Archives For Christianity

Battle of Nandorfehervar (image public domain in the United States)Last week I was at a conference in Bangkok where the military metaphors flowed freely.

“We’re raising up an army.”

“Fighting for God.”

“Doing battle with the enemy.”

“Going to war for this generation.”

It felt like an awful lot of violent imagery for a conference that was all about kids and faith.

It’s true you’ll find military metaphors in the New Testament, as friends on Facebook and Twitter pointed out when I aired my concern the other day. Jesus talks about bringing a “sword” of division. Paul greets his friends as “fellow soldiers,” counsels believers to put on “the armor of God,” and urges Timothy to “fight the good fight.”

But there is, I think, a crucial difference between us and the earliest Christians: the pre-Constantine church was united in its opposition to violence of any kind. As Preston Sprinkle writes on Scot McKnight’s blog (and in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence):

While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.

The early church rejected the distinction that some like Mark Driscoll try to make between “authorized” and “unauthorized” killing. Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius — they condemned killing, period.

The Church Fathers prior to Constantine were united in their opposition to military service. For example, Tertullian argued that, “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.”

The New Testament writers took pains to emphasize the metaphorical (or at least non-physical) nature of the church’s “fight.” Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world,” meaning that his followers would not fight. Paul insisted that our struggle “is not against flesh and blood” and that we “do not wage war as the world does.”

The New Testament’s military metaphors must be read in light of its larger commitment to nonviolence — a commitment to which the early church held unwaveringly. For ancient believers, there was no mistaking the significance of these metaphors — or what they didn’t signify.

But all that was before Constantine.

That was before Augustine and Aquinas and just war theory.

That was before the Crusades.

That was before a millennium of wars fought in God’s name by those who saw themselves as God’s people doing God’s work.

That was before God’s name was invoked in our own lifetime to justify military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was before some Christians in Uganda, backed by others in the US, rallied behind an anti-homosexuality bill that included the death penalty for some offenses.

So when Christians today speak of “raising an army,” “going to war,” or “doing battle with the enemy,” what exactly do they mean? After centuries of killing and war in God’s name, is it still just a metaphor, as it was for the early Christian writers? And if so, is that clear to those listening on the outside?

I’m not so sure.

The origins and implications of our words matter, as David R. Henson’s thoughtful post reminds us. The language we use should reflect our commitment to the teachings of Jesus — including his call to nonviolence.

Choosing our words carefully is perhaps even more important, precisely because we haven’t always lived up to this call.

Jesus-Feminist-definition

When I was growing up, feminism was a dirty word.

Actually, we didn’t call them feminists. We called them feminazis.

Militant, man-hating, bra-burning radicals who taught literature classes and took orders from Hillary Clinton and outsourced their childrearing duties (assuming they had any children) to some Orwellian, quasi-socialist village.

Then I became a feminist myself.

It started in college, when a friend in my political philosophy class took time to explain to me what feminism actually was. Turns out it didn’t have anything to do with the caricature in my head. (Heck, even the whole bra-burning thing proved to be an urban legend.)

It continued in seminary, when I learned that the arguments used to rationalize the subjugation of women are the same ones that were used to justify slavery a century and a half ago.

Then I fell in love… and found that mutuality offers a better starting point for a happy marriage than hierarchy. (Eleven years and counting.)

Then I became a father… and realized I couldn’t settle for anything less than my daughter’s full equality — in her family, in her church, and in her world.

41yNlmBxf0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I came to believe that gender equality is rooted in creation itself, reaffirmed and renewed in the person and work of Jesus. That’s why I can’t wait for Sarah Besey’s new book… and that’s why I embrace the label Jesus feminist.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I believe my daughter is fully and gloriously human, that she and I bear the same divine imprint, that she is not mine, that she is free to discover for herself what God made her to be, and that the possibilities open to her are endless.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the gospels insist we allow women to sit alongside men at the feet of our Messiah — that is, to take the posture of a disciple. The story of Mary and Martha is not a Sunday school lesson on the importance of setting one’s priorities; it’s a radical affirmation that my daughter has as much right as anyone to call herself a disciple of Jesus.

