Sunday Meditations: Prepackaged Theology

“The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

When you see this passage, what does it make you think of?

For many of us raised in an evangelical household, “salvation” is a key word that means something along the lines of, “a spiritual conversion experience whereby you accept Jesus as Lord of your life and, in exchange, your sins are forgiven and you will not go to Hell when you die, but instead will receive the joys of Heaven that Jesus earned on your behalf.”

But the passage I quoted above is from Exodus 15:2.  It is the song that the Israelites sing after crossing the sea and being delivered from the Egyptians.  Salvation in Exodus 15:2 is neither a spiritual experience nor a conversion nor are Heaven nor Hell involved.  It is a historically concrete deliverance from an actual oppressor.

In Judges 15:18, Samson refers to the “great salvation you have granted by the hand of your servant,” by which he means the event where he held a pass against a thousand Philistines by himself – Philistines who were rulers over Judah.  In Deuteronomy 32:15, God is called the Rock of [Jeshrun’s] salvation, which does not mean that God provided a spiritual conversion experience for them, but rather led them out of the wilderness and protected them.

My point is this: the word “salvation” does not have a uniform referent in Scripture; it means whatever the context dictates.  If we read every passage in the Bible that talks about “salvation” as describing a spiritual conversion experience that lets you go to Heaven when you die, we actually miss the meaning of a rather large amount of passages.

Well, perhaps the Old Testament is an earthly picture of spiritual realities.  By the time we get to the New Testament, surely everywhere it talks about salvation, it means saying the prayer and accepting Jesus, right?

Well, in 1 Peter 1:3-12, Peter writes to people already converted about a salvation that is to be revealed in the future, when their faith results in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  He’s not saying that, in the future, they’ll accept Jesus into their hearts.  He’s saying in the future, Jesus Christ will be revealed, and the faithful on that day will be saved as the outcome of their ongoing faith.

In Revelation 12:10, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that the salvation of God has come because Satan and his angels were cast out of heaven.  There’s no conversion.  There’s no accepting anyone as lord of anyone’s life.  There’s the objective, transhuman event of Satan being defeated, and this is the “salvation of God.”

My point isn’t that “salvation” never means something individual or spiritual, my point is that if we begin with a concept of what salvation means in our heads and we take it to the Bible, we’re going to see our concept everywhere whether it’s what the passage means by it or not, and by doing so, we are simply going to see a reflection of our own brains rather than listen to what a passage is saying.

Let’s take another example – the Word of God.

Recently, I read an article (on addiction recovery, no less) that used Psalm 119 – which talks extensively about God’s Word, and also talks about salvation in verse 41 – as an exhortation to use the Bible to guide us in all of our decisions.  The capstone verse is, of course, 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”

However, it is impossible that Psalm 119 is referring to the Bible.  None of the New Testament had been written, yet, nor was most of the Old Testament.  No canons existed of any kind.  If the psalmist was referring to a written scripture, then they are referring to the Law (which features heavily in Psalm 119), and if David wrote Psalm 119, he’s referring to the version of the Law that predated the existence of the Temple, so something a little more like Exodus and a little less like Deuteronomy.

So, the irony here is that the one thing Psalm 119 most likely means when it talks about God’s Word is the one part of the Bible that Christians no longer think is applicable.

Likewise, in Acts 19, mention is made twice of “the word of the Lord,” but it cannot mean the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist when Acts 19 was written.  It appears that in both 19:10 and 19:20, the “word of the Lord” is the message that Paul is proclaiming about the kingdom having come with Jesus as king and the ramifications of that for the audience.

If I can tread a little bit into choppy waters, 2 Timothy 3:16 cannot mean the Bible.  At best, it means the Old Testament, and that doesn’t even get us started into the assumptions we import into “inspired by God” or “useful for.”

Once again, my point is not to deconstruct evangelical notions of biblical authority (although I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at that), but my point is that we read these texts with pre-existing ideas in our head about what the text has to mean.  We read it, we see the meaning we bring to it, and instead of the text communicating to us, it is instead confirming what we already thought to begin with.

I picked on two examples, but you can certainly come up with your own.  Virtually any topic that has ever been a chapter heading in a systematic theology textbook is a prime candidate, not to mention our pet pseudo-theological categories like “the Antichrist” or “the Rapture.”  We already have a theological understanding of these topics, so when we look at passages that mention them, we assume that they mean what we mean.  The meaning we have in our heads is what we see in the text.  In this way, the Bible becomes about our questions, our concerns, and our theological understanding.  Without even consciously meaning to, we find ourselves going to the Bible – not to hear what it has to say, but to find new locations for what we already think we know.

