Parts of Leviticus That Don’t Show Up on Billboards


In my second career (doing ballet master class tours) I drive all over the country.  Recently, in the Bible Belt, I drove past a series of billboards citing Leviticus 23:13 (the kill the gays verse) and some variant of the message “Homosexuality is an abomination– God.”

I do wonder how much God spent on this marketing campaign and whether he went through an agency.  I would have thought he could swing at least a basic cable campaign, but I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.

I was reading a book today on a subject unrelated to religion (or billboards).  It happened to mention another verse in Leviticus that I don’t recall hearing that often.

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (19:34)

I got to wondering why God hasn’t taken out billboards reading “Treat Mexican immigrants as fellow citizens.-God.”

Maybe he’s saving that one for the radio blast.

Red Letter Law: Responsibilty in the Shade of the Trees

I came across an article today on a site called “Forward Progressives” with the provocative title “Religious Right Politicians Don’t Take Jesus Seriously.”  The article describes a theological debate that took place on the floor of the House of Representatives.  Putting aside, for the moment, the whole question of whether “what would Jesus do” should be part of our political debate in a country that separates church and state, I would like to speak a bit about the argument itself and the article on “Forward Progressives.”  Here is the background:

When the House Agriculture Committee decided that they gradually need to cut costs to the farm bill by $40 billion, they decided that more than half of that should come out of the mouths of poor families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) would be cut by over twenty billion dollars over the next decade.

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort by some members of the committee to inject some holy humanity into its more conservative members, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) quoted passages from the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s the part of the Bible where Jesus says that how we treat poor people, sick people, and other marginalized people is how we treat Jesus.

In response, Committeeperson and Christian K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) took umbrage.

“I take umbrage to that. I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

First let me say that I think the word “umbrage” should be used more often in conversation.  Literally it means a shadow “especially as cast by trees.”  How it got its figurative sense of offense is not clear to this author.  But I am already trying to come up with opportunities to talk about having a picnic in the umbrage on a hot summer day.

Moving on.  I’m sympathetic to the argument that budget cuts should not come at the expense of the poorest and least powerful members of society.  I am also more sympathetic to the notion that Jesus would not cut food programs for the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, but I can’t know that for a fact.

This is where I take a wee bit of tree shade with the Forward Progessives article.  The author of the piece (identified as “jasdye”) writes:

…generally conservative Christians tend to read the Bible literally. You know, like the Earth was created in six days type of literal. The Creation Story of Genesis is treated literally, but not Jesus’ words to his followers?

Conaway – and many others in the Religious Right – do not take these passages literally because they want to believe these words are advice to individual followers when it is obvious it was not spoken or written in that matter… In that very passage Vargas quoted, it is the nations that will be judged for taking care of or not taking care of the poor. Not individuals. Nations. Large communities.

Indeed, the passage does talk about nations.  It describes what it will be like when the Kingdom of God arrives.  The Son of Man sits on a throne and the nations gather at his feet, he divides the righteous on the right and the unrighteous on the left.  Then he explains how he has divided the two groups and he says one of the most marvelous things in the New Testament.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

Treat every person, no matter how poor and powerless, as though he were the Son of Man.

In the next verse he condemns to hell those who refuse to do these things for “the least of these.”

Now if you are really going to be “the Earth was created in six days literal” about this passage, you have to say that it does not literally speak to Mr. Conway as an individual, nor to the United States nor to the world.  It speaks to the people in the Kingdom of God in this envisioned future.   Of course, that is not the full story.  If the stories contained nothing more than their literal meaning they would not have lasted.

The art is in the interpretation of this story.  What does it mean to us here today?  Why should I take this to heart?  There’s nothing at all wrong with Bible stories being a matter of interpretation.  It’s important to acknowledge that this is what you’re doing though because otherwise you get into a foolish argument in which one person says, “It means this.”  And the other says, “No it doesn’t. It means this.”  Both claim to have the correct interpretation. You can’t get very far with that.   That is, unless your goal is to continually argue.