I’m a Jesus feminist because some of the finest preachers I know are women, including those whose main pulpit is a blog (cc: Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans).

I’m a Jesus feminist because women were the first apostles, the first to witness the resurrection. If not for their courage, vision, and willingness to see what Jesus’ male disciples couldn’t — if not for that, I wouldn’t be a Jesus anything.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I won’t accept a world which turns my daughter into an object — neither the evangelical modesty culture that teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies nor the hyper-sexualized culture that tells them their bodies (and their willingness to flaunt them) are all they have to offer.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the apostle Paul said there isn’t “male and female” anymore. Just one body, one family, one inheritance in which we all have equal share.

And someday, if my daughter feels a calling deep in her bones to share this message with others — or if she feels called in any other way to lead — I will be right there cheering her on.

Because even though I haven’t read Sarah’s book yet, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus feminists do.

P.S. Go and buy the book when it comes out.

photo

Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

Muslims for peace

Sometimes a single Facebook post can restore your faith in humanity just a little bit.

Like when a friend who’s a Boston-area church leader shared that she was engaging in a dialogue with her Muslim counterparts, reflecting together on the Boston bombings and the days ahead.

What a concept.

Talking WITH people of the Islamic faith instead of just talking ABOUT them or, worse, listening to Bill O’Reilly talk about them.

On his show, O’Reilly complains that too many Muslims are “silent” about violence perpetrated in the name of their religion. Yet as my friend pointed out after actually spending time with Muslim leaders, they have condemned these acts repeatedly. They see them — and denounce them — as heretical distortions of their faith.

But they feel like their voice gets ignored by a 24-hour news cycle which prefers a simpler narrative.

O’Reilly says he can’t hear any Muslim voices denouncing violence. Maybe if he stopped pontificating for two minutes and tried listening…

The truth is, we all see and hear what we want to. And we’re all blind to that which we just don’t want to see.

“Islam is a religion of violence.”

That’s the prevailing notion among many Christians, most of whom don’t know a single Muslim person.

Perhaps these Christians heard a fragment of the Quran that sounds like it’s promoting violence. Usually quoted without any context.

Sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes it’s just what we think the Quran says — because, let’s be honest: most of us (myself included) couldn’t quote a single word of Islam’s holy book if we had to.

Sure. Islam has its “problem texts.”

But I’m a Christian, and that means I’ve got my share of problem texts to deal with too.

Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns. (Numbers 21:2-3)

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys [Heb. taf, or “little children”]. (Numbers 31:15-18)

At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women and children. We left no survivors… the Lord our God gave us all of them. (Deuteronomy 2:34-36)

You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. (Deuteronomy 13:15)

In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

The church has various ways of dealing with these and other violent texts in the Bible. Some Christians suggest they’re no longer applicable because they’re Old Testament, as if genocide was all well and good for Israel but not so much for us today.

Some traditions read these texts allegorically. Others question their historicity, noting that archaeologists have unearthed scant evidence for any wholesale extermination of Canaan’s indigenous population during the second millennium BC.

Still others have pointed out similarities between the Old Testament’s violent imagery and that of other ancient Near Eastern religions, suggesting the Israelites borrowed some less-than-ideal notions about God and violence from their neighbors.

And some of us would note that whatever path you take to get there, eventually you end up with Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount puts a categorical stop to the whole “death to our enemies” business.

So yes, we have ways of dealing with our problem texts. But they’re still in the Bible. They’re still etched into parchment, there for anyone to read. Seemingly legitimizing violence, warfare, genocide.

The thing is, if someone used these texts to typecast Christianity as a religion of violence (as some indeed have), I wouldn’t be too happy about it. I’d probably say they were proof-texting my holy book. That they hadn’t considered the full scope of Christian thought and the various options for interpreting these problem texts.