Our theology is often our meta-narrative for making cohesive sense out of the Scriptures.  However much we like to pretend that our theology is a product of the Scriptures, this is rarely the case.  Our theological understanding usually precedes our reading of the Scriptures, even if that theological knowledge was obtained through cultural osmosis.  I’ll bet most American non-Christians could recite for you key tenets of Christianity, whether those tenets actually came from any Scriptures or not.

This even colors our ability to critique theology against the Scripture, because even if we go to the Bible to see if a teaching is true, we already have the teaching in our heads.  We are now looking in the Bible for the areas that, we believe, speak to the notion in our heads, and 9 times out of 10, if our bias is to confirm the idea, we’ll find it in the Bible, and if our bias is to reject the idea, we won’t, or at least we will relegate those passages to “less clear” texts in favor of the texts that contain our view, which are “clear texts” and thus to be given greater weight.

Some of my friends have heard me suggest (and have been greatly disturbed by it) that we should take the Bible out of circulation for a while, then bring it back when it has become an unknown book, again.  I don’t really think we ought to do this, but it is the fact that we think we know what the Bible teaches that is often our obstacle to hearing it.  If the Bible were some strange, ancient work we were all seeing for the first time without any preconceived ideas about its nature or authorship or content, would we ever get out of it our current evangelical commitments?  Perhaps some, perhaps not others.  I doubt any would go completely unchanged.

At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to ignore centuries of theology as if everything anyone has ever said was wrong.  The church has, over time, tried to make sense of the Bible in her own day and age, and those efforts are worthy of respect and attention.

The history of theology brings us into a great cloud of witnesses – elders who have gone before us wrestling with the Scriptures and bringing their own voices into the testimony.  But we also have to understand that all such activity is also a product of history and culture and debate, as is our current theological activity.  There are no parts of our modern theological story that represent some unbroken line of pure teaching straight from the mouth of Jesus, and this has never been true in the history of theology, even with the people who heard Jesus directly.  In fact, it is our belief that what we have in our heads does come straight from Jesus that impairs our ability to hear Jesus – we just assume he means what we mean.

Perhaps, as a thought experiment, we might assume that a passage in the Bible doesn’t mean anything like what we think.  Perhaps, instead of assuming we have basically got everything straight and just need to fine tune our beliefs, we should allow God the freedom to oppose every belief we have.  Maybe instead of looking at biblical teaching as a familiar landscape we like to hang out in, we should look at it as uncharted territory that has strange and beautiful features to yield that we overlook because we aren’t looking for them.

Maybe then, just maybe, we will quit telling the Bible what it says and what it has to be and what it has to do for us and let it tell us.

Advertisements

Sunday Meditations: Trusting History

The other night, I rewatched the movie “8 Mile.”  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a portrayal of a portion of rapper Eminem’s life that captures the span between when he was just eking out an existence and and when he finally engaged the path to becoming what the world knows him as, today.

The film stars Eminem and is no doubt based primarily on information that he supplied, himself, as well as testimony from people who knew him back then.  In fact, his closest friend from that time period – the rapper Proof – was also in the movie playing “Lil Tic.”

At the same time, the film is not a documentary, nor is it a collection of videos made of Eminem during that time of his life.  It is a dramatic representation of that time in retrospect.  As such, critical decisions were made about what material to include and exclude.  Some events were probably shortened from the recounted version or perhaps even had some things added to help them make more sense.  In fact, the aforementioned Proof is portrayed in the movie as “Future” played by Mekhi Phifer.

Let that sink in for a minute.  Eminem’s actual friend does not play himself in the movie; he plays someone else.

It is reasonable to expect that, to tell this story effectively, not everything in it happened in reality the way it is portrayed in the movie.  Did Eminem witness a rap battle by the food trucks at the plant where he worked?  Did he participate?  Were the raps in the movie the exact ones he heard?  Some crafting was necessary to tell the story in an intelligible manner and get the things across the filmmaker intended.

Knowing this – would you say that the film “8 Mile” is a completely untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that tells you nothing about the actual Eminem?  Or would you say that the film is trustworthy, but you have to accept it for what it is, which is a dramatization to get across certain points about the subject and not a live video feed or documentary?

Moving slightly closer to home, take the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  If you’ve not read the book, it’s a story about how a man raised in a particular faction of Islam eventually came to become a Christian, partly through his own experiences, partly through mystical dreams and visions, and partly through conversations with a Christian friend.

In the Prologue to this book, Qureshi writes:

Since we have entered the digital age, it is unfortunately and increasingly true that people exact inappropriately stringent standards on narrative biographies. By its very nature, a narrative biography must take certain liberties with the story it shares. Please do not expect cameralike accuracy! That is not the intent of this book, and to meet such standards, it would have to be a twenty-two-year-long video, most of which would bore even my mother to tears.