So let’s strip down this story in Matthew.  The Son of Man in the story is addressing nations.  He is speaking to the world.  The story doesn’t actually specify whether the people at this gathering are condemned to hell based on their individual or their collective failure to help “the least of these.”

You could turn to history and say that early Christians were known for their collective works to the poor– acting, as later interpreters will call “the body of Christ.”  Jesus worked with his disciples, so there was always a collective, community feeling to his messages.  Even this does not specifically address governments.  Conway might interpret the “render unto Caesar” parable as meaning that the government is irrelevant and we need to act separately from it.

I can’t entirely discount the idea that Matthew 25 is referring to individual action.  Even though the Lord or Son of Man is addressing the people as a group, he may have separated them into the righteous and unrighteous based entirely on what they or failed to do as individuals.

So let’s for a moment say that Conway is completely right and Jesus’s requirement in Matthew to do for the least of these is an individual requirement not that of the government.

The argument here seems to be that the government has no moral obligation to act in accordance with what the Lord says is righteous.  This does seem to be a tacit admission by Conway that taking money out of the food stamp program  is not the righteous or compassionate course.

Taking money out of the food stamp program is not a problem, he says, not because it is the most moral choice, but because the government is not required to be righteous.  (The clear implication is that Conway does not think his favored path is the most moral one, but he thinks he should do it anyway for some reason.)  This is, obviously, a departure from how values conservatives talk about the government’s role in things like same sex marriage or funding Planned Parenthood, but I don’t want to dwell on that right now.

What concerns me more is the idea that in a democracy we, as individuals, will not be held accountable for the collective actions of the people we elect to govern on our behalf.  If we look the other way when unrighteous actions are carried out for our benefit are we not guilty?

So let’s take this premise as given and say we are not.  We, as individuals, will face no moral judgement at the pearly gates for what our government did or did not do for “the least of these.”

Mike Conway, however, is in a slightly different position than most of us.  He is in a position of power.  He has wealth and privilege.  What is his obligation as a Christian and a legislator?

Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 22) Jesus is asked what is the supreme commandment and he says it is “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  The second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These are the two things.  Devotion to God, and compassion for man. How is that manifest?  How do you do that?

This is what the Apostles did.  “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2)

When St. Paul met with the Jerusalem Council with his idea to spread the gospel to the gentiles there was only one thing they said the gentiles had to do. Paul wrote, “They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

So it seems that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means being generous with the poor, sharing all you have with them and specifically feeding them.  If this is how you manifest your love of God then you should do it with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind– with everything you are.

If this is an individual requirement then shouldn’t a member of the House of Representatives use all of the tools at his disposal, every power he has, to carry out this mission?  Should he ignore the greatest tool he has, his political position?

When the subject of wealth, poverty and Jesus comes up, one of the first stories that comes to mind is the one about Jesus and the rich young man who did everything right, except one thing:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Mike Conway’s net worth is between $3,122,115 and $8,283,999.  (When you have a certain level of wealth it gets to the point that it’s hard to even count.)  He is the 62nd richest House member out of 435.

“I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

What is his individual responsibility to the least of these? Will he sit on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man in the judgment day of Matthew 25?  That is between him and his God.

“It’s Not Me, It’s the Bible.”

An article from the Huffington Post came through my Twitter feed this evening that compels me to get theological again. The article is sadly typical and tells the story of a man who was told he could not play music in his church any more because he was gay.

The minister was quick to say they are not a “church of hate” and that the musician, Chad, is still welcome to come to services.  Do the people who make these kind of statements really believe that the person will take them up on the offer?  “Sorry about the whole being damned to hell thing, but if you want to come worship with us, it’s fine.  Just want to make it clear we disapprove of you.  See you on Sunday!”  They can’t really imagine such a thing, can they?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been delving deeply into the letters of Paul lately.  It is Paul who provides the New Testament ammunition for people who feel strongly that homosexuality is a sin.  (By any way you count references to homosexuality are few in the Bible.  None attributed to Jesus. Our emphasis on it is of an entirely different proportion than it is in the Bible.)