I would probably suggest that as outsiders who are evidently hostile to Christianity, they probably aren’t the best ones to judge whether Christianity is, in fact, a religion of violence.

So why do we think it’s OK for us to read a handful of verses from the Quran and conclude that Islam is a religion of violence?

I don’t want someone demonizing my faith on the basis of a few “problem texts.” So maybe I should treat people of other faiths with the same courtesy. Maybe I should give my Muslim neighbors the same benefit of the doubt that I want them to give me.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone from a neo-Reformed background about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus.

As background: Exodus indicates that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to rescue the Israelites from slavery on his own terms. But sometimes the text says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In some cases it just says his “heart was hard” without clearly indicating who did the hardening. Elsewhere Pharaoh’s advisors are implicated.

In Hebrew thought, the heart can represent the human will, our volitional capacity. So the question is, did God unilaterally harden Pharaoh’s heart — that is, did he coopt Pharaoh’s will? And if so, does he do the same with all of us?

Neo-Reformed believers answer yes and yes, while maintaining that humans are still responsible for their actions.

In this exchange, I suggested the “hardening” texts should be read in light of Exodus’ opening lines. Long before there’s talk of anyone hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we read this:

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them…’

At which point, Pharaoh enslaves the entire Israelite population.

Then another Pharaoh comes to power and orders all Hebrew males to be killed at birth.

Add to this the fact that all Pharaohs, including the one who squared off against Moses, claimed to be gods incarnate.

All of this, I believe, tells us what Pharaoh’s character was like, long before God did anything to harden his heart.

But that’s not really the point of this post. What interests me is the response I got, arguing that there’s only one reason anyone would believe as I do:

 It keeps God from offending your sense of fairness because you could never worship a God that decrees such things.

So I asked if it’s fair to assume the worst possible motivation of someone, just because they don’t embrace a Calvinist reading of the Bible. This was his answer:

 If you genuinely desired to understand the text, you wouldn’t have a problem with Calvinism.

If you don’t come to the same conclusions as I do, then it’s because you’re not really interested in understanding the Bible. You’re just trying to twist its meaning to fit your preconceived notions — or dismiss it altogether. That’s how the argument goes, anyway.

Granted, this is one person. But I’ve heard this argument before. A lot. Heck, I used to make this argument.

This, I believe, is an example of a kind of theological arrogance that’s not uncommon among the neo-Reformed. Not that theological arrogance is their exclusive domain. We all struggle with this. But this is the lens through which many neo-Reformed believers view non-Calvinists — and sometimes even other Calvinists who just aren’t as “doctrinally pure” as they are.

Neo-Reformed theology seems to be redefining orthodoxy to insist upon the tenets of high Calvinism. This despite the fact that the tenets of Calvinism are nowhere to be found in any universal creed (Apostle’s, Athanasian, Nicene). Nor are they to be found in what Scripture identifies as the “gospel.”

If the tenets of Calvinism are essential to orthodox faith, why are they wholly absent from the Church’s most universal, enduring statements of orthodoxy? Why are they missing from what Scot McKnight calls The King Jesus Gospel?

Why do the writers of these great creeds — much less Paul himself, when he sums up the “gospel [he] preached” — fail to mention neo-Reformed dogmas like predestination, limited atonement, and meticulous sovereignty?

I don’t have to embrace the core tenets of Calvinism to appreciate its rich heritage and its rightful place within the Christian tradition. But there are some who would make it the only option — and that, I believe, is just wrong.

I love Artprize, but…

7 October 2011 — 1 Comment

OK, first of all… I love Artprize.

This was my first year living in Grand Rapids for Artprize, and it was a fantastic experience.

I love what it’s done for downtown GR. I love how it’s given a boost to a city that, let’s face it, could use one. Heck, it made me change my opinion of the DeVos family. (Sorry Amway… I still think Quixtar was a scourge upon humanity.)