The words I have in quotations are rough approximations. A few of the conversations actually represent multiple meetings condensed into one. In some instances, stories are displaced in the timeline to fit the topical categorization. In other instances, people who were present in the conversation were left out of the narrative for the sake of clarity. All these devices are normal for narrative biographies; they are in fact normal for human mnemonics. Please read this book, and the narrative biographies it references, accordingly.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, p. 17

From his own admission, Qureshi has tampered with a “cameralike” reconstruction of events.  Some conversations are combined into one.  Some people who participated in them have been omitted.  Some events are portrayed out of sequence to match the thematic concerns of the book.  The quotes from others are not exact quotes, but are little dramatizations that portray the gist of what was said.

So, is Qureshi’s book an untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that can give us no reliable information about Islam, Christianity, or Qureshi’s experiences?  Or, is it a trustworthy book, but we have to keep in mind the nature of what we’re reading and what we expect from it?

These contemporary examples are illustrative of how virtually all ancient history was written by ancient historiographers.  There was no genre of “news reporting,” no science of journalism, and reproductive technologies like recorders and cameras did not exist creating the standards that we now have for the reproduction of events.

It just so happens that, as worldviews and technological capabilities of changed, we now have expectations of our accounts of the past that are, at least on the stage of world history, relatively new expectations.  We evaluate a source by how closely it matches the actual events it describes, not how clearly or effectively it communicated truths to us about the subject.  For us, accurate depiction is the truth, and any deviation from that is falsehood.

But even in our own expectations, we allow that, depending on genre and purpose, films like “8 Mile” and books like Qureshi’s do not exist for the purpose of giving us a bare and strict reporting of historical events.  They are telling a story to communicate truths.  The stories they tell aren’t completely fictitious, but neither are they what we’ve come to expect as “reporting.”  They are taking historical raw materials and shaping them and the presentation of them to serve the larger purpose of communicating their message.  And that’s the primary purpose – to communicate a message, not have the watcher or reader walk away with an encyclopedic knowledge of exactly what happened and when.  Not only do we accept this, we are comfortable with it.

Until we get to the Bible.

When we get to the Bible, a little switch gets thrown in our heads.  Now, against all reasonable expectations of the ancient world, we demand that every detail is a historically accurate representation of exactly what was said or happened.  And if it isn’t, then we can’t trust it.  I have had several people make this point to me, this week, with one person using language like “putting the Bible on trial” and “finding it guilty of manipulation.”

But is “8 Mile” an extended work in deception?  Is Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus an elaborate hoax?  Is the musical “Hamilton” to have the same level of historical credibility as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” because Alexander Hamilton didn’t go around singing everything?  Of course not.  We recognize these presentations’ genres and purposes and the value we get from them is shaped by that.  We recognize that evaluating the musical “Hamilton” with the same criteria we use to evaluate a Fox News report would be inherently silly.  And if we were to hold up the musical “Hamilton” to Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, we wouldn’t say one was true and the other was false, or that one was accurate and the other was a hoax.  We would say one was a biography and one was a musical.

Until we get to the Bible.

When it comes to the Bible, we bring expectations to it.  For example, I might bring the expectation that the Bible is inerrant, and contradictions are errors, therefore there can be no contradictory presentations of events in the Bible.

So, when Matthew 27:54 depicts the Roman centurion at the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” and Luke 23:47 has him saying, “Surely this was a righteous man,” our expectations kick in.  Maybe we have two centurions, and they each said one of those things, and the gospel writers just picked one.  Maybe we have one centurion and he said both of those things, but the gospel writers just recorded one (for some reason).  We feel like we have to come up with some way to resolve the contradiction.

The one option that can’t be allowed is that there was “in reality” one centurion who said one thing, and Matthew’s gospel depicts it one way, and Luke’s gospel depicts it another way.  That would imply that one (or both) does not accurately reflect what was really said, and we can’t have that, because if there are any historical inaccuracies in the Bible (the way we would define them), then the Bible is just an untrustworthy pack of lies.

Well, if that’s where you’re at, I would encourage you to consider that there are more options available to us than “word for word accuracy” and “totally untrustworthy,” and we use those options with texts all the time.  I would encourage you, in fact, that the narrative books of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the book of Acts, etc. belong to ancient historiography and have truths they want to share with you that may best be served by doing things like compressing conversations, leaving people out, putting events out of order, etc.

After all, John’s gospel does not say it was written so that we would have an exact picture of exactly what happened when and who said what.  “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

New Wine: Matthew 9:16-17

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9:16-17 (NRSV)

This is actually a continuation of the thought from the previous passage about why Jesus and his disciples do not fast, but I wanted to talk about this piece on its own.

