A response to the ‘scandal of the evangelical heart’

Interesting piece at http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/scandal-evangelical-heart, talking about how many evangelicals disengage their emotions when looking at things like (say) genocide in the bible.

For me I am reflecting about where God is in scripture, particularly when sometimes he is found in the subtext rather than the text, but also whether God has inspired the recording of narrative in order to show where spiritual & national leaders get things wrong (like the genocide as I suggest), perhaps as a warning to us, is a topic of great interest to me. What I’ve said below is more comment and pondering rather than a developed piece of scriptural reflection, and more to assure people that you can call yourself an evangelical without adopting the current popular flavour of evangelicism that assumes that the narrator within narrative scripture is God, or that Paul speaks word for word directly for God, (because it is easily consumed as a letter from God to us), rather than locating the divine voice within these inspired works.

This was my comment in response:

The post isn’t really about evangelicism (the theological view), perhaps it is more about US evangelicals (the politicial movement?), but really being an evangelical really just means you believe the gospel, and at least that you believe scripture is inspired by God – its not about believing genocide is OK sometimes or detaching yourself emotionally. I call myself an evangelical and think Joshua and Moses got it wrong on the genocide thing.

The question in all of this is all about where you think God is in scripture – is God saying that genocide is right sometimes? …or is God showing something about the human heart that even after the Israelites spent 400 years in captivity, having a generation of children killed by Pharaoh and being told unequivocally by God that murder and stealing is wrong, that they then happily go out to murder, steal, keep slaves and do so all in the name of God? Find God in the subtext, not just the text!

God inspired the recording of scripture (and yes, sure, inspiration works in different ways in non-narrative portions of scripture), but does He agree with Moses & Joshua?
It’s not a contradiction to say that you’re evangelical and also think that perhaps Moses got it wrong.

In fact, we should be really clear – the bible presents myriad, often conflicting, theological outlooks, and through reflecting upon them in concert and allowing them to give us their various viewpoints, collectively God is revealed. And for me that revelation of God appears to be progressive, coming to its pinnacle with Christ.

Why else do we see all the different views relating to God & time within scripture: we see Calvinism Arminianism and open theism in there; we see adult baptism, infant baptism, and dedications in there too; on so many matters from Christology to end-times there is a great diversity of theological outlooks within scripture. Have you ever thought why God would provide us with so many differing theological ideas? Not that anything goes – far from it – a subset of permission for those in need of it?

God’s use of myriad theological outlooks within scripture should inspire us, unite us, and give permission for many unpopular yet totally valid doctrinal positions – yet instead, rather like our sinful nature and the law, we use scripture as material for division, arguments and to castigate people who don’t believe exactly as we do.

Once we put down the unsupportable idol that all scripture has the same, harmonious, theological outlook throughout, we’re finally free to hear the full breadth of the wonderful chorus that is God revealing himself.

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The starting point for interpreting Genesis’ creation narrative

In some recent discussions with someone I found that they believed that to interpret the Genesis creation narrative as literal history was “normative”, and this struck me as rather odd. Of course, he is right – it is normative to interpret Genesis as a literal history in many places in our modernist age, yes, but outside of our age? No, not at all, and normative doesn’t mean correct, but rather it is the popular default, normal for humans to do. In this case it is normative for humans to ignore the history of epistemology and to assume that the epistemological age they live within is the only one that existed: to suggest a ‘literal reading of Genesis as a book of history’ should be the default approach is to ignore the influence of Descartes upon how we, by default, think and to assume, wrongly, that people have always thought as we initially learn to do. To put it simply:

Whenever you read any text, not least scripture, in order to understand the intention of the author our first question must always be: “What *type* of literature is this?” Now, one of the primary effects of the domination of Cartesian epistemology since his time is that something is only considered to be true if it is either logically true or an historical fact – all forms of truth have only recently been squeezed into either “historically true/logically true” v “not true”. The effect on theology & doctrine of modernism over the past few hundred years since this way of thinking took ahold is to create budding theologians who rightly want to uphold the bible as true but then allow truth to be defined by Descarts because they know of no other way to process truth & knowledge. When they pick up Genesis they can, naturally, only interpret it as literal history because they have no other model.

The writers of Genesis certainly would not be bound by Cartesian epistemology, it would of course be anachronistic for them to be so. Of course they could speak through historical truth, but equally they could speak truth through story, just as Jesus did through parables – neither approach had a monopoly on truth. In answering the question “what type of literature is Genesis” we cannot default to a literal interpretation as we might for a fellow modernist writer.