Artrpize is brilliant in several ways. It gets art out of the museum (mostly) and into more accessible, less intimidating spaces. Artprize invites us to do more than just look at some sculptures and nod appreciatively, pretending we have any clue what they’re supposed to be. It collapses the space between art and the community it was made for.

Plus, by inviting just about any organization withinin a 3-mile radius to be a venue, Artprize raises the profile of local businesses you might otherwise never have stepped into. Absolutely, unequivocally brilliant. Well done, Artprize. DeVos for governor! (Wait.)

But then there’s the trifling matter of who wins Artrpize, and how.

OF COURSE the art intellegentsia will bemoan the fact that such an overtly religious and derivative piece like “The Crucifixion” by Mia Tavonatti won first prize.

OF COURSE some on the right will dismiss any such criticism as yet another example of the godless secular humanism being forced down our throats by liberals who don’t like Jesus and despise unborn babies.

And OF COURSE Artrprize wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it weren’t, in essence, a popularity contest. And when you hold such a contest in a place like West Michigan, “The Crucifixion” is likely to win.

Personally, I’m not bothered that a religiously-themed piece won Artprize. I happen to be a Christian. I like Jesus and have nothing against unborn babies. (I used to be one.) What bothers me is that there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely fresh or original about “The Crucifixion.” It’s entirely derivative.

The rendering itself is 20th-century Sunday school art with a dash of Thomas Kinkade. The medium is slightly more interesting, but let’s be honest: making religious art out of mosaic tile isn’t exactly breaking new ground, is it?

And if realism is what we’re after (I’m not sure it was in this case, but it certainly seems plausible) then from a historical perspective, this can hardly be said to be a good representation of Jesus or the manner of his death. If it were, then Jesus wouldn’t look like a young Tim McGraw, there wouldn’t be any horse-shaped clouds in the background, and the cross wouldn’t be FLOATING. (Romans were quite adept at crucifixion, but I’m fairly certain they failed to master the art of levitating their victims.)

The real problem is that art is supposed to express something new, or at least express something in a new way. No, art shouldn’t be provocative simply to provoke. But nor should it merely cater to what you already like. Art should push the limits of creative expression and open your eyes to possibilities you never even knew were there. (Which, for what it’s worth, is why Steve Jobs is rightly remembered as an artist, whatever else he may have been.)

“The Crucifixion,” on the other hand, is exactly what the people of West Michigan wanted. It obligingly panders without pushing the viewer one inch outside of their comfort zone. It doesn’t make you think, because it conforms precisely to what you already think.

The actual crucifixion is ripe for artistic exploration. Countless renderings have yet to exhaust the creative possibilities. But simply parroting what’s been done ten thousand times before is not art. It may win you the most votes in conservative West Michigan, but it doesn’t actually change anything. Or anyone.

Which is why for all its brilliance, Artprize in its current form doesn’t actually cultivate art appreciation. Art is supposed to challenge people, speak truths they may not wish to hear, depict possibilities they may not wish to imagine. It’s not a coincidence that so many great artists are reviled before they achieve fame and popularity, which often come long after they’re gone. (Vincent Van Gogh, anyone?) That’s why a popularity contest can never be a vehicle for identifying truly compelling, transformative art.

But I still like Artprize.

Genesis 4–6(ish)

3 September 2008 — 2 Comments

This is where the story gets depressing for a while. Eviction from the garden is followed quickly by the world’s first murder, followed by more murder, followed by a list of people who seem to live for ridiculously long periods of time, followed by God finally throwing his hands in the air and deciding he’s had enough.

But at the beginning of Genesis 4, God hasn’t given up on creation. He’s still fighting for it. When Cain gets ticked over the whole prime-sheep-versus-leftover-fruit incident, God pulls him aside and gives what sounds vaguely like a coach delivering a halftime pep talk. God seems to think Cain can actually beat back the sinful impulse that wants to rule over him.

