Archive for category Things We Shouldn’t Discuss
I have taken to reading Bruce Gerencser’s blog. Bruce is a former pastor who left the pastorate in 2003, the church in 2008 and theism in 2011. He is an open and vocal antitheist who has no problem attacking Christianity, the church and individual believers.
You might ask why I would read such a thing? Because I think a lot of Bruce’s criticisms are valid. Most of what I have read involves frustrations that I identify with. As I’ve told people before, I am an atheist who just can’t get past Jesus. If I had to judge the Savior by his disciples and the organizations they have built, I would be an antitheist as well.
You might ask if I have ever tried to persuade Bruce about the error of his ways? The answer is absolutely not. Any attempt to “persuade” Bruce would be entirely for my own benefit, to assuage some sense of outrage that he has turned on “my” faith. That is just balderdash and bravado.
Bruce has made a very personal and difficult decision, and I would much rather that he be openly antitheist than to try to pretend as if he still believes something that he does not. When I read some of the things that believers say in the comments on his page, I feel as if I need to apologize to him for their brashness and sometimes downright rudeness.
It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul’s greatest condemnation is not on those who leave the faith (though he mourns for them) but for those who claim to adhere to the faith and do not practice basic charity (1 Timothy 5:8). Often, when we take a person’s departure from the faith personally, we act in a manner that dishonors the very Christ we claim to be following.
So, I read Bruce’s blog. Sometimes the things he says upset me. Sometimes, I find myself asking, “Yeah, why do Christians do/believe that?” Sometimes, I just shake my head.
I like reading atheists and antitheists. I always have. In high school, I read Nietzsche. In college, it was Sartre, Darwin and Huxley. In adulthood, I read Dawkins and Ehrman. About the only one I have found unreadable is Christopher Hitchens. Gerencser and John Scalzi are recent online finds.
I’ll never stop reading atheists because I never want to be complacent. I never want to find myself comfortable in my faith, insulated from all that can go wrong in Christianity (and trust me, there’s a lot of valid issues that these people bring up).
וַתֵּלַכְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶם עַד־בֹּאָנָה בֵּית לָחֶם וַיְהִי כְּבֹאָנָה בֵּית לֶחֶם וַתֵּהֹם כָּל־הָעִיר עֲלֵיהֶן וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הֲזֹאת נָעֳמִי׃
וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן אַל־תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי־הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד׃
אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְהוָה לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי וַיהוָה עָנָה בִי וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי׃
וַתָּשָׁב נָעֳמִי וְרוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה כַלָּתָהּ עִמָּהּ הַשָּׁבָה מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב וְהֵמָּה בָּאוּ בֵּית לֶחֶם בִּתְחִלַּת קְצִיר שְׂעֹרִים׃
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. (ESV)
Name change. Here Naomi chooses to adopt a new name. Where Naomi means “celebration”, Mara means “bitterness.” She accepts that she has been handed a bad hand in life and wants to wallow in it. Of course at her side is a Moabite woman named Ruth, which means “friend.”
The Almighty. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that Naomi seems to believe that YHWH has a female consort. Here is where I first suspected it. Every time that Ruth speaks about her suffering, she does so in a couplet. She speaks of the LORD (יהוה, YHWH) and the Almighty (שַׁדַּי, SHDY). Most Christians have been taught that “The Almighty” is just another name for God, but Naomi does not seem to agree. The actions she speaks of are reciprocal, as in a partnership. SHDY does something, and then YHWH completes the action.
- SHDY has dealt very bitterly with me…YHWH has brought me back empty.
- YHWH testified against me and SHDY has brought calamity upon me.
Of course, there is nothing definitive about this, but archaeology has demonstrated quite plainly that the inhabitants of the Judean highlands believed that YHWH had a female consort, whether Torah allowed for it or not. This does not make their belief correct or normative, but it would not be out of keeping with what we now know. There is no reason why Naomi would not have believed this.
At this point, I need to take a bit of a rabbit trail. I have written elsewhere that David is the keystone of the Hebrew Scriptures, and I need to emphasize the point again. While the Genesis narratives, most of Torah and the Joshua/Judges stories existed in some form before David, the Hebrew language as a literary language did not. David’s reign is vital not just because of his rule but also because he unifies a Hebrew ideology. If you read David and the Monarchy first (1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) and then go back and read Genesis-Numbers, Joshua and Judges, you will realize that those narratives took form during the Monarchy period. They contain in them the seeds of the Monarchy, of the claims of the House of David and the reasons why Ephraim rebels against them. (Sorry, spoilers.)
