is a wannabe bloke with penis envy.
4.  Sheilas are beside the point.
5.  Asherah?  Waddaya mean Mrs Yahweh!?
6.  This quote comes from a bloke who wears a dress on Sunday.
7.  All of the above.

If you haven't already guessed, the writer is moaning, whining and whinging about the use of gender inclusive language in church (not his own church of course, oh heavens no.)  He doesn't say what his wife thinks, but I think it's pretty likely the dear lady is expected to joyfully embrace Kinder, Küche and Kirche.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Honest Faith

How do we deal honestly with the ancient scriptures in a world so very different from that which brought them forth?  How do you continue to be a Christian in the twenty-first century without castrating your intellect?

Putting aside the lame apologetics of individuals like John Piper, it isn't hard to find men and women struggling with these issues, often enduring merciless sniping from extremists of both biblicist and atheist persuasions.  Three books currently illustrate this centre-ground of integrity.

James McGrath's The Burial of Jesus is one, and while I've mentioned it briefly in an earlier post, I'd like to return to it later with a few more detailed observations.

A second is Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible, which is top of the stack in my 'books to read' pile.

But right now I'm working my way through Peter Enns The Evolution of Adam, which is sometimes breathtaking in its candor.  Enns tackles the elephant in the exegetical room: Paul's use of parallelism between Adam and Jesus to demonstrate the necessity for the Atonement.  If Adam is a fictive character, carved out of nothing more substantial than myth and imagination, does this shatter the whole rationale behind Jesus as saviour?

I'm not convinced by everything these authors say - and nor should you be.  But they certainly deserve to be heard rather than dismissed out of hand, as so often seems to happen, by the monochrome zealots at either end of the faith continuum.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Canon article updated

With John Petty kindly linking to my article on the canon, describing it as "a fine piece," I decided I'd better get my act together and give it the once over.  Here is the (slightly) updated text.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

James McGrath on History & Faith

"Why is it that so many today assume that most if not all Biblical literature is straightforward factual description, and treat this as the 'default setting' when reading the Bible?"

It's a great question.  James McGrath, scholar and blogger extraordinaire, poses it in the second edition of his book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith.  To be honest, I can think of a couple of kneejerk responses, but McGrath isn't finished yet.

"Might stories that feature talking animals be fables, or at least fable-like? ... There are a wider range of options than simply 'inerrantly-recorded history' on the one end and 'pure fiction' on the other."

On the strength of what I've read so far, I've no hesitation in recommending The Burial of Jesus, particularly as - thanks to ebook technology - the cost is a miniscule $3 on Amazon.  Would that all biblical scholarship was this accessible!  This is a book to challenge wooden-headed literalism of whatever persuasion, as well as extreme skepticism.

Link:  The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

As Good as a Wink

The latest issue of The Journal breaks the mold by publishing an essay by Walter Wink.  Wink is a respected biblical scholar, not a sectarian dilettante.  Heart attack territory for some of the brethren!

Talking about dilettantes, there's a big response to Dixon Cartwright's piece about the canon in the previous issue.  Ken Westby puns about 'canon fodder' and sagely suggests that "a God who can create the cosmos can inspire canonizers."  No doubt, and such a God could do a lot of other things too which he/she/it clearly doesn't, but probably should.  Ian Willis, a British COGger, says stuff the Church Fathers, "A sovereign, all-powerful, loving God—Christ—moved men to understand which writings were inspired by Him and which were not."  The logic?  "We know the Bible is infallible because it claims to be infallible."  Wes White thinks "a canon created by Catholics would've better supported their doctrines."  A bit of myopia showing there Wes?  Mike Baran was "a little shocked" (if you're twitching Mike, there's still hope).  Gordon Feil is worried that inerrancy is at stake (yup Gordon, ya got that right chum) and that the canonical writers were forced to write what they did by something resembling an act of literary rape.  The emminently reasonable Dave Havir takes a deep breath and speaketh calming words on the issue.

Dixon really seems to have hit a nerve!

This is a question that I've blatted on myself in the past.  While it needs some further editing, my own position is pretty much the same as it was when I wrote Questions about the Biblical Canon way back in the long ago.