Cain doesn’t listen. He decides life would be better without his annoying little brother. Then God shows up and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain responds, famously, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Um, that would be a yes. Remember that whole “it is not good for the man to be alone” thing? If community and companionship are woven into the fabric of creation, then the whole thing hinges on whether we take responsibility for each other. Individualism and “each to their own” are poison to God’s creation.

Cain’s life becomes a story of what happens when we reject the idea that we are our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. The alternative is a life of “restless wandering.” And that is Cain’s fate. He is driven out. Sent away.

Cain understands that he’s not being let off easy. He complains someone might kill him (kind of ironic, for a guy who probably hasn’t had time to wipe the blood off his hands). What surprises me is that God doesn’t go for the death penalty. Not only that, but he threatens to punish anyone who lays a finger on Cain.

Why? It’s not as if the capital punishment isn’t in the Bible. It’s mentioned as the penalty for a number of crimes — and not just murder. So whatever happened to justice? Retribution? Deterrence?

Apparently God already knows what we’ve yet to figure out after all these years. The only thing violence ever leads to is more violence. In the words of the great theologian, Commissioner Gordon from Batman Begins (I know, I know, he doesn’t get to be commissioner until the Dark Knight): “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armor-piercing rounds.”

Maybe God’s mercy on Cain is his attempt to short-circuit the escalation. Apparently, God still thinks we’re worth saving from our worst impulses.

Unfortunately, a few generations later, a guy called Lamech loses the plot. He seems to think being Cain’s descendant means he’s got a divine license to kill. What he doesn’t realize is that God’s protection of Cain was meant to stop the violence, not give his descendants free reign to wreak havoc without fear of reprisal.

Things are looking pretty bleak. But there are threads of hope. Which is exactly what you’d expect in a world filled with the “knowledge of good and evil.”

In some ways, Adam and Eve got exactly what they were promised when they ate the forbidden fruit. In Hebrew, to “know” can be a euphemism for intimacy… as in, “Adam knew his wife, and nine months later, out popped Cain.” Knowledge isn’t just intellectual awareness of something; it’s an experience of it.

Knowledge can also imply control over something, as in, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1). Which may explain why the thought of possessing the “knowledge of good and evil” was so tantalizing to Adam and Eve. It meant control. Power.

In reality, it meant engaging in an endless (and often losing) struggle against evil… as in, “Sin desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4).

But the good news is, if there’s knowledge of evil, then there must be knowledge of good, too. All is not lost. The ground still yields food. Women still give birth and perpetuate the human race. While some of Eve’s descendants, like Lamech, make violence; others make tools and musical instruments. Some even call on the name of God.

Even at its worst, God cannot bring himself to give up on the world. Not entirely, because there is still good to be found in it — in the person of Noah.

For me, the stories of Genesis 4-6 are a reminder that we’re meant to participate in the struggle between good and evil here and now, not sit and wait for it to be settled in some distant future apocalyptic event. It is this world that God cares about, and this world that he still hasn’t given up on.

Genesis 3

6 August 2008 — 4 Comments

So this is where it all goes wrong.

Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up with this text, from flannelgraph to grad school, but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to appreciate how bizarre this story really is.

Two trees — one gives life, one gives knowledge of good and evil. God sets just one rule: don’t eat from the tree that gives knowledge. A talking snake arrives and chats up the woman (who shows no sign that talking with snakes is unusual). The snake convinces her that God doesn’t want to share his powers and gets the woman and her husband to eat from the knowledge tree. While waiting to become like God (as promised by the snake), the man and woman realize their clothing-optional lifestyle has become a source of embarrassment and decide to cover up. God shows up for a game of cosmic hide-and-seek, followed up by the world’s first game of “not it” — man blames woman, woman blames snake, snake eats dust. God sentences the woman to painful childbirth and the man to perpetual yard work. To be followed by death for all. God then padlocks the Garden of Eden because it turns out the snake was partly right: the man and woman have become like God. So God decides to put a safe distance between humans and the tree of life, assigning some unfriendly cherubim (who’ve apparently traded in their diapers and cupid arrows for a giant flaming sword) to block the way.

