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Monday, January 27, 2014

Let's Not Try to Pretty-up the Bible

Although I will comment on timely issues that affect the LGBT community, mostly I flatter myself by contributing what might be called (at least by some) "think pieces." These are efforts to reframe or clarify issues of importance. By providing a different angle or detecting a nuance, we might be able to rethink a formerly held belief or position. At the very least, I hope to generate comments from other thinkers for our mutual benefit. Today's post is a case in point.

Ever since translating the Bible began, from the Septuagint to modern translations, translators have obscured certain passages for a variety of reasons. Euphemisms abound. In the Hebrew Bible, the penis is referred to as "thigh," and of course, we're all familiar with "knew" as the substitute for sexual intercourse. In the New Testament, you'd never know that menstrual rags or castration are meant by "filthy rags"(Isa. 64:6) and "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." (Gal. 5:12)  The NRSV actually says, "castrate themselves."

There has always been a sensitivity by translators to tone down for propriety sake the very earthy parts of the Bible. But when it comes to actually changing the meaning of the texts, I will protest.

Inclusive language, that is, the intentional use of "gender neutral" language, has generally been around since the 1960s. It first showed up in the churches as efforts to take the masculine meaning away from the concept of God. So instead of "God, when he...," for example, we hear "God, when God...," and the like. This is a very important move as we know that 1) God has no gender, and 2) worlds of meaning are created by words. The world created by "God, he..." easily became a world in which the male is elevated over the female. I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

Inclusive language efforts try to take the offending aspects of gender and neutralize them. This goes beyond pronouns for God and includes "Parent" for "Father", substituting "members" for "brothers" when the entire congregation is meant, "they" replaces "he or she," and the like.

Certainly this is a wholesome effort, but it actually makes the Bible less understandable and much less useful. How can that be?

Since these efforts generally come out of the more progressive side of the church, the interest goes much farther than merely inclusive language. They recognize that Jesus' message of a God of love often gets lost in the mix of competing images. So they go about "helping" the Bible represent good theology. We'll see how the Inclusive Bible does this in a moment, but first here's 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: (New American Standard Version)
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (NASV)
I chose the NASV here because it is a well-known word-for-word translation to the point of being wooden. Anyone reading these verses would come face to face with biblical patriarchy (the family/state system of male dominance and subjection of women). Patriarchy is a biblical fact that runs "from cover to cover." Occasionally there is pushback such as Galatians 3:28, yet patriarchy is the dominate setting. Elders and deacons must be the husbands of one wife, making women ineligible to hold church offices in the "Pastoral Epistles." When the original 12 disciples had to replace Judas, the qualifications made sure a man was chosen. On and on we could go, but you know all this.

So, in an effort to combat the patriarchy of the Bible,and especially its negativity toward women, the Inclusive Bible takes it head on. Here's their translation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Only one spouse has permission to speak. The other is to remain silent, to keep in the background out of respect, and to wait his or her turn.
Surely this is the way we wish the Bible really had it, but it isn't. This is not how the original audience heard this text. Paul explicitly demands that women remain silent in church; this says exactly the opposite  Even though the original sense offends many modern sensibilities, it's the real Bible. The Inclusive Bible is merely wishful thinking. Unfortunately, most of the recent translations offend in this regard to one degree or another. The intention is honorable, but the result is devastating to biblical understanding.

Perhaps a couple more illustrations of how some translations obscure troublesome passages would be helpful. Here's Matthew 18:15-17 from the New Revised Standard Version:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (NRSV)
"Member" here is literally, "brother." "Member" suggests that Matthew's church made no distinctions in disciplining males and females. This is, of course, how many would like for the church to conduct itself in all things. However, "brother" displays the actual situation where men stand in judgment of men. The disciplining of women fell to their fathers, husbands or brothers. But all of this is lost in the cleaned up version.

One more. One of the arguments that literalists make to oppose the Theory of Evolution is that Genesis 1 uses a phrase meaning reproduction is "after their kind," which is correctly translated. They take this to mean that all the species were created at once and that there could be no evolving of one into another. (Which, by the way, segregationist used "after their own kind" to argue that the races shouldn't intermarry.) So the NRSV translates it as "of every kind," which opens the door for natural selection.