As for The Journal, you can download the complete issue in PDF format and check it out for yourself.  If you don't have a COG (Church of God) background, pour yourself a stiff drink first.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Clobbering Palestinians with the Bible

The Bible has played a fundamental role in the creation and existence of the modern state of Israel, and, some say, in the continued suffering of the Palestinian people. Today, the Hebrew Bible is used as an authoritative text to justify the placement of Israel’s borders, and to legitimise and even encourage the expulsion of Palestinians from the land. The New Testament has also been utilised by Christian Zionists who argue that the establishment of the state of Israel is God-ordained, and that its existence is necessary for enabling the second coming of Jesus.
University of Sheffield Biblical Studies conference website.

Deane Galbraith has a straight-talking piece on the abuse of Old Testament texts to justify the continued displacement of the Palestinian people.  It's quite a contrast to the largely uncritical, servile propaganda that litters conservative Christian websites.

The Bible with Typos

Some editions of the Good Book, mostly the KJV, which weren't so good.

The Bug Bible.  Coverdale's 1535 translation.  Psalm 91:5 reads:  "Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night."  A handy promise that, if true, would mean no more need for insect repellent.

The Fool Bible.  An edition from the reign of King Charles I where Psalm 14:1 reads:  "The fool hath said in his heart there is a God."  Perhaps it could be rechristened 'the Richard Dawkins version'?

The Lions Bible.  Dating from 1804.  1 Kings 8:19 reads:  "But thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions."  Presumably it wasn't a roaring success.

The Printers' Bible.  From around 1702.  Psalm 119:161 reads: "printers have persecuted me without a cause."  Many an author might cry 'amen' to that.

The Sin On Bible.  An Irish edition (1716) in which John 5:14 reads: "sin on more."  Begorrah!

The To Remain Bible.  My favourite.  A proofreader at Cambridge wondered about the placement of a comma in Galatians 4:29.  A helpful editor pencilled in "to remain" in response.  Nobody explained this to the printer.  The verse reads: "persecuted him that was born after the spirit to remain, even so it is now."

Source:  "Bibles: some specially named editions" in the 18th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Bill is back

(Text link below now fixed)

Bill Ferguson's name will be well known to many long time readers of Otagosh and its predecessors, Ambassador Watch and The Missing Dimension.  It was largely thanks to Bill's advocacy that the work of Australian theologian Robert D. Brinsmead rose to prominence in that specific community of refugees from the Sabbatarian sect that transitioned from the imperious leadership of Herbert W. Armstrong into the inept hands of Joe ("Honey, I Shrunk the Church!") Tkach.  It has been a while since Bill had a serious online presence to match his earlier and much appreciated work on Ekklesia and the JBAS board, but now he's launched a new forum - initially drawing on the remnants of JBAS - A Nui Anani, a composite of Hawaian, Māori and Taino terms.  In fact, it's just hit the web in the last few hours.  According to Bill, "The discussion has moved on to more issues of consciousness and Near Death Experiences but we still cover a bit of religion [and] other topics."

I confess to once being a huge fan of Ekklesia, and was for as time a regular on the JBAS board.  While I'm at it, I'd better confess to being indebted in a big way to the work of Bob Brinsmead, former editor of The Present Truth, and later Verdict, a thorn in the side of the Seventh-day Adventist church for many years, and a voice of challenge and influence to kindred movements.  For those happy to take a time trip, below is a 30 minute sample of Bob speaking way back in 1985...  Although Bob's thinking has moved on somewhat (as indeed has mine) I still want to call out a heartfelt 'Amen' now and then!

1. The Spirit of Jesus and the Bible. By Robert D. Brinsmead from on Vimeo.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Mormon Growth Dives

That great conservative prophet of sociology Rodney Stark got it wrong.  The Mormons are not about to rise to demographic dominion in the United States any time soon.

Some years ago there was a dire prediction that before too much longer the US would be carved up between the Mormons and the Southern Baptists.  It was a stupid assertion, but, let's face it, very scary.  Now, it seems, we can relax.

