Name that quote: the Bible vs. the Quran

Goodness. A few weeks ago, it was Stephen Fry. Last week it was President Obama. Everyone seems to be beating up on Christianity these days.

Of course, that’s not quite true. Neither man was attacking anyone’s faith, despite what the clickbaity headlines would have us think.

In addition to having a cooler accent and more colorful taste in neckties, Fry is an atheist. He pulled no punches as he denounced a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” he doesn’t believe exists. Obama, on the other hand, is a Christian. In his remarks at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, he took pains to distinguish between distortions of faith and the real thing:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity—but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs… So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Both men’s statements were met with protestations of innocence. Who is this God you denounce, Stephen? some Christians wondered aloud—despite the fact that many imagine God pretty much exactly as Fry described. Obama’s remarks were greeted  with a similar defense: Slavery and the Inquisition? They were distortions of true Christianity, Obama! (Which was sort of his whole point to begin with.)

It should be noted the president could’ve pressed his case further. He could have mentioned Rwanda, where the church was complicit in one of the worst acts of genocide since the Holocaust. He could have mentioned Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. He could have brought up the colonization of Africa, which was steeped in an imperialistic, racist brand of Christendom.

Obama’s goal was not to pick on Christianity but to point out how “religious faiths of all types” are vulnerable to distortion—particularly when they’re used to justify violence or discrimination against those who differ from us in some way.

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A rather less gray Obama at the 2009 Prayer Breakfast (credit: whitehouse.gov)

Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on those who can’t pass up the chance to be seen being outraged on TV. A former Virginia governor called Obama’s remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.” Catholic League president Bill Donohue undertook to rewrite history, claiming—and you’ve got to admire his ambition here—that the Crusades were all justified and the Inquisition was something the Church was barely involved in.

Ravi Zacharias, a widely respected Christian apologist, called Obama’s remarks a “presidential blunder” representing an “absence of wisdom” the likes of which he’s never before seen. “The president obviously does not understand the primary sources of [Christianity or Islam] to make such a tendentious parallel,” he concluded. (My friend Nathan Smith has a thoughtful take on Zacharias’ response.)

So how about those primary sources then? Tell you what, let’s make a game of it. Read the quotes below and see if you can guess which come from the Bible and which are from the Quran. (Note: For the sake of the exercise, I’ve generalized references to God and/or specific people where necessary.)

—//—

1. We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.

2. When we resolve to raze a city, we first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgment is irrevocably passed, and we destroy it utterly.

3. So he made a vow to God, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” God listened to his voice.

4. When God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.

5. Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.

6. You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.

7. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.

8. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and he will say, “Destroy!”

9. He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.

10. Do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

11. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you.

12. True believers fight for the cause of God.

13. This charge I commit to you, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.

14. Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God.

—//—

Yes, context matters when reading the Bible’s more violent passages. Various Christian traditions have different ways of handling these passages, but the vast majority agree on at least one point: we cannot use these texts to justify acts of violence today. Christians can account for the presence of these statements in our Bible without believing they’re somehow normative for us.

And that’s the point.

Muslims can make the same argument about their “problem texts,” if they like. I don’t get to decide what someone else’s holy book teaches—especially if, like most Christians, I’ve read even less of the Quran than I’ve read of the Bible. I don’t get to decide what the Quran says based on what a handful of extremists do with it—any more so than others get to decide what the Bible teaches based on how the KKK has abused it.

None of which is to fall back onto some kind of squishy religious relativism. I believe the Bible. It’s my holy book. Rather, this is about simple human respect. Or, as the president put it, “basic humility.” Yes, we should push back when others try to distort our faith. But we should be also avoid the temptation to disparage or misrepresent someone else’s faith.

Who knows? If we showed a little more respect for each other, it might be the start of a more peaceful world.