We don't want to leave people with the impression that the Bible is not a worthy companion to help us find God and lead worthy lives. But we do want to warn that reading the Bible is not an easy thing, like reading the morning newspaper. We must learn to differentiate between the culturally derived aspects of the Bible that made sense in that day, but no longer makes sense for us. Someone once said that reading the Bible is like eating watermelon: you have to spit out a few seeds along the way.

When Paul said to "greet one another with a holy kiss," it's perfectly fine to give a hug or handshake today, instead. When in their culture women were subordinated, they are now free in ours. We are living into Paul's inclusive vision of Galatians 3:28 that
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
So, let's not try to pretty-up the Bible.

First, it's always better to deal with reality than what we would prefer reality to be. Sweeping the problems of the Bible under the rug accomplishes nothing. If you think that cleaning up the offending passages will cure literalists from enforcing patriarchy in their churches, think again. There will always be the King James Version.

Second, if we don't know that the Bible encourages patriarchy, tolerates slavery, subordinates women, and generally represents an outdated worldview, scientifically and otherwise, we lose the fact that it is the product of human beings. Yes, human beings who wrestled with what it means to be human in the presence of the Divine, but human nevertheless. That we can stand in judgment over the Bible comes from listening to all of it, warts and all, and learning to pick the wheat from the chaff. It doesn't take much to see that the "inerrant Bible" is a fiction, but not if it's cleaned up before we get there.

Third, the answer to the problem is not rewriting the Bible, it's in doing good theology. Perhaps knowing that even the original didn't always get it right will help us to understand our human attempts are also fraught with error and subject to revision as others look over our shoulders and make our paths straighter.

So let's live with the Bible as its authors intended. We can handle the seeds just fine.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What the Bible Really Says: NOTHING

(Okay, I cribbed this from my book. Maybe this will make you want to read more of it. 
Just click on the book's cover on the left of the page and you will find it on Amazon.)

The ultimate recourse for those who want to keep homosexuality on the sins list is, “My Bible says....” The sentence generally ends with “...homosexuals are an abomination,” or, “...gays are going to hell,” or “…God hates gays.” This is intended to be the final word on the matter; the Bible has spoken, the issue is clear, we can move on to other things. How so? Because the Bible has spoken.

The Bible, of course says no such thing and I will prove it to you. Go get your Bible. (Yes, really--go get it.) Now, take it in your hands and bring it up to your eyes. Say to it very clearly, “Bible, tell me, what do you have to say about homosexuality?” If you don't hear anything, repeat your question; maybe louder this time. If there is still no answer, shake it; it may be taking a nap. Still hearing nothing? Well, that's all right, because if you do hear the Bible answering you may be on your way to a psychiatric hospital.

The Bible “says” nothing. It is an inert object, words on paper. It can’t utter a sound. Of course, you knew that all along, yet you may still want to repeat that the Bible says something. What is really going on is that people say the Bible says something; people speak on behalf of  the Bible. The Bible is deaf and mute.

Unfortunately, people too often make what “the Bible says” what they want it to say. You see, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted reading of anything, from the daily newspaper to the Bible. All of us read (or “hear what it says”) though a filter or a lens. No one can read without one. Your filter/lens is everything that you have learned through your culture, ethnicity, gender, nationality, education...you get the point...that shapes how you perceive meaning. Every word you read or hear is processed through this filtering system. Everyone reads or hears the same word or words differently. Depending on how far apart our systems are, we can basically understand each other or totally misunderstand. In explaining this to an adult Sunday School class, one member said, “I can think of something we both read that needs no filtering, that is straightforward and immediately understood.” “Okay,” I said. “Let's have it.” He responded, “God is love.” I replied with, “What do you mean by 'God' and what do you mean by 'love'”? He got my point.