Our starting point must instead be a neutral one, not “it is historical fact until you can prove otherwise” but rather we must look to the literary features (such as talking snakes), historic evidence (strikingly similar creation epics that pre-date Genesis) & scientific evidence (oh where to start!) in order to help us grasp the authors’ intentions and choice of genre – and in doing so we take scripture seriously.

When one begins from a neutral starting point looking at all these indicators, features and evidence we find that Genesis is a book of theological truth told through story, not a book of literal historical truth, thus we can hold that it is true and full of truth (and inspired!) in the fullest, non-Cartesian, sense of the word.

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The Old Testament and a theology of non-violence

The sheer volume of bloody violence one can observe in a brief survey of the Old Testament is overwhelming and, naturally, this is very much at odds with the God that Jesus reveals.  I’ve been reflecting upon this for some time now and thought I’d share something of what I have been wrestling with. Please don’t take any of the following as a definitive statement of belief, but rather an expression of my wrestling to make sense of God as revealed by Jesus in contrast to God as revealed by the Old Testament.

Jesus, being the exact image of our invisible God, calls us to revolt through loving one another and non-violence.  When Peter strikes an ear from a guard, Jesus berates him and heals the guard.  Jesus said that it is by love that people will recognise his disciples.  Finally, when tortured and led to be crucified, Jesus, with legions of angels at his command, demonstrated meekness and obedience and let his life be taken from him.

This God, whom Jesus perfectly represents, seems to be a very different God from the one we see in the Old Testament.  One such example is found in Deuteronomy 20:10-18.

Deuteronomy 20:10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.

In brief, if the city being attacked is outside of Canaan, then offer a peace treaty.  If they accept then they become your slaves, if they do not, then kill all the men and make them your slaves anyway.  If, however, the city being attacked is inside of Canaan, then destroy everyone, including the women & children.

Traditionally this has been justified through a number of means, for example, ”God owns everything anyway, so God owes these people nothing”, and “some of these cities were involved in child sacrifice and God had to bring an end to it somehow and replace it with something good”, both of which are morally dubious – if God wants someone dead he is perfectly capable of doing it himself, as the Egyptians saw of their own first-born – but thankfully all these have been dealt with elsewhere thoroughly so I will not repeat their work here.  I would, however, like to introduce an approach to this portion of scripture that I have yet to read of elsewhere:

God’s expected Moses & Israel to do the opposite of what they did.

God, I think, is more horrified of what Moses & Israel did than you and I.

When examining scripture, particularly a list of instructions as the one above, it is very easy to assume the person speaking is God.  This unconscious attributation of divinity to the narrator is common within modern practical hermeneutics, something that is borne out every week from the pulpit, but to do so is to treat inspired scripture with contempt – the moment we start treating the bible as a magic book is the moment we stop taking scripture seriously.  Instead, what is required of us, particularly within narrative portions of scripture, is to step back and reflect upon the story and dialogue within the entire breadth of the context – in this case the whole story of God’s interaction with humanity and creating a righteous people that would point lost nations to Himself.

So what does context tell us?

The first insight that the context gives us is to reveal that it is not God that is speaking, but rather it is Moses.  In this I am not raising the authorship of Deuteronomy for debate.  Rather we need to look at the scripture that comes before chapter 20 in order to identify who is literally speaking out these words.  In the articles and debates that I have read, none so far have identified the speaker of this monologue. In order to do that we must turn all the way back to Deuteronomy 10 to find that it is Moses who is speaking.

This is an important distinction because what God says and what Moses say are very different.  Moses is relaying events at Mt Sinaii.  God had told him to take up a set of stone tablets which God would then write his law on.  After this Moses continues:

Deuteronomy 10:10 Now I had stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I did the first time, and the Lord listened to me at this time also. It was not his will to destroy you. 11 “Go,” the Lord said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.”

After this Moses exhorts the people to fear God, love God, be obedient and observe the law (which God has just written on stone tablets).  Moses then speaks for the next 16 chapters giving instructions as to how they are to live as a nation, and how they’re going to enter into the land that God will make them fruitful in.  This includes the above instructions to kill the women and children in the cities of Canaan.