—//—

Answers:

1. Bible (Deuteronomy 2:34)
2. Quran (17:16)
3. Bible (Numbers 21:2-3)
4. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:2)
5. Quran (9:5)
6. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:16)
7. Quran (2:190)
8. Bible (Deuteronomy 33:27)
9. Bible (Joshua 10:40)
10. Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
11. Quran (2:191)
12. Quran (4:76)
13. Bible (1 Timothy 1:18)
14. Quran (4:74)

By the way, if you’re into this sort of thing more than, say, a BuzzFeed quiz on which animal from Lord of the Rings you are, check out this post comparing things complementarian Christians have said to excerpts from ISIS’ manifesto on women.

What struck you about these quotes from the Bible and the Quran? How did they seem similar to you? How did they seem different?

How Newsweek got the Bible right… and still got it wrong

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This year I’m planning to write more regularly for Onfaith, mostly about the Bible and how we use it. (I’ll still be writing other posts here.) My first piece is a somewhat belated response to Newsweek cover story on the Bible last month. (Thanks to Dan Chappell for encouraging me to share these reflections.)


Where are all the moderate Christian voices?

That’s what a friend wanted to know in the wake of Newsweek’s recent, much-discussed look at the Bible and the way many Christians believe in it. Conservatives were quick to respond to what they saw as a hit piece, offering plenty of robust, detailed argument – and occasionally stooping to their own hit-piece level with titles like “Newsweek’s tirade against the Bible” and “News Weak.”

But what about moderate Christian voices? Or what about Christian “progressives” like me who still hold to a high view of Scripture and its authority?

Some of what Kurt Eichenwald wrote was greeted with a yawn. Yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis. Yes, the gospels offer different (and sometimes conflicting) accounts of Jesus’ story. Yes, scribes added things to the Bible. For many of us, this is old news.

However, in other cases, Newsweek got some things wrong — rather, it got some things right, but in a wrong way. Here is how…

Read the rest at Onfaith > 


Note: While I wish they had chosen different titles for their responses, Dan Wallace and Ben Witherington offer some very useful critique from a conservative point of view, for those who want to engage with the particulars of Eichenwald’s piece. And Rachel Held Evans has an excellent editorial on CNN.com defending evangelicals against some of the worst caricatures that Eichenwald drew. 

How an atheist’s crucifix helped my child learn about faith

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It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.

There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.

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Left: “Crucixion” by Mia Tavonatti; right: “The Moment, Endured” by Bill Secunda

“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed outside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.

We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.

—//—

“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.

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The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similar rhetoric. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”

The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because the artist claimed it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d focus less on the controversy and more on the scripture Gabriel featured. Romans 13:8-10 is, I believe, one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.

Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.

Would any of us like to argue that we’ve kept this law perfectly? When have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are different from us?

 

Gabriel’s piece does not major on subtlety or nuance. Nonetheless it invites us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its implications for us today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, “love does no harm” is an idea that should make us pause and reflect.

—//—

Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she recognizes a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees one, even when it’s abstract. Her eyes were especially drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.

We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should treat those who seem different. We talked about how this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.

And then we went home and had lunch.

—//—

A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.

As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.

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The artist invited people to leave responses on the back. Elizabeth happily drew lots of squiggles.

Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as heavy-handed. And of course, many will find it divisive. But the core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.

If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.

When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.

What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources? 

Photo of “Crucifixion” via ArtPrize.org

The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

The Bible is messy, troubling, and weird. And that’s OK.

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Someone shared this quote with me from Peter Enns’ preview of his forthcoming book The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, September 2014):

What if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith. Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God. A Bible like that isn’t a sure foundation of faith; it’s a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey; it cripples it. The Bible’s raw messiness isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s an invitation to a deeper faith.

What if the battle for the Bible is really just a battle for control? Is it really such a “high view” of Scripture if it means making the Bible something it’s not and never meant to be? Isn’t it a higher view to accept and embrace the Bible we have than the one we might wish we had?

Needless to say, I will be buying Enns’ new book when it comes out. (Unless I can wrangle myself an advance review copy…)

For more, see “Quick preview of my next book (or, respecting the Bible enough not to defend it)” on Peter Enns’ blog.