Some will point to Leviticus and Deuteronomy for support, but because Christians have not found it necessary to abide by all of the other Jewish laws included there: dietary laws, temple ritual and circumcision, the argument that we should be bound by only the laws from these Old Testament books that happen to deal with homosexuality is not particularly strong.

Most Christians who feel that homosexuality is a sin try to make a distinction between the desire and the act.  It is not the person, it is the activity.  If they would only stop doing those dirty deeds there would be no problem with them being gay.  The pastor in the Huffington Post article takes this position:

“We love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter what you hear or read, that’s what we practice here.” he said.  “…The difference with Chad is that he switched from struggling with his sin to embracing it.”

Here is the problem:  Paul specifically condemns homosexual desire.  In Romans Paul says that as a punishment for idol worship: “God gave them (the Greeks) over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”  (Romans 1:27-28)

It is shameful lust not only shameful action.

But don’t get too comfortable.  It is not only homosexual desire that is a sin for Paul, it is any desire, the desire for status, the desire for wealth, and good old fashioned heterosexual desire.

When it comes to the last on that list, Paul believes that the ideal is for all people to remain celibate as he is.  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

The best thing he has to say about marriage is that it is a lesser evil than promiscuity.  It is better not to be married, he says, but “as a concession” if men are not able to control their desires, they should marry and render to their spouses the affection due them. Marriage, in Paul’s mind, is a way to contain desire. “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Being married puts the fire out.  (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)

In Paul’s view humans should not desire anything carnal and of this world, their desire should only be for God.

Straight members of Cross Point Church, do you ever burn with desire for things other than God?  I bet you do.  Do you even try to “struggle with” your desire for your husbands and wives or have you crossed over to embracing your sin?  Do you “struggle with” your desire for more money and status such as better job titles or have you actually started embracing that sin?  Shouldn’t you all be fired from the church?  Be thankful for God’s mercy.

If having no worldly desire except for God seems far too high a burden for human beings, you’re right.  We are not perfect.  We are human beings not angels.

Paul describes the human predicament in Romans: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Paul and Jesus both say, in too many places to cite chapters and verses, that God knows we fall short and he loves us anyway.  We are brothers and sisters and our duty is to love one another.

In Paul’s theology Christ’s sacrifice is the answer to the problem of our complete inability to live up to our highest expectations of ourselves.

Remember that Paul immediately follows Romans 1 with its condemnation of homosexual desire (and lots of other stuff) with Romans 2.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?”

It is not your place to pass judgment on man, that right belongs to God.

I, personally, do not feel that a Christian has to embrace every part of Paul’s world view.   I happen not to think that desire is sinful, whether homosexual or heterosexual.  The question is whether sexuality is expressed in a spirit of love or exploitation.

But even if you affirm that you must agree with every one of Paul’s beliefs, there is no basis in scripture for defining sin as “pointing out other people’s shortcomings while overlooking your own.”

The main test for how to behave towards others is whether or not you are acting with love.

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14)

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

So to the people at the church who were involved in the decision detailed in the Huffington Post I would ask: How did Chad Graber feel when you, the members of his community, told him you did not think he was moral enough to share his music with you any more?  Do you think he felt bathed in your love?

200 Years from Now It Will Still Say…

(Joel) Osteen has repeatedly tried to tip toe around his stance on homosexuality, telling Piers Morgan in October of 2011 that he’s not “mad at anybody” and doesn’t “dislike anybody,” while reiterating his belief that the scripture says homosexuality is a sin,” and “two hundred years from now, the Scripture is still going to say that.”

This is a quote from an article on Huffington Post which quotes Osteen as saying that he doesn’t believe heterosexuality is a choice, but he still thinks homosexuality is a sin.