Mormon growth has stalled, and is just managing to keep up with general population growth.  This amazing, monolithic faith, governed by a gerontocracy of businessmen rather than preachers or scholars, has apparently peaked.

From the ancient but fictive city of Zarahemla, to the end-game where the distinctive Latter Day gospel bears fruit in all the world:  reality is knock, knock, knocking on Zion's door.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dogma and Deeds

David Tracy
There's a nice little newspaper column on deeds over dogma here. The writer, Yme Woensdregt, is an Anglican clergyperson, but hey, nobody is perfect.
Catholic theologian David Tracy reminds us that disputing about doctrines is "not the key to religion." Rather, the essence of Christian faith is how we live it out... Tracy adds that doctrines just "emerge when you need to clarify something if the community is confused."

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sage words from 1922

This is a sermon on fundamentalism, first delivered in 1922 at Riverside Church in New York, by Harry Emerson Fosdick. It has been only slightly edited. The full text is available here.

Already all of us must have heard about the people who call themselves the Fundamentalists...  All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists.  The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought.  A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere.

Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another.  They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation.  Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

Doubtless they have made many mistakes.  Doubtless there have been among them reckless radicals gifted with intellectual ingenuity but lacking spiritual depth.  Yet the enterprise itself seems to them indispensable to the Christian Church.  The new knowledge and the old faith cannot be left antagonistic or even disparate, as though [someone] on Saturday could use one set of regulative ideas for his life and on Sunday could change gear to another altogether.  We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian faith clear through in modern terms.

There is nothing new about the situation.  It has happened again and again in history, as, for example, when the stationary earth suddenly began to move and the universe that had been centered in this planet was centered in the sun around which the planets whirled.  Whenever such a situation has arisen, there has been only one way out — the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination.  Now, the people in this generation who are trying to do this are the liberals, and the Fundamentalists are out on a campaign to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship. Shall they be allowed to succeed?

It is interesting to note where the Fundamentalists are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which no one is to pass except on terms of agreement.  They insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord; that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration — that the original documents of the Scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer; that we must believe in a special theory of the Atonement — that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner; and that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here, as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement.  Such are some of the stakes which are being driven to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church.

If a man is a genuine liberal, his primary protest is not against holding these opinions, although he may well protest against their being considered the fundamentals of Christianity.  This is a free country and anybody has a right to hold these opinions or any others if he is sincerely convinced of them.  The question is — Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship?  The Fundamentalists say that this must be done.  In this country and on the foreign field they are trying to do it.  They have actually endeavored to put on the statute books of a whole state binding laws against teaching modern biology.  If they had their way, within the church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the pope’s.

In such an hour, delicate and dangerous, when feelings are bound to run high, I plead this morning the cause of magnanimity and liberality and tolerance of spirit.  I would, if I could reach their ears, say to the Fundamentalists about the liberals what Gamaliel said to the Jews, “Refrain from these men and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be everthrown; but if it is of God ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.”

That we may be entirely candid and concrete and may not lose ourselves in any fog of generalities, let us this morning take two or three of these Fundamentalist items and see with reference to them what the situation is in the Christian churches.  Too often we preachers have failed to talk frankly enough about the differences of opinion which exist among evangelical Christians, although everybody knows that they are there.  Let us face this morning some of the differences of opinion with which somehow we must deal.

We may well begin with the vexed and mooted question of the virgin birth of our Lord.  I know people in the Christian churches, ministers, missionaries, laymen, devoted lovers of the Lord and servants of the Gospel, who, alike as they are in their personal devotion to the Master, hold quite different points of view about a matter like the virgin birth.  Here, for example, is one point of view that the virgin birth is to be accepted as historical fact; it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into this world except by a special biological miracle.  That is one point of view, and many are the gracious and beautiful souls who hold it.  But side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact.  So far from thinking that they have given up anything vital in the New Testament’s attitude toward Jesus, these Christians remember that the two men who contributed most to the Church’s thought of the divine meaning of the Christ were Paul and John, who never even distantly allude to the virgin birth.