The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)



In a previous post, I mentioned Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 as “problem passages” for those whose view of inspiration depends on the Bible being accurate in everything it says (or seems to say) about astronomy, geology, biology, etc.

Joshua 10 claims the sun temporarily stood still during a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, while 1 Chronicles 16 describes an immovable earth. On my blog the other day, I wrote that it’s obvious these texts “should be viewed as metaphor, not literal assertion.”

Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.

These texts are not simply metaphor. They’re not merely “the language of appearance,” as sometimes claimed. They’re not the equivalent of modern-day people saying “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well the sun doesn’t literally rise and set.

Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 reflect how people in the ancient Near East understood the cosmos.

They really DID think the sun moved and the earth didn’t. “Sunrise” and “sunset” weren’t metaphors to them; that’s what they thought the sun did.

This drawing depicts the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern world.

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The earth was conceived of as a flat disc, surrounded by a primeval ocean. Above the earth was the firmament, a solid dome which held the sun, moon, and stars. Above that, a heavenly ocean.

This is how pretty much everyone, including the writers of the Bible, understood the universe. That’s why the authors of Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 wrote what they did.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that we also find this view of the cosmos in the creation story of Genesis 1.

The primeval ocean shows up as the watery depth over which God’s spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. A solid “firmament” or “vault” is depicted a few lines later (1:6), holding back the “waters above,” a.k.a. the heavenly ocean (1:7).

In other words, Genesis 1 reflects an ancient cosmology which we all know to be scientifically inaccurate. The earth is not a flat disc surrounded by a primeval ocean. There is no solid dome above us, and there is no heavenly ocean above that.

For young-earth creationists like Ken Ham, to question the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 is to undermine confidence in the whole Bible. For me, accepting that Genesis reflects an ancient (and scientifically inaccurate) cosmology causes me to love these ancient texts even more.

Why? Because it means God meets us where we are, limitations and all. Speaking in and through the scriptures, he met people of the ancient Near Eastern world where they were. He didn’t let their limited understanding of the universe stop him from revealing himself. He doesn’t let our limited understanding stop him from doing he same for us today.

So, for example, when God revealed himself as creator, he did so in the language of a prescientific world, within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology — flat earth, solid firmament, moving stars, and all. That’s the only way that would have made sense to an ancient Near Eastern person, so that’s how God spoke.

This is sometimes called the incarnational view of scripture. Just as God took on flesh in the form of Jesus — a reality people could see, touch and understand — so God revealed himself in scripture in ways the very first to encounter his revelation could understand.

He doesn’t demand we overcome our limitations first. He did not wait for ancient people to shed their ancient cosmology before he said something about why he made the world.

We’re not so different from the people of the ancient Near East. We have our limitations, our blind spots. We may know the sun doesn’t move across a solid dome of firmament, but we do not know everything there is to know. Not by a long shot.

That doesn’t stop God from revealing himself to us.

Genesis is not a scientifically accurate record of how the universe came into being. It was never meant to be. But that didn’t stop God from telling us something about why the universe came into being.

For me, the latter is a story worth reading.

—//—

*A great book on the incarnational view of Scripture is Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

3 things in the Bible you’ll want to avoid if following Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice

Kirk Cameron, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr
Former Growing Pains and Left Behind star Kirk Cameron is getting into the parental advice business. In a recent post, Cameron shared the “train, don’t explain” childrearing philosophy of author Jay Younts.

Basically, this approach says you don’t owe your kids an explanation. Ever. You tell them what to do/think/believe and demand their unquestioning, unhesitating obedience.

To quote Younts:

God has not called parents to explain but to train. Explanations often lead to frustration and anger for both parents and children. Children are not in need of lengthy, compelling explanations. What they are in need of is the understanding that God must be obeyed.

Setting aside the question of whether this parenting advice is better suited for raising robots than actual humans, there are at least three things in the Bible you might not want to let your kids read if you follow a “train, don’t explain” approach.

Otherwise, your kids might start getting ideas.