The passage about the wineskins is an interesting one from a biblical studies perspective, because it shows up in all three synoptic gospels, but it says something different in each one.  In Mark, Jesus simply says that the wine is lost and the old skins are destroyed (Mark 2:22).  In Luke, Jesus says that no one prefers the new wine to the old wine, but that the old wine is good (Luke 5:37-39).  Here, Matthew offers that putting the new wine into new wineskins allows both the old and new wine and wineskins to be preserved.

Going back for a moment to the previous bit about fasting, Jesus has said that the mourning and longing state that Israel was in has given way to a new era where the bridegroom is present.  The reversal of fortunes is at hand, and now is a time for rejoicing.  To continue to mourn would not just be unnecessary, but inappropriate.  It would be like someone telling the new CEO, “If only our company had someone qualified to lead us.”

Some have posited that the wineskins and wine represent the old and new covenants, and that may work as a theological explanation of the text, but Jesus seems to have a historical progression in mind.  There was a time when Israel was in mourning and certain practices, etc. were appropriate for that time.  But now Jesus is here, and trying to keep behaving according to the old patterns is just not something you do.  In fact, behaving according to the old patterns will actually result in destruction, like sewing a patch of new fabric onto an old one or pouring new wine into new wineskins.  If you don’t actually adjust to the new situation, destruction will surely follow.

This is a large component of Jesus’ message.  The kingdom is at hand, but so is the judgement.  Now is the time for Israel in all echelons of society and religiosity to turn away from the things that defined her prior to Jesus and embrace repentance, faithfulness, healing, restoration, and salvation through the coming disaster.  For tax collectors, that means turning away from cheating their own people.  For rich young rulers, it means selling what they have to take care of the poor.  For Pharisees, it means turning away from their traditions that have propped up their power and reputation at the expense of eclipsing the love, justice, and mercy God wanted from Israel’s faithful – especially her leaders.

Could this involve leaving behind the old covenant?  In some very general sense, perhaps.  Mark, for example, points out that Jesus declares all foods clean as part of his opposition to the Pharisees and scribes.  Matthew records the encounter, but leaves out that little bit of commentary.  Some have said that Matthew’s inclusion of “both are preserved” reflect him wanting to be sympathetic to his predominantly Jewish readers, whereas Mark is pretty quick on the trigger to jettison Jewish practices.

Once again, theologically, there may be something to that.  But narratively, we can’t separate this mini-parable from Jesus’ preceding statements that the bridegroom is here, but he will also be taken away.  Nor can we separate it from Jesus’ larger message of repentance, blessing, and upcoming crisis that will destroy Jerusalem and need to be saved from it.  Nor can we separate it from Israel’s larger story where, in the beginning, God called all of them to be faithful to a way of life that, as far as God was concerned, had at its heart doing justice to all and restoring the weak.

One might recall the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The rich man has two sons in the story.  One stays true to him the entire time; the other goes on a wild sin binge and returns, repentant.  Both are preserved (although one is much crabbier about it than the other).

From the standpoint of Matthew’s account, I think we clearly see, as in the other wineskin accounts in the other gospels, the truth that Jesus has brought a new era of fulfillment to Israel, and you can either rejoice to see this new era and follow Jesus into it, or you can cling to where you were beforehand and end up being destroyed with that world.

But Matthew extends some hope to his Jewish readers, probably struggling with this new state of affairs.  Jesus has not come to jettison the Judaism that the Pharisees and disciples of John were trying to follow faithfully, but rather he wants to discard what it had become – a hollow shell of man-made traditions that did not serve the purposes of justice, mercy, and restoration, but instead did the opposite.  Those traditions were tools of separation, judgement, ego, and in Jesus’ day, quite literally were often fronts for the Roman Empire, themselves.  Although Israel’s story has entered a new chapter, it is also a calling back to what Israel was always meant to be.  It is a return to the Torah’s heart instead of the Torah’s letter.

It is by believing Jesus’ warnings, trusting his proclamations about God, himself, and where Israel was at,  and following in his footsteps that both the old wine and the new wine would not be destroyed, but preserved.

Consider This

  1. What does a life of faithfulness look like, today, especially given that Gentiles who never had the Torah can live it?  Where does your definition come from?
  2. Where in the Torah can we see the “heart” of God who desires mercy and not sacrifice?  How might that be valuable for our understanding of God and what it means to obey Him, today?

Fast Times in Judea: Matthew 9:14-15

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Matthew 9:14-15 (NRSV)

The disciples of John are a group that would have been familiar with Jesus since Jesus used to be one of them.  Although we are not told, it is probably fair to say this group has been continuing on with John’s call for Israel to repent and be restored in light of a coming judgement.  Perhaps there is a decent amount of asceticism in this community.