When it comes to reading the Bible, we have a two to three thousand year old bridge to cross. We need to be able to “hear” as though we were an immediate member of the culture of those ancients who created those biblical words. This is virtually impossible. The best we can do is approximate this; we will never actually achieve this. And even for those who were contemporaries, they had their own problems. Here's Peter’s comment on Paul's letters: “There are some things in them hard to understand.” (2 Peter 2:16) Indeed.

So the next time you are tempted to tell someone what the Bible says, why not be honest and tell them that you think this is what the Bible, properly interpreted, means. You will have achieved two things. First, you will have admitted that your interpretation is open to opinion (and that it is your opinion), and that you might be, dare I say it...wrong.

http://www.amazon.com/Marriage-Equality-Same-sex-marriage-church/dp/1484967127/ref=
for those of you reading this post by email

Steve Kindle
www.clergyunited.org
info@clergyunited.org

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Biblical Ambiguity Is Our Friend

One of the findings of Bible publishing marketers is that people don’t actually read the Bible. Any pastor can verify that. America is biblically illiterate. Try as they might, their initial attempts to read it are met with elaborate argumentation (Romans), boredom (Leviticus), or the bizarre (Revelation). Some just stick to the tried and true (Psalms, Sermon on the Mount, John 3:16), or simply flip to a random passage and hope for a blessing. Most just give up altogether. But even though they no longer study the Bible, people think they should own one, which is the edge these marketers are exploiting.

Let’s face it, reading the Bible is not easy. It’s not arranged in a way that logically unfolds it meanings. We have to master biblical timelines, grapple with differing genres that require differing modes of interpretation, decipher unfamiliar practices, and try to understand foreign cultures and peoples. Add to this that the King James Version’s Elizabethan English is increasingly foreign territory to modern Americans, but still remains the bestselling Bible. Then there is the nagging problem of ambiguities in the text. We don’t like them.

Have you noticed that most of the translations in the last 25 years focus on “readability”? It’s a given that the Bible is just too complicated to let it remain complicated. So our beneficent translators set about to make the Bible understandable. Today a prospective purchaser has over 30 English translations to choose among.

Then there’s the “value added” Bibles that are marketed to specific demographics to solve their unique problems that the plain Bible can’t seem to provide. Here’s a great example of one directed to men (and it appears, manly men). The publisher writes:

Every Man's Bible: A Bible for Every Battle Every Man Faces
Finally, a Bible that every ordinary guy—from truck drivers to lawyers—can call his own.  This is a guy's type of Bible—straight talk about the challenges of life.  Notes cover everything from work issues to relationships with women to common temptations guys face....Whether on your dashboard or on your desk, you'll want to keep the Every Man's Bible close at hand.  It gives you real answers, real fast.
No demographic goes without its own specific issues resolved. There are study Bibles for teens, women, the addicted, athletes, minorities, college kids, defenders of the faith, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Liberals, children, and many, many more. All promise "real answers, real fast." Just what the doctor ordered. In this case, is it Dr. Faust?

People who depend on this approach to biblical understanding are exchanging their own search for personal truth for the tidy explanations that someone else delivers in a palatable package. They claim to make sense out of that confusing Bible for you. The end result is that people think they are getting biblical truth when, in fact, they are simply served up someone else's opinion. And they are still not reading the Bible. They are reading the sidebars, tables, charts, and "How to apply this to your life" explanations, but rarely the Bible. It's perfect for Americans who have lost patience with patience.