So all of what Moses says comes after speaking to God! So what did God say?  Here we must widen the context.  The Israelites had spent 400 in Egypt, many years of which they were slaves.  The babies of the generation before they left Egypt suffered complete infanticide.  They had intimate knowledge of the effect of infant killing as they had their younger siblings taken from them.  After God rescued them from Egypt they took flight and found themselves at Sinai.  Here, atop a cloud-covered mountain, did God teach them with His own hand the difference between right and wrong by writing His ethical law on two stone tablets.  Two of these laws speak particularly into the topic we are discussing: Thou shall not kill; Thou shall not steal.  For reasons we shall not look at, Moses soon requires that God write these laws afresh on new stone tablets – so Moses sees God state these ethical laws twice.

So, putting it all together, among other things, God gave these three commands directly to Moses:

  1. “Do not kill.”
  2. “Do not steal.”
  3. “Go and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Deuteronomy 10:11)
Putting all this together it seems obvious that God has a clear expectation that Moses & Israel should carry out the command (3) while adhering to the two ethical instructions (1 & 2).  In response, however, among other instructions Moses issues the decree about killing women & children.  This clearly contradicts God’s stated ethical law. 
How then do we understand Moses’ words and actions without writing off whole swathes of scripture?  First, we must have a clear idea of what the ‘inspired’ part of scripture relates to.  Is it that Moses’ spoken words are inspired or that the recording of his words was?  (While some would go further to say that scripture is inerrant and infallible, scripture does not describe itself this way.  Further, it raises the question: was every word Moses spoke infallible & inerrant, or just the ones that happened to be heard & recorded?  But I digress and will remain with ‘inspired’.)  For scripture to be inspired it need be no more than the latter – that the recording of Moses’ words was inspired, not necessarily the words he spoke.  For example, Job’s wife suggests Job “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), yet clearly we must not follow her instruction.  Job’s friends speak nonsense in their long and repetitive monologues, again we do not agree with them or follow their instruction – why not?  In order to make sense of Job we look at the breadth of the whole book: it’s a discussion about the suffering of the righteous.  We cannot lift text from the book within which it sits, and Moses’ monologue is no different. 
If this is the case, we must then ask why God inspired Moses’ words to be recorded & written?For me, the writing of this text enables us to observe the process of learning to trust God, His ways & His ethical law – something that Israel & Moses prove that they are not yet willing to do – and reveals what happens when we don’t.  Yet God is faithful and does not allow them to be destroyed – he has promised their survival as a whole.  This may explain why God is with them through many battles and only withdraws His help from them when they are unfaithful to Him. I freely admit this point requires further thought.  
The land at the time was not full – not as we know it to be full nowadays.  Sure, many nations occupied many lands – but that was really a statement of the range of a nations military, not the actual occupied land.  There was space for everyone back then, but the best spots for habitation would be taken by indigenous peoples.  Yet, the God who saved Israel from Egypt can bring any barren land into fruitfulness (think Abraham & Lot), so they were presented with another opportunity to trust God to make them fruitful wherever they went.  I wonder whether God’s hope was was for them to move into the land God had promised them and to point to God, God’s ways and God’s law, for the people around them to be convinced of Yahweh and see that the only way to live, be protected and fruitful was according to God’s ethical law.  It is speculative, but God’s ethical law would seem to at least point in that direction.
Interestingly genocide and ethnic cleansing that Israel perpetrates is justified by claiming that the Israelites couldn’t be faithful to God with others in the land – but that would seem to be the problem of the Israelites, not a reason to kill those from other cultures. Can murdering to show that murder is wrong ever achieve its purpose?  We have little to tell us of the indigenous peoples were like, but as we said before, God is capable of doing his own killing (as demonstrated with the precision killing of Egyptian first born) and does not need us to do it for him. Again, I digress.
I realise that this approach opens up more questions than it solves, but I think there is much to be found by looking further down this path of taking scripture & inspiration seriously, rather than treating the bible as a magic book.
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Do I pray “Our Father” but mean “My Father” ?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the opening address of the Lord’s Prayer this week.  There is just so much in this first sentence to think on.  I seemed to dwell almost entirely on the first word “Our”, and was challenged: Would it make any difference to my understanding and use of the prayer if I instead prayed:

My father in heaven …. Give me today my daily bread, forgive me my sin…, lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.

When I pray “our” do I really mean “my”?  Do I have any sense of the rest of the body of Christ both contemporary and down the ages as I pray?  What real difference do those word changes make?  In all truth, I find I have to make an effort to pray for people and situations that don’t directly affect me.  I am quick to pray for my issues, my relationship with God, my family, my ill children, my whatever else, but then have to really rack my brain for what is going on with everyone else – am I really that self-absorbed?  Yes, yes I think I am.