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this—Shall one of them throw the other out?  Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation?  Will it persuade anybody of anything?  Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested?  The Fundamentalists say not.  They say the liberals must go.  Well, if the Fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation — multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.

Consider another matter on which there is a sincere difference of opinion between evangelical Christians: the inspiration of the Bible.  One point of view is that the original documents of the Scripture were inerrantly dictated by God to men.  Whether we deal with the story of creation or the list of the dukes of Edom or the narratives of Solomon’s reign or the Sermon on the Mount or the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, they all came in the same way, and they all came as no other book ever came.  They were inerrantly dictated; everything there—scientific opinions, medical theories, historical judgments, as well as spiritual insight—is infallible.  That is one idea of the Bible’s inspiration.  But side by side with those who hold it, lovers of the Book as much as they, are multitudes of people who never think about the Bible so.  Indeed, that static and mechanical theory of inspiration seems to them a positive peril to the spiritual life.

Here in the Christian Church today are these two groups, and the question which the Fundamentalists have raised is this—Shall one of them drive the other out?  Do we think the cause of Jesus Christ will be furthered by that?  If He should walk through the ranks of his congregation this morning, can we imagine Him claiming as His own those who hold one idea of inspiration and sending from Him into outer darkness those who hold another?  You cannot fit the Lord Christ into that Fundamentalist mold.  The church would better judge His judgment. For in the Middle West the Fundamentalists have had their way in some communities and a Christian minister tells us the consequences.  He says that the educated people are looking for their religion outside the churches.

Consider another matter upon which there is a serious and sincere difference of opinion between evangelical Christians: the second coming of our Lord.  The second coming was the early Christian phrasing of hope.  No one in the ancient world had ever thought, as we do, of development, progress, gradual change as God’s way of working out His will in human life and institutions.  They thought of human history as a series of ages succeeding one another with abrupt suddenness.  The Graeco-Roman world gave the names of metals to the ages—gold, silver, bronze, iron.  The Hebrews had their ages, too—the original Paradise in which man began, the cursed world in which man now lives, the blessed Messianic kingdom someday suddenly to appear on the clouds of heaven.  It was the Hebrew way of expressing hope for the victory of God and righteousness.  When the Christians came they took over that phrasing of expectancy and the New Testament is aglow with it.  The preaching of the apostles thrills with the glad announcement, “Christ is coming!”

In the evangelical churches today there are differing views of this matter.  One view is that Christ is literally coming, externally, on the clouds of heaven, to set up His kingdom here.  I never heard that teaching in my youth at all.  It has always had a new resurrection when desperate circumstances came and man’s only hope seemed to lie in divine intervention.  It is not strange, then, that during these chaotic, catastrophic years there has been a fresh rebirth of this old phrasing of expectancy. “Christ is coming!” seems to many Christians the central message of the Gospel.  In the strength of it some of them are doing great service for the world.  But, unhappily, many so overemphasize it that they outdo anything the ancient Hebrews or the ancient Christians ever did.  They sit still and do nothing and expect the world to grow worse and worse until He comes.

Side by side with these to whom the second coming is a literal expectation, another group exists in the evangelical churches.  They, too, say, “Christ is coming!”  They say it with all their hearts; but they are not thinking of an external arrival on the clouds.  They have assimilated as part of the divine revelation the exhilarating insight which these recent generations have given to us, that development is God’s way of working out His will.

And these Christians, when they say that Christ is coming, mean that, slowly it may be, but surely, His will and principles will be worked out by God’s grace in human life and institutions, until “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.”

These two groups exist in the Christian churches and the question raised by the Fundamentalists is — Shall one of them drive the other out?  Will that get us anywhere?  Multitudes of young men and women at this season of the year are graduating from our schools of learning, thousands of them Christians who may make us older ones ashamed by the sincerity of their devotion to God’s will on earth.  They are not thinking in ancient terms that leave ideas of progress out.  They cannot think in those terms.  There could be no greater tragedy than that the Fundamentalists should shut the door of the Christian fellowship against such.