What he says about the text of the Bible being unchanging is true.  We have locked in what we consider to be scripture at this point, and even as society changes the words will not.  So what do you do with texts that are talking about an ancient way of life, about slaves and eunuchs and the demon possessed? Aren’t we fairly happy that we don’t have people performing animal sacrifices in our churches?

Two hundred years from now the Bible will still say: “If any man takes a wife … and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones …”

I’m hoping we won’t follow that rule 200 years from now either.

Excerpt from Wayward Things interview with author Laura Lee

Will Green: What book are you reading right now?

Laura Lee: I usually have several going at any given moment. I’m on a theology kick right now.  I’ve been reading The Restored New Testament by Willis Barnstone (a translation of the New Testament) and The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. I’ve been reading through the New Testament of the Bible in chronological order, the order in which scholars think it was written. I’ve been reading a lot of books on Biblical interpretation, the development of Christianity and the historical Jesus as well. After writing from the perspective of a Christian minister in Angel, I’ve become very interested in reading about Christianity. What I take away from it is probably idiosyncratic and unconventional. Then again, I think we all have our own internal theologies. It’s conventional to be unconventional.

Will Green: See I’ve tried to read more than one book at a time, but it just doesn’t work for me. It seems like it takes so long to get through just one if I do that. I prefer to concentrate on one and get through it. But you take the cake, you’re reading those deeply religious books at the same time. I agree it is “conventional to be unconventional.”

Now without getting too heavy into the subject would you agree or disagree that there are some contradictions in the story of the Bible?

Laura Lee: Of course there are. There are supposed to be. I would just note that there is not a story of the Bible, it is a collection of works. The different books of the Bible have different perspectives. They are in dialogue with each other. My way of thinking about God is that he did not make a man in his image, he made mankind in his image, and to get as full a picture of God as possible you need to listen to many different perspectives. In fact, the people who compiled the New Testament chose to include the same story told four ways. (The Gospels) They were not stuttering. They were trying to include a richness of perspectives. It frustrates me when people try to “debunk” the Bible by showing its internal contradictions or by saying that this or that wasn’t historical or scientific. To me, that is not the point. Whether Jesus was born in a manger in reality is not the point. You can believe that he was and that it is important that he was, or you can believe it is mythological. In either case, the important question is why people are telling this story and what it means. Why have people been telling this story for years? What are we supposed to take from it? Is “that it happened” really the moral of something like the resurrection or Noah and the flood? No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think that is really the importance of those stories for the people who believe that it literally happened, nor should believing that it didn’t literally happen be a reason to abandon those stories or assume they have nothing of value for us today. To me the literalists and the atheist “debunkers” are arguing within the same framework and it sometimes misses the point.

Will Green: That is a very intelligent and well informed response, thank you for that. It’s refreshing to know you are so open minded about all things religion. You don’t seem to let yourself be too strict in any one area of religion.

Laura Lee: I see it as a process of discovery.  I don’t expect to come to a final conclusion.  I don’t want to stop exploring. When it comes to questions of the nature of the universe, I am not sure we’re equipped to say we, as human beings, know it all.  Every time you decide you have the absolute answer, you’ve closed the question.  For most of the big questions, I tend to find that the truth doesn’t come down to an either/or question.  The answers tend to be a matter of balance and context.  I do think that the type of religion that speaks to a person has something to do with his personality.  Some people are comfortable with things being more open ended, and some people are not comfortable unless they have things resolved.  I am fine with things being more open ended.

Read the entire interview at Wayward Things.

Debunking Debunking

There was recently an episode of the television series House in which an ailing novitiate comes in to the hospital for a diagnosis. One of the doctors on House’s team came to medicine after dropping out of the seminary.  He tries to test the faith of the aspiring nun by asking her questions about the Bible.  He quizzes her on stories that are told differently in different books of the Bible.  For example, “How many times did the cock crow before Peter denied Jesus?”  