Biblical ambiguities are our friend. There is no need to explain them away. For when we do so, we lose touch with a necessary aspect of biblical and lived life. Not everything is easy, or immediately available. Often the explanations involved that "clear up" ambiguities are nothing more than veiled attempts to force theological or ideological opinions in the name of "Thus saith the Lord."  I will provide just one example.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is a notoriously difficult passage to translate.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (NRSV emphasis mine)
In an earlier post I dealt with the anachronism involved with"sodomites," a word not invented until 1000 years after the Corinthian letter was written. Nevertheless, some of the more recent translators are not content to let stand the ambiguity of just what or who these people, male prostitutes and sodomites, are. So this is how they clear it up, from the Common English Version:
Don’t you know that people who are unjust won’t inherit God’s kingdom? Don’t be deceived. Those who are sexually immoral, those who worship false gods, adulterers, both participants in same-sex intercourse, thieves, the greedy, drunks, abusive people, and swindlers won’t inherit God’s kingdom. (emphasis mine)
There is a perfectly fine translation alternative to this speculation that now serves as a proof-text against homosexuality. "Male prostitutes and sodomites" can easily be translated "male temple prostitutes and those who use them." The ambiguity inherent in this and other passages forces us to dig deep into the biblical text for our answers. It reminds us that all our findings are of our own making and subject to all the restrictions and restraints humanity must bear. We are finite beings only touching the hem of the garment of absolute truth. To pretend otherwise is to dishonor not only the Bible, but the God who created ambiguity in the first place, to make us searchers after God, not imprisoners of the Divine Truth. Ambiguity is our friend; it keeps us human.

Steve Kindle
www.clergyunited.org
info@clergyunited.org

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Hope of the World

Nothing is more annoying than a “know-it-all.” I can vouch for the factuality of that statement because I was Exhibit One for many years. Know-it-alls are especially annoying to other know-it-alls. We can’t imagine that any in their right minds would disagree with us. Every now and then I fall back on my know-it-all brain, especially when I’m losing an argument. I then reacquaint myself with how annoying I can be.

Observing Congress over the tenure of the Obama administration makes me wonder if it isn’t a congress of know-it-alls.  An ideologue, which Congress is filled with, is just another name for a know-it-all. These are people who are so sure of themselves they can’t bend a whit, for that would be compromising with what they know not to be the truth. So we have a Congress in national disgrace because they love their point of view, their ideology, more than they love the nation. (Some would even jeopardize the “full faith and credit of the United States” simply because they refuse to admit that some things are more important than a point of view.)

What’s going on in Congress now is a national teach-in on the need for humility. Humility is nothing more than the recognition that I am a finite human being and, as such, cannot know everything, and need others to temper my inadequacies. It is a teachable spirit, a seeker of answers in the midst of vexing questions. Humility in oneself allows us to respect differences with others, even to honor them. For if we lack humility, we lack the capacity to extend grace to our companions along the way. Extending grace is more than merely giving the benefit of a doubt; it is acknowledging our humanity by limiting our own sense of self-importance.

But even now, in a world filled with know-it-alls of all types, there is hope. Shades of gray are replacing simplistic patterns of black and white thinking. The Enlightenment notions of absolutes are giving way to relativity. The screams you hear that “the center will not hold,” come from those who depend on knowing it all and see their assurances fall, one by one. Humility is standing by preparing to replace knowing it all with being at one with all.

In this old world a new sense of itself is emerging. The New Physics is teaching us that all things are connected; that nothing is simply by itself; that everything depends upon everything else. “No man is an island,” and no one is “master of his own fate or the captain of his own soul.” We survive because we are connected and thrive because we recognize that reality. East meets West and rugged individualism is overcome by community. Taking our cue from Gandhi and King, we know that when one suffers, we all suffer, and when one overcomes, we all overcome.

In the religious context, this is working itself out in Interfaith dialogue. Rather than try to convert those of other faiths, we now prefer to understand them. The outcome is that with greater understanding comes a deeper sense of our own faiths and even the recognition that our differences are diminished and our commonalities enhanced. Those who see people of other faiths as objects to convert really don't see human beings. These are reduced to being merely statistics, and in the worst cases, trophies to display.

When people sit down with their gay and lesbian friends or family members, and be with them as people, not stereotypical objects, they discover a common humanity and that any differences that remain are rendered irrelevant. Some even come to celebrate them. But whether we are concerned about religion or sexual orientation, or any other issue, needing to be right will inevitably lead to being wrong.