Therefore, it is not surprising in the least that early Israelites did not worship YHWH according to Torah. While Torah existed and many of its laws and customs are representative of cultural behavior, there is no reason to assume that they were monotheistic. This is especially true if we consider Deuteronomy to date from the time of Josiah (7th century BCE) instead of pre-dating the Monarchy. (It is called Deuteronomy, after all, which is Greek for “second law”.) But I digress, back to Ruth.
Barley Harvest. It might shock many readers to realize that barley in all its forms was a key component of the Judahite diet. Barley is not a fun grain to eat, and it does not make very good bread. Emmer wheat is far better for that. Barley is, however, good for feeding livestock and for making beer.
We possess cuneiform tablets dating to before 2500 BCE detailing the process of turning barley into beer. The Egyptians did it. The Sumerians did it. Everyone did it.
Beer is a great way to store carbohydrates for winter. The fermentation process produces alcohol which keeps the brew from going bad. Whereas grain can rot relatively quickly during the rainy season (which is all winter is in Judah), beer can last for months if stored underground or in caves where it is cool.
Beer actually features prominently in the story of Ruth. We know from archaeological research that the first beers were made from the spring harvest of the winter barley, which is when Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem.
Emmer wheat, which was the domesticated wheat available in Late Bronze Age Palestine, does not grow in the winter. It requires relatively dry conditions. Barley on the other hand sprouts quickly and grows well under wet conditions. Therefore, it was planted in the winter and harvested in the spring.
Not everyone finds the idea of the Hebrews drinking beer to be something they approve of. The simple question is, “What did the Hebrews offer to YHWH in their drink offerings? Kool-Aid?” A drink offering, or more appropriately a “poured offering” (נָסַךְ, nasak) was given in connection with the wave offering or sheaf offering (תְּנוּפָה, tanuwphah). When taken with the grain/bread offering (מִנְחָה, minchah), it is pretty clear that there is a lot of emphasis on the derivatives of grains. While the drink offerings could be of wine, they were often of beer as well.
Hebrew Feast Days. In fact, the Hebrew religious calendar revolves around three important harvests: the lambing, the barley harvest and the wheat harvest.
The Pesach or Passover is celebrate in the early spring. This was when the lambs are born, and this is why the passover meal revolved around a lamb.
After Pesach, the Israelites were commanded to go home, harvest their barley, lay down their beer and then plant their emmer wheat. Then they were commanded to return and observe a festival of first fruits called Shavuot. This was the celebration of the barley harvest, and it figures prominently in Ruth.
The first in-gathering of barley was threshed then malted in the wetness of the early spring. Then, the malt was turned into loaves which were crumbled into water, boiled and then allowed to ferment. At the end of the harvest, the fermented beer was drunk as a celebration.
Pesach and Shavuot were the important spring festivals of the calendar. They were the first two of the Shalosh Regalim, the holiest days of the year that required the entire nation to gather. The last is Sukkot or Tabernacles, which is observed at the end of the wheat harvest.
It isn’t hard to see the natural rhythms that dictated both spiritual and physical cycles in this agrarian world.
Don’t think, however, that the Hebrews were drunken slobs. Beer was a necessary item for them. Without it, they could not survive from harvest to harvest. The celebrations held at the festivals were not drunken orgies. The mood was not artificially created by alcohol and loss of inhibitions as many modern partiers seem to think is necessary. The harvest was cause for celebration, but the drunkard was still considered a fool.
Back to the Barley. So it is that we find Naomi and Ruth arriving in Bethlehem during the barley harvest. This meant they arrived at the perfect time for eligible bachelors to be looking for a wife. It also meant they arrived too late to plant Elimelech’s fields which had lain fallow for at least ten years.
We cannot be certain that Naomi was leveraging for a new husband for Ruth, but certainly she must have been aware of the presence of kinsman who could marry Ruth and continue the line. This particular arrangement is known as levirate marriage, and it was very common in the region. A man’s close male relation could marry his widow and their first child would inherit the dead man’s property. If they had only one child, then that child would inherit both men’s property. This fact is significant when we get to the end of the book. (No looking ahead!)
USA Today reported last week on the trend toward churches going “informal” as if this is a recent event. This is a trend that has been going on for the past forty years, and if you include the insanity of bus ministry, even longer.
At our congregation, we are very casual but we still have a white church building and formal music (by formal, I mean the musicians practice and do actual songs). There is still a message from the Scriptures, an offering, and the opportunity for people to deepen their relationship with the Lord and other believers.