It seems unlikely that someone who attended seminary would have such a superficial understanding of faith that the whole thing could be unraveled by one extra crow.

It got me to thinking about this whole idea of “debunking” the Bible.  The idea that the Bible is something that can be “debunked” by showing factual inconsistencies assumes that the book is a certain type of thing.  You can debunk junk science.  You can debunk false journalism.  You can debunk bad history.  But the Bible is not science or a history text book or journalism.  It is art. 

You can’t “debunk” Picasso by saying human noses don’t really go there.

Nor would you debunk Shakespeare, even though he wrote plays based on history.  You might point out that the real Henry V did not give the marvelous St. Cispan’s speech before the battle of Agincourt, but that hardly “debunks” the play. 

Shakespeare was capturing the essence of how the English people felt about this episode.  He was illustrating (not reporting on) the drama of the nation’s cultural history.

That is the same type of story telling that occurs in the Bible.  It illustrates and dramatizes the moments that shaped the culture of the Jewish people and their religion and later of the proto-Christian people and their culture. Much of what is written is based on history, but it is not told in the voice of the historical scholar.

Debunking the Bible because it is bad science or history and reading the Bible as though it were literal historical scholarship and science are two sides of the same coin. 

The purpose of religion is to inspire, to invite wonder and contemplation, to give people a sense of common community and to teach us how to ethically relate to one another in the here and now.

If the Bible was a perfectly factual, scholarly report on historical events it would fail as scripture.

When you read the page on the Battle of Agincourt in your British history class (if you had one) did you want to cheer, or were you doodling on the back of a note pad and waiting for the class bell to ring?

Henry V may not have said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but he should have.  It took a poet to capture the dramatic truth.  That is the type of truth that one can find in the Bible.

The Illusion of Tradition

A follow up, of sorts, to my first article on tradition.

When you start to read books on the history of Christianity it becomes clear that many of the ideas and approaches that seem non-traditional and novel are actually as old or older than the approaches considered “traditional.” I have read many a 19th century text making the same arguments that might be published in books today as shocking new ways of approaching religion.

I was recently reading the book American Jesus by Stephen Prothero, which talks about how our distinctly American ways of understanding Jesus and Christianity have evolved.  One of the things that surprised me was the prominence of Unitarians and their kind in shaping our national religious culture.  In spite of having our patron saints Emerson and Channing, I don’t recall learning much in Sunday school about Unitarian history.  We learned about other religions and their traditions but I do not remember having a sense of Unitarians having traditions and history of our own.  Instead, I had a vague sense of Unitarianism being modern and forward thinking.  Unitarians, I generally believed, reacted against the ills of mainstream religious culture.  We did not create or influence the mainstream.

Prothero points out that the forms of Christianity that came to the United States did not put Jesus at the center of their theology as we do today.  The second person of the trinity was present in the faith of the Puritans and Calvinist of course, but the focus was on the first person, God.   Christ “functioned as more of a principle than a person.”

The shift towards a “personal relationship” with Jesus came from a place you might not expect, what we would now call the religious left, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and Universalists or more accurately, the dance between traditionalist and “the religious left.”

Thomas Jefferson’s approach to scripture was to try to get back to the original teaching of Jesus and away from all of the interpretation that had built up over the years.  The Jefferson Bible removed all of the miracles and supernaturalism and got down to a few core teachings that Jefferson believed were authentic to Jesus.  Even though his theology would not resonate with many modern Christians, his focus on the fundamental teachings of Jesus over institutional traditions became a hallmark of American religion.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American religion can be overstated. His theological views, unorthodox upon his death in 1825, remain unorthodox today; the overwhelming majority of Americans are now Christians who affirm the creedal view of their Savior as fully divine and fully human. Nonetheless, they have inherited from Jefferson a strategy for understanding Jesus and Christianity that continues to drive religious change, from both the left and the right. That strategy begins with a bold refusal. It starts when a religious reformer refuses to equate Jesus with the Christian tradition. The religion of Jesus, the reformer asserts, is not the same as the religion about Jesus; and what really matters is what Jesus did and taught. The second step is to isolate certain beliefs or practices in the Christian tradition as unreasonable or antiquated or immoral. The next step is to use the cultural authority of Jesus to denounce those beliefs or practices as contrary to true Christianity—to call for religious reform. As these alternative understandings gain ground, Jesus is gradually unmoored from the beliefs, practices, and institutions that in the past had restricted his freedom of movement. He loses no authority among the traditionalists, who continue to see him as they had, but he gains authority among the innovators. As his authority expands, Christians are all the more likely to champion reforms.