It is all too easy to rationalise away challenges like this.  We’re nurtured in an individualistic culture that panders to personalised everything and shared nothing (or at least little shared).  Through each day there are countless opportunities to be individualist over and of course there is no harm in that, but take a step back and often one can see a pattern that may not be as healthy as originally thought.  When given a choice of what meal to order would we ever intentionally order the same as someone else to share the experience?  Would we ever intentionally wear the same clothes as someone else other than when having to wear a uniform for a job?  That would really quite strange and a major faux pas at the same time here in the west.  I’m sure we could list endless opportunities for individualism in our lives if we thought about it.  It pervades the church too – finding new and novel interpretations of scripture is a massive temptation to preachers, in worship we’re encouraged to worship in our own way, to make our own expression to God.  Again, nothing wrong with most of this – but can I observe a pattern toward individualism in my own life – do I just seem to default that way all the time?  Do I have a need to stand out?  How do I feel about just being one worshipper in a throng of worshippers?  Is my identity so invested in being an individual that I’ve lost all sense of being the body of Christ?

In a world that worships individualism, one must be unique in order to fit in.   Considering the western cult of individualism, what then does it mean for a Christian to be counter-cultural?  The temptation is to play the “cultural relevancy” card and attempt to “baptise” our individuality rather than sacrifice it.

Within me there is always this lingering hope that I’m this unique yet-t0-be-discovered superstar at something, please God anything.  This seems to be kept in check most of the time, partially by a good relationship with God, partially through a rational thought process, yet I’m always aware that it is there.

I recall standing in a forest one bright summer’s day a decade ago, looking around at the trees and being nudged by the Spirit to see them as Christians and then to see myself as another “tree” in that forest.  The thought was as horrifying as it was offensive – I’m just another tree?  Am I really not that unique?  That special?  Of course, all trees are themselves unique, different types, different sizes, different patterns of branches, twigs and leaves, different colours, and yet they’re still primarily identified as trees within a forest.  While you and I are of course unique, we’re different types, sizes, colours, patterns, our primary identity is corporate, not individual: we’re primarily the body of Christ, we are primarily children of Our Father.  God calls us special not by contrasting us and separating us from other humans, but rather calls us special in contrast to the rest of creation.

And so to the prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer not just a from an individual in the body of Christ, but rather it primarily eminates from the whole body of Christ – and we add our voice and volume to that throng as we pray.  Consider how we would understand the prayer if our primary use and understanding of it was to pray it stood physically alongside every Christian that has ever lived?  If we take our eyes of our selves and our situations for long enough to consider this prayer we can see what depth and breadth it has to offer:  it is primarily a crying out from the whole body of Christ to God our Father, it is primarily an intercession from all of us and for all of us, and for this earth as a whole, “Our Father in heaven: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

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Lent reflections on The Lord’s Prayer 1: Introduction

During lent it is commonplace for Christians give up something in order to identify with Jesus’ 40 days fasting in the desert. While fasting food for me has almost always proved valuable, because I am married and a father of three it is not practical to fast food for more than a few days. Yet it has been some time since I have fasted during lent and I feel a nudge toward doing something with Jesus over the course of lent, of identifying with his fast and trial in the desert, so I have decided to give up some time and brainpower in order to meditate on the six phrases of the Lord’s Prayer.

While I plan to both meditate on the Lord’s Prayer and read around the different phrases, the posts that I write out of that will be sporadic. I will try to make at least one post here on this website for each phrase, though I hope to do more. My primary source while reading around it will be AC Deane’s study on The Lord’s Prayer, though I’ll no doubt draw on Mike Breen‘s contributions too, and reflect on anything else I can find. While AC Deane’s work is out of print and is no longer to be found anywhere on the internet I am now hosting a copy after some scraping of the waybackmachine. So if you’d like to join with me in this then you’ll find it useful to read AC Deane’s A Study in the Lord’s Prayer too.