My sense (call it faith if you will) is that God is orchestrating this Great Transition from me to we. The cosmos is realigning itself against the selfishness of me and mine toward us and ours. When the know-it-alls of the world finally learn that they don’t know the most basic truth of our day, that we need each other, a wholesome prosperity will cover our world, and even Congress will ignore the aisle that once divided a nation. And nation will not rise up against nation, and there will be war no more. This is the hope of the world.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dr. King’s Beloved Community Is Incomplete

As we celebrate the life of one of America's most important figures today, it is incumbent upon us to honor not only the achievements of the man, but also the vision he set before us. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we living into the world Dr. King had in mind and even gave his life to make possible?

The centerpiece of his vision he called the Beloved Community. It's not a stretch to compare it with Jesus' notion of the Kingdom of God, as both call for a community in which each participant lives for the well-being of the others. It is a community that has only one guiding rule, the Golden Rule, and one pursuit, love in action. In his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," Dr. King set out to close the gap between our rhetoric and our deeds. He said, “I say to you my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”

Those of us who honor Dr. King and hold out the hope for one day realizing his dream surely recognize that the gap between America's words and deeds is yet to be closed. Although racism is still a factor in America, it is no longer privileged in polite society. Homophobia, on the other hand is, in the words of Harvard's Byrne Fone, "The last respectable bigotry in America."

Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., often said that, were he alive today, Dr. King would be working for LGBT equality. I personally heard her say much the same thing during a fund raising event in San Francisco shortly before she died. This begs a very fundamental question: How could she be so sure?

Let’s face it; the African American community lags way behind the rest of America in support of LGBT equality. Even though most of black clergy are solidly behind the Civil Rights Movement, they oppose gay equality. However, many prominent African American leaders are on record supporting it, including the Reverends Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, and Rep. John Lewis.

Although the 1950s and 60s were not brimming with gay rights issues, Dr. King’s most trusted confidant and strategic thinker, Bayard Rustin, was gay, and this was known to King and his inner circle (to say nothing about J. Edgar Hoover and his smear campaign). It is inconceivable that he and Coretta did not have conversations about Bayard, and it is known that King felt his homosexuality should be a non-issue.

However, I believe Dr. King’s certain involvement in gay rights today was based solidly on bedrock beliefs he held which would have naturally led him to this position.

To begin with, Dr. King understood that oppression is oppression is oppression.  That is, all oppression is of one kind and needs to be opposed whenever and wherever it is found. It has always confounded me that black leaders who understand their own oppression aren’t able to transfer it to others who are oppressed. Some think that this is because they feel that focusing on other issues diffuse and diminish their struggle. Others, such as the African American author Keith Boykin in his “One More River to Cross,” points to the general homophobia in the black community. Dr. King did not make this mistake.

Dr. King was an early postmodernist. He understood that all things are connected and rise and fall together. This is seen in one of his most famous utterances: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He further elaborated by saying,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.  We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.   
Unless all things are connected to each other, this could not be true. It doesn't take much in the way of connecting the dots to go from civil rights to gay rights.

Mel White, the co-founder of Soulforce, who looks to Dr. King's nonviolent philosophy to guide his work, insists that the enemy of injustice is not a person or a people, but ignorance. That the dignity of those who would oppose justice for all people must be acknowledged and upheld at all times. You see, when you love your enemy, you no longer have an enemy.  Dr King said that the pursuit of justice "is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.  It is this type of spirit, and this type of love that can transform opposers into friend....It is this love that will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

There is certainly much work yet to be done to complete Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community, and today should be a forthright call to remind ourselves of this. To ignore Dr. King’s commitment to removing all injustices, particularly the incomplete pursuit of gay rights, is not only to misunderstand that great man, but to dishonor his commitment of gaining justice for all.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Utah: American Bellwether?

A bellwether is one that serves as a leader or is a leading indicator of future trends. Wikipedia cites its origin: "The term is derived from the Middle English bellewether and refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading his flock of sheep. The movements of the flock could be noted by hearing the bell before the flock was in sight." Much attention is given to Ottawa County, Indiana every four years because it has predicted the outcome of every presidential race since 1964. As it goes, so goes the nation. California has the reputation for leading the country in innovative trends, from new fads to technological breakthroughs. Colorado may be taking that distinction away from it by being the first state to allow recreational marijuana use. 