This opened the door for a form of Christianity that encouraged members to think of Jesus as someone with whom they could have a personal relationship and to try to get back to fundamentals of the religion of Jesus.

Prothero also referenced the “Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century… That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin’s dogma of the total depravity of human beings, Unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good.”

An interesting historical note is that one of the reasons the UUs merged was that the Universalist church, which had once been very popular and growing, started to lose its appeal as many other mainstream Protestant faiths toned down their talk of hell and started adopting a more universalist approach themselves.  “God is love and he loves everyone” is the chorus of a popular Christian song right now. Rob Bell’s Love Wins expresses a more universalist Christian theology.  So, in a way, the success of universalism also became the universalist church’s down fall.  When Methodist churches started to focus more on heaven and the goodness of people than on damnation and sin a lot of Universalists jumped ranks.

Christianity has never been a monolith.  In fact, the earliest Christian writings we have in the Bible, the letters of Paul, seek to address heated arguments within the early Jesus movement as to what was required to be a follower of Christ.  At the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, early Christians met to close the canon of the Bible.  Some argued that there should be one Gospel.  Others fought for four, one for each corner of the earth.  As you know from glancing at your New Testament, this side won out.  (I touched on this in an earlier essay on the “What is a Christian” question.)

A view that is orthodox in one era is heresy in another.  Some of the heresies are older than some of the orthodoxies.  Some former orthodoxies are modern heresies.

For example, approaching the Bible as the literal, inerrant word of God is actually a fairly new method for interpreting scripture gaining prominence only in the 20th century.  (There are many sources on this.  One that I can think of off hand is Pedagogy of the Bible by Dale B. Martin because I happen to have read it recently.)

If a non-literal approach to the Bible predates that of Biblical literalism, why is it that we consider literalism traditional and a less literal interpretation as new?  I believe it has less to do with history and more to do with a sense of identity.  Liberal religious types value their sense of identity as free thinkers and agents of social change whereas fundamentalist types value their sense of being part of an ongoing tradition with firm foundations.  We accept each group’s self-definition.

The interesting effect is that a viewpoint that is, in fact, a minority opinion becomes the working default assumption of what counts as mainstream thought.  Almost every book that I read on the Bible or Jesus scholarship spends a great deal of time arguing against the proposition that the Bible should be approached as the literal, inerrant word of God (God’s instruction manual, if you will) even though, as I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization of Christians showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible in that way. Why is it that almost every discussion of Christianity addresses a minority view as though it is the default assumption?  It is only because it has been dubbed the “traditional approach.”

Rather than using our self-definitions, and seeing the people who value tradition most as the most traditional, what if we were to view a more questioning approach to the Bible as mainstream American thought and to view fundamentalism as a modern counter-cultural faith?  How would our dialogue change?

What is a Christian and Who Gets to Decide?

The other night I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a Baptist friend of mine over the meaning of the word “Christian.”  She said she found it offensive when groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are called “Christians” because what they believe about Jesus differs greatly from her understanding of him and the meaning of his story.

Because being Christian is an important part of her identity, and she understands the word to mean a certain thing, she does not like having views that she does not recognize as Christian associated with her and her church.

I agree with the argument that if the word “Christian” is defined as “whatever anyone says is Christian” then it is meaningless.  The question then becomes though, who gets to define what is and is not Christian and what perspectives that label includes?