But whether there is or isn’t, they align themselves with the group of fastidious Torah-keepers (the Pharisees) in this dialogue.  The idea we’re supposed to get is that fasting is what you do when you care about the state that Israel has found herself in and want to keep the laws concerning fasting.  Given Matthew’s typical portrayal of the Pharisees in this gospel, the mention of John’s disciples may add some legitimacy to this question.  Jesus has nothing but great things to say about John the Baptist – some shockingly great things, actually – so mentioning that they have this question tells us this may be coming from a place of genuine concern.  If Matthew had only mentioned Pharisees, we might get the idea that this was some hypocritical trap for Jesus, but it is unlikely John’s disciples would have similar motives.

One of the things that Jesus’ answer tells us from the get go is that fasting is an act of mourning.  You don’t fast to supercharge your prayer requests, and you certainly don’t fast so that everyone can see how concerned and holy you are.  Jesus takes what could be considered as a matter of course religious practice (or “spiritual discipline” as we call them in modern parlance) and connects it back to its roots.  You fast because you mourn.  Something is grieving you.  This doesn’t automatically mean there are no other legitimate reasons to fast, but at the very least, Jesus is probably separating himself from the Pharisees by reconnecting the practice of fasting to a genuine, heartfelt sorrow such that you won’t eat.

It is because of this connection that Jesus answers the question – we don’t fast because my presence is an occasion of joy.

The reason Israel would fast as a collective is because of her condition.  She had become like the other nations and, as a result, was now suffering under the curse of the Law.  She was under foreign dominion, living in crippling poverty, and even her Temple had the tendrils of Empire woven through it.  This is an occasion for mourning and longing for a restoration.  When will God let up?  When will we be faithful, and when will we once again be free, prosperous, and safe in our land as we were in the days of David?

But Jesus has arrived to overturn these fortunes.  The historical practice of fasting over Israel’s condition is no longer appropriate at the moment in history when her promised King and Messiah had come!  Mourning turns to dancing!  It is not a time to weep at what Israel had become, but rejoice in her opportunity to become what she was meant to be!  The joy of the Lord would be her strength!

In this sense, fasting is eschatological.  You fast now because you are looking for the day when fasting is no longer necessary.  Jesus announces that, with his arrival, that day has come for Israel.

But then things get a little ominous.

Jesus hints that this event will not usher in an uninterrupted period of joy.  Rather, there will come a day when Jesus will be taken from them, and on that day, fasting will again become appropriate.

One cannot help but think of Jesus’ words later in Matthew 26 when, during the Last Supper, he tells his followers that he will not eat the meal or drink the wine (depending on which gospel we’re looking at) until he drinks it with them in the Kingdom.  There will be a period when the Roman Empire will take Jesus away from Israel, and the mourning and expectation and longing return.

But they are not to mourn as those who have no hope, but that comes later in the story.

For now, it is enough that Matthew begins to draw for us the dark clouds gathering.  This time that the faithful rejoice in the presence of their Messiah will be brought to a close when Jesus is taken away – taken away by the machinations of the very sorts of people he distinguishes himself from in this brief conversation.

Does this passage tell us anything about fasting, today?

There are some who might say that, on the basis of this passage, fasting is just not a practice we need to concern ourselves with.  The Kingdom has come, Jesus is present with us in the Spirit, does this not mean that we no longer have cause to mourn?

That’s actually a very good point and one that should be taken seriously.  We live in an age where many of the things that were future expectations to Jesus and his disciples are past realities in some form or another.  How relevant, then, would Jesus’ answer here be for us, today?  And insofar as fasting was an eschatological practice whose fulfillment had come, maybe it isn’t.

And yet, is there nothing to mourn over the state of the people of God in the world, today?  Do we not have brothers and sisters all over the world suffering under the oppression of government, religion, and corporation?  Do we not have empty buildings where there were once full churches because of a rising secularism and theological commitments that no longer have any relevance?  Shouldn’t our hearts break when we hear that Christians “hate gay people” or “hate Muslims” or “hate immigrants” or any of the other people groups that we should, in fact, be known for loving and caring for?  Is it ok to feel anguish when we see pulpits as platforms to advance the wheels of the empires of our own day?  Cross-adorned facades to the idols of this age – wealth, power, numbers, ego, self-preservation, self-exaltation, me over you, us over them?

Maybe I don’t fast over the absence of the bridegroom, who is still in our midst.  But maybe I might still fast over the restoration of his bride.

Consider This

  1. Have you ever fasted?  What was the reason?  Did it accomplish what you were hoping?
  2. As we read about those early faith communities, we see a lot of joy in the midst of a lot of great adversity.  Does this tell us anything about the emotional state of a faith community living in our time in history?