A new poll in Utah, conducted by its leading newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, suggests that America is fully ready to embrace LGBT equality. In a state whose majority population (58%)  is Latter Day Saints (Mormans), the poll found it is evenly divided between 48% who favor granting same-sex marriage licenses and 48% who oppose it. It is clear that its decade old state ban on same-sex marriage would now likely be defeated if offered a vote. (A similar reality now obtains in California.) This is remarkable in that the LDS church is the leading voice against LGBT equality, and aggressively inserts itself and its money all across the nation to defeat pro-gay advances. Nevertheless, Utah is about to cave. I see this as a leading indicator that not only is same-sex marriage inevitable, it's coming more quickly than anyone ever imagined. 

Fully 72% favor civil unions for same-sex couples. Before Colorado made recreational use of marijuana legal, it first decriminalized it and allowed for medical use. Medical use is the gateway to decriminalization and decriminalization is the gateway to legalization. Similarly, the presence of same-sex civil unions leads to legalizing same-sex marriage. People eventually see the inherent inequality in civil unions, as LGBTs are obviously discriminated against in plain sight. Also the increased visibility of gays and lesbians in everyday situations soon breaks down the pejorative stereotypes and are welcomed as normal and entitled to the same rights as everyone else. 

This poll also puts to bed the unsupported but widespread belief that people don't change. Yes they do. In fact, 36% admitted that their views changed over time. So there is hope, nay, solid evidence that the future is bright, and not so distant after all.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

When Does "Truth" become the Enemy of Love?

Early in my adulthood, I was fascinated with a question that occupied my mind throughout my undergraduate and early graduate years. Which is the higher pursuit, love or truth? I came down hard on the truth side. My reasoning could be reduced to a simple thought--how do we know what to properly love unless it is grounded in truth? Not coincidentally, this logic informs much of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical thinking, of which I was very much a part.

Here's how this thinking works: Taking the meaning of love as an action, not an emotion, we are to "love one another." This means we are to behave toward one another as Jesus would, nurturing, sharing with, and protecting those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. So far, so good. But soon an invidious question emerges: Who is my brother/sister in Christ? The purpose of this question is to make sure that we don't lavish our love on the unworthy (pearls before swine, as it were). Here, love is at the mercy of "truth." With "truth" as our guide, we soon are entrapped in a quagmire of a dualistic sense of the world: who's in/out, right/wrong, good/evil, friend/enemy, worthy/unworthy, on and on. The world is divided up largely between us and them and enemies abound. Perhaps the greatest fatality is the resultant inability to love one's enemies.

The seminary dean while I was getting my M. Div. loved to say that if he found a church closer to the truth than his, he would join it immediately. The criteria for such a church would be doctrinal purity or "more truth here." All other churches are deemed less truthful, and in some cases, the enemy of "truth." It seems that we cannot hold to grace in the presence of  purity laws. Purity wins every time.

(Note: Yesterday's post explains why the pursuit of "truth" is elusive.)

But, how would the priority of love work? Can it inform what is true?

One of the texts that is used to support the priority of truth is Matthew 5:48, where Jesus says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect." Perfection is understood here as being perfectly in line with God's truth. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of perfect, as the context shows. Here's the full version:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Recently I was having coffee at a local coffee bar with a friend. We were sitting outdoors in an area frequented by homeless people looking for a little charity. One young lady happened by and hit us up for a little change. I had a loose couple of dollars and handed them over to her. My friend, whose generosity could make him poor, hesitated, sensing a ruse at work. (She said she was looking for money for meds, while sipping on a large "to go" drink.) I am fairly sure she lied to us. But I didn't care. There are no people unworthy of our help as this passage from the Sermon on the Mount shows. for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Being perfect, therefore, is to behave by loving people the same way God does, indiscriminately, without eligibility tests of any kind. Being human and therefore a child of God is sufficient. That's the truth! (You can make your own application of how this pertains to LGBTs, I'm sure.)