My view is that an individual or religious group that bases its theology on Jesus, generally as understood through Biblical text (more on the Bible part in a bit), could be defined as “Christian.”  Whether they ultimately are also depends on self-definition: whether the group or individual in question accepts the label.

While Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, they do not consider him to be THE prophet.  He is not the center of their theology and thus Islam is not a Christian religion.

The Mormon church has Jesus’ name right in its title:  “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”  Putting aside anything else they believe, Jesus must be central to their theology.

The statement of faith of Jews for Jesus is hard to distinguish from the statement of faith of any mainstream protestant, but apparently their Jewish identity is important to them and they define themselves as Jewish followers of Jesus rather than as Christians.  This is a bit confusing in modern terms (although it wouldn’t have been surely in St. Paul’s day) but if Jewishness is an important part of their identity and they think of themselves as Jews, who am I to say they are not?

(Please don’t draw me into the What is a Jew? argument here.  I have personally witnessed Jewish friends arguing passionately about this all night long, and I will leave them to it and get back to my What is a Christian? debate.)

My friend disagreed with my more expansive view.  The Mormons have their own sacred text, The Book of Mormon, which disqualifies them because they are not Biblically based, and their later saints reduce the role of Jesus.  The Jehovah’s witnesses do not believe in salvation through Christ as the Baptists understand it.  Rather than a vision of heaven open to all believers, they envision of Kingdom of God on Earth that will be inhabited by a limited number of people.

Her definition of the word “Christian” corresponds with what the Episcopal Biblical scholar Marcus Borg defines as the “heaven and hell framework.”  Man is born in a state of original sin (thanks to Eve and that apple), but God sacrificed his son Jesus on the cross in order that those who believe in him shall have eternal life in heaven.

I am sure that there are many people who would agree with that minimal definition of “Christianity.”

There are, however, a number of scholars and theologians, who consider themselves to be Christian, who argue that this conception of Jesus was not what Jesus and his followers would have understood and that the idea of “salvation” as a substitutionary sacrifice was not what the Biblical writers conceived.  In other words, that’s not what they meant. Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian and many of his other works elaborate this concept.

Quaker minister and author Philip Gulley’s book If the Church Were Christian is typical of a genre of popular theology books that argue that the modern church is out of step with authentic Christian teaching as expressed by Jesus himself.  The Red Letter Christians are similar in wanting to get back to the fundamentals of what Jesus taught rather than the years and layers of interpretation by later writers.  These views are very popular with the so-called Emergent Church.

If authors like Borg and Gulley are correct and the modern church is out of step with what Jesus and the Biblical writers had to say, would that mean that this interpretation has more right to be called “Christian” than the later one?  Or does the fact that the “heaven and hell framework” is what most people think of when you say “Christian” mean that this has become the only meaningful definition of the word?

If you agree with the first concept then Baptists would not be true Christians.  If you accept the second then Borg and Gulley would not be.

It seems ridiculous to say Baptists are not Christians, whether you believe their theology is correct or not.  I, however, do not think you have to make a choice between the Biblical scholars, Emergent Church and Baptists.  They are all Christians.

Christians have never been united in their understanding of what the story of Jesus meant.  One of the great debates of the early Christians was whether Jesus should be understood as fully human, fully divine or some combination of the two.  Bart Ehrman’s Lost Cristianities provides a good history of some of the schools of Christian thought that did not win out and become orthodox.  Each of these groups had passionate adherents who thought they were the “true Christians.”

Julian Doyle author of Life of Jesus/Brian put it in the rather cheeky way:  “We know that Jesus was not the Son of God for 300 years after his death, when at the Council of Niceae it was decided by a vote that he was in fact God’s son.”

Similar decisions were made along the line when the various texts that make up the Bible were compiled.  What was left in, what was kept out, what versions of the many existent texts were to be included and considered canonical?  (The word “canon” incidentally, meaning approved law was invented by Bishop Athanasius who oversaw the council of Hippo which made the selection of what to include about 400 years after the time of Jesus.)