There are no tattoo parlors and about the only workout people get is sitting down and standing up occasionally. (A couple of us raise our hands from time to time, but it is the Baptist kind of hand raising which is far less aerobic than other denominations.)
What Elizabeth Crisp of USA Today does not understand is that the issue is not about formal versus informal. These folks worshiping with tattoos or singing praise songs on exercise equipment are still practicing a formal faith. It still places demands on them. There is still a liturgy (probably just called an order of worship, but the same thing).
An informal church is something more like the Unitarian Universalists who allow you to believe anything and still go to wherever it is that good people go, but no one wants to place a label on it. An informal church is one that says you can read the Bible however you want because the meaning isn’t as important as checking that task off. Actually, an informal church says whatever sacred text is fine with us – Bible, Bhagavad Gita, the collected works of Anne McAffrey, whatever.
The issue is not formal versus informal. It is about doctrine versus marketing. It is about whether our form of worship is dictated by what we believe or if it is dictated by how many people we can attract.
There’s nothing wrong with updating your music or changing presentation. There’s nothing wrong with worshiping in a converted space (we met in an old boat store for years) or not having an offering.
But there is something wrong with congregations abandoning doctrine so they cane more attractive. There is something wrong with compromising the faith or tweaking the gospel so people will find it attractive. There is something wrong with the belief that you can do whatever you want as long as it brings people in. And that applies as much to crazy bus ministries, controversial preaching, and odd ball special events as much as it does to worshiping in a gym or offering free tattoos.
The church is defined by our beliefs. Within those beliefs, there is room for tremendous diversity of practice. But there is no room for corrupting the gospel to become more attractive, or compromising the purity of truth so people don’t get offended.
My suggestion to all the church leaders who go down these avenues is to read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the first three chapters of the Revelation, because this isn’t a matter of my opinion versus someone else’s. This is a matter of Scripture and whether it is truly our rule for faith and practice.
Out of Ur recently posted this video of Peter Enns asking readers’ questions to N.T. Wright. It is not secret that I find Wright a very thought provoking writer and thinker, so I was intrigued to hear what he had to say.
I’m not completely convinced that Wright gets everything right (sorry, unavoidable pun) but I did find his shifting of the focus from literal vs. metaphorical to concrete vs. abstract to be worthwhile, and I do agree with him that we need to do our reading of the Scriptures on a case by case basis. Particularly, it is more important that we delve into the original intention (I call it the original matrix) rather than oversimplify with blanket interpretational schemes.
What did you think?
One reason why Christianity has been the most successful of all world religions in crossing cultural boundaries is its adaptability. To be sure, this has not been manifested in all places and at all times, some missionary endeavors have been based on the premise that any rival belief system is of the devil and must be obliterated. Contrariwise, there have been occasions when, for the sake of number crunching, religious fundamentals have been sacrificed. On the whole, however, wise evangelists have understood not only that the gospel may be garbed in a variety of national costumes but that incorporating fresh customs and thought patterns actually enriches the life of new churches.
(Derek Wilson, Charlemagne, p 18)
Wilson’s words are actually a description of the success of Celtic Christianity in the 8th-12th centuries, but they apply equally to our postmodern world and our approach to evangelism.
In the past, the supremacy of the Western culture allowed Christianity an attitude of cultural supremacy in evangelism. In fact, the modern type of evangelism virtually required an attitude of superiority. Evangelists demanded that people of different views adopt their belief system, and that belief system was a dominate, colonial one in many cases. (I am aware that most evangelists were not representatives of state churches, but many of them still held onto the cultural trappings of their western dominions.)
In the postmodern age, we are confronted with a world that does not share our values and does not have a necessary reason to adopt our culture. For some, this is a discouraging notion. For me, it is an encouraging one. For the first time in a long time, the church is free to incorporate fresh customs and thought patterns – to enrich the life of the church of our age. This was the state of affairs in the birth of the Gentile church under Paul, in the birth of Celtic Christianity, in the subtle emergence of the Chinese church that thrives underground to this day.
That’s what I think anyway.
Skye Jethani has some good things to say about freedom of religion and the way Islam is sometimes mischaracterized.
Peter Enns, a professor of Old Testament and New Testament Studies at Eastern University, has written a book that is getting a lot of press time in the Christian blogosphere. The book, entitled The Evolution of Adam, attempts to reconcile the Genesis record with modern scientific thought, as well as explain the apostle Paul’s use of Adam in explaining Jesus’ work.
Let me begin by saying that I haven’t read Enns’ book, so this post is not a critique of his work. Instead, I want to plant some seed ideas on the subject and perhaps broaden our perspective on the question of how we read the creation stories in Genesis 1-3. Here is a brief video of Enns speaking on the subject, and then I will make some comments.