1. Don’t let them read Exodus 12. Or Deuteronomy 6. Or Joshua 4. 
The ancient Jewish faith had many rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. And these had a way prompting curiosity. Every time a family would celebrate Passover or break out the phylacteries or build a monument from a pile of stones, kids would ask why.

Even worse, it seems this was the whole point: so that kids would request an explanation from their parents:

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’…” (Exodus 12)

“In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’…” (Deuteronomy 6)

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’…” (Joshua 4)

It’s almost like the Israelites didn’t follow Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice at all.

2. Definitely don’t let your kids read the book of Job.
After being hit with all kinds of calamity (apparently the result of a cosmic bet between God and the devil), Job spends most of the book demanding an explanation… from God himself.

Job’s three friends are shocked by his impertinence. Their advice to Job — essentially, “Shut up and take your medicine” — sounds a lot like Kirk Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting.

The only problem is God doesn’t seem to mind Job’s impertinence. He shows up. He answers Job’s summons. And when he does, he’s angry — not at Job, but at Job’s friends.

If kids read Job and see that it’s OK to question God, they won’t think anything of questioning their parents now and then.

3. While you’re at it, you might want to avoid any mention of Israel.
After all, their name means “wrestles with God.” To the ancient Israelites, the Scriptures were not a monologue from God; they were a dialogue with God. And God’s people didn’t hesitate to ask some hard questions.

In fact, it’s probably best not to let your kids read the Bible, period. Otherwise they might stumble across Abraham asking God to explain how he can possibly deliver on his promise of children for the aging patriarch. Or Jeremiah accusing God of deception. Or Habakkuk demanding God explain himself over his plan to use Babylon to punish his own people. Or Jesus wrestling with his Father in the garden.

And so on.

God is often described as a Father in the Bible. Yet he doesn’t seem to follow Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting with his own children.

Maybe a better approach would be one that honors the curiosity and personhood of our children. One that shows them it’s OK to ask questions. In other words, “Explain. Don’t just train.”

(H/T Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote about Cameron’s parenting advice on the Formerly Fundie blog.)

Should we even be fighting the War on Poverty?

Lyndon Johnson signing the Medicare bill (source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. The legacy of this war is hotly contested, and there are at least three competing views.

Some argue the War on Poverty created a culture of dependency, while pouring massive amounts of money down the drain. They point to official government figures, which show the poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much since 1964.

Others argue that poverty would be double what it is now if not for the safety nets established in the 1960s. They dispute the accuracy of government figures, pointing instead to competing studies which suggest a more dramatic decline in the rate of poverty since then.

I’ll leave that debate to others. Right now, it’s the third group I care about: those who question the very notion of waging a war on poverty in the first place. Charity is all well and good, they might say, but it’s grandiose and naïve to think we can ever fully eradicate poverty.

They even quote Jesus: “The poor you will have with you always.”

I should know. I used to be part of this group.

This approach recently led one writer to suggest we leave should Jesus out of the whole poverty debate. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what Jesus really said — and what he meant. Because it turns out this statement was anything but an excuse for apathy.

Yes, it’s true Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Although Mark’s gospel, usually known for its brevity, extends the quote: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” This ought to be our first clue that Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to trivialize the importance of helping those in need.

But there’s an even bigger clue when we turn to original source of Jesus’ statement. You see, Jesus didn’t pull this line out of thin air. As a Jewish rabbi, he was constantly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament. In doing so, he employed a common rabbinical technique, which later came to be known as remez, in which the speaker quoted a small piece of text, with the intent of calling to mind the larger passage it came from.

When Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, but he expected his disciples (and us) to think about the whole passage. 

Deuteronomy 15 commanded the ancient Israelites to cancel each other’s debt every seven years. (Interesting to note that no distinction was made between responsible and irresponsible debt; no matter how people fell into financial distress, they were to be given a clean slate every seven years.)

The passage ends with the statement quoted by Jesus centuries later: there will always be poor people among you. Which is precisely why laws protecting the poor were needed in the first place. 