Sunday Meditations: The Fear of Death

I have been reading The Slavery of Death by by Richard Beck, one of the rare books that I would recommend without qualification (so far).

Beck is a psychologist and a theologically-minded Protestant.  In his book, he begins by noting that the Eastern Orthodox have latched on to a relationship between sin and death that doesn’t get a lot of air time in Protestant doctrinal formulations.  It is the view captured in verses like 1 Corinthians 15:56 – “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.”

There are passages in the Bible that portray death as a consequence of sin.  Yet, there are other passages that seem move death to the top of the hierarchy.  Sin becomes a means to an end, which is death itself.  Beck argues that both ways of looking at the relationship of sin and death are correct, but notes that in western Protestantism, we tend to overlook the latter.

Because he is theologically minded, Beck looks at different passages with this in mind and also talks about how certain theological categories, like the Atonement, can be enhanced by thinking of death as a primary force which causes, among other things, people to sin.  Death becomes an enslaving force, not just in the sense that everyone dies, but in the sense that the fear of death has dominion over the living while we are still alive.

As a psychologist, this is where Beck spends most of his time, illustrating the impact the fear of death has on both individuals and institutions – impact that is being empirically proven in tests.

One of the more interesting impacts, and where the book spends most of its time, is the idea that our cultures (national, religious, corporations – any collective entity that has a culture) typically define some way for us to leave our mark.  By performing according to certain standards, we achieve something in our culture that will outlast us because the institution will outlast us.  One example might be someone who works their butt off to close a large deal for their company.

Beck points out how easy it is to derive our senses of identity from these cultures (which only exacerbates our fear of death from losing our identity), internalize our cultures’ way of looking at life such that it becomes a primary driver in our own thinking and behavior, and the personal and social ills this can create up to and including attempts to destroy cultures different than your own because they invalidate your path to immortality.

It was at that point that I could not help but think of the rancor associated with most theological disagreements in Christianity.  It’s not just that you and I disagree, it’s that my immortality is somehow in jeopardy if it turns out your path is correct.

It is at this point that Beck also notes something in the first century worldview that I have noted a time or two on this blog: that the demonic, satanic realm and the operation of powers in the world that are not supernatural but still transhuman (like empires, corporations, etc.) are two facets of the same phenomenon.  It’s not the satanic kingdom of demons OR the Roman Empire in the first century; they are both the same thing.  One is the body, one is the spirit – an indivisible entity.  And this applies to other institutions Jesus may refer to, and they overlap in many ways in the New Testament.

In contrast to this way of living, Beck offers a definition of identity that other theologians have referred to as “ecstatic” or “eccentric.”  In this scheme, your identity – the you that makes you you that we hope will live on in some sense – is not something you create or maintain or that was bestowed upon you by a larger institution, but rather is something given to you by God who is completely in control of what constitutes that identity, how that identity gets used, and what ultimately becomes of it.

If we can begin to wrap our arms around that sense of identity, then we are free to give anything away, take risks on behalf of others, love completely, and ignore institutional expectations of what our values or behaviors “ought” to be to earn your place in the pantheon.  Because you can’t lose what you never had.

My identity is something given to me by God.  There is nothing about this entity called “Phil” that does not come from God.  He adds to that aggregate and takes away from it, sometimes in line with my wishes, other times not.  There is no “Phil the Awesome Lean Operations Consultant” or “Phil the Barely Mediocre Father.”  There is only what He has given me at this time for whatever His schedule and purposes dictate.  If I could learn to truly embrace that (which I do not in many ways), what would I fear at that point?  What would I withhold?  What sins would I cling to if I didn’t need them anymore?

Anyway, it’s a very good book.  I’m still working on it, but if time had allowed, I could easily have read it in one sitting.  I don’t know if all the theoretical connections are real in every aspect, but they are definitely worth thinking about.

Sunday Meditations: The Book of Revelation, the Bible, and Us

In recent discussions about the book of Revelation, it has been interesting, although not surprising, to see such clear examples of the easy switch between “the book of Revelation in my head” and “the actual book of Revelation.”

For example, one gentleman noted that it is interesting how much modern day events seem to fit the events described in Revelation, such as when the Beast removes all physical forms of money.

This might be interesting, except the actual text of Revelation never has the Beast eliminating physical money.  What it says is, “Also [the Beast] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is the name of the Beast or the number of its name.” (Rev. 13:16-17, NRSV)

So, we see that no one is allowed to buy or sell without the mark, but there is nothing in there about removing physical money and replacing it with something else.  However, this was a strong part of this man’s narrative – probably as part of a larger narrative where debit cards or barcodes or microchips are the mark of the Beast – so much so that, even though the idea isn’t in the text, it was functionally a substitute for the text.