I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed.  Nobody’s intolerance can contribute anything to the solution of the situation which we have described.  If, then, the Fundamentalists have no solution of the problem, where may we expect to find it?  In two concluding comments let us consider our reply to that inquiry.

The first element that is necessary is a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty.  When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems?  This is not a lesson which the Fundamentalists alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it.  Speaking, as I do, from the viewpoint of liberal opinions, let me say that if some young, fresh mind here this morning is holding new ideas, has fought his way through, it may be by intellectual and spiritual struggle, to novel positions, and is tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them, he may well remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts.  It was a wise liberal, the most adventurous man of his day—Paul the Apostle—who said, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up.”

Nevertheless, it is true that just now the Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen.  As one watches them and listens to them he remembers the remark of General Armstrong of Hampton Institute, “Cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy.”  There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right.  Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.

As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church, I am, of course, thinking primarily about this new generation.  We have boys and girls growing up in our homes and schools, and because we love them we may well wonder about the church which will be waiting to receive them.  Now, the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church.  Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives.  But this is easily explicable.

Science treats [a young person’s] mind as though it were really important.  A scientist says to [a young person], “Here is the universe challenging our investigation.  Here are the truths which we have seen, so far.  Come, study with us!  See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.”  Can you imagine [anyone] who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon.  No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions.  These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”

My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, life everlasting.  But you cannot challenge the dedicated thinking of this generation to these sublime themes upon any such terms as are laid down by an intolerant church.

The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs.  If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation?  You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?”  So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith.

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance.  God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Warped, Twisted and Broken Art Thou

"...the Bible sees humans as sinful, warped and twisted. Nice middle-class liberal moderns may not like it, but we are all broken and in need of repair."

I like a lot of what the blogger who wrote that statement says.  He strikes me as an honest and reflective theologian, not afraid to tack into the wind from time to time.  There's a good deal that I find jarring too; but that's not to knock him personally.  He faithfully adheres to - admittedly with a degree of nuance and sophistication well beyond the capacities of a poor, common clod like myself - the traditional dogmas.

One of these traditional dogmas is the belief that humanity is flawed, twisted, wrecked, derailed, "broken and in need of repair."

Looking carefully at the language used in the introductory quote, this scholar - in common with most conservative Christians - understands the consequences of this tragic situation in an individualistic sense: "we are all [you, me, our neighbours, kids and role models alike] broken..."

If that's true, who dropped us, smashed us, caused us to be broken and in need of repair.  How did it happen?  Who or what was (and is) responsible? 

Being a 'fact fundamentalist', or so I've been told, I'm no longer happy to accept a mythological story as sufficient cause.  I do understand the role of aetiology in providing an insightful metaphor, and that's okay as far as it goes.  But if we're going to slag off our entire species as corrupted, warped and twisted, I want much more than an ancient campfire tale togged out as "a privileged text."  It's not that I want to purge the world of Genesis, or (God forbid!) the Epic of Gilgamesh, but at the end of the day, as profound as these tales might be, they are incapable of providing any kind of normative foundation for a sensible worldview.

If we are broken, as the writer asserts, then it's logical that there was a time before we were broken.  Brokenness follows an unbroken state.  So when was that?  In an age of animal innocence perhaps?  I'm not sure anyone even faintly familiar with non-human 'creatureliness' would agree with that.

But then, maybe Paul hit the nail on the head when he talked about the whole creation - including dogs, pigs, scorpions and sharks - being caught up in this whole warping and twisting.

But that hardly settles matters.  In fact it complicates things further.  The whole framework is just bizarre.

Can we escape by pleading poetry?
"Faithfulness too can be truth. In fiction when a character acts in ways which ring true to their nature (as built up elsewhere in the story or the corpus) and to the relevant aspects of the world as we know it (remembering that willing suspension of disbelief plays a role in all poetics) we say the story is “true”. Likewise when the other things all good fictions communicate, the attitudes and elements of worldview “fit” with (i.e. are faithful to) what we believe, we say the story is true."
But there's the rub.  If we're talking about the Bible (or certain parts of the Bible), there has to be a good deal of massaging and apologetic shoehorning in order to make things "fit".  Poetry may reflect our deepest understanding of reality, but it can't create it out of whole cloth.  Gilgamesh is powerful poetry, saturated with deep insights, but would you cherry-pick it for a dish of take-home dogma?