Again, from Deuteronomy:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

What’s more, to the writer of Deuteronomy 15, persistent poverty was anything but acceptable. Back up a few verses, to Deuteronomy 15:4-5.

There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands…

In other words, when the writer said there would always be poor people in the land, it was a concession to Israel’s likely failure to obey the law requiring them to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Sure enough, that’s pretty much how the story plays out in the rest of the Old Testament.

There would always be poor people because the Israelites would not prove as generous as they were meant to be. There would always be poor people because Israel would not cancel everyone’s debts like they were supposed to. The statement “you will always have the poor with you” is not an excuse for apathy; it’s a condemnation of it.

Good people will disagree on the best ways to mitigate and perhaps even eradicate poverty. The success (or failure) of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will be scrutinized to no end, and even then we still won’t settle on what works and what doesn’t.

But one thing is clear, at least for those of us who claim the Bible as some kind of authority: apathy in the face of poverty is not an option. We do not have the right to use Jesus’ words as an excuse for inaction. The statement “there will always be poor people” might describe the reality that is, but it does not describe the reality that ought to be.

How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

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.

Is Story all there is?

Leslie Leyland Fields’ latest feature on Christianity Today, The Gospel Is More Than a Story,” starts by expressing ambivalence for an unnamed but “much-hyped” story version of the Bible.

I’m pretty sure she’s talking about one of my old projects.

I helped create The Story in 2005, intending it to be an easy way for non-Bible readers to get a handle on the scriptural narrative, so that when they opened a real Bible, they could see how the various pieces fit together.

To our surprise, some of the strongest response to The Story came from churches that wanted to use it for their own congregations. Randy Frazee, then a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, began developing a curriculum to take churches through The Story. When he moved to Oak Hills (pastored by Max Lucado), Randy took his idea for The Story with him.

To date, hundreds of churches have used The Story. It became a #1 bestselling Bible. There have been all manner of product spinoffs: companion books, kids versions, CDs, even a concert tour.

Field’s chief concern with The Story — assuming I’ve guessed right on which “story version” she was reading — seems to be its tendency to discard everything in the Bible that isn’t story. (Though to be fair, The Story does include a sampling of other biblical genres. But yes, the overriding focus is on the narrative.)

Fields argues that much of what makes “narrative theology” so compelling gets lost whenever it’s translated into a commercial product like The Story:

Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible’s language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through — poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophecy.

She’s got a point.

We often think of the Bible as a story, and indeed story is one of the dominant motifs in Scripture. My own “gospel sketched for kids” is yet another attempt to present the core message of the Bible in story form.

But Scripture is not simply one big story. It is a collection of books, representing a wide array of literary genres: poetry, correspondence, prophetic oracle, song lyrics, laments, legal codes, genealogies, apocalypses — and yes, narrative. Each has to be read in light of its particular form. You wouldn’t read a poem the same way you’d read a legal text. Nor should we read an apocalypse the same way we read a more straightforward piece of narrative — not if we want to understand it properly, that is.

In the past, many Christians insisted we read everything (or almost everything) in the Bible literally. This tended to flatten Scripture, obscuring its many genres and literary devices. Fields seems to think the modern-day obsession with narrative carries the same risk, and again… she may be onto something.

All this points to an even bigger series of questions being asked by a growing chorus of people:

What is the Bible? What do we do with it?

Simplistic, reductionist answers will not do. If you’re interested in the growing conversation about the Bible, I encourage you to start following blogs by people like Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Peter Enns. Pick up a copy of The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, while you’re at it.

And if you’re one of many who’ve read The Story, great. As one of its creators, I’m thrilled to see the impact it’s having. (I’d be even more thrilled if I’d gotten a royalty out of it!)

But don’t stop there. The Bible is so much more than narrative, just like it is more than a series of propositional statements or a list of do’s and don’ts. The Bible represents the collective effort of God’s people to tell God’s story through all manner of genres and literary devices. When read with this in mind, I can’t promise the Bible will always be easy or enjoyable, but it can be deeply rewarding.