Upon being confronted with this, he responded that the text could mean the removal of physical money.  Well, I suppose it could, but there’s no reason we would think that unless we had already established that idea.  If you already think Revelation says physical money would be removed, then that verse could mean that.  But if you didn’t already think that, there’s not actual text that says that.  The Revelation Metanarrative in our brains becomes the interpretive guide for what we read.

As I reflected on this, I realized this is basically an issue for how we read the Bible in general.  We have in our heads a Meta-Bible, and that Meta-Bible is our authoritative text, such that when we read the text of the actual Bible, we are either looking for what we already believe to be in there or something that will be consonant with what we already believe to be in there.

This is not an impenetrable process, of course.  People change their minds about “what the Bible says.”  But this process is not simple exposure to the actual text, otherwise after 2000 years of comparing notes, Christians would all more or less believe the same things.  But our Meta-Bibles are our mental spokespeople for the actual Bible, and nobody is immune to this.  I’m not even sure if there’s an alternative.  But I do think we can be aware of it, allow that knowledge to moderate our dogmatism, and turn to some tools to help us get out of our own heads and into the Bible’s world.

I’m going to talk about these as they relate to the book of Revelation, but they are applicable to virtually anything we might read in the Bible.

Revelation Is Its Own Book

Whatever your belief is about the inspiration of Scripture, it’s a historical fact that the writings collected into the Bible were written by different people at different times.  The Bible was not a single, continuous book written by one person like the Koran was.  And the assembly process of the Bible also happened over time.  When you pick up a Bible, you are basically picking up an anthology of writings moreso than you are picking a up a single book.

Because of this, when we read a “book” of the Bible (obviously, several of these writings are letters, poems, and collections of sayings), we first need to understand it as a self-contained work, much like we might understand a single essay in a book of related essays as a self-contained work in the first place before looking at how it interacts with the other essays.

Now, these works often borrow from and often interact with other writings that are also in the Bible, and the book of Revelation is no different.  My friend Chris once said that you could probably reconstruct the entirety of the book of Revelation out of the Old Testament, and he’s not too far off on that.

But when we read the book of Revelation, we need to keep in mind that John wrote this book before there was a canon.  He is not sitting across the table from Daniel and Ezekiel divvying up the subject matter.  He is not talking to Paul and saying, “Hey, you cover the Rapture.  I’m not going to bother putting it in my book as long as you cover that part.”  What the book of Revelation is, in the first place, is its own book.  The author did not write it to supplement the material in the Bible as we know it.

Revelation Has a Genre

All writings have a genre, which is just a fancy way of saying what type of writing it is.  Science Fiction, History, and To-Do Sticky Notes are all genres of writing.  When we are familiar with a genre, we know how to interpret works in that genre.

For example, when I was very little, my aunt visited the set of Battlestar Galactica and wrote me a letter saying she was bringing me a gift from that trip.  I was sure it would be a laser rifle or a Colonial Viper.  Turns out those things aren’t real.  As a very small child, I did not understand that Science Fiction was all make believe stories, and even though I saw lasers and spaceships on TV, they weren’t real lasers and spaceships.  Those things did not exist.  Battlestar Galactica was not a documentary; it was a Science Fiction TV series.

Now, it didn’t take long before I learned that Science Fiction stories are not to be taken as reality.  Now, when I see a science fiction movie or read a sci-fi book, I do not wonder why the news isn’t making a bigger deal about interstellar travel or alien contact.  I know the “rules” of the genre.

Conversely, when I read a biography of Marin Luther King, I don’t think of it as a futuristic fantasy tale.  Biographies are written to communicate what someone’s life was like.  Sci-Fi novels are written to tell imaginative stories about the future.

“Apocalypse” was a genre at the time Revelation was written, and it was a well-known genre.  It is less familiar to Protestants, because when we cut several books out of our canon, we also discarded some apocalyptic literature (we almost discarded Revelation, incidentally).  We do see it surface in other biblical writings, especially the prophets, but we don’t have any whole books in the Protestant Bible that are apocalyptic.

But there were plenty of apocalyptic writings, especially in the intertestamental period and the first century or two AD.  Several of these works survived, and you can read them, today.

These books had rules.  They used symbols and codes and allegory extensively.  They were presented in the form of visions.  They described world events and let us in on the secret, spiritual world behind the scenes of them.  If you produced a book in this genre, everyone knew what they were getting and the general rules of interpretation.

If you wrote an apocalypse in the first century, and you described a vision where you saw an eagle whose wings covered the earth who flew up to heaven, then fell from the sky and destroyed a third of the earth on impact, nobody would read that and think you were informing them that an actual giant eagle would show up and crash into the planet.  Most likely, they would think you were talking about the ascension and decline of the Roman Empire and the disastrous effects that would have on the surrounding nations.