The phrases can be separated in a number of ways.  As I understand it, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” should be considered one phrase but we’ll get there in time.  Since I’m using Deane’s work as a guide I shall use both his translation, and his division of the phrases and will do so for a week commencing on the date below:

  • Thursday February 23rd 2012: Introduction (this page!)
  • March 1st: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name
  • March 8th: Thy Kingdom come
  • March 15th: Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth
  • March 22nd: Give us this day our daily bread
  • March 29th: And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors
  • April 5th: And bring us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

 

Preliminaries

The above version of the Lord’s Prayer is similar to the one I grew up with:  we used trespasses instead of debts, “as we have also forgiven” is used in the present tense rather than the past tense, and we asked “lead us not” rather than “bring us not” into temptation.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4.  The two versions differ considerably in the English, yet in the Greek the difference is even more pronounced with only half the words being shared between versions.  Often people wonder why there is a conflict between two differing accounts in the gospels (regarding a number of the events that take place) but almost all alleged conflicts are merely reports of two different events.  This is particularly true when examining the words of an itinerant preacher (Jesus in this case).  Like itinerant preachers today, they have a number of good sermons and illustrations, a few good teaching devices too, all of which they deliver to their hearers multiple times.  As they continually deliver their teaching to different hearers they continue to develop and perfect their points, illustrations, methods and devices.  This appears to be what Jesus is doing here.  In the less-developed Lukan version Jesus responds to a disciple’s request to be taught how to pray – it may well have been the first time Jesus was asked to teach someone how to pray.  Later, at the sermon on the mount, Jesus delivers the version recorded by Matthew and, from a literary point of view, it is a much more polished work.  Clearly then there is some time between the Lukan and Matthean versions where Jesus develops his prayer.  The Matthean version boasts two sets of balanced triplets focussing first on God (Thy name, Thy Kingdom, Thy Will), and then on our needs (Give us, Forgive us, Bring us).  These triplets, according to Deane, would have aided memorising of the prayer and makes the prayer strictly symmetrical as was typical of Rabbinical teaching methods of the day.

Finally, soon after Jesus, a doxology was appended to His prayer, “for thine is the kingdom, the power and glory, forever and ever, Amen”.  This is not found in either version in Scripture as we have it because it was not present in the earlier manuscripts yet it is found in later manuscripts.  Deane’s view of this is that the Lord’s Prayer would have been used from very early within the Christian tradition and the doxology would have been added on in practice at that stage and then added to scripture by a copyist failing to differentiate between Christ’s words and early church practise.  While it could be worth studying the doxology because of the light it would cast upon the early church, because it was not part of the Prayer spoken by Christ, study of the doxology will not reveal any of what Christ intended for his teaching (of how to pray) and so it will not be further explored.

 

Reflection: how do I use the prayer?

Deane challenges us to consider our use of the prayer: it is all too easy to pray the Lord’s Prayer without paying a whole lot of attention to its meaning.  I learnt the prayer when I was very young and so, as with all things committed to memory, particularly in childhood, there is a danger of treating it with contempt.  I come from a pentecostal background and so while we tend not to do a whole lot of ancient liturgical recital (!) – though movements have their own traditions which quickly become de facto liturgy – it is still worth reflecting upon some questions:

  • Do I recite, or do I pray, the Lord’s Prayer?
  • Has the prayer as a whole, or its individual phrases lost their meaning?
  • Do I only interpret each phrase in one way?
  • Am I open to God continuing to teach me what each phrase could mean for me, despite the length of time I’ve been a practising Christian?

Without question, somebody somewhere is praying the Lords Prayer right now – statistically it is a certainty.  Jesus has a huge number of followers, and Christianity has as many broad and diverse approaches as one could imagine, yet, the Lord’s Prayer is a uniting force within that.  I don’t often consider this prayer’s usage down the ages by Christians who have all manner of ideas of what Christ and the Kingdom of God is, not to mention the numinous Christians and expressions of Christianity today, yet all are united to a degree by this prayer.

While Pentecostals are staunch anti-traditionalists, both inside and outside of pentecostalism the whole church is rife with the idol of individualism – particularly with younger people genuinely trying to work out how God has designed them.  Often it expresses itself in a proud show of being-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different.  I think for some time I was locked into only using the Lord’s Prayer as a framework for prayer (there was a principle that I just didn’t use the words that were taught to me) simply because of the god of individualism.  Conversely I’m sure there are others locked into using only the words that Jesus used, forgetting that it was a teaching device and not a law.  Surely the intention of Jesus was to offer the prayer to both the precise words that unify us with other vast swathes of believers, but also the freedom to for it to be used as a framework.  If we lean toward one type of use over another it is worth considering why that could be.

Some more questions then:

  • Am I so anti-tradition (or such a slave to individualism!) that I will not join with the rest of Christendom in praying the prayer using the words as others down the centuries?  (be it as we were taught, the KJV or NIV version?)
  • Am I locked into only reciting the prayer as I was taught?
  • Am I open to God continuing to teach me how to be led by the Spirit in my use of the Lord’s Prayer?  (Particularly for long-practising Christians!)
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