Even after the initial Biblical contents were codified there remained differences between what books were considered canonical in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Churches.  That is even before we get into things like the Book of Mormon.

Even the books themselves differ from one another based on what copy was used as source and how it was translated.  As Bart Ehrman wrote: “there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

“Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular. There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been. The Bible has always been legion, a multiplicity of forms and contents, with no original to be found,” wrote Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

So if you want to define a Christian as someone who follows the Bible, both old and New Testaments, you run into the “what Bible do you mean?” problem.  Then there is the problem of what believing and following the Bible mean.  Is it a literal historical understanding or a metaphorical and mythological one?  Is the Bible a book of rules for life or a book of questions to ponder?  There are Christians who come down on either side of these questions.

Let’s put that particular issue aside though.

Once something like a closed Bible was set, and as the Christian church began to have political power, those who wished their interpretation to be orthodox got to work stamping out dissenting views as heresy, sometimes through force.

I am not arguing that the fact that orthodoxy silenced the other voices means that its view was necessarily untrue, nor can I say that the fact that it won out historically by itself makes it more true.  I am just wondering if the dead and diminished early conceptions of Christ have less claim to the label of “Christian” than the one that became dominant?  What about a new form of Christian belief?  Does its newness make it unchristian?  Would an old dead form of Christianity be more “Christian” than a new but untraditional living form?

If we decide that some of these views should be considered Christian, and others should not, who gets to make that call? On what should the decision be based?

Ultimately the question comes down to this:  Who does the story of Jesus belong to?

In the Bible Marriage Was Between Two Men

Yes, I chose that headline for its shock value.  But there is some truth to it.  Read on.
I just finished reading God and Sex by Michael Coogan.  Coogan is director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College.  His book explores what the Bible really has to say about sexuality and gender relations within the context of its culture and time.
It provides an interesting counterpoint to those who claim Biblical authority for the concept that marriage is between “a man and a woman.”   
These claims are often made with a reference to Adam and Eve, the first couple.  (“Not Adam and Steve.”)  But the Bible never reports a marriage ceremony took place for Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve are therefore not a good example of how the Bible defines “marriage.”
“I am sometimes asked by relatives and students to suggest biblical passages for use at their weddings, Coogan wrote, “but few are appropriate.  The Song of Solomon is too erotic—not to mention that the lovers are not married.  Most text concerning married couples are permeated with patriarchalism.  Many major biblical characters had more than one wife.  Because biblical views on marriage originated in societies whose mores were in many ways different from ours, biblical models do not necessarily inform either our practice or our theory of marriage.”
Marriage, as we understand it today, as a romantic union between two partners, was not what Biblical authors would understand marriage to be.
Marriage was a property arrangement— and the property was the woman.  The marriage contract was between two men—the father of the bride-to-be and the groom.  (Hence my headline.) The father sold the daughter for a bride-price to a man, who might have been a close relative.  (Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, and one of Esau’s wives was his cousin.)
The husband might go on to marry another wife or two.  Abraham had three wives, Jacob had four, his brother Esau had five, Gideon had many.  Marriages were arranged and were often between one rather old man and a “woman” who was just past puberty, such as Joseph, aged 92, and Mary, aged 14.
Not even the most conservative Biblical literalist is out there arguing that we should, in keeping with Biblical tradition, sell our 14-year-old daughters to be one of the multiple wives of her first cousin, a senior citizen.  (When we hear stories about religious sects that engage in such behavior we consider it to be shocking and abusive.)

Opponents of same-sex marriage can make their case that a more inclusive definition of marriage flies in the face of their cultural traditions, and that those cultural traditions are important and worth upholding.  One argument that they can not make legitimately, however, is that the “one man one woman” model of romantic marriage is mandated by— or the cultural norm in— the Bible.