Life is as it is.  Species compete.  Individuals within species compete.  Nature is red in tooth and claw.  Was there ever a time when this wasn't true?  Self aware and sentient we may be, but this is our backstory too.  What's sin got to do with it?

Is 'sin' even a useful category in trying to make sense of the human condition?

Evil deeds, along with the predictable temptations to rampant self interest certainly exist, as they also do among troops of chimpanzees.  But let's not forget about altruism, compassion and our unique human willingness to preserve and sustain our planet, even at considerable cost.

Talk of sin just avoids hard thinking, pasting a label on an observed condition and pretending it amounts to an explanation.  This way lies madness, self-loathing, and the vilest forms of Calvinism.

If you want to break, shatter, derail and wreck that warped and twisted paradigm (or even just give it a gentle exploratory poke), Steven Pinker's very readable The Better Angels of Our Nature might be just the thing to whack it with.  It's one of those books that not only pushes the reader up the learning curve at a fairly gentle incline, but arguably makes you smarter with each page turn. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Hearken unto Warren

click for larger image
The Lord continues to speak through his prophets.  And as we all know, true prophets are invariably persecuted.  Warren Jeffs, polygamist chief honcho of the Fundamentalist LDS church, has been blessed with a revelation he wants to share with the world.

That's pretty darn altruistic of him, considering he's currently doing time for sexual assault.  Mind you, according to the New Testament Paul did time as well, though there's no indication he had this particular prophet's tastes in underage girls.

So what has the Lord been confiding in Warren?  "Repent ye; now be of full humbling."  Humbling, not humbug.  Verily verily indeed!  And, big surprise, Jesus reveals "My Soon Coming."  Whoa! (or maybe Woe!)

The photograph has the full text, diseminated via newspaper ads, and delivered in typical "Mormonspeak."

Now, aren't you glad you know?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Biblical Marriage

Tim Bulkeley has posted a passionate piece decrying an 'infographic' that's doing the rounds on Facebook.  In fact he's "hopping mad."

Have a close look at it yourself.  Tim concedes that "In one sense the graphic is true."  I'd agree with that.  It simply consists of examples of marriages that are described in the Hebrew Bible, and a sorry assortment most of them are.  All these forms of marriage are implicitly endorsed in the context of the culture of those times.  I don't imagine that any other option was available when we consider that the Old Testament is a collection of ancient Near Eastern literature, not a hint of post-Enlightenment scruples to be found anywhere.

Then Tim makes an amazing statement: "In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage)."

Genesis 2 is a privileged text?  In what sense?  Both Jesus and Paul cite other texts too.  Or, to be more specific, Paul and the Gospel writers cite other texts.  There were no "red letter" options available to indicate Jesus' actual words, quotation marks had yet to be invented, and speaking of "invented", much (please note that I'm not saying all) of the material attributed to Jesus has clearly been put into his mouth.  Tim's decision to anoint Genesis two as "privileged" is entirely theological and subjective.

Tim falls back on bluster: "do any of these represent “a biblical view of marriage”. Hell no! It is time for some stakes in the ground... in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the “biblical” marriages listed in the graphic reflect this."

The problem is that, as Tim knows full well, the documents themselves contain little or no condemnation of these customs.  If there's warping and twisting going on, wouldn't you assume that this would be signalled within the text?  Not over in the Pastoral Epistles, mind you, written centuries later and falsely attributed to Paul, but within the specific Old Testament books they occur in?

The problem only arises if we assume that the Bible must contain some kind of inspired revelation on marriage, some kind of comfortable benchmark that endorses equality and mutuality between partners.  As the graphic clearly demonstrates, it does no such thing.

Take away the idol of biblicism, and the problem largely disappears.  Marriage is a social contract between two adult people, and it involves loving consent and commitment that affirms the gift of sexuality.  Where the Bible attests to this reality, the Bible is correct.  Where the Bible detracts from this reality, the Bible is flat out wrong.