Anyway, Eve gets a lot of flack for misquoting God’s command. She understates the positive. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree…” which Eve downgrades to, “We may eat fruit from the trees…” And she exaggerates the negative, saying that they may neither eat from nor touch the knowledge tree. (God never said anything about touching the tree.)

But I think we’re a bit hard on Eve. Let’s not forget — particularly if you read Genesis 1-3 as literal, play-by-play historical narrative — Eve wasn’t there when God gave the command. She must have heard it from Adam who, according to one ancient Jewish interpretation, deliberately exaggerated the command to deter Eve from going near the tree.

In any case, at least Eve had the right idea, even if she got some of the crucial details wrong. The snake willfully distorts what God said, turning a prohibition on one tree into blanket, garden-wide ban.

Under the circumstances, I sometimes wonder why God doesn’t show up sooner — not to make up Eve’s mind for her, but to set the record straight. To make sure he’s being quoted properly, if nothing else. After all, he’s the one who’s being mischaracterized as an overbearing tyrant.

But he doesn’t step in. He lets Adam, Eve, and the talking snake carry on. Which doesn’t turn out well for any of them.

The traditional interpretation is that the tree represents a test, a choice between doing things God’s way and doing them our way. Between letting him decide what’s best or pretending we know better.

But maybe there’s another element to the test. Maybe God doesn’t step in because he’s testing not just their faithfulness to him but to each other. If the ancient Jewish interpretation is right, then Eve depended on Adam to accurately convey what God had said — both the positive (you are free to eat your fill of any tree) and the negative (except the knowledge tree). Once Eve takes a munch of forbidden fruit, the text reveals that Adam was by her side the whole time. Which means even here at the decisive moment, he had one last chance to set the record straight. To offer an alternative to the snake’s view of things.

Adam and Eve didn’t just fail God; they failed each other. Just how badly is obvious in the aftermath of the fruit-eating incident, when Adam blames God for for creating the woman in the first place. The same woman to whom Adam once said, “At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

One last thing about this test. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the importance of trusting God and how Adam and Eve failed to do so. I’ve only heard one sermon about God trusting us — and how much he risks to do so.

Think about it. To entrust his creation to us — a creation that’s better than good, it’s good seven times over. To put a tree that could ruin everything smack in the middle of it — a tree that gives the knowledge to become like God. Because that’s one point about which the snake apparently wasn’t lying. God himself says it: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

We’ve come a long way, armed with this knowledge. We don’t have to wait long to read about the first murder (Genesis 4). Or the first war (Genesis 14).

In the last century, the phrase “mutually assured destruction” entered our vocabulary. It was an attempt to explain what kept the US and the Soviet Union from the brink during the Cold War: the understanding that a nuclear attack would lead to a series of escalating counterattacks, resulting in the total destruction of both countries and perhaps the entire planet.

God makes a world where we have the ability to destroy each other. Granted, he may intervene to keep the worst from happening, and maybe that’s the real reason the Cold War never went nuclear. Even so, we’ve shown ourselves capable of inflicting a lot of damage.

But if God gives us the ability to choose such a destructive path, then he must give us the option to choose another way, too. A path that leads away from the forbidden tree and toward all the other trees that are good to eat from. A path that leads away from violence and destruction and toward peace and life. A path that leads away from independence and autonomy (which is what Adam and Eve were after) and toward dependence and harmony with God, each other, and creation.

There are not one but two creation stories in Genesis. And they’re very different. It’s like rewinding the film, zooming in on one bit, and changing the camera angle.

Genesis 1 describes a creation where everything goes according to plan. Genesis 2 is a more intimate portrait of a world that still needs work.