This might get me in trouble with my fundamentalist brethren, but I am ambivalent on whether the Genesis 1-3 record is historical fact or not. Officially, my position is “It could be.” My limited studies into the literature of ancient peoples leads me to believe that the authors of the Genesis record were focused on their own place in the world system and not on creating a science textbook. They wrote in a very poetic, measured way that seems to be more related with an understanding of the way the world is as opposed to the way that it came to be. In other words, it was not as important to them that Adam be the historical, biological father of all mankind. What was important is that we can all see Adam and Eve’s sin in ourselves.
That being said, I have no real reason to doubt that there wasn’t a historical person. You can’t prove a negative. That’s why my position is “It could be.” I don’t think people who believe Adam is a historical person are ignorant or foolish or unscientific; and I don’t think people like Enns are heretics or apostates.
As always, the truth is in the tension. I avoid eliminating possibilities, even those that make me uncomfortable (and to be frank, dismissing Adam makes me uncomfortable). We find the greatest richness of the Scriptures when we study them in light of multiple possibilities rather than in ironclad dogmatism.
But that’s just me. I am comfortable with the tension of not really being able to be certain. What do you think?
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:5-8)
There are two accounts of creation in Genesis.
The first, which appears in chapter 1, emphasizes man as the culmination of creation. God makes divisions – light from darkness, atmosphere from ocean, land from sea – in the first three days and then fills these expanses in the next – the sun, moon and stars as lights; the birds to fill the sky and fish to fill the oceans; and animals to fill the land. He creates plant life with the land, on the third day, and then creates man as the culmination of the living things on land on the sixth.
In the second account, in chapter 2, the land is empty. It is not that it is devoid of any plant life, but rather “the plant of the field” and “every herb of the field” is not growing. These are the types of plants that require man’s attention. Particularly, it is noted that God did not let the plants grow because 1) he had not yet caused rain and 2) there was no man to tend the plants. God then plants these in a garden in the east of Eden and creates man in the garden to tend them.
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
A lot of arguments could be made about the sequencing of these creation accounts, and there are some valid discussions to be made about it, but the sequencing serves a greater purpose – to illustrate the relationship of man to the earth.
Anyone who is foolish enough to say that man does not have a responsibility to care for the ecology of the earth has not read Genesis. It could not be any more plain. God withheld growth from the plants until there was a man to care for them.
Mankind is inextricably connected to other life on this planet. When mankind fell (Genesis 3), all of creation fell with us (Romans 8:22). We don’t like to be connected because we like to be superior. This is the very sin that Satan tempted us with back in the garden. (Genesis 3:5)
We are not creation’s superiors but rather its stewards. Jesus had some harsh things to say about bad stewards who abuse their stewardship.
A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out.
Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. (Luke 20:9-16)
We don’t need to be environment wackos to take care of the planet God has entrusted to us. We would however have to be nuts to ignore the instructions of the Lord of this vineyard.
Thanks be to God, we have here neither free schools nor printing presses, and I hope we will not have any for a hundred years, for education has sent into the world doubt, heresy and sectarianism, and the printing press has propagated, in addition to all these evils, attacks against governments! -Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677), Governor of Virginia
Technology takes time to get use to. There is a bit of a delay between the implementation of something that has tremendous potential and the realization of that potential. Then, there is another delay between the realization of that potential and the integration of it.
Think of how drastically the moveable type printing press changed the world. The Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment were direct results of the printing press. This change did not happen overnight, and even as the change was happening, there were a lot of people abusing and misusing the new technology.
The same can be said for virtually all technology that changes how we live: the automobile, the jet liner, the telephone, the personal computer, the internet, the mobile device. These technologies are still in their infancy.
When Sir William Berkeley condemned the printing press, it had not yet spurred on the Age of Revolution. It was a century before the American Revolution. Many of the most subversive books of our culture had not yet been written. The printing press had not even begun to open the doors for heresy and sectarianism.
But along with the dangers came the tremendous benefits. The printed book gave millions access to information that had been hidden from them. Knowledge, wisdom, and information flowed freely in a way that we take for granted today, and which is dwarfed by the speed in which we share information now.
People condemned the telephone as dangerous to the family unit. The Internet was immoral and dangerous (parts of it still are!). Translating the Bible into ‘vulgar languages’ was condemned by clergy and monarchs alike. Every invention that has changed the world has been condemned at some point.
Technology itself is not evil. They are tools, and tools are only as good or evil as the hands that wield them. What can be used for evil can also be use for good.