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Problem with an Infallible Bible: You're Not!

The late Harold Lindsell, a prominent Evangelical leader, stated that, "The very nature of inspiration renders the Bible infallible, which means that it cannot deceive us. It is inerrant in that it is not false, mistaken, or defective". (The Battle for the Bible. Zondervan, 1978, p.31)  The key phrase, "it cannot deceive us," is the source of the problem. Couple this with biblical literalism and the problem is compounded. For those who believe in infallibility and literalism believe they can read it essentially without error. "The Bible cannot deceive me; therefore, I am not deceived."

You may have wondered why conservative Christians (mostly the leaders) are so sure of themselves. Well, this is part of the explanation. "I understand (literally) what the Bible says, so I have every right to conclude that it is the truth, and those who disagree with me are wrong."  Wrong, even though they come from the same two understandings and approach the Bible the same way. Those who don't come from the same a priori starting point are wrong by definition.

Simply put, the problem with an infallible Bible is that for it to have any value, you need to be an infallible reader. Many have tried to wear the mantle of (practical) infallibility and crown their hubris by consigning to hell (in the most excessive examples) those who would disagree. The Roman Catholic Church relies on an infallible pope, although papal infallibility has been used only once since it was proclaimed in 1870 to make the Assumption of Mary into heaven an Article of faith.

The notion of Absolute Truth is also subject to the same problem of identifying just what it is. Since we are all, as humans, finite beings, we cannot comprehend Absolute Truth. We can only approach it. The absolute cannot dwell in the finite. This is not to say there is no Absolute Truth; only that it is not a helpful notion so long as we think knowing it is possible. So approaching the biblical text must be done in great humility, our conclusions must be open to adjustment at all times, and our openness to other points of view must be observed with respectful consideration. You may not end up with The Truth, but you will be practicing Christian charity. And that's a pathway to a more expansive understanding of the Bible than thinking you have already arrived will ever take you.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Why Toleration Must not Be Tolerated



So often we hear, “We need to be a more tolerant world…nation…church...people, etc.” It’s certainly said with the best of intentions: a desire for people to get along better, to understand one another better, and to reach out beyond our limited perspectives. Yet it harbors within it the seeds of its own inability to transcend differences and unite with the “others” among us.

First of all, who are the “we” who need to be more tolerant? Simply and starkly put, those with the power to offer or deny a place at the table. In other words, it’s the oppressors, the guardians of the status quo, the gatekeepers of who’s in and who’s out. Toleration at its base is just another form of discrimination: the tolerant only “tolerate” inferiors. Therefore, toleration is a political tool and as such is used by the powerful in service or disservice of the less powerful.

Toleration can only be practiced by those who have the power to rescind it. Toleration asks, “How much can I put up with until I finally reject you?” The tolerater, whether an individual or a society, sets the rules and determines the outcome. History is replete with examples. Rome tolerated Jews and then Christians until they could no longer tolerate them. Gypsies, as with the Jews, have been repeatedly tolerated, then expelled, throughout their history. Minorities everywhere live with the reality that their tolerated status (when they have it) is on loan and they must act accordingly.

Toleration can have a positive function, as a sort of way station on the way to true equality and acceptance. Whereas interracial marriage was once not possible in America, now it’s common place. Antipathy may yield to tolerance, and eventually end in acceptance. The problem with a way station is that it can be confused with the destination and forward progress is halted.

Naturally, where I am headed with this is the notion that “We need to be more tolerant of gays.” “We,” of course, are the straight dispensers of power in the church or society. Who put us in charge of the destiny of anyone? We merely claimed it for ourselves by virtue of our majority position, and we are reluctant to abandon our status.

One thing I’ve learned in my many years of consulting with congregations on gay issues is that when churches initially become “Open and Affirming,” it usually means open to LGBTs and hoping to be affirming someday. We merely tolerate them in the meantime. Some don’t make the transition because they confuse toleration with acceptance. When pastors brag to me about their O&A congregations, I ask a simple question: “When did you hold your last same-sex wedding in the church?” Most of the time I get a reply that means, “We’re not ready for that yet.” Affirmation at its most basic means LGBTs are no longer an “other,” but as fully appreciated as we appreciate ourselves.