The sequence is different in Genesis 2. Again the writer arranges the details a certain way to make a point, but this time it’s a different point.

In Genesis 1, humans are created last and handed a ready-made world, formed and filled to perfection. But in the Genesis 2 version, “no shrub had yet appeared and no plant had yet sprung up” when God gathered a handful of dust, breathed into it, and created a man. What’s even more interesting is the apparent reason creating Adam: “there was no one to work the ground.”

Genesis 1 describes a God powerful enough to create the universe all by himself. Genesis 2 suggests this same God creates Adam, the first man, so he can partner with God in the ongoing act of creation. God designs a world where he needs someone to work the ground. Otherwise, no shrubs. No plants.

This need for partnership and connection seems hardwired into creation itself. In Genesis 1, everything is “good.” The writer can’t stop telling us just how good it is — seven times, as if he thinks we’re in danger of forgetting. In Genesis 2, it feels like someone has slammed the brakes. Not only is there something “not good” about creation; it’s God himself who says so. And what is “not good,” according to God, is the man’s solitary state.

Adam needs a “helper.” You’d be forgiven for thinking the word suggests inferiority or subservience, but elsewhere the Bible uses the exact same Hebrew word for God (Psalm 27:9, for example).

What Adam needs is a partner, a companion, an equal — as he realizes when he says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The word “now” could be translated “at last!” or “it’s about time!” Adam instantly recognizes that he and the woman were made for each other.

And this may be the thread that holds Genesis 1 and 2 together. Nearly everything about these stories seems different. Even God’s name changes. In Genesis 1, he is elohim, the supreme, all-powerful God. In Genesis 2, it is YHWH, the personal, covanental God who partners with people to shape and change the world. But the need for relationship is found in both stories.

In Genesis 2, creation is “not good” until Adam is no longer alone. Back in Genesis 1, we read that “God created human beings in his own image… male and female he created them.” Scholars have offered several theories on what it means to be made in God’s image. But the one I find most the most compelling is the one that says I am not made in God’s image (not completely, anyway), but that we are made in God’s image.

By myself, I am an incomplete representation of the God who made me, because I was not made to exist in a vacuum. Not according to Genesis 2, which says a state of perpetual solitude is “not good.” And not according to Genesis 1, which says, “In the image of God… he created them.

When we seek connection, partnership, relationship with each other, that’s when we experience the divine spark that God has apparently put in us.

There’s another thing both stories reveal. In ancient times, to bear the “image” of the king or the emperor was to represent him to others, to show the king’s subjects who he was and what he was like.

As a male, I do not fully represent who God is or what he’s like. It’s only “male and female” together that, according to the text, represent the image of God.

While I plan to carry on praying to God my “Father,” the debate over whether God is essentially masculine or feminine ultimately misses the point. Without both male and female, we cannot possibly hope to understand God.

The God who is, according to Jesus, our Father is also the God who “gave birth” to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:18). The God who sent his Son to earth is also the God who comforts his people like a mother comforting her children (Isaiah 66:12-13). (And I won’t even tell you what some scholars think the term el shaddai, one of the Bible’s many names for God, means.)

Far from being an invitation for the PC police to purge our liturgy of masculine references and replace with them neutralizing alternatives, we are free to go on calling God our Father (which, after all, is one of the most common characterizations of God in the Bible) because this communicates something essential about who God is — but it does not communicate the whole of it. That’s why the Bible is filled with all kinds of rich imagery to help us understand God.

That’s why he made human beings male and female. Because it takes both to show the world something of who God is.

Reading Genesis 1 brings back memories of listening to and occasionally joining in discussions about the origins of the universe. Is the earth 6,000 years old or 6 billion? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal, 24-hour spans of time, or are they simply a literary device meant to hold the story together? The opening lines of the Bible have been dissected with scientific rigor and made to support one argument or the other.