A poem is not a theological treatise.  A wise proverb is not a law.  A parable is not history.

Revelation Is Intelligible to the Original Audience

It is highly unlikely that any biblical author imagined YHWH followers all over the world two thousand years later struggling over what they wrote.  The biblical authors wrote for their audience at their time to address their questions and their concerns.

This does not mean that everyone who heard these writings understood them all or understood them in the same way.  If the midrashim tell us anything, it’s that very well-learned people who love a piece of Scripture and may be very close to its world will still disagree about it.

Nor does this mean that something mentioned in a text has to be a present event.  Authors would reach into Israel’s past quite often and, on rarer occasions, would project their vision into the future.  But even these things were for the benefit of their audience.  If I tell you what I think will happen in the future, it’s to give the present audience hope and direction.  There is no biblical writing I can think of that describes its purpose as being solely for the benefit of a completely different audience.

Even under the strongest dictation-oriented theories of inspiration would have to deal with the question: why would God give all this information to a group of people for whom it would be no use whatsoever?  Did He foresee the closing of the canon and decide He’d better get everything He ever had to say in before the window closed?

So, whatever else we might have to say about Revelation, it has to be intelligible to the people who initially received it.  John is trying to communicate something to the seven churches in Asia Minor that he believes will have immediate value for them.  “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”  (Rev. 1:3, NRSV)

We have to ask ourselves what is going on with the original audience such that a writing is relevant to them, and this is usually a historical question.  The biblical texts themselves may give us a window into the historical situation, as might other sources and even areas of study, such as archaeology or anthropology.

For instance, if I wrote a book, today, about the importance of ending violence against monophysites (or avoiding violence from monophysites), you might scratch your head.  Why would I write a book like that?  It’s not an issue.  In the fifth century, though, it would have been a very, very relevant issue for Christians.

Let’s say I told you that I was writing about future monophysite violence that I foresaw, and I was trying to prepare the Church for it.  Well, that might be legit, but the idea would be that the present Church would find value in what I was writing.  Even though the phenomena I described would be in the future, my whole purpose in writing it would be so that we who were the intended audience could prepare for it now, and I would have to explain the issue in terms that made sense to us and enabled us to do whatever it was I’d be hoping we’d do.  Build stronger walls around Antioch, whatever.

What would be a very strange scenario would be if I said, “I think there will be a resurgence of monophysite violence two thousand years from now, so I’m writing this book for the Church at that time so they’ll know what’s going on.”  While that’s not an impossible thing for someone to want to do, it’s weird and unlikely.  If you bought a book by Tim Keller, today, you would probably not assume it was a message designed for the Church thousands of years into the future.

By far, the most sensical assumption is that someone writes a book for their current audience, and it makes the most sense to understand their text in light of their current audience and what’s going on with them.

For instance, if we read some of Martin Luther’s more dramatic denouncements of Roman Catholicism, it would be a mistake to understand him as criticizing the Catholic Church of the third century, just as it would be a mistake to understand him as criticizing the Catholic Church of today.  We might decide what he said is applicable, today, in some form or fashion, but we understand what he wrote in light of a theological controversy and big events (and counter-events) raging across the theological and political landscape of his time.

If you marched into your local Catholic church and demanded that they stop issuing indulgences, they’d look at you like you were from Mars.  The 95 Theses only make sense against the historical situation of Luther’s day.  Once we have understood that sense, then we can make decisions about how those Theses may or may not speak into our modern time, but it would be an enormous mistake to assume that what Luther wrote was primarily to address our contemporary situation or the modern state of Roman Catholicism.

I apologize for belaboring the point, but in our current day and age (just in case someone finds this blog 2000 years later), I don’t think it can be belabored enough.  We understand a writing against its own world and concerns, and only then are we in a position to think about how it might speak into our world and concerns.  We might decide it’s just as applicable today as it was then and in more or less the same ways.  We might decide it’s applicable in general senses or analogous senses to today, even if the immediate meaning no longer is.  We might decide it was vital for a particular moment in history and is no longer especially relevant to us.  But the point is we understand a text by starting with its world as opposed to using our own world as the primary reference for understanding it.

So, when John writes about dragons and beasts and seals and harlots and trumpets and women wearing stars, we begin by asking about his world.  What were the powers of his day?  What were the struggles?  What were they afraid of?  What did they hope would happen?  Although it is possible John wrote something intended for a far future audience, it doesn’t make sense to start there as a basic assumption.  Is there anything in the text itself that actually says that’s the intent?

Or is that part of the story we’ve brought to the text?