Okay, maybe we can’t do away with toleration all together as it does serve as a transitioning point to hoped for full inclusion. But we should never concede that it is sufficient.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Is a Blessing


The controversy surrounding Phil Robertson's anti-gay remarks and his revisionist retelling of how African Americans loved their lives during the Jim Crow era found both supporters and detractors across America. I probably don't have to quote him here, so you can skip to the next paragraph if you're already sick of this coverage.  In an interview in the January issue of GQ, Robertson says homosexuality is a sin and equates it with bestiality and promiscuity. Here's the quote:
It seems like, to me, a vagina -- as a man -- would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical. ...Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. 
 He also made comments regarding race and growing up in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era.
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! ...Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Added to this is the most recent revelation that Robertson married his wife when she was only 16 years old and counsels other men to do the same, even to marry 15 year old girls.  Video here  

Recently his congregation's church secretary, Luanne Watts, told MailOnline they had been bombarded with calls and emails from Americans showing their support. She said: "What has happened is a blessing. Phil believes in the word of God and he will not shift from that." He is actually a very prominent elder and his fellow parishioners are solidly behind him.

Yes, Phil Robertson is a blessing. He is a portal into the mindset of homophobic America. As you know, nothing happens in a vacuum. His patriarchal views about women, his visceral reaction to same-sex love, his "Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare" notions of the Jim Crow South, all stem from his literalistic view of the Bible.

A clear distinction needs to be made here. Following World War II, America began to see the rise of so-called "Bible believing churches." Now they are found in every city and small town. I am asked all the time if my church preaches the Bible. This is code for "literal preaching of the Bible." Any church that doesn't read the Bible literally is, in their minds, considered heretical. But the issue really isn't belief or unbelief, it's literal belief, or as I like to call it, informed belief. I definitely believe the Bible; I just read it, and therefore, understand it differently than literalists.

The literal belief system is a "face value" understanding of words on a page, that leaves the meaning at the surface level. Literalists understand words in the Bible just like the words in their newspapers without reference to the changed worldview involved. "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!" You see, you can't take the Bible literally and seriously at the same time. Why? Because to take the Bible seriously you need to delve deep into the text.

The surface reading will more often than not lead you astray. Biblical hyperbole is a handy example. Proverbs 22.6 says, Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. I know from experience counseling mothers and fathers of children who departed from the faith, never to return, or ended up addicted to drugs, or incarcerated, who blame themselves and their parenting for the outcome based on this proverb. In their minds they didn't adhere to the way they should go well enough. They failed.

Literalism also accounts for the lingering doubts about racial equality. The "curse of Ham," reproducing only "after their kind," and certain Levitical instructions about keeping things separate (no planing of two kinds of crops in the same field, no wearing of garments composed of two kinds of cloth, etc.) are seen as mandates for segregation, And in case you think the issue of slavery has been decided, a world-class scholar in New Testament backgrounds told me that slavery would not be sinful today if conducted under biblical conditions. This notion is not uncommon in fundamentalist circles. We likely can't charge Robertson with endorsing slavery, but we can say he is comfortable with Jim Crow life.

Literalism is also why some fundamentalists believe that all LGBTs should be executed, based on the literal reading of Leviticus 20:13 while blithely ignoring all the other acts requiring the death penalty (including juvenile delinquency).  Roberson actually acknowledges this. "Do I call for homosexuals to be put to death? No, because if I did, I would have to include those that live in premarital sex, masturbation, adultery, violating the God given ability to divorce and re-marry..."1 In other words, he acknowledges that the Bible calls for all these and more to be put to death, but can't bring himself to go that far. But there are many who would.

Phil Robertson enables us to see the confusion, inhumanity, and twisted outlook that comes from a literal reading of the Bible. Yes, he is a blessing.
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http://patriotaction.net/profiles/blogs/phil-robertson-was-it-all-a-set-up-to-try-and-control-his-values