But you can’t use bunsen burners and microscopes to analyze the opening lines of the Bible any more than you can T.S. Eliot. Genesis 1 reads more like poetry than prose — and certainly more like poetry than scientific text.

Which is pretty cool, really. For Jews and Christians, whatever else these words may be, they are in some way God revealing himself to us. God decides to start a conversation, and his first words take the form of a poem.

When I read Genesis 1, it hits me: the God behind these words is a God who values beauty. Not just beauty in what he creates (which the text calls “good” not once but seven times — very significant to Jewish readers); he values beauty in the description, too.

The first words of the Bible are not that concerned with the how of creation. They’re all about the who (God) and the why (for us). The details are carefully arranged to make not a scientific point but a theological one — about who God is and the way the world was meant to be.

God begins by creating a world that is formless and empty. It’s dark. Unfit for human (or any other) habitation. But his presence, the spirit hovering over the deep places of the world, changes everything.

The progression of creation is significant — again, not for scientific but theological reasons. The world is formless, so God starts off by giving it form and definition: light/dark, water/sky, sea/land. It’s also an empty world, so then he goes about filling with all kinds of living creatures: plants, birds, fish, wild animals.

The acts of creation are arranged in order of importance; the last thing created is the most important, the crowning achievement, the reason for everything else. Which, if you’re a woman, should make you feel pretty good about being created second in the Genesis 2 version of the story.

Back in Genesis 1, it’s only when human beings appear that the writer declares that creation is not just “good” but very good.”

God is making a habitat suitable for humans. And then, like a landlord closing the deal with his tenants, he hands over the keys and tells Adam and Eve to take care of the place.

Which is one of the things that fascinates me about this chapter. The Bible’s first command to humans, sometimes called the “cultural mandate,” is a command to look after the planet. The Hebrew concepts of “subduing” and exercising “dominion” over the earth have more to do with stewardship than endless consumption. The image here, literally and figuratively, is one of cultivating a garden, not pouring concrete. Cultivation is about more than what you take from something; it’s what you put back into it.

To put it another way, words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are Genesis 1 ideas.

Something else fascinates me about Genesis 1. The very first blessing spoken by God in all of the Bible wasn’t given to humans. It was given to fish and to birds. It’s same word, barak, that appears a few lines later when God blesses human beings. Which has me thinking about something I saw on TV.

Channel 4 (UK) recently aired Hugh’s Chicken Run, a documentary exposing the realities of intensive (battery) chicken farming. When the presenter, UK celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, learned that intensive chicken farms weren’t about to open their doors to his film crew, he decided to build his own, raising intensive and free-range chickens side by side.

Intensive chicken farming isn’t pretty. Thousands of bird crammed into a windowless barn 24 hours a day, with practically no room to walk around and no opportunity to be outside in a chicken’s natural environment. They spend all day and night standing or sitting in their own feces, legs burned and bodies blistered by the ammonia.

Around 95 percent of the chicken we we eat is farmed this way.

Not long ago, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. My reaction would have been, “Who cares? They’re chickens. Food.”

But in Genesis 1, chickens get the first blessing. So now I’m compelled to ask: is this how we were meant to treat a creature blessed by God?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiastic meat eater. (There’s a (free-range) chicken in the oven as I type this.) In the end, he met the exact same fate as his intensively farmed cousins. I’m OK with that. But many cultures before ours believed that it was important to respect the food they ate. When (and why) did that change?

Something about a chicken existing in its natural environment before it ends up on my dinner plate seems to fit the created order of Genesis 1 better. Maybe that’s because one of the lessons of Genesis 1 is that it matters how we treat the creation, how we treat other living things blessed by God — even if they were put on this earth for our benefit.

After all, this is God’s planet. And how we treat an object is an extension of how we treat the object’s creator or owner. What we do with this earth reveals what we think of its maker.

P.S. Another reason to eat free-range chickens? A side-by-side nutritional comparison with intensively farmed chicken showed that free-range birds have higher protein content and less fat.